It’s been a little over six months since the unthinkable happened to you.  I had no idea when you were here last January sitting on my couch, praying on the guest bed, that that would be the year I would lose you.  I had no idea that, when we made grand plans to come see you in October, we’d be there anyway praying around your hospital bed.  I had no idea death would come and take you.  And so slowly yet unexpectedly too.  This weekend is your birthday and I’m dreading it more than Father’s Day.  I miss buying you a gift, waiting for the call to hear you open it.  I miss you.  But, in your classic Dad way, you’re still teaching me lessons even through your absence here.

Here’s some things I’ve learned since my dad left us for Paradise.

One.  I have always deeply feared my parents’ death.  I always dreaded it–that phone call.  Fear of that moment has haunted me my entire adult life.  I have played it in my head occasionally, attempting some semblance of control over it.  It didn’t matter.  I wasn’t prepared for it.  Even more, I wasn’t prepared for the grief that would follow their deaths.  Nearly seven months later, and I still feel like I’m trying to walk through water.  Moving through each day is slow and hard.  Going from talking about him in present tense to past tense has thrown me into hard sobbing many times.  I struggle to stay focused.  Reading, writing, crafting have all been hard to start.  And finish.  I’m surviving.  Grief comes on suddenly and in the guise of anxiety.  Or anger.  Grief destroys your immune system for a long time and toys with your mental health.   The grief feels like nausea, coming on suddenly, growing unstoppably.  You know you’re going to lose it.  You think you can deep breathe or distract yourself and it will subside.  But it doesn’t.  And then it smothers you–like huge waves crashing over you.  You’re drowning.  You can’t catch your breath for the pain washing over you.  And then, slowly, it subsides.  And you’re left exhausted.  Empty.  It feels pointless. You will be tired and overwhelmed at the simplest things.

Two. People will leave you.  They will.  Life moves on; time keeps trekking.  And people forget.  They forget to ask about him, about you, about your mom.  They forget to check in.  Because it’s been awhile.  Because he wasn’t their dad.  But, for you, it still feels like it was yesterday afternoon.  The time that has passed will surprise you–how can it have been so many months?  But it has.  One or two or more of those you considered your dearest friends will walk away.  They won’t call, they won’t check in.  They will fall away…or choose to walk away.  And you will feel so betrayed and abandoned.  But, then there will be people who surprise you.  You grow closer to them because they haven’t left you alone.  They haven’t forgotten; they know what it is to walk in the valley of the shadow.  And they keep calling.  They keep praying.  They keep keeping. And it feels good to be cared for.  People you hardly know will reach out, asking how you are and how your family is coping.  And it’s so comforting that someone finally remembers how badly you still hurt.

Three. Your faith will be challenged.  Sorely and intensely challenged.  Even if you have a deep, well-rooted faith; even if you’ve walked through great suffering before, even if God has always been your rock, you will question.  You will wonder how such a man of faith could be allowed to suffer so horribly and for so long.  You will wonder, even for a moment, what kind of a loving God could allow such a prolonged death.  You will feel empty of words to pray, and barely be able to sustain a rosary or rote prayer.  Scripture will feel arid and empty.  Church will feel hours long, instead of an hour, and will break you every week.  Your previous go-to faith quotes will all feel like a bad joke.  You will call out for His comfort, His presence…and will be met with silence.  You will feel like you are spiritually crawling through a desert, searching desperately for a few drops of water.  But there will be moments where small miracles happen.  You will be standing next to a picture of you two and a miracle two years’ waiting will occur…and you’ll feel a great wind move through you and will feel his presence.  And you will know, for certain finally, that he is with Jesus interceding for you.  You will have dreams of him peeking at you, standing by you, smiling at you, and he will disappear just as you reach to touch him; you will wake up and know he was checking on you, but your heart will hurt for how close you came to feeling his face again.

Four. It won’t get better.  People will tell you it gets better.  But I don’t think it does.  I have lost three babies, two later in pregnancy.  I have lost grandparents.  I have lost time and milestones with my husband because of repeated deployments and innumerable Army trips.  I have lost the ability to ever have children again.  And in my experience of death of babies and people and seasons, it doesn’t get better.  Having lost him so soon and after weeks of traumatic suffering will never get easier.  The abstract urges to call him will not get easier.  The urgent need for his always spot-on advice that will go unfilled will not get easier.  Living without a dad and watching others take their father for granted will never get easier.  Having just the stuff he left behind–crossword puzzle books, empty and partially filled notebooks, a red 2012 Ford F-150, voice recorders, dreams, goals…and a slab of marble but not having him?  No.  That will never get easier.  I hope breathing gets easier.  I hope the ability to pray gets easier.  I hope sleeping and staying healthy and each day get easier. But his sudden departure?  His holy but hard death?  His void?  No.  That will never get easier.

Death is messy.  Death is awkward and hideous.  Death separates and ends.  There is nothing beautiful about death.  There was nothing beautiful or comforting when our Lord suffered through His passion and spent three hours hanging from the cross.  But, because of His holy death, greater good comes out of all suffering.  Even from death.  Death, perhaps, is the greatest teacher.  Because the greatest Teacher was not exempt from death.

I never accounted for how painful, how suffocating, and how unending the grief would be.  I have no neat words, no beautiful lesson to tie this up.  Because I am still learning.  Still journeying through the hardest part of this.  Each day lived is a victory, each milestone survived a win.  Oh, he left behind a void.  Oh, he left behind great pain.  But my faith is such a comfort.  Because even despite all of this, he has reached his eternal reward, he has made it to the place where he belongs. And someday, Lord willing, I will get there too. And, oh the reunion…

 

This Messy Road

Redemption.

Resurrection.

I have been working on resurrecting and redeeming a significant area of my life.  What’s funny about marriage is that one person’s pain affects the entire family. This area bleeds into every aspect of person, marriage, and family. It has become messy, neglected, and necrotic.  Through no fault of mine, it’s wounded and oozing, infected and dying.  And it’s been like that longer than I care to admit.

So, with every thing in me and all of my strength, I am trying to redeem this area.  I’m asking God to resurrect it before it’s too late.  The proverbial gloves are off and I am fighting.  Hard.  I have taken great comfort and strength from Christ’s passion on the Cross that redeemed us.  His death on the tree to resurrect our souls from sin.  I keep envisioning His death that led to His resurrection.

I figured as I started this painful journey that it would be a process.  But I pictured it all wrong.  I thought it would be cycle, a clean and clear journey to personal redemption.  Pain from sin to realization of this sin to pain from fixing to healed.  Simple.  Easy.  Done.  I expected heartbreak and woundedness only once.  I would journey through it, we would fix it, and we would be healed.

Life is never clean.  It is not easy.  And our journeys are never done.

Instead, it’s been a mess.  It’s more like my three year old’s artwork–a giant picture of scribbling with no discernable beginning or end.  Just simply lines strewn all over the paper.  Chunky lines of many colors, reds and yellows, greens and blues, whites and blacks.  Colors blurring and blending into oblivion.

The process has been broken, messy.  Full of hurt and pain.  Terrible pain.  Neglect.  Abandonment.  Hurt.  Broken hope. False promises.  Deep sorrow.  And, like my son’s artwork, the colors of it all blending and blurring with no definitive beginning or end.  We process one hurt, overcome one hurdle, reach a good place, only to be plunged back into deeper but different pain and sorrow.

Have hope.

My husband keeps saying this.  But, I struggle to grasp it.  I wrestle with believing it.  So much grief.  So much sorrow.  So many unhappy endings.

The plunging back into pain and grief wipes out any carefully constructed and long awaited hope I have finally achieved.  The moving from one wound, one sorrow to another has frequently thrashed my slowly growing hope, instead reinforcing the easy belief that the necrotic sin-filled infection will win.  That because this hasn’t been simple, cyclical, and easy, the enemy will win.  And I will lose.

But, if I am going to compare overcoming serious woundedness and grave spiritual infection to Christ’s Resurrection, I am forgetting how ugly His journey was as well.  In only seeing His hanging and dying on the Cross, I am not looking at the bigger picture.  His passion and death did not begin on the Cross.  It began days earlier, when one of His dear ones sold Him to the enemy.  His was betrayed by one of his closest friends.  And that was when His journey of betrayal and pain began; that’s when His path through suffering to resurrection and redemption began.

It was not a simple, clear, easy path to the Cross.  He went from one pain, one wound, one rejection to another.  From being beaten to being stripped of His clothes.  From abandonment three times of his friend, to being forced down a road with a cross larger than Him on His shoulders.  From being spit on and mocked to being nailed to a cross.  His journey was violent and messy, blurred with blood and tears.  No easy start, no simple middle, no neat ending.

I realized all of this today, as I stood with my husband in the kitchen dancing to old country music.  As we dig in and root out sin and pain and deep woundedness, the process is not going to be simple at all.  It will not be clean.  And it most certainly will not be easy.  There will be many times of pain, repeatedly visiting old wounds.  Back steps and little victories.  There will be anger and sadness.  There will be questions and forgiveness.  There will be late night discussions and frequent desperate prayers.  The road will be long, the journey complicated and messy.

But each step is one towards resurrection.  Towards redemption.

I realized one more thing, too.  When my sweet boy hands me his admittedly messy artwork, full of color and blurred lines and indiscernible shapes and lines, when he proudly hands me that paper of an incredibly vibrant rainbow of love and purpose, I do not see ugly or messy.  I see beauty and work and love.  Deep love.

And that is the work I will continue to do.  Love and forgiveness are messy.  But, Christ’s passion was messy.  He still won.  He still defeated sin and saved our lives.  So, in this smaller, but still painful walk towards redemption, I will have hope.  I will continue to forgive and love.  Even in the grief and anger and sadness, I will continue to love.  Because Love won.  Love died but Love rose from and conquered the dead.  There can be no resurrection without death.  We must die to self, die to Christ, before the resurrection can occur.

And the resurrection will come.  Somewhere in me, I have budding hope our little resurrection will come.  The blood and the mess and the pain will all be worth it.  Because we will rise from the ashes new creations.

Scout: Our New Adventure

I’m not really sure what I was thinking.  The past year, I’ve been stressing we slow down and leave extra time for rest in our lives for awhile.  That we needed more family time, less travel.  Less stress.

I was lying in bed last week, resting.  We were on week two of a nasty, take-no-prisoners upper respiratory virus that had knocked several of the children and me out.  The children had also fallen with a stomach virus, resulting in comical races to various bathrooms in the house.  To say I was (and am) exhausted was huge understatement.  As I lay in bed my phone pealed through the blessed silence, shattering through the obscene sinus headache I’d been enduring for several hours.  I picked up the phone and gingerly put it to my ear.  Pain shot through my cheekbone.

“Do you want a camper?”

“Huh?” I asked.

My husband: “Do you want a camper? Someone at work told me about this website where you can bid on stuff the government is trying to get rid of.  There’s a bunch of campers on there!”

We had a good laugh.  But I know you see where this is going.

I would like to caveat this.  I am not a gambler.  I’ve never been to Vegas–and have no desire to go.  I hate taking risks unless it costs me nothing and is guaranteed to come out in my favor.  Which means no risk-taking.  Prior to meeting my husband, I was the proverbial little old lady who hid her money under a mattress; I did not invest my money, instead I safely invested it in a savings account which hardly made me anything.  But, it wasn’t going anywhere.  I have never gambled, except when we were on a cruise a few months after getting married when my husband handed me $20 dollars and sat me in front of a slot machine.  In a matter of seconds, I lost $20 and also lost several nights’ sleep over that money.  I don’t bid, I don’t gamble, and I don’t take risks.  I play it safe, very safe.

That night, once the kids were in bed, we sat in front of the computer, perusing the campers.  They had been purchased by the government for Hurricane Harvey victims and were now being auctioned off.  Most were bottom of the line with lots of damage.  Many had large holes in the walls, walls shredded, blinds torn to pieces.  Some had cabinet doors missing.

Then there was one that sounded in pretty decent shape.  It had two pictures, both very dark and grainy.  But the description didn’t mention anything beyond a missing mattress and a hole in the screen.  At the bottom of the paragraph it stipulated that there could be more extensive damage than what was listed above.  I barely noticed.  I did notice that the bids were low and the brand was nice.  I felt gutsy.

“Make a bid.”

We were very quickly squashed.  Fair.  It was low.  Forty-five minutes later, we logged back on.  There was three minutes left to bid.

“Bid again.” I said.

Again, not really sure what I was thinking.

My husband entered the bid and, to my utter shock, the minutes counted down to seconds and still no one had outbid us.

30…..25…..15…..

I was screaming.

“Oh my gosh!  Richard!  We are going to have a camper!  Shoot!  Shoot!  What did we just do?!

10….5….

“OH MY GOSH!  NOOOO!  OUTBID US!  WHAT’S GOING ON?!”

1…

The screen refreshed and added ten minutes onto the bid.  The same guy had outbid us.  We were in a bidding war.  My pride hurt, my feathers ruffled but adrenaline running high,  I urged my husband again.  (This was fun!)

“Bid one more time.”

“What?!”  I’m pretty sure he thought I was crazy.  Which is fair.

“This is the highest we will go.  One more bid.  For fun.  He’s going to outbid us anyway.”

Yes, I said that.  And, yes, you still know where this is going.

He punched it in.  I hit submit. Cue the countdown.  Cue the thrilled screaming.

30…..20…..15…..10…….

“WHERE IS HE?!  HE’S NOT BIDDING! WHAT’S GOING ON?!”

5…..4……

“RICHARD!  OH MY GOSH!”

3…2…1…

The screen refreshed.  Only, this time it said that bidding was closed and the camper was no longer available.  We stared at the screen in utter terror.  On the bottom of the screen, a notification popped up that we had gotten an email.  A confirmation of purchase.

We started laughing maniacally.

“What have we done?!”  My poor husband asked.

“We are grieving.” I responded. “We just bought ourselves a large tattoo.”

We swapped nights that we were up stressing about this camper we bought sight unseen.  This camper that meant we were going to have to replace a vehicle so that we could actually tow it (I very quickly squashed the idea of buying the tank of a conversion van for which my husband was ready to trade in our Kia minivan.)  This camper that was going to be ours, even though we had both acknowledged we needed desperately to slow down.  Nightmarish thoughts grew in our heads.

“What if it smells like a urine bomb?”  (That was my husband.)

“What if it smells like cigarettes?”  (I hate that smell!)

“What if it’s torn to pieces but they forgot to say so?”

Here’s the thing, though.  I stopped caring.  We can live our lives penned in by What If’s.  My husband and I kept saying we would do things, like buy a camper, once the kids were older, once he retired, once this happens, once things slowed down, once we are more stable, once he retires.  Because what if he deployed?  What if we had to move again.  What if, what if, what if.  We kept putting off buying one, putting off other stuff.  And, not long ago, I saw a great man put off his dreams and goals…and the once this happens never came.  The What Ifs got him.  And I won’t live like that anymore.  God gave me today, and darn it, I’m going to live it for all it’s worth. 

So, Richard made the long trek south yesterday to pick up Scout.  With many prayers, huge faith, and a borrowed tow vehicle, he went to obtain our camper.  Once he was on the lot, I gave him about twenty minutes and called.  He had just walked inside.

“It’s gorgeous.”  I exhaled.

Today, I finally got to see it.  We pulled up to our new adventure and I walked inside.  All will be well.  It’s pretty dirty and the last people jacked the mattresses, but it’s in such good condition.  Praise God.  Our new little adventures await…once we deep clean.

Because little getaways can be restful.  Sneaking away for a night or two can be calming.  We don’t have to go every weekend.  But this camper, this Scout, is memories waiting to be made.  Memories with my children who seem to wake up taller every morning.  Memories with my husband, who has been wanting a camper since before we married.  Memories for me, since I no longer have to sleep on a sleeping bag on the ground.  Pulling back and calming down doesn’t mean no travel, no trips.  It means being intentional about the times we choose to go.

So, for once, I think my crazy risk-taking paid off.  No, it wasn’t safe.  Yes, we risked a lot.  Yes, we lost sleep (precious sleep).  But, God is good.  We got a camper in really good shape for well below what that model is going for right now.  And we can stop saying once life slows down.  Because it won’t.  I’ve given up hope on that (but, you’re free to surprise me, God).  And I don’t want the What If’s to get us before I have a chance to make good on the dreams and goals.

So, if you need me, I’ll be deep cleaning our new ship of dreams.  And I’ll keep you posted on our latest adventures.  Because our once this happens has turned into once upon a time by taking a little (big?) risk.

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Moving On, With Love

I know people are waiting. Wondering when we will say it. I can feel them waiting. Sometimes, I feel them breathing down my neck. Some have even asked when? Because it’s time. Like clockwork, the tiny people came every two years. Steady, consistent. But his two-year birthday came, and it was the first time I was neither pregnant nor held a newborn on a child’s second birthday.

I remember that girl. Barely a woman. She sat on his couch on their third date. The living room was dark, barely lit. They sat talking freely. So young, so carefree. And he asked that normally scared, non-confrontational girl. “How many children do you want to have?” And she looked at him and boldly answered.

“Six. Maybe upwards of ten. I want a big family.”

It startled him. “Huh?!”

“What about you? How many children would you want to have?”

“Two.”

“Well, thanks for dinner. It was a lovely evening.” She prepared to go.

He sat in silence, thinking hard.

“You know,” he said, “this house could hold four children. Two in that room. Two in that room. Four is a good start. Then you could reassess from there.”

It was like he knew. Four. A good start. A beautiful start. And maybe that’s all. Because we can carefully and dreamily make our plans, but they are not ours to fashion in the first place. That girl eventually did turn into a mother. A mother who had felt both joy and grief. And, years after that night in the living room, in a cold clinical room, the doctor looked at me. He knew. He knew how I longed for more babies. But the tragic look in his eye gave it away before he could even find the words. And suddenly my husband and I were having to say the words I vowed I’d never say, barring my fertility naturally ending on its own.

We are done.

Deep shame and deep grief consumed me. It was months before I could even speak the words to our families. For the babies I lost, there were names to console me. For two, there are places to visit, to sit beside and weep. When a woman who loses her fertility quickly and unexpectedly, there are no names or small plots of closure. There was only blistering pain and a deep hole. It seemed cruel that God would give me such a strong, enduring longing for children, knowing I would lose the ability to fill that longing so very young. So unexpectedly. But that same God gave me healing from a horrible disease and four beautiful children.

It seems ironic that the single aspect of my personhood that cast the deepest shadows of suffering across my life would be something I would grieve so hard. Right after having had our sweet honeymoon baby, we buried our first son, lost at 13 weeks into the pregnancy. We lost at least two more sweet babies. I delivered my second son halfway through the pregnancy, born sleeping, in a labor and delivery room while a woman screamed in labor next door. Hours later, just before I held my son, I heard her child’s first cries come through the walls. I know what it feels like to be a human coffin. I know to treasure each hiccup, each kick because you don’t know when it may be the last. I felt those kicks of his grow weaker each day until he was silent. Fertility has been my greatest blessing and my biggest grief.

When I walked into the fellowship room in the military chapel, I was only four months out of the abrupt loss of fertility. I was trying to make friends at our new military post. I thought I was ok. I thought I had a hold on it. But I walked into a room full of newborns and beautifully pregnant women. I sat down, and suddenly felt like I was drowning. The room swirled around me. I needed to escape, but I couldn’t get out of there without attracting every eye in the room. During the morning, the women around me discussed due dates and impending arrivals. Some of the women talked about being ready to try for another baby. Then they turned to me. “What about you? When do you guys think you’ll have another? Will you be adding to your family?”

I felt like someone was choking me.

“Um…I….we aren’t sure.”

I was too deeply ashamed to speak the words.

I didn’t go back. I couldn’t go back. I let the sobs and tears escape on the way home, as I played the radio loudly so my children couldn’t–wouldn’t–hear me.

Slowly, I’ve overcome obstacles in the grief. Given away bottles, watched as the weight came off, instead of creeped up. Watch my baby turn three, still calling him a baby even though in my head I hear, he’s not really a baby anymore. Being able to finally tell my dear friends, “We can’t have anymore…” and being able to say it without crying. I culled through the baby clothes, and gave some away. I’ve started doing more for myself.

But the larger bins of clothes still sat there. Giant, looming reminders in tubs stacked in the corner of my closet. I would never use them again. I knew that. But I couldn’t let them go. They were packed up and loaded onto a truck, counting into our weight limit. But still I couldn’t let go. One day last summer, I went upstairs. I pulled out the two enormous bins into our bathroom. I opened the giant empty box. And I started a rosary. I took out each shirt, skirt, pair of shorts, pants. I folded each one and put it in that big empty cardboard box. As I pulled up each piece of clothing, a memory flashed into my head taking me back in time.

The shirt I wore to the baby shower given by his work, expecting our first.

The skirt I wore through each pregnancy, that was the last I pulled out to fit into, but fit me to the end. I wore it in labor to the hospital with my sweet daughter.

The wine-colored shirt I wore the morning I found out our sweet son had passed into Jesus’s arms at 18 weeks.

The dress I wore for the first time when I was expecting our son during what would be our final pregnancy. How I would tie the tiny sash over my ever-growing bump for church only to have it come undone multiple times.

The green linen dress my mother bought for me, that I wore through each pregnancy, and how beautiful it made me feel.

Each shirt I bought with my mother’s helpful advice that first pregnancy.

Each shirt, each skirt, each pair of shorts and pants had a memory. I wore them so many times, yet each one had a single visceral memory intertwined into it. I held each on my knees in the bathroom, weeping into them and praying for the one who would wear them next. That sweet, beautiful woman full of life. Unexpectedly cast onto a journey she was not prepared for. Maybe not supported in. I prayed with each piece that she would feel my prayer and love soak into her each time she wore it. That she would be wrapped in His love and strength each day she grew that sweet baby within her. I boxed them up, those clothes I wore when I felt the most feminine I’ve felt. And, for the last time, I closed them up. To move onto the next love story.

Dear sweet mother,

May these clothes I gently set down in this maternity home, with the deepest grief in my heart, warm your beautiful body so full of life. May it comfort your heart on the scary days, fill you with joy on the beautiful days, and remind you every day how truly beautiful you are. May they help you realize how truly radiant you are. May they soak up more memories of joy, trepidation, and birth of new life. Know that each piece that you wear, I am praying for you each time. That I prayed over these for you. Beautiful you. Brave you. All I ask is that, even in the fear, you live gratefully for each day of this beautiful chapter in your life. Because we never know how quickly that chapter can close. Know that you are loved, prayed for, and cherished by me and by a God who loves you with a love beyond all understanding and sustains you in a plan that sometimes is not what we pictured. May your life and this beautiful life within you be blessed by love forever.

John 16:20-22

I could never do that!

I hear it so often.  It’s probably the most common response that I hear when people find out we’ve made what seems to be such a radical choice.  Admittedly, it was a hard call for me when I was discerning.  I was dead set against it for years because it terrified me; it seemed much too hard.  I felt I could never do it.

But I am.

That first ever First Day of School, while we watched her little friends walk to the bus stop, we walked to the dining room table.  With great anxiety and a stomach ache, I pulled out her books and we begun the greatest adventure together.  We’ve since added another student to our schooling and, in the fall, another one of my children will be seated around the table as we begin the school year.  For now, another year is so close to being done.  Books are finished or within pages of being completed.  Another homeschooling year is nearly, as they say, “in the books.”  And I will let out a joyful sigh that I did it. 

Since when did it become acceptable to tell ourselves that we cannot do the hard things simply because they are “too hard?”  Anyone can indeed homeschool; I am doing it.  Yes, I have some experience in education.  But, compared to some I know, it’s pretty minimal.  My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in English Literature, not education.  I have no teacher’s license.  But I am doing it.  Yes, there are hard days.  Yes–oh yes–there have been seasons where we were discerning traditional school because of health reasons or being unsure if it was the best fit anymore.  But, after many tears and much prayer, I still feel the call to the dining room table.

There was one year  that, due to months of bad behavior, one of my children very nearly started at the elementary school down the street.  After much apologizing and proving good behavior, we continued homeschooling.  To be fair, we had just had a baby, I was suffering from poor health, and my husband was in and out of town with the Army.  I made the call to keep her home and we changed some subjects around.  Pulled back.  Pulled in.  Around the dining room table.

It has been so hard sometimes.  There have been seasons that I have felt the strain of bringing my children everywhere with me, which can be exhausting.  I have felt the looks of others as I brought my children to functions (with the blessing of those hosting), brunches, fellowship meetings.  I was the only one with children.  And that sometimes did make it hard.  I was still corralling young children while the other mothers basked in the glory of hours alone.  I took my children to every bi-monthly  blood draw during my youngest’s pregnancy; it was a half hour of driving to get there and praying you arrived before the waiting room filled up (there were no appointments).  Every where that I went, they came with me.  It was sometimes hard.  It was sometimes draining.  It was a sacrifice that I made.  But I did it.  I chose that sacrifice because gathering each morning with my children was worth it.  Despite the hard, despite the sacrifice–no, because of the hard and the sacrifice, it was worth it.  The beauty was hard-fought for when we gathered around that dining room table.

We have all done the hard things.  We have all sucked in our breath, bent over, and begun.  Sometimes, the hard is unexpected.  Maybe in that way, it’s easier.  Because we don’t have the chance to say no.  But sometimes, even when it doesn’t make sense and it’s hard and different from what most everyone else does, the hard is so worth it.  Even in the days when you’re the only one home with your houseful of children, you’re the only one bringing your pack to the function, you’re the only one saying no–again–because you can’t find a sitter.  It’s worth it.  Because there is great joy and love around that dining room table.

Now, after four years of saying yes to the hard, I have such a special bond with my children.  I am proud when we go out together, even when it’s hard.  We travel in a pack, I say (I need a shirt that says this).  My crew, my people.  We live together, we eat together.  We pray together and laugh together.  We travel and go out.  Together.  We push through the hard together, even when we butt heads.  We learn–together!  We sit, each morning, around that blessed dining room table and be…together.

We can do the hard things.  Together.  Start believing it.

To My Sweet Son…

My sweet son,

Three years.  Three years already!  How can it be?

Your whole pregnancy, I was anxious. I remember your positive pregnancy test.  We were all sick, I was getting ready to take some Motrin and had an inkling.  But, I was so very afraid.  I took the test, threw it across the bathroom, and shut the door.  I took a long shower, stepped out, got dressed.  I opened the door, saw the test lying against the wall on the floor.  I gingerly stepped over to it.  Picked it up.  Read the digital message.

Pregnant. 2-4 weeks.

Everything within me rejoiced and feared at the same time.  Another sweet child growing within me.  But this pregnancy would be anything but joyful or easy.  Every appointment, every span of your stillness within me, I grew fearful.  I remember, halfway through the pregnancy when we hit the same week we lost your brother, I didn’t feel you for hours.  I fell into an anxious black hole and fell apart.  Your Aunt Molly talked me down and advised me to call my OB, who squeezed me in for a last second ultrasound.  The whole thirty minutes down to the Air Force base I mentally braced myself for another silent, still ultrasound; I started planning your burial.  But, as I lay on that table, I saw you sleeping and your heart beating away.

Your pregnancy was so hard.  We had unexpectedly lost your brother halfway through the prior pregnancy.  Afterwards, through a series of doctor’s appointments spread out between a military move, I found out I had a clotting disorder and severe endometriosis/adenomyosis.  My body had killed your brother.  Oh the bittersweet pill that was!  We had answers; it was preventable.  But my body had slowly committed the worst crime; it had betrayed my babies and me.  As a result, I was on massive doses of progesterone, baby aspirin, blood thinners, and folate. Every night before bed, I would grab a handful of stomach, insert a needle, and push in medicine all in a desperate attempt to keep you alive.  Still, said my maternal fetal medicine doctor, this all may not be enough….  Those words haunted me  the whole pregnancy.  But, so did the words I spoke the morning I found out you were growing within me:

I will walk on shards of glass everyday if that’s what it takes to keep this child alive…

I prayed so hard for you.  I said daily rosaries that we would bring you home.  I completed a 54 day rosary novena, a St. Gerard novena, and several novenas to St. Joseph begging for your health and survival.  In a silent whisper, I begged for a boy.  I felt selfish.  I should be happy with either.  And I truly would have been.  But I longed for a son.  A boy.  Healthy.  Alive.

All in your last month, you gave us so much drama.  Three weeks before your due date, I contracted every three minutes all night long.  The contractions grew stronger.  By ten am, we thought this was it.  On April first, as we walked through the doors of Labor and Delivery, the contractions stopped suddenly.  You little prankster; you kept me up all night.  A couple of weeks later, in the middle of the night, you were incredibly active.  All of a sudden, I felt the worst pain of movement I’d ever felt in any pregnancy.  The next morning, as I prepared for my routine OB appointment, it felt like a softball was just under my right ribs.  Come to find out, you had flipped completely, and we were now facing a C-section.  I did everything to flip you.  I was so stressed and so scared.  I needed things to go just right; I needed to hold you right after birth, to envelope you immediately.  I was grieving all of that. One afternoon, another painful movement.  I felt around and realized you had flipped back head down.  I did not sleep lying down until after you were born.

After that, we scheduled your induction for Sunday the 17th of April.  But, that morning, I awoke at 5 am to sharp sudden pains that were coming and going.  I woke out of deep sleep each time, wondering what in the world  was causing pain.  After thirty minutes of them, I realized…could this be…?  They didn’t stop.  I woke up.  I showered.  Still they persisted.  I pulled out Mass clothes and began getting ready for church.  By this point, I was holding on to the walls or furniture as the waves of pain hit.  Offering each one as a prayer for your sweet life.  Fortunately your father talked me out of Mass.  The pain grew.  I couldn’t sleep through it, though I tried.  My friend came, giving me Holy Communion.  She wept with me as I slowly let myself believe this might be you coming.  This is it, I think, she said.  She stayed a little longer, and we prayed together.

Your grandparents showed up, whisked off your sisters, and I retreated upstairs.  I packed, waiting a little longer, and then we left for the hospital.  As the nurses and doctors ushered me to a room, I lagged behind. When they walked inside, I stopped, frozen.  The last time I was in a delivery room….memories flooded back as I saw the machines, the isolette, the bed.  A nurse touched my arm.  She knew.  She’d seen my file.  It’s ok…come on…you can’t have a baby in the hallway…  We laughed and I climbed into the bed.  My body worked so hard to have you.  I prayed a rosary, finished your baby journal.

And then it was time.  

You came fast.  They told me to be gentle, take my time.  But, I wanted you in my arms.  Sadly, you were safer there than within me.  Finally, you arrived.  After nine months of worrying, weeping, wondering, you were laid on my chest.  I cried hard right along with you.  I didn’t dare move, didn’t dare do anything but hold onto you for an hour.  I kept asking your daddy to make sure you were indeed a boy–my boy.  I kept asking the doctors, he’s okay?  Are you sure he’s ok?  And you were.  Praise God, my son, my long-awaited little lamb, was finally here.

I love your sisters.  They light up my world just as much as you do.  But they have a soft spot for their daddy.  It is a sacred place I was never allowed inside, and I didn’t begrudge it.  All girls should have a soft spot for their daddies.  And oh, how they do.  But, I longed for my own little person who had a soft spot for me.  I missed my little boys, all gone too soon to our Lord.  But, how you love me!  You save your kisses, hugs, snuggles, all for me.  You still seek me out, beg me to hold you.  Only I am allowed to talk to you after you first wake in the morning; only I am allowed to take as many kisses as I want.  For the first time, I have a baby who adores to be rocked to sleep, even still.  As I grieved my father’s health and then his absence, you would hear me crying even from across the house.  You crying, Mommy?  You crying about Grampy? And you crawl into my lap and squeeze my neck.

You have broken open and helped heal a wound I never thought would heal.  It still throbs occasionally; it still aches deeply at the absence of my other sweet children.  But, God gave me all of my answered prayers.  The Easter prior, as my body and heart still struggled to recover from the stillbirth of your brother James, that priest placed his hand on my shoulder at Holy Communion.  As everything around him glowed, he said, “Jesus will bless your family again.  Jesus will bless your family again.”

And He did.

Not only did He bless me with my (sadly) final child, not only did He allow me one more sweet life before my body fell apart from fertility issues; He gave me a son.  He answered the deepest and selfish desires of my heart.  All those prayers, all that heartache.  All the anxiety.  All of the darkness.  I would walk through all of it again for you.

My love, you must never lose your faith.  Even in the darkest, most terrible moments, God redeems.  Even if there seems no logical, practical way out, God will open a tomb.  Light will pour forth inside, and He will help you out.  Even amidst the ashes of death and loss, God always resurrects.  Even as I buried and mourned our James, I repeated within my soul, “Weeping may tarry through the night…but joy comes in the morning.”  Weeping tarried, for me, for a long dark night.  But morning came.  In that Labor and Delivery room in Virginia a little after ten pm at night, morning came.  God swept light into my life, even if I didn’t deserve it, and laid a small boy on my chest.

Happy Birthday, my sweet boy.  This day, out of all the days of the year, reminds me to keep the faith.  To keep praying, even if our prayers are outlandish and seem too big.  To hope big, love big, believe big.

You have my heart sweet boy.  Thank you for loving your mommy so deep and hard.

And thank you, Jesus, for my sweet boy.  Thank you for answering my most desperate prayers.  Thank you for this long-awaited little lamb.

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My Simons and Splinters

I don’t know why I bother planning my Lenten sacrifices.  Every year, I sit and think and pray for a long time leading up to Ash Wednesday.   Every year, even though I know it will go totally differently, I plan my Lenten fasts, almsgiving, and prayers.  Because, I think, maybe this will be the one year that the Lord doesn’t heave His own precious but heavy plan upon me.  And every year, within a week of Lent starting, I’m chuckling to myself again that I bothered planning.

Lent, almost always, has been an incredibly difficult time for me.  Nearly every year, some sort of life altering cross befalls me.  Usually, it’s a very isolating, lonely cross that I try to carry myself.  Deep shame and humiliation accompany those crosses, even though I bear them through no fault of my own.  There was the year that my husband deployed, I was unexpectedly pregnant, and scared to death I was going to miscarry a second time in a row; I was left home alone with just my young toddler to drown in my worries.  There was the year that I was pregnant only three months after giving birth to my first child; we were not at all planning a second baby so soon and I was already mired in severe postpartum depression.  Then there was the year that, right around Ash Wednesday, we found out our baby had gone to be with Jesus halfway through the pregnancy; I was admitted and induced in Labor and Delivery and spent the rest of Lent in deep, dark, isolating grief and shame.  There was the year that I unexpectedly and permanently lost my fertility and was thrown into long-term grief and soul-consuming shame.

This year is no exception.  I discerned my areas for improvement and set a plan for Lent, all while knowing that the Lord was going to create my Lent for me.  And, oh, did He deliver.  While still consumed with intense grief for my father, another huge cross has been thrown upon me.  The weight is unbearable most of the time, and I struggle daily with all of this to keep standing.  I have fallen a lot under the pressure of isolation and deep grief and darkness.

But the Lord calls us to step out with our crosses just before He sends our St. Simons.

My cross this year is deeply personal and private.  And also deeply painful.  (Nothing health related.)  I kept it to myself, eaten up with shame, for as long as I could.  But, one thing I tell my friends on this path of salvation when they apologize for “unloading” on me: “We are never meant to carry our crosses alone.  Even Jesus had the help of St. Simon.”  I’m always deeply grateful to relieve a friend of the pressure of their cross, even if for a few minutes.  What a blessing!

I must allow others to be that blessing to me.  And so I have.  I have been so blessed by a few people who have heard me fall and weep.  They have seen me in brokenness and shame.  They have climbed up under my dirty, bloody cross, placed their shoulder in the crook, and helped me lift it back up.  They have helped me rise, steady my gait, and carry on down the dirt road to my Calvary.  They have listened to the ugly details of my sufferings, without judgment, and prayed with me.  They have encouraged me and given me advice to keep my soul from crumbling. They have loved me.

God has asked great suffering of me the last few years.  I have spent more time in valleys than I have in green pastures.  For a long time, my soul thirsted for days of peace, now my soul lies in parched trust.

When I was a child, my dad would sit and do Catechism studies with us when we didn’t have access to formalized Catholic Catechism classes (CCD).  He would sit with us after Mass, a convert himself, and read chapters of the Baltimore Catechism.  I vividly remember him teaching us one day about Christ’s Passion. He said that all the suffering  of every person that has lived or will ever live  was contained within Christ’s suffering.  Every pain and struggle we will face was contained in Christ’s cross.  I was meditating on my dad’s lesson one afternoon years later.  All my sufferings, all my pains, all my losses and struggles, all of them are splinters in His precious Cross that He shouldered to Calvary.  All the pain brought about from my sin, all the pain that befalls me from living in a fallen world, all of those were grains of wood in that Cross.  As I shoulder those crosses, those splinters, I spiritually stand under the Cross with Jesus holding the wood where my all my splinters form my part of His cross.

When my dear friends come under my Cross with me, they are not just lightening my load.  They lighten Christ’s load.  We are then all walking with our sufferings and others’ sufferings, simultaneously lightening all of our loads and that of Christ’s on the way to Calvary.  Truly, the selfless love of prayer and encouragement outweigh the intense weight and ugliness of sin.  Love, then, truly begins to overcome suffering and sin even before Christ arrived at Calvary.

I struggle feeling like a burden accepting the help and love of others.  I feel immense guilt reaching out and leaning on their shoulders.  I feel panic when they climb under my dirty portion of wood to help me heave it back up.  But, we all shoulder some piece of the Cross.  In accepting the help and helping others, we allow ourselves and our friends to further progress down the road of salvation.

Thank you, Lord, for shouldering my pain at your Passion.  Thank you for allowing St. Simon to help you, God.  Thank you for heaving portions of your cross upon me during my life and allowing me to help you on your walk to Calvary.  And thank you for also giving me St Simons to help me walk further to my eternal Glory with you.

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