Climbing Mountains and Conquering Fear


Let me take you back a few years. It was Christmas 1989. Mike was working at George Mason University in sports information and the basketball team was playing a Christmas tournament in Hawaii. Baby Michael was 14 months old.. The three of us flew with the team from Atlanta to Honolulu, non-stop. It was a miserable flight. Michael was perfectly well-behaved. Alternating between playing with the few things I'd brought along and nursing and sleeping, he was so content that people went out of their ways to tell us how good he was. But I was miserable. As we flew, I felt more and more swollen and my chest felt leaden, as if something were bearing down and suffocating me. I was glad to land, collect my floral lei, and put air travel behind me until the return trip a week later. 

Mike worked a lot that week and Michael and I toddled around explored the island on our own as best as we could. We saved a hike up Diamondhead for Christmas day when Mike could join us. The hike is an impressive one, up the volcano at a decent incline, until nearly the top and then up a steep flight of stairs the last 1/10 of the way. I struggled almost from the beginning. Early on, we transferred Michael from my back to Mike's. Still, I felt heavy. I tried to keep up and I tried not to let on how hard it was, but when we got to the base of the stairs, I told Mike to leave Michael with me and go up alone--I just could not do it. I absolutely could not climb those stairs. He was rather incredulous. He didn't go up to the top either. There was a bit of a stony silence coming down.

We had hiked together before--during college in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia--and I loved to hike. A one car family, I was home with a baby and Michael and I walked all over the place all the time. What was this and why couldn't I just muscle through?

Three months later, we discovered a formidable tumor in my chest. I had cancer. Mystery solved.  I didn't fly again for 15 years. And I didn't climb mountains, either. The memory of that feeling of suffocating kept me from trails with inclines for a very long time.

Last summer, when I was doing my marathon walking, I stumbled upon a picture of a friend of Patrick's on Instagram. Aimee had just hiked Humpback Rocks, a perfectly gorgeous and very steep trail on the Blue Ridge, between University of Virginia and James Madison University. Seeing her picture brought back flood of memories--not the Diamondback memories, but the ones that precede it. I remembered climbing to Humpback Rocks with Mike when he was at JMU and and I was at UVa. It was before we were engaged and I remembered him telling me we would bring our kids on that hike one day. I texted Aimee right there on the spot and asked her if she'd want to hike to Humpback Rocks with me in the fall. She agreed, and that hike became my fitness goal for 450 miles of summer walking.

Our first visit in August, Aimee wasn't able to make it. I was disappointed, but my stepmother, Barbara, suggested that when we returned three weeks later, we all make a trip of it. I remembered that the Humpback Rocks hike was harder than the Diamondhead hike, assuming one was healthy. It's just a mile to the top, but it's very steep and there's a good bit of scrambling over rocks--it's not a pristine trail all the way. Barbara said she'd done it a few years earlier and she'd seen kids handling it fine. So, we set a date.

My dad set up camp at the base of the trail, book in hand, and phone at the the ready should we need anything. Mike, Barbara, Sarah, Karoline, and I headed up the mountain. The girls whined bitterly. I kept telling them that they were strong and they'd be so glad they did this hike because the view at the top was unlike any they'd ever seen. Mike encouraged me to go ahead and said he'd keep the girls moving along. They didn't lag for long at all though and we stayed together the whole way. Once we got past the easier gravel path onto trickier natural "steps" and lots of rocks, the little girls actually perked up. They soaked in the beauty around them and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of the terrain. It wasn't long before they started whooping and singing as they scrambled. And when they started singing "10,000 Reasons," known around these parts as "Shawn's song," the whole mountain seemed to glow that much brighter in the glory of the day. (To understand Shawn, read this, by "baby" Michael, now all grown up.)

My stepmother was nothing short of amazing. It's not an easy hike and she was right there with us to the top. I'm inspired by her health and vigor and the way she has embraced an active lifestyle in her 70s. She's been such an encouragement to me and it was special to have her with us.

A little more than halfway there, we faced a set of stairs. At first, standing there looking at the flight, I felt a familiar sense of panic. Tears filled my eyes and memories flooded my mind--memories that had been carefully, firmly shoved aside for 24 years. Mike was behind me. He came close enough that I could turn just slightly and tell him softly, "I'm going to run those stairs." 

And I did.

It wasn't even hard. 

I'm pretty sure Mike has video of it.

I was fairly jubilant the rest of the way and the girls were unbounded in their excitement. The top was everything we'd promised them and Sarah didn't want to ever come down. They begged Barbara to let them come every weekend to do the hike again and again. We took lots of pictures and they sent them back to their siblings and tried to convey the sense of accomplishment they felt  and the astonishing beauty of the place. But we all knew that, really, you had to be there in order to understand.

Going down, I fairly skipped the whole way. I had to mind my step, but I didn't feel the descent was hard at all. I  know that lots of people think descending is harder that climbing up, but not me. I floated down that mountain. 

Later that night, we went to Paddy's soccer game and then drove two hours home, arriving just before midnight. After all that fresh air and exercise, I still couldn't sleep. My mind whirred with the memories of the day--the rocks, the trees, the happy little girls, the strong man always walking behind us all, making sure that this time we'd get to the top. I was so grateful that Barbara had kept insisting we could do this hike and that she'd quietly propelled us all towards it (and made sure we had a fabulous picnic to enjoy after it). My dad had nearly stayed home, but I was grateful he'd come along and was waiting to share the afterglow. 

In the dark, well past midnight, I didn't want to let go of the day. 

I am healthy and strong. I ran those stairs.

And this time, I saw the view at the very top. 


The Year the Tulips Bloomed Victorious


  Tulip planting 2

Tulip planting1

Last fall, in a cold shadow, we planted defiance. I was so angry at death. So angry again at cancer. So tired of funerals. I gathered my children in our front garden bed and I made a promise that even I wasn't sure was a good idea. 

Here's what we're going to do. We're going to take all these tulip bulbs--90 for the ninety years that Granddad lived--and we're going to bury them in the cold ground. In the spring, around Easter, they will bloom. In the spring, we are going to feel so much better than we do now and those new tulips will make us smile.



For twenty-four years, I've had a love-hate-fear relationshp with tulips. For the first fifteen years after my cancer diagnosis, I refused to plant them. Then, I decided that we are overcomers. We are tulip planters. Ever since, we've planted bulbs. 

This year, we went all in. They were planted too shallowly, planted by a not-quite-five-year-old. No doubt, some were planted upside down. I didn't go back and replant them. I didn't overturn the imperfect planting technique, didn't give in to my familiar need to control all things. I just let them be. It was a very harsh winter. Very cold and very snowy well into late March. Every once in awhile I would rehearse what I was going to say to my children when they asked why "Granddad's tulips" didn't bloom.

The shoots first started poking above the ground the week that Shawn died. That was, incidentally, the week adenovirus moved into my house for an extended stay. I texted my friend Nicole and asked what would come of them if we had snow again (we did). Surely, we hadn't buried deeply enough. Hadn't done it right. Surely, we were going to be denied the bright promise of hope and healing. She said they'd be fine. I doubted. She owns a landscaping company. I own fear. 



Spring came late.

All the flowers, all the flowering trees, the bluebells at Bull Run. They all came late. 

Easter came late.

And Lucy Shawn came late.

The whole world responded with a giant Alleluia!

It's April 29. There are tulips. And there is abundant life. 


 {We have an appointment for Nick and Karoline today at the eye specialist. Adenovirus lives on. Prayers, please?}

A message from Shawn


A few weeks ago, I asked you to pray for our friend Shawn. There has been a deluge of prayers and countless offers to help, for which we are very grateful. Today, I'd like to give you an opportunity to get to know Shawn a little better.

Shawn writes,

A lot has happened in the last couple of months. I know a lot of people have been asking and information has come out sporadically here and there. First and foremost, I appreciate so much the support from everyone. It has been difficult for sure, but I am trusting God’s sovereign plan and purpose.

Earlier this spring, in mid April, I started to feel fatigued throughout the day, a building headache, and periodic low grade fevers. I went to the Dr. and some blood work came back positive for Lyme disease. I took antibiotics for 3 weeks but didn’t feel better after the cycle (in fact I felt worse). I then took another 10 day cycle to see if it helped and it did not. On June 19, I starting to get sharp pains in my lower back, stomach, and chest. I went to the ER where they performed some tests and found a 6 by 7 cm mass in my chest. Please read the rest here.


There Will Be Thorns


I went out to the garden early this morning, mostly so my kids wouldn't see me cry. Over the last day, our family has been trying to absorb the very bad news conveyed to a good friend. Without talking too much about details--because truly they are too tender for words here--I bring to you an earnest request for prayers. For our friend, for his family, for his doctors, for all the people who love him: please pray. 

And I offer to you some perspective that hit me as I was pulling weeds amongst the lavender. 

Yesterday, before the news went from bad to very bad, I was talking to an old friend about the idealistic homeschooler I used to be. I was lamenting (more than a little) the loss of such optimism and confidence. And I was wondering aloud if perhaps I don't always choose the hard way of doing things, only to end up with the same result as people who do things the seemingly easier way.

She spoke sense to me and I put the conversation away. Mostly, my thoughts were interrupted by much more urgent matters. My thoughts were interrupted by a real life crisis, not a philosophical demon of my own making. 

Today, in the garden, while wrestling with tall grass grown up around the lavender, I thought of a remark my sister-in-law made within my earshot long ago. She told someone that we chose to homeschool because I had had cancer. At the time, I remember thinking that wasn't really true. We came at home education from a different place, a place rooted in educational theory. I very much wanted to embrace homeschooling from a pedagogical perspective. Then, not long into our journey, we learned about the spiritual benefits. But I never really thought it was about cancer. 

It sort of was, though. I truly didn't know how many days I had (none of us do) and I wanted to invest huge quantities of quality time into my marriage, and children, and family. Home education seemed the best way to do that. It was what we heard God calling us to do.

It was what was right for our family.

The reality is that my cancer experience shaped the idealistic, hopeful young mother I was. Today, my eldest child texted me from the bedside of his dearest friend and I relived those days that shaped me--shaped us. My heart broke for him. These present days are dark days, indeed. 

But his friend has grown in wisdom and stature and understanding of the Lord in a home very much like ours. And the missives this boy sends me are insistent that he serves an awesome, merciful God. Somewhere in his youth and childhood, someone got something very right. Whatever comes, he goes into this fight wearing the full armor of God. 

Sometimes, it's not readily apparent what the benefits of home education are. Particularly as children get older, it's easy to become discouraged or to second guess this grand (and often messy) experiment. It's easy to despair and to wonder at the [broken?] promises that if we just did things this way, the teenaged and college years would be a breeze. 

There in the garden, taking deep breaths of lavender to keep from sobbing, I took up the previous day's conversation with my friend. It was too easy to imagine a mother's pain as her child suffers. This young man's mother is in my constant thoughts and prayers.

Where to find the peace in what seems like like such senseless, tragic news? What to tell my children as they each offer their own version of "why?" 

In the early morning garden, my friend offered that the idealistic young girl could find peace in the reality of the here and now, only if she has grown into a wise woman who "laughs at the days to come." She said that meant that in the midst of the mess and the ugly and the sick and the pain, we know there will be joy, there will be grace. There will be eternal things to hold on to and give it all meaning and purpose.

Somehow, the idealistic young girl knew those things years ago, when in the wake of cancer, she determined to keep her young son at home a while longer and teach him how good life is. The weathered older mother prays fervently that those lessons were well learned and that now he can intimately know God's grace in the midst of tremendous sorrow.

Tomorrow will bring more news, no doubt. Tomorrow, instead of tall grass I can pull with my hands, I will have to conquer the ridiculous, prickly weeds and the blighted leaves of my beloved roses. There will be thorns, no doubt. There will be thorns. I will need the full armor of heavy gloves and pruning shears. But there will be blooms, too, and I am determined to see them, to appreciate them, and to share them with my children.