I didn’t know what a closed system was until Adam Pancake told me. I certainly didn’t know I was living in one.
Adam Pancake was the therapist who was assigned to us phone us weekly in 2011, during the twelve week period when I was bedridden with a maisonneuve fracture and, for even more character building fun, Greg got diagnosed with oral squamous cell carcinoma and had a partial mandibulectomy (jaw removal). Perhaps because they knew that two adults were sitting around taking Percocet while binge-watching Andy Griffith, our insurance provider mandated weekly conversations with Mr. Pancake.
(That is his name. On Twitter even. I’m not changing it because, hey, it’s GRAND.)
After a few weeks of chit-chats, Mr. Pancake said, “It sounds to me like your family is a closed system: it’s the four of you against the world. And it’s been like that since the bone marrow transplant. As long as things are going well, you’re fine–but when things start going badly, instead of exploding out, like other people, you explode inwardly–at each other.”
Well, five years later, we are still a closed system. And since we have spent months in upheaval that makes cancer and a broken leg look fun, we have been imploding–not full scale demolition-worthy implosions by any means, but sparks are flying, and sometimes igniting, amid all these tears.
Our new, sit-in-a-chair, real life therapist said in the spring at the outset of all of this, there were only two rules that even people with ending worlds must obey:
- Be nice.
- Give each other space.
We have managed, even in our small open-floor plan home, to do just that. There are chairs under three separate, distant trees in the back yard, and there’s a chair in the garage for when it’s raining. Greg and I have done a lot of sitting and staring at crepe magnolias and hydrangeas; Abby has gone to the Y, and April has taken some long walks, even in the rain. Space has been healing.
You can’t say the wrong thing to someone who’s in a recliner if you are in the backyard. It’s hard to yell at someone when you are on a walk a mile away. We have gotten good at giving distance.
Being nice has been harder. There’s a temptation to snap back, to choose words that bite–why not hurt with words when everything else hurts anyway?
Fortunately, Greg and I attended Marriage Encounter last November, literally days before we were flung onto this unexpected path. We learned in two days in a Holiday Inn conference room things we hadn’t heard in 24 years of church and Sunday School–simple strategies that have been like the tiniest of lights in all this darkness. Daily, we regroup. Apologize. Rephrase.
Daily we fail. We fall short. We begin again: kindness, space.
Last night, we talked to April’s birth father. He, Greg, and I discussed the girl we love, a 22 year-old young adult now, who is rebuilding her life as best she can. She is comfortable in New York, after months of pain and heartbreak. She’s looking for a job, playing with her adorable niece, and awaiting the any-day birth of her nephew. It may be temporary, a geographic cure, a catching-of-breath before a return South.
It may be for good.
No one knows. But what we do know is this: on April 13, 2016, our closed system opened, allowing in sweet Stephanie Grace. That day, the four of us were submerged by waves of our love for her, and since then, we have nearly drowned in her loss.
And now, as we emerge from our whirlpools of grief–having been almost totally consumed–what matters most is not that our girl is 1,034 miles away. It’s that we can hear the smile in her voice, a lilt that we haven’t heard since last August. We can hear the lifting, the incoming ease.
At April’s 1998 adoption celebration, where a pink ribbon was on every tree in our yard, had anyone told us that one chapter in her story would include a return to New York, I would have been outraged.
Now, if New York is her solace, let it soothe. Let her heal.
Kindness. Space. Time.
Let them work.