I live in small-town South Georgia, where we have to drive long distances to see quality movies. In the 1980s, my childhood friend Laura’s cultured mother drove her daughters to Jacksonville, Florida, monthly, where they would watch three movies in succession, then report back to us.
Though lacking Laura’s background, I have always watched the Oscars. I like the glamour, the genuine emotion, the chance to see another, far-away world.
When the joyous winners leap up the steps, I inevitably weep, thinking of their teachers. The men and women who tried to corral their energetic charges while simultaneously leaving their spirits intact; who, remembering daily what it was like to be young, gave guidance with dignity and compassion; who bought snacks when these now-tuxedo-clad adults were hungry youngsters; who encouraged and cajoled during quick hallway conferences, saying things like, “Really, Casey, you have amazing talent. No, I’m not just saying that to be nice.”
I think of these teachers, who have sown much and are too often forgotten. I imagine them, in the weeks before the Oscars, sitting at the beauty parlor saying things like, “Oh, you know, Emma Stone was in my English class. Sweet, sweet girl.” I picture them putting their charges’ names on Sunday School prayer lists; carefully cutting out Oscar newspaper articles; telling their current students, “Viggo hated history, too, but he studied and did well, and Sunday night, 40 million people are going to watch him on TV.”
I picture these teachers in their frayed recliners and modest homes, DVRs carefully set, their forewarned children and spouses giving them a wide berth because Mom is watching one of her favorite all-time kids.
I can hear the screams when their favorite’s name is called. I see them dancing, arms in the air, yelling, “He did it! He did it!” and cackling with delight.
For a moment, these exultant educators forget the sorrows that come with teaching, all of the lack and sacrifice. For this moment, they are rich. They have done it. They have changed a life, pushed one child past the most awesome of finish lines.
Tonight, when Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor, as the camera rose high behind him and the clapping throng rose to their feet, Mr. Ali stood tall and confident at centerstage. I felt tears forming. His teachers, seeing this.
And then, Mr. Ali spoke. In the first speech of Hollywood’s most important night, the first people he thanked were teachers. “I want to thank my teachers, my professors . . .I had so many wonderful teachers. Zelda Fichandler, Ron Van Lieu, Ken Washington.”
He spoke their names. He felt their weight. In his acknowledgement of those who unknowingly readied him for a long-distant February night, Mr. Ali reminded us all to remember that we do not reach our goals alone.
As he stood onstage, one man speaking directly to millions, Mr. Ali recalled the men and women who helped him find his voice.
He thanked them first; he thanked them clearly.
It was, perhaps, surprising: teachers are not friends. Not family. But sometimes, they are the first to see the spark–to train pupils how to heft it, to convince them that they are worthy to carry it.
And so, while the world sees only the now-tuxedoed glory, fully ablaze, it is fitting to shout the names of those who remember those long-past days–
Dave Sanders was the first teacher to haunt me. I would wager that, although you have forgotten him, many teachers could instantly tell you, “He died in Columbine. His students held up his pictures of his family members as he bled out on the floor.”
Liviu Librescu’s name cannot be spoken with enough reverence: a Holocaust survivor, this professor chose to hold his Virginia Tech classroom’s door shut so his students could escape the raging gunman on the other side. Librescu died.
27 year-old Sandy Hook teacher Victoria Soto hid her small students in a cabinet and then faced down gunman Adam Lanza, telling him her kids were in the gym. Her students lived; their teacher died.
Third-grade teacher Jennifer Doan was pregnant when she heroically shielded her students with her body in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Seven of her twenty kids died. 35%. Gone.
I can tell you about these teachers–and others like them–because I, too, am a teacher. Like bankers, who keep up with new federal regulations, and chefs, who learn about the latest food trends, teachers are constantly educated, too. We don’t wile away our days making cutsey bulletin boards and singing songs about friendship: we do real work.
And a large part of that work is making sure your children are safe. And so we continually think about what we would be willing to sacrifice for your child.
Before Liviu Librescu’s death in 2007, very few American classrooms could be locked from the inside. Teachers, during lockdowns, had to go out into the hall and lock their classroom doors. Most of us who taught before 2007 did this–grabbed our keys at the principal’s urgent voice, dashed into the hall as quickly as possible, hurriedly locked our doors, and ducked back in, saying grateful prayers that we were okay, having done our required duties–and kept your children safe.
My husband, also a teacher, was pulled from his classroom several years ago and told, “There’s been a bomb threat . . . look around for bombs.” Your children? Safe.
At the same school, he was also told that, if there was a fire, he was to “go deep into the building to see if any children were left inside.” As a teacher–not a firefighter–he was expected to display this level of de facto heroism. To keep your children safe.
I have hidden my autistic elementary school students in a bathroom while an angry man with a weapon roamed the campus. I have had a rib broken and rotator cuff torn by a student. I have been threatened by an angry, belt-wielding parent as I stepped between her and her child. I have dashed out of a prom carrying burning decorations. I have been brave for your kids.
Right now, though, I’m not being brave. I’m at home eating pimento cheese on Ritz crackers in my blue polka-dotted pajamas. School was called off early today because there was a chance of tornadic activity. So far, a drop of rain has not fallen, and our school system was ridiculed by a meteorologist on TV in the next major town.
That meteorologist has never been in a classroom. Taught 115 kids for 180 days. Pinned their Homecoming boutonnieres on; visited them in hospital rooms after football injuries and car wrecks; held their hands in funeral homes after their relatives died; videotaped their Promposals, having first been complicit in the hiding of the teddy bears and the Snickers bars. That weatherman has never been knee-deep in children.
I have been. I am.
For those of you who have not been, imagine this: you are single, but have a large brick home, and you are hosting a spend the night party for your son, Johnny. He has invited thirty friends, and they all said yes. Everyone is coming. You have assembled a bouncy-house, pre-ordered the pizza, and iced the homemade Power Rangers cake. You’ve rented a party bus to transport them to Chucky Cheese for a night of fun. Imagine, then, just fifteen hours before, you hear that a squall line with 60 MPH winds, large hail, thunderstorms, and perhaps tornadoes too, is likely headed your way.
Your next move, of course, is to cancel the party.
It’s a no brainer. If parents insisted on sending their kids before the storm hit, you would lock the doors and hide. You would not let those kids in your house because they might get hurt. You would cancel the bus and forfeit the deposit because who wants to be on a bus with children in a tornado??? Who would chance that? Who would make that gamble?
As a party host, you would assess the risk–you would think about your liability; you would consider how many things could go wrong. You would choose the wiser path.
Sure, a wind shift could result in you eating hypothetical cake alone under a sunny sky while people Facebooked about how foolish you were. However, the alternative hypothetical, with your son surrounded by seven of his best friends’ bodies and people still Facebooking about your idiocy–well, that’s too much to bear.
So, know this: of all the heroic teachers listed above–Sanders, Librescu, Soto, and Doan–only Doan could have possibly been spared her trauma. Her school system likely had two hours’ notice before the EF5 tornado flattened Plaza Towers Elementary. They stayed.
I’m grateful I didn’t have to stay at work today in potentially dangerous conditions. Because I already knew about the pregnant teacher who tried to keep her students safe during a tornado.
Who broke her back and sternum.
Who lost seven students.
Who holds a baby in her arms who is named for the student who died–whom she felt die–beneath her palm as they lay together, crushed in the rubble.
Most teachers, like me, already knew about her. Now, you do.
Please, tell me again about how this weather day hurt you.
I am a rambly high school English teacher. Like my own high school teachers, I talk frankly about life’s joys and losses. I talk about hindsight and heartbreak. I preach constantly about choices. My students know the things I have survived. I tell them that it may someday be helpful to think, “Well, if Mrs. G survived that, I can, too.”
A few days ago, a successful, happily-married former student messaged me out of the blue. She said, “If you ever need an anonymous guest post on your blog . . .It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, but I felt the need today . . . it goes along with the feel of your blog and what all your readers have seen . . . I’ve thought of you often while going through this.”
I was heartbroken by the honest words below. Read on for a reminder of a young mother’s heart–and then, in Paul Harvey fashion, read the rest of the story, and marvel at our ever-faithful God, who uses sorrow to transform. Who gives hope. Who reminds.
March 9: The day, my baby should have been born, I thought I was over it.
After all, I have had 213 days to “get over it,” but I’m not.
30 weeks and 3 days ago I had to have what should have been my baby removed from my body.
Just a week prior, I had been told, “We can’t find a fetus. Maybe you’re not as far along as you thought.” I knew how far along I was; I knew exactly when I got pregnant eight weeks before because we had been trying for a few months already.
I will always remember that day.
I had started bleeding just a few days before my first appointment, so I was already worried that something was not right. After the nurse confirmed that my test was positive, we talked about what was to come over the next several months. I was handed packets of information on the hospital, medicines to take and not to take, what to expect at each appointment, etc.
We then went into the ultrasound room where the bubbly ultrasound technician let her trainee perform the sonogram. I was quickly reassured that my bleed was nothing to worry about–it was just a subchorionic hemorrhage that would need to be monitored. I was put on pelvic rest for two weeks. She then kept looking and looking, with an expressionless face.
Then the more experienced ultrasound tech took over. She also looked and looked, nothing. While my husband firmly held my hand through their silence, I never once looked at the monitor.
“There’s a sac, but no fetus or heartbeat. We’ll give it a week to see if anything changes,” they finally told me.
I’m not a crier, but that day I cried and cried the entire long ride home. For more than an hour, I sobbed.
We hadn’t told our families that I was pregnant, so I put on a brave face and went to work, visited with family, went to family celebrations and to church, pretending everything was okay. It wasn’t.
I spent hours on my phone, googling stories of other women who had positive outcomes to my same situation. There were some, but it still didn’t help. I stayed on forums, talking with other women who had been in my shoes. I cried whenever I was alone.
It was the longest week of my life.
On my husband’s birthday, we returned to the doctor’s office. We went into the same ultrasound room. This time, the nurse and tech were not as chipper. More looking, nothing. Without much being said, I was escorted into another room where I waited on the doctor.
She came in and advised me I had what is called a blighted ovum. For some reason, my body did not let this fetus form inside the present sac.
She told me I could “let my body take care of it itself” or have a dilation and curettage. Maybe I’m weak because I was just ready for it to be over, but I was.
We had to call our parents and tell them simultaneously that I was pregnant and that I wouldn’t be having a baby.
Early the next morning my mom, my husband and myself headed to the hospital for my outpatient D&C. “Spontaneous abortion” is the medical term for a miscarriage; I wasn’t having an abortion. I didn’t CHOOSE this. I wanted my baby. I had prayed for my baby. I had cried for my baby.
In just a couple of hours, I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I was on my way home, cramping, nauseous, drowsy, emotionally numb. And not pregnant.
Over the next few weeks I experienced the same decrease in hormones I would have if I had delivered a beautiful baby. My hair started breaking; I cried for no reason; I had hot flashes; I bled.
But I didn’t have a baby, and I wasn’t pregnant anymore.
Three months: that’s how long I was told to wait before “trying” again. I didn’t listen; I wanted to get pregnant right away. I wanted a baby.
Every other day there was a new Facebook announcement from parents-to-be or a video of baby moving around in his mommy’s belly. I hated these people. I was bitter, believing that they didn’t deserve to have the happiness of pregnancy if I couldn’t.
I wanted to have morning sickness; I wanted to feel my baby move inside of me; I wanted to be decorating my baby’s nursery.
Month after month, test after test, still no positive.
Five months post D&C, I was over it all. I was tired of trying. I had spent much time in prayer and knew that God would give me my perfect baby when I needed it. I hadn’t cried about it in quite some time and I was ready to change my focus to something else.
I was over it . . . but I wasn’t.
Another month and another period later: other women were having their babies when I should have been enjoying my last couple of weeks of pregnancy.
I told myself that this would be the month I would be pregnant. I’d been praying, eating right, taking my vitamins, exercising, tracking my days. I knew exactly when I ovulated. This was my month, the month I should have been delivering, and surely I would have my positive.
This time, after this month, I am done.
I’m not going to think about it. I’m not going to track my ovulation. I’m changing my focus completely to being the healthiest me that I can be. I am“over it.” The miscarriage is in my past. I’m now happy for new mommies. I “like” pregnancy announcement posts. I know my day will come.
But today, I cried again.
It’s March 9th, and I should be bringing my baby home in a couple of days. I should be holding my brand new baby. Our baby that was made in love. Our baby that was prayed over. Our baby that “never formed.”
God knows when I will get to be a mommy.
I looked for pictures for this blog; nothing I found was quite right. And I thought about my own blighted ovum. My secret box, feet from my bed, that has pictures of my lost babies–babies whom my students know about. Although I didn’t really want to–because this is her story, not mine–I walked to my room, opened the box, and rifled through to the folder that reads, “Baby’s First Photo,” opened it, and looked at the empty sac. I thought about the baby that should have been.
And then I looked at the date. Again and again and again.
And I messaged the author to call. She had to call. It had to be heard, not written–she had to hear the tears and the laughter–the mourning turned to joy–for herself
Because when I looked at the picture of my blighted ovum, the date I read was November 30, 1995.
2/23/2017 This morning, when you woke up, maybe you rolled over and tearily told your partner: “Today is the day. It’s been a year. She’s been gone a year–can you believe it???”
Maybe you looked at her pictures on your refrigerator; spoke words of half-hearted comfort to your eight-year-old, who stubbornly refuses to give up hope that she will come home; mindlessly patted your “replacement” dog who will not ever replace her.
Perhaps you imagined her long dead on a lonely highway. Lost in woods, hungry and afraid. Stolen: a bait dog or a laboratory tester. Horrors all.
I should tell you, then, that she’s safely ensconced on our sofa. On her favorite pillow. Today, we’ve celebrated: she had her fill of Milkbones, went to the pet store for an anniversary toy, her head hanging happily out of the van window all the way there.
On the drive, she considered leaving us for the young guy in the blue Chevy at the red light; they eyed one another with shared understanding. We think that’s how you lost her: she jumped out of your car window on the highway, smack dab in the middle of No Man’s Land. Because this dog is definitely a runner, and as my daughter puts it, “She isn’t just running away. She is leaving you to start her new life.”
She was found running down the four lane highway, dodging semis. Lynn M—, a dog-lover hustled your pup into her vehicle and a state trooper stopped to help her–because, as I am sure you know, your dog does things with panache.
Last February when we Lynn’s desperate “dogneedsahomeTODAY” Facebook post, we didn’t really want this pup. We were grieving our perfect pit bull, Ezra, the (second) best dog we’d ever owned. But we had space in our home, and Lynn was in the middle of a move, so we half-heartedly offered to foster.
We put ads on the Internet. We tried to find you. Your dog had no microchip; the vet said she was half Labrador retriever, half dachshund, immediately adding, “Don’t try to picture it.”
When your dog was indifferent to our cats (whom Ezra always wanted to eat), we welcomed the change. That first day, your dog fell asleep on my lap, then cuddled next to my feet all night. She wasn’t pushy or demanding, nor was she cowering and timid. She was simply there, offering her companionship.
We could tell that she was someone’s beloved dog: she was housebroken; she sat on command; she refused to walk into a small room without hearty encouragement and instead stood expectantly, awaiting a release command that we did not know. When we got Ezra’s old crate from the garage, she entered it without complaint, and she still does so a year later–you trained her so well.
Our other dog and the four cats adapted to her, as did we. But we couldn’t name her. She had no defining characteristics. She wasn’t an Oreo, Shadow, or Midnight, either, and no girlie names fit. She was just a little dog. That was all.
And so we began simply calling her that, Little Dog. A homage to a favorite AFV video.
Her story is no Marley and Me. She hasn’t been funny or clever; other than escaping occasionally to romp through the neighborhood or visit the next-door Great Dane, there are no anecdotes, really, to share. All she has done is sit within arm’s length for a year–one of the worst years of our lives.
My seventeen-year-old grumbled one night as she sat petting Little Dog, “We should’ve known we were in for it when we got this Party Favor From God.”
That’s what she’s been for us. A tiny gift. A silent solace. Your little dog.
Last Sunday afternoon, before the Super Bowl, I was tempted to put as my Facebook status, “Remember, everyone, God loves you whether you watch the Super Bowl or go to church tonight. He still loves you the same.”
Thirty years ago, on that Sunday night in January, you had the opportunity to prove your South Georgia holiness via your proximity to a TV set. If you were at church worshipping God, you were Holy. If you were at home watching the game with your family, you were In Sin. A church youth group Super Bowl party was a sort of middle ground: you were indulging your sin nature, but, hey, at least you prayed at some point–you probably scored some points.
This is what I was thinking about last week: how glad I am that I no longer believe in the Celestial Scorecard. And then I watched as Facebook filled up with posts from those who do.
“I’m NOT watching the half time show.”
“No Lady Gaga for ME.”
“Well, I will be turning the channel at half time.”
I teach high school English, and I know about the understood subject you. (In “Put the plates away,” the speaker intends for you to do this.) These Facebook statuses had an understood unlike you.
Reading those statuses, I just felt so weary. The past year has left me crushed in ways that adjectives and adverbs could never capture. But it has allowed me to see positional Christianity–“I am closer to God than you because I do x and you do y“–for the sham it is because I now fully know the nothing I am. God had the mercy to show me the wasteland, the nothing I hold. And once you know your own emptiness, you know how absurd it is to have ever claimed any knowledge of fullness at all.
You understand the meaning of the words awretch like me. You know that it is wretched to say that you didn’t watch Lady Gaga because that implies the earning of worth and our worth is unearned, and our unworthiness is infinite.
The beauty of total collapse is the complete rest that is found in powerlessness.
When you fully know that you can’t even lift your own head, when you have seen the black depths of your own soul, you can’t throw one stone at Lady Gaga. You know she is broken just like you. That she is flawed and phony and consumed by the wrong things, but so are you, andif Jesus loves you in your brokenness, this means he loves Lady Gaga, too. You are just different kinds of trash.
And you know that since you are no better than she, Jesus would invite Lady Gaga to eat with Him and tell her that he loved her and, at some point during the evening, he would probably tell her to go and sin no more, but he wouldn’t be rude, and he wouldn’t be hateful, and he wouldn’t tell her all the things she is not because He realizes she already knows what she is not.
Lady Gaga. Me. You. We all know what we are not.
Tonight, Facebook is once again full of righteousness:
“I’m not going to see 50 Shades Darker.”
“I’m glad my wife doesn’t like that trash.”
“I thank God that I married the sort of woman who would rather have both arms amputated than to watch this.” (I’m sure amputees were impressed by this particularly inclusive Christian post with its 6,890 likes.)
Once more, merit-badge-seeking Christians are advertising their own holiness, rather than Christ and his love. Christ and His salvation. They are saying look at me, look at what I am not doing. Look how good I am. But how good I am will help no one. I can do nothing. Apart from my place as a vehicle of Christ’s love, I am totally irrelevant in this fallen, hurting world. What I am doing or not doing does not matter at all if it is apart from Him.
We are all nothing. To think for one second that we are better than the millions of people in dark movie theaters this weekend is lunacy. We know Jesus. He found us in our mire. He plucked us from our pits. That we would dare create pedestals of our manure and filthy rags is the most absurd lunacy.
We were in mire and filth; they are in mire and filth. The only difference is in the tense of the verbs.
We who were broken are now rescued. And I, who on my own had no hope of even boarding the life raft, cannot taunt those who are drowning.
There is a quote on my classroom wall from one of my former students. Days before he graduated, fully pleased, he popped his head in my room and asked, “Hey, Mrs. G, remember in ninth grade when you told us who wasn’t going to make it, and they didn’t?” Chuckling, he sauntered off.
That reads harsh, doesn’t it? Teachers aren’t supposed to tell kids, “You are going to end up a dropout. You are going to end up in prison. You are going to end up at the alternative school.” Teachers are supposed to inspire, shove children up the mountain, past their drug-abusing mothers, absent fathers, and abject poverty. Teachers are expected to make silk purses out of sows’ ears–every day.
In my classroom, generally, I don’t do that. I point out the obvious: you, dear child, are currently a sow’s ear. And then I say: wouldn’t you rather be a silk purse? I see so much silk in you.
These children, these hulking man-boys and affection-starved girls, want someone to see the silk. They want it so badly.
Teaching, in the first days of the year, is like a protracted meet-the-in-laws Sunday brunch. You don’t really know them, but you hope you’ll like each other because life is going to be hard if you don’t. You have no knowledge of their backgrounds because veteran teachers don’t warn each other–after all, perhaps you are the one teacher who can reach Little Johnny, and, if you’re not, well, you don’t want to know how bad things might become.
I am in that stage where, after fifteen days with them, I am starting to know my kids.
I am seeing the silk.
There is so much silk this year.
We are drawing lines with one another, having touchstone conversations, revisiting what we are doing well and what is unacceptable. Learning each other.
Today, I explained that they needed to remember that their behavior impacts one another. And more importantly, their behavior impacts others’ education.
I looked at my solid, quiet child, the child whose future is so bright. Nineteen years ago, he would not have caught my eye. I would not have known, really, that he was even there–the “designated hitters” in the classroom, the loud, knowledgeable kids, would have masked him. But now, I know he is one of the most important kids in the room, unknowingly carrying the spark of a different future.
I told my kids, “Look, H—– has an education to get. He is very smart, and he’s got important things to do.I can’t let you affect that.”
Then, I looked at H—–. I said, “Has anybody ever told you that before?”
He said no.
He has sat in classrooms for eleven years. 1,995 days. And he has never been told he is smart.
(I suppose a “God help us” would be dramatic, but I really feel this merits one: God, help us.)
In 1990, when I first began teaching, I was the only tenth grade ELA teacher in a small school in an impoverished town. I taught every sophomore, whether we gelled or not. There was no teacher down the hall to swap with. And in one class, on my first day, a helpful child raised his hand and announced, “It’s like they put all the rejects and bad kids in one room.” It was misery.
(At least five of the boys from that classroom have been–or are now–in jail; one outlier became a preacher.)
One sunny afternoon, my dynamo of a college professor, Dr. Patsy Griffin, came to the high school. As the students milled around outdoors, she looked at one boy, who was certainly neither a scholar nor an acolyte, and said, “Come here.”
I was uneasy. She was touching his elbow. She said to him, “Let me see your eyes.”
She commanded me to look into his eyes. I did.
“Look,” she crowed, “He has such smart eyes.”
Oh, how he beamed.
She murmured to him about his eyes. Asked about his grades. Said she was surprised they were so low when he was obviously so smart, what with those intelligent eyes.
She left quickly, but that sixteen-year-old boy was never the same. Three minutes changed him. He’d heard he was smart. Perhaps he, too, had waited 1,900+ days for a “professional” to notice.
In my classroom, I do not spread adjectives and affirmations like feel-good fairy dust. My classroom is not a place where the students are called Mr. and Miss and referred to as scholars. It’s not a warm and fuzzy place at all.
But I tell my kids things like, “You are going to be a Coca-Cola Scholar, and I’m going to hand you that check on stage.” “You are going to go to Agnes Scott. I can see you at an all girls school. You would thrive there.””I think you would be a good hospital administrator. You are good at bossing people around.”
When I say things like that, hands shoot up around the room–“What do you see ME as?” “What do you think I’ll do?” They are desperate to hear of respectable futures, of jobs, marriages and kids. Houses and pets.
There are other children, too. Kids whom I quietly call up to my desk, where I open my second drawer and shove aside some boxes before pulling out a letter. It’s a three page letter from an imprisoned former student who was like a son to me.
I tell them, “I think you might need to read this. I don’t show this to everyone. But this boy, well–like you–he was like a son to me. He even went on vacations with us. Shared a hotel room. Carried my baby’s diaper bag through Busch Gardens. He was like my son.”
They quietly read the long letter. In it, T— laments not moving with us to North Georgia. He wonders what his life would have been like if he had listened. Made better decisions. He talks about his son he won’t see.
He writes and writes and writes. After all, he has twenty years.
They read every word. I show them his photo. I tuck the letter away, telling them I can write to them in prison or in college. That I will write to them either way.
Today, in a show of authority–because we are still in that early jockeying–I made the kids be fairly silent. Some students were forced to do a dreaded study guide, while others did group projects, and a handful read independently.
I’d chosen a five part LA Times feature for my smart boy to read on his phone. He sat in my chair in the front of the room, reading every word aloud to himself in a low murmur. He read until the bell.
He turned to me as he left, said, “I will finish this tonight.” Strode out with purpose.
Day 1,995: The day he finally became what he’s been all along: smart.
By now, I have had all sorts: the happy Christmas when my grandmother, bearing dolls purchased at the local grocery store, reveled in her great-granddaughters’ delight; the Christmas when my father-in-law put bows around everyone’s necks and declared us his presents; the Christmas on which Abby opened her “major” gift, a used eBay iPod, only to find that it did not work. (Remembering her kind, parental-dignity-preserving manner touches me still.) There have been bicycles and Barbies, Wiis and Easy Bake Ovens. Thanks to fostering, for a decade, we awoke at dawn to the chaos of gaggles of children and heaps of gifts.
And then we had thirteen Christmases alone with our daughters. Cinnamon rolls at dawn. Presents. Hershey’s chocolate bars soon after. Board games and, sometimes, a movie.
These Christmases were never fancy: we drove to various relatives’ houses, visited briefly, and returned home, where to the horror of my favorite aunt, there was never even a traditional meal–or a meal at all–as I pragmatically let the girls fill up on stocking candy while we adults ate cinnamon rolls all day.
The upheaval and familial changes this year have required us to do some restructuring of Christmas–we mailed presents to April in New York, along with the brown felt Christmas countdown moose that she always used to keep us in the spirit. I consciously chose to decorate the tree while Abby had classmates over: that way I could not weep.
Until this year, I never knew how many baby Jesuses were on our Christmas tree–it seemed like I unwrapped babies all evening. One, swaddled and beaming, nearly did me in–I hastily tossed Him in the Goodwill pile, though later, with my grandmother’s voice haunting me (“It’s just Jesus“), I retrieved Him.
I broke into dark laughter at the more sentimental ornaments, remembering a time when I thought those losses were hard to cope with. The loss of an eighteen year old cat, I learned this year, is altogether trivial compared to the loss of a granddaughter. This year I have climbed and plunged through the many gradients of sorrow.
And now, it is Christmas. We are expected to Christmas.
Greg and I attended three Christmas parties, where we mingled with strangers and laughed through Dirty Santa. We enjoyed steaks, good music, door prizes and the fire pit. Abby spent her birthday money on Christmas gifts for children living at the local women’s shelter; we bought gifts for a needy family’s grandchild. Abby rang the Salvation Army bell at Kroger for FBLA and at Walmart for Key Club. And, even though I dislike TV, I recorded Christmas movies; at night, when Greg is dozing and Abby is out and about, I have watched them in our quiet house.
The first one I watched saved Christmas.
Meet Me in St. Louis.
Its description didn’t seem particularly Christmas-changing: “A St. Louis family stays in town for the 1904 World’s Fair.” The movie itself was lighthearted enough until the family faced something only the father wanted: a move to New York after Christmas.
After a Christmas Eve ball, Esther, the older sister played by Judy Garland, comes home to find her younger sister Tootie crying at the bedroom window. To comfort her, she begins singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”:
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas/Let your heart be light/next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”
It was after midnight, but I was suddenly fully awake, thinking, “That’s not how that song goes.”
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas/make the Yuletide gay/Next year all our troubles will be miles away.”
“Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore/ faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us once more.”
“Someday soon we all will be together if the fates allow/ until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow/so have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”
Muddle through? Had I heard the words “muddle” and “Christmas” in the same song? Was I allowed to muddle Christmas?
The next morning I told Greg, “You have to see this,” and played the clip. Silent for a moment, he turned to me and said, “That’s significantly different.”
Missing were, “Here we are . . . Who are . . . gather near to us . . . through the years” indicating family and friends ever-present, close, and celebrating.
And, most significantly “hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” an image of hope–exchanged for the paltry, slightly negative”muddle.”
The 1944 original song presents the image of a difficult Christmas, a solitary time away from friends who, aware of the family’s inability to fully celebrate, allow them the gift of space.
It gives the promise of time and its healing power–next year.
In her acting, Garland acknowledges the inability of even sisters to help one another–looking at Tootie the first few seconds that she sings, but then looking away, out to the trees, the snow, and the sky, as heartbroken Tootie stares straight ahead.
Unlike later versions, the 1944 version gives the option of getting through, patching together, of muddling. Versions like Sinatra’s, having been “jollied up,” are celebratory rather than anticipatory.
This year, though, we aren’t extremely celebratory. It’s been a year of trauma, sorrow, and loss, and to pretend otherwise would simply be that: pretending.
We are happy to have been given sweet Stephanie Grace, to have held her little heft, seen her minute fingernails, traced her tiny nose. She will ever be a part of our lives and hearts and Christmases.
We all know–this holiday will likely be the hardest. We will quietly celebrate, together, our survival and His coming.
This Christmas, for the three of us at home, promises to be merry and little.
It’s so beautiful to me, the prospect: we can just muddle this one.
Early Friday morning I went into the garage, climbed the ladder, and retrieved the Christmas decorations. I have mixed emotions about this different, loss-tinged Christmas, and my husband, knowing this, surprised me this week with cheery holiday sofa pillows. A needed nudge.
Since Thanksgiving was a good day, I thought maybe I could manage to deck the halls as usual. Ours is not a festive family, so once a decade there are carols and everyone is involved, but most of the time it’s just me, Kid Rock, and Dr. Pepper.
The first box I brought into the kitchen contained a centerpiece and three nativities. As I unwrapped the chipped cows and broken angels, I suddenly thought, “You don’t feel reverent enough about this nativity. About baby Jesus.”
I had spent the previous evening thinking I wasn’t “thankful enough”–and hearing the echoing accompaniment, “and you’re thankful for the wrong things.” This latest revelation was just too much.
I caught myself judging my spirituality, my whole walk with God, by the fact that I wasn’t grateful enough for a cheap china statuette painted by workers in a windowless factory half a world away.
Once more, I had taken out my unfair yardstick–the one that fully measures my negatives.
This yardstick ignores things like these: a cheering Sephora shopping trip with a distressed daughter; comforting two friends after the deaths of their mothers; broccoli casserole made gluten-free upon request; a visit to a widower in a nursing home; care packages full of lip gloss and Hershey’s bars sent to New York; coffee cake cooked at dawn for my hungry husband; a catnap in a recliner while “waiting up.” Of my week’s activities that showed Christ’s love, none mattered because I didn’t fall on my face at the sight of a Dollar Tree baby Jesus.
Somehow, we now live a world where a correctly captioned Facebook photo of baby Jesus can deceive everyone, fooling the photographer and the viewers into ascribing holiness where there may, in fact, not be any.
We can see light where there is darkness, and, even worse, sometimes we aspire to be That Holy.
What is the true purpose of the misty-morning patio Instagram shot of a coffee mug, a Bible, and an open notebook with a spunky #meandJesus ? Is it crying look at me or look at Him? Could our time be better spent direct-messaging people whom we know are hurting and reminding them of Christ’s strengthening love? Could we not invite a friend for coffee and put down our cameras long enough to hold their hands in prayer?
We internalize all this, after all. It becomes the approved Christian way to do things.
Last week, I saw a Lincoln Navigator decorated like a reindeer, and immediately my brain thought, “Well, they aren’t Christians.” Christians wear “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” pins and make birthday cakes for Jesus and participate in Operation Christmas Child and sometimes even have their own in-home Advent wreaths. (If you just thought, “Hey, we could do an in-home Advent wreath!“, I apologize. Don’t join the competition.)
My family has done those things. When the girls were small, we placed Baby Jesus in April’s bedroom and daily marched him closer to Bethlehem: the nativity. In the den. In South Georgia.
We made a birthday cake for Jesus, and never, ever made cookies for Santa, gaining holiness through baked good selection, oblivious to the fact that, either way, we would be the ones eating them.
We bought surface over substance. Feeling holy over being holy. It’s so easy.
In the church, we continue to value feeling over reality. We pat ourselves on the back for our refusal to allow our kids to participate in Elf on the Shelf when we are blind, absolutely blind, to the needs of others in our community. In our church families.
If there’s one thing 2016 has taught me, it is how filthy my rags are. And how abundant. And how my value of them was influenced by a culture which considers the visible to be the valuable.
This year, visitors to our home will see snowmen and Santas; on our scorecard, there will be more tally marks in the secular Christmas column, as our angels are far outnumbered.
But this year, to quote my younger daughter, “The angels matter more than ever.”
This year, it is real to me: the fact that Christ came, that God sent Him at all, that God saw how much Nothing there was here, how little chance we all had apart from Him, apart from salvation–and at that thought, I can fall on my face.
My nativity may not move me. I may have the “wrong” attitude about Elves and Santa. But more importantly, so much more importantly, this year I know: my rags of righteousness are far filthier than anything that was in that Bethlehem stable.
My husband Greg had a bone marrow transplant for Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML) fifteen years ago. When he was diagnosed, our daughters were seven months and six years old. (Among their matter-of-fact childhood observations–Abby, at 18 months: “Wake up, go doctor’s?”and April, seven, “All the daddies are dying.”)
Five years ago, Greg had Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma (OSCC) caused by the transplant. He had a partial mandibulectomy, in which half of his jaw was removed–with his teeth still attached. He recently had cataracts removed, though he’s only fifty–they, too, were due to his treatment.
I often send messages to friends–and many, many strangers–whose spouses or children are ill–quick lists of things they should immediately know, things that others will wait too long to tell them, things that take time to learn.
A young wife replied to one such message early this morning, asking for encouragement. Here is an amalgam of the saved texts and Facebook messages that I have sent to others, a rambly, brief list of the “lessons” I learned along the way (from many who went before us):
Let people raise lots of money, far more money than you think that you will need. I promise that you will need buckets of money. One thing the newly-diagnosed are initially unaware of is how long their journey will be–you will need money for co-pays and prescriptions for years, and you may both be unable to work, at least temporarily.I usually recommend that families raise a minimum of $35,000, but to find out your minimum, multiply your insurance deductible or maximum out-of-pocket (whichever you prefer) times five, so you will have money for the next five years.
You are going to be tempted to tell your friends to stop the fundraising. You will think you have enough money. You don’t. My family’s financial life has been ruined because we didn’t think about years’ worth of deductibles and copays. Even if your buddies raise $100K, let them. Save it. You will need it.
Realize that true friends’ money comes with no strings. Sadly, even when facing cancer, you are not free from criticism. Sometimes, but not often, people who donate money will make snide remarks about how you are spending their money. Friends in the Midwest had their grocery purchases critiqued–“Why are you asking for money and then buying steak?” Fast food purchases, toys, and even family day-trips are questioned. My husband once quipped, “What do people want patients to do? Stay home and look our medical bills and receipts?”
You can’t radically change your lifestyle and quit all the basic pleasures because you don’t want to appear to be wasting people’s money–when we first moved to Seattle, I balked at even buying groceries because the prices were so high. You may be tempted to cut out date nights or Starbucks–the extras that bring you joy. Remember, your friends donated money because they love you, and you are going to need small pleasures on this long journey.
You don’t owe anyone anything. So what if Sally gave you a spa day gift certificate? If you aren’t up to socializing, you don’t have to open your home to her. Buy yourself a “Sorry, No Visitors” sign and use it. I can recall sobbing face-first into my carpet, then rising at an insistent doorbell and playing hostess. You are not a sideshow. You are a person. Allow yourself to be.
You can’t thank every person individually right now. You can’t text everyone who texts you. Your husband and children come first, and you need to rest as well–everyone understands that.(Those who don’t are not worth your precious, precious time.)
If you haven’t made a Caringbridge site or Facebook group, you may want to. If a very trusted friend wants to manage it, let her. A site may seem like an invasion of privacy, but it alleviates the weariness of repeatedly having the same conversations.
If you have amusing narcissistic friends, keep them nearby. You will get sick of talking about yourself, your husband, and even the baby, so their stories of the guys who were looking at them at the bar actually become life rafts.
Do what you need to do for your family and what you need to do to have peace that you have done everything humanly possible to save your loved one. Do not stay in-state to be near your family or to save money; stay in-state because you have peace about it and have done the research and believe it is best. Emory University Hospital would have been much easier and cheaper for us to go to, but it had a 35% lower survival rate than Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. People thought we were crazy to schlep the children cross-country, but Greg survived his cancer to watch them grow up.
Besides, a few months far from home can be a short time, really. Less than 1% of my husband’s life was spent in Seattle. (Granted, it was a long 1%.) Others may be overwhelmed at the thought of six months across country, but their reactions shouldn’t color yours.
Expect in-law issues. He is your husband, but he is his parents’ baby. Prepare to draw and redraw lines. Amid all the emotions, communicate clearly, and be the adult you are. If your in-laws are caring for your children, there may be issues galore–one couple in Seattle had their in-laws arrested for denying them access to their child.
Your kids will survive. A move. Inattentive parents. Staying with an aunt. Being carpooled. Too much screen time. Junk food. Disrupted sleep. Cancelled lessons. Missed games. Three months without you. Bad days. (One awful day, all we fed Abby was a boiled egg and a Watchamacallit bar. A two-year old insomniac, the best we had to offer her was a homemade eight-hour Dora videotape. Both girls survived our haphazard parenting.)
I have watched a dozen kids from our time in Seattle grow to young adulthood. They are miraculously compassionate, resilient people. (Many are also brilliant scholarship winners–all that time spent reading in waiting rooms pays off).
God know where your kids are. He knows the road they are also walking. He has ordained them to be there.My favorite truth is that God gives easy babies to cancer patients. I can recall days on the hospital floor when the skeletal patients pushing their IV poles asked, “When will your baby visit again?”
As I tried to console a just-fifteen-minutes-ago widow, Abby was there, toddling around, chirping, “Ria’s heart is broken?” Ria gathered my daughter in her arms and sobbed, “Yes, baby, it is.”
To visit her Daddy, April faithfully donned her Sunday best, knowing gloves and gowns would cover the clothes anyway. She sat in the hot, over-sized gear bringing delight and fueling determination in her father.
Our girls brought joy and hope to us and to others. Your children will, too. Expect them be joys, not burdens.
Ask for help when you need it. If you want a visitor to bring you coffee from Dunkin Donuts, tell them. (Friends who flew out brought us Sunbeam bread.) If you need someone to drive the kids to ballet, say so. People will do what you need if you ask.
“Navigate the corners.” One of Greg’s first doctors spent almost ninety minutes on the phone with us one night, just sharing wisdom. This was his most important advice. It sounded strange at the time, but we later took it to mean look at everything, do everything necessary. We kind of internalized it attitudinally.
Doctors today do not really tell you what to do; paths are not as clear as you would like them to be. Read, read, read. Ask questions. When Greg was diagnosed with OSCC, I emailed top specialists in Paris and at Harvard to ask about treatment–and they responded.Be polite, but ask your questions, and know your options.
Take each HALF DAY at a time. A caregiver told us that things change so quickly that each half day is different.Even fifteen years later, this is a truth that affects me physically. It makes me weak. Things change so quickly, especially during month-long hospitalizations. The world can be dismal at dawn, joyful at lunch, and bleak by bedtime.
Immediately shut down anyone who tries to tell you about their aunt’s neighbor’s cousin’s sister’s cancer plan. Or juice. Or bracelets. Or a guy in Texas or a lab in Mexico. Shut them down. The responses I used were, “It’s like you are trying to sell us a Honda when you know we just bought a Toyota,” and, “I believe we are doing what’s best for our family.”
Listen to the nurses. They kicked me out of the hospital when Greg was very ill–because that day Abby was 18 months old, and the nurses forced me to go get pictures. Fifteen years later, the pictures are still some of my favorites. If they believe you need to go back to your room and nap, do so. If they tell you to eat, eat.
Do not think about work. Walk away. You will have to keep ties to keep insurance, but beyond that, others can cover for you nicely, and you must let them. (I could go on at length about work and identity. Your current, most important identities are patient and caregiver, which stinks.)
Try to eat and rest. (Impossible, I know, when you barely have time to use the restroom!) Stay away from negative people on the ward. You do not have time for people who bring you down. (If you are in hospital-affiliated housing, this can be tricky. Just remember, your family comes first.)
As a believer, believe what you believe. Doctors told us to expect things, and we told them, “We are Christians, and we do not believe that HAS to happen.” At one point, the doctors in Seattle, who are the best in the world at bone marrow transplants, said themselves, “Surely this is the work of the Lord.”
Don’t be afraid. God is ever faithful. He is so good, and we have seen it time and time again. Think of the wonders He has performed in your past, and look to the future with hope.