Monday, May 20, 2013

Aunt BJ and Sonja

It's Book Club Day. Our inspiration for posts this month is Anthony Marra's new novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon. The character of Sonja, a strong woman who returns to her native Chechnya to serve a physician in a shell of a hospital reminded me of my Aunt BJ Marshall who served as a missionary and nurse on the Gaza Strip for ten years.

I was eight days old and Mom still had not named me. Mother’s younger sister Bertha Jane, sixteen at the time, came into the hospital with a plan. So shy she couldn’t lift her head to talk to her own sister, she stared at her feet and asked, “Could I please name her?”
            Thus, I became Brenda Jane. The Jane portion carried a long history from aunt to niece in our family and came with a spectacular hand-cut diamond cluster ring which originated with my Great-aunt Jane, who worked for her sister, who was a professional madam. The Brenda portion came from Aunt BJ’s pen pal in England. Always grateful I escaped the Bertha part of her name; I learned years later she hated “Bertha” herself. So after the original Bertha’s death (my grandma/her mother), she changed Bertha Jane to BJ.
This act of naming created a tether reaching across continents in our later lives. Aunt BJ lived elsewhere much of my childhood—away at college, graduate school, seminary and then twenty years as a Baptist missionary—but she provided the only model on Mother’s side of the family for how to pursue a college education. I claimed this inspiration for better or worse. When she came home for visits, I knew she represented a world beyond what I experienced with my mom and stepdad and I wanted to know such a world. While on furlough from Japan, Aunt BJ stopped to visit us in California. Two memories left etchings in my brain from that visit. She had a suitcase full of Japanese silk for souvenirs and to exhibit at the many speeches she would give. As Aunt BJ searched through the suitcase for something, she screamed as though frightened. A big black crusty cockroach dared to cross the boundary between our pitiful existence and Aunt BJ’s world-beyond-our-family, that Maginot Line between my family of origin and the future I saw for myself. On the same visit she declared, “I don’t know why I go halfway around the world to teach the English language when my own family doesn’t speak it.” These memories were etched with a quill of shame.
During my senior year of high school, I applied only to three Baptist colleges, was admitted to all and chose Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky because of its proximity to Evansville, Indiana and the heritage of Aunt BJ attending there.
Southern Baptists had called me to mission work, and I didn’t think I had permission to consider other careers. I never acknowledged the possibility of a link between my call to mission work and my adoration of Aunt BJ—but she was the only college educated member of my family and she was in mission work. I was twenty-one years old before I had psychic permission to be anything except a Southern Baptist missionary. The Baptist church revered missionaries in those days. When any missionary came to speak in a local congregation, the church introduced her as a “real live missionary.” I don’t know whether the assumption was dead ones could talk or missionaries didn’t return home alive.
Aunt BJ served ten years in Japan (1957-1967) and ten years on the Gaza Strip in Israel (1967-1977). Her service in Israel coincided with the Six Day War and upon her return she looked like a prisoner of war—sallow complexion, glazed over eyes and a constant hyper-vigilance. This heroine and role model satisfied my childhood yearning to believe in life beyond the disarray of my family. In spite of my change of plans about becoming a Baptist missionary, Aunt BJ’s influence on my life laid a foundation with bricks called education, faith and service. One role model in the family, even if extended family, spoke volumes when I searched for how someone from our blood line could flourish. While Aunt BJ’s childhood varied from mine, she modeled for me that a member of our family could get a college education and live a purposeful life. It could be done. It had been done. Aunt BJ was solid proof.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Eight Days: From Times Square Naked Cowboy to Mark’s Death

This post is inspired by Rosamund Lupton's novel, Afterwards. As a member of, I received a free copy. Lupton weaves a skillful story of a parent's love and criminal mystery in a medical setting. There was no question about the memory this novel provoked for me. 

After the conference dinner, John and I walked back to the Edison Hotel via Times Square. Neither of us had been in New York for a while and it was great fun to just walk among the crowd on a Saturday night. The Naked Cowboy in his tiny tighty-whiteys strummed away and we stopped to buy a t-shirt for Mark. I have no idea what that t-shirt said or whatever became of it.
            When we walked into our hotel room the phone was ringing. Strange, I thought. Everyone calls us on cell phones these days. My niece’s voice sounded anxious from the start. “Bren, Rebecca has been trying to get hold of you all evening. Call her immediately. Mark has had some sort of accident.”
            I didn’t panic right away. I’m a glass-half-full person who thinks every problem has a solution. “Don’t worry. I’ll call Rebecca right now.”
            Rebecca’s voice sounded twice as anxious. She was driving with a friend from Huntsville where she and Mark were in school at Sam Houston State University to a hospital in Houston. A helicopter ambulance overhead was taking Mark.
“They wouldn’t let me ride in the helicopter with him because I’m not related to him! We don’t know anything except he fell off the back of an ATV and hit his head. I was right behind him on another ATV and I thought he was joking when he got up. You know how he can be. Then he got very angry, almost violent and we knew something was wrong. The emergency vehicles came and they decided he needed to be flown to Houston.”
After exhausting all questions and answers I could come up with, Rebecca said through her tears, “I’m so sorry, Bren. I hope he’s going to be okay.”
“Don’t worry, Beck. I’ll get on the phone with the hospital now and stay in touch until they know something.”
Mark and I in 1996.
The next few hours stretched forth as the eternal nightmare no parent ever wants to experience. I finally reached the neurologist who had already done surgery on Mark. He said Mark’s brain was swelling and they did surgery immediately to relieve pressure. He would give me no further prediction of how Mark was or would be and said he would be in touch as they knew more.
Scared but still telling myself, Mark would be fine, I decided to call an old friend who was a neurosurgeon in Lexington. When I got him on the phone and described the situation, he said, “Get a flight and get to Texas as fast as you can. Yes, I would have agreed to the surgery to relieve pressure.”
I made the call thinking he would give me reassurance, now my panic soared. John began working on his cell phone to get me a flight and a taxi to the airport while I returned calls to Rebecca and family to update them. I shook with fear and chills as I dialed each number. John wrapped me in blankets with one hand as he held his phone with the other.
The taxi drive in the middle of the night through strange parts of New York City would have scared me on other nights. Now I had far greater fears. The driver deposited me safely at the airport. I took a sleeping pill on the plane to force myself to get some rest on the flight. The realization had set in that I would need all the strength I could muster.  
I arrived at the Houston airport about the same time as Rebecca’s mother coming in from Lexington. A friend of Mark’s from Sam Houston State picked us both up and delivered us to Memorial Hermann Hospital. I didn’t have a choice of hospitals and would not have known how to choose, but I learned later that Memorial Hermann is one of the nation’s best and the place where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords will rehabilitate in the coming years. No parent wants or deserves to spend eight days by their child’s side and ultimately lose him but the staff at this hospital made the experience as bearable as they were able.
We scrubbed up to enter the ICU. Only two or three of us could go in at a time. Being very familiar with ICU, I walked in knowing what to expect. And yet. This time my dear Mark was lying there with tubes coming out of every orifice of his body, his head wrapped in bandages and multiple machines attached to him. I swallowed back the hot spit and willed myself not to vomit. I resisted the urge to climb into the bed with him and use every mode of comfort I knew so well from twenty-five years of parenting him.
Others arrived hour by hour. Sims flew in from Oregon, Leah from Philly, college friends drove over from Hunstville, his best friend Patrick Wallace from Kentucky, an elementary school friend and my step-grandson who both lived near Houston. My sisters Ashley and Margaret, Rebecca’s sister Hunter Quinn. And, of course, my dear husband.
John had flown back to Lexington, performed necessary duties with work and house and got to Houston as soon as he could. We had just married in January, this was April. From the moment the phone call came in New York until this day, John has been my tower of strength. Who thinks they’re signing up for death and grief and catastrophic change in their wife three months after they say, “I do?”
So a “crowd of witnesses” had gathered in Houston. By Monday, the neurosurgeon gathered everyone present around a big conference table outside of ICU. The surreal atmosphere hung heavy around us. The people around that table loved Mark unquestioningly. But as the doctor asked and then listened to each person weigh in about Mark’s life and death, I fought the urge to scream, “No! No! Nobody gets to decide about Mark’s quality of life and pulling some plug except ME! I gave him birth! He is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh! Stop it!”
Some shred of humanity or pastoral identity choked those words back. I knew the doctor was allowing everyone to have their say for multiple reasons—I suppose most compassionately to aid in the grief that was ahead of each one of us. Still, I wanted to cling to my baby boy with every scrap of maternal instinct in my being—primal ferocity.
The beeps and blips of the machines attached to Mark became familiar to us. His heart pumped on—young, healthy. His brain activity declined. By Wednesday, my intuition knew the boy I gave birth to was gone. Mark was so identified with his intellect. He once told me the curse of being smart was that “no matter what I become, I cannot exceed anyone’s expectations. If I’m president, my elementary school teachers will say, ‘I’m not surprised. I knew Mark would be something great.’” All that potential gone—forever.
Still, there was my son’s body—a big, beautiful, healthy body. We could not layer waste upon waste by burying his healthy organs with him. I wanted every usable piece of his body redeemed, reused, giving life in someone else’s body. Thus began days with hospital ethicists, doctors, chaplains and social workers. In order to donate Mark’s organs, he had to be brought out of the induced coma to verify brain death. I was scared. What would that mean? Would he feel anything? Would he know anything? My gut stayed tense for days as we each took turns standing by his side, talking with him, touching him, reminding him of stories and place and people we had shared. I couldn’t help but wonder if bringing him out of the induced coma would reveal changes. Could he possibly surprise the doctors? Was there an ounce of hope? So many questions, such medical answers but this was not their next patient, this was my Mark!
Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we continued to take our turns standing by Mark’s bed saying our good-byes—long, surreal, mind-numbing, gut-wrenching good-byes. We stared at the brain monitor—numbers that determined when they could declare the end of my baby’s life. Numbers! Leah and I were the only two in the unit at one point and we both used that moment to sing to Mark the songs we each sang to him as an infant and toddler. Each person’s grief and loss seemed to bury me under another layer. How can anybody, even me, go on with the weight of this grief?
John’s resourcefulness never takes a vacation. He got the idea and cautiously presented it to me that we might want to save some of Mark’s sperm.
“You never know what the future will present, Bren. Will Sims need to use that sperm? Will Rebecca one day want to have Mark’s baby? You never know.”
            The cruel twist is that John knew the pain of multiple miscarriages from his previous marriage and I was too numb to have ever thought of this step. The hospital officially said, “No, we do not perform that service.” John was tenacious. He found a urology intern who was willing to harvest the sperm; John found a sperm bank listed in a free local paper and the potential for future grandbabies toddled off to the bank. In 2006, after the birth of Sims’ son, Tristan, and Rebecca’s marriage to another, we made the decision to discard the sperm. I have never regretted that we saved that piece of Mark for four years.
            Even the cremation plans were complicated. The medical examiner asked John, “Do you mind if your loved one is cremated by an African-American crematory?”
            “Of course not,” John responded.
            “Well, then, it will be a couple of thousand dollars cheaper.”
            Would customer service in a white-owned funeral home have asked if we minded if our son was cremated by white people? Another hidden injustice in our society.
Sunday morning arrived and John and I were in a car with some folks who were taking us to church. Who were those people? What church were we going to? How did this come about? I suppose I knew then, but my memory fails me as I try to reconstruct. The eight days had taken a toll and I began to move robotically through the days. As we drove through the streets of Houston, my cell phone rang. The hospital. “Mark’s brain activity has declined, please come now.”
Saying that last good-bye with Mark’s heart still beating haunts me. The number by which experts make such calls about life and death mean nothing to a mother walking away from her son’s beating heart. As we walked out of ICU for the last time, Sims and I turned to each other and grabbed hold. The agony on Sims’ face etched itself into my brain. Mark, the younger brother, had become the older brother in recent years. Now Sims would live the rest of his life without those phone calls, without the UK basketball trash talk to each other, without sharing wives, children and Christmases to come. The grieving began a new stage.
    We returned to Lexington and started plans for Mark’s service. I’m doing the tasks. I’m walking, talking and sometimes sleeping, but feel strangely numb and removed.
Then my son arrived in a box one day. Just like Amazon or, a package came in the mail. I signed for it; accepted it into my hands and stood there unknowing. What is the next step when I’m standing there holding my son in a box?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Inspired by Saturday Night Widows by Becky Aikman

Upon receiving the next book chosen for, I was pleased to see it was a memoir about being a widow. Of course, having been a widow, I assumed my post inspired by this book would be about widowhood. Not so. Becky Aikman's memoir is as much about female friendships as about widowhood. At one point I considered naming my memoir, Girlfriends Get You Through Life—not a great title but a Truth for me. I have constructed my personal group of girlfriends whose friendships consisted of strong building materials that withstand the tsunamis and hurricanes of life.

We named ourselves Kindred Spirits. Even as their pastor, I expected little beyond meeting once a month, studying spiritual material and sharing thoughts about our faith experiences. Oh, ye, of low expectations. In the following thirteen years, we fed each other’s souls and met routinely. We didn’t need to know of well-recognized research on conversation with sisters making for a happier life and we didn’t need for the sisters to be biological. We lived it out.
From the beginning we combined intense spiritual work and serious fun. One of our first outings together, we dressed up—it is an understatement to say there isn’t one unattractive woman in this group—and headed to Keeneland Race Track in Lexington, KY, for a day of racing. Seated in a box, we were having great fun when one of the guys in the box next to us couldn’t resist asking, “What kind of group are you all?”
Mary replied, “We are a spiritual life group from our church.”
His eyes grew wider, and just as I pulled my shoulders back to take my jacket off (Let’s just say I am amply endowed.), Mary responded, “And this is our pastor.”
He couldn’t get the question out of his mouth fast enough, “What kind of church is that?”
Rosemary being the comic and wit in our midst didn’t miss a beat in replying “The Church of What’s Happenin’ Now.”
We collapsed in laughter.
Three biological sisters, Rhonda, Lisa and Martha, predisposed the circle toward blood-like commitment. Rosemary, a Maryland transplant, sought a local substitute for her own remote family. And Mary’s years of broken relationships steeled her determination to “keep it real.”
We hailed from four different decades, thirties to sixties. Age mattered not. Perhaps, we would not have chosen each other as friends had we met under other circumstances. Life tossed out experiences that could have bonded us to each other or driven us apart. Four graduations, six marriages, two babies, one divorce, one separation and more deaths than any small band should have had to bear. We’ve talked through romantic relationship breakups too numerous to count and tended each other through more surgeries than we care to admit—the flotsam and jetsam of six lives over thirteen years inextricably wove us together. Our raucous laughter caused on-lookers to ask, “What can possibly be that funny?” Perhaps they missed Rosemary’s suggestion we raise money for the church by doing a calendar of me, their pastor, draped over her husband’s antique Corvette. Rose, alone could have kept us laughing the past thirteen years. Tears and sorrows necessitated communal distribution; their weight too much to be borne alone.
When we first formed, Mary, a many-years-sober alcoholic, red headed, tri-athlete influenced us to select for our first study material, The Twelve Steps: A Spiritual Journey a book modeled on AA’s Twelve Steps (RPI Publishing, Inc. 1988). This nitty-gritty guide demanded we dig deep and share courageously every month when we gathered. So we did. We started by telling our life stories with truth and trust. I recommended this step for any group who decided to share a spiritual voyage and hold themselves accountable to each other.
What has made these friendships work? Trust, accountability and a fierce commitment of time. Teaching each other to live authentically required all three and more.
“Have you opened that bank account in your own name like you promised? Why not?”
“That’s not your problem; give it back to your husband, it belongs to him.”
“What are you doing to care for your health this month? Chocolate doesn’t count.”
“Are you pushing yourself too hard at work? If so, why?”
“Is this guy you’re dating enriching your life or an avoidance of something else?”
“Didn’t we commit to a full day of retreat? Why are you saying you need to go back to work? Home? Shopping? Are all calendars clear for the third full week in July next summer?”
Here’s a mini-list of what this flock has given me: Mary has taught me every day how to deal with alcoholics in my past, present and future. Rhonda has modeled a stunning example of steadfastness and introversion, absent in my own life. Lisa has shared her love of style and even shopped for the shoes to match the yellow silk suit I wore to my son’s funeral. Rosemary physically held me upright the day I resigned as their pastor after my son’s death. And Martha introduced me to my soul-mate and husband, John.
These women have been kind enough over the years to tell me what I have given to them. The list included the ridiculous and the sublime. Rhonda pointed out I taught her and her sisters not to wear horizontal stripes because they are blessed with broad shoulders. She also maintained I gave her permission to question all things sacred so as to deepen her spirituality. Passing along what we as pastors learn in life is as important as passing along what we learn in seminary. These Kindred Spirits confirmed this concept for me.
Martha, the youngest of our group, has shared in these thirteen years her graduation from college, marriage and birth of her children. She has grown from a college girl into a multi-tasking business professional, wife and mother. She shared with me at one point “You are a mentor and guide for all areas of my life. Period. You model living freely as your true self, with no apologies, unlike any person I have ever met. You nurture my spiritual life and build my self-esteem as a strong, independent woman. You offer unconditional love and compassion in the twinkle of your eye and with reassurance as if you are mother of all women.”
Rosemary, the artist among us, reminded me I gave her a book about using the visual arts in worship which freed her to worship in a way that reached her soul as nothing else had. She delighted in reminding me I gave her permission to be an imperfect Christian and not beat up on herself about sin. Her sleepless nights as a teen and young adult were spent worrying she would burn in hell for sins she has since learned have nothing to do with God’s love for her and are probably not worthy of the word sin.     
The Kindred Spirits taught me to accept my role as leader even when not leading. I experienced in this group the difference between being wise and being right. I told my biological sisters what to do and assumed I was right. In ministry, I learned I could have all the answers for others but a wise leader allows them to come to their own truths on their own time.
Girlfriends in community give and receive. As I struggled in relationships with my biological sisters, these women helped me see I was a leader and could lead without imposing my will on others. I could be wrong and still share wisdom. The diversity in this group reminded me of the richness which comes from being friends with people who have walked very different journeys—economically, socially, educationally. Two of us have Master degrees, one has a high school education. Our salaries in range from minimum wage to six figures annually. Our differences which became our strength taught me to be myself and I would not feel isolated or responsible, I would just be me.
I give thanks for the difference all girlfriends have made in my life. I know this much is true—when I die, my list of honorary pallbearers will be the girlfriends who have carried me in life. In addition to the Kindred Spirits, there will be Linda, Rachel, Wendy, Vonda, Boog and Laura.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Response to The Expats an excerpt from Sweet Lonesome Journey

This post was inspired by mystery thriller novel The Expats by Chris Pavone. Kate Moore sheds happily sheds her old life become a stay at home mom when her husband takes a job in Europe. As she attempts to reinvent herself, she ends up chasing her evasive husband's secrets. Join From Left to Write on January 22 as we discuss The Expats As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

The following post is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, working title--Sweet Lonesome Journey to be published in 2013.

My precious Mark and Sims, ages ten and thirteen, walked me down the aisle of a packed Central Baptist Church to start the wedding of my dreams and the marriage of my nightmares. Moisture filled eyes followed us to the altar. Everyone celebrated I had found a young, good-looking professional man because they also had watched and prayed as I lost Bart to cancer. I irrationally thought two and one half years amounted to enough time for my grief—which verifies out how grief cripples your judgment.
The gorgeous wedding ended and the marriage began. I accept full responsibility for this huge marital mistake. However, I do wish to note for the record, no family members and only one friend voiced misgivings about this match. Even my therapist later apologized he had not noted the signs of –what? Mental disorder? Dysfunctionality? Woundedness? All of the above? And that’s the part related to Dan. My part in this colossal mistake? I underestimated the psychological healing I had yet to do. At this point, I remained clueless concerning damage I still carried from childhood wounds. I didn’t know the work that still lay ahead of me. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Shortly before the wedding, my groom-to-be commented, “Your friends seem to think of you as being very sexy. I’m not comfortable with that.”
“No kidding.” I replied. “Did you think you were the only one on the planet who had noticed?”
The warning gong should have clanged with concern over his unhealthy attitude about sex, relationships and more, instead, his thinking ticked me off. This constituted the beginning of my daily urge to say to him, “Do you have applesauce for brains?”
On the honeymoon when he brought up issues he had not mentioned in a year and half of dating—all issues related to his need to control me, such as what I wore, where I could go and who I could be friends with, my stomach knotted in fear. My expression in all the honeymoon pictures looks like I’m gritting my teeth. I was. He assured me he just found it “necessary to rake back the glitter” when confronted with someone who shimmered like Brenda. I replied, “You’re doing the job with a god damn backhoe, not a rake.”
I repeat—I offer no excuse for my part in this gigantic mistake. Devastated by Bart’s death and desperate for emotional security, I thought I found a good man. A college professor who attended church, had two sons of his own, Dan shared many of my values and desired the kind of home life I wanted for my boys. His issues with sexuality and obsessive, irrational thinking escalated from the honeymoon until the day our divorce finalized. I learned an important lesson about myself from this marriage: I had very low tolerance for someone who needed to control me in order to feel safe himself. Circumstances necessitated I become my own authority at an early age, he didn’t stand of chance of controlling me in my forties. I also learned I didn’t have enough relationship skills to bridge the psychological divide between Dan’s dysfunction and my own.