I wanted so badly to be able to hike out of Damascus, VA with the kids. I had already missed several days of hiking with them. I tried to hike the Virginia Creeper Trail with them, but about 7.5 miles in, I was having a hard time walking. The pain in my right leg was radiating and becoming unbearable. Moreover, I am afraid that if I don’t give the injury proper time to heal, I just might not be able to hike on further down the trial. Ryan and I made the decision that I should get a ride back to town, and get it checked out by a doctor. I still haven’t gone to the Urgent Care, but plan to on Tuesday morning.
Saturday evening, I stayed at Ms. Patricia’s apartment with Pigpen and a couple of other gals that she has been hiking with. It was nice to be with a familiar face and friend. Pigpen had missed out on Ava’s birthday party, and when I was describing the sopapilla cheesecake to her, she was so sad that she had missed it. So I decided to make a small batch for everyone. It was really good.
Sunday morning came, and it was so hard to wake up without the kids around. I have only missed one Mother’s Day with the boys, and that was because I was in Africa with the girls in 2013. I found myself completely alone, and really really down.
I went into town to grab a few things for breakfast, and not long afterwards ran into a couple of hikers that had been with the family a couple of days back. It was nice to meet them and chat for a while. About 10:45, they asked me if I wanted to go to church with them. They told me that the gal that ran the inn that they were staying at for the evening had invited them to the Baptist church, so I decided to go. It was so nice to be in church. I have really missed it while we have been out here.
When we go there, people were so friendly. The AT actually runs right in front of the church steps. They love to love hikers, and it was obvious that they did not care that I was wearing hiking garb… thankfully I didn’t smell like a hiker. The message was about the impact that mothers and grandmothers can have on the generations to follow them. The pastor shared several thoughts on the way that Timothy’s mother and grandmother had impacted his life. As I listened, I realized that I needed to be reminded of some of these key points. My job as a mother is an invaluable one. I needed to be reminded of this, as we prepare to hike on.
Ryan and I had a conversation as we were hiking the Creeper Trail about his experiences with the kids over the past few days. He challenged me to let the kids do more. He said that in my absence, the kids took on responsibility that I don’t typically allow them to assume. I guess that part of training your children is allowing them the opportunity to use it. My children are a blessing to me. They are not only capable, but they are willing to rise to the opportunity to serve. I need to allow them to do this more often.
It was hard to not be with the kids and with Ryan on this special day, but it was made uniquely special for me following the service, when Mrs. Susie Montgomery invited me to stay in her home (not her inn, but her home!) It was beautiful, and I was able to sleep in a bed, in a room all to myself, rather than sleeping in a hostel surrounded by other hikers. I didn’t know that I needed that as much as I did, but certainly it was a gift.
I put my pack upstairs in the little room, and then spent some time taking care of a few things in town, like paying the shuttle driver who had come to pick me up Saturday night. Then, I sat. I spent some time thinking about how many Fathers Days Ryan had missed. How many times he had been alone on a day meant to celebrate him, and his important role in our family. In those couple of hours, my heart hurt less for me, but more for him. Then, I rejoiced. It wasn’t but two years ago, that Ryan and I were separated, heading down the road to divorce. So many single parents are forced to fulfill not only their specific role, but also the role of their ex-spouse.
I cannot explain the level of joy and relief that washed over me when I realized that I am able to only be mom to my children, and that I will never again (as long as Ryan is living) have to fulfill his role, as well as mine, in our home. The days of deployment are behind us, and our marriage, and family has been restored.
I guess that I really needed to be alone, to see clearly the gift that God has given to our family. I needed to change my perspective. Though this Mother’s Day was not how I envisioned it, I realize now the grandeur of Gods redemption in our family. Ryan is with our children. They are growing and healing in this time away from me, and this in an answer to prayer. It is not about what I don’t have today, but what I have gained for many many years to come.
The message this morning, in combination with some time to let it all sink in, is a gift in and of itself. How many times have I asked God for a pause button, so that I could regroup and then continue! He answered that prayer as well!
After my time of pondering, I returned to the Montgomerys home. Susie asked me if I would like to go to dinner at Cracker Barrel. Well, of course I would! Since we have been out of the south, we’ve not been able to go to one. About 5:30, we headed out to dinner. I had breakfast for dinner, and it was delicious!!! What a treat!!! Mrs. Susie, and her husband, were just so kind. I loved our conversation. Their encouragement was so timely. They have such an interesting story of how they came to love on hikers in Damascus, and they do it so well.
We continued to have great conversation until late in the evening, when it was finally time to get some sleep.
I am learning that God knows far better what I need than I do. He longs to give me the desires of my heart. I am learning that sometimes I struggle with His timing, but I am learning that it is always perfect. This journey is also about ALL of us. Though it is an incredbile bummer to missing these miles, the beautiful scenery, the memories… these are days that Ryan is able to reclaim some of those things with our kids. The kids are also being given an opportunity to need him, to go to him, and to allow him to meet those needs.
In hindsight, this is probably one of the best Mothers Days that I have ever had.
We are not as far as we hoped to be milage wise. There are a number of reasons for this. First, when we started we ran into bad weather. Weather has been a constant challenge for us. From high winds, to hail, torrential rains, freezing temps, snow, lightening, and flooded trails, I think we have experienced all but tornadoes. Our friend sent us a message that told us that the winds that he had experienced the other night were measured at speeds between 80 and 100 mile gusts, sustained winds near 40. That is crazy. We were thankfully not on the mountain, but that also means that we were not hiking.
Yesterday, we had a plan to hike an 11 mile section, and though we most definitely could have done it, we decided instead to take a break away from the hikers, and spend a quiet day at the library in Erwin. After spending several hours there, we made our way over to McDonalds for lunch… not so healthy, but it was inexpensive.
While we were there, we had a long talk about what we really hoped to gain from our experience on the trail. We discussed the difference between our goals to hike the entire trail vs. the goal to grow as a family, and personally. We talked about how the trail has changed us.
Here is where I become far more transparent than I have been in the past about how adopting Ava and Zoey has changed our lives, and how even now, we are working through the deep, raw feelings of loss.
Yesterday, while we were sitting at McDonalds, we asked Ava how she was feeling. She gave us a half cocked smile, and then said, “Fine.” We asked her what she has been enjoying about the trail, she would not answer. Then we asked her what she thinks about when she is hiking. She again, in a voice only slightly louder than a whisper, said, “Nothing.” It would be OK if she answered these questions in the manner that she did, if she was consistent in being shy and reserved. The problem, that has become all the more evident than when we were home, is that she will share with perfect strangers how she is feeling. She lets other hikers know that she is tired. She lets other hikers know when she is hurting. She talks to other hikers, but not with us. After nearly four years of being home, she treats Ryan and I more like we are the adults who are obligated to take care of her needs than she considers us her parents. I cannot imagine all that goes on inside of her. We are sensitive to the fact that her past was laced with trauma that we cannot understand.
Here is where this collides with the trail. Taylor really wants to finish the trail. We had originally given ourselves until the end of the season to reach Katahdin. The kids understand that if school doesn’t start until mid-October that they will have to approach their schooling with gazelle like intensity. This next year, Taylor will be a senior. He will be preparing to leave home. Though we have worked hard to launch him well and can clearly see that he is ready, the hole that will be left will be huge. He has become not only an amazing son, but also a great friend. He challenges both Ryan and I to become better parents and better people. The contrast between the hours of conversation (sometimes extremely difficult conversation) with Taylor, and the forced one word answers of Ava is so stark.
We long so badly to understand. We long so badly to know what hurts and to offer comfort. We long so badly to see her break free from her past as an orphan, and to be let into her circle of trust. As we talked with all of the kids, Ryan and I see so clearly how by trying so hard to meet her needs, we have neglected the needs of the other kids. No one is begrudging of this, but balance must be restored.
Ava really wants to go to the charter school she has been accepted to, and truly, I know the realities of trying to homeschool five kids, but we find ourselves at a crossroad.
If we choose to finish the trail, as we had originally set out to do, we satisfy the deep desire of Taylors heart. And as parents, we are faced with the reality that this might be the last opportunity to have this kind of experience with him. If we choose to finish the trail, Ava doesn’t get to go to the school she is looking forward to attending this fall.
If we choose not to finish the trail, we leave with the physical aspect of our goal, undone. Another finish line, uncrossed. Taylor has shared his heart about this, and though he is trying to be understanding, mature in his response… we can see in his eyes how much he wants to reach Katahdin, as a family of seven. If we choose not to finish the trail, Ava may be able to go to school, where she would benefit acadmically, but we run the risk of further polarization. We’ve been down this road before. It is a hard road emotionally, even if the burden of teaching is no longer on my shoulders.
We talked about this at length with Ava. For the first time, without anger, but with deep sorrow, I was able to convey my heart to her. I have pursued her, continued to pursue her… I will always be here, I love her, but that I am unwilling to give up time with Taylor, Kole, Riley or Zoey, in effort to try to prove something to her. I will always love her, but relationships are two ways. I affirmed to her that I see what a beautiful and strong young woman she is. We let her know all of the great things she does, and that we are so grateful for her. When the rare moments of connectedness occur, I savor those moments.
I know that some of you are going to have opinions about this. Please know that any judgements that you make about this situation are from an outsiders perspective. We know that Ava is amazing. We long to know her the way that she has allowed herself to be known by others… even some of you.
We have been on the trail one week short of two months. Ryan and I can count on our two hands the number of times that Ava has initiated communication with us. Much of the time, Ava keeps pace with Kole. I’m not convinced that she really likes to go that fast, but that she doesn’t really want to be near the two of us.
Our conversation has led us to make two hard and fast decisions. First, Ava will be hiking a good amount of time with me and Ryan. Please pray for us. Please pray that the time that we spend together, and that our time on the trail will be healing for her, and for us. Secondly, we have made the decision to stay the course of a north bound thru hike. We will do as much as we can, get as far north as we can, and assess the heart conditions of everyone mid-August.
We set out on this journey for the express reason to come together as a family. From separation because of the military, the two years that Ryan was in New York, adoption, cancer, and brokenness in each of us, we have much healing to do. Healing is beginning, but really we are just uncovering the issues that we need to work through. Since we now know more about what the issues really are, we are now able to start the process of working through them. No one has escaped all that we have been through unscathed, but we know that with time, with Gods grace, with intention and with hard work we can heal. We are committed to whatever is best for each member of our family, not just for the short term but especially for the long term.
Taylor and Kole had hiked on ahead of us into Deep Gap. They found an empty tent site and started a fire. It isn’t often that we are alone when we set up camp, but this was a spot, perfect for us to have a family talk.
Ryan asked Taylor where he would choose to live if he had a choice. He said California. I asked him why he would choose to live all the way out there. He had good reasons, but the part that pricked my heart was why he wouldn’t choose to live near New Hampshire. I completely understand that he is young, that this conversation was hypothetical, that I shouldn’t overreact to such… But all of the sudden I found myself in tears. Reality set in at that exact moment… time is passing way to fast.
I know that almost all moms have moments like these, but there are multiple layers to my emotions. I saw the look in Ryan’s eyes. He has missed so many moments of Taylors life and the sadness was sweeping over his face at this moment. After all of the separation our family has experienced, we are finally together, finally whole, finally becoming healthy… and in such a short time, Taylor will leave, and we will likely never be “seven” again. Change is coming, and it should, but the weight of all that we have lost feels so heavy right now. It is crushing.
Furthermore, all of the change in our lives have left our children rather rootless. Our kids have experienced things in their lives that have left them a little rough around the edges, a little calloused, and often misunderstood. I want so badly for my kids to have never experienced all that they did, but I cant take back all of those years. We don’t get do-overs in life. Like learning to march to the beat of a different drummer, the settled rhythm of life in our small town feels completely foreign to Taylor. He said, “It is good, but it is a day late and a dollar short.”
So out here on the trail, I am faced with two choices. Focus on all the time that we have lost, or focus intently on the time that we have to spend together as a family of seven. If home is where the heart is… we are going to focus on the heart! As much as we have lost, there are few who are granted such an extravagant opportunity to spend this much time as a family. This is the intended purpose of this trip.
Not all of our conversations are going to be easy to have… like this one, some will be magnifying glasses on things that we have done and regret, but the truth is that with each conversation comes the opportunity to grow and become stronger. If we are intentional about listening, allowing true and deep feelings to be shared, we are confident that we will look back on these days with little or no regret. To have this opportunity is a gift worth every uphill step, worth every ache and pain, worth the weight on my back.
There are many who do not understand why we are hiking the Appalachian Trail. Many who do not understand why we must spend so many months out in the woods on our own.
This journey started so many years ago. It requires some open raw honesty to shed some light on the realities of life within our home.
When Ryan and I got married, we brought some baggage into our relationship. Like many other married couples, there were expectations of eachother that could not be met because that baggage existed.
Ryan and I only dated a few short months before we were married. We were strangers to one another. We had shared very little of our pasts with eachother. We did not take the time to cultivate expectations or boundaries in our marriage. And before we knew it, Ryan was off to basic training, which began a cycle of being together and being apart. This cycle did not allow for time to process life, know eachother well, or love each other well.
When hard times would arise, I would yell. I would hurl insults. I would belittle Ryan. When Ryan was gone, and my world would start spinning, my children became the recipients of my vile words. My actions hurt my children. At first, Ryan was able to remain steady, even though the words pierced his heart, and hurt his soul. But after he came home from the war, our home became a battlefield. No one was safe. Our children began to hurl the same vile words and glances at one another. We had times of calm, but looking back they were no more than a mere cease fire. No battles had been won. No one arose victoriously from the chaos. Instead, we all started to to die a little more.
Over the past couple of years, our family has engaged in the hard work of change. We realized the ways by which we were hurting one another, but there is still much word to be done.
While walking along the trail yesterday, I had a thought. My greatest desire is to have the opportunity to really apologize for the ways by which I have hurt those I love the most. I want to confess things that I have done that have pierced the hearts of the offended, even if they do not remember the offense. Real conversations are happening, and will continue to happen. I pray that these conversations will yield the result of restored foundations. It is possible, no plausible, that scars will remain, but if the foundation of my children’s hearts are tended to, might it just be possible that the cycle by which they have been trained, might indeed be broken.
Many might think that time heals all wounds, but really time does nothing to a broken foundation but to bring about the collapse of the structure built upon it. The repairing of a foundation requires intention and scrupulous care. The words “I’m sorry” are often insufficient to the restoration of the hearts foundation. Repentance and a consistent effort to rebuild trust are needed for healing to take place.
The woods are the safeguard around our home right now. We choose who enters our inner circle, just as a foreman tasked with the assignment of repairing the foundation of a historical building might do. Scaffolding and fences would be set up, visitors kept at bay. Not for forever, but for a time, so that the building might then again be enjoyed by generations and generations to come.
How this broken hearted woman, wife and momma, regrets the vile words that have been so harshly and carelessly spoken to those I love! But how grateful that I am to have the opportunity to live life with my husband and children out here in the quiet places, where healing, true healing can take place. There are no distractions, no obligations that would end a deep conversation, and no where to hide from one another either. I might just be the luckiest woman alive to have been given this opportunity. May I take full advantage of it, May the effects of this time out here in the woods be felt for generations to come.
I placed my hand on his, snapped a quick photo, and tears fell from my cheeks. Quickly I brushed away the tears and looked Ryan in the eyes, peered out the window at the clouds below, and back into his eyes. All choked up, I told Ryan we were on our way… We are together. Relief washed over me.
Its been a long road to this place in time. So much heartache, so much disappointment. We almost given up hope, given up on life, and given up on eachother. Instead however we were sitting side by side, preparing to embark on a journey far from being defined. We know little about what the days, weeks and months ahead will look like, but we know one thing… we are together.
After a several months long separation, Ryan and I renewed our vows under the maple tree in our back yard, on July 5, 2015. Our vows to eachother were simple. Unlike the day we were married, we knew what it was going to take to keep the vows that we were making to one another. We had remained faithful to one another, yes. But aside from that we had broken all of our vows. We had no clue what it was going to require from us to love one another in sickness, to love eachother in the worst, to be true to oneanother. But we learned. Marriage is never easy, but it is made all the more difficult by never ending weeks of separation, and the effects of a war that come home with the dusty ruck sacks. Like the fine dust of the desserts, war finds its way into every crevice of life. Its remnants are hard to get rid of.
We’ve worked hard over the past two years. I have learned so much about loving my husband. I’ve learned to hear him say I love you in his own unique ways. I’ve learned to trust him, and he’s learned to trust me. We’ve learned how the simple words, “thank you” are some times more powerful than the words “I love you”. And all of this effort is paying off, as daily we see what was once dead, emerging into inexplicable beauty.
And into this next chapter we head, hand in hand, vowing to one another and to our children, that we are going far not fast.
“If you want to go fast, travel alone; if you want to go far, travel together.” ~ African Proverb
Jeri Lynn loves living lifes adventures with her family. She is Ryan’s wife, and the momma to five beautiful kids. Life is ever changing in her world. She dedicates herself to searching out the purpose in lifes’ twists and turns, encouraging her family to do the same. There is a lesson to be learned through every trial.