Temper, temper…

This post describes, my recovery from the loss of my wife to a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. She was healed of this condition when she went to live with our Heavenly Father at 2:30AM, the 10th of January 2021. You can read the announcement here.

Or if you would like to read our story from the beginning, you can start with: How We Got Here…

My dad used to say that it was a miracle that he didn’t end up either in prison or on death row. He was born in a sod hut on the plains of Nebraska in 1916 or 1917. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Grandin, Missouri. But things didn’t go well for him there. His father ran out on the family (which consisted of my dad, his older sister Hattie, and their mother) when he was just a toddler. When Dad was about five, his mother died of tuberculosis, and he was given to a family to raise but was soon handed over to an old woman named Becky Moore. She was in her later 70s, and was extremely abusive, physically.

He lived with her until he was about 16. He survived by learning to be quick on his feet to dodge chunks of cordwood that she would chuck at him – her favorite way of expressing her “displeasure” with something Dad had done. He also learned the value of “lighting out” ‒ getting out of the house for a few days to live in a lean-to he’d built for himself on an island in the middle of the nearby Little Black River.

Shortly after Dad turned 16, a recruiter for the Army came through town, offering what Army recruiters have offered since time immemorial: good pay, adventure, and a chance to see the world. That all sounded good, so Dad went in to talk to him but discovered that at age 16 he was too young. However, a week or so later, something made Becky Moore even more angry than she usually was, and which put Dad in fear for his life, and he knew he had to light out for good.

He tracked the recruiter down at his office in Poplar Bluff, Missouri and pleaded his case, hoping that the Army could make an exception. Looking back, Dad could see that the recruiter recognized him from their previous meeting in Grandin, because when Dad finished his story, all the recruiter said was:

“So how old are you today?”

To which Dad answered, “Eighteen, sir.”

“Well, in that case, son, it looks like you’re in the Army. Hold up your right hand and repeat after me…”

Though the Army obviously produced challenges and plenty of heat of its own – like two wars – it was very good for my dad. He used to say that in a very real sense, the Army was his mother and father because it taught him to say “sir” and “ma’am,” and how to keep his nose clean. So, he grew up to be a kind and gentle man, a dauntless friend and a fearsome enemy. He never swore because he said that using profanity was a sign of a lack of education.

William Lawrence Porter ‒ Dad

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I have written about my dad before, but I bring him up again because the comparison between him and his sister Hattie is particularly telling – and significant when talking about caregiving, grieving, and recovery.

You see, after their mother died, Hattie had some hard times too. Being five or six years older than my dad, she was taken in by a well-to-do family there in town and grew up never needing anything. But the outcome was very different. She grew up mean and argumentative, with a demanding nature where everything had to be her way. As a child, I remember Aunt Hattie as being someone who didn’t know how to play – and her language would occasionally leave drunken sailors blushing with envy. Even when she wasn’t angry, she sounded like she was snapping at you, biting off her words. In the end, her temper pretty much defined her. One thing Dad used to say her that was always assured to irritate her was, “Now sister: Temper, temper…”

However, the word “temper” has more than one meaning. In addition to being a noun that names something (typically negative) that someone has, it can also be a verb. Tempering is something that you can do to something, typically a ferrous metal such as iron or steel. (For cooks: Yes, I know you can temper chocolate too, but that’s an analogy for another day.)

The process for the tempering of steel starts by heating it to several hundred degrees and then quenching it quickly in water or oil. Though many people don’t know it, steel has a crystalline structure and the heating causes the atoms in the metal to become more mobile and redistribute themselves in a chaotic manner. The quenching then cools the metal quickly, essentially locking the metal’s new crystalline structure in place. The result is a metal that is very hard and very strong, but which exhibits a significant downside. Metal in this state is also very brittle and when deformed too much will sometimes shatter. Similarly, steel in this condition can be sharpened to a very fine point, but it won’t hold the edge well, as its brittleness means that it will wear rapidly.

Tempering deals with this limitation by reheating the metal (or more typically some part of the metal) and letting it slowly cool. This part of the process allows the crystalline structure to relax a bit, which weakens it slightly but also makes it more ductile and far less susceptible to catastrophic breakdown.

In addition to iron and all manner of steel, people can also be tempered – and as with the metal it sometimes requires a lot of “heat”.

In the case of my father and his sister, they both went through the “heat” of the initial trials and at first became very hard. But after that initial “heat treatment,” the reactions of the two were very different. My dad saw subsequent trials as things to be overcome, and as opportunities to learn. So over time, he became my dad, hard where he needed to be, but also warm and loving.

Aunt Hattie, however, just saw additional trials as things to be avoided at all costs. Her motto was to always take the easiest road possible. Consequently, she remained hard, and her spirit was brittle and susceptible to shattering. Many of the defining events in her life were places where she had to stop and “pick up the pieces.”

As we go through life as caregivers, care receivers, or those grieving a loss, the same two options are available to us. We can let the heat come when and where it may and welcome it as a force to form us into who we were meant to be, or we can reject it and the change it could have wrought and remain hard, and spiritually and emotionally brittle.

Taking the step to embrace the heat can take courage – in fact, a lot of courage. But where does that sort of courage come from?

The truth is, having the courage to believe in the future is only a risk if the future is random and uncertain. Thankfully, such is not the case. Thankfully, there is Someone with a hand on the wheel who sees not only your future, but the future of everyone who ever was, is now, or ever will be.

What’s more, the owner of that hand cares about you deeply, and in ways that you can’t begin to imagine. So the real question is, how do you begin to trust in that Guide? A very long time ago, a young man got so excited about the possibilities that he wrote a song about it:

“O, taste and see that the LORD is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!”

Ps 34:8

In a sense, this statement is the exact opposite of “blind faith” that many people think is required. Rather, this speaks to a faith that has proven itself over and over again across untold generations. A faith that is not only unafraid of reality checks, but actively invites them.

Our Creator intends far more for us than mere survival. He earnestly desires for us to thrive, where we are as sharp tools in the hands of a skilled craftsman – and for that we sometimes need to go through the flames to be perfected, refined, and tempered.

One last point I want to make is that last week, I left a cryptic note at the end of the last post, that we would have to see how things went “next week.” Well, those of you who follow me on Facebook already know how things went. I have changed my profile to reflect that I am “In a Relationship” with a beautiful Christian lady by the name of Jean Barnes.

My Beautiful Jean…

She lost her husband to HD 15 years ago, and her daughter to the same disease in February. She was the dear friend I mentioned in a post, when I drove into Dallas to attend her daughter’s visitation. After a few subsequent visits and many long text conversations and phone calls, it became obvious to both of us that we needed each other and God was bringing us together.

So, yes, I have tasted, and indeed He is very good…

In Christ, Amen ☩

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A prayer for when you are going through the fire…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for Your commitment to me as shown by Your willingness to sacrifice so much for me. But today I want to bless You especially for the miraculous ways in which You have brought together the disparate threads of my life and satisfied my innermost needs by answering prayers I didn’t even know enough to pray. Amen.”

Starting Recovery

This post describes, my recovery from the loss of my wife to a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. She was healed of this condition when she went to live with our Heavenly Father at 2:30AM, the 10th of January 2021. You can read the announcement here.

Or if you would like to read our story from the beginning, you can start with: How We Got Here…

After being the sole caregiver for someone, recovering from their death includes one key aspect: Learning to shift your mental focus back from you and them, to recognizing a new “us” which includes a different person. Often when you are in the throes of caregiving, your loved one’s needs can be so pronounced and overwhelming that you are totally focused on them – with ideally a few slivers of time set aside for self-care to help you survive.

But when that phase of life ended for me, I found that I needed to shift back to a more appropriate pattern of sharing, to where I think about life in terms of this new “us.” After years or even decades of dedicated caring, that change can be hard and the resulting relationship can feel almost unnatural at first – or at least it is for me.

But I am learning that with a lot of support and love and prayer, I can begin to see the way ahead. Yes friends, you read that right. I really did use the present tense a couple of times there.

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Things are happening fast in my life. As I write this it is 4 am Thursday morning and I have been awake for about an hour with ideas running through my head that I need to get down on paper. I am reminded of a poster I saw once that described a writer as:

“…a specialized type of alchemist that can transmute caffeine into words.”

Ain’t it the truth.

When Janet died, the post I wrote as a tribute and announcement said that the journey we are on together isn’t over. While my caregiving duties are done (for now at least – but you never really know, do you?) there was still the whole question of, “What does recovery look like?”

There are obviously many parts of that question, and one that I talked about in the recent past was Preparing for Reentry…. Carrying on with that thought, I need to remember that while it is impossible for me to get back to who I was, and how things were “before” – I still need to figure out how to go about assembling a new normal for my life.

In the final analysis, life does move on. Moreover, life was an ongoing string of catastrophes and miracles before “it” happened and there is little reason to assume that life will be any different now. The unfortunate truth is that life doesn’t come with a ration card for bad things, so that once you get your card punched, you can be assured that nothing else bad will ever happen to you. In the end, the truth remains that pain and joy are the two sides of a coin, and both sides of the coin are the same size.

Well this week, I read something that partially answered some questions, and partially gave me a bunch of new questions to ask – learning is like that. The article in question was primarily about the differences in the rates at which women remarry after the loss of a spouse, versus the rates at which men remarry in the same circumstances. While I obviously can’t speak to the veracity of the conclusions that the female author made about the reaction of women, I can say that when talking about men she “hit the nail right on the head.”

The one thing that was obvious from the outset was that widowers remarry at a rate about twice that of widows. While part of this discrepancy can be attributed to the well-documented fact that men die earlier than women do, even that statistic is changing as more and more women are dying early like their male peers. The author, therefore, attributes this significantly different rate to the fact that men and women experience the loss of a spouse in fundamentally different ways. The basic issue, she asserted, was that women experience the loss in a relational way. In other words, they miss the intimacy, the friendship, the sharing – in short, all the various aspects of a marital relationship.

By contrast, while men do miss the relationship – I know I sure do – their primary experience is different. My experience was, in the words of the author, one of an amputation. Boy, did that point resonate with me! For a very long time, even before Janet died, I had felt that way but didn’t know how to verbalize it. I felt as though I woke up one morning and part of me had been cut off and was missing.

Since Janet died, I have desperately needed someone to fill that void. But let me quickly add that the result was not simply an exercise to find a “warm body” to fill a social niche in my home, or empty spot in my bed. Human beings are not anonymous interchangeable parts. However, this point isn’t an introduction into a discussion of the “number of fish in the sea.” Rather, as with all matters in life, the lady and I need to remember that in addition to us, there is another party involved in the process – The One who created us, and Who, by the way, knows our needs much better than we do.

I have had relationships where I found the “right one” on my own and they were unmitigated trainwrecks – though God has been able to do some wonderful stuff with the resulting bits of wreckage. Then there was the relationship which God put together and it lasted 35 years. Although it wasn’t perfect, and I have been writing for a year and a half about the problems we had to face over the last three and a half decades, it was a good relationship that has prepared me magnificently for whatever God decides comes next.

Still, I don’t need to depend on a secular psychological paper to understand these feelings. Consider the creation story given in Genesis. God creates everything from light to insects, and after each act of creation, pronounces His latest work “Good.” But surprisingly, in the midst of all that goodness, there is one thing that He says is not good:

“It is not good for man to be alone…”

Gen 2:18

In response, God created a woman so that he would no longer be alone. Though there are obvious exceptions, from that day to this, men tend to look for a woman to fill in the gaps in their lives, and to be their partner and companion.

But to me, the really interesting thing is that even if you don’t accept the idea that Genesis is a true accounting of creation and consider it to be just another example of the ancients cobbling together a myth to explain the world around them, the point still works because you have to explain why that line is in the story. You have to ask yourself, “What was it that the ancients were seeing that they felt compelled to explain?”

The point is that regardless of whether God was explaining what He was doing, or the ancients were trying to explain a world they didn’t understand, men have been experiencing the sensation of incompleteness and longing that I am now experiencing, for untold millennia – an idea that I find strangely comforting. But is it really so strange?

When you are starting the recovery process, it is comforting to look at the mess you are in and see that what you are going through is survivable. I can’t tell you how many notes and comments I have gotten in the past year or so that basically said, “What you are going through is terrible, but seeing you make your way through the mess gives me hope that I can make it through too.”

One of the interesting side effects of the writing I do is that it gets me into the habit of being more open than some would say is “smart.” But perhaps, honesty is better than being smart – or at least smart in the sense that the naysayers mean. From here our conversation could go many different directions, so perhaps it is better to just let it lie, and see where things go next week.

In Christ, Amen ☩

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A prayer for guys who are feeling incomplete…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for the perfection of Your design and plan. But today I want to bless You especially for the perfection that You are bringing to my imperfect life. Thank You for the miraculous completion that You bring to the broken, empty parts of me. Amen.”