Monthly Archives: January 2019

An Adoption Story (with a Flourish)

January 29, 2018

Today at precisely 4:35, I wished that I had some chicken tetrazzini. My fibromyalgia has been bad, and chicken tetrazzini is a favorite comfort food. (My daughters will tell you that I ate it three meals a day for three weeks the year I had the flu.) At 6:45 tonight–without calling first–my friend Patricia knocked on our door bringing what I thought was her trademark five-star coffee cake. But, no, for the first time ever, she handed me chicken tetrazzini.

Patricia said she had been making some for her family and just suddenly thought of us.

Friends, I don’t know why we can’t get a long run of good health or a big financial miracle, but God CONSISTENTLY shows me that he cares VERY MUCH for me through all these little things. So many little things. 


Within 48 hours of that post, Greg was diagnosed with cancer #3–and our family would once again fight off a quick descent into fear and heartbreak. The fact that God fed me beforehand–that He clearly showed me, “I hear you,” was not lost on me. He has always shown his faithfulness, certainly–and He has also done so with a flourish.


50806980_404095350363625_3774106716409430016_nTwenty-five years ago today, we lived in Statesboro, Georgia. Greg, who was 28 and healthy, had gone to Atlanta for an early birthday celebration, and I was planning to attend an out-of-town Christian women’s conference with my friend Marcia who, like me, was a foster parent. My bags were packed and I was ready to go–until the phone rang.

It was DFCS with an emergency placement. There was a four-year-old, Morgan*, who needed a place to stay, probably only temporarily.

We were new foster parents previously having only hosted one child, a middle-schooler. A four-year-old seemed infinitely more fun. But I had paid for the conference. Greg wasn’t home. Marcia was about to come and get me.

I told the director to give me a minute to figure things out.

I called Marcia, who, like most people, has always seen things clearer than I do. She said, “It comes down to this: do you want a four-year-old or not?”

Yes. I did.


I was twenty-four, suddenly “mom” to a four-year-old. Morgan, who was apparently from a perfectly stable and happy home, yammered away in the back seat about how wonderful life was with mom and dad and auntie. About dogs and cats and balloons. About cotton candy and Chuck E. Cheese and daycare.

The child did not hush.

Morgan, who had evidently been convincingly reassured by a custodial parent that this was nothing more than a fun weekend away, was happy to be with me. And I, too, was thrilled.

We played with my dogs, threw rocks in our pond, ate french fries at McDonald’s, bought pajamas and a toothbrush at K-mart. We made a fort out of sofa cushions and watched Barney and ate ice cream. We did so much.

I, at least, was worn out–but at bedtime, Morgan was having none of it. It was Time to Talk.

Exhausted, I brought the sofa cushions into my bedroom, made Morgan a pallet and turned off the lights. I lie still and listened to Morgan talking in the twilight, a soft voice happily telling me things, going on and on and on into the night.


Morgan was with us only that weekend–on Monday afternoon the judge sent Morgan back to an obviously happy home.

I’d missed a conference and a whole lot of sleep, but I’d had a great time with a little kid.

That was all. (So I thought.)


A year later, I was teaching in Millen, Georgia, when I was called to the office to speak to DFCS. We’d just come off a rough placement of a large sibling group who fought constantly and, as Greg dryly put it, “Conveniently wrote graffiti about us on our own living room walls.” I felt like God had told me to hang on, to keep them no matter what, and we had. But the months had been long, and awful.

I sat down at the vice principal’s desk and picked up the phone, prepared to say no to whomever we were offered.

Totally unprepared for the words toddler and girl. 

The director said the girl had just turned one. Her name? April Roe.

I said yes instantly, without calling Greg. I left him a message at work, headed home, put fresh sheets on the crib and waited for our baby. 51251520_2424644140944156_4486274893234569216_n


April came to us that February night, a Valentine in her hand. We were her home number three. She was mute, traumatized.

She clung to that Valentine until bedtime, when Greg politely asked for it, bending her fingers away one by one, making her let go.


Years later, I was cleaning out my DFCS notebook, where all ninety-three foster children’s paperwork was neatly cataloged, when I noticed a date: January 28, 1994. I recognized that date: April’s birthday.

It was also the date that sweet, chatty Morgan had come to us, keeping me up for almost twenty-four hours, chattering away, making sure–as only a four-year-old could–that I would forever recall every moment of my adopted daughter’s birthday.

That, although I was not in the delivery room in Hudson, New York . . . although I was a thousand miles South and a different kind of weary, I would recall every instant of the day April Roe, my daughter, was born. God made sure of this. He didn’t have to let me know where I was every second twenty-five years ago today, but He did. Out of His faithfulness. Out of His love.


Her name? April Roe? That her birth mother gave her?

It means, literally, “New life, deer.”

(What a flourish.)

 

 

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Teachers’ Hearts: On the Loss of Students

50264375_366084627277340_1670165120438763520_nNovember 22, 2016

Before they left for Thanksgiving Break, my eighty-two tenth graders and I made a promise to one another–we would remain safe, make wise decisions, and return alive on the Monday after Thanksgiving.

The understanding is established on the first day of school: My students are told an unusual rule: They are not allowed to die.

I tell them that I cannot be the teacher who bravely greets her devastated class, despite her own irreparable, sorrowing heart, who is somehow expected to guide students who are even more broken.

Expected to say words when there are none.

Greeted by an empty desk–then stoically watching as it is covered by construction-paper cards, grocery-store flowers, and beloved stuffed animals.

Tasked with cleaning out a desk or a locker, returning half-read library books and thumbing through composition books full of doodles and daydreams. Taking one last smell of a sweater before packing up a backpack, grateful that the classroom cameras can’t record her sobs.

Forced to endure visitation at a funeral home full of gawkers and grievers. To be kind and say the right thing to so many when so much is so drastically wrong. When a piece of her own world is gone.


The teacher-student relationship is precious. Teachers don’t often talk about it because we fear that we may misspeak or be misunderstood and pilloried when we are people who know that what we do is holy.

We work in rooms full of shared life–rooms where there is magic, where there is community, and where there is love.

The American public doesn’t want to talk about, much less acknowledge, this love, preferring instead to attempt to recast the teacher-student relationship into a business relationship, efficient and cold, but one with less risk of lawsuits.

Despite this, teachers continue to love. It is, perhaps, what we do best.


As the November bus crash in Chattanooga reverberated throughout the nation, three million educators mourned with the teachers of the five dead students. Imagined the agony. Lost sleep as they role-played, wondering how they themselves would cope.

I had not cried about the bus crash until I read, “Late Monday night [the night of the crash] teachers from across the district gathered at Woodmore Elementary School painting a colorful mural of encouragement and support.”

I pictured them–men and women lost in grief for children who were not theirs, yet very much theirs. Teachers anguished and wondering, wanting to do and to heal, to start immediately stitching up the unfathomable, unexpected wound.

And then thinking beauty. Thinking love. Thinking unity.

Driving to Woodmore in the dark night to create. To encourage.  For their children, who would need so much reassurance.

I imagined these teachers drinking coffee and crying into Kleenex as they painted, while swapping stories about Zoie, Cordayja, Zyanna, Zyaira, and D’Myunn. (Keonte would later die of his injuries.) Maybe they shared stories of how they had worked on Thanksgiving art earlier in the day. Written poems about the Pilgrims. Talked about their family traditions.

I could hear them saying, “The last time I saw her, Zoie . . .” and I hear the laughter. I imagine Cordayja’s teacher talking about her jangling bracelets; Zyanna’s teacher talking about her writing, and Zyaira’s about her helpful attitude. I picture them talking of  D’Myunn, how he was the heart of the class, a joy to teach.

I saw them painting into the early morning hours. I imagined them there in that building, laughing and crying, renewing their hearts so they could begin to restore their students’.

I saw them.


January 16, 2017

I wrote that beginning of a blog entry on November 22, 2016, then filed it away, dissatisfied. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t enough. It went nowhere.

Now, in January on Martin Luther King Day, I am alone in my classroom listening to Kid Rock and making art because, like the teachers at Woodmere, I have lost a favorite student, Hannah. Like them, I am wholly brokenhearted, yet tomorrow, I must face children because that’s what teachers do. 

One of the most important things we do is face children when worlds are falling apart. We look into their eyes, touch their cheeks. We say, “Your grandma may have died, but it is wonderful that you got to love her this long.” “Your father may not care about you, but that is his loss because you, child, are incredible.” We escort them through losses, striding alongside them on our sometimes-weary legs.

Teachers can’t quit marching. They can’t give up. They can’t say, “This is too much. I am staying in bed.” Every day their students bring their jumbles of sorrow and joy, and teachers try, amid algorithms and adverbs, to also teach students that they are strong, that they will endure, and that they will survive. We delight in the joys–the day that the kids get their letterman jackets, the senior march at Prom, and, of course, the jubilance of graduation. These are such sweet days, and we bear close witness.

But there are other days when it is necessary to wade willingly into sorrow, our arms outstretched, holding twenty-eight pairs of hands as our students trail along behind.

Tomorrow, we will begin the wade.50407348_1014545712061835_3352859171581067264_n


January 17, 2019

It has been two years. Two years since the night I showed up wordless at Hannah’s home, having never before met her mother and stepfather, apologizing because I knew I could not stay away. Two years since I stood in their starlit yard with my grieving students, listening to their cries. 

I have lost two more former students since then–their names in a sad list on a small sheet of paper on my desk at work.  I see it every day. I want to remember them.

They were in my classroom–I saw their smiling faces when they understood, finally, where that stupid comma needed to go. I heard their stories about the bus rides with the band. I read their bad poetry, their angsty journals, their narratives of beach trips.

That they are gone is incomprehensible.


In the movie Cry, the Beloved Country, Jarvis–having just been told by a police officer that his only son was dead–staggers backward, props himself on his truck, and says, his eyes blank, “Dead . . .  Shot dead?”

Every time we watch it in my classroom, I rewind the scene. I make my students look at actor Conrad Harris’s eyebrows, how he lifts them, wordlessly conveying the shock. They watch his hand over his face, his open mouth, his empty eyes, his collapse onto the bumper of the truck. His collapse. 

I tell my students that sons matter that much. That they, too, as sons and daughters, matter that much.


Today, in leadership class, we began preparing next month’s bulletin boards. Volunteers were heading to the library to cut out hearts on the Ellison machine–the idea was that each of our 1,000+  students could then get one heart and write down something they love about our school. 

As I turned to get the pink paper from the cabinet, it hit me: just before she died, Hannah, too, had cut out hearts in anticipation of a February bulletin board–she had bounded into the room, her hands full of hearts, yammering away about how she cut out extras for her boyfriend, how she was going to put them in his truck. How she had saved the scraps because she knew me, and I saved everything, so I would use them for something. She had stuffed them in a cubby hole where I found them on that MLK weekend after her death, when I carefully hung them, not on the bulletin board, but on my classroom door in tribute to her, the student who made me so much better.

Tears filled my eyes as I got the pink paper, and I explained that I was thinking of Hannah and her hearts and all that yammering. I told the kids, “At least you know I love you.”

They grinned, heading off to cut out hearts like Hannah had, taking a piece of my heart with them.

Just like she did.

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The Comfort of Love (Why You Should Just Shut Up)

46358135_10218665678539673_3012786469992398848_n(This blog contains references to suicide.)

My husband and I were foster parents for the first ten years of our marriage. We fostered 93 children whose names are still listed on a stained and wrinkled sheet of notebook paper that is taped inside a kitchen cabinet. Sometimes, standing in my classroom at the end of the day, after my 82 current students have paraded through the classroom with their tales of sorrows and joy, I think You lived with more children than that.

And these children were strangers. They were not flesh of my flesh. They were little people who had been ripped from their homes–flawed though those homes may have been, they were still places where primal bonds endured–and forced to cast their lots with strangers.

Strangers.

These were not children whose hurts could be cured by Legos, cotton candy, and shiny bicycles. These kids had endured unspeakable things. They had been beaten, molested, gone unfed. They were children with “issues.”

In social worker lingo, a child who steals a roast beef from the kitchen and hides it under his bed has “food security issues”–what this means is she was annoying the neighbors by eating their dogs’ food.

Yes: we kept children in our home who had been found while foraging for dog food.

And the logical thought that follows reading that is something like: I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t help those kids, I wouldn’t know where to start.

And that would be true.

There were children who had been beaten so badly by their parents that, after carefully documenting their bruises, the teary-eyed pediatrician hugged them. Their father worked for a national company, and twenty-two years later, I still almost vomit every time I see the company logo. The beatings were that bad. That brutal.

Bundling those children up and taking them to Disney World wouldn’t have solved their problems. There was no quick fix.

Occasionally, DFCS workers called before they brought a child and said, “I forgot to tell you: you may want to hide the knives and scissors before we get there.”

Hide the knives. Hide the scissors. Oh, and sleep well.

Of course, we couldn’t go to church on Sunday and say, “Gee, guys, the reason we are a little stressed right now is that at night before bed, Lizzy tells us that she hopes we die–did you know her uncle molested her?” We were bound by DFCS rules–and common decency–to protect our foster children’s privacy.

Even after our elder daughter’s adoption, we kept a great deal of her background private. No one knew that she had relatives who could have taken her from us in 1998–and chose not to. So, in 2016, we found ourselves judged for sending her to visit them–despite the fact that two state governments said she could have been with them all along.


The most valuable thing about years like those we have just endured is the clarity they bring. Amid the garbage, beneath the flames, there it is: the distillation. We are certain about things that once shook us.

Among the revelations, the clearest is perhaps the most unsettling: I now realize how little we truly know about one another, about even our closest friends’ journeys. At Stephanie Grace’s memorial service, the pastor shared a scripture I had never heard: “The heart knows its own bitterness and joy; he will not share these with a stranger.” (Proverbs 14:10 WEB)

That day, I felt again the clarity and truth of scripture; I knew with a certainty that I had no true insight into the hearts of even my own husband and daughters. None at all. I had never before known such loss and brokenness, and I knew that none of us could verbalize our anguish. In sorrow, they were strangers to me. Though much was known, more was unknown.


We don’t go around telling others our deepest secrets. We don’t show our worst hurts. In adulthood, we learn that few people really care, that others will twist our words or–worse yet–mock us with them later, parading our pain for fun. So, we don’t share our fears. We repress and self-medicate, but we don’t say, “You know, I’m in such a rut–every single day of my life is the same.” “I can’t get out of bed in the morning since my husband left.” “I drink a twelve-pack every night.” After all, who would we tell that to?

And what could they do, anyway?


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Braxton Cromwell Stewart

I have spent twenty years teaching; I have also spent twenty years reading about suicide. I know, I know: suicide is so stigmatized that I’m not supposed to even admit I read about it–despite the fact that I teach Antigone and Julius Caesar, plays in which suicide is featured prominently.

But I do read about it. I know things like:

  • People who die by suicide sometimes see it as a rational act.  Susan Rose Blauner, in her book How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me, says that the person is drawing a line in the sand, saying, “The suffering stops here.” (That’s a paraphrase–every copy I have ever given away has been kept, and rightfully so.)
  • I know that suicide is contagious–so much so that institutions and the media are asked to follow protocols in the aftermath, that whole towns must try to cope.
  • I know that the time period from the decision to attempt suicide to attempting it is only twenty minutes for at least half of the people, a much shorter time period than period previously thought.
  • I know the rate of suicide is rising.
  • I know that suicide is the second or third leading cause of death among young people between 15 and 24.
  • I know that LGBT youth are more likely to attempt suicide.
  • I know that Christians who love Jesus can be truly depressed. (Click that link!)
  • And, thanks to Mark Rutland, I know that there is hope in Christ, even for those who die by suicide. Years ago, I heard the pastor’s explanation in a sermon on cassette, and it has stayed with me: He said that he was confronted by a brokenhearted mother, hysterical over the loss of her beloved child, and he assured her that he believed there was a millisecond between the initiation of the attempt and its finalization in which her child could have thought, “My Lord, what have I done??? Forgive me.”

I was once on an elevator in Town Center Mall with a beautiful blonde young mother. She was impeccably dressed; her bubbly toddler daughter was in an expensive stroller. Abby was two, and she and I were ragtag and exhausted, still consumed by Greg’s leukemia battle.

As our daughters looked out the glass elevator together, I made some offhand remark about our struggling air, my husband’s bone marrow transplant, his leukemia.

I remember her matter-of-fact tone, even now: “Leukemia? That’s an easy cancer. I lost my first daughter to —————. There’s no cure. You’re lucky, he has an easy cancer.”

She meant her words to be reassuring–and they were–but they were also jarring.

She looked magazine-perfect, but she had lived horror.

When we had boarded the elevator, I wanted her life–but by the time we got to the basement, chastened, I was so grateful for my easy sorrow.

Four minutes had changed my perception irrevocably. Just four minutes.


I do not understand much–but I do understand suffering. I do understand pain. And I know what those who are suffering the most, who are enduring loss and heartbreak and despair and hopelessness need more than anything, and that is someone to come alongside.

The unexpected death of a child, the failed adoption, the divorce, the loss–these pain of these things will never totally go away on this earth. It will always be there. There is nothing you can do about the pain of these losses–these things that they don’t even make greeting cards for.

It’s hard to accept that sometimes, nothing can be done, that there are no words to say, that some losses are truly so savage that even the comfort of words is lost.

Do what Jesus would–in the middle of the pain and sorrow–show up.


In Seattle, we watched twenty-one people die of cancer. Friends on the ward. Neighbors in patient housing. Young fathers. Toddlers.

It was so awful.

On one of the worst days there, my best friend, widowed under an hour, raged at the front door of the apartment building, having forgotten her key. Abby, who was 18 months old, went with me to open the door.

My friend was unrecognizable, such was her grief.

Abby was unfazed by her wails. Looking at me for clarification, she said, “Ria’s heart is broken?” and toddled over to her, arms open wide, offering the only comfort she could: the comfort of love.

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What You Did RIGHT in 2018

48914113_1969712729742522_7622048185539624960_nAs a teenager, I was a part of a dynamic youth group–it was large and fun and truly Christ-centered. There were men and women who invested in me tirelessly, who were devoted to my health and spiritual growth with an intensity I have not experienced again. They “got” discipleship. They planted seeds, they watered them, and they brought forth a harvest.

Their harvest–now middle-aged adults–includes a number of pastors and pastors’ wives, children’s and music ministers, missionaries, a successful Christian drummer (with seven Dove Award performances), a 700 Club producer, a “Senior Director of Digital Ministries” for In Touch Ministries, and homeschooling parents galore.

I am among another contingent, a contingent that sometimes seems less than.  Friends who once sat with me on a sweltering church bus now lead hundreds to Christ, while my biggest Christian victory is being nice to a Kroger cashier. The kid whose parents hosted “Fifth Quarter Fellowship” rubs shoulders with Andy Stanley, while I drop off bags of secondhand clothes at students’ homes.

My friend Tasha and I were headed to Walmart last week, and she said, “Do you ever look at the other people from our youth group and think, I missed it somehow?”

I chuckled and replied. “You’re my personal minister.”


We have been friends for over thirty years, longer than I’ve known my husband. We are the dullest of friends. We do a lot of sitting in silence. We never take day trips; we don’t go shopping or see movies together; there’s not even a lot of eating out, except for a birthday dinner–ours are a day apart.

Most of the time, we either sit in my backyard or we do jigsaw puzzles. Either way,  have the same conversations we have had a thousand times before about birds and marriage and kids and heartache and work–and the things we would do if we had the money.

Sometimes, I go to her house at night. I sit in her grandfather’s chair and pet her cat and eat Nerds.

It is all so plain.

It is so far and different from Michael W. Smith and women’s conferences and refugee ministry.

But Tasha–and friends like her–have stood close during my husband’s three battles with cancer. Have come alongside during the sorrows of our lives–miscarriages, failed adoptions, the stillbirth of my granddaughter. Have sat silently comforting us with their presence, bearing witness my family’s implosion.

If there is someone sitting placidly on your couch, no one can become totally unhinged. No one can throw china against the wall to hear its satisfying crack. No one can say mean things if there is someone calmly petting a cat in the recliner. On one of the most wrenching days of our lives–when it seemed the whole family would surely go, the ship would finally, this time, sink–Tasha and her son sat at our table eating pizza wordlessly, chewing and swallowing, sitting shiva.


49206199_289550865245574_5565538378729914368_nAfter Stephanie Grace was stillborn, the days were long stretches of sorrow. Greg’s third cancer stretched them further still, endless hours and minutes to be endured.

And there were people–not a lot of them, but enough–who made those days bearable. Who dropped by and sat and told Greg funny stories. Who brought him egg drop soup and ice cream. Who cleaned his wound with me. Who were present.

That, sometimes, is the most important part of the Christian walk: showing up.  Coming alongside. When the cancer comes back; when the baby dies; when the adoption falls through.

Because all cannot truly be lost if your friends are still there.


So, when you are evaluating 2018, when you are looking back and seeing all your nots--the weight you did not lose, the money you did not save, the daily Bible reading you did not do–I would encourage you to see the things you did do.

You were a friend. You went to a funeral. You wrote a note. You sent a check. You answered the phone in the middle of the night and then, you listened until dawn.

You sat at a sad family’s kitchen table and ate pizza.

You were a personal minister, a reminder of the love of our real and living God.

And that’s a pretty spectacular thing to be.

 

 

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