I wrote this note on Facebook at the age of 20, right after my mom had passed. I wasn’t much for blogging then, but I had to let the emotions escape somewhere. This is a tribute to my loving parents in the midst of my grief.
One of my favorite anecdotes of all time is this story of a contest to find the world’s most caring child. A little boy crossed the street to his 80 year old neighbor’s front yard. His wife of 60 years had just recently passed away and he was alone. Upon seeing the old man cry, the little boy climbed into his lap and just sat there. When the little boy’s mother later asked him what he had done, the boy simply replied, “I helped him cry.”
This story reminds me of what it really is to experience true compassion. To experience it; not to just see it, but to feel it.
By all technicalities, I am proudly one of a family of 17 children. Actually, I’m not sure whether that’s a technical or a literal thing. But I do know that I was blessed with a large… very large family.
My mother and father were married young with the idea that they could change the world!…one child at a time! They were hard-working and loving people who knew nothing yet of all the lives they would touch… so many lives. Their story I’m sure was one full of heartache, love, anger, tragedy, wonder, and compassion. To tell you the truth, I wish I knew. I know that people will always have their regrets; their “coulda been’s” and “shoulda been’s” hidden deep inside their pockets. And one of my biggest regrets is not having spent enough time talking to my parents about the things that really matter in life. I gathered a few details and really sought to know more about them. I took in as much as I could during my mother’s last few months, and it’s sad to say, but I don’t think I had ever appreciated her more than in those last few fleeting moments I spent with her. Moments that couldn’t have lasted long enough. According to her (and if my memory serves me correctly) this was the brief synopsis of her story… of their story.
“We were married young. I was a daddy’s girl, and it broke my daddy’s heart, but I left to get married to Herold and daddy didn’t approve.”
They had ups and downs like any relationship. They moved from Arkansas where they were both born and raised (true hillbillies to say the least) and packed up their few belongings to move to Illinois. Dad worked a lot of odd jobs. He told me once that he had worked at a doughnut factory and he was even the janitor at the high school I attended, but that was a great deal before I was born. They had three kids of their own: Chuck, Cathy, and Sheila. “It was what I wanted; to be a wife and a mom.” I’m convinced that nothing else could have made her any happier. You should have seen the look that crossed her face when she told me about wanting to be a mom… She was glowing inside out … the first time I had seen her smile in all of her pain.
Pain… it plays a large role in how I came to be where I was all those years. To make it a bit clearer, I must start off by saying, I hope I never know the pain of losing a child. In Harristown Cemetery, 3 blocks from where my house once was, there is a small headstone that reads “baby girl Clem”. I’ve visited it many times, and every time it gets harder. My parents didn’t even get to pick out a name… she was stillborn. My parents were heartbroken. Somewhere along the lines of life, God got a firm grip on my father. I’m not sure if it was before this event or after, but I’m sure this was no less of a ground breaker for him. He became a pastor of a Baptist church in a little town about 15 minutes from my hometown. Any of you Harristown natives know it as Niantic. I don’t know how long my parents were there, but I’m more than certain they were obeying the call of their maker every step of the way.
Within this same time period, they petitioned to become foster parents in the state of Illinois. I once stumbled upon an article tucked away in a drawer of our home where a reporter had exclaimed that an estimated 200 children had passed through the Clem house in foster care. I realize how hard that must have been; to get so attached to people and then the next day, they’re gone. I experienced that as one of those children who came to the Clem house as a foster child, and stayed. And the many children that passed through, in and out of our lives… I felt it. We all did. Many came and went, but some stayed. My parents adopted 10 children in what I call the 3 generational stacks.
The first three children were my parent’s biological children, Chuck, Cathy, and Sheila. Second generation adoptees: Leanna, Mike, John, and Terry. Third generation adoptees: Brian, Chris, Jonathon, Phillip, Rachelle, and myself. That’s a total of 13, however, I made it known that I was the proud member of a family of 17! Candy S., Brian M., Betty P., and Josie. These wonderful people will always be nothing less than brother and sister to me. Mom and dad took them in as their own, and even though the state and it’s many complications with the these family members didn’t allow for adoption, to me, they, like the rest of us, are mom and dad’s children.
At some point in his life, my father met a man by the name of Wallace Malone. I don’t know the entire story, but dad seemed to be quite impressed by this man. And rightly so. What a great man! I grew up in his church, under the watchful eyes of he and my parents. My family was a Free Will Baptist family, and it’s all I’ve ever known. I grew up as a retired preacher’s kid and my mother was a Sunday school teacher at the Decatur First Free Will Baptist church for many years.
I often think about those estimated 200 that came in and out of the Clem household and I must say, I wondered what became of them. The day of my father’s funeral, Valentine’s day of 2005, there were hundreds of people I’ve never met before in my life at the visitation. Many talked about things they remembered like having to get up EVERY Sunday to go to church, or praying before every meal. It really made me wonder how many of those grown strangers had lived with my parents. The lives they touched… it was all genuine. They gave their hearts, and their lives in devotion.
As I sat back and remembered what my mother had said in the story of her and dad’s life together, I was amazed at how little I knew. But then it’s often that way, is it not? When my dad passed away in February of 2005, I wasn’t close to my mother at all. I was a true daddy’s girl.
Rebuilding my relationship with my mom was one of the most humbling things I’ve ever had to do. She was hurting more than I could ever imagine. She spent the next 4 years without dad, and with little compassion from us kids. Now that I think about it, I was probably the nastiest to her then because I thought I was “misunderstood” and alone. My mind takes me back to a day at home, sitting on the couch next to her and helping her re-bandage herself 20 minutes before she had to leave for dialysis. I wanted to cry. My friend Derek came home with me for Thanksgiving break this past school year, and he told me how hard it was to sit and watch her cry out in pain and agony and know that there was nothing he could do. I’m glad now that her pain is gone, but I miss her deeply.
I am 20 years old and “independent” by government status. I ask God often why it had to happen this way. But growing up, I always knew this day would come. I knew they were older when I was adopted and that it would bring tragedy to my life sooner than most. But somehow, I didn’t care. I guess you’re never really fully prepared to lose someone you love. The Free Will Baptist Bible College, to me, was that little boy in the story sitting in the old man’s lap. They took me in and wrapped their arms around me, and that big hug hasn’t stopped. I always knew the Bible college would be a big part of my life, but not this big. When asked why I was choosing the Bible college about 4 years ago, I replied that I knew it was where I was supposed to be. I didn’t know why, I just knew. It was also my mother’s dream for me to graduate from the Bible college. I hope to never disappoint her. I can say my life has been anything BUT dull. My parents loved us all with all of their being and passed on their story. That story of heartache, love, anger, tragedy, wonder, and compassion. I hope my story is as eventful. I know that some say dwelling in the past is not the thing to do, but that you have to move on and live your life to your fullest potential. Well, I think that if you’ve got a past to look back to that you can be proud of… one that makes you laugh and cry and ache and hope, that it’s okay to remember. To relive. It’s kind of like taking an old approach to a new situation. You know, a word from the wise type of thing. My parents lived a life worth looking back on and celebrating. Their “spectacles” had two sets of wisdom peering out from behind them ; smiling out to all those they encountered. Why not take a look through them again?