So much has happened since the last update: we spent the last few weeks in Chicago with Bill’s physical therapy each weekday, received the call my other brother had died, packed and moved back to Arkansas.
Since July 17, Bill’s life has been flipped into another realm. For all the decades he was focused on others as a urologist that consumed most days (and many nights) and being a husband/father/friend, now his days are filled with what were once simple tasks, made difficult, and giving his all at his physical therapy sessions. Being an extremely private person, he doesn’t even like this bit of focus on him.
My focus is also on him, but for a few weeks I’ve also been in a holding pattern, absorbing both brothers deaths so soon after Bill’s accident. I know so many of you are also overcoming obstacle after obstacle. I hope what I share today encourages you.
First, I’ll get ahead of myself and say we made it to Arkansas!
Finally here allows us to pause, refuel and continue living forward boldly.
The above photo is our view from the townhome Ari has graciously shared with us as we make decisions for a permanent place. Since we had a two-day drive through rain and fog and behind/beside/around innumerable 18-wheelers in our packed to the hilt rented SUV, we were grateful for this view. Each sunset is a reminder that at day’s end God knows what He’s doing. We are to find His many expressions of love in the rising and setting sun’s glory, resting in His peace.
How do we fathom how God so intricately created our eyes to absorb and respond to the various values of colors—the subtle beauty where similar hues blend, their aliveness when complementary colors are placed side by side. The blues and oranges, the violets and yellows of this week’s sunsets have been one of our greatest pleasures.
Bill’s Faith is a Blessing
For those four months in the Streeterville neighborhood in Chicago, Bill continually met his goals while working with highly trained physical and occupational therapists at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, next door to Northwestern Hospital. However, with the holidays reducing days for his treatments, along with the rise in Covid cases causing his in-person doctor’s appointments to be cancelled, we decided to be Covid-secluded close to family for this season.
Our dear friend Tim—our physical therapist in Searcy—emphasized how crucial this first year is for his gaining strides. He recommended Bill continue working with an area physical therapist and see a spine-injury specialist in Little Rock. Bill has already had three PT sessions since we’ve arrived. Tammy, at the front desk, is a godsend, helping me with getting forms and referrals. We go to Little Rock next week for him to take a driver’s training course to learn how to use hand controls for driving. This is exciting since he loves driving and I don’t.
After Bill arrived in Chicago August 3, a wheelchair became his main vehicle for moving around. In the past two weeks, he’s using a walker to get to the car and now into his new physical therapy facility. He has a great attitude and strong work ethic. His faith continues to be his impetus.
We have so many reasons to be grateful.
Each day we entered the hospital for his physical and occupational therapy, we passed young and old who have greater challenges to overcome: one young man is not only wheelchair bound but has lost a foot, another a leg, several are without both legs. Many children and teens are in strollers, totally dependent on parents and guardians for their livelihood. How can we dare complain?
Chicago is a brilliant city, one Bill and I have visited over the decades, especially for its many special exhibits at The Art Institute of Chicago. (https://www.artic.edu) Our one and only outing over these Covid-filled months was visiting the Monet and Chicago special exhibit, as well as enjoying its master-filled permanent collection.
Fifteen years ago, after visiting Chicago sites and The Art Institute of Chicago with my high school Art Club students, one said, “Thank you for letting me experience a real museum like this.” He later became a graphic artist. I so love that! Because innately we are created to gravitate towards beauty. I’ve always discovered mine in nature and art, in the simple spaces. Lately though I was struck by Chicago’s architecture and its diversities and history.
I also have enjoyed the small garden spaces, noticing the many sparrows moving about. A month or two ago, in front of our apartment, I spotted a dead sparrow on the sidewalk. I kept thinking the men who cleaned the sidewalks would remove it. But after several days, watching it deteriorate, feathers drying up, brittle and lifeless, I finally remembered to take a bag to pick it up and remove it. Now it would no longer be kicked around by those who didn’t see it.
A few days later, during a cold snap that sent the temperatures below freezing, I almost walked on a sparrow in a frozen state, feathers fluffed, on the middle of the sidewalk. Caressing my gloved hands around its body, like I had learned to do for the birds who hit our sunroom windows when we lived amidst the trees, I gently set it on our street’s garden space with leaves and grass for warmth, a tree nearby when needed.
“That’s so nice of you,” said a young woman who had paused behind me. I nodded behind my mask and gave her a wrinkled eye smile. She headed towards her warm apartment building with her Whole Foods sacks in hand, and I entered our building with warm take-out food for our late lunch.
For these months, on our way back and forth to Bill’s appointments and as I shopped for essentials, I noticed the homeless on too many corners, asking for money, food, blankets. Even on the Magnificent Mile where I walked to Chick-Fila weekly for our favorite lunch, the homeless were tucked inside vacant building doorways in bundles, attempting to stay warm.
At first, I only gave to the older ones and the ones in wheelchairs. One day though I was convicted about my attitude towards one young man who asked for help. Beside his cardboard sign and plastic cup, he stared into his smart phone. This bugged me.
I wanted to ask him, trying to understand, “How did you get here? Not just on this street corner, but in your life? What has caused you to feel so dejected you can’t look up? What keeps you from getting a job—besides a pandemic?”
With those questions, I couldn’t assume the answer was because he’s lazy. I simply had no right to judge. Maybe he was just shy or worn out by the rejection from those passing by. Maybe he grew up like too many, experiencing trauma from abuse and violence during childhood. I couldn’t know without asking.
A few weeks later, this young man who hovered over his phone had a companion with him. She stood erect and bellowed out her song. I watched him as I crossed at the crosswalk. He was standing around the corner on the phone. I wondered, Was he the collector of her donations?
I thought of stories I had heard or seen on TV—if she didn’t pull in her allotted funds, she might be beaten.
She continued to cry out her song.
When I passed back by her, I looked into her eyes, a scar curling underneath one of them, handed her some dollars, and said, “Beautiful.”
I continued down the street with the stream of the crowd, partially hidden behind my blue and pink flowered mask. I couldn’t hold back the tears while I heard her singing a lighter tune, “Summertime.”
Rows of strangers stared past me, everyone doing what he or she believed was safe.
“I hate this, Lord,” I said as I entered our apartment, feeling utterly powerless to help her. “What can I do?”
The next time when Bill and I turned north by the post office and I heard her voice resonating down the street, I knew it was their day to have the corner by SR Ability Lab. I had already prepared a cartful of packaged foods, toiletries and winter clothes as their cardboard appeal listed.
Since Bill had two sessions back to back, I returned to the apartment and grabbed the cart. As I approached them, both sitting on the curb, shoulders slumped, the young man offered a kind and most sincere smile of greeting. Her face brightened.
His name is John. Hers is Cola. They’ve been married five years.
They said, maybe, just maybe, they might get into some government housing in January.
John is involved in completing online classes—one is for forensics, an area he’d like to pursue. He showed me the screen on his phone with one class.
Yes, I felt guilty for my false presumption. He wasn’t just playing mindless games or texting friends. He is being productive, pursuing an education to get a job he would love.
One afternoon when it was just Cola, we visited about her music talent. She is smart, articulate, and stays hopeful. When I asked her about other programs that might assist them, she shared how everything is full.
“The lists are long,” she said, adding, “We receive more help from those in this neighborhood than anywhere else.” About then, someone paused beside us and handed her money.
When is our help worthwhile?
For years in my twenties and thirties, I worshipped at a church that had a street ministry. Back then, reaching out to help those in need, many alcoholics and homeless, was always risky. It was difficult to discern which were sincere in overcoming their obstacles from the ones who were simply manipulating.
The same afternoon after I took the cartful of items to Cola and John, I was waiting in the lobby for Bill to get out of his therapy. My phone rang. It was Ari. Her call was patched in with a police detective, reporting my younger brother Mark was found dead in a motel room.
Mark had developed into one such manipulator. Once he became a drug addict, he was no longer my baby brother. For years, we gave him jobs, took him to church and tried to help him. After our mother died and I was executrix of her estate, I finally had to evict him from her house because of his ongoing parties. The neighbors were concerned for their safety. He ran with a dangerous crowd.
For the past couple of decades, I’ve probably been expecting that call, holding in the pain from losing him in life, from his loss of life before he ever died.
I suppose the pain we feel by loved ones’ choices—what seems like their always selfish choices in spite of our pain—proves how unaware we are of their desperate grasping to survive. We’re only now understanding the power of addiction and the drastic chemical changes in addicts’ brains that take them hostage.
Once a Hero
One of my sweetest memories with my younger brother—this golden boy—was the summer we moved to Arlington, Texas. Dad had been hired as the Innkeeper at a new Holiday Inn built a minute from Six Flags. (Holiday Inns were the new up and coming family travel motel back then.) In the mid-sixties, the only thing between that new Holiday Inn and Six Flags were vast open spaces. That didn’t last long.
I was 12, Mark was 7. I knew no one, and school wasn’t starting for another month. The Batman show was huge. Each morning I wrote out my own Batman storyline, and Mark and I practiced all afternoon. The minute Dad got home we’d perform our show. In what seemed like a sprawling Texas ranch, I stood at my Baby Grand hauled from Arkansas, pecking out the Batman theme.
With that cue, Mark burst out of a leftover moving box with a towel for a cape. I’d transform into Cat Woman. We threw up poster board signs in Roy Lichtenstein style with “WHAM!” “BAM!” POW!” “ZAP!”
Sometimes he became the Riddler, and I was Batgirl (even though she had not been created for the TV series until the third season. I should have been writing their scripts.)
The parents stayed engaged in their conversation with their evening drinks, never looking our way, never encouraging, but never denying our performances either.
Our parents divorced six months later. My two brothers and I moved back to Arkansas with our broken hearted mother minus one dad. I believe Mark was affected most by this single parent family with no grandparents for support. My mother’s parents were deceased. We must have lost our dad’s parents with the divorce.
Eerily even though our dad was never around, Mark was in his image. They were both charismatic, funny, rich in words but not in action.
Yet, we can’t blame Mark’s home life because Dad had idyllic parents, a Norman Rockwell painting kind of life. When I was young, it was his parents who taught me what family does through their lives engrained with rich character and faith.
That addictive switch in the brain must disregard even the best of foundations because Dad’s alcoholism gripped him, disintegrated his life from one who had such promise.
What haunts me most about my dad’s life and then my brother Mark’s is how powerless my family and I were in fixing it for them.
Identifying Different Griefs
Twenty-three years ago after Bill’s father died in June, my mother had a stroke three weeks later. After being in a coma for two weeks, she joined the heavenly realm. I missed her and grieved her death, but I had great peace. I had determined in my early twenties to show her my love and appreciation, caring for her during her many surgeries and illnesses. She knew my love through word and deed.
Missing her came from the wealth of a purposed relationship. Though I hurt in missing her, it was a good hurting. Likewise, I also recognized my older brother Clay’s life and his devotion as a child psychologist had made a positive influence on multitudes. They made a significance in helping others.
Several months after my mother’s death, my dad found out he had cancer. At the hospital, Clay and I stood over him as Dad lay in a coma. I ached for this man I didn’t know because he chose to not know us. His youngest son, Mark, so like him, couldn’t be there. He was serving time for possession of drugs.
All of us have different griefs for each occurrence with no manual to detail specific processes for individual happenings. Where I had always found comfort was through God’s Word. However, during those deaths 23 years ago and other difficult events that followed, all of the promises of God I had held onto
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” “Greater is He who is in me than he that is in the world,” “He works all things for the good for those who love Him”
were too distant to grasp.
What kept whispering through me was “A bruised reed He will not break.” How God could use this thin thread to hold me? God’s thread of hope is still hope.
For these weeks after Bill’s accident, my older brother’s death, Covid and its effects on our hurting world, I sought comfort and found it in many places (noted below). I just couldn’t find peace in Mark’s death, his lost life, his remains in a canister resting on a shelf in the front foyer closet.
One afternoon on our way back from Bill’s PT, we walked by the spot where I had picked up the dead sparrow. This verse came to mind: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.” Luke 12:6 (NIV)
And what remains? we may ask. If Mark’s lost life and now death can encourage the fullness of life in another, I believe his story is not wasted.
What also remains is how we can help others, first in our thinking some people can’t change.
Cola and John are proving that. They are both smart, too clear headed to be users. John’s reason for keeping his head in his phone, giving his best to online courses so he can have a future is sincere. Cola would like to help in home health or become a hair stylist.
“Actually,” she added, “own my own shop one day.”
They have dreams.
They told me the last day before we moved south that a med student from Northwestern had heard their story. Allie had started a Go Fund-Me page to raise money, that has almost raised enough so Cola and John can stay in a residential hotel until housing opens up for them in January. Answered prayers.
A thread of hope.
A sparrow seen.
God promises to keep His eyes on the sparrow.
Do we keep our eyes on Him?
Need some encouragement? Read through
- Ecclesiastes and put this Covid life in perspective
- Joshua Chapter One, then act on being strong and courageous
- Snatch passages of the Psalms (open your Bible and see what jumps out)
- The book of James, and reread it until you can live it all. (I’m still repeating and repeating.)
- Forgive others who have hurt you, especially, those who have lied to you; worse, lied about you and others believed.
- Repeat until it dwindles, less and less each day.
- Never park in front of a building—for even that quick run-in—if it has an incline. It may be the only place a wheelchair can get from the street onto the sidewalk.
- Listen to “Anyway” by Martina McBride
Need more suggestions on how to help others? These are some ways we have been loved.
Many thanks to Laura & Scott and Shannon & Tim for helping me move some items from our storage unit (like winter clothes, art supplies, and a few Christmas decorations) for us to have in our new dwelling. Laura also was the one who created a Caring Bridge account, a 24/7 prayer vigil for Bill in July and August, and a month-long sign-up so that Bill and I received at least one card and letter everyday. Since we were in Chicago, Laura also met the movers with our crate from Portugal to put items/furniture into storage unit.
Also a shout out of thanks to Patsy, aka, Gaga, who in August made me chicken and dumplings to comfort me until I could see Bill. Then she knitted this gorgeous blanket for Bill, thousands of stitches of love. Oh, yes, she also stocked our refrigerator for the Sunday night we arrived.
For Andrea of Catering Temptations who blessed Bill and me with a luscious Thanksgiving meal. She and her twins warmed our hearts and stomachs.
For Ari who walked with me and helped me in innumerable ways—lately with Mark’s death as she coordinated what I couldn’t since I was in Illinois.
Bill and I are overwhelmed by all of your kindnesses. You remind us we are not alone. Nor are you.
by Martina McBride
You can spend your whole life building
Something from nothin’
One storm can come and blow it all away
Build it anyway
You can chase a dream
That seems so out of reach
And you know it might not ever come your way
Dream it anyway
God is great
But sometimes life ain’t good
And when I pray
It doesn’t always turn out like I think it should
But I do it anyway
I do it anyway
This world’s gone crazy
It’s hard to believe
That tomorrow will be better than today
Believe it anyway
You can love someone with all your heart
For all the right reasons
In a moment they can choose to walk away
Love ’em anyway
God is great
But sometimes life ain’t good
And when I pray
It doesn’t always turn out like I think it should
But I do it anyway
I do it anyway
You can pour your soul out singing
A song you believe in
That tomorrow they’ll forget you ever sang
Sing it anyway
Yeah, sing it anyway