Dear Andrew and Benjamin,
We made it. We travelled the 370 miles to your daddy's beloved farm in Kansas for the first time since we buried him in his home church's cemetery, across from his dad, your PaPaw. I want to try to explain the tears you saw as we neared the old homeplace. I've been travelling that gravel road with your daddy alongside me for a quarter of a century (that's 25 years for you elementary schoolers)...we travelled every season of the year, vehicles loaded to the top. He always loved the transition from blacktop highway to soft, sandy gravel, and he would speed up a bit, just to fish-tail along as we drove, hoping against all odds to get the occasional squeal out of your mom...I never failed to do so, just to see that glimmer in his eye and to hear that laugh that we loved to hear. The smile that you so often saw on your dad's face would broaden as he saw that old farmhouse, so much that I thought his cheeks must hurt at the strain.
He would leap out of the truck, grabbing your Nana as she came to greet us. He was truly home, the place that he felt closest to God, the place that has your heritage as well as his, the land that he wanted you to grow up on.
My tears flowed so freely as we approached, just the three of us, because I knew those dreams, as he envisioned, are no longer. For the first time, we're pulling into the driveway without him, with a beautiful grapevine wreath in the front passenger's seat, to be placed on his grave at some point during our visit. I want to apologize to you if I was short with either of you in any way. And I want to tell you that your comforting me as we approached, as you both put your hands on my shoulders, means the world to me. You are compassionate, caring young men, and your daddy is so proud of you (as am I).
I want to also apologize for the early bedtime I gave to us all. Mom's excessive crying gave me the most terrible pounding headache, and I needed to be able to sleep it off. Thanksgiving was still a day away, and I knew the hardest part of our journey still lay ahead for us.
Sleep came easily for me, thanks to a little help with a prescription medication. Thanksgiving dawned, and I as I lay in the bed, I couldn't help but listen for the familiar sounds I know I'll never hear again. Those of your daddy awakening, pulling on his hunting clothes and boots, and heading down the stairs to grab a cup of coffee, a homemade cinnamon roll, put on his hunting vest, gloves, ready his shotgun, and head outdoors to free Maggie from her warm cozy kennel in the back of his truck. They would've been out soon after sunrise, in pursuit of the elusive "Chinese chicken," as well as quail. It was too quiet. No deep male voice speaking in animated excited tones to your Nana in the kitchen underneath our bedroom.
I was determined to get through Thanksgiving by giving you both some semblance of normalcy, so I reached for a xanax, something I haven't had to take in a month or two. Figured getting through this first major holiday as a widow, while at Daddy's favorite place in the world, allowed me the small luxury of the help. A migraine loomed, as well, so I hit that with an imitrex.
After lunch, as the four of us drove the short 1/4 mile to the church and cemetery, I begin to feel that awful feeling of dread. We haven't seen his grave since August, and his monument marker has been placed. I took the wreath, a beauty made by the same male florist who did your daddy's flowers at the funeral home, and began to work it into the soft, dark Kansas ground. Andrew and Ben, I know that visiting his grave was tremendously hard for me, I cannot begin to imagine what it felt like for you. Andrew, thank you for lingering with me, for crying alongside me, as we remembered the "phenomenal dad" we had inscribed on the marker. Andrew, your laying on the top of the mausoleum, was a precious sight for me. In your own special way, you were getting as close to your daddy's physical body as was possible. And Ben, I also understand that it was too tough for you to linger, and running to play on the church's playground was just fine. Daddy wouldn't have wanted you to stand around, and you know that's not where your Daddy is now, anyway.
With that hard part out of the way, we headed into town for a little bit of fun. You know that Daddy was all about fun, calling himself, "Mr. Fun". Your Nana enjoyed the Muppet Movie with the three of us, and we laughed together, ate way too much popcorn, and played alot of pinball after it was over.
Andrew, I want you to know how much I appreciate your going with me as we walked our pasture, looking for invasive thistles. As good stewards and owners of the land, it's our responsibility (by law!) to keep these pesky plants under control, and eradicate them by any means necessary. I wouldn't take a million dollars for the conversations we had while walking together. Thank you for teaching me how to skip rocks on our pond. The more we talk, the more I can hear your daddy in your voice, and the walks that the two of you took together in that pasture were priceless. He taught you so much about the land, and I will need you to share that information with me as time passes. What I loved more than anything is seeing the glee on your face as we found those hateful thistles....because your smile is just like his. His love for you is without limits.
Ben, I want you to know that it's okay to feel whatever you are feeling at whatever time you are feeling it. You are our deep thinker, the one that keeps thoughts within, and takes your own sweet time to process them. I am here for you whenever you want to talk, share, cry, or laugh about your daddy. He loves you with every fiber of his being.
I sneaked up to the cemetery Friday afternoon to have some one-on-one time with your daddy. As I walked the quarter mile to the church, there were so many emotions bubbling underneath the surface. Seeing Daddy's grave, with the wreath beside it, was hard this time, as well. As I neared the grave, walking past others, the tears began flowing so freely that they dribbled off of the bottom of my face. I looked up. One rain cloud was over the cemetery, and big, cold drops dribbled onto me. It was like God was crying right along with me. The shower lasted all of 30 seconds, then the sun came out. I dried God's tears and mine, then sat on your Daddy's mausoleum top. Again, I don't think he minded, and I do not think it was disrespectful for me to do so. I talked out loud to him. Now, I know full well, that I can talk to him here in Texas, but there was just something about the place, and the time, and the sacredness of the grave that gave me freedom to say just about anything that was on my heart. Thirty minutes or so later, I finished, put a kiss on that marker, and headed back to the farm.
You both are his most important legacies, the only representatives of the next Howell generation. Even though we do not know what our future holds in terms of our Kansas plans, I do know that while I was there for those few days, the land tugged at my heart. I heard your dad's voice telling me that I can find a way to make this work. A way to keep the three of us connected to the ancestral farm and pasture land....I don't know the details, I'm leaving those up to God and your daddy.
We are okay. Someday, with God's help, we will be more than okay. I promised your daddy before I let him to go to heaven that you two would be my number one priority. I told him I would do my best to raise you in the way that he wanted you raised. That includes being in Kansas, in whatever capacity we can make work. I will not break that promise. And I pledge to the two of you that I will do whatever it takes to ensure that we are whole, we are well, and we have fun as we move forward in this life. Because you know Mark Howell....he wouldn't want it any other way.
So, we made it through Thanksgiving. We have much to be thankful for. You are loved, you are provided for, and you have a most important advocate in heaven on your behalf. And you have a mom that loves you more than anything in this world. You are amazing 9 and 8 year olds, and it's my prayer that you will grow into amazing Christian men much like your dad.
Thank you for supporting me, for loving me, and for holding me up during the hard stuff on our Kansas trip. With God on our side, we can do anything.
All my love,