Friday, September 30, 2011

Sad day, glad day...

Woke up early this morning, relieved that it was Friday, then remembered that it was the two-month anniversary of Mark's death.  How can it already be two months?  There are times it seems like forever since we lost him, other times when it stings just like it were yesterday.

But we had a busy day planned, and life must go on.  It was student council election day at the boys' school, so I made sure that we talked on the way there about the importance of both winning and losing graciously, because I didn't have a feeling one way or the other about their chances.  Whenever there are only 20 or 22 kids in a class, and six of those are running, elections can be won or lost over a single vote.  We thought (incorrectly) that there were two slots in each of the 4th grade classes, but knew for sure there was only one slot per 3rd grade.  I said a quick prayer for both boys as I headed back to the truck. 

Raced home, threw a lunch together, and headed to the preschool for my last day of substitute teaching.  I had 12 three year olds, and did fine until about 1pm.  The noise and general busyness of the group began to get the better of me, so we cleaned up the room & I turned them outside onto the playground until time for parents to pick them up.  I quickly relaxed on the bench outside, watching them play and burn off energy while lots of monarch butterflies made their way across the landscape. When it was time for me to go, I cried a few tears, thinking it would be awhile before I felt up to being here again in a teaching capacity.

Headed to the school a few minutes early, wanted to check to see that the boys got their stu-co posters, since they like to keep them.  As I headed down the hallway, a 1st grade teacher called out to me, "Congratulations, proud mama!"....I quizzed her quietly, "Which one?"  to which she squealed, "BOTH!".  Both Howell boys were elected to student council!  I was so happy, I burst into tears.

Now, it doesn't take much to dissolve me into tears, and I felt a little silly crying over this.  But they were tears of happiness, sadness, gladness, all at the same time.  Sad that their daddy wasn't here to witness the excitement, but glad that these two little boys, chips off the old block, were going to serve together on student council.  And I think Mark knows.  Actually, I have no doubt that he knows, because heaven wouldn't be heaven for Mark H. Howell if he couldn't see his boys.  And today, I can bet his chest puffed out, and he gave that familiar nod while beaming that big ole smile, saying, "That's my boys!"

Bought a decadent chocolate cake and vanilla bean ice cream to celebrate the election victories, sharing it with sweet dear family tonight.  Good thing we had something else to celebrate, considering the pitiful display our Texas Rangers put on tonight at home against the Rays. 

So, in the midst of what started out as a sad day, we rejoiced and celebrated a 3rd and 4th graders' victories in student elections.  Glad that they are my sons, feeling fortunate to be their mother, and anticipating a future filled with hope and love. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Titan, Texas Giant, & Judge Roy Scream, all in one

Today, I was on a roller coaster.  Not literally, as my 8 year old would say, but metaphorically (and yes, he knows the meaning of both those words). 

Had a couple of "okay" days, so I was feeling pretty good as I headed to the preschool for day 2 of substitute teaching.  Dropped off the boys at school, where both are running for student council in their respective classrooms.  I've told them both that no matter the outcome, I still think they are totally awesome and we'll celebrate them running good campaigns, with no outlandish props to help them along. 

The day at the preschool was uneventful.  "Uneventful" equals good in my life, especially in the past two months.  As parents began picking up their children, I could feel the roller coaster begin to take a swerving dip.  I'd been "rolling along" pretty good, no bumps in sight up until that time of day.

But the dip continued downward.  A parent brought in a bouquet of fresh flowers, along with a lovely card.  I knew better than to read it while either she or anyone else was still in the room.  As I read the card, I felt the familiar hot sting of tears begin to drip down my face (there's a reason I haven't worn mascara on my lower lashes since mid-July).  How can such carefully-chosen, loving words send me over the edge?

The card & its words, I will cherish.  I have made life-long friendships with these parents who have entrusted me the past years with their most precious assets.  I take my teaching role very seriously, since I've been on the other side, handing my boys over to teachers in similar situations. 

I left the preschool a blubbering mess and headed for home to regroup before picking up my boys.  As I drove the short distance to the house, I came to the realization that I am not ready to re-join the workforce.  Not anytime soon.  Maybe never.  Andrew & Ben knew it, even when I tried to tell them that this was a special circumstance, for only 3 days.  They told me, in no uncertain terms, that they did not want me to work, they want me at home.  Selfish?  Maybe.  But you know, I think a 9 year old and an 8 year old may be smarter than mom in this circumstance. 

They knew instinctively that I wasn't ready to give that much.  Because I can't do anything half way, and teaching young children requires your entire heart.  My heart needs to heal.  And until it does, the majority of my time, energy, hugs, and love needs to go to two own. 

At the end of the day tomorrow, day 3 of substitute teaching, I retire.  Maybe not permanently, but at least for the next few months.  I was planning on retiring at 50, but 48's sounding better and better all the time.  I am lucky that I have the option of stepping back.  I can take the time I need.  I can pour all of my heart and love into two boys that are hungry for attention.  Boys that miss their daddy rough-housing with them all over the floor (they say they can teach me, but I'm doubtful at this juncture).  Boys that hopefully have had enough time with their Christian daddy and have enough of his DNA to carry them through (with alot of prayers and work) the next few years.  Because they are spectacular right now, and I don't want to screw that up :)

The roller coaster levelled out and I was able to pick up my sons with a smile on my face, great exclamations of glee, and bear-sized hugs. 

I'm stuck on this ride.  It jostles me around, bruising me in the rough patches.  It has definite highs and lows.  There are times that I feel the wind in my hair and the sun shining brightly on my face as I'm ascending.  Then there are the drops and spirals that turn my stomach and make me wish to be anyplace else but here.  The descents are the worst.  Those are the times I cry out, "When I am weak, You are strong".....

But at least I'm not alone.  Can you imagine riding a roller coaster alone?  When we were at Six Flags three days before Mark's surgery, we were all primed to ride "The Titan"....AJ and Mark were seated behind Ben & me.  The workers wouldn't let me ride with my fanny pack on!  I had to decide, leave the fanny pack unattended, or leave my son without a riding partner.  I was torn....finally I waited at the side, and the roller coaster took off without me.  I'll never forget the look on Ben's face.  Even though his dad & brother were right behind him, there was no one beside him that he could hold onto. 

Thankfully there's Someone by my side that I can hold onto.  God won't abandon us, no matter how bad it gets.  There are countless friends riding along with us, in front and behind.  And although I don't imagine that this bumpy ride will end anytime soon, I have hope that time will help to at least even out the highs and lows.

Because I live for the day that I am healed enough to have love "left over" to give away. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Baseball, preschool, and hope....

Dear Mark,  Since you've been gone, we just don't watch sports on television like we did while you were here.  Think it's hard for Andrew to watch the Rangers without you, and he hasn't even expressed any great interest yet in the Cowboys, which is surprising.  I think it's because he loved watching with you, and he just hasn't reconciled the fact that he'll be stuck watching with me instead.

But baseball was on tonight, baby, as the NL wildcard race was on the line.  Our StL Cardinals have just won the wildcard, thanks to the Braves self-destructing after holding an 8 1/2 game lead earlier in the month.  Wow!  Baseball playoffs, the beginning of the NFL season, and college football, all running concurrently---your favorite time of year! As I lay between the boys in the big bed, I could hear the commentators on the too-loud tv....and thought of the thousands of times you'd be cranked up in that big chair, watching a game, analyzing strategies, cheering or yelling at the players.  All that was missing tonight was you....xoxo Nancy

Took the boys last night to the Hospice "Building Bridges" program.  It went well.  I think it will be good for them to see that other kids are in similar circumstances.  I know it felt good for me to sit in a circle of adults, all with children touched by the loss of someone close.  The sessions run for the next 6 weeks.

Today, I went back to TLC, to substitute teach for the first of three days.  Seven of the 11 kids that I had were mine last year, so it was a familiar bunch to love on.  By the end of the day, however, I could plainly see that I am not ready to do this on any sort of regular basis.  The boys didn't even really want me to sub, telling me that they want me at home.  I'll make it through the next two days, and then re-evaluate.  Before Mark died, I was planning on retiring at age 50.....I just may make it 48 instead. 

Attempted mowing the front yard this evening. It almost actually needed it. After two swipes, a friend showed up, bearing cookies and banana bread. I left the mower in the yard, invited her into my messy house, and visited. Let's just say the yard will get finished tomorrow. Some things are more important than yardwork.  She shared news of a baby on the way, and she & her husband will be awesome parents.  God is good. 

As the boys & I prayed tonight, I marvelled at how much easier the words came to me as I took my turn.  It's not that I struggled with praying before losing Mark, but I think all of the extra I've been doing must be making a difference in me.  I feel closer to God, and that makes me feel more confident and familiar in talking with Him.  Like talking to a loved one, the words just came tumbling out of me, much like the words come tumbling out onto this blog. 

Even though I cried as I was putting up the lawn equipment, and I am still so incredibly sad & lost, I have hope.  We have hope.  Death isn't the end of anything except an earthly body.  I honestly don't know how people without God can deal with a loss like this.  With God, the boys and I know where Mark is.  We know Who he is with.  We can only imagine what wondrous & imaginative adventures he's involved in.  We know that we will see him again. 

And hope (along with my two sons) is what keeps me crawling out of bed each morning, instead of staying in and pulling the covers up over my head. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shimmery waters, beautiful butterflies...

Got in my run this morning, it was an amazing time.  The monarch butterflies have begun their migration, and Wichita Falls is seeing them in bunches.  I quit counting as I approached the 4 dozen count while running the Lake Wichita trail.  The trail was alive with beauty as the monarchs flitted around, while Canada geese honked as they passed overhead. 

Some days, it's been difficult for me to run down to the lakeside.  On our first trip to Wichita Falls in 1991, Lake Wichita was our first stop.  We bought our house knowing it was close by.  And when the city contemplated draining the lake, a study committee was formed---Mark was one of the original members.  To make a long story short, the lake was not drained, just reduced in size & depth.  A new spillway & dam were built.  And a concrete trail runs alongside it, passing through some beautiful native areas. 

We took our sons on that trail as babies, first carried in backpacks, then in strollers.  Strollers progressed to a two-seated wagon, and then they began to ride scooters & bikes. Mark sampled that lake on a regular basis.  Hence, the difficulty for me in approaching its waters.  But today, I felt up to it.  I jogged the extra quarter mile to gain a perfect vantage point on a bench nearby. 

The sun was shining brightly, and there was just enough wind to make the water choppy.  Choppy water and bright sunlight equal glowing, shimmery beauty--it looked like a million little mirrors all bobbing around on the surface.  I hit the "pause" button on my running app, stretched back on the bench, and just soaked it all in.  It is so quiet and peaceful there.  I'm continually amazed that more folks don't take advantage of it. 

After 10 minutes of basking in God's beauty here in Wichita Falls, I reluctantly got up, hit the "play" button, and headed back to the house.  I had a lunch invitation from another old friend, and needed to get ready for that.  With all of these lovely invitations, I may gain back the weight I've lost on my "grief diet" these past two months.

My friend, a fellow Kentucky native, is someone I met soon after moving to WF.  Although we don't see each other on a regular basis, we always seem to re-connect easily whenever we run into each other.  She's a facebook friend, and graciously offered her home to our families during their stint in town during Mark's services.  The lunch was lovely, the conversation meaningful, and I left knowing that I had another powerful prayer warrior in my corner. 

The boys & I are so lucky in so many ways.  The number of friends praying for us on a daily basis is a mystery to me, but I know in my heart there must be many.  And for every "old" friend that's praying for us, there's a new one doing the same.  I've decided that in God's family, friends are just simply friends.  Doesn't matter if you've known them 40 years or 4 months....all are precious, all love you, and all will pray for you.  We're part of a brotherhood & sisterhood, in training here on earth for that heavenly time when we find ourselves members of one big family.

Tomorrow, I'll head back to my preschool to substitute teach for the first time this school year.  Yet another "first" that may be hard as I walk into the building.  But since most of the students in the class were mine last year, I'm looking forward to seeing how they've grown & changed.  And I'm hoping they have lots of hugs ready for "Ms. Nancy"....'cause that's one thing I can't get enough of these days. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

"I am with you, wherever you are..."

Made it through yet another Monday, this one was definitely different.  But different in a good way.  Unfortunately, having workers at my house doing repairs or my waiting around for someone has stopped my running routine for the past three business days ( I don't run on weekends, that would take time away from the boys).  I can tell I'm getting a bit grumpy from jogging withdrawal, but I'm optimistic that I can get back on schedule tomorrow. 

Both boys are both running for student council, so my artistic skills (or lack thereof) have been called into play.  Two posters down, two to go, campaign buttons have been printed off & assembled.  This morning's home project involved installation of a new garage door opener.  It's so quiet!  The old one sounded like a freight train in comparison. 

A friend came and picked me up for a late lunch.  This precious person has been an acquaintance for a time, but after sharing my life in Readers Digest fashion with her during our two hours at McAlisters, I feel like I can now truly call her friend.  God brings amazing people into our lives as needed, and I feel like I've hit the lottery here lately.

My devotional book, given to me by another new friend, Mark's ICU nurse (she's visited me at home twice already), is written as God speaking to you in the first person.  Today, it speaks of the difficulties of ordinary folks like you and me gaining access to kings and other important dignitaries, and of the red tape & protocol required to speak with royalty.  And I bet you can guess where this is going...."Though I am King of the universe, I am totally accessible to you.  I am with you wherever you are.  Nothing can separate you from My presence!  When I cried out from the cross, 'It is finished!' the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  This opened the way for you to meet Me face to face, with no need of protocol or priests.  I, the King of Kings, am your constant Companion."

Wow.  How lucky am I?  He's with me wherever I go? This afternoon, as I sat at a picnic table, alone, waiting for my boys by the side of the elementary school, I felt bathed in the soft glow of God's presence.  It was a picture perfect afternoon, sunshine, a slight cool breeze, and I literally felt perfect contentment in that particular moment.  I think that God used that solitary moment to show me that complete joy, complete love is still possible in my life.  Amazing, isn't it?  My life, the one that's been turned upside down, inside out, and spun 180 degrees in the past two months can be better, it will be better! The feeling only lasted a couple of minutes before it dissipated as others gathered around.  But for those comforting few minutes, it was if time stopped and I was literally sitting next to God on that well-worn bench. 

I felt hope.  God gave me a glimpse of what can lie ahead for my little family of three.  And it is beautiful, and glorious, and I cannot wait to see what He has in store for us. 

But I'm still sitting next to a big empty chair as I type.  And I have two boys in my bed, sleeping, because they want me close by physically after losing their daddy.  This grief that we're processing won't go away.  There are no shortcuts, no quick I'm glad my King, my boys' King, is always nearby.   

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Give thanks whatever happens...

We made it through another weekend.

As I glanced at the calendar this morning, it struck me.  Two short months ago, Mark had his "routine" surgery.  Little did we know then that we were beginning the countdown to the end of his earthly life.  In some respects, it seems like only yesterday.  In others, it seems like a lifetime ago. 

In my faith journey, it seems like eons have passed since that July 25th date.  I'm embarrassed to say that before the fateful event which turned my family's life upside down, I wasn't the Christian that I could have been.  It is easy to become complacent in your faith, especially whenever you've got the world on a string.  Two beautiful children, an adoring husband, great friends, good jobs, and anything I could possibly want or need.  We had it all.  I didn't think that I took any of those things for granted, and God knew I was thankful for all of the bounty He'd bestowed upon me. 

But was I thirsting after God's word?  Was I actively pursuing a closer relationship with God?  I ashamedly have to admit that the answer to those questions is most probably "no".  It pains me to type that, but the truth sometimes hurts.  I was "busy"....busy with a perfect life that I thought would continue on indefinitely.  I took for granted that we would continue to prosper, watch our children grow, work at our jobs, count down to retirement, sell our house, move to Kansas, and live "happily ever after" as a new exciting chapter of our lives opened up. 

Funny how our plans and God plans can be so very different.  Instead of our imagined "happily ever after," I'm now a single mother to those two wonderful boys.  I still have great friends, a good job (if I want it), and an abundance of material things at my fingertips.  But the future?  Well, that's for God to know and me to find out. 

And how do I find out?  Well, by actively pursuing that closer walk with God, and by studying His word, I can maybe begin to figure those things out.  Do I think things would've gone differently had I come to this realization earlier?  Nope.  I don't think God took my husband because I wasn't reading my Bible as often as I should have been.  Sometimes bad things happen.  Bad things happen to all kinds of people...what does it say in the Bible, "the rain falls on the just and the unjust"?  It's called life.  We were never promised smooth sailing on this journey.....only that we would have a constant companion sailing along beside us.

Prayers with the boys tonight were hard.  As I've mentioned before, bedtime is one of the most difficult times of the day, especially for Andrew.  He mentions to me on an almost daily basis that he believes God has something special in store for us, and he tells me now that it involves bringing someone into our lives.  I'm afraid to ask more, because whenever I do ask specifics, he tells me that "God and Dad are telling him."  Who am I to question a 9 year old's faith?  He seems to have it more together than I do most days. 

So I continue to write, and pray, and read God's word, and hope for better days.  And I will never take any of these many blessings for granted again.

"Always be joyful.  Pray continually, and give thanks whatever happens.  That is what God wants for you in Christ Jesus."    1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NCV)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

"There's no crying in baseball.."

Baseball.  It's a Howell tradition.  Mark loved baseball from the time he was old enough to play it.  He began reading the newspaper at a young age, heading to the sports section first, so he could follow his teams and keep up with their stats.  Andrew was barely walking whenever he bought him his first t-ball stand, bat, and balls.  Even then, the kid had a natural left-handed swing (I think he gets that from his mama), and he was throwing with pretty good precision for a 2 year old. 

Mark loved the game.  He loved everything about it.  He collected cards as a kid, and still actively pursued that passion as an adult.  You know what they say, the only difference in men & boys is the price of their toys?  He was working on completing a 1964 Topps Coin collection this summer. 

He coached Little League baseball when we were newlyweds in Maryland.  He coached YMCA ball in Wichita Falls, before we had kids.  He helped coach AJ whenever needed in WF Little League.  He volunteered as an umpire.  He began umpiring for pay last season, thinking it would be something he would enjoy doing after he retired from TPWD.  And with his personality, he was the perfect umpire.  He didn't get mad, didn't get his feelings hurt, and wouldn't take any crap off of any parents or coaches.  Any confrontations?  He handled with a smile on his face, but with a no-nonsense attitude.

Today, as Andrew took the field for his game, I felt Mark's presence.  Seems like he just should've been behind the plate, as usual, or coaching third base.  It was a gorgeous day, warm and sunny.  The kind of day that we, as a family, would've basked in.  We had loving friends there to help cheer AJ on, and that was wonderful for him.  But the boy needs his daddy.  His other boy needs him, too.  And me, well, we won't even go there today.

It "sucked" again today.  Unfair doesn't even begin to describe it.  And as I sat at our desk after returning from the game, rummaging through a stack of paperwork, I lost it.  I sat in Mark's chair and cried.  No, I sobbed.  Remembering all the wonderful times we've had.  Thinking about all the wonderful times that would've been.  And as I looked up through my tears, a miniature Mark came toward me, still dressed in his baseball uniform, crawled up into my lap, put his head on my shoulder, and held me.  He didn't say a word for awhile, just let me talk and cry. 

Then, he started patting my back, in the same rhythmic pattern that I've patted both of my boys since they were babies.  He let me cry.  I cried so much that the entire back of his blonde head was soaked.  And as I asked why, he told me that God will make it okay.  And whenever I said, what are we supposed to do?  He said, we'll figure it out together.  We sat there for what seemed like 30 minutes, me crying, him consoling me, clinging to each other in grief and in hope. 

As my crying subsided, I figured that AJ would let go, get up, and be on his way.  But still he clung to me.  And that was okay.   Ben had come in by then, and he joined us in a family hug. 

Things got a bit better after that.  I located two items that had been misplaced since Mark's death.  I went out to get supper & rent a movie, and came back home to a clean house.  The boys had been working on it the whole 30 minutes I was gone.  Smiling from ear to ear, they welcomed me home. 

Home, where there are three of us Howells now.  Along with a high-powered gun dog and a lazy cat. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Ordinary folks, extraordinary actions...

Well, another week's come and gone. I'm at home alone for awhile, a neighbor friend has taken the boys out to dinner, I think the plan is Burger King 'cause they have arcade games---who knew?  The neighbor's a young man I've known since we moved here, way back in '92.  He's a student at MSU, actively involved in a local church, and has always had a soft spot in his heart for AJ and Ben.  He messaged me a couple of weeks back, saying that he was off every Friday, and wanted to spend time with them, if it was okay with me.  Okay with me?  I've been praying for someone to do that very thing for my boys...he said it just felt like it had been laid on his heart.  I told him I knew Who had laid it there.  God is good. 

So, while they're off having boy fun with a good Christian friend, I'm trying to get caught up on chores for the day.  Today thus far I've written a check to a plumbing service, only to find that they didn't really fix my problem (they'll be back Monday for a do-over), called a garage door opener repair service, who's diagnosed that my circa-1979 opener is on its last legs (a new one to be installed on Monday), and ordered new tires to be put on my car next week.  Amazing how much money one solitary homeowner can spend (or plan on spending) in one day.  All of these items would've been "honey do's" for Mark before.  Now it's my territory.  I don't like it, but I'm doing it, and I will learn to do it as well as a left-handed girl from Western Kentucky can (Mark's apt description of me most anytime I attempted something new). 

The boys went with me today to the grief counselor for the second time.  I think he connects with them on their level, and he's coaxing them to talk about their feelings.  I'm still the one doing most of the crying, but they are beginning to process the grief on their terms and in their timeframe.  

Coming home from our first visit last week in the car, Ben said, "Mom, my heart feels different."  I replied, "Ben, what do you mean?"  Ben:  "Jeff just made my heart feel different, I feel changed."  Me:  "In a good way?"  Ben: "Well, duh, yeah Mom!"  That was good enough for me.  We need our hearts to feel different.  We need to know that our God in heaven is using ordinary people in ordinary ways to meet our needs on extraordinary levels.

A young man feels led to spend quality time with my sons.  A friend calls out of the blue, just to check in.  She drives by, drops off her daughter as a babysitter, and lets me talk as we walk around Target, shopping for storage ottomans and clearance capris.   A coworker of my husband's, that I've never met, but heard much about, emails me with stories about how his life has been changed for the better because of his friendship with Mark.  A loving friend accompanies the three of us to the circus. 

Folks I don't even know email & call me about my column in the paper.  Friends we haven't seen in 10 years send me flowers, "just because".  Moms of my preschoolers from last year call me, send me texts and cards, to tell me they are thinking of us & praying for us. 

In the midst of all of this grief, God is still God,  He is in control.  And I feel darn lucky to have such a great network of Christian friends. 


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Making new memories in an old haunt.....

Woke up this morning extra early, in anticipation of travelling along as a chaperone (is that what they're still called?) for Andrew's 4th grade class' field trip to River Bend Nature Center.  I use the early morning wakeups to say my morning prayers before my feet ever hit the floor.  'Cause it seems once they hit the floor, they don't stop until bedtime. 

This morning, I said extra, knowing full well that I would need them as I travelled to a place that Mark & I have loved for years.  My biologist/naturalist/conservationist/outdoorsman, soon after moving to WF, connected with Beverly Williamson, a Wichita Falls resident with a dream for a nature center in the city.  He jumped in with both feet (he never did anything half-way), lending his expertise to applying for grants, serving on the board for many years, volunteering time and talent, along with many others, as the vision Beverly had came to fruition. 

I can remember standing on that windy pavilion for an Earth Day celebration over a dozen years ago, thinking, "will this place ever be completed?"

But it was.  It is a thriving, beautiful place, complete with a butterfly conservatory full of native plants and an educational center to boot. 

As I pulled into the parking lot, memories of all the times we'd been there together flooded my mind.  From dedications to seasonal events to the Christmas magic of ElectriCritters, they all came back to me, as clear as the day they occurred.

Made it through the morning, trying my best not to embarrass the 9 year old son, who was in my group.  At lunch, the rain stopped, and we were able to eat on that covered pavilion that my family has frequented numerous times over the last dozen years. 

As children & various adults sat down to lunch on a cool, cloudy day in Wichita Falls, I couldn't eat.  That's usually not a problem with me, but before I said my silent grace over my sack lunch, I left the picnic table, searching for a special reminder of our times there.

There, among many, was an inscribed brick, one we'd purchased during a River Bend fundraiser B.C. (before children!).  As I found it, a smile crept over my face, completely dissipating the tears that were threatening to well up in my eyes.  It was so Mark.  In only two words, he succinctly expressed his view on life in general, for posterity. 

And as I made my way back to the crazy loud laughter and conversation of  80 + fourth graders, a song kept playing over and over and over in my mind.  It's a favorite, I bought the LP over 30 years ago: 

"Photographs & Memories" by Jim Croce.....
Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you

Memories that come at night
Take me to another time
Back to a happier day
When I called you mine

But we sure had a good time
When we started way back when
Morning walks and bedroom talks
Oh, how I loved you then

Summer skies and lullabies
Nights we couldn't say goodbye
And of all of the things that we knew
Not a dream survived

Photographs and memories
All the love you gave to me
Somehow it just can't be true
That's all I've left of you

But we sure had a good time
When we started way back when
Morning walks and bedroom talks
Oh, how I loved you then

Returned to the table, said a silent prayer of thanks that we have so many memories and photographs.  Then I hugged my son.  I hope it won't scar him for life :)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Giving the keys to God

Yesterday was good.  It feels nice to be able to type that.  Now, I'm not talking gooooood, but it had glimpses, little rays of sunshine interspersed amongst all the sad, monotonous busywork I have to accomplish. 

I ran again, around 3.5 miles again, no music, just me & God, talking.  He understands that my anger's not directed at Him, and I'm trying my best to just lay everything at His feet and have the patience to wait for things to happen in His time frame.  Those who know me know that I am not a patient person, by nature, so this is something that I am having to work on, big-time.  Runners & bikers that met me on the trail may have wondered who the heck I was talking to.  I find that it's easier to talk to God, at least for me, by actually verbalizing, although I'm also okay with praying just in my mind. 

As I ran and talked, I had a calm come over me, starting at the top of my head, washing over my body, down to the soles of my new running shoes. 

The only thing I can compare it to is Mark's hospital stay, where I felt so lifted up by prayers from everyone that I literally felt like I was being cushioned on the most comfortable thick down mattress ever created.  Every inch of me was relaxed, and at the time, I took it as a sign that everything would be okay (in other words, Mark would get better & we'd come home and live happily ever after).  Looking back, I think it was God showing me just how protected I could be and would be, no matter the outcome of that stay. 

I ended my chat with God by confessing that I like being in the driver's seat (like He didn't know that already!). But in this situation, I have to turn the driving over to Him.  I don't enjoy giving up the control, but it's what I have to do to heal.  I did try to barter a little, since I am the GPS expert (next to Ben)...I always look ahead to see what the next few turns will be & how long it will take to get there. 

God, could you just give me a little glimpse of Your plan, just to keep me positive?

But I don't imagine that will happen.  There's a reason why we don't know what tomorrow will bring.  If we did, we'd spend all of our time today either worrying about it, or being so preoccupied with whatever's coming that we would simply waste the precious time given to us today. 

I choose not to waste the time God gives me today, tomorrow, or until I meet Him face to face.   None of us should.  Love your family.  Support your friends.  Get involved with a church, a charity, volunteer your time to an organization that needs you.  Smile a little more.  Gripe a little less. Enjoy the wonders of a sunrise or sunset.  Hug the ones you live with, tell them how much they mean to you each & every day.  For truly each day is a gift, and you never know when someone can be taken away.  It can happen in a twinkling of an eye---whatever the circumstances, it helps to have no regrets.

I laughed, while at the circus last night.  The boys laughed, too, and in those moments I heard the sounds of their father.

I cried later, as I prayed over their sleeping bodies, all sprawled out in my king-sized bed.

I rejoiced this morning, hearing them giggle as the new kitty awakened them. 

I thanked God (and Mark) that I am able to stay at home and be there for them.

We're going to laugh, have fun, try new adventures, cry, get frustrated, be sad, be happy, and experience practically every emotion in our play book.  And that's okay.  We'll laugh when we get the opportunity, cry when we miss him, and pray for guidance and healing to continue no matter what we're feeling. 

But I'm still holding out hope for a peek at God's GPS. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Run, Mama, Run (or jog....)

Woke up this morning determined to make this a better day.  Well, that was before Andrew awoke with a chest-wheezing cough and sore throat, so I made the first detour of the day by taking him to clinic care.  We sat around kids that were coughing, wheezing, sneezing, and doing various other things I will choose not to discuss in this public format.  Doc says he's only suffering fluid buildup and allergy-related maladies, so two prescriptions and one doctor's note later, we're back at the Four Sixes ranch. 

Since I already had on my running clothes, I left AJ with the housekeeper and hit the trail a bit before 10 am.  I tried something I've never willingly done before---decided to run with no music whatsoever, just listening to the Nike trainer updating my mileage.  I've never run in silence....but surprisingly, I enjoyed it.  Seemed like I was more in tune with my body, and I was able to think about things more clearly.  And prayer, well, prayer came alot was more like a conversation I had with God, just the two of us, as I was taking in all of the beauty He's put around us, even here in parched old Wichita Falls. 

During my 3 1/2 mile run, my mind keeps replaying parts of the long sequence in the movie "Forrest Gump" where Forrest just decides to start running, and doesn't stop for months.  That's not going to happen to anyone in real life, but in my mind it made some strange sort of sense to me.  Whenever I'm outside, pounding the pavement, just me and my thoughts, I think lucidly and thoughtfully.  I'm more prayerful.  I'm more appreciative of the world that God's given me to run in, and I am able to process the wild, sad menagerie of emotion ruling my life in a more realistic fashion.

I came back to the house full of natural endorphins and a more soulful heart due to repeated prayer.  My day seemed to go better.  Coincidence?  I don't think so.   I'll give it another try tomorrow.

Tonight, about half an hour before sunset, Benny and I head up to the trail on our bikes (Andrew still wasn't 100%).  We biked about 2 miles, and caught the end of the lovely sunset from one of the benches.

He's so proud of his new bike and is quick to give me all sorts of biking tips---and I'm taking them, since I haven't riden a bike much in years.  We talked, we giggled, we took in the sights.  And as he's flashing me that million dollar, girls-will-get-weak-in-the-knees smile, below those chocolate brown eyes that really twinkle, I say, "You know what, Benny?  I really think we're going to be alright.  God's taken care of us so far, and He won't let us down."  He keeps on smiling, nods his head, and beckons me to get back onto my new bike (formerly Mark's) and we head for home, this time with him in the lead.

And as I watch him weave back and forth, riding in front of me, I wonder if this is how we look to God---He's watching us, not too far away, as we weave and sometimes wobble our way down the path of life.  We may have on safety gear, but it doesn't keep us from getting bumped & bruised when we fall.  And if we get too far ahead, or try to be too brave without Him, He calls to us to slow down.  When we do inevitably fall off the trail, He's there to pick us up, dust us off, attend to our bleeding wounds, and carry us until we're able to ride (or walk or jog or run) again.  I certainly won't mind being carried for awhile longer....and I trust that He'll know when to put me down and where the trail leads.  Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Paralyzed in the car....

Today stinks. Yep, I'm just laying it out there. Went to Sunday School & church, had great messages both places, learning about leaving a legacy after you die. That's something we should all strive for as Christians, to leave this place a little (or a lot!) better than when we first arrived.

But I find myself really angry today. As we drove home in the car following church, the boys were, well, being boys, playing with two balloons in the backseat. Their playful banter and laughing sounded so much like their dad's. The closer we got to the house, the angrier I got. As we pulled into the driveway, I glanced at that truck that he loved to drive. I parked the car beside it, as I've done thousands of times. The boys scurried out, worried that one of the wayward balloons would find its way to the dog, never a good combination. I had my door open, purse in hand...but I could not move. Must've been 5 minutes before the boys realized that I wasn't behind them, coming back to witness their mother with her head against the steering wheel of the car, sobbing.

I am so mad, God! Why did you take this wonderful husband and father? He had his whole future mapped out, our future, and now he's gone. Is the future he planned for the four of us the future path I continue to follow? Or is there something else that You have in store for us? It's hard being three when you're used to being four. I know where he is, but I want him here with me, with our boys. God, I'm not mad at You, I'm just mad about the change in our plans. Guess they didn't coincide with Yours. But I'm struggling. Struggling to find a routine that makes sense, that moves us in the right direction, and that keeps us looking toward You.

When does this get better? Everyone says "give it time". Well, I don't have alot of time. I have two boys depending on me to be both mom & dad for now. And for every good hour I have, I seem to have 4 that are not good. If my math skills don't fail me, that's only 20% of the time that my life doesn't suck. Sorry about that word, 'suck', but it's how Mark himself described his dilemma, only 2 days before his death. He raised that oxygen mask with just me in the room and said, clear as day, "This sucks!". My response? "I know it does, sweetie, but all we can do is fight & try to make tomorrow suck a little less." Those words spoke volumes about his situation. He knew he was in the fight of his life. And I thought that this strong healthy man would pull through.

Now I'm the one who has to "pull through"....the one that is determined to make "tomorrow suck a little less". And it's the hardest thing I've ever faced in my life. Part of me wants to close all the drapes, go to bed, and curl up into the fetal position...for days. But I can't do that. I don't have the luxury. I have the two most important parts of his legacy looking to me for strength & guidance. And I couldn't even get out of my car today.

Dear God in heaven, I know that when I am weak, You are strong. Today, at least during this hour, You must be enormously strong for all three of us.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What a day......

Well, the first day of our "dreaded weekend" went more smoothly than anticipated.  I have a suspicion that there were oodles of prayers being lifted up for us, especially as we approached the Little League field for A.J.'s game.  Brandon, A.J.'s coach, came up to me as soon as we arrived, wanted to know if I would be up for throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to AJ before the game, in memory & in celebration of Mark.  What could I say?  As long as Andrew was okay with it, I was game. 

I stood in that dugout as that coach huddled the boys together....some knew Mark, some didn' he explained that AJ's dad had passed away recently, and that the team was going to dedicate the entire fall season to Mark.  He also told them that Mark would not want them to be sad, but to live, be happy, and enjoy some baseball, 'cause that's what he would be doing if he were here.

I headed out to the mound, Andrew to home plate.  His only instructions to me?  "Make sure you throw it over the plate!"  Brandon stood with me & explained to the crowd what we were doing.  I haven't thrown a baseball in about a month, and I didn't want to look like either President Obama or Bush with pitiful throws.  But I threw it hard, and it went across the plate.  The crowd cheered, and my son & I hugged.  I got to keep the ball. 

The Vernon LL team has probably been playing together since they were 3, 'cause they were good.  But my son went 2 for 2, had a couple of good plays at 1st base, and had an RBI.  Two dear friends, Amy and Randall, showed up shortly after the game began, so AJ had a good cheering section. 

A confession?  I'm 48 years old.  And I've never seen "The Lion King"....isn't that sad?  So, to keep the day going on a positive note, the boys & I went to see it.... in 3D.  A great movie, although hard to watch as Simba's dad is killed.  Think it upset me more than the boys.  They are so resilient, and seem to take things in stride a heck of alot easier than I do.  The theatre was full, with a varying audience age from babies to grandparents. 

The circle of really has a deeper meaning.  I tried to explain to the boys on the way home that life is but a fleeting moment compared to eternity, even when someone lives to be 100.  But our spirituality was before we were born, and continues throughout eternity after we shed these clunky earthly bodies.  Or as my wise 9 year old put it, "Mom, death is just another part of life." 

Mark's mom emailed that his inscription for his mausoleum marker has been set.  I had 14 spaces for 4 separate lines.  How do you sum up a man's life in four lines, 64 spaces? 

                     MARK H. HOWELL
                      OCT. 25, 1955
                      JULY 30, 2011
                    PHENOMENAL DAD

That fourth line?  His most important role,  the one he was most proud of (outside of being a child of God).  Amazingly, it took 14 spaces, no more, no less.

Be blessed....God is good,


Friday, September 16, 2011

Ahh...another dreaded weekend.....

I used to live for weekends.  Especially weekends in Wichita Falls with cooler temperatures.  Mark, as a state employee could only work 40 hours a week.  This was a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say, a very good thing.  So many weeks he would be out after normal business hours, attending to one or more of his extra work activities, that by Friday he'd only have a few hours to get in to make his maximum of 40.  On those weeks, he'd either come home early, or take the entire day off.  This would've been one of those days today, for sure.  He'd be relaxed in his big old recliner, reading the paper & drinking a very strong hot cup of joe. While there, he'd be planning all kinds of fun stuff for the 4 of us to do for the upcoming weekend.

Now, weekends are decidedly different.  It's just not as fun without him.  I'm trying, Lord knows I'm trying, but it's not the same.  No booming male voice throughout the house.  No exclamations of pure joy at the arrival of his sons at the end of the school day.  No warm strong hugs for any of us. 

And to top it all off, fall baseball begins tomorrow.  Andrew will step out on the field, fully dressed, without his coach, confidante, and biggest cheerleader on the sidelines, at least in the physical sense.  Please keep him especially in your prayers as he does this "first" at noon tomorrow.  The ironic thing is that last season, a young widow had a son on A.J.'s team.  She has another child Ben's age.  And I cannot tell you the number of times I saw my husband sitting beside that little boy in the dugout, talking to him, encouraging him.  As I look back, that spoke volumes about Mark's character.  It was just the right thing to do, and he did it.  I hope that my sons will have men step in to do the same for them. 

Started calling agencies to remove Mark's name from joint accounts this morning.  Yet another first, and a milestone, in my opinion.  Tough, tough, tough to do, though.  I'm waiting for something easy to do, and it just hasn't happened yet.  But I have faith that it will. 

My devotion for today said, "Find fulfillment through living close to Me, yielding to My purposes for you.  Though I may lead you along paths that feel alien to you (you think, God?), trust that I know what I am doing.  If you follow Me wholeheartedly, you will discover facets of yourself that were previously hidden.  I know you intimately--far better than you know yourself.  In union with Me, you are complete.  In closeness to Me, you are transformed more and more into the one I designed you to be."  But the real kicker came with the associated scripture, "You created every part of me; you put me together in my mother's womb.  I praise you because you are to be feared; all you do is strange and wonderful.  I know it with all my heart.  When my bones were being formed, carefully put together in my mother's womb, when I was growing there in secret, you knew I was there---you saw me before I was born.  The days alloted to me had all been recorded in your book before any of them ever began." Ps 139:13-16 Good News Translation

So I wait, and I pray, and I hope for better days.  And in studying God's word, I have the faith that those days are somewhere out there on the horizon.  Just remember, God, patience has never been one of my strong suits, but I'm working on it :)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"One step forward, two steps back..."

Well, per usual, I spoke too soon about glimpses of better moments yesterday.  Today, thus far, I've been the proverbial mess.  Overwhelmed doesn't even begin to describe how I feel today.  There is just so darn much to do, so much to take care of, business-wise, financially, spiritually, emotionally, and don't even get me started about my laundry needs.

 I had another one of those panic-attack moments after coming back home from the boys' school, thinking I cannot do this, I cannot do this.  I then remembered that I had forgotten to take my xanax, which seems to be helping in these issues.  The simple things that were 'no-brainers' for me to do seem to take the most time for me now.  And as the xanax begins to calm me, along with my devotional reading for the day, I try to slow down enough to be able to listen to what God needs me to do. 

I need to provide for my sons.  I need for them to feel love without end.  I need for them to feel safe, even though it's just the three of us now.  I need to find male friends willing to come over and be wrestled around on the floor (by the boys, not me!), friends able to step in, albeit in a small way, to give Andrew & Ben a testosterone-based presence in their lives.  That's a tall order, for sure.  But it's what we need.

My second outdoor column was published today, it gives me something to aspire to. It keeps me honest by keeping my promise to Mark to teach our boys the importance of conservation, ecology, and just the pure joy of being outside.  It also gives me purpose, and hope that this outlet may serve a greater good & reach others who find themselves in similar crappy circumstances.  In the long run, I pray it helps all three of us heal. 

So, I think I'm done crying, at least for now.  There's too much to be done for me to sit & feel sorry for myself.  There's many in worse situations than I am in, and my boys & I have much to be thankful for.  And my dryer timer is telling me I have 20 shirts to hang up. 

Peace & blessings, friends...


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Rain in the forecast?

Last night was really difficult.   Bedtime is one of our hardest times of the day.  The usual routine involved both parents spending time, separately with the boys in their room, praying, sharing funny stories, talking about boy stuff.  I'd always go first, then whenever I was done, they'd gleefully yell for Mark to come down to their room.  He'd usually be in his big recliner, pausing whatever sports event that he was watching (thank goodness for dvr!)...he'd crank down, making a big deal of coming to their room, most nights uttering some sort of "man-grunt" (think Tim the tool man from Home Improvement), and head in for some guy time.  The laughter I'd hear coming from that room will always be in my heart & memory.
But, I digress.  Last night, we snuggled into one big bed, me in the middle, said our prayers & read a book together, "What Happens When We Die?" by Carolyn Nystrom.  It really had some valid questions, and we talked at length about what we think Mark's doing up in heaven.  Both boys are very sure there are wheat fields, pastures to hunt with his two dogs already there (Jack & Bud), cool temps in the 60s, and 24 hour sports on all of the time.  Since Mark's favorite meal was fish, they're pretty sure he's cooked some up for Jesus by now. 
We laughed, we cried, we snuggled, we prayed.   And even though it was one of the hardest nights starting out, we all seemed to sleep just a little better.  We woke up to a bit of rain (thank you, God!), all better rested than usual, and in a little better humor than usual. 
Ben actually had a little smile on his face as I walked with him to class today.  He clung a little less to me as I tried to leave.  I specifically asked in my prayers last night for the Holy Spirit to walk on one side of each boy, and for their Daddy's spirit to be on the other side.  I, of course, tell them I'm in their heart each and every day.  Ben smiled & said that Daddy was in there, too. 
I know that today will be hard, just like any other day.  But this morning, just for a few minutes, I caught a glimpse of two boys being well, just two boys.  And a mom that didn't cry as she left the school for home.  I can only pray that I catch more glimpses of that in the future. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Friends are Family...

At this incredibly hard time in our lives, Andrew, Ben, & I are living in a town of 104,000 people. None are related to us by blood. Mark has family in Kansas, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Washington state. My family resides in Kentucky and Tennessee.
I titled this "friends are family" because even though our relatives are in far away places geographically, our family here in Wichita Falls has comforted us, prayed for us, protected us, and stood in the gap to be the hands, feet, and heart of Christ himself during Mark's hospital stay and since his death. We do not know how we would have survived if it weren't for you. You have laughed with us, cried with us, held our hands, and been the most wonderful family in Christ possible. I now can say with certainty that I have had a little glimpse of heaven, right here in Wichita Falls, which is incredibly hard to believe, considering we've just recorded our 100th day of 100 degrees or more for the summer.

Heaven is a place where God's people come together and help a friend in need. Heaven is a place where your children are hugged & loved & tended to while you have to be at the hospital with your beloved spouse. Heaven is my feeling so lifted up by prayer that I can actually get out of bed each morning & accomplish some of the many tasks that I have to complete. And heaven, my friends, is being a part of a family, one that crosses any political, religious, ethnic, or gender restrictions.....and that is the little glimpse of heaven that the boys and I are seeing right here in Wichita Falls, Texas.
We love you all, and there is no way we can ever say thank you enough.
Nancy, Andrew, and Ben

p.s.  We know that folks are lifting us up in prayer all over the country, and we are so grateful for that, as well.  Just wanted to give a special message to those right here in our neighborhood, because Wichita Falls is home, has been home for almost 20 years, and will continue to be home for us three Howells :)

Monday, September 12, 2011

July 4, 2011

In Vermont, July 4, 2011...we had a blast with Mark's brother & sister-in-law. Think this was near Brattleboro, before we enjoyed the fireworks under a beautiful clear, cool night sky. It's a bit blurry, but you can still see the happy faces.

First post...

Trying to put all of my thoughts down in one place has been a problem since I lost Mark on July 30, 2011. Seems like an eternity, but it was "only" seven weeks ago today that he had his seemingly-routine surgery.

Since his death, I've written extensively on Facebook, in emails, in 2 different journals, and on scraps of paper. I know that I need to consolidate these thoughts & feelings, if not for me, for our sons, Andrew and Benjamin, who will maybe someday want to read this history of their dad's untimely, unfortunate death, and the tale of the unimagined, unexpected journey that Mark's death has forged as our path.

My main source of healing thus far has been expressing my feelings on Facebook. I also took over Mark's weekly outdoor column at the Wichita Falls Time Record News as of September 8th. This is a way I can honor him, keep my promise to him to continue to instill a love of nature & the outdoors
in both boys, and maybe experience some peace and healing for myself & for us as a family.
Here are the links to the first week's columns:

We'll see how this goes....


Christmas, 2012

Christmas, 2012