This first guest post of 2017 is a very special one. While attending She Speaks, a Christian writers and speakers conference for women in July of last year, I had the privilege of meeting Heather Meadows. Actually, we technically "met" several weeks before the conference, when we were matched up as prayer partners. We had exchanged a few emails leading up to the event, sharing our back stories and fulfilling prayer requests for one another. So by the time we actually met in person in the convention hallway, it's like we had known each other for years. In fact, the woman who took our photo a few moments later thought we were best friends!
Not only is Heather a great person, but her story is truly amazing. As you know, I like to inspire and encourage people through this blog and remind people that joy and abundance are possible, no matter what circumstances you are in or what you've been through. And Heather's story is the perfect example. So, here she is...
“Heather, what more could make you happy?”
It was a desperate question my mom asked as we sat on my bed looking in to a closet full of clothes, shoes and accessories. “Not stuff, Mom. Stuff can’t bring happiness.”
I was only sixteen, but I had already concluded that trips to the mall, a brand new car and hosting parties with friends couldn’t fill the emptiness inside. The void was far too vast for material, superficial things. Happiness was a state I was battling to attain.
The battle began nine years earlier, when my world tragically changed on a country dirt road.
It was April 27th 1988. My nine-year-old brother Jon and I conjured up a grand plan to go visit our friends after school. No big deal for many kids, but for kids growing up in a rural area, where neighbors can be defined as anyone within a mile’s distance, going to a friend’s house was more than a trip, it felt like an expedition.
Jon and I got off the bus, completing our chores and homework in record time. We changed into our play clothes and headed out the door. Jon filled up the gas tank on our blue two-wheeler motorcycle and we began asking Grandma to let us go. We lived right next door to our grandma. She was quite okay with us riding, as we typically did, on the one-hundred-sixty-acre-family land, but going out on the road was a different story. We pleaded, begged and bargained until we wore her down to a “yes.”
Our two-mile journey to see our friends was uneventful. We sang at the top of our lungs driving down the road, our speed creating the only bit of breeze to blow through our hair on that very calm day.
Jon dropped me off at the corner house to play with my friend. He drove down a couple more houses to see his classmate. The time passed so quickly. Before I knew it, he was back to take us home.
We pulled onto the dirt road behind a little pick-up truck. Focused on getting home, we continued our travel despite the thick cloud of dust stirring from the vehicle in front of us. No riding goggles to shield our eyes, nor helmets, we were invincible kids, innocent of the danger surrounding us.
The dust burned our eyes. I attempted to avoid it, turning my head to the left and laying it against Jon’s back. He attempted to escape the dust too, swerving to the left and right. Our last swerve to the left was met with an on-coming truck. We hit head on, our bodies flew off and the motorcycle slid under the truck. A fire ignited.
My memories to this day are choppy, but enough to repeatedly relive the nightmare on that dirt road.
My face felt so very hot. I could see the blur in the flame. The driver of the truck heroically used a blanket to smother the fire burning my body. I remember being grabbed under my armpits and drug away from the fire.
Before long I was loaded into a helicopter and my mom was with me. “I want to go home,” I said. I remember thinking that what was happening was bad and scary. I reasoned that if I could just go home everything would be okay. “We will,” she said, “but we’re going to go see the doctor first.”
At the hospital I was diagnosed with a third degree burn injury covering eighty-seven percent of my body. But while the burn injury was obvious, there was another life-threatening injury yet to be discovered. A chest x-ray obtained led to further investigation revealing a traumatic transection of my descending thoracic aorta. A six-hour open-heart surgery to wrap the artery in GORE-TEX, repaired the injury, but the place of my heart where happiness was held would take much longer to heal.
Heavy sedation and being mechanically ventilated inhibited my ability to communicate, but I still gave my best efforts to ask for Jon.
The magnitude of information was far too great for my seven-year-old mind to understand. My big brother never had a moment past the one we shared together on that dirt road. He died on impact.
There were so many dark moments during my three-month-hospital stay; a diagnosis of peritonitis, a blood clot risking the amputation of my right leg, excruciating bandage changes, and reoccurring nightmares. Those dark moments weren’t confined to the walls of the hospital. They accompanied me to a house that looked like home, but didn’t feel like it—trying to sleep in my bed knowing Jon wasn’t in the room next to me and sitting at the dinner table without him there.
Many questions were unanswered. Would I ever walk again? What would my quality of life be? What was going to be the new “normal”? And would I ever feel happiness again?
There I was, nine years later, on the other side of the physical injury, but in the depths of darkness of the emotional injury.
Why didn’t I die with Jon? What kind of future did I have? Was this life worth fighting to live? Who would ever love me? Was it possible to discover my own femininity in the realities of the fire that claimed what had yet to develop? Could beauty be seen in me with an eighty-seven percent scarred body?
Those questions couldn’t be answered with any material item. Those questions couldn’t be avoided by filling the pain with stuff. Temporary happiness was quickly spent. The road I was on was one to uncover a long lasting happiness in spite of life’s inevitable trials.
My conclusion was this: Happiness doesn’t happen. Happiness is chosen.
Choosing happiness means facing the pain, confronting the sorrow, embracing the loss. Choosing happiness means being brave enough to ask difficult questions, even if they can’t be answered. Choosing happiness means accepting what I wish I could change, even though I can’t. Choosing happiness means fighting the tendency to focus on what’s been lost, and instead allow what’s been given to flood my mind.
My life today looks pretty picture perfect. I married my high-school sweetheart; we had four healthy children; I serve through writing, public speaking and my work as a neonatal intensive care nurse.
Yes, life looks pretty happy. Life is pretty happy. But happiness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a choice we make to see life in such a way. It’s a choice I make every day.
Every day I look upon this body. Every single day I see these scars and am reminded of April 27th 1988. Every single day I have a choice to make—focus on what was taken that day or what’s been given since that day.
I discovered that genuine happiness isn’t attained by eliminating the sorrow, but surprisingly by embracing it. My experiences with despair has defined, and made valuable, the joy, cheer and pleasure in life. The heartache has made the happiness meaningful. My conclusion is, if I could still find happiness after that, then I can find happiness after anything.
While I can’t control what happens, I can make the decision to guard the happiness of my heart.
Like Abraham Lincoln once said, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their mind to be.” Regardless of my circumstances my thoughts determine my condition. And my mind chooses to live in celebration as Proverbs 15:15 tells me, “for the despondent, every day brings trouble; for the happy heart, life is a continual feast.”
Much has been given—not measured in material things like clothes or cars or careers, but through a long-lasting, eternal happiness in the face of life’s inevitable trials.
Heather Meadows is a wife, mom to four fabulous kids, burn survivor, writer, public speaker, and NICU nurse. She serves events, conferences, schools, businesses, banquets and churches through inspirational and motivational speaking and is currently writing a personal memoir about persevering through life’s painful places. Join her on her journey by visiting www.heathermeadows.com to subscribe and view her story here.