Life in Progress, Part 2: The God-shaped hole in my mom’s life

On the far left. One of the few childhood pictures I have.
On the far left.
One of the few childhood pictures I have.

I ended Part 1 of my 4-part “Life in Progress” series by saying that one would have to know the beginning of the story I share with my mom in order to fully understand her ending.

Since my mom’s death in June, my perspective on my childhood has changed. I’m realistic, but now I see it through a different set of lenses, lenses that filter with forgiveness.

I was 5 when my parents divorced and my mother and I moved to Central California. She battled depression for many years, and once we settled into our new town, the alcoholism that had snaked its way through my family tree caught up to her.  She was wildly discontent. I know now that she was searching for anything that would fill the God-shaped hole in her life.

A friend once told me that she didn’t want to have kids as a way to cure boredom. I understood, because that’s how my mom ended up with me. By the time I was in first grade, she had checked-out. A single parent without a support system, battling addiction, doesn’t make for the greatest care-taker, especially with a handful of a child.

Without the minutiae, my mom put my physical safety at risk a number of times. The emotional and psychological warfare was constant. And every argument, every threat was a brick in the wall I was building around my heart.

She experienced things that should have prompted her to get better. Her AA sponsor committed suicide. Money became a major problem, as in, there wasn’t enough of it. At 42, she had breast cancer. Still, nothing served as a wake-up call.

And she was a runner. When things got hard, or she wasn’t content, she’d run away.

The summer before sixth grade we moved to Southern California. The summer before high school, we moved to another part of our community that landed me in a new district. While I tried to settle in, my mom’s depression and mania grew worse. Any friends she had, began to retreat.

When I was a sophomore, she sat me down one day after school and told me to make arrangements, to “have a place to go,” because she was at her absolute end — emotionally, mentally, she was done. She said her only way out was death. I remember being raging mad, storming off and slamming doors. We rarely spoke of it again, which probably seems INSANE, but was indicative of our dysfunctional existence.

She’d make threats, and I’d compartmentalize them. Lock them away in my mind under, “Too hard to think about.” I was my mother’s daughter.

For a year after that, she stayed mostly in bed, didn’t work enough to cover our bills, took large sums of money that didn’t belong to her, and was putting together a stockpile of prescription medication.

By my junior year in high school, I couldn’t take it anymore.

I left.

Less than two weeks after I moved out, and just prior to my emancipation hearing, I found myself at a church service. I was at rock-bottom. I didn’t have my home, or my mom. I lacked the life skills that parents should model for their children. It was bad.

While teaching me to loathe organized religion, throughout my childhood my mom dragged me to all manner of churches and spiritual centers. It wasn’t uncommon for her to hand me a deck of tarot cards after I’d had a bad day, or tout some New Age philosophy.

I could tell though, sitting in that service, that what I was hearing had nothing to do with religion or spirituality. For me, it still doesn’t. I didn’t like religion then, and I don’t like it now.

For me, it had everything to do with truth and a relationship with Christ.

So on that day, April 13, 1997, I became a Christ-follower.

In my last post I wrote that my mom’s death was not the biggest part of our story. The decision I made to follow Christ, however, completely changed the narrative. That choice, combined with my very difficult childhood, are integral plot points.

And eventually, years after we parted ways, a divine encounter between my mom and a stranger in a Phoenix RV Resort started in motion a series of twists that I never could have anticipated.

That’s the beginning of the best part of the story…

Truth Reflected (a spoken word poem presented at Southwest Church, Nov., 2013)








I am a five-letter word.


I’m not sure what you thought I meant.

I as mommy look different than you as mommy,

It’s not good or bad.

It’s different.

No mother is perfect.

Walk a mile in my shoes,

I’ll drive a mile in your minivan,

and we can meet somewhere in the middle

and quickly learn

that we all birth replicas of our hearts.

They lay in our arms,

Crawl on our floors,

Run through our homes.

Yes, we birth tiny versions of love,

and that is common ground.

Over our swelling hearts we prayed.

In labor we cried out to God.

Through scrapped knees, snotty retorts and missed curfews,

we implore Jesus to help.

So when we walk the aisles of our stores,

and trek through the halls of our schools,

and sit under the roof of this Church,

let us not compare our labels to other women,

since the only thing we know

for certain

is that we serve Jesus and are called according to His purposes.

There is another word.

Not a good one like “mommy.”

It’s four letters.

It stings like the wasp that got me the day I grabbed the hose too fast.

It stings me, right here, every single time.

It’s how I introduce myself,

describe myself.

It’s the reflection I see in a sink full of dirty dish water,

how I define myself when I look into the eyes of my sons and my daughters.

It’s four letters.


I am just a wife.

I just take care of the house.

I don’t work, I just serve at the church.

I am just a mother.

That lie digs deep.

It steals our joy,

and preys on our insecurities.

We are more than just.

So much more.

We are His workmanship.

His chosen ones.

His children.

Tiny replicas of His love.

The sheep of His pasture.

We all gather and kneel at His altars.

We are His.

He owns me and I am totally okay with that.

Also, we are broken.

Hairlines and fault lines and heartache.

Tokens of past mistakes that cause us

to pluck the strings of our hearts

like guitars

and sound a mournful tune of errors made.

So I ask:

How has evilness wrapped its hand around your throat?

What’s your label?

What do you see

as your identity

that makes it so hard to breathe?

A drunk? a user? a cheater? a liar?

A bad wife? Just an okay mother?

Too heavy? Too ugly? Too dumb?

Just so you know,

those are lies.

Every single one.

Forget just.

It’s in the past.

Our past mistakes aren’t even a part of the story reel

that plays today.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.

The old has passed away.

We should count ourselves blessed to have friends

who will remind us of that everyday.

So you can stop calling to mind the former things,

or ponder things of the past.

We’re called to let it go,

lay it down.

Not lay it down while you’re wrapped up in it like a blanket.

It’s more like, burn it and run.

Christ is our defender

and tomorrow’s freedom

will only come from today’s surrender.

We are broken,

but our God, our Potter, He makes us whole.

Sometimes He takes us to a place of brokenness

to perfect His work in us.

At His wheel He shapes and creates.

In wombs He knits.

Were created in His likeness.

Oh yes, there are times we feel battered and are left bleeding,

but we are worth more than

the lies.

The lies that say we’re just….insert something here.

But now, O Lord, You are our Father. We are the clay and You are our Potter

and all of us are the work of Your hand.

He designed us to live wholly, without cracks that slice through and leave

pain in their wake.

In the trials that hurt, we have to see God in the mending.

But the wheels come off and

We forget

That our identity is in Christ.

We drown in the comparisons,

putting the focus on our differences

instead of seeing them for what they are.

They are God’s fingerprints.

We are all loved and pursued by Him


A new four-letter word.


It’s on the parchment.

It was for freedom that Christ set us free

so stand firm

against the enemy’s schemes.

Do not let evilness

tell you that you are not good enough.

Do not let the world set your standard

for attractiveness.

Do. Not. Conform.

Be rebellious against the enemy.

It’s his fist that

beats us down,

but our names are inscribed on the hands

of the One who wears the crown.

And I get it.

Life can be boring.

Laundry and homework and meals and toilets.

Just hear this,

the days are long but the years are short.

Until our tiny heart replicas march off on their own adventures,

they are our adventures.

They are our tears of joy and the reason we cry,

“I love you!”


“Knock it off!”

in the same day.

We should see them through the eyes of that friend

who always says,

“Seriously, you have good kids.”

They’re a gift.

We are their mothers.

We should all seek to see that truth reflected

in the eyes of our sons and our daughters.

Things I’d Change

Most people wake up on December 31 and mull over the year they just experienced. I do that too.

Lately however, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the last 12 months.

We’ve experienced a lot since last June.

We bought and moved into our dream house. I always say that it’s not our dream house because it’s super fancy (it’s not) or has all the latest decor (it doesn’t). It’s our dream house because we think it’s perfect for our family. I still find myself in total awe that God blessed us with our home.

Our youngest son broke his arm…then just months later, his foot. Our oldest daughter broke….sigh….most of her face and head. They survived it. I have to dye over the gray in my hair far more frequently now though, thankyouverymuch.

At church I began volunteering on the leadership team for a ministry geared toward moms. I started helping out in the “crawler” room, taking care of little ones once a month.

One of my favorite writing gigs ended when that publication had to stop publishing because of a lack of money.

A story I wrote ran in papers across the United States, most notably in USA Today.

We all turned a year older. We celebrated holidays. We laughed, learned, cried.  We grew closer. Stuff happened and, in response, we did all the things that families do.

There are things I would change though; small things and big things.

If I had to do it all over, I would do a lot of it differently.

I wouldn’t worry as much.

I wouldn’t plan as much.

To the kids, I would say “yes” more and “no” less.

On June 27, 2011, I would stop everything and have a tea party with my daughter.

I wouldn’t have so much pride.

I’d gossip less.

I’d freak out less (like the time we had a massive summer rainstorm and our dream house started leaking like mad and I ran around crying and yelling at the ceilings to “STOP!”).

That time that I said that thing? I wouldn’t do that again.

I would listen more.

I’d write more letters and less emails.

I’d check Facebook less.

I’d read my Bible more.

I’d be nicer to people.

I’d laugh more.

I’m so glad it’s summertime and my tiny tribe can hang out and enjoy lazy days together. I’ll try to soak it all in because I know that in June, 2013, I’ll be writing this post all over again.

Hopefully next year my list of “things I’d change” will be much shorter.

A summertime education

It’s not officially summer until next week, but since I live in the desert, it’s been summer here for weeks. I’m pretty sure the forecast for my town on June 20, summer’s first day, is 110 degrees.

When I think of summer, I think of children running through a field of waist-high grass. The sun setting behind a barn in the background and lightning bugs just beginning their nightly dance. American flags standing at attention and red, white and blue bunting draped on porches. Sparklers and sunburns. Barbecues and the beach.

None of that is representational of what my childhood looked like.

Except for one all-American summer.

The summer I was 14-years-old I took an epic– and utterly ridiculous– road trip with my father and step mom.

Few times have I made my sister laugh harder than when I’m telling her stories of that fateful vacation.

In order to remotely understand how insane the entire trip was, I have to give a little background on my dad.

My parents divorced when I was 5 and my mother and I moved 300 miles away. He followed shortly after and rented the  condo across the street (my mom totally loved that).

Every morning he’d stand on the front porch with a bowl of cereal and wave goodbye as my mom left for work. He sort of had that I’m-probably-a-stalker-but-probably-harmless-thing going on.

He was raised Catholic, but converted to Judaism to impress his third wife. His fourth wife wasn’t impressed, so he became “spiritual.” His fifth wife– the step mom that went with us on our trip– was Catholic….you can see where this is going.

He didn’t graduate from high school but could put a truck engine together in mere hours, solve logic problems like no one’s business and was a meticulous restorer of old crap. He was one of the most unintelligent and smartest people I’ve known.

The summer between middle school and high school was one of a lot of change for me; we’d just moved to a new town. A 14-year-old girl starting high school in a new town should have time to unpack, get settled, meet people….so my mom sent me on a road trip with the father I rarely talked to.

Here are just a few of the things that happened:

My father and step mom lived in a trailer, as in, the kind you hook to a truck and pull (you should hear about the summer I lived with him at the KOA campground in Porterville, Calif., also known as “the summer I spent with the carnies.”). He had a cargo van that he spent months retrofitting with a “luxury” chair he got from a junkyard, a screened-window that slid open and a little table with “two different size cup holders!” For most of the trip I slept on the floor of the van and let the dog sleep in the luxury chair because 1. I was convinced that someone had died in it and 2. I was 14 (I quickly figured out that this seating arrangement made him very mad. So I kept it up.).

Just weeks before the trip I’d been introduced to musical theatre-magic when I saw a production of The Who’s Tommy. I listened to the sound track on my Walkman from California to Tennessee. Whenever he said anything I’d yell, “I can’t hear you!” Pointing to my headphones, I’d say, “He’s a pinball wizard dad. Do you know any pinball wizards?”

My father drove three hours off the route we were taking so we could go to the home of Amelia Earhart’s grandparents. She was born in that house. I was named after the woman. He didn’t want to spend the $7 for me to take the tour so we hit the road again….and later that day ended up at the Wizard of Oz Museum. Of course we paid the entrance fee for that.

We had to stop at every air museum we came across because the man was convinced he was an airplane aficionado.

I got in trouble for running the video camera batteries down filming his bald spot for an hour while we drove around Nashville. In the background you could hear him saying things like, “Face the camera out the window, you’re missing the sights” to which I would reply, “Nope, this bald spot is about as good as this trip’s gonna get.” Did I mention I was 14?

The day we spent in a library in Idaho. For no conceivable reason.

There was the time, at a campground in Mississippi, when my step mom blindfolded herself with a handkerchief claiming it would help her tired eyes and then proceeded to try to make dinner… OVER AN OPEN FIRE! This is an absolute, hand-over-my-heart, true story.

Or when the man dragged me to Dollywood and later told all the family we visited that I wanted to go. It cost about $60 for the three of us to get in there and I wasn’t named after Dolly Parton. (However, on a recent episode of The Bachelorette, I was slightly excited when a date was filmed in the theater at Dollywood. “I’ve totally been there,” I said out loud to no one as I was watching it.)

The whole trip came to a screeching halt when we returned to California and, instead of going to see an Elvis impersonator with my dad and step mom, I chose to go back home a couple of days early. My step mom actually said this to my mom: “I just can’t believe she doesn’t want to see Elvis. How ungrateful!”

I do have some special memories of that trip though.

Using a giant field in Tyler, Texas as a runway and flying in a tin can-airplane with a friend of my dad’s.

Sitting alone on a porch in Illinois watching lightning bugs. I’d never seen them before and haven’t seen them since, but the magic of them made me cry. I want my children to see lightning bugs before they’re adults. Better yet, when they’re exactly 14 and think everything sucks and no one understands them.

Walking through the woods in Flagstaff, Ariz. in a torrential downpour.

The morning I sat at the end of a pier on a lake in Mississippi and watched mist rise up off the water and birds diving for fish. Surrounding the lake were willow trees, their branches dancing a weeping waltz. That scene is forever-etched in my mind.

Or Fourth of July in McMinnville, Tenn. when my half-brothers poured a gallon of gasoline on a bucket of fireworks and lit it (In my mind I heard a banjo and the sound of rushing river water). “Oh, this is about to get good,” I remember thinking. My dad was pacing around, totally freaking out. The whole thing exploded and a lone firework shot across the street and hit my dad’s van. My comment of, “Too bad the door wasn’t open and the thing didn’t light up the chair,” was met with a volley of curse words.

I shook Al Gore’s hand in Chicago. I’m not an Al Gore fan, but it was still cool. My Repulican-father could be heard on the video saying, “Rush Limbaugh would hate this!” Oy.

That summer wasn’t all bad. If he did anything right, my dad gave me freedom– or he needed a break from the teenage daughter he rarely saw. He let me explore and wander and soak up the places we were visiting. It’s also possible he was hoping someone would abduct me.

One day, before our children know everything and think we’re totally un-cool, I hope my husband and I are able to take them on a family road trip.

I can envision my oldest son on that pier in Mississippi; my oldest daughter laughing as wind whips through her hair in a rickety, old airplane. My littlest boy lighting way too many fireworks on a rural road and the baby of the family fighting her fear of bugs in order to hold a little bit of light in her hands.

My biggest regret when thinking back on that summer? Tossing the videos in a hurried move. Those would have provided endless hours of entertainment.

The journey is long, but the lane is beautiful: Autism Spectrum Disorder

I like to joke about the first time I met Lane. The story becomes more verbose each time.

I like to say that Lane’s mom came running out of the bathroom with her pants barely buttoned, waving a pregnancy test around. I also like to say I had to duck to avoid being sprayed with stuff flying off of it.

Kristen did come running from the bathroom and I did back away in fear that the test had residual “specimen” on it, but her pants were on and my best friend’s pee did not end up anywhere on me.

Also, I was the first to know. Her husband came in from the garage and I was all, “Hey Travis, your wife’s knocked up again…by you!” I quickly added, in case he was concerned. He thought I was just coming over to hang out.

I was honored to be there for that moment.

It was Oct. 5, 2005. My oldest daughter was 364-days old and took her first steps in Kristen’s living room that night.

And that night I met Lane; a purple line under the window of a pregnancy test.

None of us knew then that the journey of Lane’s life would be painfully arduous at times.

Or so utterly beautiful.

Lane is autistic.

His diagnosis didn’t come easily; the road was fraught with sadness, denial (Kristen’s the first to admit that) and, eventually, a certain sense of relief.

It was also a journey that I was afraid to take; I recognized Lane’s “red flags” when he was about 15-months old.  

Telling Kristen that I suspected Lane was autistic was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

Lane did a lot of things that concerned me, but one of the most obvious happened when he was about 24-months old and I was babysitting him. By then he had a baby sister so including my children, there were six kids at my house. The older ones were running around. It was loud and they were having a lot of fun.

Lane sat in the living room alone, rocking back and forth, playing with a string on his shirt. He did that for over an hour. There was total chaos all around him and he was completely unaware. I called him over to me. He walked about half way and stopped. There was a quarter-size spot on the carpet and he didn’t want to walk over it. He was so upset by the spot that it took me several minutes to calm him down.

Adding that to other things Lane did regularly, I was afraid he needed to be assessed.

How do you tell your best friend that you think their child is autistic?

On one hand I feared our relationship would be destroyed. What if I was wrong? What if she was offended?

On the other hand was Lane. If he was diagnosed, he would begin therapy and I knew the longer I waited to share my concerns, the greater the likelihood that some of his red flags would never go away.

The process was slow. I took baby steps until eventually, I ran at Kristen full-force.

For a couple of months I’d take her lead.

“Lane won’t stop playing with feet,” she’d say. “My feet especially, but other people’s too. Is that weird? It’s like he’s obsessed with toes. When I pull him away he screams and screams.”

“Hmmm, I don’t know if that’s totally normal,” I’d say tentatively.

After a few weeks I took the silent approach, hoping it would speak volumes.

“I wonder if Lane has something wrong with him,” Kristen would say. “He doesn’t respond to his name, ever.” 


My husband would ask me regularly whether I’d told Kristen my concerns. I’d tell him I was trying, but couldn’t.

Then Kristen took Lane to his pediatrician, who asked her a few diagnostic questions.

In denial, Kristen played down his symptoms. Now she regrets it. At the time she was just trying to make it go away.

Or she’d say something like, “I just have a gut feeling that he’s going to be fine.”

To be honest, it was maddening.  

When she arranged to have Lane assessed, I was relieved.

When the report came back that he was fine, I’d had enough.

“Kristen I love you and I love Lane, but I really think that report is wrong,” I told her. “The organization didn’t send people with enough experience. They didn’t even spend that much time with him. The report says, ‘mild red flags.’ What does that even mean?”

Lane was reassessed by a well-trained team of experts and was definitively diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He began therapies right away.  

He’s high-functioning.

He has a great sense of humor.

He loves to go to the RC track with his dad.

He’d live on peanut butter sandwiches if his mom let him.

He has good mornings, like this morning.

He can have horrible ones too, like yesterday.

“It’s days like yesterday that drag me down,” Kristen told me on the phone earlier today.

He gets mad. He shuts down. He says whatever’s on his mind. Right now he’s especially fond of telling strangers what he thinks about their weight.

I want to take him to see all the mean girls from my high school years so he can express his opinions to them, but I don’t think Kristen would go for it.  

He has friends. He also thinks a lot of people are “boring” and he’ll tell them that.

He’s just, Lane.

Kristen’s faced with issues I’ll never have to face; Do we medicate or not? Do we mainstream or not? Do we request an aide or not? What’s the safest way to hold him when he’s angry? Do we explain his behavior in public by telling people he’s autistic?

Travis and Kristen have taken it in stride. They fought the diagnosis, now they fight the stigma. They’re advocates. They’re parents.

The CDC estimates that 1 in 110 children in the United States has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Those statistics are staggering.

Know the signs and symptoms. If you recognize them in your child, do something. If you recognize them in your best friend’s child, please don’t wait to compassionately and gently say something.

Lane and Kristen

This is totally different than a resolution

I don’t think new year’s resolutions work. I’m sure someone somewhere managed to lose weight or stop smoking or went a year without adopting an 82nd cat, or something. For me, they just don’t stick.

On Jan. 1, 2011 I joined the gym. My favorite things to do there were yoga and spin class. I stopped going to yoga after the instructor gave me the hairy eyeball for repeatedly checking my cell phone, which I’d hidden in my shoe. If he had any idea how hard it is to get a source to return a phone call, he probably would have let it slide.

I digress.

I vowed that I would go “at least three times a week.” I did, for the first six months. After that, pfft.

So this year, I didn’t really make any resolutions, but I am going to make an effort at being better, or different, in some areas (crap, those are resolutions, aren’t they?).

One of the biggest things has to do with my oldest son. He’s almost 9. He and I are so much alike, it’s sometimes shocking. I’m most annoyed with him when he does things that I know he learned from me, but I can’t admit it to him. It would be like saying, “Stop being annoying…like I am.”

I’ve learned in the last few months that he hates it when he thinks people are laughing at him. I know he gets this from me.

About two years ago I was taking a walk by my house and a man in a big truck sped up as I was crossing a street. I couldn’t make out his face, but I was sure he was laughing as I ran across the street. So, I flipped him off. I know, I know! I never do that. Seriously, I don’t (okay, I did it recently to my photographer-friend, but that was totally a joke). Anyway, as he got closer, I realized it was our pool guy, just speeding up to wave.

I kept meaning to apologize, tell him I’m not the type of person who flips people off; I’m just sort of a freak sometimes. That’s what I should have done. Instead I devised a way to wave with my middle finger up in the air so it looks like that’s just how I do it. I’ve been waving at him like that through our slider door for two years now. Whew! Awkward apology avoided.

Anyway, a couple of months ago my son got really, really upset about some silly thing and it turned into a potential run-away report when he packed his bag to “move out.”

me: What’s your deal?

him: I want to go play outside and you won’t let me. I’m leaving.

me: Leaving where?

him: I’m moving out.

Now here is where I actually got a little giddy because this is like, a quintessential  childhood issue. I thought I could take advantage of a teachable moment. Wrong.

me: Where are you going?

him: Mexico.

me: How will you get there?

him: My scooter. (Insert snotty tone of voice here)

me: So you’re going to ride your scooter to Mexico? Where will you sleep?

him: In a box mom! (He’s totally serious)

me: Do you have any idea what’s going on with the cartels in Mexico right now?

him: What, did you write an article about that or something?!

me: Oh! That would be a cool assignment.

He stalks off.

Jump ahead about 10 minutes. He’s coming down the stairs with his “go bag.” (As a sidenote, when I’d tell people the story, I kept accidentally referring to it as his “kill bag.” 1. It was freaking people out, 2. I should probably take a breather from watching Dexter).

me: Is that your bag?

him: Mmm hmm.

me: Can I look through it?

him: Fine, but don’t try to stop me from leaving.

me (going through the bag): Oh, you’re taking your Action Bible! This will help you, especially with the cartels….and your poster of Augusta National…some pencils…your Bible trading cards.

Then it happened. I got to the bottom and there was an old computer keyboard I’d cut the cord off of so the kids could play with it.

me again: What’s this for?

him: To email dad, duh!….STOP LAUGHING!

It was about two days before he was fully over it.

He’s his mother’s son.

This year, I will avoid his emotional landmines and remember that he’s a boy on the cusp of moving into youngman territory. He really is a wonderful son and I’m so blessed to be his mother. He gets good grades and is a hit with his teachers. As his mom, it’s my job not to antagonize him.

Also, he’s a phenomenal golfer and when I’m not laughing at the age-appropriate things he says, he’s promising that when he’s an adult, he’ll buy me and his dad a house. I’m not going to be the reason my husband doesn’t get to live at Pebble Beach.

My son's "go bag."
This is the table my daughter put in front of the door to keep my son from running away. Even the dog thinks it's stupid. Sigh...