One Woman, One Pry Bar and Determination

Today’s post is a “What I did this summer,” story. But the truth is it began over five years ago.

We have a small home in the Arizona mountains. Like much of the land in Strawberry it is on a steep hillside as it backs up to the Mogollon Rim. When the house was built we had to have fill dirt and rock brought in to give us a somewhat level foundation. From the back to the front of the house it’s still a three foot drop, but it was workable. As you can imagine where the bulldozer stopped leveling the ground there was a steep drop off with this fill dirt. In my eyes it wasn’t a very pretty sight. But it also wasn’t a priority.

Until the summer five years ago when I looked around and decided to make good use of the natural sandstone found everywhere on the property and build a stone wall up the hillside. The sandstone was so plentiful it seemed an easy job to level and stack. But it was not. The pry bar immediately gave a resounding thump as it bounced off a big rock. It was so heavy that after less than fifteen minutes I was ready to cry in frustration. Of course, Bob ran over to help (that’s how he is) which only irritated me more. This was to be my project but I couldn’t even move one single stone. There was a big ‘woe is me’ pity party, blaming myself for being out of shape and unable to manage the 5000 feet altitude.

You know how hindsight is 20-20? A short month later I had one of those moments. Yes, that’s when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Ah ha! It was a moment of clarity. Suddenly, the fatigue, shortness of breath and lack of strength made sense. If only it had been recognized sooner…but that’s a story for another day except to say, if you are a woman get your mammogram. My doctor had recommended a baseline study and with no family history of problems my prescription had been sitting on the counter waiting for the opportune time. Because of, well, priorities… Don’t be like me. Make your health a priority.

Fast forward five years to this summer.

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Planting a little peach tree right in the middle of the wall.

Other projects finished, my attention turned back to the front yard. I dug out the pry bar and headed back over to the hillside. Five years of better health brings with it strength and to my surprise, ability. Ability to pound the pry bar into the ground. Ability to move big rocks. And ability to persevere. I began stacking the sandstone, learning as the project moved along how to make them level and how to lock them together. At first, I would wait on Bob to help move the big rocks and then came realization that one person can do a whole lot using a lever and fulcrum. Learning that the same small stone that keeps a rock wiggling when you stand on it can also be used as a pivot for a much larger rock. Slowly, and some days, ever so slowly, the wall began to take shape. Bob would call and ask what we accomplished that day and I’d tell him, “I moved one rock.” Some days I imagined myself like the ancient Egyptians building the pyramids but thank goodness I wasn’t. Still one rock at a time it was built.

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The finished product?

As summer ends is my rock wall finished? Maybe. Maybe not. I still haven’t decided. It’s far enough over and close enough to the brambly manzanita bushes that it could be done. Or it might be continued next summer. In the mean time we planted some vines in the cracks and a few lilacs dug up from Mom’s yard. Hopefully they will become well established over the winter.

Before leaving you’ll get a laugh from this picture that comes with an explanation. I asked Bob to take a flattering photo I could share (Rebecca says if I wanted a flattering picture I should have looked at myself in the mirror in those pants…) But I gave Bob my camera, the one he never uses, with instructions to take a panoramic picture, something he has never done. He tried to figure it out but my directions were pretty poor as was my impatience. Ha. As you can see, the picture turned out so terribly that it’s funny.

100_3425And that’s what I did this summer. Just call me the stone stacker.

In the Midst of Tragedy

It’s been over 40 years but I remember it like yesterday.

September 4, 1971.

Our family had recently moved to the fishing town of Sitka, Alaska. We were there to start a new life as my parents looked forward to joining together in marriage. The plan was that my new stepdad’s father would come for the wedding and then stay for a visit. I only knew John the elder, as a grandpa; a kindhearted story teller who would sit back with his pipe and entertain the children with stories of his adventures. We all looked forward to his visit.

But, it was not meant to be.

It was a typical rainy fall day in Sitka clouds low in the sky limiting visibility even at the ground level when we headed to the airport to meet the plane. What should have been a short half hour trip turned into an agonizing affair marked by extreme darkness. Today, it’s hard to imagine, but back then we were without the benefit of 24 hour news running in the terminal or the immediacy of social media, even cell phones. As we waited with other families for the flight’s arrival we began to observe whispering agents in the small one-terminal airport. Late planes were not unexpected in our rural setting but the continuation of the flight from Juneau to Sitka should only have taken thirty minutes so when hours had passed we knew nothing was right. Eventually, our family learned that the plane had not reached Juneau. Officials still just told us it was delayed though my parents knew better.

My sister and I were sent home with a cab driver friend who shut off the top news story on the radio, but not before we heard the announcement that a plane was feared crashed on approach in the rocky mountain range near Juneau. It helped prepare us for when our parents returned home in a very shell shocked and unbelieving mind. The announcement and the reading of the passenger list on our town’s one radio station also alerted friends who immediately surrounded my parents with amazing love and support. As they gathered together they learned that the folks could be flown by the airlines where ever they needed to be with the rest relatives while waiting for confirmation but only ‘immediate family’ was included in the airlines offer. This was in the days before a ‘significant other’ could count as anything important and for a few moments they all pondered the situation but only a few moments, because it was realized that my parents, already planning to get married, had their wedding license in hand. If they got married we would be immediate family. And with amazing speed the wedding was organized.

Each day has only 24 hours but it seems this day lasted far longer as that evening we proceeded to the little Lutheran church we had been attending where we were met by Pastor Ted. One of the church members had been cleaning up the church when she heard the news and quickly rearranged the altar with flowers for a wedding. Small town news travels fast and another friend arrived to play the organ while several others appeared in time for the ceremony. It almost seemed like a real wedding.

I don’t know how much my parents remember of their ceremony but my young impression was that everyone in attendance, rather than being seated, was gathered around them in a circular arrangement, like angels shielding them from the pain. After the service a friend who worked in the jail next door provided an impromptu reception with jailhouse cookies and juice. It continued to rain but I remember the church appeared to glow that night. Was it from the lighting…or was it from the outpouring of love? We were not deserted in this time of heartbreak breaking pain; even in our worst grief we could feel the comfort of peace. God was with us and there is no doubt that Jesus was carrying our family through this trial.

The disaster ended, as they do, with a huge painful loss, sorrow not just for our family but the many others impacted by the crash, followed by a slow recovery marked often with regret, guilt and survivors remorse. In the short term, it was tremendously difficult; many families never do overcome such sorrows. Still, over the years my parents chose to embrace a life well lived and move forward with the help of their faith, family and friends and on this day they also celebrate 43 years of marriage.

Today I am reminded that in the midst of tragedy, there is still love.

4th of July family gathering. After 43 years they still hold hands. There is love.

4th of July family gathering. After 43 years they still hold hands. There is love.