aviators

Confessions of the month: I wear mirrored aviators and I used to love my birthday.

A  few years ago I began to strongly dislike my birthday. It’s a horrible statement right? We always hear people not liking their birthdays because they don’t want to turn a year older.

That’s actually not my problem. I could care less what my age is…it’s actually because for the majority of my life I shared my birthday with someone else and several years ago my birthday became only my own.

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I was given the beautiful gift of being born on my grandpa’s birthday [thanks, Mom]. Obviously, early on…I had no clue. But as I got older I realized that it made my birthday that much more special. I was the first grandchild AND born on his birthday. Luckily we both had a penchant for angel food cake, although I’m not sure if it was because it was forced on me so much at an early age or if I really did like it. Grandpa relinquished his being put first while I was younger and even submitted to a New Kids on the Block cake one year. When I went to college, he and my grandma even drove six hours to be able to say grandpa and I were still together on our birthday for several of those years. Their perspective was we hadn’t missed in 18 years, so it wasn’t going to start happening because I was six hours away. Ah, the sacrifices grandparents make for their grandchildren.

My grandpa was one of those men who never knew a stranger. I vividly remember him shaking the hand of every person he met, and immediately making them feel like they had been friends for years. I don’t think he ever forgot a name. I never saw him be unkind to anyone, and family always came first. He also carved out time for his family to be together when he bought a house at Table Rock Lake. Our memories there are countless, and no one will ever convince me that those summers didn’t have a large part in shaping who we are as adults. I also cherish the memories when he ‘drew the short straw’ and had to get the kid out of the Deck the Walls store our family owned, so he would take me to Chick-fil-A in the food court. I’m certain his love for basketball fueled my own, but I never caught on to the whole baseball thing.

Sept 29, 2001But then grandpa was diagnosed with frontal temporal lobe dementia, and everything changed. Birthdays started coming with the absent thought of will this be the last one? As his motor skills declined, and early on stopped using speech, once a year I found myself taking the back seat so we could celebrate his birthday in his last years with all of us. I think it was on our last birthday together the photo that shows us blowing out the candles doesn’t even have me at the table. Instead it is a beautiful picture of my grandpa surrounded by his grandchildren. I think a large part of me felt it was only right that in the end he have his own day without sharing it, since I had claimed it so many times.

It never occurred to me that one day, eventually time and age would make our birthday…mine alone. I had rare years with my birthday coming around without my grandpa next to me celebrating the same thing.

It had been the most special feeling to share that day, but I found myself unprepared to celebrate and experience the void his death left several years ago.

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Now it is haunting, even when enough time has passed that feeling should have subsided. As soon as September starts, I get a knot in the pit of my stomach that it’s coming. So I tell myself to stuff it down, get over it and do what I tend to do best and jump into the massive boat of denial.

I’m honestly not sure why I felt so pulled to put this into words this year. Perhaps because last year was the first year I was less touchy about the ‘day,’ and it was saved to double up this year. Maybe memories are fading with time, and I want to cling to every piece of him that my heart can grab. Or even this year, I simply find myself missing him while my grandma’s diagnosis of pre-Alzheimer is manifesting in very real ways while my heart breaks for my mom, aunt and uncles – all our family –  who are facing this…yet again. But this time without a built in caregiver in the house.

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A few years ago I decided that I was going to adopt a practice of solidarity against my unavoidable emotions, and go the route of memory keeping, when I chose to wear a pair of aviator sunglasses for the month of September. My grandpa wore aviators. Then October came…the next October came, and I’ve never stopped. I’ve gone through so many pairs of aviators. I sit on them. They get dropped. Someone grabs them and they break as they pull them off my head. At some point someone thinks they are cool, and the aviators would look better on them, so they put them on and forget to give them back. The aviators I am wearing right now have a crack in the top and I have no idea how it got there.

For being what pilots wear, they are not very durable. But then again, I don’t buy expensive pairs, because I break them so often.

However, the reason I continue to wear them is always the same. It reminds me that I come from somewhere, I was loved by someone very special, and I should honor that love with choices and actions I make. I don’t write this to make more people say ‘Happy birthday!’ I am incredibly blessed by multiple communities of people that challenge me, listen to my mission rants, radically love others and also put up with my sometimes dorky, always adventurous, hair-brained ideas. I think I do share it so that you become more aware of how you love others, not just your family…but your neighbors, your co-workers, the homeless person on the corner and the barista at Starbucks. We get so caught up in differences and what we are all against…that we lose sight of what we should be fighting for and the commonalities that can be found in us all being made in the image of God. Love always wins, friends…love always wins.

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There are so many clichés about ‘seeing,’ but how often do we think about how we are reflected in the eyes of others? What do they see when they look at us?

How do our eyes reflect our love? Our friendship? Our compassion? Our purpose? Our passion? Our orneriness? Or even our hate?

There are many that know the ornery gleen my eyes can take on…can’t hide much there!

And not everyone is going to be honest with you about how they see you, and you cannot control that…what you can control is what reflection you hope they see.

Steph and EtaeMany times after a mission trip, I will get people pointing out a photo that gets put out, and they say, “That is the real Stephanie. You are in your ‘mission’ element where you are supposed to be.” Generally in those photos I have a relaxed look in the midst of chaos, because I know without a doubt that God’s got everything under control and I’m just being obedient by being present.

But I am guilty of be absorbed by so many other things at home. I get lost in the midst of the shiny objects surrounding me.

Haiti 2012Last year after coming back from Haiti, I was not lost. I was very much in tuned with God, who I am and where he was leading me. I love the photo of my sunglasses, because I am looking out over Port-au-Prince from the Baptist Mission on top of the mountain and Haiti is reflected in my sunglasses. I remember so many things running through my head in that moment. I keep going back to that first post after we got back because I need to remember exactly where God was working on me.

I know exactly what people saw in my eyes when I got back from Haiti. They saw fight. They saw compassion. They saw extreme love. They saw me ripped raw by the Holy Spirit, and built back together by the compassionate heart of Christ.

But recently, my eyes have lost their luster. My vision is short-sighted. I’ve lost will to fight. I want to throw in the towel.

But that is not what God wants people to see in my eyes. He wants me to reflect his love, his grace and his message. If people are not seeing God reflected my eyes…then they are not seeing the woman he created.

So here’s to Lent. A time to restore yourself to God. A time to fast. A time to prepare. A time to work for God’s justice. A time for others to see God reflected in your eyes.