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The unexpected Thanksgiving gift

Christmas may be the holiday best-known for giving and receiving gifts, but just a few weeks ago I experienced an unexpected gift on Thanksgiving. A gift that will live in my heart forever.

Before I tell you what the gift was, I have to tell you a little bit about my family. Families are usually the people who have known you the longest, and yet sometimes you feel like they don’t really know you at all. Misplaced loyalties, unspoken expectations, and strong personalities can often lead to hurt feelings, tense moments, and even estrangement. Families can be complicated, and mine is no exception.

My family tree is a little more like a juniper bush – dense and wide spread. Due to divorces and re-marriages, I have many I consider family that are not blood related. I have two moms who raised me at different stages of my childhood and a lot of aunts and uncles and cousins. I also grew up knowing and loving three grandmothers and two grandfathers. When I was a little girl I spent a good bit of time with my grandparents during holidays and summers.

I remember a lot of family dinners at my Grandma and Pappy’s house (my dad’s parents). Their house was the central hub for my  dad’s three siblings and all their kids to gather. It was always loud…there was usually a football game being watched in the basement, aunts chattering in the living room, and kids playing on the floor or running in the yard. My Pappy was always trying to pull a coin out of someone’s ear and my uncles were relentlessly teasing someone — usually my aunt, me or my sister. It was a bit chaotic and not always happy, but it was family. It brought us together and my Grandma was the central force in that.

When I was 13 things changed. My Pappy died. For several years we all continued to gather at my Grandma’s house, but things weren’t quite the same. A few years went by, some family moved out of state, I went off to college, my dad and step-mom got divorced and suddenly there weren’t big family gatherings at Grandma’s anymore. Or at least they were a lot less frequent and smaller.

During the next few years I didn’t see my Grandma very often. And when I did I usually got a bit of a guilt trip for the lack of frequency of those visits. If there was an Olympic sport in handing out guilt trips, my Grandma could take home the gold. I laugh now, but back then I didn’t.

The honest truth is it was not always easy to visit with her. I wasn’t sure what to talk about. I took everything she said very personally, which often led to hurt feelings. I was wrapped up in my world as a young wife and professional and I felt like she just didn’t understand my life. Of course I didn’t really make much of an attempt to understand hers, either.

Things changed a little bit when I had my kids. They were, and still are, her only great-grandchildren and she really treasured that. I wouldn’t say that the frequency of visits improved much or we became closer, but at least now when we visited we had the kids to focus on as our common ground.

During my early 20’s and 30’s I lost both of my grandparents from my mom’s side, whom I had been close to. We also lost my uncle Bill, my dad’s brother, who was just 50 when he died. It was incredibly painful to watch my Grandma go through the loss of a child. I remember her saying to me after the funeral that parents aren’t supposed to out-live their children. As a mother of three I couldn’t begin to imagine what that was like for her. But it was then that I started to see her in a different light. I saw her not just as my Grandma, but as a woman. A woman whose greatest joy in life had been being a wife and mother. She had lost her husband and then a child. I suddenly saw how strong she was and even began to understand that the “guilt trips” came from a place of genuine longing to be with her family.

Late last year my step-Grandma passed away and I found myself with only one living grandparent, and a lot of regrets for time not spent with the ones I had lost.

In March we celebrated my Grandma’s 90th birthday. I took on the project of putting together a photo book of her life and it was a special gift for me to go through these old photos of her as a girl, young bride, and mother…to take a look at the journey of her life. Being my only living grandparent, I silently vowed I would spend more time visiting and calling…

…then two months ago I got a call that my Grandma was sick and in the hospital. The details didn’t sound promising. After a few days in the hospital they moved her to a rehab facility. She didn’t do well there. She couldn’t rest, she ended up with bronchitis and almost developed pneumonia. After several weeks of her being there and some conversations with my aunt I agreed we needed to get her out and offered for her to come stay with us. I wasn’t sure how long she would need me, but made arrangements with work so I could be home with her.

Grandma was only with us for one week, the week of Thanksgiving, but that time was a gift I will not soon forget. It was a week of sitting around the table drinking tea and talking, watching her play checkers with her great-grandson, and shopping together for new clothes. It was time spent napping in a recliner while a Hallmark movie played in the background, eating too much food, and reminiscing about times past. I got to hear about her first job cleaning outhouses at the public school, and how she saved that money to buy a yearbook and go to her senior party.

There were lots of hugs and kind words shared. And for just one brief week, Grandma let herself be taken care of by someone else, in the way she’d taken care of her family for so many years.

In 39 years of being grandmother and granddaughter, I don’t think anything we’ve experienced made me feel as close to her as that week did. And I’m sure that’s partly due to my age and a bit of perspective…things look a little different in middle age than they did in my 20’s.

I’m learning to let go of old hurts and unspoken expectations, to lower my walls and get rid of fear. I’m learning to focus on what really matters and family is at the heart of that.

I hope in ten years we’ll be celebrating Grandma’s 100th birthday and there will be many, many visits and phone calls in between. But the truth is, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

If you have kept family at a distance, or let old hurts linger, causing separation; if you are waiting for tomorrow or next week to pick up the phone and tell someone you love them or go visit that relative…I just want to ask you this one question: what if tomorrow never comes?

Don’t wait. Let go of your fears and your pride and do it today. Even if it’s hard and messy, it will still be worth it. And you might just be surprised at the results.

Let’s all give ourselves that most precious, beautiful gift.

The gift of time.

 

 

Dear Michael W. Smith, I love you. That is all. Sincerely, your number one fan.

Whenever I meet someone new it doesn’t take long before they find out that I am a HUGE Michael W. Smith fan. I’m not sure how this always comes up so quickly in conversation. I mean, it’s not like I go around wearing an “I ♥ Michael W. Smith” t-shirt…well at least not every day!

My love for Smitty (yes, he is totally OK with me calling him that) is just one of those things that is core to who I am — like having brown eyes…or ten toes…or, you know, breathing. It is a deep-seated love that spans nearly 25 years. Don’t worry, my husband knows and he is OK with this. After-all, Michael was in my life before I met David.

Michael W. Smith

To truly understand how I earned my “number one fan” status, you have to know how it all began. When I was 13 my friend Mary gave me my very first Michael W. Smith cassette tape for Christmas (if you are under 25 ask your parents what a cassette tape is) . I remember opening that gift and thinking “umm, thanks? I have no idea who this is.” She assured me I would love him. And boy was she right! (Years later I offered her my second and third born children as payment for introducing me to Smitty, but she decided to settle for being their godmother, instead.)

That year I was 13 and it was a particularly difficult time in my adolescence. I had just moved in with my dad and step-mom, leaving behind all of my friends in another state, and a strained relationship with my mom. I was in a new home, new town, new school, and recovering from a traumatic experience that had happened earlier that year. It was a little more than your average 13-year-old-girl-angst. As I listened to that tape I felt like every song had been written just for me.

Every.

Single.

One.

How did this man from Kenova, WV know how I was feeling or what I was going through? I blasted his music at top volume in my bedroom, singing along and memorizing every word. In fact, I listened to that tape  so much it finally broke!

Three years later I got to attend my first Michael W. Smith concert. I was so flippin’ excited, it was like my very own Beatlemania moment. And to top it off? They were taping the concert video right there in Fairfax, Virginia! Five months later, when the concert video came out, I found out I was actually on the video!! Ok so it was like for two seconds, and if you blink you miss me…but let me tell you, if the concert was the highlight of my year, being on that video was the highlight of the decade! (I still have that video tape and I made EVERYONE watch it…even if they didn’t know who Michael W. Smith was. I even marked on the back cover where I could be found — right between “I Wanna Tell the World” and “Color Blind”, in case you’re dying to dig out your copy and find me.)

Over the years my love for Smitty grew, and his music became the soundtrack to my life. When I was graduating high-school and saying goodbye, I listened to “Friends” over and over again. When I graduated college, I cried along to “Pray for Me” for months. When my husband and I got married, our first dance was to “Love of My Life.” When I was in the hospital in labor for 26 hours with my first born I had the Freedom album on continuous play. When she was a baby I sang the song “Anna” to my eldest daughter (changing it to Hannah). You get the point.

But the highlight of my long-time fandom came in 2008. The year before I found out that Michael W. Smith had a cruise. Back then this was a relatively new thing to be able to cruise with a favorite band or musician and I could not believe that this existed. As a joke I sent a link to the cruise website to several close family and friends with the subject line “Guess what I want for Christmas?” My friend Erin was prepared to start a fundraising campaign for me, complete with T-shirts that read: “Cruise tickets: $2,500. Airfare from Washington to Ft. Lauderdale: $300. Getting to see Jelise put suntan lotion on Michael W. Smith: priceless.” I still totally want one of these t-shirts.

It was an expensive trip and we had three young children; I had absolutely no expectations of going. So you can imagine my surprise when my mom and step-mom came together to buy two tickets to the cruise for my husband and I to go. It was my birthday and Christmas presents for the next five years, but I totally didn’t care because to me this was the trip of a lifetime. Finally, I would get to meet the man. I mean, how excited would he be to finally meet his number one fan?!

Me and Michael W. Smith
Michael W. Smith hangin’ with his number one fan.

But then, it got even better. I found out that in addition to all of the concerts, events, and exotic ports we’d get to experience there was something called Smitty-oke that would be played on the ship. This is where you get to go up on stage with Michael W. Smith and his band and sing one of his songs with him!!

OH!

MY!

WORD!

Can you even imagine? OK so maybe the idea of singing with Michael W. Smith doesn’t excite you. But just think of your all-time favorite singer or band. Now, imagine getting to go up on stage and sing with them! Are you with me?

Now you should know that I am a terrible singer, and not particularly thrilled about sharing that in front of a room full of people, but I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance and I had to do it. Here is the evidence:

Smitty-oke
Just me and Smitty, singing together. No biggie.

There were many other super-cool experiences from that trip. Like, there was this other artist on the cruise — her name is Amy Grant. Perhaps you’ve heard of her? Also, Michael and his whole family were in a cabin four doors down from us, so we passed him in the hall daily;  I talked to his wife once on the elevator; I got to play a version of Family Feud against his mom and in-laws — you know your normal vacationing with a celebrity stuff.

The thing is, as much as I joke about my love for Smitty, what has made me a life-long fan is that his music continues to speak to me and touch my life. A few years ago he released a new CD with a song on it called “You Won’t Let Go”. It’s a phenomenal song, and the bridge of the song goes like this: “neither height, neither depth, highest height or deepest depth, nothing can, nothing can separate.” When I first heard this song I had just made the decision to start building this blog and call it Neither Height Nor Depth, inspired by my all-time favorite Bible verse. I had started to write posts but not yet published anything. I wasn’t sure I was up to it, quite frankly. I doubted if I had what it takes to write new content each week, or that anyone would be interested in reading what I had to say. But when I heard that song, it suddenly became my anthem, and I knew God was with me in this writing thing.

Not unlike that 13 year-old-girl who felt so lost and alone until she heard the words: “If there are millions down on their knees, among the many can you still hear me? Hear me asking where do I belong?” And she suddenly felt like everything was going to be OK.