God, Guardian Angels, and Cast Iron Skillets is the story surrounding my close relationship with my younger brother. It is also about my rocky relationship with God. But, most importantly, it is about the woman God appointed as our very own extraordinary guardian angel. Ready or not……

Lillie Mae Murray

Born on on November 9, 1933, Lillie Mae Reese lived in Tallulah, Louisiana. I also grew up in this tiny town known for the bayou running through the center.   For all 82 years of her life here with us, Lillie lived a very God focused life. And in my humble opinion, God needed to keep her around for at least another 8200.

Four years ago, Lillie’s kids asked me to speak at her funeral about the woman I knew and loved dearly. When Lillie passed away, everyone packed the church way, way, way beyond capacity. Her funeral was an astounding, awe inspiring celebration of her life. That day, I shared a few personal stories about my life with Lillie. But, obviously these stories only scratch the surface of how she touched so many lives with her gifts of eternal friendship, love, and loyalty. 

Lillie and Her Family

When Lillie Mae lost her husband, Elijah Murray, (such beautiful names), Lillie single handedly raised a full household of 15! (YES YOU READ THAT RIGHT). She never re-married.  Instead, she dedicated her life to taking care of her family while she worked so tirelessly as a caregiver for others.  Her children are Charles, Elijah, Pauline, Gloria, Shelley, Barbara, Jessie, Willie (his twin sister died in childbirth), Donald, Cynthia, Arthur, Patricia, Jackie, John, and Pam.  Obviously, this unbelievably strong woman is one in a billion. I am beyond blessed that God put Lillie in my life.

Lillie Mae, Alton, and Me

And yet, her fabulous brood weren’t the only children she raised the right way – God’s Way. She touched many other children’s lives as well.  And, that is where my brother, Alton, and I come into this story. 

My parents hired Lillie to take care of our home and look out for me and Alton while they worked long hours every day.  Not only did Lillie keep our home immaculate, she wielded a cast iron skillet like no other woman I have ever known.  She whipped up out of this world southern meals for our family like fried chicken and peach cobbler.  Not to mention, Daddy loved her squirrel and dumplin’s, along with her world famous collard greens.  The squirrel thing grossed me out. But, I kept it to myself because Daddy was never late for dinner when he knew he was coming home to that particular meal. 

Lillie Was Family

That was not all that Lillie was about.  Lillie knew the ins and outs of raising us like nobody else.  She worried when we worried and she rejoiced when we rejoiced. Lillie felt her biggest responsibility in running our home was in raising me and Alton THE RIGHT WAY – God’s way.  Other than my parents, she was with us more than anyone else during our childhood.  When my parents went to work, when Alton and I were not in school, Lillie Mae expertly supervised us.

Lillie had a profound effect on us and how we grew up.  She was FAMILY.  Alton and I lived for the weekends she spent with us when my parents were out of town.  I had terrible nightmares and was afraid of the dark. I drove my brother nuts waking him up in the middle of the night. But, when Lillie was with us, I didn’t have to sneak into Alton’s room to beg him to let me sleep on one of his bunk’s.  There was nothing more reassuring than seeing her pink rollers on the pillow next to me when I woke up in a panic. 

No Mam

She did not hesitate to point out things she didn’t like in our attitudes when we were out of line with our “sassy mouths”.  Lillie absolutely would not stand for that.  Many, many times I heard her say “Jennifer, No Mam, No Mam, No MAM.  You should be ashamed of yourself.  God does not like to hear those words coming out of your mouth.  You should never talk like that.”  Other times, Alton and I would argue over one of us supposedly cheating in a board game or not sharing the Atari. (Yes, I am dating myself).  Lillie resolved it.  I can still hear her today. “Ya’ll better stop that fighting right now.  One day, you might be all each other have.  I mean it.  Stop it now.” 

The Pretend Animal Whisperer

Being under her supervision also meant being in very good company.  Lillie always made time for us whenever we had something we wanted to show her.  I am sure she had other more pressing things to do. But, there was never a time she said “No, not right now”.

I loved animals. I would entertain myself many hours of the day by setting up a brilliantly hard obstacle course in our backyard for Raisin, our short legged, town traveling basset hound.  Raisin had to jump over a bench, weave through Alton’s dump trucks, and finally sit on a large metal wash bucket I had turned over as his trophy platform once he reached the finish line.

The Truth Teller

Lillie was the sole member of my audience. She stood in the carport and looked over the wall into our backyard. She watched as I dragged that poor dog through the “obstacle” course over and over and over.  Lillie laughed as she cheered me and Raisin on. “Jennifer, look at him go.  Oh my goodness, I can’t believe Raisin can do that.”

One afternoon, I couldn’t find Raisin. Alton rolled his eyes “Your obstacle course is so stupid, he’s with Lillie hiding from you. He’ll come back when she comes back”.  In spite of his short little legs, Raisin loved Lillie so much he walked with her constantly back and forth to our house every single day.

Jennifer, the Brat

I am also sure there were times she asked God why she ever agreed to stay with us.  As I got older, my tricks were not nearly as precious.  I became fascinated with driving when I was 11 years old.  I obviously did not know how, but that did not deter me from getting behind the wheel – especially when my parents were not around. After I checked to make sure Lillie was inside folding laundry, I snuck out the door to Daddy’s truck.

He never locked it and the keys were always inside.  At first, I just entertained myself with starting it up.  Then I got brave enough to back it up 20 feet to the end of the driveway before driving forward again and parking it back in its original spot just beyond the basketball goal.  I would always get out to evaluate that it was exactly as I found it. And, I would painstakingly move it just an inch or two in case it wasn’t parked just right.

Patient Lillie

Eventually, I took his truck for a spin around the block.  I probably did this a handful of times before Lillie caught on and started watching me like a hawk.  That didn’t matter in the least.  I still ran out the door, climbed in, all while she was yelling “Jennifer, don’t you dare drive that truck.  Get out right now.  I mean it.  I am going to call Mr. Holmes.  You are going to get me fired.  Dear Lord, please, please, please help me with this child”.  Then I drove off.  When I made the block, and saw her still standing in the driveway in complete panic, I rolled down the window and yelled “I am just going to do it one more time.”  And, I went around again.

Jennifer, the Brat…..Continued

Every time she came to stay with us, I did this to her.  Not once, not twice, it was all the time.  I even drove someone else’s car who made the mistake of parking behind my dad’s truck as well as leaving the keys.  All while Lillie stood helplessly in the driveway giving me the third degree praying for me to get bored and move on to something else.

To my knowledge, she never told my parents.  Maybe it was because she prayed over me every night she stayed with me and Alton, and somehow God reassured her that I would not hurt myself or someone else.  Or maybe God reassured her that eventually I would be held accountable. Despite the odds, I would finally grow into a responsible adult forced to humiliate myself as I recount this story publicly.  One thing is for sure, Lillie Mae Murray was loyal to the bone – even when I didn’t deserve an ounce of that loyalty. 

Take It to God, Jennifer

Eventually, when I became a legal driver, I drove her home from work.  We talked about everything – school, my boyfriend, disagreements with my parents, the fact that I was grounded……AGAIN. All typical teenage stuff. You name it, we discussed it.

She always knew when something was bothering me and she made sure she got it out of me before she left my car.  The last thing she would say to me is “I don’t know if I have the right answer, but you take it to God, Jennifer.  Take it to God.  You hear me?”  That was Lillie.  She loved me and Alton so much she took valuable time away from her own precious family to teach us some life lesson to help us become a better version of ourselves. 

Her Gift to Me

As we grew up, we didn’t need constant supervision. (Alton was fine, I probably still need constant supervision, but whatever). Lillie moved on to help many other families.  They will all tell you they were extremely blessed to have had her in their lives.

But, even though Lillie was not with us full time anymore, she remained a part of our family. She was right there when I graduated from high school. Then 3 years later, she was with us when Alton graduated. Lillie was there when we came home from college, and she was there when I attempted marriage the first time (don’t ask).   In fact, when I married, she gave me a perfectly seasoned cast iron skillet that has made at least 16 moves in the last 25 years and I still use it almost every single day. Lillie was with us for many, many milestones, including the birth of my oldest child and Alton’s marriage to Carrie.

And, Then Life Changed in the Blink of an Eye

My little brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer when he was not even 35 years old. A year into Alton’s diagnosis, we were at the very end of an unbelievably cruel disease.  He was such a strong young man. Alton was determined to spend his last days at home with his family, but he was running out of time.  I had driven in from Dallas and was staying with him to help while Carrie worked really long hours and put her focus on easing the pain of this nightmare for their three kids. Alton’s diagnosis could not have come at a worse time. Their only son was about to graduate from high school. And, their two beautiful daughters were in elementary school at the time.

Alton’s Only Wish

When I first arrived four days prior, Alton was adamant that some local preacher, and I use that term loosely, wanted to talk to him. Alton instructed me that if he came to the door, send him on his merry way.  Anyone who knows me, knows I have no problem being a hard ass. So, I said no problem and didn’t ask any more questions.

However, what happened next makes my skin crawl. It will go down as the most cruel and vicious encounter I was ever forced to watch someone I love helplessly endure.  The death sentence Alton’s received was obviously unfair, but the relentless and unnecessary pain that this freak deliberately added to Alton’s enormous suffering is gut wrenching.  As an effort to prepare you if you have gotten this far and you knew and loved my brother, this will not be an easy read. It was hell on earth for me to go back and re-read what I had documented that disastrous day. 

Re-living the Nightmare

I heard the door open with no knock whatsoever as I walked into the kitchen to get Alton’s pain medicine.  This bothered me as no one with any decency or common sense ever did something like that.   In fact, everyone living in his small town knew that Alton was particular about having visitors at this point. He didn’t want his friends to have the memory of him struggling to breathe. 

When I heard the door shut, I rushed around the corner to find some psycho I had never before laid eyes on had already made his way inside. The freak lurked behind my brother who was helplessly slumped in his chair with his head down trying his best to catch his breath. I immediately told the douche bag this wasn’t a good time to visit and to please to leave.  He looked me straight in the eyes and stated flatly “I’m not going anywhere”.

The Vilest Thing I Have Ever Witnessed

This vile scum of the earth then started yelling at my brother.  I remember hearing him quote the Bible. It took me some time to realize he was quoting the book of Job thundering away at the top of his lungs.  He then dropped the UNFORGIVABLE hammer and told Alton he deserved his cancer and that Alton was now going to Hell.  I could not believe what I was watching happen right in front of me. W T F……..  Fire and brimstone at its worst.

But, it became even more horrific.  He told Alton that God had sent him a vision that my brother was laying in his coffin alive, and slowly suffocating because he had turned his back on God.  He went on to say he witnessed Alton banging as hard as he could to get out. But, it was too late. The vultures were swarming overhead waiting for him.

He Kept Going and Going and Going….

He didn’t stop there. He then thoroughly explained that the only way Alton might not go to Hell is if he pulled out his checkbook and showed God he was sorry for being the rotten person he had been.  Whoever said that money is the root of all evil really hit the nail on the head.  This worthless demented soul had no problem whatsoever torturing my little brother who was stuck in a chair barely able to catch his breath. Alton couldn’t possibly get away from him.  All of this was in an effort to line his own pockets.  VILE doesn’t even cover it.

Jennifer, Mrs. Reasonable

In spite of never having experienced anything as repulsive as this corrupt animal, I tried to remain calm and I tried to be reasonable.  I pointed out that the scumbag was manipulating the Bible and taking things out of context.  I pointed out that the book of Job is not meant to be used in this way.

He only got louder and talked over me with such force that it sounded like he was on a speaker system and all I could do was whisper.  I then remember feeling my heart beating so loudly I could hear it thumping in my ears all while I was asking myself if this was even real. Maybe, hopefully, I was in the middle of the worst nightmare I had ever experienced. But, Freak Show would not shut up no matter how many times I told him to leave.

It Only Got Worse……

I then completely lost my mind while standing over my brother on the other side of the chair. I began screaming hysterically “Get the f*** out of this house right now” in hopes a neighbor would hear me. The snake just laughed.   Alton continued to slump further over in his chair staring at the floor.  He was very close to falling out of it. He was gasping for breath, in a panic, and struggling hard to get any oxygen whatsoever from his mask.  I knew he was hyperventilating. But, I had no idea what I was going to do.

This deranged lunatic could have cared less about what he was doing to Alton as he screamed at him over and over and over.  I scanned the room for my phone to call 911, but I could not find it anywhere. I didn’t dare leave my brother alone with this mentally unstable monster while I searched for it.  This lunatic might as well have had two horns and a tail as I was literally staring face to face at the devil.  Nothing I said made the least bit of difference. I realized I could do nothing to protect Alton.  NOTHING. 

My Decision

I threw up one last prayer “God, PLEASE GOD, I need some help”. But, in those minutes that felt like hours, no help came. And in those few minutes, that is when I made the decision. Since the bastard was hell bent on killing my brother, then game on m***** f*****.  Alton wasn’t going to die that day…..but Devil Face was.

I calculated how many steps it would take me before I got around the chair and the sofa next to it before I was within kicking distance of this rotten piece of inhumane dung.  Due to the enormous amount of angry adrenaline pumping through me, I realized that once I was close enough, I could give him a few quick kicks in the groin. This would be more than enough for me to get him down on the floor and neuter him for what remained of his pathetic life.

Once I accomplished that, I could put my foot on his throat and easily crush his windpipe, before I drug his sorry ass out of the house. I envisioned wrapping my hands around his spiny little neck while he laid in the driveway before I choked every ounce of life out of his disgusting body. I walked around the sofa towards him.  I considered picking it up and hurling it at him in hopes that I would break every bone in his body when I put him under it and then finished him off.

The Undeniable Rage

There are absolutely no words to describe the undeniable rage I felt coming out of every single cell in my body as I watched him torture Alton.  I could have chewed nails in half. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was going to kill him with my bare hands. I only had a few steps to go, but I felt like everything was in slow motion. I heard a thumping noise and I stopped moving so I could hear it better. Over this vulture’s booming voice, I realized someone was knocking on the door.  Devil Face heard it too. Finally, he shut his vulgar mouth.  

The Knock

I walked backwards towards the door. I reached behind me, opened the door, and barely turned around to glance at none other than Lillie Mae Murray standing on the bottom step.  Her daughter, Jackie, held her arm to keep her steady. Jackie immediately started to apologize for not calling first.  She went on to explain that out of the blue Lillie demanded to be picked up from the Olive Branch nursing home. She wanted Jackie to drive her over to Alton right that very minute. 

The lowlife did not utter another word as he slithered quickly out (under) the door without the $5,000.00 check he wanted.  Jackie and I helped Lillie into the house. The relief and tears on my brother’s face were priceless.  

Alton was an extremely strong willed young man and by the force of that will alone, he was able to re-gain control of his breathing. Lillie and Jackie sat down on the sofa next to him and although he couldn’t talk much, he enjoyed listening to us as we visited and caught up on life.

The Collateral Damage

After they left, I couldn’t shake what had happened.  Under no circumstances did he deserve to be treated that way.  Alton was my brother.  But, he was also a son, a husband, a friend, a nephew, a cousin, a boss, a brother, and a father.  He was all that and more. Alton was an unbelievably generous and kind human being who had not only been raised the right way, he had lived his short time here the right way – GOD’S WAY.

That hateful, disgusting vulture had no business getting between my brother and God.  Did Alton believe anything that freak had said to him?  What if he was afraid of death?  Was Alton thinking about the things this scumbag said to him?  What kind of damage had this monster done to him? Who in their right mind would do this to him when it was already more than enough for him to be struggling to hang on to any time he had left? WHY, WHY, WHY did this happen? 

“Sis, It’s Going to Be Okay”

After Jackie and Lillie left, I kneeled down on the floor in front of his chair and asked him if he was okay.  He could barely lift his head he was so exhausted. All he could manage was “Sis, it’s going to be okay”. Then he closed his eyes and fell asleep.  I didn’t believe him.  It wasn’t okay.  I had very little time with him left and he was getting weaker by the hour.  

After that, he didn’t want talk at all. It was too hard for him to breathe.  I mistakenly assumed that it couldn’t get any worse watching him suffer.  WRONG.  I could never have imagined how much worse it could get, and I had allowed it to happen under my watch.  WHY didn’t I make sure the door was locked? WHY was I so stupid? WHY did I suck as a big sister? WHY? WHY? WHY? I beat myself up mercilessly because I had failed to do the one small thing he had asked of me. And, I had failed miserably.

I Lost My Religion……Literally

We had already been through the “C” word with my father nearly 10 years before. Watching Daddy suffer was gut wrenching. The one and ONLY thing that gave me comfort and some sense of peace was knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was right there by Daddy’s side through every miserable second of his suffering. Because I had witnessed that protection with my own eyes, I held on to my faith with everything I had.

The Torture

But with Alton, I could not wrap my mind around how a supposed man of God could deliberately use his UNQUALIFIED position of power to torment my brother in such a callous, cruel, and heartless way…. and especially do it for money.  This freak played God using my brother’s salvation and he could have cared less the pain he caused.  Alton was not protected by God’s grace during this time. Instead, he was exposed to some bat shit crazy monster oozing hate and greed out of every single pore in his body.

I felt no comfort. I most certainly did not feel any sense of peace. That freak gladly flaunted his hate and greed in my face at my brother’s expense.  I was extremely angry. I was beyond LIVID. But, the worst part……I felt God had let me down and turned his back on Alton.  Anger I could handle, but this was very different.  I knew I had lost my faith. This scared me more than any nightmare I had ever experienced.

The Dungeon

A few short days later, on April 25, 2009, Alton passed away. He was just 11 days into his 36th birthday. Alton’s suffering had ended, but my self-loathing had only just begun. I knew Alton was in a much better place where he could fish, hunt with his labradors, laugh (he had the most fabulous, recognizable, undeniable laugh) scuba dive, BREATHE. But, it didn’t matter. My torture continued.

I tried to focus on what Daddy had told me when he was alive and saw me struggling with some life issue. “Get out of the dark Jennifer. Deal with it as best you can, but get out. Find the blessing somewhere.” But, my father was no longer alive, and the memory of his words fell way short. I could not get out of the dungeon. I could not let go of what I had allowed to happen on that awful, awful day.

Consumed……

For those first few weeks after Alton was gone, all I could focus on was my failure to protect him. My reality was that I had methodically planned out how I was going to suck the life out of Devil Face. My bigger reality was that I sucked as a big sister. Those two realities had taken over my brain, and I internalized all of the horrible things Devil Face had screamed at my brother. I believed that I deserved to be tortured for the rest of my life with that memory of that awful day.

I became so afraid of repeatedly re-living that nightmare of a day. To avoid it, I shoved all of my grief for my brother down into a black hole. Instead of grieving, I threw myself into my business to avoid re-living that day anymore. I worked extremely long hours and gave everything I had to my clients to keep my mind busy.

I Stayed in the Dungeon

I would leave my workroom to check in on my kids and eat dinner with them, and then I would head out again to put in more hours. When I finally came home, I hoped I would be too exhausted to go further into the dungeon. But, if I was not so bone tired that sleep came easily, I poured myself lots of drinks and crawled further inside the big black cave.

When it got harder and harder to stop the rewind button of the nightmare, I sought out some horrendously co-dependent and unhealthy relationships to “help save them”. My motto was “Hey – you have baggage? Let me carry it for you so I don’t have to deal with mine.” I deliberately created as much chaos as possible in my life so I didn’t have to face my pain. I told myself repeatedly I was coping just fine, meanwhile I crawled further into the dungeon.

My Extended Stay in the Dungeon

Years passed and I didn’t ask God for any help for myself at all. I prayed for friends and family that asked me to pray for them. But, I didn’t expect God to consider my prayers when I couldn’t even protect my dying brother. I rarely darkened the door of a church. Even then, I only showed up out of guilt for the benefit of my children.

The guilt from my inability to protect my brother from someone who falsely represented God grew stronger by the day. Not only had I allowed Devil Face to hand me additional enormous suffering in losing Alton, I simultaneously allowed him to strip me of my faith. My guilt was slowly eating me alive, but I didn’t care. I was determined I could handle it all by myself without any help from anybody, including God.

Take It to God, Jennifer

Six years after Alton died, David and I had only been married a few short months when Jackie called me. Lillie was ill.  After we hung up, my memories of Lillie were everywhere.  “Take it to God, Jennifer.”  And, I responded “Yeah, whatever.”  And, she said it again.  “Take it to God, Jennifer”.  And I said, “Nope”.  And Lillie said, “No mam, Jennifer. Take it to God now”. Over and over and over she repeated those words to me. I stomped around the house trying to get her to go away. When that didn’t work, I laced up my running shoes, and hit the road. That didn’t work either. She would not give up not matter how much I argued with her.

Several hours had passed and she was still with me. I eventually made my way back to the house and sat in the swing. I said “Fine, Lillie.” If I pretended to agree to do what she wanted maybe she would go away and I could get on with my day. Nope. God’s determined guardian angel was apparently planning to hang around indefinitely. “Jennifer, I mean it – take it to God now.”

My Conversation with God

Sitting in the swing that day, for the first time in a very long time, I talked with God. After I said my prayers for precious, faithful Lillie, I did something else.  I told Him I didn’t want to know “why” what happened had happened. It didn’t matter anymore. I asked Him to please just take it all. Please take all that baggage I carried around from not being able to protect Alton.

I sat there in that swing for a long time. I admitted that I was exhausted from dragging it all around for so many years. Carrying that enormous load of guilt certainly had not changed what had happened that day. Even if I had checked to make sure the door was locked, Devil Face would have found another day to torture Alton. What had happened was beyond my control. It was then that I finally saw the open door out of the dungeon. If what had happened was going to happen one way or another, thank you God that I was there by Alton’s side.

The Undeniable Reality

The relief I felt was enormous. It was almost surreal. In those hours, I began to let all that self-torture go. I made peace with my past. I finally headed down the road to forgiving myself for what I had witnessed that horrible day.

That day when I finally gave in and handed my baggage over, God also gently pointed out a few other things to me. The undeniable reality is that God never left my side, neither mine nor Alton’s.

He was there when I worked through losing Alton while going through an extremely painful second divorce. In fact, when the girl I called my best friend for 15 years dumped me for a much better deal right in the middle of the worst of my grief, God was right by side.

While I pretended nothing was wrong and I was going to be just fine, God was there. He was there when I grieved for my brother and wondered if I could raise three kids without screwing them up for life. God was there every step of the way when I slowly began to put my life back together. He was with me when I could finally think about my precious brother without the horrid memory of that predator coming mind. And yes, when He saw that I was ready, He brought David into my life.

The Ultimate Guardian Angel

As much I love that skillet Lillie gave me, she gave me so much more than that.  To this day, her biggest gift remains overwhelming to me. I am 100% certain I would have done something that would have changed my life forever.

Her uncanny ability to take care us saved me from doing something I would have eventually come to regret. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind Lillie knew why she picked that day and that exact time of day to go to my brother.  God sent the ultimate guardian angel to help us.  She realized she was needed and she did what she had always done best.  Lillie took care of us immediately.

Although it took me a long time to find it, Daddy was right.  I finally came out of the dungeon.  God did answer my prayer for help. Lillie Mae Murray is the blessing. She is our guardian angel.

God and Guardian Angels

If you are ready for this tear jerker to be over……. I’m almost, but not quite, there.  Speaking of David, when we first met, one of the first things he told me was that he had lost his father, Ken Williams, about 6 months prior to meeting me.  My heart hurt for him, as losing someone hurts like hell on earth no matter the circumstances, no matter the age…..no matter what.  Not thinking too much about why the exact date mattered, I asked him when he lost his father.  He said “April 25th”.

Flash forward to 2015…… Over the next few months after Jackie’s phone call, I thought about Alton. I wished I could talk to him about the Lillie that took such good care of us. Out of nowhere I heard Alton’s one of a kind laugh. “Sorry Sis, gotta take a raincheck.  Lillie Mae is here.”  On April 25th, 2015, Lillie Mae Murray went home.

Life is so, so, so precious and LIFE happens………ready or not.