Far From Suburbia: What I Learned in Two Hours in the Slums of San Francisco

I was uncomfortable to say the least.  From the moment my Uber pulled over and I stepped out of its pristine cleanliness onto the wet and trash littered sidewalk in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, I felt my guard go up.  My shoulders tensed and my head swung left to right as I looked for number 232 Jones Street.  The storefronts lined the sidewalk without a break, many of them plastered with posters, decorated with graffiti or marred by cracked glass and rust stains.  Somber faced people passed on either side of the road without making eye contact with me, but somehow I knew they still saw me.  The drone of traffic was occasionally broken up by people 20 feet away from each other shouting jokes, a woman babbling nonsense to herself as she pushed an overloaded shopping cart.

I stuck out like a sore thumb–clutching my purse, wearing clean Nike sneakers, eyes wide and afraid.  This was not my suburban North Carolina sidewalk.  I walked up it a few feet, counting the numbers before deciding that I’d gone too far and then turned around and retraced my steps.  It was nestled in among buildings I’d just passed, and seeing the sign on the door, I breathed in relief:

San Francisco City Impact Mission

Opening the door I was greeted by a smiling young woman who invited me to sit while I waited for someone named Andrea, who had been emailing with me the week before and had given me instructions for meeting her at the City Impact office.  When she emerged and introduced herself, she apologized as she confessed that she’d forgotten who I was and what I was doing there.  I chuckled and repeated what I’d told her over email.  My husband was in San Francisco for a work conference.  I’d tagged along on his trip as a little vacation.  I’d never been to San Francisco before and the trip was mostly pleasure, but I liked to take a little bit of time serving in a local mission as a way of getting to know the city and not spending my entire vacation solely focused on pleasing myself.  Despite my altruistic explanation, there was a slight swell of pride in my chest as I spoke.  I thought of the old Friends’ episode where Joey tells Phoebe that there is no such thing as a selfless good deed and she sets out to prove him wrong.

Recognition came to her face as I explained my presence and she started nodding.

“Oh THAT’S right!  I’m sorry I just totally blanked about why you were here because you didn’t come through our regular volunteer pipeline.  I do apologize.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“We’re so glad to have your help though.  Thanks for coming down.  I’ll take you over and introduce you to Randy and he’ll get you settled.”

Randy is a diminuitive man orginially from the Phillipines, a former youth pastor who was now dividing his time between overseeing operations at City Impact and setting up events at the Moscone Center, San Francisco’s convention center.  He took my hand and gave it a firm shake, smiling warmly when Andrea introduced us.

“Great!  Thanks so much for being here.  Come on in and I’ll show you what we’re doing.”

As Andrea said goodbye and turned to go back to the office, I followed Randy inside the meal hall.  It’s a basic cafeteria-style room–tile floor, white walls, folding tables and chairs set up the length of the room, about enough to accomodate a maximum of 50 people.  All the chairs were arranged to face the small stage at the far end of the room, where a simple podium stood in front of a cross mounted on a backdrop of shiplap.

The air inside the hall was warm, close and musty.  I wasn’t sure if the smell came from the bedraggled people already lingering in the room or the crates and boxes of donated produce that were stacked up just inside the door–perhaps it was both.

Several eyes followed me as I followed Randy, who was walking quickly and greeting people just as quickly.  He took me back to the small kitchen behind the main part of the hall.

“So I’m a little disorganized today.” he chuckled amicably.  “Cara who usually runs our meal service isn’t here, and I don’t really know what I’m doing.  But we’re gonna figure it out.”

He introduced me to an older Asian man named Yomo who didn’t speak any English, but who was so accustomed to the flow of the meal services that he didn’t really need to talk or understand what you were saying.  The entire time I was there he rotated from one task to another, filling plates, washing pans, and wiping tables.  I quickly learned that he  was one of those invaluable, behind-the-scenes people who is often unnoticed, but without whom the entire process would crumble.

Randy continued to describe his plan for the meal.

“Since it’s raining today I asked them to make some soup in the kitchen.  That’s a treat, we don’t normally have soup.  We’ll walk over there now and see what else they have.”

I wondered if I looked as awkward as I felt: my small purse clutched tightly against my side, my Columbia rain slicker zipped up to my throat and my wedding ring turned to the inside of my hand so that my diamond wouldn’t be obvious to people who may see me as a mark.  I mentally kicked myself for not leaving my ring back at the AirBnB.

“Is there a place I should put my stuff?” I asked Randy, hoping for a locker of some kind, or a drawer in the internal office that I could see through the window.

“Uh, yeah, you can just stash it in here.”  He gestured to a stainless steel cupboard full of dishes and pots and pans and aluminum tins.  “Alright, let’s go visit the kitchen.  I’m supposed to have more people helping serve here today but I think a lot of them are running behind with the rain…hopefully it won’t just be us!” The smile had never left his face, but he chuckled nervously.

I only considered putting my purse in the cupboard for a moment, but quickly decided against it, afraid that one of the rough-looking men staring into space in the cafeteria would wander into the room and discover it and take my phone and credit cards.

On the way out, an African-American man named Russ (who unfortunately bore a resemblance to Bill Cosby) stopped to talk to Randy, and when Randy introduced me and said that I was there to volunteer, Russ’s eyes went wide and his arm swung open in the direction of the office.

“Well, I’ve glot plenty for her to do!  Follow me young lady.  I’ll put…”

“Um,” I chuckled nervously. “I’m actually here to help Randy with the meal.”

“Yeah, sorry Russ,” Randy said. “She signed up to do the service.”

“Oh! I’m sorry!  I didn’t realize that.  I shouldn’t have assumed.” Russ apologized.

Randy waved him off.  “It’s okay.  We’ve gotta get over to the kitchen.”

As Randy and I went outside and walked around the corner to the kitchen, he asked me where I was from and how I’d found out about City Impact.  In turn, I asked him a couple of questions just to find out a little more about him, but I was distracted by the people on the street–either shuffling along and staring at the ground as though every step was a movement of great effort, or aggressively striding down the sidewalk with a pace that indicated you should not try to stop them or speak to them.  Expletives were flying through the air, horns were blaring incessantly, steam was hissing up from the ground, the occasional used needle littered the sidewalk, but Randy continued smiling and chatting with the ease of someone who had become accustomed to the noise and subliminal intensity that set all my nerve endings on edge.

The kitchen was full of hot food, with not a soul in sight.  It was almost as if it had been prepared by ghosts.  There were at least six huge pans of penne pasta; two vats of an indistinguishable brothy soup (which we later mixed with the pasta); ovens containing four whole baked chickens; two pans of corn-dogs; two enormous plastic bins of salad; one filled to the brim with sliced oranges and another with slices of baguettes; and three metal pans containing what we assumed was meatloaf, which we ended up smothering with barbecue sauce.

As if on cue, a couple of teenage boys showed up and loaded all the food onto a cart with Randy’s help and wheeled it back over to the room we’d just left, which I now realized wasn’t really a kitchen after all, but more of the assembly station.  Randy quickly filled a styrofoam container, showing us how he’d like the food to be presented and then left me and Yomo alone to get started.  About five minutes later, a young Latino man walked in, donned an apron, snapped on a pair of latex gloves and, smiling, introduced himself to me as Allan.

I’m ashamed to admit that my first glance at Allan produced a combination of fear and judgment.  He was dressed in all black, his pants hanging low on his hips, and he walked with a cocky swagger that didn’t fit his childlike, crinkly-eyed smile.  His hair was closely shaved and the sleeves of his baggy black hoodie were pushed up to reveal tattoos that covered his muscular forearms.  I just knew, that in my regular life in my upper middle-class, mostly white neighborhood, if I was ever alone on a street at night and saw Allan approaching me, I’d assume he was trouble and would cross the street to get away from him or look for storefront to duck into until he’d passed.

As these shameful thoughts came to my mind, I intentionally pushed them aside and started asking Allan questions about how he became involved with City Impact, because the fact that he was beside me, already scooping out the mystery meatloaf onto the plates I was passing him and neatly arranging them on a cart without a word of instruction or a glimpse of hesitation, spoke volumes to me about the heart under the intimidating exterior.

“I drive the truck, pick up donations.  And this part of the job is just a kick-back,” he said, still grinning and looking directly into my eyes.  I found myself grinning back–it was impossible not to.

“A kick back?  What do you mean?”

“I get to see these people smile, just because they’re getting a warm meal.  It makes my day.”  It would’ve sounded cliche, fake, except that it came from someone who looked, on the outside, like they wouldn’t care about such simple, yet essential things.  I liked him so much in that moment–he reminded me of my brother, and I would’ve hugged him if I had known him for longer than five minutes, and if I’d known that he’d have let me.

Soon the room was full of helpers: the same lanky teenage boys who had brought the food over from the kitchen, me, Yomo and Allan, and then an Asian woman in her 40s named Jen, who seemed to take on a leadership role once she arrived.  The two teenagers cut up and joked with Allan while our assembly line passed Styrofoam trays, but their joking around never led to idleness.  They were funny and happy and never once seemed to begrudge their time being spent in a soup kitchen.  At one point, I heard one of them tease Allan about prison, and he calmly but firmly said:

“Man I’m never going back there.”

It was then I wondered whether this young man had to have had an experience with God, whether through Randy, someone else at City Impact, or maybe no one connected there at all, that had changed the course of his life.  And he was here out of gratitude.

IMG_1696

Someone turned on some praise music, and as the cart filled up with trays and the talking ceased, I focused on the words to a popular song, “Build My Life”by Housefires:

“Holy, there is no one like you, there is none beside you, open up my eyes in wonder.  Show me who you are and fill me with your heart and lead me in your love to those around me.”

This chorus was one I had just heard for the first time when attending worship with my parents the Sunday before flying to San Francisco.  It was meaningful while standing and singing it, but it was so much more powerful as it rang in my ears in this tiny makeshift kitchen in the slums of San Francisco, working side by side with people I would normally never encounter–people outside my age group, outside my socioeconomic category, outside my preference.  We were there not to be seen, not to be noticed, praised, graded, or critiqued.  We were there because we’d been led by the Father, in love, to serve those around us, regardless of the legitimacy or caliber of their stories.  And it also explained to me how things just seemed to happen in this place without discussion and even when my first impression was that things were completely disorganized: God was so active here, His love so palpable, that people joined in where they were needed without complaint or rush, because they just wanted to be His hands and feet.

Randy spoke to the crowd of wet men and women, about 30 of them, and he brought them a message of hope, of challenge.  His diminutive frame seemed to grow larger as he filled the musty air with fragrant truth.  He reminded them that Jesus is able to change their hearts, their desires, to reflect His own heart and then use them for His glorious purposes.  His angle surprised me, because on an average day I would’ve looked at these people as beyond hope, as expendable, as weak.

Their faces lit up as we brought them food.

“Thank you.” “Please.” “Where are you from?” “I used to live in North Carolina–Winston-Salem, do you know it?” “What brought you to San Francisco?”

My own eyes were opened in wonder in those two hours in the Tenderloins.  I marveled, and inwardly praised God, for these reminders and the urging to come to City Impact, so that I could see again how wrong I was and how easily my assumptions block the pipeline for Christ’s life-changing love.  For these people, so easily ignored and looked down upon by the rest of the world because they outwardly wear their struggles, simply reflect what so many of us are like on the inside: broken, tired, slogging through life, hostile, dirty, hungry.  And City Impact was a place where all of these similarities were laid bare.

IMG_1699

The meal wrapped up and the people left quickly, arms full of to-go boxes, heads nodding in thanks.  A couple of them stopped to say a word to Randy or Russ, but most just walked out the door without looking back.  I guess there wasn’t much to say when this place was so familiar to them, such a regular stop in their days.

I helped wipe some tables and then stood up and looked around the room, understanding that my job was finished.  I went back to the mini-kitchen and tossed my rag in the sink and grabbed my belongings out of the cupboard, which, halfway through the meal I’d decided was actually the best place for my purse and jacket after I’d tried to dish out pasta with my purse constantly swinging forward into my arm.  I went back through the cafeteria toward the door and was grabbed by Russ, who apologized profusely for assuming I was there to help him. I assured him it was fine, that I wasn’t offended.

“Thank you Jesus!” He breathed, wiping his brow dramatically.  He then sat down on the edge of the stage and started to give me his testimony, telling me how he became a part of City Impact, and about the biggest roadblocks and problems the mission was experiencing.  Something he kept saying over and over again was,

“It’s bad out here.  People are hurting!”

He asked me to pray for him.  I felt so unworthy to pray for a person, for people, for a movement that was investing in the details of the most difficult environment in San Francisco.  Knowing that they would be back there tomorrow pouring themselves out, and that I would never look back and would eventually get on my airplane and go back to my comfortable furniture; my needle-free, swept sidewalk; my suburban life with an expanse of green grass, put a lump in my throat and I had to fight the shame, the thought that Russ didn’t really need my prayer.

But I prayed anyway.  It was uncomfortable at first, but as he squeezed my hand and agreed with me in prayer, “Mmm-hmm.  Yes Lord, yes Jesus,” my wall crumbled yet again and tears started to well up in my closed eyes, because I felt as though I was praying for a brother.  I knew that I’d made a friend, one only God could’ve brought into my life.

Russ said thank you after I said Amen.  He gave me a quick hug and then jumped off the stage and disappeared.  I shouted goodbye to the rest of the volunteer team, who responded with smiles, waves and a few thank-yous, and then pulled Randy outside for a photo under the City Impact sign.  His smile was still there, even in his eyes, as I walked away and called probably my 20th Uber in San Francisco.

A week or so later I was showing my six-year-old daughter how to pot some pansies for the pedestal on our front porch.  She was eager to help, but she wanted to just pull the pansy out of the plastic container and stick it straight into the pot.  I explained to her that we first had to break the soil that had retained the stiff, rectangular shape of its confined space in the plastic.  She watched as I gently squeezed the soil and freed the delicate roots, turning the rectangle into a mess and then placed the pansy into the waiting bed of soil in the bottom of the large clay pot.

“See honey, this pansy can’t grow anymore if it just stays in the same space.  It needs to have more room to grow, but first we have to break up the soil and expose the roots so that they can grow deeper and stronger, so that the flowers will grow higher and produce more buds.”

I’d like to thank San Francisco City Impact, for being the space that I needed to see, to experience in order that God might break down my comfort and shallow soil, expose the frailty of my roots and give me the nourishment and inspiration that I needed to blossom and grow deeply into His love.

IMG_1701

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God, Marriage, and Justin Timberlake

I can almost hear the eyes rolling in your heads right now.  That title couldn’t be cheesier right?  Is this some article by an obsessive fan who thinks that she has some cosmic connection to Justin Timberlake?  No, not really.  I promise that I have a point and it will make sense if you can just hang with me for a little while.  Let me explain…

I wouldn’t call myself a huge JT fan, more of a nominal one.  I was at the perfect age to become a boy-band-crushing-teenager when NSYNC formed in 1995, a year before I graduated high-school, but I was always more of a 98 Degrees kind of girl.  And years later when all those 90s boy bands started breaking up, I really didn’t foresee a solo future for any of those guys.  But low and behold, Justin Timberlake surprised us all with his knowledge about the industry, musicianship, his vocal range and connections to all the right people.

Even as his career took off and matured, I was still a moderate fan.  I’d listen to his music from time to time, and took a break from it for a while when it was on the raunchier side.  Recently though it seems that Justin and I have regained some common ground–we’re only 3 years apart; we’re both parents; both married; both getting pretty reflective about our pasts and carefully considering the trajectory of our futures.

I’ve found more interest in his most recent album as I feel that it talks about “real” life (as “real” as your life can be when you’re insanely talented, an international superstar and a gazillionaire).   Knowing the life-cycle that rock-stars usually have, I also sensed that his career may be peaking, and with a slew of hits under his belt I thought if there was one JT concert tour that I should see, it would be this one.  So when I found out that he was coming to Raleigh, NC, I spent a little more money than I usually do to get General Admission tickets for my husband and me, so that we could be close to the stage for what I thought may be one of Justin’s best, last concerts.

img_1167

But my mind went to places that I didn’t expect as I watched the show.  Justin was handsome, yes.  His feet moved quickly and his body was all fluid, precise, smooth motion.  He smiled for cameras, fist-bumped fans, flirted with his back-up dancers, told us that we were the best crowd he’d seen (which of course was a lie), and all I could think was, yeah this is awesome, but then what?

You see, my husband and I were the minority of those crushed close to the stage.  We were surrounded by Superfans–those who buy their babies JT onesies; who follow him from concert to concert; who cry if he comes within four feet of them.  And yes I was woo-hooing with them all, but I walked away from the concert not marveling about Justin Timberlake, but rather about the awe he produced in about 20,000 people in one night, and realizing that he does this night after night with people around the world.

img_1169

And it made me think about whether my/our awe has been misplaced?  What if I, what if we, directed even half of that awe, half of that amazement, toward the One who created Justin Timberlake, the One who gave him his talent?  As fans, we cluster to have an encounter with someone we pay to give us two hours of their time.  (And sometimes we pay a silly amount–especially if you’re sitting in the VIP section).  We might get a fist-bump or a high-five, but does that personal encounter really change us?  Does it take away our troubles, give us a sense of peace, a new identity?  Does Justin Timberlake really know any of the people he touched last night?  Will they ever really know him?

Of course, the answer to all of these questions is no.  Nothing about the concert last night has changed my reality this morning, and it certainly hasn’t changed his.  I’m the same person, living the same life with the same ups and downs, joys, sorrows, and okays.  I’m not richer or poorer, and Justin has continued on with his life, climbing into his tour bus bound for another city and another concert in front of another crowd of thousands.

But every day I can spend as much time as I want with the God of the universe, who stepped down out of heaven to, get this, PAY for an encounter with ME.  He gave up everything to be with me, and He offers to make me His for life through His Son.  He’ won’t just entertain me–He’ll hold me.  He won’t flatter me with savvy lyrics that speak to my vanity–He’ll speak the truth that gives life and nourishes my soul.  He won’t ever pack up and leave town–He’ll be my Immanuel, “God With Us.”  When He touched people, they were healed.  When He spoke, mountains rose up out of the sea and people fell flat on their faces in true awe.  When He sees you, you know that you are safe, yet you aren’t ever the same.

Isaiah 43:1,  “…this is what the Lord says–he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.”

Matthew 28:20, “And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

John 10: 14-15, “I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with spending money to see your favorite singer for a couple of hours.  I think music, dance and fun are gifts from a Good Father who loves to see His kids enjoy life.  I also disagree with those who say that there’s nothing beneficial or edifying that comes from the secular world of entertainment.  Simply because, God can do exceedingly more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20), and I believe that if we are walking closely with the Maker and Sustainer of all things, that He can use most any setting, environment, crowd and subject to remind us of His presence and His glory.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to suppose that one other person could have experienced an awakening by the Living God last night during the Justin Timberlake concert, because God really is in the business of taking our wisdom and ideas of what we think we know to be true, and flipping all of it upside down to reveal HIS truth.  And if just one person entered into relationship with Jesus last night, then Heaven is certainly rejoicing just as loudly as it would after an Elevation or Lauren Daigle concert, and that makes it all worthwhile.

I not only reflected on Jesus last night at moments during the concert, but I also looked to my left at the handsome man that I call “Husband,” and remembered for about the 10,000th time why I’m so blessed to have him.  Bryan doesn’t really care for JT.  He only knows a song or two and we got into a pretty heated argument right before we left the house yesterday, but instead of refusing to accompany me and making me go alone, he got in the car.  That was humility.  He sat with me cheerfully and kept me company during the three-hour wait outside.  That was kindness.  He walked to a nearby restaurant and got us food and drinks so that we wouldn’t be starving after the show.  That was graciousness.  He stood beside me the whole time even though his calf muscles were knotted up and painful after a long run yesterday.  He even danced with me a little.  That was sacrificial.

img_1157

I told Bryan before the concert began that even though I might scream and yell at Justin as he danced down the stage, I still think he’s hotter.  He replied, “yeah right.”  But as the concert ended, I knew I meant every word.  Because although Justin is certainly cute, charming and coordinated, he’s a stranger.  Yet Bryan, like Jesus, has demonstrated over and over again that he truly loves me.  He knows me. He takes care of me.  He does all of this so well that he’d even stand beside his wife as she snaps photos and videos of another man.  And he went home with me and was still there when I woke up this morning.  That’s a gift of faithfulness that God and Bryan have both given me, that is far more valuable than any concert ticket.  They make me feel like a VIP.

So Justin, if you read this, (doubtful, but a girl can dream) I want to say thanks for being a vessel for yet another Jesus-takeaway.  I’m sure that’s not what you expected, but I suspect you’d be amused.  Hope you have a great rest of your tour, and hurry home, I’m sure your wife wants you beside her too.

img_1185

My silly-creepy “selfie” with JT.

 

 

The Week That I Was Glad to be Wrong

Flomaton is an easily overlooked town in South Alabama.  It’s the type of place where there’s only one church to notice, and its steeple rises high above the modest ranch homes and one-story mom-and-pop storefronts.  It’s the type of place where you use landmarks instead of street signs to mark directions for newcomers (although there are rarely any of those), because there is only one chicken place, one supermarket, and one Subway sandwich shop in the whole town.

But it’s also where people live their whole lives as neighbors.  Where they remember the day you were born, the tree you were hiding in when you shot fireworks at passing cars, the day you met your husband or wife, and where your relatives are buried.  It’s the town where my grandparents proudly made their home and raised their four boys.  It’s where this story begins.

IMG_0723

John and Shelmerdene Folsom with their sons (from left): Kenny, Mickey (my dad), and Johnny.  Baby Chris was born years later.

After serving in the Second World War my grandfather, John Folsom, took a job as a high-school principal at Flomaton High School.  He was known for his strict but fair leadership and disciplinary styles and was even known to dole out spankings to his students with a paddle, back when spankings were still acceptable in school.  This was back when girls’ skirts were very long, and boys’ hair was very short.  My dad tells a story of when he was sent to the principal’s office (or dad’s office) for sticking lizards on his ears to frighten his teacher and claimed that it was the only time he saw his dad crack a smile while disciplining a student.

John Folsom may have been tough on the job, but he was also caring.  He wanted to see kids succeed and do their best and expecting a lot out of them instead of viewing them as teenage disappointments earned him their respect.  He was generous—creating jobs for people who needed extra money and serving tirelessly at church and on various mission trips.  He was moral—practicing a high work ethic that stemmed from his upbringing and faith in God.  He was enthusiastic—boisterously singing hymns from the church pews or the Flomaton Hurricane fight song from the bleachers at football games.

About two years ago my grandparents, whom I affectionately call Paw-Paw and Mamadene, moved from their beloved home in Flomaton to an assisted living facility close to one of their sons, in Malbis, Alabama.  The move was emotional and a difficult step to take, but it was necessary at their life stage.  At 90-years-old, Paw-Paw was the last surviving member of his family of origin, the baby of 10 children in a typical Depression Era family.

Paw-Paw settled in well at his new home, happy as ever to just have people around him.  To him it didn’t much matter that he and Mamadene were confined to one room, if he still had his recliner and her in bed beside him at night.  It didn’t matter that he couldn’t remember his kids and grand-kids when they stopped by to visit him or take him to church, as long as he had people to talk to, although from time to time you could see a glimmer of recognition in his eye.  Even if he didn’t know your name, his mind seemed to recognize that you were his family.

This is what I saw in his eyes when I visited him in the hospital in Fairhope, Alabama last week.  It had been two years since I’d seen my Paw-Paw, on his 90th birthday and shortly before he and Mamadene relocated to The Blake.  Fortunately for Facebook, I’d seen pieces of his life down South—enough to know that he was enjoying being fed rich Southern cuisine and singing his favorite songs with his visitors.  But all of us knew that the day was coming when we’d get “that” call—the one that we didn’t want, that told us that Paw-Paw was no longer doing so well.

So, when my parents, who live near me and my family in North Carolina, called and told me that they felt it was important to get down to Alabama as soon as possible, I immediately felt an urge to go along.  I looked at my husband with pleading eyes and he insisted that I join my mom and dad on the 10-hour drive, practically shoving me in their car when they arrived at our house.  I thought about my Paw-Paw’s legacy the whole drive down–remembering the joy in his hearty laugh; the passion in his voice when he talked about the way things should be; his tradition of passing Certs down the pew, mid-service, to all the grandchildren in church; the way he pushed Heavenly Hash ice cream on me when I was a teenager.  I felt sad again, and somewhat cheated, that I didn’t get more time with my grandfather as a child because I was raised in an Air Force family, so I replayed the blocks of memories stored away in my mind from my brief visits with my grandparents and tried to refresh them.  I don’t know if I was using these memories as support for the potential pain that awaited me at the hospital, or if thinking of Paw-Paw that way was a connection to something deeper, to my roots and the people whose stories had contributed to my own.

Either way, I was not prepared for the emotion that rolled over me when I walked into his hospital room the next day.  I’d gotten three hours of sleep, and at 6:30am my mom and I received an ominous phone call from my dad, who’d gone straight to the hospital to sit with Paw-Paw during the early morning hours.  I choked back tears as I surveyed the scene. In his bed, Paw-Paw’s head was practically falling off the pillow.  His breathing was ragged and weak and he couldn’t stop coughing.  He was talking nonsense and not comprehending anyone’s questions or demands; he didn’t even know there were people in the room with him.  He was listless and drawn.

I was convinced that he would be gone that morning.  I started talking to my mom about plans for a service.  I wondered aloud where all the family members would stay in the tiny town of Flomaton.  I cried quietly as I considered that Paw-Paw’s death would mean the end of a family.  I listened to the hymns that my cousins and uncles and aunts sang around him with a feeling of finality.  When I placed my hand on his shoulder and sang “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” it was not with a heart of hope, but with the intention of saying goodbye in a way that would somehow speak comfort to Paw-Paw’s retiring mind, because I knew that he always loved music.

I kept expecting the worst, because to me, he was now 92 and it would kind of make sense if this was his time to go.  He’d lived a wonderful life—he’d traveled the world, even flew to Nicaragua in his late 80’s to see his oldest grandson get married.  He’d been a role model to young men in his community, a loyal husband, a cheerful giver.  It never occurred to me that first day, watching my bed-ridden grandfather, that he might have more life to live.

More family poured into the room.  More hymns were sung.  On Facebook people were asking for prayer for John Folsom.  People were already telling stories about what he’d meant to them, and as I read them or heard them read aloud to Paw-Paw, I saw them all as eulogies memorializing a great man, not an encouragement to boost his spirits.  But I was so wrong.

 

24 hours later Paw-Paw was more responsive.  He noticed us when we stood by the bed, although he still didn’t recognize us.  His eyes were clearer, and he expressed a desire to write notes, he said he was hungry, he laughed when something was funny.

And he sang.  Oh, did he sing.  What I realized sitting in that hospital room was that even though Paw-Paw couldn’t remember people, he could remember lyrics, and it seemed that he used lyrics of songs to communicate his feelings, and to me it was as though God was using these songs from Paw-Paw’s life to communicate to us that Paw-Paw still had hope, that his faith was alive, and that God was watching.  When we asked him what his favorite song was, his eyes lit up like a child’s and he launched into the Flomaton high-school fight song:

“Fight, fight for Flomaton High,

Always say fight, never say die.

We can win if we will try

So, fight on for Flomaton High.”

And over the next few days I started believing that the lyrics to that song had a deeper meaning to Paw-Paw than just being the fight song for the school where he’d been a leader for 30 years.  They seemed to be the very words of his soul, a sort of rallying cry—urging him to fight, to get better, to show God’s healing power in his aged body.

And I was proven wrong over and over in those few days.  I didn’t believe that the wheezing in his breath would go away, but it did.  I didn’t think that he would start eating again, but he did.  I didn’t think he’d be strong enough to stand up, but he did.  And before any of us knew it, the hospice evaluators were telling us that he no longer qualified for their care, and the doctor directly referred to Paw-Paw as “the miracle man.”

IMG_0617

At some point in all the sitting around at the hospital, someone mentioned that Flomaton High School’s football team was in the state championship playoffs that very week.  In the school’s history, since it opened in 1925, it had never gone farther than the quarter finals.  My uncle and cousin promised to get the game on TV so that Paw-Paw could watch, although when they first brought it up, several of us were skeptical that he’d still be alive to see it, or conscious enough to know it was even playing.

Paw-Paw was transferred to a local rehabilitation facility on Wednesday, December 5, and on Thursday, December 6, my mom and I walked into the Westminster Skilled Care center in Spanish Fort, Alabama and saw my Paw-Paw sitting up in a chair for the first time in a week, eating some mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese, and watching the Flomaton Hurricanes play their hearts out.  As I listened to the drawl of the local announcers and watched each play inch the Hurricanes closer to a state championship, I allowed myself to marvel over the miraculous events that were too perfectly arranged to be called coincidence.  I felt ashamed that I’d been so doubtful, so ready to assume that my grandfather’s life was over, when God clearly had other plans and others around me had demonstrated more hope than I.  I was also relieved and touched, that the Lord would be so good to give my Paw-Paw even a day longer than we had imagined, that He’d been good enough to include me as a witness to His work so that my faith would increase.  And as the Hurricanes caught a victory-clinching interception, I smiled that He loved my Paw-Paw so much that He would strengthen his body enough to sit up and watch his hometown’s football team win their first ever football championship.

We sang the fight song, together, for the camera.  And my Paw-Paw finished it with a smile and a hip-hip-hooray.  And a swig of sweet tea.

IMG_0582

 

I Call it Good: Reflections on 12 Years of Marriage

On Sunday, August 5, Bryan and I will have been married for 12 years.  And I’ve been pretty contemplative about this particular anniversary.  Perhaps it’s because this one falls on the same year as our 40th birthdays, which means that we’ve spent an entire decade of our lives married to each other. In a decade plus, you go through much as an individual, but when you’ve chosen to live your life in tandem with someone else, and then add a few little people to the mix, the moments become much richer, much more meaningful and weighty.

IMG_8511

I look back at photos of us at our wedding and can see how we’ve changed.  Bryan’s dark golden hair is now speckled salt and pepper.  He has deeper smile lines around his eyes and greater responsibilities at work, greater impact at home.  I too have finer lines around my eyes, my hips are a little wider thanks to three little children whose voices I now hear in the hallway, and I drive a minivan.  (I used to drive a red-hot BMW 325i.)  I see those two idealistic twenty-somethings walking up the aisle after saying “I do,” and I know that they had no idea what they were getting into.  Sure, they believed God put them together–they’d prayed urgently about it, gone through pre-marital counseling, spoken to more mature married couples, but they didn’t have any idea what marriage would demand of them, how it would transform them, or the learning opportunities it would provide.

IMG_8523

Marriage is so hard.  Many people say being a parent/mother is the hardest relationship/job of all, but I disagree.  I think the husband/wife relationship, the work of marriage, is by far more difficult.  Children are born of your own flesh–they naturally receive your love.  Unless you are a sociopath, your love for them comes without choice, without reservation or limit, and there is a fresh store of it every morning regardless of what your children said or did to you the night before.  And let’s not forget: they are CHILDREN, which means that they act impulsively, and you excuse their behavior as childishness.

But your spouse is yours by choice.  Your spouse is a fully-grown adult who has a fully-matured brain and is able to weigh pros and cons, wisdom versus foolishness when making decisions.  Your spouse has the option of acting in their best interest and neglecting your desires, or acting in your best interest and neglecting their own desires.  In Christian circles you’re often called “one flesh” but it’s not often that you’re of “one mind.”  You can say things, do things to each other that require a fresh choice to unconditionally love each day.  So marriage, you quickly learn, is a teaching work of compromise, of sacrifice and surrender.

I knew that Bryan and I were highly compatible when we got married.  I was aware how well we complimented one another.  I had no idea how very much alike we actually are: competitive, highly sensitive, moody, introspective, playful, analytical, social, performance-driven, easily bored.  We are two very passionate, very emotional people.  Our fights are frequent and often combustible–we say things we don’t mean, I get discouraged and look for a way out, Bryan feels sad that I would ever consider running from him.

But then I look back at all that we’ve been through.  Death of a mother, three miscarriages, job loss, multiple moves, financial uncertainty, personal sin–and I realize that each day with Bryan has been marked by choice, by hope, and by a commitment to something greater than ourselves.  I think of John 15:13 that says:

“There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

And I know that this is what Bryan and I have been doing for each other for the last decade plus: figuratively laying down our lives for each other each time we’ve asked for forgiveness, each time we’ve surrendered a foolish desire for a wiser choice, each time we’ve comforted one another during moments of grief.  If the gracious God of the universe would offer His Son’s perfect life without hesitation for a sinner like me, I can certainly learn to lay down my pride and extend grace to my husband who is choosing to love me every day.

Every day is a choice because we made a commitment to God and to each other.  Every day has hope because of what God has brought us through, and because of the blessings He has promised.  And every day I am called to renew my mind, because although there has been a lot of work, there has also been much joy.

I have seen so much of the world with Bryan by my side.  I’ve seen the pride in his blue eyes when we first met our newborn children.  I have jumped up and down with him at concerts.  We’ve shared bottles of wine and deep conversation late into the night.  We’ve played in the ocean like little kids.  We’ve dared each other to do stupid things that later made us laugh until we cried.  We’ve dined on fancy nine-course meals and greasy chicken wings.  We’ve snow-skiied, water-skiied, and jet-skiied together.  We’ve started a business together.  We’ve served in ministry. We’ve made a life–one that has weathered too much to give up, one that has so much promise despite the unknowns.

And I call it Good.

IMG_8527