Adjustments

March 10, 2017 – Friday morning

As I write this, it’s been a little over two weeks since I’ve moved in to live with my dad as his caregiver. I knew this would be an adjustment in many ways, and certainly it has been. Some of those adjustments have been tougher than others.

I knew I was going to miss my family in Abilene, and I do. I miss our home, and especially my wife, Kathy, and her sweet smile and her gentle sense of humor. She is wonderfully attuned to hearing the Spirit of God, and I miss the blessings of just being around her. As many of you know, she also has an amazing singing voice, and I have always loved standing next to her as we worship, and hearing that beautiful voice offering up a sacrifice of praise in gorgeous harmony.

I miss my many wonderful friends. Many of them are from church and from our Bible class. Proverbs says as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another, and I am a better student of God’s Word because of the “sharpening” these friends have provided. It has been a privilege to study with them. Others have shared with us through life groups and other ways. Whether sharing from the bread of the Bible, or sharing Chinese food at Szechuan’s, the sweet friendships and fellowship have been a rich blessing.

As I said to some friends before I left Abilene, most blessings in this life are temporary, and when those blessings are gone, we can either be angry that we’ve lost them, or be thankful that we got to enjoy them for a season, and I choose to be thankful.

I don’t want to forget my friends from our model train club, and the fun we had running trains together and sharing that great hobby.

And that’s not all. Certainly, I miss the good friends and colleagues with whom I worked at CCC, and I miss the work of meeting neighbors and building a better neighborhood. Yesterday was the second Thursday of the month, which was the regular day for “neighbor lunch” potluck dinner, where I would prepare the main dish and the neighbors would bring the sides. I miss the good food, and the good conversation that we had together.

I miss my CCC co-workers, and the shared struggles that we had together. That’s what it means to be part of a team, so that “joys are magnified and disappointments lessened,” because we went through them together. And in shaping teenagers to become Young Leaders of Abilene, or in helping families move towards better financial stability, or just giving someone a ride to the store, they are still doing that work, and God knows, we need more good neighbors in this world.

So yes, there are people and things that I miss greatly about Abilene. But I am receiving many blessings as well.

I enjoy sharing time with my dad, and hearing stories about the interesting life he’s led, people he’s known, places he’s been. He has worked hard his whole life, and always put his family first. Imagine: all those years, I thought he LIKED the dark meat of the chicken! Turns out, no, he actually prefers the white meat, but he was letting his family have the first pick.

So now, if he needs a little help with the chores of everyday living, it’s my privilege to assist him with that. I figure he’s earned it.

Just the other day, he showed me a picture from his days in the army. He was about 23 or 24, a corporal in charge of a crew manning an anti-aircraft gun. The picture shows him, kneeling down, with the members of his crew all around him. They’re all smiling, and you can tell that these are young men in the prime of their lives, defending their country during the Korean War, but also ready to have a good time when they’re not on duty.

I’m learning other things too, and receiving blessings beyond measure. And I’m thinking that somehow, in some way, maybe this is what God has in mind for us. Not that we should all move in with our aging parents, necessarily, but that we should be more willing to care for each other, to give up some of our own conveniences and comforts when necessary, for the sake of helping someone else.

And just this morning, we got a phone call that my niece and her husband had just had their first baby, a little girl. Everybody is doing well, and the pride and love in my brother’s voice was special beyond words. It was a wonderful moment, being with my dad when he saw the first picture of his newest great-grandchild – this makes number eight. And thank You, Lord.

So there are compensations for the things I’m missing. Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever.

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye

No matter how much we try and plan for the future, none of us can know the twists and turns of “what’s next.” The truth of this principle has recently been reinforced to me. I have resigned from CCC, effective by the end of February. How this came about is a bit of a long story, but I think it’s a good one, so please bear with me.

My 88-year-old dad has been battling a crippling neuro-muscular disease for about 10 years. (Some of you may recall that I wrote a post about him back in the fall of 2016.) This disease has left him unable to walk, confined to a wheelchair, and essentially homebound. He lives in Orange County, Texas, between Orange and Beaumont, in the same house where I was raised, and on the same piece of land where he was born and raised. Recent events, including a visit last month to help care for him, have convinced my brothers and me that dad is simply no longer able to stay by himself.

My brothers and I have discussed this at length, and considered all the various options available – hiring an outside caregiver, relocating dad to live with one of us, moving him into a nursing home. For various reasons, none of these options can work for him, or for us. We have decided that the best course of action would be for me to move in with dad and serve as his full-time caregiver.

While I am looking forward to spending more time with my dad and serving him, I am overwhelmingly sad about leaving Abilene and the non-profit I work for, Connecting Caring Communities. In the nearly nine years since I joined CCC, I have been blessed to make some wonderful friends and see amazing things done, working with neighbors and others to better our community.

(I’m also going to really, REALLY miss our church, Beltway Park, and so many friends from our Sunday School class and our Bible Study life group. The folks in my Sunday class gave me a great send-off yesterday, with lots of prayers, hugs, tears, kind notes & cards, and even gifts of cash and more. Our Sunday night group had a farewell dinner for us last night. It was a very rich, full day of love and friendship, and one more thing I will miss about Abilene. But right now I’m talking about work…)

I have learned so much during my time with CCC – especially about what it really means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The opportunity to meet some great people, to get to know neighbors from different backgrounds, different cultures, different religions, and to host them in our home – these have been priceless blessings that I will always cherish.

I think of friends I made who have passed away: people like sweet Sandy, a tattooed elderly lady that I met through Meals on Wheels. Sandy, you must have lived an interesting life in your younger days; I’m sorry I never got to hear the stories I’ll bet you could have told. People like David, confined to a wheelchair, yet always with a smile on his face. Rhonda; Jimmy; Paul; all of you blessed me with your friendship, and I thank you. I will continue to miss you, and remember you fondly.

I think of the kids who spent part of their afternoons with me and our volunteers at “Kids’ Club,” and the parents who trusted me to watch their little ones for a while. It was my honor, and my pleasure. We had a good time doing homework, drawing on the sidewalks, climbing trees, doing crafts, and more. And I remember the Bible stories we told – “they say stories like that make a boy grow bold, stories like that make a man walk straight.” The Fruit of the Spirit and the Armor of God, David, Deborah, Moses and Esther. Mary & Joseph, Peter and John and the boys, and best of all, Jesus, the manger, the parables, the miracles, and the cross. And the twelfth and final egg, which is, of course, empty.

I think of the meals, and all the laughs we had around the table and out in the yard. Easter egg hunts and Halloween carnivals. Banana boats and dirt cake, hot dogs and Frito pie. A dunking booth on a certain very cool October day, and kickball games. Swing sets and bluebonnets. The prayer walks and recruiting volunteers. Working with teens for the “Young Leaders of Abilene.” Finding unexpected skills, like the time I handed my neighbor Diego the spatula during a cookout, then couldn’t get it back, only to learn that he used to be a short-order cook! I wouldn’t trade a minute of any of it.

And I think of so many friends who have supported, and continue to support, our work through your prayers, your gifts and your financial participation, a huge and heartfelt “thank you.” We literally could not do this without your gracious assistance and partnership.

To the colleagues I’m leaving behind, past and present: Please know that I’ve enjoyed every minute of working beside you. It has been a privilege to serve with you. I’m praying for your continued success.

Working for CCC has been one of the greatest blessings of my life, and I shall always cherish the opportunity to live out the call to love our neighbors, to bind up the broken-hearted, and to seek the shalom of our city. Thanks to everyone who participated in this ministry, and may the Lord continue to bless and guide all of you, as you continue to work on behalf of CCC, our neighbors, and our community.

Always the Right Time

I’m just back from taking a few days off to go visit my dad, Buddy Garison. He still lives in the same house where I was raised in Southeast Texas, near Orange. Mom passed away in 2010, and ever since then, Dad has lived by himself, with his faithful canine companion, a German Shepherd named “Chica.”

To call my Dad “stubborn” would be an understatement. He is feisty and independent, and even though confined to a wheelchair, he still mows his own grass, keeps a garden, and gets around pretty well. He is 86.

My brothers and I met together to do some work on the house and spend some time with dad and with each other. Our family has always been close, but since Mom passed, we have become even more aware of the need to tell people that you love how you feel. We know what it’s like to get that terrible phone call and for someone you love dearly just to be gone. One of the things that makes that a little less painful is knowing that we said “I love you” while we still could.

Is there someone you need to call? Who needs to hear you say, “I love you”? NOW would be a good time!

 

The Train to Yesterday

I am just back from taking a couple of weeks off. During that time, I was able to visit some family, help my dad with some chores, get some reading done, ride a train, and eat some Cajun food. I was gone for a few days, and came home broke and tired.

That’s how you know it was a good trip, right?

No, I’m just kidding about that part – but it WAS a good trip. The main reason I went was to go down to the Beaumont / Orange area to see my 85-year-old dad and spend some time with him. And we did have a really nice visit, and I was able to help him with some things around the house. But I also enjoyed spending some time with my brother David. He’s a pastor in Spring, Texas, and was also on vacation.

AmtrakHe and I had often talked about trains and taking a trip together on Amtrak, so we did just that – not so much to go anywhere, but more just for the experience of riding a passenger train together. We boarded the eastbound “Sunset Limited” in Houston, and toot toot, we were gone, headed for Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Now as my friends can tell you, I love trains, but as great as that part of it was, an even better part was getting to spend time with my youngest brother. We grew up in a family of four boys – he and I are the bookends, with me as the oldest and him as the youngest. Our mom’s parents lived in the small Hardin County town of Grayburg, between Beaumont and Houston.

MoPac buzzsawThe old Missouri Pacific RR main line runs right through there, and when we were kids visiting our grandparents, we used to spend hours down by the tracks at a small railroad side track where they used to load freshly-cut pine logs onto flatcars, destined to be turned into paper at one of the mills in East Texas.

(Yes, I know we shouldn’t have been playing there, and that it probably wasn’t safe. Get over it. We never wore bicycle helmets, either.)

How we loved to see freight trains coming through! The big blue and white MP engines, the long trains, and the red caboose at the end. The box cars with names of faraway places – Bangor and Aroostook, Atlantic Coast Line, and the New York Central, Great Northern, Santa Fe, Denver & Rio Grande, and the Illinois Central, just to name a few. And when they came roaring through, it was all noise and power, sound and fury, speed and excitement. We knew to get well off the tracks and wave from a safe distance. And as Johnny Cash once observed, it was always very important that the conductor in the caboose waved back.

Somewhere I still have some flattened pennies that we made.

And the smells on those hot afternoons – the oily odor of the creosote from the ties, and the zingy smell of hot steel in the Texas sun. We would walk along the rails and practice our balancing skills and watch the distant signal lights, hoping they would turn red, heralding the approach of another train.

Anyway, our grandparents have long since passed away, but the little town is still there, and so are the freight trains, now operated by Union Pacific. And when you take Amtrak heading east towards Beaumont, you go roaring right through there.

Grayburg 2011So we climbed aboard in downtown Houston, checked in with the conductor, and headed for the dining car and lunch. We both had a pretty good Angus beef hamburger, and enjoyed a nice visit with an older lady and her niece who were returning to Florida after a trip to California. After lunch, we walked to the observation car as the train rolled through the countryside and past the little towns.

The old siding at Grayburg is still there, and it doesn’t take long to go past it. I looked over, and my brother was wiping away a tear. I asked him what he was thinking. He said he thought he saw four little boys run over to the tracks after the train went by, looking for flattened pennies.

Thanks, Mom

100_0190Three years ago today, I lost my mom.  But in all the ways that count, she has never left me, or our family.

Friday, September 24, 2010, started like any other day.  Mom and Dad had gone to Beaumont from their home in Orangefield for an eye appointment, then they stopped at one of their favorite restaurants for lunch: IHOP.  As they were heading home, Mom said that she needed to use the bathroom, but she dropped her keys as she was trying to unlock the front door.  She had already had the stroke that would claim her life.

Dad called the ambulance, and the EMTs promptly arrived.  (The house is out in the country, so thank goodness for enhanced 911 service!)  She ended up at Baptist Memorial in Beaumont.

One by one, my brothers and I, along with other family, arrived as soon as we could get there – in my case, about 3:30 Saturday morning.  The nurses were great, and the doctor was as gentle as he could be later as he explained that this was a “terminal brain event.”

One of my brothers had been on a mission trip to Guatemala, helping drill a water well for a village that needed a new source of good water.  Flights in and out of Central America have a somewhat loose connection to scheduled times, but he was able to get out on time – less than an hour before a Gulf hurricane came ashore, and shut everything down for three days.  He and his wife set a new record getting from the Houston airport to Beaumont.

An hour later, Mom was gone.  Personally, I think she was just waiting on her boys to all get there before she left.  One by one, we got to say our goodbyes, kiss her, hold her hand, and let her go.  It was Saturday, September 25, 2010.

There were so many wonderful friends who supported us, at the hospital, with their cards and visits, and so much sharing of food, of laughs, of tears, of memories.  My brothers and I got to preach her funeral, and that was a special time.  The funeral procession was over a mile long going out to the cemetery.  And even the funeral director felt the need to comment publicly at the graveside about what a remarkable woman she was.

IMG_0001Here’s mom on her wedding day, and 50 years later, at the church, during their golden anniversary reception, visiting with her dear friend Mary Russell.

Garison's 50TH aniversary 065

Dad has been so strong and brave.  He has learned to live by himself (well, along with his faithful canine companion, Chica), in spite of falling almost two years ago and breaking his leg, which has left him in a wheelchair.  I know that he misses her terribly, but he is determined to carry on and make her proud.

christmas06This is one of my favorite snapshots of mom – it’s from Christmas about 2006, with a whole big, rowdy bunch of us crammed into their small kitchen, and her directing traffic and enjoying the chaos and noise of our family.  And that’s not even all of us.

IMG_0004

Here’s Mom, from about 1959, I’d guess.  That’s her with my brother Buzzy, and yours truly, displaying the blazer, bow tie and cowboy boots that the well-dressed young man was evidently wearing that year.

I still hear her voice in my head, and desperately wish we could have had more time together, but I’m thankful for many things.  And so much of what she taught me, that I still hold on to today.

  • I learned to love God’s Word from the countless Bible stories that she read to us every night.
  • IMG_0041I learned to be passionate about worship from hearing her strong, clear alto voice as she boldly sang out.
  • I learned to serve others by watching the way that she volunteered at church and in the community.  (That’s her, in her hospital volunteer uniform.)
  • I learned to respect people who were different by the way she would never let us use hurtful words, even in jokes.
  • I learned to cherish the moments we have with family and friends, to laugh a lot, to forgive from the heart, and to say “I love you,” and always give “just one more hug.”

Because you never know when you won’t be able to any more.

TwoDollarBill

Come Before Him with Thanksgiving

“Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;

Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.

Let us come before Him with thanksgiving

and extol Him with music and song.” – Psalm 95:1, 2

I hope Thanksgiving today finds you happy and well, and surrounded by family and friends.  This is one of my very favorite holidays, for a variety of reasons and sweet memories.

Some of my earliest memories of this day go back to my grandparents, Archie & Sallie McMillan.  When I was a young child, for some reason, I wouldn’t call her “Grandma.”  I heard other people call her, “Sallie,” which I tried to do, but she didn’t like that.  So, I started calling her “Sa-Sa,” and the name stuck.  So we would go to Sa-Sa & Pa-Pa’s house.

I don’t really remember usually having turkey for that meal – it seems that she usually fixed a big hen, and usually in a pressure cooker to make it fall-off-the-bone tender.  But what I REALLY remember about Thanksgiving at Sa-Sa’s house was her fruit salad.  It had lots of big chunks of apples and bananas and fruit cocktail, along with chopped walnuts and coconut.  Of course, we had lots of other stuff to eat, and plenty of desserts, but I always loved her fruit salad.  What was especially great was, if there was any left over, she would freeze it, and we would eat it at Christmas.

Pa-Pa died in 1969, and Sa-Sa passed in about 1988, but I still remember them both, especially today.  I have taught some of the kids in my after-school program how to make her fruit salad, and I tell them about her as we make it.  And I’m thankful for her, and for such sweet memories.

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:4-7

Thanksgiving also means football, of course; in our family, that meant the Cowboys.  The greatest one was Thanksgiving, 1974, when George Allen’s “Over the Hill Gang” laid a vicious 3rd quarter hit on Roger Staubach and knocked him out of the game.  The Skins were up 16-3 at the time, when an untested rookie from ACU came into the game as the Cowboys’ backup quarterback, Clint Longley.  He had earned the nickname of “The Mad Bomber” from his teammates, because of his default tendency to throw deep in practice.

What happened next, Cowboys fans still talk about.  And Redskins fans have never gotten over.

This rookie put together what might be the most improbably comeback in team history.  After leading the Boys to two other touchdowns, with just 35 seconds to play, Longley found a streaking Drew Pearson racing down the sidelines, and he scored.  We won 24-23.  It’s still one of the greatest wins in Cowboys history.

Four years later, Kathy and I were celebrating our first Thanksgiving as husband and wife.  I was a senior at Dallas Christian College, and she and I were in a singing group known as “Revelation.”  Thanksgiving weekend, 1978, we were in the recording studio, cutting a record.  (Do I need to explain what “records” were for any of the under 40 crowd?)  Since we couldn’t go anywhere for the day, Mom & Dad came to Dallas, and we had Thanksgiving in our tiny apartment.

Fast forward to 2010.  My mom had passed away just two months earlier, and we were sharing our first holiday without her.  My brother David and his wife Gina hosted the whole wooly bunch of us at their home in Spring.  He fried a turkey, my nephew made some amazing cranberry dressing on the stove, and everybody fixed their favorite recipes.  I made one of my Jack Daniels Black-Bottom Pecan Pies.  We shared the day and the warmth of shared memories as we surrounded our dad and comforted each other and gave thanks for the legacy we shared and the sweetness of her presence still in our midst.

As I write this, Kathy is busy in the kitchen, finalizing meal preparations.  We’re a turkey, cornbread dressing, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn casserole, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and more.  We have invited several neighbors to come eat with us.  Then later, we’re going to the new restaurant where Drew is working, to have a meal there.

I am thankful for family, for friends, for sweet memories and for wonderful times together.  I am thankful for my job, for my neighbors, and for all of the blessings we enjoy.  I am thankful for Jesus.  And I know that the blessings I have received, are not mine exclusively to enjoy, but have been given so that I can in turn be a blessing to others.

I hope your day today is filled with everything wonderful, and that whatever your circumstances, you can give thanks with a glad and sincere heart.  Happy Thanksgiving!

“Enter His gates with thanksgiving,

and His courts with praise;

Give thanks to Him and praise His Name.

For the LORD is good and His love endures forever;

His faithfulness continues through all generations.”

Psalm 100:4-5

Meet Archie McMillan

Let me tell you about a man I used to know. His name was James Archie McMillan. Most people called him Arch or Archie. I called him Paw-Paw.

He was my mother’s dad. He was born in 1912 in Hardin County, Texas – that’s deep in the Big Thicket country of Southeast Texas, and he was the youngest of five boys born to James Duncan and Mary McMillan. As a matter of fact, Paw-Paw was a Leap Day baby, born February 29, 1912 – just over a hundred years ago. He married my grandmother, Sallie Walker, in 1934, and they had two children – my mom, Tommie Beth, and my uncle, Duncan.

My Paw-Paw described himself as a “jack of all trades, and a master of none.” He was the first guy I ever heard use that phrase. He worked in the oil field as a driller; if you’re not familiar with oil field hierarchy, the driller is sort of like a shift supervisor, in charge of a crew of men working on the rig.

His heritage was Scots-Irish, except he always called it “Scotch-Irish.” Not a big surprise with family names like Duncan, Archie and McMillan. Paw-Paw loved to tease and pick, and I loved to tag along with him. I used to go and spend a week during the summer with him and my grandmother, and I would ride with him to go places when he was home from the oil rig.

He died in January, 1969. He was 56. I was 12, and remember it like it was yesterday.

He had suffered a heart attack about three weeks earlier, and was in Baptist Hospital in Beaumont. These days, they would put in a stent or two, maybe do bypass surgery, and he’d be home in a week and back to work in a month. But in those days, they couldn’t do much for him.

I remember going up to his room to see him on a Sunday afternoon. He couldn’t talk – I guess he had on an oxygen mask or something, and he was very weak – but I remember him squeezing my hands and looking deep into my eyes. I can still see those eyes. The next day, he had another heart attack and died. Later, I would learn that his own father – James Duncan McMillan – had also died in his mid-50s, when Paw-Paw was only 4 years old.

I bring this up, because I had a birthday this week. I just turned 56.

Now, I’m not superstitious, nor am I especially morbid about these things, but that age has stuck with me all these years. And it brings up some questions to my mind. None of us is guaranteed tomorrow. If I knew this was going to be MY last year to live, what would I change about my life? Ask yourself: if you knew you were going to die within the next 12 months, how would YOU live? What would you do? Where would you go? With whom would you spend some of that precious time?

There’s a hard truth in this. Unless Jesus comes first, one of these days each of us will die. It may be when we are 56, or 66, or even 106, but it will come. So cherish the moments. Love deeply. Laugh often. Treasure each day.

Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” In other words, we need to live with eternity in mind. And that’s what’s on my mind as I turn 56.

Thanks, Paw-Paw.