This is how is happened, Part 3 (Let it begin with me)

Can you bear with me through this just a little longer?  I struggle to write about the days I’m sharing with you and yet I also struggle when I don’t write.  There is pain here but there is also beauty, there is suffering but there is also redemption. Sometimes I ask myself why I am writing this, is it my own selfish need to get it out, see it on paper? It feels raw, naked to share this and yet I feel like it needs to be shared.  Because although this is just one story, it is part of a greater need that is important to think about, important to share.  Right now, there is someone with a need this great in your community.  Right now, there are children whose parents cannot care for them, whether it is due to a tragic crisis like this one or a different, equally desperate need.  I want to share it because we, who are blessed with our health, our financial situations, our homes, our stable families, the support of our church families…we are the ones who can offer our hearts and homes to those who are struggling.  Through foster care, through adoption,  through giving to others who support the care of orphans and families in need.  I want to share this in hopes that in reading it, the need will become more real…and the call to action more audible. 

Part One
Part Two

For some reason, it is raining.  I can’t seem to make it feel like Christmas Eve, with the rain drumming down and melting the snow that crusts the corners of the yard.  It is Christmas Eve, and the rain is falling and I am tugging a shirt over Toddler’s head, snapping grippers on Baby’s onesie, pulling tiny shoes over feet too small to stand.  I comb their hair, close my eyes to inhale the smell of fresh baby shampoo.  My three children stand and watch, quietly.  They are not dressed up, they will be staying here with their father and doing Christmas-Eve things.  They will light the fire, play cards on the floor in the spot of warmth it creates.  They will listen to Christmas music and wrap gifts, sip cocoa stirred with candy canes.

The babies and I, we are going to say goodbye to their father.

I load them in the car, speak silly words that amount to nothing as I snap Toddler in the car seat, secure Baby next to him.  There will be a photographer there, one who specializes in photographing families who are losing a member to cancer.  I cannot imagine doing such a job, and yet I see what a blessing it will be.  A part of me cries out to God against the fact that there even is such a job.  Rails against reality of this.  Why do cancer photographers have to be necessary?  It is a dead-end question that does nothing to help the situation.

We drive across town, the three of us.  The rain drizzles down, gray against gray, as I pass through the tall buildings of down-town.  Lining the streets are the Christmas lights…Oh, the lights!  They glow against the rain and look out of place here, this day does not seem to warrant Christmas lights and yet there they are, silently glowing.  Lighting our way.

I pull in front of the run-down building that holds her apartment.  I let the motor run a moment, let the shush and whoosh of the heater warm me through.  Baby is asleep in his car seat, toddler is quiet.  The rain still falls.  I turn off the engine, take a breath.  In front of the apartments, a white home-health care van is parked.  I wonder, abstractly, what it is they provide for this?  What accouterments do the last days of life entail?  I don’t know what I will find inside.  I don’t want to think about this, I don’t want this to be the way it is, I don’t want this Christmas Eve to be the last one for anybody’s family.  I am not strong.  I am not good in these situations, I don’t know what to do or to say and I fear that the discomfort and sense of I’ve ineptitude I’ve always felt around people will seize me in this situation, make me silent,  strike me dumb.

What on earth do you say at such a time?

I pray in the car, pray for whatever it takes.  I don’t even have words for it, I just ask for whatever it is that I need.  I pray for their mother, because I can’t even imagine the strength it is taking her just to draw a breath today, just to draw a breath in the room where her husband is dying.  I close my eyes, breathe in.  There is something I can’t identify that moves me forward, a strength good enough for this moment (and, please God, for the next) that takes me out of the car, moves me where I need to go.  I take out Toddler, kiss his warm forehead.  I pull Baby’s carseat out of the back and walk across the street, past the white van. I am selfish, I admit, even at a time like this. As I pass, I pray that there will never be a white van like this one in front of our house.

I knock, softly, on the door.  Inside, a small crowd of people are standing.  Hushed, too quiet.  There is the home health care nurse, who murmurs a few things, a few instructions, saying again and again…when you need us, call us.  We will be here right away.  Anything at all, you just call us.  She nods and nods, smiles a little but not too much.  She has been in many rooms like this before. 

Toddler bounces from lap to lap, does not seem to be phased by the hospital bed or medical equipment in the living room.  In his short lifetime, it’s become natural to him. He is blissfully  unaware, and we are all struck by a fact that is both comforting and heartbreaking:  He will not remember this, and, he will not remember this. The man who lies on the hospital bed, each breath sounding like cloth being ripped a bit at a time, this man who not too long ago was strong and cared for his boys with the hands that now lay so still…he will be a memory to be passed down second-hand, though photos and stories and memorabilia.  There really is no good outcome here, when you think about it.  Is it grief or second-hand memories that is the lesser of two evils? 

The photographers arrive.  There is posing, Baby placed in the crook of his father’s arm, tiny pink hand in stark relief against the white of flesh, the black of tattoo.  I help hold his father’s arm in place, feel the weight of it, how cold, how heavy.  There are a lot of pictures taken.  There are tears.  I place my hands on his head, pray.  The photographers are packing up, they are practiced yet compassionate in their hushed tones, their heartfelt condolences. The afternoon passes quickly, and then again I feel like years have passed. Someone puts a cd of Christian music on the stereo.  I hug their mother, hold her.  I hug the babies’ grandfather, am cut to the heart when he breaks down in my arms. They asked me where I am going…I had to tell them, I am going to watch my son die.  No one should ever have to say this, no one.

Outside, the cool air feels like a blessing.  I am thankful and feel guilty to be thankful that I am on this side of the door, that I get to go home to my husband and my house full of life and I must leave them all here.  The rain is drizzling, mixing with my tears.  I have cried more in the last month than I have all year combined and I don’t care who sees it, don’t stop to rub the tears off with the palm of my hand.  Just down the road, the bells of the Cathedral start to chime a hymn I remember from childhood. I sit in the car, the babies in the back seat.  Sit there and let the tears fall and feel broken and grateful, feel grief and the reality of death and the amazing, oh the amazing and piercing beauty of life wash over me.  I thank God for what He has given us, for the moments He has let us have and the beautiful bells sing out a message for Christmas, a message for me:

Let peace begin with me, let this be the moment now. 
With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow. 
To take each moment and live each moment with peace eternally.  
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.


How it happened, part 2 (made to be broken)

This is a continuation of a series started with this post. This situation is unique, but our world is full of hurting people, families in need, children who are displaced, orphaned, or in need of loving arms to care for them.  There are many ways to help…open your home to foster care or adoption.  Give some of your resources to ministries that help families stay togetherHelp raise funds for  another family’s adoption. Go on a short-term mission to an orphanage overseas and love on the love-starved children there. I believe that in His Holy Word God clearly calls every one of us to help. There are many ways to answer that call.  Let’s all continue to pray for God to lead us in what His will is for each of our families.

Part Two:  Made to be Broken

We stand together, Hubby’s arm around my shoulder, and gaze at the newborn child who sleeps in his car seat on our table.  The same table that we’d sat around just a few weeks before when we first learned of the tragedy unfolding in this new baby’s life.  Somehow, pie crumbs and coffee cups have brought us to this:  a beautiful new child with an uncertain future now depending on us for his every need.  The sense of unreality that I experienced on my way to pick him up still clings to me.  I am slow to process all of this.  A part of me is beginning to feel a frantic sense of panic.  Have I forgotten all I used to know about infancy?  About newborns?  This baby is so much smaller than I remember.  Memories and bits of babyhood, facts and numbers and needs come flooding back in a disorganized barrage of thoughts, memories, fears.

The baby, unaware, is sleeping.  His brow is wrinkled, a pucker of concern cuts a line between downy eyebrows just barely beginning to be visible. Even in his sleep he looks tense, anxious. I think back to the days of colic and reflux when Eldest was this age, how we barely managed to make it through each day.  The late nights, the ringing in our ears as he cried inconsolably for hours on end, the mountain of laundry as we struggled to keep the milk inside the baby long enough to make him grow.  There had been two of us, both healthy, and Eldest was our only child.  I can’t even begin to imagine how things must have looked for Baby’s family in the few short weeks of his life so far.

He wakes.

I hold Baby, laugh at the faces he pulls.  His eyes are that indescribable shade of blue that may well one day turn brown.  He is tiny, so very small that I marvel he could even be four weeks old.  He seems so fragile, so new.  He seems, in the way all newborns do, to be just a bit unfinished.  Hubby fixes a bottle (formula being a new skill we must now learn) while the kids and I sit on the couch, wonder at the amazing way life begins.  His fingers curl around my pinkie, Middle Child notes how tiny those little fingernails are.  Eldest laughs as Baby’s little-old-man forehead, how it wrinkles as Baby studies us, his mouth working, eyes struggling to focus.  There is a hush to the moment, a sweetness that I feel deep in my bones.  Hubby returns with the bottle and takes Baby gently on his lap, settles him in the crook of his arm, feeds him.  You could never tell that eight years have passed since he last fed a month-old baby.  It is as natural as it was back then and I am blessed, moved by love that comes so easily, by the acceptance and devotion that my children show so naturally, the steady support and love my husband gives so freely that makes an unfamiliar situation feel comfortable.

We fall into a routine, caring for Baby while trying to keep up with the usual pace of life as best we can.  Some days are much easier than others.  Once a day I call Baby’s mother, touch base with her. Some days she is despondent, her husband is slipping farther away as organs fail and infection rages.  Other days, her voice holds hope:  Today he sat up.  This morning, he knew her and they had a lucid conversation.  The days after those hope-days are the worst, when he has slipped back into that in-between place and taken her hope along with. Some days when I call she does not answer at all.

It is hard to picture the darkness and tragedy unfolding on the other end of the phone.  Hard to connect the baby flourishing here in our family with the life unraveling on the other side of the city.  As days blend into weeks Baby changes, becomes settled.  Colic seems to be a thing of the past although reflux stubbornly remains. He changes day to day as a new baby will, growing and learning.  I find that it is impossible to hold back love, even if I had wanted to. I learn that everything they tell you about adoption and foster care is true:  it is as easy and natural to love a baby that is not biologically yours as it is to love one that is.  Love is not found in the double-helix of DNA or in tidy rows of paired genes.  Love is found in the heart and in the very marrow of our bones and it is blind to biology.

In the dark hours before morning I find myself rocking, soothing with the familiar motions of mothering and I marvel at how deep these feelings are.  I know now that you can adopt a child and love him as deeply as your own, I know now that you can foster a child and love both him and his mother so much you are willing to face the heartbreak of giving him up.  I know now that the human heart is made to be broken, that it is not loving and losing that shatters the soul but rather never loving at all.  The words of a counselor friend echo in my heart,  “It is better that this baby bond with you and lose you, because he will have developed the ability to bond again.  It’s the babies who never bond that fail to thrive.” 

It is now just a week before Christmas.  We have put up lights, decorated a small tree.  We are reminded by the baby in our arms of the baby in the manger so long ago, another foster-child of sorts whose broken heart would beat for the least of these, for the widows and the fatherless and those in need.  I feel it in my own heart, the openness of a soul broken wide by love.  I had not noticed the way I’d hidden my heart, the way it had become muffled and smothered under a protective layer of safety, until it lay bare and open and feeling, awake again.

The phone calls grow more sporadic, the news when it comes varies wildly between improvements and deterioration.  It is late one evening and Christmas music is playing quietly in the background and I am holding Baby in my arms, rocking gently, wrapped in the warmth of the moment. The phone rings, and the moment crashes down:  whatever hope had been held out, whatever prayers for healing now lay broken.  There is only the bare, hard truth of the direction this is going: Baby’s mother sobs as she tells it, as she breaks under the weight of a decision no wife, no mother should have to make. They have done everything they can, and everything is not enough.

The week before Christmas, she chose to take her husband home to die. 

It is wet outside, the brightly colored Christmas lights reflect garishly in pools of rainwater on the front porch and the music continues to play and the fire is flickering and I don’t want to tell my children what is happening, don’t want them to know how fragile life is. In the morning, I will go and get Baby’s thirteen month old brother.  We will give them the best Christmas we know how.  We will pour our love into these small boys and into these moments and this bittersweet season and our hearts will lie open to whatever God wills next.  In the dark hours after everyone is in bed, Baby is fussy and nothing seems to soothe him. I pace the living room floor trying to keep his cries and mine from waking the rest of the family. The rocking and pacing and swaying do not work and on this night, it is the jagged rhythm of my sobs that soothes Baby back to sleep.

Continue to Part three…..

Also visit The High Calling to read more about helping children and families in need….

Gratitude Journal… Light in the Morketiden

It is the gray-brown time of year again, the time of year when scraps of leftover snow cling in the corners of the yard, dirty and spent.  When the sky is low and dark and the sun is hidden.  When the air is not fit to breathe and I feel trapped, locked inside an inversion that sits over us relentlessly for weeks on end, snuffing out colors and draining the light out of the day.

February is my morketiden., a time of darkness when I struggle to stay above the drag of depression as the sun stays hidden in the muck of inversion.  I grew up amid pine trees and ice-blue skies, black bears rooting through the dumpster in the Kmart parking lot.  We took for granted the pristine air and the sparkling-clear water that ran glacier-cold through rivers that circled our Montana town.  The lack of light and the thought of breathing bad air are a combination that I struggle with every year. 

All the more reason to count my blessings…to bring a little light into the thickening gray by remembering the shining colors of grace, the sweet moments that abound, the waiting promise of Spring.

 521. Squares of light traced on oak

 522. The world’s tiny-est snow sculpture (brought to you by Youngest)

 523. Learning to make messes

 524. And learning to clean them up again

 525. For the kids, taking Toddler on his first ride on a sled

 526. For the baby swing, an extra set of arms when it’s needed most

 527. Bright-orange clementine smiles

528. Icy patterns on the window
529. Seed catalogs 
530. For what lies waiting, ready to bloom in the Spring

In, on, and around Monday….Sunday Evening Birthday

My stress level is high, we are juggling too many things right now and, at the same time, trying to keep up with the full schedule that is daily life. The sounds of voices drift into the kitchen, laughter punctuates the waves of sound here and there like the roar of the ocean, like a seashell held to the ear. A sound that could lull me to sleep if I had a moment to close my eyes.  I am bouncing between dining room table and kitchen sink, collecting plates, rinsing forks, sweeping crumbs into my open palm.  We’ve gathered to celebrate Eldest’s fourteenth birthday, Hubby’s family tradition of Sunday birthday parties.  Dinner has been served, and we’re moving on toward the cake.

I am tired, that bone-tired that washes over you and wraps you up and pulls you down.  This is the third time in one week I have done this dance between counter and stove, table and sink, the flow of guests washing through the house and I love it and it fills the house with joy and today, just today, I am tired enough to let it wash over me, rather than join in the flow. The bustle of people, the noise of talking, the party around me is like a river flowing and the sound of it makes me want to lay my head down, here on the kitchen counter, and fall asleep.  I see Baby bobbing from guest to guest, Toddler laughing as Eldest holds him on his hip, Youngest snuggling in an Aunt’s arms.  Hubby joins me, sets two carafes of decaf coffee on the expanse of our oak table, begins to deal cups and saucers out like cards: Royal flush, two-of-a-kind, full house.

I bring over the cake, which looks a little like I feel:  the top layer has settled and slid slightly off kilter, giving the whole thing a tired look.  Or maybe it’s just me.  The ebb and flow of conversation continues around me, I am floating like a rubber duck in an endless sea.  The cake is on the table, I hold a box of candles in one hand and there is something important happening here, something I should be awake for and then suddenly  Hubby is there, he breaks away and for a moment everything comes into focus.  We wash up on an island, just the two of us, looking at each other over this tired birthday cake and I say, “Should I put on all fourteen candles, or just one since there are getting to be so many?” and he smiles, and the moment grows suddenly clear.  It’s as if the clouds have parted and the sun shines on us there on our little kitchen-table island, and we are there in the moment together and the party flows around us while we just look.  We look at the years that the cake represent and it’s not tired any more, it’s life well loved and it’s years that held colicky nights and days spent holding small and sticky hands and it’s three-a.m. wrapped in blankets sitting out in the night air to chase away croup and it’s laughter and tears, it’s evenings by the fire playing cards and nights snuggled together reading books and it’s prayer and fear and joy and love and fourteen years of water under the bridge.  We feel it all without words in that island-moment, all the love and joy that is a gift, a gift.

“Put them all on,” he says.  “There are not that many years left when they’ll all fit.”

And I do, I put all fourteen candles on and wonder how I ever questioned the need to see all fourteen bright flames glowing.

We call the party in and the rush closes over us like water and I hold on to that island moment, when it was real and it was bright and I am blessed, so blessed to be present in the glow of fourteen years of life.

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