Celebrating My Brother’s Life & What I Learned From Him

bradley
My first real baby, Bradley.

Tomorrow is the probably the most bittersweet day of the year for me. It’s the 23rd anniversary of my brother Bradley’s death.

He was 16 months old and just started walking and talking.

He called me Nonna. My fondest memory of him was when our brother, Bryan, would dump him in my bed at 5:30 every morning because he was crying. He would snuggle up next to me and nod back off.

Oh, I miss those cuddles. That sweet baby who often preferred me to Momma. The dance parties he had on the kitchen table.

And the walks we took every afternoon to see the ducks.

Every afternoon when I arrived home from school, he would waddle up to me and say, “Duck, duck.” We’d get his stroller and stroll on down to the neighborhood boat dock to feed them bread scraps.

But this afternoon was different. I had a test the next day and I was stressing about it. I don’t remember the subject or if I ever even took the test.

I pushed him away and said we would go later to see the ducks.

I remember it was really warm that day, like a March day before a storm system blew through. Mom was on the phone with her sister in Dad’s office. Dad was prepping a shipment in the garage.

It was a pretty typical afternoon at the Johnson house. Doors and windows open. Kids running around.

Everyone thought someone else was watching Bradley.

And then Mom walked in. “Where’s Bradley?” she asked.

We called 911, just in case. Dad handed me and Bryan a picture and told us to start knocking on doors. For the next 30 minutes, we asked everyone if they had seen our baby brother. No one had.

Bryan and I rounded the block and saw the worst sight we’d ever seen. Our mom was crumpled next to an ambulance. There is no other word to describe it. She was folded in half. Her face distorted in pain.

I saw Dad up ahead and asked him what happened. He said, “They found Bradley in the water. They are trying to revive him.”

We were ushered home and the details are blurry from here. All I can remember is sitting with my brother and four sisters waiting with our grandmother in the living room.

I remember praying. I don’t remember the words, but I do remember that it was the first time I prayed on my own. I begged God to save our brother.

The next thing I remember is waking up thinking things were ok. I walked sleepily into the living room and saw the saddest look on my dad’s face. He looked like the life had drained out of him. Like his soul had been sucked away. Mom was frozen. Her hands were clasped. The TV was on, but no one was watching it.

I think some of the other kids joined us. And we asked, “Is Bradley ok?”

And Dad answered, “No, he’s gone to heaven.”

A thousand questions flooded my 10-year-old mind. But the biggest one was, “Why?”

I would hear that question resounding in my head and from my mom’s room for the next two years. I knew from that moment on, life would be different. Very different.

I didn’t feel like a kid anymore. I often say that that’s the day I grew up.

The next few days were filled with ham platters, casseroles and shopping for funeral clothes.

I remember telling Momma I wasn’t going. Her sister was going to stay with me. I was scared to say goodbye to my brother. It hurt too much. Funerals were spectacles. I remembered that from when Momma’s mother passed a few years before. Cold and creepy events.

I wasn’t wrong. The smell of carnations was intoxicating in that sickly way. It lingered in my memory for weeks. I still can’t be around a lot of flowers at one time. It’s the smell of death in my mind.

I tell you this story because it’s good to remember the hard times in our lives. These are the moments that shape who we are.

I can’t begin to understand why my brother’s life was so short, but I thank God for every single moment our family had with him.

I can also tribute my brother’s life with opening the seeds of faith in my life. I know Jesus was right there walking along beside us. He gave me a strength I didn’t know I had.

Some of the hardest times came after those three sad days. My mother hurt so badly. She was so angry. Dad was so strong on the outside, but you could see the despair in his eyes.

I don’t remember doing this, but Momma said I came to her and asked her to come back to us. To be our mom. And she picked herself up.

I know Jesus was holding my hand when I said that.

I also know He never let hope leave my life. Even in my deepest pain. Those moments when it felt like it was bad to laugh, he gave me hope.

Hope that things would get better. That Momma would stop crying all the time. That I would stop crying myself to sleep.

Romans 5: 2-5 (NIRV) says it best:

Through faith in Jesus we have received God’s grace. In that grace we stand. We are full of joy because we expect to share in God’s glory. And that’s not all. We are full of joy even when we suffer. We know that our suffering gives us the strength to go on. The strength to go on produces character. Character produces hope. And hope will never let us down. God has poured his love into our hearts. He did it through the Holy Spirit, whom he has given to us.

Suffering hurts. But separation from hope hurts more. I’m so grateful God gives us hope as a gift. Bradley was a gift to our family. I don’t know why he left us so soon, but as my grandmother used to say, “God called him home.”

A wise lady I met a year or so ago gave me the best encouragement on why my little brother left this world so soon. She said his soul was too perfect for this world.

I don’t claim to be an authority on perfect souls. I do know that I love my brother and know he has a purpose in God’s kingdom.

I know my brother is not just in a better place, but the best place. He’s at the feet of Jesus. A place I can only begin to imagine.

But the impression Bradley left on my life is one of hope and perseverance. I miss him so much, but my hope and faith is that he’ll be one of the first people I see when it’s my time.

I also know this – I can spend every March 4th mourning his lost earthly life or I can remember the sweet moments and celebrate that his life helped me find the source of all hope and strength. I choose celebration and hope. Because if God is for us, who can be against us?

A Revelation About Life’s Fragility and Strength

wonderful-blowball-1280699-mI’m going to be 16 weeks pregnant with my third child on Wednesday. And I’m so thankful that it’s one more week with no real news.

I was sitting here writing a card to one of three friends who lost their babies this week. And I realized something. Life is so fragile.

It’s more fragile than the finest of crystal, and we all take it for granted.

I know I do. But something this week taught me is to recognize that fragility. Every. Single. Day.

And that it’s a gift. A precious gift.

My heart is hurting for these three mommas.

They loved their babies as soon as they knew they were a plus sign on a pregnancy test.

Their lives were forever changed once again. Their minds filled with dreams, hopes and fears of adding to their families.

And then these losses took me back to dark days. Each of my pregnancies has been partnered with some hard times.

With my first baby girl, we lost my husband’s father. Bill was excited about his granddaughter and in the peak of his life. And then he was gone. Too soon.

I saw my husband grow up that summer. And I saw a selfishness in myself I never knew existed. I was upset with him for so many stupid, thoughtless reasons. I wasn’t dealing with my own pain and grief. I was projecting it on him – asking him to be something he couldn’t be at that time.

Then we had our sweet princess. She brought a joy to our lives we had never known. But what I remember most about her birthday was how much we missed Bill (my father-in-law). Warren said as he held her for the first time, “I miss my dad.” Then, he burst into tears.

All that selfish anger was gone. This is what life is about. Being real and in God’s presence. God showed up that day and gave us the strength to be her parents. And he gave us a love we’ve never known before – for each other and for that sweet princess.

My next pregnancy was the hardest of all four. August 2011 was such a hard month. I was sick. My gall bladder was making me increasingly sick. I had a cough that I couldn’t shake. And people kept asking me if I was pregnant. My stomach was so bloated that I looked like I was about four months along.

I took a test. Not pregnant. Took another test. Not pregnant. Took a third test. Pregnant.

And I can tell you I wasn’t that excited. I wanted that gall bladder out before I had another baby. I wanted our finances fixed before we had another baby.

Well, as I found out a couple weeks later, it wasn’t entirely my gall bladder making me sick. It was an uncommon pregnancy complication called a molar pregnancy.

It’s a condition where there’s no genetic material in the egg (in my case). And a placenta-like tumor grows in place of the baby at an accelerated rate. If you don’t get it surgically removed, it can turn into cancer.

So here I was thinking we were facing an unexpected baby one minute and the next minute I’m looking at emergency surgery and a year of close monitoring for signs of cancer.

The hardest part of losing this pregnancy was that I still felt like I lost a child. While the doctor told me it wasn’t a child, it felt like a child. And who knows, maybe I have a baby waiting for me in heaven one day?

I went through a six-month period of depression. I didn’t think I was depressed at the time. But after learning so much about molar pregnancy, the rapid increase and decrease in hormones took their toll on my body. It also took a toll on my marriage. I was stuck in a place of uncertainty and grief. And it felt like there was no one else there with me.

But God was there waiting for me. He picked me up and put the fragile pieces of my heart back together.

And he did it in the most unusual ways. He changed me from who I thought I wanted to be. He turned me away from wanting to win the rat race. He pulled me into his love and showed me the person He created me to be.

I spent a lot of those long months searching for what I thought I wanted. But what I really needed was a full surrender to live on His strength. I was (and still am) a work of God.

In June 2012, I finally got released from the prison of “Don’t get pregnant. You could get cancer if you do.” It was one of the happiest days of my life. I could finally move on with something God wanted me to do – be a mom to more than one child.

Not that I want to share too much, but we got pregnant on our first try.

We went on vacation for two weeks and I was miserable. Happily miserable. The 10 pregnancy tests I bought were all negative. But I knew I was pregnant.

I finally got a positive pregnancy test on July 14, 2012. (This is the day we supposedly met back in college. Neither one of us can pinpoint the exact date.)

We went to the doctor somewhere in the next week and saw a healthy baby. It was miraculous. I had said prior to this that I would never approach that first date at the doctor with a clear head. But I was wrong. God softened my heart and gave me hope. I knew my baby was alive and well.

The pregnancy went well until 34 weeks. Nothing tragic happened, but I got hit with a bout of pregnancy induced hypertension. Next came bed rest. Nothing makes you feel more worthless than bed rest. I could feel my muscles weakening and that extra five pounds I wanted to avoid came rushing on.

But I was terrified something bad would happen. That struggle to stay positive was really hard under the crushing blood pressure headaches. Again, I sensed the fragility of life. My baby was counting on me to keep him in a little longer.

And he stayed put until March 12, 2013. We got to meet the happiest little guy we’ve ever met that day. I thought the first one melted my heart, but my sweet boy changed me. This little prince took my heart hostage.

My two angels – Reagan-Leigh and Logan together made my heart even more fragile. It’s like it’s been cut in half and walking (or crawling) around from sun-up to sundown all day.

My son’s first six months were so much tougher than I expected. I relied a lot on God’s strength and some special people to make it through sleep deprivation and a terrible hormone imbalance. And then one day I started to see life going on again. We weren’t so much in survival mode. We were moving forward.

Then I got the shock of my life. Yes, we were pregnant again. I think I lived in denial about it for a couple of weeks. I felt tired and my pants were tight, but I had no other symptoms.

We went to the doctor on December 18, 2013 to confirm this pregnancy. Our little surprise had a heartbeat at six weeks. I breathed a sigh of relief.

And somewhere around my birthday at the end of January, I started to see the glimmer in the unexpected. God had answered a prayer I’d had for a long time.

My sometimes thrice daily prayer was, “Am I doing what you want me to do? Am I living in your plan or mine? Please give me a sign for what you want me to be.”

That answer was to be mommy. Just mommy.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve accepted this reality. I don’t work a lot, but I do work some. And it’s been a process of dying to myself to get over needing to work.

God has blessed our family with a business that more than provides. And I’ve not been able to count on that assurance for some time.

I finally pulled the plug today. I’m going to be just mom.

And that decision was spurred by some dark news this week. Three friends lost their babies. Their sweet little expectations.

These women’s loss showed me how fragile life is and how much we need to depend on God’s strength. These ladies have fragile hearts right now. And I can’t say mine isn’t. I went to the doctor in trepidation last week.

But my heart is most fragile for them. I ask you, dear reader, to pray for the women in your life who have suffered a miscarriage.

It’s a fragile situation. And we need God’s strength to carry them.

Why I Had to Marry a Third Baseman

why i had to marry a third basemanIt took me nearly nine years of the same argument with my husband to understand why God gave me Warren. I needed a third baseman.

We were getting nowhere in communicating with spoken words, so I wrote him a letter. It was intended to tell him what I needed from him, but as God worked on my words, I began to understand him on a new level.

I don’t know if this post that I adapted from this letter will help anyone, but I know this. Our marriage hasn’t ever been as good as it is since I wrote him this letter.

If nothing else, I hope it inspires someone struggling through a communication challenge in their marriage to write it all down. It’s incredible what happens when we think before we speak. I just have to write it down to be understood.

Why I Had to Marry a Third Baseman

I know the basics of baseball, but I don’t know the intricacies. So I did what any good little bookworm will do – I opened up Google and learned a few things. And now the writer in me is going to apply them to my marriage.

You don’t have to be as quick as a shortstop, but you must still have quick reflexes. And you have to trust them.

One thing I do know in watching baseball is that you have to be prepared to be beaned with a ball that’s hit very hard. You don’t get much time to react.

You have to think on your feet. You can’t be scared of the ball. And if you get hit with one, you have to be able to shake it off.

Quick reflexes are a gift; much more so than foot speed. You need wit and grit to take down the ball – often with your body.

I’m a quick thinker. I hit really hard with my words. I take on a lot of things.  I need someone to help me handle my fear of the ball.

Quick wit and grit help keep me balanced. My wit is quick and often biting. It’s not meant to be. And he gets that. Most people don’t.

Warren is awesome when he’s thinking on his feet in a crisis. He keeps his cool even though he may be shaking underneath in anticipation of a hit from that speeding ball.

Warren trusts his abilities to think and react. I need to trust that ability.

And I need to trust my own abilities to think and react. He can’t do that for me. And that is often a root of our communication breakdowns.

You make some of the most difficult plays in baseball. And in life.

I realized that Warren had never really struggled financially in his life. And that’s a good thing.

The fact that I have is a crutch I lean on occasionally. I crumble in financial uncertainty, but he sees it as a hurdle to overcome.

I need to look at that perspective and not look back at the pain and fear.

If a third baseman gets scared, he’s going to get hurt. That’s a great life lesson.

Warren lost his coach five years ago. And he accepted that it was his turn to be the coach. He’s done an incredible job, but I don’t know how he does it.

People don’t often accept him for who he is. And that often includes me. His gumption to laugh in the face of this lack of acceptance is rare today.

And that’s a place we lean on each other. I don’t “fit in” most of the time.

People are scared of the fact that he knows what he wants. He’s ok with being an outsider.

The way I always dealt with a lack of acceptance is to try to please people. If I let a girl cheat off of me in school, she might be nice to me for a while.

So, I’m going to take his approach. I’m going to love me first. And the rest of them can accept me or not. I have to be ok with that. And he taught me that.

You play third base because you don’t run as fast. 

He doesn’t care about running fast. He cares about pacing himself. You don’t need to run fast to play third base. You have to think on your feet.

That’s a humble attitude. Not everyone can be the fastest. He’d rather do the tough skills. He’d rather help the team than have the speed and flashy attention of being a pitcher or shortstop.

Third basemen are the least likely to be named to the Hall of Fame.

Obviously, Warren never expected a career in the pros. He never expected the MVP award at a game. Heck, he didn’t even hit a home run until his last game.

He played baseball because he loved it. He played third base because it was a challenge. He didn’t need the credit. He just loved the game.

He played because his heart is about making the team better. Him becoming better was a requirement for making the team better.

Third basemen aren’t often rewarded in the Hall of Fame because they don’t look at a key factor as readily as they do with other players – defense.

Third basemen save runs. That’s their job. Warren save the day so often. But it’s always quietly. He’s not a glamorous guy. He’s a third baseman.

Their job is not glamorous. It’s very misunderstood. Baseball fans know it’s a necessary position, but it’s the not the showstopper.

It’s a place for a man of skill, quick thought and reflexes.

And the last thing I learned from my baseball player – There’s no crying in baseball. You get hit. You get back up and keep playing.

I’m so thankful that God sent me a third baseman. He’s just what I needed.

A Momma’s Response to Bruno Mars’ Just the Way You Are

The Superbowl featured an entertainer last night. A real entertainer. And Bruno Mars’ last song was one I think is almost the right message for girls. My age. Younger. Older. 

His chorus says, “Girl, you’re amazing just the way you are.”

He’s talking about her beauty. Her smile. How her hair falls just the right way. 

Even if she doesn’t believe the guy, she’s beautiful. And amazing. But it’s about beauty. To a man. 

I think it’s a very powerful, positive message. But there’s more to a woman being amazing.

We are beautiful just the way God made us. Smart. Capable. Tender. Strong. 

We are to be loved just the way we are.

But ladies, we’re called to be more than beautiful and to have more than a smile “that stops the world for a while.”

And our girls need to know that. That they’re more than just beautiful on the outside. 

I know this message has been preached, but it’s one worth repeating. 

Our girls are in trouble. 

I don’t know about you, but when I was about 8 years old, my body began changing. My occupations also began changing.

I wasn’t worried about riding my bike better. I was worried about looking better. 

I was worried about the pot belly I had underneath my school uniform. 

I was worried that no boy would ever think I was pretty. My teeth were crooked. My nose was too big. 

Where did all this insecurity come from?

It came from this world that Mr. Mars says will stop when we smile. 

I don’t want to sound skeptical of his positive message, but does it really? 

I want the world to stop for my girl. But not because of her outward beauty, but for her courage to love God. For her incredible sense of humor. For her inquisitive nature. For her real love for other people.

I want her to love herself enough to not believe the world’s untruths about outward beauty. 

God’s word says in Psalm 139:14 (NKJV): 

I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well. 

I want my daughter to know she is a work of God. A beautiful, one-of-a-kind gem who deserves love and respect for everything she is. 

Not just her smile. Or the way her hair falls. 

What are you doing to show your girls that level of beautiful and amazing? 

Counting Our Blessings to Overcome Negativity

Psalm 90:12 Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. 

This morning I woke to a feeling of overwhelm. A feeling of no control. Things to do. Work to do. The stress of no list of projects. The stress of two kids having a rough night sleeping. 

And I tried to sleep. I really did, but I couldn’t. So, instead of dwelling on the overwhelm, I turned it off. 

It wasn’t easy. But I started at my hair, my hands, my ears – counting my blessings. This is a trick I use to calm down. To try to return to sleep.

And my mind wants to wander. It wants to so bad. To the bad things. To the things I don’t like about my house. To the pile of work. To the pile of dirty laundry calling to me from the corner. 

But I fought that list of bad things. Things I can’t do anything about at 4:22 in the morning. 

The way I fought it was to turn my mind to God’s gifts. The senses he gave. A warm home. A blanket. Snuggles with my sleepy babies. 

A husband that snores. Yes, it’s annoying. But he’s there. His hangers on the bed. His socks on the floor. The seasoning salt I asked him to put away is still on the couch. 

But he’s here. With me. A gift from God. A friend. A man who loves me more than he loves himself. 

My mind wandered to the woman who was pleading for her husband to come back home to her and their girls on Facebook earlier in the evening.

I felt her pain. But I couldn’t relate. I’ve lost loved ones But not that connection only a couple has. That bond. That love. All I could do was pray for her and use this as a reminder of the blessings I have right here, right now. 

All we can do is thank God for the blessings. For each moment.

As a work of God, it’s our job to turn to gratefulness in times of stress or despair. To look for Him in every situation. And to pray for those we know we can’t really comfort.

When we focus on the work he did to make us, it’s a little easier to face the day with a smile rather than a sneer. 

My prayer for you today:

Heavenly Father, May we remember to count our blessings and our days as gifts from you. We praise you and your creation even when we feel like we don’t deserve it. We praise you for the trials and tribulations. We love you and seek our refuge in you. In Jesus’ precious name. Amen.