Monday, December 11, 2017

“There is nothing more beautiful than someone who goes out of their way to make life beautiful for others.” ― Mandy Hale

I just came across this little piece I wrote about two years ago about how unselfish and loving toward me that Karen was.  It was prophetic and was always true of her.  This refers to when I returned from surgery in Nairobi and Karen was helping with my rehab in February of 2016.  
             “The other night, Karen was helping me with my leg exercises.  We have these big, stretchy elastics that go around my ankle, and I kick first in one direction and then another while lying on the bed.  We have two strengths of elastics, a strong one for my good leg, and a weaker one for the bad ankle.  Karen wraps them around my ankle, steps back and holds them tight while I move my leg against the resistance.  I was facing the opposite wall when I heard the snap of the elastic letting go and then heard the crash of Karen hitting the floor.  She also cracked her head against the wall.  Talk about ‘this will hurt me more than you.’  I was scared and yelled since I couldn’t rush to her, and John came in and helped her back up.  Now when someone in her seventies hits the floor (and her head), you worry.  I called the doctor, but by the time he got here, she was walking, talking, and acting normal (for her).  He checked her over and could find nothing broken or any sign of a concussion.  She was upset over all the fuss, but she did take the pain pills he offered her, then she insisted I continue with my exercises.”

        Karen did so very much for me, ignored her own pain, and saw that I had whatever I needed to heal and recover.  She taught me and John what it means to really love someone.  She loved every child that way and still had contact on Facebook with kids she taught in kindergarten twenty and thirty years ago.  Karen Wiggins, “Mama Africa” loved others unconditionally all her life, touched thousands of lives, and never quit serving others—up to the last day of her life.  She also loved her little Tibetan Terrier, Sissie, who she cuddled and loved all the time and who was never not by her side.  When a Saint that loved you more than life itself is taken from you, you hurt.  You hurt beyond belief.  Please keep John and I in your prayers, we so desperately need them.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the oer wrought heart and bids it break.” — William Shakespeare

            John and I are in Tanzania, my son, Chris, is in New Jersey, and my son, Keith, is in Arkansas, but thanks to a thing called a Google Hangout, I can talk to my sons for hours for free and add video if I want.  John puts it on speakerphone so we can both just chat like we were all in the same room (there is an eight hour time difference).  Nothing has so helped my grieving as talking and writing with my sons who have also lost the same person.  The loss of a wife is or isn’t the same as the loss of a mother but the two (if the wife and mother was as wonderful as Karen) have to be pretty damn close.  My oldest has had trouble going to work, so he just hasn’t.  John and I just burst into tears at odd times and for odd reasons.  I have suffered serious and severe physical pain many times in my life and have chronic pain twenty-four hours a day, but nothing and I mean nothing compares to this.  It’s like my heart is hanging on the outside of my chest and keeps getting hit with rocks.  I’ve got blood pressure issues (hypertension) that I have to watch, but otherwise I’m fairly okay physically (do have chronic pain, but that’s been there for years).  However, I find it difficult to walk, painful to sit, and I’m unable to sleep for more than thirty or forty minutes at a time.  I find myself staring at the television without registering what I’m seeing.  John and I both have trouble finishing even a thirty-minute show without one of us having to leave the room.  This is not a good way to live.  When the little ones are here singing and laughing, it’s a little better, but they are gone by one in the afternoon and not here at all on the weekend.  Just to make things more fun, the only side of my mouth available for chewing is in pain, and I’m going to have to travel to the dentist in Mwanza on Monday.  The moral here is that there is no comfort food for me to use to ease the pain.  There are only so many ways you can make mashed potatoes, and, bless her heart, Racho has tackled them all.  The comments and messages I’ve been getting on Facebook have really helped, and I am so very grateful, but sometimes you need a person with skin on.  I have good friends who have lost loved ones in traumatic ways, and I am only just now discovering what they went through.  I was thinking they had gotten on with their lives and then recently got messages that said a loss twenty years ago is just as open a wound as if it happened yesterday.  How’d you do it, Ginger, Bob, Cheryl, and Amy?  I wish I had a support group or even one or two of my friends who’ve suffered a hard loss just to sit with and talk, but they are all eight time zones and two continents away.  I don’t know how to do this, I don’t know if I want to know how to do this, I don’t know how I can keep it together for John, but I know I must.  Karen’s dog, Sissie is in mourning, too.  She goes to all the places where Karen sat reading, or sewing, or working on her computer and the little dog just lies there looking sad.  Sissie still looks for Karen every morning, but then, so do I.  Taking care of her is actually helping a bit.  As my medical condition keeps me from attending church, Sundays are particularly hard.  Karen and I held hands in church from our first dates to the very end.  Even when I was in the pulpit and couldn’t hold hands, she had special looks for me that would melt my heart.  Now, my heart has simply melted.  I go on because I must, but it’s like marching forward into a fog with my head down.  I don’t know where I’m going, just that I must.  To quote one of my favorite poets, “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”  And, as I struggle forward, I am assisted by heartfelt prayers from many who loved Karen.  Thank you.

Friday, December 8, 2017

“If you invest your time, talent, and resources, orphans in Africa can have much happier and healthier lives.” — Beau Sides

            Death can only end a life, but it cannot end the forever loving touch of those who serve Christ by serving others.  In order to honor the dedication, service, and love of my wife for the small orphans in our area, we are renaming our preschool, but not really.  Karen named our preschool St. Caryn Pierce Academy in memory of a good friend of hers with whom she taught back in Springdale, Arkansas.  Sadly, Caryn Pierce died too young and her love of the color pink, music, and children everywhere lives on here.  The uniforms have a lot of pink, and there is a portrait of Caryn Pierce up in the school.  So, how to honor my beloved while continuing to honor the other Caryn?  Well, we are renaming the school the St. Karyns’ Academy which combines both Karen’s and Caryn’s names.  They taught together for years, loved each other, and now are being honored together once again.  Portraits of both women are up on the walls of the school, and there are special programs being planned to honor each one every year—one in the fall and one in the spring.  I think both would be happy to be joined and remembered and honored in this way.  The kids are learning special songs honoring Karen and Caryn, and I am helping with the lyrics.  The pink will always be a part of the uniforms and the colors of the school, and my Karen’s uniform designs will be kept and used year after year.  We already have over half the money we need to operate for another ten years pledged and have other support upon which we can count.  St. Karyns’ Academy will continue even after I have gone to join my honey sometime in the future.  It’s the least I could do to honor her love, her service, and her commitment to Christ here in Tanzania.  

Thursday, December 7, 2017

“Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.” — Steve Maraboli

                The people who are actively keeping Christ in Christmas (see quote above) care absolutely nothing about who says “Happy Holidays” and who says “Merry Christmas.”  Do you really think that Christ suffered and died so that we could have tinsel, fake snow, decorated trees in our houses, visits to Santa Claus at the mall, and a roast turkey on Christmas Day?  I like all those things, and they play a big part in many happy memories, but those are memories of family times together and not calls to follow Christ or to be accountable to His commandments.  We (authentic Christians) surrendered Christmas to the merchants and television folks long, long ago.  That battle was lost back in the Fifties—stop fighting it.  Enjoy all the things that make you feel better this time of year.  There are many, and no one enjoys a well-decorated house more than I do.  However, if you want to experience Christmas in a new way, I have a few suggestions.  One year, as a family, we decided to take all the money that we would have spent on each other and to spend it instead on a family that was in trouble.  I knew the social worker at the hospital, and she told me about several families and their circumstances, and we picked one without a father (in prison), and three small children.  The mother worked but could barely make ends meet and that meant no Christmas tree, no presents, no special meal on the special day.  So, we arranged to buy a tree, ornaments, lights, presents for each of the kids (clothes and toys—the social worker knew the sizes) and the mom.  The boys had a lot of fun shopping for the children, and I discovered that there is more than one Barbie Doll on offer.  We also arranged for a Christmas dinner to be cooked and delivered by a local restaurant.  The family never knew who their Christmas angels were, but the social worker went out of her way to visit them on Christmas Day (what an angel she was) and took pictures to show us later in January.  If you ask my boys what their best Christmas was, that’s the one they always pick.  There are so many, many ways you can turn Christmas from something that points you inward to something that points you outward.  The existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, believed that hell was other people and that may be for some, but for so many, many more, it’s heaven that’s other people.  You can make every Christmas special, holy, and in the true spirit of Christ by serving others.  You don’t have to throw out your tree or tear down your twinkling lights—you just have to share your joy with those who have none.  Volunteer for a soup kitchen, food pantry, or make up your own project.  It doesn’t take much and it changes those who receive and those who give.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

“Santa Claus was out for Christmas. What else for the elves to do on Christmas Eve but to let their hair down and drink a little eggnog.” ― Hiroshi Sakurazaka

                One of the things I miss most about Christmas in the States is eggnog.  Used to love it and haven’t had it in twelve years.  None.  Not a single sip.  Why I love it is an interesting story.  When I was a sophomore in college, I was “pinned” (she was wearing my fraternity pin) to a beautiful young woman named Karen Lusby.  We were sort of pre-engaged without the formality.  I had to go back home over the Christmas break, and she didn’t like it, but I had to go.  I flew from Abilene, Texas, to Alexandria, Louisiana, where my parents lived.  While I was there, I had to have all of my wisdom teeth taken out.  There were so sideways that they had to be surgically removed in a hospital, St. Francis Cabrini, there in Alexandria.  I would be in the hospital for three days and then have a week to recover at home.  Afterwards, my jaws were swollen, painful, and I couldn’t eat anything.  I was taking painkillers, and my father decided that he would make me eggnog milkshakes with protein powder to keep me healthy.  I loved them.  He didn’t tell me till years later that they were about half Bourbon.  Eggnog, Bourbon, and pain killers made for some dreamy days before I went back to McMurry University in Abilene.  When I could travel (jaws still swollen, looked like a chipmonk, Dad said), I flew back to Abilene in early January during an ice storm.  Tricky landing, but we made it.  It was around eight at night, and it was cold.  Karen was picking me up at the airport in her little Austin Cambridge (loved that little car) and had left it running, so it would be warm inside when we got back in.  We got in, loaded my suitcase in the back seat, and looking like a chipmonk (still taking painkillers) I mumbled, “Mwwood wwooo mwarrryy mmmmee?”  She said yes and the rest is history.  I didn’t tell her about the painkillers and the killer eggnog till later, but she said everything was legal and I wasn’t getting out of anything.  As far as she was concerned, I was of sound mind when I proposed and that was that.  I did love to have eggnog every Christmas from then on.  It brought back some happy times for someone who had lost his wisdom (teeth).  John is Googling some recipes, and, if we can find the ingredients, I’m gonna have some this Christmas to help me remember the beginning of my life with my love who made me who I am.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

“As long as we know in our hearts what Christmas ought to be, Christmas is.” ― Eric Sevareid

             Been seeing Facebook posts of Christmas lights, decorated Christmas trees, snow, and videos of Christmas songs—not here.  Still, it is around this time of year when Christian missionaries start to feel homesick, as least those who won’t be going home.  It usually reminds us of family, friends, food, traditions, the things that make the holidays feel like the holidays.  We are having our twelfth Christmas here without any family, and this year it will just be John and myself, and we know it will be lonely.  We’ve lived for most of our lives with huge Christmas celebrations with snow, office parties, parties of our own, tons of presents under the tree, family gatherings with eggnog and love and laughter.  Then, Karen’s parents died, my father died, Karen’s brother died, and our children moved away and weren’t always home for Christmas.  The celebrations lost a bit.  Then we moved to Africa, and just had each other for Christmas till John joined us.  While here, my mother passed away, and now Karen has gone to be with God.  Christmas here is really different and that will make this first one without Karen a lot easier on us.  One difference is that December is a summer month. So, as Christmas is coming closer and closer, it just never feels like Christmas because well, it’s sunny and beautiful.  We never hear Christmas music or see Christmas lights—only fourteen percent of the populace even have electricity and it’s expensive.  This year we will only watch one Christmas movie,  “Polar Express” because it was special to Karen and she insisted on us all watching it together since it came out in 2004.  That was before we moved to Africa and that year she made all of us go see it in the theater—so John and I will watch it and cry.  On Christmas day, John and I will open the packages that arrived in December; they will be our presents.   We have no tree.  There is no tinsel, no lights, no ornaments, no Nativity scene, it is as a hippie poet once wrote, “Christ climbed down from His bare tree this year.”  There is no tradition of Santa Claus or gift-giving here—it’s a poor country and less than half Christian.   On Christmas day, Christian Tanzanians spend most of the morning in church and then they go home for a big meal together.  Chicken and pilau which is a spiced rice dish are very popular.  Then, they just relax together until they go back to church again towards the evening.  Here in Bunda, there is nothing special to do really, so the Tanzanians just attend church, eat their meal together, and relax.  It does mean that it’s hard to find chickens or eggs to buy the week after Christmas, but we survive.  There is still a part of us that longs to be with our whole family, but we do have computers that let us see each other live.
         So, I think that Christmas in Tanzania is what many Christians in America believe it should be—a simple celebration of the birth of Jesus with time spent together with family.  We will read the Christmas story from the Bible together.  We will pray together.  We will give our neighbor’s and workers small Christmas gifts.  It may be a more natural event here, but we do miss the candlelight services, singing “Silent Night,” and feeling cold and wearing sweaters (we don’t even own any sweaters).  The birth of Jesus will not go unnoticed in our home this year or any year.  It just won’t be the same as yours.