Everybody needs a dog. They are just the best that life has to give. They help us to see what it means to really live, and show us true love. So today, in honor of the First Anniversary of the Homegoing of our beloved Layla, I invite you to take Layla’s Live Large Challenge. Because there is so much truth to the saying that everybody dies, but not everyone really lives.
Layla’s Live Large Challenge: Dedicated to Layla Stewart, 03/01/11 – 02/20/21.
Take time to bask in the sun.
Make today a celebration.
Indulge your creative side.
Spend time doing what you love.
Lean on a friend for support.
Play. There is a reason kids are happier than adults.
Dress up in something fun.
Enjoy a good snack and don’t worry about the calories.
Give someone a hug.
Give someone a kiss.
Go play outside and don’t worry about getting dirty.
Let your real feelings out.
Learn something new.
Take time to smell the flowers.
Dip your toes in the water of life.
Protect those you love.
Take time to rest.
Spent time with those you love.
Go on adventures.
Recognize the beauty of the night as well as the day.
Know that in the end, the love never leaves.
I challenge everyone reading this to take Layla’s Live Large Challenge. Don’t wait for tomorrow to live your best life. Start today. Everyone dies. But not everyone lives. (Quote by William Wallace).
Friends, I’m coming to you this evening and asking you to prayerfully consider something. I’m asking you to consider how you might make a gift of sacrifice in the coming weeks, in particular, in the area of COVID-19 precautions.
If you are anything like me, you tend to think of gifts as something that is an addition, rather than a subtraction. An addition of time, service, or something tangible. That is what the world teaches us gifts are. But, in pondering this deeply the past few months, I realized something. God’s greatest gift to us was a sacrifice. He sacrificed His own Son, so that we might dwell with Him for eternity. Most assuredly, He has given us so many great gifts that are additions. But the gift that gives eternal life was a sacrifice.
I know we have varied opinions on what precautions are needed in a time of COVID-19. I also know, and this one has taken me years, because I’m full of pride, self righteousness and sin, that our opinion isn’t necessarily the truth, no matter how much we want it to be. There are times when we have to be willing to listen to those God has uniquely appointed for such a time as this, through their years of training and practice in areas we know little about. There are times when we need to let experts in their field, be experts in their field.
So, I’m asking y’all who are my family in Christ, to prayerfully consider how you might make the sacrifices this time of COVID-19 is asking of us, so that others may live. And more importantly, so that the unsaved amongst us may live long enough, that we may reach them with the good news of salvation through Christ.
Would you consider sacrificing your comfort, your time in person with friends and family, your attendance at large group events, your participation in things that have the potential to spread COVID-19? Would you consider giving something up this holiday season, so that others may be given the gift of both life on earth and life in Heaven with Jesus? The end of this bad boy is nigh upon us. It is coming! It is coming! And God is near.
I’m going after that 1. That one lost sheep. The 1%. Most people focus on the 99. But I have spent my life going after the 1.
In a time when coming together would help us all, we have, instead, become increasingly divided in our stance toward COVID-19. I have spent countless hours thinking through why some people I thought I had so much in common with, in particular our Christian faith, have come to such different conclusions than I have. What is it about us, our personality, character, background, occupation, experiences, that have resulted in such differences of thought? In thinking on this, I’ve delved into what it is about me, that has made me hold to what I believe. Which is, if you are wondering, in sum, what infectious disease specialists are recommending. But why do I stand with this group of experts, when so many others don’t?
There are many reasons. But at the core of it, it comes down to the 1. When there are 100 sheep, and 1 wanders off, I leave the 99 to bring that 1 home. I want all 100 sheep safe, and I’m not going to rest until they are. When others don’t agree with, or don’t want to follow COVID-19 precautions, and are leaning on the fact that approximately 99% of us will survive, I’m relentlessly advocating for the 1%. Because the 1 matters just as much as the 99.
If it’s an inconvenience to me to go after that 1, I’ll do it. If it takes away my free time, I’ll do it. If I have to postpone time with my loved ones, I’ll do it. If it costs me money, my job, my business, I’ll do it. Because that 1 matters just as much to God as the other 99. That 1 matters more than my comfort, my happiness, and my normal. If Jesus went after that 1, shouldn’t all of us?
The world is watching you Christian Friend. You may think that what you do in your day to day life is of no consequence in the ministry of salvation. But to most people you will come in contact with, it is everything. You don’t have to go to some far off county as a missionary to bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus. You don’t even have to do formal mission work at all, or any kind of formal ministry. Your life, Christian friend, is the most powerful tool of evangelism you have. When people look at you, do they want to know Jesus?
People talk about you. When you aren’t around, they talk about you. Believe it or not, many people who are not Christian do know The Bible. They know what it says. They may even have read it very carefully. And then they watch you. They want to know if what the Bible says is really true. Does it really change a person? Are people really able to live by its commands? You may not like hearing this, (I know it is a touch pill for me to swallow), but they are watching to see if your life lines up with what The Word says. And many are waiting for you to slip up so they can point the finger and say, see, Jesus isn’t who He says He is. He isn’t real. This person is a hypocrite. They say one thing and do another. I don’t want to have any of that. So let me ask you again, are you the Jesus you want people to see?
We are going to talk about COVID-19 now. I know you are tired of hearing about it. I know you are just tired period. But this is the world we live in now. We are living in a time of COVID-19. And no amount of denial, avoidance, or minimization is going to change the fact that this bad boy virus has changed life as we know it. And not for the better. It isn’t only that this virus is killing people, and disabling others. It isn’t only that the economy has struggled, people have lost jobs and businesses, and mental health has taken a huge hit. It isn’t just that we are tasked with wearing masks, and keeping social distance and we can’t do the things we normally do. No. Those things are all bad. They are horrible. But here’s the thing. Christian Friends, it isn’t the virus that has broken my heart. It’s you. Not all of you. But many of you. You have broken my heart. Because you are not showing me the Jesus I know. You are not showing kindness, compassion, and love for thy neighbor. You are showing me your darkness, and it is so very, very ugly.
I have lost friends over my extreme beliefs about this. I am sure I will lose more. But I can no longer sit by and idly watch as so many people who claim to be saved, hurt others because of their selfishness. As Americans, and I admit I am primarily talking about Christians who are American, we value freedom. We value life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And those are good things. God Himself has given us freedom to choose, and freedom in Christ. But what happens when freedom becomes more important than our neighbor? What happens when my freedom costs another person their life? What then, Christian friend? Is my right to not wear a mask more important than someone’s life? Is my right to have people over to my house for a large get together more important than someone’s life? Based on your actions, many of you seem to think this is true. Let me ask you, how did you come to this belief? When did our own personal freedom become more important than loving and protecting the least of these? And where in the Bible does it say that our rights are more important than loving our neighbor? Because I can’t find that verse.
And then there is the idea that we should not give into fear. Amen. I completely agree. But using this premise to say we do not need to be taking the precautions we are is faulty. Because this presumes that fear and caution are the same thing. They aren’t. The Bible is clear. Do not be afraid. But it does not say to not be cautious. It does not say to ignore the advice of those who know how to handle the situation. It does not say go forth in thy enemy’s land and tempt fate. At times it is quite clear and teaches us to run, to hide, to wait it out. All of which can be done without giving into fear. We do not need to fear, but we do need to be cautious.
And then I hear many of you make the argument that the powers that be (let’s say the CDC) keep changing their minds, so why should we do what they say? Also faulty logic. This is, in many ways, how the scientific process works. We make a hypothesis based on information we have at the time. We do more research. We change our hypothesis based on data. That’s good science actually. To change and adapt with the data. COVID-19 is new. Living in a global pandemic of this magnitude is new. When we run into something new, medically or scientifically speaking, we don’t start with all the information so we make our best educated guess as to what to do. Then we learn, and adapt. This is the changes we are seeing. This is not only normal, it is expected, and it is wise and says we are doing due diligence. God is helping us learn. Our prayers are being heard and answered through our health professionals, researchers, those who understand disease. God made science. God is using science to help us. And unless we personally are infectious disease specialists, let’s let them do their job, while we do the jobs God has tasked us with doing. It is extremely egocentric and arrogant to presume we know better than infectious disease specialists unless we are one, isn’t it? Will this arrogance lead others to Jesus, or should we, perhaps instead, show humility and model that aspect of Godly conduct to others?
Christian Friends, I know you are concerned about politicians becoming too controlling. This is a legitimate concern. I share it with you actually. And indeed, we have some politicians going off the deep end. But in many cases our politicians are stepping in, and doing what needs to be done because people aren’t listening on their own. Because some of them go too far doesn’t make the precautions we need to take wrong. It makes those politicians wrong in their approach. Government is not, in and of itself bad just because it is government. And God is very clear that we are to follow our ruling authorities. Even if we don’t like them, or agree with them. If we go against this important scriptural mandate, are we showing people Jesus, or are we showing them defiant, sinful, human behavior?
There are a couple of phrases I hear a lot these days. My opinion. My comfort level. My rights. My choice. My my my. Me me me. Christian Friends, there is no my or me in public health. This isn’t about just you. It isn’t about just me. It is about all of us. All. Of. Us. This is a group project. And we are failing it right now. Our actions are killing people and disabling others. Our actions are spreading this virus. And we are not leading people to Jesus this way. Instead, we are showing ourselves to be hypocrites, self-centered, arrogant human beings. And this is not the Jesus I want other people to see in me. Is it the Jesus you want other people to see in you?
She waited seven years, and then she struck gold for the first time. Then, when she was a few months past 16, she struck gold again. She was my lovey. My sweet Periwinkle, who I adopted at age 7, when the rest of the world had passed her by. I loved her every day of her life, for she was the most wonderful of friends. When day after day, she got sick to her stomach with something medicine could not control, messing up our carpet each time, I loved her. The spots didn’t matter, the mess didn’t matter, the embarrassment when people came over didn’t matter, the clean up didn’t matter. Because I loved her. Love is bigger than our messes. If we let it, it wins every time. If we let it, it changes us, and expands our ability to love, both ourselves, and others. If we let it, it is the best part of this life. And also, the most painful.
She waited seven years, and then she struck gold. She was born on May 1st, 2004 in a cat shelter in Dallas. It it one of those houses that gets fixed up to be a home for homeless kitties in search of a family. As a tabby cat, she appeared most ordinary, with so many others who looked like her. And so she got looked over. She was, according to her profile, a cat who loved to sit on laps. If a lap sat, and stayed awhile, she would come sit on it. But she was also shy. So she got looked over. Year upon year passed, and she lived in that house. By the grace of God, it was not a kill type shelter, and I am forever grateful to those who run it, that they raised my sweet girl. Because one day, when I was losing my beloved Bennie to lymphoma, I found her sweet little face peering at me from an app called Save a Cat.
And it was her name. Periwinkle. Her name called to me. My bridesmaids dresses had been Periwinkle. My business logo is close to Periwinkle. I love that color. And I loved my sweet girl. So, after seven years of waiting, she struck gold. And we brought her home. Where she got one special person, that would be me, whose lap she could always sit on. So if you are in a time where you are doubting the worth of the wait, let my Periwinkle’s story convey this message to you. The wait. Is worth it.
Periwinkle loved me. Completely. And totally. She became my safe harbor. Through the loss of my Smokey, to the loss of a beloved job, and the subsequent questioning of my whole identity, she loved me. When I was hurt by people, she loved me. I no sooner sat down in my big lazy boy chair, then she was on my lap. Even when I needed to do something else, she was on my lap. Too many times I shooed her away when I shouldn’t have, until a year ago when I almost lost her. And I realized that life is short, and that lap and love matter more than most of the petty tasks of the day. Lap. And Love. It was a year ago I almost lost her to kidney disease. The vet thought she wasn’t going to make it a week. But God was good. He heard my cry. He healed her enough to give us one more year of lap and love. I truly believed it would be more than that. Because once she bounced back from that crisis, there were no noticeable signs of further issues. I asked God to keep her here through the loss of Layla, because I knew she would help me cope. And I truly believed she would be there. So her death felt, and feels, like a betrayal. Not from her. But from God. If God really loved me, why would he take my love when so many other things in this world were already breaking me down?
I don’t know the answer to that. One day, I know I will. One day, Periwinkle will tell me. I will confess, sometimes, I do think of God as a genie with a bottle. But He isn’t. He is, in fact, so much better than a genie in a bottle. So much more. So much greater. We don’t have to understand, but we do well to trust His plan.
This much I know though. Last night, at a little after 10 pm, my lovey struck gold for the second time. Because although I couldn’t sleep last night thinking I let her down, didn’t spend enough time with her, didn’t give her enough, couldn’t save her, broke her, she isn’t plagued with any of those things. Our pets are so much simpler than us in this. They live in the day, and when we good to them, they live in our love. One minute, she was eating a treat, drinking from my water glass and about to jump on my lap, and the next, she was on streets of gold. It is, in fact, the best way to go. Quickly. Without pain. In the presence of the person one loves best.
Can we wish that away from anyone? To go like that? And to arrive at the streets of gold straight from the presence of our beloved? Can we wish the final reward of Heaven away from any we love for our own selfish gain? Most assuredly I want to. I want her back. I want to go in the other room, say: “lap is available”, and have her jump up on my lap and calm me with her sweet purr. But streets of gold!!! The complete and total presence of God, the Father, Jesus, his Son, and the Holy Spirit!!! The beauty, the majesty, the splendor!!! The laps!!! The love!!! On earth, we mourn. But we only see in part. In Heaven, they rejoice when one comes Home. Because then they see in full.
Do animals go to Heaven? The Bible leaves this unanswered. But I believe they do. I believe they do because God made us to love his creatures, and He loves us. I believe, in fact, that His animals, our pets, are one way He shows us how much He loves us. One amazing, beautiful, yet simple and profound way. Periwinkle loved me. She loved me more than anything in this world. She waited for me, so she could come sit by me. She just wanted to be in my lap, or next to me. Isn’t this a wondrous representation of how God loves us so? He longs to be with us, all the time, every day, no matter what kind of mood we are in, what we look like, what needs to be done, or even how we feel about Him.
Periwinkle Stewart waited seven years to find her home. In April of 2011 she found just the best home. The perfect fit. The girl who would love her as much as she loved the girl. The wait was worth it. She lived just the best life. She loved totally and completely, and she was loved totally and completely. On October 3rd, at 10:00 pm, in a time of COVID-19, where the world half feels like it is falling apart, Periwinkle Stewart went to her final Home. And she won’t mind waiting for me. She doesn’t need me there right now, like I got to thinking last night, and even this morning. She knows how to wait. She knows the wait is worth it.
Love is bigger than our messes. If we let it, it wins every time. If we let it, it changes us, and expands our ability to love, both ourselves, and others. If we let it, it is the best part of this life.
So to my sweet Lovey, the light of my life, my best friend, my safe harbor, Periwinkle. I promise you, that although I don’t know how right now, I WILL LIVE. And someday, you will get to sit in my lap again. On the day I strike gold.
Dear Layla, you have been a light in my life. A beautiful blessing from God. You have filled my days with joy, and my heart with love. You have made me laugh when I wanted to cry. You have licked my tears when I have cried. You protect me, and you love me unquestionably. You are my first dog, and you have taught me that a dog is love wrapped in fur.
I wish you could be with me for the rest of my life. But I know you can’t. So I will be with you for the rest of yours. I will not be the same when you are gone. For the rest of my life, there will be a gaping hole where you used to be. I admit it, I am scared. I am scared of what is going to happen to me when you leave. You know I am prone to depression. You know I love deeply, and I grieve deeply. You have been by my side through times when this has happened. So I know, you know, I am scared. And I know that you would take this pain from me if you could. But you can’t. Not this time. So I have a promise for you, and for me. Because I know you need to hear this. And I will need to read this when you are gone. To remind myself that I promised.
I promise you I will be OK. Not initially. But eventually. I promise you that, although I will grieve, and I may become depressed for a time, I will not stay in that deep dark pit. I will not let depression swallow me alive. When you die, I will continue to live. I will live all of my days, and I will not give up on this life. I may want to, but I won’t. I promise.
And I won’t just survive. I will live well. I will love well. I won’t forget you, ever. But I will carry on the legacy you have left. I will take Maggie on walks. I will take her to the lake. I will take her to get Pup Cups. I will play bubbles with her. I will work with her on requesting “treats”, and “walk” with our communication buttons. I will snuggle with her when she allows it. I will not return to letting fear keep me from enjoying adventures. And when the time is right, we will bless a new dog with all our love. Because love left ungiven is a tragedy. I know you want that for us, and for the friend I know you will point us to. I am trusting you to pick this new friend at just the right time. Because you will know who needs us as much as we will need them. But this new friend will never replace you. A new friendship never negates at old one.
I know your time is coming soon. I would give anything to keep you here. But I won’t keep you here for me. That would be selfish. So when you get tired, and you need to say goodbye for now, I will let you go. And I will be OK. I promise. Until we meet again, I will continue to live. And one day, when I get to Heaven, I know you will come running to meet me, excited that I have finally come Home. But until that glorious reunion, I WILL LIVE.
We all need treats in our lives. Something to look forward to. Something we enjoy. So when the dull, dreary monotony of everyday life starts to wear us down, we have a light at the end of the tunnel.
When Layla was first diagnosed with cancer, I was so lost. Chemo was not a viable option for her type of cancer, nor was surgery or radiation. Was there anything we could do for her?
When I am lost, I try to deal with the chaos through seeking out information. So I began to research cancer options. I found an excellent book on cancer in dogs called The Dog Cancer Survival Guide by Dr. Damian Dressler. One of the chapters in particular stood out to me. It was about creating adventure and opportunity for our beloved dogs. In essence, it was about the power of hope. This began my journey into seeking things to do for Layla and her sister Maggie, and with Layla and Maggie, that would give her a sense of anticipation, keeping her spirit alert and engaged.
I set out to make a Bucket List for her, and admittedly got stuck on what should go on it. I am not sure when the obvious finally hit me, but it did. Honestly, it was quite likely someone mentioning taking their dog for a Puppuccino that gave me the idea. I rarely go to Starbucks, so I just searched drive through food places that give dogs treats. And there, I discovered the Pup Cup. The fabulous, delicious, wonderfully yummy, how did we let our dogs live so many years without it Pup Cup.
The first time we drove through our local Dairy Queen I was actually nervous. What if what Google said wasn’t true? What if they don’t give our Pup Cups? But they do, and they did. And so began one of the new routines of our COVID-19 summer: Dairy Queen Drives with Layla and Maggie.
Our first run was an isolated event on its own, simply a short drive to DQ, return home with our Blizzards and their Pup Cups, and then, blissful indulgence. But after that, DQ Drives became the final event of our weekly trips to the lake to swim, or our weekly Wednesday walk. But only every 10 days (so we alternated which event it finalized). Because more than that would be, well, indulgent. A new summer habit was born. And Layla and Maggie are forever changed into a happier version of themselves, and maybe a slightly heavier version.
First, the excitement builds as they realize we are in the drive through.
Then, we play the “Ice Cream” game, where I have learned that Maggie actually recognizes the word Ice Cream, and correspondingly licks her chops on cue.
Layla takes the wait very seriously.
Maggie not so much.
Then, after a drive home that I am sure the girls thinks lasts forever, they get to indulge.
Oh snap, it’s all gone. What’s a girl to do?
I guess they’ll have to wait for our next trip. Because we all need treats.
I have a confession to make. I have a tendency to be self-righteous and holier than thou. I am prone to falling into the belief that other people sin worse than me. Left to my own devices, I get sucked into being extremely judgmental. After all, I am a kind, compassionate, loving Christian, and I would never hurt anyone. Yet, I also have a choleric temperament. I like to be in charge and in control. I have a lot of confidence in my areas of strength. I am a leader. I like being right. A lot.
It took me gaining the wisdom of age, growing in compassion for others, the infinite, compassionate, loving patience of God, and healthy Christian fellowship to realize something. What I described above is pride. Pride is, however, a sin, and God sees all sin the same. All sin separates us from Him, and it is only through his son Jesus we are redeemed. All sin. Not just some sins. Pointing out the speck in others eyes isn’t what God calls me to do. He calls me to get the log out of my own. He calls me to model the love of Christ, by speaking the Truth, but in love, not in hate, anger and judgement. Pride, my friends, is a wicked beast that has been the downfall of many. Fighting it in myself is a lifelong journey.
God gave me some help here. In a way I would never wish on another person. He broke me. Or perhaps, He allowed me to be broken by a world where things aren’t perfect, and bodies fail. I live in a body broken. I hurt. Every. Single. Day. I have hurt every single day for over 20 years. And although I can remember a great many things before the cascade of chronic pain began at age 25, I can no longer place a memory, or experience it in any way, without pain. I no longer remember how to perceive anything without physical pain. Such is the cruelty of many diseases people have, for me, both fibromyalgia and interstitial cystitis. God allows me to live life in a body broken, and I hate it, but it also blesses me over and over again. How can that be? How can we be blessed to be broken?
I have learned what it is like to be unable to do things that other people take for granted. I have times I can’t stand for more than a couple of minutes without severe pain. On my best days I don’t have the tolerance to stand and walk for more than an hour or so. Household chores physically hurt to do on the best of days. As does cooking. Some days it hurts a lot to get dressed or shower (any day it hurts a little). I always have to be near a bathroom, or know I can access one quickly. I have a restricted diet. I could go on. Suffice it to say I know what it is like to be denied things most other people get to have simply for being alive. Does that make me mad? Sometimes. Sad? Sometimes. But it also makes me compassionate. It reminds me that we shouldn’t take anything we are able to do for granted, nor should we assume other people can have, or do the things we can have or do. It helps me understand the stress that the families of my clients go through on some level; all the barriers they have to cross just to do things most people don’t even question.
I have learned that I can’t do it all myself. No one can do everything themselves, but on average, people can do typical daily things like cook, clean, eat, drink, sleep, go to the bathroom, without incident. I can’t. I have to ask for help with things I feel like I should be able to do myself. Many of them common household tasks. I have learned that, as much as a I want to be self-reliant, I can’t be. My body won’t let me. But God didn’t make us to be self-reliant. He made us to be part of the body of believers, to be part of a community. Left to my own devices, in a healthy, pain free body I would have attempted to do it all on my own, and I would have eschewed community. Because that is how I am built at my core. But it most assuredly isn’t how God wants us to be. We are not islands.
I have learned that life is hard, and people are hurting. If not physically, than mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I have learned that it matters to pay attention to that hurt, because it matters to me when people pay attention to mine. I have learned that under it all, everyone has a story, and everyone has pain. And that just because we can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In my own pain, in my own darkness, I found my humanity, and ways I am linked to people that I never saw when I was pain free. God saw who I was, and what I needed. He gave me a thorn in my side, and it broke me, beautifully.
We are not in control. Not really. Not yesterday, not today, not tomorrow. No matter how much we want to be, we aren’t. We aren’t always right. We don’t have the final say, and in the end, we are not the ones in charge. God is. And He is so good. He takes what the enemy meant for harm, and makes it good. He takes a self righteous, holier than thou sinner, and makes her whole. Blessed by a body broken.
And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12: 9-10
When I swim, I am free. The pain that usually ties me down lifts for a moment, and I glide through the water, no differently than anyone else. Stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe. The pattern itself relaxes me, and most days, stills my mind. I didn’t grow up with a passion for swimming, it’s something that found me much later in life. Like a missing piece of one’s soul, it found me, and brought me peace.
I grew up swimming in lakes, not pools. So, to me, a lake feels like home. The water was dark, the water was deep, and since I grew up in a Northern state (New Jersey), the water was often quite cold. And that was normal. That was home. That was my weekends, and sometimes an evening when my parents got home from work. Some of my best childhood memories are at a lake club we belonged to.
I was not a good swimmer as a child. I thrashed about quite a bit in the water. I never learned to do the crawl with my head in the water back then. Oddly, that was how it was taught at that location, at that time. (I later took lessons in a pool in summer camp with the typical way with one’s head under water, but I never took to that when young). So, I swam my odd crawl stroke for years, head always above water. It took me years to pass the test to be allowed to swim on my own in the deep end, but finally, in my teens, I did. Then, I swam to docks, in deep, dark, murky, bone chilling water, and I was proud of myself.
After college, once my camp counselor days were over, I am fairly certain I didn’t swim in a lake again until this summer. I swam in pools. I swam in the Caribbean Sea (so beautiful). I tried to swim in the ocean! But not in a lake. Lakes are deep, they are dark, they are murky. You can’t see your arms, your feet, the bottom. People don’t swim in lakes much these days. As such, it never crossed my mind to return to them.
At some point, in my late thirties, it crossed my mind that I might like to begin to swim for exercise. People at my job talked about swimming for their workouts. People with fibromyalgia often talked about water exercise (although I only later learned that typically meant water aerobics, not swimming). One fine day in June, I went to our local aquatics center, signed up for summer membership, and swam. That went quite badly, and I ended up straining my back so badly I had to wear a back brace for a trip to see family, including an airport trip. That was miserable. I somehow concluded, in the course of that trip, that I would take actual adult swim lessons. That was one of the best choices I ever made. That summer, I took about 12 private lessons. I learned to do the crawl stroke the correct way. I learned to do the backstroke, the sidestroke, the breaststroke, and yes, even the butterfly. Correctly, without hurting my body. I learned to stroke, stroke, breathe. I learned the rhythm of breathing, and how it can set one free.
This began my odyssey of swimming. The aquatic center hours are terrible during the school year, so I found a local gym with a slightly warm, bromine pool. I have been swimming there ever since. For about 8 years now, I have swum once or twice (or three times) a week, most months during the year. It kept me calm. It kept me sane. Stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe. Until March. When COVID-19 came. And the world seemingly stopped. The gym shut down. I couldn’t swim. Even when the gym re-opened, I wasn’t (and am not), comfortable going yet. As weeks moved to months, the need to find my calm, resting place in the water grew. I became more and more agitated. I needed to breathe.
I am not sure quite exactly when I realized I could swim other places. Or that I could swim in a “not pool.” I began to look for outdoor places to swim, but wasn’t finding anything that worked for me. Until one day a FB friend posted a picture of a day with their family at a local lake. Not the lake we live right off of, they don’t allow swimming there (strong undercurrent, too many drownings). But another lake, fairly close, that had never crossed my mind before. Like many things I found the past few months, a local gem hiding all these years right in our backyard, missed because we were too busy doing things that didn’t need to be done, going places we didn’t need to go, stuck inside when we didn’t need to be inside. And there, I found my breath again.
Every weekend, since Father’s Day, we have gone to the lake so I can swim. Not just me, but my husband, and also our dogs. Our dogs. Our dogs, who, until this summer, I confess we never took to outdoor places often with us. Admittedly, we have a fenced one acre dog heaven of a backyard, complete with sticks, trees, squirrels and most things a dog could want. But fear held me back. Fear of them getting loose, and running off. Fear of losing them. It took knowing we were losing Layla in the not too distant future, for me to realize that, whereas death comes to us all, life truly lived does not, and it was time to really live.
So Layla and Maggie come too. My husband walks them some, and they lounge on a blanket while I swim. In the dark, murky, warm Texas water. Where I can’t see my hands, my feet, the bottom. But where I can see my soul. Stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe. If I fall off my beat, sometimes I sputter, taking in too much water. This causes pause, and I let my feet touch the soft clay bottom. I breathe deeply in and out, and then resume my glide through the water.
Some days, I watch the sun slowly set through the trees on the shore. And by Labor Day, I finally earned the trust of the lake’s local crane, who let me get almost within arm’s reach as I quietly tiptoed in the clay, water muffling my movements. I am the only one who swims up and back, up and back, although others will stay in close by the tiny little beach shore. It is so quiet, so still, so calm. When I swim, I am free. The pain that usually ties me down lifts for a moment, and I glide through the water, no differently than anyone else. Stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe. I have found the rhythm of breathing, and I am home.
COVID-19 has stolen something from every one of us. For some, it has stolen a loved one, or loved ones. For some, it has it has stolen a job, or a business. For some it has stolen their health. For others, it has stolen time, memories that could have been made with loved ones, things that could have been done or experienced, personally or professionally. It has stolen our normal, our stability, our understanding of how things are, and how we are in this world. It has affected our mental health, our financial security, and our sense of safety. For anyone in my generation or younger, and perhaps some older, in our nation and other countries like it, it has blasted through the belief that we are, on average, safe, secure, and going to live long, healthy, happy lives, relatively speaking. It has forever altered how we see other people, and ourselves. There is no one it has not stolen something from. And yet, it took me a long time to realize that so much of the exhaustion, sorrow, anxiety, and simply being undone was, in fact, grief. Grief is something defined more by a concrete loss, like the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job, is it not? It isn’t something that attaches itself to a period of time, and all it’s events, is it? But it is. For it has stolen things from us.
Every since I first saw it, many years ago, I can’t remember exactly where, I have completely and totally related to Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. Because it vividly depicts the way I feel when the dark cloud of my own mental illness surrounds me, encompassing depression, anxiety, and ADHD. If you have never felt The Scream in your own soul, count yourself fortunate. I don’t wish it on you, and I hope you never understand what I am talking about. But if you have, at one time or another, felt it ripping through every ounce of your being, you know what I am talking about. I have felt the scream, I have heard the scream, I have tasted, touched, and smelled the scream. It is deep, it is dark, it is piercing.
It doesn’t visit me often anymore, now that over the years that have passed, I have learned a cornucopia of strategies for managing my mental illnesses. That is a blessing. But I always know it is there, lurking in the shadows. The truth is, I fear it. Because when it comes out, when it shrieks, when it descends on me, it is very hard to quiet it. It had been quite a long time since it last visited me for any extended period. And then COVID-19 descended on all of us.
At first, I was fine. Well, mostly fine. I was sad that a trip my parents, brother and family were taking to see us got cancelled. I honestly thought we would manage that visit by June, silly girl! I had no idea then what I know now. I was frustrated, because it affected my new speech therapy practice. I am an introvert, so the initial social isolation, albeit annoying, didn’t get to me too much. At first that is, it gets to me profoundly now. Especially because I was able to connect with so many people online or on the phone. I was so proud of myself, for not falling into depression that many, including me, warned about when we realized what was happening. I held out for a long time as I watched others slip into the abyss of The Scream. And then something happened. Something that, in the best of times would have pushed me under for a bit. But perhaps not as badly as it did during a time of COVID-19. My Layla, my beautiful 9 1/2 year old Doberman, was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer, and given 2-3 months to live in mid April, 2020. And then my scream started. And it hasn’t stopped since.
Layla, through what I can only surmise was love, prayer, and a strong will to live, made it past 3 months. She lived large. We lived large. That is another post for another day. So many beautiful memories. But, as with all lives, one day they must end. As with all bodies, one day they just become too tired. And her body is growing increasingly weary, her breathing increasingly fast, and I hear Heaven calling her name. The Scream deafens me. It shakes me. It rattles me. I try to quiet it with the things I know to do and like a banshee it just wails. She is still here, today. And I will treasure the short time we have left. But when Heaven calls the name of one we love, we need to listen. For this world is not our home, we have a much better one awaiting us. We cannot deny that prize to a great love, nor can we tether them here with our selfishness.
This isn’t the only grief I have felt during this time, just the one that has hurt the most. I grieve the effect this has had on my small business. Things have improved there, but frankly, I am not ready to go full hog with some things right now, I am too tired. I grieve the effect this has had on my knowledge of others. So many I once held in high esteem I now see more clearly, as the self centered people they always were, but I didn’t want to see. (No, this is not my close friends, if you are reading this be assured I am not speaking of you here). I grieve the loss of lives of so many of other’s loved ones to COVID-19. I grieve the loss of the lives of so many people’s loved ones to things other than COVID-19, where they couldn’t fully be with their loved ones, or mourn them because of the times they are in. I grieve the loss of all the dogs with cancer I learn about in my FB support groups, many whose owners were not allowed to be with them as they made their final journey, because of COVID-19. I grieve the loss of those alone, and isolated at this time. I grieve the loss of the ability to see my parents, brother and family, who live so far away. I grieve the loss of time with friends, time doing community service, just time. I grieve the loss of normal. I grieve the loss of innocence. I grieve the loss of safety. And I am tired, so very, very tired. And it is there. The Scream.
So if you are reading this, and something has not been right with your soul, but you can’t quite place it, you may be grieving. It is still grief even if you did not lose a person, a job, a business, a friendship. It is still grief. It is still loss. And your grief, your loss, it is not too small for our great big God. It is not too small to share, nor too small to talk about. It is not petty, and you are not weak. I dare say, in one way or another, we are all grieving in this time of COVID-19. It is time we call it what it is. It is grief, for all the things that COVID-19 has stolen from us.