By late 2015, my family was completely immersed in my publisher, Booktrope. In 2012, when they’d needed someone with project management experience, I’d recommended Adam. They’d hired him, and his role had increasingly grown with the company until he was VP of Production. Granted, it was a startup, so they handed out titles when they couldn’t hand out appropriate pay, but he was pretty much living and breathing that company.
I’d been one of their first authors. Then I took on marketing others’ books. Then I became a book marketing mentor. Then, when they decided to create imprints for their more specialized books, I took the helm of Vox Dei, the Christian division. I later took over their middle grade and parenting divisions, but Vox Dei was always my baby.
Over the course of 2015, with the help of Becki Brannen (an author who has, over the course of the years, become one of my dearest friends), we built something unlike anything I’d ever been part of before.
From a practical standpoint, taking over Vox Dei was stupid. My family was still broke; we still had a mountain of debt. My own book sales were languishing because Booktrope had never quite figured out their book management program (that was supposed to provide each author with marketing support). Sure, I knew book marketing, but I needed someone to help with my own novels. I’m a firm believer that every book, in order to succeed needs both an author who is willing to hustle and at least one other person in their corner. It’s not a solo effort. It’s really more of a team effort. I didn’t have that team.
By taking over Vox Dei, I effectively closed the door on my own book babies. I didn’t realize it at the time. At the time, I thought I could handle both. At the time, I thought the small percentage of book sales I was being offered in form of payment would mean something for my family. As it turned out, I couldn’t handle both and the pay was never even a drop in the bucket for us—far less than I could have been earning back in corporate life. (Or working fast food, to be honest.) Now that I know, I can’t say I would have chosen differently. What we did that year was that special.
The book industry is struggling right now, and the game plan adopted by big publishers (both the big five and established Christian publishers) is to go with the surest possible bets, names they’re reasonably certain they can sell. With Christian publishers, there is an added layer—The Christian Booksellers Association (CBA). They have a set of strict standards that assure bookstores the titles are, in fact, Christian and adhere to Christian values.
While I applaud the intent, I’ve always felt that everyone was trying so hard to play it safe the end product was impacted. So many Christian books wind up looking like a plastic replica of life because they can’t ring true while still adhering to the standards set out by the CBA. Because of this, I was okay with the fact that Booktrope wouldn’t even consider joining it. I wanted to create Christian books for a messy world. Books that honored God while still meeting people where they were.
And boy, did we have some amazing books. Books that moved me, changed me, challenged me to be a better person. Books that reached out to the hurting and the broken, helping them find their way to healing. Books that engaged young Christian readers in a way they’d never been before.
We made good books, and we had an amazing team. We prayed for each other. We supported each other. We became involved in each other’s worlds. We were a family.
Becki and I faced too many challenges to name that year: turnover in the book management program, hiccups in the production line, and the ever-present push to publish more books faster. I look back now and am amazed at what we accomplished together.
By the time 2015 was in its home stretch, I was realizing that my life had been completely absorbed by Vox Dei. I was working from 6 am until 10 or 11 pm with barely a bathroom break. My kids’ homeschooling was turning into a disaster, salvaged only by the fact that I have amazing kids who helped each other and me. But with all of those hours put in, we still weren’t selling books. We couldn’t overcome the hurdle of not being in the CBA. We couldn’t crack the Amazon code.
I had some thoughts there, about what we could do, but I didn’t have the budget to test it. Booktrope had a pretty set formula of what they expected from book managers, of how they saw book marketing playing out. I’m not going to say if it was good or bad, only that it wasn’t complete.
In November of 2015, Booktrope hired me to do some competitive intelligence analysis for them. What were our competitors doing? What were other authors doing? How could we better sell books?
That analysis raised so many red flags for me, confirmed so many of the things I’d been feeling in my gut. Everything in the industry indicated that to survive in the publishing world, you either had to be a highly-diversified giant who could throw lots of money at your titles or a highly-targeted niche publisher who was deeply involved in each book you put out the door.
Booktrope was neither. We were churning books out at a record pace without any plan to sell those books. It was a recipe for disaster. I couldn’t, in good conscience, continue to grow a division that I now knew would never get the budget it needed to succeed. And without an ad or marketing budget, there was only so much I could do.
I also knew that my family was in a state of financial ruin without me actually using my degree to earn a living. Adam didn’t see things my way. He was sure Booktrope would pull through. I, however, was absolutely certain it was no longer safe for us to have all of our eggs in the Booktrope basket. Perhaps it never was, but now my eyes were opened to it.
So I made the heart-wrenching decision to turn in my notice at Vox Dei and return to the corporate world. I had been reminded of my contract and that I couldn’t give explanation as to why I was leaving, even now, there is so much left unsaid. Still, navigating that departure was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. Trying to do right by my team and my family was a slippery slope.
I applied for a job in the marketing department at Incredible Pizza, a family entertainment center based out of Springfield. The pay was about half what I was looking for, but something in me kept coming back to it. There were other jobs I could apply to, other jobs pursuing me, but my gut told me it was the right one. And while the pay wasn’t a lot, it was more than I’d been making at Vox Dei, so I applied. When I met the man I would be reporting to, I was even more certain that was where God was leading me. Tim, the VP of Marketing, and I had an instant rapport and I could see myself working well with him. Of all the times I’ve been wrong in my life, this was not one of them. I can still say Tim is a good human being who cares for his employees—and they’d walk through fire for him.
I took the job at Incredible Pizza, much to my children’s delight. For those who have never been to or heard of America’s Incredible Pizza, let me pause to explain. The front of the house is a full buffet, not just pizza. The back is an entire indoor fairground. Yes, fairground. Video and prize games are just the tip of the iceberg. They also have (depending on the store) laser tag, go karts, bumper cars, a tilt-a-whirl, a roller coaster, mini bowling, mini golf, a trampoline park… it’s insane. It’s incredibly fun. And it was now a part of their world.
Knowing how excited they were made it easier. I was proud to finally be doing something that delighted them. The past few years had been so hard for them; it warmed my heart to be able to bring my children such joy. Still, there were days I cried the whole way into work. I missed my kids. I missed Vox Dei. I missed my farm and my animals. Being in a cubicle for 8 hours a day felt like being in a cage. And since I was THE social media department for a company that was busiest on evenings and weekends, I was tied to my work phone or a laptop all evening and every weekend, too.
Somehow, I’d landed myself in yet another position where I was working seven days a week and not making much money. I have a knack for that.
I was in Tulsa for my first Incredible Pizza store visit when the announcement came down that Booktrope would be closing its doors. I’d found out a few days before but had been instructed not to say anything. Even though I’d had a couple of days to mentally prepare, the official announcement was a huge blow. I had indie-published my most recent novel, but I still had eleven books that were now going to be pulled out of publication. What little revenue I was still getting from them—and five years of work building them up—would be erased. I had two divisions full of people looking to me to help them understand and navigate the implications for their books. And my husband was losing his job.
I cried a lot that weekend. I felt bad, like I probably wasn’t making the best impression on the Tulsa Incredible Pizza, but I took lots of breaks back to my hotel room to cry, then I’d pull myself back together and walk back to the store, where I was surrounded by laughing, happy people. The disconnect was surreal.
So many of my hopes and dreams had been placed in Booktrope. Even though I had seen it coming and had jumped ship months before, I still mourned the loss. Deeply.
Adam was determined to go down with the ship. He was more actively involved right up until the bitter end than even the c-suite. I know it was the right thing to do for the authors who were panicked, struggling to get things in order before their books disappeared. But for our family, it was catastrophic. He was so immersed in the sinking Booktrope ship that he didn’t have time to look for a new job.
Booktrope closed in April. It would be September before Adam found a job to replace it. In so many ways, it’s the perfect job for him. He’s now helping the homeless in Springfield and surrounding counties. The pay is a little over half what he’d been making at Booktrope. On the one hand, he’s helping others and he is fulfilled. On the other, raising a family is expensive and I think there’s a tendency to get so wrapped up in saving the world that he downplays the needs of his own family, he forgets how much his own children have given at the altar of our dreams.
Dylan, our oldest, never does things the normal way. He is so like me in that regard. He had no desire to return to public school, ever. In fact, he once told me he had nightmares that I’d make him go back. I remembered having those same nightmares, so I helped him finish his high school diploma sooner rather than later. He’d been testing at Master’s level work as a seventh grader. Finishing a high school curriculum in three years instead of four wasn’t tough for him. For his final semester, he enrolled in a local community college to take a few classes there while he dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s on his homeschool education.
I re-enrolled my other two boys in public school in Fall of 2016. They aren’t like Dylan in that regard. He would have suffocated had I made him go back and do things the normal way. They, however, are thriving. I love their school and their teachers. I love that my kids are making friends. And I love not being wholly responsible for their education. There was a joy in homeschooling, but there was a serious weight to it as well. I appreciate the teachers who accept that weight not only for my children, but for every other child in the school.
While I stopped mourning Booktrope, there were times when I questioned if I’d heard God right about Incredible Pizza. It was an intense job, to say the least. I was solely responsible for all six Facebook pages with about 180,000 fans between them, both producing content and responding to every single customer comment and complaint. Then there was the rest of the social plan, Twitter, Instagram, etc. In addition, I was responsible for finding, arranging, and often working the community events for each store. With six stores involved in six to 10 events per store per year, that added up. And there is a lot about the business that makes working there a unique challenge and, well, intense.
There are so many things about Incredible Pizza that I love—the team and being part of something that makes kids smile are at the top of that list. But the pressure was unbelievable. I hadn’t had a day off since February. By November of 2016, I had gained even more weight, I was losing my hair from stress, and I was having chest pains. It was the chest pains that got my attention. I knew something had to change.
To be continued...
As I write this, I’m sick yet again. I’ve had some sort of respiratory illness pretty much since November, and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s my house—the mold, the dust, the mice. This is one of those houses that no matter how much I clean, it’s never clean. No matter how much I battle the mice, they find another hole. We never intended to stay in a tiny, outdated house. The plan had always been to update, to add on. Life has a way of laughing at plans, though.
As I think about where to start with this particular chapter, it’s a needed reminder to be thankful, and there was a time I was very thankful for this house. November of 2013, my family embarked on what would be our most difficult adventure yet. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we had purchased our land and cabin just in time for what would be the harshest winter in anyone’s memory.
The cabin was just 325 square feet with one room and two lofts. We didn’t have running water. I built us an outhouse with a composting toilet and a makeshift sink. Adam took one of the lofts for his bedroom and office. The boys took the other loft for their bedroom. I resumed my usual spot on the couch. We had a wood stove in the center of our room. I turned one corner of the cabin into my “kitchen.”
The setup was as close to a Little House on the Prairie kind of gig as I ever want to come, and it gave me a whole new appreciation for the women who settled this vast country of ours. It was not an easy life by any stretch.
As odd as it seems, the boys and I were all excited about this new adventure at the outset. After 18 months of being buffeted about by the whims of others, this was something we felt we could control. This was our chance to own something, to sink down some roots. The plan was to hunker down for the winter and break ground on a cob house in the spring. (In fact, I have an entire Pinterest board to attest to that plan.)
The week we moved into our cabin began the most brutal of winters. Arctic winds howled seemingly non-stop. It snowed, it snowed again, and then it snowed some more. My boys got really good at splitting wood. Our little stove was so tiny that it only burned for two hours at a time, so Dylan and I slept in shifts to keep it stoked, lest it go out overnight and the family freeze to death. Even so, there were mornings the water jugs at the far corners of the cabin would freeze through.
On the coldest of days, there was little more we could do than pile up in blanket igloos on the couch to watch TV. We watched a lot of Netflix that winter. We watched so much Psych that to this day, whenever I hear the theme song, I’m transported back to that cold little cabin.
We lost several animals that year, despite having barns and plenty of bedding. The oldest alpaca, two of our baby goats from kidding season (which started in January for us), and a bottle baby goat named Anna that we’d taken in. Anna was the hardest. I adored that little goat and the way she’d dance when she saw me. We never knew what happened to her; we just came home one day to find her dead.
One night in December, I agreed for Dylan’s friend Zach to come spend the night with us. Zach’s parents had a party to go to and they didn’t feel comfortable leaving their teenage son to his own devices. I was reluctant to have company because I was so embarrassed for their friends to see how tiny our home was, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. As it turned out, Zach wasn’t alone. He’d brought another of their friends, Noah, with him. Those goofy boys got to horsing around in the loft and you could feel the entire cabin rock. When I smelled burning rubber, I looked around for the source, only to discover that Noah had thrown a pair of Dylan’s shorts onto the wood stove. I snatched them off the stove and threw the smoldering britches outside, but my house smelled like burnt shorts for pretty much the rest of the winter.
Noah was an enigma. Sometimes he was a total punk. Sometimes he was as loveable as an overgrown pup. Sometimes you’d catch a glimpse at the pain he carried inside and it would tear your heart right in two. I don’t think anyone really understood how much Noah carried around inside; he took his own life in February 2015. The story of the burning shorts was one of the stories the pastor told at his funeral. That funeral was one of the hardest I’ve ever gone to. There was a group of us football moms who huddled together, all with the same look on our face. That look was a mixture of our hearts breaking for our own boys as they dealt with the loss of their friend and the question none of us wanted to ask: Could I have done more?
Noah taught us a lot of things, most of which is not my story to tell, but first and foremost he taught me that the things that can seem so insignificant to us can be the world to someone else. You never really know what kind of impact you have on someone else’s life.
There were times in that little cabin that we thought the winter would never end. By February, I was in a pretty dark place. I was severely depressed and felt completely and utterly trapped in my marriage and in the constant poverty that seemed to be tightening its grip on us ever since Blake’s accident. But I continued to put one foot in front of the other, if for no other reason than my boys needed me.
If there was anything that got me through besides my boys and my faith, it was hearing from an old friend from Scottrade. Kate had written a book and wondered if I’d be willing to read it and give her feedback. Not only was the book amazing, it was heart-wrenching (I went through an entire box of Kleenex). And it reminded me that our lives are never as insignificant as they can sometimes seem. In many ways, that book saved my life. (Saving Jason by Kate Anslinger, btw. It’s worth reading.)
Ironically, the time of my deepest depression was also when I was writing Waiting for You, one of my happiest books. There were things that were good about our “Derksen Days.” We learned a lot. We drew even closer to God and each other. I lost all of the weight I’d put on after Blake’s accident. (Hey, I’ll take a win where I can get it.)
Thankfully spring did come, eventually. And with the lengthening days and sunshine, my mood improved. I only let life keep me down for so long before I look around to figure out what I have to change to make things better for us. The instant the ground began to thaw, I knew the first order of business was to build us a home. I’d spent my winter studying up on cob building and was dying to give it a try. We started with a cob chicken coop, which was absurdly fun. After a couple of days, we really had the hang of creating just the right mix of sand and clay and water to create our building material. For a week, I utterly enjoyed the hard labor of hauling materials and the feel of the cob under my fingers. I envisioned all the lovely things I would make out of cob.
We had the trench dug for the house’s foundation and we set a date for a “cob party”—we knew we’d need more hands on deck if we’d ever get our home built. Our friends and family showed up and worked hard all day. It was fun, it was exhausting—our bodies ached from it—and at the end of the day, we had absolutely no discernable progress to show for our efforts. It was right about then that I began to rethink my cob house. In fact, that’s when it began to occur to me that a person who’s biggest building accomplishments to date were a chicken shanty and goat houses probably shouldn’t be building their own home from scratch.
As I re-thought my strategy, we began to spend quite a bit of time at the coffee shop in town. They had tasty drinks, wi-fi, and it felt good to be in a normal building. Adam really liked the shop’s owner, who also happened to be the mayor at the time. I always got the impression that she was nice to me because I was a customer but we wouldn’t be friends if we met on the street. She was nice, though, and she let me put a couple of my books in her shop. She was also pretty with a lovely singing voice.
I remember one particular day—by that time I’d taken a job doing some book marketing at Booktrope in addition to my own book stuff—anyway, I was sitting at the shop working when a man came by the shop to practice a duet with Kristy. He was cute, they made a pretty pair sitting there singing, but the thing that struck me was how obscenely talented he was. He could play a guitar like I’d never heard before, and his voice was both soothing and gripping at once. That was the first I learned that Buffalo has its very own rising star in Lyal Strickland. Once Adam told me the name, I realized I’d heard a couple of his songs on Adam and the boys’ playlists.
I didn’t think much else of it after that day, but man, I was jealous of her in that moment. If I could have been anything besides a writer, it would have been a musician. There are times I toy with the idea of learning guitar and singing in coffee shops and wine houses for the sheer joy of it someday, when my kids are grown. But I’m not sure I’ll ever get over my fear of singing publicly to accomplish that one.
Spring was in full force by then and I was no closer to solving my housing issue. We couldn’t stay in the cabin much longer without losing our minds, but I had no real clue what to do about it. And then, our neighbor put her tiny little house on the market. The house sat on about an acre, completely ensconced by our property because the two had once been one. Buying the house seemed like the perfect solution to our problem. If nothing else, it had running water. Hauling animal water from the creek had lost its appeal months before—more than once, I’d get the water to the top of the hill, only for something to send the bucket rolling back down, emptying its contents.
There were a couple of problems with that plan, though. Namely that I had a short sale on my credit, a mountain of medical bills, and no money for a down payment. And that’s when the same deacon we’d bought our land from stepped in and bought the property solely for the purpose of reselling it to us, owner financed. It’s been three years, and I am still at a loss for words to explain my gratitude to that man and his wife for what they did.
We now had an end in sight, indoor plumbing was tantalizingly close. The only problem was the closing date got shuffled a few times after we’d packed up the cabin and told the company we’d rented it from they could come get it. Money was tight and we couldn’t afford both. And that, my friends, was the birth of gypsy camp. For a few weeks in May, my family literally camped on our own land while we waited for the house to close. We called it gypsy camp and did our very best to make it an adventure. And most days, it really could have been worse. Storms sucked.
But then, the house closed and we moved in and began to feel like normal human beings again. (If you’re counting, this makes the fourth address we’ve had on the same street.) We had running water and a propane heater. At first, 725 square feet felt huge. Adam got a room/office. Blake and Chris shared the second room. Dylan turned a shed into his own room, and I resumed my spot on the couch. But, whether it was due to our kids getting huge or just the newness to wearing off, it didn’t take long for the house to start feeling cramped.
Things break faster than I can fix them. We’re right on top of the dirt road and the house has terrible seals, so it’s ALWAYS dusty, even five minutes after you dust. The internet is awful. The house next door (that sat vacant for a decade) got a tenant who, quite honestly, scares me. I could go on—there are about a million things about this house that drive me crazy or I wish were different.
But then there are the flowers. I mark my year by the rhythm of the flowers and the trees. I adore our creek and our orchard. Everywhere I look, there is something about this land that I love. I wish things were different, that I wasn’t so alone in tending the farm, that I had more money, more time, no creepy neighbor… but however discontent I may be at times, I am thankful for this little house, down to the very core of my being. I know things could be so much worse.
It’s been three years since we moved into our home. And we have had so many happy memories here. We have dear, dear friends on this little road—good, hard-working people who have been there for us in good times and bad. Our horses, Dixie and Casper came back to us. Sadly, we lost Casper to cancer. I still remember my youngest son, curled up with that horse out in the field. He didn’t leave his side until the end.
I got my darling Daisy in this house—she’s an appaloosa filly who has become the horse of my dreams. We got her when she was six months old from the same breeder we’d bought Dixie from. The first few months we had her, she was kind of a brat and I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. But I kept working with her and then one day, we just started clicking. She’s two now and I’ve never had a horse I trust more. We have a bond I can’t explain, the kind I’ve always dreamed of having.
We still visit Jack on occasion; it was important to the boys and me to keep that friendship going. On one of our visits, he offered to let us breed Dixie to his stallion, who had been moved to a nearby university. I was beyond excited to take him up on the offer, knowing the foal that pairing produced would be far better than anything I could ever afford. (Though, in truth, Daisy is an amazing horse worth far more than I paid.)
I felt awful for agreeing to the breeding when poor Dixie was so miserable during the process. But the breeding took, and I will never forget what it felt like to watch the baby’s heart flutter on an ultrasound. I cried. I think I was as emotional as I had been watching my own ultrasounds. The year between that ultrasound and foaling seemed to drag on forever. Dixie ran past her due date. Jack lost one of his foals to fescue poisoning, which made me worry all the more about Dixie and her baby. I was terrified I’d do something wrong and mess it up.
And then came the morning that I went to check on Dixie and there was a little red filly learning to walk at her side. She had a huge blaze of white that rambled awkwardly down her face. I don’t know how long I stood there watching the pair, crying like a fool, before going to get the boys.
Pip eventually grew into the white blaze and her color deepened to a dark bay, just like her daddy. She’s a phenomenal horse. Watching her grow, being part of her start in life, has been one of the greatest joys of my life. Of all the things I love about my farm, I love the way we have it set up the most—the land wraps around the yard in a way that means I’m always close to my horses. I can always look out a window and see them. And when life gets too rough, I go out and hug their necks and drink in the smell of them. Pip and Daisy are the horses I waited my whole life for, and it was worth the wait.
I want so badly to end the chapter there. It feels happy and complete, but there is one other event I feel the need to work in. It was the October after we moved into the house, and I was walking across my parents’ lawn when I stepped in a hole and twisted my ankle. I could hear it tear and the pain was immediate. It just so happened that on that particular night, my sister’s friend was also there. She was a nurse and I knew she’d take one look at my ankle and insist that I get it treated, which I had no intention of doing. (We have a high deductible health plan, and I know I've mentioned the crushing medical debt before.)
When I was 15, I tore all of the ligaments in my left ankle and knee doing step aerobics in gym class. (Ironically, my middle name means “full of grace.”) Anyway, that little slip saddled me with years of physical therapy and surgeries. At one point, my orthopedic surgeon told me that I had arthritis so bad in my left foot that by the time I was 40, I could very likely be in a wheelchair. Off and on through the years, my foot will flare up or I’ll re-sprain it. When that happens, I baby it, do my PT exercises, and move on.
But on this night, as I sat staring at my enormously swollen foot that was an ugly shade of purple, I suspected I’d need to more than baby it. Somehow, I got through the night without having to go to the hospital, even though I couldn’t bear any weight at all on the foot. When we got home, I wrapped and iced it and we pulled my crutches out of storage.
I kept telling myself it would heal soon. “Soon” turned out to be more than 8 weeks before I could even get off the couch without it instantly puffing up and turning purple again. It had to be elevated ALL THE TIME. Try running a farm, keeping up with three kids, cooking from scratch and not having a dishwasher with a foot that has to be elevated ALL THE FREAKING TIME. All of the from-scratch cooking that had become part of our routine went by the wayside during that time. We fell back in the habit of eating easy but unhealthy packaged meals since I was no longer able to cook.
The foot did eventually heal, though it was probably a year before it stopped hurting and I have only now, more than two years later, started wearing cute shoes occasionally instead of the support shoes that I’ve needed to walk without pain for so long.
Two things happened as a result of that fateful night: the farm went downhill, fast, and I’ve never been able to fully reclaim the ground I lost. The other is that by switching back to processed foods and my activity level plummeting, I packed on 70 pounds over the course of two years. I’m sure my age has something to do with that, too, but that’s a rather touchy subject this year.
Here’s the thing about gaining weight, and it’s also true of getting older: you might not recognize the person in the mirror anymore, but you’re still the same you on the inside. It’s frustrating when the rest of the world doesn’t recognize that.
When I asked Dylan to proof this installment for me, he commented "a lot happened then, didn't it?" He's right. I mean, I didn't even get into the mountain lion attack. As we talked, we realized we haven't had much of a breath since March 31, 2011. No wonder the boys and I are all feeling so worn down.
But for every hardship, there's an Uno game that left us laughing so hard our sides hurt. For every time life has thrown us a curve ball, there is a friend who unexpectedly cooked dinner or checked in on us "just because." This life may not be easy, but it is full and we are thankful.
To be continued...
May 2013 through May 2014 was… well, I don’t really know how to describe it. An adventure? A blur? Absolute insanity?
As much as I adored my little gray house, it had its quirks. We’d leased it with the intention of buying it once we’d financially recovered from the accident, but enough had gone wrong during our first year to give us pause. And then, it happened. I don’t remember where the leak started, but there must have been water somewhere there shouldn’t have been because I called our landlord. He came out a couple of days later to try to help find the source of the leak. He, honest to goodness, tried to find the source of the leak with a dowsing rod. When he couldn’t, he asked me to try. I remember feeling bad for him as I noticed his hands trembling. He suspected what I did, I’m sure—the problem was not a small one.
When our landlord finally admitted he couldn’t find the leak, he called in someone to do the work. Eventually, a trench was dug in the yard to get to the pipes. As it turned out, whomever built the house had put it on a concrete slab instead of a foundation, and the drought the year before had caused the slab to shift, knocking pipes loose. Getting to the pipes was a time consuming and costly endeavor. Our leak was eventually fixed, but I’d made my mind up that I would not be buying the little gray house when the time came.
Apparently, about the time I was realizing I did not want to inherit the costly repairs I knew the house would need, our landlord’s wife was deciding she wanted out from under the house that had just cost them a small fortune.
It was my neighbor who broke the news. She lived in a matching house across the field from ours, owned by the same person. She flagged me down one morning to ask if I’d heard the news that our landlords wanted to sell both properties. She was upset and already fretting over where they would go. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was reeling nonetheless. No, I didn’t want to buy the gray house, but I didn’t want to leave it, either. I loved the lay of the land, my pond, my flowers, and my creek. We’d worked like dogs to finish fencing it. I loved that stinking house.
After I excused myself, I remember walking down to my favorite field and just sobbing. I mean heart-wrenching, belly-hurting, ugly cry. For the second time in a year, I was losing my home. Only now I had horses and goats and ducks and chickens in the mix. I’d told two separate friends I could take in their alpacas. (Before the accident, I’d been seriously alpaca shopping. When the accident happened, that dream died. Then the alpaca market crashed and I inherited a few.)
I’d pulled myself together by the time the landlord’s wife called me to give me the news herself. Not only did she want me to buy the house, but for almost double what I knew it was worth. We were already paying more in rent than any other house in the area. And still she was genuinely surprised when I declined the offer.
After a bit of scrambling and with some help from friends, we found a place to rent—right across the street. The driveway was so long and windy, we’d lived in the gray house for months before we’d even realized there was something back there. It was a small trailer with more land but less pasture. The entire property needed a lot, and I mean a lot, of cleaning and love. But we could keep our animals and the boys could stay close to their friends, so we agreed to a month-to-month rental.
About the time the deal was made, our landlord had called in a panic to tell us we didn’t need to move; they were willing to keep renting. I decided to pass, rather than risk the same conversation the next time our lease was due to renew. It’s been four years and they’re on their fourth tenant. So, yeah, we’d have been having an annual conversation.
Our new home wasn’t the farm I dreamed of—though it was better after I got rid of the raccoon who’d taken up residence while it sat empty—but the woods were lovely and there was much about the property I loved.
When we were in the gray house, we’d become good friends with the neighbors who had kiddos the same age as our younger boys. We’d even taken down a stretch of the fence between us so our horses and their steer could graze both properties at will. When we moved, the horses kept breaking out of their new, shabby pasture to go graze at the neighbor’s. Eventually, we just offered the horses to them with the caveat that they let us know if they ever wanted rid of them.
There were good memories to be had in our new home. I think I’ve worked harder there than I ever have in my life—it was a round-the-clock effort, cleaning up the property, building fences, and cleaning the home and outbuildings. As hard as I worked and as much loss as we suffered there, I still look back on it fondly. I took what I’d been given and made a home and found contentment.
That summer, my parents made the move from St. Louis to their own little patch of land in the Springfield area. Their new home was about an hour further south of us. It was gorgeous; I had to admit that I struggled not to be even the teensiest bit jealous. I don’t think the kids or I are particularly materialistic, but sometimes we do wish for the things other people take for granted. Still, they are things. We’ve lost everything more than once and still we walk on. As long as we have each other and we have God, it’s all good. But, back to my parents… The boys and I met my sisters and their kids in St. Louis to help them move. My mom has a lot of stuff; it was an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing.
One of the things she had was two wrought-iron end pieces for a bench. I don’t know where the rest of the bench was. I imagine the wood had rotted out at some point and she couldn’t bring herself to get rid of the iron, so it was left leaning against the wall outside. Somehow, I managed to knock those pieces of iron over as I fought to back a recliner out the door. They landed on my right shin. The pain was immediate and it was intense.
I didn’t want to hinder the move with a trip to urgent care, so I told everyone I’d be fine with a pack of ice. I was fairly useless the rest of the day. It hurts even now, just thinking about it. Crushing medical debt has defined most of my adult years, so I tend to avoid going to the doctor unless I absolutely have to go. You’d be surprised what you can heal with a bit of tea tree oil mixed in coconut oil. What that doesn’t fix, peppermint oil usually can.
But this, this was beyond the scope of my tea tree oil. Still, I hobbled around for a very long time, telling myself it would eventually get better. It wasn’t until the lymph nodes in my legs started swelling and the pain got to be too much to grit my teeth and bear that I finally caved and went to the walk-in clinic. They referred me to the ER because they suspected a blood clot had formed. The ER made me wait around for about a million years, talked to me like I was an idiot for coming in the first place, released me after giving me no help whatsoever, and sent me a $3,000 bill for the pleasure. More crushing medical debt.
So I lived with it. Whatever I’d done to my leg that day, it took over a year for it to stop hurting and two years for the bruise to heal. You can still see the dent in my leg if you look closely. I have a talent for injuring myself.
Football season rolled around, and I have to admit I was excited about Dylan’s 8th grade year. I enjoyed feeding the team before games and yelling myself hoarse at the game. We didn’t win much, but Dylan was a beast on the field and I was proud of him. Although I was starting to worry about him. He was exhausted all of the time, between football and homework. I was getting frustrated because he’d spend much of his day tutoring other kids and then he’d be up until midnight on his own homework after practice. We live so far out that the bus arrived at 6:30 in the morning to pick them up.
Perhaps it was being tired, but he seemed to get injured more from the onset of the season. And then came the game when he stretched out to make an amazing tackle that had everyone on their feet cheering. He held his arm funny afterward, but insisted on staying in the game. After the game, he mentioned his arm was still hurting from the tackle. I fretted over him for the next couple of days, and he assured me he was fine. By the end of practice the second day, he admitted his arm was still really hurting so I took him to the doctor. His “hurt” arm was broken. Dylan inherited my talent for injuring himself.
The broken arm ended his football season. If he’d been struggling before, he really was with his dominant hand injured. My child who had tested well past grade level heading into seventh grade—at Masters level in some subjects—was growing ever-more unhappy in school. After many conversations and much deliberation, he and I decided home school would be the better option for him.
The next upheaval came at the end of October, when our landlord decided not to rent to us any longer. Turns out she goes through more tenants that the first landlord did. That revolving door ended when one of her tenants got so angry at her that he burned the place to the ground. Apparently I have a knack for picking landlords, too.
Regardless, we were rapidly heading into winter and we were once again homeless with a farm full of animals in tow.
I can’t exactly say what thought process led to my next decision, but I was tired of being ousted from my home on the whim of another. I also had no desire (or ability) to be beholden to a bank for my home, either.
It just so happened that the piece of property adjoining ours was breathtakingly beautiful and happened to be owned by one of our church deacons. It wasn’t improved (read: no well, electric, or septic) but I had in my head that it was better to have a piece of land that nobody could take from me, even if it meant I had to build my home with my own two hands.
We made arrangements to buy this little piece of land and I got us one of the ready-built cabins that are increasingly popular in this neck of the woods. I still remember our deacon’s wife looking me in the eye. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Positive. I can see my children playing in that field. I want to make this our home.”
She knew how hard it would be to carve a home out of nothing. All I knew was that when we’d heard we had to move yet again, I’d been ready to give up. I’d asked my boys what they wanted to do. Did they want to pack up and move to the beach? Head west? I was game for pretty much anything since it felt like the universe did not want me here.
But my kids wanted to be here. They chose, hands down, to stay. What’s more, they wanted to stay on their farm. So we bought the land and tried desperately to get moved in before winter set in. We didn’t quite make it.
To be continued...
Shortly after Blake got out of the hospital, once the decision had been made for me to stay home with our son until he was out of rehab, I called our mortgage company. After being passed around half a dozen times and sitting on hold for a couple of hours, I got a real live human being willing to talk to me on the line and I explained our situation.
“Are you currently behind?”
“No, but our payments have doubled in three years. We’re barely scraping by; I know we can’t make the payments for long on one income. I just want to know if there is anything at all we can work out.”
“Sorry. If you’re not behind, we can’t talk to you. Wait until you miss your first payment and then call back; we can work with you then. There are programs in place.”
Now, an intelligent person would have hung up the phone and called a real estate agent to put the house on the market then and there, while our credit was good and we weren’t behind. But, in my defense, I was a skosh overwhelmed and not making the most reasoned choices. At that time, taking care of my children took every available brain cell. I made a stupid choice, and I will pay dearly for it for a long time to come.
Fast forward a year, it went by in a blink, and I call the mortgage company when we are now behind on our payments, only to be told they wouldn’t work with us and would be foreclosing. An acquaintance from church caught wind of it and told us in no uncertain terms that the only godly thing to do would be to do a short sale on the house so we could at least come to a compromise with the mortgage company. It just so happened she worked at an agency that handled short sales and she’d be happy to help us out.
Side note: something we didn’t realize at the time was that while the mortgage company would get the money from the sale of the house and the government bailout money, and FHA, the amount of the loan forgiven would be credited as income against us. I recall them mentioning tax implications but my brain did not process what exactly they would be. We would later be hit with a tax bill that was over 50% of our actual annual income. Yeah, that one still hurts each month as we make the payment.
Going from the information he had at the time, Adam was strongly in the short sale camp, so the appointment was made. I remember being absolutely mortified when her boss pulled up in his expensive car with license plates that read, in effect, “Short Sale.” The sign was put in the yard and it was out there for all of our neighbors to see that we were losing our home. I know pride is bad, but that stung.
The house sold within a couple of weeks and the buyer, who was paying cash, wanted to close in two weeks. As soon as the decision was made to put the house on the market, the kids and I had known right away that we would use it as our opportunity to move home to the Ozarks, to start fresh. At that time, it seemed especially important to Blake that he go somewhere where no one knew about the accident. I think all of us were ready to get out from under it, really.
With just two weeks to find a place to rent and to organize a move, the boys and I did a lot of traveling back and forth between St. Louis and Springfield. I had an aunt in Marshfield, a small town just northeast of Springfield, who was kind enough to let us stay with her. That became our base of operations for our search.
Dylan has this odd little quirk – he tends to transpose numbers when he copies them. This made driving around writing down numbers from “For Rent” signs especially fun. There were times the search got tense. Sometimes we got lost (no GPS, not that it works reliably in these parts, anyway). Sometimes we had grand adventures, discovering new towns and interesting places.
Eventually, we found the perfect place: a three bedroom, two bath house on ten acres with an address in a little bitty town we’d never heard of. If you were to look up Elkland on Google, Wikipedia would tell you that they have seven churches and one serial killer. Armed with this knowledge, we went to check out said house. Just Dylan, Blake, and I made that trip. I remember the daisies were in full bloom in the lower pasture, and I fell in love. We signed a lease that day and plans were made to move in. We’d found our “farm.”
We asked where the nearest actual town was and were told Buffalo. So on our way home, we stopped by Buffalo to drive around and look at schools. We ate lunch at Dairy Queen and talked about how strange it was that this would be our hometown. It was all so new and exciting. We instantly adored the tiny town of 3,000, with its town square and minuscule Wal-Mart, which we later learned is the second smallest in the country. Up until then, all I knew of Buffalo was that it was the only cell phone reception in between Lebanon and Stockton Lake. I would later learn that my great-grandmother was from here.
The day of the move, Adam had made a dentist appointment. For whatever reason, no one from my family could be there, either. So the boys and I loaded the truck by ourselves, with only one incident—I fell off the truck, backwards. I remember lying there with the wind knocked out of me, thinking about how thoroughly pissed at life I was, while my boys hovered nervously over me, unsure if their mom was okay.
I have to give all three of my boys credit: they know how to work. At the time, they were 7, 8, and 11 and they worked as hard as any grown man loading our boxes and furniture on that truck. In fact, my boys and I usually get called in to help people move—friends, family, relative strangers. It’s something we hate to do but are absurdly good at.
I will say that when we bought new furniture for the house, my uncles on Mama’s side showed up to help unload it. I think my kiddos were slightly put out to be treated like kids after they’d worked so hard to load and unload the truck alone on moving day, but I was willing to roll with it just to not feel like a pack mule at least once. Sometimes I want to shout at the world “I’m a freaking girl; treat me like one.” Then when someone treats me like I can’t do something because I’m a girl, I get mad at them. I’m a fun little mystery like that.
As much as I would miss the house in Eureka, I adored our new house in Elkland. The plan was to lease it until we could buy it and I had every intention of staying put until they carried me out in a pine box or shipped me off to a home as a little old lady. I was so proud of and happy with that little gray house.
We hadn’t been there long when two boys started hanging out at the end of the driveway on their bikes – one was a redhead about the age of my younger two, the other was a younger blond. After several days of staring at each other with a driveway between them, the two groups worked up the nerve to introduce themselves.
It turned out they lived right next door, and my boys were pretty impressed to find out that the older boy’s mother worked at Pizza Hut. My kids were fairly certain that made her the coolest mom ever. They were jealous. The kids became fast friends, and to this day—five years later—you can usually find the gang of them at either family’s house. In between the two dates there have been lots of trees climbed, creeks explored, and games of football.
Adam was nervous about moving his city kids to the country. I’d done my best to prepare them for the differences. For me, it was like finding a favorite pair of jeans that I’d thought were lost but had only been tucked away in a drawer. I was made for this life, this place. And as soon as I returned to it, I wondered how I survived so long away from it. When I was young, I had itchy feet. Now I have to tear myself away for even a weekend. These hills are my oxygen.
Despite the preparation, all the talks about how things are done down here and about things like snakes and poisonous plants and all that jazz, my children had a bit of adjusting to do.
We had a creek that ran through the middle of the property, but the kids had to climb a hill to get back if they went there, so they tended to go down the dirt road a bit to play in the creek where it crossed the road. There was no hill to climb that direction. One particular morning, they’d asked if they could play in the creek before breakfast. I said sure, but to come home soon because I was getting ready to start cooking. When breakfast had grown cold and they still weren’t back, I hopped in the car to go get them. (Hill or no, I was feeling kinda lazy.)
The boys were actually on their way back and when they saw the car coming. They reverted back to the Eureka way of doing things and jumped to the side of the road. (In the suburbs, if a car comes, they were taught to step into the grass and wait for it to pass.)
I stopped the car in the middle of the road, irritated and crabbing at them. Then I realized they were standing in poison ivy. So I crabbed at them about that as I went to retrieve Blake’s bike, which he’d tossed to the side in his “oh no, a car” panic… only to realize he’d thrown his bike on top of a copperhead snake.
“Let’s not tell your father about this,” I told them. In fact, I didn’t tell Adam that story until much later. I was afraid he’d whisk the boys back to St. Louis. To his credit, Adam did a lot of his own adjusting after we arrived. A suburban boy born and raised, he hadn’t even really been down to visit the Ozarks more than a handful of times in our marriage. He stepped into a completely foreign world and made it his home.
Despite the rocky start, my boys adapted quickly. It’s as if they had been made for this life, too. To the families who have been here for 200 years or more, we’re transplants. Newbies, city slickers, and – honest to goodness, Dylan got this his first year – “from the hood.” We’re outsiders, welcomed by some, resented by others.
My boys are all three big guys, something they inherited from my Mama’s side of the family. (Which is funny, because she’s tiny) The football coach took one look at Dylan and said “Please tell me you plan to be on the football team.” I couldn’t in a million years imagine my gentle giant trying out for football, but I think he was ready to be something new here, too. He agreed to try out and, is it turned out, was really good at football.
After football came wrestling, which Christopher also participated in. Being a football mom and then a wrestling mom were new experiences for me, and it was surprisingly fun. More importantly, it gave all of us a way to fit in. Blake tried his hand at basketball and archery. It drove him crazy to not be in the same sports as his brothers, but he still found his own way. Of course, Blake is such a happy and resilient person, he’ll always find his own way.
Still, it would irritate the boys when someone treated them like they weren’t quite smart because they’d never done something that comes as naturally as breathing to a peer. It irritated the fire out of me when for the longest time, I had people trying to explain country living to me, or “how it’s done down here.” I wanted to say, “I grew up roaming a 200 acre farm in a place nicknamed Booger County—I am from the country for heaven’s sake!” But I always tell my boys if you have to tell someone you are something, then odds are pretty good you aren’t, you just want to be.
The truth is, my kids and I are neither city nor country; we’re a bit of both. I have country roots, but I have 20 years of city flowing through my blood, too. I’m thankful for both.
I can’t completely blame my neighbors for thinking we’re odd little ducks. We are. We’ve never had the money to build up the same supplies or equipment they have; most of what we have was jury-rigged by myself and Dylan with occasional help from Blake or even sometimes Chris if we needed extra hands. My chicken coops look more like chicken shanties. My pallet fence is a Pinterest fail waiting to be documented. And I am always behind on my farm chores.
Still, I look back at what I knew five years ago, how much we’ve learned and how far we’ve come, and I’m proud of us. I don’t want to brag or anything, but if zombie apocalypse happens, my city friends really need to come find us. We’ve got you covered.
As usual, I had stellar timing with my move. I arrived on my farm just in time for the worst drought in recorded history. When the drought was just getting started, I don’t think anyone knew how bad it would get. Still, when the spring hay cutting was a disappointment (or non-existent), people started unloading horses, cheap.
I can be a bit obsessive, a trait which I passed on to my children. We don’t have much and are usually content with very little. But when we get it in our heads that we want something, we’re like a terrapin, we don’t let go. I had gotten it in my head that I wanted horses again. Sure, it was another stupid choice. The smarter path would have been to pay off the medical and tax debt first. But that wasn’t the path I took, and I have to admit that I don’t regret it.
Dixie was a red roan appaloosa with a gorgeous quarter horse build. She’d been in an accident—I never got all of the details on what exactly had happened to her—that had left her blind in one eye and with a divot in her neck. She had a quiet, unassuming nature that made her the perfect horse for a family healing from a horse injury. In many ways, I feel like Dixie and I saved each other. We also bought Casper, a matching little red roan appy. He had a thick neck, a mohawk main, and feathering on his legs. Casper adored kids. He was a handful if you put a grownup on his back, but if it was a kid, he was an angel.
They’d come from different states but they matched perfectly in color and temperament. They were the best of friends, and those two horses brought us back. The fear we’d had working with Samson after the accident began to melt away. And then one day I realized, it was gone. I was completely comfortable with our horses and I trusted them.
It was infinitely different having horses on your own property instead of a barn. No hay magically materialized for them. I had to sort through mountains of conflicting information to decide how best to care for them. Finding hay when you’re an outsider with no truck to haul it is hard enough. Finding hay in the worst drought in recorded history was impossible. I wound up finding a bagged hay called Chaffhaye that was expensive, but a lifesaver that year. My horses loved it and I became friends with the woman I bought my hay from, so I’ll call it a win.
All of the headache that comes with having your horses on your own property was worth it because it also brought a certain peace with it. For the first time, I could just sit in my field and be with my horses. If I wanted to work them, it was low-pressure and at our own pace. We developed a bond I’d never had the time to nurture with our horses at Jack’s. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always be thankful for my time at Jack’s barn and all I learned there. But this easier, slower way of doing things was what we needed if we were ever going to be around horses again.
Somehow, we and our animals made it through that terrible drought. It was awful, seeing other horses and cattle drop dead in the fields, from starvation or because they’d poisoned themselves eating plants they would have normally stayed away from. At the time, it was easy to wonder if it would ever rain again. Wells ran dry. Topography changed. Livestock prices plummeted. But the people of this place are used to hardship. They might bend under the weight of it, but they don't break. And, like any bad thing, the memory of it softened a bit in the rear view mirror. The edge was taken off, but we were stronger for having done it.
to be continued...
Cheating a Homeless Man at Go Fish
We all have things in our life that we struggle to live down. For Blake, it’s cheating a homeless man at Go Fish. I should back up a bit, though. Sometime in 2011, the date is a blur in my memory, Adam looked at me and said, “I feel like I’m supposed to make some sandwiches and take them and some Bibles downtown.”
“What kind of sandwiches?” I asked.
“What do we have?”
And thus began Adam’s days as the Bible and Sandwich Guy of downtown St. Louis. We both knew what he was doing was dangerous, but we also both believe that if there is something you feel like you’re supposed to do, you do it. So I made him sandwiches and rounded up Bibles and the kids and I would pray over him before he’d leave. (Amusingly, the kids got so used to praying over their dad when he walked out the door that when I asked him to attend a parent meeting for me and he quipped about me sending him to deal with the other moms because I didn’t want to, Blake prayed over him: Lord, please send the Lion of Judah to protect my father… the kiddo was serious too. I felt a little bad for giggling over that one.)
His time downtown and the stories he brought home changed us all. My eyes were opened to a dark world that existed so close to my own little bubble, and yet I’d been completely unaware of it. Many of the stories would eventually find their way onto the pages of the Vance Davis Dossier. I know that we, as a society, will never be able to truly eradicate homelessness. But what’s happening now isn’t okay. There has to be more we can do.
That year, I did my part to combat it by making sandwiches and rounding up supplies when Adam said he needed them. By and large, what happened there, the things he saw and did are his story to tell. But there were three people whose lives intersected with our family’s, and they left an indelible mark on all of us.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking at a half-empty page, knowing I needed to let the words spill onto the page but somehow afraid to start. I tell myself I’m busy. I tell myself I have writer’s block. But I know it has nothing to do with either. Blake’s story was hard to live and relive, but I can hear his laughter in the next room. Knowing it turned out okay makes it easier somehow to sort through those memories.
I first met Shelley, JR, and Dave when Adam asked if I would be willing to take the kids to a hot dog roast at a homeless camp. He’d grown especially fond of these three people, and they’d asked if he’d bring his family to a bonfire and hot dog roast at their “home.” They’d set up camp across outside of the city, in a somewhat remote area away from the crowds. Every so often, a group from a nearby church would stop by and bring the supplies to roast hot dogs with them. I seem to recall that they sang songs and stuff, too, but that’s honestly a little hazy.
I could tell it was important to Adam, so after asking him multiple times if he was sure it was safe, I agreed. Shelley and JR lived on an old concrete platform. They’d constructed a rather ingenious tent out of whatever they could get their hands on. JR had even gathered rocks and built a heart-shaped fire pit in preparation for the evening. As simple as it was, I could tell they were both thrilled and nervous to be having company over for dinner. I looked at Shelley and saw me, flitting about with last minute preparations as my own guests arrived for a party. There are some things that are universal to a woman, I guess.
Dave didn’t live with Shelley and JR, he had built himself a rather nice home in the woods, or so I’d heard. He kept the location of his place pretty hush-hush, which was smart. It kept his home safe.
The thing I adore most about my children is that it took them about two seconds flat to make friends with everyone there. They were completely unaffected by the strangeness of the situation. Shelley and I had settled into chatting while the boys got a game of Go Fish started.
“But I don’t know how to play Go Fish,” Dave had protested.
“That’s okay; we’ll teach you,” they assured him.
I surfaced from my conversation at one point to realize that Blake was, in fact, preying upon Dave’s lack of knowledge and was blatantly cheating.
As much as we harass the poor kid about it, I think he can actually be credited with effectively melting away any residual awkwardness. We all laughed—really laughed, like the kind that comes from your belly and almost hurts a little—over his antics and in that, the friendship was sealed.
It came up that I was a writer, and both Shelley and Dave were fascinated. They asked questions, I did my best to answer, and I eventually went back to my car to see what books I had copies of. I left them with a few titles, which they read and loved. Every time they’d finish a book, I’d give them a new one. They were some of my biggest fans, and that meant a lot to me. Sometimes my books take a hit because they talk about dark things but they aren’t gritty.
Throwaway, especially gets hammered because my main character is a prostitute but she seems so “normal.” I did that on purpose—because prostitutes are humans, beneath all the things that might make her different from me, there is a common thread of humanity that makes us the same. No person is a throwaway. And, not surprisingly, that was a message that resonated with my new friends. I would take their approval a thousand times over the approval of the New York Times, any day.
It became a fairly regular occurrence that Adam would bring Shelley and JR home with him for dinner. No matter how broke we were, I tried to make their visits special. I brought out my A game with the cooking. Sometimes, my mom and sister would come, too. There was a festive air to those dinners.
Our guests would quietly slip away to shower when they first arrived. After the first dinner, they stopped feeling so out of place and started to relax. Sometimes I would cut or style Shelley’s hair. Being the youngest sister and not having daughters, I am probably the most ill-equipped person on the planet to fix another woman’s hair, but I managed.
Once, I bought Shelley tinted lip gloss on a whim. I never saw her without it on after that. Sometimes, I buy myself a tube of that exact brand and color just because it makes me think of her.
In so many ways, she was probably one of the closest friends I’ve ever had. If I listed off my dearest female friends on one hand, she would be on the list. We talked about anything and everything. I would take her to Wal-Mart to get her essentials and we’d just chatter the whole way. Sometimes conversation was light. Sometimes it was not.
She told me about being raped in a port-a-potty during an event downtown. Some man, drunk and downtown to celebrate a sporting event, had cornered her in the chaos. There was nothing I could say to make it better, but I could tell she just needed to say the words. She needed another human to know what had happened and to care.
JR, on the other hand, was an overgrown child. I’m sure that, at least in part, contributed to his homeless state. But it also gave him a rather delightful innocence. He loved to play video games with my boys. He could for hours on end. My boys unanimously agree that he was terrible at said video games, but they also agree that they loved those times. It didn’t matter that he was bad; his joy was contagious.
That Christmas Eve, we celebrated at my sister’s house. It was a big, scrumptious meal and we left with our bellies and hearts full. We also left with a trunk full of carefully packed leftovers for our friends. My sister had, I’d noticed, started cooking more than we could possibly eat so there were always leftovers to take to our friends.
We didn’t have long to stay at the camp; the sun was setting as we arrived and I didn’t like having the kids downtown after dark. But Shelley and Dave insisted I stay long enough to open my gifts. Somehow, they’d each managed to get presents for us. Shelley gave me a watch with interchangeable bands. It didn’t fit or work, but I gushed over it and I meant it. I treasured that gift and I still do. Dave gave me the softest gloves I’ve ever owned.
One of the things Adam did during his time as the Sandwich and Bible Guy was try to work with the homeless people he’d befriended to get whatever they needed to get out of homelessness. He’d spent a lot of time talking with JR about what it would take to get himself on the right track again, and it was decided JR would study for his GED.
I feel like I should pause my story here to say that Blake, who had been released from rehab in September of 2011, got it in his head to try Irish dance because a friend of ours owned a studio in town. We got approval from his doctor and decided to let him give it a whirl. He was actually pretty darned good at it, and by November of that year, he was in Chicago for a national competition, where he placed 17th.
I had also pulled the boys at the beginning of the year to homeschool, each for different reasons. With Blake, it was because his teacher assured me he was excelling at school even though he admitted to me he was struggling because when he tried to read, the words would move around the page.
So, to fully paint the picture, I was homeschooling three children, one of which had to re-learn EVERYTHING he’d been taught during the first half of his elementary school education. I had a son in Irish dance. I couldn’t bring myself to deny him, but it was a skosh expensive and time consuming. We were trying desperately to hang on to Dylan’s horse and dealing with that drama. My youngest was slipping further and further into an anger I couldn’t understand or seem to help. My kids and I were desperately longing to leave suburbia and return home to the Ozarks. Medical bills were piling up, and the house was becoming ever-more of a millstone around my neck. And in the midst of all of this, we had our homeless friends coming to visit. It was an odd year, to say the least.
If there is one thing you can count on in a homeless camp, it’s that there will usually be a bit of drama happening. Another man moved into the camp for a while. Sometimes JR would put Shelley in danger with his choices. Sometimes she put herself there. She disappeared for a while, and I worried about her while she was gone. When she returned, I went to visit her at the camp. The moment she heard me coming, she came running.
“I found him!” Her face was positively glowing.
“Who did you find?”
“Jesus! I know what you were talking about now.”
“You found Jesus?” I clarified.
“Yes, while I was in jail. I found him!”
“Wait… what? When were you in jail? You had better start from the beginning.”
She filled me in on a rather convoluted story that involved visiting family, having a falling out with family (there was a long line of dysfunction and brokenness in her world), and somehow ending up in jail. One of the women she met there had talked to her about the Bible, and something in what she said made it click—all of the things I’d been trying to tell Shelley, about God loving her enough to send his son to reconcile her to him, about what Jesus meant to me, how he had impacted my life—it all clicked into place in her talks with a fellow inmate in a jail somewhere in Illinois.
And when she’d gotten out, she’d gotten on a bus and come straight to St. Louis because she wanted so badly to tell me she understood, and she had peace.
I could see it, too. She was still homeless. Her life still royally sucked and most of the people in it would continue to let her down. But I could tell by the joy I saw in her face that night that she would never be alone again. Whatever life would do to her, she had someone a whole lot more competent than me in her corner now.
I don’t begin to understand how God can love someone as deeply as I know he loves us and allow us to go through the things we do. But I am sure he is there, and he loves us, and I believe him when he promises that somehow, some way, he will work even the worst of it for our good in the long run. There are times I cling to that promise because I feel like it’s all I have left.
By the time 2012 rolled around, what we had suspected would happen was rapidly becoming a reality: we were losing our home. I became so embroiled in trying to figure out how to keep my own family from winding up in a tent next to Shelley and JR that I didn’t put up much of a fuss when they dropped off the radar again. They’d done it before, more than once. I was sure they would turn up again. I just hoped it was before we left the area. I remembered worrying about what would happen to them when we were gone.
I wouldn’t hear from them. When JR did turn up, it was his body. Shelley was never seen or heard from again. Maybe she found her way out and is living a happy life somewhere in this great big, wide world. I have seen enough of this world to doubt that, though.
Most days, I keep her memory tucked away safely. Sometimes I come across the watch she gave me or I wear her favorite lip gloss and it resurfaces. There are times the memory is something pleasant and passing, like a summer breeze. There are times when it chokes me, the weight of it bears down like an anvil on my chest.
I don’t know if there is more I could have or should have done. I try not to dwell there. I prefer to remember the laughter, how bad JR was at video games, how much Shelley loved that stupid chapstick or the haircut I gave her. And I remember her smile the day she told me she’d found Jesus, and I tell myself that I will see her again someday, even if it’s on the flipside of life.
I remember sitting in the Ronald McDonald House family room at Cardinal Glennon, on a brief break from taking care of Blake during his time post-ICU, checking email and answering fan mail. A former slave sent me a note saying she had thought nobody saw her, what she was going through, until she read one of my books. It had made her feel like somebody out there cared about the invisible trafficking victims in our country. Another email was from a college student in Russia, asking if she could translate one of my books into Russian for a school project. It seemed a little surreal, that the books were going absolutely nuts with tens of thousands of downloads while my whole world was centered on hospitals and Blake.
When I wrote Throwaway, my eyes were opened to the horrors of human trafficking. I’d struggled to find my niche in the fight against it until January of 2010 or 2011, when I had an epiphany that I’d use my books to be a voice for the voiceless. That was backed up by a conference I attended on the topic—the main speaker even said “Maybe someone out there is supposed to be a voice for the voiceless.” I got the hint. I gave up pursuing traditional publication and went indie, making the four books I had free as ebooks: Throwaway, Jailbird, Ties That Bind, and Suddenly a Spy. At the end of each was a note about the reality of human trafficking.
Because of those books, I was contacted by a reader whose grandmother ran an organization that was on the front lines of the fight. That introduction began my friendship with Project Liberty out of Lansing Michigan. This group amazes me – at its helm is a retired pastor’s wife and a crew she rounded up to help her jump feet first into the thick of the fight. Where other people would be content to tweet or even write a check, Saundra was knocking down doors to pull kids from the pits of hell. I learned just this week that Saundra's husband passed away. My heart breaks for her, and the world is a much darker place without him in it.
One of the things she did was put me in touch with their lead investigator. It was all very cloak and dagger, with code names and the works. He would call me at specified times from undisclosed locations and tell me stories from the fight. I would close the door to my writing room, lest my children overhear or see my tears.
Over the years, I became a mouthpiece for the cause and the group. I wove the investigator’s stories into my fiction. I gave speeches at schools, churches, and women’s groups. I wrote articles. I went on the radio. I gave interviews. I did my best to raise money for Project Liberty and other groups targeting different areas of the epidemic. For the next several years, I was certain that I was doing everything I could to help the victims of human trafficking.
At one point, I developed the flu and was so terribly sick I didn’t answer my phone or email for almost a week. I was piled up in my living room, miserable (and probably fairly gross after days of languishing in my misery) when there was a knock at the door.
It was the police. When I had missed our scheduled call and then not responded to email, my contact at Project Liberty had called the police to check on me. I was mortified. Assured that I hadn’t been murdered, the officer instructed me to email my friend.
Somewhere along the way, the world found out about human trafficking. Even with all of the awareness, raising money for Project Liberty, or any group, got harder and harder. People donated to large organizations with branding and celebrity backing. I found myself once again struggling to find my niche in the fight. When I watch videos like the moving testimony Ashton Kutcher gave before Congress, I wonder if I did enough. If I should have fought harder to stay in the fight instead of quietly passing the baton to others.
Lately, the thing heaviest on my heart is the many, many foster children in the system who need a home of their own. This group is an incredibly high risk demographic for being trafficked, and I can’t help but wonder if my role in the fight is shifting, if I’m being called to provide homes for children in the system so they never have to face the horror of being a sex slave.
But back to the books… the accident happened shortly after I released those books for free. I didn’t do anything to promote them. In fact, after the accident happened, I let my domain name lapse. I didn’t have time to deal with any of it; Blake was my world.
So when I got an email that June from a new publishing company out of Seattle, I almost deleted it. My finger hovered over the button, somehow unable to follow through. After reading the email a couple more times, I decided to live on the edge and respond. I told myself the odds of it being a genuine publisher interested in my books were about as slim as the Nigerian prince being legit, but I responded that I was interested in hearing more. Several emails later, I had a video conference with the CEO. I liked what he had to say. A lot. I believed in what they were trying to accomplish, so I placed my faith in the fledgling publishing company called Booktrope and signed for my four existing books and whatever came next.
Even better, they agreed to let me keep Throwaway free. For them, it worked to bring new readers to my platform. For me, it meant I could stay true to my desire to raise awareness for human trafficking. Over the next six months, the four books would be edited and re-released. The fifth book, Ring of Fire, would be finished, edited, and published.
When Throwaway was re-released under the Booktrope banner, it caught us all by surprise by going darn near viral, with over 150,000 downloads in the first six weeks. Before long, Booktrope was telling me that I had over half a million readers worldwide. Even now, all these years later, it amazes me to stop and think about how many people have read the words that I wrote, sitting up all night in my basement because it was the only time I could find that wasn’t filled with Scottrade or children.
I published under my maiden name. Partly because it’s so much easier to say and spell. Partly because by that time, I was starting to miss the person who’d worn that name. Over the course of six years, the line between my legal and pen name has gotten blurry. I catch myself signing one when I should sign the other. Sometimes I feel there’s a bigger battle going on there, something that has nothing to do with names at all.
We did the launch for Ring of Fire at O’Malley’s Irish Pub on Cherokee. It seemed fitting, since that little pub inspired so much about both Throwaway and Ring of Fire. The undeniably talented John Bartley played the launch for me, which was equally fitting since he inspired the character Danny in both books. My launches were less like typical book launches and more like a party at the pub to celebrate. That could be why they tended to do well. Whatever the cause, they’re some of my favorite memories.
My books changed my world. I’d left my corporate job with no clue what would come next, so singular was my focus on Blake. Booktrope came along at the perfect time and reinvented my world. Just like that, I was a published author. No, I wasn’t E.L. James—though we’d run in the same Twitter pack before her books took off—but I was making enough off my novels to stay home with my kids. That dream meant even more to me than the first. There was even talk of a movie deal—by 2012, I’d been approached by a small studio who wanted to option Suddenly a Spy and Booktrope was filling my ears with all they were doing to shop the books around Hollywood.
As my world changed, it was opened to new people, new experiences that never would have happened without my book babies. My friendship with Sylvain Reynard came when my writing, my soul, needed it most. Since the Great Marriage Upheaval of ’08, Adam and I had come to a solution that looked a lot like that of the title character and her ex-husband had in the movie Joy. We co-existed, co-parented. On our best days, the friendship that had founded our love years before would peek its head out. On our worst days, well, it was worse.
Sylvain and I found each other online via a mutual admiration of each other’s work. From that, a friendship began. From that, a discussion about co-authoring a book. I craved the emails that went back and forth between us as we plotted and planned. They gave me hope that the kind of romance that swirled through my imagination lived in the mind of at least one other human on this planet. And as long as that was the case, romance lived.
Sylvain’s career took off while mine meandered. Eventually the emails and talk of a co-project died off, replaced by a weekly acknowledgment of each other on Twitter. Still, I look back on that time fondly. He unknowingly inspired me at a time when I was floundering to finish the book I had been working on, floundering because the ember of romance in my spirit had all but died. Connecting with another creative soul had fanned the flames and even though our stories parted ways, he’d left his mark in the words that tumbled anew onto the page.
to be continued...
Learning to Walk Again
Before Blake was released from the hospital, it was decided he would be treated at Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital. Dr. Evra came out from the hospital to evaluate him, and I remember the conversation with him was the first time since the ordeal began that I felt hope I would someday get my son back.
You see, Blake’s injury was to his frontal lobe, where personality is stored. Blake, who had always had more personality than any one person can contain, had been restored to us as a virtual zombie. He had no facial expressions. His voice was soft. Interacting with others, even watching television, exhausted him.
After he graduated from ICU, he’d been transferred to a different floor and initial rehab began. The hospital’s PTs and OTs were amazing, one PT in particular stands out in my memory. Those sessions were darn near unbearable for me, to watch my emotionless little boy struggle to do things he’d been able to do with ease since toddlerhood. During one particular session, I think the PT could tell by the look on my face I was at my breaking point. She pulled me aside to promise me it would get better. Our son was still in there; it would just take time to find him again. I wept.
But once Dr. Evra came into the picture, I latched on to hope again. There was something reassuring in his presence. He was honest but hopeful and had a way of communicating that infused me with strength.
Blake was sent home from the hospital a mere 10 days after the accident. We’d set up a recliner in the living room for him, where he slept with his dog on his lap. His first night home, one of the teachers from the boys’ school brought us fast food. It wasn’t how we’d planned, but we finally tried the new Culvers in town.
I began writing this story in the fall, and now it’s nearly spring. As I sit here trying to remember exactly what happened when to lay it out coherently, I realize that some of my procrastination stems from just that—it’s almost physically painful to sort through the memories, to turn them into something someone else could understand or follow. So I will do my best to summon them in order, to catch and categorize the butterflies of thought.
I remember the thought of all-day rehab was a scary one, for both Blake and myself. With every doctor agreeing that if Blake ever fully recovered, it would be years of hard work, I left my corporate job without a backward glance. Adam and I knew that decision would most likely cost us our home. When the market tanked in 2008, we’d found ourselves instantly upside down, which raised the escrow portion of our payment. Somehow, between 2008 and 2011, our payment had doubled. My job at Scottrade was over half of our family’s income. We could not survive without it. But we also couldn’t fathom sending our tiny, broken son to all-day rehab at a place for the sickest of the sick all by himself.
Some decisions, we look back on and bicker about who’s idea it really was and if it was for the best. Not that one. If you would ask either of us to this day—even knowing the great price we would eventually pay for that decision—we both stand solidly by it.
Ranken Jordan turned out to be a happy place, as happy as a place like that can be, anyway. The walls were brightly painted and I think there was a fish tank. I know there was an air hockey table and basketball hoops. Blake and I played countless hours of air hockey there. His therapy could almost be measured by air hockey. The first tentative games were played from his wheelchair, his face expressionless while he tapped the puck so gently it couldn’t make its way back to my side of the table without me coming around to give it a nudge. Over the next few months, he morphed into a normal-looking boy who would grin wickedly at me as he zinged one my way.
Dr. Evra warned us that Blake’s taste buds would be altered by the accident, and that they would change over time, as his brain and the impacts of the injury changed. He told me not to worry about typical picky-eater type fights, to just let Blake eat whatever sounded good. Two things that have sounded good to Blake since those early days of rehab that he continues to eat in mind-boggling quantities are chicken fingers with ketchup and pizza—only now the pizza has hot sauce on it and the amount of ketchup has lessened a bit.
When he first started learning to feed himself again, it was a messy process, made messier by the fact that he wanted the plate to be a pool of ketchup. I mean it. We’re talking obscene amounts of ketchup. Horror flicks could be filmed with less. It would get on his face, his clothes. One day, a little girl sitting at the table with him commented on it. His expression still held no emotion, but he admitted to me later that he was embarrassed by how he ate. That, like so many of the other effects of the accident, waned over time. He mastered eating, but he still sometimes asks if I remember how messy he’d been back in those early days, followed by a quiet comment that it was embarrassing.
But then, he re-learned everything. I remember watching him fumble with a vest in OT, buttoning and unbuttoning it over and over again, retraining the muscles in his hands to do something that had once come so naturally. My fingers would itch to help him. I’d sit on my hands, knowing my help would hinder him in the long run.
One of the friends Blake made at Ranken Jordan was a 16-year-old boy who’d been shot in the face during a gang war. They made an unlikely pair playing basketball, the lanky African-American teen and my wobbly 8-year-old. He’d been so good at basketball before the accident. Now he had to throw a foam ball and it seldom made it half the distance to the hoop. But, oh how happy he was when he made that first basket again.
Blake had a birthday during his rehab days. They celebrated with a party. His therapists, his doctor, and all of the staff were amazing; they were angels. I’ll never be able to tell them enough how wonderful they were. It’s funny, how some things about it are such a blur, but if I sit and really think about it, I can remember the smell. I can remember the feel of the place. Sitting quietly in a dark room so Blake could nap—at that time, and for years to come, Blake was unable to sleep without me close by. I remember how desperately he wanted to be able to run again and that his favorite days were swim therapy. And I remember how his PT made climbing stairs an adventure, like we were going to visit a super-secret tower. At the time, the effort it took him to climb stairs was probably equivalent to scaling a tower.
Blake worked incredibly hard during his time at Ranken, but he found a lot of smiles there, too. And while he’s not the kind of person to talk about it, I think he found a strength there that most people will never understand.
Happy-go-lucky, slightly spacey, sometimes spastic Blake is the strongest person I know. By September of that year, just six months after being admitted to the rehab facility, he was released. Dr. Evra couldn’t explain it, but Blake had yet again defied all expectations and was pronounced healed.
That pronouncement would come after a bit of debate, though. Just before it, Blake had returned to the hospital for yet another scan, followed by a visit with his neurologist. She’d said he was nothing short of a miracle, but there was a small, unidentified spot at the center of his brain. Because of that, she didn’t think he should ever ride a horse, ride a bike, play sports… as she rattled off a list of things he could never do again, I watched my son who had fought so hard and come so far shrink under the weight of her words.
After that appointment, I took him to Steak n’ Shake on the way home. We sat in a booth, our ice cream untouched, and we cried. Eventually, we pulled ourselves together. I gave him a pep talk. I don’t remember much about what I said, but I do remember my heart absolutely breaking for him. I knew we should be grateful he was even alive, but it seemed so cruel to be deprived of so many of the things he’d loved so dearly.
Dr. Evra, however, had been of a different mindset. He’d been adamant that Blake’s life be as normal as possible, lest he sink into a depression that would ultimately hamper his healing. I will always be grateful to that man for fighting for the light in Blake’s eyes.
So a compromise was worked out. Blake could ride a bike and play some sports, just no football. He not only approved Blake riding a horse, he encouraged it—only it would have to be a gentle, older horse. The finely tuned cutting horses of Blake’s past must stay there, in his past. At the time, he’d been upset. He had dearly loved the thrill of riding a horse on the flag, the way they danced underneath him. But it was a compromise he could live with, literally, so he agreed.
Oddly, Blake wasn’t afraid of horses after the accident. In fact, he would be the first of us to return to riding. My beloved mare had already been sold, not out of anger, but to pay medical bills. We visited her a couple of times, to say goodbye. She wanted nothing to do with me the first visit. The second, I had Blake with me. When she saw him, she walked right up to him, placed her head on his chest, and sighed. You could see the weight of it all lift from her and I realized in that moment how deeply the accident had impacted her, too. The last time I saw Sassy, I expected to say my last goodbye from a distance. I’d given up on her wanting to see me. But she surprised me by walking up to me, placing her head on my chest as she’d done with Blake, and sighing. I hugged her and cried. She’d wrapped her head around me and we stood that way in the field for I don’t know how long. Then she’d walked off without a backward glance and I knew I’d seen her for the last time.
We tried to hang on to Samson, Dylan’s colt. We moved him to another barn because things had gotten awkward and downright miserable at Jack’s. I suspect he was worried about a lawsuit, but the thought hadn’t crossed our minds. Yes, we’d been on his property, but we’d been on our own horse. Or maybe it was the pain of nearly losing Blake that caused Jack to shut us all out. Whatever the reason, the relationship had gotten so tense and awful we’d moved the colt.
Only Dylan and I were both suddenly nervous around horses, and a nervous person around a horse—especially a young horse—isn’t a safe combination. We knew this, which made us all the more nervous. Even though we were destitute and losing our home, we tried desperately to hang on to that colt. Even so, there came a time when we had to admit the truth: we had no business owning a horse of Sam’s caliber in our current state, and we couldn’t afford to keep him any longer.
By that time, our relationship with Jack was on the mend. So when he mentioned that he knew someone who wanted the colt, we took him up on it. The horse that had been the light of Dylan’s world was sold. Of all the things we lost because of that fateful night, I regret that one the most. Dylan is too kind and gentle to say it, but I know he was devastated by it. He was changed by it.
And that’s the thing that so often gets lost in the shuffle when telling Blake’s story: I had two other children that night. They watched their brother die. They heard their mother’s screams. They saw him whisked away in an ambulance, airlifted to another hospital. They said goodbye to his broken, bruised body more than once with machines beeping in the background and tubes sticking out everywhere. They got bits and pieces of news. They lost their mother for days and only had a very small piece of her for months. Their happiest childhood memories up to that point had been centered on the barn family we’d lost. Their horses were gone. Their trot races were gone. Their family forever changed. And suddenly, they had a new status in life. Whatever they may do or accomplish, they weren’t the miracle child.
To me, they were each a miracle. I remind them of that, but I can only imagine what it’s like to live in the shadow of someone who is so charming with such a captivating story to tell. But it’s their story, too. I can only hope they see that. I hope they understand that I mean it when I say they are every bit as amazing as their brother.
To be continued...
Rolling hills that had been vibrant green just weeks ago were now muted in tone, as if they were taking a deep breath before bursting into the song of fall.