Monday, November 28, 2011

A time to cook...

I love to cook.  I say this because tonight I sit, eating leftover turkey and dressing (defrosted from the freezer) out of a cup, while watching my sons eat a peanut butter sandwich and a corn dog, respectively.  What in the world has happened to us?  How can the absence of one person in a home turn everything upside down and inside out? Is this the norm for folks that live alone (or are single parents)? 

I used to plan meals.  We ate around 6pm, without fail, every week night.  I have a collection of cookbooks that are now gathering dust.  Every place we'd visit, I'd purchase a locally-inspired cookbook as a souvenir, so you can imagine that my bookshelves are overflowing.  Mark enjoyed eating good food just as he enjoyed life, with gusto, love and appreciation.  He loved for me to cook, and I loved to do it.

Now I go sometimes for a week or longer between grocery runs.  As long as we have milk and bread, we seem to be able to get by.  But we've been just "getting by" for almost 4 months now, and I'm growing tired of not having a dinnertime.  We used to sit around, eating and talking about our days.  Now it seems that the television is on way too much, and tuned into stations I'm growing to dislike enormously (sorry Disney XD and Cartoon Network, nothing personal). 

How do I turn this around?  These boys are looking to me to lead the household, and to be quite honest, half the time I don't have a clue as to what I'm doing.  I talk a good game, smile and assure them that "I've got this," while my heart and brain are telling me otherwise.  You'd think something as easy as re-establishing dinnertime would be a no-brainer.

But there's a glaringly-empty spot at the table.  I've kept my position, strategically placed closest to the kitchen, so I can grab things as needed.  The boys, however, have rotated spots.  Andrew's taken over Mark's spot, across from me, and Ben, who had the worst seat (with his back to the television!) has gravitated to AJ's old position.  We miss the master of conversation, the guy that never lacked for things to say, who was never quiet unless his mouth was full.  I pale in comparison, and I'm sure not as interesting to his sons.  The empty spot at the table and in our hearts is why our dinnertime consists of sandwiches and defrosted meals in cups.

 I think if we can get back into the groove of a more normal eating pattern, we may begin to feel better about things in general.   So, if anyone out there wants to volunteer to come over and sit in our empty spot, I'm getting ready to begin scanning my cookbooks for new creations and need feedback (ha! that was sort of funny..).

There really is something about gathering around a table, together, partaking of food and beverage.  It's a time for laughter, conversation, and nourishment for both body and soul.  With it, you can gaze lovingly (or laughingly) into your family member's eyes and connect.  Without it, the family (at least this one) is just existing, not nourishing itself. 

Well, the buck stops here.  Tomorrow I make a real grocery list.  One that includes fruits, fresh veggies, and a good bottle of wine.  By this weekend, I pledge to have a dinnertime plan in place.  Now if I can just remember what fresh produce looks like :)

to be continued....

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A letter to my boys....

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,


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

♪Empty my hands, fill up my heart..♪

Wow.  I just thought I was doing pretty good.  All it took was one minute, rummaging through Mark's closet, looking for suitcases.  And I was transported once again to the raw, emotional, stifling grief that swallowed me up on July 30th.  Clothes hanging, shoes scattered on the closet floor---tennis shoes, work boots, hunting boots, umpire cleats---all unnecessary now.  A multitude of TPWD shirts, sweatshirts, work shirts.  More Kansas State apparel than we can ever hope to wear, even if the boys grow into them.  Jeans..."dress" ones, work ones, ones designated for hunting only (those are well-worn, with various holes).  Dress clothes and shoes, suits, ties, belts....he looked so handsome in everything!  Meticulously labelled boxes of baseball and football cards.  A microcosm of my man's existence, right down to the warm robe hanging on the inside hook.

But I had to go in there.  We store suitcases in his closet, because there is no room for such bulk in mine.  Mine is full of clothes, shoes, boots, accessories.  All that I enjoyed wearing.  Now, not so much.  They, like the house full of material items in my home, are just "stuff" to me now.  Losing Mark, seeing all the "stuff" he left behind, has given me a new sense of what's important, and it's not the latest sale at JC Penney's or the mall.  In an instant, you can be gone.  That's what happened to him.  This wonderful, warm force of nature was taken up to be with God in heaven, and our boys & I are now walking without him leading our family.

The Thanksgiving trip looms ahead, and I am filled with a strange combination of dread, hopefulness, love, anticipation, and fear of the unknown.  Dear Lord, it's a good thing you love me as I am, because today, I am one heck of a mess.  Dragging out the suitcases, printing off our packing list from the computer (yes, he made a list, so we wouldn't forget anything important), and trying to figure out what clothes we need to take are overwhelming me. 

And just as I think I can't do one more thing, I cry out and fall to my knees in my den.  God, please help me.  I know that you are carrying us, but today I think I need an extra squeeze! Immediately, I remember my devotional book, the one given to me by Mark's angel in the hospital.  I turn back to November 16th, and read it aloud once again:

From Jesus Calling by Sarah Young...

"As you look at the day before you, you see a twisted, complicated path, with branches going off in all directions.  You wonder how you can possibly find your way through that maze.  Then you remember the One who is with you always, holding you by your right hand.  You recall My promise to guide you with My counsel, and you begin to relax.  As you look again at the path ahead, you notice that a peaceful fog has settled over it, obscuring your view.  You can see only a few steps in front of you, so you turn your attention more fully to Me and begin to enjoy My presence.
The fog is a protection for you, calling you back into the present moment.  Although I inhabit all of space and time, you can communicate with Me only here and now.  Someday the fog will no longer be necessary, for you will have learned to keep your focus on Me and on the path just ahead of you."

Guess I didn't get the full impact of that the first time I read it.  I needed it again, today.  With my feeble human failings, I may need to read that over and over and over again. 

I don't know what tomorrow will bring.  There's at least a dozen different emotions that the boys and I will go through, at varying and various times while we're in Kansas.  As we step onto the pasture land that is now solely ours, and admire our beautiful native grasses, newly-dug pond, and sign designating the land being farmed by this family for over 100 years, I'm sure I'll be overwhelmed.  The last time I was on our property, I took a photo of the most glorious sunset, it's the background of this very blog. 

Our dreams, his dreams, of what was to be?  We have to let them go, at least in the form that they were previously.  One of my new favorite Christian songs, "Empty My Hands," by Tenth Avenue North, says it much better than I could ever hope:

♪I’ve got voices in my head
And they are so strong
And I’m getting sick of this
Oh Lord, how long will I be haunted by the fear that I believe?
My hands like locks on cages of these dreams I can’t set free
But if I let these dreams die
If I lay down all my wounded pride
If I let these dreams die
Will I find, that letting go lets me come alive?♪

♪(Chorus)So empty my hands
Fill up my heart
Capture my mind with You
Oh, empty my hands
Fill up my heart
Capture my mind with You
With You
With You, Lord♪

♪‘Cause these voices speak instead
What’s right is wrong
And I’m giving into them
Oh please Lord, how long will I be held captive by the lies that I believe?
My heart’s in constant chaos
And it keeps me so deceived
But if I let these dreams die
If I could lay down my dark desire
‘Cause if I let these dreams die
Will I find, You brought me back to life?♪


♪‘Cause my mind is like a building burning down
I need Your grace to keep me
Well keep me from the ground
My heart is just a prisoner of war
A slave to what it wants and to what I’m fighting for
So won’t You..♪


♪With You
I need You now
I need You now Lord
With You
With You
I need You now Lord♪

There will be new dreams.  And I'm quite sure, in some form or fashion, they will involve a home in Kansas.  A second home where my boys and I can find refuge, rest, and enjoy the beauty of the land.  A place where we can gather as a family, enjoying hunting, fishing, and watching spectacular sunrises and sunsets.  Because, you see, in central Kansas, there are no man-made obstructions in your view.  You get to experience God and all His glory in a quiet rural place, and I swear I always feel closer to Him when I'm there. 

Maybe I'm not dreading our trip quite as much as I was earlier.  I see that soft peaceful fog resting over the details.  The only thing that's unobscured is my empty suitcase.  I can do this.  Thank you, God, for knowing me more intimately than I can ever know myself.  And for loving me in spite of it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Is it January yet?

Sunday.  Another weekend under our belts.  They're all still hard, but I'm starting to see little glimpses of our new normal around the periphery of our current surroundings.  The boys and I are joining in on activities friends invite us to, and having a bit of fun, despite the grief.  The emotions associated with the mourning seem to be a bit easier to control, and that helps us get through the day.  Don't get me wrong, I (we) still have our moments. 

Case in point:  The two Howell boys were acolytes at church today, for the first time at the same time.  Andrew, a pro, had Ben, the novice, alongside him.  I was so proud.  They made it down the aisle with no one catching on fire, altho' Andrew was outpacing Ben by a stride and a half (Ben's robe was too long).  At the close of the service, they extinguished the candles & headed back up the aisle as we sang, "For the Beauty of the Earth."  Ben's wick went out, and he was hoping his big brother would light it back up with his.  No such luck.  As the light holders crossed time and time again as they walked back up the aisle (resembling crossed swords or light sabers), I prayed that they wouldn't drop the holders and begin to shove each other!  I couldn't help it, I began laughing.  Then the laughing dissolved into crying as I tried to sing the last two verses of the song.  Mark, outdoorsman that he was, loved this song.  And I was sure wishing he was there beside me, singing with that boisterious tenor voice. 

We joined church friends in watching the annual City Lights parade in downtown Wichita Falls Saturday evening.  This is an event that Mark and I frequented for years, well before the birth of the boys, and we continued it almost yearly.  Whenever we arrived downtown, there was already quite a crowd gathered.  I parked the car, and waited for the boys to get out.  Another first, "my" leading us around...never had to do that with Mark---he'd get Andrew by the hand and boldly go forward, and Ben and I would bring up the rear.  The boys looked to me to do the leading last night, and we made it.  Thought it would be really hard to be there without him, but surprisingly it was not.  Must've been the supportive friends nearby, there was plenty of laughter and joking to go around.  Thank you, God, for our church family.  They have been my rock.

We'll head to Kansas on Wednesday, to spend Thanksgiving with Mark's mom, as we do most every year.  This time, there will be no pheasant hunting with Maggie May.  Our time there always revolved around hunting, playing basketball in the barn haymound, trudging through the pasture looking for wildlife (and bad thistles), and just hanging out..  We'll have to find new things to do, and we have Mark's grave to visit for the first time since we left there in August.  Not looking forward to that, but know that we have to do it, trusting God to get us through the hard parts.   The bitter part will give way to the sweet, as it always does....but I'm ready for the sweet to arrive more quickly.  I'll venture to say that part of me wishes I could snap my fingers and have it be January 2012, just so I could be past the next six weeks.  The holidays are going to be very very hard.

As I tuck the boys into their beds tonight, the older one stays up to read Harry Potter, while the younger one & I snuggle, say prayers, and wait for sleep to come.  As Ben rolls over onto his tummy, I rub his back, saying, "Don't forget to say your prayers, and thank God for all He's given us.  Because God is really good."  Ben sleepily replies, "Mom, God isn't good.......He's great!  No, I take that back, He is awesome!"  and he drifts off to sleep.  Andrew, putting away his book, tells me I'm a great mom.  And I say for the umpteenth time today how much I love him.  "Andrew, do I tell you that too much?"  I ask.  "No," he replies.  "Dad would say that alot, too." So, I'm telling the boys how much they are loved by both of us, since Mark's no longer here to do so.  I'm glad they don't mind hearing it.  Because I love saying it, repeatedly. 

We hug, we laugh, we cry, we argue.  It's who we are.  No one goes to sleep, no one goes out the door in the morning, no one hangs up the phone without saying "I love you"...and it makes life so much sweeter.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Run, Forrest, Run"....

I like to run.  If you know me, you know that this activity keeps me centered.  It lifts my mood.  It raises my endorphin level.  It allows time for just me, which is something that is so necessary with all that's swirling around us in the past few months.  I know that to be healthy and ready for the challenges of my new normal life, I have to take that time to exercise, to listen to God, to talk with my husband, to commune with the outdoors. 

I've always run to music.  Classic rock, pop, regular rock, you name it---my playlist runs the spectrum from the Beatles to Lady Gaga, with most everything in between.  Since losing Mark, I've run mostly sans music, feeling like I needed the quiet time to reflect, meditate, and pray.  But I began to miss my tunes, and decided to phase the music back in, a little at a time.  If I came across a song that just didn't fit my mood, or made me too sad, I would just skip over it.  That's worked pretty well, although I still felt like something was missing from my music library.

Contemporary Christian music is a genre I've never much listened to in the past.  Flipping through the radio stations in my car, I might pause and listen to a song or two, but didn't linger long.  It sounded nice.  I appreciated it.  But I didn't take the time to really hear any of the songs.  Since losing Mark (boy, I overuse that phrase...note to self:  use something different next time), I've lingered longer on these stations, two of which are in close proximity on my FM dial.  As I listen intermittently off and on for several days, I finally began to get it. It's music with a message, and for a girl that enjoys good beats to run to, this may be the start of a beautiful friendship.

So yesterday I went on-line and purchased several songs, and two albums.  I excitedly downloaded them,  created a brand spanking new playlist ("Christian", I know, not real original), and looked forward to running with it for the first time today.  All I can say is WOW.  It's a good thing I stuffed tissues in my running vest, because I think I had the most satisfying run in recent memory.  Seemed like most every song spoke to me about my current situation. 

Now, I know those composers didn't write those songs with only me in mind, even though they sure sounded like it.  The more I visit with people about my loss, the more sad stories I hear in return.  Whether it's a death, divorce, estrangement, health issues, money issues---the common thread is brokenness.  Physically and/or spiritually broken, we all are brothers and sisters, doing the best we can each & every day.  Those songs touch on situations in different ways, with varying melodies, but each and every one of them remind us that there is hope.  And we are not alone. 

So I ran.  And I cried.  And I laughed.  And as I stopped to survey our lovely borrow pit near Lake Wichita, I smile.  There are ducks back on the water.  There are GBH's (great blue herons--Mark's acronym for them) looking for fish.  Folks, this is a cause for celebration.  In the hot of summer, that spot was practically dry.  Mark fretted because it got too low too quickly to salvage any of the fish, he would've moved them to the bigger lake.  Hope came in the form of rain and cooler temperatures.  Nature adapts, and life moves on.

Isn't that just like us?  We go through periods of drought in our spiritual lives.  I'm ashamed to admit that while Mark was alive and things were grand, I didn't thirst after the Bible like I should've.  I didn't pray as often as I do now.  And I didn't listen to Christian music.  Amazing.  As long as my life was as close to perfect as it's ever been, I kept God at arm's length.  I knew He was there, I loved Him, I acknowledged and thanked Him for all that He'd given me.  But when the rubber met the road, and I was left without a leg to stand on, He grabbed hold of me, and has not let me go. 

He was there all along, waiting for me to take notice.  Without a doubt, even with all of this sad stuff surrounding the boys and me, I can honestly say that I feel closer to God than I ever have in my entire life.  For my family, hope came whenever I admitted I couldn't get through this grief alone, and I surrendered everything to God.  I'm adapting, with His help and direction.  And as a family, we're moving forward.  What does the future hold?  I don't have a clue.  My 9 year old is praying for a man to come into our lives, heaven help us.

I'm now listening to "Turn Around," "Stronger," "Waiting for Tomorrow," "Do Everything" and others, instead of "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" when I run.  I'm not abandoning the old tunes, they have their place.  But for the forseeable future, I'm sticking with the ones that give me hope. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A really cool fish story....

Tuesday, November 15th.  Such a busy day, filled with field trips, piano lessons, calls from loved ones, helping assemble gift baskets at school, two loads of laundry, a deadline looming...and I'm still going strong at 11 p.m. 

Today, I headed back to River Bend Nature Center for another field trip, this time with Ben's 3rd grade class.  Unlike his 4th grade brother, who would rather I stay home on the offhanded chance I might embarrass him, Benjamin was thrilled to have me tag along.  He made me feel really special, and I was looking forward to whatever the day held for us.  I was not prepared for what God had in store for me.

The story that follows may not seem like much to many of you.  It can probably be explained away as a coincidence, but for those of you who knew Mark, and know what RBNC meant to him these past 15 or so years, well, we all know better. 

Mark loved fish.  He loved to catch them, fillet them, cook and eat them.  He loved teaching folks how to fish, especially kids.  His profession just enabled him to get paid to do what he loved.  And man, did he ever do his job well.  I cannot begin to document the stories folks have shared with me, of how Mark impacted their outlooks on the environment, fishing, lakes, hunting, and getting kids connected to the outdoors.  He helped RBNC put in a huge aquarium in the conservatory, and made it his personal mission to help keep it stocked with a wide variety of native fish, so that school children and other visitors could see the real deal when they looked at the tank.  I'm looking forward to seeing how it's faring without my fisherman-in-shining-khaki around to fill it.

I arrive at RBNC a bit early, the kids are coming on school buses.  I go inside to visit with folks, several of which I've worked with, to touch base, get a few hugs, and prepare them for the onslaught of energetic 8 & 9 year olds.  I talk with the director, who was on the board with Mark those many years ago, about helping me gather information so that I can nominate him for the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Hall of Fame next year.  But that's a whole 'nother blog entry. 

As I'm talking, the person in charge of the butterfly conservatory and all the exhibits (Martha) comes up to me, carrying a bucket.  Another field guide, who I don't recognize, is beside her.  "This is Nancy--Mark's wife, Irma," Martha says.  "Nancy, Irma has a story to tell you about these fish."  I glance into the bucket, filled about 1/3 full of water.  In the water are two bluegill, each about 6 or 7 inches in length.  They are healthy, and not happy about their small surroundings. 

Irma begins, "I saw you a bit earlier, but I've never met you, wasn't sure who you were.  I went with Mark on a training session for Texas Master Naturalists this past spring to Gordon Lake in Iowa Park.  We seined for fish with a net, and there were two small fish remaining.  Mark told us that he hated to throw them back in, was there anybody there that had an aquarium?"  At this point, my interest was piqued, she had my full attention.

She continued, "I had an aquarium, so he gave the fish to me.  I put them in there, and they've been there all these months, growing, doing well.  But they've started to become bullies, and it was time for me to get them out of my aquarium.  I've been meaning to bring them up here for awhile, but just never got around to it.  I don't know why I brought them here today."

My eyes filled with tears.  "I know why you brought them here today.  Somebody wants me to know, without a doubt, that he's nearby, watching over the boys and me.  And this is Mark's own unique, fun way of doing just that.  Plus, he knows the aquarium needs to be stocked.  These are fish he seined for just that reason."  She tells me she's sorry she made me cry.  I tell her it's no biggie, I do it most everyday.

Martha cannot believe that Irma's brought the fish on the one day that I would be there.  No one had any idea.  No one on this side of heaven, at least.  Martha urges me to come with her as she nudges the bullying bluegill into the big aquarium in the conservatory.  It's almost a magical moment for me, as I watch her slowly acclimate them to the water, by introducing a bit of the tank water in the bucket.  Soon, they swim out, where they will face bigger fish, and will learn their place in the pecking order of the food chain there. 

And as they swim away, I am again overwhelmed with the way God is ministering to us, holding us, showing us sign after sign that we are going to be okay.  I venture to say we are going to be more than okay.  I have no doubt in my mind that Mark Howell was in that situation today, and anyone reading this that knows him knows that, too.  Coincidence?  I don't think so. 

The rest of the day was good, it was a picture perfect autumn day.  I shared my fish story (I can't believe that I finally have a "fish story"!) with my mom, brother, mother-in-law, and close friend.  Andrew and Ben are as amazed as I was. 

You'd think that would be enough for one day, but no, I have one more God thing to tell.  At the school tonight, as I'm helping assemble gift baskets, I'm working with a very nice lady I don't know.  She hears others ask me how I'm doing, I share a bit, and, feeling weird that I hadn't introduced myself, wait till it's just us two, and tell her that I lost my husband at the end of July.  Her eyes grow wider, and she asks, "Are you Nancy?  I've been praying for you.  You were supposed to be my son's preschool teacher this year.  Every time I go into TLC, I ask about you.  I was disappointed that you weren't able to teach, but totally understand.  How are you?"

It's like in that instant I found a new friend.  I remember her son, he has the most gorgeous blue eyes you've ever seen.  He will be a heart breaker in a few years.  And she's been praying for me?  I also remember, and she shares with me, that she and her husband had a stillborn child a few months back.  Her grace and faith amaze me.  She's pregnant again, due in June.  We still cannot believe that we were working alongside each other, without knowing each other's names.  Talk about two women with much in common.  As she leaves for the evening, we hug, and she tells me again that she's praying for my family.  I tell her I'm doing the same for hers and their unborn child.

There are no coincidences.  I fully believe that God puts people and circumstances in your path for a definitive reason.  There are days that I do not encounter such vivid and dramatic examples.  Then there are days like today, when I feel like God pulls back the curtain on heaven just a smidgen, and lets me see how glorious it is.  Mark is with us, even though we can't touch him.  He made that very apparent today, in the form of two bluegill in a bucket.

And the field guide who grew those fish for him all those months, she made my day when she told me of how much she thought of him.  Yep, Irma...tell me something I don't know :)  That man was totally awesome.  He rocked.  And he was all mine.  And, guess what....I have his two sons, and it's my mission to help them become totally awesome, as well.  I may be a single parent, but I am not alone.  Tonight I am most thankful for God and Mark showing me that with two bully bluegill at River Bend.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Life is a Highway....

Airports.  In my opinion, you either love 'em or hate 'em.  My earliest memory of an airport was when I was a 2nd grader, my grandparents took me with them on a trek to Washington, D.C., where my aunt was living and working.  I still remember the wondrous sights we took in, and the plane ride, well, it was spectacular, especially through a 7 year old's eyes.

I flew a few times while I was dating Mark, from Kentucky to Kansas, but whenever you are young and in love, you don't really recall much about the actual flight.  It was simply a quicker vehicle to get to the man I loved and missed.  And he was glad to pick me up in Wichita KS, and spirit me home to his parent's farm, where life took on a slower, more patient pace.

Had a job for almost a year, B.C. (before children), where I worked for a software installation company.  I travelled Sunday through Thursday, leaving out of little old Wichita Falls airport here.  In that few short months, I got to see parts of Washington state, Orange County, California and the PCH, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.  It was fun.  I loved being on the planes, but I loved more than anything disembarking to my husband waiting patiently for me near baggage claim.

A year ago in August, we travelled to DisneyWorld for the trip of a lifetime.  We packed in more fun and sights in a 7 day period than we thought humanly possible.  It was hot, humid, and tiring, but we loved every minute of it.  The boys' first plane ride was a hit, they were pros.  We promised to do more air travel on a regular basis, and were going to go places like Hawaii and Seattle in the upcoming years. 

Fast forward to today.  I made another drive to an airport, Love Field in Dallas. My sweet mom, who's been visiting here for three weeks, had her first ever plane trip today, heading back to Kentucky (via Nashville, where my brother picked her up & drove her home).  As she and I travelled that direction in my car, I couldn't help but remember the last time I was in our car, heading to that same airport.  It was the first week of July, and Mark, Andrew, Ben, and I were on our way to Massachusetts, where we spent an unbelievable, spectacular perfect week of sightseeing, camping, hiking, shopping, touring Boston, MIT, and watching a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.  Driving in the car, we didn't have a care in the world.  The 8 year old plugged in his mp3 player to the aux slot on the stereo, and we rocked to his tunes.  "Life is a Highway" from Cars 2, "Abracadabra" from Steve Miller Band, and "California Girls" by Katy Perry were just a few road tunes we sang along to. 

This trip today was going to be harder than I thought.  As I got mom situated, and we walked to her gate, I passed the McDonalds where we sat and laughed until we cried, at something mundane and silly that the boys said.  I pass families, going and coming, all looking perfectly happy.  My family was that happy and complete just a few months ago, walking this same hallway.  I pass the bar where Mark decompressed with a much-too-expensive but oh-so-worth-it beer before we made the drive back to Wichita Falls on July 10.  Little did we know, as we packed our luggage away in that car, that in a mere three weeks we'd see that perfect family unravel, leaving us struggling for answers.

I made sure my mom was safely aboard her flight, then headed back to the parking garage.  I found the car, flipped on the GPS, and headed back northwest, with Wichita Falls on my radar. As I left Love Field, I turned on the radio, where a contemporary Christian station soothed my melancholy spirit. 

It seems like an eternity since we had that perfect vacation, as that perfect family.  We had it all and didn't even realize it.  Well, maybe we realized it, but I don't think we recognized the gravity of it and the rareness of such love and togetherness.  We were in it for the long haul, no matter what.  For better or worse, in sickness and in health. 

But as I drove and mourned what could have been and what was, I kept hearing a voice inside of my head, telling me that there are still good days to come.  We were lucky to have what we had, for as long as we had it.  Many people never find love.  Many, if they find it, can't keep it, or it turns out to be something they didn't sign on for.  Many don't have kids....many have kids, but wish they didn't.  I'm healthy.  My boys are spectacular on so many levels, just like their daddy was.  We have a home, good friends, family, and a God who's got our backs. 

On a day that could've been more bitter than sweet, I felt the opposite.  There's still so much sweet in this crazy world, even in Wichita Falls, Texas.  We remember, we honor, we can be a bit wistful, but we keep pushing on.  And I hope that my boys and I return to Love Field or DFW sometime soon;  we'll take a trip, and make new memories, adding to the fabulous ones already inscribed on our hearts.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A time to mourn, & a time to laugh.....

Another weekend under my belt.  Thanksgiving looms closer and closer, but I've decided to let God handle the sticky sad details, and the boys & I will drive to Kansas for some quality time with their grandma.  We'll rip and snort some on our beautiful pasture, check on the pond's water level, listen for pheasants, quail, and wild turkeys, and take our binoculars along for sighting the big buck that seems to call our little piece of heaven home. 

Things are a-changing in Kansas, much as they've changed here at home.  Mark's mom is closer to a move from the old farmhouse to a duplex at the retirement village in town.  It's something she's needed to do for awhile, so I will cherish each and every visit left in that drafty old abode.  There are a million memories there, and I've been a part of them for almost 25 years.  I've watched wild turkeys strut across their back yard, listened to coyotes with their mournful howls many a night. We told Mark's parents they were going to be first-time grandparents in that house.  I've been speechless, standing in her front yard, as I witnessed my first real look at the Milky Way.  Talk about feeling miniscule and insignificant...I've seen many examples of the grandeur and beauty of God's creation in my 48 years, but looking at that Milky Way ranks up in the top 3, right along with the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. 

I've been so cold in the upstairs of that house that I began packing along my own personal electric blanket.  Sleeping in thermal undies helps, too.  I will never forget the morning, years before the birth of the Howell boys, that I found my antiperspirant frozen, yes frozen, on the dresser.  But there's just somethiing about that house.  It's been in the Howell family for over a 100 years.  It needs alot of work.  But it has character, and my sentimental husband was determined to renovate it enough that his city-girl wife would live in it for a couple of years, until we decided where to build our dream house.

The dream house, along with other great & wondrous plans we had in the works, will have to wait.  I'm not sure what form that house will take, but I do know that there will be a house of some sort on our land.  Andrew and Ben are connected to that land, they always will be.  It is my mission to make sure they can fish in the pond, hunt in the pasture, play basketball in the barn loft, and remember how great their daddy was. 

Today, I was a part of another meaningful church service.  The sermon was spot-on, the fellowship with my church family was lovely, and my first communion since losing Mark was painful yet beautiful.  I now fully realize that whenever I am taking communion, the saints are there with us.  I felt Mark so very close, I could've reached out and touched him.  Thank you, Jesus, for making that possible.  For giving us hope beyond this sometimes-tedious and mundane life.  For encouraging us to make the most of each day, so that whenever we do go to our heavenly reward, we leave the world behind a better place.

An afternoon service at the hospital chapel, honoring & remembering those who passed away there during the last quarter, was also a bit difficult.  It was the first time I've stepped back into that hospital since losing Mark.  The last time I was in the chapel, I was with our two sons, praying without ceasing that God would heal him.  I can still picture those boys, wrapped up in the prayer shawls given to us by our church family, praying.  Ben even filled out a prayer request and submitted it to the chaplain, triggering a hospital-wide prayer chain for Mark Howell. 

The chaplain gave a short message, based on scripture from Ecclesiastes.  It's familiar scripture, quoted at many funerals.  But he put a different spin on it.  Ecc. 3:4 says there's "a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance."  He told us that when we lost our loved ones, it was a different season.  I remember that summer season, 100 days of 100 degrees, who could forget it?  But now, we're in a new season.  A season of cooler temps, greener grass, and needed moisture.  Our time to mourn is taking a different shape.  I, for one, am feeling more normal, at least my new normal.  I can look ahead and see that we three are going to make it.  It's not easy, and we miss Mark terribly, but we can also laugh without feeling guilty.  I can also dance with my sons in our living room, and have done so on many occasions. 

Life doesn't stop whenever you lose a loved one.  For better or worse, the sun keeps shining, the hours keep ticking by, and my kids keep growing by leaps and bounds.  We continue to live.  We continue to laugh.  We continue to embrace the great things life has to offer.  We look ahead, assured that God has a good future in store for us, plans to prosper us, not to harm us.  And we are ready to grab hold of those opportunities as they present themselves to us.  'Cause Mark would want that.  He wants us to be whole, and happy, and to grab life by the tail like he did. 

I'm weeping, laughing, mourning, and dancing...sometimes all at once.  And that's okay. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Daily tasks require daily prayer....

Today, I miss Mark.  I miss him every day, all the time...but today, I especially missed his physical presence early this morning.  Both boys were sick yesterday, but I was fine.  Today, well, today was a different story.  I awoke with a pounding headache & upset stomach, the same symptoms of the boys.  Ben was also still ill.  Whenever Mark was here, on the rare occasion that I was sick, he'd jump out of bed, get the boys ready, and take them to school.  All I had to do, basically, was curl up in the warm bed he'd vacated until I felt better.  I didn't have that luxury today.

So, I dragged myself out of the bed and awoke the boys.  One was fine to return to school, one was not.  It was all I could do to get on shoes and a jacket, find my glasses, and drive Andrew to Milam.  Thankfully, after a couple of hours, I feel much better.  Headache's almost gone, and I've survived by ingesting 1 1/2 cups of coffee. 

Trying to take care of mundane tasks is sometimes maddening.  These tasks are a necessary evil in the daily schedule of life.  Again, I'm used to sharing these tasks; now there's no one to share them with.  The "to-do" list for today includes updating my GPS with lifetime maps---I will be taking Mom to Love Field on Monday, she's heading back to Kentucky after a great visit.  The boys & I will also be travelling to Kansas for the first time since Mark's burial for Thanksgiving, and I feel more comfortable navigating alone with the device.  Let's just say the installation hasn't gone as planned, but it looks like it will finally be successful. 

Another task is looking for a roadside assistance plan for our vehicles.  This is something else I never worried about with a big strong man around, but now the thought of being possibly stranded on the side of the interstate or desolate country road is a bit unsettling to me.  So, I'm spending copious amounts of time researching the best deal for the money.  If any of my dear friends reading this have suggestions, I would love to hear them.

I have taken care of a couple of "Mark things" this week that I am proud of.  Andrew had his first basketball practice of the season Monday evening, which I was dreading because Mark has always been his coach in some capacity.  Practice was changed from the nearby YMCA to the downtown one, which is more inconvenient for us, location-wise.  As I muttered about that, it dawned on me that God, yet again, was taking care of us.  It would've been 1000 times harder to take A.J. into the old practice facility, where all those memories were made, but the downtown Y was new to us both.  He practically bounded into the gym, and that boy was hitting nothing-but-net all practice.  He told me that his dad was there with him, and I believe him.  This year, his age bracket will play full court, with 10 foot goals, and full-court presses will be allowed.  Talk about "taking it up a notch" (a Mark Howell-ism)! 

Our basketball goal is adjustable (set at 8 foot), and, of course, something I've never had to work with.  I made it my mission Tuesday to figure out how to raise that bad boy to regulation level.  First, I needed a stepladder.  Mark was always the "Herb" to our next door neighbor's "Dagwood" whenever it came to borrowing needed tools, but unfortunately "Dagwood" decided he didn't want to be married to his beautiful wife of almost 23 years anymore, and moved out, along with all of his neat tools.  Without a ladder to borrow, I hopped in the truck & purchased one.  With a little help from my mom, who wielded a rake to hold the 100 lb goal in place while I secured it, I was successful with the height change. Although that was a small thing, it seemed huge to me as I put away my tools & my new green fiberglass stepladder. 

I also mowed the entire yard for the first time since Mark's death.  That, too, might seem like a small thing, but considering we have about a half acre, that's alot, if you're push-mowing.  We have a riding lawn mower, but I've never attempted to crank it.  Heck, I don't even know where the key is that starts it!  Next spring, I'll get some nice young man to show me how to operate it, but for this fall, I'm pushing.  Used the weed eater, treated fire ants, and kept the dog at bay while doing it.  Another mission accomplished.

I never thought I'd be doing these things.  My daddy told Mark before we married that he never taught me how to mow, because "mowing was man's work"....and that was fine with him, although I never minded push mowing the front yard whenever he was too busy to do it.  Adjusting a basketball goal?  Not on my radar before now.  And as the days pass, I know that there will be numerous other items that rear their ugly heads and tell me they need attention. 

There's a chimney that needs to be checked for safety before we have our first fire in the fireplace this season.  There are two bathrooms that need to be remodeled.  There are 4 windows that need replacing in the house.  There's an office full of memories to be emptied and sorted through at TPWD.  There's two holidays coming up quickly that I don't have a clue as to how to face.  And sadly, a Christmas letter to be written that will be the most difficult one I've ever attempted.  My editor and biggest fan won't be here to tell me it's too long or I'm too wordy :)

But through it all, I will try to keep my head up.  I will continue to run.

 As David so vividly writes in Psalm 116:

"I love the Lord, because he listens to my prayers for help.  He paid attention to me, so I will call to him for help as long as I live.  What can I give the Lord for all the good things he has given to me?  I will lift up the cup of salvation, and I will pray to the Lord.  I will give the Lord what I promised in front of all his people.
  The death of one that belongs to the Lord is precious in his sight."
v.1-2, 12-15.  New Century Version

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Answering the tough questions...

It's been a busy two days.  There have been alot of hard questions asked by my boys.  Whenever Mark died, I told them, straight up, that any question that they had about any subject, they could ask me.  In return, I would be as honest and knowledgeable as I could.  And in the event that I didn't know the answer, I'd tell them that, as well, and that we'd find the answer together. 

The first questions from Benny were immediately after Mark's death.  "Do we have to get rid of all his stuff?  Are we going to sell his truck?  Do we have to get a new dad now?"  All three of those were asked in quick, staccato-like sound bytes; to all three, I gave an emphatic "no!"  There have been other questions along the way, most of which I've been able to deal with, a few I've had to utter fast prayers before answering, and we've developed a healthy, open dialogue. 

There's only been one question asked (by Andrew) that I chose to ignore, and he dropped.  It was the dreaded, "What's sex, Mom?" inquiry, made during the stupid World Series, during one of the too-frequent adult men's commercials.  Why...why...why! do those commercials play over and over during sporting events on tv?  And even though they're only 30 seconds long, it seems like an eternity. I dodged the question, but if he'd persisted, we would've talked.  If Mark had been here, he would've jumped into that discussion with both feet.  Since I'm on my own, I made the split-second decision to let sleeping dogs lie, at least this time.  Those talks will come soon enough, I'm afraid.

The most recent set of questions I'm fielding have come up on several occasions, usually while driving, with both boys sitting in the back seat.  They ask me if I think I will ever remarry.  Remarry?  Me?  I've been a widow for less than four months, and my 9 and 8 year old are thinking way down the road.  How do I answer a loaded question like that? 

I tell them that I honestly have no earthly idea.  They know what we had with Mark.  All three of us.  It was great, it was magical, and it was the real deal.  I tell them honestly that I don't know.  If God has it in His plans, I guess we'll just have to wait and see.  Andrew tells me that he doesn't want to grow up without a dad, a male figure in this house.  It breaks my heart.  I tell both of them if it's something they really feel so strongly about, they should pray about it.  That seems to satisfy them, at least for now.

Yesterday, I went clothes shopping for the boys.  Somehow, they had outgrown almost every single piece of fall/winter apparel from last year, so I headed to JC Penney & Old Navy.  At Old Navy, I was browsing and saw a woman I thought I recognized from the boys' school.  I spoke as I walked by, but whenever she turned to face me, it wasn't who I originally thought it was.  Instead of a mom from school, it was one of the ICU caregivers from Mark's July hospital stay.

As soon as I looked into her eyes, I remembered her.  Although she did not directly care for my husband, she cared for me.  She was out in the main area, always ready to talk or console me, to give me encouragement to keep doing what I was doing.  Because what I was doing was hard.  I went from hopeful on Thursday to hopeless on Saturday, as I watched him fight to stay, but slowly slip away.  She, too, had lost a husband at a relatively-young age. 

We small talked for a few minutes, before she looked deep into my eyes and asked how was I really doing?  I told her honestly that we were making it, that it is still hard, but we're living.  That's what Mark would want from us, he would be pissed if we weren't trying to move forward and embrace life and all it has to offer us.  With no hesitation, nor any prompting from me, she said, "You know, he would not want you to be alone.  He was one of the most unselfish people I've been around in that situation, and he & God will help you find someone to share your life with, your boys' lives with, whenever it is time."  Whew.  Now that one came from left field.  At this point, I cannot imagine sharing my life with anyone else!  I'm just now beginning to come around to the bare sad fact that I'm living my life without him, and getting my ducks in a row, making our little family of three plus one up above function on a day-to-day basis. 

She told me that she grieved the loss of her first husband greatly, he died in the car on the way home from the hospital after bypass surgery.  She visited the cemetery every day for a year after he died.  After a bit more conversation, she introduced me to her current husband, whom she clearly loves deeply. 

I don't know why I ran into her at Old Navy.  I just know that she made me feel better about my life.  Better about my current choices.  And as I ponder in my heart the questions my boys ask me frequently about our future, I will tuck away her advice for now.  My dreams, my hopes, and my plans for Mark Howell's sons and me are not written in stone anymore.  We have to trust God to write the script, and faithfully follow along.

As the old gospel song goes, "Many things about tomorrow, I don't seem to understand.  But I know Who holds tomorrow, and I know Who holds my hand."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Saints are all around us....

A confession...I've been dreading today.  Today was the annual Remembrance of Saints service at our church.  I've known it was coming for weeks.  Had to send the church a photo of Mark to be used during the service, all members who have died during the last year were honored as saints.  Their names were to be read as a family member placed a rose in a vase at the front of the church. 

I prepared the boys the best I could, we talked about it, and had a balloon release on All Saint's Day in their daddy's honor.  It was a poignant, fun, sad time, but we made it through. 

But who was preparing me for today? 

As I went to the room where approximately 20 or so families were waiting, all of them representing a loved one they and Floral Heights UMC had lost, I prayed a quick prayer for God to help me get through this.  We got our directions and headed to the back of the church, where we walked down to reserved seating near the front of the sanctuary.  Imagine my surprise as I heard handbells as I walked to my pew.  There, in front of me, were the Wesley Ringers, the youth handbell choir.  Two of those members are mine and Mark's hearts walking around on the outside of us...yes, Andrew Joseph & Benjamin Wallace, dressed in their cobalt blue choir robes, were playing the prelude for me.  My tears, which had already been flowing and dried at least 3 times prior to now, flowed freely once again.

I felt so fortunate to have friends on either side of me, we processed alphabetically.  As the remembrance service began, a photo of each saint flashed up on the wall behind the choir.  Every photo looked like a professional one, not that there's anything wrong with that, a photo from a family portrait or church directory.  Not Mark Howell's!  He was in motion, the way he always lived, in his t-ball coaching jersey, walking in our backyard.  Andrew chose the photo, and I cropped him out to use it.  You see, wherever Mark was, his boys were always pretty close by.  I have very few photos of Mark alone.  I have even fewer photos of Mark alone, posing or doing nothing. 

As I put the rose in the vase, I glanced at his two sons, sitting near the front.  They both gave me a knowing smile, and I felt better. 

I felt better until we stood to sing the morning prayer response, my husband's favorite hymn, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past!"  Then I watches as my sons joined their choir, the high school choir, and chancel choir for a combined anthem that was simply beautiful, simply perfect for this day.  There they stood, front and center, side by side, singing with great enthusiasm, "Deep, Deep Love."  I don't know what I did more of, smiling or crying during that song.  For I could see both of us in their faces, but most importantly, I saw the face of God. 

After the service, we headed for home.  Before losing Mark, I had never experienced deep emotional fatigue, the kind of fatigue that is more encompassing than the fatigue I felt after running 13.1 miles in Oklahoma City in May.  Now I know that level of fatigue.  It's like I'm running a full marathon now, no longer training for a fun run.  It takes dedication.  It takes training.  It takes everything I've got inside of me.  

I'm not running just for me, I'm running for our sons.  I'm running in remembrance of an awesome husband and daddy.  I'm running to be both mommy and daddy, provider and head of household, chief cook and bottlewasher, spiritual guide, sometimes-drill sergeant, and everything else under the sun. 

So, imagine my surprise as I open my Bible tonight, in search of some prophetic message to spur me forward, to help me put my grumpiness and fatigue aside.

  It opens to Hebrews, chapter 12: 
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (SAINTS, including Mark Howell!), let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart."
 verses 1-3, NIV

Well, that settles that.  Even a left handed girl from Western Kentucky can figure this one out.  Out of all the things I could've read in the Bible tonight, I read this passage.  Just what I needed.  Just in time.   I'm going to crawl out of this bed, put on my clothes, take my boys and mom to Chuck E. Cheese for a little boy-fueled R&R.  Shucks, if we're surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, there's nothing we can't do.  The race just got put into perspective for me.  Thanks, God.  Thanks, saints.....thanks Mark :)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Sing like no one's listening.....

Ben had a PTA program at his school last evening.  Another "first" for us to get through without Mark.  It was a mini-musical about "Stone Soup", and even though he thought it was "babyish," his mom and grandma thought it was wonderful.  There's just something about a large group of children singing on key :)   As I was video-ing portions of it, I had to stop to remember that this was something Mark was seeing first-hand from his vantage point, in the past whenever he'd be out of town, I would video it for him to watch whenever he returned.  Ben sang out like an angel through most of it, and told me later that he "was the best singer" on his side of the room. 

Mark loved to sing.  He would sing at the drop of a hat.  He would sing without abandon, loudly and enthusiastically.  He sang like he lived life, without any hesitation, reservations, or regret.  Some of my earliest memories of our dating days revolve around his singing loudly to whatever classic rock song was playing while we were driving somewhere.  In our B.C. (before children) days, there would be plenty of opportunity to listen to either the radio or cassettes or cds while travelling to either Kansas or Kentucky to visit family.  He would always pretend he had a microphone in one hand, while driving with the other.  At specific times during the song, he'd take the invisible mic and stick it under my nose, while I was minding my own business in the passenger seat.  "Inside the box" personality that I have, more often than not I would just shrug my shoulders, shake my head, and point 'the mic' back at his face.  How he longed for me to just burst into song, right along with him!  Looking back, I wish I had left my self-consciousness at the curb more often, and just rocked along with him.  He relished the times that I did. 

He was the perfect complement to my "way-A" type personality.  He urged me to take chances.  I was not (am not) a risk taker.  But in him, I saw the most perfect combination of a responsible, hard-working adult that didn't take himself too seriously.  He was always up for fun and trying new things.  I'd like to think he broadened my horizons, although he never thought I stepped outside the box often enough.

At bedtime last night, I was worn out.  So much so that we all were in bed shortly after 9pm.  I snuggled Andrew for a short while before kissing him and closing his bedroom door.  Just as I was drifting off to a much-needed full night of sleep, I felt him at my bedside.  Crying, he told me, "Mom, I'm really missing Dad."  I pulled him into the bed beside me, cradling him in my arms.  "I really miss being able to talk to him," he said.  Man, can I ever identify with that statement.  I told him that's the thing I miss most about him, too.  Because I could talk to Mark about anything.  Then I told A.J. that he could still talk to his daddy, and if he listened really closely, that his daddy would talk back to him.  I think in the stillness of the night, before sleep comes, is the best time to talk to both God and his daddy. 

He asked me to come back to his bed and lay with him.  Off we went.  As I rubbed his back and dried his tears, I felt both helpless and helpful.  Helpless that I could not bring his daddy back, but helpful in the sense that I could be there for him, a physical, tangible presence that could express a deep love.  I ended up falling asleep with him for awhile, then finally made it back to my bed at some point during the night.  So much for a good night's, I've decided that sleep is overrated. 

As I drove his truck home this morning after taking the boys to school, I felt overwhelmed again to be without him.  Then a still, not-so-small voice tells me, "I am with you.  I am with you.  I am with you!"  And I am reminded, for the millionth or so time that God has not let go of my hand.  So, I turn up the radio, listening to the contemporary Christian station, and sing without abandon into an invisible microphone,

♪"If you're scared that you don't matter...If you're lost and need to be found.....If  you're looking for a Savior.....All you gotta do is turn around"♪


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Are you Mark Howell's Wife?.....

Today has been hard.  I started out crying, as I awakened to a song that reminded me of Mark.  Lying there in the darkness, on my side of our big bed, I cried for all the dreams we had as a family.  I cried because I miss him snoring beside me.  I miss his laugh, his great, strong hugs, and the way he filled a room with that gregarious, infectious personality.  His sons need him. 

But since they can't have him here physically, it means I have to be I wake the boys as another school day awaits us.  Andrew notices that I've been crying and knows why.  Ben, thankfully, was a bit too sleepy to see my red eyes and drippy nose. 

Ben still insists that I park the vehicle and walk him to class. I don't mind, and it's funny....before Mark died, I probably wouldn't have gone into the school sans makeup, but now, I just throw on my running clothes, slap a ballcap on my head, and I'm on my way.  I do make sure that I match, so I haven't totally abandoned my formerly-vain self :)

Speaking of running, I put in another 3.4 miles.  Cried some more.  I've learned to tuck a few tissues into my fanny pack.  Somedays I don't need them, but today, boy, did I ever!  My mix of music, which I've eased back into listening to, is about 300 songs.  They randomly play, with no apparent rhyme or reason.  During my last 5 runs, I've heard the same 2 songs at some point on the trail.  They are:  "Dust in the Wind" by Kansas, and "I Am" by Bon Jovi.  Kansas was really Mark's all-time favorite group, and those of you who know he's a Kansan through and through will understand.  But the words!  Oh my goodness, those words and the haunting melody mean so much more to me now that he's gone:

I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment's gone
All my dreams, pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind
Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do, crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see

Dust in the wind, All we are is dust in the wind

Don't hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away, all your money won't another minute buy

Dust in the wind, All we are is dust in the wind 

And the other, by BonJovi?  It's been our special song for the past few years.  Mark never much cared for my cd selection whenever he would drive my car.  Imagine that, a man that doesn't particularly enjoy listening to Pink or Katy Perry.  Thankfully, he found Bon Jovi's cd, Have a Nice Day, and liked it.  "I Am" is beautiful.  Here are the lyrics:

How you spend your minutes are what matters
All tomorrows come from yesterday's
When you're feeling broke and bruised and sometimes shattered
Blew out the candles on the cake like everything's a big mistake
It seems you always wait for life to happen
And your last buck can't buy a lucky break
If all we've got is us then lifes worth living
And if you're in, you know I'm in
I'm ready and I'm willing

I Am
When you think that no-one needs you
Sees you or believes you
No ones there to understand
I Am
I'll be there to be that someone
When you think that no one, is there to hold your hand
I Am

We're just who we are, there's no pretending
It takes a while to learn to live in your own skin
Say a prayer that we might find our happy ending
And if you're in, you know I'm in
I'm ready and I'm willing


And I aint got no halo hanging over my head
I aint gonna judge you, I'm just here to love you
I Am
I Am

There's actually one other one that seems to keep re-playing, as well, but I will save that one and see what comes of it.  I came home from the trail all cried out, but content.

Mark and I moved to Wichita Falls in 1992.  We knew no one here at that time.  New town, new neighbors, new church, new jobs, new everything.  He jumped in, headfirst, and got involved immediately in city and community work, using his job as a foundation for life-long relationships.  And he was very good at it.  A couple of years after we moved here, he came home and sheepishly said, "Honey, folks are starting to recognize me whenever I'm out and about in town." I laughed.  My reply?  "You're full of you-know-what.  There's no way people are recognizing you this soon after moving to town!" But he insisted, saying residents were, indeed, doing so.  I still didn't believe him. 

A few weeks later, we were at a gas station.  He was outside, filling the tank, while I sat in the passenger's seat.  As God as my witness, the guy filling up his truck next to us looked at Mark and said, "Say, aren't you Mark Howell???"  The look on Mark's face as he glanced at me was priceless....he beamed that magnificent smile, and replied, "Why yes I am...and you are?"  Man, did I ever take alot of teasing for not believing him.  And, of course, as the years passed, more and more people recognized him.  He was on television often, and had his weekly outdoor column with the local paper for the past 6 years. 

Fast foward to today.  I took the boys to church for choir and handbell practice, then headed to JC Penney for a little shopping therapy.  An older lady working there was straightening sweaters, and I greeted her as I was looking around.  She was so pleasant and sweet, we began discussing sales and the upcoming holidays.  Whenever she mentioned Thanksgiving, I mentioned that I was dreading the holidays since losing my husband at the end of July.  She stopped in her tracks, quizzically looked at me and said, "Are you Mark Howell's wife?"  And I replied, "Why yes I am."

She told me how she read his weekly columns.  Of how sad she was whenever she learned of his death.  While reading his obit she asked God why did He have to take him away from his young sons, his wife, and his community that he was doing so much for.  She told of how she's now following my weekly musings and enjoying them.  We talked for a few more minutes, I encouraged her to join the Texas Master Naturalists group, which he began, and we exchanged goodbyes.

As I crawled into my car to head back to church, I was overcome with a mixture of amazement, sadness, and thankfulness.  Amazed that I had been recognized, only a mere two months after beginning my paper writing.  Sad that Mark wasn't here to be proudly beaming about it.  And thankful that I had been given the opportunity to continue his work, even in some small way, in this community.  God continues to give me exactly what I need, when I need it.  I needed that moment in Penney's today. 

I vowed in that car this afternoon that I will try to do more of what he would've continued in this community if he had lived.  I've applied for one of the vacant positions on the city's Park Board.  He served on it for more than one term, and I hope to get the opportunity to serve, as well.  I will continue to write for the paper as long as they'll put up with me.  I've been invited to go out on the water with his crew, for trap netting and electrofishing. 

There are other ideas I have, floating around in this sometimes-foggy brain, and we'll see where God leads me.  Mark left some awfully big shoes to fill, but the path he laid out and walked is crystal clear.  I just need the faith to follow it, put my own spin on it, and continue his work.  Mark believed I could do anything, he told me that on a regular basis.  And you know what?  I'm finally beginning to believe it myself. 

Stay tuned.  This could be the start of something.....


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Celebrating "Saint Daddy".....

Took advantage of the first All Saints' Day after losing Mark by celebrating and remembering.  You know, in all my years on this earth, I never really took notice of this most holy holiday.....guess up until now, it didn't really strike a chord with me.  But today was different.  An email from a dear friend here in Wichita Falls with All Saints' sentiments, coupled with two facebook messages, one from a high school classmate I just re-connected with in July, the other from a local friend who has just lost her father, all spoke to me, albeit in different ways.  Two of the three friends have known Mark personally; the other has never met him.  All  three know the impact this good man has had on both our Howell, family of three, and the greater community. 

One has lost a son to tragic circumstances & can identify with my grief journey.  Another has had her share of trials in life, and knows that my husband loved her and her sons mightily.  The third, who just lost her daddy, tells me that from reading my blog and posts, she feels that she can go on, that the grief doesn't have to define who she is. 

I feel blessed to call all three of these women friends. All three are from different phases of my life; if you stood us all side-by-side, you might not see our similarities with the naked eye.  Yet, on a spiritual level, we are all sisters in Christ.  We share a bond that can never be broken and will always keep us connected.  Whether you've lost a best friend and spouse, a child, a daddy, or dreams & relationships, you grieve.  Each path is different, just as each person is.  But the God of us all never lets go of our hand, even through the valley of the shadow of death, through circumstances that we think that we can never process. 

One told of a balloon release done in honor of her son, and that option had already crossed my mind today.  Her suggestion reinforced my decision, and I took it as a sign from above to move forward with my original plan.  Sunday, 11/6, our church will honor those members who have died this past year, and we'll place a rose at the altar in Mark's memory.  What better way to prepare our boys for that ceremony than to make today a celebration of their daddy's life?  Balloons are fun and festive, and the boys were all for it.  We talked about what a saint was, and they both agreed that Mark was a new saint and deserved a special ceremony to initiate him into the "club."  I brought home beautiful purple and white balloons, and we traipsed to our big backyard.  One by one, we took turns, holding a balloon in our hands, as we talked to our daddy and husband.  My mom even took a turn.  I loved hearing the boys talk to their daddy, their love and faith is so pure, yet so simple.  How I pray for the level of faith they have!  Sure, there were a few tears...but the smiles and laughs far outnumbered them. 

It's impossible to remember my husband without smiling---forget that, if you knew him at all, you'd be laughing!  He lived life to the fullest, with gusto, and love, fun, and humor.  He may not have lived long enough, years-wise, but he put more living into 55 years than most folks do if they live to see 100. 

So we laughed through our tears as the balloons sailed away, confident that we'd done Daddy proud.  Now, our sons are more prepared for the Sunday service, and for a service to be held in a couple of weeks at the chapel of the hospital where Mark died. 

I know that Mark's in great company, up with the rest of the saints, keeping a good watch over loved ones.  I know that he is close by, because I can feel him.  I know that I will see him once again someday.  And I know that he is proud of us and the decisions we are making.  It makes life bearable.  It keeps me honest.  It keeps me praying.  It keeps me smiling and looking upward. And it keeps me going.

Christmas, 2012

Christmas, 2012