Reflections on Turning 60

September 24, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/25187937@N05/5300605968">Clock</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(license)</a>

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My 60th birthday came and went last Saturday, amid little fanfare. Well, actually there was quite a bit of fanfare because my high school class (’73, Washington High School), held a group 60th birthday party. Coincidentally, they held it on my birthday. We all gathered on the Gateway Clipper riverboat in Pittsburgh, to Cruise into the Sixties.

The dinner cruise was from 6:30-9:00, and those were without question the fastest two and a half hours I have ever experienced. It felt like the cruise had just started when we pulled back to the dock.

I hadn’t seen any of my classmates in 42 years. There was so much to talk about, so many people to reconnect with. But time passed too quickly.

Where had the time gone?

That’s the question I face daily as I embark on my seventh decade on planet earth.

Where has the time gone?

Turning sixty has not been a depressing event for me. I’m not sad that I’m “growing old.” The adage You’re as young as you feel, is true. My body might be 60, but I feel the same as when I was 20 and 30 and 40 and 50.

I’ve got a lot to live for and I feel like I’m just now hitting my stride.

The only difference is that now I am acutely aware of the ticking of the clock. That awareness didn’t spring up overnight; it’s been building for the last five or six years.

In past years, I paid little attention to the passing of time and wasted quite a lot of it. Now I am conscious that my time is limited. I want to make the most of every minute, every second.

Turning sixty isn’t that bad.

It really isn’t.

It is little more than a signpost along the way that reminds me of the brevity of my journey and the amount of work I still need to do.

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Fiction Improv 4.0 – Fern & Gideon

August 5, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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All righty, here’s what you gave me for Fiction Improv. 4.0:

2 Names: Gideon and Fern
Occupation: Soldier
Situation: Stuck in a Louisiana swamp
Five Random Words (I’ll use at least 3): Brilliant, sizzle, poop, telekinesis, and splash.

Min word count 500, max 1,000.

*    *    *    *    *

 Fern & Gideon

Brilliant! I remembered everything I needed for a quiet day of fishing in the Atchafalaya Basin. Boat. Rods. Bait. Food. Water. Sunscreen.

Only forgot one thing.

Gas.

Fern listened to the water slapping gently against the bottom of her little fishing boat. Aside from the cicadas’ chirping and an occasional splash from a fish, the swamp was quiet. Even though she hadn’t caught anything, she had actually enjoyed the day, although the July sun made the aluminum boat sizzling hot at times.

When the afternoon shadows began to lengthen, Fern decided it was time to get back home to Gideon. He’d be missing her.

She tugged on the starter and the little motor burped.

She pulled again, and again the engine belched.

Strange. It’s always started with one pull.

She grabbed the handle and jerked the starting cord a third time. And a fourth. And a fifth.

The outboard motor blew raspberries back at her.

It was only after her arm and shoulder began to ache that she decided to check the gas tank. It was dry.

Of course. Why didn’t I think of that sooner? Just a little gas in the tank and I’ll be on my way.

But when she reached for the gas can, she felt a sinking sensation in her stomach. There was no gas can. How could she have forgotten it?

Now as twilight settled over the swamp Fern faced the prospect of spending a night out there. Fears multiplied like evil rabbits. Would she survive? Would one of the alligators she’d seen earlier attack her boat and devour her? Would they gang up on her and divide her among them? Fern moved to the middle of the boat, hopefully out of reach of any hungry gators.

It wasn’t long before she heard the buzzing in her ears. She looked above her and saw the dark cloud swirling and hovering. It was then she understood that she would not be devoured by gators. Mosquitoes would get her long before that. They would suck every drop of blood from her and when they found her—if anybody ever did find her—all they would find would be a dried, bloodless husk of a woman.

But Fern wasn’t worried about herself. It was Gideon she felt sorry for.

How would he live without her?

She hadn’t even said goodbye. She was mad at him when she left that morning. The worst part was that it was all so trivial.

Now I’ll never have the chance to apologize.

As she looked into the darkening sky, a smattering of stars now visible, she wondered what Gideon was doing. Was he worried?

She swatted at the mosquitoes, trying to drive them away. That was one more thing she’d forgotten. Bug repellant.

As darkness overtook the swamp, Fern resigned herself to her fate. She lay down in the boat and waited for sleep, and then death, to take her.

A single tear rolled down her cheek.

I’m sorry, Gideon.

And all went black.

*   *   *

“Ma’am? Ma’am, are you all right?” The voice of a young man broke through her mental fog.

Fern blinked her eyes and squinted in the bright morning light. She shielded her eyes from the glare coming off the water?

A strong-looking, handsome young man had pulled his boat alongside hers.

I must look atrocious. Her hand went to her hair. A matted mess, of course. And she was covered in red welts from the mosquito bites. At least she wasn’t sunburned. And the gators hadn’t gotten her.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Now that you’re here,” she added with a coquettish smile. Then she blushed and pointed to the outboard motor. “I ran out of gas.”

“Not a problem,” the muscular young man replied. “I have extra.” He handed her a red, plastic gas container.

Trying to sound casual as she filled her tank, Fern asked, “So, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a soldier, Ma’am. I’m stationed at Fort Polk.”

A chill went through her. She’d always wanted to date a soldier.

Fern handed the gas can back to him and blinked her eyes. “My name is Fern.” When he didn’t respond with more than a nod, she added, “And you are?”

“Johnson, Ma’am. Private Timothy Johnson.”

As he took the can, she noticed the wedding ring on his finger.

Why are the handsome ones always taken?

It was at that moment, she remembered Gideon.

“I’ve got to get home!” she said.

After a few pulls, the motor started and Fern was on her way.

She loaded her boat onto her trailer and as she drove home she kept mumbling the words, “I’m sorry, Gideon,” as if they were a mantra. Forty minutes later she pulled into her driveway.

Fern didn’t even bother unpacking.

She rushed to her front door, key in hand. “I’m sorry, Gideon. I’m sorry, Gideon. I’m sorry, Gideon.”

She threw the door open, and called out, “Gideon, I’m home!”

A scruffy, little Yorkie tore across the room and leapt into her arms. Fern stood there, hugging the little dog as it licked her face. Finally she put the dog down and closed the front door behind her.

Then she sniffed. The aroma was unmistakable. Fern frowned at the little dog and walked into the dining room.

Fern put her hands on her hips. “Gideon, you pooped on the floor. Again!”

Gideon looked up and wagged his tail as if to say, “What’s a dog to do when his owner stays out all night partying?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fiction Improvisation 3.0

July 27, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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Fiction Improv 3.0

Okay, Peeps, Here’s what you gave me:

2 Names: Beulah and Harvey

Occupation: Environmentalist

5 Words (I’ll use at least 3): Verbose, superfluous, ambiguous, fun, and onomatopoeia.

Situation (I put out an extra call for this item and two people responded at almost exactly the same time. Since I don’t know which one was first, I’ll accept both.): (1)Getting wisdom teeth out and (2)Waiting in a crowd for a bus

All righty, this one is definitely going to be interesting. Time to let the elements cook a bit. I’ll post a short-short story or a scene by Sunday night. Max word count is 1,000. Minimum 500. 

The story turned out to be 787 words.

 

photo credit: Hipster via photopin (license)

photo credit: Hipster via photopin (license)

The Green Battery?

So this is what it feels like to have your jaws crushed under a steamroller.

Even though the city bus was only going about ten miles per hour, every time it hit a bump or rolled over a pothole, Harvey felt a fresh surge of pain. And it wasn’t just coming from the four empty sockets that once held his wisdom teeth. His whole body ached in sympathy.

What he wanted—needed—was quiet. But that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

First, the bus, for which he had waited nearly an hour, was stuck in rush-hour traffic.

Second, the woman behind him was apparently trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest unbroken stream-of-consciousness cell phone conversation.

Of course, it could hardly qualify as a conversation. The verbose woman never paused long enough for the person on the other end to get a word in. All Harvey knew was that the other person was named Beulah, and the only reason he knew that was that the woman apparently felt a pressing need to insert her friend’s name in every other sentence.

“Well, Beulah, you know I think what she was wearing yesterday was just atrocious, don’t you, I mean, really, how could she possibly wear black to a wedding rehearsal dinner doesn’t she know she has practically cursed the poor couple before they ever start on the road of life together, of course, Beulah, she might as well have cursed them because I don’t give that marriage six months, if they make it seven then, Beulah, you can say I told you so and by the way, did you see what the preacher’s wife was wearing…”

Harvey looked at his watch. It had been going on for two solid hours.

photo credit: Brno via photopin (license)

photo credit: Brno via photopin (license)

At the bus stop, she stood behind him—talking.

He’d have moved but the crowd was pressed so tight, he couldn’t get away.

On the bus, he hoped to place some distance between them.

She sat on the seat behind him—still talking.

And the longer she talked, the more his head throbbed.

He had to do something, but what?

Move? Not possible. No empty seats.

He could turn around and give her a dirty look.

That wouldn’t work. Besides, he’d already done that several times. The woman was clueless.

Grab her phone and stomp on it?

He’d get arrested.

But maybe, just maybe…

It hurt to even move, but Harvey stood up and reached inside his coat. As he stepped into the aisle, he put on his most stern expression, pulled out his I.D. and flashed it at her.

“Ma’am, pleashh hang upff. I neeth thoo thalk thoo shyou.”

She gazed at him, a blank look on her face.

At least she stopped talking.

“What did you say?”

Harvey realized that with a mouth packed full of cotton, he probably made Brando’s Godfather sound eloquent. He had to keep this brief. Every superfluous word he spoke only added to his pain.

He pointed at his I.D. badge and struggled to make each word clear. “I…needth…thoo…thalk…thoo…yoo.”

“Beulah, I’ll call you right back.” The woman broke the connection and then said, “Now what is it? You interrupted a very important conversation.”

Harvey pointed at his I.D.

The woman squinted. “Environmental Protection Agency?”

Harvey nodded.

“What do you want with me?”

Harvey pointed at her phone. “Ish…thath…phone’s…bathry…green?”

“Green? What in the world are you talking about.”

Harvey shook his head and pointed at his I.D. again.

“Ish…thath…phone’s…bathry…shafe…for…thee…environmenth?”

photo credit: DSCN3642.JPG via photopin (license)

photo credit: DSCN3642.JPG via photopin (license)

The woman’s face flushed. “I—I don’t know.”

“I…thoughth…ash…mush.” He held out his hand. “I’ll…haff…thoo…sheck…ith.”

“But, but you can’t do that!”

Harvey pointed at his I.D. and held out his hand.

The woman looked around at the other passengers. “Do you see what he’s trying to do? Somebody tell him he can’t do this.”

Most of the other passengers ignored her. A few shrugged and gave her a “What can we do?” look.

“You can’t do this!”

Harvey held out his hand. “Doo…yoo…wanth…me…thoo…arresth…yoo?”

The woman’s face was so red, she looked like she might explode. “Oh, all right.”  She slapped the phone into his hand.

Harvey popped the back of the phone off and took out the battery. He turned it this way and that, scrutinizing it and shaking his head.

“Shorry. Goth…too…confishgathe…ith. ”

“My phone?”

Harvey shook his head. “No. Jush…the…batthry. E.P.A. regulashion…35491…dansherous…bathries.” He handed her phone back to her. “Go…buy…a…green…one.”

He stepped back to his seat and sat down.

An instant later, the rest of the passengers erupted in applause.

Harvey smiled. That was fun.

Of course, there was no E.P.A. regulation 35491. He’d have to give the lady back her battery.

And he would.

Just as soon as she got off the bus.

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Fiction Improv 2: Golden Anniversary

July 20, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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FICTION IMPROV 2.0: Golden Anniversary

Note: After I receive random words, names, occupations, and situation from my Facebook Peeps for a fiction improv, I let the mix stew for a few days. The words often will suggest the mood or tone for the piece. In this case, the piece took on a decidedly dark tone. (I am a suspense/thriller writer, after all.) Because of the darkness of the piece, and for personal reasons, I changed one of the names.

The last piece was a short-short story. This one unfolded more like a scene that would open a longer story or even a novel. Who knows? Maybe Max and Betty’s story will wind up part of a larger tale someday.

Enjoy, and let me know what you think in the comments.

 

2 Names: Max and Betty
1 Occupation: Nurse practitioner
1 Situation: Golden wedding anniversary
5 Random Words (I have to use at least 3): kangaroo, post-apocalyptic, shoelace, flying, and vibrio. (I had to look up vibrio. It’s a type of bacteria associated with foodborne infection, usually from eating undercooked seafood).

*     *     *

“Hard to believe it’s been fifty years, Betty.” Max set the champagne bottle into his makeshift ice bucket. Just an old Styrofoam cooler, really. “Gotta make do with what we’ve got now.”

He pulled a handkerchief from his overalls and wiped his face; then he eased down into a nearby folding chair.

August in Texas never seemed hotter.

“Crazy time for a picnic, huh?” he said.

Hot wind blew through the tall dry Johnson grass. Max could tell from the rustling sound that a single match could start a fire that would wipe out everything for twenty miles.

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Max leaned over and tied his shoelace. “Good thing I saw that,” he said. “Sure enough that thing would have tripped me and sent me flying.”

He smiled at Betty. “That wouldn’t do, would it?”

Max carefully opened the picnic basket—a laundry basket with a towel thrown over the top—and pulled out two plastic tumblers. “Ain’t exactly wine goblets, but it’s the best I could find.”

He took the champagne bottle and winced in pain as his arthritic fingers worked the cork loose. When it finally popped off, a warm spray washed over his face. Max filled both tumblers.

He reached into the basket again and brought out a bouquet of withered roses, wrapped in plastic WalMart bags. “Not very pretty, but they’re the best I could find. Not much grows around here anymore.”

Max put the roses in Betty’s arms, and smiled.

“Fifty years,” he said. “Not many couples make it that long, Old Girl. What is it they call it? Our golden wedding anniversary.”

He drained the tumbler of champagne and blinked back tears.

It had all happened so fast.

Vibrio, they called it. But there was another name, too. A new name they’d given it. He couldn’t remember that one. News people said it mutated, became a plague. He didn’t rightly understand it. All he knew was that it started down at the Gulf coast. You were only supposed to catch it by eating undercooked seafood, but something changed.

Whatever it was started spreading and people started dying.

And they never stopped.

The nurse practitioner hadn’t been by to check on Betty in a couple of months. She was probably gone like the rest of them.

“What is it the young people call it? Post-apocalyptic? I guess that’s where we are now, my love. In a post-apocalyptic world.”

Max drained the second tumbler, and winced. He hated warm Champagne.

“Guess I’d better get back to work.”

Max looked down into the shallow grave.

“Fifty years. We almost made it fifty years.”

Power grid went down a week ago. He had enough gas to keep the generator running a couple more days. Didn’t know what he’d do after that.

Max gently tossed the first shovelful of dirt into Betty’s grave.

A burning August breeze blew once more through tinder-dry Johnson grass.

Max’s chin quivered. “Happy anniversary, my love.”

 

 

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Fiction Improvisation: Mrs Sweeny

July 12, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

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Greetings, readers!

A few weeks back I asked my followers to help me with a fiction improvisation exercise. I asked for two names, an occupation, a situation, and three random words. I promised to improvise a short fiction piece based on as many of these elements as possible.

The following short, short (1,000 word) story is what I came up with.

Just FYI, I did this in one sitting, and did no revisions or edits. If I were planning to market the story, of course, I would take it through multiple edits and rewrites. But my purpose here was just to see what I could come up with quickly.

Enjoy! 

Fiction Improv 1: MRS SWEENY

NAMES: Emily and Tyler
OCCUPATION: Chimney sweep
SITUATION: Forgetting to pick up someone at the airport
3 WORDS (ACTUALLY I ACCEPTED 5): Cat, zipline, catastasis, overcome, drumbeat. (Note: I didn’t use catastasis or drumbeat.)

Emily’s cell phone chirped for the third time. She knew she couldn’t ignore Tyler’s calls forever. The only way to do that would be to turn off the phone—or throw it in the river.

She glanced at the digital clock on her dashboard.

12:15 p.m.

Maybe he’ll give up.

She kept driving. She was still a fair distance from the airport.

The phone chirped again, and she knew it was no use. She had to answer it.

“What is it, Tyler?”

“I need your help. Now.”

“Mother’s flight gets in at two,” Emily said. “You know what she’s like when she has to wait.”

“I really, really need your help.”

Emily could hear the strain in his reply.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m over at Mrs. Sweeny’s. Fluffy got out and she’s up a tree.”

Emily sighed. “Again?”

“Can you come?”

“Is it the tree with the zip line?”

“Yes.”

“Can’t you get her down?”

“You know I can’t.” His voice was thin, embarrassed.

“Why?” Emily knew the answer, but this was her price, her pound of flesh.

“I’m afraid of heights.”

“And?”

“I’m afraid of the cat.”

Emily looked at the clock again. It would be tight, but the house was on the way. She should be able to corral Fluffy and still pick up Mother.

“I’ll be there in a few minutes,” she said.

*     *     *

Tyler gazed up into the tree as if he were trying to will Fluffy back down. He knew it was no use. That was the most stubborn cat on the planet. She was also the fastest.

And he was scared to death of her. The cat was huge, and he was sure she had it in for him.

He’d just finished cleaning Mrs. Sweeny’s chimney, had gathered his brushes and was heading out the door when Fluffy shot out ahead of him. She was in the back yard and up the tallest tree before he knew it.

Now all he saw ahead of him was the unemployment line.

Again.

If Mrs. Sweeny gets home and finds her $15,000 Savannah up a tree, I’m toast.

He hated bothering Emily with this, but he had no choice. But, if you can’t count on your wife, who can you count on? Besides, it was either that or 911. And he didn’t even want to think about what would happen if Mrs. Sweeny came home and found the fire department at her house.

If the truth be told, he was more afraid of Mrs. Sweeny than a thousand cats. Tall and forbidding in appearance, she reminded him of his seventh grade teacher, a woman who could be described in one word: imperious.

A horn beeped twice—that horn always reminded him of Road Runner cartoons—and he saw Emily’s little white Prius turn into the long driveway.

The cavalry had arrived.

Emily climbed out of the car and came into the back yard. Even from a hundred feet away, Tyler could tell she was not happy.

“Where is she?” Emily asked.

Tyler pointed to the forty-foot live oak near the back of the spacious back yard.

Fluffy, a twenty-pound Savannah that was anything but fluffy—she looked more like a leopard than a cat—was contentedly lounging on a large branch about fifteen feet from the ground.

Emily flashed her husband an exasperated look. Then her expression softened and she walked over to Tyler and kissed him on the cheek. “I love you, but this is the last time I’m doing this.”

Without another word, she climbed the ladder attached to the tree and coaxed the big cat down. After Fluffy was safely on the ground, she was tempted climb back up and ride down the zip line Mrs. Sweeny had installed for her grandchildren.

Instead, she strolled over to Tyler, took him by the hand, and led him over to a large garden swing. “We need to talk,” she said.

“Tyler, this isn’t working.”

Tyler felt his face flush. “I’ve got to do something. I’ll never make a living as a freelance writer.”

“But a chimney sweep can’t be afraid of heights.”

“I’ll overcome it. You’ll see.”

“You don’t need to,” said Emily. “I make enough to support us both. I want you to quit this crazy job and do what you love—write.”

She leaned over and kissed him.

He put his arm around her and they sat together, enjoying the blooming crepe myrtles that surrounded the garden.

And time stood still.

*   *   *

A taxi horn’s blaring startled both of them awake.

Tyler’s face blanched.

“Mrs. Sweeny!” he said, jumping to his feet.

“Mother!” said Emily. “I forgot to pick her up.”

They both rushed through the yard, toward the driveway.

Tyler stopped dead in his tracks.

Mrs. Sweeny—the imperious Mrs. Sweeny—stood beside the Yellow Cab. Her steel gray hair was piled up on top her head and her face cast in a frown that could wither fresh flowers. She motioned to the cabbie to carry her luggage to the house, then strode over to Tyler and Emily.

“Is the job done?” she said, looking directly at Tyler.

“Yes, Mrs. Sweeney,” he replied.

“Anything go wrong?” she asked.

“No ma’am,” he said with a sidelong glance at Emily.

She nodded curtly. “Good.”

“I’ll just pack my equipment and be on my way,” Tyler said, glad for the chance to escape.

Emily and Mrs. Sweeny watched him as he walked away from them toward the house.

Mrs. Sweeny turned to Emily. “And where were you? My plane got in an hour ago.”

“I’m sorry, Mother,” Emily said. “Tyler needed my help and time got away from us.”

“Hmph,” said Mrs. Sweeny looking down at Emily. Then she cracked a tiny grin and raised an eyebrow. “Don’t let it happen again.”

Arm in arm, Emily and her mother followed Tyler into the mansion. Mrs. Sweeny nudged her and said, “Do you think he’ll ever call me Mother?”

###

 So, how did I do? Add your thoughts in the comments below. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Baby Named Michelle

May 31, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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Michelle in Baylor\’s NICU

Our daughter Michelle Lynn Pence was born on Monday June 1, 1987. She died exactly one week later, on Monday, June 8th. This would have been her 28th birthday. I am re-posting the story I wrote about our experience with Michelle both to remember her and as an encouragement to anyone who is hurting. At the moment of your deepest pain, God is there with you. — James Pence

The Sonogram

From the moment Laurel and I walked through the door of the specialist’s office, an uneasy feeling crept through my stomach. The two-hour wait did not ease my fears. Now the doctor’s apparent unwillingness to explain his findings only intensified my anguish. I would have given anything to be somewhere else that day.

How different that sonogram was from the first one. Only two weeks earlier we overflowed with joy, anticipating a brief look at our first child. We drove to the doctor’s office, hardly able to conceal our excitement. In the darkened examining room, lit only by the cool light of a monitor, the obstetrician pointed out little hands and feet on the screen. We held hands and smiled when he told us we were going to have a little girl. Then, as the doctor moved the wand around, examining every detail of our baby’s body, I noticed a small bump on the baby’s head. The doctor made no mention of it. But he had seen it too.

“It’s probably nothing,” he said later, “but I’d like you to have a high resolution sonogram anyway. Nine times out of ten, these things don’t amount to anything. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Jim, Laurel, and Michelle in Baylor NICU

Jim, Laurel, and Michelle in Baylor NICU

Despite his reassuring words, when we left his office, our eagerness as new parents had evaporated. Only a gnawing fear remained. Perhaps the perfect child we prayed for might not be so perfect after all.

Changed Perspective

It’s funny how circumstances change your perspective. Before the sonogram, when someone asked us whether we wanted a boy or a girl, we’d say, “It doesn’t matter. All we want is a healthy baby.” We didn’t think that was too much to ask. But over the two weeks between the first and second sonograms, a transformation began to take place. I entered into that period hoping for a perfect child. Now I had to deal with the very real possibility that our baby might have some kind of
disability.

Laurel, a registered nurse, has a medical library. During my private

Laurel and Michelle in Baylor's NICU

Laurel and Michelle / Baylor NICU

moments I would take her books down from the shelf and look up all the possible problems our baby could have, based on the little I knew. Hydrocephalus, spina bifida, meningocele, and other afflictions filled my head like unwelcome house guests who don’t know when to leave. I wanted to get rid of them, but I couldn’t. Instead,one by one I grappled with each and gave it to the Lord. By the time the two weeks of waiting ended, I had prepared myself for anything—I thought.

After the second sonogram, Laurel and I strolled through a nearby shopping mall. The uneasiness that had begun at the specialist’s office intensified. The doctor had
been too evasive.

Jim's parents holding Michelle

Jim’s parents holding Michelle

He had pointed out some obvious problems during the exam. The baby had a duodenal atresia, an intestinal problem that would require surgery. But every time
we asked him to tell us if our baby would be all right, he would dodge our questions. “I have to go home and put all this data in my computer. I can’t tell you anything until it is all analyzed.”

The answer sounded authoritative enough. Why didn’t I believe him?

We returned home and tried to resume some sort of routine. The next

Laurel's mother & Michelle

Laurel’s mother & Michelle

day, I went to the church, spread out my commentaries and pretended to study for Sunday’s message. I stared at the books for hours, seeing words and comprehending nothing. Then the church phone rang. It was Laurel. I could tell that she’d been crying.

“What’s wrong,” I asked. “Did the doctor call?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Is everything all right?”

“Not really.”

“I’ll be right home.”

I rushed to my car and drove home like an ambulance driver on a call. I burst through the front door to find Laurel sitting on the sofa with a box of tissues. She didn’t have to say a word.

The news was bad.

“The baby’s going to die,” she said. “The doctor says that when she’s born she won’t be able to do anything at all. She probably won’t even live for a few hours.”

Laurel's father & Michelle

Laurel’s father & Michelle

Later we learned that a genetic flaw had caused multiple birth defects. I sat down beside my wife and melted into tears. I wasn’t ready for this. I had prepared myself for every eventuality but the worst. The reality sank in quickly. Not only would our baby die, but for the next sixteen weeks Laurel would carry a child who had no chance of surviving.

Questions and Struggles

Questions began to flood my mind. How could God allow this to happen? How could we face the loss of a child and still glorify Him? How could I as a pastor tell people about God’s goodness when I wasn’t even sure of it myself anymore? Joining hands, we approached His presence. Through my tears, I prayed, “Lord, you’ve asked us to walk this road. Please give us the grace to do it. Please get us through this.”

For the next four months we tried to forget the inevitable. Even though we had committed our way to the Lord, we still struggled. We struggled with well-meaning

Laurel and Michelle at Home

Laurel and Michelle at Home

strangers who would walk up and congratulate us, asking us what we planned to name the child or whether we wanted a boy or girl. Grief stabbed at us every time the baby kicked. With saddened hearts we continued our weekly childbirth classes, preparing for a new life that would never be. We struggled with friends who made well-intentioned but thoughtless statements like, “You’re young. You can have another baby.” We endured the dull ache of a grief process we could not close.

Then came the night when Laurel felt the first contractions. At eight the next morning we packed up our things and headed for the hospital. We checked into the hospital and were ushered into a labor room, like any other new parents. In the labor room, we realized we had never chosen a name for our daughter. We decided to name her Michelle Lynn.

When she was born at 7:06 p.m. on Monday, June 1, we stole a brief glimpse as the nurses rushed her into the neonatal ICU. She was tiny—only three pounds. But she was our baby. Later we visited her and marveled at how tiny she was. She looked like a china doll, her little body dwarfed by the respirator and other equipment. We had requested that her organs be donated, if possible. So, the doctors had connected her to a respirator to preserve them.

When the doctors determined that Michelle’s organs were too small and damaged to be used for transplant, they weaned her off the respirator and the grim wait began. I jumped every time the telephone rang in Laurel’s hospital room, relaxing only when the expected news did not come. After two days, Michelle was still breathing and showed no signs of weakening. Laurel said, “I’d like to take her home.”

Going Home

I expected resistance from the doctors, but they supported us. They made arrangements with a home health service and on Thursday afternoon a caravan of cars left the hospital. Michelle was coming home!

Our home NICU

Our home NICU

Our little daughter required twenty-four hour care. Because she was unable to regulate her own body temperature, we kept her wrapped in blankets. An intravenous drip provided the fluids she could not take in on her own. Laurel’s parents stayed with us and we each took shifts caring for Michelle, holding and rocking a heavily blanketed baby in the sweltering June heat. For four days we held, cared for and cuddled this little child who couldn’t even respond to us. Her eyes never opened except for a startled blink at the flash of a camera. She never cried, never made a sound.

Quickly our home version of ICU became a routine. Friends from the church brought food. Daily visits from the home health nurse brought supplies and encouragement. Laurel’s mother, also an RN, added a touch of both grandmotherly and professional care. But in the midst of the frenetic activity, I still sensed a cloud hanging over me.

Although I was glad to have Michelle home, I dreaded what I knew was coming. I didn’t know how soon it would happen, but I knew she was going to die. What would it be like? I didn’t know what to expect and I was afraid. I dreaded being there when it happened; I was also afraid that I wouldn’t there.

“Lord, give me the grace to face that moment,” I prayed.

Not only did God give the grace, but He orchestrated Michelle’s
home-going and held our hands through every step.

The moment came at lunchtime on Monday, June 8th, exactly one week after Michelle had been born. Early that Monday morning, her IV had infiltrated and
the home health nurse came to our house to restart it. We laid Michelle on the dining room table to give the nurse a better working space. She got the IV going again and then went on to her other patients. As Laurel’s mother prepared lunch, we kept Michelle on the table. For the first time since we had brought her home, Michelle’s mommy and daddy sat together, holding her hands.

Daddy, Mommy, and baby

Daddy, Mommy, and baby

Then quietly, as the clatter of dishes colored the background, Michelle quietly stopped breathing. I took Laurel’s hand, drawing her away from the conversation.

“I think she’s gone,” I said, my voice breaking.

Laurel looked at her, then back at me and nodded.

The flood of tears I had held back for four months finally came. It was over. I heard the voice of my father-in-law in the background, offering a halting prayer of thanksgiving.

Michelle had gone home.

How can I glorify God after losing a child? How can I tell people about God’s goodness?

I can speak of God’s grace and how it was always sufficient for us—even in the hardest times. I can praise him for orchestrating the moment of Michelle’s death so that both Laurel and I could be with her, even holding her hand. I can glorify him for the countless doors of ministry he’s opened since that time, allowing us to encourage others who are going through similar experiences. I can thank him for seven unforgettable days with an exceptional child. I can worship him because he truly is in control. And all things do work together for good to those who love him.

When Jonathan Edwards, the great pastor and theologian, died unexpectedly due to complications from a smallpox vaccination, his wife Sarah wrote these words, “What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. . .. But my God lives; and he has my heart. We are all given to God.”

We, likewise, are given to God. We rarely understand His work while it is in
progress. That is why we must fall back on Scripture and realize that God is at work for our good in all things.

Whatever happens, we must be willing to trust Him every step of the way. That is the only way we can find meaning in what often seems futile. To many people, Michelle’s short life may appear meaningless.

Our sweet daughter

Michelle Lynn Pence 6/1/87 – 6/8/87

To us, it overflows with meaning. And, while it is not a road we would have chosen to walk, God walked with us.

And a baby named Michelle changed our lives forever.

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