Count Your Blessings and Bawl Your Eyes Out

Facing Grief, Oil Pastel on Paper, 18 x 24 inches, by Susan E Brooks

I wonder if I was the only one, sitting on the steps in the dark last night bawling my eyes out.

Last Thursday morning I learned that Mom had fallen during the night. I had already been worried sick about her because she’s in a nursing home in Leitchfield, KY, and we haven’t been allowed to see her for weeks.

My little 90-year-old mom is like the energizer bunny in that she just keeps going, and has fallen multiple times without breaking anything, but she has Parkinson’s, dementia, diabetes, and the list goes on.

When I got the call, it felt like a death sentence. Yes, she had broken her hip. Surgery was really the only option. Not doing surgery would mean a slow, painful death, but with surgery, she might make it, if all the stars aligned in her favor.

I am the sixth of seven children, and my younger brother moved out of state recently, so I was trying to sort out whether I could be with her at all, and where she would end up for the surgery.

Often, patients are sent to Louisville from Leitchfield for surgeries when the small regional hospital doesn’t have the surgeons or equipment that might be needed.

I called my son, the nurse practitioner, and asked his advice about how to stay safe if I were allowed to be with mom at a Louisville hospital. He said I should take some cloth face masks and wear those. I was asking whether I should quarantine myself away from Martin after leaving the hospital, when we got the call that mom would be able to have the surgery in Leitchfield.

That was the first big blessing!

The whole of Grayson County (where mom is) had only reported 2 cases of Coronavirus, and no deaths from it. I was very relieved that she would not have to come to Louisville, where the virus is spreading, people are dying, and the healthcare workers do not have the PPE that they need.

My sister, who lives in Grayson County, and normally takes care of mom’s medical decisions, was keeping me updated. She’s the strong one, who worked as a CMA in a nursing home giving out meds when she was younger. I’m the wimpy artist, who faints at the sight of blood, and is overly sensitive to, well—just about everything.

But now my sister is in her sixties and has a heart condition, so she and I agreed, along with my other siblings, that I should be the one to go be with Mom if that were allowed.

Sis heard that one person could be with Mom while she waited in the emergency room, but not after that, so I lead-footed it the 82 miles down to Leitchfield, only to find out I was too late. Mom had already been taken to her room, and I was not allowed to see her.

Dejected, I took my time driving back up to Louisville, feeling that I had failed mom and my family, because I hadn’t made it on time.

Back at home, I called the hospital, to see how Mom was doing. When I talked to the nurse in charge, and told her my story, she said that she would allow one family member to stay with mom because of her dementia.

Big Blessing number 2

I was told that I could stay with Mom in her hospital room, but I was not allowed to leave the room at all until I left for good. So I packed an overnight bag and drove back down to Leitchfield.

My heart was in my throat as I saw my mom for the first time since February. I wanted to hug and kiss her, but instead I washed my hands thoroughly, and then held her hand and told her I love her.

When the surgeon came in, he asked about my family, and we discovered that he had graduated from high school with my younger brother.

Big blessing number 3

I felt encouraged knowing that Mom was not just a stranger to him. Thank God for this surgeon who returned to his small town to serve the people he knows and loves, even when he could have made more money elsewhere. Thank God for all of our healthcare workers! They are all heroes.

Mom came through the surgery without any major problems!

Big Blessing number 4

Sunday afternoon, they sent Mom back to the nursing home. As of last night, she was doing well, and God has been so good to me. So why was I bawling my eyes out in the dark on the steps last night? Maybe I just needed to let it out. Maybe you do too. Go ahead. Count your blessings and bawl your eyes out.

Mozambican Odyssey, #22: When Our Son was attacked

When I write it like that, it sounds so terrible, and it was, but it could have been a lot worse.

Our son Kirk was 12 when he was attacked in Maputo, Mozambique.

Over our Thanksgiving holiday we had traveled to Nelspruit, South Africa, for our Christmas shopping because there was very little in Mozambique that was suitable or affordable at that time. We all chose some items that seemed special to us; and Kirk, our 12-year-old, had picked out a nice wrist watch.

When we returned to Maputo, Mozambique, Kirk was wearing his watch and enjoying it. After school one day, he and a friend were jogging around the school, just running around the block for fun and exercise.

Our kids attended an international school located in downtown Maputo, run by a mission agency from the states. We all loved the small school, and the staff became some of our closest friends for life.

As the boys were running, a local boy ran after Kirk and grabbed his arm. Kirk’s friend ran on to the school for help. The boy pulled at Kirk’s necklace and burned his hand with a cigarette, as he stole our son’s new watch. His main Christmas present was stolen, and worse, he was traumatized by being grabbed and burned.

He rushed into the school to tell us all about it, breathless and teary-eyed. I was glad he wasn’t hurt worse, “and he seems to be okay,” I wrote in my diary back in 1997.

I guess he was okay, but traumatic experiences can have a profound effect, and I still wonder if we should have done something more for him.

As I think about it, I wonder about so many children in the world who have had traumatic experiences so much worse than what happened to Kirk. Not to minimize what happened to him, but the fact is that countless refugees around the world have overcome incredible trauma, and a few of these courageous, beautiful overcomers have come to our city, Louisville, KY, to find a safe home.

Kentucky Refugee Ministries is an organization that helps resettle refugees that arrive in our home town. How can you help? Come to the opening reception to my solo show at KORE Gallery on April 11 from 6 – 8:30pm to learn more about Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM). You will have opportunity to donate to KRM, and a percentage of all artwork sold that night will be donated to KRM. KORE Gallery is located at 942 East Kentucky St., Hope Mills Building, Louisville, KY 40204. Hope to see you there!

Mozambican Odyssey, #21: A fever Of unknown Origin

This is my husband Martin, reading to our granddaughter Dorothy. Oil pastel on paper, 24 x 18″ by Susan E. Brooks

Realizing that your husband, your high school sweetheart, father of your children, and best friend for life, could die at any moment, has a clarifying effect. All of the unimportant pressures you were concerned about—job, money, paperwork, laundry piled up, appointments, and deadlines— disappear from your consciousness and you are focused on one thing: Is he going to be all right?

Missionary friends brought us food and took care of our children, while I just sat in the small clinic beside my husband’s bed, praying that he would be okay.

After a trip to the villages in the north of Mozambique, Martin became very ill. It came on suddenly. He could barely get out of bed. We took him into town to see a Nigerian friend who was a doctor. The doctor immediately put him on an IV and did blood tests which showed a raging infection.

We still don’t know, but we think it was from something he had eaten while spending a week out in the villages. There he was, all hooked up to an IV in this clinic that seemed to have very little besides beds for the sick, IV equipment, and a metal chair for me. The doctor didn’t have the medicine he needed on hand, so I sat with Martin, and waited.

We spent two nights in the clinic. Cecil Byrd, our friend and teammate, drove all over town to different pharmacies asking for the medicine that was needed. He eventually found the drug the doctor wanted. That drug seemed to do the trick, and we were back to our compound with the kids and the team after a couple of days.

When we returned home, we called our doctor back in Kentucky to discuss the illness, which had been diagnosed as “a fever of unknown origin.” When we told him the name of the medicine given to Martin, he said that it was no longer used in the US because it kills too many people!

Nevertheless, Martin was better. God kept him from dying from the illness and from the sometimes lethal drug that was administered. We didn’t know exactly how he got sick or how he got better—still don’t, but God healed my husband.

I don’t want to go through that ever again, but there is something about the clarity that comes in the face of death that can help us savor life. Life is a glorious gift. Yes, it is filled with suffering, but also with joy. Some days I have no choice but to grieve, but most days, I can embrace life and choose joy. Today, I choose joy because my best friend still lives, and God is with us, even if we are diagnosed with “a fever of unknown origin.”

Mozambican Odyssey, #19: Baptism in Mozambique

Joseph was baptized while we were in Mozambique. Baptism in Mozambique, 24×18, Oil pastel, by Susan E. Brooks

Baptism in Mozambique 

On March 23, 1997, my husband Martin was very happy to baptize my son Joseph in the baptistry on the mission property in Maputo, Mozambique.  The baptistry was a concrete box that we filled with water just outside the church.  Joseph was seven, but quite intelligent and mature for his age.  He was also small for his age, so in some ways he reminded me of a little drowned rat when Martin held him up, dripping with the baptismal waters, but he was a lot cuter than a rat.

He is the only one of our three who was baptized in Mozambique, Africa, and it was so different from any baptism I’ve ever seen in the US.  We were outdoors, and local children and were pressing in around all sides, so excited to watch the event.  There was no stage, and no safe distance between the spectators and the baptism.  There we were, all smashed together, a vibrating mass of humanity, with a man and his son in the middle, and the little boy saying I want to follow God and have a new beginning.  In his seven years he probably had not done much to be forgiven of, having always been a kind, sensitive child who looked after his little sister and adored his older brother, and never complained, even when his mom accidentally gave him chili powder toast instead of cinnamon toast.

Whether he was too young or not, whether we did everything right or not as we tried to raise our kids, I don’t know—I doubt it.  But I do believe God’s mercy is great and that He will honor our trying.  I think He will honor your trying too, because His grace is big enough to cover us all, and He knows we are made out of dirt.

Just a bunch of dirtbags trying to get by, and yet there is also something divine about humanity.  We are made in the image of the divine at least, and I saw that day, dripping with water, sparkling in the African sun, one of God’s kids declaring his love for his Creator, and all of the glorious God-made people pressing in close enough to touch him, and I think that’s as it should be.  We need to press in close at times, and open our eyes to the glory of God in each other, and celebrate the sacred moments when we get a chance.

Mozambican Odyssey, #18: Carried Out, Kicking and Screaming

We saw this young boy relaxing with his donkey as we traveled through Burkina Faso. 30 x 20 inches, Oil pastel on mat board, by Susan E. Brooks

Carried Out, Kicking and Screaming

He told us he had been threatened with a knife.

I don’t know if this has happened for anyone else, but it seemed like whenever Martin needed to travel, the craziest things would happen while he was gone.  If Martin left, one of the kids would spike a fever of 105, armed robbers would storm the compound, or some kid would say he was going to die if we didn’t let him move in with us.  I wish I were exaggerating.

I may have mentioned before a young boy who became friends with Kirk. We had been happy to have him visit in our home with thoughts of discipling a future church leader. I had studied the Bible with him and taught him a little English at his request. He seemed like a wonderful boy, but that week we found out he had some problems.

He started by telling us that his family was going to kick him out of the house.  We were skeptical, but with all of the street kids and orphans around, we knew it could happen.  We told him we would help if he got into a bind.  Kirk was all torn up, begging us to take him in.  The story became more questionable when he said we shouldn’t talk to his family, or they would beat him.  Kirk was beside himself, believing that his close friend would become a street kid if we didn’t help him.

Then one day he came and said he had been threatened with a knife.  He was in tears.  Martin had gone to Nelspruit for the day. Now what was I supposed to do?  I consulted the other missionaries on our team, and we decided that his family had to be confronted.  We found out that he had told many lies, and that his very nice family wanted him to come home.

He was at our house with Kirk, and he refused to even go outside to talk with his aunt, who had come to fetch him.  It turned out that  this boy of about 14 had to be literally carried out kicking and screaming by one of the men!  He wanted so badly to stay with us. What a scene!

It seemed that our young friend so wanted to live with us that he devised a scheme to accomplish that end.  It’s not so surprising really.  At that time, everyone wanted to go to America, and we had so much more of everything than he did.  No doubt he was hurting.  It was difficult to tell him that he had to go, but of course, I couldn’t kidnap him from his family— not that I wanted to.  It was just hard.

Kirk learned that you can’t trust everyone, a tough lesson at age 11, but his friend survived and seemed to be fine.  Later he came back to help Kirk make kites and learn the culture in many healthy ways, and nothing like that ever happened again with him.  Many Mozambicans seemed very happy with the little they had, and put me to shame, but poverty is a scourge that I have never had to suffer.  I have no room to  judge those who cannot escape the vicious cycle of poverty.  I don’t blame him for trying.

Mozambican Odyssey, #17: Kids Are Terrifying

Judith loves life and loves everyone she meets! She looks a lot like her mother did as a child in Mozambique.

Kids are Terrifying 

Little children have always terrified me.  Yes, I have 3 grown children and 9 grandchildren, and I know that sounds crazy, but this is why I never taught elementary or younger children if I could help it.  You never know when they might do something crazy and die.  They might drink bleach or fall out of a tree, or run in front of a passing truck, or pick up a poisonous snake.  One negative aspect of having an artist’s imagination is that I can imagine all kinds of terrible things happening.  Add that to losing my 20-year-old brother to a rare form of lung cancer, and later losing my dad because of a car wreck, and well, I am terrified of a lot of things. When each of my children reached 18, I was relieved that at least they had lived to adulthood under my watch, and now it was up to them to keep themselves alive.

As I continued reading my journal from Mozambique, I realized that something else scary happened on the same trip out of town when we lost the tire on the car, and the Hulsey family had to drive us around. (You can read that story here.)

After losing the tire, we stayed at a hotel in Nelspruit, South Africa, for a couple of days while the men tried to get the car repaired.  The hotels in Nelspruit are clean and comfortable, and I was enjoying having carpet, a bathtub, and tiled floors—things I had taken for granted in the US, but did not have in my house in Maputo, Mozambique.

One morning at the hotel, Aleta Hulsey and I thought we would let the little ones, her nearly 4-year-old Zach and my barely 3-year-old Hannah, play in the little swimming pool in the hotel lobby.  It was such a small pool that we thought the kids could play around the edges and be fine, so we didn’t plan to get in with them.  We ladies were talking, and then Aleta stopped short and motioned toward the pool.  Hannah was floating in the deep end of the pool!  I dived in, fully clothed, and rescued her, of course, but good grief!  Little kids are really scary, always trying to get themselves killed or drowned or something stressful like that!

I went dripping back to my hotel room, kind of embarrassed, and yes, thankful that I didn’t lose a child in addition to losing a tire off the car on that first trip to Nelspruit.

God rescues us and our children from disaster so often, and I tend to take it for granted.  Just the other night I lost track of my one-year-old granddaughter for a minute, but we soon found her sitting in the bathroom, holding my toothbrush in one hand and my razor in the other.  Kids are terrifying—and so precious.

Mozambican Odyssey, #16: Car Trouble in South Africa

 

Here we are after losing a tire on the road in South Africa.

While Martin and Don haul the tire up out of the ravine, 6-year-old Joseph finds a tree to climb.

Car Trouble in South Africa

“Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, and all embarrassment into laughter.”  — Beldon Lane*

By October of 1996, in Mozambique, we had managed to buy a small used car to get our family around until we could get something better.  Shopping in Maputo, Mozambique was very limited, so we wanted to travel to South Africa like our coworkers did for supplies and groceries that we could not find in Mozambique.  Our good friends, the Hulsey family, decided to go with us to show us around, and to make sure our little car could make the trip.

We waited about 2 hours just to get through the border between the two countries, and then, about 20 minutes into South Africa, we heard a strange sound.  All of a sudden, one of our tires flew off, speeding down into a ravine on the side of the road, and then launching back up into the air and disappearing again over the side of the road!

We were able to get to the side of the road without injury, and the Hulseys pulled over to help since they were following us.  My poor little 3-year-old Hannah was nearly hysterical, and I could hardly blame her after waiting 2 hours at the border and then this.

“What are we gonna do now? she wailed. Our car is broken!”

I wanted to wail too, but I didn’t.

We found the tire down in a ravine beside the road.  Don Hulsey had the always-prepared-seasoned-missionary-equipment in his car, lots of rope and hooks and such.  He held the rope as Martin rappelled down into the ravine by the rope to retrieve the tire.  I am glad I was not watching.

After the men hauled the tire up through the brush with the rope, we then piled both families of 5, yes, 10 of us, into the Hulsey’s landrover and went in search of a mechanic.

Today we laugh about this adventure, but had the Hulseys not been with us, it could have been horrible and dangerous.  There were rumors about little kids being kidnapped and used for “parts,” and the crime rate in South Africa was very high.  Had there been cars coming, the tire would very likely have caused a wreck.  God has protected us so many times through situations that could have been disastrous, and he has turned our “embarrassment into laughter.”*

This week in November, 2019, in Kentucky, again our family is having car trouble, but I am thankful that we are all safe.  Once again, I am so thankful for lifelong friends like the Hulseys who have been there for us so many times.  I am also thankful for my family, and how we take care of each other.

Finally, this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for a God who “turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, and all embarrassment into laughter.”*  I am still waiting on some of this to be completed, but I am also trying to focus on how much God has already done for me.  Praying you will experience the goodness of God this holiday season.

*Beldon Lane. Quoted in Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle

This Artist’s Life, #12: Working with our Hands

 

Ancient Cedars in the Summer Sun, Oil on Canvas, 11 x 14 inches, by Susan E. Brooks will be on display at the Jane Morgan Gallery from December 5 – April 2020.

 

“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.”*

—Leonardo Da Vinci

I have to admit that I do not know exactly what Leonardo meant by these words, but this quotation is thought-provoking for me.  As usual, I am feeling a little sad with the approaching of winter and even the holidays.  I need some encouragement.  One way I can find encouragement, is to work with my hands.

I was having a conversation with an artist/teacher friend the other day, and we agreed that there is something healing about creating with your hands.  I find that whether it’s painting, drawing, or making a pie for Thanksgiving, I feel better and breathe easier when I’m working with my hands.

Too often, I am just “in my head,” worrying over the grandkids’ health or the latest car trouble, and I need the healing that creative work brings.  We sometimes act like we are only vehicles meant to carry our brains around while they do all of the important work.  The reality is, we are body, soul, and spirit, all connected and created to act as a whole.

Perhaps this is what Leonardo meant when he said the spirit needs to work with the hands:  Sometimes, when our hands are able to create what our spirits are needing to express, what results is art–something that goes beyond just one person’s expression and becomes universally true and impactful in unique ways to the viewer.

Simply working with our hands can be healing and helpful, but when the spirit shows up expressing truth through beauty, this is art.

 

*  https://renee-phillips.com/art-and-artists-statements-by-famous-artists/

Mozambican Odyssey, #15: Sometimes We Cry

Window to the Soul, Oil Pastel on Pastel Paper, 14 x 11, by Susan E Brooks

Sometimes We Cry

The adjustment from one culture to another is called culture shock.  I had no idea what that was like, having never even been out of the country before the move to Mozambique, except on an anniversary cruise to the Bahamas.  Trust me.  Moving to Mozambique is no trip to the Bahamas.

The thoughts and feelings below are from my journal in August of 1996, just after moving to Mozambique, Africa:

I was excited to move into our house yesterday, but it has a few problems.  The toilet leaks sewage across the floor and into the shower stall.  I’m exhausted, and between a stressful team meeting last night and the toilet issues, I found myself in tears again last night.

(from 8/29/96, 3 days later)

What a week!  I tried to use the electric skillet, but it blew out the transformer.  All of our appliances from the states have to be plugged into a transformer to work on the 220 electricity.  Sometimes the transformers overheat, and it ruins both the transformer and the appliance.

We are supposed to have 220 electricity, but it fluctuates.  It’s really strange.  The lights suddenly become dim and flash on and off like a scene from a horror film.  This is also hard on appliances.  Our new refrigerator shut down after one of these episodes, so we called the electrician.  He pronounced our 5 day old refrigerator dead.  Desperate, we prayed, and tried one last time to get it going, and miraculously, it started running!

I needed that miracle.  Earlier today I was crying, again.  At that point we were nearly out of food, out of currency, no refrigerator, no vehicle, no way to manage.  What were we thinking, moving here sight-unseen with three kids and no overseas experience, at least none for me?  The tears flowed.

Somehow, by grace, by the end of the day we had a little money, and one of the local women agreed to walk to the market for me.  (She wouldn’t get swindled at the market like I would have.)  She came back with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and we had a meatless spaghetti meal for supper.  We invited a veteran missionary couple to eat with us and were comforted by their company and their sage advice.

Now in 2019, back in Kentucky, I still cry, but not about electricity or money or food.  I would not trade our time in Mozambique for anything, but neither do I want to relive it.  A quote from Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities describes it better than any words I can invent. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but God got us through.

Last week, I cried over the fact that my little grandson was diagnosed with diabetes.  I hate it because, barring a miracle or the discovery of a cure, he will face that disease for the rest of his life.  But I know that God is faithful and gives us the strength to handle whatever comes along, even though, sometimes we cry.

This Artist’s Life, #11: Inspiration from Fellow Artists

This is one of the few animal paintings I’ve created. I’m now inspired to try more animals. We saw this young boy relaxing with his donkey as we traveled through Burkina Faso. 30 x 20 inches, Oil pastel on mat board, by Susan E. Brooks

Open Studio Weekend is an event sponsored by LVA, Louisville Visual Art, and by the University of Louisville Hite Art Institute in Louisville, Kentucky.  During this special weekend, scores of artists around town open their studios to the public, and LVA sells tickets with maps and information about all of the studios.  I did not sign up as an artist this year; instead, I enjoyed visiting the studios of fellow artists. It was an inspiring weekend for me.

The first artist we visited was Helen Merrick.  Helen uses bright colors to paint just about any subject you can imagine.  Helen inspired me to think about painting subjects that I don’t usually paint, such as animals or historic sites, and to try different mediums, such a watercolors or alcohol inks.  Thank you, Helen!

The next artist we visited was Anne MacCracken Borders.  She showed me that  I could open up my back porch studio area to visitors, and reminded me that I have traveled to many interesting places around the world that I could paint.  I will be digging into my travel photos soon!  Thank you, Anne.

On Sunday I stopped at KORE Gallery to hang out, both as an artist and as a visitor to my gallery owner’s studio.  I had never taken in Don Cartwright’s studio, which is filled with beautiful abstract paintings.  Abstract painting has not been my purview, but sometimes I feel that it takes more creativity than working from life or photos.  Thanks, Don, for sharing your creative imagination with us through your painting.

Our last stop on the Open Studio tour was at Debra Lott’s studio.  I love her colorful, haunting, floating figure paintings and portraits! She inspired me to think about how I can communicate powerful messages and advocate for justice with my art.  Thank you, Debra.

Thank you, LVA and  U of L Hite Art Institute for a great weekend of art!  Perhaps I will invite you all to my place next year.  Meanwhile, here’s my next big event: