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.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Helga, Sarge, and Ms. Inga (Guest Blogger)

In July, WestBow Press published my first book. Many people, including the publisher, likened this event to a birth. At first, I thought this comparison far too epic, but as each step in the process came to fruition, I embraced this metaphor. I fretted over every sentence, worried about mistakes and typos (and there are still many of them in the book). Growing Room survived the first publisher’s edit mostly intact. Honestly, I couldn’t catch my breath, couldn’t quite focus. My disconnected thoughts bordered on elation and panic. This book I wrote might well be a failure—but WestBow published Growing Room: For Life in Tight Places.
Since Growing Room went live in July 2015, there’s been a video release, Facebook contests, text messages, and newspaper articles. I’ve heard from readers through Facebook messages, phone calls, and face to face conversations. My Church Body prayed over the book and me, and in September I experienced my first book signing. My own.

But God’s orchestration and plans are far above and beyond ours. In Growing Room, in the opening chapter I declare that God is ahead of us always. He. Is. Always. Ahead. Even now this unfolding causes me to catch my breath. 
In early August The Winchester Sun, our newspaper, ran a local interest article about Growing Room and me. The story made the front page and had the hometown-girl-makes-big feeling. I read it and tucked it away, not because it wasn’t important, but because I didn’t want it to be. Growing Room is not a best seller or great American classic writing, but all the words and the lessons recorded in it have shaped me. Through the experiences written in it God revealed to me his sweet, beautiful, and powerful grace. Quite often I stand in the throne room, with a little moxie and chutzpah, praying for this book to bear fruit that will last for his glory.

And when you ask the Father for bread on your plate he doesn’t give you stones.

One day after the newspaper article printed I was at work. It was a Thursday night, rainy and storming. I heard a patron ask my daughter an odd question: Did we have any resources available to help her convert her manuscript to a typed document? My daughter referred her to our reference department. A few minutes later one of our reference librarians came and asked me if I could come and talk to the patron at her desk. Jennifer explained that this patron would like to meet me because she read the newspaper article. Jennifer introduced me to Ms. Inga LaBella. And my life hasn’t been the same since.

Ms. Inga started at the beginning. A friend of Inga’s called and asked her if she had seen the newspaper from a few days ago.
“No, Will, I haven’t,” said Ms. Inga.

“Well, Inga, you need to find you one right now. Monday’s paper,” he encouraged.

Ms. Inga went to a neighbor’s house and found the Monday edition of the paper. Three days later she and I sat at the reference desk sharing stories. Mostly I listened to her, enthralled. She has a story to tell, many stories. When she read of my journey to share mine, she embraced the courage to find a means to tell hers.
Ms. Inga needs to write a book, and we are working to make that happen, but in the meantime I invited her to share some of her story here on The Chambered Nautilus as a guest blogger.

Ms. Inga’s stories are memories from Germany during WWII. In the early 1940’s Inga was a little girl with red curls and dark brown eyes and a strong will.
Ms. Inga today.
Ms. Inga in 1941-42

She lived in a small German village and remembers events and people that most of us only read about in books. Inga watched American soldiers drive tanks down streets far too small—the sidewalks widening the road. Inga watched her father nail a picture of Hitler on the wall of their small home. She witnessed the SS (Schutzstaffel) when they pushed through front doors and into their home, waiting for the Hoffmann family to salute the Fuhrer’s image. Inga heard the staccato barks of the soldiers commanding her mother to salute. The stern soldiers shouted, and their dogs intimidated Inga too, but her little four-year-old-self refused. The SS left her home, the German shepherd trailing slightly behind, licking Ms. Inga’s hand as it passed through the front door. 
These stories drew me. Ms. Inga, her accent, and her still red hair delighted me. I thanked God for her and this incredible opportunity. I meet with Ms. Inga almost every week now. On Thursdays, I drive to her house and sit at her kitchen table or on her deck and listen as she recounts experiences and people and events. Sometimes I take notes, abbreviated words and scrawled writing, so I don’t miss or leave out a detail. I laugh because Ms. Inga has a snap-sharp wit, impeccable timing, and the punch and point of her story come naturally.  I look forward to Thursdays. I think you would too.  

Ms. Inga has written her stories down in a cloth bound journal, printed in clear, distinct, and purposed handwriting. She gave me permission to post them here. This connection with Ms. Inga is fruit, the very fruit of my prayers. I praise and thank the Good Father; there are no stones on my plate.
Ms. Inga's handwritten journal.
This is Ms. Inga's story of Helga. 

My Best and First Friend
By Ingeborg LaBella

We both were the same age, born in the same month (July). We always pretended we were sisters. She had blonde hair and the bluest eyes—the color of the flower (forget-me-not). They grew wild in the fields, and as we got older, we picked them for our mothers.
We would sit on my swing for hours, made up stories and even a few songs, and then we would dance like butterflies. On rainy days we played—one day in my house, one day in her house—usually we played school. We took turns on who was the Teacher. We knew the alphabet real well, and we could count to one hundred. Our ragdolls and one Teddy Bear were our students, bur after a while we got tired. We looked outside my window and tried to count the raindrops, after a while we laid on my bed and took a long-long nap. For Sundays, we picked daisies and made a wreath to put on our heads.

We were not allowed to talk in church. I was fascinated by the Virgin Mary, and so was Helga. At the end of church when the minister and all the people left the church we hurried to the Virgin Mary and laid our wreaths at her feet. One Sunday the minister said, “Mary said, ‘thank you’ to the two little girls who put the wreaths by her feet.
Helga whispered maybe we can’t ever go to Church again, but he smiled at us and said, “The angels are smiling at the two of you.” We both hugged, and I told Helga that we will be sisters forever.

The cherries were almost ready to be picked off the trees. Helga and I thought that maybe we can reach one or two if we can pull on the branch. We finally got one. I told Helga this one was hers. Suddenly I heard her scream. I saw some blood run down her chin, and she spit her bottom tooth out. Suddenly she stopped crying and reminded me that I did not eat my cherry yet. I ate it very careful and did not lose a tooth.
“That’s not fair,” she said and went home. Every evening I laid on my bed twisting on one of my bottom teeth. It took almost two weeks before the tooth finally fell out.

My mother said, “How come you are so happy because you lost your tooth.” I told her that Helga lost hers, and I felt bad for her, and now she will be happy again.
My mother asked, “If she breaks her arm or leg, will you break yours too?”

I said, “Of course not, but I will take care of her until she is better again.” My mother gave me a big hug and said, “You would be a good nurse just like your Aunt Martha.”

I never knew Helga’s last name, and I wonder if she she knew mine. We didn’t care, and we didn’t know our last names meant life or death for all of us. One day a young boy carried a black bucket and broom between two German soldiers, and he had to paint a cross on some doors. They painted one on Helga’s door, and we didn’t know why. We thought maybe we could wash it off when they left our street. We tried, but it didn’t work. Helga wondered why they didn’t paint a cross on our door. I decided to ask my mother what the black marks meant, but she didn’t know either. She told us not to worry, but I could tell she was upset. She told me it wasn’t the time to ask her questions (I asked lots of questions). My mother told me I wasn’t allowed to go outside and play for a while, and that I must listen. My feelings were hurt, and I sat on my bed and cried and cried. Finally, my brother Hans came home, and I told him the whole story.
He said something bad was going to happen; he didn’t know when, but it would be soon. I wasn’t for sure, but I think he mentioned the Jews. I wished I knew about the Jews; I didn’t know who they were. Were they dangerous?

During our Thursday mornings together Ms. Inga and I talked about Helga. These two girls were inseparable. One morning after the event mentioned above Helga came to Inga’s house early, and they snuck outside to play. Inga and Helga heard that the SS had gathered people in the town square. Sometimes little girls do not do what their mothers tell them, and Helga and Inga slipped away from the yard. Their curiosity drew them to the town square where they saw many of their neighbors and friends lined against the wall of the building, and the SS shouting. The little girls hid lifting their eyes enough to see what was happening. Shots were fired, and the little girls ran back to Inga’s house.
The next day Helga did not come to play, and Inga’s mother did not allow her to go outside. Helga did not come the next day. Or the next. Or the next. Heartbroken, Inga kept asking why. She never saw her friend again. Later Inga learned Helga’s family was Jewish. Inga could only assume that Helga and her family did not escape the war.

Next post tells the story of Ms. Inga's friend Sarge, a black American soldier who visited her village.