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. 





IMPERISHABLE

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The rain hits the roof, its quiet voice filling the silence with a gentle song. In the drought stricken land where I live, I'm not sure nature's concert is entirely coincidental. Not quite a storm, it feels like the skies are weeping with me. This isn't a tempest, mother nature isn't angry. There's no lightning or thunder, there's no torrential downpour. Just a steady stream falling from the heavy clouds. A mournful cry, echoing through the twilight.

I don't feel angry, my fight has been drained. I suppose I just feel resigned to that reality that tomorrow is actually happening. Tomorrow we will bury our baby in the rain soaked ground. The soil softened to receive his tiny casket. The earth to hold him beneath her weight until the day Jesus calls his body up to new life.

There are passages in the Bible that I've read, so many times, but not completely read. "In the twinkling of an eye... the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable..." from Paul's letter to the Corinthians. It sounds somewhat magical, a little mystical. My experience thus far offers no context to frame something so seemingly abstract.

For the past twenty three days, I have known the power of death. I have lived in its shadow, and I suspect, it won't soon leave me alone. To behold a corpse is a powerful reminder that things are not as they should be. This world is broken. But to hold, in your hands, the lifeless form of a child is so far beyond broken, words elude me. The thought of John Mark becoming imperishable stretches beyond the limit of my wildest imagination.

And so to think on this short passage, and to truly believe it? It feels fantastical. Like maybe I'm delusional because I can't accept that death wins so easily? Maybe I'm grasping for straws because everything else around me feels so unsteady? But I don't know, maybe, there's actually this echo resonating inside me? It's atonal, hard to trace, impossible to describe. Sometimes its a beautiful symphony, but other times its like that famous composition, 4'33"- absolute silence and stillness. Just when I'm convinced that all has gone quiet, it calls to me, through the mist. Just enough to perk my ears, to snatch my attention. I long for more of the song, even though I can't quite sing the melody just yet.

We went to the cemetery, as one must do when they have someone to bury. We stood among the graves, I had trouble distinguishing reality from a dream. I looked over the hill to see the sun dipping into the afternoon sky. At the edge of the cliff, the ocean waves crashed into the beach below.

I could see the brave mouse Reepicheep tossing aside his sword and hastily paddling into the waves through to Aslan's country. from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 

I heard the chorus, "When we arrive at eternity's shore, where death is just a memory and tears are no more..." from "You're Beautiful" 

The mountains stood behind me, beckoning to that passage from Psyche-
The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing- to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from- my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back." from Till We Have Faces

The trees cast long shadows across the lawn-
"They turned and saw the Lion himself, so bright, and real, and strong that everything began to look pale and shadowy compared to him."

As I stumble through this dream world, there are these glimpses of hope that I can't ignore. A breaking through of something that beckons to a part of my soul untouched by this world. Its a passage from a story, a lyric from a song, a line from a poem, an image from a painting...

Tomorrow, I'm not just going to visit the cemetery. I'm going to lay my son's body to rest there. I'm going to bury a piece of my heart, to surrender all the hopes I've held for him and for our family.

I'll leave less whole. I'll leave with missing pieces and deeper longing. I'll leave so desperate for my son to be changed to the imperishable, that my ear will be just a little more tuned to hear that trumpet's call. The loss of John Mark plays into the symphony, accompanied tonight by little more than the rain. Tonight's movement is the adagio. But this sadness is not all there is. The final movement is coming. Then all the instruments join in a grand finale, full with resolution, led, I'm convinced, by the loudest, more victorious trumpet any ear has ever heard.

ADVENT

Thursday, December 15, 2016

I remember being introduced to the season of Advent about ten years ago. We attended an Anglican church on the east coast and I found myself irritated that we didn't sing Christmas songs until after Christmas. For those four weeks leading up to Christmas day, the music was somber and heavy. I’m pretty sure I sang the words of, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” more times that year than I had in my previous 25 years of life. But then, on Christmas day, everything changed. The music, the decor, the countenance of the church. We suddenly celebrated something so contrary to what had we had been steeped in for the month preceding, I couldn’t help but take pause. I think that was one of the first times I truly understood why I needed Christmas so badly. 

We settled into that routine over the next few years, separating our playlists at home with Advent and Christmas music. We began leaving our tree up longer, reveling in those days following December 25th. We learned to hold the tension between the already and the not yet- mourning and grieving the brokenness we experienced with the hope that Jesus offers. We were getting good at it, and as the years passed, our longing for restoration and hope deepened as we sent our first two children to heaven. But then Sam came, right smack in the middle of Advent. While we had anticipated his coming with so much expectation, everything about his arrival brought a new joy we didn’t know could possibly exist in the world. It was as if God had put some flesh on this hope and sent it straight into our home. 

The following Advent season, I found myself as far from Sam as one can possibly be on this globe. While I was supposed to be celebrating this anniversary of his arrival into our lives, i sat alone with Moses in a tiny hotel room in Africa. With each passing day, it became more and more apparent that I wouldn’t be able to take him home. That I would have to leave him in what is one of the most God forsaken hells that could possible exist on this planet. The internet connection was so bad, I could barely Skype long enough to let Samuel see my face in real time, to hear my voice, the one that I knew was growing faint in his memory after three long months apart. I wept as I scrolled through my photo stream, feeling like I was watching my life through a portal. My husband, family, and friends stepped into the role that should’ve been mine, and while I mourned that loss, I also felt such deep gratitude for their presence. People who loved us so deeply, they considered it an honor to bake his birthday cake and witness his first steps for me. 

I waited until Christmas day, mustering every ounce of strength I could to hold on to the promise of Christmas. That though the darkness of Advent, light would come for Moses and me, just as it had on that day so many years ago in Bethlehem. But it came and went. I grasped for the only light I could, the hope that God was still with us in the brokenness. On December 26th, I placed Moses into another woman’s arms and walked away. He screamed after me, terror and betrayal in his cries. I knew that it wasn’t our time and I had to leave. I knew that I would take care of him as long as I lived, even if that only meant paying for his food and education and covering him in my prayers. I couldn’t possibly communicate to him that I would keep fighting for him with every fiber of my being, all he could understand was the tearing apart of his world. The abandonment of the only love he had ever come to trust. 

From thousands of miles away, I fought for him. It was a fight I can’t quite describe in words. It was a fight of strength, blasting gangster rap and channeling my anger through kickboxing in my living room. It was a fight of the soul, pleading with the Lord for His justice, morning and night. It was a fight of the will, learning the legalities of the system and pursuing every last rabbit trail that might land us together. It was a fight of love, my heart broken every moment we were apart. Moses didn’t know all that, he couldn’t possibly see, let alone comprehend, what I was working for his good. It took five long months, but eventually I was able to bring him home. 

This is a new fight. There isn’t that chance of hope at the end, the same way there was for Moses. In this journey with John Mark, there is no possible happy ending this side of heaven. There is no chance of redemption. There is only silence and absence. There is nothing to do but hold fast to the promise that God is who He says He is, who He proven himself to be over the years. There is nothing but a glimmer of hope that one day, I will hold my baby's hand again. Though I imagine it won’t be the tiny one that wrapped around my thumb last week. I think it will be the big strong hand of a man with a new body, a man who has spent every one of his days in the presence of our God. I don’t know how theologically sound my thought is, but somehow, I sense that an embrace from those arms on the day we meet again will overwhelm all this grief and pain. 

I am weary of being in this story, my story. I feel like each climax can’t possibly be eclipsed. But I also understand that I wouldn’t know God the way I do today if I lived in any other story. I am angry, but after saying goodbye to six children, I’ve found He is angry alongside me- this is not how he created his world to function. I am confused, but I’ve come to learn that He is big enough to hold all my questions and not dismiss them. I am full of sorrow, but so is He, he knows the pain of searing loss. I don’t say any of this lessen the significance of our pain, I’ve never felt anything so acutely as our son’s departure. But, I don’t know, I have to trust that He's working for my good, despite this tragedy, on the side I can't see. So my prayer is that together we will know our God more because we knew John Mark. After all, I suppose that's the greatest gift any human could ever give us. 

TO SAY GOODBYE

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Scalding water runs down my back, the steam rises around me. I look down at my arm, the outline of the tape used to hold my iv in place remains. Grabbing the soap, I begin to rub it away. Hot tears spill over and I stop. As long as I can still see the residue stuck to my skin, I remember that you're real. That the last 20 weeks actually happened, it all wasn't just my imagination.

After surviving an entire trimester of all damn day sickness, while tent camping nonetheless, I began to hope that maybe this time would be different. After making it through all the ultrasounds, hearing your strong heartbeat, and learning the rhythm of your kicking and squirming about, I began to imagine my life with you. After being told, only the day before, that I wasn't high risk and that you looked perfect, I bought you a Christmas present and added it to the pile to wrap. You were re-defining my normal, one that had been waiting for you for so long. I allowed myself to imagine the moment when you would enter the world, the joy that would spread across your papa's face, that magic when your screams would break the tension in the air.

So much tension. Woven like a heavy textile, through so much loss. The ones we never named. Then Thomas, Karis, and Hope. But finally, you were different, John Mark. Your existence threatened to break apart those threads of sadness and grief.

But in a moment, everything was shattered. A dark hospital room, quiet voices, busy nurses, my world came crashing in. You were perfect, I could feel you, nestled deep inside me, kicking every so often to remind me you were still there. You were ready for your role as the littlest brother, not willing to be ignored. But they said there was nothing they could do. It was too late. You would be born soon, it didn't matter that you weren't ready for the world. For the rest of the day, we waited for you. To say goodbye.

When you labor to birth a child, there's this strength that rises up, one you never knew you had. It tempers your breathing, it fills you with resolve. You are a force, anything is possible. But when your baby has no chance of survival? Each crushing contraction threatens to stop your heart. Each breath is a battle, one you're not even sure you care to win. Each push is a nightmare, every instinct tells you to hold on to the life inside. But eventually nature wins, the brokenness is unleashed. 

Though I felt you kicking only an hour before, by the time we met, the breath was gone from your tiny form. Perfect, in every possible way. Tiny fingers and toes, fully formed with nails. A pouty bottom lip, just like your big brother. The ears that took in our voices, nestled exactly where they belonged. Faint eyelashes and pink skin. I needed two hands to hold you, to support your head, just like a newborn. You were curled up, hands and ankles crossed, the same way Sam and I find comfort as we drift off to sleep. Truly, you were knitted together with such care and precision. I am still reeling with the knowledge that your home is no longer with me. There is no explanation. 

For all the turmoil within my soul, I want you to know that you and I lived well together, my son. We scaled volcanoes and roasted marshmallows under starry skies. We traversed ancient forest floors and climbed sand dunes. We collected driftwood and seashells. We watched sunsets and rainstorms. We played with your big brothers and sat in the company of good friends. If only for a few months, we lived well, John Mark. And I want you to know how profoundly grateful I am for the time we spent together.

But, oh! All the things we'll never get to do together. They plague me and tease me. They mock me and torture me. And tonight they leave me staring at the outline of the tape on my arm. 
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