Saturday, December 31, 2011

Here's to 2012....

Dear Andrew and Benjamin,

It's December 31, 2011.  Last day of the year.  Thought I'd take this opportunity to try to put into words my love and thoughts as I look back over our year, and look forward in anticipation to a new year with you two, my most precious sons.

We started 2011 as a normal, happy-go-lucky family of four.  Little did we know what God had in store for us.  Looking back, it was a good thing that we didn't know what was coming.  There's nothing that could have prepared us for the tail-spin we began on July way to have grasped the finality or the futility it would cause.  I had exactly 16 hours on that day, July 30, to tell your daddy that we would be okay if he had to go; 16 hours to pray without ceasing, talk to him, sing to him, caress him, as he drifted off and let Jesus take him by the hand a little before midnight.  I left nothing unsaid.  I left nothing to chance.  And in that horrible, no-good, terrible day, I watched the love of my life, the best daddy you could ever hope for, go on to his heavenly reward...way too quickly for the three of us, that's for sure.  I'm guessing his Grandma Yoder and your Papaw came with Jesus to get him.

Nothing I can do or say can ever bring your daddy back.  I remember telling you soon after his death that I would "give anything" I had to get him back.  And you, Ben, said, "Even us?!?"  That hit me square between the, sweet Ben, I would give my life for either of you boys, and that was just an expression.  He's gone physically, but not spiritually.  All three of us have had numerous encounters with him, we know without a doubt that he is close by.  We see him in the beauty of the sunset, the honking of Canada geese as they fly too close overhead, heading to Lake Wichita, the stillness we experience right before we drift off to sleep....he is here. 

It's been five months since we lost him.  Sometimes it seems like five years, other instances it seems like five minutes.  The process of grief is tricky;  just when you think you may have a grasp on it, and things seem to get back on a somewhat-normal keel, it sneaks up and hits you on the back of the head, and you are transported back to a place where all you can do is cry out for God to help you. 

My promise to him, to keep you in as normal a routine as possible, has for the most part been successful.  You're doing well in school.  You are thriving.  At times, you can talk about him without crying; we are beginning to laugh more and more, especially whenever we start to swap stories about him.   I have a thousand of them that you haven't had the chance to hear yet.  And believe me, there are some doozies.  If there was one adjective I could use to describe your daddy, it would be "fun".  He was the most fun person I ever had the privilege of knowing.  I see that fun in both of you.  It's what keeps me going sometimes, knowing that no matter what our future holds, that a big old piece of him is walking around this earth in each of you.  You are our greatest accomplishment and greatest blessing.

As we look back, I see a year filled with good things.  Maybe the concentration of our good things was greater prior to July 30th, but since July 30th, there have still been good times.  We have seen grace and faith in action with the love of our families and friends as they pray daily for us.  Folks have contacted us, telling stories of how your daddy influenced them, changed their perspective on things, or even encouraged them to begin a new career.  He made a difference while on this earth!  We can only hope to do the same.

We made it through the holidays.  Thanksgiving was so tough, I was really dreading Christmas.  But by the grace of God, we survived.  And survived rather well, considering the circumstances.  I've had a peace and a calm come over me, ever since Christmas Eve, and I'm taking it and running with it for as long as it lasts.  For the first time since losing Daddy, I am looking forward to our future.  And what great timing, huh?  Right as a new year begins to dawn. 

We spent the afternoon doing another "first" today...something that I think we will remember for the rest of our lives....we took our shotguns, our bb gun, and went shooting.

 Andrew, the look on your face as you hit your first clay is a snapshot in my mind that I will not ever forget.  Whenever you relaxed in the chair at the range, and exclaimed, "Mom, I'm going to love hunting just as much as Dad did!" I saw him in your expression.

And Ben, the bb gun is a great learning tool for you....just as Dad taught Andrew, you will learn how to handle the old Red Ryder, and, if you're still game, for your 10th birthday you, too, will receive a shotgun.


I was so proud I could burst as I watched both of you.  As hard as the past 5 months have been, this afternoon was sweet beyond words.  It's the circle of life (sorry for the cliche).  We're all in this together, and if shooting shotguns and hunting is what we want to do, then by golly, we'll do it.  We all felt Dad there as we laughed and shot clays and remembered how he loved getting outdoors.  And we are continuing what he loved by doing what we love.  How perfect is that?

So, as I tuck you both into bed tonight, I will say a little extra prayer.  I will pray that 2012 will be a year of love, laughter and fun...full of life experiences that will make us better stewards of this earth, better children of God, and closer as a family.  I know now that we can weather any storm.  And I look forward to our prosperous future, the one God has in His plans for us. I claim it, I expect it, and I will not be satisfied until we achieve it.  For God is good, and even though we do not understand why we're walking this path, we are not on it alone.  And we will continue to thank Him in all circumstances, even now as a family of three.

Happy 2012!  Thank you for loving me and believing in me.  Thank you for overlooking my faults and my missteps as I lead this family into the new year.  I love you both more than anything in this world.  We are going to be just fine. 

Love, Mom

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

No water? Yes, problem.....

I would've never made it in pioneer days.  I like the luxury of turning on a faucet and getting water.  Of filling a washing machine, of running a dishwasher.  I take for granted the flush of a toilet and a good hot shower.  God knew what He was doing, sending me into this world in 1963, so I could take advantage of all the modern conveniences we are witness to in this, the 21st century. 

I tell myself that all of the years of good clean living and getting myself off the couch a couple of years ago to begin running prepared me for the trials and tests I've been in since losing Mark at the end of July.  Physically, I'm stronger and in better shape than I've ever been in my life; spiritually, ditto. 

But, I digress.  Nope, never would've made it in "olden times."  Case in point:  today, I have no running water.  Oh, I had running water earlier, running down my driveway & down the cul-de-sac.  Called the city, they came to check it out.  The problem is on my side of the sidewalk, which means I have a plumber coming tomorrow at some point to dig up my front yard.  In the meantime, no water.  Had Andrew fill a bathtub this morning, just in case this came to pass. 

That water wasn't enough for our needs, so I went over to the neighbor's house with two 5 gallon buckets, and began filling them.  Fill two buckets, dump them in the tub.  Fill two more, put some in the kitchen, some in the sink, go back for more.  Two five-gallon buckets filled with water are heavy!  It made me glad that I lift weights. 

As I was walking across the lawn, hefting the filled buckets, scripture kept running through my mind.  About the Samaritan woman, going to get water at high noon, so she wouldn't have to run into anyone she knew.  Jesus asked her for a drink, and told her He could give her living water, so she'd never again thirst.  He says, "Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst-not ever, the water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life." (The Message, John 4:14)

I love this translation, especially the part about it being an "artesian" spring.  Artesian means that the spring is made by boring into the earth (person) until it reaches water (the desired product--soul?), which, due to the internal pressure, the depth of the well, and the small diameter, makes it flow spontaneously, like a huge fountain.  It never ends!  This fountain of unending living water is what I desire.  It's what keeps me "hydrated" on my daily journey.

As I sit, without a shower (I know, probably "TMI" for many of you), dirty dishes piled in my sink, two loads of laundry that need to be washed, and plants that need watering, it hits me square between the eyes.  I take running water for granted.  It's always there.  Am  I also guilty of taking Jesus' living water for granted, as well?  Yep, probably...  I think this is a lesson.   Point taken, God, I get it.  I will do better about being thankful for literal water and for Your spiritual water. 

Now, please, help me get my literal water running back into my home tomorrow...because even though my two boys love not showering for a day or two, I do not.  Amen.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas, Andrew's birthday, silver linings & blue skies...

We did it....made it through Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Andrew's 10th birthday (12/24 thru 12/26) relatively unscathed and whole.  The most tears shed were during our church's Christmas Eve services...those beautiful carols have moved me every year since 2001, when I was 9 months pregnant with Andrew.  But this year, as I listened to our chancel choir singing acapella in the narthex before processing down the aisle, it was different.  I imagined Mark getting to hear that kind of beautiful music any time he wants from his heavenly vantage point.  And knowing how much he loved to sing, I had a bit of trouble getting through a couple of his favorites with the congregation. 

Precious friends offered hugs and encouraging words after the services, and the boys & I headed home.  It was late, around 10:30 whenever we finally made it into our pajamas.  Both boys requested that we read "T'was the Night Before Christmas," the stand-by favorite, a Howell tradition since Mark was a little boy.  Mark's dad read it to them, and Mark had continued the tradition with Andrew and Ben. I wondered if it would be something they would want to keep doing, even in his absence.  It was.  As we all nestled into his big ole recliner (he requested the bigger one, just so he & "his boys" could all fit into it), Ben suggested we take turns reading a page each.  So, with a boy under each arm, we snuggled up and read the old familiar verses.  A Howell family tradition with a new twist.  I think we've found another love of Mark's to continue in our smaller family.

Christmas morning was good, with the boys getting way too much stuff.  I will do better next year, Lord, I promise.  Without Mark around, I wanted them to have enough "things" to keep them occupied.  I succeeded.  They proclaimed that they were in Christmas "heaven" and we had alot of fun, in spite of the glaring absence of the one who loved Christmas more than any of us. 

We spent lunch with our Texas family, the Collins'.  Too much food, many smiles, few tears, as we gathered for the blessing before the meal.  The boys and I led with our traditional family blessing, one Mark learned as an elementary school kid in central Kansas...."For food and drink and happy days, accept our gratitude and praise.  In serving others, Lord, may we, express our thankfulness to thee." 

Finished off the day by going to the movies.  We had good intentions of seeing "War Horse" with a friend.  Unfortunately, many others had the same idea.  As I was 3 people away from buying tickets, the showing sold out.  Disappointed boys begged to see another movie, since we were already there.  "We Bought a Zoo," although appropriate, looked too sad for us (widower father with kids), so I took a leap of faith and purchased tickets for "Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol".  I wanted to see it, anyway; made the boys promise if there were inappropriate portions, that I could cover their eyes.

It was fantastic, an exciting action-packed adventure from start to finish.  Other than a couple of inappropriate words (didn't know boys could laugh so loud and hard at those!), it was the perfect choice to end our Christmas day.

Andrew's 10 birthday, our other "first," was the 26th.  I lovingly wrapped the Remington 20 gauge shotgun in the most festive "Happy Birthday" wrapping paper I could find.  A Madden NFL 12 xbox game, 4 boxes of target-load shells, targets, protective eyewear, and a camo gun case completed the presents.  He carefully opened the box, the shape and heft of the packaging, of course, gave the contents away well before tearing off the paper.  His eyes grew larger, and I swear there was a tear or two there.  He knew his daddy had given me specifics on what to buy for him, while so sick in the hospital.  The gift was truly from him, I just bought it.  We discussed safety again, as I showed him the safety location.  His reply?  "Mom, you know there are two safetys on this gun.."  and I looked quizzically at him...."the other safety is me."  Hunter Ed course, you did your job.

After a trip to Buffalo Wild Wings and too much chocolate cake, we went to bed.  He received several calls from Nanas, aunts and uncles.  He told all of them that he'd had a "wonderful" day. 

And we did have a wonderful day.  I'm at a loss to explain it.  After such a heart-wrenching, emotionally-draining Thanksgiving, I was sure dreading Christmas.  So much so that I ran away for a week before, all the way to Disney World.  But after our Christmas Eve service at church, I had a calm come over me.  A peace, actually, that I have not had since before Mark's death.  A peace that assures me that we are okay.  A calm that has allowed me to be happy and content. 

I'm almost afraid to write this, because I'm worried that this is just a phase of some sort, that tomorrow I will wake up and be thrown back into the hopelessness and turmoil that has dominated my life since the end of July....but I think I have turned a corner.  Not a big corner, mind you, but a corner nonetheless.  I am more sure of myself, I have a peace about our circumstances, I feel ready to move forward.  I am looking with anticipation to our future, my future.  I've been holding onto that verse from Jeremiah 29:11 since July 30th, and I finally feel it unfolding. 

Mark wants me to live.  He wants us to embrace life, move forward, and make the most of each day God gives us.  "Living like Daddy" has a whole new meaning for me.  My boys have faith in me to accomplish anything, and God is giving me the strength and grace to do what needs to be done as the head of this household. 

My outlook?  Good.  I miss that man terribly, always will.  But I will honor him by living.  And his boys are just the icing on my cake.  Thank you, God, for helping me see the silver lining in these dark clouds that have been hovering over us. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

♪Sweet Little Jesus Boy♪

As Christmas Eve services approach, I am more reflective this year than at any other time I can remember in my life.  Guess that's only rightly so, considering the whirlwind-y, roller coaster ride I've been on the past 5 months.  Amazing that a person can think that their whole life is planned out...a picture-perfect marriage (no joke, we really were as happy as we looked!), two great kids, jobs that we loved, a legacy of land in Kansas to retire to in under two years.  We had a perfect year, right up until Mark's surgery on July 25, but on the 30th, three lives were forever changed.

Plans are now up in the air.  For now, we are residents of Wichita Falls.  We are surrounded by amazing Christian friends and church family that lift us up daily in prayer and include us in their lives.  I've retired, content to be as good of a parent as I can, to give all the love I can muster to Andrew and Benjamin.  I've grown to love writing the outdoor column for our local paper.  What began as something I wanted to continue because of Mark, has become my own, and for that, I am so grateful.  Writing it has become a task that I no longer dread, but look forward to.  Positive responses continue to come in, and I think the Sports section each Thursday is gaining new readers (mostly female) who look in to see what I'm up to.

And I'm up to alot.  Promising Mark that my priority would be his sons, I've jumped into outdoor activities with both feet.  I have a renewed sense of what's important.  Life is short.  Everytime I would mention something to him that we could do (vacation, purchasing a r/v, etc., etc.), he would reply, "Why don't we just wait, sweetie?  In less than two years, we will be retired and have ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD."  So we waited.  And we put off things.  Now he's gone, and I'm left trying to pick up the pieces and rearrange them into a life without him.

Since July 30th, my boys & I have worked to develop a new life philosophy.....we're not going to wait, or put off things that we want to do.  Not a one of us has a promise of tomorrow.  That's why I stopped this crazy roller coaster in Texas, scooped up my boys and "vacated" to Disney World last week.  Some folks may have thought it frivolous, or crazy, or out of line, to take such a fun trip so soon after Mark's death.  But that's exactly WHY we took it.  We needed to remember what fun was, in a place where we could put our anguish and grief aside, even if for a few hours.  And it worked.  I've come back with a renewed sense of who I am, what I need, and am more at peace about our family and life in general.

The old song that's running thru my head today is "Sweet Little Jesus Boy"....I remember 10 years ago at this time of the year, I was great with child, singing in my church's Christmas Eve services.  And I knew that because of the timing, each and every Christmas after would bring back such sweet lovely memories.  As I sang, I tried to imagine Mary, a young girl, giving birth to my Saviour in a stable.  I was probably 25 years older than she was when she was with child.  My pregnancy culminated in a "Sweet Little Andrew Boy" being born on December 26th, 2001. 

♪Sweet little Jesus boy
They made you be born in a manger
Sweet little holy child
We didn't know who you were
Didn't know you'd come to save us Lord
To take our sins away
Our eyes were blind, we could not see
We didn't know who you were♪

♪Long time ago
You were born
Born in a manger Lord
Sweet little Jesus boy
The world treats you mean Lord
Treats me mean too
But that's how things are down here
We don't know who you are♪

♪You have told us how
We are trying
Master you have shown us how
Even when you were dying
Just seems like we can't do right
Look how we treated you
But please Sir forgive us Lord
We didn't know it was you♪

♪Sweet little Jesus boy
Born a long time ago
Sweet little holy child
We didn't know who you were♪

Now, we know who You are.  You are "I AM." 

Because of that Sweet Little Jesus Boy, I have a constant Companion, Friend, and Shepherd.  Even with Mark in heaven, I am not alone.  Jesus will never let go of mine, Andrew, and Ben's hands.

Merry Christmas dear family and friends, may the peace of our Lord and Savior rule in your hearts.  And in ALL circumstances, be thankful.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Back to reality.....

And so it begins.....we returned home to Texas yesterday, after 7 days of fun-filled adventure at Walt Disney World.  The vacation, I've decided, was more for me than for the boys.  I needed an escape from reality, a chance to leave familiar places full of memories and head to a magical place where I could feel like a kid again, instead of a 48 year old widow mourning the loss of her husband.  Where better to do that than the "happiest place on earth"? 

The escape was a success.  Sure, we still missed Mark.  Heck, he was so much fun, he would've loved every minute of our vacation.  We rode rides, we watched stunt shows.  We relaxed on the beach, built sandcastles.  Watched spectacular fireworks, saw Christmas lights that were designed to dazzle and amaze us.  Disney doesn't do anything half-way, and every place we went was decorated to the hilt, beautiful through and through. 

I'm still finding my way as the head of the household, even almost 5 months after his death.  He was a natural born leader, always ready to forge ahead, not afraid to take the bull by the horns, wade into a sea of people, whether at the airport or at an amusement park or a strange city.  My job, for years, was to hold onto Benny's hand, and walk behind Mark and Andrew, whenever we travelled.  I can picture them in my mind now, so clearly....they have the same walk, the same gait, the same long, lanky legs.  They'd be hand-in-hand, in the lead, with Ben and me following behind, content knowing that Mark had it all figured out. 

This time, it was me in the lead.  Me with the GPS, the multiple Disney World maps, the resort information.  And after a bit of hesitation in the beginning, I took the responsibility and ran with it.  I did okay, although there's still room for improvement.  The best thing was that the boys trust me.  They have faith in me, and that helps my confidence level tremendously.  We might not have gotten to our destinations within the parks as efficiently as Mark would've steered us, but we got there. 

Coming back into the house last night was hard.  Don't know what I was expecting, but the time away was so freeing.  I slept like a baby every night.  I dreamt about Mark almost every night.  I have a renewed sense of knowing that he is right near by, whether we can see him or not.  He's tangible, I can sense him.  He's more alive now than he ever was while in his earthly body.  But, he's not walking with us at Disney World.  He can't take Andrew out hunting on his 10th birthday.  He can't applaud whenever Ben plays beautifully in a piano recital.  He can't talk me through all of my fears about the future. 

Christmas is coming, whether I'm ready for it or not.  We bought a live tree tonight, a new tradition we decided to start.  It's standing in a new spot in our den.  We'll decorate it tomorrow with a mixture of old and new ornaments.  Honestly, I'm not sure what we will do as far as celebrating.  I'm calling it a "quiet" Christmas, as we reflect on what we've lost, but are thankful for what we have.  I'm sure there will be laughter, just as sure as I know there will be more than a few tears.  It's life.  It's our new normal.  And whether we like it or not, it's what we've got. 

This journey, well, it still stinks.  But I'm trying my darndest to make the best of it, our boys deserve fun and joy and laughter and will continue to flourish if I play my cards right....and keep relying on God to carry us through it. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

and a crappie for my fishin' pole....

Whew!  What a weekend.  After an emotionally-trying Friday, we spent Saturday here at the house, not going out for anything.  Andrew kept his pajamas on all day, and we all just puttered around, taking care of things that needed to be done.  Both boys had homework due Monday, since we'll be gone the rest of the week, so that took quite a bit of their time. 

Sunday, today, has been busy and non-stop.  The Christmas cantata at church this morning was amazing!  We are blessed to have so many talented people at our church.  Karen Lamberth always does a wonderful job of coaxing the best out of her musicians.  The elementary level choir and youth choir sang with the chancel choir, accompanied by orchestra and piano.  It was beautiful!  My boys, of course, did good.  I love seeing them all in those royal blue robes with the white collars, they look almost angelic.

We kept the busyness going with Ben's piano recital, he played three pieces.  One was a boogie song, the others, "The Star Spangled Banner" (we all stood) and "The Twelve Days of Christmas".  He did well, his nerves don't seem to affect him (he gets that from his daddy, certainly not from me!).  They continued the fun with a birthday party of Ben's classmate at the local gymnastics sports center, and came home tired and hungry. 

Speaking of the Twelve Days of Christmas, Andrew's main project this weekend was working on his own "book" about the Twelve Days of Christmas in Texas.  Texas-themed items had to be used.  I think he came up with some good ones:
**12 bowls of chili, 11 prairie dogs, 10 wildflowers, 9 mesquite trees, 8 oil pumps, 7 cowboy hats, 6 Texas teams (Stars/Mavs/Rangers/Cowboys/Texans/Astros), 5 Rangers! (Hamilton, Kinsler, Cruz, Young, & Napoli).  4 tumbleweeds, 3 horned toads, 2 cowboy boots, and a crappie on my fishin' pole.....**
The drawings are pretty cute.  I did help a bit with the horned toads. 

I will be taking a vacation from blogging starting Tuesday, I'm ready for a break (and those of you following me may be breathing a sigh of relief).  The boys & I head out of town for a much-needed escape from reality for a few days.  We're going to put "the most magical place on earth" to the real test.  I'll be sure to report on it whenever we return.  I'm hoping we return with a bit more Christmas spirit, refreshed, and more prepared to face Dec 25 and 26 (Christmas/Andrew's 10th birthday) without Mark.

Andrew's birthday gift will be labelled "from Dad" since he told me, while in the hospital in July, that Andrew needed a smaller shotgun for beginning his hunting journey.  I purchased a 20 gauge youth sized one last week.  It made me both happy and sad...happy that I was able to fulfill Mark's wish, but sad he wasn't able to buy it for him.  Maggie the wonder dog heard me checking it, as I pumped it once, and she came running from the back of the yard, sitting at full attention at the back door.  She looked confusingly from the gun to me and back, not quite sure why I was holding a shotgun.  I think she was hoping to see Mark after hearing that old familiar sound. 

We continue to get through these days in large part due to the prayers of many folks.  Thank you for that.  You will never know how much it means to me, and to our boys.  Prayer is a powerful thing.  I am fully convinced it is keeping us moving forward, and I wonder, how do people without good friends, faith and a church family get through something like this?  I'm glad we'll never have to find out.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Basketball and tears....

Saturday morning....cold, cloudy, both boys still tucked in their beds, fast asleep.  We had a tough one yesterday, culminating with AJ's first basketball game without Mark, his coach & biggest fan last night.  I watched 10 boys, running up and down the court with "In memory of Mark Howell" on the back of their jerseys.

I'm still mad that we don't have him anymore. It's not fair that two little boys are without their daddy.  This is hard.  I know I'm not enough.  I can't be enough, but I'm doing the best that I know how to do. 

We're too sad to get Christmas decorations out.  There's a lone wreath on our front door.  Our poor 'elf on the shelf' was too tired one night to go back to the North Pole!  Will we get through this first big holiday or not?

Three friends showed up last night for Andrew's game, they are family to us.  AJ knew they were there.  But losing by one point, and being frustrated at himself for not hitting a couple of easy shots, he wasn't his usual self after the game.  I described his look on facebook as "vacant", and the pain on his face was almost more than I could bear.  It was the pain & realization that he'd just finished his basketball game, and didn't have Mark to walk off the court with.  He didn't have Mark gently telling him that he shouldn't have taken that particular shot, giving him advice, telling him all that he did right during the game.  I tried to hug and comfort him, but I couldn't.  So I gave him space. 

In the car on the way home, he told me that "Dad would've gotten on to me for taking that bad shot!" and I asked him, "Well, what would he have suggested instead?"  "To work for an opening, or pass it to an open man.."  And I replied, "You've answered your own question, Dad's told you what to do.  Next time, you'll remember."

Between the agony of the game and crying non-stop to my counselor for an hour, I was spent by the time we got home.  Laundry needed to be done, we have a big trip coming up in three days, and nothing has been packed yet.  But all I could do is put on my pjs and lay on the couch.  For the first time since Mark's death, I actually went to bed before the boys did.  I could not stay awake any longer. 

They promised they would go to bed no later than 10 pm.  I snuggled down under flannel sheets, in a king sized bed that seems enormous now.  In my half-awake, half-asleep state, I hear them brushing their teeth, getting ready for bed.  Andrew leans down to kiss me, and tells me I'm a great mom, and heads off to his room.  Ben, well, he kisses me, but snuggles into bed beside me (I'm going to have to kick him out, maybe in the spring when it gets warmer).  The cat piles on top of me, settling in for the night.  We pray for strength, for safety, and for healing, then drift off to sleep.

Life, well, life isn't always what you expect.  And this is certainly not what I bargained for.  But it's what I've got.  So, I continue to try to make the best of a really crappy situation.  Some days I do a better job of dealing with the crap than others.  Yesterday was not one of my better ones.  Today, I will strive to do better.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

♪♫ R-E-S-P-E-C-T ♫♪

Respect.  My favorite definition?  "A positive feeling of esteem for a person or other entity; it can be a specific feeling of regard for the actual qualities of the one respected.  To admire one deeply, as a result of their abilities, qualities, or achievements."

I heard that word more than once last night.  Mark's boys and I attended the annual Texas Master Naturalists Rolling Plains chapter Christmas party.  Mark served as chapter advisor and actually began the whole group several years back.  In the beginning, it was a lot of work on his part, getting together lesson plans, scheduling lecturers for the classes, planning activities....and some of that took time away from us.  I ashamedly admit now that, at the time, I resented the extra time it took away from our family.  As the chapter grew, members stepped up and took alot of that from him, and I was so appreciative. 

They do good work, putting in major volunteer hours in many areas of the community, whether cleaning shorelines for wildlife and anglers, to helping sink fish habitat (used Christmas trees & cement blocks) in area lakes, or various other outdoor conservation activities.  Mark was very proud of the group.

But it was hard, walking into that room last night without him.  He loved a party.  He was usually the first to come and among the last to go.  Folks naturally gravitated to him, wherever we might be, he was just outgoing, engaging, and friendly.  Plus he was alot of fun. 

I had several of the chapter members come up to me and tell me how much they thought of him, how much he is missed.  And almost every one of them used that same word...they "respected" him.  That, my friends, is a great testament to that guy's life.  And they didn't respect him necessarily in the way that you respect your elders, or some ancient professor that you must defer to because of his knowledge...he was respected because he lived what he taught.  He had no qualms about telling you exactly what he thought, and could do it with dignity and scientific forethought.  He was fair.  He would give anyone the benefit of a doubt, he would give you the shirt off his back.  He loved sharing his knowledge and views on everything from conservation to hunting to fishing to college football and major league baseball. 

Before meeting him, I'd never known anyone who was always in a good mood.  And I'm not saying this because he's gone, or trying to sugar coat what we had.  The man was always happy.  He always had a smile on his face.  Sometimes for me, it could be infuriating, especially if I was trying to stay mad at him.  Not that I was mad at him very often.  He greeted each day with a "What are we going to do today, God?"...while I, most of the time, bury my head under the covers and mumble, "God, can I just sleep for another 30 minutes?"

Those folks last night miss him.  They miss him in a totally different way than my family does.  But it is both sad and comforting to know that he is missed by so many, on so many different levels. 

I'm not sure what the rest of the month will hold.  We haven't even gotten Christmas decorations out yet.  My annual Christmas letter, I haven't even started.  Our Christmas card, always filled with candid, fun family photos?  Not even on my radar.  Folks may get them around January 1 at this rate.  Went for my normal 6 month checkup yesterday and cried like a baby to my doctor and her nurse.  What's up with that?  I think I'm doing pretty well, and then the bottom falls out. 

Evidently, I'm not doing as well as I think, and the doctor gave me a new prescription, just to get me through the next 3 to 4 months.  I continue to need your prayers.  My boys do, too. 

We'll jet off to Florida next week, but we will be taking our grief with us.  I'm hoping we can at least shove it into a suitcase, or under the bed at the resort, for a few hours at a time.  Folks tell me that Disney is great at distracting you from reality.  And man, do we three ever need that.

Respect....I want to be remembered like that, after I'm having fun in heaven.  Guess I'd better get busy working on my attitude & my smile.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Hunter Education....check!

I never thought I'd become a hunter.  Grew up in Kentucky, watching my dad and uncle head out to either hunt quail, rabbits, or 'coons.  They always seemed to have so much fun, and the quail, well, it was always memorable to eat. 

I fell in love with a tall, lanky graduate student from Inman, Kansas, who travelled to Murray State University in Murray, KY, intent on getting his Master's Degree in Fisheries Biology in 1986.  It was love at first sight for me....for Mark, well, it took a little convincing on my part.  I used all my feminine wiles and threw in alot of homemade cooking to seal the deal.  I fished with him non-stop, and walked with him during many a freezing cold winter, tromping behind a bird dog in pursuit of pheasant and quail. 

When the boys came along, I decided I was busy enough doing the "mom" thing, and Mark began hunting more on his own or with friends.  I loved to hear his great detailed stories of how he and his dog worked as a finely-tuned team to bring home some of the best upland game bird eats we've ever had.  A couple of years ago, Andrew starting walking the wheat and milo fields with his daddy in Kansas.  Andrew, well, he was only allowed to carry a bb gun.  Mark was steadfast in his belief that his son should be 10 years old before being responsible enough to shoot a shotgun.  They went lots of times, hunting dove in September, then heading back for Thanksgiving and Christmas for quail, pheasant, and turkey. 

I loved to watch them walk out to the pasture, guns at the ready, dog snurfling along in front of them, already working the field.  They have the same gait...the same stature...the same long, lanky body type.  They walked exactly the same, mannerisms, the way they hold their heads, the way they use their hands to tell a story, and have the exact same broad, handsome smile. 
Dove hunting, Kansas homeplace, Sept. 2010

Mark had big plans for Andrew (and possibly Ben, we haven't decided if he will want to hunt or not, and that's okay).  At 10, A.J. would first take Hunter Education, required in the state of Texas for those born on or after 9/1/71.  Then he would be fitted for a shotgun, just his size.  And whenever dove season rolled around, in September of 2012, they would finally get to walk out to the pasture, side by side, BOTH of them carrying a shotgun.  And, oh, the memories that would've been made. 

Mark's dad took him out at about that same age on the home place in Kansas, teaching him the finer points of hunting; at the same time, he instilled in Mark a love for the land, outdoors, hunting, and fishing that literally charted the course for his entire life.  It was what he loved.  It was what he was passionate about.  And, in 1988, he graduated with that Master's Degree from Murray State, and began a career that has been both notable and fulfilling.  He wanted to do the same with Andrew.  But his plans got cut short on July 30th of this year. 

What should I do?  I've had one shotgun clinic experience, I'm pretty good at skeet, for a left-handed girl from Western Kentucky, but I don't know the first thing about upland game or migratory bird hunting.  It's my job now, whether I think I'm up to it or not, to get Andrew Joseph Howell out on that beautiful Kansas pasture and kick up some pheasant and quail with Miss Maggie May leading the way.

I didn't know where to begin.  An email came into my outdoors mailbox, advertising a TPWD mentored waterfowl hunt at the local state park, scheduled for December and January.  Hmm...hunting with either a game warden or experienced instructor, one-on-one in a duck blind, while the park is closed to all other hunters?  This definitely piqued my interest.  A couple of phone calls & emails later, I wrote an Outdoors column on this hunt, had the park put together a Hunter Education class for those of us who needed it in order to hunt, and registered us for both. 

Hunter Ed is a 10 hour class.  That's a long time for an adult to remain focused and alert, think of how an almost-10-year old must feel.  We started last night, finished today with a 50-question, multiple choice test.  Pass it, and we get certified.  Fail it, we have to re-take it, sit through another 10 hour session, and won't get to hunt in January.  No pressure, right?  Andrew was engaged, attentive, and even asked pertinent questions, better than his mama could.  Sitting side by side, we took notes, talked about what we were learning, and readied ourselves for the exam, best we could.  As I went for one last restroom break before the test, I prayed to God and to Mark, if someone had to fail, let it be me.  I wanted A.J. to pass that certification more than I've wanted anything for a long time.  He wasn't getting his hopes up, but I know my super-competitive son well enough to know he would be crestfallen if he didn't pass. 

There were about 10 of us in the class.  He was the last to finish.  These questions were hard, geared toward folks older than he was.  He had to take his time to read each one, and I told him there was no hurry.  Some of the others began talking loudly and cutting up.  I asked them most politely to tone it down so he could concentrate.  As he walked up front to turn in his test, he turned around with a big smile on his face (it'll look just like his dad's in a few years, I just know it).  He felt good about things. 

And, in about 10 minutes, the instructor called Andrew Howell's name first.  HE PASSED!  With an 85% score, he outscored at least 3 adults in the class.  Just when I thought that smile couldn't get any wider---it did.  And Mom, well, she passed, too, with a score of 90%.  Not bad for a woman who didn't think she'd ever hunt. 

A.J. with his instructors, holding his Hunter Ed certificate!
But my boy...our boy...A.J. is now certified by the TPWD Hunter Education program.  He's not ready, by any stretch of the imagination, to pick up a shotgun and go hunting tomorrow.  But this was an important and necessary step in the big picture.  We walked out of that hall, and saw the most awesome sunset over Lake Arrowhead, after a day of clouds and heavy rain.  He stopped and remarked, "Mom, isn't that one of the most beautiful things you've ever seen?"  To which I replied..."Why yes, son, it is." while staring at his profile. 

It was a momentous day for us two Howells.  We took a tangible, positive step toward our goal of hunting quail and pheasant next fall.  The mentored waterfowl hunt will be another one.  Friends have generously offered their help in target practicing, skeet shooting, fitting him with the proper gun, and other necessary pieces that we'll need to put the plan into action. 

We talked, really talked on the way back to town.  He and I have developed a deeper appreciation for each other, and he told me today that he can talk to me about anything.  That used to be what he told his dad.  And whenever I told him that I was sorry that it couldn't have been his dad bringing him to that Hunter Ed class, and that I was a poor substitute?  He replied that I was "real close to being as good as Dad" and that I was a "close 2nd" in his eyes.  There is absolutely nothing he could've said that would've made me feel more loved or beautiful in his eyes. 

So, we'll continue taking these baby steps, with a goal in mind.  What does it say in the Bible?  "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (Mark, Mark's dad, my dad, my uncle, and so many more!), 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."  Hebrews 12:1,2. 

With all of the witnesses' help, we can do this.  A tall, lanky 10 year old and a 48 year old former "girly-girl" together will make hunting and outdoor memories in a daddy's physical absence.  Cause it's the right thing to do.  I pray Andrew continues his connection and love for all things outdoors, and I'm gonna do everything in my power to give him more than ample opportunities to do so.  In the process, I'm going to learn alot, too.  Mark, you're still showing us the way.  You may have big shoes to fill, but you left a clearly-marked pathway....

Thursday, December 1, 2011

December...Bah! Humbug....

And so it begins.  I turn the calendar page and there it is, "DECEMBER" all in capital letters.  I am not ready for December.  I am not ready to hear Christmas music in every venue I walk into (& I certainly wasn't ready before Halloween).  I'm not prepared for feeling like I'm going to jump out of my skin as I walk past aisle after aisle of ornaments, trees, light displays, and presents.  I just thought Thanksgiving was tough...I don't even want to imagine how hard Christmas will be. 

I put away our fall/Thanksgiving decorations and scanned our attic for yuletide decorations.  We have a plethora of them.  Mark complained (and rightly so!) that we have too many; this year, it's really too many.  I can't bear to get the lovely 8 foot tree down and cover it with lights and ornaments, too many memories for this year.  The boys and I have decided to purchase a live tree, after we return from our December distraction (aka Walt Disney World). 

Yes, I made a major family decision a couple of weeks back.  I knew there was absolutely no way on earth that Mark's boys and I could stay in Wichita Falls, TX, for the duration of Christmas break.  We would simply go stir crazy.  And since our families reside far away, in Kansas & Kentucky, making either a long car trip in sometimes risky winter weather, I knew I had to come up with another plan.  Mark didn't let a little snow or ice stop him from driving anywhere.  Guess whenever you grow up in a rural area, on a farm, you get lots of practice driving on the stuff.  He was an expert at it---me, not so much.  So, I will travel by car to those places only when winter weather's not a possibility.

But I digress.  After seeing a friend's photos taken at Tokyo Disney, all decked out in its holiday glitz, I began checking on arrangements to take the boys to Orlando.  I know that being at Disney World will not take our grief away.  We were there with Mark just a little over a year ago.  But I think it will be a healthy, fun distraction for all three of us.  We'll be out of our usual element, in a place that is truly magical, at the most celebrated time of the year.  It will be a good thing.  We'll stay at a different resort, eat at different restaurants, fly on a different airline out of a different airport, so there will be new memories made. 

We'll come back to our home before Christmas, go & buy that live tree, decorate it, and wing the rest.  That's basically what we've been doing for the past 4 months, and so far, it's worked out okay. 

I say we're "winging it," but I know full well that God is helping me make these decisions.  They are sometimes well thought out....sometimes they are made in a split second.  But no matter what, I hear that still voice inside of me, and I know deep within my soul each time that I am doing the right thing for our family. So far, I haven't looked back and regretted even one of those decisions, and there's at least one looming in our direct future that I need your prayers for.  More about that later. 

I want this to be a special Christmas, but I have my work cut out for me.  I will walk a fine line of remembering old traditions & introducing new ones.  We will long for our husband and daddy at his most favorite time of the year, but will remember all the wonderful memories we have of him. We will struggle, and I'm sure we will cry.  But I know there will be smiles and laughter, as well.  I have a Christmas letter to write to friends and family that will be the toughest ever, and family photos to put on a card to send along with it.  But I know that God will give me the strength to do it, He hasn't failed me yet.

And what about angels?  There are so many in our lives that I cannot even begin to name them all.  One of my angels has challenged her facebook friends to remember an angel in their lives every day this month.  I will "just" remember them in my heart.  I encounter them every day in this town, at school, in my neighborhood, on the Lake Wichita trail,  at Atlanta Bread Company, at IHOP, at church, and even at the mall & Walmart.  They are in places as far away as Japan, Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Kansas, and Tennessee.  They are as close as next door.  All are appreciated and all are needed. 

Maybe, just maybe, we can get through this most holy month with their help. And next year, at this time, I pray that I dread Christmas a little less, and can laugh a lot more.

Christmas, 2012

Christmas, 2012