Making new memories in an old haunt…..

Woke up this morning extra early, in anticipation of travelling along as a chaperone (is that what they’re still called?) for Andrew’s 4th grade class’ field trip to River Bend Nature Center.  I use the early morning wakeups to say my morning prayers before my feet ever hit the floor.  ‘Cause it seems once they hit the floor, they don’t stop until bedtime. 

This morning, I said extra, knowing full well that I would need them as I travelled to a place that Mark & I have loved for years.  My biologist/naturalist/conservationist/outdoorsman, soon after moving to WF, connected with Beverly Williamson, a Wichita Falls resident with a dream for a nature center in the city.  He jumped in with both feet (he never did anything half-way), lending his expertise to applying for grants, serving on the board for many years, volunteering time and talent, along with many others, as the vision Beverly had came to fruition. 

I can remember standing on that windy pavilion for an Earth Day celebration over a dozen years ago, thinking, “will this place ever be completed?”

But it was.  It is a thriving, beautiful place, complete with a butterfly conservatory full of native plants and an educational center to boot. 

As I pulled into the parking lot, memories of all the times we’d been there together flooded my mind.  From dedications to seasonal events to the Christmas magic of ElectriCritters, they all came back to me, as clear as the day they occurred.

Made it through the morning, trying my best not to embarrass the 9 year old son, who was in my group.  At lunch, the rain stopped, and we were able to eat on that covered pavilion that my family has frequented numerous times over the last dozen years. 

As children & various adults sat down to lunch on a cool, cloudy day in Wichita Falls, I couldn’t eat.  That’s usually not a problem with me, but before I said my silent grace over my sack lunch, I left the picnic table, searching for a special reminder of our times there.

There, among many, was an inscribed brick, one we’d purchased during a River Bend fundraiser B.C. (before children!).  As I found it, a smile crept over my face, completely dissipating the tears that were threatening to well up in my eyes.  It was so Mark.  In only two words, he succinctly expressed his view on life in general, for posterity. 

And as I made my way back to the crazy loud laughter and conversation of  80 + fourth graders, a song kept playing over and over and over in my mind.  It’s a favorite, I bought the LP over 30 years ago: 

“Photographs & Memories” by Jim Croce…..

Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you

Memories that come at night
Take me to another time
Back to a happier day
When I called you mine

But we sure had a good time
When we started way back when
Morning walks and bedroom talks
Oh, how I loved you then

Summer skies and lullabies
Nights we couldn’t say goodbye
And of all of the things that we knew
Not a dream survived

Photographs and memories
All the love you gave to me
Somehow it just can’t be true
That’s all I’ve left of you

But we sure had a good time
When we started way back when
Morning walks and bedroom talks
Oh, how I loved you then

Returned to the table, said a silent prayer of thanks that we have so many memories and photographs.  Then I hugged my son.  I hope it won’t scar him for life 🙂

Giving the keys to God

Yesterday was good.  It feels nice to be able to type that.  Now, I’m not talking gooooood, but it had glimpses, little rays of sunshine interspersed amongst all the sad, monotonous busywork I have to accomplish. 

I ran again, around 3.5 miles again, no music, just me & God, talking.  He understands that my anger’s not directed at Him, and I’m trying my best to just lay everything at His feet and have the patience to wait for things to happen in His time frame.  Those who know me know that I am not a patient person, by nature, so this is something that I am having to work on, big-time.  Runners & bikers that met me on the trail may have wondered who the heck I was talking to.  I find that it’s easier to talk to God, at least for me, by actually verbalizing, although I’m also okay with praying just in my mind. 

As I ran and talked, I had a calm come over me, starting at the top of my head, washing over my body, down to the soles of my new running shoes. 

The only thing I can compare it to is Mark’s hospital stay, where I felt so lifted up by prayers from everyone that I literally felt like I was being cushioned on the most comfortable thick down mattress ever created.  Every inch of me was relaxed, and at the time, I took it as a sign that everything would be okay (in other words, Mark would get better & we’d come home and live happily ever after).  Looking back, I think it was God showing me just how protected I could be and would be, no matter the outcome of that stay. 

I ended my chat with God by confessing that I like being in the driver’s seat (like He didn’t know that already!). But in this situation, I have to turn the driving over to Him.  I don’t enjoy giving up the control, but it’s what I have to do to heal.  I did try to barter a little, since I am the GPS expert (next to Ben)…I always look ahead to see what the next few turns will be & how long it will take to get there. 

God, could you just give me a little glimpse of Your plan, just to keep me positive?

But I don’t imagine that will happen.  There’s a reason why we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  If we did, we’d spend all of our time today either worrying about it, or being so preoccupied with whatever’s coming that we would simply waste the precious time given to us today. 

I choose not to waste the time God gives me today, tomorrow, or until I meet Him face to face.   None of us should.  Love your family.  Support your friends.  Get involved with a church, a charity, volunteer your time to an organization that needs you.  Smile a little more.  Gripe a little less. Enjoy the wonders of a sunrise or sunset.  Hug the ones you live with, tell them how much they mean to you each & every day.  For truly each day is a gift, and you never know when someone can be taken away.  It can happen in a twinkling of an eye—whatever the circumstances, it helps to have no regrets.

I laughed, while at the circus last night.  The boys laughed, too, and in those moments I heard the sounds of their father.

I cried later, as I prayed over their sleeping bodies, all sprawled out in my king-sized bed.

I rejoiced this morning, hearing them giggle as the new kitty awakened them. 

I thanked God (and Mark) that I am able to stay at home and be there for them.

We’re going to laugh, have fun, try new adventures, cry, get frustrated, be sad, be happy, and experience practically every emotion in our play book.  And that’s okay.  We’ll laugh when we get the opportunity, cry when we miss him, and pray for guidance and healing to continue no matter what we’re feeling. 

But I’m still holding out hope for a peek at God’s GPS. 

Run, Mama, Run (or jog….)

Woke up this morning determined to make this a better day.  Well, that was before Andrew awoke with a chest-wheezing cough and sore throat, so I made the first detour of the day by taking him to clinic care.  We sat around kids that were coughing, wheezing, sneezing, and doing various other things I will choose not to discuss in this public format.  Doc says he’s only suffering fluid buildup and allergy-related maladies, so two prescriptions and one doctor’s note later, we’re back at the Four Sixes ranch. 

Since I already had on my running clothes, I left AJ with the housekeeper and hit the trail a bit before 10 am.  I tried something I’ve never willingly done before—decided to run with no music whatsoever, just listening to the Nike trainer updating my mileage.  I’ve never run in silence….but surprisingly, I enjoyed it.  Seemed like I was more in tune with my body, and I was able to think about things more clearly.  And prayer, well, prayer came alot easier…it was more like a conversation I had with God, just the two of us, as I was taking in all of the beauty He’s put around us, even here in parched old Wichita Falls. 

During my 3 1/2 mile run, my mind keeps replaying parts of the long sequence in the movie “Forrest Gump” where Forrest just decides to start running, and doesn’t stop for months.  That’s not going to happen to anyone in real life, but in my mind it made some strange sort of sense to me.  Whenever I’m outside, pounding the pavement, just me and my thoughts, I think lucidly and thoughtfully.  I’m more prayerful.  I’m more appreciative of the world that God’s given me to run in, and I am able to process the wild, sad menagerie of emotion ruling my life in a more realistic fashion.

I came back to the house full of natural endorphins and a more soulful heart due to repeated prayer.  My day seemed to go better.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.   I’ll give it another try tomorrow.

Tonight, about half an hour before sunset, Benny and I head up to the trail on our bikes (Andrew still wasn’t 100%).  We biked about 2 miles, and caught the end of the lovely sunset from one of the benches.

He’s so proud of his new bike and is quick to give me all sorts of biking tips—and I’m taking them, since I haven’t riden a bike much in years.  We talked, we giggled, we took in the sights.  And as he’s flashing me that million dollar, girls-will-get-weak-in-the-knees smile, below those chocolate brown eyes that really twinkle, I say, “You know what, Benny?  I really think we’re going to be alright.  God’s taken care of us so far, and He won’t let us down.”  He keeps on smiling, nods his head, and beckons me to get back onto my new bike (formerly Mark’s) and we head for home, this time with him in the lead.

And as I watch him weave back and forth, riding in front of me, I wonder if this is how we look to God—He’s watching us, not too far away, as we weave and sometimes wobble our way down the path of life.  We may have on safety gear, but it doesn’t keep us from getting bumped & bruised when we fall.  And if we get too far ahead, or try to be too brave without Him, He calls to us to slow down.  When we do inevitably fall off the trail, He’s there to pick us up, dust us off, attend to our bleeding wounds, and carry us until we’re able to ride (or walk or jog or run) again.  I certainly won’t mind being carried for awhile longer….and I trust that He’ll know when to put me down and where the trail leads.  Amen.

Paralyzed in the car….

Today stinks. Yep, I’m just laying it out there. Went to Sunday School & church, had great messages both places, learning about leaving a legacy after you die. That’s something we should all strive for as Christians, to leave this place a little (or a lot!) better than when we first arrived.

But I find myself really angry today. As we drove home in the car following church, the boys were, well, being boys, playing with two balloons in the backseat. Their playful banter and laughing sounded so much like their dad’s. The closer we got to the house, the angrier I got. As we pulled into the driveway, I glanced at that truck that he loved to drive. I parked the car beside it, as I’ve done thousands of times. The boys scurried out, worried that one of the wayward balloons would find its way to the dog, never a good combination. I had my door open, purse in hand…but I could not move. Must’ve been 5 minutes before the boys realized that I wasn’t behind them, coming back to witness their mother with her head against the steering wheel of the car, sobbing.

I am so mad, God! Why did you take this wonderful husband and father? He had his whole future mapped out, our future, and now he’s gone. Is the future he planned for the four of us the future path I continue to follow? Or is there something else that You have in store for us? It’s hard being three when you’re used to being four. I know where he is, but I want him here with me, with our boys. God, I’m not mad at You, I’m just mad about the change in our plans. Guess they didn’t coincide with Yours. But I’m struggling. Struggling to find a routine that makes sense, that moves us in the right direction, and that keeps us looking toward You.

When does this get better? Everyone says “give it time”. Well, I don’t have alot of time. I have two boys depending on me to be both mom & dad for now. And for every good hour I have, I seem to have 4 that are not good. If my math skills don’t fail me, that’s only 20% of the time that my life doesn’t suck. Sorry about that word, ‘suck’, but it’s how Mark himself described his dilemma, only 2 days before his death. He raised that oxygen mask with just me in the room and said, clear as day, “This sucks!”. My response? “I know it does, sweetie, but all we can do is fight & try to make tomorrow suck a little less.” Those words spoke volumes about his situation. He knew he was in the fight of his life. And I thought that this strong healthy man would pull through.

Now I’m the one who has to “pull through”….the one that is determined to make “tomorrow suck a little less”. And it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever faced in my life. Part of me wants to close all the drapes, go to bed, and curl up into the fetal position…for days. But I can’t do that. I don’t have the luxury. I have the two most important parts of his legacy looking to me for strength & guidance. And I couldn’t even get out of my car today.

Dear God in heaven, I know that when I am weak, You are strong. Today, at least during this hour, You must be enormously strong for all three of us.

What a day……

Well, the first day of our “dreaded weekend” went more smoothly than anticipated.  I have a suspicion that there were oodles of prayers being lifted up for us, especially as we approached the Little League field for A.J.’s game.  Brandon, A.J.’s coach, came up to me as soon as we arrived, wanted to know if I would be up for throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to AJ before the game, in memory & in celebration of Mark.  What could I say?  As long as Andrew was okay with it, I was game. 

I stood in that dugout as that coach huddled the boys together….some knew Mark, some didn’t….as he explained that AJ’s dad had passed away recently, and that the team was going to dedicate the entire fall season to Mark.  He also told them that Mark would not want them to be sad, but to live, be happy, and enjoy some baseball, ’cause that’s what he would be doing if he were here.

I headed out to the mound, Andrew to home plate.  His only instructions to me?  “Make sure you throw it over the plate!”  Brandon stood with me & explained to the crowd what we were doing.  I haven’t thrown a baseball in about a month, and I didn’t want to look like either President Obama or Bush with pitiful throws.  But I threw it hard, and it went across the plate.  The crowd cheered, and my son & I hugged.  I got to keep the ball. 

The Vernon LL team has probably been playing together since they were 3, ’cause they were good.  But my son went 2 for 2, had a couple of good plays at 1st base, and had an RBI.  Two dear friends, Amy and Randall, showed up shortly after the game began, so AJ had a good cheering section. 

A confession?  I’m 48 years old.  And I’ve never seen “The Lion King”….isn’t that sad?  So, to keep the day going on a positive note, the boys & I went to see it…. in 3D.  A great movie, although hard to watch as Simba’s dad is killed.  Think it upset me more than the boys.  They are so resilient, and seem to take things in stride a heck of alot easier than I do.  The theatre was full, with a varying audience age from babies to grandparents. 

The circle of life…it really has a deeper meaning.  I tried to explain to the boys on the way home that life is but a fleeting moment compared to eternity, even when someone lives to be 100.  But our spirituality was before we were born, and continues throughout eternity after we shed these clunky earthly bodies.  Or as my wise 9 year old put it, “Mom, death is just another part of life.” 

Mark’s mom emailed that his inscription for his mausoleum marker has been set.  I had 14 spaces for 4 separate lines.  How do you sum up a man’s life in four lines, 64 spaces? 

                     MARK H. HOWELL
                      OCT. 25, 1955
                      JULY 30, 2011
                    PHENOMENAL DAD

That fourth line?  His most important role,  the one he was most proud of (outside of being a child of God).  Amazingly, it took 14 spaces, no more, no less.

Be blessed….God is good,


Ahh…another dreaded weekend…..

I used to live for weekends.  Especially weekends in Wichita Falls with cooler temperatures.  Mark, as a state employee could only work 40 hours a week.  This was a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say, a very good thing.  So many weeks he would be out after normal business hours, attending to one or more of his extra work activities, that by Friday he’d only have a few hours to get in to make his maximum of 40.  On those weeks, he’d either come home early, or take the entire day off.  This would’ve been one of those days today, for sure.  He’d be relaxed in his big old recliner, reading the paper & drinking a very strong hot cup of joe. While there, he’d be planning all kinds of fun stuff for the 4 of us to do for the upcoming weekend.

Now, weekends are decidedly different.  It’s just not as fun without him.  I’m trying, Lord knows I’m trying, but it’s not the same.  No booming male voice throughout the house.  No exclamations of pure joy at the arrival of his sons at the end of the school day.  No warm strong hugs for any of us. 

And to top it all off, fall baseball begins tomorrow.  Andrew will step out on the field, fully dressed, without his coach, confidante, and biggest cheerleader on the sidelines, at least in the physical sense.  Please keep him especially in your prayers as he does this “first” at noon tomorrow.  The ironic thing is that last season, a young widow had a son on A.J.’s team.  She has another child Ben’s age.  And I cannot tell you the number of times I saw my husband sitting beside that little boy in the dugout, talking to him, encouraging him.  As I look back, that spoke volumes about Mark’s character.  It was just the right thing to do, and he did it.  I hope that my sons will have men step in to do the same for them. 

Started calling agencies to remove Mark’s name from joint accounts this morning.  Yet another first, and a milestone, in my opinion.  Tough, tough, tough to do, though.  I’m waiting for something easy to do, and it just hasn’t happened yet.  But I have faith that it will. 

My devotion for today said, “Find fulfillment through living close to Me, yielding to My purposes for you.  Though I may lead you along paths that feel alien to you (you think, God?), trust that I know what I am doing.  If you follow Me wholeheartedly, you will discover facets of yourself that were previously hidden.  I know you intimately–far better than you know yourself.  In union with Me, you are complete.  In closeness to Me, you are transformed more and more into the one I designed you to be.”  But the real kicker came with the associated scripture, “You created every part of me; you put me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because you are to be feared; all you do is strange and wonderful.  I know it with all my heart.  When my bones were being formed, carefully put together in my mother’s womb, when I was growing there in secret, you knew I was there—you saw me before I was born.  The days alloted to me had all been recorded in your book before any of them ever began.” Ps 139:13-16 Good News Translation

So I wait, and I pray, and I hope for better days.  And in studying God’s word, I have the faith that those days are somewhere out there on the horizon.  Just remember, God, patience has never been one of my strong suits, but I’m working on it 🙂

“One step forward, two steps back…”

Well, per usual, I spoke too soon about glimpses of better moments yesterday.  Today, thus far, I’ve been the proverbial mess.  Overwhelmed doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel today.  There is just so darn much to do, so much to take care of, business-wise, financially, spiritually, emotionally, and don’t even get me started about my laundry needs.

 I had another one of those panic-attack moments after coming back home from the boys’ school, thinking I cannot do this, I cannot do this.  I then remembered that I had forgotten to take my xanax, which seems to be helping in these issues.  The simple things that were ‘no-brainers’ for me to do seem to take the most time for me now.  And as the xanax begins to calm me, along with my devotional reading for the day, I try to slow down enough to be able to listen to what God needs me to do. 

I need to provide for my sons.  I need for them to feel love without end.  I need for them to feel safe, even though it’s just the three of us now.  I need to find male friends willing to come over and be wrestled around on the floor (by the boys, not me!), friends able to step in, albeit in a small way, to give Andrew & Ben a testosterone-based presence in their lives.  That’s a tall order, for sure.  But it’s what we need.

My second outdoor column was published today, it gives me something to aspire to. It keeps me honest by keeping my promise to Mark to teach our boys the importance of conservation, ecology, and just the pure joy of being outside.  It also gives me purpose, and hope that this outlet may serve a greater good & reach others who find themselves in similar crappy circumstances.  In the long run, I pray it helps all three of us heal. 

So, I think I’m done crying, at least for now.  There’s too much to be done for me to sit & feel sorry for myself.  There’s many in worse situations than I am in, and my boys & I have much to be thankful for.  And my dryer timer is telling me I have 20 shirts to hang up. 

Peace & blessings, friends…


Rain in the forecast?

Last night was really difficult.   Bedtime is one of our hardest times of the day.  The usual routine involved both parents spending time, separately with the boys in their room, praying, sharing funny stories, talking about boy stuff.  I’d always go first, then whenever I was done, they’d gleefully yell for Mark to come down to their room.  He’d usually be in his big recliner, pausing whatever sports event that he was watching (thank goodness for dvr!)…he’d crank down, making a big deal of coming to their room, most nights uttering some sort of “man-grunt” (think Tim the tool man from Home Improvement), and head in for some guy time.  The laughter I’d hear coming from that room will always be in my heart & memory.
But, I digress.  Last night, we snuggled into one big bed, me in the middle, said our prayers & read a book together, “What Happens When We Die?” by Carolyn Nystrom.  It really had some valid questions, and we talked at length about what we think Mark’s doing up in heaven.  Both boys are very sure there are wheat fields, pastures to hunt with his two dogs already there (Jack & Bud), cool temps in the 60s, and 24 hour sports on all of the time.  Since Mark’s favorite meal was fish, they’re pretty sure he’s cooked some up for Jesus by now. 
We laughed, we cried, we snuggled, we prayed.   And even though it was one of the hardest nights starting out, we all seemed to sleep just a little better.  We woke up to a bit of rain (thank you, God!), all better rested than usual, and in a little better humor than usual. 
Ben actually had a little smile on his face as I walked with him to class today.  He clung a little less to me as I tried to leave.  I specifically asked in my prayers last night for the Holy Spirit to walk on one side of each boy, and for their Daddy’s spirit to be on the other side.  I, of course, tell them I’m in their heart each and every day.  Ben smiled & said that Daddy was in there, too. 
I know that today will be hard, just like any other day.  But this morning, just for a few minutes, I caught a glimpse of two boys being well, just two boys.  And a mom that didn’t cry as she left the school for home.  I can only pray that I catch more glimpses of that in the future. 

Friends are Family…

At this incredibly hard time in our lives, Andrew, Ben, & I are living in a town of 104,000 people. None are related to us by blood. Mark has family in Kansas, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Washington state. My family resides in Kentucky and Tennessee.
I titled this “friends are family” because even though our relatives are in far away places geographically, our family here in Wichita Falls has comforted us, prayed for us, protected us, and stood in the gap to be the hands, feet, and heart of Christ himself during Mark’s hospital stay and since his death. We do not know how we would have survived if it weren’t for you. You have laughed with us, cried with us, held our hands, and been the most wonderful family in Christ possible. I now can say with certainty that I have had a little glimpse of heaven, right here in Wichita Falls, which is incredibly hard to believe, considering we’ve just recorded our 100th day of 100 degrees or more for the summer.

Heaven is a place where God’s people come together and help a friend in need. Heaven is a place where your children are hugged & loved & tended to while you have to be at the hospital with your beloved spouse. Heaven is my feeling so lifted up by prayer that I can actually get out of bed each morning & accomplish some of the many tasks that I have to complete. And heaven, my friends, is being a part of a family, one that crosses any political, religious, ethnic, or gender restrictions…..and that is the little glimpse of heaven that the boys and I are seeing right here in Wichita Falls, Texas.

We love you all, and there is no way we can ever say thank you enough.
Nancy, Andrew, and Ben

p.s.  We know that folks are lifting us up in prayer all over the country, and we are so grateful for that, as well.  Just wanted to give a special message to those right here in our neighborhood, because Wichita Falls is home, has been home for almost 20 years, and will continue to be home for us three Howells 🙂

July 4, 2011

In Vermont, July 4, 2011…we had a blast with Mark’s brother & sister-in-law. Think this was near Brattleboro, before we enjoyed the fireworks under a beautiful clear, cool night sky. It’s a bit blurry, but you can still see the happy faces.