Category Archives: Resilience

Carrying Your Big Wet Dog (Thoughts on Cancer Survivorship)

 

 

June 2018

I am in a day-long staff development, never a good place for me. I have a hard time sitting still, being quiet, being professionally “appropriate.” I interject, grow restless, stand in the corner and stretch. I admire the way other teachers can sit and listen and contain their restless minds–how the elementary teachers listen patiently while the speaker discusses high school standards.

I can’t sit like that. I organize my Google drive, catch up on Poem-a-Day reading, and still hear every word. I try to self-regulate. I watch the clock, limiting my comments to one per half hour.

(Years ago, after attending a monthly series of regional staff meetings together, a teacher from another county stopped me as we were leaving. “You know,” she said, her hand on  my shoulder, “I have never in my life seen someone who looked like they weren’t paying attention at all who heard every word.“)

I do hear every word. I just can’t idly sit with my wandering mind. It might go to yesterday afternoon, when, in the back of a desk drawer, I found the inky footprint of my stillborn granddaughter. It might go to the recent death of my co-worker. The death of my best friend. The tests my husband Greg is about to have–since, fresh off of cancer #3, he couldn’t see the other day. My brain may scream, “HE COULDN’T FOCUS HIS EYES.”

I think it is better for everyone if I quietly read a poem 


During the meeting, I messaged a co-worker who was sitting in a waiting room in St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital where his young daughter, an ATRT survivor, was having her quarterly brain scans. He texted that she was in recovery. I replied, “I’m sorry. Every time. I’m so sorry.”

What I wanted to say, what suddenly sprang from my heart, was, “I’m so sorry you have to carry this wet dog around.”

I didn’t say that, of course. Too odd, even for me. Carrying a wet dog? 


September 2018

I’ve sat with that analogy all summer–long enough that he is today, again, at St. Jude’s awaiting his daughter’s scans. No one I’ve run it by gets it. They don’t understand when I look at them and say, “Surviving cancer is like carrying around a big wet dog.”

But . . . picture your dog lost in the woods. He has been there overnight, and you have been searching desperately, wandering down spider-webbed trails, your good shoes getting ruined by the muddy muck near the river. And, finally, there he is–you see him on the shore’s edge–he is soaked, the water running off his matted fur in rivulets. His paw is badly hurt, but you are so happy to see him that you don’t care. You elatedly scoop him up and begin to carry him home. He smells. He is sticky and panting and soaked. Your arms ache. The walk is long–through dry creek beds and briars; you dodge broken vines and stumble over tree roots. Your dog is whining–he’s tired and hungry and hurting–but you happily carry him. You whisper into the warmth of his ear: I will take you home, and all will be well.

You will rest together. He will be in his bed. You will be in yours.40862229_900181213506411_5640981768501723136_n


That’s the goal in Cancer Land. While well-meaning nurses may talk about survival in terms of children’s high school graduations and wedding days, the real goal is only this: everyone back in their proper place. Children in their beds, parents in theirs, under one roof.

When cancer causes you to miss that, even briefly, you realize that life’s treasure is simple: it is presence.

The ordered dinner table with every chair full–Dad, Mom, and offspring. Quiet chatter about boring days. Bickering about the last piece of chicken or who has to bathe first.

During a thirty-one day hospitalization, it’s all anyone craves: presence.


In understanding the treasure of presence, you truly comprehend the cost of loss.

The same hospital stay that teaches you to treasure a family dinner, a carpool ride, or a Monopoly game also allows you to survey the spectacle of death and sorrow. You are there when a grade-schooler gives a eulogy for his newly-dead father. When a groom diagnosed weeks after the wedding dies days before anniversary #1. When Val, who is young and beautiful and kind, dies anyway, and the nurses leave her name tag up by her empty room for days–until, when you can’t look at it anymore, you take it down.

(You still carry it in your wallet seventeen years later. You couldn’t throw it away in 2001. You are no closer to being able to now.)

If you are in the hospital long enough, you watch dozens of people die, sometimes two or three a day.

One weekend, five people die. Children die.

You still remember the wails.


319704_10151036722415980_65686374_nIt is a miracle that anyone escapes–that anyone walks away from their front row seats of sorrow and horror–and so much more of a miracle when it is you.

Miraculous to stand, to find some footing, to gather yourself and make your way past the travailing parents, their only daughter dead. To walk past the orphaned children, the people wailing, “All is lost!” To look at them, recognizing that, for them, all is truly, truly lost–yet you yourself are able to continue to walk.

To exit that place, to walk away from the helpless and leave them unhelped–it is, in some ways, the greatest sorrow of your life.

But you don’t care what it is you have to carry–how damaged or mangled or heavy your load–because you are walking flint-faced past scores of the barren and empty-armed.

Your arms are laden, and soon, you will rest.

 

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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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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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The 1,995 Day Wait: Thoughts on Classroom Validation

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There is a quote on my classroom wall from one of my former students. Days before he graduated, fully pleased, he popped his head in my room and asked, “Hey, Mrs. G, remember in ninth grade when you told us who wasn’t going to make it, and they didn’t?” Chuckling, he sauntered off.

That reads harsh, doesn’t it? Teachers aren’t supposed to tell kids, “You are going to end up a dropout. You are going to end up in prison. You are going to end up at the alternative school.” Teachers are supposed to inspire, shove children up the mountain, past their drug-abusing mothers, absent fathers, and abject poverty. Teachers are expected to make silk purses out of sows’ ears–every day.

In my classroom, generally, I don’t do that. I point out the obvious: you, dear child, are currently a sow’s ear. And then I say: wouldn’t you rather be a silk purse? I see so much silk in you.

These children, these hulking man-boys and affection-starved girls, want someone to see the silk. They want it so badly.


Teaching, in the first days of the year, is like a protracted meet-the-in-laws Sunday brunch. You don’t really know them, but you hope you’ll like each other because life is going to be hard if you don’t. You have no knowledge of their backgrounds because veteran teachers don’t warn each other–after all, perhaps you are the one teacher who can reach Little Johnny, and, if you’re not, well, you don’t want to know how bad things might become.

I am in that stage where, after fifteen days with them, I am starting to know my kids.

I am seeing the silk.

There is so much silk this year.

We are drawing lines with one another, having touchstone conversations, revisiting what we are doing well and what is unacceptable. Learning each other.

Today, I explained that they needed to remember that their behavior impacts one another. And more importantly, their behavior impacts others’ education.

I looked at my solid, quiet child, the child whose future is so bright. Nineteen years ago, he would not have caught my eye. I would not have known, really, that he was even there–the “designated hitters” in the classroom, the loud, knowledgeable kids, would have masked him. But now, I know he is one of the most important kids in the room, unknowingly carrying the spark of a different future.

I told my kids, “Look, H—– has an education to get. He is very smart, and he’s got important things to do. I can’t let you affect that.

Then, I looked at H—–. I said, “Has anybody ever told you that before?”

He said no.

He has sat in classrooms for eleven years. 1,995 days. And he has never been told he is smart.

(I suppose a “God help us” would be dramatic, but I really feel this merits one: God, help us.)


In 1990, when I first began teaching, I was the only tenth grade ELA teacher in a small school in an impoverished town. I taught every sophomore, whether we gelled or not. There was no teacher down the hall to swap with. And in one class, on my first day, a helpful child raised his hand and announced, “It’s like they put all the rejects and bad kids in one room.” It was misery.

(At least five of the boys from that classroom have been–or are now–in jail; one outlier became a preacher.)

One sunny afternoon, my dynamo of a college professor, Dr. Patsy Griffin, came to the high school. As the students milled around outdoors, she looked at one boy, who was certainly neither a scholar nor an acolyte, and said, “Come here.”

I was uneasy. She was touching his elbow. She said to him, “Let me see your eyes.”

She commanded me to look into his eyes. I did.

“Look,” she crowed, “He has such smart eyes.”

Oh, how he beamed.

She murmured to him about his eyes. Asked about his grades. Said she was surprised they were so low when he was obviously so smart, what with those intelligent eyes.

She left quickly, but that sixteen-year-old boy was never the same. Three minutes changed him. He’d heard he was smart. Perhaps he, too, had waited 1,900+ days for a “professional” to notice.


In my classroom, I do not spread adjectives and affirmations like feel-good fairy dust. My classroom is not a place where the students are called Mr. and Miss and referred to as scholars. It’s not a warm and fuzzy place at all.

But I tell my kids things like, “You are going to be a Coca-Cola Scholar, and I’m going to hand you that check on stage.” “You are going to go to Agnes Scott. I can see you at an all girls school. You would thrive there.””I think you would be a good hospital administrator. You are good at bossing people around.”

When I say things like that, hands shoot up around the room–“What do you see ME as?” “What do you think I’ll do?” They are desperate to hear of respectable futures, of  jobs, marriages and kids. Houses and pets.

There are other children, too. Kids whom I quietly call up to my desk, where I open my second drawer and shove aside some boxes before pulling out a letter. It’s a three page letter from an imprisoned former student who was like a son to me.

I tell them, “I think you might need to read this. I don’t show this to everyone. But this boy, well–like you–he was like a son to me. He even went on vacations with us. Shared a hotel room. Carried my baby’s diaper bag through Busch Gardens. He was like my son.”

They quietly read the long letter. In it, T— laments not moving with us to North Georgia. He wonders what his life would have been like if he had listened. Made better decisions. He talks about his son he won’t see.

He writes and writes and writes. After all, he has twenty years.

They read every word. I show them his photo. I tuck the letter away, telling them I can write to them in prison or in college. That I will write to them either way.


15943011_10210599751202703_648721813_oToday, in a show of authority–because we are still in that early jockeying–I made the kids be fairly silent. Some students were forced to do a dreaded study guide, while others did group projects, and a handful read independently.

I’d chosen a five part LA Times feature for my smart boy to read on his phone. He sat in my chair in the front of the room, reading every word aloud to himself in a low murmur. He read until the bell.

He turned to me as he left, said, “I will finish this tonight.” Strode out with purpose.

Day 1,995: The day he finally became what he’s been all along: smart.

God, help us.

 

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.

 

 

If I Only Know This Much: Six Years On

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Discovery Cove, January 31, 2010: There weren’t but 20 people in the park, and it was The Best Day Ever.

On April 4, 2010, Easter, I was employed at one of the best schools in the nation, which was being forced to close. My daughters went there; we had happily been together there for six years. I had over 120 students who were sad, a family that was sad, and what I thought at the time was a great deal of Unknown. Here is my unedited Facebook note from that day, followed by some insight from today:

When I went to put my status this morning, I started instinctively to type, “He is risen.” And then I thought: I can’t write that. I am not “walking” well right now—the past week, touring —- High, seeing my students’ shattered faces as they pored over class lists and tried to fill out schedule forms, listening to my girls on the drive home; failing, again, miserably as a wife—I think Greg wanted the “always encouraging” version and instead has the “always there, and too honest” version; staring awake at the ceiling all night, worrying about what will be, wondering: will I have a job next year? How will we pay these taxes? How will we ever recover financially from these medical bills? I am worried about my Uncle Charles; I’m missing my Grandma; I’m just so tired of it all, and lately, I’m letting the whole world know.

Here’s the thing: I am not getting much right in my life right now. I am scared to death; I am lonely; I am worried about my students; I am worried about my family. I am all these things I know I should not be. Everything will be fine has never been a cliché for me—it has always been a reality. I have seen it time and time again, God’s slow revealing of His plan. But in this very present, I am adrift, waiting for the anchor to again set.

I used to be the “joy” girl—people were impressed by my chipper attitude in the midst of it all. When my world was falling apart, I was still able to show outside what I knew inside: that it would all be okay because, and only because, God in heaven knows the plans he has for me, counts my tears, hears my prayers. He is as constant as my troubles—and He sees his plan. But, lately, I find joy far more rare. The joy girl is becoming a surly woman—so I thought that surely anyone who saw “He is risen” by MY name would laugh.

And then, I started thinking about those days in Seattle, driving that old Ford Windstar through those tunnels to that hospital, going with my daughters—my beautiful, lovely, steadfast girls–to see their father in the hospital. 31 days. And as I drove through those tunnels, I would sing along with CeCe Winans, “You don’t know the cost of the oil/Oh, you don’t know the cost of my praise/You don’t know the cost of the oil/In my alabaster box.” I would sing it loudly, meaning every word, convinced that no one but Him knew the cost of my praise—

It’s true, you know: only He knows. What I’ve been through, what you’ve been through. The sordid sagas, the quiet triumphs. If I told you what it felt like to have Discovery Cove to ourselves, to be alone there, with Greg alive, April adopted, Abby here and healthy, to be swimming above rays and through schools of fish without thinking the words leukemia, New York, miscarriage, to be thinking only of my family and these fish and the amazing moments that God has seen fit to give me time and time again in my life—if I tell YOU that, you may think, “Girl, you have ALWAYS been loopy.” God, well, I can’t help but believe that He would wink and smile, knowing He gave me that day. It took 15 years, wandering through cancer, failed adoptions, lost babies—but my family and I got to that day.

Now I am waiting again to see what He will give me—I am lost in a maze where all I want is either an answer or a fast forward button. Wishing for “August, already” feels, most days, like a good idea. And since I am lost, since I am failing daily to do, be, and convey what my heart so desperately wants to, for a split second this morning, I thought, I can’t write, “He is risen.”

And then I corrected myself—because, if, right now, I only know this much, I know that He is risen, indeed.

Christ in me, my only hope of glory. In August. Right now.

Indeed.

It’s kind of amazing, sometimes, how the Facebook memories can strike me on my timeline–many are bittersweet, tying my heart into knots. But in reading this tonight, I felt vaguely cheered.  Here my little family is, with 2016 threatening to make 1995 and 2001 look like cakewalks, and I can tell you this: I’m not scared to death. I daresay none of us are. I am not lonely. I am not worried about my family.I do not feel lost in a maze, and in our current situation, while I know there are no answers, I certainly  don’t want a fast forward button.

Still true?  We have beautiful, lovely, steadfast girls. Like us, they know that this is a raw deal. They are getting through it with dark humor, lots of chocolate, and our trademark grit. (Granted, they do both talk about punching people, but–so far–it’s just talk.)

Still true as well: The words “I am adrift, waiting for the anchor to again set.”

Thankfully, it’s  also true that God is slowly revealing his plan. He’s given us amazing times and seen us through horrific ones–and although we are not the type of Christians who can talk convincingly about rainbows after the storm, feign excitement over our future powerful testimonies, or lie in bed at night counting the stars in our heavenly crowns, we can look you in the eyes and say, “God has always been there for us. He always will be.”

Although we certainly can’t fully feel it now. Although we stumble blindly. Although we cry so much and are so angry.

Christ is in us. He is our only hope of glory.

He is our only hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inconnaissable

 

We are in the life raft–

Having walked an unexpected plank.

Fallen. Shattered. Piled close.

 

Keelhauling seems kinder.

(Barnacles across our backs

Better than this heartbreak.)

We have no oxygen, at any rate.

 

Months mast-climbing now wasted;

the crow’s nest meaningless.

A formidable, sandless shore

(Still, certainly, with its treasures)

Awaits us now, black-rocked.

We dare not look or think too long.

 

Decades of gathered ballast

Bilge-hidden for such a day

(Godcan/Godloves/Godhears)

Discharge, trickle, and sustain.

 

The cannons boom. “Certainly Lethal.”

Foremast, mainmast, mizzenmast:

All are tangled. Torn, destroyed.

And the wind will show no mercy.

 

135 days of Unknown await.

 

Surely we will again sleep and breathe and eat.

But the waves are high; our vessel weak.

 

And the voyage is so long.