Monday, August 15, 2016

Our Story

I remember the moment I chose to marry Brandon Keith Keaster. It happened on Sunday, January 19, 2003, over a year before he asked me to be his wife.

The choice was both difficult and easy. You see, I loved two wonderful, God-fearing young men at the time. Either one would've made an excellent husband. I still believe that. But even as a teen, I was of the mindset to place myself where God was working and God had been working on getting B and I together for literally decades.

So even though my friend of many years had the daunting advantages of height and red hair--I've always been a sucker for a red-head--and the idea of hurting him hurt me more than words can say, I intentionally gave my heart to Brandon.

I've never regretted my decision.

Destiny At Work


My mom's mother and Brandon's mom's mother were friends long before either of us entered history. Maybe even before our moms did. His mom babysat my mom. His parents were the first unmarried people my mom ever saw kiss. And even though my parents moved to Monroe and his stayed in Marion our circles touched the whole time we were growing up. We just never noticed each other. Mostly because he's 5 years older than me and it would've been weird.

Interestingly, the first time he did notice me, I was dressed like a Bangladeshi bride. No joke.

In August of 2000, I was 16, and I'd just returned from a 6 week gig as a mission intern/au pair in East London where I'd befriended several Bangladeshi Muslim girls, exchanged stories of faith with them, and even shared the good news of Jesus with a group of Muslim women in a local mosque. My grandmother had invited me to her church to speak about my time in England. Her church was also Brandon's church.

I remember him from that night. I sang and he ran the sound board. I think he complimented my singing when he returned my cassette tape. My grandmother later told me he'd asked about me. I was flattered, but really didn't give it much thought. I mean, he was nearly 21 and I liked another boy.

This other boy was supposed to take me to the West Monroe High School homecoming dance a couple of months later, but he made the mistake of proposing to me and telling me not to tell my dad. Let's just say things didn't work out. But I had a dress and a cousin counting on me for a ride to the dance, so my grandmother and Brandon's grandmother schemed and asked Brandon to take me. He generously agreed.

Don't you just love awkward high school dance photos?

Brandon was a perfect gentleman. He genuinely enjoyed hanging out with a 16 year old and two 14 year olds for the evening. He was a sport about all the photos and even danced with me a little. Which, to this day, is kind of a big deal. He was respectful and kind. He opened all the doors for me and had me home before my 11pm curfew. He treated me like my dad would've wanted me to be treated.

That dance was my first date ever.

We emailed a couple of times afterward, but didn't see much of each other again until the summer of 2002, when I was asked to be the interim pianist at my grandmother's church. We'd see each other in passing at both services on Sundays, but on Wednesday nights, after the singing, I'd walk over to the youth room where he was. I'd sit for the lesson, then afterward the youth minister, the pastor's son, Brandon and I would head to the basketball court and play pickup games.

The basketball court is where I fell in love with Brandon. I was in denial about it a long time, but Wednesday night basketball games were the highlight of my week.

He played just right. He didn't take it easy on me, which I would've hated, but he was careful not to hurt me. Which actually only happened once, and he was so sorry that I was careful not to let him see the tears which formed from being clocked in the jaw so hard.

It was after the annual Hanging of the Greens service in December that I first began to suspect he had feelings for me. It was the way he placed the accompaniment track in my hand. Slowly. Lingeringly. And the way he looked at me.

But I played dumb.

"I'm too young for him," I told my parents. "I'm just imagining things because I'm lonely."

That year I'd suffered two major betrayals, one of which led to a literal threat on my life. One best friend went to college and the other got married. I was in pain and didn't want to risk more pain by falling for him and being disappointed.

What I didn't know is that he was testing the waters. Had he been less determined, I might've lost him by hiding my feelings.

The Power of an Inner Vow


The following weekend, I traveled down to New Orleans with my dad to the Louisiana high school football state championship games. West Monroe was playing and I had friends on the team. They played Evangel High School who had a star quarterback with the last name...get this...Booty.

I said out loud with my dad as witness, "I would never marry a man with the last name 'Booty.'"

And God laughed and laughed and laughed.

Normally, inner vows don't work in our favor, but apparently I'm a special case. 

A mere five weeks later, Brandon asked me to stay late at a youth event to play one-on-one with him. That's basketball, just to clarify. Don't be dirty.

We ended up talking late into the late that my grandmother drove 15 minutes from Farmerville to Marion to come find me. (I didn't have a cell phone back then.) But before Brandon and I parted ways, I asked him to my free movie for the week. (I worked at Tinseltown at the time and got two free tickets every week.) He offered to take me to get chocolate chip pancakes at the new IHOP by the mall. We made plans for the following weekend.

Sealed With a Kiss


I'm embarrassed to admit this, but here it is. Remember the other boy I loved? The tall red-head? I went out with him Saturday night to a thing and the next night went out with Brandon. I didn't tell either of them. I realize that's kind of terrible, but there were things I needed to settle for myself.

I was ready to commit. The boy I chose, I would probably marry. Both nights, weighty thoughts occupied my mind. It wasn't just about the guys. It was about the futures. What was I willing to agree to? It was also about what God was doing. Where was his hand at work?

I had fun both nights. There was nothing wrong with the other boy. He was a perfect gentleman, a lot like B in that regard. And he obviously cared for me, but as I said goodbye to him that night I knew it would be for good. My only regret is that I didn't just tell him. But I was too selfish and immature back then.

The following night, Brandon picked me up at my parents' house and took me to IHOP. The pancakes were okay, but the highlight was Brandon spilling a glass of ice water into his lap. I guess I made him nervous. *grin*

At the concession stand, a friend from work mouthed, "Is that your boyfriend?"

I mouthed back. "Not yet."

She gave me a thumbs up. 

We saw Two Weeks Notice, which is still a good movie by the way. On the way out of the theater, he caught my hand. I still feel the thrill that rose in my stomach when I remember. He didn't let go the whole way home. Even when things got awkward with the standard transmission.

When Brandon dropped me off, he came inside to talk with my parents. I followed him back out again to say goodbye. Just before he left I was struck with a wild compulsion. After checking the kitchen window to make sure my dad wasn't watching, I kind of leaped forward and planted a hard, novice kiss on Brandon's lips.

My thought bubble: Oh! What am I doing? I've never done anything like this before. This isn't me. Oh God, please don't let my dad see...Who cares? His lips are so nice...

I surprised him--you should hear him tell the story--but no more than I surprised myself. You see, that was my first kiss. And it had always been my plan to save my first kiss for my wedding day. Oh, well.

Breathless, I released him, ran inside half-embarrassed and perched at the foot of my bed. I remember smiling--still in shock but also somewhat pleased with my gumption. I didn't know I could be so forward.

When I'd collected myself a little, I floated into Dad's office acting like a giddy drunk, and said, "I'm gonna marry that boy."

Dad kind of hung his head and sighed. "I know."

The Rest of the Story

It was the best decision I've ever made. Save the one I make every day to follow Jesus.

Brandon has saved my life many times over. I don't want to imagine where I'd be without him. If he hadn't married me when he did.

Like Jesus, he's loved me when he didn't like me. He's held me together when I was falling apart. When I was sick and had nothing to offer him except an uncertain future of caring for a part-time invalid, he stayed.

He makes me laugh. All the time. He messes with me and pesters and tackles and tickles. I secretly love this. Most of the time. 

He teaches me about real love every day. How to give it and how to receive it. For whatever reason, I have a hard time receiving. Thanks to him, I've gotten much better. He teaches me how to trust. How to confront. What I'm worth. In a world dominated by unsafe men, he reminds me some are still good.

Neither of us are perfect. Although...he's pretty darn close, if you ask me. Sometimes, we're selfish and we fight. But I'd make the same decision again and again and again.

Brandon Keith Keaster, I love you to the ends of the earth. So glad you're mine. So thankful to be yours. So glad you were my first date, first kiss, first everything. Oh, and I still love your lips. I'm sorry if that's too gross for public knowledge.

Here's to you, Superman, for the 12 years we've had and the 63 left to go. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Island: The Return

My first trip to Little Gasparilla Island was in 2010. We went with one of my besties, Danielle Dorey, who I'd met during my Frontliners internship the summer of 2003.
 Baby faces.

Micah was a baby, and I was a happily married stay-at-home mom/part-time private piano and voice teacher. And I'd just scored a lead role in the community theater's Fall musical-comedy. Life was pretty good. And the trip? A-maz-ing. I'd fallen in love with that little slip of sandy earth and planned to return as soon as I could.

What I didn't realize then was the bit of heaven we'd enjoyed there was the calm before the storm. There was crazy theater drama for the next two months. (Not all the good kind.) A miscarriage. A major onslaught against my health in January 2011 followed by a difficult pregnancy and a semi-traumatic labor and delivery.

My health continued to deteriorate, but I never let go of the dream of returning. I felt God had given it as a promise to go with my healing. I would say to Brandon, "When I get well, we're going back, you know."

And when I was lying on what could've been my death bed, he'd say, "Don't forget. When you get well, we're going back to the island." To remind me I couldn't die yet. We had plans.

When my healing began, we mentioned a return trip, but as time came to make preparations I realized we were too short on cash to press the issue. Besides, I was going to Brazil in September.

But my Superman is one sly guy and he's earned his nickname many times over.

As we drove home from the Ozarks on my birthday, my phone rang. It was Danielle. Because it was my birthday, I expected nothing more than a wish. Which I received. Then she said, "Brandon, God and I have a surprise for you."

My thought bubble: Brandon...God...Danielle...can't be a baby...hmmm....

"How would you like to come down to the island next month?"

After a momentary lapse of cognition, I flipped. I laughed. I cried. I bounced up and down in my seat. I couldn't believe it. And yet I could. Brandon has always been too good to me.

I sneaked a glance at him. Tears shimmered in his eyes. Softy. He knew what this meant to me.

I thanked Danielle. I thanked B. I thanked God. I was so stoked. Only a few days before I'd asked Sara, "If we could go anywhere in the world together, where would you want to go?"

"Da beach," she'd said with a grin. She'd never been and it had been so long since our last beach trip, Micah didn't remember. They were so excited when I told them.

Brandon explained we would drive to Georgia first to see our friends James and Erica Kordsmeier, then drive down to Tampa and leave from there for the island with the Doreys. We'd be gone 11 days.

The drive to Georgia was smooth and pleasant. God placed two people in my path to pray for along the way, which was fun. Our time with the Kordsmeiers was too short but very sweet.

Then came our reunion with the Doreys. It had been six years since I'd seen my friend face to face and yet--because of phone calls, texts, Facebook and the goodness of God--it was as if no time had passed. Except for the three extra kiddos, dark circles under our eyes and a few gray hairs. But whatevs.

The next day, we made our way south along Florida's west coast. I was antsy to get to the island, but also a bit fearful. Would it be as incredible as I remembered? Or had I blown a nice experience out of proportion in my mind?

I stepped out of the truck and smelled bay water. A hot breeze ruffled my unruly hair. I smiled and forgot all fear of disappointment.

Samantha, Danielle's sister gave some of us a boat ride from the marina to the island.

Weston and Sara ready to go "motor speed."

Before I knew it, we were there. And yes--the magic I remembered still hovered over the island. Not quite ripe sea grapes and coconuts graced the trees. Birds called out to one another. A dog barked in the distance. The kids played in the sand and I enjoyed the quiet rush of the breeze through the foliage while we waited for the luggage to be unloaded onto the golf cart.

Then it was a race to get to the beach.

One of the things I love about Little Gasparilla is the low population. There are no condominiums. Just beach houses. There's no fighting for chair space. You don't have to watch your stuff. You can leave it out all day if you want. No one will bother it. And your kids are easy to spot. Behold...

The kids enjoyed the beach as much as they thought they would. They enjoyed each other more than I thought they would.


Here we have a Weston...the cutest fish you'll ever meet.
FYI: You can't keep this 4-year-old out of the water. 

Micah was afraid of the water, but enjoyed the beach. 

I taught Sara to body board...kind of. 

 Instead of a vanilla latte made by Kurt Pendergrass, Kurt Pendergrass taught me to make my own. Turns out, I'm not a bad barista.

Kurt also took B fishing again...

and on our first evening, took us all out on a dolphin cruise.

The kids enjoyed the local wildlife. 

One morning, I woke early to pray and enjoy the sunrise, which was pretty glorious. The sunsets were as spectacular as I remembered.

 Check out that green ray!

But nothing could beat the company.

This trip to the island was a lot more work than the last. That's what happens when you add three littles to the mix. Especially when the party includes a high-adventure, adrenaline junkie, perpetually ravenous two year old. 

Meet Titus. Chances are, he's "hungee." 
Kudos to Danielle and Ryan who somehow keep him fed.

I didn't have a lot of alone time with Jesus while we were gone, but the constant prayer of my heart was, "Thank you...thank you...thank you...thank you..."

I was overwhelmed by generosity. Of my husband, who sacrificed vacation days usually set aside for hunting. By my friends who offered us a free place to stay and great company. Of the Pendergrasses and Danielle's sister, Samantha, who came down both Sunday and Wednesday to make coming and going fun, easy and inexpensive. Of the Lord. 

Wow...just wow. 

I'd done nothing to deserve such a gift. Yet it was freely given. Grace, grace...marvelous grace. 

Grace was the golden thread running through every detail. From the ability to even go to the hospitality of friends. Down even to the storm patterns. Each day, storms threatened to come down upon us, but danced around instead. On the day we left, all the Floridians agreed, we'd get wet on the boat ride back to shore. But no. The clouds parted. We sat on damp towels and enjoyed the cool air in our faces...

...and on the drive back to Tampa, a reminder that God always...always...keeps His promises.