A Year

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Its been a year, which feels like a long time. Seasons have passed and life has been lived. Good memories have been made, and my life is full of beauty and of love.

Like many people, my favorite time of year has always been the stretch after Halloween until Christmas. Its a combination of the the fresh cool air, the festive decorations, the cinnamon scented candles, decadent food, and time spent with those I love. And twinkle lights. The magic of twinkle lights can never be underestimated.

I remember sitting in Congo a few years ago during this season, mourning what I was missing back home, but knowing it would all be worth it when our son came home with me. But then I had to leave without him a few days after Christmas, and the fear crept in that he might never come home. And every November and December for the rest of my life would be overshadowed by the reminder that he wasn't with us. 

A half a year later, my fear was laid to rest when he did come home to us. And the next Holiday season was even more magical because it was fulfilling all the disappointment of the year before with more joy than I could've imagined because of the road we had walked.

This year is different though. The hope that I had at this time last year is still empty. There is no redemption. There is no fulfillment. There is just a very tangible void that the person who was supposed to be in our family isn't here. And he will never be here. I still have a box in the back of my closet that I'm not sure what to do with. It has a couple of onesies, a pair of mocs, and a few books I picked out just for him. It feels trite to give it away, but somewhat pointless to keep stashed away, unused. A year ago today, I was so confident I would need these items. But nine days from now will mark the anniversary of the day all that confidence was shattered.

I don't particularly love carnations, but my mother in law does. When she did the flowers for the funeral last year, she added them in. Maybe it was the one piece of her that she felt she could give to him. The dust of them lies in the vault with the dust of him deep in the ground. 

Its a strange time of year for flowers. The bins at my Trader Joe's are still filled with the rusty colored mums and golden marigolds. But the evergreens and hardy winter berries have begun to the fill in next to them. Last week I picked up a few bunches of eucalyptus and some crimson chrysanthemums. They were enough to fill the vases scattered around my house. But then I saw the little bundle of white carnations tucked away behind all the others. I pulled it out and tossed it into my cart, not pausing long enough to allow myself the time think about it. 

Later that afternoon I took to the task of arranging the flowers. I trimmed each stem and stripped all the leaves off that would sit below the water level. I followed the rule of odd numbers, keeping the design balanced. I filled in the greenery, and moved the mason jars and vases to their places on my kitchen table, in the living room, and the corner of my kitchen counter. I'm good at putting things in their places. I like order, I like having clear expectations and outcomes. 

I didn't use all the carnations. I wrapped a piece of twine around them and set them into a jar on the kitchen counter. I knew what I wanted to do with them, I knew where they belonged. But knowing something and following through to do it, I've found, are two very different things. 

A few days later, I went to the cemetery. The threat of finding the flowers wilted on the kitchen counter was enough for me to actually drive myself there. I used to think cemeteries were a little, I don't know, creepy? There are few places one can go where its truly quiet and still. Few places where its lonely. But the cemetery is all those things. And strangely enough, there's a solace there for me. Its the place where nothing has changed. Where the world hasn't moved on. A place that remembers where my son's body lies, and marks it boldly. Spelling out the letters of his name and mocking death with the reference of 1 Corinthians 15:55 graven on a stone plaque. I laid the tiny bunch of flowers on the stone and took a deep breath in. Then I got back in my car and drove my son to a birthday party across the street at the zoo. 

I never imagined being one of those people for whom the holidays are hard. Like the pan balance that I use to model math problems with my students, I always figured that if the good outweighed the bad, then it would win, in a binary kind of way. But this isn't binary. Its like the box of Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans from Harry Potter. One moment its chocolate, and peppermint, and marmalade and the next its spinach, and liver, and tripe. And for the life of me, I can't control which flavor I'm going to pull out of the box at any given moment. 

So the holiday experience this year is simultaneously the best and worst moments of my life all wrapped up into one. The first anniversary of the day my son was stillborn is Thanksgiving day, the one day of the year we dedicate exclusively to practicing gratitude. Yet I will sit at the table on that day with two little boys for whom the depths of my gratitude can never be plumbed. 

The balance bounces back and forth. One moment the joy controls the scale, the next it is weighed down with sorrow. I think the way through this season is to enjoy those moments of joy. To live into them fully and drink them up. And then to not be afraid of the sorrow, not try to keep it at arm's length as if it isn't real. Because it is. It's all a part of me now. And it always be.  





The Morning

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"The Morning" is a story I told to a crowd at a local community theater a few months ago. Today marks the three year anniversary of that morning.






The Best Birthday Gift

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The dock is narrow, jutting out into the murky water. Two weathered kayaks sit in the middle of it- crunchy autumn leaves cover the seats, oars nowhere to be found. It doesn't seem as if the boats have served their purpose for some time, but they're picturesque just sitting there. We laugh and shriek, scrambling over them, inching our way along the edge toward the end. She wants a photo and its her birthday, who are we to object? The phone is perched on a chair opposite from where we stand, capturing our moment of chaos afloat the muddy pond. An ancient oak stands behind us, vines traverse the hills, their leaves floating in the afternoon breeze. We lock arms and smile, half out of deep affection for one another and half out of self preservation.

The camera clicks, a moment frozen forever. We leap back to the safety of land, grabbing one another's hands sighing in quiet relief. Our cute grown up clothes are dry, we still know how to move in heels, or at least wedges. We pack away our picnic and drain the last few drops of wine from our glasses, smiles wide, hearts full. The sun begins to sink in the sky and real life beckons us home.

Back to the men who have our hearts, back to the children who light up our lives. Back to the homes where we've learned to dwell. To the hot showers that wash away the weight of the world and the beds where we find rest. Perhaps in a photo it looks so easy- we live in a beautiful town, our children are healthy and thriving. We have husbands who send us off on afternoons like this to celebrate one another.

But the truth is that there are much deeper stories that have woven us together, a single thread wrapped in and out, back and forth. Over the past year we've experienced loss and disappointment. Fear and uncertainty. Pain and brokenness. Forgiveness and grace. Expectation and hope.

And we've done it together. Through tears and questions. With chocolate and wine. Around a table and standing at a gravesite. With cold, wet sand between our toes and sitting under a bright sun warming our shoulders. Over text chains and lattes. At preschool pick up and park sandboxes. Asking silly questions and probing deep into our souls. Wondering and encouraging, silently supporting when words aren't sufficient.

This moment may be frozen in time forever, but when I stop to take it in on the screen of my phone, I see so much more than the photo reveals. I remember the stories we told today, the ways we vowed to live more fully in the year ahead. I recall how God has been faithful since last June and how we've come to know Him more, each in our own ways. I think of how my friends got their names and how their children are growing into theirs. I know a little more of what makes each of us alive, and I feel a little more known than I did this morning.

We leave that pond and that dock for the gangplank of reality. The one we will fall off of into the slimy waters of motherhood. When we lose our tempers and burn our dinners. Our boats will sink, but we'll swim to shore, clinging to the life rings we toss to each other every now and again. We'll text from doctor's offices, admitting we can't actually do everything we're supposed to do and need someone to pick our kids up. We'll share grocery lists and costco runs. We'll swap kids and bury our heads when they're screaming about their butts in the front yard. Tomorrow morning we will don the top knot, down our caffeine, and jump back into the trenches. But we will do it with a little more energy and conviction because of today. Because today we all enjoyed the best birthday gift there is- friendship.

Light

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Choosing to strike a match to light a flame in this darkness is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Opening my eyes to take in its glow, permitting it to reorient me to the reality that surrounds me. Allowing myself the time to gaze upon the long shadows it casts, flickering through the veil of the night. Grieving what I’ve lost while clinging to gratitude for what I’ve been given. It feels like the dance between the flame and the darkness, fronting back and forth. One moment in balance, the next on the brink of being extinguished, finally leaping from the wick to chase away the dark in a quick moment of defiance. I’m still learning it, and I expect it will be a lesson I’ll learn for the rest of my days.


It is not lost on me that one of my greatest disappointments in life has fallen during this holy week. The one right after the day people cried out, raising palm branches high, “hosanna! save us!" They believed their light had finally arrived. But within a few days, all that would change. Soon they would scream out, “crucify him!” The man they thought was their messiah, the light in the dark, was nailed to a cross. The earth groaned and shook, and complete darkness fell upon the land. Yet curiously, when we read this account in John’s gospel, we get a spoiler alert.


I’ve got a bad habit, I’ll fully admit. I often read the last chapter of a book before reading the first, just to make sure its worth reading. Why waste my time if it doesn’t end well? And by well, I don’t just mean happy. I mean fulfilling. Maybe that’s why I like John so much. He knows that there will be readers like me who need to know the end before they read the whole story. So by the fifth sentence of his gospel, he lets us in on the truth that everything is going to turn out okay. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” When I finally get to the climax of the story, where all hope seems to be lost, where the darkness has clearly overcome the light, I’m left a little confused. How could this happen? John said it was going to be ok.


A few sentences later, we find Mary walking in the dark toward the tomb of Jesus. Further into the passage it is revealed that Jesus meets her in the garden. Alive. For a moment, she doesn’t recognize him. But then he says her name and she sees him for who he is. I can only imagine that scene is much like one of these Santa Barbara mornings that begin completely socked in with fog. It obscures the sun entirely as I wake up and rise from my bed. I walk to the kitchen, turn on the hot water for a cup of tea, and peer through the windows checking for a break in the clouds. Out the window to the north, the east, the south. Nothing. Then, without warning, one ray of sunlight fights its way through. And within an hour, the sky is clear and the sun is shining.   


In a moment, Mary is bathed in light as she sees Jesus once again. Her friend, her teacher, her Lord. I think its pretty special that she was the first one who got to see Jesus. In a culture that didn’t give much value to women, Jesus revealed himself to her. But I also have to think it had something to do with proximity, she was near to him on that morning. On the darkest, coldest morning, she went to him. And she found him to be so more more than she could ever possibly imagine.


I guess where I’m left is sitting in front of a candle with a box of matches. Today is the day John Mark should've been born, April 11th. As we stood at his grave this morning, my husband shook his head. "This isn't where we're supposed to be today." He's right. This isn't how it was supposed to turn out, and I still have a million questions. But I also know that tomorrow I have the choice whether or not to strike that match against the side of the box. Tomorrow morning, like so many other mornings since my son died, will feel dark. Too dark. But I’ve read the whole story, and I know that the light shines in the darkness, and darkness has not overcome it.

Chairs in Heaven

Saturday, January 21, 2017

"Are there chairs in heaven?" he asked me, curious and hopeful.
"I don't know, buddy. Maybe. I mean I guess so?" my voice trailed off.
"Hmm. Ok. Because I'm going to need a chair when I see John Mark. Because, you know, he's a baby and you're supposed to sit down when you hold a baby," he replied.

For the past two months, I've been grilled about heaven. Where is it? What's it like? How do we get there? When is Jesus going to come fix everything? What are our bodies going to be like? When will we die? And why did John Mark die when he was too little? Is the cemetery full of babies like our baby? Why did Jesus have to die? Is John Mark's little box ok, even though its close to the hot lava under the surface of the earth? Why can't God bring him back to us? Can we pray for God to send him back to us? Can we take a helicopter up to heaven and get him back from God?

In their questioning and wondering, they haven't expressed anger at God. They are curious, but they expect that I have the answers for them. Even when I try to explain things in a way I think they'll understand, it doesn't always connect. They peer up at me with a puzzled look, shrug their shoulders and say, "okay, mama."

I've often woken to a little face in front of mine, a little voice, "I miss John Mark. I feel sad. Can we have breakfast now?" They have this amazing capacity to do such contradictory things all at the same time. To giggle and build legos together, then pause for such a short moment to comment that they're sad that John Mark doesn't get to build legos with them. They have a profound sense that something is missing, and they aren't afraid to acknowledge it.

Today Moses and I had a date together, he wanted to go to the ice cream shop by the zoo. During our drive he looked out the window and up at the sky.
"Hmm," he said, "I think maybe I see Jesus in the clouds"
"I don't think so, not today." I answered.
"But, maybe he's hiding up there. Maybe he's coming down."
"Well, the Bible says its going to be a big deal when He comes back. I think we're going to know for sure when it happens."
"Oh. Okay. Just like when he was all glittery when the guy who ate bugs dipped in honey dunked him in the river?"
"Maybe so. I bet it will be super bright like that."
"Yeah! What kind of ice cream are you going to get, Mama?"

And so for today, this is how we live. We remember the baby our hearts still love so deeply. We eat ice cream on blustery, cold days. We wrestle with hard questions while we build towers from blocks. And we look for the light in the sky, waiting for heaven to come. Waiting to see what kind of chairs God furnishes his kingdom with.

EMMANUEL

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Tonight there are still so many questions, there's still sadness, still emptiness. But one of the reasons I've kept this blog over the years is that it allows me to look back to see where God has brought our family. So much has happened in three years, but I will never forget the night I opened this email. I'll never forget the sequence of events that unfolded shortly thereafter- packing up Jephté's things, driving him to his new foster family, walking away from him as he screamed out behind me. To him it was another abandonment. I'll never forget returning my hotel room key to Alain, the kind owner. Saying goodbye to Carlos and Pablo and the rest of the staff. I'll never forget sitting in the waiting area at the airport and then boarding the plane, barely able to put one foot in front of the other to leave the continent where my son would remain. I'll never forget that salad- fresh from Belgium. All I'd craved for the previous three months was a crunchy vegetable, but I could barely eat. I'll always be grateful to Liz for the sachet of Canadian Kleenex, I'd never cried so much in my life. This past month has been the only real rival to that season of pain. 

I have these little photo holder ornaments on the tree, one for each of the boys for each year. This year, I bought an extra one and planned to slip in an ultrasound picture of John Mark. I never did it, and tonight I noticed the empty ornament tucked away on one of the branches. I'm still confounded. After all we've been through, why this? I think I could've handled another loss at 8 weeks or 10, or even 12. I would've been sad, but understood that maybe there was some chromosomal abnormality or one of the hundred things that go wrong early on. But this? The miscarriage rate for my pregnancy was finally practically zero. I don't even have the words to ask the questions anymore. So I turn back to this, a moment when we were out of words to ask the questions that plagued our souls. And while we still don't have complete answers to that time from Christmas 2013-May 2014, we had God's presence. In a way we didn't know it before. So I'm ending this Christmas with that reality- God showed up before, so I know He can do it again. Just like He did all those years ago in the manger, and just like He will do when He makes everything right again. He is Emmanuel- God with us. 

from Mike, on Christmas 2013 

I don't know what to say to you right now. In less that 24 hours you will be on a plane leaving that ten-by-ten prison that was "home" for the past three months. You will be leaving behind mosquitoes, anti-malarials, "jungle oats," spaghetti, stinking plumbing, potholes, pollution, sweltering heat, lies and broken promises, and your favorite six legged hotel guests. You will also be leaving an oasis in the chaos, afternoon swims, good help that have become like family (whose names we will never forget), adventures to the thieves' market, and the beautiful culture of the Congolese. I'm not sure how you feel about all that, but I'm guessing in the final balance, especially when Sam is thrown into the mix, San Francisco sounds pretty nice (there's not an outdoor pool around, but we also lack sweltering heat, mosquitoes, etc).

Except that final balance leaves out one very weighty matter - our son. Jephté as we have come to know him, again. Here we were thinking we could take the Congo out of him, and now it seems Congo has crept into us. You see, I don't know how to feel about this homecoming - I'm terribly excited, anxious to see you, to finally be able to hold you again. Sam kinda misses you too. Ok, he really, really misses you. I'm certainly no tenable substitute for you as far as that goes. But then I have this pang of deep, to my core, guilt, sorrow, I don't know what to call it. Bittersweet? Someone used that term recently. Sweet? yes, bitter? I don't think bitter captures the emotion - bilious vomit. That's closer. Certainly captures the sick feeling better.

I wish I knew what to tell you about tomorrow (today, actually in Congo - this 9 hour difference thing has got to go). You'd think I'd have something wise to say - I mean, I've now left him twice. Despite the fact that the second time was with the best caregiver on earth and was only supposed to be temporary, it wasn't any easier. Now you have to leave him behind with an uncertain future ahead, leave him behind with a substitute family (ok, they're actually a substitute-substitute since we're the original by-God's-mercy-alone substitutes). I'm fear to even mention aloud the doubts and thoughts that are going through your mind. I think we share them. I think they are tidily summed up with "Why God?"

Why God? Why have you allowed us to go into the heart of darkness, this boy's tragic yet brief history, a deeply broken city, a wretchedly broken system? Why did all of our being "responsible" in counting the costs before embarking account to nothing when everything fell apart? Why have you allowed our family to be torn apart for these past three months, and in the end left a hole with no certainty of being filled? Why can't anyone keep a promise in this hell? Why do so many corrupt and idealistic people, together in the end, seem to practically hate orphans? Why?

I don't have words for the rest of the questions - just a big question mark on my soul. And what's worse is I really don't have answers to the questions. I don't think I will this side of eternity.

Here's what I do know though: the suffering is real, God is real, God is powerful over the real suffering, and God has been with us (I mean right there with us) through the suffering. I know that what we are doing is good, and therefore it's God's will. Because he wills good. Opposition and outcomes cannot be simple metrics to assess concordance with His will. Action that is in line with His character regardless of outcome, that is what brings him joy. 

Jephté has had three months of a loving mother, good nutrition, medicine, field trips, protection from the bugs that bite, he learned how to swim. He learned how to dive! We've met good people in Kinshasa who want to see these children thrive. There is hope. I'm not some perpetually optimistic person as you know. So when I say these things, I'm not looking for a silver lining. I'm not saying these things are why God has allowed this to pan out this way. But I don't want to miss what God is doing either.

So "tomorrow" you leave the land of the eternal "tomorrow." I wish I had something more clever to say right now. Something to prepare you for what is about to transpire. Someway to assure you it's all going to be alright. But Jephté isn't coming home with you. That's going to hurt, a lot. I wish you didn't have to say goodbye alone. Know that you are not alone, and neither is Jephté. He goes with his Father, his true Father. And until we are allowed to bring him into our home, we have to trust in his Father, our Father. Just as Advent is approximately twice as long as Christmas, the night is often longer than the light. But the Light does come eventually, the night does not last forever.

LIGHT

Friday, December 16, 2016

Seven years ago I had a dream. It had never happened before, and it hasn't happened since. I'm not one for dreams worth remembering, but this one felt more real that anything I've ever experienced. 

I was cold and shivering in the dark. Suddenly, a great warmth washed over my body. The air became thick with humidity and a brightness surrounded me. It was blinding. I drew my arms up to shield my face from its piercing light. As quickly as it had come, it subsided. I slowly dropped my hands back down and peered through heavy eyelids with apprehension. 

I was in the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. To describe it here seems pitiful. It was a jungle, but it was safe. A paradise. Through the foliage, that same light glowed, and it captivated me. With a compulsion I could not refuse, my feet carried me toward it. I couldn't run fast enough. Furiously pushing branches and vines aside to forge a path, I struggled until one giant banana leaf stood in my way. I reached out to shove it aside. My fingers brushed the edge of the waxy leaf, opening a tiny pocket where the light flooded through. The force of it knocked me back into consciousness.  

Never in my life have I been so desperate to go back to sleep, but it was futile. I was wide awake with nothing but the memory of this magical place. I wanted desperately to make it past the banana leaf, to enter fully into that wonderful, unimaginable presence. But its been elusive.

Today felt like a dream, but it wasn't. I can't tell you how many mornings I've woken in the past 24 days and instinctively run my hands across my flat belly. I've closed my eyes, begging for this to be the dream. I want to wake up to a reality where John Mark is still safe inside of me. But today was a reckoning day. We lowered the body of our baby into the ground. We sprinkled dirt over the burial vault and laid flowers on the grass in his honor as the sun began to set. Finally alone, I stood still- taking in the weight of finality.

Last night rain clouds enshrouded the sky. This morning I woke to a violent wind. It threw the chairs across the deck and dislodged the branches from the palms high above. It left nothing in the air, clarity and sharpness overtook the day. And by late afternoon, it had made way for the rays of the sun to break through in a way I don't often witness. The little spot of ground that John Mark takes up was completely bathed in the brilliant light. As I stood at the foot of his grave, I was blinded. Though my body shivered in the piercing wind, though my frame was wracked with sobs, the light was still there. That same light from my dream. 





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