Unique Friends

I’ve known silence. Maybe not as oppressively as some. It can be a soothing, needed balm to the soul. It can also be the destination of lonely. Being my mother’s only child, I grew up in a quiet house. I was reading before I ever remember learning how to read. And in my books, I found gateways to worlds I could visit, introducing me to life beyond the walls that knew me. When I wasn’t escaping into fiction, I stared dreamily up at the ceiling as I discovered the power of music. Books and music—lenders of comfort…a comforting joy. My first friends.

I’ve had a few amiable pets throughout my lifetime, but about a dozen years ago, I met the best dog friend ever. A round bellied chocolate lab puppy named Amber, she pranced around the grass in a backyard filled with her already adopted brothers and sisters. She sported a white ring around her tail, which we think may have been the reason why she hadn’t been picked yet. It was down to two, and even though the other puppy left had a perfectly good tail, we chose Amber because she ran straight to Mike when he called for her from across the green, silky autumn grass. Silly people…they missed out on the greatest dog in all the world.

As soon as we brought her home, she dominated her new backyard. Only about twelve inches tall back then, she was, and she made it clear to every bird and squirrel in her dominion that she ruled the roost. “Don’t mess with Amber”, said her little proud stance guarding her backyard world, “and don’t mess with my mom and dad.” That would be us.

She was our little girl…this bouncy, seriously hyper little ball of brown fur. She failed puppy school, she ate a hole in the carpet, and socks cried in fear of her presence knowing they would disappear from the world if she crossed paths with them. We spoiled her. Not a single night did she sleep outdoors. Even when Mike had to stay in the hospital overnight and I stayed with him, the kind neighbors next door took our girl over to their house to sleep inside. She was older by then, taller and full grown…but every bit still the best dog ever.

She was entirely sweet, though, and only gruff when protective. Amber won the medal in our hearts for “Best Companion”. On hard days, she was there to lick the tears which would drip onto my shins as I sat in momentary defeat. When I got ready in the mornings, she was there to supervise my makeup routine, tail whacking rhythmically against the linoleum floor in contented approval. When we went to sleep at night, it was hard not to notice she was there…stubbornly digging in for snuggles on the bed and then trotting off about a half hour later to the couch where she would settle for the night.

Sometimes, I can still hear her nails click clacking on the hard floors. I imagine she’ll slowly meander and stretch her way up to the dishwasher to “help” put the dishes in as always. When the doorbell rings, once in awhile I forgetfully pause and wait for her curious bark.

Oh…my girl.

The day we came home without her was unbearable. Healthy until just a few weeks before she went to heaven, her loss was a shock. Our hearts ripped out of our chests, our shoulders shook with grief. We had known all along we loved her, doted on her, and relied on her for laughs. We had never taken her for granted, knowing the unreasonably short lifespan of dogs. She was family;  she meant the world to us—but we didn’t know just how much until she was gone.

If I were given the option to never know her if it meant we would never experience the pain of losing her, I wouldn’t trade a single day of having her in my life. I can truly say with all my heart that I can relate to Tennyson’s line ” ’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Because of Papa, because of Dad, because of others I have loved…and, yes, because of Amber.

The loss of her friendship was rough. I wasn’t prepared for the thick silence that came with her absence. It was the kind of silence that squeezed my throat and beckoned tears which held my breath captive. The kind of deafening void that compounded the reality of knowing she was really not going to be sitting on the doormat outside the back door waiting patiently to be let in.  The silence that sharply teases with phantom musical shakes of the collared dog tags lost to heaven.

I felt abandoned once again, forsaken. Lost. A dog, yes. But one of my best friends. She filled my afternoons with joy, and was the best secret keeper I had. Funny how we can find such sincere companionship in four-legged creatures. Hard to explain, yet so easy to accept. I had to accept and relearn the silence.

But with her loss, I regained something amazing. I realized that I’d nearly forgotten about the One who was still there with me all along.

One afternoon in late March of this year, eight months after Amber passed away, I’d flung myself onto my bed in overwhelm. My temples pounded a heavy drumbeat while warring against processing a heap of new knowledge that my crowded brain had no room for. I had decisions to make, and uncertainty to conquer. I was mostly happy, yet in that moment I felt exhausted and confused. In need of cheer. In the past, Amber would have sensed my discontent and would’ve burrowed in for a comforting cuddle, or nosed her ball at me to distract me with a game of fetch.

So on that day, without her, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. My Christian textbook answer was prayer. “Time to pray!”, my memory called out to me faintly. I wore the label of knowing Jesus, but when was the last time I really sought Him in prayer for my own tender heart? It had been awhile. I prayed for others, but when was the last time I spent quiet moments sharing with God about my needs? My slowly hardened heart had been filled with assumptions that He didn’t need to hear all about me, when in reality He longs to spend time with us. However, instead of praying, I still just sat idle and contemplated how to overcome this emotional avalanche. On my own. In need of a friend. I was geographically far away from my friends at home, and…

I didn’t have my BFF anymore. Amber.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I searched my mind for a solution. The silence would always be there, loved ones, beloved pets…they would inevitably come and go. Amber had served us well as a happy, loving pet. But I wanted to retain the joy that she brought to us. I needed to have something, Someone to hold onto that would never die. My memory tickled my brain again…“The first, the last…the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13)….and then the words became stronger from the inside, from the deep cellars of my ears, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).  I have believed in Jesus for thirty years, but it had been a long time since I remembered what a friend we have in Him (John 15:15). I remembered that day.

After a long breath, laying there with the words of the familiar bible verses floating around in my mind, clarity unfolded in my heart—a butterfly emerging slowly from its cocoon. A thought had fluttered into my mind—one I knew I could hold onto forever–and I sighed with adoration at the beauty of it. The comfort in it. The silence can be lovely, and not unsettling because we are never truly alone. As dear as they are, friends come and go…but ultimately there is one friend who outshines them all.

And if the love and joy we have from our wonderful friends in our presence and in our memories can feel so good, isn’t the love and joy we can receive from our God and Creator a million times more? Smiling, soul-relieved, I pulled out my hot pink leather journal from the bedside table…the one that boldly says “Amazing things can happen” across the front…and I wrote down six little words which I knew wouldn’t be denied:

“Jesus, will you be my BFF?” 

And then I prayed. I knew Amber would joyfully approve with a great big “Woof!”.

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Fear

To reach that spectacular, beautifully rugged land’s end, I needed to cross that blustery bridge. It was the summer of 2015, and my husband and I stood on the rocky soil of County Antrim, Ireland. The smiles of the people waiting in line for their turn were like lifelines to me. Tourists who had already made their way over the popular Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge waved across to all gleefully, eager to share their joy at reaching a point of the Emerald Isle that would have been treacherous any other way—if not for the bridge made of simple wood planks and intricate knots of thick, trusty rope.

I wasn’t so sure that rope was so trusty.

Shortly after we returned to our home in California, I turned on the computer in our home office and immediately discovered my husband had changed the desktop wallpaper. It was a picture of me on that bridge. I was confused. Why not a picture of the two of us from some other photo op on that trip? Usually, our desktop wallpaper was something of us together, or of our beloved dog, Amber.

I called out my question to him from where I knew he could hear me in the living room. It was quiet for a bit, and then I heard the muffled sound of his feet brushing across the carpet as he made his way to the room.

“I know how hard that was for you,” he replied quietly from the doorway.

I felt my heart swell with love for this man.

“I know how hard it was.”

Although our trip to Ireland that year was overall an amazing experience, it seemed like I was trapped into facing one battle after the other. Instead of being excited to fly across the Atlantic, I would wake up in the middle of the night with my heart racing in fear of our upcoming flight. Instead of every moment thrilling to the luscious green land all around me, at times I struggled to catch my breath. Instead of marveling at the natural wonder of the hexagonal columns at the Giant’s Causeway, I trembled in near panic as we walked along dirt paths next to cliff walls…certain they would crumble down on top of us at any moment. The odds of that happening were extremely slim.

The fear I struggled with is a distant memory now, but at the time that gruesome pest was taking all the fun out of an extraordinary trip. And my worrying over every little thing was draining the strength out of my mind and spirit.

So by the time we arrived at the “car park” of the rope bridge, he looked over at me before we got out of the car. “Are you sure you want to do this?” I peered out the windshield and looked at the path which led to the ocean. I could barely see the bridge, but from this point it didn’t look quite as scary as I had imagined. “Yep,” I huffed with a tight smile. “Nope,” my heart shot back, the echoes of my discontent bouncing around my rib cage.

As we got closer to the line of tourists waiting to cross, however, my breath started to come out in hesitant, quivering bursts. I squeezed my eyes shut in an effort to quiet the evidence of my uncertainty. “Are you sure?” he checked again when he caught me staring down at the crashing sea 100 feet below.  (That’s the part you can’t really see in many pictures.)

“Yep.”

When we were next in line, I looked up at the young, fair-haired Irishman whose cheeks were red from being slapped by cold, wild coastal air. He was one of two workers there who were the gatekeepers, so to speak, supervising and limiting the number of bridge crossers. The three of us chit-chatted loudly over the roar of the waves while we waited, laughingly trading California and Irish stereotypes, and how he’s been meaning to make his first trip to the States to visit a friend in San Diego.

Finally, I looked into his friendly blue eyes—certain God had placed him there that day to comfort me with his quick camaraderie—and all of a sudden blurted, “I’m a little terrified, but I’m going to do this.” It had been the statement I’d repeated silently the whole way down the path up to this point. I was sick and tired of letting fear beat out my faith and trust. I said it over and over until I believed it.

The stranger’s kind smile gentled, and his eyes turned serious as they acknowledged my fear.  “Not to worry,” he said, his musical Irish accent calming me, “you’ll do just fine. Are you ready?” He had received the nod of permission for us to trek ahead from his partner across the way.

And so, step by step I worked my way across the bridge. The creaks of the rope swaying in the gusty wind invaded my ears, but the strength of the planks below my feet, my silent prayers, and my belief that I could squash this feeling of trepidation—because I chose to—upheld me and my courageous soul the whole way and back again. For the rest of the day, you couldn’t take the smile off my face if you tried. Even thinking back on it now, the memory girds my heart.

“I know how hard it was for you.” My husband’s answer whispered to me again.

Currently, I’ve chosen to focus on the truths of courage over the lies of fear…but I still have my moments of not believing I can do certain things. Even now, I have some goals that leave me shaking in my boots when I think too long on it. But the things I want to conquer don’t have to be achieved all at once. I believe that some day I will be able to scratch each one off the list, but I have to be patient with myself and give myself the grace to persevere—one step at a time, if need be.

There are some fears I’ve fled from and didn’t triumph. And yet, I won’t dwell on the ones from the past which I may not have the opportunity to face again. Instead, I’ll find new things to find victory in.  Whatever you may be facing, believe that you can declare yourself the victor. The feeling of accomplishment and relief…the burden of dread lifted…the surrender…it is so worth it. Will I ever bungee jump? Never will I ever. For me, today… in about 10 minutes, it’s going to be the pile of dishes in my sink that I will conquer. That mess seems impossible. But I believe I can tackle it, and so I will.

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Mistakes

Mistakes. We all make them. We may wish we didn’t, but it’s inevitable. I burn the bacon all the time. I forget things all. the. time. Now that I’m thinking of it, I make mistakes all day long. Every day. And I’ve actually learned to love them. Okay…not all of them. Not the deep ones. In hindsight, I can appreciate some of those because of the lessons I’ve learned…or the providential way they may have brought me full circle to something that eventually turned for the good.

In this case, I’m talking about the little mess ups. 🙂 Calling out the wrong page number in the classroom. Dialing the wrong number. Showing up to the wrong room for a meeting. Buying purple potatoes for a husband who will not eat purple potatoes (yeah, that really happened). Going back into the house two more times because you forgot something on the way out. The small stuff.

How have I learned to love these?

Three little words: “You’re still cool.”

In my classroom, we use the class rules and many student engagement strategies from Whole Brain Teaching (WBT).  Also incorporated in WBT are these five character traits: Glorious Kindness, Leadership, Courage, Invincible Grit, and Creativity. By the way, thank you to Whole Brain Platinum Certified Instructor and colleague of mine, Julie Neff, for showing me how to weave these traits into our daily academic procedures. These traits are reviewed each day, and it’s amazing to see the kids work hard at showing they have these traits within them. They love to be recognized for being awesome.

I got hooked on the phrase “you’re still cool” from hearing it in WBT training. It’s linked to the character education piece because most of the character traits listed above relate to the positive power that grace has over us when we mess up. There is no perfect. There is only your best effort in striving for excellence.

What is so incredible to me is that I knew how important this was for the kids. However, I didn’t realize the effect it would eventually have on me, as well.

“You’re still cool!” 

How would you like it if all day long you heard that immediately after you made a mistake?

“You’re still cool.”

And that’s what we do. If a student makes a mistake in front of the class—or even if I make a mistake—the kids and I tell the mistake maker that they are still cool. While your head knows “Okay, let’s try not to do that again”, your heart appreciates the grace you’ve been given. It can work for those big mistakes, too. It’s beautiful.

Mispronounce a word? You’re still cool! Give the wrong answer? You’re still cool! Lock your keys in your car? You’re. still. cool.

In the past, I used to be really mean to myself when I made these little blunders. They sure did seem to pile up. To the point that there were times I was so petrified by the fear of making a mistake that I wouldn’t even begin something. But now I just remember those three little words, shake it off, and keep on moving. I love that my students do the same. Mistakes can be expected. It’s how we react when they happen that makes all the difference.

Hey. Remember…it’s powerful stuff: You’re still cool. 

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Courage

They could probably hear my screams all the way up in the lobby. I was around six or seven-years-old at the time, and in the middle of what was supposed to be a quick out-patient procedure. As a young urology patient, it was yet another routine test to make sure all was still well. I remember being promised a visit to Toys R Us and Baskin Robbins once it was over. That was what got me through it. Toys and ice cream.

I knew I had to to be there, because all my little life I’d been told about how sick I had been when I was a baby. I was no stranger to the doctor’s office. I also knew that the scar which traveled from the side of my waist to nearly my spine was from the kidney surgery I eventually had when I was nearly two-years-old. They say it saved my life.

Most of my checkups at the urologist went fine. Water fountain. Check. Urine sample. Check. Lollipop. Check. Easy peasy. But this one was not like the others. It involved
tubes and catheters. Bright lights. Noisy medical equipment…my grandma allowing me to attempt squeezing her hand right off her arm as she stood by my side.
In the end, I made it through, and so did my grandma’s circulation.

As an adult, my bribes whenever I go into a medical procedure that I am not looking forward to have changed from toys and ice cream to pedicures and Starbucks. One of my Worst Memory Procedures was dealing with two ingrown toenails. Now, this is a seriously minor ordeal, but it was during this simple thing in which I had a huge epiphany.

First of all, I learned quickly how sensitive our toes are. Forget the actual digging around with the scalpels and clippers or whatever is it they do behind that thick vinyl curtain that hung in front of my feet. The freezy stuff they inject you with to numb your toes was one of the worst things I’ve ever felt. If my lungs could leave my body from the effort to not scream, they would have. It was all I could do not to involuntarily (or if I’m honest, voluntarily) kick the podiatrist.

So when I had to go back the second time for the other toe, I was on edge. The painful memory of the freezy shot had been imprinted in my brain. I sat and waited alone in wretched anticipation. I prayed for courage. I was so tense I could barely breathe. Then a picture came to my mind. 

Jesus on the cross.

In that moment, I remembered reading all that Jesus had gone through leading up to His death. The torture. The prolonged pain. The crown of thorns.

And then I looked down at my toes. And I breathed. I could do this.

I still wasn’t looking forward to the pain. Who would? But this time, I was able to dig a little deeper into my stores of courage. If Jesus could endure all of that, surely I could handle a little shot of frozen stuff to numb my toe. It still was unpleasant. The pain was still there, but it made me appreciate so much more what our Savior went through to save us. 

When I feel fear start to creep in over my current or future health, I remember the day I had that realization. Whenever I have another medical procedure (and I’ve had some since then that hurt enough to cry), I bring this memory with me. It helps me to know that I’m not alone. That there was One before me who knew pain…and ultimately, beautifully, He triumphed. 

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