Monthly Archives: April 2018

A First Farewell: To my Senior Daughter–and Poetry at Night


Every day during my planning period, I walk to the cafeteria, make my husband a huge tumbler of tea, then deliver it to his classroom. Today, his co-teacher asked if I was okay, saying that he had seen me earlier and I looked lost and confused, standing there in the hub of the school in a daze.

“Oh,” I said, “My leg is giving me a fit–do you know about my broken leg? I broke it in two places five years ago, missed a semester of school. I was in a hospital bed in our den for three months–Greg got cancer at the same time. It was a mess.

He stood there, open-mouthed, then said, “Y’all need to quit getting God mad . . . or maybe He’s using you to inspire people–y’all have nothin’ but turmoil and adversity.

I told him that one of my good friends, a football coach, says that Greg and I are winning just by getting out of bed. By showing up at work. That most people would have quit by now, wouldn’t even attempt to go on.

I guess those people have sick days.

We are 63 days out from Greg’s surgery for Cancer Number Three. His neck wound finally quit seeping last Saturday–eight weeks of slow, oozy healing, some of the longest weeks of my life.

We are now in the post-trauma phase where you try to regain normalcy–but we are each trying to regain it in front of classrooms full of teenagers, themselves in the throes of Spring Fever. Teaching in the spring requires stamina that we barely possess, and we are quick to collapse the instant we get home.  There’s not a lot of chit-chat–it’s all logistics: mission-driven chore division; to-do list negotiation.

Today, as he left to buy cat food, Greg said, “If you think of anything you need, don’t text me. I don’t want to get it . . . and I’m only half joking.”

Because I was too tired to cook, Abby ate cold pizza before heading to bed at 7:30, exhausted, while Greg and I watched a couple of episodes of The Tonight Show (Kevin James won the pratfall contest). We were surprised afterward to find Abby still up.

“In fact,” she explained, “I am about to die of heartburn.”

While Greg went on a Tums run, Abby, miserable, said, “Can you come sit with me for ten minutes, Mom?”

She has new majestic lights from Target in her bedroom–against the grey drapes, they look like stars, truly. She was piled under the mountain of her comforter. “I’m sorry I’m not much help to you these days,” I remarked as I lay down beside her, her face close in the false twilight.

“I don’t need much help right now,” she replied, absolving me. “Isn’t this nice?”

“It’s like being outside on the trampoline under the stars,” I agreed.

She had her phone out. I asked her if she had read the Poem of the Day, Danez Smith’s “say it with your whole black mouth,” a hot-poker of a poem, She said she had read half illegally on her phone in the hall, that it had made her late to class, but that the teacher had “turned her head hard” to allow her to sneak in.

She asked if I’d read, “If All My Relationships Fail and I Have No Children Do I Even Know What Love Is,” and I said no, so she read it to me after assuring me it wouldn’t make me sad.

She read me “God Letter” next–a poem about a sister’s death, anger at God, complexity–her quiet voice telling me of the poet’s story and sorrow. She finished, saying, “I think those last two and a half lines sum up my whole life, you know? ‘I was a mess then/ goodbye goodbye we left there to clean/the house for mourners to come.'”

I could not argue.

She swiped over to Snapchat and said, “Oh, there’s a story by Cosmopolitan about a girl who hid her pregnancy and gave birth at prom.” She shushed me as she read.

When she was through, she said, “The girl must not have had parents. No one knew she was pregnant; she had the baby herself, and it was stillborn, and she buried it in the backyard, and now she’s charged with homicide.”

My child, open-eyed to the realities of life in South Georgia, looked at me and said fiercely, “I want to buy condoms. I want to pass them out. Sure, I’ll say, “Abstinence is better.” But you know what I care about more than if you have sex? The babies who are born dead or born hurt or born and nobody takes care of them. I care about the babies.

She told me of her summer camp friend who gives out condoms. “Her parents know. She has, like, an industrial drum of condoms.”

She asked me if I knew what ————- thinks about Adam and Eve: that there were more people around at the start of the Bible, but that the Bible just talked about Adam and Eve. (This explanation keeps the brothers and sisters from inbreeding.) She is taking world religions this semester and remarks, “Did you know some people think the Bible is an allegory? The whole thing?”

I said, “Please don’t believe that. It’s very important that you believe the Bible, you keep Jesus and God.”

“I’m more something than you, Mom, but I’m not weird.” She was reassuring.

“It’s just that life is so bad, so hard with Jesus–I just can’t imagine life without Jesus, what that would be.” My girls both know I can promise them nothing beyond God’s presence: not happy marriages, not healthy kids, not finances, not personal health. They have endured what we have. With us, they have seen and felt and walked.

They have no blinders. This is no fairy-God.

I had been sneaking touches of Abby’s cheek–when she is tired, there is no touching her. I knew this night, this homework-less, boyfriend-less night, was a rarity, that I have perhaps a dozen more before she is gone.

I know she will go away for good. Even if the cancer comes back, she will stay at college. (We are a family that lists hypotheticals, having found them all too real.)

She always promises me: the far future consists of an apartment near hers. A garden. And cats. 


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Amazing Grace: Now, I See


(This artwork was done for Royce Quill Goss who, like Stephanie Grace, had anencephaly. Used by permission.)

On October 13, 2016, six months had passed since Stephanie Grace’s birth.

It had been almost four months since April moved to New York.

And I was good. Not at all weepy or gray. I was in a good enough place that, when I looked back at August’s blog entries, I thought, I felt that badly that recently? and felt a bit stunned, although I could think of no time when I felt the switch flip, when I felt a bit more like normalcy was mine.

Then, night came. I had to pick up my sixteen-year-old daughter, who was arriving at the school late after a field trip to the state fair. It was dark, and I waited with our dogs in the van, thinking about the drastic changes in our lives over the past six months and the settling that had finally occurred.

Things were better.

Abby trekked to my van–I’d parked in the wrong lot–and got in the van, eager to show off the goldfish she’d won. I said, “Show me your cell phone first,” and she started rummaging through her backpack, explaining that it had died, so she had zipped it up in her bag. The bag hadn’t left her side since, and so, she explained, it would be right here, buried beneath the Rice Krispy Treat wrappers . . .

But it wasn’t.

It wasn’t in her bag at all.

The fish was pushed aside as she ransacked the bag. The bus pulled away from the school in the distance, its lights dim and distant.

We drove around to the front of the school, where the two new club advisors were waiting on straggling parents. They reported that they had walked through the bus before it left, and there was no phone.

All I could picture was a random student finding her phone, opening those pictures, and seeing sweet Stephanie Grace, and not understanding. Irrationally, I envisioned the baby’s photos shared on Snapchat, Instagram, in group texts.

Of course, I knew that all of the students on the field trip were great kids. That my daughter’s phone case was unique enough that they’d know whose it was. That anyone who picked it up accidentally would return it.

Yet the horror that was May and the loss that was June engulfed me. Drowned me again. I sobbed inconsolably on the school steps.

We raced to the bus barn. I wept the whole drive for those pictures, this life.

The bus driver, whom the advisors had called, stood atop the bus steps holding the phone. The phone had been right in the center of the aisle when he went to look. Pretty as you please.

This was, for me, no relief.

It was, rather, reminder. That our deepest sorrows, though temporarily soothed, are constant.

I felt foolish for crying so, for incoherence, for my inability to rein in my anguish.

It is so American, to apologize for legitimate anguish, for our own destruction and ravaging. Standing in our own obliteration, we offer others coffee and donuts as we, independent and prideful, box up our woes and shore up our facades–all is well here, please don’t worry about me, move along.

We sit upon our Sorrow Boxes, firmly clamping their lids. We speak of hairstyles and football scores, exchange recipes and funny memes, preferring to ignore the things that have left us rattled and shaken. Widows, longing to speak of their husbands, sit silently. Mothers who have buried children politely chat about the living ones, speaking of T-ball games rather than nights spent weeping in their missing children’s beds in untouched rooms.

And for a school teacher to become unhinged, even by desperate grief, is certainly taboo. Teachers are our steadfast moral pillars–equalled perhaps, only by ministers–and they are expected to do all things well. To be model mourners.

My coworkers who have lost children return to stand in rooms full of other people’s kids. They touch the children’s heads, see their smiles, help them make Mother’s Day cards. The grace that God piles upon them, that I can see in their eyes and smiles, stuns me in its palpability. It is there, in their classrooms, upon them, and I am amazed.

My grandparents used to sing “Amazing Grace,” my grandfather’s flat bellows ringing  throughout the Presbyterian Church as he enunciated every word. They would listen to it on an old boom box, shush us all if it came on during a Billy Graham telecast–they would close their eyes and go to another place, and I did not understand.

I did not understand Amazing Grace. I was a child.

But now, oh, now.

Tomorrow is Stephanie Grace’s birthday. Two years ago right now, I was standing in a hospital, alone with April, begging God to let us hear that baby’s heartbeat, pleading for my granddaughter’s life.

Two years ago tonight, that prayer was denied.

And although we had already spent months falling–from drops at once both bottomless and repetitive–and we foolishly thought we’d hit rock bottom, that false floor gave way.

We fell so far. We fell so far.

We fell and fell and fell.

The peculiar thing about falling to such depths–falling so far that wherever you once were is immediately unthinkably unattainable–is this simple truth: when you have fallen that far, when you are that broken, you no longer want to climb back up.

I could cry as I write that–those words, bought at such a heavy price are so true. When much–all–is lost, you are so stripped, so broken that in your naked state, you realize all was dross, and what is the point in regaining nothing?

But, oh, in that nothing, that is where you see the grace–because everything else is stripped away.

There is no person that can help you. No thing that will hold you. No thought that can comfort.

There is only God. Only Jesus.

Fifty days ago, my husband had his neck cut open, glands taken out, cancer removed. He had nerves and muscles and blood vessels from his arm grafted in. He had skin from his arm, white and shiny, put in his mouth–a patch where there should be pink. An aberration.  His arm now looks like he fought with a shark–and lost.

For weeks after the surgery, as I walked through the house or as I sat on the sofa, I would hear myself say, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus. Help, Jesus.”

It was so strange, like I was hiccuping prayers.

Even my prayers were broken.

We are 50 days out. We are 730 days out.

We have marked off the days in black Sharpie:  we have shuffled to work, gone to church, written our sorrows.

For 50 days, for 730 days, we have staggered in, bathed in, been propped up by grace.

On a quiet morning in April 2016, the four of us each held a one pound, three ounce baby girl.

We said hello. We said good-bye.

(We first knew Grace.)

























The Love–in The Horror


I am rereading my most recent blogs–and it’s interesting, the things that I do not remember writing. All the careful explanations that I can’t recall crafting. The phrases that I have forgotten putting together.  The blogs of the past months were written blindly in rage and despair, with God sorrowing in the room.

I am not a theologian, but I think if you see enough horror and look at it long enough and feel it deeply enough, you get some insight into the heart of God.

The past two months have been full of things that no one should see.

My students are told on the very first day of school, approximately thirteen slides into the Day One PowerPoint, that they should not come into my classroom bleeding. Not  with a glistening paper cut, an over-chewed lip, or a nosebleed. They are told to go, to go fast, to flee to someone who Does Blood. I joke that they will have a 248-pound old lady falling out, and someone will have to catch me.

But, despite all the chipper lists of what “cancer cannot do,” cancer CAN and WILL make you do the unthinkable, the horrific. It will put the knee to your throat, crush you, leave you on a floor begging for breath, for sleep, for any sort of respite, because cancer does not care. 

It doesn’t care that you can’t afford surgery, that it’s your daughter’s senior year, that you don’t like blood.

If your loved one is ill in 2018, you become a managed-healthcare RN.

I was given a four-minute rudimentary lesson on wound care and sent home with a husband who had his neck cut from under his left ear to three inches from his right–a clean line, a red wound that any NCIS or SVU make-up artist would have been proud of.  And, three times a day, I was expected to examine it, clean it, and slather it with Neosporin like it was just a skinned knee.

Greg tells me that I ran from the room. He tells me that I screamed in terror. I know that I cried, I know that I cried and cried and cried, hours a day, a sorrow no medication could touch. I was failing my husband, failing my family, unable to stagger toward the finish line–to even care or believe that there was one. Fed a decades-long diet of Cancer Propaganda that makes caregiving a Pollyanna-ish all-or-nothing arena in which you are either Selflessly Succeeding or Failing All, I knew I was failing everyone.

After four days the wound began to reopen, its sutures unravelling like everything else in our home. My eighteen-year-old-daughter, the only other person available, had to help. She handed me gauze, cut tape, held my gaze, was brave. As the blood ran down her father’s bare chest, she had to say, “It is not that much blood, Mom. It is better tonight.”

Then, one night during wound care, as Greg spoke, something emerged from the wound. We will never know what it was, but we will be ever-certain of this: it was a breaking point. She and I, ever-competent, got the wound bandaged. Then I collapsed as she retched in the bathroom and Greg wandered helplessly between us.

Facebook Live recorded as I hysterically begged for help–for I, a veteran caregiver, a champion medical string-puller, could find no help anywhere for our family, and we were disintegrating. I said some things about medical mission trips to Guatemala and medical mission trips down the road, and I made assurances that we needed the same help as the Guatemalans, that we were as desperate and would be as grateful.

And coworkers with no medical training, Sunday School classmates we hadn’t seen in years, neighbors, people from old churches–they began lining up to do wound care. To hand me Q-Tips at dawn, to drive over at night after tucking their kids in and hold the flashlight and make jokes about Nurse Ratched. My husband was bare-chested, his arm and jaw disfigured, vulnerable in front of the most casual of friends–we were all so miserable, but aware of the love in the room.

I think that’s what Christ is: the love in the room. He is the sobs of a terrified wife who is still filling syringes to squirt saline in open wounds. He is the silence of a daughter who is mute as her senior year is destroyed, and the silence of her father, who can do nothing, who suffers most, who feels all of the pain but does not complain. He is the bravery of the daughter 1,036 miles away, powerless but trusting. He is the kindness of those who showed up and lovingly stood for ten dark days beside us in our horror.

The love amid the horror.

The Hope Of Glory.

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