“Packing up a Lifetime,” July 21, 2020

The fire started without warning, roaring like a ravenous lion through tinderbox brush in the canyon below our house. It was late afternoon, a beautiful day. Doors were open to catch the breeze blowing in from the coast. I was sitting at my computer, trying to think of something decent to fix for dinner, when my phone rang.

It was Henry, my 8-year-old grandson, who lives nearby.

“Hey, my darlin’!” I said.

“Nana!” he shouted, the way he always does when he’s got something big to tell me, “are you and Papa Mark OK? Mom and I can see a huge cloud of smoke! And it looks like it’s burning by your house!”

I took a breath and noticed a faint smell of … smoke?

“Thanks for thinking of us,” I said, “but don’t worry, it’s probably not as close as it looks. I’ll check and call you back.”

“Hurry, Nana!” he said.

When I stepped out on the patio, my heart begin to pound. At the bottom of the canyon, clouds of smoke billowed high into the sky. Then, I saw flames licking up through the trees.

My husband was in the garage.

“Fire!” I shouted, as I ran past him to the driveway to get a better look. He ran after me and for a moment we stood there together, staring at what could be the end of a home we loved and a lifetime of treasures.

“I’ll back the car out,” he said. “Go get what you want to take and let’s pack up.”

I looked down the hill and saw a neighbor, whose house was even closer to the flames than ours, loading up his truck. I waved. He waved back. Then he came up the hill to make sure we knew about the fire.

The next minutes passed in a blur. Never in my life have I been so glad to hear sirens and see tanker planes and a helicopter circling overhead.

I’ve always had great respect for those who risk their lives running toward danger so the rest of us can run to safety. But I had never felt that respect quite as deeply or as personally as I felt it at that moment.

I said a quick prayer for safety for everyone, then ran inside to pack. What do you take when there’s no time to be picky and not much room in your car?

We moved to this valley just over a year ago, knowing it was, like most of California, a high risk for wildfire. Last summer we packed “emergency bags” with clothes and necessities to keep on hand if, God forbid, we ever had to run for our lives.

Where did I put mine? Not in the closet. In the garage? No, under the bed! I dragged it out and unzipped it to add anything else that might fit. A few family photos. A book I published 20 years ago. My laptop computer and a copy of my will. Odds and ends, pieces of my life.

As I packed up all that I could take, I felt painfully aware of all that I had to leave behind: The dining room table where my kids once did their homework. Paintings and photos and keepsakes that could never be replaced. My husband’s musical instruments. And more than 30 years of yellowed newspaper clippings of my work.

I grabbed my wedding ring off the bathroom counter, slipped it on my finger and told myself, “Take what you can, leave the rest, all that matters is life.”

So I picked up my bag and walked out of my house for what I knew might be the last time.

And then, I was given a gift, a finer ending to a story that could’ve been a tragedy. While my husband and I and our neighbors were packing up our lives, the firefighters, God bless them, had fought back the blaze.

The tankers were still circling. But the flames were gone. And the smoke was slowly clearing.

Only a few things remained for us to do: Breathe a sigh of relief. Be forever thankful. Unpack the car. And tell all our loved ones (and anyone else who might care) not to worry, the fire was out and we were fine, thanks.

I called Henry first.

“Signs of Life,” July 14, 2020

Somedays, when I’m feeling low, wishing the world were a better place than it seems at times, I tell myself that I’m alive and the best is yet to come.

I say that not because I have breath and a heartbeat, though both help. But life is a lot more than what goes on inside of us.

Look around you. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? Who do you love? What do you know to be true?

Signs of life are all around us, like billboards on a freeway pointing the way when we feel lost. Here are a few of mine:

Some mornings, my husband brings me coffee, creamy and sweet, just the way I like it. I take a sip and taste both the bittersweetness of the brew and the steadfastness of the love that has placed it in my hands.

Through a window, I watch purple fronds of salvia wave like banners in the wind. A hawk glides on the currents, looking for something to kill. A deer hops the fence on the patio. I clap my hands. It hops back out. In the distance, a neighbor’s dog barks like it means business.

I spend an hour reading emails and messages on Facebook and my website. Family and friends send their love. Readers (friends I’ve yet to meet) write to confirm what life and work have taught me, that we are all more alike than different, and we are all in this same leaky boat together.

I call my brother and listen, for the umpteenth time, to his recording on his voice mail. He’ll call back when he’s good and ready. Then I call my sister and talk for half an hour about everything and nothing. We always talk about the same things, my brother and sister and I, but we’re the oldest survivors of our immediate family, and for me, it’s a sign of life just to hear their voices.

Clicking off the call, I notice a new video of my 14-month-old grandson. He’s playing peek-a-boo for the camera. Thanks to videos, I’ve watched him taking his first steps, saying his first words and belly-laughing at his mama and daddy. My mother would’ve have lived ten years longer to see videos like that.

In the afternoon, I take a drive to visit my kids and grandkids nearby. Nobody’s home at Henry’s house. But at the next stop, Wiley and Eleanor run out to hug me. I’m wearing a mask, but they know I’m grinning like a mule eating briars.

Driving home, I listen to a CD my husband recorded with his music buddies. It includes a song he wrote for me. I like all the songs (even the ones about other women) but I like my song best. I wish you could hear it.

For dinner, I make a salad of fresh produce that’s delivered each week to our door: Gem lettuce, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, spring onions, basil and a handful of strawberries. I add some leftover chicken and toss it with a simple dressing. It’s two of my favorite things, easy and good. Just the taste of it reminds me I’m alive.

After dinner, my husband and I go outside for a “sunset ritual,” watching the sun bed down in a blanket of fog on the coast.

Most people like to see the sun set. They’ll flock to a beach to snap a quick selfie as the sun sinks into the ocean. But here’s a little known secret. Sometimes the sun saves the best for last, painting heaven’s doorstep with the most spectacular display, long after most folks have given up and gone home. I’ve seen that happen countless times. I’ll bet you’ve seen it, too.

Years ago, on one of the darkest days of my life, I decided sunsets are God’s way of telling us, “You’re alive. Be thankful. Don’t despair. The best is yet to come.”

The sun rises every morning and the old world becomes new. But the best shows up time after time when we least expect it. It’s worth waking up to watch for it.

What are your signs of life?

“A Freeway to Freedom,” July 7, 2020

Few things are as terrifying as driving for hours on a freeway surrounded by bumper-to-bumper bats out of hell.

I was headed home after spending a week visiting my son and his wife and their little guy in Northern California. I expected traffic, but not like this. My car’s GPS kept trying to reroute me, dumping me on side roads that were even worse.

Sometimes, when we try to get around a problem, we realize that there is no getting around it. The best we can do is just sit back and try to enjoy the ride.

That is what I did. For seven hours. With one stop for gas and a bathroom break. Followed by 10 minutes of handwashing and sanitizing everything I touched.

I can’t say I enjoyed the ride, but it gave me time to think, and my mind seized on something I keep trying to understand.

It’s called fear. Maybe you’re trying to understand it, too?

When I was a child, my mother would say, “You have to learn to watch for danger or it will sneak up on you!”

I wasn’t sure what kind of danger she meant, but I didn’t want it to sneak up on me. I got really good at watching for it. Especially after I became a mother. My kids would tell their friends, “What’s the safest thing in the world? Our mom will tell you 20 ways it can kill you!”

I learned from the best. Like my mother, or any good parent, I watched for danger and tried really hard, like Wonder Mama, to shield my children from it.

I still do. Now they do it for their children. And I help.

Here’s the thing I don’t quite understand: How do we watch for danger, and try to prevent it, without living in fear of it? Watching for it is wise. But fearing it robs us of joy. And peace. And sleep. And health. And a whole lot of good times.

In 2001, on 9/11, when terrorist attacks took the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans, I feared the possibility of another attack. For a while, that fear — of something that was merely possible, not a reality — changed how I lived. I let it steal my freedom and my peace of mind.

But in time, I realized that the goal of terrorism is not just to kill. It also aims to terrorize, to force us to live in a prison of fear, not in the kind of freedom we love.

My mother was right. We need to watch for danger. But every moment we spend fearing what “might” happen tomorrow is a moment we will miss seeing the beauty and reality of today.

After 9/11, I began to pray that I would learn to live unafraid. That was nearly 20 years ago. I’m still learning.

Like you, I’ve known other terrors in my lifetime: The Cuban Missile Crisis, when my friends and I left school sobbing, certain we’d be annihilated that night; the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake that lasted the longest 15 seconds of my life; and the day my first husband finally lost his four-year battle with cancer.

Now we’re facing a pandemic, an invisible terror that’s already taken far more lives than 9/11.

Last week I watched how my 14-month-old grandson lives free and unafraid. Jonah wakes up each day ready to conquer the world, eager to do all that his mom and dad can do, open any door, empty any cabinet, dance on the table, bang his head falling down and clap his hands for every success.

We should all be so blessed to live like that. Thankfully, Jonah’s parents (and his nana) watch for danger and try to shield him from it. He will learn to watch for it, too. But I pray that he will never live in fear.

Here’s what I realized on my seven-hour drive: I can’t always choose what happens in my life. I can only choose how I live.

I’ll watch for danger and take precautions — wearing a mask and social distancing and avoiding crowds — if need be.

But with God’s grace, I hope to dwell in the joy of today, not in the fear of tomorrow. I want to stay alive, and to be alive, body and soul.

Like Jonah, we’re all born to live free and unafraid.

“Call Me Mamanana,” June 30, 2020

Children don’t stay children forever. They grow up and move on with their lives. That is as it should be. But when do mothers stop being mothers?

My kids have been grown and on their own for more years than either I or they care to admit. All three are married with children of their own and manage quite well without me.

Changing roles from “mama” to “nana” has been the best job promotion I could hope for — all the joy without any of the work. And while my grown children always make me feel loved and appreciated, my grandchildren make me feel like a rock star.

I like being my grandkids’ rockstar nana. I’m happy to leave the parenting to their parents. But I can’t quite seem to stop being a mom to my grown kids. For example:

_ It’s hard for me to go more than a few days (certainly no more than a week) without hearing from each one of them. In person. And at length. For at least 20 minutes, but preferably longer. If they don’t call me, I will track them down.

_ Yes, they’re grown, but I still need to hug them often and smell the backs of their necks. They don’t mind the hugs, but the neck sniffing drives them crazy. Too bad, I don’t care.

_ At times, I might offer them a bit of unsolicited advice, but it is always well-intentioned, and in most cases, ignored.

_ I love to tell hilarious stories about things they did when they were growing up. I can do this until the cows come home, or until the kids make me stop. I think they like hearing those stories, even if they insist they aren’t true. Which they are.

Those are only a few of the ways I still tend to act like a mom. Maybe most moms do those things. But here’s one that might seem a bit odd: I need to see every corner of every room of every place they’ve ever lived.

I’m not sure why. It’s not an inspection. It’s more like a familiarization. I just can’t quite rest until I can picture them in their new surroundings.

To do this, I have traveled near and far, across town and across country, to New York or Montana or Los Angeles, any place they’ve called home.

Today, I drove six long hours to spend a few days with my oldest and his wife and their 14-month-old, Jonah, in their new home in Northern California. We FaceTime often, but it had been a few months since our last real visit. I was hoping Jonah would recognize me as the nana who lives in his dad’s iPhone.

He did. But not at first. He took a while to warm up to me. Meanwhile, his mom and dad gave me a tour of the new place. I checked out every corner of every room. It was perfect. Then we sat in the yard and watched Jonah run barefoot in the grass.

We were eating pizza in the dining room when Jonah finally grinned, pointed to me and said the magic word: “Nana!”

I wish you could’ve seen him.

Somehow, it made that six-hour drive seem a lot shorter.

After dinner, Jonah took me in his play room and kept handing me books, one after another, begging me to read to him.

Watching him in action, with his golden hair shining like cornsilks in the sun, I thought once again, as I’ve done so often since he was born, how very much he looks like his dad.

Suddenly, I realized another reason why I love being a nana. Looking at my grandchildren, I can see, not only them, but the children I knew long ago: A cornsilk-haired toddler who begged me to read; a little girl in long braids who picked fistfuls of flowers just for me from the neighbor’s yard; and a blue-eyed boy who loved to catch lizards and hide them in my purse.

My grandchildren, God bless them, are giving me back my children. I am “mamanana.” It’s one great job with the joy of both and none of the work.

“Comforting a Friend in Loss,” June 23, 2020

(NOTE: I’m on vacation this week. The following often requested column is from October of 2006.)

What do you say to someone who has just lost the love of her life? How can you offer hope when all she sees is despair?

I often hear from readers who are grieving the loss of a loved one. They write to me about their loss, as I’ve often written about mine in this column in the years since my first husband died of cancer.

To hear their stories and share in their grief is an honor and a gift. I’ve had thousands of such letters over the years and have tried, with limited success, to answer as best I can.

Some things don’t get easier with practice. Loss still hurts, no matter how many times we suffer it. And finding the right words to offer comfort is never easy. I’d rather send a casserole than write a note, but I’m not great at casseroles either.

What I have learned is this: If we use our loss to help others, it can turn tragedy into gain. So we try. I recently heard from a woman who had lost her husband of 34 years and wanted to know how I “got through it”? Here, more or less, is the reply:

Dear “Sarah,”
I am sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine how you must feel. Every loss is different — as unique as the one who suffers it. I can’t tell you what to do or how to heal. You’ll decide that for yourself. You’re the only one who can. But I’ll tell you a few things that helped me, and hope they’re of use to you, too.

First, let me say this: You are stronger than you know. You have all the strength you need. It’s in yourself, your family, your friends and your God.

It’s like the air around you; you aren’t aware of it until you need it. Just remember to “breathe.”

Second, as Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” This is your season to grieve. Allow yourself to be there. If you feel like crying, cry. If you feel like laughing, laugh. If you feel like screaming, put your face in a pillow (so the neighbors won’t call 911) and scream away. Do what feels right to you.

My sister hates winter. She’d much rather lie on a beach in a bikini than bundle up in a parka in the snow. But in winter, she doesn’t try to tell herself she’s got no right to feel cold. It’s natural to feel cold in winter, just as it is to feel sad in grief. Do as my sister does — bundle up and pray hard for spring.

How long will you have to wait for the “spring thaw”? I can’t answer that. It takes as long as it takes. Pay attention to your heart and trust it to lead you. It’s a good heart. It’s broken, but it will mend.

Of all the advice I heard after my husband died, two things in particular made sense to me. The first was from a reader who told me to rearrange the furniture in my bedroom to make it look different — to make it my own. I did and it helped.

(Note: Moving furniture is like prayer; good for the soul but hard on the knees. Trust me. Do not try to move a king-sized bed and a double dresser alone.)

The other advice came from a friend: “The challenge for you now,” he wrote, “having lost your loved one, is to live a life that is honoring to his memory, while at the same time that life moves forward, so that only one person has died and not two.”

It is a challenge — one of the toughest you’ll ever face — to move forward with your life when you still long for the life you had. The reality, of course, is that you can’t go back. You can either stay where you are in a season of grief; or step out in faith to honor your husband’s memory and choose to be alive for whatever lies ahead.

You’ll make that choice when you’re ready. I made that choice many years ago, and I still make it every day.

Here’s wishing you grace and peace.

“Dad’s Day,” June 16, 2020

The first man I ever loved never learned to cook. If no one cooked for him, he would eat out or go hungry. We ate out a lot.

I didn’t see him often. Not often enough. But not because he didn’t try.

Sometimes I would cook for him. My specialty was instant coffee. Two heaping spoonfuls in a cup of lukewarm tap water. He’d drink every drop, trying not to gag, insisting it was the best coffee he’d ever had.

My second specialty was mud pies. I’d stand barefoot in the creek on the farm where he lived with his mother, scooping mud into a plastic cup. He’d sit on the creek bank, licking his lips like a dog begging for a bone. I’d stir the mud in the cup, adding creek water, just so.

“Here,” I’d say, presenting it like a turkey on a platter at Thanksgiving. Then I’d watch him pretend to wolf it down, rolling his eyes with pleasure, saying, “Mmm, mmm! You sure do know the way to a man’s heart!”

I wish you could’ve seen him.

Sometimes he made me laugh so hard I’d fall into the creek and he’d have to fish me out.

My dad wasn’t perfect. My mother would certainly agree with that and gladly elaborate.

But I knew things about him that she didn’t know. Or maybe he was just better somehow at being a father than a husband.

After they divorced, when I was 2, she stopped being his wife. But I would always be his daughter, as I am even now, almost 30 years since he died.

Here, in no order, are some things I know about my dad:

_ He grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains and never wanted to live anywhere else. But he took me to see the ocean once. We spent a week walking the beach and fishing off a pier. We didn’t catch much, of course, because I liked to talk more than fish. But he didn’t seem to mind.

_ He joined the Army in WWII and fought the Nazis, he said, “back to their front porch.” He was shot crossing the Rhine, spent months recovering, and came home to his mountains to take a job in a textile mill, changing shifts every week.

_ When he wasn’t at the mill, he was milking cows or plowing fields or fishing or hunting or looking for ways to spend time with my older sister and me.

_ He respected my mother. He never once spoke ill of her in my presence. And he never failed to send her monthly child support, or anything else we might need.

_ He bought a suit and a tie and wore them three times: To see me graduate from high school and college, and to escort me down the aisle at my wedding.

_ He loved his six grandkids, three from my sister and three from me. He was like a father to my sister’s kids who lived near him, and he flew to California a few times to get to know mine.

_ In his 50s, he suffered a stroke and spent seven years in a VA hospital. When he was released — with a bad limp, slurred speech and a paralyzed arm — he swore he’d never go back.

The last time I visited him at his apartment, I looked inside his fridge and laughed.

“Daddy,” I said, “when are you ever going to learn to cook?”

He grinned, and his eyes were still as blue as they are in all my memories.

“Never,” he said.

A few months later, he was gone. The note he left to explain why he took his life said he was sure he had cancer and was not about to go back in a hospital.

There is so much I’ll never know about my dad — things I never asked him, and will always wish that I had.

Why do we wait until it’s too late to say what we long to say and ask what we long to know?

On Father’s Day, and other days, I remember especially two things about him: He was a good man. And he loved me.

Becoming a father is often too easy. To be a great dad takes a good man and a lot of love.

To all the great dads, now or in memories, happy Father’s Day!

“And the Beat Goes on,” June 9, 2020

Just when I began to think I might survive the quarantine lockdown, my husband decided to take up a new instrument.

Yes, I knew he was a musician when I married him. But the real test of a marriage is not what you know on your wedding day. It’s the little surprises that pop up over the years like gophers in a bed of roses.

Let me be clear. I have great respect for all musicians and whatever instruments they may play. I wish them all the best. But is it wrong to say I like some more than others?

It’s hard to pick a favorite instrument. I like most anything with strings. Except banjos. The mountains where I grew up had more banjo pickers than fleas on the dogs. A little banjo goes a long way. Even my husband, who loves every musical instrument on the planet, can only take so much banjo. He prefers the bass, which is great, because he happens to be my all-time favorite bass player.

I wish you could hear him.

We’ve been married 15 years, long enough to know each other well. And after nearly three months in quarantine, we know each other a lot better.

Imagine my surprise to hear him say he had ordered (drum roll, please) a set of drums.

Have you ever lived with a drummer? I did once. My youngest child, as a teenager, wanted a drum set for his birthday. I gave it to him. He loved it. I nearly lost my mind. Our neighbors formed a task force to discuss the safest way to legally burn down our house.

The boy became a great drummer, then his interests moved on. My hearing never recovered, but the neighbors stopped waving torches.

It takes a special kind of person, with a special kind of heart, to live with a drummer. I am not that kind of person. I married my husband for better or worse, but not for drums.

As I write this, he’s out in our garage banging away.

Can you hear him? I can.

Bang, bang, bang ….

Wait. That’s not him. That’s me beating my head on the wall.

Luckily, he realizes drumming at home may prove hazardous, not only to my sanity, but to our marriage and his life.

So he’s promised to order an electronic “silent” drum set. I offered to pay for it. If it works, it will be worth any price.

In the meantime, I’m trying, as with other challenges in life, to rely on an old standby: Humor. I looked up drummer jokes. There are tons. Here, slightly edited, are my favorites:

1. How do you know a drummer is knocking on the door? If you let him in, he’ll keep knocking.

2. What do you call a drummer who practices in the garage while his wife does yoga in the living room? Divorced.

3. How do you make a drummer stop playing in your home? Lock him out of the house with his drums and a bag of Cheetos.

4. So, a guy goes in a bar, hears a band playing loud, and sees a woman face down on a table with her coat over her head. He says to the bartender, “Looks like she had one too many.” And the bartender replies, “No, her husband’s the drummer and unfortunately, she’s sober.”

5. How is a drum solo like a sneeze? You can tell it’s about to happen, but you can’t stop it.

6. What does a drummer say when a gig ends late because the crowd kept calling for more? “Has anybody seen my wife?”

7. So, a drummer dies and goes to heaven. Waiting at the Pearly Gates, he hears the most divine drum solo ever. Waving to St. Peter, he says, “That’s got to be God playing, right?” St. Peter says, “Sorry, buddy, that’s your wife. She heard we only allow one drum set up here and she wanted to beat you to it.”

8. What do you call a drummer who practices on a silent drum set? A truly gifted musician.<

Humor helps, but it’s not enough. If he doesn’t get a silent drum set soon, I’m buying a banjo.

“The Fifth Freedom,” June 2, 2020

If Norman Rockwell could’ve painted this day, he might’ve called it: “An Average American Family in the Age of Covid-19 in Desperate Need of Haircuts.”

Instead, my husband snapped it with his iPhone: My younger son, his wife and their three little ones (Randy, 9, Wiley, 7, and Eleanor, 5, in her tiara) sitting in our driveway on the back of their SUV, beaming brighter than the sun.

I wish you could’ve seen them.

Rockwell might’ve included my husband and me perched on folding chairs six feet away. His work captured moments in the everyday lives of Americans for almost half a century in his paintings and illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post.

My personal favorite is “The Problem We All Live With.” It depicts a day in 1960, when a 6-year-old African-American girl, dressed like my Eleanor in her Sunday best, was escorted by four deputy U.S. marshals to an all-white public school.

Another of Rockwell’s best-loved works is “Freedom from Want,” in which an elderly couple present a roasted turkey to their family gathered around the table for Thanksgiving.

It’s part of a series Rockwell based on a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in which FDR cited four basic freedoms: Freedom of speech and expression; freedom to worship as we choose; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.

Those freedoms belong to “everyone, everywhere,” FDR said, and were not a distant vision, but were “attainable in our own time and generation.”

This morning, reading about protests and riots around the country, I realized a heart-wrenching irony: Nearly 80 years after FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech — and 2,000 years after Christ commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves — we’re still fighting to ensure basic human freedoms for everyone, everywhere.

Even as we fight a pandemic.

Visiting with my kids in the driveway today seemed almost normal, except for keeping our distance. We’ve had several “distant visits” with family lately, including one from my husband’s son, who drove for hours to talk six feet apart.

Any of those visits could’ve been a Rockwell painting, along with our FaceTime calls when my husband reads to his granddaughter, Charlotte, or when I watch 1-year-old Jonah dance and snap his fingers.

But I doubt even Rockwell could have captured the pride in Randy’s face when he showed us a picture he drew for Papa Mark. Or the sadness in Wiley’s eyes when he realized he couldn’t hug me. Or the sound of Eleanor’s voice when she yelled as they were leaving, “How much do you love us?”

That’s a question I’ve been asking my grandkids since they were born. Elle knew the answer and grinned, waiting to hear it.

“All!” I shouted back. Because that’s the most anyone can love.

Like my grandmother, I tell my kids and grandkids that they are all my favorite. Is it possible to have more than one favorite?

My son explained it best, saying this about his children: “They are each ‘The Chosen One’ for different reasons. It’s a miracle to realize that we can love each one of them more than anything in the Universe.”

It would also be a miracle to realize — for ourselves and our children and all children — a world in which everyone, everywhere, is free to love and to be loved and to enjoy the same basic Four Freedoms.

There’s a fifth freedom that is equally miraculous: We need to feel free to hold our loved ones close — in times of grief and joy — not just in our hearts, but in our arms.

I believe in miracles. Do you?

“Giving Thanks, not Giving Up,” May 26, 2020

Growing up, I was often told by my mother and grandmother and all of my aunts — women who were world class worriers — that worrying is not only a sin, but a big waste of time.

Always hope for the best, they said, but make dang sure you’re prepared for the worst.

The difference, I realized, in worrying and being prepared is this: One lets you sleep in peace. The other keeps you awake and makes you a pain to be around.

I started worrying when I was 4, the day my brother Joe was born premature and hairless, like a fist with eyes. He spent weeks in an incubator, after which we were told he had cerebral palsy, might never walk, and was totally blind.

For Joe, things often seemed to go from bad to worse. Surgeries aimed at helping his legs only made them weaker. Going to school meant leaving home as a little boy to live with strangers in a dorm. Finding a job and a sense of independence would prove nearly impossible.

His life has been a litany of loss. More than his eyesight and the use of his legs, Joe lost four of the people he loved most. Our mother; his wife; our stepfather; and our younger brother.

He lives alone now in public housing, where packages get stolen off his porch. Does his own cooking and laundry. Goes to church every Sunday, if his legs don’t hurt too much.

But for every heartache and disappointment, Joe has said thanks. Thank you, Lord. Thank you, family. Thank you, friends. He has taught me by example that gratitude builds hope. If we are mindful of all the ways that we’ve been blessed, it’s easier to believe we’ll be blessed again.

I live in California. Joe and our sister live in South Carolina. We keep in touch by phone. When I called Joe yesterday, I said, “Hey, darlin’, how you doin’?”

“I’m OK,” he said, “I guess.”

Joe is never just OK. He could be on fire and insist he’s fine.

“What’s up?” I said.

“Well, I’ll just tell you. My legs are burnin’ and hurtin’ bad.”

Joe wears braces that help him walk, but they sometimes cause problems, even infections.

“Did you call your doctor?”

“Not yet. Maybe tomorrow.”

I think he was stalling so he could listen to a rebroadcast of a Clemson football game on TV.

I never nag him. I leave that to my sister, a retired nurse who inherited the nagging gene from our mother. I called her next.

“His legs are hurting bad,” I said. “Don’t tell him I told you.”

“Oh, Lord,” she said. “I’ll call you back after I talk to him.”

Minutes later she called again.

“He needs to go the ER,” she said, “but he won’t listen to me!”

She would drag him to the ER if she could, but she can’t see well enough to drive at night.

“He never listens,” I said. “He’ll go when he’s ready.”

Hours later, when he couldn’t stand the pain, Joe called 911.

My sister phoned me this morning with a full report. Joe was in the hospital getting IV antibiotics for infections in both legs. He’ll probably be there for a few days. So far, in 12 hours, he’d had three trays of food.

I called him right away.

“Hey, darlin’, how you doin’?”

“Hey, Sister!” he whooped, “I’m doin’ fine, considering!”

Yes, he was on pain meds. We talked about everything and nothing. Finally, Joe said this:

“Don’t worry about me, Sister. I’m just thankful the Lord was looking out for me and gave me all these good people — the EMTs and doctors and nurses — to take such good care of me.”

I’m thankful for all of that, too.

Now, more than ever, in the dark of this pandemic, we need to see clearly, like my brother, not with our eyes, but with our hearts. Gratitude is a light that shines in the soul, turning worry into hope, fear into joy, weakness into strength and worriers into warriors.

What are you thankful for?

“The Hiding Place,” May 19, 2020


Do you recall the first time you climbed a tree? How old were you? How did you feel? Scared? Proud? Happy? Free?

Tree climbing is a formative experience. There are countless others, of course. Jumping in a pool, hoping your dad won’t let you drown. Riding a bike with no training wheels. Waving goodbye to your mom the first day of school. Opening your mouth to let a dentist poke a metal tool around your teeth.

Most every day in a child’s life brings a new adventure, a new demand to boldly go where that child has never gone before. It’s no wonder parents of small children seem to age overnight.

One day, when I was 6 years old, I crawled beneath the low-hanging limbs of a tree I would later learn to call a hemlock. Inside that tree, much to my surprise, the limbs formed a giant canopy under which I could hide from most of the cares of the world.

I wish you could’ve seen it.

Child or adult, we all need a hiding place once in a while. That tree became my childhood refuge. It still shelters me in memory. Its trunk was so big I couldn’t hug it and its branches grew spaced like a ladder.

I’m not sure all this happened exactly as I will tell you, but it’s the way I like to remember it. I heard a voice like the rustle of leaves and the ripple of water whisper, “Go on. You can do it.”

“But what if I fall?” I said, “or rip my dress, or get stuck on a limb and no one can find me?”

“You can’t answer every question,” said the voice. “Take a step and trust where it leads.”

So I stepped on a branch and reached up for the next. It was easy. I kept going. Halfway up, the tree began to sway to and fro in the wind and the voice said, “That’s far enough today, child. You’ll go higher tomorrow.”
Then I sat for a long while, resting in the arms of a tree and in the palm of God’s right hand.

Do you recall the last time you climbed a tree? How old were you? How did you feel? Scared? Proud? Happy? Free? Were you trying to rescue a cat?

A few years ago, when my grandson Henry was 5, he asked me to climb a tree with him in his back yard. It was easy. We used a step ladder to boost ourselves up, straddled a sturdy limb and sat there together, talking about birds and clouds and the meaning of life.

It was the first tree I’d climbed since Henry’s mom was his age. I told him about the hemlock, how it became my hiding place.

“I like to hide up here, too,” he said, staring at the ground, “as long as I don’t climb too high.”

Henry has a new tree now in his new backyard, and he climbs it every chance he gets. I haven’t climbed it with him yet. It’s a pretty big tree.

Maybe I can do it with a ladder when the virus quarantine is over.
Until then, I can’t even hug Henry and his cousins, let alone, climb trees with them. I’m not sure how we’d keep six feet apart on a tree limb.

In the months since the quarantine began, I sometimes find myself asking questions that have no answers: Are my loved ones safe? How long will this last? What will our lives be like in the days to come?

Do you ask questions like that?

I think about what I learned as a child, what I tried to teach my children, and hope to teach my grandchildren: We can’t answer every question. We just need to take a step, and then another, and trust where it will lead.

The step I’ve learned to take first, before any other, is simple, but not easy. I pray to be at peace, to stop asking questions that I can’t answer. Then I close my eyes and picture myself in the palm of God’s hand and the arms of a sheltering tree.

And for a while, I’m no longer a woman fearing for her family and her friends and the world she loves. I’m simply a child at play. And life becomes not only a bold adventure, but the boundless joy that we long for it to be.