Thursday, February 4, 2016

White Noise

Recently, my high school writing class and I met at a local coffee shop. I gave them a writing prompt. I mean it is almost cliché to sit and write in a local coffee shop, right? And you are in some famous company if you do: Rowling, Rankin, Fitzgerald, McCall Smith, and many others have strung words together while sipping coffee or some other form of liquid fortifier.

What was the prompt? The jump start words to prime the proverbial well?

Two words.

White noise.

In the dim light of the coffee house conference room, light streamed in through the seven-foot windows, and the muffled noises from the street and downstairs wafted up to us, I asked my students to identify the white noise of their lives. A few of them looked at me puzzled. Some looked past me with a blank stare as if I had just spoken Russian on a Japanese subway. Some met my gaze, and the light bulb glimmered like a compact fluorescent—slow and low, and then bright. A couple lit immediately. 

I watched as they scratched their words on the paper, hesitating, erasing, and pausing. Some of their answers surprised me. As I quietly meandered around their chairs, I considered the white noise in my life. And I asked myself the question I asked my students.

What is the white noise in my life right now?

What is the static that crackles just under the surface? What is the hum of the underlying current? What is the consistent tone or pattern I hear layered just under everything else?

A friend of mine asked me to consider 2015: the highs and the lows and the shallows and the depths.

The summit places have been broad and open and full of light, places of indescribable joy.  In March, my grandson arrived. I held Atlas in my arms, the five percent miracle of him, and joy swelled in me in proportions uncontainable. 

August marked the release of my first book, Growing Room. The publisher sent the first copy off the press to me. My husband and I stood in the break room at work and opened the box. The joyful rush and exhilaration of holding my book in my hand were surreal. I pressed my head into his chest and wept.   In September, I experienced my first book signing, and another type of joy pushed into me, pressed in leaving embossed indentations on my spirit.

These wonderful events produced definitive heights—experiences much like the ridges on the roads in the hills when I visit my dad. And for much of 2015 I rode on these high places. Drove them. Maneuvered them. Navigated them. I’m grateful I didn’t see the ninety-degree bend in the road that was coming. I’m thankful I didn’t see the drop-off and the crumble of the pavement. I’m blessed that God does not reveal the future to us; he did not show me the wreckage in the distance.

In October, Steve and I took a sabbatical weekend and drove to Gatlinburg, TN. In the early hours of the third day of our trip, my phone rang waking me from a deep sleep. I know the phone rang two different times because later I would check my records, but it was the second call that broke through my sleep.

The story of that few minutes of eternity is for another time, but my brother was dead, killed in an accident on an interstate.

The descent from the heights of the joy ridge began, and the white noise commenced.

As I viewed the residual fall out of my brother’s death, white noise infiltrated my thought processes, inserted itself into the routine of my life, and became the underlying discordant hum I couldn’t quite decipher.

Last week I stayed home from church. The inner chaos and white noise were taking their toll on me. I keyed up a worship playlist on my computer and cleaned house with a focused vengeance. At last worn out, I sat down on the couch and the white noise increased to deafening levels.
Anyone who knows me or has read my blog or book understands I am a crier. I cry, and I cry some more. But since my brother’s death, I have lived the last three and half months dry-eyed. The white noise clogged my tear ducts, dam tight. 

I sat in my living room curled up on the couch, and the white noise pushed against my ears and eyelids. Strangled cries and choking sobs broke through my throat. I tried to stop them, futile efforts. Finally, I wept for my brother and for the wreckage his death left behind—for the situations and people I can’t fix or help. 

I finally wept for me. And I called things what they are.

Grief and depression.

I heard the static of each of them humming under the surface; I identified my white noise.

And now begins the work of turning down the volume of this white noise named Grief.

Friends, I know many of you are struggling with white noise in your life. Some of you (of us) are living with a deafening roar in your ear, a ringing that just won’t stop. The hum is so familiar that you selectively don’t acknowledge it anymore, but it is taking its toll. Perhaps your white noise is grief, fear, anxiety, infertility, loneliness, anger, isolation, cancer, brokenness, resentment, addiction, depression, abuse, busyness, rejection, lethargy, or emptiness. Maybe, you can’t seem to identify it at all; you just know that you are going to go deaf.
Friends, don’t go deaf. Ask the Spirit to identify your white noise, to name it, and to show you how to decrease its volume. Identification and recognition are the first steps.  

Take the first steps.

Monday, November 16, 2015

One Month

It’s been a month since I got the 3:38 am the phone call. A phone call that shifted the terrain of our family. In the first seven days I functioned automatically, shifted into a place of doing what needed to be done, the shepherding mode. Take care of the sheep. Take care of the sheep. My goal was to take care of everyone—my mother, my step-father, my daughters, my niece and nephew, step-sisters and step-brother, and my brother’s two best friends.

My grief was and is real, but I relegated it to a compartment I wasn’t ready to open. I folded my grief and laid it in a box, thinking I would take it out and examine it later. I grieved during those first seven days, but through a fog, a numb stupor. Other people’s pain registered more strongly than my own.

But grief is a strong entity. Physical and tangible. Persistent and invasive. And it ambushes you. This thought did not originate with me, but someone said this during my brother’s funeral week. What a keen insight, what verb-age to apply to grief.


I would think after being ambushed several times one would begin to get a sense of the patterns and triggers. But no, I was caught off guard more than once.

A video (posted at the end)  was playing during visitation and right before the funeral. In the footage Courtney encouraged his baby son to walk.

“Come on. Come on.” 

I stood with my back to my brother’s casket, placing an armload of stuffed animals on the floor to get them out of the way. I knew where I was. I knew what was going on. In less than ten minutes, my brother’s funeral would begin. I was straightening. Preparing. Cleaning. I was trying to keep busy. Trying to focus on activity, remaining in motion. Somehow I knew that if the motion ceased, I would collapse inwardly.

And then I heard my brother’s voice.

“Come on. Come on.”

And I turned to find him, whipped around to look behind me to see where he was. My mind understood where I was and what was about to happen, what had happened, but Courtney’s voice pierced through the numbness, and I looked to find him. The hearing and looking were the triggers. Before I knew it, a sob pushed up and through and out of my throat. I remember putting my hand over my mouth to catch the sound, but it escaped through the spaces between my fingers. My face was already wet with tears. I turned and stumbled away, not even knowing what direction I headed.

I watched grief ambush the people Courtney loved. Over and over. And I was helpless and powerless to warn them. To stop it.

A month has passed. Everyone is still hurting and grieving in such different ways. Each of us broken or cracked at a different angle and severity, our own unique fractured webs.

Slowly, I am reentering the mainstream of living. There is still a numbness that I don't quite comprehend—just this small vacuum of space that I don't know how to navigate. This past week I realized with this foggy vagueness that something in me was anticipating my weekly text and pictures from Courtney. And I am still in the midst of trying to know and discern how to help my family navigate this nightmare.

My daily life has not been avalanched or earthquaked like my brother’s two best friends (Christian and Steven) or my mom and stepfather. I experience the aftershocks, the wakes of their grief combine with my own. I am trying to reenter the mainstream, but it is like merging back into high-speed interstate traffic. I keep feeling the whoosh of air fly by me as the cars just speed along in life.
All my dear friends encourage me to take the time to grieve, to allow myself space, and to give myself permission to grieve.

One of my brother’s best friends said something this week that I have been holding.

“He’s [Courtney] in the back of my mind constant. But that’s not new for me, what’s new for me is I’m not in the back of his mind. We’ve always thought of each other in a lot of things, things only we shared. But most people are already tired of hearing about him.”

Most people are already tired of hearing about him. Perhaps this is true. I catch myself holding thoughts in, holding emotions close, belting reactions, and closing my mouth before words escape. Only late at night when the house is dark or in the early light of the morning do the tears come, running hot and quick down my face. They waylay me and take me unaware. The tears and sorrow are held in a deep reservoir waiting for a crack to open. 

And I am thankful for the cracks, for the fissures. For the seepage of the weeping. The tears coat the jagged edges of pain. The release of them keeps me from cracking internally.

I think of Jesus.

He is the exact representation of the Father. He is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus stood at the tomb of Lazarus, his friend, and his heart brother. And he wept. He didn’t just cry ceremonial, obligatory tears. No, he cried. Jesus wept because death wasn’t a part of the original plan. It wasn’t an element in the original storyline. It wasn’t’ the Father’s intention. And Jesus stood at the brink and edge of sorrow and loss and pain. He didn’t shirk. He didn’t stoically hold it all in because God would make all things work together for the good. No, he wept for Lazarus, for Martha and Mary, and he wept for us. He stood at the cavern of death and wept for all of us.

And then he said to Lazarus, “Come out.” 

Come on, Lazarus.

I believe he said this to Courtney.

Come on. Come on.

Someday Jesus will say it to me.

And someday he will say it to you.

And when he does death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.


Courtney and Aiden

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mr. Mohr, Chocolate, Sarge, and Ms. Inga

Ingeborg Hoffmann (Her mama made sure Inga always put the second “n” on her last name; she assured her that it made a difference) was born in Faurndau (Swabia) in 1938. Ingeborg, red-headed and strong-tempered, persistently and constantly asked a litany of questions much to her mother’s annoyance. The 1940’s version of time-out was to be sent to your room; Ms. Inga spent a lot of time in her room.

Even now when Ms. Inga talks to me, I hear her voice, riveted in places with remnants of her native German. I see this sepia photograph in my mind of this auburn-haired little girl stamping her feet before her brothers (she followed them everywhere), her hands on her hips, brown eyes flashing. Ms. Inga assures me that this redheaded trait got her into trouble more often than not. But this precocious child surely made an impression on an American soldier.

Thirteen year old Ms. Inga on left with her younger sister on right.
The little girl in the middle was an American child the sisters babysat.


By Ingeborg LaBella

Early one morning my brother Hans woke me up. He wanted me to listen to the noise outside our house. What is it? I asked him.

He said, “Come and look out my window, and you will see.” As I looked out the window, on the street were the biggest trucks we had ever seen. The fumes they expelled were awful. Once they shut their motors off, the noise and fumes subsided.

Many of the soldiers sat on the sidewalk, but some of them laid on the sidewalk. My brother explained to me that they drove all night long to reach their destination.

“What is the destination?” I asked him.

“A town or city, just a place,” He answered.

I didn’t know why the soldiers were in our little town. I hurried back upstairs and got dressed. I tried to comb my curly hair the best way I could.

Some of my friends were there, and made fun of the black soldiers, but the men just ignored them. Out of the first truck came the biggest black man I had ever seen. Most of the children ran away to hide; we had never seen a black man before. All I could do was stare at him. He spoke, and I was very surprised. He spoke almost perfect German.

I had a picture book that I got from my Aunt Martha (my mother’s younger sister). I couldn’t read yet, but I looked at the pages of pictures of Africa. The title of the book was Der Schowarze Mohr (The Black Mohr). I thought Sarge looked like the men in the pictures.

Habekeine angst,” He told us don’t be afraid. He assured us that he and the soldiers would not harm us.

My brother Hans stepped forward and asked, “Are you the Americans? How come you speak German?”

Of course, I was in the front, and the Sarge asked me in German what my name was. I told him my name was Ingeborg. He picked me up and smiled at me. I noticed his big white teeth and his big lips.

“That is a beautiful name, but much too long for a such a little girl like you. I will call you Inga, that’s the right name for you. Do you like it? ”

I told him, “I don’t know, I will have to ask my mother.”

My mother came out of the house with a basket of clothes she just washed. She saw us, and, of course, she was curious about what was going on. He told her my new name was Inga. She wasn’t mad or anything, and she even shook Sarge’s hand.

My mother told us to go and play in the yard, and she and the soldier talked for a very long time. Later I learned she asked Sarge where he learned to speak German. He told my mother he had to learn German because he was a scout. He and the rest of his platoon were always the first soldiers to occupy the towns or cities. The soldiers were given instructions to talk to the children in the villages first. They considered this the best way to find out the local news. Children don’t lie; they are brutally honest. My mother was not sure if she could believe him or not. But she told us that we didn’t have to be afraid him. 

Later on the street Sarge pulled something out of his jacket pocket, and he explained that it was schokolade (chocolate).  He offered it to us. None of us had ever tasted it before, and we were hesitant and wary.

He looked at me and said, “You look like a brave girl, here put this little piece in your mouth and let it melt slowly.” Several of the kids shouted that it was poison, and they didn’t want anyone to die. But Sarge laughed and assured me that we would not die. He broke a piece off and let it melt in his mouth and told us how good it tasted. I stepped toward him and took the piece he offered me. It was just the best thing I ever ate. I whispered to him that this schokolade was good. He told us that he would still be here tomorrow. 

I said, “Gute Nacht, Herr Mohr.”

“The same to you, Redhead,” He replied.

I was awake most of the night. When I got up the next day, I had to eat oatmeal and half of an apple before I could go downstairs. Outside at last Sarge offered us another surprise: a few pieces of chewing gum. The others were still a little afraid to take it, but I went first. He told me I could chew on it as long as I wanted, then spit it out.

He said, “Don’t swallow it, Inga, it will get stuck in your throat.”

Sarge asked me if he could swing on my swing. I told him he was much too big for my swing.

“I will be careful, and if I break your swing, you will get a new one, but I will keep all the apples that fall from the tree.”

Well, the apples fell from the tree, and Sarge was lying on the ground holding a part of my swing in his big hand. I cried, and he laughed. I told him that he couldn’t call me Inga anymore. He teased me, “Can I call you Redhead?”

“Nein. What about my swing?” I asked.

“It will be there, don’t you worry. Just wait and see.”

He explained that he and the other soldiers had to move along and that he would see me tomorrow and say goodbye.

I cried myself to sleep that night. In the early morning hours, I heard the motors of the big trucks start. I hurried downstairs and outside; I wanted to say aufwiedersehn (goodbye).

I sat on the sidewalk for a long time until someone woke up in the truck. Several soldiers slept in the back. Sarge came out and told me they were getting ready to leave soon. I told him about my book and that I had decided his name was Mr. Mohr. He laughed and told me to call him Sarge. I asked Sarge if I would ever see him again.

“Maybe,” He said.

He pulled his wallet out and showed me a picture of his wife and two little girls. He told me that they lived far away in America, not in Africa. I was confused. He asked me if I would like to blow the horn on the truck, but he had to help me because my hands were too small and not strong enough.

Then he asked me if I wanted to take a look at the apple tree. I was so surprised! There on my apple tree was a new swing. The other soldiers helped Sarge make it.

Sarge told me it was now time for him to leave, and asked if he could give me a hug. I told him it was ok, but that I hoped I wouldn’t get black like him. He laughed. “I will miss you, Inga.” He hugged me and then got into his truck.

Aufwiedersehn,” he yelled and waved at me from the window. I shouted for him to come back again.

I don’t know if he could hear me anymore because of the noise of the trucks.  I waved goodbye.

Ms. Inga never saw Sarge again. But I have a few questions to ponder. When Sarge returned to America and to his family, I wonder if he sat his two little girls on his knee and told them about the brave little German girl. Was there a time he considered returning to the village to see the bold red-headed girl? Did he talk to his wife about the little girl’s innocence and forthrightness? About her candor and honesty? When Sarge unwrapped a chocolate bar or bit into an apple did he think about the little girl he nicknamed Inga?

One thing we know for sure, his nickname for her remains; we still call her Inga.