Monday, March 28, 2011

A Father's Day Story

Fathers Day is celebrated in Honduras on March 19th.  I wrote the following in my journal 18 years ago this month.  I thought I'd share it.

March 20, 1993
La Ceiba, Honduras

Fawn and two of her friends from school planned and prepared a Father's Day dinner for their dads.  All three girls were in our kitchen by 8:00 this morning with the menu in hand ready to start baking.  One of their grandmas was making pizza, but the rest was up to them.

I distinctly got the impression that Fawn had put herself in charge.  She enjoys dessert and had six listed, cut down from an original ten:  cake, cupcakes, no bake cookies, brownies, caramel popcorn and sponge candy.  Tooth decay, here we come!

"Fawn," I tactfully approached her.  "There are only going to be three fathers here.  You're having pizza and salad.  I really think we can cut down on the desserts, don't you?"

I could see by the glare she gave me that she wasn't happy with my interference, but with help from the other two, I was able to talk her down to three desserts.

She had decided on a white cake, meaning that eggs would have to be separated.  "Mom!"  This was not going to be one of my more relaxing Saturday mornings.  I stepped into the kitchen.  "We can't get these eggs to work."  She pointed at the bowl accusingly. 

She was right.  Too murky.  "Nope.  This won't work.  You'll end up with a yellow cake, " I told her.

At that she picked up the mixture and dumped it down the sink!

"What are you doing?!  Those eggs could have been used for the brownies!"

She looked a bit uncomfortable.  "Oh yeah."

Oh yeah?  Is that all she has to say?  She's not the one buying the eggs going down the sink.

An hour later she came looking for me again.  "Mom, would you come look at the brownies.  They're weird.  We tried putting them in the pan, but they won't spread."

She was right.  They were weird, and they didn't spread in the pan.

"Fawn, I went over the whole recipe with you."  And then I went over it again.  We never did quite figure out what they had done wrong, but we ended up adding another cup of sugar and a bit more flour.  It still looked weird.

The kitchen was an absolute disaster.  Maria, who generally gives it a good cleaning on Saturdays, just grinned and said she thought it best to wait until another day.  I agreed.

I think the brownies did them in.  All three agreed that perhaps two desserts were plenty after all.  I was beginning to relax again.

The card table, three chairs from the dining room table and a child cabinet from the toy room were dragged out and set up underneath a coconut palm in the backyard.  Then they simply waited.  For three hours.

Larry did not know the two Hondurans who sat down at the table with him under the palm that afternoon.  But I don't suppose it really mattered.  The girls had pulled it off.  Three 10-year- olds had actually prepared a banquet for the most important men in their lives.  They served them and catered to their every need, from the ice in their cups to the delicious desserts (yes delicious!) that topped it all off.  I was proud of them.

Unfortunately, the day ended on a bit of a negative note.  Just after her friends left for home, Fawn dropped a pop bottle and put a deep gash into her leg.  A couple of hours later she was home with five stitches.  So guess who got to wash the dishes?  Dad!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Broken Voices

It was an early Saturday morning in late March that Larry and I traveled from our home in Liberty, South Carolina and headed up to Charlotte, North Carolina just a couple hours to the north.  I would be attending a symposium with a hundred or so others who had come in from all over the country.  As I entered the hotel lobby later that morning,  I  immediately noticed how diverse our group was.   It seemed pretty evenly divided between men and women, but ages ranged from young adults to some who appeared to be in their seventies.  And as for the dress code, there didn't seem to be one.  Some were in jeans and t-shirts while others opted to dress up a bit.  At first glance, it didn't seem like we'd have all that much in common.  Well, that was until we opened our mouths.

A little over five years ago I noticed something weird going on with my voice.  Right after Christmas I had what I thought was a simple case of laryngitis, possibly brought on by allergies.   Several weeks later, however, the laryngitis had developed into a persistent rasp.  I scheduled a long overdue physical which revealed absolutely nothing.  That doctor referred me to an unimpressive throat specialist who checked for nodules, found nothing, gave me some pills to try and sent me on my way.  The problem progressed.  It was harder to get words out now, and I felt as if a fist had clamped itself around my throat.   I was teaching music and directing our church's worship and drama ministries, and I didn't know how much longer I could  continue.  Out of desperation I pleaded with God to give me a name for this thing that was disrupting my life.

One afternoon I sat at the computer and went on a Google search.  I typed in everything I could think of throat related,  looking for anything that might solve the mystery behind my troubled voice. Then suddenly, there on the monitor, was a list of symptoms that described perfectly what I had been experiencing over the past several months.  I knew this was it, my answer.  

It had  a name, Spasmodic Dysphonia, a neurological condition.  It was causing specific muscles in my throat to go out of control, forcing my vocal cords to open and close erratically, making it difficult for my words to come out. Initially I felt relief.  At least I knew what I was fighting and was ready to do whatever was necessary to get my voice back, to have a reprieve from the nasty spasms that had become a constant companion.  

I opted for the most reliable treatment available:  botox injections  into those out-of-control muscles every few months to calm them down. And they worked for awhile.  Well, sometimes.  I had good weeks, bad weeks, good days, bad days. During the good times, I was grateful that it was possible to talk without fatigue or embarrassment.  I cherished those days when I could call my children or make an appointment over the phone.  But there were also those times when it was easier to avoid people,  hoping and praying that I wouldn't have to talk to anyone, dreading the curious looks. My voice felt like it was in prison.  

When I traveled to North Carolina that morning, my voice was having one of its good days.  I was having pretty good results with my new doctor in Atlanta.  And though it was unlikely I would sing again, my speaking voice was the strongest it had been since all this had started.   I felt confident, sociable.  Well, at least for now.  But I also knew the spasms would come back, they always did.  And that's why I needed to be here, to meet and learn from others who had been through it, who understood my loss, and more than anything, to find out if things would ever feel normal again. 

As I approached the registration table, there was a cacophony of voices like I'd never heard before.  Some seemed almost normal.  Most likely they were benefiting from their injections as I was.  But  others struggled to be understood or heard, some much worse off than I had ever been.  That lobby seemed a bit surreal, like a tiny universe with its own peculiar inhabitants speaking an odd language.  Except that I was a part of this little microcosm, and for the first time in a very long time I felt a connection.  Though these people were strangers to me, we all shared something in common.  We all had broken voices.

Before the day was over I would hear story after story of people whose lives had been interrupted as mine had been.  There was Leta.  I had met her once before in my doctor's office in Atlanta.  Tall and striking, she had a successful career in sales before her voice broke.  Warm and vivacious with a vibrant faith, she talked about the challenges she now faces daily in her line of work.  There was the young missionary wife who had plans to go to Russia with her husband before their mission board advised them to consider another field where people would be more tolerant of her less than perfect voice.  I still hear the frustration expressed by the recently diagnosed police captain who feared that the sound of his voice would cause his men to lose respect for him.  I'll never forget the pastor who discovered he could preach by whispering his messages through a microphone,  the national radio show host who had responded well to treatment and had continued on with her career, or the teacher who showed up everyday in her classroom with an amplification device to be better heard and understood by her students.

When we climbed back into our car that evening for the ride home, I knew that God had prearranged this day for me. During one of the sessions I had asked the question, "How long does it take to quit grieving what you've lost?"    Several immediately rose to tell their stories, some of whom had lived with broken voices for a long, long time.  Unequivocally the message was the same.  Things will get better. And I would make it.

They were right.  Things did get better.  I still faced challenges, of course, and at times became discouraged.  One of my next treatments didn't work, and because of insurance issues, I went several months without any relief from the spasms that plagued me.  But I was better able to handle the setbacks and disappointments in part through the example of those whose resilience and courage had so inspired me.  Their voices might have been broken, but their spirits were not.  They said I'd make it.  They'd be pleased to know they were right.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Squirrel That Came Back to Life

Quilty of breaking and entering


There's a squirrel in the church.  Larry came face to face with the critter down in the furnace room.  Later on the little guy showed up in his office.  Obviously he's been checking the place out.  Too bad.  The first spring-like day we have and he's stuck inside.

To be honest, I am not crazy about squirrels.  They're a nuisance. Just take a ride through my neighborhood on trash day and you'll see what I mean.  I personally think they've worked out a deal with the blackbirds and the gulls to drive the sanitation workers crazy.   And I'll bet if you took one of those man on the street surveys, you'd find that only a few empathize with Mrs. Squirrel having to provide for her family because hubby got flattened on the corner of First and Maple.

Growing up I lived in a big old house surrounded by trees.  There were squirrels in them there trees, and they took a liking to our attic.  I remember hearing them above my bedroom ceiling, scurrying around, doing whatever it is that squirrels do. My father starting trapping them, determined to remove them from the premises. One day we were playing outside with some neighborhood friends and found a flying squirrel lying underneath one of our pines, obviously an escapee from the genocide taking place in the attic.  We excitedly gathered him up, put him in a cage and left him in Mark Lowe's garage for the night.  The next morning a few of us went to check on him before school and were horrified to find him lying cold and stiff at the bottom of his cage.  A few minutes later we boarded the bus with our little dead friend.



Beware.  Behind that cute exterior is a monster!
 
As you can imagine, that rodent created quite a stir that morning.  There were plenty of oohs and aahs as we held him up for all to see.  And then the miracle happened.  Nancy Williams, a high schooler, asked if she could hold him for a moment.  Before our eyes she began to rub his little body between her hands and amazingly he began to stir.  A few minutes later he sat in her palms totally recovered.  But then the unthinkable happened.  Lazarus bit down. 

The biting incident was pretty much forgotten as I importantly carried my new pet from class to class, allowing the other students to peer into the cage and see what a real flying squirrel looks like.  That is, forgotten until that evening when the constable showed up at our door wanting my squirrel.  He said something about it being sent away for tests and all.  Gene Williams was a big intimidating guy with a booming voice and I was always a bit afraid of him.  He also happened to be Nancy's dad.   A bus full of kids, and that mangy animal had to go and bite one of the Williams girls.  Stupid squirrel!

Actually,  I don't think this particular species of rodentia is stupid at all.  Many years later my dad's war against the squirrels went full-scale.  Now retired, he had more time to devote to his flower gardens and bird feeders.  Here came the squirrels, determined to get to the seed and other delicacies placed there.  But my father had anticipated the coming aggression and had wisely installed squirrel-proof feeders.  His adversaries, heavier than the average bird,  quickly learned that the additional weight would close the feeders.  Undeterred, however, it was no time before they were hanging from their back feet at the top of the feeder, emptying out its contents. 


They're sneaky and smart!
 
Sometimes in a war you don't kill,  you simply take prisoners.  So my dad set out his traps.  There's a lovely cemetery on a hill in nearby Portville with lots and lots of big trees. For a time he hauled the little buggers there and let them go.  But the squirrels continued coming, and no matter how many he trapped and hauled away, the population never seemed to decrease.  He later found out that some nice people in Portville were trapping squirrels as well and releasing them in Weston's Mills, back behind the Methodist church, not all that far from his home on Chestnut Street.  The war had taken an ugly turn.  Desperation can drive otherwise nice people to commit unconscionable acts.  This was the case with my father.  I won't go into the morbid details, but let it suffice to say that he kept a very nice, very full rain barrel back behind his garage.

So is there anything good to be said about the lowly squirrel?  Well,  next to the moss covered good-for- nothing sloth hanging from his tree in the rain forest, these annoying, hyperactive little creatures actually look pretty good.  I mean, they are most definitely persistent.   Their tenacity, keeping at the task until they get results is pretty admirable. I've found the lids pulled off our trash cans on numerous occasions.  It seems they know how to get others in on the act as well, cooperating when they need to.  Or should I say when there's something in it for them?  And how about innovation? Not too many of us would think to hang upside down by our feet to get at some good grub.  Have you noticed how alert they are, constantly taking in everything around them?  I know, I know.  They have an advantage.  I mean who wouldn't with those giant eyes protruding off the sides of their head?  Then there's the issue of personal hygiene.  Have you ever seen a dirty squirrel?   Granted the male is a bit vain and spends twice as much time grooming himself as Mama they say.  I think she is simply too busy to do anything but have babies and teach them to be respectable. Oh, and the hygiene issue extends to their living space as well.  If the nest gets bugs in it, the family's off to a new locale without even a word to the landlord.

Larry just heard a loud noise in the basement of the church.  It's probably the squirrel trying to open a drawer or something.  Perhaps he'll find his way to the bathroom and fall into a commode.  Wanna help me hold the lid down?

The only good squirrel is a dead one
 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Marva

During the summer of 2000 Larry and I along with our two youngest daughters, Fawn and Autumn, took a sabbatical from our church in Alabama and returned to Honduras for a couple of months.  While there I wrote about one of the greatest challenges I ever encountered.  Her name was Marva:

My first day back I walk by the little wooden house where Marva lived, its windows and doors tightly shut, reminding me that she is no longer there. It has been seven years since we left La Ceiba, a city situated on the northern coast of Honduras, hovering on the edge of the Caribbean Sea.  It was home to my family for six years, and this is the first time we have returned with our two youngest daughters.

Badly in need of paint, the house with its sagging porch is exactly as I remember it.  I can almost see Marva, black skin glistening from the tropical heat, leaning over the rail wagging her finger at my children.  "Now you children be telling your mother that I am still wanting my pumpkin cake and coke for my birthday."

She made them uncomfortable.  I could understand why.  She was especially large for a Honduran.  And though she was barely into her forties, her teeth were gone and her legs and feet were covered with open sores, probably from diabetes.  Though well educated, fluent in both Spanish and English, she had been rejected by most of her family.  I understood in part why her family wanted little to do with her. She was demanding and totally without manners.

Dressed in their blue and white uniforms, my three oldest children walked to school every morning and then again in the afternoon after lunch and siesta.  There was no way to avoid walking by the house with the sagging porch where Marva would sit to cool herself.   It was inevitable that she would catch them walking by at least once a day and indignantly ask them why she had not yet received her pumpkin cake.

It wasn't long before she found her way into our home.  I would hear the sound of the chain and the squeal of metal as the gate opened and closed, and then her slow plod as she ascended the wooden steps leading to the front door of the mission home.  If the door wasn't latched shut she would walk in without invitation and proceed to ask for whatever she wanted or needed on that particular day.  It might be something to eat, a bit of bleach for cleaning or petroleum jelly for her skin.  Perhaps she needed money for a cab or some medicine at the "farmacia."  And there was the frequent reminder that she was still waiting for her pumpkin cake.

I didn't like Marva.  I was annoyed that she bothered my children and often felt like disappearing out the back door when I would hear her slow but unmistakable walk up my stairs.  This continued for several months, and my attitude towards her worsened.  True, I was a Christian missionary, but even we have our limits. 

One afternoon I was home alone when I heard the sound of the gate and the heavy plod of my neighbor's feet on the stairs.  I sighed deeply.  I had looked forward to a quiet afternoon with my children in school and my husband away for the day.

I knew the moment she walked through the door that something was terribly wrong.  "Miss Marcia.  I just wanted to come and tell you goodbye before I be killing my neighbor."  Her body was tense, her eyes blazing with hurt and anger.  She found the closest chair and sat down.

I had seen her upset before but never like this.  I was not in the mood to help her work through a problem with another neighbor.  Heaven knows that she had issues with most of them.  By now she was rocking back and forth, and I knew that she wasn't going to budge until I heard her out.  "Ok Marva," I sighed loudly, hoping she would notice my impatience as I pulled over another chair.  "What happened?"

She was shaking with indignation as she told me about the children who were eating what she felt was a dangerous quantity of green mangos.  Fearful that they would make themselves terribly sick, she took the fruit away from them.  An angry mother went on the offensive, and Marva, stung from the attack, was deeply insulted.  Her only recourse was revenge. 

Wearily I looked at my neighbor.  She was still trembling from the encounter, and I suddenly felt inadequate, not knowing how to help this woman who had needs that were beyond my ability to meet.  I didn't know what to do or say.  In fact, I didn't want her in my life.  I breathed a prayer,   "Lord help me."  I felt an inner nudge.  "Pray for her."  I turned my chair to sit directly in front of her.  "Marva," I said. "I'm going to pray for you."  She immediately bowed her head, still trembling.  "Lay your hands on her."  I knew God was speaking, but for a moment I hesitated.  I didn't want to touch her.  "Lay your hands on her."  I suddenly found myself standing behind her with my hands resting upon her heaving shoulders.  I could still feel her trembling under the wet, perspiring skin.  "Lord, how do I pray for her?"  My mouth opened, and suddenly words of blessing poured out of me.  The sounds of the street below seemed to disappear as I prayed for God's peace.  His presence filled the room as I prayed for healing in her relationships.  And I sensed God forming a bond between us as I prayed that she might know His love for her.  The tension seemed to ooze out of her as she relaxed beneath my hands.

The eyes that opened to look into mine were not the same.  The quiet hush of God was still present in that living room.  Nothing was spoken for a moment, and then she stood to leave.  "Thank you, Miss Marcia."  The voice was quiet, almost subdued.  And she was gone. 

My relationship changed with Marva on that day.  Oh, she was still demanding and rude at times.  She still had conflicts with the neighbors and would even occasionally get cross with my children.  But there was a difference.  She knew someone cared for her.

When Marva heard the news that our time in Honduras was drawing to a close she wept.  She had been treated kindly, and the thought of losing those who accepted her unconditionally devastated her.  During our final weeks we saw her almost daily.

A few days before our departure she came flying up the steps as fast as her weight would allow.  I had never seen her so animated.  "Miss Marcia.  Now you don't be fixing yourself any dinner tonight.  I'm going to be cooking you a nice meal, and I'll be bringing it over about 6:00."  I was stunned.  In all our time as neighbors, Marva had never done anything for us.  I wasn't even certain that she would come through, but I assured her that we would be there waiting.

I had worked hard at packing all day when suddenly the electricity went out.  Night comes early in Honduras, and we were frantically looking for a flashlight when suddenly a voice came from the bottom of the steps.   It was Marva.  "Miss Marcia.  Mister Larry.  I be standing at the bottom of the steps with your dinner, and I can't see to bring it up."

A few moments later with Larry leading the way,  Marva entered the room with her arms full of serving bowls.  She had obviously been cooking all day as she showed us what she had prepared, arroz con pollo, a dish prepared for special occasions.  She beamed with pride as she laid it all out on the table.

"I have one more thing to bring."  She spoke like a child with a wonderful secret.  She disappeared with the flashlight only to appear a few minutes later carrying something on her best dinner plate.  I could hardly speak for a moment.  It was an entire pumpkin cake.

I come back to the present once again.  Marva's gone now.  She died two years ago, complications from diabetes I was told.  I miss her.  You see, when I insisted on cutting a piece of that pumpkin cake off for her, she wouldn't hear of it.  "No,  Miss Marcia.  You've been my friends, my only friends in this barrio, and this cake is for you."  She didn't say it, but I know she loved us.  I knew it the day she brought us the pumpkin cake. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Cayos Cochinos

It was sometime early spring.  I was chaperoning a group of high schoolers from Mazapan School of La Ceiba, Honduras for a few days.  We were roughing it out on one of the islands off the coast, part of a small Caribbean archipelago known as Cayos Cochinos.  I almost hadn't come.  I was teaching full time at the bilingual school that year, filling in for a teacher who had been involved in a serious accident in Guatemala and had been sent back to the states to heal.  I had heard they were looking for chaperones for the trip out to the islands but I wasn't interested.  I was already giving so much time to the school, had four kids and a husband to care for and had my responsibilities with the mission as well.  I didn't see how I could give three days to a camping trip.  Besides, I knew this would be primitive living:  tents, campfire cooking, pit toilets and no electricity.  Hmm.  Nope.  Wasn't interested.  Then I got the call.  It was from Mike Blair, the science teacher.  He and his wife, both teachers, had come from Iowa.  He got right to the point.  They needed another female chaperone, and if they couldn't find one, the trip would have to be cancelled.  I buckled.  A few weeks later I was on the boat heading out.

Foreshadowing is a literary device used in literature to prepare the reader for some climactic event.  I should have known from the moment I saw kids vomiting over the sides of the boat that this was not going to be an easy trip.  But anticipation grew as we sighted the islands in the distance and then relief as we drew up to the beach.  We immediately picked out our sites, unpacked our gear and set up the tents. 

I was still a bit apprehensive, but it didn't take me long to realize that I had just stepped onto a jewel.  Never had I been anywhere else in the Caribbean where conch shells lay so plentifully along the beach.  I had snorkled many times around the Bay Islands,  but there was a freshness to this place that I had never experienced anywhere else.  And while exploring the reef with a small group of students and teachers on that first day, I sensed that I had entered a realm still untouched and therefore unspoiled.  And the others obviously felt it as well, taking special care not to damage the coral or disturb the myriad of creatures swimming or lying on the reef floor.  It turned out to be a not too bad first day after all.

I remember that second day starting out well.  I had been snorkling with two other teachers, Steve who taught music and Tim, the physical education teacher.  After exploring the reef close to shore we had decided to venture out into deeper water.  I remember seeing a large rock formation directly in front of us, framing what seemed to be an entrance into deeper waters yet.  Suddenly I saw Tim excitedly motioning,  trying to get our attention.  There in front of us was a giant sea turtle,  propelling himself forward with his flipper-like front legs.  And though he seemed to move in slow-motion, in a matter of moments he had passed through the rock formation and was gone.   Forgetting about the snorkle in my mouth I shouted out loud.  Amazingly I didn't end up with a mouth full of seawater.  But that image was so life changing, I still see the setting and that magnificent creature exactly as it all appeared some twenty plus years ago.  I had always believed in God as the Creator, but something in my soul was profoundly affected by that scene.  I know that He arranged that meeting for me off the reef of Cayos Cochinos.

It was sometime later in the afternoon that I was approached by a group of seven or eight students needing a chaperone to swim out to one of the small keys with them.  I was a bit concerned about the distance, but I figured with the size of the group I should be alright.  And they had lined up one other teacher, Mike Blair, the science teacher who had coerced me into this trip in the first place.  We met down at the beach and headed out.  Even though we were wearing our snorkling gear, there was little to see.  We were in deeper water now and our objective was simply to get to that piece of land.  Several minutes later we arrived at this speck of an island, all rock and without a plant in sight.  We sat for just a few minutes to catch our breath when Mike announced it was time to head back.  I wasn't at all tired from the trip over,  but as we slipped back into the water my mask began to fill.  The others were already moving on ahead, and by the time I had the mask back on they were several yards ahead of me.  The wind had picked up, and the waves were higher than what I remembered them being earlier. To complicate matters, my mask continued to fill with water and I was stopping every so often to empty it.  At one point I noticed that I was no longer anywhere near the others.  In fact, I could no longer see them. 

There have been a few times in my life when I felt very alone.  But nothing has ever compared to how I felt that day off  Cayos Cochinos with the wind and the waves coming against me out there in that wide expanse of ocean.  Alone.  I knew I hadn't been intentionally left behind but I was hurt nonetheless.  I wondered if they would realize when they got back to the beach that I wasn't with them.  If they did, would they be concerned enough to watch for me?   And if they didn't, when would they begin to miss me?  But more than anything, I was frightened.  And so I cried out to God.  I don't remember if I talked out loud or simply from an imploring heart, but I pleaded with Him to help me get to shore.  "Kick hard," he seemed to say.  So I began to kick against the waves with all the strength I could summon, ignoring the water in my mask, never stopping nor looking ahead,  possibly moving forward though I wasn't sure.  It wasn't until I suddenly felt myself being carried onto the shore by the breakers that I knew God had answered my cry.  That night we were hit with a horrible windstorm that filled tents with sand and buried many of our provisions.  The next morning campers were tired and grumpy from a night with no sleep and more than ready to return to the mainland.  And I realized that the wind that had tried to prevent me from making shore was part of that same storm that wrecked havoc on our campsites. 

I know that I encountered God two times that day.  He met me first in a peaceful place.  There I recognized more fully the scope of His creation, and I was in awe.  Then He met me again.  This time it was in the storm, and I learned that no matter the circumstances of my life, I am never alone.

These particular islands are pretty much off limits anymore.  In 1995 The National Geographic Society took them  over.  They want to keep those pristine waters as pure as possible, and who can blame them.  They let small groups visit now and then, but I imagine the camping trips for high school kids are over.  As for me,  I'm simply grateful for those three days I had there.  I will never be the same.  Who would be?  After all, God met me there.  There in the waters of Cayos Cochinos.