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Grief journal parlayed into award-winning book for Conyers man

Grief journal parlayed into award-winning book for Conyers man

Conyers resident Buddy McElhannon sits in his late wife’s garden area displaying a book about how his faith helped him recover from her death. The book is called, “Walking through the Valley of Tears: One Man’s Journey from Grief to Gratitude.” McElhannon will sign copies of his book on Sunday from 2:30 to 4 p.m. at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Conyers. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)

Conyers resident Buddy McElhannon sits in his late wife’s garden area displaying a book about how his faith helped him recover from her death. The book is called, “Walking through the Valley of Tears: One Man’s Journey from Grief to Gratitude.” McElhannon will sign copies of his book on Sunday from 2:30 to 4 p.m. at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Conyers. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)

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Buddy McElhannon and wife late wife Tootie share a happy moment. (Special Photo)

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“Walking through the Valley of Tears: One Man’s Journey from Grief to Gratitude”

Buddy McElhannon’s new book is more than a lifeline for those who have lost a loved one. It is the line, the rescue boat and the wise words of a man who has sailed these troubled waters before. Now on the other side, he reaches out to pull those perishing in the deep toward a seat at the table with the captain — Jesus Christ.

A story of tremendous love, loss and faith, “Walking through the Valley of Tears: One Man’s Journey from Grief to Gratitude,” is a book that McElhannon began as a blog to inform loved ones of his late wife’s medical condition. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer that spread to her spinal fluid, stomach, pelvic bone and eye.

The blog turned into a manuscript that was passed around to help friends going through difficult losses. Finally, it became the grand prize winner in a writing competition that landed McElhannon a book publishing contract.

“Walking through the Valley of Tears,” has just been released and is now available at Amazon.com as an e-book, paperback or in hardback form. McElhannon will have copies available Sunday at a book signing at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Conyers where he will greet visitors from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Anyone who comes and makes a donation of any amount to Refuge Pregnancy Center will get a free autographed copy of the book.

Helping Refuge Pregnancy Center is close to the heart of McElhannon because his late wife, Mary Zelma “Tootie” McElhannon, a nurse, was a tireless volunteer who sometimes worked 12-hour days serving the young women at the center. She began the Building Bridges for Life support group for expectant mothers, and new ones, and set up a clinic to provide sonograms and ultrasounds at Refuge.

“That was her passion,” said McElhannon about the work his late wife did at the center.

Her husband of 38 years said that family was Tootie’s greatest joy. Since that day in 1969 when Tootie first started dating Buddy, both of whom were seniors Southwest DeKalb High School, their life and love grew to include a family of two sons, three daughters and now grandchildren.

“February 4, 2011: Disoriented. It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” McElhannon writes in the first entry of “Walking through the Valley of Tears.” “This wasn’t supposed to happen. Either we would live a long life together or I would die first. I never even considered that Tootie could die at age 59 and leave me alone.

“Grief hurts, but I never realized how disorienting it would be. Now what do I do? I’ve never had any plans that did not involve Tootie — none. I am like a lost puppy who doesn’t know which way to turn. I just don’t know how to make new plans without her. One day at a time. No, one step at a time. That’s all I can do for now. Show me the way, Lord, one step at a time.”

McElhannon writes of honest and raw emotions and situations that he faced day after day in the year after the death of his beloved Tootie. He found his own lifeline through writing, praying and embracing the Scriptures, many of which he has shared on the pages of his book.

“When (we) sat in our living room in October 2010, and decided to be open about her battle with cancer, we had no idea where this would lead or how short a journey it would be,” McElhannon writes in the introduction to his book.

“We started using the mylifeline.org website to keep friends and family updated about her progress. We soon discovered that our willingness to be transparent provided a window for so many others to do more than just watch, to actually participate in a remarkable spiritual journey. Tootie’s gallant fight ended Jan. 28, 2011. Mine, I soon discovered, had only begun.”

Another February entry reads: “Two weeks have passed since Tootie’s death and I have taken some time off to recuperate. I needed this more than I’d thought I would. After running some errands, I entered a local restaurant to grab a bowl of hot soup on this cold, windy day. The hostess approached and despite the obvious, she asked, ‘How many are in your party?’ ‘Just one,’ I answered. It’s the first time I have said it. It won’t be the last. Just one. Now that’s a lonely number.

“Oh, Lord, help me remember that though I may be just one, I am never alone. Even though I walk through the ‘valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.’”

McElhannon said he has been encouraged by those who have read the book. He said he believed it would help others going through grief, but was pleasantly surprised to hear from one reader who said, while he had not experienced the death of a loved one, the book helped him understand how to help others who are grieving and what to say to them.

Another reader, a woman, told McElhannon that the book is “a great love story.” While McElhannon said he had not thought of the book in that way, the love between husband and wife shines across the pages of, “Walking through the Valley of Tears,” giving comfort and heart to this difficult story of loss.

Writing, or journaling, as McElhannon calls it, has long been something he enjoys. He has written his grandmother’s memoirs and always enjoyed writing letters to his children and other kinds of writing. In 2010, his wife encouraged him to join the East Metro Atlanta Christian Writers Association.

“She said ‘it might sharpen your skills’ and I decided I might do that,” he said.

“I went to a conference and then found out we had cancer. Things went downhill. We’re a fairly large family on both sides and with friends and coworkers, we were concerned we’d be on the phone all the time keeping people informed. A friend had a similar experience and did mylifeline.org. There are others like it where you can post. I thought I would do that to keep people informed.

“I took on the responsibility of updating the blog twice a week. We had almost 9,000 hits by the time she passed away. I would write these short little things. People would ask for copies. They thought it was good how she dealt with it.

“I felt so helpless in helping her. I did everything I could, but for me the blog was a chance to make a contribution. Then when she passed away, I’m sitting there with all those dreams. We were both 59 at the time and had our lives planned out and all the things we were looking ahead to do…I went from that to not knowing what I was going to do tomorrow.”

McElhannon said he knew grief was going to hurt, but said he was caught off guard by how disorienting it was.

“It’s a fog. You can’t see a day or two ahead of you,” he said. “After the funeral, sitting there in the fog, I said I’m going to continue writing. I think it would be helpful for me.”

McElhannon, who has worked for AT&T for decades, never dreamed he would publish his work, but after going back and getting involved in the East Metro writing group, he kept journaling and writing. When he learned about a contest the group was sponsoring, he entered his work as a manuscript at the annual conference and won the first prize from Westbow Publishing Co.

In “Walking through the Valley of Tears,” McElhannon takes the reader along as he navigates the first year without his beloved wife and shares the comfort he finds in prayer and Scriptures and a growing relationship with the Lord.

Beth Slaughter Sexton is a freelance writer based in Gwinnett County. Contact her at bethslaughtersexton@gmail.com.