Category Archives: Kindness

The Land of Before: The Thirtieth Year of Marriage

December 2, 2018

Last night, I called my younger daughter, who is 1,001 miles away at college.  She said that she was in the common room with her suitemates, and they were bonding, and I was glad because I think, in general, common rooms should be used more than they are.

Somehow, they got to talking about abortion and babies and whether you would keep a baby who you knew was destined to die. Abby had to tell her new friends that, actually, that happened to her family–that we lived that two years ago.

Until Abby wrote about Stephanie Grace’s death for English 120, I didn’t how much it destroyed her. Of course, I knew April was heartbroken, lost, and bereaved, and I knew of my own helplessness, but I did not know how deeply everything–comforting her sister, shoring up her mom, all while still keeping perfect grades–had impacted Abby.


That’s the thing, the stunning thing: some of us carry tragic loads that seem too heavy to lift even once–and yet we must carry them evermore.


I am in a group of women, anencephaly mothers and grandmothers, hundreds upon hundreds of them who have lost these precious babies, who are lifting their precious loads, and who are walking on in pain.

Before Christmas, I didn’t think I could walk on any longer.

It all seems so unfair. We should have a two-year-old granddaughter romping through this house. We should be worried about keeping fragile Christmas ornaments out of reach, and instead, there’s no baby–even her mother is gone. There’s just sadness, resignation, and anger.

With losses like those we have accrued, it does not matter if you can pick yourself up–because everyone must emerge from despair. If one person remains in the pit, then the other family members find themselves staying near the edge–there is, after all, an intrinsic moral imperative: you tend to the hurt. You try to carry them out–and, if you can’t, you remain nearby. In a family, there is no TRUE moving on unless everyone is ready to walk.


I cannot believe how long my little family has lived with rage, for rage is–in some ways–the absence of love. But rage has within it an angry love–a love that says, “None of this should have happened, and it happened while you were with me, and you dared to stand beside me and endure hell and hard things. You stayed there with me, you propped me up, and I am mad that we had to endure this hell–but every single time I see you, I think of the hell.

That’s what’s no one’s really honest about. That’s what no one says: if your husband holds your hand through two miscarriages, and if he’s there during two failed adoptions, and if you’re there during his three cancer battles, and if you’re both there during your granddaughter’s devastating death, then it will not matter how many roses one of you someday summons the energy to buy. It will not matter how many candlelit dinners you eat together. It will not matter how many times you reach for his hand in the car.

The sad anger is always there.


I understand that God can do a work. What I am even more fully aware of is that God has not yet done a work, unless you consider the marvel that we are both in this house, that he is sitting beside me on the sofa as I write this. There is still a resilience despite the losses stacked like cordwood.


In this edge-of-despair, often angry world, sometimes I feel far from God. I know I feel far from my indoctrination–I joke with friends that I need reindoctrination, I need to go back to those early days of adulthood, days where anticipation was great, when there was joy in keeping a house and fulfillment in the suppertime smiles of my husband and children.


What you must never, ever say, the thought you must fight with ferocity–the one that you must always keep captive is this: I can’t believe this is my life.


When I got married, I intended to be a frugal homeschooling quiverfull mom with six children–everyone on one pew at church.  Instead, it sometimes feels like the only true harvest I have is sorrow–buckets and buckets of sorrow, and it just seems like God has forgotten us.

But I know that, despite everything I feel, God is there because Mr. Chalk told me so. As did Lou Turk. And Mrs. Mullis. I know that at the bottom of the ocean, He is there. On the top of the highest mountain, He is there–and so He has to be in my sad and angry house, but I can’t find Him here.

And so I get tired, And I want to raze the house.


Rationally, I want to destroy the house. To give up, take a cat and dog and flee–because there’s no way that God could have built this. Rationally, there’s no way the “tapestry” they talk about these Christian memes and movies can actually be something that works for me.

All I see is ugliness.

All I see is destruction.

All I know is the silence of the joyless house that I sit in for eight hours a day.


It is only natural to think, how can this be God???

I don’t know because I’m not a theologian, but I think it can be God because I think that God, in the hard times, can teach us the meaning of the word sustain.

He can teach us what it means to be held up.

He can teach us what it means to be propped when there’s just no more energy for propping. When there is absolutely nothing left that we can do for ourselves, that is where God shows up–in our weakness, in our frailty, when we can be neither kind nor patient, when we cannot be anything positive at all.

But we hear ourselves at work or the grocery store, saying, “Good morning, Sarah, that’s a pretty shirt.” “Hi, Whitney, how are you today?” starting the day’s cycle of kindness, the process of reaching out, of being God to others–in this gentle patching, we lose a little bit of the pain. A little bit of that rage. We can forget the hurt temporarily and see, instead, God–I see Him in the student giving me  the candy craft he has made–marshmallows on a stick–embarrassed at 15, but still reaching out, being Jesus to a sad, tired teacher.


Ultimately, no matter the emotional shape of our house, no matter how close we are to the edge of the pit, we are all still together.


August 10, 2021, our 30th anniversary 

Since that day in May–the day of Greg’s brain bleed, the day of the strokes, the day the woosh of the pit was the only sound I heard, when we were all, once again, engulfed in it–I have told myself, On August 10th, I am going to pull in his driveway and say, “Let’s go be glad you’re alive.”  


I thought, really, it wouldn’t happen after thirteen months of living apart.

I thought it would be too big, remembering the land of before. That land is a place we no longer know–and it’s a place few people here have ever seen us be. We have spent two decades in a land of burst and wasted balloons with little and faint music; we have only remnants of ribbon.


Tonight, my younger daughter and I were in her bathroom–she was twirling in a little black sundress and her favorite cardigan, twisting her hair into mini buns, a preparatory post-pandemic collegiate dress-up. We were prepping for one last trip to her favorite Goodwill, forty miles away. “Let’s take Dad,” she proclaimed.


Abby had collected stories for the car–the eight-year-old she tutors who hates “baby TV” (Paw Patrol), her roommate’s cactus scandal (the cleaning service threw away $250 worth of his plants), vegan adventures (recipe plans involving artificial eggs). She was opinionated and funny, just like we’d raised her, and we were already missing her, although she was right there.


On the way home, we went to Burger King–I got a real Whopper;  Abby, an Impossible Whopper, and Greg, cheese sticks.

Abby’s vegan Whopper was a little burnt, and I rolled down the windows while Greg made Dad jokes: “It’d be impossible for me to eat that Whopper.” Abby ignored us, munching happily, saying, “It makes me feel included.”


We whizzed down the highway, the sun setting pink in the distance, the sky cloudless through the pine trees. 

Abby, her mouth full, mumbled something about deer.

“Deer?” I asked.

“Did you see all the deer in that field? There were like a ton of deer. Like twelve. There were mothers and babies. So many deer.”

We hadn’t seen them. Not even one.


We told her the story together, one of the foundational stories of us, of our family in the land  before the pit:

On the night we got engaged, while driving home, I saw two deer standing in the dark at the roadside. 

April, when she came to us in foster care, had the last name of her legal father: Roe–meaning deer.

And when we found out we were pregnant with you–when I was desperately afraid–we drove the next day to the fertility doctor in Woodstock, in Town Center, and as we left the parking lot, there stood a deer in the parking lot, looking at us, then leaping away.

“Abby, it was near a highway like the one in Jacksonville. Near a mall. Lots of stores. There shouldn’t have been a deer,” Greg said.

And we marveled as we rode in silence, remembering the deer.

 

Dirty Dishes: The Nine-Minute Principle

Written on Friday

One of the smartest things I did as a teenager was to build relationships with the parents of all of my friends. If I was at your house and you were in the shower, I wasn’t in your room listening to Billy Joel. I was in the kitchen bugging your mom. If the youth group had a pool party at your house, I certainly wasn’t in the center of the horseplay in the pool. I was in the kitchen with your parents talking about couponing and egg salad.

One of my better friend’s mother was a single parent. She was, and is, one of the calmest women I have ever known. I loved her placid demeanor and the matter of fact way that she lived her life. I spent at least an hour of my life simply reading her refrigerator door. It was covered with inspirational sayings and Dear Abby clippings that oozed self-acceptance and positivity, and just standing in that kitchen and reading that you could buy your own flowers encouraged me.

When she got married again, I was surprised, but she settled into her wifely role very smoothly. One day, several years ago, I went to visit her, and we talked about marriage. She said something that has stayed with me: “Once you figure out where the lines are drawn, it’s really very easy.


I had never thought about that, the fact that we, in our marriages, draw lines. We have them, really, in most of our relationships, even those with coworkers and grocery store clerks. I will be polite to you if you break in front of me at the copier but do not take my food from the refrigerator. I will make small talk with you while you scan my groceries, but please do not lick your fingers while touching my grocery bags.

In my marriage, two of the major lines were fairly clear–for me, no chit-chat in the morning, and certainly, no loud 6:00 AM Fox News. And my husband wanted the right-hand side of the sink empty. Clear always–for the filling of the water pitchers and dog bowls and, of course, for the washing of hands. (When the pandemic began, my younger daughter noted, “Now everybody gets to live like we have lived for 19 years .”) The empty sink was of utmost importance–and loading the dishes was my nightly responsibility.

I like loading them, generally. I like looking out the window, I like the warm water, I like the pets wandering into play with the soap bubbles and sneak licks from the forks in the dishwasher. I like the solitude–the dishwasher door takes up almost a third of our kitchen’s floor space, so if you are loading dishes at our house, you are guaranteed privacy.

And, honestly, I like the time to reflect at the end of the day. To stand there in the kitchen looking out at the Japanese magnolia in the twilight. To be alone after a day with 120 teenagers. To listen to Eric Church and feel the nostalgic hope that music brings.


But, sometimes, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to do dishes. Three from scratch meals a day meant there were always so many. It was late. I was tired. Sometimes, I just felt like they could wait.

When I felt that way, this is what I would do, this is what I thought: Surely, I love him nine minutes.

And, with that, I would set the stove timer. Always nine. Never more or less. Nine was both the minimum and the maximum.


Sometimes, as I worked for nine minutes, I thought contented thoughts–this kitchen will look good, he will be pleased, I am grateful that he is still alive to do dishes for. Sometimes, I was sullen and far from Christlike–as pastor Mark Rutland once remarked, “There’s nothing louder than an angry woman doing dishes.” I proved that maxim true. But always, I made it nine minutes.


Now, my younger daughter and I are living alone, trying to negotiate the switch from mother and child to roommates, a relationship neither of us ever wanted–or expected–to have. She is supposed to be at Yale, and instead, she has been on the sofa in our den for 266 days. She and her laptop have rarely left it–because Yale is still Yale. The insane workload was, no doubt, more bearable in the silent and beautiful Sterling Memorial Library. It was easier to watch a three-hour lecture in Maison Mathis with hot coffee and a fresh croissant. Midnight snacks of raw cookie dough and Nutella quesadillas in her dorm’s buttery (with actual people) were so much better than month eight with Mom.

It was easy to be away, and it is so hard to be here.

But she is here.


Today, I came home from work tired. Whatever ailment I have–fibromyalgia, hypertonia, just plain bad luck–I am in a horrible flare. For the past few days, I have screamed getting in my car.

Screamed.

I’ve done yoga and cried.

Hot baths with Epsom salts.

And there just hasn’t been any relief to be found. None at all. So, when I make it to Friday at 3:00, I’m so happy. So ready to come home and start the weekend.

But Friday at 3:00 at Yale is so very different from Friday at 3:00 in South Georgia. And she is at Yale.


She is helping to design experiments for the psychology department at Yale. She is working in the lab there. She is writing papers and doing important work, but it sometimes feels like she is just hanging out in our den.

I want to tell her the minutiae of the day. I want to send her to Walgreen’s, ask her to do extra chores.

Almost daily, I have to remind myself that, right now, there is an Ivy League institution meeting at my kitchen table. (Certainly, some of the lectures I have overheard have been mind-blowing. Brilliant. I’ve listened to class discussions where I have barely comprehended a sentence. She says things to these people, her peers, and I marvel at who she is when she is with them and who they are now, and who they all will be.)

Yes, there are times when I am able to say, “That might be the future President of the United States who is saying hello to my dog on Zoom.”

There are days when I can understand that she has papers due, question sets, and quizzes.

But there are other days, like today, when I don’t want to do anything and so much needs to be done.


Tonight, I wanted her to take out the trash. I wanted her to sweep. I wanted her to dump the rags, and I certainly wanted her to unload the dishes.

I didn’t want to bend. It hurt. I hurt. But my daughter had work to do on this, the last day of classes. She had lots of it–she would, I knew, see 2:00 AM again.

I thought about the nine-minute principle, about how it applied to her.. And I went into the kitchen, turned on “Holy, Holy, Holy” and began to unload the dishwasher–because, really, you can do almost anything when the music is right.


Sometimes, the people we love need big things–chunks of money and time and work that are hard to give, that require truly gutting sacrifice. Ironically, these things be easier to give than the small continual tasks that seem so very burdensome.

Letting the dog in; retrieving a forgotten towel; refilling a glass of chocolate milk; fetching a bookbag from the car–these tiny acts of grace are ultimately redemptive signals of grace, reminders of love. They are so much more than simple minutes.

The Grand Mistake; The Minor Miracle (Cancer Number Four: Really???)

IMG_20191111_094530Last Saturday, I went to the mall, and as I was leaving, I bumped into a former student and her mother. They are the kindest of people, and I was wild-eyed and sad–it was just sixteen days from my father’s death by suicide and thirty-six hours before my husband’s second heart surgery in eight weeks. It was just too much, and they could tell.

“How can we help you?” the mother asked; I mumbled that I didn’t know, that there was vague talk of a fundraiser and that we had a Boston butt–I’d just eaten some for breakfast, in fact.

“We do food,” the mom said. “I’ll bring you a frozen crockpot meal later–that way, you can just pop it in whenever you want.”

I can’t even be sure I was appropriately grateful–tired and overwhelmed, I was mainly just glad to live in a town where people will feed you if you don’t even know their first names.


On Monday, Greg had his surgery/procedure–we had been told it had a 50/50 chance of working, so when I saw the cocky strut of the surgeon’s assistant, I was relieved. It took two plugs, but his heart was not going to be a problem anymore.

They moved him to a room overlooking the water, and we prepared to settle in for a quick overnight stay. I was hoping for an overdue lunch and a catnap–I had only slept two hours the night before and, worried, been unable to eat much that morning.

But then the nurse said, “And you have had ————recently?”

We were confused–and then she added something like, “For the ———- cancer?”

Met by silence and sputtering, she showed me the record. She pointed to his name and birthdate, she pointed to the name of the cancer–he had cancer in a vital organ. It had not metastasized–I remember being grateful for that. My brain jackhammered simultaneous thoughts, over and over saying, above all the others:

Cancer #4 has been here for weeks? And we hadn’t been told at all?

We have wasted so much time.

Cancer #4 is here.

Shaking, I immediately called his oral oncologist and left a message–I thought that the OSCC would have gone to his brain, not traveled south–that was my only stopping point, the only hinge holding me: I’d never read that it could go where it evidently was. I called the hospital’s patient advocate, got no answer; texted my cousin, a malpractice attorney, and even called the hospital’s attorneys–because someone needed to get in Greg’s room and answer questions.

Because it was there in print. He had cancer.

We asked for the charge nurse, and a cluster of people gathered–all appropriately concerned. My lawyer cousin called, and he made me laugh in the way that cousins do, offering colorful language and good advice, suggesting an X-ray.

Greg, still required to be immobile, lay on his bed. “I had an X-ray in October,” he said, “Can you look at that X-ray, too?”

They did. And, in it, his vital organs were intact.

There was still so much confusion–but there was enough relief that as the X-ray tech arrived, I said, “I’m going to dash down and get something to eat.”


I stepped off the elevator, my mind flying–we still had ninety minutes in the business day–a lot of time to pursue answers. Greg had told the nurses that he would have answers before he left the hospital Tuesday–we were not waiting until Wednesday and then driving back to talk to so-and-so–we were not going to be patient or polite. Cancer #4 left no time for that. I was strategizing–who would best help us? Who could sort this out?

Then, halfway to the cafeteria, I spied them–in resplendent businesswear, tags bearing credentials I liked: there was The Powerful Person (TPP), involved in conversation.

And it wasn’t rest that hit me, but there was an immediate sense that now, the puzzle would be sorted.

I took a second to calm myself, tried to remember my cotillion skills, stuck out my hand, introduced myself and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I can assure you that the most important thing going on in this hospital is happening in my husband’s room right now. Can you please come there with me?”

And The Powerful Person did.

On the elevator, I gave them the litany of medical tragedies, the testimonies of Greg’s stoicism, the story of my father’s death–and I said, “We have to know if this is cancer #4.”


TPP stopped at the nurse’s desk, then went in and met Greg.

Even now, I just remember how much better I felt: there was an authority present, someone who could help. TPP said the right things, shook Greg’s hand, distributed business cards. Cared–and took control.

So, I left to go eat.


The end of the story is simply this: he didn’t have cancer. A machine or a human had erred. (We still aren’t clear which.)

As people do, our friends and family tried to figure out the why behind this happening: what were we supposed to learn? Was it so we could pray for the person who did have cancer? Why allow us to be shaken so?

I know, of course, that there does not have to be a reason, that things sometimes just happen. That this will one day be just a bad memory, a cosmic joke.

Then, I will testify that in a short 55 days in the fall of 2019, Greg had open heart surgery and complications; he had a second, chancy procedure; my father died by suicide–and, to top it all off, we were told that cancer number four had said hello.

I will remember how awful that felt–that the fear and the powerlessness were overwhelming.

And I will also remember how it felt to hand things over–to let go, to walk away, to say to someone else, “You fix it,” and feel absolutely certain they would.


Tuesday, as we left the hospital–after adding more business cards to our collection–I got a text. It was the mother, checking in–she would being dinner the next day,


I stayed home from work on Wednesday. I was still too shaken and exhausted by ourScreenshot_20191117-205144 near-miss,  and Greg was back on restrictions–couldn’t lift, couldn’t drive. I lay in bed until 11:00 AM then forced myself to do chores. Our normally tidy house was no longer so–I couldn’t do it all: work, grade, tutor, exercise, cook, and clean. I vacuumed, noting that somehow the antique marble coffee table was in the middle of the rug. I washed sheets and the duvet cover, going outside midway through the drying cycle to ensure that the duvet was not eating the sheets, not wanting to deal with that.

I tried hard–to rest and to clean. To keep a balance. I needed balance.

So, later, when I opened the dryer to find that the denim duvet had, in fact, eaten the sheets, I just brought the ball of linens in and set it on the kitchen table. I tried to unknot it, but I was getting nowhere. Greg came over to offer suggestions since he could not help pull. The knot only grew tighter–and, since all I wanted to do was crawl back into bed, and I had to have sheets to do that–I felt the frustrated tears threatening: this was all so stupid and unfair.

On top of everything else, I couldn’t even make my bed.

That instant, the doorbell rang.


The student’s parents stood on the stoop, bearing a frozen pork loin, some cranberries and green beans. Their car was running in the driveway. They smiled up at me, offering the food.

“I’m going to need you to come in here and move a table and help me with some sheets,” I said bluntly. (I hope, now, writing this, that I thanked them for the food, Please, Lord, let me have thanked them for the food.)

“A table??? Sheets???” they smiled gamely, confused. The husband went to shut off the car, and then we filed in the house, where, right after we made polite introductions, her husband helped me move the coffee table.

The sheets were still on the kitchen table. My voice quavered as I talked about them–I was still so upset–and then the wife said her husband was great with knots, and he was. Four grown adults stood there looking at sheets with such satisfaction.

As they left, I stood outside with them in the drizzle and tried to convey my thanks, the marvel of the timing–it overwhelmed me that the doorbell had rung just when it did. I ended up crying in her arms, as she murmured that it was all “too much, too much for anyone.”

I would have been embarrassed, had I not been so tired, had I not been so humbled at God’s grace and power.

He had shown me–in less than 48 hours–that he was in the Big–but he was also in the Small.

In that is my rest. In that is my strength.

Screenshot_20191117-205212

 

 

 

 

Please: Don’t Ask How I Am (When You Know)

74365767_3127903847279876_3203540282733756416_n
Follow @revelatori on Instagram

(Note: This is not to step on toes. This is to help me survive the grocery store. And any tragedy survivor’s inner circle should always ask–multiple times a day.)

Five weeks ago, after Greg’s open-heart surgery, when he was housebound and didn’t really feel well, I would pick him up after work and we would go sit at Ruby Tuesday’s and share an appetizer. It worked to fight cabin fever, and sometimes, sitting across the table from each other, I could feel the trauma start to slip away, could glimpse the people we once were.

One day, on the way back to the house, when I thought he had also briefly remembered, “Oh, I used to like her,” I said, “I think it would take more than a month on an island together to recover. More than a month. I’d need two weeks of just pure silence.”

And he agreed.


Of course, we did not get that. My father died by suicide days later, leaving us–once again–completely unmoored.

(If you have joined this blog for the suicide segment, but have missed the preceding anencephaly and cancer segments, you need to know this: the members of my little family are all too fatigued/wounded/calloused to comfort one another.)

Beyond encouraging one another to eat and suggesting, “Perhaps a hot shower would help?” we have little to offer in the way of assistance.

We can offer you little as well.


My father’s death has me exhausted by the simplest of questions: “How are you? I am asked this a hundred times a day by the kindest of people. It is, after all, the all-purpose American greeting.

It seems rude, then, to suggest this, but I believe that perhaps after tragedies that question should remain unasked for a while. These days, I can feel “fine” and five minutes later be weeping in my car. Everything is confusing; my emotions are ajumble–do I want to go eat with a friend, or do I want to lie in bed with my cat? Right now, I can’t decide between Mr. Pibb and Coke without crying–so I certainly can’t tell you how I am.

Saying “fine” after a tragedy is easy, but it’s a lie. Not only have I lost my father, but I’m watching my daughters and brothers struggle from hours (upon hours) away.

Saying “awful,” while more honest, necessitates a conversation that neither of us may really want to have–and it’s not entirely true because there are still bits of joy in each day.

Saying “sad” might make you pat me on the shoulder, and then, depending on the depth of affection we share, I might collapse crying in your arms at school or at Walmart.

And you know all this: you know I’m not fine. You know I am awful. You know I am sad. So, maybe just take a break from asking for a while.

Just say, “I’m glad to see you.” Then–maybe–smile.

In the days right after a tragedy, just be glad that the survivors are coming through the door at work or are seated next to you at church. Acknowledge their presence, but don’t question it. It’s one less answer they’ll have to search for, and they will be grateful.

73275184_396366714605261_3057238406548422656_n
Follow @revelatori on Instagram and make your life better

Time and Tiaras: On the Death of my Best Friend

222888_1018767942182_6886_nThis blog was originally a Facebook note on September 19, 2009. (Today I found myself writing part two, so I thought I would post this, part one, tonight.)

This has been a hard weekend. A teacher from Center Elementary, Delilah Thornton, passed away suddenly—and although I did not know her, I do know Suzanne Bokor, who now has lost her best friend. Who writes on her Facebook page, “I can’t sleep or stop crying . . . I don’t know what I’m gonna do without her . . . Delilah, you will ALWAYS be with me . . . My heart is broken. I love you, Delilah.” And I know the land that Suzanne is walking into, because it is one that I have been walking for almost two years, since the death of my dearest adult friend, Stephanie Saussy. 

When you are a kid, friendships are almost prescribed: your seatmate on the bus, your softball teammates, your mother’s best friend’s kid. It doesn’t matter whether you like these people or not, because you are stuck: they are going to be on that bus, at that game, on that porch, playing Monopoly under duress while your reprieved, happy mothers giggle in the next room. Make friends; make do, take what you’ve got.


Adult friendships are different; they are based more on a choice: I like this person. A lot is at stake in the buy-in—as an adult, you’ve made mistakes bigger than dropping your lunch tray, you’ve got more water under more bridges, and you think really carefully about who you are going to show those long-buried skeletons to. Then there’s the time investment—something laundry and carpooling leave too little of. For mothers, especially, I think friendships carry an added cost: you know that your daughters are going to idolize your friends, just as you did Mrs. Campbell and Mrs. Fesperman in your childhood world. So, you hope to pick someone worthy of the time and the tiaras—and in Steph, largely, I had both. 


I didn’t move back to Waycross happily—we were broke, Greg was sick–I didn’t know or care who my neighbors were. Sure, I knew that behind us was the Saussy’s house, but I didn’t know a Saussy was living there. It took about three months for Abby and C——- to discover one another through the backyard bushes, and, truly, I spent the first sixth months of our friendship apologizing for my family’s intrusion. I was a teenager again—the uncool kid, the fat chick on the periphery, star-struck by the cheerleader with the great husband, the easy pregnancy, the monogram-wearing kid, and the perfect smile. She was and had everything I would never be or have, and why on earth was I now in her kitchen? 


I know now that God put me in that kitchen, that He lined up our lives—that my time in Cancer Land, complete with a 7 month-old infant, uncannily paralleled hers. Greg and I had lived it: we had counted the minutes until the next Kytril pill; we had shaved his head, worrying about what our children would think; we had struggled through the stupid marriage stuff (“Why can’t you put the milk up?”), while simultaneously struggling through the deep stuff (“All Mommy can tell you is, I really don’t think Daddy is going to die.”) 


And so, Steph and I had common ground on which we based an uncommon friendship: 224303_1018767902181_5896_nthe teetotaler and the gal who enjoyed the glass of good merlot, the mother whose kids were bedraggled and barefoot and the mom whose kids wore matching Crocs with their every outfit. I exasperated her with my total cluelessness about the feminine world of makeup and hair: “You send that child over HERE before that dance recital. Don’t you TOUCH her hair.” Steph was my girls’ biggest fan, and the stars in their eyes were certainly those that I expected. 


Now, I am left, holding that friendship—she is gone. One of the ways in which the loss of an adult friend differs from the loss of a childhood buddy is you know so much more. You can count the cost. You know the tradition of coming over “just before lunch on Christmas” is over. That there won’t be anyone else that you can lie in bed with on a rainy afternoon and watch “The Waltons.” That it will be years before another friend, a replacement, looks you in the eye and says, “I haven’t ever told anyone this.” You know your daughters will hold onto the bracelet that’s broken, the T-shirt that’s stained, and you will not be able to fight their insistent “Miss Stephanie gave this to me.”
There’s no more giving—you’ve gotten all you will get. And the instant you realize that, your heart is broken.

The heartbreak that follows the death of your friend is totally misunderstood. You have not lost a relative. You have not lost a child. You have not gotten a divorce. You have just lost a friend. You will go to work, not missing a day. You will be kind to the busybodies who stop you at Kroger, prattling about “her tragic death,” oblivious to the fact that part of you is now, forever, gone. You will cry at night alone, after your understanding husband gives up on understanding. You will wear her earrings her family gave you, touching them just to get through the day.

72908503_556953115076444_5325953699820863488_n


You will get through an amazing number of days, you and your broken heart. You will see a sunset, hear a song, smell her perfume—even, sometimes, hear her laugh like she’s in the room. You’ll even see her in your dreams: That is the best of all. 


And you’ll realize that an adult friendship is the best of all—it’s the hard stuff: marriage, kids, sickness, bills; the fun stuff—first birthdays, drinks in the backyard on a perfect summer night; the forever stuff: listening to music in the dark on a drive, looking at the stars, knowing all is right in the world, at least at that exact instant. You appreciate that someone with one true friend is rich indeed, even if that friend leaves for Heaven early.
You know this, because you’ve grown up.

A Slow Walk to Wonder: Anencephaly, and Love

37233069_10215261927874206_5466771748877762560_nOn the day that my daughter April found out that the baby she was carrying had anencephaly, we weren’t terrified. We didn’t know enough to be. Even the baby’s gender was still unknown. We weren’t given sonogram pictures to obsess over, and we certainly didn’t know anyone else whose baby suffered from it.

Our friends, likewise, had never heard of anencephaly, and several googled it–and saw things they wished they hadn’t. More than one friend said, “You should have told us not to look that up.”


On the day of her birth, for just an instant after delivery, life felt like Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It was not until we saw her that we learned Stephanie Grace’s anencephaly was brought about by a severe case of Amniotic Band Syndrome,  in which bits of the amniotic sac’s lining somehow tangle around the baby.

Our world had shifted once on diagnosis day; on her birthday, those amputations and alterations we did not know could even be–horrors so great no one talked about them–changed our world again.

But the wholly-engulfing terror and loss lasted only a moment–a millisecond where the roller coaster plummets, the stomach goes–and then everything settles, the breath returns. The terror is gone.


In 2016, on those early-summer afternoons when I stared at the Drake elm in my backyard, I was lost. We all were. And people were scared to try to reach across our chasmed grief, since, as a cousin in New York confided, “They don’t make greeting cards for this.”


I’m not easily soothed. I can’t soothe, either. From the outset each school year, I tell my students that I will not pat them. They will not get daily compliments from me; praise will not be flung like confetti. I stand there and say some sweet things, “Honey, I love your jacket” or “Your hair is lovely,” and even though they do not know me yet, they agree: it sounds fake.

Then I talk about alcoholism, privilege, and pain. I talk to them about self-doubt and pregnancy and wild parties–things on teenagers’ plates. I tell them that I know that a teacher is just another problem in their lives; I know they pay their parents’ water bills, and Mom sometimes does crack before school. I acknowledge their pain.

I sound real.

37325977_10216493652884168_3525806904611700736_o


It was not until four months after Stephanie Grace’s birth that we found the Facebook support groups Anencephaly Info and Anencephaly Hope. April, by then, was a thousand miles away living with her birth family, and I suppose my initial thought was that Facebook could provide her connection–a virtual peer group.

My initial Messenger exchange with Info’s founder was twenty-three words. It hardly seemed life-changing.


In those days, I listened to Shane & Shane’s “Though You Slay Me” on a loop during my planning period. Over and over I listened to John Piper declare, “Of course you can’t see what [your affliction] is doing . . . It’s not meaningless . . . do not lose heart. But take these truths and focus on them. Preach them to yourself every morning . . . until your heart sings with confidence that you are new and cared for.”

I saw no meaning in my granddaughter’s horrific death or my daughter’s anguish.

To even consider the possibility of a singing heart was absurd.


But on a quiet Spring morning, on the day of what should have been a sad stillbirth, my family instead had witnessed the hand of God. In that little hospital room, we felt the splitting of time, we glimpsed the eternal, we lived a Truth that most do not. And I will say it always, testify forever: I didn’t know Time could freeze like that, that Solitude could descend, that Love and God could wholly fill a space.

I shake my head as I type those words. I marvel still.


I imagine God chuckled, looking down at me that day–broken, willful, and impulsive on my best days–and said to Himself, “She is going to tell everyone what she sees Me do,” as He wooshed into that room.


37209108_10216042626315933_6139790444101369856_oBecause that’s what you cannot fathom on the dark diagnosis day: you cannot fathom that anything good will come; you cannot see any option other than pure pain. You see loss, loss, only loss. Such an abundance of loss.

And there is no room for joy in the words “incompatible with life, ” because, for parents, their children’s lives are their joy–the cuddling in the bed on Saturday mornings, everyone warm under the covers, safe and together; the first walk in the muddy backyard in the pouring rain, reveling in the toddler’s joyous splashing of his rubber frog boots; the simple pleasure of looking at cows.

On diagnosis day and in the shell-shocked weeks that follow, when so much is newly ruined, to imagine any possibility of redemption is almost impossible. To suggest it is nonsense.


But that’s what comes. After the funeral home, with the tiny Moses basket; the coffin so small a mother can carry it; the urn smaller than a child’s fist. After the months spent in the dark on the sofa–or in the rocker on the patio staring at silent trees. After the memory garden is planted and the headstone with its tiny angel wings arrives. After the first Christmas is survived, the Mother’s Day endured. After all those tears.

After all that, redemption slowly comes.


When I was younger, at church youth group, we had testimony time. We would stand in front of everyone, the microphone tightly gripped, and tell each other: this is what I’ve seen God do. This is what I know for sure. And there would be applause.

Truthfully, at that point in our lives, most of us had endured very little.

But I am thankful for that seed, for the understanding that it is important to say to others: I have done this hard thing, and I am standing here–because your standing implies that if they, too, have to walk that route, then they, too, will also stand.


That’s how I spend several hours a week now: testifying into a Google phone, talking to women in England and New Mexico and Belgium. Telling them how terrified we all were, how April didn’t think she could bear her sorrow, how I wanted to run from the room,  how we all thought we would collapse, but instead, we saw God.

I reassure them their babies are going to be beautiful, that their lives’ best worst day is coming. I tell them to try and believe me, despite the pictures on Google.  I ask that they instead look, really look, at the anencephaly family pictures posted in our Facebook group–the bonneted babies held by truly proud parents, their tiny fingernails painted like their mothers’, their footprints pressed into the family Bible, their beaming siblings bedecked in “Big Brother” and “Big Sister” shirts.

I tell them of the Love in the room.


Last week, two moms had their sweet babies. Born alive. Miracles, both.

And their moms’ first report was, as I promised them it would be, of all that Love.

37264441_10211818322000031_2956911436552470528_n

 

 

https://www.gofundme.com/grimes-family-cancer-fund

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.

 

13015050_10209707934238306_892413147_n

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Separate and Away

10541860_10204203781027446_3419134549942006465_n

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On The Teaching of Kids

Something you may already know about English teachers: we procrastinate. We let the stacks of journal entries and essay tests grow high. We clean our refrigerators, organize drawers, bathe our dogs—anything to avoid all that grading. Common Core Standards, with their heavy emphasis on writing, have made the grading load even heavier.  (I once heard a student, while writing his third extended response of the week, mutter, “I ain’t did a worksheet since seventh grade.”)

I must be feeling masochistic this year: my kids have already written one essay and several journal entries, with another essay test planned for Monday; the stack of papers is quite undeniably large. (Worry not: my Schoology account is now set up, and trees will soon be saved.) So, tonight, after securing my requisites–Cherry Sprite, green Uniball pen, calico cat—I am finally ready to grade. To start hearing their stories, these 77 students.

They have only been mine for 900 minutes. 15 hours. But, already, it is there, in their sloppy handwriting and their short sentences: a desire to be heard. They tell me stories of shooting doves: “I had equality with Papa, just for a minute”; of first bike rides: “I called my dad that morning, back when I still liked him”; of raising their own money for school pictures: “I started singing, and people from all over placed money in the cup beside me”; of their pride in being the first in the family to make it to high school: “. . . even though to everyone else, it may be a small accomplishment.” It is marvelous, this early unravelling, this fragile trust.

For over a decade, I have read everything from research papers on artificial insemination of cows to first person narratives about favorite relatives shot dead in the streets of Miami. My students write of kisses behind the skating rink, the keys to their first trucks, and the impending deaths of their beloved grandparents: I bear witness to it all.

Many people lament the bureaucratization of education. They yell about Common Core and testing and teacher evaluations that are based on pseudo-science. And, yes, it is all a bunch of malarkey.

But I would like to remind my fellow teachers to look behind the malarkey. Behind the pile of Pearson’s money, behind the computers, behind the bubble sheets—there they are: our students.

They are ours. We get to claim them. We get to say things in the teachers’ lounge like, “My students just started Antigone.” We can tell people in the grocery store, “My students are so sweet this year.” At the Friday night football game, we can brag, “That’s my student who just scored.”

We bear the power of possession. Pearson doesn’t.

We teach them the power of kindness. Textbooks don’t.

We write the kind words on their journals of heartbreak. Governors don’t.

Because of us, they will flourish. They will learn kindness and respect.

Yes, we will write commentary in the language of the standard, scrawling “Good use of precise language [CCSS ELA-LITERACY WH 9-102.D], ” like the state school superintendent wants us to. Far more importantly, we will write things like, “I can’t wait to take my picture with you on your graduation day. We will be cheesin’ on that football field.” Surrounding this, we will take a few seconds to draw sloppy smiley faces. From across the room, when students see our notes, they will smile at us, glimpsing our shared future.

That’s our payment. We are paid in smiles, in hugs, in high-fives, and in shouts across gymnasiums. Sometimes, we are thronged in grocery stores and malls like minor celebrities, causing our own children to grouse, “Why do they like you so much?”

The answer, of course is simple: we are people. Not computers, bubble sheets, or multimillion dollar companies. We are rarities: adults who still truly care.

As such, we still have some power. We can ooh and aah over a quiet student’s poem. On Mondays, we can remember and comment upon interceptions at Friday football games. We can take the time to hang up a student’s artwork or chat about colleges. We can sneak hungry students crackers and Sprite.

The executives at Pearson, the governors of every state, the computer programmers and slick salespeople all have one thing in common: they were all taught in classrooms like ours by people like us.

And since they have forgotten, let’s remember. Because somebody should.