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 oblivious to 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. Whether it was a particular food, a certain shoe size, or pots and pans for a new apartment. He'd bring the orders home and we'd set about finding what was needed. 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 out 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 could see myself, 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 a critic, 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. It's not a particularly flattering shade on me, but it keeps her memory alive.
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. My books we being polished and re-published, and I was suddenly expected to actually market them. 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 spring of 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.
As it turned out, I would not 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 flip-side of life.
to be continued...
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...
Three pages is a short chapter, even for me. But given that I let another month lapse in between writing sessions, I decided that was perhaps a good place to pull back a bit. It’s been a very long time since I’ve let a story meander from my head to the keyboard in this way, not when it’s something that tumbles out so easily when I actually sit to type. I realized as I re-read these pages how fundamentally this moment and the days to follow changed me.
Before the accident, I had been preparing. I felt deep in my soul that God was calling us to something else, and the kids and I felt this overwhelming pull to leave the city. My on again, off again desire to return home to the Ozarks had become a full-blown obsession for both me and my boys. I was learning all I could about homesteading. I didn’t really know why or for what, but I was preparing for something.
I can say the accident coming wasn’t even remotely on my radar. It’s funny, even now, years later, our family refers to it as “the accident.” It doesn’t need a further name than that; we know exactly what we’re talking about and are a little surprised when someone doesn’t. Perhaps that should be uppercase, but I digress. I’m procrastinating again.
The next few days were a haze; we were sustained by God and the kindness of those around us. Every time the medical professionals would proclaim the worst, it would be countered with a glimmer of hope and a skosh of forward progress.
“There is no brain activity on the scans. We’ll do another scan tomorrow and see.” Blake squeezed my fingers, seemingly in response to my voice. Hope renewed. Next they said, “If he doesn’t wake up by tomorrow, we’ll need to do surgery to alleviate the pressure.”
With that pronouncement, my sisters—unbeknownst to me—called the local Christian radio station to tell them the story and ask for prayer. The entire city began to pray for our son. Strangers would pop their head in the room to say “I’m praying for you.”
The next morning, his eyes fluttered open. The accident happened on March 31st. April 1st, my oldest sister’s birthday, had been spent in a haze of prayer. April 5th, my mom’s birthday, Blake woke up. When the breathing tube came out, my mother and I stood on either side of him, holding his hands and trying to reassure him he was okay. He’d been in an accident and he was in the hospital, but he would be alright. His first words were “Can I have some vegetables please?” My mother and I laughed and promised him all the vegetables he wanted. (He doesn’t remember that now, and has pretty staunchly refused to eat vegetables since. Figures.)
There are things I want to share, pieces of the story that matter, but they are a jumble in my mind. I remember my former pastor being one of the first people there – even though the latest upheaval in my marriage had led us to leave his church with hard feelings all around. He was there when we needed him. I remember my dearest friend taking my other two children out for dinner the night of the accident. My sister taking them home with her.
Blake’s first roommate was an 18-year-old with a heart condition. When my sister’s pastor would come by to pray, his voice was louder than Blake’s roommate felt comfortable with. The louder that pastor would pray, the louder the other patient would cuss us. I suggested the pastor to pray quieter or from the waiting room. Still, the hospital moved us to a different room with a different roommate. That roommate was a little boy named James, who was battling his second round of brain cancer. His mom had other children, including a brand new baby. I cannot even fathom the trials she was facing.
A friendship would blossom between the two of us over the coming days. Sadly, James lost his fight—later, after our lives had largely parted ways. Thanks to Facebook, we stay in touch. Though we’re not a part of each other’s daily world, I still feel a deep connection with this woman, one that I’ll never be able to fully convey.
Another memory is Blake’s nurse, Dan. All of the nurses were amazing, but he stood out. He was so kind and gentle. A less pleasant memory was the day after Blake’s breathing tube came out. He kept having painful coughing spasms that would fill me with a desperate need to help him, to ease his suffering. He was in the middle of one such spasm when a woman approached me, calling my name.
“Yes?” I glanced over my shoulder at her, irritated.
“I’m with patient accounts, and you have a deductible.”
“I’m in the middle of something here.” My son was blue, in a coughing spasm that wracked his entire body, with tears streaming down his cheeks. Mind you, his face was still swollen and black and blue as well.
“Well, I need to collect the deductible from you before I can go.”
“Then you’ll have to wait here a minute…”
I came close to being curt. My sisters later found out—they were more like a force of nature descending on hospital administration. My sisters are amazing like that.
The hospital had requested that there be only two visitors at a time in ICU, and that they be immediate family. One of our family members couldn’t understand that this request was for Blake’s benefit—the last thing he needed was germs to fight—and kept a steady stream of strangers coming by the room, no matter how many times or ways I asked it to stop. Oddly enough, that was the thing that left me sobbing in the bathroom. I was sure my son would die from a cold brought to him by somebody who’d come to gawk.
It was my middle sister who took me in her arms, right there in the bathroom, and prayed that God’s peace would cover and sustain me. And it did; I could feel it wrapping all around me like a warm blanket. You know, it was that same sister who held me in her arms in a different hospital bathroom as I cried, years before when our grandfather died. I wonder sometimes if my sisters know how crucial they are to me, how pivotal they were to my becoming who I am.
It might sound odd to say there was anything about that time that I liked, but I actually loved the presence of God—every Christian who came to visit us said they could feel it, the instant they hit the waiting room. It’s not surprising, though. I and my family prayed as we’ve never prayed before.
I fasted and prayed at Blake’s bedside until he woke up. After he woke up, I started slipping away once a day to eat with my other two boys in the hospital cafeteria, who were brought by to at least see their parents. Eventually, I chased Adam home to be with them. I couldn’t tear myself away. Once in 10 days, I went home to shower and hug my kids, but I couldn’t bear to be away from Blake and was back within two hours.
For the first five days, I sat in a straight-backed chair right next to Blake’s bed. It was a Spartan piece of wood furniture, not at all comfortable, but I didn’t care. I occasionally dosed off, with my head resting on the railing of his bed. I did nothing but hold his hand and pray. By the time he woke up, someone had produced a comfortable chair for me to live in. I’d also started taking small breaks to visit with my family in the waiting room. Hearing their voices, their stories, even their laughter kept me going. There was such an outpouring of love and support.
I’d like to believe my family’s presence there blessed others, too. One mom came up and asked us how we were so calm in such a terrible place – she’d heard Blake’s story and her own son was in a coma. We talked to her about our faith, and she asked us to pray with her. We did, happily. Her son woke up from his coma that evening. We would see them again—later, when both boys had moved on to rehab. I’m not sure what happened to them after our stories parted ways, though.
At one point, another family filled the halls, their grief permeating the entire floor as they spoke with hospital staff about organ donation; their little boy hadn’t made it. After a little while, my mother walked up to one of the women and apologized for intruding before saying “Can I pray with you?” The woman agreed and the two prayed together before the woman collapsed into my mother’s arms, crying and clinging to this stranger.
I’m not sure if it was my mother listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, if her heart recognized the pain of losing a child—having lost her own son years ago—or a combination of the two, but the boldness she showed that day wasn’t normal for her. She later said she had no idea what came over her. But I’m glad she did it. I’ve always been proud of my mama, but that moment so beautifully illustrates why.
When I was little, my family lived in Florida. If a hurricane came, Mom would pack us kids up and take us home to the family farm in the Ozarks while we waited out the storm. Daddy always stayed behind with the house. There is a favorite story of one particular storm, when traffic was bad getting out of town and looting rampant, that mom put a hatchet under her seat in case someone stopped our car and gave us trouble. The woman is five foot tall if she stands up real straight and she had an ax under her seat to keep her babies safe.
That same woman held a stranger in her arms and grieved openly with her over the loss of her young son. My mother is the very definition of feminine strength.
To be continued...
It was over a month between writing the first and second chapter of this book, despite the constant urging in my soul to tell our story. I don’t have to think too hard as to guess the reason for my procrastination—reliving that night is exhausting, and so I find excuses to avoid writing it down. Even though I know better, Blake’s story—our story—should be told. It deserves to be told.
The night I first wrote this chapter was the culmination of a particularly awful week, month, year. Our heater—and backup heater—decided to quit on the first truly cold night of winter. Something about it had a “last straw” kind of feeling to it. And then I stumbled across a post from a friend on Facebook, mentioning the hospital in Washington, Missouri that Blake was first taken to that night. She and I got to talking and realized she worked there at the time. On top of being a “wow it’s a small world” kind of moment, it was the reminder I needed of the amazing things God has done in my life. Had I really been feeling unloved and forsaken just hours ago? Had I really forgotten so quickly what God has done in my life? So, I will wade back into the memory. Perhaps it’s time.
Some nights, my mare Sassy would be a total heifer and make me earn any good that came from our rides. That night was not one of them. She’d moved like a dream all evening long, responding to the slightest pressure from me. We were so in sync that I could think left and she’d feel it and move left. When kids are about four, they go through a real “look at me” stage when they want to show their loved ones every single thing they accomplish. I remember feeling about like that as I told Adam “Look at how beautifully she’s moving! She’s such a good girl.”
I could tell my kiddos were beyond ready to go. They lined the gate of the arena, trying to be patient, but not really—dinner at Culvers was on their minds. Blake begged to be the one to cool Sassy down after her workout. He’d ridden her a hundred times before so I obliged, sliding off the saddle to hold her while he mounted. The smile on his face as he slipped through the gate is forever etched in my memory. It was that smile that would replay through my mind over the coming days, taunting me with the question “Would it be his last?” I remember worrying in the days to come that I might forget it. Perhaps that’s why I can still so vividly recall that smile even now.
As Blake settled into the saddle, I tied his reins to create a continuous loop—just in case he dropped them—before handing them to him. We ambled around the arena, me walking just slightly in front and to the side of Sassy. My darling girl could sometimes be a doll for me and a brat for lesser riders, so I stayed close, watching them interact and offering feedback as needed. That night, it wasn’t really needed. He was every bit as in sync as she was.
When my kids are on or near a horse, I watch the animal’s body language closely. I always have – even more so now. That night, her body was relaxed, her ears loose. She didn’t seem to have a care in the world. We’d just walked passed one of the gates leading outside when it happened. I’ll never know what caused her to spook. Was it me, walking in the wrong spot? Something outside? Did the barn dog yank her tail without me noticing? (He was notorious for that kind of thing.)
Whatever the cause, my calm horse morphed into a creature running for its life in the blink of an eye. She spun on her hindquarters and bolted, causing Blake to tumble backwards. About the time I breathed a sigh of relief because he’d landed in the sand, seemingly unharmed, her hoof connected with his forehead hard enough that it flipped him. I screamed and fell to his side, turning him so he was no longer face down. I cleaned the sand out of his mouth in preparation for CPR, but it felt hopeless. He wasn’t breathing. He was completely limp in my arms.
In the days since that one, I’ve encountered death more than once on our farm. It’s only served to strengthen my conviction that in that moment, I held my dead son in my arms. I vaguely recall the look on my other children’s faces as they watched with horror. I remember Sassy, coming to a halt in the corner and dropping her head, much as a football team would take a knee while waiting for word on the condition of a fallen teammate.
The hopelessness, the disbelief, the complete lack of acceptance welled up in me. I placed my hand on Blake’s forehead and begged with every fiber of my being, “Jesus, bring him back to me.”
He took a breath. I could feel it, the breath returning to his body. His eyes didn’t open, but he was most definitely breathing again. In the chaos to follow, I clung to that: God gave my son breath again. It would not be for nothing.
That’s when my family sprang into action. Adam went to call 9-1-1. Dylan went to get Jack. Chris asked what he could do—I asked him to come pray with Blake. Dylan, who was 11 at the time, had returned to retrieve the horse and took her to put her tack away, check her over for injuries, and put her in the stall so she’d be out of the paramedics’ way when they arrived. Chris, who was 6, fell to his knees beside his brother in the sand, took his hand and prayed. Fervently.
The paramedics came, after struggling to find the farm, and took him to the nearest hospital. I called my dad, though I was sobbing so hard it took three tries for him to understand what I was saying. And all I could think about was that smile. I was so scared it would be his last.
The first hospital stop was a bit of a blur. They cut his clothes off—jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. I still have them. His face was mangled and swollen. His eyes still had not opened. It was there they stabilized him in preparation for the medflight to Cardinal Glennon, a nearby children’s hospital. Just before the helicopter arrived, they cleaned Blake up as best they could and offered us a chance to bring the boys in to say goodbye. I knew from the way they didn’t quite meet my eyes they didn’t expect him to survive the flight.
Christopher hadn’t lost his look of stunned disbelief. Someone in the ER gave him a stuffed puppy and asked him to take care of it for his brother. He clung to that puppy the rest of the night. It got him through. Even in my own shocked state, I noticed the kindness and was grateful for it. That’s the thing about kindness—you never know when your simple act will be the very thing someone clings to just to get through the night.
Blake was loaded onto the helicopter and we were told to meet him at Cardinal Glennon. As we were leaving, we were met by one of our friends from the barn. She’d heard and had come to check on us. Another kindness.
The ride to the hospital felt infinite. Adam drove. I rode in the back, a son tucked under either arm as we cried. My favorite praise CD was playing in the background. To this day, Third Day’s Cry out to Jesus takes me right back to that car, that moment. I can’t listen to it.
We arrived just after the helicopter. There was a line at security, but the guard took one look at us and knew we belonged with the child that had been flown in, so he waved us through. Another kindness.
After Blake had been transferred to the care of the ER staff, one of the gentleman from the medflight came to find me. There were tears in his eyes as he said “I’m so sorry, ma’am. We did everything we could for him.” He wasn’t telling me Blake was gone, but I knew he didn’t expect the little boy who had been in his care to live. His seeking me out was yet another kindness, one of many that was keeping me from drowning in the enormity of it all.
I would later find out that the doctor sought my family out just before we arrived to tell them to brace themselves; they did not expect Blake to live. At one point, the doctor came in to tell me his initial CT scans weren’t showing any brain activity. I just kept shaking my head no and repeating to people, “That will change. God didn’t bring him back to leave him a vegetable.”
For a second time that night, Blake was cleaned up and we were ushered in to say goodbye. He was unrecognizable with his swollen, bruised face and the tubes coming from his mouth and arms. The hospital chaplain was there. As I gazed down at my son, so many emotions swirling within me, he patted my hand and said, “Maybe now you realize you should have had a helmet on him.”
I blinked and looked at him. It wouldn’t be the last time I heard that sentence, but it was definitely the least appropriate. I don’t remember responding. I wasn’t arrested or anything, so I’m pretty sure I only imagined inflicting bodily harm on him. The man had the audacity to want to lead a prayer after that. I didn’t want him to pray for my son. I didn’t want him to touch my hand. I didn’t want him anywhere near either of us. Now, years later, I remember that moment as a lesson in the harm we can cause when speaking our opinion matters more than speaking grace and love into someone’s life. I learned from his mistake. I can only hope he did as well.
To be continued...
Miss the beginning of the story? Here's the prologue and here's chapter one.
I was reading my 13-year-old’s Facebook page the other day, chuckling over his answers to some goofy Q&A he’d posted when it struck me yet again just how different this kid is. For the question “Worst day of your life?” He’d responded “idk. Lol”
“Blake, you goof. You really don’t know the worst day of your life?” I called out to him from the living room.
“Nah. They’re all good.”
“What about the day you died?”
“I slept through that. And when I woke up, you let me watch movies and eat whatever I wanted.” He gave a humble half-shrug. No big thing. Dying. Coma. Months of therapy. Learning to walk, talk, tie a shoe again. Re-learning to read, write, do arithmetic. No worries. He got to eat all the chicken and fries he wanted.
That’s Blake. Utterly, perfectly Blake. His personality has always been larger than life. He’s charming and gregarious, though as a child gregarious looked a bit more like spastic.
When I was 15, my oldest nephew was born. I still remember holding him in my arms and looking down into his blue, blue eyes and wishing with all my heart to someday have a little blue-eyed boy of my own someday. God heard that prayer and gave me three of them.
Our blessings weren’t without loss. More than once, I didn’t make it past the first trimester of a pregnancy. The first one hit the hardest. Perhaps because we didn’t have any children at the time. Perhaps it’s because it was the only pregnancy to be confirmed by the doctor. The only one I saw the flutter of a heartbeat before feeling the sharp pain of loss. Those were dark days for me. Losing our little one left a deep, wrenching hurt in its wake. I vividly remember that time in my life. The pope was in town. I’m not catholic, but it was still a pretty big deal. I worked in the same Mom-and-Pop diner I’d been working at when I met Adam. (I’d been his waitress, in fact.) I was driving home from work one day, down Highway 30 in St. Louis, just passed the intersection of 270, when a feeling of peace settle over me. I felt as if God was assuring me that it was going to be okay. Everything was about to change, and Adam and I were going to have a son.
September 30 of that year, Dylan was born. To quote my mother-in-law, he was perfect. Motherhood did not let me begin with a false sense of security. When Dylan was three weeks old, he began choking in his sleep to the point of turning blue. During the ER visit after that first choking episode, the hospital told us they thought he had meningitis. We were quarantined with our new infant, who had to undergo a spinal tap that took three days to get results on. In the end, they said “Whoops, we contaminated his blood sample. Here’s the bill.” It leveled us financially and left us wondering what caused our son to stop breathing in his sleep.
Many tests, apnea monitors, and sleepless nights later, I listened to my mother-in-law’s advice and put him on a lactose-free formula, just to see what would happen. The apnea stopped and he never had another moment’s trouble. As a young couple living in a mobile home on a shoestring budget, I wish we’d listened to her before letting our doctor convince the scared kids to run the battery of tests on our baby. It would have saved everyone a lot of pain and it might have meant a different story for our financial future.
Our marriage fell apart for the first time somewhere in between Dylan and Blake. I still remember the reasons why, but none of them truly matter. The real reason was that Adam and I were both still, and would be for some time, putting what we needed from the marriage ahead of God or our children. It wouldn’t be until we fixed that glaring problem that we’d develop the relationship the world sees now. In between the two? There was a lot of stupidity and pain. Truth be told, we’re still not who the world sees—far from it—but is anybody ever really?
We also had a few positive pregnancy tests in between Dylan and Blake. I can’t take the pill without horrible side effects, no matter how light the dose. I didn’t mind, though. I wanted a houseful of kiddos. Adam wanted two. In the end, God gave us three. But there was a time that I was sitting across from my doctor hearing that I needed to come to terms with the fact that Dylan would be an only child – or I needed to schedule an appointment with a fertility specialist to find out what was happening between the positive pregnancy test and the first spots of blood that invariably followed. About the time I gave in and said “Okay God, you win. If I’m meant to have only one child, I will thank you for him. He’s wonderful,” was about the time I got pregnant with Blake.
My marriage fell apart for the second time seven months into that pregnancy. We were separated when Blake was born. I remember being alone in the delivery room when they laid him on my chest. He blinked at me. Even as my heart melted, I had two thoughts. The first was “This one’s mine.” And the second was “I wonder if he’ll grow into those lips.”
Don’t get me wrong, Dylan and I have been two peas in a pod since the moment I laid eyes on him. We’re inseparable and the world knows it. But with Blake, given the state of my marriage, I felt this instant “It’s you and me against the world and I promise right here and now, I will not let this world be cruel to you” thing going. Adam and Blake are close now, but that was a hard-fought closeness. It took them years to overcome his absence in that first year of Blake’s life.
As a single mother with no maternity leave and no other means of support, I had to go back to work when Blake was three weeks old. By that time, I was working in HR at a physical therapy company in St. Louis. I took on a second job waiting tables at a bar to help make ends meet. It was too much too soon and I found myself on my doctor’s table saying “I feel like my uterus is going to fall out, doc.”
“That’s because it is,” was his response.
Given the uterine prolapse and the fact that I was divorced, finding myself pregnant by Christmas with baby number three wasn’t a planned thing. I would joke that Blake was the break-up baby and Chris was the make-up baby, but the truth was that I was mortified. I knew how the world looked at me, pregnant with my ex-husband’s baby. When I had to sift through employee emails at work to investigate a threat that had been made against my boss, I got to read it, over and over, just what the rest of the office thought of me and my pregnancy. I’d always loved The Scarlet Letter as a teenager. There is something beautiful in the notion that the world seeing your worst frees you. In many ways, that pregnancy was my own scarlet letter.
The only person who was truly, completely, and utterly happy at the news had been Dylan. If you ask him now, he says he still remembers how excited he got when I told him he was going to have another brother. And I needed that – someone else to be happy about the baby. A life is always a blessing, no matter the circumstance. Dylan’s innocent joy kept me anchored to that.
And Christopher was a ray of sunshine from the moment he made his appearance. From a young age, he had an infectious smile, which he shared any chance he got.
For the boys’ youngest years, we rented a small house in Crestwood from Adam’s parents. I moved back in toward the end of the Christopher’s pregnancy because I was having complications and my doctor had told me I shouldn’t be living along with two small children. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, so I told Adam he didn’t have a choice. Once we were there, we both decided it was too much tumult for the boys for us to separate again. We decided to try our best to hold it together for their sake. My mother-in-law once said that Adam and I would probably be perfectly happy living next door to each other, raising our children as friends. It was a pretty spot-on description.
For much of their childhood, I worked too many hours in a never-ending battle to keep the bills paid and the pantry filled. Even after Adam had his degree, he was struggling to put it to use. Every time he would find a job, he’d get laid off and would have to go back to bartending or waiting tables.
I went back to college when I was pregnant with Blake. I remember taking my art history final the day after I gave birth to him. The kid next to me said “Whoa, I partied too late last night.”
I responded with “I gave birth yesterday.”
“You win.” He’d ducked his head down and went back to his test.
It would be 2007 before I finished my degree in Communications. I’d chosen that and a marketing emphasis because it was the most logical thing I could think of that would use my love of writing.
Things got a lot better for us financially by 2008. Adam had found his way to a good job as a project manager and I had a job in the Communications Department at Scottrade. We moved from poor to middle class that year, and we even bought a house in Eureka, the town I’d graduated from. In 2007, we had tried unsuccessfully to move to the Ozarks. It lasted about six months, ended in disaster (literally, a tornado), and we’d spent six more months in my parents’ basement recovering financially from the decision.
So when we had our act together in 2008, we decided Eureka was the compromise between Adam’s suburban upbringing and my deep-seated desire to return to my rural roots. The house we bought was much cheaper than the realtor and bank were telling us we could afford; we wanted to play it safe. Besides, it was more than twice the size of the house we’d been living in for years. It felt like a mansion. In many ways, it was my dream house.
Moving into that home began a period of rest for us. Aside from marriage trouble, we were happy. The bills were paid. My relationship with God had flourished in the years since Christopher’s birth. We had a passel of rescued dogs. Our kids were content. Adam worked from home by that point, so he was there to get them off the bus. I loved my job. Things were good. So good, we finally had the money to realize a childhood dream that had eluded me thus far: we bought horses.
I found Rollins Ranch through Craigslist, when I answered an ad for horseback riding lessons. Dylan had been in lessons off and on for a couple of years. He was a natural and I got to live vicariously through him. I’d wanted horses since, I don’t know, birth. No, it was more than a want. It was more like a deep yearning. Every time I had begun to realize my horse dream, something horrific happened to keep me from it.
As a child, my fondest memories were of my grandpa’s farm. Roaming those 200 acres freely with a pack of dogs in tow was the highlight of my summers. I even had two pet calves one summer, Jacob and Henry. The summer I turned 14 was the year my grandpa said we were going to start horse shopping. Only what he thought was a stiff neck turned out to be bone cancer, and I instead spent the summer taking care of him as he faded under the weight of an illness that had been too far advanced to mount much of a fight against it.
Grandpa said he wanted to see the trees turn one last time. He died October 29th that year, just after the peak weekend of fall in the Ozarks. The farm I loved so dearly was sold because his heirs couldn’t agree on anything else, and my childhood dreams of living there someday were gone. Ah, but I can still see those wild and gnarly hills in my mind. I can still remember running through those woods with my ragtag pack of four-legged friends.
My grandpa cultivated my faith as a child. He answered countless questions about God as we’d sit on the porch and watch the deer graze in our meadow. It was the farm that cultivated my imagination and my love of adventure.
For a while, as a teenager, I found my horse fix in the form of my sister’s father-in-law. He had eight, all wild as fox hairs. He allowed me to hang out with them whenever I wanted in return for me watching them when he was away. He even said I could have the youngest filly to keep if I would gentle the others in to make them more marketable. Being young and invincible, I’d done it. How I didn’t break my neck or get my head kicked in, I have no clue. I’m sure my guardian angels will tell me all about it someday.
I had no idea what I was doing with those animals. I’d never had the first horseback riding lesson or ridden a horse outside of trail or pony rides. Instinctively, I communicated with them the way I saw them communicate with each other and, by some miracle, it worked. They were all gentle as lambs with me by the time they were sold, even the stallion. (That statement right there is enough to make people who know horses wonder how I’m alive.) When the farm’s owner remarried, the first thing to go was the horses. I couldn’t afford board in St. Louis at the age of 17, so my beautiful Wildflower was sold with the rest. I can still see her standing on a hilltop with the sunlight making her mane shine gold. That little red roan mountain pony had become my best friend in the four years we’d known each other. I tell myself someday I will see her again, even if it’s on the other side.
The third time I toed up to buying a horse was on our previously-mentioned attempt to move to the Ozarks. A voice in the back of my mind told me to hold off on buying the filly I’d had my eye on. When we lost our home and most of our belongings to the storm, I realized why. It was hard enough being homeless without a horse in tow.
When we started lessons at Jack’s barn, it was a godsend. He raised phenomenal quarter horses. In addition to the lesson horses he had on hand, there were always a handful of babies to dote on. Dylan and I both took lessons from a teacher who’d worked out an arrangement with Jack, the owner. For some reason, Jack took us under his wing and the relationship deepened. It was more than a barn. It was a family. The boys and I were there every spare moment – especially Dylan and me. We leased a horse from Jack and eventually bought two: Samson and Sassy.
Samson was a weanling foal we bought so Dylan could be part of the process of raising and training him. We all adored that colt and his comical personality. He was amazing, his conformation was perfect, and his red coat shone like a copper penny in the sun. Dylan and Samson were the best of friends from the start. Everyone who watched those two together knew they were witnessing something special.
Sassy, a tall classy bay, was my girl. I was crazy about her, even though she made me earn every inch of our relationship. I learned so much on that horse. Most of her siblings were competing in cutting and reining competitions; she’d missed her chance to train because she’d had strangles as a foal. But she was the best trail horse I’d ever seen. I trusted her in woods and on hills. Oh, the ground we covered together.
I eventually took over as a barn helper for Jack. I gave his beginner lessons; he only worked with advanced students. I exercised his horses for him and we helped clean stalls. One of my favorite memories of that time was trot races in the golf course, a particularly well-manicured front pasture that doubled as Jack’s driving range when he didn’t have horses on it. Dylan and I would saddle a couple of horses and “race” at a trot, up and down the field, laughing until our sides hurt. We’d always find out afterward that Jack had been watching from the windows in his kitchen. He’d tease us as we’d stop in for goodbyes.
Jack was a hard mentor – always demanding better, never failing to rail at you for the slightest wrong move. Dylan and I both hate to ever do anything wrong, so the time we spent under Jack’s tutelage was intense. And, even though Jack was quick to chew us out if we overcorrected or missed a cue, he was also quick to boast to anyone who’d listen that Dylan and I had the most natural seat on a horse that he’d ever seen. Sometimes I wish he’d boasted less; I could feel the weight of his praise every time I’d ride there – people watched, constantly and intently, to see if we’d live up to it.
But I loved that hard old cowboy. Maybe it was because I never stopped missing my grandpa, or because my relationship with my dad was at times bumpy. Or maybe it’s because Jack had given me the gift of horses, but I loved him fiercely. Sometimes, I think it would baffle Adam how loyal the rest of us were to the barn. The place stressed him out. He tried to be a part of our love for horses, but his infrequent visits always left everyone tense.
There were two other important things happening in this period of rest and happiness in our lives. The first was that I’d decided to pick up my pen again and write. I’d always loved writing, but I’d never been comfortable sharing my words with others. I did once, in fourth grade, and had been ridiculed by my peers for it. After that, I only shared my words under duress. No amount of praise from those peers could erase that first reaction, though, and for years I would write entire books and screenplays, only to pack them away when finished. I stopped writing before Blake ever came along.
But one day, the stories swirling around my brain just refused to be quiet any longer. I decided to not only give writing another go, but to get serious about trying to publish those words. I came close to realizing that dream fairly quickly, in the grand scheme of things. It didn’t feel quick at the time, but looking back, it was. Within a year of setting my mind to it, I’d had multiple conversations with agents – no small feat – and even found myself sitting face to face with the president of major literary agency in New York. She told me, point blank, that I would have to choose: Either keep writing the books I’d been writing or pick a style that was easier to sell and have a successful career as a writer. The books I wrote were apparently too much of a paradox to properly market. They were too much a mix of light and dark, too hard to classify.
I cried for a solid day after that conversation. Then I decided I cared more about telling the stories I wanted to tell than I did about a career and I decided to self-publish. By spring of 2011, I had four books self-pubbed. I gave the ecopies away for free to help raise awareness for human trafficking. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of publishing those books, and they’d done surprisingly well since their release. The girl too shy to share an essay in class suddenly had over 10,000 readers from all over the world. I got fan mail. It was crazy.
The other big thing that was happening at that time was my job at Scottrade had shifted, and I was working in their training department, building and teaching communication and writing classes. That job meant I traveled, often to Denver and sometimes to Arizona. I adored both places, but by March 31 of 2011, the travel was starting to wear thin. I’d just gotten back from a trip that day. I missed my kids like crazy. I remember Blake had had a bad day at school; some kids had been bullying him. I picked them up and Adam took off work early and we decided we’d go as a family to the barn before trying the Culvers that had opened in town while I was away.
We never made it to Culvers that night. Instead, my happy little world came crashing to my feet.
... to be continued.
There is vagabond in my blood. I only have to look to my grandparents’ generation to find migrant farm workers on my daddy’s side. Even before that, they moved around the country quite a bit after arriving from Europe. Tracking down my family tree before the days of Ancestry.com meant lots of road trips north. I had an uncle who died train hopping out west; he was a vagabond. My own daddy has the itchiest feet on the planet. Even after retiring from the military, he can never sit still for long. If work isn’t giving him an excuse to travel, he finds one. He once accused me of moving more than anyone he’s ever met. I respectfully ask if he’s met my sister, or if he’s looked in the mirror to see who we inherited our gypsy feet from.
Warring with that migrant nature is the deep desire for roots, for a place to belong. On my mama’s side, we had the family farm in the Ozarks that grounded my family for generations. Even for those who didn’t live there, it was the place everyone returned to. It’s been more than 20 years since the farm was sold, and I still feel its absence in my soul as I watch the world spin from the outside looking in and wonder what it would be like to have a place you’re from.
When we moved to this area in 2012, all I knew of it was that Buffalo, Missouri was the only place I could get cell phone coverage in between Lebanon and Stockton Lake. I’d never even heard of the town that’s registered as our official address. When my mother found out I was moving here, she told me my great-grandmother was actually from Buffalo. The romantic in me wonders if I was returning to roots I didn’t even know existed.
It’s been a hard-fought five years, finding our place in this tiny town. Sometimes it seems as if the land itself has tried to buck us loose. We’ve fought record-breaking droughts, floods, and everything in between. The people here are so used to everyone operating under a set of common knowledge, sometimes it’s hard to keep up when you don’t have that piece of the puzzle.
I have considered moving. It’s what I do when life gets too much, I think. Perhaps it stems from a promise I made myself as a teen—if things ever seemed too hopeless, I’d go somewhere new and start fresh rather than cause myself harm. More than once in the past five years, I’ve looked longingly at the map and considered my options. I should go somewhere warmer, closer to the ocean, closer to my friends. This place doesn’t want me; I don’t fit here.
But here’s the thing: I’m an odd little duck. I don’t fit anywhere, not really and not for long. That’s part of being a writer, an observer—someone who throws herself headfirst into a thousand different things just long enough to master them and move on. I think it’s all tied up in the one thing I never stray from: writing stories. I’m always learning so I can document. I’m always observing so I can capture details. The same sensory disorder that makes me a freak in so many ways makes it possible for me to describe a touch in such detail.
It’s taken me nearly forty years (I still have six months until that mile marker), but I’ve come to terms with being weird. I make it my goal as a mother to three weird children to help them embrace and harness their quirks early on, to save themselves some pain.
And sometime in the past year, I have realized something else about myself: If I’m going to not fit in anywhere, I’d like to not fit in here, in this place. I want to connect to the roots of my past in this small town and flourish as the oddest little flower this place has ever seen.
This might not be the deep, wild and woolly Ozark Mountains of my childhood, the ones I’ve dreamed of and written about so often. The hills are more rolling here. The people are different somehow. But it has become just as much a part of me and my story.
For some time now, I’ve felt compelled to tell not just the story of Blake’s accident, but of the journey that it set us on. One night, one moment, changed each of us, and it changed our family. I realize now that story is part of this one, my journey home. My figuring out what happily-ever-after looks like to me.
I started writing that book last fall, and I’m still only four chapters in. I don’t know why, but I can’t seem to force myself to sit and write. When I do sit down, the words flow. But they also leave me tired. It’s been a long, hard six years. Perhaps I’m afraid of what I’ll find if I look at them too closely. Already the process has begun to change me—for the better, but it’s been an uncomfortable journey nonetheless.
All of this is to say that I’ve decided to give something new a try. I plan to release one chapter each Monday on my blog. Perhaps that will force me to keep pace. When the story is finished, I’ll pull it together into a book and send it to the editor. But I have lots of books out there; this less about adding to that list and more about sharing my story in hopes that it will inspire someone else to rewrite their destiny if need be.
Maybe it will give someone else hope that if their world is shaken, good things can come of it.
Read Chapter One of My Own Ever After