Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Mission Accomplished!"

With all due respect to the last time I saw that in print, I am confident as I proclaim "mission accomplished"....I overnighted Mark's nomination packet to Athens TX at 5:10 p.m. last evening, a full 50 minutes before the post office closed.  It was a full day, a day that started with a sick 4th grader staying home with me; I feared that taking care of him would keep me from finishing my overwhelming task at hand, but it did not.  Thankfully he began to feel better around noon, as evidenced by his ability to play indoor basketball with the goal on the front hallway door. 

As I travelled home from the post office, I had such a jumble of emotions inside, all welling up to the surface.  I was relieved, proud of my work, even prouder of my husband's work, tired, emotionally and physically exhausted, melancholy, and running on pure adrenaline.  I can only compare it to the feelings I experienced after Mark's services in both Texas and Kansas.  It was like I had run a marathon, and had crossed the finish line, tired and drained, but still satisfied I'd run a decent race.

My friends Mike & Carol, who had come over Sunday to help me edit my narrative, came by last evening, and we toasted to Mark....and to a body of work that should be recognized by the Athens TX committee.  I bought special Boulevard beer (Kansas City brewed, one of Mark's favs), "Double-wide IPA" (complete with a pic of a trailer on it!).  We drank.  We ate pizza.  We laughed.  We cried.  We shared Mark stories.  I do not know what I would do without my friends. 

As I was reading the narrative over the phone to my mom in Kentucky yesterday morning (she's also one of my editors, even long-distance), I thought Andrew was asleep on the couch, not feeling well.  After I ended our conversation, he came over to me.  "Mom, I woke up just before you starting reading that to Nana.  My dad was really something, wasn't he?"  "Yes son, he was!"  He then told me how proud he was that I had worked so hard to get this stuff together to honor his dad.  Andrew is proud of ME.  Wow.  That means more than I can express in this...mere words in no way can convey what that meant to me.  And after I returned home from the post office, packet mailed, both boys were jubilant.  They get it.  They know how lucky their dad was, getting paid to do a job he loved.  I can only hope that someday, our boys get the same opportunity.

Bedtime was 9:30 last night for us all.  I slept like a baby, for the first time in weeks.  This morning, I can see how much I neglected while on my quest for Mark.  There's not a clean spoon in my kitchen (and we have about a dozen).  Two days' worth of dishes are piled in the sink (the dishwasher's clean dishes sit, ready to be put away);  laundry, well, it's piled up, too.  All that stuff will be addressed, but for now, I'm going to have my second cup of coffee, prop up my feet, and savor my mission accomplished for just another 30 minutes. 

For those interested, I am posting my narrative I sent in to the committee.  Warning: it may make you cry.  And for anyone worried that I embellished any facts (you will remain nameless, and I doubt you can even sign on to the internet), I sent along a detailed listing of accomplishments & awards that back up every statement made.  He was amazing.  And he was all mine.  :)

                Mark H. Howell, dedicated and valued employee of TPWD Inland Fisheries staff, died on July 30, 2011.  Induction of Mark into the Texas Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame would be a perfect final “kudos” to a man who worked for almost 21 years to ensure great fishing at the lakes and impoundments of his eight county district. 

                Previously employed by Maryland DNR, Mark knew that moving to Texas to work for one of the premiere departments in the nation was his destiny.  After working with mainly vegetation control in the Huntsville area, he was asked to move to Wichita Falls, in order to open and establish a new district office over a seven (now eight) county North Texas area. 

                In 1992, he made the move to Wichita Falls, hit the ground running as District Management Supervisor, and never looked back.  Within six months he had found suitable office space (which has since become the prototype building for district offices throughout the state), hired a staff, and forged palatable relationships with not only folks in the city of Wichita Falls, but also in surrounding towns and small communities. 

                Mark’s passion was connecting children and youth to the outdoors; he strived for them to make that link.  He had an unbelievable work ethic, instilled in him as a young child, growing up on a wheat farm in rural Kansas.    It was there he first fell in love with the outdoors, being introduced to hunting and fishing by his dad, a farmer with a degree in Microbiology.  His mother, a farm wife with a Botany degree, shared her love of wildflowers, native grasses, ecology, and birds with Mark.  This was the beginning of a love affair with God’s creation that continued until his death.  He took those great loves and translated them into actions the entire time he was with Inland Fisheries.

                Mark wanted more than anything to use his position with Texas Parks and Wildlife to make his area of North Texas a place where abundant, fun fishing abounded.  He wanted to create opportunities for kids to learn how to fish, in circumstances where they could be successful.  He was a champion of nature, teaching techniques for fishing to young and old alike, using every opportunity to demonstrate ethics, good stewardship of resources, and ecology education.  He knew that if he could get a youth “hooked” on fishing, chances were that would lead to a whole new appreciation for the out of doors…and hopefully a lifetime of fishing and communing with Mother Nature would follow.

                Early on his love of teaching children and adults about fishing was firmly established.  He and his staff began teaching an afterschool program for kids, fishing at a local city lake.  Always one to promote the sport of fishing, Mark was truly excited whenever a child would catch a fish.  No matter the size of the catch, Mark made each and every kid feel special.  One friend stated that “Mark was so enthusiastic.  He gave the utmost attention and praise to each child as the brought in their catches for weighing and registration.  Even if it was a tiny fish, not much bigger than a minnow, he complimented the child on his fine catch!!! Each and every child felt like they had caught a prize winning whale.”  (Dian Hoehne, Texas Master Naturalist member).  He provided fishing opportunities for adults and children at the local state hospital, kids at the ARC, Rehab Center patients, and Helen Farabee Center patients.  He realized that the abundance of single-parent households provided yet another opportunity for connections, targeting that demographic, too, for teaching.

                Mark believed with all his heart that finding a way to connect kids with the outdoors, whether by fishing, going on a nature walk, or through various other opportunities, was the key to ensuring that future generations of Texans would have lakes to fish and swim in and native areas in which to hunt and camp.  He made it his personal and professional mission to make that happen.

                He forged mutually beneficial relationships with the city of WF Parks and Recreation, with Northwest Texas Field and Stream, travelled to speak at various city councils, groups and organizations, with the goal of creating and maintaining great fishing in his lakes, good shoreline and angler access, and promoting angler education and ethics.  His work with Kid Fish through the early years provided not only many occasions for thousands of kids to fish, but also allowed him to procure grants from that organization which improved angler & boater access at several of his area lakes. 

                He mended fences with the Law Enforcement Division of TPWD; before Mark’s staff came to town, there was a bit of friction between Inland Fisheries and the game wardens.  Not a problem since.  He embraced the work of the game wardens, offered his staff’s help in whatever endeavor they needed, and he was highly regarded by their local ranks.  Over a dozen showed up in full dress uniform to honor him at his funeral.

                Never one to just sit at his desk, Mark was active in many aspects of the community, involving himself in both boards and committees within TPWD, as well as out in the community in general.  He was a valued member of the WF Parks Board for almost nine years.  Jack Murphy, Director of Parks and Recreation recalls: “Mark was a most valued member of the Parks Board, holding several leadership roles.  I so enjoyed Mark during the meetings and at the many fishing events and activities in which he would provide guidance and support.  The loss of Mark leaves a void in professional expertise that he so willingly and enthusiastically provided for our community.  He was a friend that I regularly leaned on for creative advice and support.   Mark did good work, and I feel that his nomination to the HOF will be very favorably reviewed.”

                His leadership on the Lake Wichita Study Committee led to a change in the flood control project for the entire city of Wichita Falls.  He and the committee convinced the city that lowering the lake level to 3.5 feet, reducing its size by over 1000 acres, would leave the lake nothing more than a big mud hole.  Because of the committee’s efforts, Lake Wichita is once again a jewel for the city, with improved trail access alongside it.  The trail sees lots of traffic from bikers, joggers, and walkers.  All love to see the wildlife around the lake.  Fishermen still catch big channel cats & crappie there, and recreational opportunities abound. 

                He heavily promoted the Division Angler Recognition program, and the lakes in his district began to show the tangible benefits of it, as many new water-body lake records were recorded.  He was very keen on giving young and not-so-young alike their “first fish award” certificate, sending information to Austin on a regular basis.  He didn’t care if the angler was 5 or 25…a first fish was a first fish, and was cause for great celebration and recognition!

                Mark had a knack for surrounding himself with good people.  During his tenure, he hired and mentored several biologists/technicians who have gone on to bigger and better opportunities.  Some include Brian Van Zee, now TPWD Regional Director over this part of the state; Todd Driscoll and John Findeisen, now TPWD lead biologists in Jasper and Mathis, TX; and Scott Robinson and Mike Wilkerson, who are highly regarded fisheries biologists in their home states of Georgia and Ohio.  His current staff had been with him well over a dozen years, and include assistant biologist Robert Mauk, and Wes Dutter and Steven Hise, technicians. 

                He constantly updated brochures & documentation to help the general public in their quest for outdoor recreation.  He began writing for the local paper part-time, and began a weekly column in 2007 about the outdoors that continued until his death.  His articles focused on various themes, but more often than not, it all came back down to the basics for him—getting outdoors, encouraging less “screen time” and more “green time”, and educating folks on being good stewards of the environment.

                His friendship with Beverly Williamson began well over a dozen years ago.  She had a dream for a nature center in Wichita Falls.  They were kindred spirits, both having great passion for children and the outdoors.  He was responsible for helping procure a TPWD grant for River Bend Nature Works (now River Bend Nature Center).  He served in various capacities on the RBNC board for over 8 years, as what started out as a concrete slab on a hilltop became a multi-million dollar facility.  As Deanna Watson, Editor-in-Chief of the Times Record News, and fellow RBNC board member recalls,” Mark was always someone you wanted on your board.  He was financially savvy & fiscally responsible.  He wouldn’t let us spend money we didn’t have!”

                For a time in 2008, he stepped in as RBNC Interim Executive Director, while still performing his duties with TPWD.  During this period, he secured a meeting with the city’s 4-B board, which provided RBNC monies it so desperately needed to complete their indoor learning center and children’s garden.  This single act enabled RBNC to become truly a year-round facility, able to serve thousands of school children on an annual basis.  He worked closely with RBNC until his death, overseeing and stocking the huge natural aquarium housed in their butterfly conservatory.  He provided leadership, advice, and put on educational programs for classes.  Each year, he and his staff would set up their mobile aquarium on Earth Day to the delight of school children in attendance. 

                He established the Rolling Plains Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists in 2001, serving as chapter advisor and mentor until his death.  Graduates of those classes continue to educate the public about the environment, serving as volunteers and mentors at various events throughout the year.

                There’s not enough room or time to list all of the reasons why Mark Howell deserves this honor.   He was a gentleman, a scholar, an advocate for fishing and the environment.  He loved his adopted state of Texas.  No one did more to promote public awareness as well as influence public policies for fishing in this 8 county district than Mark Howell.  His legacy lives on in the hearts of everyone that loves recreational fishing.  For the past 20 years, the public has reaped the benefits of his and his staff’s hard work, and that work has ensured that future generations of Texans will continue to reap the benefits of his vision for years to come.  Whether fishing for channel cats at Lake Wichita, walking the trails of River Bend Nature Center, or enjoying the beauty of a sunset through cypress trees at Lake Arrowhead, you can thank Mark Howell for his vision, his passion, and his public duty. 

Nancy Heath Howell

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Procrastination, anticipation....

Procrastination:  the act of procrastinating; putting off or delaying or deferring an action to a later time; to put off doing something, slowness as a consequence of not getting around to it...

My name is Nancy.  I am a procrastinator.  I've been one most of my life. In the past 7 months, I've been more of a go-getter....I haven't had a choice.  Procrastination is for those who can afford to let things go, and I certainly haven't had that luxury in most areas of my hectic life since becoming head of household in an earthly family of three. 

But this weekend, the rubber meets the road.  I have procrastinated, in a large degree, about a project that must be postmarked and delivered to Athens TX by the 29th of February.  That's a mere 4 days away!  The project is something very important to me, and I must give it my all. 

On October 25 (coincidentally, Mark's birthday), I received a press release from TPWD.  No biggie, since I subscribe to them, get them on a regular basis as the Outdoor writer for the local newspaper.  But this one was different.  It was announcing that nominations for the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Hall of Fame are being accepted until February 29, 2012.  It goes on in detail to explain that a person, living or dead, or an organization can be nominated.  They will be judged by a committee in various areas, including fisheries management expertise, civic involvement, betterment of fishing in Texas due to the actions of this person/organization, etc.  When I read it, I immediately thought of Mark.  I realize I am a bit prejudiced, but his accomplishments are many and if I can put together this application in time, he might have a legitimate shot of getting in. 

Now, way back in October, February 29th was 4 months away.  I've solicited folks to submit memories, have gone through 20 years of his desk calendars to find specific information, and his lovely regional secretary combed through his performance evaluations to give me highlights from his illustrious career. Local folks have shared wonderful stories.  I have letters from fellow board members, students, folks he mentored, and the general public that have brought me to tears.  Good tears, mind you, but tears nonetheless. 

I've looked through 20 years of photos, both film-based and digital.  I've scanned through years of outdoor columns, tv interviews, and gone through boxes of plaques and recognition certificates from many organizations.  He was one busy guy.  He gave so much to the community, so much above and beyond what his job description was.  I just want to do this right.

But the clock is ticking.  I need to pull it all together.  And I'm starting to panic, just a wee little bit.  The procrastinator in me sees the handwriting on the wall.  At the very latest, I need to take the completed packet of information to my local post office no later than Monday afternoon;  I will gladly pay the exorbitant amount of money to have it over-nighted to the committee in Athens.

I know it will come together, it always does.  I've neglected my housework, my boys, and my running schedule, all in order to finish this submission.

On some level, I think that finishing this application and mailing it in will mark another chapter in my healing process.  I want more than anything to have this man honored in this very meaningful way.  It would be the icing on the cake, a way to cement his contributions for all to see, in the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, TX.

And if, for some reason, he's not chosen this year?  I'll re-submit him again next year.  Because even though I am a procrastinator, I am persistent and tenacious.  He taught me well.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Faith triumphs..

Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
We have also obtained access through Him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.
And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance,
endurance produces proven character, 
and proven character produces hope.  
This hope will not disappoint (us), because God's love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Romans 5:1-5 (HCSB)

This morning, I really needed to hear this.  Whenever your life is going as perfect as you think it possibly can, you don't search the Bible for passages like this---at least I didn't while in my little perfect world of 4 Howells. 

I've been a Christian since a life-changing revival in my little United Methodist church in Kentucky at the age of 11.  I've always tried to treat others the way I want to be treated, and was reared in a home with loving parents; they took me to church most everytime there was a service, and that's back when there were routinely Sunday and Wednesday evening services. 

I didn't date a whole lot, instead biding my time, praying that God would send someone special just for me.  Mark moving to Kentucky from Kansas, by way of Nebraska, was the answer to that prayer.  Thus began a 25 year love affair that I still miss on a daily basis. 

Since last fall, in my not-so-perfect life, as I struggled with what is the biggest change in direction imaginable, I have searched the scriptures more diligently.  Coincidence?  I think not.  It's easy to be a Christian whenever everything is coming up roses.  The real test of a Christian is whenever the path becomes rocky.  It will either make you or  break you.

I'd like to think it is "making" me.  I am more empathetic.  I am slower to anger.  I don't get my undies in a twist over the simple stuff (sorry, that's a Mark analogy, couldn't resist).  I take time each day to reflect on my life, and what I can do to make the world a better place.  I relish simple things, like snuggling two little boys at bedtime, or playing catch with them in my yard.

But I am still a work in progress.  That is readily apparent today.  As I take time for my devotion and prayer this morning, I am conflicted.  Two friends are having health issues.  They couldn't be more different---one is only 22 years old, the other, well, I won't venture to guess, but let's just say he's 60-ish (sorry in advance if I've offended you, Nick). 

The first has dealt with health issues since the tender age of 9.  Randall, his mom, and his brothers have become very special to us, over the course of the past 10 years.  Right now, he's in the hospital, getting over an infection, but dealing with the same health issue from his youth, which has reared its ugly head once again. 

The latter is really first and foremost, a friend of Mark's.  Being Mark's wife had its perks.  It opened many doors for me, and many of his friends became mine.  Nick is one such friend.  Mark respected him and valued his friendship; in my new career of writing, he has been a patient and helpful mentor.  He makes me a better writer, offering criticism and suggestions.  So I am saddened to hear that he, too, is in the hospital, facing surgery and an uncertain future. 

Why are my two friends suffering?  I don't know.  If I introduced them, they would probably become fast friends.  The 22 year old is a sports nut, especially when it comes to baseball.  He and my 10 year old can talk about starting rotations, RBIs, and World Series championships.  My older friend, well, he's made a living out of loving sports and writing about it. 

The suffering part is difficult to understand.  In my own experience, I have seen that there is brokenness, heartache, health issues, and sadness in every family.  It's called life.  And God didn't promise us a rose garden.  As a friend shared with me, "the good guys always win in the end"...and he wasn't talking about a movie.

In the meantime, I hope my friends know that they are loved and that there are scores of people lifting them up in prayer.  More than anything else, I wish them peace, the kind God gives us.  "Rejoicing in our afflictions" is easier to talk than to walk.  At some point down the line, though, you can look back on your path and see that you endured.  Endurance produces character, and character produces hope.  A hope that will not disappoint, no matter what circumstances we may find ourselves in. 

And when both of these men get through their respective bumps in the road, I "hope" I get to introduce them.  It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Growing up too quickly....

Time marches on.  Whether I like it or not, it's been almost seven months since I became a widow and single mom to two amazing boys.  Whenever Mark died, more than one person told me that Andrew and Ben would grow up more quickly in some respects;  they most certainly have.  As I've encountered this, I've chosen to embrace it, since I cannot stop it from occurring.  It is not necessarily a bad thing.  I've seen more compassion, more thoughtfulness, and more empathy in them; I've also seen a quiet, subtle sadness that makes my heart ache. 

But such is life.  I am saddened that they have to travel this road with me, but at the same time, so thankful I don't have to travel it alone.  By "alone," I mean in the physical sense only---I'm glad that my house remains loud, boisterous, and anything but dull.  I cannot imagine going through life a widow without my precious sons. 

They are growing by leaps and bounds.  Both are over 56" tall, almost up to my shoulders.  My latest facebook posts show Andrew, outdoors playing catch with me, and Benjamin, showing off his robotic alligator he spent all day building.  They are so different and yet so alike; the perfect combination of both Mark and me, all jumbled up into two tween bodies.  I dread the upcoming changes that will take over, as puberty, hormones, and boy questions beg to be addressed...but I trust that God will give me the wisdom to handle whatever they throw my direction.

Yesterday, I tackled mowing our enormous (at least by WF standards, a 1/2 acre) yard.  We here in North Texas haven't had much of a winter to speak of, so mowing has remained a chore throughout this season.  We have a riding mower, sitting on our back porch.  Don't get me started about that, it's something Mark and I agreed to disagree about.  I've never ridden a mower, my Kentucky daddy informed my husband before we married in 1988 that "mowing was man's work" and that I had never even started a mower, riding, push, or otherwise. 

I had occasionally used our push mower, a self-propelled beast that is actually easy to run.  Since Mark's death, I've mowed both front and back yards, using only this mower, because I haven't a clue as to how to run the riding monster.  Heck, I don't even know where the key is.  Mark hid it from our mechanically-inclined son, Ben, whenever he was barely 2 years old.  I'm hopeful I can locate it before summer rolls around. 

Mark always told the boys that once they became 10, they could 1) shoot a shotgun and 2) help with the yard mowing.  Andrew's actively working on that first one, we've been duck hunting, and he's now shooting trap through 4-H twice a week.  The yard mowing, though, I've been hedging (no pun intended) on.  I don't know why I've been stalling...Andrew is more than mature enough to take my instruction on using the self-propelled mower.  He is strong enough to engage it, smart enough to grasp the mechanics of it, and has more energy in his lanky 75 lb body than I will ever have in my almost-49-year-old one. 

So, last night, I gave in.  Mowing 6 inch high grass in 40+ mph winds (hello, now I know what the Dust Bowl was all about!), I glance at the back porch.  Andrew's sitting in the chair, sad because I told him "not today" again.  He'd already declined the weed eating option, he's been doing that for over a year, and today, it's all about conquering something new.  As I make my umpteenth pass by the porch, I catch his attention, and wave him over to me.  I swear, he literally sprang off of that porch, his face a mixture of jubilation and disbelief.  "You're going to let me mow??"  he exclaims.  "Heck, yeah, if you think you can handle it!"  I reply. 

After a few instructions on general operation and safety, I pull the mower start cord, and off he goes.  As I stand, no hover, nearby, making sure my "baby" is doing all the things correctly, I can't help but notice that he looks a little taller...a little older, as he walks our yard, handling the mower with the maturity of a much older kid than 10. 

He mowed for quite awhile, and did a good job.  He will be ready to do it again, and looking at our weather forecast, he'll definitely get the opportunity soon. 

Yep, time, it marches on.  I can't stop it.  All I can do is follow the advice of a very wise man that I knew and loved for over a quarter century---embrace it, grab hold of every day, and have no regrets. 

Long enough, God-you've ignored me long enough.  I've looked at the back of your head
Long enough I've carried this ton of trouble, lived with a stomach full of pain.
  Long enough my arrogant enemies have looked down their noses at me. 
Take a good look at me, God, my God;
I want to look life in the eye, So no enemy can get the best of me or laugh when I fall on my face.
I've thrown myself headlong into your arms-I'm celebrating your rescue. 
I'm singing at the top of my lungs, I'm so full of answered prayers
Psalm 13: 1-6  (the Message)

Looking life in the eye is my goal.  Anticipating great things from God is my solace.  And I'm hopeful that He has someone down the road in His master plan to share all of this fun with.  Because it'd be a real shame to keep this all to myself.  

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Keep on keeping on....

Hurdles.   Although I am a runner/jogger, and have been for almost 2 years now, I wouldn't for one second consider myself athletic enough to jump hurdles in track.  I've always been fascinated by the prowess necessary to accomplish that feat.  I cannot imagine what thought process occurs inside a hurdler's head as they are running as quickly as possible, then look ahead, see a hurdle, and make the adjustments necessary to hit their stride, anticipate the exact moment whenever they must leap over the obstacle, and clear it.  Afterwards, they must kick it into high gear once again, because there's another hurdle set up in their sight, and the process begins yet again.

I may not be physically running hurdles, but emotionally and spiritually, I'm becoming quite skilled at attempting them.  I've labelled major life events since losing Mark as my own personal hurdles.  Let's see, in quick succession, since losing him, my family's experienced: 1)pulling together services in two states, including an out-of-state burial, 2) beginning of school for our boys, 3)what would've been our 23rd wedding anniversary, 4) what would've been his 56th birthday, 5) Halloween, 6) Thanksgiving, 7) Christmas, 8) Andrew's birthday, 9)New Year's, 10) probate of Mark's will, and 11) Valentines Day.  Makes my head hurt just to type these.  And that's just the major ones, there have been numerous, smaller hurdles that I've encountered along the way.  Those are just becoming part of the new daily normal my family's trying to live. 

Some, like significant dates (anniversary, birthdays, holidays, etc.) stretch out in front of me, and I try the best I can to prepare for them.  Honestly, none of them have been easy, although some have been easier to jump than others.  For example, Thanksgiving?....the absolute toughest thus far.  However, Christmas, which I dreaded worse because of my Thanksgiving hurdle, was not as bad as anticipated. 

The hardest ones are those that sneak up on me, like the will probate.  Or the hurdle last week that blocked my path and knocked me on my backside---a school situation where my younger son was being bullied by a couple of classmates.  My boys have always been popular, good students, no trouble to teachers (that I am aware of ), and are generally great kids.  My older son is an enviable combination of athleticism, personality, and brains---his dad always said he took after him (LOL).  The younger son is different, always has been.  His great personality and brains are not disputed, but his athletic abilities are yet to show themselves in any grandiose way.  He's okay with that.  He doesn't have the competitive drive and spirit that his older brother has; he's content to be part of the crowd, developing his musical and computer skills.  He's built his own website.  He's already the resident geek squad at our house. 

He is a gentle giant, without a mean bone in his body.  He never complains.  So whenever he casually mentioned that a kid pushed him aside during PE, as he was attempting to catch a ball, telling him "he couldn't catch it anyway," I talked with him about it, but dropped it soon after.  He told us that kids were taunting he and another 3rd grader about their inability to play sports as well as some of the others.  He mentioned it again a 2nd time;  and on Friday, whenever he happily told me it was library day for him, so he wouldn't have to go to PE---I knew we had a problem.  A hurdle. 

But how do I handle it?  My adult sounding board here is gone.  I turn to two close friends, who advised me to contact school officials ASAP.  I texted the guidance counselor, who visits with my boys on a regular basis, since they are dealing with so much after losing their daddy.  She springs into action, asking me to document the situation and email the principal, PE teacher, and herself. 

I compose an email early Monday, and have two quick responses within an hour.  The situation was not tolerated, it was nipped in the bud, and by Monday afternoon, I had a happy 3rd grader once again.  I will be forever grateful to a school administration that has a zero tolerance policy on bullying.  They made my hurdle a bit easier to leap over. 

I realize that Ben needs to stand up for himself more, and we are working on that.  In the meantime, he can be at school and not worry that someone's going to make fun of him because he's probably  not going to be the next Dirk Nowitzski.  But he very likely could be the next Bill Gates! I tell him that the kids bullying him now will be trying to get a job working for him whenever they are all adults...and would be darn lucky to get one :)

As I look back over the hurdles I've passed in my race over the past months, they are in various stages of disarray.  A couple were cleared cleanly, and are still in pristine condition, awaiting the next race.  Others have been knocked down, run through, and a few were dragged along with me after I was sure I had cleared them and left them behind. 

I'm bruised.  I've scraped my knees.  I've had muscle cramps, strains, and headaches.  My hurdle jumping hasn't been pretty or neat or precise, that's for sure.  But I'm still running.  And I have no regrets.  For you see, there's no "do-overs" in this race, I simply don't have time.  I anticipate the hurdles, prepare the best I can, link arms with God...and, as Dory puts it so succinctly in "Finding Nemo"---- I just keep swimming, just keep swimming (or running, or jumping, or crashing) through these life hurdles. 

I hope to be in the best shape of my life--spiritually, emotionally, and physically--as I hit my next hurdle:  my birthday. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day

Love never gives up.  Love cares more for others than for self.  Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.  Love doesn't strut, Doesn't have a swelled head, Doesn't force itself on others, Isn't always "me first," Doesn't fly off the handle, Doesn't keep score of the sins of others, Doesn't revel when other grovel, 
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end.
Love never dies.
Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly,
love extravagantly.  And the best of the three is love.
I Cor. 13: 4-8, 13 (The Message)

Love.  It's all around us.  Seriously....it's almost Valentine's Day, and I've been bombarded with "love overload."  Commercials urging men to buy their sweethearts expensive jewelry, stores filled to overflowing with stuffed animals, cards, candy, and assorted gifts.  It's never bothered me until this year.  Guess that's because my original valentine is not with me physically for the first time in 25 years.  

I remember the first Valentine's Day he actually put "love, Mark" on my card.  That was a huge deal for us both.  You see, "love" wasn't a word he casually tossed around.   It was a little over a year from our first date before he told me he loved me for the first time.  Considering I was head over heels for this Kansas farm boy a mere month after meeting him, this was hard on me.  But I respected his decision, knowing full well that when he did decide to tell me, it would be for life.  And it was.  He spent the next quarter century telling me, showing me on a daily basis how much he loved me.  

Valentine's Day was never a big deal in our house.  Sure, he'd usually bring home flowers, and I'd get a lovely card, but since having the boys, we'd more than likely all go to a restaurant together to celebrate.  We had 13 married years before the boys to be just the two of us, so we enjoyed their company on most all of our outings.  

This week has been a rocky one.  Not so much due to the anticipation of Valentine's Day, but more because I hit another milestone by probating his will on Tuesday.  I dreaded the finality of it all, and was in a major funk.  Our friend, Randy, has walked with me through all of this legal stuff, and he has been a godsend.  Tuesday was no exception.  Turned out the dread of it all was worse than the actual process.  I made it through relatively unscathed, had a good cry on the way home, and crossed off another hurdle on this grief journey.  

But after coming out of my self-imposed funk, I see nothing but hearts.  Symbols of love are everywhere! 

This morning, I went back to the old faithful I Corinthians 13, which was read at our wedding, way back in 1988.  The words, above, with a new translation, mean something totally different to me today.  It's the model of love to strive for while on this earth, whether with your spouse, your kids, your friends, or your enemies.  It's how Mark loved.  He's no longer "squinting in a fog, peering through a mist."  For him, the weather has cleared & the sun is shining bright.  He's "seeing it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!"  And for that, I am thankful.

Mark was practical, to say the least, and if he could incorporate something practical into a gift opportunity (while still maintaining a romantic theme, as well), that would be a big "win-win" for all involved.  Well,"Mr. Baseball" hit it out of the park one last time, as evidenced yesterday.  

I looked out into the front yard, seeing Perm-O-Green spraying my sad-looking grass.  I haven't ordered any services with them, not sure why they are there.  I surmise they have the wrong address, but since I'm still in my pjs, I decide not to ask.  They leave the bill on my front doorknob.  Imagine my surprise as I see the name "Mark Howell" on it.  And then I remember.  He talked about signing up for it last spring, and must've gone ahead and done it.  

I laugh.  Here it is, 6 1/2 months after his death, and he's giving me a practical Valentine's present, a beautiful front yard without weeds.  It may not be as grand a gesture as a flower delivery, but it is oh so much more, coming from my naturalist husband.  He's ensuring I have a nice yard, still taking care of me.  I'll honor that gift by maintaining it throughout the summer.

So, don't feel sorry for me this Valentine's Day.  I've received my gift from Mark.  I will surround myself with his two sons, and remind myself of all I have to be thankful for.  Who knows what the future holds?  God only knows, and for me, that is enough.  

Happy Valentine's Day.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Hitting a rough patch

Today's been hard, and I haven't been able to put my finger on why.  Is it because we spent our first Super Bowl without him yesterday, surrounded by friends?  Is it because I've spent the better part of the day going through boxes of pictures?  I've been looking for shots showing how great he was with kids, putting on fishing events, contributing to community, presenting papers at national conferences.  Is it just because it's Monday?

This is one of the days my counselor warned me about.  It's a day where I feel like I've slipped off the paved trail, and I'm trudging through the mud and goo.  Every step is hard.  I don't like it here.  But it's where I am, at least for today.

I think my mood is due to two occurrences:

1) Ben had a rough night.  In my quest to make bedtime more peaceful, I programmed some songs from my iPod to lull us to sleep.  Not my best idea.  After the soothing Beatles tune, "Good Night" from the White Album, "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys began.  Ben starts crying.  The song reminds him of his dad.  I got up and turned it off as quickly as possible, but the damage was done.  He had a rough night, and informed me the song has been going through his mind all day.  Strange how something can trigger a flood of emotions when you least expect it.

 2) the probate of Mark's will happens tomorrow----BINGO!  This is what's bothering me.  This is what has me so overwrought with emotion.  Even though I know full well that he's gone, standing before a judge in a Texas courtroom tomorrow at 1:15 pm, under oath, I will proclaim to one and all that my husband is dead.  His will becomes public record.  I am the sole heir to his belongings, to our Kansas pasture land and pond, to our home here in Texas.  After this, I change the titles of both vehicles to my name...you see, once we had the boys, I let him handle the vehicle purchases without me...hence, they are both in his name only.  Whenever we drew up our will 4 years ago, it was because we were leaving the boys with grandmas while we took our one and only trip without them--I never in my wildest dreams imagined I'd be probating it so soon.

My God, I miss him.  I miss everything about him.  He would've been whooping and hollerin' at that close football game yesterday.   I look at the clock everyday, around 5:15 to 5:18, the time he'd roll into our driveway, full of energy and happy as a clam to be at home with his two boys and me.

I dissolve into tears at the dinner table.  My boys try to comfort me.  They are so sweet.. "God only knows what I'd be without them." I certainly don't want to find out.  I go to the refrigerator, and take out the last Torpedo pale ale...pour it into one of his Boulevard pint glasses and drink it in his honor.

Life is good, but today it sucks.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Wisdom from Above

Are there any of you who are wise and understanding?  You are to prove it by your good life, by your good deeds performed with humility and wisdom.  Where there is jealousy and selfishness, there is also disorder and every kind of evil.  But the wisdom from above is pure first of all; it is also peaceful, gentle, and friendly; it is full of compassion and produces a harvest of good deeds; it is free from prejudice and hypocrisy.  And goodness is the harvest that is produced from the seeds the peacemakers plant in peace.  James 3:13, 16-18 (GNTD)

I've been reminded of this passage alot today.  It was part of Mark's eulogy, given by our dear friend, Steve, at his funeral here in Wichita Falls.  Mark was a man who did good deeds, and performed them with humility and wisdom.  He harvested good from the seeds he planted while here, I can see them everywhere I look. 

He was always slow to anger, giving people the benefit of the doubt.  Me, well, I'll be perfectly honest, I'm very much a work in progress.  I rock along pretty well, then something comes along like a basketball game with my 10 year old's team playing a team that plays downright dirty.  That happened today.  Mark told me more than once that he would never be able to sit by me at sporting events our sons participated in....you see, my mouth and emotions can get in the way.  I'm guessing that's one of the main reasons he coached and umpired :)

The game was ugly from the start.  I call it "street ball". Ben, who usually doesn't watch with much interest, even exclaimed, "This game is intense!"   And boy was it ever--hands in faces, body checks, outright intentional fouling.  Let's just say "Mama wasn't happy" to sit by and watch as Andrew had to fight his way down the court, the majority of the time draped by at least two (sometimes 3!) opponents.  To make a long story short, we lost by 2 points.  A hard-fought clean game, at least on our side.

On the way home, Andrew told me that if he had been hit one more time by one particular kid, he was thinking about retaliating.  This led to a car discussion about sportsmanship, and how no matter what is done to you, you do not stoop to the level of your opponent.  But "turn the other cheek" is a hard sell to a ticked-off 10 year old who plays fair.  He simply expects to be treated the way he treats others.   

I paraphrased the above scripture from James, telling him that both God and his dad were watching, and were proud that he did not stoop to street ball level.  I was certainly proud of him.

That pep talk would've been Mark's territory; so would the decision to say "no" to a baseball tournament team that wanted Andrew to join.  Instead of Mark, the boys have me.  I turned the baseball team down, after canvassing friends for opinions, praying, and following my gut instinct.

We're doing good.  Sometimes I feel like I'm operating on a wing and a prayer, but it's always sufficient.  I pray for that wisdom that's so prevalent in the Bible, confident God will give me what I need when I need it.

And today, His wisdom persuaded me to bite my tongue and remain seated for awhile as my sweat-drenched kid got tripped, body-checked, and carried a defender almost-piggyback-style down the court.  Dear Lord, I'm glad You have patience and won't give up on me, because I still need a lot of work.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Collateral damage

I'm selfish.  I've had blinders on.  I've been consumed with the loss of Mark, my husband, best friend, the wonderful daddy to our sons...it's been the nucleus around which we've re-aligned our lives.  The boys and I have been in a sort of protective "bubble" where we exist as a family of three, remembering, grieving, laughing, crying, and moving forward.  There's been a multitude of prayers offered up for us, I have no doubt that's why we are faring as well as we are.

But I've come to a painful realization in the past few days, that I have been oblivious, even clueless, that Mark's death has caused a wave of collateral damage, literally from coast to coast.

His absence doesn't just haunt Andrew, Ben, and me....we may have been his immediate family, but we are by no means the only people who loved him.  Here's where the selfish part comes in.  In the enormity of my personal grief, attending to the grief of our sons, I have neglected to recognize there are many others grieving, as well.

His mother, well, she's lost a son...her oldest child, the one that shared her passion for nature, the legacy of the family land, and associated history.  The one that was planning on returning to that land to raise his sons.  His siblings?  They are missing him.  Geographically, they reside in Kansas, Massachusetts, and Oregon.  His only brother gave Mark's eulogy in Kansas; we'd spent a week with he and his sweet wife a mere three weeks before his death.  Matt and Mark re-connected during that vacation, becoming closer than they have been in years.  His two sisters grieve in their own unique ways, as well.

My mother?  Mark was in her life for a quarter century;  she and my dad had the sneaking suspicion when I first brought Mark home that I would be spending the rest of my life with him.  She was here with me the last week of his life, sitting beside me as I told him goodbye for hours that last day.  My brother?  He looked up to Mark.  He's known him since he was a teenager.  Mark would always tell Scott to stress less and live more--and he loved him like a brother.  My sister in law and Mark were kindred spirits in many ways.  And his two nieces (the only ones we'll have), Madison and Emily, were his favorite girls (besides me!).  Heck, if it hadn't been for Maddie, we probably would've been content to remain childless; she was so much fun, we decided to have one (or two) of our own.

That's just close family.  There are aunts and uncles and cousins, all dealing with the loss.  Friends, coworkers, and casual aquaintances are still adapting to life without him.

He was a great guy... but I think he's being missed because his actions and beliefs made a lasting impression on folks, and he left many "footprints" behind.  Those footprints were made with pretty big shoes, shoes that will be hard to fill.  I know that certainly I can't do it all.  I try, oh boy, do I try! I do the best I can, with God's help, but I'm not Mark.

What I can do is be more supportive of my loved ones, outside of my bubble, who are grieving.  I've been self-absorbed, too busy with my own agenda to empathize with you.  But no more.  I pledge to help you deal with our shared loss of your son, brother, uncle, son-in-law, friend, mentor.  Because that is what Mark would want.  And it's what God wants me to do.

Today, I lean on this scripture.  I pray that it will give you some comfort as well.....

Stand Firm

My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy.  After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.  But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score.  Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask.
Those who stand firm during testing are blessed.  They are tried and true.  They will receive the life God has promised to those who love him as their reward.
James 1:2-5, 12 (CEB)

I think of how lucky we are, even in the pain of this grief.  We are blessed.  I  feel more alive and fortunate than I have in my entire life.  Each day is a new beginning.  Each sunrise is to be celebrated.  Each sunset, revered.  I get a warm fuzzy feeling just watching my boys run along in front of me as we go into Braum's to buy a gallon of milk.  I see Mark in them both (along with me, sometimes, unfortunately!).Me, Ms. type A personality, isn't going through the motions of life anymore;  I'm grabbing hold, hanging on for the ride, and absorbing every bit of love and light that's here. I pray the same for you.  

Christmas, 2012

Christmas, 2012