Cheating a Homeless Man at Go Fish
We all have things in our life that we struggle to live down. For Blake, it’s cheating a homeless man at Go Fish. I should back up a bit, though. Sometime in 2011, the date is a blur in my memory, Adam looked at me and said, “I feel like I’m supposed to make some sandwiches and take them and some Bibles downtown.”
“What kind of sandwiches?” I asked.
“What do we have?”
And thus began Adam’s days as the Bible and Sandwich Guy of downtown St. Louis. We both knew what he was doing was dangerous, but we also both believe that if there is something you feel like you’re supposed to do, you do it. So I made him sandwiches and rounded up Bibles and the kids and I would pray over him before he’d leave. (Amusingly, the kids got so used to praying over their dad when he walked out the door that when I asked him to attend a parent meeting for me and he quipped about me sending him to deal with the other moms because I didn’t want to, Blake prayed over him: Lord, please send the Lion of Judah to protect my father… the kiddo was serious too. I felt a little bad for giggling over that one.)
His time downtown and the stories he brought home changed us all. My eyes were opened to a dark world that existed so close to my own little bubble, and yet I’d been completely oblivious to it. Many of the stories would eventually find their way onto the pages of the Vance Davis Dossier. I know that we, as a society, will never be able to truly eradicate homelessness. But what’s happening now isn’t okay. There has to be more we can do.
That year, I did my part to combat it by making sandwiches and rounding up supplies when Adam said he needed them. Whether it was a particular food, a certain shoe size, or pots and pans for a new apartment. He'd bring the orders home and we'd set about finding what was needed. By and large, what happened there, the things he saw and did, are his story to tell. But there were three people whose lives intersected with our family’s, and they left an indelible mark on all of us.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking at a half-empty page, knowing I needed to let the words spill out but somehow afraid to start. I tell myself I’m busy. I tell myself I have writer’s block. But I know it has nothing to do with either. Blake’s story was hard to live and relive, but I can hear his laughter in the next room. Knowing it turned out okay makes it easier somehow to sort through those memories.
I first met Shelley, JR, and Dave when Adam asked if I would be willing to take the kids to a hot dog roast at a homeless camp. He’d grown especially fond of these three people, and they’d asked if he’d bring his family to a bonfire and hot dog roast at their “home.” They’d set up camp across outside of the city, in a somewhat remote area away from the crowds. Every so often, a group from a nearby church would stop by and bring the supplies to roast hot dogs with them. I seem to recall that they sang songs and stuff, too, but that’s honestly a little hazy.
I could tell it was important to Adam, so after asking him multiple times if he was sure it was safe, I agreed. Shelley and JR lived on an old concrete platform. They’d constructed a rather ingenious tent out of whatever they could get their hands on. JR had even gathered rocks and built a heart-shaped fire pit in preparation for the evening. As simple as it was, I could tell they were both thrilled and nervous to be having company over for dinner. I looked at Shelley and could see myself, flitting about with last minute preparations as my own guests arrived for a party. There are some things that are universal to a woman, I guess.
Dave didn’t live with Shelley and JR, he had built himself a rather nice home in the woods, or so I’d heard. He kept the location of his place pretty hush-hush, which was smart. It kept his home safe.
The thing I adore most about my children is that it took them about two seconds flat to make friends with everyone there. They were completely unaffected by the strangeness of the situation. Shelley and I had settled into chatting while the boys got a game of Go Fish started.
“But I don’t know how to play Go Fish,” Dave had protested.
“That’s okay; we’ll teach you,” they assured him.
I surfaced from my conversation at one point to realize that Blake was, in fact, preying upon Dave’s lack of knowledge and was blatantly cheating.
As much as we harass the poor kid about it, I think he can actually be credited with effectively melting away any residual awkwardness. We all laughed—really laughed, like the kind that comes from your belly and almost hurts a little—over his antics and in that, the friendship was sealed.
It came up that I was a writer, and both Shelley and Dave were fascinated. They asked questions, I did my best to answer, and I eventually went back to my car to see what books I had copies of. I left them with a few titles, which they read and loved. Every time they’d finish a book, I’d give them a new one. They were some of my biggest fans, and that meant a lot to me. Sometimes my books take a hit because they talk about dark things but they aren’t gritty.
Throwaway, especially, gets hammered because my main character is a prostitute but she seems so “normal.” I did that on purpose—because prostitutes are humans. Beneath all the things that might make her different from me, there is a common thread of humanity that makes us the same. No person is a throwaway. And, not surprisingly, that was a message that resonated with my new friends. I would take their approval a thousand times over the approval of a critic, any day.
It became a fairly regular occurrence that Adam would bring Shelley and JR home with him for dinner. No matter how broke we were, I tried to make their visits special. I brought out my A-game with the cooking. Sometimes, my mom and sister would come, too. There was a festive air to those dinners.
Our guests would quietly slip away to shower when they first arrived. After the first dinner, they stopped feeling so out of place and started to relax. Sometimes I would cut or style Shelley’s hair. Being the youngest sister and not having daughters, I am probably the most ill-equipped person on the planet to fix another woman’s hair, but I managed.
Once, I bought Shelley tinted lip gloss on a whim. I never saw her without it on after that. Sometimes, I buy myself a tube of that exact brand and color just because it makes me think of her. It's not a particularly flattering shade on me, but it keeps her memory alive.
In so many ways, she was probably one of the closest friends I’ve ever had. If I listed off my dearest female friends on one hand, she would be on the list. We talked about anything and everything. I would take her to Wal-Mart to get her essentials and we’d just chatter the whole way. Sometimes conversation was light. Sometimes it was not.
She told me about being raped in a port-a-potty during an event downtown. Some man, drunk and downtown to celebrate a sporting event, had cornered her in the chaos. There was nothing I could say to make it better, but I could tell she just needed to say the words. She needed another human to know what had happened and to care.
JR, on the other hand, was an overgrown child. I’m sure that, at least in part, contributed to his homeless state. But it also gave him a rather delightful innocence. He loved to play video games with my boys. He could for hours on end. My boys unanimously agree that he was terrible at said video games, but they also agree that they loved those times. It didn’t matter that he was bad; his joy was contagious.
That Christmas Eve, we celebrated at my sister’s house. It was a big, scrumptious meal and we left with our bellies and hearts full. We also left with a trunk full of carefully packed leftovers for our friends. My sister had, I’d noticed, started cooking more than we could possibly eat so there were always leftovers to take to our friends.
We didn’t have long to stay at the camp; the sun was setting as we arrived and I didn’t like having the kids downtown after dark. But Shelley and Dave insisted I stay long enough to open my gifts. Somehow, they’d each managed to get presents for us. Shelley gave me a watch with interchangeable bands. It didn’t fit or work, but I gushed over it and I meant it. I treasured that gift and I still do. Dave gave me the softest gloves I’ve ever owned.
One of the things Adam did during his time as the Sandwich and Bible Guy was try to work with the homeless people he’d befriended to get whatever they needed to get out of homelessness. He’d spent a lot of time talking with JR about what it would take to get himself on the right track again, and it was decided JR would study for his GED.
I feel like I should pause my story here to say that Blake, who had been released from rehab in September of 2011, got it in his head to try Irish dance because a friend of ours owned a studio in town. We got approval from his doctor and decided to let him give it a whirl. He was actually pretty darned good at it, and by November of that year, he was in Chicago for a national competition, where he placed 17th.
I had also pulled the boys at the beginning of the year to homeschool, each for different reasons. With Blake, it was because his teacher assured me he was excelling at school even though he admitted to me he was struggling because when he tried to read, the words would move around the page.
So, to fully paint the picture, I was homeschooling three children, one of which had to re-learn EVERYTHING he’d been taught during the first half of his elementary school education. I had a son in Irish dance. I couldn’t bring myself to deny him, but it was a skosh expensive and time consuming. My books we being polished and re-published, and I was suddenly expected to actually market them. We were trying desperately to hang on to Dylan’s horse and dealing with that drama. My youngest was slipping further and further into an anger I couldn’t understand or seem to help. My kids and I were desperately longing to leave suburbia and return home to the Ozarks. Medical bills were piling up, and the house was becoming ever-more of a millstone around my neck. And in the midst of all of this, we had our homeless friends coming to visit. It was an odd year, to say the least.
If there is one thing you can count on in a homeless camp, it’s that there will usually be a bit of drama happening. Another man moved into the camp for a while. Sometimes JR would put Shelley in danger with his choices. Sometimes she put herself there. She disappeared for a while, and I worried about her while she was gone. When she returned, I went to visit her at the camp. The moment she heard me coming, she came running.
“I found him!” Her face was positively glowing.
“Who did you find?”
“Jesus! I know what you were talking about now.”
“You found Jesus?” I clarified.
“Yes, while I was in jail. I found him!”
“Wait… what? When were you in jail? You had better start from the beginning.”
She filled me in on a rather convoluted story that involved visiting family, having a falling out with family (there was a long line of dysfunction and brokenness in her world), and somehow ending up in jail. One of the women she met there had talked to her about the Bible, and something in what she said made it click—all of the things I’d been trying to tell Shelley, about God loving her enough to send his son to reconcile her to him, about what Jesus meant to me, how he had impacted my life—it all clicked into place in her talks with a fellow inmate in a jail somewhere in Illinois.
And when she’d gotten out, she’d gotten on a bus and come straight to St. Louis because she wanted so badly to tell me she understood, and she had peace.
I could see it, too. She was still homeless. Her life still royally sucked and most of the people in it would continue to let her down. But I could tell by the joy I saw in her face that night that she would never be alone again. Whatever life would do to her, she had someone a whole lot more competent than me in her corner now.
I don’t begin to understand how God can love someone as deeply as I know he loves us and allow us to go through the things we do. But I am sure he is there, and he loves us, and I believe him when he promises that somehow, some way, he will work even the worst of it for our good in the long run. There are times I cling to that promise because I feel like it’s all I have left.
By the time spring of 2012 rolled around, what we had suspected would happen was rapidly becoming a reality: we were losing our home. I became so embroiled in trying to figure out how to keep my own family from winding up in a tent next to Shelley and JR that I didn’t put up much of a fuss when they dropped off the radar again. They’d done it before, more than once. I was sure they would turn up again. I just hoped it was before we left the area. I remembered worrying about what would happen to them when we were gone.
As it turned out, I would not hear from them. When JR did turn up, it was his body. Shelley was never seen or heard from again. Maybe she found her way out and is living a happy life somewhere in this great big, wide world. I have seen enough of this world to doubt that, though.
Most days, I keep her memory tucked away safely. Sometimes I come across the watch she gave me or I wear her favorite lip gloss and it resurfaces. There are times the memory is something pleasant and passing, like a summer breeze. There are times when it chokes me, the weight of it bears down like an anvil on my chest.
I don’t know if there is more I could have or should have done. I try not to dwell there. I prefer to remember the laughter, how bad JR was at video games, how much Shelley loved that stupid Chapstick or the haircut I gave her. And I remember her smile the day she told me she’d found Jesus, and I tell myself that I will see her again someday, even if it’s on the flip-side of life.
to be continued...
That's a question I get a lot, what order my books should be read in. I usually dance around the answer because I intended to make the books so they could all stand alone. But, as I near the launch of two completely unrelated books, I have to admit that the 12 books already released really are all part of a world that was created when I launched Throwaway. So I bit the bullet and labeled the books as a part of series: Throwaway's World. The books have been labeled 1 - 12. So what order did I decide on? Pretty much the order they were released in, or something close to it: Throwaway, Suddenly a Spy, Jailbird, Ties that Bind, Ring of Fire, Tumbleweed, Devil in Disguise, Roses in Ecuador, Fool's Game, Waiting for You, Vance Davis Dossier, and Finding Broken Arrow.
Sure, some of the books are romantic suspense, some are more romantic comedies, and others are contemporary western romance, but they all explore the same themes of hope, love, and second chances. All intertwine around the characters that are introduced in my founding four: Throwaway, Suddenly a Spy, Jailbird, and Ties that Bind. I guess the different genres make them an unusual series, but that's pretty fitting for me. I've never done anything the normal way. I think I have an aversion to it.
If you're wondering what this means for the rest of the stories for the planned Remuda Ranch series and what's next... as the books I'm working on have unfolded, I decided to reswizzle a few things.
My next two releases will be my memoir, My Own Ever After, which is currently being released in installments on Mondays. My next fiction piece will be Recipe for Sunshine, which has turned into something much more women's fiction (think book club book). It has romantic elements (I love love too much to not have a love story woven throughout) but it's more of a look at all of the relationships that form our worlds: the sisterhood of friendship, what happens when love dies, how we each handle marriages gone wrong, the relationships we envy... all set in a small town full of unique and quirky characters.
After those two, I plan to add to the world created by Throwaway. I reserve the right to change my mind, but that's the plan.
As always, thank you for being on this journey with me. I am forever grateful for each and every one of my readers and their impact on my life!
I remember sitting in the Ronald McDonald House family room at Cardinal Glennon, on a brief break from taking care of Blake during his time post-ICU, checking email and answering fan mail. A former slave sent me a note saying she had thought nobody saw her, what she was going through, until she read one of my books. It had made her feel like somebody out there cared about the invisible trafficking victims in our country. Another email was from a college student in Russia, asking if she could translate one of my books into Russian for a school project. It seemed a little surreal, that the books were going absolutely nuts with tens of thousands of downloads while my whole world was centered on hospitals and Blake.
When I wrote Throwaway, my eyes were opened to the horrors of human trafficking. I’d struggled to find my niche in the fight against it until January of 2010 or 2011, when I had an epiphany that I’d use my books to be a voice for the voiceless. That was backed up by a conference I attended on the topic—the main speaker even said “Maybe someone out there is supposed to be a voice for the voiceless.” I got the hint. I gave up pursuing traditional publication and went indie, making the four books I had free as ebooks: Throwaway, Jailbird, Ties That Bind, and Suddenly a Spy. At the end of each was a note about the reality of human trafficking.
Because of those books, I was contacted by a reader whose grandmother ran an organization that was on the front lines of the fight. That introduction began my friendship with Project Liberty out of Lansing Michigan. This group amazes me – at its helm is a retired pastor’s wife and a crew she rounded up to help her jump feet first into the thick of the fight. Where other people would be content to tweet or even write a check, Saundra was knocking down doors to pull kids from the pits of hell. I learned just this week that Saundra's husband passed away. My heart breaks for her, and the world is a much darker place without him in it.
One of the things she did was put me in touch with their lead investigator. It was all very cloak and dagger, with code names and the works. He would call me at specified times from undisclosed locations and tell me stories from the fight. I would close the door to my writing room, lest my children overhear or see my tears.
Over the years, I became a mouthpiece for the cause and the group. I wove the investigator’s stories into my fiction. I gave speeches at schools, churches, and women’s groups. I wrote articles. I went on the radio. I gave interviews. I did my best to raise money for Project Liberty and other groups targeting different areas of the epidemic. For the next several years, I was certain that I was doing everything I could to help the victims of human trafficking.
At one point, I developed the flu and was so terribly sick I didn’t answer my phone or email for almost a week. I was piled up in my living room, miserable (and probably fairly gross after days of languishing in my misery) when there was a knock at the door.
It was the police. When I had missed our scheduled call and then not responded to email, my contact at Project Liberty had called the police to check on me. I was mortified. Assured that I hadn’t been murdered, the officer instructed me to email my friend.
Somewhere along the way, the world found out about human trafficking. Even with all of the awareness, raising money for Project Liberty, or any group, got harder and harder. People donated to large organizations with branding and celebrity backing. I found myself once again struggling to find my niche in the fight. When I watch videos like the moving testimony Ashton Kutcher gave before Congress, I wonder if I did enough. If I should have fought harder to stay in the fight instead of quietly passing the baton to others.
Lately, the thing heaviest on my heart is the many, many foster children in the system who need a home of their own. This group is an incredibly high risk demographic for being trafficked, and I can’t help but wonder if my role in the fight is shifting, if I’m being called to provide homes for children in the system so they never have to face the horror of being a sex slave.
But back to the books… the accident happened shortly after I released those books for free. I didn’t do anything to promote them. In fact, after the accident happened, I let my domain name lapse. I didn’t have time to deal with any of it; Blake was my world.
So when I got an email that June from a new publishing company out of Seattle, I almost deleted it. My finger hovered over the button, somehow unable to follow through. After reading the email a couple more times, I decided to live on the edge and respond. I told myself the odds of it being a genuine publisher interested in my books were about as slim as the Nigerian prince being legit, but I responded that I was interested in hearing more. Several emails later, I had a video conference with the CEO. I liked what he had to say. A lot. I believed in what they were trying to accomplish, so I placed my faith in the fledgling publishing company called Booktrope and signed for my four existing books and whatever came next.
Even better, they agreed to let me keep Throwaway free. For them, it worked to bring new readers to my platform. For me, it meant I could stay true to my desire to raise awareness for human trafficking. Over the next six months, the four books would be edited and re-released. The fifth book, Ring of Fire, would be finished, edited, and published.
When Throwaway was re-released under the Booktrope banner, it caught us all by surprise by going darn near viral, with over 150,000 downloads in the first six weeks. Before long, Booktrope was telling me that I had over half a million readers worldwide. Even now, all these years later, it amazes me to stop and think about how many people have read the words that I wrote, sitting up all night in my basement because it was the only time I could find that wasn’t filled with Scottrade or children.
I published under my maiden name. Partly because it’s so much easier to say and spell. Partly because by that time, I was starting to miss the person who’d worn that name. Over the course of six years, the line between my legal and pen name has gotten blurry. I catch myself signing one when I should sign the other. Sometimes I feel there’s a bigger battle going on there, something that has nothing to do with names at all.
We did the launch for Ring of Fire at O’Malley’s Irish Pub on Cherokee. It seemed fitting, since that little pub inspired so much about both Throwaway and Ring of Fire. The undeniably talented John Bartley played the launch for me, which was equally fitting since he inspired the character Danny in both books. My launches were less like typical book launches and more like a party at the pub to celebrate. That could be why they tended to do well. Whatever the cause, they’re some of my favorite memories.
My books changed my world. I’d left my corporate job with no clue what would come next, so singular was my focus on Blake. Booktrope came along at the perfect time and reinvented my world. Just like that, I was a published author. No, I wasn’t E.L. James—though we’d run in the same Twitter pack before her books took off—but I was making enough off my novels to stay home with my kids. That dream meant even more to me than the first. There was even talk of a movie deal—by 2012, I’d been approached by a small studio who wanted to option Suddenly a Spy and Booktrope was filling my ears with all they were doing to shop the books around Hollywood.
As my world changed, it was opened to new people, new experiences that never would have happened without my book babies. My friendship with Sylvain Reynard came when my writing, my soul, needed it most. Since the Great Marriage Upheaval of ’08, Adam and I had come to a solution that looked a lot like that of the title character and her ex-husband had in the movie Joy. We co-existed, co-parented. On our best days, the friendship that had founded our love years before would peek its head out. On our worst days, well, it was worse.
Sylvain and I found each other online via a mutual admiration of each other’s work. From that, a friendship began. From that, a discussion about co-authoring a book. I craved the emails that went back and forth between us as we plotted and planned. They gave me hope that the kind of romance that swirled through my imagination lived in the mind of at least one other human on this planet. And as long as that was the case, romance lived.
Sylvain’s career took off while mine meandered. Eventually the emails and talk of a co-project died off, replaced by a weekly acknowledgment of each other on Twitter. Still, I look back on that time fondly. He unknowingly inspired me at a time when I was floundering to finish the book I had been working on, floundering because the ember of romance in my spirit had all but died. Connecting with another creative soul had fanned the flames and even though our stories parted ways, he’d left his mark in the words that tumbled anew onto the page.
to be continued...
Learning to Walk Again
Before Blake was released from the hospital, it was decided he would be treated at Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital. Dr. Evra came out from the hospital to evaluate him, and I remember the conversation with him was the first time since the ordeal began that I felt hope I would someday get my son back.
You see, Blake’s injury was to his frontal lobe, where personality is stored. Blake, who had always had more personality than any one person can contain, had been restored to us as a virtual zombie. He had no facial expressions. His voice was soft. Interacting with others, even watching television, exhausted him.
After he graduated from ICU, he’d been transferred to a different floor and initial rehab began. The hospital’s PTs and OTs were amazing, one PT in particular stands out in my memory. Those sessions were darn near unbearable for me, to watch my emotionless little boy struggle to do things he’d been able to do with ease since toddlerhood. During one particular session, I think the PT could tell by the look on my face I was at my breaking point. She pulled me aside to promise me it would get better. Our son was still in there; it would just take time to find him again. I wept.
But once Dr. Evra came into the picture, I latched on to hope again. There was something reassuring in his presence. He was honest but hopeful and had a way of communicating that infused me with strength.
Blake was sent home from the hospital a mere 10 days after the accident. We’d set up a recliner in the living room for him, where he slept with his dog on his lap. His first night home, one of the teachers from the boys’ school brought us fast food. It wasn’t how we’d planned, but we finally tried the new Culvers in town.
I began writing this story in the fall, and now it’s nearly spring. As I sit here trying to remember exactly what happened when to lay it out coherently, I realize that some of my procrastination stems from just that—it’s almost physically painful to sort through the memories, to turn them into something someone else could understand or follow. So I will do my best to summon them in order, to catch and categorize the butterflies of thought.
I remember the thought of all-day rehab was a scary one, for both Blake and myself. With every doctor agreeing that if Blake ever fully recovered, it would be years of hard work, I left my corporate job without a backward glance. Adam and I knew that decision would most likely cost us our home. When the market tanked in 2008, we’d found ourselves instantly upside down, which raised the escrow portion of our payment. Somehow, between 2008 and 2011, our payment had doubled. My job at Scottrade was over half of our family’s income. We could not survive without it. But we also couldn’t fathom sending our tiny, broken son to all-day rehab at a place for the sickest of the sick all by himself.
Some decisions, we look back on and bicker about who’s idea it really was and if it was for the best. Not that one. If you would ask either of us to this day—even knowing the great price we would eventually pay for that decision—we both stand solidly by it.
Ranken Jordan turned out to be a happy place, as happy as a place like that can be, anyway. The walls were brightly painted and I think there was a fish tank. I know there was an air hockey table and basketball hoops. Blake and I played countless hours of air hockey there. His therapy could almost be measured by air hockey. The first tentative games were played from his wheelchair, his face expressionless while he tapped the puck so gently it couldn’t make its way back to my side of the table without me coming around to give it a nudge. Over the next few months, he morphed into a normal-looking boy who would grin wickedly at me as he zinged one my way.
Dr. Evra warned us that Blake’s taste buds would be altered by the accident, and that they would change over time, as his brain and the impacts of the injury changed. He told me not to worry about typical picky-eater type fights, to just let Blake eat whatever sounded good. Two things that have sounded good to Blake since those early days of rehab that he continues to eat in mind-boggling quantities are chicken fingers with ketchup and pizza—only now the pizza has hot sauce on it and the amount of ketchup has lessened a bit.
When he first started learning to feed himself again, it was a messy process, made messier by the fact that he wanted the plate to be a pool of ketchup. I mean it. We’re talking obscene amounts of ketchup. Horror flicks could be filmed with less. It would get on his face, his clothes. One day, a little girl sitting at the table with him commented on it. His expression still held no emotion, but he admitted to me later that he was embarrassed by how he ate. That, like so many of the other effects of the accident, waned over time. He mastered eating, but he still sometimes asks if I remember how messy he’d been back in those early days, followed by a quiet comment that it was embarrassing.
But then, he re-learned everything. I remember watching him fumble with a vest in OT, buttoning and unbuttoning it over and over again, retraining the muscles in his hands to do something that had once come so naturally. My fingers would itch to help him. I’d sit on my hands, knowing my help would hinder him in the long run.
One of the friends Blake made at Ranken Jordan was a 16-year-old boy who’d been shot in the face during a gang war. They made an unlikely pair playing basketball, the lanky African-American teen and my wobbly 8-year-old. He’d been so good at basketball before the accident. Now he had to throw a foam ball and it seldom made it half the distance to the hoop. But, oh how happy he was when he made that first basket again.
Blake had a birthday during his rehab days. They celebrated with a party. His therapists, his doctor, and all of the staff were amazing; they were angels. I’ll never be able to tell them enough how wonderful they were. It’s funny, how some things about it are such a blur, but if I sit and really think about it, I can remember the smell. I can remember the feel of the place. Sitting quietly in a dark room so Blake could nap—at that time, and for years to come, Blake was unable to sleep without me close by. I remember how desperately he wanted to be able to run again and that his favorite days were swim therapy. And I remember how his PT made climbing stairs an adventure, like we were going to visit a super-secret tower. At the time, the effort it took him to climb stairs was probably equivalent to scaling a tower.
Blake worked incredibly hard during his time at Ranken, but he found a lot of smiles there, too. And while he’s not the kind of person to talk about it, I think he found a strength there that most people will never understand.
Happy-go-lucky, slightly spacey, sometimes spastic Blake is the strongest person I know. By September of that year, just six months after being admitted to the rehab facility, he was released. Dr. Evra couldn’t explain it, but Blake had yet again defied all expectations and was pronounced healed.
That pronouncement would come after a bit of debate, though. Just before it, Blake had returned to the hospital for yet another scan, followed by a visit with his neurologist. She’d said he was nothing short of a miracle, but there was a small, unidentified spot at the center of his brain. Because of that, she didn’t think he should ever ride a horse, ride a bike, play sports… as she rattled off a list of things he could never do again, I watched my son who had fought so hard and come so far shrink under the weight of her words.
After that appointment, I took him to Steak n’ Shake on the way home. We sat in a booth, our ice cream untouched, and we cried. Eventually, we pulled ourselves together. I gave him a pep talk. I don’t remember much about what I said, but I do remember my heart absolutely breaking for him. I knew we should be grateful he was even alive, but it seemed so cruel to be deprived of so many of the things he’d loved so dearly.
Dr. Evra, however, had been of a different mindset. He’d been adamant that Blake’s life be as normal as possible, lest he sink into a depression that would ultimately hamper his healing. I will always be grateful to that man for fighting for the light in Blake’s eyes.
So a compromise was worked out. Blake could ride a bike and play some sports, just no football. He not only approved Blake riding a horse, he encouraged it—only it would have to be a gentle, older horse. The finely tuned cutting horses of Blake’s past must stay there, in his past. At the time, he’d been upset. He had dearly loved the thrill of riding a horse on the flag, the way they danced underneath him. But it was a compromise he could live with, literally, so he agreed.
Oddly, Blake wasn’t afraid of horses after the accident. In fact, he would be the first of us to return to riding. My beloved mare had already been sold, not out of anger, but to pay medical bills. We visited her a couple of times, to say goodbye. She wanted nothing to do with me the first visit. The second, I had Blake with me. When she saw him, she walked right up to him, placed her head on his chest, and sighed. You could see the weight of it all lift from her and I realized in that moment how deeply the accident had impacted her, too. The last time I saw Sassy, I expected to say my last goodbye from a distance. I’d given up on her wanting to see me. But she surprised me by walking up to me, placing her head on my chest as she’d done with Blake, and sighing. I hugged her and cried. She’d wrapped her head around me and we stood that way in the field for I don’t know how long. Then she’d walked off without a backward glance and I knew I’d seen her for the last time.
We tried to hang on to Samson, Dylan’s colt. We moved him to another barn because things had gotten awkward and downright miserable at Jack’s. I suspect he was worried about a lawsuit, but the thought hadn’t crossed our minds. Yes, we’d been on his property, but we’d been on our own horse. Or maybe it was the pain of nearly losing Blake that caused Jack to shut us all out. Whatever the reason, the relationship had gotten so tense and awful we’d moved the colt.
Only Dylan and I were both suddenly nervous around horses, and a nervous person around a horse—especially a young horse—isn’t a safe combination. We knew this, which made us all the more nervous. Even though we were destitute and losing our home, we tried desperately to hang on to that colt. Even so, there came a time when we had to admit the truth: we had no business owning a horse of Sam’s caliber in our current state, and we couldn’t afford to keep him any longer.
By that time, our relationship with Jack was on the mend. So when he mentioned that he knew someone who wanted the colt, we took him up on it. The horse that had been the light of Dylan’s world was sold. Of all the things we lost because of that fateful night, I regret that one the most. Dylan is too kind and gentle to say it, but I know he was devastated by it. He was changed by it.
And that’s the thing that so often gets lost in the shuffle when telling Blake’s story: I had two other children that night. They watched their brother die. They heard their mother’s screams. They saw him whisked away in an ambulance, airlifted to another hospital. They said goodbye to his broken, bruised body more than once with machines beeping in the background and tubes sticking out everywhere. They got bits and pieces of news. They lost their mother for days and only had a very small piece of her for months. Their happiest childhood memories up to that point had been centered on the barn family we’d lost. Their horses were gone. Their trot races were gone. Their family forever changed. And suddenly, they had a new status in life. Whatever they may do or accomplish, they weren’t the miracle child.
To me, they were each a miracle. I remind them of that, but I can only imagine what it’s like to live in the shadow of someone who is so charming with such a captivating story to tell. But it’s their story, too. I can only hope they see that. I hope they understand that I mean it when I say they are every bit as amazing as their brother.
To be continued...
Three pages is a short chapter, even for me. But given that I let another month lapse in between writing sessions, I decided that was perhaps a good place to pull back a bit. It’s been a very long time since I’ve let a story meander from my head to the keyboard in this way, not when it’s something that tumbles out so easily when I actually sit to type. I realized as I re-read these pages how fundamentally this moment and the days to follow changed me.
Before the accident, I had been preparing. I felt deep in my soul that God was calling us to something else, and the kids and I felt this overwhelming pull to leave the city. My on again, off again desire to return home to the Ozarks had become a full-blown obsession for both me and my boys. I was learning all I could about homesteading. I didn’t really know why or for what, but I was preparing for something.
I can say the accident coming wasn’t even remotely on my radar. It’s funny, even now, years later, our family refers to it as “the accident.” It doesn’t need a further name than that; we know exactly what we’re talking about and are a little surprised when someone doesn’t. Perhaps that should be uppercase, but I digress. I’m procrastinating again.
The next few days were a haze; we were sustained by God and the kindness of those around us. Every time the medical professionals would proclaim the worst, it would be countered with a glimmer of hope and a skosh of forward progress.
“There is no brain activity on the scans. We’ll do another scan tomorrow and see.” Blake squeezed my fingers, seemingly in response to my voice. Hope renewed. Next they said, “If he doesn’t wake up by tomorrow, we’ll need to do surgery to alleviate the pressure.”
With that pronouncement, my sisters—unbeknownst to me—called the local Christian radio station to tell them the story and ask for prayer. The entire city began to pray for our son. Strangers would pop their head in the room to say “I’m praying for you.”
The next morning, his eyes fluttered open. The accident happened on March 31st. April 1st, my oldest sister’s birthday, had been spent in a haze of prayer. April 5th, my mom’s birthday, Blake woke up. When the breathing tube came out, my mother and I stood on either side of him, holding his hands and trying to reassure him he was okay. He’d been in an accident and he was in the hospital, but he would be alright. His first words were “Can I have some vegetables please?” My mother and I laughed and promised him all the vegetables he wanted. (He doesn’t remember that now, and has pretty staunchly refused to eat vegetables since. Figures.)
There are things I want to share, pieces of the story that matter, but they are a jumble in my mind. I remember my former pastor being one of the first people there – even though the latest upheaval in my marriage had led us to leave his church with hard feelings all around. He was there when we needed him. I remember my dearest friend taking my other two children out for dinner the night of the accident. My sister taking them home with her.
Blake’s first roommate was an 18-year-old with a heart condition. When my sister’s pastor would come by to pray, his voice was louder than Blake’s roommate felt comfortable with. The louder that pastor would pray, the louder the other patient would cuss us. I suggested the pastor to pray quieter or from the waiting room. Still, the hospital moved us to a different room with a different roommate. That roommate was a little boy named James, who was battling his second round of brain cancer. His mom had other children, including a brand new baby. I cannot even fathom the trials she was facing.
A friendship would blossom between the two of us over the coming days. Sadly, James lost his fight—later, after our lives had largely parted ways. Thanks to Facebook, we stay in touch. Though we’re not a part of each other’s daily world, I still feel a deep connection with this woman, one that I’ll never be able to fully convey.
Another memory is Blake’s nurse, Dan. All of the nurses were amazing, but he stood out. He was so kind and gentle. A less pleasant memory was the day after Blake’s breathing tube came out. He kept having painful coughing spasms that would fill me with a desperate need to help him, to ease his suffering. He was in the middle of one such spasm when a woman approached me, calling my name.
“Yes?” I glanced over my shoulder at her, irritated.
“I’m with patient accounts, and you have a deductible.”
“I’m in the middle of something here.” My son was blue, in a coughing spasm that wracked his entire body, with tears streaming down his cheeks. Mind you, his face was still swollen and black and blue as well.
“Well, I need to collect the deductible from you before I can go.”
“Then you’ll have to wait here a minute…”
I came close to being curt. My sisters later found out—they were more like a force of nature descending on hospital administration. My sisters are amazing like that.
The hospital had requested that there be only two visitors at a time in ICU, and that they be immediate family. One of our family members couldn’t understand that this request was for Blake’s benefit—the last thing he needed was germs to fight—and kept a steady stream of strangers coming by the room, no matter how many times or ways I asked it to stop. Oddly enough, that was the thing that left me sobbing in the bathroom. I was sure my son would die from a cold brought to him by somebody who’d come to gawk.
It was my middle sister who took me in her arms, right there in the bathroom, and prayed that God’s peace would cover and sustain me. And it did; I could feel it wrapping all around me like a warm blanket. You know, it was that same sister who held me in her arms in a different hospital bathroom as I cried, years before when our grandfather died. I wonder sometimes if my sisters know how crucial they are to me, how pivotal they were to my becoming who I am.
It might sound odd to say there was anything about that time that I liked, but I actually loved the presence of God—every Christian who came to visit us said they could feel it, the instant they hit the waiting room. It’s not surprising, though. I and my family prayed as we’ve never prayed before.
I fasted and prayed at Blake’s bedside until he woke up. After he woke up, I started slipping away once a day to eat with my other two boys in the hospital cafeteria, who were brought by to at least see their parents. Eventually, I chased Adam home to be with them. I couldn’t tear myself away. Once in 10 days, I went home to shower and hug my kids, but I couldn’t bear to be away from Blake and was back within two hours.
For the first five days, I sat in a straight-backed chair right next to Blake’s bed. It was a Spartan piece of wood furniture, not at all comfortable, but I didn’t care. I occasionally dosed off, with my head resting on the railing of his bed. I did nothing but hold his hand and pray. By the time he woke up, someone had produced a comfortable chair for me to live in. I’d also started taking small breaks to visit with my family in the waiting room. Hearing their voices, their stories, even their laughter kept me going. There was such an outpouring of love and support.
I’d like to believe my family’s presence there blessed others, too. One mom came up and asked us how we were so calm in such a terrible place – she’d heard Blake’s story and her own son was in a coma. We talked to her about our faith, and she asked us to pray with her. We did, happily. Her son woke up from his coma that evening. We would see them again—later, when both boys had moved on to rehab. I’m not sure what happened to them after our stories parted ways, though.
At one point, another family filled the halls, their grief permeating the entire floor as they spoke with hospital staff about organ donation; their little boy hadn’t made it. After a little while, my mother walked up to one of the women and apologized for intruding before saying “Can I pray with you?” The woman agreed and the two prayed together before the woman collapsed into my mother’s arms, crying and clinging to this stranger.
I’m not sure if it was my mother listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, if her heart recognized the pain of losing a child—having lost her own son years ago—or a combination of the two, but the boldness she showed that day wasn’t normal for her. She later said she had no idea what came over her. But I’m glad she did it. I’ve always been proud of my mama, but that moment so beautifully illustrates why.
When I was little, my family lived in Florida. If a hurricane came, Mom would pack us kids up and take us home to the family farm in the Ozarks while we waited out the storm. Daddy always stayed behind with the house. There is a favorite story of one particular storm, when traffic was bad getting out of town and looting rampant, that mom put a hatchet under her seat in case someone stopped our car and gave us trouble. The woman is five foot tall if she stands up real straight and she had an ax under her seat to keep her babies safe.
That same woman held a stranger in her arms and grieved openly with her over the loss of her young son. My mother is the very definition of feminine strength.
To be continued...
Rolling hills that had been vibrant green just weeks ago were now muted in tone, as if they were taking a deep breath before bursting into the song of fall.