Summary: In Book 3 of “Survival Stories,” Lonna Lisa Williams tells how she survived a tragic childhood and cancer. Then she realized she was an abused wife. But instead of finding a new life, she retreated into prescription medicine that her doctors gave her. A wildfire burned her California mountains, and Lonna flew to New Zealand with her two trusting children. She lost an international trial and returned to California where she lost everything in divorce. Her castle of a home was gone, her children hidden from her, and Lonna’s downward spiral into drugs continued. She crashed her car in the mountains then nearly bled to death while stopping all prescription medicine. But, like the mythical phoenix bird and through the power of resurrection, Lonna rose to a new life of teaching English overseas. Walk with her on this journey of adventure, across the frozen rivers of Russia and to the sunset seas of Turkey. Discover how the extremes of fire and ice can shape a person’s life. Catch a flame and snowflake in a camera’s lens and listen to the music of this writer.
Walk with Me
“And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee,
saw two brothers . . .”
When I was not yet five, my father shot himself in front of me and my mother, on Christmas evening, in our little North Carolina trailer. He had been drinking, and I remember the smell of whiskey, sharp and strong, upon his breath. He reclined at the kitchen table, wearing his red plaid shirt that matched the color in his cheeks. His face was handsome, his eyes brown, his hair dark and rakish—nothing like my delicate, blonde, blue-eyed mother.
“I want to go to my mother’s Christmas party,” my mother insisted, standing like a fashion model in her sequined jacket that reflected rainbow colors on the wall. “Please come with me.”
“Those rich English snobs do not want this alcoholic gypsy in their fine home,” my father slurred, holding up a half-filled bottle. Its amber liquid glinted in the light. He stared at it a moment, as if contemplating doom, then took another sip and set it down hard upon the table. “I’m not going.”
“Then I will go without you!” she exclaimed, reaching for her velvet purse.
“Then I will shoot myself,” he said.
My mother looked at the man she had so hastily married, a charming stranger she met in a bar. He had wooed her, not telling her of his first wife, son, divorce. He had written love letters singed XOXOXO and SWAK for kisses. He had taken her to Florida where they were secretly married after she discovered I was on the way. He had wanted a daughter but did not want his newborn son born four years later. He had been in and out of jobs and mental hospitals, trying to be free of the alcohol that had followed him since he was a child growing up in a carnival. He had taken my mother from her fine Southern mansion by the university, where she had servants and cooks and could dress in gowns and necklaces–and put her in a trailer park on the edge of town.
“Go ahead,” she whispered.
He heard the words. She could not take them back. She did not really think he would do the act, for he had threatened it before. He went into the bedroom and came out holding something black. He held it to his mouth, and I screamed from my corner,
My words were swallowed up by sudden sound so loud it burst my eardrums. The shot, though brief as the moment of death and childhood’s end, would echo often in my mind and dreams. The bitter smell of sulfur mixed with the sweet, sweet smell of blood as what was spattered on the wall drew my eyes with terrible curiosity—as one checks for monsters under the bed.
I didn’t want to look at my father’s face, either, but I could not help it. The upper part seemed normal except for a few crimson spatters. His unblinking brown eyes beneath bushy dark eyebrows and lashes stared at me without seeing. His open mouth was solid crimson as if he’d eaten red seaweed. The back of his head was missing.
He’ll never talk to me again, I thought.
I could not scream. I could not stay inside the room. I slipped out past the little metal door and ran through the woods, in moonlight, until I found a tree to hide within its branches.
When I was five, I lived at Grandmother’s house. It was painted gray and white and rose tall as a castle with pillars at the entrance. Two hundred years old, the Southern mansion rested on fine old land with ancient oak trees. The tallest one, with boughs twisted like old people’s hands, had a trunk surrounded by a wooden bench. I played on that bench, sprawling my body over it while balancing dolls and oak nuts. I loved the shape and color of those nuts, with their braided tan hats over smooth brown, oval bodies. I put the nuts in my dolls’ pockets, took them out, lined them in a row, and spoke to them.
When my cousins visited, they chased me toward the bench, and I hid under it, peering out between gray slats of wood until my blue eyes glowed like stars beneath blonde curls.
Those colors always caught me.
Inside the house, I explored the many rooms with closets and vast, polished floors. The dining room was my favorite place, for it held the tall glass case with shelves of treasures. Unwatched, I carefully unlatched the door and picked up a glass saltcellar from England. Its color was deep royal blue, like the sky before night fell. I ran my finger over the smooth surface, then held the object toward the chandelier where rainbows danced among glass prisms and small electric bulbs. The saltcellar had a tiny clear glass spoon with which I scooped up salt crystals.
When I heard a step behind me, I returned the forbidden object and slid under a rosewood table with lion’s feet.
“I’m safe here,” I whispered to myself. “The Lion guards me.”
And though Grandmother could see me well enough, she played the game and let me kneel on a green rug like the African veldt where lions truly lurked–until aromas from the kitchen called me out.
And after dinner made by a cook and served by maids, I leaned back on Grandmother’s breast and surrendered to the motion of the rocking chair.
“There was a little girl
who had a little curl
right in the middle of her forehead,”
Grandmother sang. After a full day of running outside among leaves and wind, the words would soothe me.
“When she was good,
she was very, very good,
but when she was bad,
she was horrid.”
“What does ‘horrid’ mean?” I asked as I stared at an ebony mask on the wall, its vacant eyes and downturned mouth a frightening thing, hung next to a braided Massai warrior cape stamped with geometrical designs–things my grandfather had brought back from Africa.
“Let’s hope you don’t find out,” Grandmother replied. I clicked my teeth like a disapproving hen, and the old lady more accurately answered,
“It means ‘very bad.’”
“Where’s Mommy?” I changed the subject.
Grandmother’s gray eyes glanced toward the ceiling.
“Upstairs in her room,” she sighed.
“Why does Mommy sleep so much?” I wondered. “It’s not even my bedtime yet.”
“She’s tired,” the old woman replied.
But I knew better. I had seen my mother drink from many glass bottles.
“No; she’s enchanted,” I declared. “The magic juice weaves a spell on her, and she needs a prince to come and wake her.”
“You say the strangest, truest things,” Grandmother whispered.
When I was seven, and my Mother cried while watching television.
“Why does the T.V. man make you cry?” I asked as she sat in front of the glowing screen and wept. My Mother, clothed in a silk green nightgown, held one shaking hand to the T.V.’s screen.
“His name is Billy Graham,” she replied, her words slurred again. She often hid her drinking, but tonight the bottle was in the open, and a coffee mug held its contents.
“He tells me I should repent and be saved.”
I stared at the coffee mug that did not hold coffee, and then at the black, white, and many-shades-of-gray images behind the lit-up, curved glass of the television.
“Come just as you are,” the tall man with wavy hair said, his voice melodic. His eyes seemed to peer into me as I watched him. “Come to the front of this coliseum. Jesus will meet you here.” He lifted one big hand as an invitation, as he stood on a podium in front of a vast crowd of seated people. Music played, a choir sang, and men, women, teens, and children got out of their seats and walked down long aisles to stand in front. Some knelt. Some bowed their heads. Some cried like my Mother.
“See, he can save you too, Sunny!” I exclaimed, using her nickname to offset tension in the room.
“I don’t know why they call me Sunny,” Mother commented. “I’m not a very happy person. And I’m not so easily saved.” Her voice sounded sad and thin as a distant wind. Red curls from her wig drooped against her long white neck. She wiped her faded blue eyes with a tissue, picked up the green wine bottle, and stared at the liquid that sloshed inside it. Her lips, free of their usual pink lipstick, looked like bruises on her face–or strange red blossoms blooming there.
“Is there–any hope–for me?” she wailed.
“Jesus will meet you here,” the man repeated, music swelling like grace around him.
Sunny reached over and turned off the T.V. Its screen went blank as the moment before night falls, the moment before waking turns to sleep—a restless sleep with haunting dreams.
“Don’t worry,” I whispered, holding my mother’s thin fingers tightly in my small hand. “I will find Him for you.”
When I was eight, my mother dragged me and my brother across America with her. We slept in our car. We ate at diners. We got our clothes from churches. Once we stopped by a lake in Florida. I escaped our car and walked along the windswept shores. Grass grew to the edges, mixed with yellow sand, and thin trees bent toward the water, their wispy leaves fluttering in the breeze. Spiders with red smiles on their backs built webs as tall as I was between the fronds of palmettos.
Sunlight danced across little waves toward me, and with each step, I heard another pair of footsteps. Was this the God I saw in church sometimes, hidden in the distant ceiling or the golden crucifix? I sat beneath a palm and wrote a story in my notebook, and then I walked again, toward strangers’ camps of tents and trailers. A British family invited me to eat fried fish and drink tea with them, and I laughed at their strange accent. I don’t know how I found my way back to our car, my brother, and my worried mother; I guess it was because I followed the lakeshore, and because someone walked with me.
At the campground by the lake, the police finally arrested my mother for public drunkenness and disorderly behavior. Not knowing what to do with me (who tried to hide behind our Buick), they put me in the back of another police car, by myself. I do not know where my brother was—perhaps with a family at the campground. I stared at the wire mesh between me and the driver’s shiny black cap. I pushed on doors that had no handles, beat the glass of windows that could not roll down. I could not breathe.
“Calm down,” the officer in the front right seat turned to say.
“White trash,” the driver whispered, but I heard.
I clutched my purse, then reached inside it for the gold crucifix my mother had given me for First Communion. I held the cross with a small Jesus figure on it, turned it over, and sunlight blazed through the window and lit up “14K” in tiny letters. The sunlight flashed upon the shiny, flat, thin bars of gold, and I smiled as light blazed in rays of rainbow colors around me, an unexpected halo in a police car, which reflected against metal and glass. I held the cross’ sharp edges so hard that my fingers bled.
“Save me,” I pleaded. “Save us all.”
I sat for hours on a wooden bench in the police station with its cold linoleum floor and thick wood desks. I stared at the vast, busy room of uniformed officers and criminals in tattered shirts and jeans. Conversations filled the air like bees buzzing in the Florida heat. A woman with kind green eyes brought me water in a styrofoam cup. I hated seeing pity in those eyes, and I pretended I wasn’t thirsty, though my throat burned.
I imagined the black steel bars of a cell, and again I could not breathe. Still I clutched the crucifix, though my hand stung. Does God ever answer prayers at once, or do we always have to wait? I wondered as I watched the black hands of an electric wall clock slowly move from right to left. I imagined the long, dark halls of the foster home my mother had warned me about. Will I ever see my mother again? Do I want to?
Finally, an officer with a puffy white face, his stomach mushrooming out his uniform, guided my mother toward a nearby desk. Looking painfully sober, she signed papers, received her jewelry from a brown envelope, and called a cab. The Buick and my brother waited for us. My mother sat behind the steering wheel and drove away.
When I was twelve, my mother married again.
“I met your stepfather at an A.A. meeting,” Sunny told me, laughing as she held a can of beer inside the canvas tent that was our new home. “I met your father in a bar, and my first husband at a cocktail party.”
I did not understand irony yet, but I knew a joke when I heard one.
“Doesn’t A.A. stand for Alcoholic Anonymous? Aren’t you supposed to give up drinking when you go?” I asked.
That’s when my stepfather hit me in the nose.
I learned to keep silent after that. I felt like a puppet, dragged across America in our old blue Buick, looking for the Promised Land. I don’t know how they saw promise in the Arizona desert, but they erected our tent among cactus plants whose thorns attacked my fingers like long, piercing needles. My new stepfather and my mother drank beer all night and slept all day. The golden cans stacked up in the center of the canvas floor. The sweet, stale smell of alcohol rose with the day’s heat. I opened the tent flap and stepped outside with my little brother.
We filled our metal canteens with water from the spicket that stuck up from the sand, then walked for miles alone across the desert. We encountered cactus plants, lizards, hawks, and rattlesnakes–and somehow stayed alive. It was the greatest joy to roam beside the rocks and climb the hills, to find a new path in the sand and follow it to an unexpected pond and waterfall. To stand upon the highest point and lift my hands in free, fresh air and feel the sunlight on my face—was heaven for domestic hell.
When I was fourteen, my mother nearly died. My stepfather had left her, and she descended to the third level of alcoholic hell and dragged me with her. She would barricade herself into the upstairs bedroom of our rented Virginia Beach house and drink all day in bed, hardly coming out even to eat, wearing her sheer pink nightgown that made her look thin as a prisoner of war.
I hated the boxes of green bottles she hid in her closet. I hated the smell of old wine on her breath, the purple bruises on her yellowing arms, the dry flakes of skin on her bare feet she did not bother to rub with lotion.
I had just started high school and could not bring a friend home to see her like that. That was the biggest reason I hated my mother.
The hatred grew in me. I felt disgusted whenever I saw her or heard her say something in slurred words. The hatred began to eat at me, and I could not escape it. I wanted to forgive her for ending my childhood too soon, for showing me things I shouldn’t have to see, for making me the mother instead of the child. But I couldn’t find a way.
One night Sunny didn’t answer the door when I knocked to bring her macaroni and cheese. I had not seen or heard her all day. With a terrible, dread feeling of finding her dead body, I pushed at the locked door until it opened.
A new smell filled the room, and I walked across the cold wood floor toward the nightstand where a small lamp glowed. I picked up an open bottle of rubbing alcohol–the kind we kept in the bathroom for cuts–and smelled it.
“Oh, God, she drank it!” I spoke aloud. She had run out of wine and found the only other alcohol in the house. Her water pitcher was full, its matching plastic cup on its side. Why couldn’t she drink water?
I leaned toward the figure on the dimly lit bed, holding my breath and feeling my heart beat in my chest. My mother moaned and moved a little, but her eyes stayed shut.
“Mom?” I called. She moaned again, and I reached for the white phone receiver and dialed 9-1-1.
Sirens and red lights filled the night air outside our house. Paramedics in blue uniforms came into my mother’s room, put an IV into her arm, and loaded her on a stretcher. I stood awkwardly in the room’s corner, trying not to get in the workers’ way. They wheeled her out in front of me. A red blanket covered her thin body, and the dark lashes of her closed eyes contrasted with her white cheeks.
“You did the right thing by calling 9-1-1, one man said to me as they wheeled my mother past. “She was severely dehydrated. She would have been dead by morning. You saved her life.”
He reached over and patted my shoulder. I looked into his brown eyes under thick black eyebrows and remembered the only good photo I had of my father. He stared at the camera, unsmiling, wearing a pinstripe suite. His black hair was curly like his eyebrows and lashes, and his eyes a deep chocolate brown. In one sophisticated hand he held a cigarette, its trail of smoke rising toward the ceiling like his soul had done when I was not yet five.
His absence hit me like a physical blow, and tears came to my eyes that I had not shed for my mother.
“Oh, why couldn’t my . . . father . . . be here?” I asked the man as I wiped hot tears from my cheeks with a shaking hand.
“I don’t know,” he replied, smiling. “But your Heavenly Father loves you and is always here.”
In the next second the man was gone, and I was left alone in the dimly lit bedroom filled with the stench of alcohol.
Soon a concerned neighbor would come over, stay with me, and make small talk while my mother fought for her life in the hospital. And later, I would lie awake in my bedroom lit by one golden nightlight and stare at the shadows on the ceiling. After awhile they would become moving images, memories of my childhood I wanted to forget: my mother taunting my father to go ahead and shoot (how could she SAY that?); days at grandmother’s house while mother hid in her bedroom (why couldn’t she get out of BED?); my mother in her sheer nightgown that revealed more of her body than I wanted to see (oh, why couldn’t she simply get DRESSED?); the bottles stacked in her closet (as if she could HIDE them); beer cans heaped in a canvas tent (my stepfather was another BAD choice in men); my mother and stepfather keeping me up all night as they yelled at each other with slurred voices (so neighbors called the POLICE); the back seat of a squad car, behind a mesh metal net (was I ARRESTED too?); a wooden chair in the corner of a police station (and hearing the words WHITE TRASH); the night my stepfather left (and my mother WEPT for him as if she had lost a treasure).
Most of all, I remembered the SHAME, SHAME, SHAME of an alcoholic mother who neglected me so that neighbors and local church members took pity on me and humiliated me with the offer of rides in their cars, meals at their houses, and used clothing folded in a cardboard box. Even a teacher at school had brushed my long, thick, tangled hair when my mother did not.
“Your Heavenly Father loves you. He is always here,” the paramedic’s voice echoed through the night.
In the ceiling shadows, I saw myself as a little girl again, in the big church, searching for Jesus. Was He somewhere in the high arched ceiling? Or on the golden cross? If He dwelled in such holy places, how could He be next to me in this small bedroom?
How could I find Him?
This question haunted me as I finally drifted off to sleep.
My mother spent three nights in the hospital and came home looking tired, thin, and yellow. I wanted to say something to her but didn’t know what, wondering if she realized I had saved her life. She immediately began drinking wine again, though I had no idea where she got it. Despair welled in me like the flat, stale taste of alcohol, and I wondered if things would ever change.
That week a friend from school invited me to a Bible study in her home. Normally I wouldn’t go, for I was shy. But the invitation seemed like an answer to my desperate prayer, so I accepted.
I wore my only decent dress, thinking maybe this would be like church. Hayley answered my hesitant knock on her door, smiling, and led me to her living room. I sat down in a corner chair, wanting to be invisible among the other teens and adults (who wore more casual clothes). I clasped my sweaty palms together and sat so straight and tense that I could feel each vertebrae along my backbone. The room felt charged with electricity like the gray cumulus clouds of a summer thunderstorm over the ocean where I would walk as far as I could along a deserted beach to get away from my mother (but always, at some point, I had to turn around . . .).
I held my breath, waiting, wishing for a jagged flash of lightning in the living room.
A man with long hair pulled back in a ponytail stood up. He wore jeans, a faded t-shirt, and red tennis shoes. He opened a large black Bible with gold edges and read a verse I had heard before but never discovered for myself:
“God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Still holding the Bible, he began explaining the Gospel in simple words I could understand–not the high church language that confused me.
“We have all sinned, and this has separated us from God,” he said.
I stared at his brown eyes that were filled with a passion I did not understand.
“God knew that we could not obey all of His commandments, so He provided the solution for our sin. The Creator of the universe came down from Heaven to live with us. He became a man. He walked among us. He healed us. He died for us. His blood, stronger than all the animal sacrifices in the temple, covered our black sin to make us white as snow. He rose again to give us new life, then ascended back to Heaven where we can go and live with Him forever.”
The preacher, whose name I never knew, paused and looked into my eyes. I did not sweat or blush.
“Here, let me show you,” he said as if to only me. “God made us people with eyes to see images. That’s why He became a man, the Word of God made flesh, so that we could see Him with our own eyes and understand what Heaven in its vagueness could never show us. These are the Colors of the Cross.”
He took out a bracelet made of a single leather strap. It had six beads on it, each a different color.
“The BLACK bead is our sin, our emptiness, our darkness apart from God. The RED bead is Christ’s blood. It washes us WHITE as snow.”
As he pointed to the white bead, I remembered my high school art teacher explaining that black is the absolute absence of color, but white holds all the tints imaginable–a color as bright and mysterious as . . . clouds.
“The GREEN bead is us being born to a new life. The BLUE bead is God’s Spirit who comes to live within us and helps us grow, and it is the water we are baptized in to show the world about our decision. The YELLOW bead is Heaven, where we will go someday to live forever, where the streets are paved with gold. There will be no more pain there, or sickness, or sorrow, or death. God Himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes. And He will shine as the only Light, brighter than the sun. We will never be alone in the dark again.”
How did the preacher know I had lain in my dark bedroom, alone in the house while my brother stayed with friends and my mother was taken to the hospital? Had he seen me there? Had my Heavenly Father seen me?
“God offers this amazing gift to you, as I could hand you this bracelet,” the preacher said, holding out the beads toward me. “Would you like to accept it?”
His eyes glowed with a Light I had never seen before, as if a little bit of Heaven peeked through. Tears glistened in them, too, and I knew the stranger somehow cared for me, FOR ME, the awkward teenage girl with brown-rimmed glasses, an acne-covered face half hidden by unruly wavy hair, and a faded yellow, hand-me-down dress.
He asked everyone in the room, but I felt like he spoke only to me.
And then, I heard another Voice. God called my name. The sound filled my mind like the shout that brings the dead to life. It echoed like thunder through my soul, and tears too long held back sprung to my eyes.
“Yes, I would like to receive the gift,” I said. And I surprised myself and everyone by standing up in the crowded room. For once, I didn’t care what people thought. I knew I had to cross the threshold laid before me.
The preacher didn’t need to tell me what to do. I moved to the center of the room and knelt down in front of everyone. I repeated the simple prayer he spoke, asking God to forgive me for hating my mother. I realized that, if I wanted Him to forgive me, I had to forgive. I asked Jesus to come into my heart, live there, and give me a new life.
God’s Spirit bathed my soul as my tears cleaned my face. A great weight of sorrow, fear, and guilt lifted from me. I began to laugh and say, “Thank you!” over and over.
Others knelt beside me, and something filled the room like wind blowing across waves of the sea. A door opened before me, a new color of the rainbow shimmering between its archways.
Years later, I would write a fantasy novel called “Selah of the Summit.” In it, a young slavegirl would leave the desert and travel to the mountains. At the Summit, she would walk through such an Arch:
The living water, cool and clear, swirled around her body, cleaning all the weariness from her. Weightless, she drifted on its currents, down toward its endless depths.
It rippled in diamond-shaped patterns of light with rainbow edges. The patterns danced across her arms and hands as she stretched them in front of her. Bubbles floated around her, giving her air to breathe. All the way down Selah heard the river’s voice, words she could not repeat but would always remember.
Just as she thought the current would carry her down forever, it caught her up again. But she did not immediately break through the barrier. For a moment she hovered beneath the river’s surface, staring at her mirrored reflection, hearing the Maker call her name.
“I am coming,” she replied as she burst through to the air.
When she emerged from the spring, she was not even wet. She felt lighter than when the current bore her. She walked effortlessly up the white granite steps back toward the Archway. Micah and Evergreen were no longer there.
Selah stepped alone into the Arch.
The last weight of the valley left her. She moved her arms as if through water, her steps slow and light. “I am coming,” she said again, as the Maker called her. His voice was music, the sound that sprung the universe to life, that caused the morning stars to sing together and the planets to spin on their perfect spheres. It filled her like sunrise. All her life as a slave, Selah held a void inside her, a blank space only her Maker could fill. Now she stood in his presence.
And she understood that he was love. And Micah’s love was but a single candle flame against a light beyond all stars. And Micah’s love was rare–one in millions–and blessed was she to find him. But, as all things human, it could be lost–even in the mountains, for a time–but found again in the source of all love, the presence of the Maker.
Why did you seek me?” she asked, kneeling. “I am not worthy of your Calling.”
“Before you were born, I loved you,” he replied. “Before your body was formed in the secret place of your mother’s womb, I called your name.”
Selah lifted her open palms and, for the first time in her life, sang a song to the Maker:
“In your presence is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forever–
I will sing to you a new song.
Arise! Shine! For your light has come.”
A cloud appeared around Selah, sparkling with light in each living particle that hovered in the air.
“I want to stay here forever,” she pleaded.
“You will,” he promised. “When your work in the desert is done.”
How long she stood inside the Archway, Selah did not know. It seemed forever in a moment. And in the next, her feet moved on their own, and she stepped away from the cloud to the center of the Arch. She looked up.
Stars shone above her, and she felt that she could fly to them like the winged Creatures that hovered above her. Behind the Creatures, behind the stars, she glimpsed a sea of clear glass that spread without limit. Above the sea stood a mountain higher than the Summit, and upon the mountain a city that glowed from within. Its walls were made of gems, and light spilled through emeralds, rubies, sapphires.
As Selah stepped beneath these sights, she felt as though she entered a place beyond space or time. She wanted to fly to the city on the highest mountain. But she knew she could not–yet. Her feet, almost against her will, continued moving.
On the other side of the Arch, her head parted another mirrored surface.
Micah was standing there.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In the film The Gospel of John, Jesus smiles as he walks by the fishermen on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He waves with his hand for them to come and walk with him. His wave, his smile, the sunlight on his simple, bearded face, the wind in his hair, his beckoning—are so simple even a child can understand.
“Come walk with me,” he invited.
Read the rest of the book here: