Category Archives: loss

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.

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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.

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

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It’s as Awful as You Think: Cancer the Third Time

1911814_10202755864990450_1028741040_nI am just mad. Any blog about this cancer is going to have to start out with a lot of anger and wrath and ranting. As an English teacher, I would like to give some explication, set the background up, tell you little things about the past battles Greg has had with cancer, and kind of give you a general lay of the land. But I can’t, because I am MAD.

My husband should not have to have skin from his arms sewn in his mouth. He should not have to have his neck dissected and stapled like Frankenstein. He should not have to miss work without pay. Surviving a bone marrow transplant should not entail horror after horror. In a fair world, once you sat on that lonely bicycle seat behind that four foot steel door and let your body be “killed” by total body irradiation so that you could be brought back to life by a bone marrow transplant–well, in a fair world, after that, you shouldn’t have to have any body parts sawed off or cut out.

You should get to keep all your body parts.

My younger daughter, who worked so hard for so long, winning state and national academic recognition, should not have the last thirteen weeks of her senior year be consumed by her parents’ sorrow. I can see her at a cocktail party in the future, “My senior year? Oh, that’s when my mother was crying on the floor while  my dad was holding the cat and playing video games to try to distract himself from the fact that he was about to have a neck dissection.”

And I shouldn’t have to sit in a hospital room for a week watching my husband suffer. The 31 consecutive days in 2001 should have been the lifetime limit. We weren’t raw then–we were too ignorant to be angry. We didn’t know that financial destruction was coming, that we would spend thousands of dollars–enough to buy a car–on eyedrops (just eyedrops!)–after his tear ducts were destroyed. We didn’t know that, exhausted, he would go to the bedroom around 7:30 almost every night for the rest of his life–no late night movies or card games for him. No walks on the beach or screaming “Happy New Year’s.” We knew nothing of deductibles and co-pays and a life that is ruled by them.

We knew nothing.

And now we do. Now we know so much.


I didn’t even go with him to Jacksonville on the day he got this third diagnosis. I didn’t have many sick days, and he didn’t want me to. He texted me during my last class: “It’s the same kind of cancer as last time” and my world didn’t even crumble–after so many consecutive tragedies, it’s nowhere near rebuilt.

I stepped out on the back porch, talked to him briefly, hearing the same earnest tones I so love. This is what it is, this is what we will do. I heard the sorrow in his voice.

I summoned another teacher to my classroom, directing him to make me laugh–and make my students laugh–in the final minutes until the bell rang. He did, and then he stood there after the bell, waiting for my daughter, who had to be told.

She came in with her best friend, and they started raiding the mini-fridge. She called a cheerful hello to my co-worker. I said mildly from the hall, “You are interpreting him being here wrong.” And her face fell.

But she didn’t cry.


I went and told my boss, who was about to start a faculty meeting, “Greg says tell the staff. Go ahead and announce it.”

I left, and he did.

My happiest friend said later, “When he announced that, it was like I couldn’t hear any more.


We are some resilient folk. We bounce back, push on, forge ahead. But there’s no real forging this time. We don’t want to walk. None of us. Not this path.

We abandoned the rules we’d used to cope with Stephanie Grace’s death: be nice and give each other space. They were now moot: no one could be nice when everything was angry–and the anger made it initially impossible for any of us to be in the same room.

We set two new ground rules: no talking about cancer among ourselves–and no company. The plan; get the drawbridge up, lick our wounds, eat comfort food, pet our cats.

And cry.


That Sunday night, as we readied ourselves for a week at work, I listed our co-workers with cancer, all of whom have markedly better attitudes.

I was hanging up shirts when I asked Greg, “Why can’t we be like that? Chipper and driven? Why are we like this?”

Greg looked away from the television, met my eyes, and replied slowly, as if explaining a basic concept to a small child, “We don’t wear the same clothes as they do. We don’t watch the same TV shows. We don’t like the same foods. So we don’t have to have the same attitude about cancer. I don’t have to be all whoo-hoo . . . I can be this is going to stink for a while.


On Tuesday, a swagger-filled fifteen-year-old boy stopped by my classroom with a friend, a fellow I didn’t know. They stood with their hands in their back pockets. “I am praying for Mr. Grimes,” my student said. “He is in my prayers,” added the other boy, reverently.

They turned and headed out the door.

I breathed the air.

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Measuring Sticks (Suffering is not a Competition)

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I don’t really like church. I wake up on Sunday mornings and try to talk myself out of going. While I  dilly-dally over breakfast, playing online Scrabble, I tell myself there are other, more productive things I could do,

No one else in my family goes. (I once believed I was destined to be a quiver-full wife, and now, ironically, I am, mostly, alone on the pew.) So it is tempting to stay home and pet cats and drink Dr. Pepper.

But lately, I go, and for the stupidest of reasons. A friend, a handsome, mildly-womanizing good old boy, attends his own church weekly. And once when I teased him about going on Sundays, probably hungover, he said simply, “You always learn something.”

Point taken.


This morning, my first thought upon waking was a PMS-fueled, yet pragmatic, “What is Screenshot_20170917-143848even the point?” But twenty minutes before church was to begin, I mustered the energy to dress, putting on my twenty-five-pounds-ago pants that were, in my favorite aunt’s polite terms, “unflattering” even when they fit. I didn’t brush my teeth.

My husband wandered in the bathroom and asked mildly, “You going? The last thing I heard was you asking the cat if you should go . . . She must have said yes.”

 


The door greeters were, thankfully, non-handshaky, and I made it through the narthex without a hug. The lady behind me had a cough, and I didn’t really like the songs, but I was singing. My mind was everywhere–no one I know is at their personal mental best right now after Hurricane Irma–and I was really wrestling to focus on the lyrics, to leave my hectic week behind me, to feel churchy instead of blah.

The chorus leader began “When You Walk Into the Room,” a song that I like enough that I wouldn’t skip it on Pandora. As we congregants sang, “When you walk into the room/The dead begin to rise/Cause there is resurrection life/In all You do,” from across the sanctuary, there came a joyous shout.

Tina Goble, a mother who, having lost her five-year-old daughter to DIPG brain cancer, fully gets the promise of the resurrection,  rejoiced, shouting praise to our God who sustains.

I looked over and thought, “She is so together. She lost her daughter, yet can worship so freely.”

And, immediately, in my spirit, I heard, “Give yourself some credit. You lost your granddaughter, and you are here.”

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Once again, I was getting out my measuring sticks in church. Thinking: she is better than me. She is more patient, more genuinely kind. Why, she is even able, somehow, to sincerely smile–even with her eyes.

When I see Tina, my reaction is always immediately positive. I give her gold stars for being in public, having makeup on, and being so peppy.  My instinct is adulation.

When I see myself in the mirror now, most days, I’m just surprised–who knew that skin could be that gray or hair could be that stringy? I’m full of judgment and disdain for myself. My instinct is condemnation.

That’s what placeholder Christianity does–it puts Tina here and me there. She’s nearer Jesus because she can smile and curl her hair and raise her hands, and I am much farther from Christ because I am here with unbrushed teeth, I looked at Facebook on my phone during the sermon, and then took my shoe off and gave myself a mini foot massage–in church!!!

And my mind gets full, so full, of all the things that I am not. There are so many things that I am not. Then, the pain at all my lack comes in, followed by the envy of others who are doing life better–who are successfully navigating over and around and through their waves, while I am going under again.

And it is so stupid.

Tina and I both faced certain horror. We both held children who were given death sentences, children who were bombarded with cannots and willnots, and who needed accompanying past them. Precious little girls who needed love on the journey to death, and we gave them that.

Christ allowed us to give them that. 

Now, we both have days where we are empty and aching. Days where the smile of another child isn’t enough. Days where we remember the heartbreaks we witnessed. Days where we touch our lost children’s clothes and blankets–and we want so desperately to kiss our girls’ sweet foreheads again.

That I would take out a measuring stick and want to compare my horror with hers, my coping with hers, my current smile and hairdo with hers–and that I would even SEE or THINK about these stupid, superficial things–having seen all that I have, having endured so much, shows desperately the need we have a revelation of Grace, true Grace.

Our God is not a God of checklists and balanced scales. He does not keep track of which of us was kinder to the greeters. He does not care whose breath is fresher. He does not ever notice our hairstyles.

For God’s Word tells us that He does not look upon our outward appearance, but that He looks upon our hearts, and he sees them Whole. And so, when He saw the two of us talking at lunch, He probably chuckled and said to Jesus, “Look, there’s Rachel–she’s telling Tina that she forgot, for a second, the most important thing . . .

When I look at them, I only see You.”

213 Days: Waiting on a Faithful God

I am a rambly high school English teacher. Like my own high school teachers, I talk frankly about life’s joys and losses. I talk about hindsight and heartbreak. I preach constantly about choices. My students know the things I have survived. I tell them that it may someday be helpful to think, “Well, if Mrs. G survived that, I can, too.”
A few days ago, a successful, happily-married former student messaged me out of the blue. She  said, “If you ever need an anonymous guest post on your blog . . .It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, but I felt the need today . . . it goes along with the feel of your blog and what all your readers have seen . . . I’ve thought of you often while going through this.”
I was heartbroken by the honest words below. Read on for a reminder of a young mother’s heart–and then, in Paul Harvey fashion, read the rest of the story, and marvel at our ever-faithful God, who uses sorrow to transform. Who gives hope. Who reminds. 
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March 9:  The day, my baby should have been born, I thought I was over it.
After all, I have had 213 days to get over it,” but Im not.
30 weeks and 3 days ago I had to have what should have been my baby removed from my body.
Just a week prior, I had been told, “We cant find a fetus. Maybe youre not as far along as you thought.” I knew how far along I was; I knew exactly when I got pregnant eight weeks before because we had been trying for a few months already.
I will always remember that day.
I had started bleeding just a few days before my first appointment, so I was already worried that something was not right. After the nurse confirmed that my test was positive, we talked about what was to come over the next several months. I was handed packets of information on the hospital, medicines to take and not to take, what to expect at each appointment, etc.
We then went into the ultrasound room where the bubbly ultrasound technician let her trainee perform the sonogram. I was quickly reassured that my bleed was nothing to worry about–it was just a subchorionic hemorrhage that would need to be monitored. I was put on pelvic rest for two weeks. She then kept looking and looking, with an expressionless face.
Then the more experienced ultrasound tech took over. She also looked and looked, nothing. While my husband firmly held my hand through their silence, I never once looked at the monitor.
Theres a sac, but no fetus or heartbeat. Well give it a week to see if anything changes,they  finally told me.
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Im not a crier, but that day I cried and cried the entire long ride home. For more than an hour, I sobbed.
We hadn’t told our families that I was pregnant, so I put on a brave face and went to work, visited with family, went to family celebrations and to church, pretending everything was okay. It wasnt.
I spent hours on my phone, googling stories of other women who had positive outcomes to my same situation. There were some, but it still didnt help. I stayed on forums, talking with other women who had been in my shoes. I cried whenever I was alone.
It was the longest week of my life.

On my husband’s birthday, we returned to the doctor’s office. We went into the same ultrasound room. This time, the nurse and tech were not as chipper. More looking, nothing. Without much being said, I was escorted into another room where I waited on the doctor.
I knew.
She came in and advised me I had what is called a blighted ovum. For some reason, my body did not let this fetus form inside the present sac.
She told me I could “let my body take care of it itself” or have a dilation and curettage. Maybe Im weak because I was just ready for it to be over, but I was.
We had to call our parents and tell them simultaneously that I was pregnant and that I wouldnt be having a baby.
Early the next morning my mom, my husband and myself headed to the hospital for my outpatient D&C. Spontaneous abortion is the medical term for a miscarriage; I wasnt having an abortion. I didnt CHOOSE this. I wanted my baby. I had prayed for my baby. I had cried for my baby.
In just a couple of hours, I wasnt pregnant anymore. I was on my way home, cramping, nauseous, drowsy, emotionally numb. And not pregnant.
Over the next few weeks I experienced the same decrease in hormones I would have if I had delivered a beautiful baby. My hair started breaking; I cried for no reason; I had hot flashes; I bled.
But I didnt have a baby, and I wasnt pregnant anymore.

 

17349546_10211224690345791_877001159_oThree months: thats how long I was told to wait before tryingagain. I didnt listen; I wanted to get pregnant right away. I wanted a baby.

Every other day there was a new Facebook announcement from parents-to-be or a video of baby moving around in his mommys belly. I hated these people. I was bitter, believing that they didnt deserve to have the happiness of pregnancy if I couldnt.

I wanted to have morning sickness; I wanted to feel my baby move inside of me; I wanted to be decorating my babys nursery.

Month after month, test after test, still no positive.

And I messaged the author to call. She had to call. It had to be heard, not written–she had to hear the tears and the laughter–the mourning turned to joy–for herself
Because when I looked at the picture of my blighted ovum, the date I read was November 30, 1995. 
My only birthchild’s birthday?  November 30, 1999. 
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Stillbirth: One Month On

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Memorial flowers still absorb our silent cross-eyed stares.

(What is this? What is this, even?)

Sympathy cards pile on her dresser.

Crisp handwriting and broken words.

(There are no words when there is no life.)

So much stolen that the words go, too.

Meals feralize. We eat all. Or nothing.

Books cannot distract. (The crossed eyes, taut, refuse.)

TV–never compelling–now even worse.

Prayers surround us, unanswered:broken steppingstones.

A few more could not hurt. But they (may) change nothing.

We cannot touch each other.

The ramrod anger stiffens so; there is no bend or ease:

No reaching arm, nor hand of comfort.

Father, mother, daughters–none can hold our own hard sorrow.

(Do not, please, prop yours unthinkingly here even for an instant.)

Work lies like forgotten knitting. One day we craft. The next–indolence.

(It is absurd how little truly matters. The world lies: to claim value in the worthless.)

Our teeth unbrushed. Our unkempt, haphazard hair trimmed in the dim bathroom.

(Who can brave the Southern beauty shop?)

No rest is found in darkness. Nightmares abound, constant and grim.

(Except one sweet reprieve in a garden sculptured with stark metalloid poppies.)

Even the most obtuse pity our brokenness. Impelled to help, nevertheless

Sensing the ridiculous in the grand gesture, so worthless with its words.

This known, they are simple and quick. (Unrelenting.)

Repeatedly they push the stuck and damaged buttons of our broken hearts.

Daily, students press their warm faces to mine; insistent touchstones.

(The whirring cameras document their dogged reaching beyond my statuary.)

Kind questions and hugs in the acquaintance-filled grocery store,

Like spider webs flung over the Grand Canyon–

perhaps (someday) shall lead us back to the known familiar.

 

And we may find the people we were before this devastation.

Before the raging. Before such sorrow.

 

Before we fully knew.

 

 

We Should Have Said More

IMG_3726When we were in Seattle in the spring of 2001 for my husband’s bone marrow transplant, we allowed our six-year old daughter to fly home to Georgia for her last week of first grade. (This was pre-9/11; also, it was a non-stop flight.) Before April boarded the plane, I was a sobbing, hysterical mess–Greg was faring very poorly at the time; he had pneumonia, and he was in strict isolation. It was quite possible that April had seen her father for the last time, and the thought of her across the country, alone, as he died, was too much for me. My good-bye to her was an awful one.

The stewardess escorted April, clutching her Dora the Explorer doll, away; she was the last to board the plane, save one: an intimidating six-foot four handcuffed prisoner flanked by two FBI agents boarded immediately after she did.

(People who know me are now thinking: And that’s when Rachel got her child off the plane.)

I got April off the plane. But not because of the prisoner. I told the steward that I had botched the good-bye, that her father was potentially dying, and that my daughter didn’t need her last memory of her strong, steadfast father to be tainted by my blithering. I promised to do better–and be quick.

April emerged from the jetway. I apologized for crying so much. I told her, “I don’t think your daddy is going to die. He could, and that makes me sad. But I don’t think he will.” She nodded gravely, her dark brown eyes serious.

(Then, in a chipper tone, I asked, “So, are you anywhere near a rich, tall man in handcuffs???”)

From the airport, I immediately returned to Greg’s hospital room, where I told him of my first failure and subsequent second attempt. “I don’t think I could tell the girls that you might die,” he said simply. “I just couldn’t.”

Before 2001, perhaps I would have felt that way–but that year, we watched over twenty people die, among them small, beautiful children. Daily, we witnessed the rawest anguish and pain. Families had travelled cross-country or around the world in desperate hopes of saving their dearest loved ones, and their loss and the price were too much to bear. Heartbreak was a constant neighbor, and death was just a plain reality.

Yesterday, death and heartbreak found us in Georgia. A high school classmate died of complications of cancer. She was 47 and much-loved. Friends were screaming on the phone to me. “What?How can this be? I didn’t know she was ill!” “Is this a sick joke? You have got to be kidding me!” And over and over, “Her poor momma.” The shock combined with an obvious and unspoken, “I wish I had known.”

There was only one Facebook post of hers about her illness. The rest of her posts stayed true to her loves: family, friends, and pets. Casual friends hundreds of miles away had no real way to help her because we had no real way to know–so the shock of her loss is tinged with the regret that we didn’t take the time we would have to make her laugh, share some memories, and perhaps even make amends. We missed our chance to console. To remember. To honor.

Several years ago, another friend made a similar choice. One of the most head-strong women I’ve ever known, she too was ill, also with cancer. She wanted no one to know. There was to be no fuss, no one taking long trips to sit bedside and make small talk–she just wanted her family and present-day friends. The news of her death was heart-breaking, as was the knowledge that we’d missed our goodbye.

People travelled hundreds of miles to her funeral. Like us, some hadn’t seen her in thirteen years–but we laughed at the stories told from the pulpit. Yes, she did take her friends’ toddlers to Disney movies so that their weary parents could sleep. Yes, she was a germaphobe. Yes, the love of God did shine through her brightly. Eulogies and testimonies of her love for others abounded. And none of us could be angry that she chose to keep her illness private–because it was true to her character that she did so, certainly, out of humility and love.

As I sit here, shocked by another too-soon death, I look back over our messages about pets and husbands. Mundane, but joyful. And I think about what I might have added, had I known: “I always admired your smile. You were always so kind to everyone, no matter the circumstances. It is obvious that everyone in your adopted hometown adores you. I wish you peace.”

I would have done and said more.

And so, here it is: all we can do is say more. It may be uncomfortable at first, but we can say things like, “I appreciate you so much.” “Thank you for standing there with me.” “I can always count on you to be by my side.” “You make me laugh when nothing is funny.” “You were like a mother to me.” “When my day was lousy, you were always there.” “I could not have survived this without you.” “You can always make me feel better.”  “My life is better because of you.””I love you.”

Our friends, our true friends, can hear it–the simple and pleasant truth that they matter. They’ve made the journey survivable for us.

Then, one day, should their own journeys become unsurvivable, they will know that their love mattered, their friendship was valued, and they will be forever missed.

And great will be the peace.

 

 

 

 

 

Mothering (Gray Day) Warriors

If you get the wrong mother, hush.

Never speak of it.

(Maybe she didn’t want you, either.)

 

When you see your classmate with a quiet, lip-sticked Mother

(who is not dancing with the policemen and perhaps never has)

do not want that muted version.

If, at age eight, you play Monopoly at Cynthia’s house and

enjoy brownies, milk, or actual conversation with her Mother

(who framed Cynthia’s artclass hydrangea and hung it in the living room,

shocking you with the power of maternal display)

want what you have instead and be grateful.

When you hear the spectacular anthology of things your mother did

while you were young and insistently ill–your illness precipitating hers

(do not blame yourself, but do not forget that you were the root,

the first pull on her sanity, the initiate seed. That was you.)

accept her warranted beatification without question.

When she now calls at 3:00 AM because her feet are cold and she needs socks

or at noon when her dentures are lost, or at midnight to talk about her sick cat

(you woke her once upon a time, and please do not forget

all of those library trips, which were at least three miles round trip)

listen to her politely. Be kind and good.

(She cannot, after all, be blamed. Tragedy is its own jagged fault.)

If you cannot buy enthusiastic flowers or calligraphed cards

with words of praise and pleasantry on Mother’s Day

(it would be easy to–for one day–feign a right celebration)

do not write the honest words

of hardwood, worthy truth:

She did (every day) the best she could.

(Though you know not how that is not Most Purely Beautiful.)

 

Why not acknowledge that she did (and does) her muddled best

with only the sloppy constant tool of inadequacy and pain?

And chanced to create children who withstand and see and acknowledge and survive

Life. Abundant tragedy. Galore.

(Isn’t it cruel that the world demands a day of silent Hallmark honor

And yellow roses of such warrior offspring?)

The better reward may be

that these resile often-hollow brittled children invite her

to sit on their sofas; bring her cold drinks; answer their phones

rebelliously delighting in the sound of her mothering voice.

They bring long-wrought absolution in

Hopeful cups of over-iced tea; salvation and forgiveness.

Acquitting even the weary gray-bed weeks when, thinking to hide her pain,

she shifted it instead unknowingly to their young clean backs.

 

Society demands plasticine homage.

But she will gratefully sip

even the most lukewarm thimbled water

in mute and reverent celebration of her best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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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

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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.