Monthly Archives: April 2016

Beyond (Understanding Creon)

 

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I am used to the ravaging of life; I can see things ripped and torn away and I continue to walk, though screaming loudly.

I know others would like me to hush; jump on the moving sidewalk of sorrow and quietly pass.

To sit with Thoreau and sip my desperation soberly in the corner of a silent bar.

Instead I chug it, slurping and belching and, when the bartender brings me a double, I toss that back, too.

I am supposed to hide my sorrows, but how can I hold anything so painful close?

Who would want to hide and cling and shelter and distract?

 

Swing the albatross ’round and holler, “Because of this I cannot breathe!”

Fling the stinging jellyfish away; fly it far. Smash it into the rocks.

It is enough that I must lick the hot poker of pain. I refuse, for you, to pretend it is a splinter.

I am done with muffling. I refuse to smother what would kill me.

I will kill my grief outright.

I will make you watch.

 

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I’m Just Okay, and That’s Okay

13035543_10208282472672188_1874496163_oSince baby Stephanie Grace’s stillbirth last week, I have been trying to live in a sort of neutral, non-emotional place. It’s been hard finding a default setting that incorporates basic kindness, a general lack of sleep, the parenting of two distraught daughters, and the teaching of 60+ angsty sophomores. Music has helped. Carbohydrates have helped. Avoiding chit-chat has helped.

We are doing a lot of silence here at the house–not sad or angry silence, just healing and restful quiet.

Then, today, I participated in this exchange:

Person X: “How are you?”

Me: “Okay.”

Person X: “Just okay?

Through gritted teeth: “Yes, just okay.”

I was dumbfounded. It has been eight days. Eight days since I held my one pound three ounce granddaughter, who never breathed air once.Never heard her mother sing. Never saw the sky. Never petted a kitten. Eight days since I stayed awake for forty hours straight, tending to my daughter and her broken heart. Eight days: not even 200 hours.

Just five weeks ago, April’s room held a crib and a changing table. Baby clothes and colorful toys were in neat piles. We were making preparations, slowly moving from acceptance to excitement. Now, the funeral flowers and sympathy cards still cover April’s bedroom. Stephanie Grace’s ashes are in a tiny urn on the chest of drawers, atop the pink baby blanket she nestled in as April held her. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.

But, I’m okay. I’d have to say the whole family is okay. That’s all we are.

We’ve agreed that it feels as if we’ve washed up on a beach after being lost at sea; just lying there in the sand, we are unable to move to help each other; we are too tired to go get help, too weary to even talk.

No one is bewailing our fate. No one is in histrionics. But we are quietly recovering from something very hard. We are allowing one another to breathe. And rest. 

We are okay. And it is okay to be okay. I refuse to participate in some sort of holier-than-thou Jesus-Healed-Me-The-Quickest Contest. I’m not sobbing in a darkened corner, but I don’t have to be singing, “Praise Jesus, the baby’s in Glory!’ either.

I would rather her be here.

I am allowed to be human, to have emotions; I don’t have to be some sort of parroting Christian robot squawking Romans 8:28. I know all things work together for good: I’ve seen good come from leukemia, failed adoptions, job losses, miscarriages–and I’ve testified to this. Good comes.

But mine is NOT a pretty, front-of the-church, fine-china testimony. It’s a in-the-hospital-bathroom sobbing-your-desperate-heart-out testimony. I can help you when your loved one has cancer, when hubby’s broken your heart, when you’ve broken his, when your kids have messed up, when the bills will never be paid. I can help you if you’re suicidal, if your kid is cutting, if he’s on drugs or in the psych ward or stealing from you. I can help you with the ugly things because I have endured a lifetime of ugly things. 

I’m not going to be rah-rah about any of it. Some Christians can be. I can’t. I lived through a difficult childhood that’s been followed by an even more difficult adulthood, so forgive me if I don’t want to get out the pom-poms. I can’t do that. But I can look you in the face and say, “God is with me. Even here. Even now. Even with this dead baby. God is with me.”

I think my faith requires you to see and acknowledge. I cannot hide the heartache. But refusal to hide the ugly heartache permits others to more fully  see the hand of God. What God has done for us, He will, after all, also do for you.For me, that’s the testimony: my authentic “I’m just okay” and the acknowledgement that God is nevertheless with me. He is graciously carrying me through once more, just as He has before. My testimony, like yours, sometimes requires showing the broken things, all the broken things and all the destruction. Not holding them close, not reveling in them. But not denying them, either.

A co-worker who taught April went to the hospital after Stephanie Grace was born; expecting to see only April, she was surprised that the baby was also in the room. She saw the tiny, broken baby that my daughter was holding so close. But, more profoundly, she felt the peace in that hospital room, the peace that had overcome us all day long.

God was There.

He is Here.

In our brokenness. In the ugly pain. He is in our midst, making the unbearable bearable, knitting together our hurt hearts, doing His work. We can rest in that certain assurance.

Good comes. And if it takes some time, well, that will be okay.

 

 

 

The Worst, Best Day

12992368_10209707986039601_374484923_nTuesday evening, the baby was not kicking. She had not kicked in about nine hours, and April was growing concerned. She tried a warm bath, a sugary drink, a cold drink, a Mountain Dew, walking, sitting still, lying down, and playing music. We called her obstetrician’s office in Savannah; the answering service attendant and I strongly disagreed over whether she needed to know precisely what medicine April took at age six. (“I cannot tell you that right now.”/”Let me just write down that you refused.”/”Please make sure you also write down that we are two hours away and the baby is not moving.”) My truculence was punished by my not getting to talk to the doctor, though the secretary did condescend to say, “He said you can go to the Waycross ER.”

The Waycross ER it was.

Like most ERs, our ER is sometimes a place where you have to consider pinching  your children to make sure they wail louder than the drug seekers. Last night, when we walked through the door, the lobby was calm, but they were training a sweet new intake clerk. If you are a waitress in training, spill a coke on me; I won’t say a word. A slow, new cashier? Count that money three times–I’ll wait. Kind and fumbly ER typist? No. I can’t.

I used my Teacher Voice to holler to a triage nurse: “How long’s it going to take to get this baby’s heartbeat seen about?” She asked if April was over twenty weeks, and then gave us the “Get Out of the Waiting Room Free” card: pregnant women over twenty weeks get to go straight to the third floor.

Three nurses greeted us quickly; it was a slow night. One patient had just given birth and was immediately moved to another wing: we then had the entire labor and delivery wing to ourselves. They set about trying to hear Stephanie Grace’s heartbeat using a fetal monitor; it seemed to be there, but faint. They weren’t sure, and wanted to do a sonogram–an expense we wanted to avoid if possible. But sitting there together on that hospital bed, not really knowing whether that was the baby’s heartbeat or an echo of April’s, we decided that one more scan might be best.

I have never seen a stiller sonogram.

I gripped April’s arm too tightly, willing the baby to wake. Once again, I was stunned by my inability to see anything baby about the sonogram. No heartbeat, no feet, no head, no arms. Just spine. It was March 16th all over again–but worse. I looked at the tech and the nurses, trying to sense weakness: who would tell us now? Did we really have to wait an hour and a half for a radiologist in Minnesota or Maine to download and read what looked instantly obvious? They formed a tight huddle, but as April went into the restroom, I pounced, hissing their names and making thumbs up and thumbs down motions with raised eyebrows. Demanding. Now.

I honor their professionalism. None cracked. But in my eighteen years teaching teens, I have learned to read split-second reactions. And although I wasn’t told, although no one’s face changed an iota, I knew.

April did, too. She swaddled herself in blankets and said, “I just don’t feel good about this. I don’t think I saw a heartbeat on the sonogram. Nothing moved.” We sat in silence, and time passed. The nurses and the tech once again entered in a huddle–they took turns speaking, so that no one person broke our hearts. There was no heartbeat.

At 46, my rage, I know is impotent. It will not pay the bills, fix the car, cure the cancer, or start my grandchild’s heart. It’s useless, really, to argue about what we are dealt--but I had continually prayed, hoped, and believed for Stephanie Grace to have a chance to enjoy a few hours on earth. To  ask April to gracefully bear this, too, seemed a most brutal injustice. 

April’s tears were hard and angry, but brief–because, as she points out, “I was given medicine.” As she dozed, I sat wondering about the unfolding day–we’d envisioned Stephanie Grace’s birthday as a summer day in a Savannah hospital with a top-notch neonatal unit. To be in small-town Waycross on a spring work day was unexpected. I knew the day would be long, but I hoped we would be able to proceed with what April wanted–very few visitors, a tight circle of love around sweet Stephanie Grace.

The first sign that the day held possibility: a message brightened my phone about 7:00 AM. “I’m working in the OB today if you need me. I love you.” A former student, Ursy, was checking in. Her firstborn also died from severe birth defects, and she and April had been planning to have lunch one day and discuss what April could expect. A room-brightener by nature, she cheered us greatly. She told us the story of her daughter’s birth; the girls discussed memorial tattoos–April wanted Stephanie Grace’s footprints and the green anencephaly ribbon. Ursy kept telling April, “Get lots of pictures. Lots and lots of pictures!”  

Pictures posed a problem: early that morning, we’d learned that the photographer we planned to use was unavailable on such short notice; others were similarly booked or not up to the task–and who could blame them, with so much unknown? It was anguishing–it was so important to us all that this day be preserved. We’d been comforted by others’ beautiful baby pictures, and April wanted her own. I kept Facebooking photographers, and finally texted another former student, “Help me find someone!” Within thirty minutes, a sweet-voiced stranger named Stacey was reassuring me, “I’m on my way,” and another piece of our day fell into place.

In all of our time enduring medical crises and hospitalizations, I have learned two things: the first is that the right person will ALWAYS show up. I was mildly curious who the day’s right person would be. For us, the Right Person is never a best friend or a favorite relative because second truth is simply emotional distance is ideal in a hospital visitor during the first throes of crisis. (Alternately: helpful acquaintances can be better than friends, who are often better than family.) This second truth seems cold, but it’s a truth we have lived. It is easy to lose yourself to sorrow when a much-loved aunt shows up, especially if her emotions are also running high. A casual friend or coworker can be a more appropriate support; they recognize your sadness,but their presence encourages equilibrium, something a 40-hour stretch without sleep can require.

At 9:35, a Facebook message came through: “I’m wrapping up things here at the church so I can be free for you the rest of the day.” And, just like that, I knew who the Lord had planned to be the day’s right person: Beth, the mother of four of my former students. I’d seen her at a restaurant a few weeks before and told her the news; she invited April to lunch and took her shopping for the baby. And she planned to attend Stephanie Grace’s sad, sweet birthday.

April dozed as the baby’s father slept in a recliner, having come straight from the night-shift. I quietly sent texts to family members, including Abby, who reported that Greg was still asleep after his midnight run to check on us in the ER. I advised her to wake him and arrive by 11:00.

By 11:17, we’d assembled–a small, slightly frightened crew. The nurses had cautioned that the baby, having died, may be discolored or disfigured; they explained privately to me that, for babies like Stephanie Grace, if the baby’s defect was thought too gruesome for the mother to see, the nurses would whisk the child out of the room and “attempt to make the baby presentable, or wrap her so that the mother can at least see the hands and feet.” We all were silently afraid of what we might see, of what the next hours held.

Abby, Beth, and Stacey waited together down the hall as April slept. We’d been told that the mothers of stillborn, preterm babies often slept, then woke abruptly and–whoosh!–gave birth before the nurse call button could even be pushed. As April slept, my prayers were frantic. My mind was frantic. I could not deliver my granddaughter, could not disentangle her from the sheets. Surely that would not be required of me.

(Author’s note: Brown text below may be difficult to read, but no harder than it was for us to live.)

And then it was time. April awoke, and the just-in-time doctor delivered sweet Stephanie Grace at 12:13–and I was overtaken.  Ninety seconds before, I doubted my ability to look at my granddaughter,  but I was now thunderstruck, mesmerized. The nurses were hastening her from the room, and I whipped behind them, literally, completely unable to take my eyes from this perfectly imperfect, tiny child.

“Don’t you want to stay and encourage April?” a sweet nurse suggested, for the defect was horrific. “No, I’m not leaving her side,” I replied, my eyes still fixed on her. Two truths: It was so awful. And she was so beautiful. They took Stephanie Grace to a nearby room and laid her on an empty hospital bed. As she lay on the blue plastic chuck, her perfect mouth open and her tiny hands clasped, I saw what will be the horror of my life–a secret the sonogram had not revealed: the baby was missing her right leg below the knee. My brain screamed and screamed and screamed at God: ALL April had come to want was a footprint tattoo, and she couldn’t even have THAT??? Two feet was too much to ask for? We were to be denied even that???

And then, that quickly, the rage was gone–I knew we would have loved her, leg or no leg. We would have played soccer, gone to therapy, visited specialists–the rage was gone and the wishing returned. I so desperately wanted a well, one-legged soccer player romping through our house. I wanted the hassle of driving to the best pediatric orthopedists.

My breath was gone; I was full of wanting. I was only all the wanting in the world. 

I started taking pictures of the baby, ungroomed, imperfect, untouched. I turned my camera into a sanctuary forever–full of true, if gruesome beauty. She had one leg, a clubbed hand, a deformed arm, and no skull–but also long fingers, a sweet face, a tiny nose, and decidedly un-toadlike eyes (how wrong the doctor had been!)–all of her, unswaddled. Pristine.

Greg came in search of me, and after begging him not to leave the baby for a second, I went to April. She was proud–radiant with pride. I went to get the photographer and Abby–who went immediately to the baby, and then to tell her sister of Stephanie Grace’s beauty. To soothe her as only a sibling can, to say, you will be able to hold and love this baby because she so very far from frightening.

April stuck her hand out, silently demanding my iPhone. She saw the baby’s hands and relaxed some. The baby’s face, her small nose. April relaxed futher, and a flick of her wrist got her more quickly to the other pictures. She brought the iPhone to her face, peering and scrutinizing. I could almost hear her saying to herself, “That’s not too bad.”

And suddenly, holding her baby became possible for her.

The nurses dressed Stephanie Grace in a tiny gown and covered her head in two caps; they wrapped her in a pink lace-trimmed blanket hand-sewn by an 83 year-old woman touched by April’s story. Stephanie Grace, snug and beautiful, was taken down the hall to her mother’s arms.

The only word: transformation. The truth of that word, of every word here–all of the Unknown that had stalked and savaged us for weeks was gone. Removed. East and West became real–the Unknown was so far away and so absurd. The room was reverent–this sounds like hyperbole and romance and overkill, but oh, I assure you, it is so true–the room was far and away and time was frozen and sound was still and there was just that baby, that sweet baby, and all of these people who loved her. 

It was so awful, so beautiful. So terrible, so holy. 

She was our shared treasure, everyone holding her and studying her, marveling at her pin-prick fingernails, and April adoring her tiny ears. Her petite mouth was a mirror of April’s. We held her hands, kissed her forehead. There was no chatter or cooing–looking back, there is so much silence, but there was no need for words. The cries of you’re here and I’m delighted and you’re here, and I’m so sorry, though unspoken, filled the room.

We took so many pictures. The compulsion: capture every instant. Store it up. True treasure. Truth and treasure. The room was filled with these two things. There was no posing, no checking for a camera, no glancing or glimpsing.I did not look at April, Abby, or Greg–I did not worry about any of them. There was no concern for anyone or anything–our time in that room was the most singular time in our lives. We were all alone, so alone with that sweet baby. Her nineteen ounces filled all space.

We held Stephanie Grace throughout the afternoon. At 3:00, the nurses suggested making a pallet for the baby on the sofa, so April could see her from her bed. I told Stephanie good-bye, once, then twice, and, in order to live, I have to know she heard my apologies as well. They are legion.

***************

There is so much that we do that is wrong and ill. We make decisions and say words that are foolish and hateful. We destroy ourselves with anger and rage and all sorts of envy. We self-destruct and immolate and blaze and blaze and blaze. There is so much wrong. There is so much wrong in all of us.

But I have seen the right, and I have seen the perfect. I have glimpsed the glory, and I will tell the tale.

***************

As she went to sleep empty-armed and aching in her hospital bed last night, April said to me through the darkness, “I know this sounds crazy, but I’d do it all again.”

As would we all.

 

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The Power of the Waymaker

1294323_920311008097494_8403322161241851910_oBack in 2001, on the June day that we found out Greg had Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, he was 35 years old and healthy: the kind of healthy that held season passes to White Water Park, that hiked at Fort Mountain on Saturdays with friends, that helped care for five foster children, even after a long day at work. Although I knew enough to suspect leukemia and start praying immediately the moment I heard “extremely high white blood cell count,” I knew nothing of the sorts and types. CML was an old man’s cancer, with an average age at diagnosis of 65.  At the time, we had a seven-month-old baby, her newly adopted six-year-old sister, and were houseparents at an emergency foster home. There was no time for cancer, and there certainly wasn’t time to die.

I cannot tell you how little we cried then. There was no time for sorrow–the house was full of young children; Greg felt well; we had a window of time in which to make decisions. Our only instructions were to watch intently for signs of the tipping point–blast phase–which indicated the almost always lethal transformation to AML. I set about researching treatment centers and survival rates, and I read message boards searching for other young CML patients. There was no Facebook or Youtube then; although informative, the Internet was far from its current “click three times and you’ll find 725 people in the same rare boat you are.” But I knew we needed a young survivor, a waymaker who could say, “Avoid that, but make sure to do this no matter what.”

And finally, the Internet coughed him up–Jim, a younger man who, like Greg, had been the picture of health at diagnosis. He was in college, an active outdoorsman, with a new girlfriend–and cancer. He was about one year ahead of Greg in the bone marrow transplant process and was kind enough to spend some of his hospitalization emailing us. He told us questions to ask and answered all of ours; having navigated the ins and outs of treatment center selection, he knew how it felt to be blindly making potentially life or death decisions.

Jim was the only young person on the planet we knew with CML, but he was enough. One person who knew what we felt. One person who had shared our bone-rattling fear. One person who had walked behind that four-foot thick lead door to receive radiation, who had spent a full month of his life isolated, a vomiting skeleton in a hospital room, who had lost his hair but not his dignity or his selfhood. We had someone ahead of us who had emerged not only alive but also able to type the words, “Life is good and I count my blessings every day.  May they find their way to your door, too.”

When Greg contracted a rare, severely life-threatening pneumonia after the transplant–a pneumonia that kills 66% of those who contract it–well, it was no real surprise that Jim had also survived that, too. His presence was a comfort, an affirmation--reading the medical literature terrified us, but Jim’s words were reassuring. Cancer and all that it required–a cross-country move, new doctors, adjusting to downtown city life–became doable, simply because a stranger had done it first.

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2001

We began to refer to him simply as “The Waymaker,” a shorthand that said it all. News that he was “back to teaching . . . finishing [his] dissertation project, and making preparations for the wedding” cheered our frightened hearts. A full life–and perhaps even a happy one–was possible after a bone marrow transplant. Jim had one.

Now, we are again in a situation that requires Internet waymakers. We have taken comfort in anencephalic babies’ birth videos–seeing the babies squirming and crying and alive gives us hope. Just four days after Stephanie Grace’s  diagnosis,  we saw Kevin and Lindsey Dennis’ sweet daughters’ videos. The peace of God was upon them; their joy at their daughters’ births was just as authentic as any parents’. From reading books and birthday cakes to crocheted caps, we began learning how to prepare for baby Stephanie’s birth.

Granted, like one relative cautioned, such videos are edited–God’s tear bottle in heaven likely holds both our tears and the Dennis’, for their sadness is certain. But videos like theirs are important. In a situation like ours, the heartbreak is already fully known; the potential for true joy is not. Seeing Dasah and Sophia allows us to anticipate delight in addition to devastation.

Greg came in from working in the yard last Sunday to find April and I curled up in the green armchairs, laughing and crying as we watched Rachel Alice Aube’s birth video. The hospital bed is crowded for family pictures–in Rachel’s 43 minutes on earth with her three siblings, there is so much love. The photographs of her delighted elder sister holding her are particularly bittersweet. Each photo is a testament to the power of family, and for a family that now feels weak and weary, remembering that power is a comfort.

We also watched Grayson James Walker’s unforgettable video depicting a father’s love for his treasured son. Little Grayson’s monogrammed hat perked April up immediately: “Hey! They got him a monogrammed hat!” (And our shopping list grew.) It delighted April that Grayson’s parents chose to show his eyes; she was strengthened by strangers who were proud of their son, proud of their family. To see the Walkers piled in the hospital bed with their young children surrounding their baby brother is to remember that babies are good gifts.

We may never meet our current waymakers–we’ve never met Jim.  But the Dennises, the Aubes, and the Walkers, in choosing to share their stories, are doing more than preserving their own children’s memories; they are also showing people like us that if we get past the overwhelming anger and all-enveloping sorrow, there will be love. Such sweet love.

The held hand, the kissed cheek, the  forty-three precious minutes–we can hope that they will be ours, too.

We are walking the same way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christ: Who Strengthens Me

12976754_920310534764208_2244250461583658971_oOn my classroom white board, there is a list of things I cannot do. Currently, it reads: “Carve into a mountain; jog to Blackshear (nine miles); cross the monkey bars; roller skate; be nice to Abby about her eyelashes” (Ab added that last one).  It’s a silly list, but it’s meant to remind my students of two things: that works of nonfiction may not always be truthful (mountain carving; jogging barefoot through the snow carrying a violin) and that we all have things we cannot do.

An honest and fearless list would, of course, be much longer. It would include more negatives: I can’t help you with a loose tooth or a nosebleed–ever.  I can’t be kind when I’m really, really tired.  I can’t repeat an answer more than three times nicely. (I start spelling each word in thundering tones.) I can’t remember names when I’m anxious. But lately, the biggest Can’t remains this: I can’t cope well with my daughter’s pregnancy, nor with the fact that her anencephalic daughter, Stephanie Grace, is expected to die soon after birth.

I generally fare well in the struggles we face. I always have. From my husband’s leukemia and our family’s cross-country move to students’ in-class seizures, I have handled past crises calmly. But this pregnancy, after a series of smaller family crises in the fall, has just done me in. I’m ready to turn in any medal I won in the Cancer Caregiver Olympics or the Child of an Alcoholic Triathlons–because in the Parent of an Unwed Pregnant Daughter Speed Trials, I’m not doing as well as I’d like.

I suppose that I expected more of myself because I’ve always done well with my pregnant students. I recognize their stammering and hesitant, “Can we talk?” and, if I’m among the first adults they tell, I manage to make the interaction survivable for both of us. I want my student mothers to remember adult support, not condemnation. Logically, I also want that for my own daughter as well.

I just can’t find my footing–I can’t put the pieces together. I can do some things–buy maternity clothes, accompany April to doctor’s visits, get excited when I feel the baby kick, make jokes about the baby’s stubborn streak, and even talk with some equanimity about the plans for her funeral. Anything pragmatic about this pregnancy, I have a pretty good handle on–if I haven’t figured out the logistics, I have a fairly adequate general plan. But in every emotional aspect of this pregnancy, I am inadequate. Not enough.

I couldn’t even be happy before it was time to be sad. 

April, at 24 weeks, is not struggling. If the time with her daughter is limited to Stephanie Grace’s time en utero, then April will make the most of it. She wants maternity pictures, plaster casts of the baby’s footprints, and an adorable layette. She’s letting the baby listen to her favorite songs, singing to her, and making certain that she knows she is loved.

There is nothing, nothing that I would rather do than curl up beside April and read Let’s Get a Pup, Said Kate loudly to my granddaughter, to cheerfully chirp, “What a brand new one?/With the wrapping still on?” and to let that baby learn my voice. But I can’t stop sobbing long enough to read a book. I can’t talk for more than one minute about maternity pictures or help April shop for the right dress. I can’t stay in the baby section of any store for more than thirty seconds before the air leaves the room. I can’t share in my daughter’s fragile joy because I am still gathering the pieces of my broken heart. 

There is no instant fix for this. I’ve been trying to tell myself, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” but I’m finding that, for me, that verse has been stripped to something akin to “I can live another day, and perhaps be kind to people.” I can’t do much more than that right now. I cannot be all that my daughter needs me to be. 

12959564_10208178114863308_601819068_oBut I want you to know, my grandbaby now has a layette. A former student’s mother took April to lunch last week; afterwards they shopped in Belk’s, where April selected a pink dress and bonnet set for Stephanie Grace.  The student’s great aunt, whom April has never met, has also crocheted the baby a blanket.

My daughter has her professional maternity pictures. A former coworker volunteered to spend the last day of her spring break doing a beach photo shoot. In addition to having pictures to cherish, April will always remember the flower crown she wore, the wind whipping her dress, and the nearby wedding that was close enough to hear.

She has a lovely, long maternity dress. One of her elementary school classmates, Caitlyn, loaned April the dress she’d used for her own cotton-field maternity shots. When we went to fetch the dress, Caitlyn sat holding her newborn, whom we’d thought would grow up alongside Stephanie Grace. I marveled at our peace in the room.

She has freshly cut and curled hair. Our hairdresser, whom I have known for over thirty years, made sure that April felt special and looked beautiful for her photos, refusing payment. “She said it was her gift to me,” April explained.

Yesterday afternoon, as April was dropped off after the photo session, we got to sneak a peek at some of the shots. She beamed peacefully onscreen, totally relaxed, trusting God and enjoying the moment. She was beautiful and radiant and loved. She’d accomplished one mission, ticked one item off the To Do list; her pregnancy was, in at least one way, normal and fun.

My part in all this? Well, I had made the phone call for the hair appointment and suggested a pink bow. That’s it. Because I could not do any more, my friends did Much More. They enthused and rejoiced and clucked over April. They smiled and laughed and chatted. They made everything better. 

12968095_920310824764179_7958268002363552032_oLast night, as I was once again wishing my failures away, I thought about that verse in a different light. What if the words “in others” were included? “I can do all things through Christ [in others] who strengthens me” seems a bit more reflective of the way I’m living now. The funny texts, sweet cards, and late night phone calls from friends strengthen me. The Bible devotional a friend gave me months ago feeds me daily. My husband’s patience with me and my daughters’ understanding show me God’s grace. No one is mad that I cannot do what they can; they are simply picking up my load and going forward, then looking back to make sure I’m still straggling along.

This is the only way I will survive this journey: through the Christ in others, ministering to me. Though I wish I could lead the pack and plow confidently ahead, in accepting my current weakness, I am seeing other’s strengths.

I may be lagging behind, lost in “What ifs” and exhausted tears, but I’m still at least journeying toward the finish line that I don’t want to reach. I don’t want to go there; none of us do. But with our friends we are moving forward; through their love, we are all moving onward.

Myself included.

 

 

Drive The Car

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A month ago, I had a particularly long Saturday. The cats woke Greg and I before dawn, and we were grumpy enough about it to squabble before breakfast. I spent the morning cooking all of our lunches for the week–we eat together (on china) with our younger daughter daily in my classroom–and I spent the majority of the afternoon grading Antigone essays while Abby and her best friend, Em, worked on models of the human brain for AP psych. This unsurprisingly devolved into face painting and body art: since Em is an incredible artist, soon Ab had a realistic, ebony-lashed eyeball on her forearm and her face was covered in black tree branches.
As they set about documenting their artistry for Instagram, I heard a distant holler: “Hey, Mom, what are you up for?”
I wandered wearily into the bathroom, where the girls were washing off the paint, marveling that the acrylic paint was–seriously–an incredible facial. Ab said, “We are thinking pictures downtown. Are you down for that?” They knew, of course, that I was.

I am The Driving Mom. My 2004 Toyota Sienna has over 214,000 miles on it, and the large majority of them are from schlepping kids–but, perhaps because I am a high school teacher, I don’t really consider it schlepping. Teenagers are fascinating–they are still largely real, without artifice. They still get excited about things, and they constantly tell you what they are thinking. They like to go and do and document their going and doing: this makes for a lot of fun, provided you are willing to do one simple thing: drive the car.

Parents who drive the car will tell you that we buy a lot of unnecessary Frosties and french fries. Our floorboards are never clean. Someone is always leaving something important in our vehicles, and yes, we do have to take it to them at 10:30 PM. It can be a Royal Pain. But we realize that driving the car gives us open access to our kids and their friends. When our kids say, “We need someone to take us to the baseball game,” and we say, “Sure! Who needs a ride?” we aren’t being controlling, helicopter parents; rather, we are being empowering. Taking kids where they want to go, saying “yes” to their ideas builds autonomy and fosters connection that teenagers need.

More than once in my classroom, I overheard students say, “I want to go to the bowling party (concert, ball game, etc), but I don’t have a ride.” They beamed when I offered to take them–and when I arrived at their homes to fetch them, there were inevitably two or three cars in the driveway–sometimes more.

“They are all watching the game.”

“They are all taking a nap.”

“Mom says she has a headache.”

The repeated excuses unavailable parents offer their children translate into one thing: “I am more important than you.” And kids hear that message. They know that someone else will have to take them, that someone else will have To Do.

The challenge is, of course, to do. I’m naturally selfish; I serve myself the biggest cinnamon roll, drink the last of the Dr. Pepper, sleep in until noon if I can–I am downright greedy about some things. But I am rarely greedy about driving because I was often the kid who wanted the ride. I needed an adult to drive me–and also to hear me, to chat mindlessly about things like pop culture and then meaningfully about things like college. To be a consistent adult in a teenager’s life is a privilege. I realize that.

My daughter is 16, as is Em. Like many American teenagers today, neither has a license, or even a learner’s permit. Almost a third of American teens say they don’t drive because they have others who drive for them. Being one of these Others who constantly chauffeur can be wearisome; we driving parents will confess that listening to conversations about Poot Lavato or analysis of eye brow products is, truthfully, not all that interesting. But there are also moments when the teenagers in our back seats talk about drinking or sex or drugs or self-doubts, and being able to chime in, to give an authentic answer to a painful question, to participate in a teen’s life–well, isn’t that better than rewatching House episodes on Netflix?

Yesterday, I drove to the coast with Ab and Em to pick up a friend who has moved away. On our return trip, the three girls piled in the back seats, eating “Sin in a Tin” they’d purchased at Publix. Then they passed around Lip Freak Lip Gloss, which one of them had picked up at Ulta. (It bills itself as “The Strongest Buzzing Lip Gloss in the Whole World.”) The girls endlessly squealed variations of, “It’s making me drool,” and “It burns!” before finally demanding to listen to Adele (“Adel-eeeeee,” as they call her.) We listened to tracks four, six, and eight on a loop, and they sang along loudly; towards the end of the drive, they amused themselves by turning the lyrics into spoken word, delighting in enunciating the word endings (“If you’re goinG to leT me dowN, leT me dowN easY”) as I shrieked: it was truly awful. 

There is no doubt in my mind that our drive will be long-remembered. The girls will, in all likelihood, still be snickering about that lip gloss at a bridesmaids’ luncheon ten years from now. Spoken Word Adele will become a new tradition, and on future drives, I will again be subjected to its torture. But I won’t really mind–because these girls won’t need me much longer, and while they do, I’ll be happy to drive.

 

 

If I Only Know This Much: Six Years On

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Discovery Cove, January 31, 2010: There weren’t but 20 people in the park, and it was The Best Day Ever.

On April 4, 2010, Easter, I was employed at one of the best schools in the nation, which was being forced to close. My daughters went there; we had happily been together there for six years. I had over 120 students who were sad, a family that was sad, and what I thought at the time was a great deal of Unknown. Here is my unedited Facebook note from that day, followed by some insight from today:

When I went to put my status this morning, I started instinctively to type, “He is risen.” And then I thought: I can’t write that. I am not “walking” well right now—the past week, touring —- High, seeing my students’ shattered faces as they pored over class lists and tried to fill out schedule forms, listening to my girls on the drive home; failing, again, miserably as a wife—I think Greg wanted the “always encouraging” version and instead has the “always there, and too honest” version; staring awake at the ceiling all night, worrying about what will be, wondering: will I have a job next year? How will we pay these taxes? How will we ever recover financially from these medical bills? I am worried about my Uncle Charles; I’m missing my Grandma; I’m just so tired of it all, and lately, I’m letting the whole world know.

Here’s the thing: I am not getting much right in my life right now. I am scared to death; I am lonely; I am worried about my students; I am worried about my family. I am all these things I know I should not be. Everything will be fine has never been a cliché for me—it has always been a reality. I have seen it time and time again, God’s slow revealing of His plan. But in this very present, I am adrift, waiting for the anchor to again set.

I used to be the “joy” girl—people were impressed by my chipper attitude in the midst of it all. When my world was falling apart, I was still able to show outside what I knew inside: that it would all be okay because, and only because, God in heaven knows the plans he has for me, counts my tears, hears my prayers. He is as constant as my troubles—and He sees his plan. But, lately, I find joy far more rare. The joy girl is becoming a surly woman—so I thought that surely anyone who saw “He is risen” by MY name would laugh.

And then, I started thinking about those days in Seattle, driving that old Ford Windstar through those tunnels to that hospital, going with my daughters—my beautiful, lovely, steadfast girls–to see their father in the hospital. 31 days. And as I drove through those tunnels, I would sing along with CeCe Winans, “You don’t know the cost of the oil/Oh, you don’t know the cost of my praise/You don’t know the cost of the oil/In my alabaster box.” I would sing it loudly, meaning every word, convinced that no one but Him knew the cost of my praise—

It’s true, you know: only He knows. What I’ve been through, what you’ve been through. The sordid sagas, the quiet triumphs. If I told you what it felt like to have Discovery Cove to ourselves, to be alone there, with Greg alive, April adopted, Abby here and healthy, to be swimming above rays and through schools of fish without thinking the words leukemia, New York, miscarriage, to be thinking only of my family and these fish and the amazing moments that God has seen fit to give me time and time again in my life—if I tell YOU that, you may think, “Girl, you have ALWAYS been loopy.” God, well, I can’t help but believe that He would wink and smile, knowing He gave me that day. It took 15 years, wandering through cancer, failed adoptions, lost babies—but my family and I got to that day.

Now I am waiting again to see what He will give me—I am lost in a maze where all I want is either an answer or a fast forward button. Wishing for “August, already” feels, most days, like a good idea. And since I am lost, since I am failing daily to do, be, and convey what my heart so desperately wants to, for a split second this morning, I thought, I can’t write, “He is risen.”

And then I corrected myself—because, if, right now, I only know this much, I know that He is risen, indeed.

Christ in me, my only hope of glory. In August. Right now.

Indeed.

It’s kind of amazing, sometimes, how the Facebook memories can strike me on my timeline–many are bittersweet, tying my heart into knots. But in reading this tonight, I felt vaguely cheered.  Here my little family is, with 2016 threatening to make 1995 and 2001 look like cakewalks, and I can tell you this: I’m not scared to death. I daresay none of us are. I am not lonely. I am not worried about my family.I do not feel lost in a maze, and in our current situation, while I know there are no answers, I certainly  don’t want a fast forward button.

Still true?  We have beautiful, lovely, steadfast girls. Like us, they know that this is a raw deal. They are getting through it with dark humor, lots of chocolate, and our trademark grit. (Granted, they do both talk about punching people, but–so far–it’s just talk.)

Still true as well: The words “I am adrift, waiting for the anchor to again set.”

Thankfully, it’s  also true that God is slowly revealing his plan. He’s given us amazing times and seen us through horrific ones–and although we are not the type of Christians who can talk convincingly about rainbows after the storm, feign excitement over our future powerful testimonies, or lie in bed at night counting the stars in our heavenly crowns, we can look you in the eyes and say, “God has always been there for us. He always will be.”

Although we certainly can’t fully feel it now. Although we stumble blindly. Although we cry so much and are so angry.

Christ is in us. He is our only hope of glory.

He is our only hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Viðurkenna Sorg

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Leaving the grocery store.

Bedraggled. Raggled. Haggard.

(All the double-g words. Me. I’m those.)

Former students in the store.

Former classmates, too.

None knew our Sad News, nor needed to.

I made it through the pleasantries.

None asked about April–or, really, me.

But, in the parking lot, there he was:

One of the Very Favorites

That teachers are not supposed to have.

The tears fell when he hugged me.

(They are everywhere, my tears.)

I explained in an apologetic blur

Then regrouped, admiring his work ID.

His job. His future. So proud of my boy.

Cheered. Happier. Distracted.

(Foronesecondonly.)

As we walked to the van, Abby looked at me:

“You have to acknowledge the sadness first.

Then, you can be the other things:

Happy. Bored. Hungry. Tired.

You just have to be sad first.”

What burdensome homage.

We pay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Separate and Away

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Today at 3:00, I officially made it to Spring Break.

On Wednesday, March 16, when my pregnant daughter’s baby was diagnosed with anencephaly, teaching high school until April 1st seemed an impossibility. I took Thursday off and drug myself into the high school that Friday, confessing to my boss, “We’re watching Ice Age [Dawn of the Dinosaurs]. It’s an epic. It has archetypes. And I’m here.”

I told my classes; they had expected me to return knowing the baby’s gender, not with the devastating news that she had a birth defect and would die. I didn’t have my speech right for my first class: it was rushed, and raw.  I told the next two classes, “You don’t have to do anything, or say anything. Even adults don’t know what to say or do.” They were saddened, but relieved to know that I wouldn’t expect them to turn into wise church mice. During the movie, when I forced myself to holler, “Watch, here I come!!” [at 1:04-1:19], a part of my annual teacher schtick that never fails to get chuckles, each class roared with laughter. It was true: that was SO Mrs. Grimes. Also true? If I was making them laugh, I was still in there, behind those bankrupt eyes.

My mission for the next ten days was to assemble a Mrs. Grimes over a brokenhearted Rachel. To wake up at 5:50 AM, go to work, pass out snacks and pencils, listen to boyfriend woes, cluck over jammed fingers, admire newly gained drivers’ licenses, confiscate cell phones, call parents, grade papers, write lesson plans: all while thinking, “My granddaughter’s skull does not have a top”–and not letting that thought show.

Of course, my class also was reading a Holocaust memoir. Five hours a day of torture. Dead babies. Starvation. Heartbreak. Never has a unit been wrapped up more quickly–fifty multiple choice questions later, we were done, fleeing Nazi Germany for JD Wetherell’s “The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant,” where nothing dies, not even the fish.

And we were safe. Somehow, between Day Two of my return, when nothing mattered, nothing at all, and Day Ten, things improved.  I can’t live this in front of them began to morph into a fragile, I am living this. In front of them.

 

Teachers have a permanent audience. All of the time. Go braless to Kroger? There will be ten witnesses. Wear a bikini on a beach 200 miles from home? A student will be there, too. Get pulled over for speeding? Every busybody in town will see.

We are constantly on stage, watched and evaluated.Let a teacher misspeak, and his career can be over in a moment. It’s fodder for the grapevine when teachers crack; it’s front page news when they abandon their morals. In the world of mass media, the very worst are the most newsworthy.

But whom do we, the average people, remember? The best teachers. The kindest.

I recall the day in second grade when Mrs. Rivenbark looked at my crooked ponytails–my father’s very best effort–and murmured, “Here, let me fix your hair before the others get here.” I recall how Mrs. James, my fifth grade teacher, realized that reading was my escape and celebrated each book I read. Later, when things at home worsened even further, my high school teachers became a trauma team focused solely upon my survival. I was in every club; I attended every weekend tournament; I somehow even became the basketball team’s manager. My teachers did anything to get me out of That House. (Mrs. Dillard and Mr. Fore allowed me in their own homes so often that now, at 46, I can still mentally walk through the rooms.) Surely, all of these teachers had better places to be and more worthy things to do; they had personal crises and families to focus upon.  But they never lost sight of the fact that I had to be saved.

My teachers saved me. Not the guidance counselors; not my extended family; not my church; not my best friends’ parents. These people helped, and helped greatly. But teachers pointed the way to the escape hatch. Unrelated, not as emotionally involved, they were able to convey, repeatedly: This stinks for you. I’m sorry. You can have a better, stable life. Daily, they presented me with a future. It wasn’t falsely bright, but it was Separate and Away–a livable space.

 

Twenty-seven years into the future they glimpsed, I am once again in an unlivable space. A space full of unknowns, with both death and joy close. Our small family hasn’t yet found room to breathe or think. Every TV is on, and every lap has a cat, and we are still adrift.

At school, however, we are anchored. Although none of us are sleeping much, here, we are functioning. In my classroom, the necessity of the facade is lessening; my students tell me I’m 80% back to normal. Perhaps after spring break, I’ll be myself.

Yesterday, as my husband and I approached the school, I remarked, “I’m almost happy.” It was, in that instant, true. School is once again a refuge. This place, where my students moo their answers like cows, draw me pictures of roses, show me home videos, and–on really good days–bring me Icees, this place and the people inside are cheering me up once more.

In case you’ve forgotten, schools are good places where decent people–both children and adults–are willing to daily help one another along. It’s not newsworthy, or even properly appreciated. Nevertheless, it’s done: every morning, students and teachers leave their homes and their troubles for a few hours and help each other to learn and to do, to cobble together survival and daydreams and goals: to create livable spaces and bearable futures.

Even out of heartbreak.