For the past two years, Rick and I have talked often of “going home.”
Home, to us, is Texas, land of bluebonnets and breakfast tacos. Oh, and beef barbecue. Pork is tasty, sure, but this girl will always go for the brisket when it’s offered.
It’s been a long, hard slog out of the pit I’ve wallowed in since our ordeal in the desert.
I figured that after our crazy tango with death, we would get a pass for at least a few years when it comes to “bad shit that happens to innocent, unsuspecting people.” But within six months of our desert experience, Rick was in a car crash that totaled his truck.
Over the next year, Rick’s cousin, Gale, a urologist, succumbed to an extraordinarily rare form of bladder cancer. Rick and Gale thought of one another as brothers. Watching Gale leave us nearly broke my husband.
During year two, we watched other people, friends, family, suffer through their own losses.
One night, on my way home from Pine Bluff to North Little Rock, I passed what looked to be a really bad accident on the other side of the highway. As traffic slowed, I cussed, worried that I would be late to my son’s Little League game. And then I chastised myself.
Somebody probably just lost a life over there. Shut up and be thankful.
I found out later that the victim, who later died from her injuries, was a women who worked at the Democrat-Gazette. I used to see her in the elevator just about every day. I remembered her for her sunny personality and her “upside-down eyes” that look like my daughter’s.
That’s about the time I entered what I call my “mortality crisis phase,” which is basically a nifty way of saying that I became a little obsessed with all the ways in which people could suddenly die.
I’ve got some pretty good evidence that death can be downright whimsical in its approach.
One minute you’re out hiking, admiring the pretty, yellow flowers and then in the next, you’re cursing those same flowers because they’re obscuring the trail markers you need to find your way out.
You burn time and energy trying to stay on the trail. You run out of water. You discover what it is to be so thirsty that you would try to drink your own urine. You slice your arms open, hoping for just a few drops of blood to quench the unrelenting thirst.
Days later, you find yourself in a hospital, where doctors tell you that you were just a few hours from death when searchers found you.
And then you realize just how fast luck and life can turn on a damn dime.
I’ve got a great psychologist. Because of her, I finally quit fretting over all the ways in which I could die and focused instead on all of the ways I could live.
Granted, I’ve already done things I never thought I could do. I left newsrooms and tried something new by taking a job at the Arkansas Department of Correction. I learned that journalism skills do translate well in what we former reporters call “Plan B” careers.
The year I’ve spent at ADC has given me new confidence. It made me realize that I am not defined by what I do, but by what I make of it. I will miss my colleagues. They made me look at myself and life after journalism in new and encouraging ways.
But it’s time to go home.
Because the most important lesson I’ve learned in the past two years is that family trumps all.
I don’t want to be the adult child who goes home because she’s needed.
I want to hang with the parents and siblings while everyone is healthy and happy.
I want my kids to get to know their cousins.
I want them to experience the kind of upbringing I did — one filled with lots of bad jokes, laughter and love.
Leaving Arkansas is tough. I’ve lived here for 15 years. I’m a devoted Dogtown girl — sorry, Little Rock folks, but things are pretty fabulous on our side of the river. I’ve made friends and memories that I will forever cherish.
But I am so, so excited about embarking upon Plan C.
(Plan C involves some non-newsroom writing and obtaining an alternative teaching certificate in special education. I come from a family of teachers. I can’t wait to hit the classroom.)
And Rick? He’s retired. He left the newspaper a week ago. OK, well, let’s say he’s quasi-retired. My guy is already pursuing his post-journalism dreams.
As I write this, he and the kids are in Texas. Amanda and Ethan are attending schools in the district that I grew up in. That makes me so happy.
My dad’s helping Amanda with algebra, just as he helped me eons ago. My mom is getting to spend more time with her oldest granddaughter than previously possible. My son is playing basketball with his older cousin. He’s learning about all of the advantages of growing up “in the country.”
Me? Yeah, I’m a little lonely rattling around in this house. I’ll be here through February and I know the separation will continue to sting. But I hear the joy in the kids’ voices and my restlessness lessens. I’ll be with everyone soon enough.
So there it is.
I’m going home. I’m starting a third career. And I feel more alive than I have since I was found under a mesquite tree on Oct. 6, 2013.
You know that feeling you get when you’re about to break a big story? Or when you’re heading out on an assignment that promises to be scary and yet fulfilling? That’s how I feel right now.
And it’s how I want to feel, over and over again, until I do depart this earth — whenever that is.
I was given a little extra time here. And I am going to make the absolute most of it.
That’s where the title of this post factors in. We’re up and moving. No jobs, no guarantees. But we have each other, and really, that’s all we need.
This year, Oct. 5 fell on a Monday. I spent the evening at my son’s baseball game. Two years ago, it was a Saturday night when I tried to use my cracked fingernails to burrow down into the rocky earth for warmth.
After the game, I just couldn’t bring myself to write about it.
What is there to say? I was cold, bitterly cold. I spent the night hallucinating and coming up with all sorts of fantastical “explanations” as to why I was outside and freezing.
So instead of recollecting, I watched my kid play ball. I teared up a couple of times, imagining the things my psychologist told me not to imagine. What if I had died? Would he even be playing ball? And if so, who would be watching, cheering him on?
Yesterday, Oct. 6, I awoke with a sense of … lightness. For on this day, I was found.
I want to write about that feeling later, after I’ve had some time to process it.
What I can say, right now, is that I am so glad this anniversary is now past. Well, almost. This time two years ago, I was out of the ICU, but still not allowed to get out of bed and walk. I was, however, healing.
Many times, these past two weeks, I’ve longed to be back in that hospital, sedated and comforted by the presence of firm and compassionate hands. Instead, I’ve made a couple of trips to my psychologist and gotten a prescription for a benzo.
But again, I remind myself that I am here. I. Am. HERE. Alive. Sitting in the living room with my kids and husband and reassuring everyone that dinner is almost done.
Last year, I recognized this anniversary by watching my newspaper series run.
This year, I’ve made other arrangements. You can expect some great photos on Facebook soon.
Meanwhile, good night. Enjoy your time with your families. Hug those pesky kids and, if even your husband is being a totally annoying dude, hug him anyway and tell him you love him.
(Because one day, you, too, might have to remember during each and every argument that Dude freaking saved your butt by hiking out of the desert in search of help while you flailed around under a mesquite tree. Trust me, it’s irritating, but damn, I love the guy for everything he did to get me out of there.)
So on this night … God bless and good night.
This is the difficult day, Oct. 4. It’s the day that I sat down beside a mesquite tree and told my husband to leave me in the desert.
This wasn’t an emotional scene. In fact, we were very matter-0f-fact about separating.
He could still keep going. I couldn’t.
I was the one who told him to go.
Later, Rick told me that if I had cried or shown any sign of fear at being left alone, he wouldn’t have been able to leave.
But I was done. And I could see that he wasn’t.
It just made sense to split up.
For two years, however, I’ve mentally flogged myself for “quitting.” Or, as Texans put it, for “sitting down.”
I was a mother trying to get home to two children. I’d hung in there for 2 1/2 days. And I am not a quitter. What kind of mother just … gives up? What kind of mother just sits the f*** down?
And then last weekend, I took my son to see Everest. I’ve read Thin Air. I’m well aware that the movie wasn’t true to the book.
But the scene in which guide Rob Hall refuses to leave his client, Doug, got to me.
Rob could’ve made it. If he’d left the dying Doug behind and headed down, he would have made it home to his pregnant wife. But he wouldn’t go. And Doug, in the movie, anyway, wasn’t in any condition to tell Rob to get the hell out while he still could.
At the time that Rick and I parted ways, the only thought running through my mind was that Rick still had a chance. And if he made it out, the kids would still have one of their parents.
And maybe, just maybe, if he made it out, I would live too.
I wasn’t thinking about it then, but the fact is that McFarlands thrive on missions. Give ’em a goal and they’re unstoppable.
Looking back … the best thing I ever could have done to have ensured our survival was to send Rick out on a mission.
Get out. Get help. The kids are depending on you. I am depending on you.
But it wasn’t until watching the movie last weekend that I finally understood that I made a mother’s sacrifice. I was willing to give up my life if it meant that my kids would see their Daddy come home.
The thought of them losing both parents? I just couldn’t conceive of it.
I have the most amazing husband in the world. But I see now that I short-changed myself.
Yeah, I sat down. But I did so knowing that it was the only way to make my husband go. To leave. To turn his back on me.
And for that … I. Am. Proud.
Give me just a sec while I dust off the old blog here …
So, hey! How’s it going?
Oh, me? Well, I’m in the midst of anniversary No. 2 of the ill-fated vacation that damn near killed me. But I’ve got great family members and friends and an awesome psychologist, so I’m hanging in there.
Thing is, I miss writing. (No, I’m not planning a return to newsrooms. Watching the industry wither away just got to be too sad.) What I miss is being able to express myself freely on this blog or elsewhere.
So, yes. I’m back, peeps.
I. Am. Back.
I am a writer. I will always be a writer. Maybe I’ll set up a website. Maybe I’ll freelance on the side. Maybe I’ll finally finish that chapter outline for a memoir. But if I’m going to write something as personal and candid as a memoir, I need daily writing practice. I need to be able to be me, to say things in my voice.
But lately, I’ve been increasingly reluctant to, well, write like me. That’s because I’ve spent all of 2015 dealing with something I thought I’d left behind in middle school.
Educators offer this pithy advice to our kids: “Use your words.”
But what do you do when someone tries to use your words against you?
A lot of people would tell me to just hunker down and shut up. But that’s not something I can live with. I spent 21 years in journalism. And now, after I’ve left the profession, I’m supposed to engage in self-censorship?
Because this is what I know: Life is not only precious, but unpredictable. You have to seize it and make it what you want while you can. For me, that means writing what I want to write and engaging with the people who read my words.
Two years ago, I was fighting for my life underneath a mesquite tree.
That’s the thing — you can plan for retirement, sock your money away and plod toward those golden years thinking, “One day, I will see the payoff.”
Or you can face death in the desert and realize that your retirement savings won’t mean a damn thing to the kids you’re orphaning.
What I want to leave my kids are memories, good memories in which I’m a content mom who isn’t pretending to be someone she isn’t for fear of making people uncomfortable or angry. I’m happiest when I am myself.
I’ve missed me. My husband and kids have missed me.
That’s why I’m back.
As a former journalist, I understand and support news organizations’ decision to out Josh Duggar as one of the thousands who had an Ashley Madison account.
After all, Duggar was the executive director of a lobbying group that harshly judged anyone who didn’t fall into line with its definitions of marriage and family values.
Because of that role, because he actively sought out and criticized people he deemed to be “sinners,” Duggar was fair game and should be held accountable for not practicing what he preached in D.C. and all over this county.
(A county which was founded on apparently archaic concepts such as “freedom” and separation of religion and state.)
But all of the Ashley Madison members whose marriages and lives are being upended by journalists seeking to satisfy the salacious masses — they don’t deserve this.
OK, yeah. Those politicians who won office due to their “family values” campaigns? Out ’em. Those public figures who have boasted about their own supposedly pristine “moral character” while passing legislation that discriminates against people who have a different idea as to what “moral” means. Out ’em.
But retired public figures? Politicians who never uttered a peep about morality and marriage? Our soldiers?
Please. Leave them alone.
Nothing is served by publicly shaming these folks, and, in turn, their families.
Those in the military already face repercussions. There’s no need to throw them to the wolverine masses.
And the others? How about showing a little compassion? Think of their spouses. Their children.
It’s one thing to learn that a spouse has been unfaithful. But to have that pointed out in the daily newspaper or television broadcasts?
That’s just damn cruel.
So one of the benefits of nearly dying in the desert is the realization that people will do — or say — anything to convince themselves that something that horrible will never happen to them.
They’ll tell you about all of the things they would never do. They’ll tell you about all of the things you should have done. Or rather, they’ll tell you about all of the things that THEY would have done.
And in their scenarios, they survive. Or hell, they’ll never find themselves in the dire situation you faced because they “never would have …”
So easy to say.
And such utter crap.
In the past few days, I’ve read all of the vitriol directed at a father, who, allegedly, forgot that he had picked up his 18-month-old from daycare and left him in the car upon arriving home.
Oh, how the internets lit up!
“I would never…”
“How could you…”
“What kind of parent…”
And no matter how great of a parent you think you are, you’re gonna screw up.
Ten days after my little girl turned 2, I gave birth to a little boy.
Honestly, the next year passed in a haze. Neither kid slept. Baby boy was up all night. Baby girl refused to nap during the day. I didn’t sleep at night. I didn’t nap during the day.
One morning, I took the kids out to the car, strapped them into their carseats and then plopped down in the front passenger seat. Mind you, Hubs had left for work an hour or so earlier. Why I thought he — or anyone else, for that matter — would be chauffering me and the kiddos anywhere remains a mystery.
One afternoon, I spent 10 minutes trying to unlock my car while my toddler whined and fidgeted and my baby squirmed impateintly in his infant carrier.
Finally, I realized: “This isn’t my car.”
This, friends, is what new parenthood and sleep deprivation will do to you.
I was a mom to a toddler and newborn. And I held a full-time job. I could afford only 7 weeks of maternity leave.
In short, the fact that I got up each morning, fed and dressed the kids and then held down a job … well, looking back, I still wonder: “How the hell did I pull that off.”
On a wing and a prayer.
So here’s this dad in Hot Springs who, presumably, picked up his toddler from daycare and then forgot that he had his son in the car upon arriving home.
Wanna hear about the time my 2-year-old locked me and her infant brother out of the house when I forgot to get him out of the car before letting her into the house?
I’ve seen this family’s Facebook page. This toddler was loved and doted upon. His dad didn’t just leave him in the car so that he could dash into Walmart while high on meth.
You can point your pointy fingers and say “I would never” all you like, but …
This father wasn’t “stupid” or an “asshole” or anything else you want to call him. He was one of us.
A parent who loved his kid beyond anything.
I get it. You want to call him stupid and uncaring because … .well, that means YOU are not stupid and uncaring and therefore your child won’t die.
In October 2013, I ventured into a desert that I thought of as beloved and familiar territory. And I when I came out of that desert on a stretcher, I did so with the realization that there are no guarantees. You can “I would never” all you want to and still end up in a hospital with doctors telling you that your kidneys, heart, lungs and liver are all failing.
You can brag about your prowess as a parent and yet turn your back for one second only to see your child slip under the water.
You can call other parents “stupid” or “uncaring” and still lose you own sweet babe in the mall.
So stop it. Just. Stop. It.
Your cruel and judgemental words aren’t helping this family. They’re not helping anyone.
Because honestly? You can tell yourself that “you would never” until the day you depart this earth and guess what?
Bad shit is still going to happen to you. It happens to all of us. We can do our best to avoid it. We can do our best to tell everyone why nothing terrible will ever happen to us.
But at some point, we all face tragedy.
So please … instead of calling for this man’s head and lifelong imprisonment, let’s just imagine …
Is there anything worse than what he is going through right this very minute? Is there?
Is a life sentence going to be anymore painful than what this father is experiencing tonight? Do you really think he cares about whether he’s arrested and charged with manslaughter or negligent homicide? Really? Do you?
I’ve got a lot of friends on Facebook who have always struck me as compassionate and caring people. And then I read what they say about this family and I wonder, “Who ARE you?”
I almost orphaned my kids by thinking “I would never” before heading off on a desert hike.
But I did.
And you might too.
Tempting as it may be to reassure yourself that your child will never be hurt because “you would never” … well, resist that temptation.
Because none of us signs up for this parenting gig thinking that we would ever fail our children.
Please. Let’s be kind to one another. Let’s be compassionate. Let’s suppport one another. Yeah, it’s scary to admit that one of us could forget that our baby was in the car. But it happens. And a lot of other terrible things happen due to a lapse on our part.
Again, as I always say, there’s only one thing God asks of us.
This is a mother, praying over her teenage son in the ICU. This picture has gone viral. Why?
Because we mothers know what it is to love a human being beyond infinity. We know what it is to offer ourselves in exchange for a life, to be willing to die for a child.
Look at her. This mother. Her son, once just a fluttering inside her stomach, once the baby scrounging for a nipple, once the little boy who collected rocks or bugs, once the little boy who shared all of his secrets with the main woman in his life …
She kneels before his bed and prays. She begs God to bring him back to her. She just wants one more conversation, one more hug, one more chance to let that boy know that he is her everything.
Please remember this mama and her boy in your prayers.
So six weeks or so into the Legislative session, I became Patient Zero at the Capitol.
I roamed the hallways and committee rooms, hacking and wheezing, with handfuls of tissue stuffed into my purse.
Those lucky enough to encounter me on a regular basis soon succumbed. I infected co-workers, lawmakers and reporters.
One day, I approached a member of the Democrat-Gazette’s Capitol Bureau to ask if his roommate, a mutual friend, was feeling better.
“I heard she was sick,” I said.
“So it was you,” he said, backing away. “You’re Patient Zero.”
“It’s OK,” I assured him. “I don’t think … *cough* … that I’m contagious … *cough* … anymore.”
“Uh-huh,” he replied. “Riiiight…”
And then he vanished into the media room. Which locked emphatically behind him.
Weeks passed. Still, I continued to collapse into coughing fits. When I ran out of cough drops, people from other state agencies gave me peppermints and candy. Anything, really, to shut me up.
Now just a couple of years ago, I would have high-tailed it into the doctor’s office, where I would have presented the staff with a list of possible diagnoses, all of them dire and, usually, terminal.
But that whole near-death-in-the-wilderness thing cured me of my lifelong hypochondria. Because really? If you can go out for what’s supposed to be a pleasant hike and find yourself in the throes of renal and heart failure a week later, you realize that there’s not much point in trying to pinpoint what might be your ultimate cause of death.
It could be a spider bite. It could be lung cancer. *cough*
In our household, I am normally the one nagging Rick to go to the doctor.
This time, it was my husband issuing pleas that I make an appointment.
“I don’t have time,” I argued, honking into a Kleenax.
He looked at me and shook his head.
“What?” I protested. “It’s my new mating call.”
I honked again and arched an eyebrow.
“You’re already keeping me up all night,” he noted dryly. “And not in a fun way.”
I felt his pain. I wasn’t getting much sleep either. Did you know it’s possible to reverse-snore? Like, instead of making noise when you inhale, you make these hideous mucousy sounds when you exhale?
Yeah. I’ve been all sorts of sexy, let me tell you.
Anyway, today I finally ventured into my doctor’s exam room.
“This has been going on for how long?” he asked incredulously.
Bear in mind, I have more than once burst into his office in a panic.
(Questions I have asked my doctor: “Are you sure I don’t have lymphoma?”
“So these are migraines and not a sign that a bulging brain aneurysm is about to burst?”
“Are you sure it’s mono and not Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Tuleremia?”)
Now here I was, all sorts of casual, lounging on the exam table while he looked at x-rays of my lungs and sinuses.
“Given how you sound and the fact that you’re running a fever, I would have sworn that you had walking pneumonia,” he mused.
“Well. I’m going to start by treating you for bronchitis and sinusitus.”
“OK,” I replied.
People, I came home today with a whole passel of drugs, which will either knock me into sedated oblivian or turn me into a ravenous, raging fiend. Or maybe they’ll just cancel each other out.
Regardless, I promise: The days of Typhoid Cathy are coming to an end.
It will be safe, once again, to enter my office.
And my husband might actually find me somewhat attractive again. Unless, of course, he’s too busy catching up on all that missed sleep.
The woman’s hands were firm, yet gentle. She plucked the twigs from my snarled hair. And then she washed it three times.
“Look,” she said, showing me the rinse water after the third shampooing. “It is clean now.”
All morning, she had lurked outside my hospital room, thwarted time and again by doctors and nurses who insisted on blood draws, breathing treatments and tests.
Finally, when the medical staff departed, she shooed my husband from the room and set to work.
Often, I flinched and moaned when her washcloth skimmed over the cactus needles still embedded in my hands, torso and legs.
“I am sorry, mija,” the woman murmured. “So sorry.”
But she wasn’t just sorry for the pain she inflicted. She was sorry that I had suffered at all. I could hear it in her voice.
Word had spread quickly through hospital hallways that the woman lost for five days and four nights in the Chihuahuan Desert was in the Telemetry Unit at the University Medical Center of El Paso.
My caregivers didn’t judge me. That first night, they kept me alive. And then over the next several days, they tended to my wounds. They marveled that I had survived.
When I walked again for the first time in five days, one of the physical therapists asked me to autograph the cane I had used.
All of these people believed that if I had been given a second chance, well … then there was hope for all.
Not everyone shared this attitude. Over the next year, even as I thanked God daily for my second chance, I learned what it is like to be second-guessed.
“But why didn’t you …?”
I get it. It’s totally human to want to second-guess others. Doing so makes us feel better, safer.
“Well, that would never happen to me because I would never…”
Yeah. Well. Until it does. Because you did.
We are none of us infallible. And most of us, most of the time, are pretty good at figuring out where we went wrong. And we accept responsibility for the consequences.
Your pointing finger does nothing but remind us of our own former smugness … and how it leads to downfall.
My arrogance almost cost me my life. Karma? She’s not just a bitch. She’s a bitch on wheels with lightning strikes etched on each spoke.
When I think of the woman who washed my hair, my body … apologizing as she did so … I marvel at her grace.
I was lost and then found. I was dirty, and then cleansed.
On this Easter, my advice to you … to me … is this:
Don’t second-guess the actions of someone who — trust me, here — already has been thoroughly humbled.
Instead, help that person appreciate and take advantage of his second chance.
After all, second chances are few. They should be celebrated. Not questioned.
On the evening of Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, I spent several hours grappling with the realization that I was likely to die alone underneath a mesquite tree in the Chihuahuan Desert.
At that time, I was still lucid, and therefore able to evaluate my life, my actions and my relationships.
And the one question that I kept coming back to … ?
Have I been a good person?
By “good,” I mean kind.
Because believe me, folks — when you know you’re going to die, and, as a Christian, you know you will be judged by God in, say, quite possibly, just a few hours, you start thinking pretty darn hard about how you’ve treated people.
Do my kids, husband, family and friends know how much I love them?
Have I made peace with everyone with whom I needed to do so?
Have I been kind to those who needed kindness? Have I been accepting of others’ decisions, even when I disagreed with those decisions? Have I resisted the temptation to judge those whose beliefs are not my own?
Um. Mostly? I think? Maybe?
When searchers found me two days later, naked and shivering under that same mesquite tree, I got a second chance — not just at life, but at spending that life as a different person, one who understands that how WE live means so much more than trying to decide how everyone ELSE should live.
Really, it all comes down to what my kids learned in pre-school:
“Be nice to your friends.”
I would extend that to include acquaintances, strangers and even enemies.
Because when you are naked and wounded and dying for lack of water in the desert, you realize that all that really matters in the end is you.
Your behavior. Your choices. Your ability to accept and love.
God isn’t going to ask whether you changed other people’s behavior to meet his standards. He’s going to ask whether you changed yours.
I am so grateful for the extra time I’ve been granted. I still look at my children and marvel that I can touch them, hug them, tell them just how much I love them.
I am married to my very own hero, a man who overcame incredible odds to bring me home.
I am the daughter and sister of loving family members.
I am so lucky to have a close and wonderful network of friends.
And I am going to be the first to tell you that what matters most in this life is not what other people are doing.
What matters is what you are doing.
Be grateful. Be happy. Don’t preach Jesus. Live Jesus.
And always, always … be nice to your friends.