Hi! I'm Jen Lebo. I'm here to help you with all things
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A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about a new project I hope to begin, called The Great American Portrait Project. Still on the early road to discovery, I envisioned a tapestry of beautiful lives, tied together through portraits and stories. You can read a little about that here.
After sharing that blog post, I received an email from a friend who asked if I would consider sharing her story. She was not sure it was part of my vision, but thought it an important one to share. I could not agree more.
Laura's story is one of grief. It is not an easy story to read, as I'm sure it was not an easy one to write- or an easy one to live for that matter. But Laura's story is beautiful.
Here it is, in her own words.
Thank you for sharing this with us, Laura.
I am a member of the club nobody wants to join.
It’s a club of unimaginable pain, of sleepless nights, of staggering guilt and despair. It is a club in which you question the very nature of life and existence.
It is the club of widowhood.
I am alone now, but not single like I was before I met Adam nearly 18 years ago. I will never be single again. I will always be widowed. I will always feel an emptiness in my heart, and I will always carry the burden of grief on my shoulders.
I have realized that no matter how long you have your love, whether it’s five days or 50 years, it will never be enough. Nevertheless, I am still part of the subset of this nightmarish club … the young widow subset. I don’t have a few years ahead of me to carry this grief, but a lifetime.
Any time is the wrong time to be a widow, to be left behind. At 47, I am caught in between. No longer am I the sparkling, businesslike 30-year-old in a short skirt and sweater who walked into a print shop, catching the eye of an even-younger free spirit. Now, after years of happiness, those skirts don’t fit me anymore, the shine in my hair is from a bottle, and the years have made their mark upon my skin. It is in this shape that I am left—broken inside and out.
Now, I am the awkward silence that fills the room when I crack a joke about death. I am the ultimate question mark… how will she act tonight? Should I bring up her husband? Should ask I how she is? What do I do if she cries?
The likelihood a widow dies in the first year after her husband’s death increases dramatically. I know this intimately. I have wanted to die. I have spent dark moments keening in a lonely house, desperate for solace, desperate for an end to pain. I have relived every moment of his illness, positive in a fleeting moment that he could come back if I just had said or done something differently. I have believed I had the power to control another human being, and to control life or death.
Because there is another subset to which I belong.
I am the widow of an addict. My guilt, be it rational or not, is real. I could have made different choices. They might have made a difference. They probably would not have. I, no, we, made our choices at the time, but the disease of addiction is a mighty monster. It claws through the best of marriages, ripping the seams right open. If there is a weakness in your marriage, it will find it and tear it wide open until it becomes that gaping hole of death and despair.
And people will judge. They will judge me. They will judge him—a man they didn’t know, who was a soul of unwavering kindness. They will say he was weak, that he could have been stronger. Those of us who have watched the path of addiction from beginning to end know there are no easy answers. All I know is that the disease took my love from me and left me in its wake.
I am alone, but not alone. I have been lifted up by a thousand hands … hands that didn’t judge, that showed me love beyond what I could have hoped.
And there is Bixby. Our dog. Let me tell you, the grief of a widow is such that even his life would not have deterred me from my determined path toward death had it not been for the love of people around me. They pulled me through for him. Now it is the two of us on this road together.
We both believe in love. He is by my side as I fight for my life; as I fight for hope and meaning when all seems gone.
In the late waning hours of a November day, I lay in a hospital bed with my beloved as his wondrous life slipped away. The doctor held my hand as I wept and cried out “I can’t do this. My life is over.” She held me tighter and just said, “No, your life isn’t over. But it will never be the same.”
Much to my surprise, she turned out to be right. My life isn’t over, no matter how hard I wished it would be. My life is not the same, no matter how hard I try to make it so.
The worst thing that could have happened to me has already happened. Together, Bixby and I have no fear of what is to come.
So, we look ahead. Sometimes, grief calls to us so loudly that we cannot ignore him, and the darkness takes over. But I am here to tell you… it is survivable. It is survivable because of love and compassion…because of family and because of friends.
I will bear this burden if I must. I will bear it so you may all have the life I was not granted. Your smiles are my gift. Your smiles are my knowledge that I will see the sun again.
Thank you for making me feel beautiful again, Jen.
I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.
"She started it!"
"Get out of my room!"
"You're such a jerk!"
"It's not my fault! He always does this! It's NOT FAIR!"
How many times a day, does it seem, that I look over at my husband and wonder, "How in the world did all three of these kids come from the two of us? They are so completely different from each other!" On most days, it seems that they could be three kids we picked out of three different kid patches, completely foreign to each other, with no plans on ever "making friends". It's all I can do to keep from ripping my hair out!
I hear the words of my own father playing in my mind. "You only have each other. You are all you have in this world." These are the words my brother and I would hear every time we argued, yelled, fought. This is how my father would reprimand us. With the truth that Billy and I were each other's only siblings. That we only had each other. I could be wrong- perhaps Billy felt differently- but that never seemed to make anything better. It never seemed to make me like him more. He was still that bossy older brother. It was still not at all my fault. It was still completely unfair.
How did I get on this end of the situation? How am I the one now trying to clarify to my own children that they are each other's blood, that these three have to figure out how to get along before our house explodes in all the fighting?
And for the record, I know that I'm not the only one in this situation. Almost every time I mention this problem to friends, they respond with "Oh my goodness! Our kids too!" It seems that in every household with more than one child, those siblings learn very quickly how to bicker, and argue about everything. What's a parent to do???
As parents, we are very quick to throw up our hands in frustration, wondering how they don't see it. Our kids don't need to be best friends, but a slight change in perspective can make life so much happier! A little less bickering and our house would become such a brighter place. They'd hear so much less yelling from Mom (which they despise!), and they might actually have some fun together. And who knows? They might actually end up discovering that they have more in common than they thought they did. They might actually become friends!
I'm wondering... has anyone figured out where I'm going with this?
Just like in our home, I have become more and more frustrated with the way our community, and our country has been treating each other. It seems we are living in this house (albeit a rather large house made up of 50 rooms), with lots of siblings. Some of our siblings are of different colors. Some love differently than we do. Some live by a different faith. And we simply cannot see past those differences to see that we are siblings.
This past weekend, I was disappointed, and then infuriated, to learn that half a dozen more Jewish Centers had to be evacuated due to bomb threats, bringing the total number of threats to 154 (including Canada). I learned that another Islamic Center (this one in Michigan) was devastated by arson. I heard from one friend that the cemetery where her grandparents were buried was vandalized, and heard from another that the school that her children attend was defaced with swastikas. Acts of hatred are everywhere, and I'm tired of looking the other way, just because it's not happening to me.
Now I know I can't really compare the bickering between my kids to the complex issues that our country faces everyday, to the deep differences that I might have from my neighbor, or the guy down the street, or 600 miles away. I'm not naive here. But maybe, if we step back from our own lives for a bit, just take a look at things from a different perspective, we can see that maybe it is a bit like our children's bickering. Maybe it could be that simple.
I happen to be white. And straight. And a Jesus girl. And I live a few houses down from a dear friend and his partner. Many people would say that makes us completely different. Maybe. But what I see are two families of teachers, two neighbors who make me smile, who make where I live a better place- oh and who took care of my kids and me a few weeks back when crisis hit. My greatest concern when it comes to these friends is whether they know that I stand with them. Knowing and caring about them doesn't make me less of who I am. Knowing them just makes me a better me. And anyone who knows them would say that!
I also have a girlfriend who stood next to me when I got married, one of my bridesmaids and one of my dearest friends for almost 20 years now. She stood with me at our wedding, and I stood with her at hers. Between us we have seven kids, and we've done everything from coach to teach to run together. She is truly one of the best friends I've ever had. And she's Jewish. It's never been an issue with us. We've discussed our faith at times, but we respect each other and love each other. Not despite differing faiths, but probably because of it.
I'm not sharing this with you to tell you how open-minded and loving I am. I've definitely (DEFINITELY!) got my shortcomings! It's those around me who have shown me open-mindedness and love. Friends and neighbors who show me what it means to love those who are different, who believe differently than they do, who look different, who live different. I believe I'm a better person because of those people around me, those who showed me how to stretch myself, to come out of my comfortable little box, and love others. In doing so, I don't believe it has made me doubt my faith, or walk away from it. I actually believe it has in fact strengthened it.
I'm not suggesting that this is easy. Heck, I'm not suggesting that getting your own kids to stop fighting is easy! In fact, if anyone has any advice, I'm all ears! No, I'm not trying to say this is an easy fix. Nor am I suggesting that we all become one way, follow one path, love one way, or look one way. Not possible. And actually kind of "vanilla" if you ask me. I'm just wondering if it might be beneficial for us to actually see the differences between us all, and respect (and dare I say love) each other- differences and all.
The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, to humble ourselves and consider others more significant than ourselves, to live (as far as it is possible) in peace with everyone. Likewise, the Torah speaks of loving and caring for your neighbor, both Jew and Gentile. And the Quran teaches about competing with each other in doing good, and to enter into peace. Peace is the cornerstone of many of our faiths. Peace is the ultimate goal of humanity. We can see the similarities in each other without losing our own personal way, without becoming less of our own selves.
A few years ago, I first saw this sign that said "COEXIST". And my initial reaction was to turn from that idea. What I believed was right, and what others believed was wrong. Whether that had to do with race, religion, sexuality, or politics. I mistakenly saw that idea as a threat. If I accept your differing faith, then I am betraying my own. If I see things your way, I surrender my way. If I see you, then I disappear.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The definition of the word COEXIST is simply to exist together in the same time and/or place. Knowing we are here together at this time. Seeing others in their differing ways has made me more. I am not betraying my beliefs by welcoming yours. I am not losing my faith by respecting yours. Instead, together we create peace, we coexist, and we create a better home. We love our neighbors, and we make a brighter place.
I'm not sure it will work, but I'm up for trying.
As for my kids coexisting? Well, I haven't really figured that one out yet. But my brother and I are great friends now, so there's hope... right?
My daughter does not love reading. And that's putting it mildly. Getting Brady to read has been a delicate balance of encouragement and enforcement since the first grade. We believe part of that might have to do with a developmental or neurological issue, and we are working with her teachers to learn more. But we also know that it does not help for Brady to be the sister between two brothers who happen to be voracious readers. I can see any self-confidence fade away whenever she hears her older brother going on about the latest novel he devoured, or when she watches her younger brother flip pages faster than a speeding bullet. Scott and I have tried all sorts of things to encourage her to read. Brady and I have had "snuggle up and read" sessions (which her younger brother always crashes!), and we've tried reading charts and rewards. I've even tried reminding her that if she doesn't work on her reading, she'll never be able to read the love notes that her future boyfriends send her. (or are they text messages these days? Goodness, I am not ready for that)
We know that reading will be crucial to Brady's success in life- to all three of our kids' success- but it is a constant battle with Brady, not just to get her to read, but to build up her confidence when it comes to reading. She's kind of a math wiz, but when it comes to reading, she's so insecure. And it's important to me that she never feel insecure about her bright and amazing self.
And so it seems a given that when a movie about a beautiful girl WHO LOVES TO READ comes out on the big screen, I'll be the first in line with my own Beauty. For those of you who don't know who this amazing little lady is, it's Belle, from Beauty and The Beast, which is coming out on Friday, March 17. Now this is no ordinary movie, and this is no ordinary Disney princess. First of all, this is the real deal. Literally. No animation. Real actors, including Emma Watson as Belle (whom Brady girl has loved since her Hermione days in the Harry Potter films). How exciting to see a movie about a Disney princess that is not a cartoon. Sign me up!
But even more so, Belle is the Disney princess that I want Brady to see. Belle always has her head in a book! Always! The entire town knows her as that girl "with her nose stuck in a book"! She's beautiful AND smart! A reader! And even better, she's smart enough to know the difference between the handsome jerk who wants to marry her (because she's pretty- despite her reading) and the ugly monster who has a kind heart (and offers her a LIBRARY of her very own- ummm, yes please!). She's her own heroine, saving her father and eventually the Beast too. She's kind to everyone, even the jerky Gastone, and is the perfect balance between beauty, brains, and brawn. Not to mention that she's a brunette!
This is the perfect movie for my girl.
This seems a no brainer.
But I've been reading that others have a different take on this. Because while the movie portrays Belle as the beautiful brainiac that she is, it also includes the first ever openly gay character in a Disney movie. And so there are many out there who are pushing to boycott this movie. Many out there who speak out in the same faith that I live.
Now before I go any further, it's important for me to be clear here and say that I know some of you may disagree with me, and choose to boycott the movie, where I choose to celebrate it. And that's ok.
But that's the point. My opinion is different than yours. And that's ok. I may choose to see it. You may choose not to. That's your choice and that's mine.
The struggle that I have here is with those pushing the boycott. Those saying that if you stand in a certain faith, if you call yourself a Christian, than you cannot, in good faith, promote this movie, or Disney for that matter. That Disney is trying to push a gay agenda by having an openly gay character in their movie.
And I ask, what agenda is that?
I've done a little research on this character, Le Fou, and as far as I can tell, he's still the silly little side kick for the jerky Gaston. As far as I've read or seen, Le Fou does not make anyone else in the movie gay. He does not wreak havoc, nor does he come off as the hero. He's just there. And gay. Kind of like life. Like our world, like our city, and our town, and our neighborhood. Like some of our dearest friends. Like some of my greatest mentors and coaches. Like some of my kids' buddies.
As far as I can tell, this agenda that Disney is pushing is this: there are gay people in the world.
As I think through this, I picture two scenarios I could have with my daughter.
The first would go something like this:
Brady asks me to take her to the movie. I explain to her that no, I believe we should not see this movie because there is an openly gay person in the movie, and as Christians we are taught to believe homosexuality is wrong (regardless of the fact that Jesus NEVER spoke out on homosexuality- ever. He spoke out on adultery, hatred, lust, false teachers of religion and the likes, but never homosexuality, but that's another story, Brady). Brady misses out on a movie that is sure to be perfect for her.
Brady asks me to take her to a movie. I say "Absolutely! Let's go!". We see an amazing movie about a girl who is strong, beautiful, and smart. At one or two points in the movie a gay guy shows up. She doesn't notice. Or she does. Whatever. That's just like everyday. And she sees him no differently than she sees every other character in the movie.
I'm going with the second scenario.
And I want to be clear why. It's not just because this is a great movie about a wonderful young lady, and we'll go despite there being a gay character. Deep down, I believe I'm going as a Christian mom to this movie partly to celebrate that there is a gay character. I am a Christian. I am a Christ follower. And the Christ I know and love, well He loved people. He especially loved people who were oppressed and marginalized. His problem was with those who told Him, and everyone else that loving those people, accepting those people, was a sin.
So I'm going to teach my children to love everyone they know. Black, white, gay, straight, Muslim, Jew, Christian. I'm going to teach my children that there are so so so many different kinds of people in this world. Our job is NEVER to judge them. Ever ever ever. Our job is simply to love. I could not think of a better lesson for my Beauty to get from this movie.
That... and that's it's super awesome to love to read!
"Can a person beat cancer four times?"
This was the question I googled immediately after hanging up with my mom last Tuesday afternoon. She had called with the results of Dad's regular MRI test.
The cancer had come back.
We all knew this would happen. Seven years ago when my father was first diagnosed with lymphoma in his prostate, we were devastated and scared. After he beat that, he was diagnosed a few years later with the same cancer, but in his brain. Fear was replaced this time with anger and resolve. And he beat cancer again. And then it came back. Lymphoma in the brain, again. About two years ago. This time there was fatigue, mixed in with that resolve. And now here we are again. Round four of cancer. Round three of lymphoma in the brain.
I'm not sure what emotion will resurface for each of us this time, or what new emotion will make its entrance, but I do know this. The one emotion that remains constant, the one sentiment that is never lost is hope. And this is simply because of the fact that my mother will not allow any of us to lose hope.
In some ways, actually in most ways, my mom has definitely walked the toughest road through all of this. As my father has gotten weaker, she has had to get stronger. As he's become incapable of working, she's taken on two and three jobs. As he's admitted fear, she's held him up with her strength. And she's never ever let any of us give up.
I know that my mom's response to this would be something like "Oh stop! That's just what you do when someone you love needs you." But I'm not sure that's always the case. It should be though. There will come a time in everyone's life, when pain and suffering will come knocking on their door. And when it does, I can't help but think that having someone to stand with them in the pain, despite how much pain it will cause them too, could mean the difference between hope and despair, between heaven and hell, between life and death. My father has that. And so he has hope.
My parents came to visit us this past September, when my mom thought my dad was feeling strong enough for the visit. We had some great laughs (as always), and spent some quality time together. And I asked my mom for something special. I asked my parents to let me take some portraits of them. My father's battles with cancer had aged him, and his thick black hair was very thin and mostly white. He was tired and I feared he would not be up for the little walking it would take to get them to the spot I had chosen. And I was worried that my mom would hesitate, worried herself that an emotional portrait session could wreak havoc on the strong resolve she had worked so hard to keep together. But she loved the idea. I think after three battles with cancer, and a fourth eventually to come, she knew how precious some current portraits would be for all of us. And so I took my parents out for an hour and captured some photos of them. And between my father's natural humor, my parents life-long love, and my camera skills, we created a treasure.
I've been looking at these portraits a lot more this past week. I keep them on my phone, and flip through them whenever something reminds me that my father (and mother) are in for yet another battle. They make me smile, and remind me to keep hope. After all, if I don't keep my hopes up, my mom will yell at me. All of you who know her know she will!
These photos are a gift to me every day. I bet they are for my mom too. And they will be for my kids too. And their kids.
And so it is these two things that I believe every struggler should be gifted. One, a person who will love them and walk through the fire with them. And then, photos of that love to remind you to keep praying, keep believing, keep hoping. And never ever gift up.
You've got this, Dad. And Mom's got you.
It hit me like a two by four over the head this morning. I was enjoying my quiet time with God, coffee in one hand, pen in the other, Bible laid out before me. I’d been reading through the gospels, searching for truth in the actual words of Jesus, rather than in the words of those around me. Over the past few months, and even years, way too many questions had been surfacing in my heart concerning my faith, my life, my work, my purpose. So I’d been searching in the one place I’d always found trustworthy.
And there it was. In Luke chapter 3, John the Baptist is asked, “What should we do then [to produce good fruit, to be good children of God]?” In verse 11, he answers, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” If we want to produce good fruit, to live a life for God, then we should be giving what we have to those who don’t have. As a Christian, this should be of utmost importance to me.
Now, of course, this is not the first time I’ve been hit with this two by four. The Bible, particularly the gospels, overflow with this truth. Jesus tells us to give, and He shows us how. He feeds the poor. He hangs out with the very people He is expected to shun. He lives it. And He even dies for it.
So why was this morning any different? Well, because it spoke to the nagging question I’d been asking myself. How can I use my passions, my skills, my craft, my resources to help others, particularly those who are being shunned today?
There it was. The answer. If I have something, I need to share it.
OK, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the question. Because while the last few months had seen me spewing over a lot of questions, they always seemed to revolve around the same two things. My photography and people. Specifically oppressed people. Marginalized people. People who Jesus would have reached out to. How could I reach out like He would have, and how could I do it with my camera? The more I would read about people suffering around me, the more I’d pray, and the more I’d read, and the more I did that, the stronger this desire in me grew. These very people who have seen the most suffering over these past few months would be the very people Jesus would have loved to love. And they are the very people I long to love.
But what could I do? I posed this question to my running buddy on our run a few days ago. (Side Note- finding a good running buddy is the key to running happiness and I’m convinced that with every mile we run, we are solving life’s greatest problems. No joke!) And as we talked through the questions and the ideas, my desires and my beliefs, the answers began to surface. It was such a wonderful feeling (plus, we were running downhill at the time), and I could not wait to get home to write it all down. This morning’s time in the Bible only confirmed it all.
The Great American Portrait Project will be an opportunity for me to give to others. I’ve named it this because I think our country is filled to the brim with great people, ALL KINDS of great people. I happen to think it’s these many kinds of people who already make our country great.
But quite often, many of these people are denied service because of who they are. They are looked at differently, or they are judged too harshly, or they are feared for no reason. No good reason. No justifiable reason. No ethical reason.
My faith tells me that this is not ok. The God I belong to has taught me since Day 1 to love my neighbor (and who is my neighbor? Check out my post on that subject HERE). And so while others close their doors, my faith tells me to open mine WIDE!
That’s what The Great American Portrait Project will do. And this is how it will work.
I will be offering a 30 minute portrait session every week to a family, or a couple, or a group who has struggled with discrimination in any way, whether over the color of your skin, or who you love, who you choose to be, or the religion you have chosen. Your experience might not have had anything to do with portraits, but portraits are what I have to give, and I’d like to offer you that.
And it will all be free.
I ask only one thing in exchange, and that is your story. What’s your story? Share it with me, as I have shared mine with you. And maybe through these portraits, we can share our stories with others. My hope is to create a collection, a tapestry, of beautiful stories wrapped in beautiful portraits, all of beautiful people who make our country and our lives so great.
If you are interested in one of these portrait sessions, or you know someone who might find joy and celebration in one, please contact me. You can simply comment below with your interest, or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can find me on social media (the links are at the bottom of this page).
But contact me! My hope is that dates will fill up fast, so share this with friends and family who might be interested.
This portrait project is at its very beginning, but my hope and prayer is to see it grow quickly. I’m opening my door, and seeing what happens.
And that’s my story.