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too much of a good thing
By J.J. Murray
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2009 J.J. Murray
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJoe Murphy
Aimless, Breathless, and Clueless: Widowed Father of Three Needs Prayer!
I hope you can help me. My wife (38) passed in August (breast cancer), leaving me with two boys (13 and 16) and a girl (17). As the sole breadwinner, I was rarely home before six, and my wife did everything else. Sad to say, but I appreciate her more now than when she was alive.
Our house is a wreck, and the kids hate each other and me. While my church has been wonderful in helping us, the closest family I have to help us out are in Canada. I'm not sleeping, not eating, and not recovering.
Will you pray for us?
Chapter TwoShawna Mitchell
I help folks as much as I can by replying to their posts at LivingWithDeath.com, a site for the grieving, but there are so many needy people at that site. I had my own grief to deal with, my own husband, Rodney, dying eight years ago from colon cancer when he was only forty. But as soon as I started posting my own coping techniques, all learned on the job as the widowed mother of two girls and a boy, I started to heal.
"Give and it will be given to you," the Bible tells us, and it's true. The more help I give, the more healing I receive.
I check out the newest posts every morning while the kids get ready for school, and Joe's post stops me today. "Father of Three"—a single parent of three like me, and their ages are close to my kids' ages—girls eight and seventeen, boy fifteen. Joe says he is not necessarily in need of "help"—he's in need of "prayer." That really touches me. Ninety percent of the posts at LivingWithDeath.com are "Help me now!" letters. I'm sure Joe wants and needs help, or why would he have asked someone to share and bear his burdens? But simply asking for prayer—I can do that for him.
"Father, help Joe, and help his family," I pray.
He mentions that his wife (who was the same age as me) "passed," not died, so maybe he's from the South. I haven't heard that phrase anywhere but the South. Joe took his wife for granted, just as I took Rodney for granted. You never truly know what you have until it's gone. Our church, Pilgrim Baptist, has helped us, too. The folks at Pilgrim have been a weekly source of strength, giving my children extralong hugs and holy handshakes as if they've adopted my kids. Family who could help Joe is far away. Rodney's mama lived in Texas before she passed, and most of the Mitchell clan lives in or around Atlanta, while my kids and I live in Roanoke, Virginia. We are not a hop, skip, or jump away from any "free" help either. Joe's house is a "wreck," and his kids hate him. Our apartment isn't a wreck, and after eight years, my kids don't hate me as much anymore.
I know exactly how Joe is feeling. My older two, Crystal and Junior, hated me, each other, their new baby sister, Toni, our apartment, their teachers, God, the food they ate, their clothes, their shoes, the dusty old TV that sometimes worked, life itself—anything, in fact, that they could hate. My youngest? Toni never knew her daddy at all, just all that tension and me, and though she's capable of monumental temper tantrums, she has been such a mostly quiet blessing so far in comparison to her brother and sister.
And so has Priscilla62, a faceless saint of a person who posted "Embracing the End" at LivingWithDeath.com several years ago. Her poem is so amazing that I printed it out and have it taped inside the front cover of my well-thumbed copy of Streams in the Desert, that timeless book of daily devotions. I read Priscilla62's poem before I even brush my teeth every single morning, and her words comfort me in ways I cannot fully explain.
The end of something is often uncomfortable.
The end of
a tank of gas,
What's so hard is the sense of imminent pain—
the sense of falling with no net.
We try to avoid the end,
deny the end,
delay the end;
even run from the end,
because we know that
embracing the end
will be like hugging a cactus—
causing unbelievable pain and many scars.
Embracing the end is also hard
because we can't even imagine
a new beginning.
The present, no matter how painful and horrible,
feels familiar and even "safe."
In fact, the better the present and recent past have been,
the more inconceivable something "different" seems.
So we wander in a "no-man's land,"
like a jackrabbit zigzagging across a desert—
not just unable to embrace the end,
but also unable to embrace the beginning of something else.
On top of that, we feel guilty
for our cowardice,
for our indecision,
for our fears,
for our tears,
for still wanting a miracle.
We are hard on ourselves,
condemning of ourselves without good reason.
Just look at Jesus—
From the beginning of His life,
He KNEW what His end would be.
and the death
He would face.
He also KNEW the amazing beginning
His death would purchase—
forgiveness for the whole world
and the beginning of
a new relationship with God Himself.
He knew all this
Before He entered Gethsemane.
He prayed all alone for hours.
Oh, at first His friends were there,
but even they abandoned His pain for their sleep.
Jesus threw Himself on the ground;
His face in the dirt.
His sweat was like
great drops of blood.
And He prayed
that He would not have to face
He begged and pleaded
but three times—
"Father, remove this from Me!"
He embraced the end
With the words:
"Not my will, but Yours be done."
He rose to face His end
and OUR new beginning.
Embracing the end
requires the death of life's dreams
AND the hope that new ones are possible—
The knowledge that we are not falling
without a net,
that underneath are
the Everlasting Arms,
a glimpse that the God of the past
is the God of the future;
is the God of NOW.
Given that four-letter word "TIME,"
God can take the most horrible end
and create a new beginning—
full of good
full of purpose
full of God's glory.
My life since Rodney's death hasn't exactly been full of God's glory, but moving into Terrace Apartments, aka "The Castle," at the intersection of WasenaAvenue and Maiden Lane seven years ago saved us and made our lives, well, glorious.
It still doesn't make sense. How can you remove your family from a nice two-story house with everyone—including the baby—having his or her own room? How can you uproot your family from a nice flat yard containing a million flowers you planted yourself to a white brick apartment complex that looks more like a government-built White Castle than a home? What was I thinking?
Well, I was thinking that you take them to a new place to leave the ghost of their daddy behind, since he died in our bed with all of us around him. You take them to a new place to save yourself money you don't have for mortgage, insurance, and property tax payments if you want to keep alive your husband's dream of sending all three of your kids to college. You take them to a new place to be somewhat closer to your first real job as an assistant manager at a McDonald's. You take them to a new place to escape the old memories ... Even if it is to a 225-unit monstrosity built in 1950 on nine acres overlooking the muddy Roanoke River.
Colon cancer. End stage before Rodney, me, or anyone else, for that matter, knew what hit him. We had spent ten adventurous years together, mainly at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where Rodney moved up in rank from corporal in Desert Storm to a master gunnery sergeant thinking seriously about becoming an officer and being a career marine. "But," he had said, "my kids won't know me," so he became a full-time marine recruiter here in Roanoke instead. He was only three years from his "twenty," just a thousand days from retiring with full pay and benefits. Despite all his duties, he somehow found time to coach Little League, Pee Wee football, and an AAU basketball team. Strong. Virile. A heart as big as his chest. Yet cancer laid him low because they didn't catch it in time. Of course, Rodney was the kind of man who only went to the doctor if he was on his last legs—meaning never. I should have made him go before he hit forty. I should have driven him myself. Instead I watched him vanish before my eyes, watched him disappear little by little over three months, his big, strong arms reduced to sticks—
"Ma-uh-ma! Crystal's using my brush again!" Toni screams.
The child can scream, and our neighbors on all sides in all directions—including upstairs and downstairs—know it. I'm always afraid they'll dial 9-1-1 on me because of those screams.
"Crystal!" I yell. I don't scream. I yell. "Use your own brush! Toni, stop all that noise!You're scaring the neighbors. Junior, have you put on deodorant?"
"Yes," Junior says, coming to me from the kitchen.
"We have to be out the door in ten minutes, y'all!"
"Haraka, haraka, haina baraka," Junior says in his deepening, mannish-boy voice.
He's learning Swahili from some of the African kids here and, by extension, so am I. "I know, I know. 'Hurry, hurry has no blessing,' right?"
He nods. He's becoming something miraculous, this child, something bigger and wiser than me and Rodney combined, and he's not nearly as hateful as he used to be.
"We need to get up earlier," I say.
He nods, and then he returns to the kitchen.
Who am I kidding? I've been saying "We need to get up earlier" for eight years.
Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. Terrace Apartments, our home.
Everybody lives in Terrace Apartments, and I mean, everybody: black, white, Muslim, Christian, and Jew, old, young, plump, thin, foreign, and domestic. The Castle contains Vietnamese boat people who escaped the Communists almost thirty years ago, Bosnians who fled war and ethnic cleansing, Cubans floating away from Castro, Liberians escaping civil war, and, most recently, Somali Bantu, a persecuted minority fleeing civil war, famine, random killings, and virtual slavery in East Africa. They have all come to The Castle as refugees, and I guess I'm a refugee from grief, but my grief doesn't even compare to theirs. I lost a husband. Many here are the last remaining members of their entire families. Some have lost everyone and everything dear to them, while I still have all my children.
Physically anyway. As for their minds and spirits, I'm not so sure.
The Castle is the United Nations in Roanoke, Virginia, of all places. People from Sierra Leone, Albania, Afghanistan, the Sudan, Haiti, and Iraq also live here. Why Roanoke? We have a low cost of living, cheap housing, decent schools, a low crime rate, and, despite the South's close-minded image, Roanokers are generally accepting people.
When Rodney and I moved to Roanoke, we found an average city. Nothing too good and nothing too bad ever seems to happen in Roanoke. Decent. This is a decent place full of decent, hardworking folks who value education, old people, the flag, this country, and the president—as long as he (or she) is a Democrat. Roanoke has made many national Top Ten lists, but we're never at the top. We're middling. That's it. Roanoke is a middling town in the middle of the mountains where folks are middle-of-the-road and generally have average middles.
But after Rodney died, the four of us looked so strange to the people already living at The Castle when we first moved in. We had no colorful clothes, no accents other than this Southern twang I've infected my children with, no terrible tales of refugee camps or boat rides on menacing seas or walks through African deserts. Yet, these people have welcomed us, have embraced us, and have ultimately saved us.
There are so many stories walking around here. Carlos Caballero spent twenty years in Cuban prisons being tortured, and now his daughter, Soima, recites the Spanish version of "The Pledge of Allegiance" nearly every morning at Patrick Henry High School, where Crystal and Junior go to school. Rema Mdame, a Somali Bantu and a devout Christian friend, spent ten years in a refugee camp. She arrived at The Castle with three children and one on the way just a few months ago, and now she shops at Mick or Mack over in Grandin Village like a seasoned pro after cleaning rooms at Brandon Oaks Retirement Community. And Amina, the pretty little girl teaching Swahili to Junior—and that better be all that child teaches my boy now that he's a man-child with peach fuzz on his chin—Amina would rather walk to school barefoot carrying her books on her head than ride the bus carrying a backpack. I know Junior's smitten with her. I catch him trying to balance his books on his round head, and his new school shoes still look new even after a month of school. This is good because those shoes have to last him at least until Christmas.
The Castle has definitely been an education for me and my kids, and one day I will cancel my cable because of it. I can spend hours at the windows watching the Third World walk by, wearing colorful scarves and head coverings and handmade dresses. I can hear Spanish, and Bosnian, and Creole, and Arabic, and Pashto mixing with bold attempts at English. I can feel and see the village taking care of its own people. My kids get as much of an education after school here as they do in school. The Castle is a place where difference is normal, where skin color, fabric, hair, and even noses defy convention. There's so much texture here, so much ... life. Atangaye na jua hujuwa—"A person who wanders around by day a lot, learns a lot." I have learned so much in my wanderings around here.
And it's nice to live around other people who don't have much. I know that sounds strange, but daily it makes a difference for me. No one in The Castle is in competition to get the "next best thing" to show off. My busted, dented, dusty, and paid-off Nissan Sentra looks right at home next to ancient Buicks, Chevrolets, and Fords parked around The Castle. We're not poor—we just don't have much money. Rema once told me, "Lacking money is not necessarily the same as being poor," and I know she's right.
Whenever the ice-cream truck comes around, I no longer feel the need to give my children money, ever since the day I saw Rema calming her four children with one phrase as the ice-cream truck rolled away. My kids hear "No," but they have to keep negotiating. Rema's kids had just walked away smiling while mine stewed long into the night because they didn't get any overpriced ice cream. I just had to find out what she told her kids.
"'Ah,'" Rema said. "'I tell them I live as I can afford, not as you wish.'"
Trust me—if you say that line five times a day to each child, your kids will stop pestering you for anything.
I wouldn't live anywhere else but The Castle now.
A long time ago after watching The Color Purple, I got it into my head to become a missionary to Africa. Now, I guess I'm kind of a missionary here among these people. Or maybe, and I'm believing this more and more, these people named Isha and Nuri and Hijiro and Yussuf and Sabtow are missionaries to us. Rema says, " 'God is our neighbor when our brother is absent,'" and I truly believe God is in our neighbors.
What time is it? Geez, we're running late, but I can't leave Joe hanging. "Okay, Mr. Man-in-a-similar-predicament."
I start to type:
I'll pray for you
"Msema pweke hakosi," Junior says from the front door. "Huh?" I ask. That's a new one. "What does it mean?"
"It means, 'One who talks to himself or herself cannot be wrong.'" He smiles. "You were talking to yourself again, Mama."
"You're praying for someone named Joe, right?" I was talking to myself, all right. Hmm. "Let me finish, okay? And help your sister with her backpack."
I finish typing:
I'll pray for you. Have you tried having a family meeting to get everything out into the open? It hurts, but it can start you and your family on the way to healing. Let me know how it goes.
"Mama, you at it again?" Crystal asks from the hallway, Toni trailing behind.
Excerpted from too much of a good thing by J.J. Murray Copyright © 2009 by J.J. Murray. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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