Monthly Archives: September 2019

Emptiness (is a) Testimony

70603464_431735304402275_6081406836227964928_n.pngWhen I was younger, there wasn’t anything I hated more than blow-drying my hair, and in the hot summers of South Georgia, I saw no reason to do so before bed. This distressed my grandmother with whom I lived, who was a true saint. Each night, she would beg me to dry my hair. And when Greg and I were dating, she would still continue her bath-drawing lecture.

One night, Greg heard her say, “Rachel, if you blow-dry your hair, I will give you extra money for the trip.” Something about that rubbed him wrong at the time, but it didn’t bother me, and it doesn’t bother me now. She was trying to get what she wanted, a granddaughter with dry hair, and I was trying to get what I wanted–and have wanted since the age of five–away from the blow dryer.

I was fully confident in my grandmother’s love. I knew her well, I knew the sacrifices she had made for me since my birth. I had always been told that she loved me from the moment my mother told her I existed, and I know that to be true. When I was a very ill toddler, hospitalized for hydrocephalus in Egleston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, Grandma would drive all over Atlanta hunting for Gerber Blueberry Buckle, the only food I would eat.

She loved me with that desperate love with which you love a child who might die.

I loved her equally. But Greg, who was an outsider, viewed our interactions with a different eye, and he thought that in offering me an incentive, she was actually offering me her love.

This was not the truth, but it was the truth as he saw it.

I’ve had a lot of time lately to think about the tit-for-tat economy and the conditional nature of most daily love. Everyday love. Our earthly relationships are meant to mirror Christ and the church, the Heavenly Father and His children, but what they often mirror are Walmart transactions: you give me this and I will give you that–and if you do not give me this, I might give you something, but it’s not necessarily going to be what you want or need.

We become very accustomed to these conditional reciprocal interactions, engaging in them over and over until suddenly, one day, they have lost their appeal.

Doing something just to get something seems, finally, wrong.

It may take years, but work-based worth-proving loses all of its appeal. We simply don’t care about getting anything anymore from those people. If we have to play baseball to win our parents’ love, and we start to hate baseball, we start to hate our parents. If children have to make A’s for Grandpa to be happy, when chemistry class gets really difficult, and then geometry does too, and they’re doing the best they can but have B’s, they begin to dislike school–and feel differently about Grandpa.

I don’t know what it is about us, but we get tired of the if.

We just want love.

Most of the C.S. Lewis that I have read comes from short tweets, inspirational art, and quick glances at underlinings in my grandmother’s books. but I know that one thing he says over and over is that if we yearn for something else, then something else better must exist. And I think that if we yearn for a love that is not conditional, we are in some ways proving the existence of heaven. A loving God would not create us with such a deep desire to experience true love if it were not possible. And in giving us Jesus and freeing us from the “works mentality,” He still did not erase the longing for love.

You may, after a good day–one with blue herons and sunny lakes and icy lemonade and happy children–feel awakened and relieved. For that moment, you may feel all your burdens lift. But eventually, they will settle back upon you, and your heart will once again be weighted and grayed–and you will again feel fear and tremble.

It is in this time that the promise of heavenly love is so powerful. To know that God loves us even if we leave dishes in the sink. Even if we get every orifice pierced. Despite our tattoos, despite our sin, despite the horrifically poor decisions that we made when we were fourteen or thirty-eight. In the face of all this, His love is unchanging. To live, then, with the changing love, of our parents, partners, and children, is particularly distressing.

We want heaven, but we’re here. We want full souls and spirits, but we are here.

That longing for more, those jostles in our souls that remain even after the best of earthly days, is, then, a reassurance, a heavenly reminder that if you cannot be filled here, there must be a there. 

And so the feeling of emptiness, of disconnect, can become a glorious reminder that elsewhere, there is more.

In this way, emptiness becomes hope.

And because we know this, because we understand that knowing our emptiness means knowing His fullness, we can go forth. Without earthly understanding. Without earthly love. Without any single thing our soul thinks we need, we can go forth–even on the days we dread.

In our lack, there is His abundance.


Things God Allows

70166908_2269409233371506_8850290329752961024_nThere is something that God does for me before a crisis–when I can see the giant, dark waves coming and feel the sand beginning to wash out beneath me. He allows me, always, a brief time with friends. The quickest of rejuvenations–not weeks on a beach, not even lingering dinners–just quick reminders: You also have this.

You have someone who smiles the second they see you. Who rearranges their schedule, welcomes you with snacks, wakes their slumbering kids, sits everyone in comfy chairs and lets you, for a moment, forget that offshore the waves are rising, and soon enough, they will be crashing.

I did that in August–sat in my favorite chair in my friend Lynn’s house, some 260 miles from mine. I petted her dog, joked with her kids, ate a donut.

Then it was time to go home.

I didn’t want to, really. Major medical crisis #4 was at home. I wanted to stay away, to wander around Atlanta, to go to Lenox Square–just as I had in college–and look idly at every single purse in Macy’s. To stand there and  feel their leather, to peer inside, looking for those with quality liners–because a cheerful purse lining is one of life’s unnoticed and unmentioned little pleasures. I wanted to eat a pretzel and people watch. To distract myself with the whorls of people and the chortling children.

I was still deciding–home or the mall?–as Lynn walked me to my car. “Go home and go to the Y–walking at the Y will be better for you than looking at purses,” she said, patting the roof of the car.

And I obeyed.

I tell Greg that I wish I knew how many times I have ridden home from Atlanta, taken I-75 to US-82. I want a count because I love that drive–a few times, I have even taken it as a 500-mile day trip, running up to visit museums. For me, those miles are full of good memories with family and friends–now, almost a half a century’s worth. There are places between Cordele and Tifton where there is big sky. There are cows on low hills. There is my favorite pond near Alapaha–at sunset, with the wading birds and cypress trees, there’s almost nowhere prettier.

Sometimes I just pull over and let myself look.

That Sunday, traffic was light. As I sang along with Jason Aldean on Pandora and drank my Dr. Pepper, I suddenly thought, “I am driving 70 MPH toward a place that I do not want to go.

But the reprieve, I knew, was over.

I teach school–I spend seven hours a day with teens who have not yet found their paths. They are still young enough to say things like, “I will never have a boss,” to think that eight dollars an hour is a lot of money, to believe that a fast car will bring them happiness.

But adulthood–especially when combined with tragedy, as most adulthoods are–will blow those illusions away. Even those we need,  the things we want to believe.

That’s amazing, isn’t it? We adults routinely do things we do not want to do, things that are so difficult. We go back to school at night; we relocate to help sick parents; we put our own dreams on hold for others; we face horrors–from bankruptcies to the deaths of children, things that are so terrible that we cannot even put them into words. 

We face things that we know are going to break and destroy us–but we keep our faces forward and we keep walking.

That is what it’s so insane to me about the Christian faith: we can continue to walk.

There’s no need to run away when we know that God is with us–when we have been assured that He is in the bottom of the ocean, on the rocky cliffs, in the low valleys–when we know to the very core of our souls that we are never alone, well, then we can walk.

(Note: I hate that some in the modern church make it seem like there is an epiphany-level of Christianity where everyone automatically feels perfect/better. Because I have never felt whole or complete, like my “God-shaped hole” (the one that the song says is “in all of us”) has been entirely filled. And the fact that I didn’t feel like holding my head high and shoulders back used to bother me–but I now see God also values the walking itself.)

There was so much blue sky that day. I love a blue sky, white cloud day, and on that drive home, I felt fed by it. Like God was saying, “Remember, I do this,” like He was painting pictures for me to remember on the long days in the hospital, letting me store up comfort for the walk I didn’t want to take.

There is, after all, nothing in us that wants to spend days 39-45 in a hospital. Greg doesn’t want to have his sternum “sawed in half” now–or again in twelve years. We don’t want to miss work. We don’t want the bills or the stress or the sorrow or the pain.

But in three days, we will be in our third hospital. The surgery will go better than expected. In ICU, he will do so well that the doctors and nurses will marvel, as they always do.  We will watch Fox News and I will make sure the nurses wash their hands and give him good pain medication and the CNAs bring him ice, and I will ask the custodians about their grandchildren and the cafeteria workers about their kids and thank the orderlies when they bring me blankets. 

When I am sad, when it is all just too much, I will go to the lobby where the exultant new mothers sit in wheelchairs cradling their sweet babies, waiting to go home. I will watch their husbands strap the tiny babies’ carseats in, then turn and carefully help their wives into the cars.

Again and again, I will watch as new families leave the hospital, and I will be so happy–because my God in his mercy allows that, too.











A Tightrope in the Withered Places

69537022_502212617231981_586373691441414144_nAugust 8, 2019

I just really do not know how we are going to make it through this time. 

I think that at least three times a day, usually in the evening. I think it in all caps. I think it in italicized bold 100-point font, in bright red letters and underlined. I think it in a rage.

I am so mad that we have to go through something again when we have not even healed from the last thing, when the last trauma was so awful that we are all still wholly broken. Cleaning that throat wound broke Abby and me both, and having that throat wound broke Greg.

Yet here we are again, required to dance the same dance to the same song. And while we know that Greg will ultimately be okay, and that we will all survive, sustained once more by God, right now, this minute none of us know that we can, in fact, do this again.

It’s the most frustrating dichotomy: we cannot possibly do this, but we know it will be done.

We cannot make it. But we will.

After all, our little family does hard things over and over. 

And we know this. You know this. God has been faithful to us, and He will be again.

But I can also say with honesty that I think all of us would rather just take a pass this time–we would rather just skip the Hard Thing. Certainly, it’s not anywhere near a “take this cup from me” sacrifice that is being required here–but it is more suffering,and frankly, we don’t want to suffer anymore. 

And yet.

One thing we learned early on–almost twenty years ago in Seattle–is things could truly be worse. I could have been long-widowed. One of our daughters could have been the sick one. We could have gone bankrupt, lost everything. 

We know this so well.

So, generally,we walk the tightrope. Recognizing that, like everyone, we suffer less than some, but more than others. Grateful that we are still upright and moving, however slowly.

But there are times when we all just want a few days off the tightrope.  We want to leave it behind.

Abby leaves for college on Saturday. She will again be 1,004 miles away. 

She and I are spending every moment together–she is ensconced on the corner of the red couch–her spot, from which she has barely moved since being blindsided by this latest diagnosis. Tonight, as she and I sat in silence, a sound like none we’d ever heard–a long, low guttural moan–that of an agonized dying animal–came from the bedroom where Greg and his dog were both sleeping. I dashed in to check on the dog, but Abby knew instantly: it was her father, in his sleep.

I woke him, and he apologized for scaring her. He said he wasn’t having a nightmare, that he wasn’t sick.

Completely shaken, Abby sat,saying angrily, over and over, “I didn’t like that . . . I didn’t like that.”

That’s the crux of it, really: when all you do is fight battles, there’s not a lot to like. Sure, we take time out to admire nature, and the girls and I find things every day that bring us comfort–today, I watched an ant carry a moth’s wing ten times his size, and I looked at the pink sunset and called Tasha to make her look, too. 

We reach–daily–for the joy, but we are reaching past so much pain.

September 3, 2019

Greg is a week away from surgery, and today, I found last month’s forgotten words on my phone. That night, I had spat them there in five minutes using voice recognition, thoroughly disgusted with the fact that my husband was moaning, my daughter was weeping, that we couldn’t even enjoy a few peaceful evenings before she left–instead, she was going to be leaving carrying a new, tiny trauma. 

I read them with mild surprise, and I held their truth.

In the past weeks, we have been building bridges out of spiderwebs and toothpicks, talking on blue-sky doctor’s drives about the what-ifs. (There aren’t a lot of whys. There aren’t many what’s nexts? There’s just the simple acknowledgement that this is our now.) 

This week I realized that, in all likelihood, things will never be okay–at least not in the typical sense: I will not have the home, car, or marriage I want. 

I realized that, but I felt no grief. For a few minutes, I just sat on my bed and considered that fact: “It will never be okay.”

The prophet Habakkuk declared, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

That day, I realized this is my truth: I serve a God who is for me, who saves me and keeps me from starving in even this most withered of places.

I considered my God, a sustaining God–who answers my smallest prayers and shows me so much grace and mercy–and I thought about how much I trust Him, with my pain, with my sorrow, with my daughters. I thought of all the times I have seen His hand move on my behalf, of the good things he has built out of our sorrows, of the people whom we know solely through cancer and anencephaly, of all the good He has built from all the loss.

There is no wishing away the bad without also wishing away the resultant good.

And that, I cannot do.