Happy Birthday to Mom

ImageToday is my mother’s birthday. I won’t tell you how old she is, but if you take my age and add 20, you’ll have an idea. We celebrated last Saturday by taking her out for lunch at a local restaurant, and she enjoyed eating with her two boys, two daughters-in-law, and four grandkids. It was a nice afternoon.

See, we haven’t really celebrated my mom’s birthday in years. Her birthday is May 30; my first daughter, Ruthanne, was stillborn on May 31, 2004. We were in the hospital on my mom’s birthday that year, struggling to comprehend what was happening. I’ve written about Ruthanne before, but I don’t think I’ve ever acknowledged that her birthday sort of stole the thunder from my mom. If she had lived, it would’ve been a dual celebration. But since she didn’t, it kind of killed our desire to do much of anything around this time of year.

Not that my mom minded too much; if there’s one thing she doesn’t really like, it’s being the center of attention. It’s kind of funny – both my brother and I ended up being people who don’t mind being on stage, performing or speaking, and our being wired that way sort of pulled mom along into the spotlight. She would deflect it, of course, but people would seek her out to commend her on raising two “fine boys” and she would have to spend a few minutes being the focus of conversation.

Sometimes people ask her what her secret is; usually, she tells them to just trust God and let the kids be themselves. From my vantage point, that’s a true enough statement, but there were other things that helped shape my brother and I, things that aren’t intuitive to some parents. She let us be ourselves, but she also drew us firm boundary lines. She surrounded us with good friends and tried to make even the bad ones welcome. Our home was never closed off to the other kids in the neighborhood – everyone within five miles knew the Brooks household was always open, and the fridge was usually full.

In fact, some of my friends liked my parents better than me. I didn’t mind; their respect for my parents kept them from inviting me to do some truly stupid things. They knew my parents wouldn’t approve and they didn’t want to break their hearts by inviting me along. As a kid, that was kind of annoying; but as an adult, it’s touching in a way. 

Touching too is the fact that I have sort of grown up with my parents. They got married young, and had me when they were barely into their twenties. They never tried to be my friend, but they never treated me as if I weren’t a friend. Like I said, I knew where the boundaries were, and as long as I stayed within them, things were fine. My parents allowed me to follow my passion for reading and drawing; they encouraged me to write; they let me play baseball and basketball and become an Eagle Scout. And while they were together in philosophy, they often weren’t together in presence. My dad traveled a lot, which meant it was mom and her boys against the world.

It probably also means that we were closer than other kids and their mothers. I learned sarcasm from my mom (who learned it from her dad). I learned how to be gracious in the face of struggle and how to be authentic with the people you love. I saw firsthand that parenting could be overwhelming, but I never knew just how deeply some of our troubles were. I was thirty-five before I learned that some years my Christmas presents came from garage sales. To borrow a phrase from my grandparents’ generation, I never knew we were poor.

I also never knew the absence of laughter. If you could say one thing about my mother, it’s that laughter runs through her veins as surely as blood. You can’t spend more than five minutes with my mom before someone is laughing hysterically. Occasionally the jokes are even clean. Growing up that way made humor my default language – I always knew the power of humor, it’s ability to infect people and become a conduit for ideas. Even now when I speak, I try to use humor as much as possible to help get my point across. And if my mom is in the audience, I know exactly where the loudest laughs will come from.

Case in point: my senior year of high school, I was cast as the male lead in the musical, “The Boyfriend.” In the third act, my character had to make a grand entrance at a costume ball dressed as Pierrot from the Comedia dell’Arte – essentially, I came onstage dressed in a satin clown costume that included a tiny satin dunce cap with black poofy balls affixed to the side. As soon as I made my entrance, a hoot arose from the audience, a single, uncontrolled guffaw at my appearance that reverberated through the otherwise silent hall.

It was my mom.

In her defense, I did look ridiculous (a fellow student suggested that I looked very much like a contraceptive device). And it seems wholly appropriate that of all the people in the audience who could’ve laughed at me, it was my mother that did. After all, we’d been laughing together our whole lives. We still are.

So happy birthday, mom, even though you’ll hate that I wrote about you, even though you’ll think that some of these stories are embarrassing or not worth telling. Whether you like it or not, these stories are worth telling, because they show how much you’ve influenced me, and Ryan, and our wives and children. They’re worth telling because they help us understand and appreciate you all the more, something that a good mother is due.

I love you, mom. Hope you have a great day.

Dream Woman

Rachel and Ella. Yes, the woman on the right hand side married me.

Wednesday, some of the students I work with at the Grayson High School Christian Learning Center asked what was my most embarrassing moment. As a life-long goober, that’s like asking Michelle Duggard to pick her favorite kid: there’s just too many to choose from.

However, one of my church students called out, “Tell them about your first date with Rachel.”

And immediately, I knew she was right. There couldn’t be a more embarrassing story in my past, with the exception of the time I threw up in the planters outside the Georgia Theater. But that is another story for another time.

So I began to regale the kids with the story: how I, nervous and shy, worked up the courage to email Rachel for a date, and how she, intelligent and beautiful, agreed to go. We went to dinner at the Old Norcross Train Depot, and I talked the entire time.


I just couldn’t shut up. I was young and intimidated, and I wanted so desperately to impress her that my mouth just uncoupled from my brain and the the most inane, banal, flat-out ridiculous stuff poured out of my mouth. And it wouldn’t stop. It just kept coming, like a bad magician’s handkerchief.

So there I was with verbal diarrhea, and she with a case of the zips: she wasn’t saying a word, just suffering in silence. I tried to wow her with deep thoughts, bad thoughts, empty thoughts; she just looked at me as if I were a blank wall. Sure, she tried to be kind to me (as she pointed out later, I had this annoying, lost puppy quality) and made small talk when she could, but after a while she reached her threshhold and just shut down.

It was the footrace that was the last straw.

We had left dinner and gone to Stone Mountain to just walk around and talk (okay, she walked, I talked), and in a rare moment of lucidity, I asked her what she liked to do for fun.

“I run,” she said.

What happened next has been permanently scrambled in my brain. I remember it like a Monet painting: deep impressions but scant detail.

I challenged her to a race. An honest-to-God forty yard dash. And for some reason, she accepted.

And if that weren’t bad enough, I beat her. Badly. And then poked fun at her.

“I thought you said you were fast?”

I’ll skip to the end: the rest of the date, all 45 minutes of it, were completely silent. Rachel didn’t say a word. I could tell things had gone south, but was utterly at a loss for how to fix it. So I drove her home. The entire car ride was silent.

When we pulled into her driveway, she simply got out of the car, shut the door and walked inside without so much as a glance back. I didn’t even have time to get my door open.

I had done her the ultimate disservice: I had acted like a macho jerk. I tried to impress her instead of get to know her. I had, for lack of a better term, been everything that she despised about men.

Until the phone call.

See, we went out on a Saturday night, so the next morning as I was sitting in my church choir, I felt a strong conviction that I needed to call Rachel and apologize. I didn’t hear one word of the sermon, the thought was so strong in my heart. And when service was over, I walked into my office and picked up the phone and dialed her number.

She answered. “Hello?”

“Hi Rachel, it’s Jason.”


“I just wanted to call and apologize for last night.” And apologize I did. Sincerely. I told her that I was wrong to talk as much as I did, that I was trying too hard to come across as cool and impressive, and that by doing so I betrayed her faith in agreeing to the date. I told her that, while a second date was obviously out of the question, I wanted to remain friends because she was an intelligent, Godly woman and I appreciated her insight.

More silence. Then…

“Thank you.”

It turns out God was telling her to be gentle with me because I was different. She listened, and now, 13 years after that date, we’re getting ready to celebrate 11 years of marriage.

Which is why I KNOW there is a God.

But I told this story to the kids in the CLC class and they laughed at my stupidity, awwwwwed at the way things turned out and in general seemed to appreciate the humor of the story. One of the guys even leaned forward and said, “You just gave me a buttload of hope.”

That’s when my student yelled out, “Oh – and she’s hot. Really hot.”

At which point I smiled and said, “Yes she is.”

I went on to tell them that before I ever met Rachel, way back in the day when I was just a dorky kid with no romantic prospects whatsoever, I sat down and wrote out a list of what I wanted my wife to be like. It had all of the normal shallow boy stuff (pretty, athletic, thin, cheerleader, blonde) and some of my personal quirks (smart, funny, kind, Southern) as well as some bizarre specifics too embarrassing to list. I didn’t keep the paper that the list was on, but as I grew up I kept the list in my head, adding and subtracting as time and maturity dictated.

When I met Rachel, every single item on the list was checked off. Every one.

In short, I married my dream woman. And have never regretted it.

My heart still beats fast when we have a date (and I try really hard not to talk too much). I still wake up amazed that she’s next to me. I look at our beautiful children and thank God she had the dominant genes.

And with Mother’s Day being this weekend, I am happy to be able to celebrate her, because she is an amazing mom, forgiving friend, and the best wife in the world.

You want proof?

For her celebration, we’re going out to eat and then seeing The Avengers.

A smokin’ hot ex-cheerleader with advanced degrees, a beautiful soul, and a small nerd streak she likes to exercise every once in a while?

Dream woman indeed.

Guest Post: Cancer, Childbirth And One Tough Mother…

Given my wife's family's recent history, you know this ribbon means a lot to me.

There are some stories that just deserve to be told over and over again. My wife’s family has had some real battles with cancer over the last three years, with my wife opting to have a preventative double mastectomy to hopefully eliminate her chances for breast cancer. So when you hear a story of someone overcoming the Big C, it tends to stick with you. With Mother’s Day coming up this weekend, I knew of one story that I definitely wanted told one more time.

Dawn Hood and I were both hired to work at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries at around the same time. I didn’t get to know her very well though until, after about a year of working at RZIM, we both applied for the same position within the ministry. Long story short, Dawn was the better person for the job, but through the process of applying and interviewing, we got to know one another a little bit. Then, when I moved departments in 2009, I ended up just down the hall from her.

It was then that I really got to know Dawn. She is a true Southerner – sweet, gentile, polite, with enough of a touch of redneck to make fun to be around. What drew Dawn and I into many discussions was our love of writing; Dawn happens to have penned one of the most remarkable memoirs I’ve ever read, and she gave me the privilege of helping her work on the draft.

And if you doubt that her story could be all that impressive, ask yourself this: could you give birth to a baby while battling cancer and chemo treatments?

Me neither. That’s why I’ve invited Dawn to share a truncated version of that story with the blog today.

I hope you enjoy reading Dawn’s post, and that, if you do, you’ll visit her blog as a regular reader. The URL is easy to remember: http://dawn-hood.blogspot.com. I promise you’ll be glad you did. You can also read more about Dawn at Northside Hospital’s webpage, where Dawn’s story is not only a featured article, it was also part of an Atlanta-wide awareness campaign, and was turned into billboards and a radio commercial featuring Dawn.

Cancer, chemo, live birth...yeah, you don't EVER want to mess with this woman. She would destroy you.

Kissing 40 On The Mouth

In my 20s and 30s, I pledged to turn 40 kicking and screaming.  I jokingly made my list of three wishes: to be the bald chick on Star Trek (she was so cool), get a “boob job” (I was never what one would call ‘perky’), and have a tattoo (to satisfy my inner rebel).

In September 2001, my husband worked for a company in a sales position, specifically on a large account that after closing was going to provide a hefty commission check.  Our family had outgrown our house and his commission was going to be the icing on the cake for some new furniture and other goodies to make a new place our new home.

Tuesday morning after Labor Day he went to the office only to be told that his position had been terminated – for no specific reason.  And with that, he lost the job, the account, and the commission.  Our house plans came to a screeching halt.

Then, to our horror, we witnessed the events of September 11th along with the rest of the country and most of the world.  As if all that was not enough, we learned two weeks later that I was pregnant with our third child.  Oops.  A few weeks shy of 39, we had the all-American one boy and one girl.  I worked only part-time, and the idea of starting over with pre-school and little league or dance recitals didn’t sound very appealing.

In October we scheduled a visit to my OB-GYN for my first pregnancy check-up.  The instant my midwife touched my right breast her facial expression changed.  She went from, “wonder what I’ll have for lunch today” to “uh-oh, that’s not right.”  My radar went on high alert.

She told us a few minutes later in her office, “Everything looks to be in good order except I felt something in your right breast and I want you to have it checked.  I’m sure it’s nothing, but since you’re pregnant, I’d like to be sure.”  We left her office with the names and phone numbers of two breast surgeons she wanted us to talk to for further testing.

After meeting with one of the breast surgeons, I went to the hospital’s Breast Center for a core needle biopsy.  After administering local anesthetic, the doctor took four tissue samples from my right breast and sent us home.  Walking across the parking lot with an ice pack across my chest, I was certain we would get an “all clear” sometime in the next few days.

November 12th.  11:45 a.m.  The phone call. You know, the phone call.  My doctor said very simply, “All four tissue samples were malignant.  You have cancer and should see your doctor as soon as possible.  I’m sorry”.  I hung up the phone in disbelief.  The rest of that day was a blur of phone calls, questions, setting appointments, and chocolate chip cookies.

We learned that my tumor was feeding on estrogen, which my body was producing en masse because of the pregnancy.  It was like having cancer on steroids.  First surgery: lumpectomy went smoothly and our surgeon was optimistic that he had obtained clean margins.  He did not.  More surgery.  Our surgeon was confident this time that we would get a good report. We did not.  The day after Christmas we received the news that I would have to undergo a mastectomy.  And I really began to wonder where this was all going to end.  Hanging up the phone, I walked out of our bedroom, looked at my husband and said quietly, “This sucks”.

In an effort to keep our mental faculties in order, my husband and I had developed quite a sense of humor with regard to what we were facing.  We jokingly invited a few friends over for a final viewing of my breast the night before surgery.  One of my husband’s buddies actually said he was coming.  January 8th, 2002, my right breast was removed.

Over the next three months of February, March, and April, I had four chemotherapy ‘cocktails’ of Adriamycin and Cytoxan.  My hair started falling out exactly 14 days after the first treatment.  When I was ready, my husband lovingly and carefully shaved my head.  I looked surprisingly like the bald chick on Star Trek – except for the dark circles under my eyes – and the hollow cheeks – and the swollen belly.

I learned a lot during those months.  I learned that I could clear the aisle at a store in about three seconds flat.  I learned that we have nose hair and eyelashes for a reason – and I missed mine.  I learned that the soft, warm hands of my two children could make my cold, bald head feel warm as toast.  I learned what it means to feel ferociously protective of an unborn child.  And I learned that good friends and loyal family should never be taken for granted.

After my final treatment in April, we began looking forward to the birth of our child, another boy.  The doctors had been evasive about side effects he might have suffered because my case was rare and there were not many reliable medical studies to reference.  I had trouble gaining weight; our goal at that point was to get the baby to five pounds before he was born and avoid a stay in the NICU.

On May 7, 2002, at 4:02 p.m., our little bundle entered the world with just one push from Mommy.  His beautiful, perfect little head was about the size of a peach.  We were ecstatic when he weighed in at a whopping five pounds, eleven ounces.  For the first time since I had learned I was pregnant, I leaned over the bed and threw up in a trash can.

Six days later I began radiation.  My final treatment, and quite a celebration, came on July 3rd.  It was truly Independence Day for us.

Four months passed and my Mom hosted a surprise birthday party for me – my 40th.  I can honestly say I have never enjoyed a birthday more.  Surrounded by people whose love and prayers had sustained us in those dark, uncertain months, it was truly one of the best days of my life.  My son, who will celebrate his 9th birthday on Saturday, is a daily reminder that God is still in the business of miracles. Along with excellent checkups, I’m now sporting a full head of hair.  My ‘boob job’ is now complete and I have my tattoo: a butterfly designed out of a breast cancer ribbon, resting gracefully atop my reconstructed breast.

The Queen Has Returned!

Only one woman may wear the crown in our house...

It was a bit of strange week last week, which, if you read any of my previous blogs (like this one or this one or this one) is code for: my kids kicked my butt without my wife around. It was bad. I told Rachel last night that when it comes to being a single dad with two kids, the best strategy to employ is the same that you’re supposed to use if you come across an angry bear in the woods:

Just lay down and pretend to be dead.

It’s not a fool-proof plan, of course. Mainly because the danger levels aren’t the same. A bear will walk past you. Your kids will jump on top of you and one will pull your eyelids open while the other whacks you in the groin with a stick saying, “Wake up daddy!” I’ve found that if you can hold out for more than thirty minutes, the kids will lose interest and you can actually get some rest for at least 45 seconds.

Of course, now that Rachel’s home, I can just go back to what I normally am: useless. It’s quite a relief.

Yes, I picked Rachel up from the airport on Saturday afternoon. I was so excited to see her – nothing makes you appreciate the singular talents and qualities of your spouse like time apart (with you being stuck with the kids). I got to the airport right on schedule and made my way to the yawning maw of Hartsfield, otherwise known as the arrivals lobby. It’s essentially a wide space where five or six escalators dump people out in bunches to scramble for a familiar face or book it to the baggage claim to see if their luggage made the flight. It’s kind of creepy, in a way – since you can’t see the people riding up the escalators, you can’t really keep a sharp lookout for the person on whom you’re waiting. People just fairly explode into view and you have to scan faces pretty quickly to see if your loved one is among them.

One lady off to my right was standing there when I arrived, and was still there when Rachel and I left. I felt sorry for her – she kept mumbling to herself, “Hi, mom. I’m gay.” It didn’t seem like she was feeling confident about the reunion. I wish I could’ve seen how it went.

I didn’t get to, though, because Rachel came gliding into view. She looked fabulous, as always, and she had somehow acquired a new carry-on bag. Turns out, she had brought home two new bags, both stuffed with Easter goodies for our kids and for our three nephews. I quietly noted that it was good I had driven the truck to the airport. We grabbed a bite to eat, loaded up the truck, and booked it to our church for the annual Easter Egg Hunt.

Rachel was so excited to see Ella – she snuck up on her from behind (Ella was busy eating a bowl of ice cream) and tapped her on the shoulder. Ella turned around and screamed, “Mommy!” then jumped into Rachel’s arms. It was a Hallmark Channel movie moment – a happy family reunited at a massive community celebration. It was good to see.

Unfortunately, things turned into a Lifetime movie from there – a female protagonist tries to salvage a family on the verge of collapse and everything is the man’s fault.

To say that there has been some conflict upon Rachel’s return would be an understatement. Now, it hasn’t been bad (we didn’t need the plates that got broken anyway. Kidding!) – it’s just been a re-adjustment for all of us. Jon can’t decide which parent he wants more: the one he’s become comfortable with over the past few days, or the one that he missed so much. That makes him a little fussy and a wee bit hard to deal with. But we’ve managed.

Ella, however, is a different story. She and Rachel have butted heads almost non-stop since we all finally got home. Ella has become accustomed to her role as The Negotiator, and has been trying her tactics out on Rachel. They are not working. Rachel, being a female and well-schooled in the ancient art of successful thinking (what we guys call “getting your way”), doesn’t cave into Ella’s demands. In fact, she can go tit-for-tat with Ella’s attempts to turn the situation into her favor, and Ella gets flustered at the sudden ineffectiveness of her tactics. She’ll look at me as if to say, “It works on that dumb animal, why doesn’t it work on Mom?”

Now, again, keep in mind we have sweet kids, so this isn’t like an episode of Intervention or anything. It’s really been over smaller issues, things that I ultimately will cave on because they don’t seem like that big of a deal. But Rachel views the smaller issues as the gateway to larger ones and is determined to put a stop to it. As Rachel put it yesterday afternoon, “Ella, it seems to me like you’ve had the run of the place since I’ve been gone.”

She’s right – Ella has had run of the place because I suck at single-parenting (see the strategy for single dads as outlined above). I value peace too highly, and sometimes the price for peace is steep. Of course, when Rachel pointed out the fact that I let our five year-old have total sway for a week, I felt tremendously guilty. I felt small and stupid. I felt ineffective. Humiliated. Worthless. Lower than worm poo.

Then I realized I had survived (my ultimate goal, in all honesty) and I immediately felt better. Especially once Rachel made the following statement:

“There’s only one woman that runs this house. And it’s me. Guess we’ll have to re-learn that.”

Yes, the Queen has returned!

Thank God.