23 September 2014

Grieving afresh

Coach's recent death has brought a lot of thoughts and feelings to the forefront of my mind. I've had online conversations with people I haven't seen or spoken to in several years. We've found ways to grieve. We've talked through old hurts. Thousands of miles apart, we've cried together.

And I have realized a few things tonight. One is that there are a few people in my life that I know I have probably hurt, and I need to make it right if possible. I'm sure there are people I've hurt of whom I'm unaware, but that's not what I'm talking about. (If you are one of those people, please let me know so we can work through it.) I'm talking about specific people I have offended, ignored, and resented... And perhaps some of them aren't hurt. Maybe they are totally oblivious to my resentment. (This actually happened recently.) I can't fix everything. But it's time I start trying.

This thought led me to other thoughts. One friend I may have hurt--and have certainly resented--invited me to her wedding a few years ago. I so badly wanted to go, but Timothy was just a toddler (no Anna yet), and I wasn't sure how I would travel with him. More importantly, though D said it would be OK if I went, I suspected he wouldn't be pleased to be left alone. It was quite a distance by car, and we only had one car, even though at the time he could walk everywhere in our little town. 

Then it hit me, thinking through that situation. I'm getting choked up about it even now. I came to terms last year with the fact that I was in a psychologically abusive marriage. I'd been blind to the fact before then, or perhaps I'd been ignorant that such a thing as psychological abuse existed. When I finally thought about it last year, most of the specific things I could pinpoint had begun after D's return from his three-month deployment in Iraq. I still think this is true for the most part. But now I see so clearly how the pattern was developing as many as five years ago. I wanted so badly to go to that wedding (two, actually, that summer, both far away). And I couldn't go--not because we didn't have the money but because he didn't want me to go. There was no way on Earth he was going to take care of Timothy, even for one or two nights if I flew to the wedding--not because he couldn't or because the idea of babysitting was overwhelming but because he had no interest in it. None. And while he maintained that I could go, really, I now know in retrospect (as evidenced in later circumstances) that he would have been resentful if I'd gone. He would have held it against me for the rest of our marriage. I would have felt guilty forever. So I missed two dear friends' weddings that summer. And I am only now grieving that.

Resentment probably played a large part in my divorce. I know I made my share of mistakes and bad decisions, and I am in no way faultless in the breakdown of my marriage. But I now see how deep his resentment was toward me--for so many things, from being sick and miserable on a trip we made for his friend's wedding in 2007 when I was pregnant with Timothy to having a hard time finding a full-time job to support us at any point in our marriage. Resentment. I am finally beginning to see how deeply that resentment has wounded me and my kids.

And so I grieve afresh these festering injuries that can only now be cleaned and tended to, in order to heal. Now that I see them and feel them, I can finally hope for mending.

And in light of this pain as I have re-examined--or perhaps examined for the first time--these wounds, I know more than ever the importance of setting right the relationships I have hurt, abolishing the resentment in my own heart toward people I have loved so dearly. It must end. Raw and wretched, I must kneel before God and my friends, rout this resentment, confess, and try to set it aright. Only then dare I ask for forgiveness.

17 September 2014

The end of a very long year

Today marks a year of my waking up as a single mom.

Wow, has it been a year already? It was Monday, September 16, 2013, when I got a call saying my husband had moved out, so yes, it's been a year. I was surprised last night when I said it aloud to someone that I wasn't more emotional about it. But then I'm hardly emotional about it at all these days. Ever.

OK, sure, I still have my bad days. We all do. And on my bad days I'm pretty down. But most of my negative thoughts are the same ones I had before I was ever married, so I doubt they're related to my no longer being married--although my divorce may have reinforced those thoughts.

When I think about my life and worry, there are two things I primarily worry about:

First, my kids are likely to grow up without a dad figure in their lives. And that sucks. It terrifies me some days, when I think of the statistics I've heard about fatherless kids. I don't want my kids to become statistics. I want them to flourish and grow, and I will do what I can. But they'll be at a disadvantage. And it's not their fault. It just breaks my heart. I worry about them, especially Timothy. Who will guide him when he's a teenager and needs a mature man to steer him right?

Second, I never expected to spend my life working full-time. I wasn't trained for a career, and I'm not ambitious. And the only job I ever enjoyed and really planned to do is now pretty much out of my reach. Different people have recommended I go in different directions--many of these directions involving grad school. But the truth is I'm not passionate enough about anything to get a graduate degree, to pay all that money, to spend all that time on something. It's hard enough working full-time and taking care of the kids without throwing grad school into the mix. I think not. So I worry about my work future and how we'll make ends meet in the long run.

Bust most days I don't think about these things. I don't think about being divorced (though I often do think about being a single mom). I don't think about how things shouldhave been. And I don't talk about it. There's not really anyone to talk to anyway. Last September, people said, "Call me if you ever want to talk," as though it's easy to just pick up the phone and talk to someone who has absolutely no clue what your life is like. Um, yeah, not so much. Besides, there isn't really much to say.

When my kids awoke a year ago today, they woke to a new definition of family, a new reality. And they have done brilliantly. I couldn't be more proud of them.

So maybe today I'll celebrate a year of survival, of making it through, of sometimes even finding the little joys amongst the hard places. Today I'll celebrate a year with my little family of three--and the addition of two little kitties to our family. :) Instead of dreading the years ahead of survival mode, I'll keep hugging my kids and telling them I love them. If they don't get that from their daddy, by golly, they're going to have to get it from me. Every day.

And I will remember:

We are still a family.

05 September 2014

Love hurts -- the reality of falling in love

(This is the second half of the story from "Falling in love -- This post is not what you think it's about.")

I moved back to Nigeria in 2006 and got to see the Tolars often. Never for much of a conversation, but I took what I could get. Though Coach had a track meet that day, Heidi was at my wedding. The next year Heidi and I were pregnant at the same time, and Julie was born just a few months before Timothy. They played together in the nursery as infants and young toddlers. We joked about arranging their marriage. And because Heidi had had a baby girl, I inherited all of her son's baby clothes that she'd kept just in case Julie had been another boy.

We left Nigeria in January 2009 when Timothy was 14 months old. That summer, I was given the opportunity to go to a Hillcrest reunion, so I took Timothy with me on the 4th of July weekend and flew to Chicago. I didn't realize until we arrived that the Tolars would be there. Timothy and Julie got to play together again, running down the corridors at the conference center in the hotel, taking trips up and down the escalator with other aunties and uncles. And I got to enjoy sweet moments with Coach and Heidi.

That weekend Coach told us all that he had been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). While this disease has been made well-known by the infamous Ice Bucket Challenge, I fear most people still don't really understand what it is or what it does to a person. The first thing  you should know is that it is fatal 100% of the time, usually within 3 to 5 years of diagnosis. The second thing you should know is that there is no known cure and only one approved treatment that slows its progression. The third thing you should know is that it kills the nerves that create movement in the muscles, leading to paralysis and eventually death. It's a disease that is uncommon and vastly under-researched due to lack of funding. (So if you did the Ice Bucket Challenge instead of sending in that check, please reconsider!)

I'm not Coach's family member. I'm only a former student. And I was devastated. Coach had been told he could hope to live for another five years but probably not longer. I couldn't believe it. My coach, the amazing Jay, who was young and fit and full of life--how could it be true? And such an illness to strike an athletic coach, someone who was always moving, always on the go! Looking at him then, you wouldn't have known there was anything wrong.

So in the midst of the shock and dismay, seeing him looking healthy as we parted company that July led me to think of him as still healthy and full of energy. I didn't hear news of them for several months. They returned to Nigeria to set their affairs in order, then came back to the U.S. to start clinical studies.

It was three years before I saw them again. My best friend and I found out about a fundraiser in San Antonio, the Fighting ALS with Jay 5k. She offered to help me fly there, so I left the kids with family and headed to San Antonio for a weekend in July 2012. It was amazing to see the Tolars again, and to see the outpouring of love by our Hillcrest community now in the States. It couldn't have been more obvious how much Coach and Heidi were loved. At that point in time, Coach could still speak, though his speech was slurred, but his movement was limited and jerky. I rejoiced and wept to see him. But in the crowd of people, I was too overwhelmed to do more than say a shy hello.

Another run was held the 4th of July weekend in 2013, and this time, I drove to San Antonio with my two kids. It was harder to see Coach this time. He spoke mostly with the help of a computer and rode in a motorized wheelchair. While I spoke briefly to Heidi, I'm not sure I even said hello to Coach. He was always surrounded by adoring people, and I just couldn't get up the courage to approach him. (In retrospect, how foolish!) 

This past June, I attended the Third Annual Fighting ALS with Jay 5k. It had been five years since his diagnosis, and I had been told that he was hanging on. I was eager but apprehensive to go--eager to see Coach and Heidi but apprehensive about how I'd respond. This time I didn't speak to Coach at all the day before or the day of the run. On Sunday, though, I got to visit the Tolars in their home for an hour. I got to hear Coach's jokes--told through his computer--and see him smile. I got to see the mischievous gleam in his eye when he teased me. 

And I got to say goodbye. That experience is private and one I shall treasure always.

In the weeks since that farewell, my heart has swelled with joy and excitement and fear and grief. When I close my eyes, I can see Coach running full-tilt into Jesus' arms, his contagious joy radiating from every part of his being. I can hear his laughter. I know that he is eager to have this race over. But what of those of us staying behind, staying here without him?

Even as I write this, I am laughing and crying. I'm remembering the jokes he told as we drove from Jos to Abuja in the summer of 2002, remembering the stories he told us in high school about the pranks he and his friends pulled when they were at Samford, remembering that subtly Southern voice. I rejoice in all the beautiful memories, in all the joy I have had in Coach. I thank God for every moment we had. And I weep that very soon, memories are all that will remain. I weep for Heidi and Jake and Julie, for all of Coach's family and friends--those left behind. I recently saw an old video of Coach on the basketball courts doing warm-ups with his team, and my heart filled to bursting. To hear that voice again! While we still have Coach for a tiny bit longer, we already miss his voice--the voice he not only used to call his varsity teams to order but also once raised enthusiastically in worship.

I am rejoicing and grieving. And I am dreading the day--all too soon--when I get the phone call, the text message, the email that says Coach has run into Jesus' arms. 

Too soon.

UPDATE: Our beloved Coach Jay Tolar has finished the race. He ran into Jesus' arms on September 7, 2014. My heart breaks, yet I am so thankful God loved me through Coach. Love hurts. But it is worth it.

Falling in love -- This post is not about what you think it's about.

I was a tough nut to crack when I was a teenager. While I exhibited perhaps only slightly less drama than the average American teen, I kept a lot of stuff bottled up inside, including a deep, deep pit of self-loathing. I was insecure, jealous, always wondering if my friends were having fun somewhere without me. (And, to be frank, they often were.)

This was not helped by spending a year's furlough in 10th grade away from all of my friends. When I returned to Nigeria at the end of my 10th grade year to say goodbye to friends who were moving back to New Zealand and be at graduation--always a reunion time at our school--I was excited but broken. I knew only too well how different things would be. Friendships had changed. New people had come, others had gone. I knew it would be a huge effort to fit in again.

And in those last few weeks of school when I was back in Nigeria (without my parents), a sweet thing happened. I filled out an application and was chosen to participate in the praise team.

While I had been gone for a year, a "new" couple had arrived. Jay ("Coach") and Heidi Tolar had both attended Hillcrest as kids, had spent many of their growing-up years in Nigeria, and had returned to teach P.E. and coach sports. And agreed to sponsor the praise team.

I immediately fell in love with the Tolars. I'd met Heidi before; she had come to teach high school P.E. as a single young lady when my older sister was in high school. But since she was not my P.E. teacher, I only knew her from hearing her teach the high school girls on the basketball court. I knew she was strong and had a cheerful if a bit intimidating demeanor. She was very pretty, and she played the piano beautifully. I remember that, even though it was more than 20 years ago.

But I'd never met Jay before. I suppose I had read bits and pieces about him in occasional letters and emails from my friends, but not having met him, I probably didn't pay much attention.After all, I knew I wouldn't be participating in any sports, so a new coach wouldn't really impact me.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

The Living Stones (praise team) - 1999
I arrived just weeks before the end of school, and I don't even remember how I got hold of the application for the praise team. But I loved to sing, and my siblings had both participated in leading worship at school, so I submitted the application and waited. The then-current praise team had a prayer meeting and prayed over the applications one night, and I was one of several who were selected to join the group. After having been gone for a year and feeling so out-of-the-loop and forlorn, this simple acceptance was a balm, that healing salve.

And that is how I got to know Coach initially. He would say he didn't have any musical talent but wanted to make a joyful noise. He had a rich voice (with a mild Southern accent) and lots of gusto, and even though he may not have had musical training, his enthusiasm and leadership were more than enough to bring us together as a team. Most of my sweetest memories from those two years are from spending time with Coach and the praise team.

I guess I should mention here, too, that my school was not just a school. It was the hub of a community of missionaries, expatriates, faith,  music, and sports. Teachers there didn't just teach. Their scope of influence wasn't limited to school. They were mentors. They led discipleship groups. They took us on ministry trips to the bush. They listened. They loved. They showed us by example how to live full lives. They were friends. Family.

Jay & Heidi on our senior trip - April 2000
I also discovered once my junior year began that Coach and Heidi were our class sponsors, so they would be responsible for helping us fundraise, put on our Junior/Senior Banquet, and plan our senior trip  I completely fell in love with them both. (Did I already mention that?) Heidi (but we called her "Mrs. Tolar," of course) was an A-type person--organized, straight-forward, always on top of things, cheerful and direct. Coach was more laid-back, full of charisma, lovingly blunt, and full of laughter. Seldom have I seen the spectrum of godly love and life demonstrated so visibly as in Coach and Heidi. They were God-people in a practical, hands-on way. They made us laugh and helped us become better people. They encouraged us to excel, to break out of the box, to do great things.

And Coach believed in me. I was this shy, terrified, jealous teenager, and Coach saw only what was precious and beautiful. More than once, he spoke against my self-deprecating attitude. He didn't just ignore it. He called me out on it, told me that every time I said something negative about myself--or even thought it--it hurt God. Ouch. Did I mention he was lovingly blunt? For all of my silliness, all of my neediness and faults, Coach somehow saw great potential. Even though I wasn't athletic and never tried out for sports, he was never disappointed in me but encouraged me to be healthy, to keep singing, to keep loving people and loving Jesus.

My senior year, I had to take junior/senior P.E., which is normally an elective, but because I'd been gone for 10th grade, I needed to take it to fulfill my graduation requirements. Coach taught the class, and I swear it is the only P.E. class I have ever enjoyed in my life. We did rock-climbing, golf, archery, marksmanship, Frisbee, and other fun stuff. And when I forcefully (but respectfully) refused to hold a gun, let alone shoot one, Coach didn't question me or comment. He just got out a bow and let me shoot arrows instead. That year I also volunteered to do basketball statistics--mostly time-keeping, blowing the air horn, that type of thing. It gave me a chance to see Coach in all his glory, immersed in his element. I loved the hype of being at games, being an honorary part of the team. I loved it.

And I knew that one of the hardest parts of graduating was going to be saying goodbye to the Tolars. No matter how much you love teachers, you have to know that those teachers will have new students next year, that while your heart might ache for missing them, they will have moved on to focus on other kids. That's their job, their ministry. But it made me sad, wistful. So when the Tolars invited our class to have Thanksgiving at their family home during our first year of college, while they were on furlough, I was elated. Honestly, I don't remember much of that four-day weekend, as I was pretty sleep-deprived. I remember Coach picking us up at the airport, coordinating our arrivals from all over the country. And I remember going to see Pay It Forward with Coach and a couple classmates while the rest of the group went shopping. I remember crying. I'd had a very hard time adjusting to life in college, and being at the Tolars' was like being at home. It was a safe place, a refuge, somewhere I could rest. My heart was bursting with thanksgiving. Later that year, Heidi had her first baby, and Coach called me one morning before class to tell me, "You're an auntie!" I cried.

The Tolars went back to Nigeria after that first year of college, and they focused on their students. And I missed them. I returned to Nigeria instead of going back to school the second semester of my sophomore year. We had the Tolars over for my birthday when I turned 20. When I returned to the States in June, the Tolars accompanied me as far as England, even letting me (and another student) stay with them at a London hotel for our layover. I cannot tell you how much it meant to me to be included, to be part of the family.

 I had fallen in love with the Tolars. They felt like home.