On a Learning Curve

Life may not be easy, but it's always an adventure.


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Two Heartfelt Words

When we lived in North Carolina, we were blessed to be a part of an amazing church. The building itself wasn’t anything special, but the people were. They rallied around us during the biggest crises of our lives and were literally the hands and feet of Jesus. We’re talking meals, childcare, gifts of time and friendship, and even lawn care.

We first started attending Faith Evangelical Bible Church in Newport because a friend had gotten married there and insisted there was a wonderful pastor who had recently been hired. And she was correct. Pastor Norm, his wife Laura, and their young family arrived in the fall of 1999 and were a great fit. Norm is an engaging pastor who has the gift of teaching, and he knows how to preach the Word of God. Laura ministers to the women, and I always looked forward to Tuesday morning Bible studies with her.

Norm is the minister who presided over the two memorial services that we held for our children. He has a tender place in my heart for other reasons, too. He came to the hospital while I was laboring with Lucy just to pray with us and keep us company. A month later when Ryan was in and out of various hospitals, we never had to ask him to visit. He simply showed up.

I know that Laura was a big part of his ministry to us. After all, someone had to keep an eye on their children! Being a pastor’s wife means that other people’s emergencies sometimes take precedence over your own plans. Thank you, Laura, for giving up time with your husband for our benefit.

After we left North Carolina for Texas, and then Maryland for Virginia, we continued to exchange Christmas cards with Norm and Laura. We’ve watched their family grow up and expand on Facebook, too. When I first started blogging, Laura sent me a real, hand-written letter that was so sweet that I saved it–until the great clean-out before last year’s move.

But last Saturday Laura blew me away with her thoughtfulness. There was a box marked Sonlight on the front porch. We don’t use Sonlight’s curriculum and I hadn’t ordered any books recently, so I was intrigued. Inside many layers of bubble wrap I found this hand-painted plate:

Read the bottom rim!

Read the bottom rim!

There was another hand-written note inside the box, too. Like the first one, it contained tender words of encouragement to persevere through our current woes. Apparently we aren’t the only parents who struggle and grow weary.

Today I mailed my thank-you note to Laura, but it didn’t seem quite adequate to me. I know that Laura didn’t reach out to me so that others would notice, and perhaps she won’t like any of this attention. But her painted words are true for others, too. Dear friends who have also let go of your children before you were ready, your babies are also alive in Christ, and you will see them again, too.

And Laura, thank you.

 

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Distraction and Grief

I forgot to call my brother yesterday. It was his 40th birthday. Sorry, Matt. I’ve been distracted.

Everything distracts me lately. The power steering in my car went out last week, and the car spent 3 days in the mechanic’s shop. It’s dripping power steering fluid again, so S and H camped out with me yesterday in the waiting room while we waited for a diagnosis.

Last week G decided to dye her hair without asking permission. She used ballpoint ink—a mixture of red and blue that resulted in indigo streaks in her blond hair. After we removed all the dye from the sink and tub, we did our best with two partial bottles of rubbing alcohol to remove the ink from her hair. We were mostly successful with her hair, and we sent her to school the next day. It turns out that “mostly successful” does not meet her school’s dress code. She was suspended for the day, and I took her for an emergency haircut.

Meeting with the headmaster, emailing her teachers, and squeezing in a salon appointment turned out to be distracting, too. I was supposed to be teaching S and H; they were supposed to have Friday afternoon off because I had accepted a substitute job. Friday simply did not go according to schedule.

A pleasant distraction that appeared last week

A pleasant distraction that appeared last week

More than just distracting, it’s turning out to be tremendously hard to raise a teenager. We grounded G last weekend, which is more of a punishment for me and Ryan than for her. Because we do not trust her judgment, she had to stay within view of one parent at all times for the entire three-day weekend. Amazingly she still managed to turn another section of her bedroom carpet pink.

And we’re growing weary. Ryan is away as much as he is home. He is working two jobs, and we’ve been depleting our savings for nearly a year. My leaking car is almost 11 years old. Unfortunately our commitment to frugality—no vacation, no summer camps, no credit card debt, no car payments—didn’t earn us any tuition aid for the next school year. That letter arrived last week, too.

All of these stresses make our recent family battle with a stomach bug look like a piece of cake.

It’s hard to persevere when life is hard. It’s harder still because this spring has been full of unpleasant anniversaries. The end of February marked 15 years since we briefly met our boys Seth and Owen, and this week brought the 10th birthday of our daughter Lucy.

Very few of our new neighbors, friends or acquaintances in Virginia know that we have six children. Telling someone that you’ve buried three of your babies makes for awkward conversation. Every time we move, we weigh whether or when it’s relevant to share. But our babies will always be relevant to us.

Last week I simply wanted to grieve for Lucy. She’s not grieving for me because she’s having a grand old time with her brothers and great-grandparents, but I still miss her. Every. Single. Day. I miss her despite the fact that I have three living daughters. Or perhaps that’s why I miss her. She never had the chance to test my patience, make me question my sanity, or infuriate me.

And ten years later, the list of people who remember her story grows smaller. I understand why, but that doesn’t diminish the value of my daughter–or sons.

All of this is to admit that my brother took the brunt of my distraction and self-absorption. His birthday falls one day after Lucy’s, which happened to be the same day that we packed up our books and conducted school in a dated, wood-paneled waiting room. Of course the mechanic couldn’t find the source of the leak. He added dye–not ballpoint ink or food coloring–to the system, told me not to top off any fluids, and asked me to call back when the car leaks again.

You see, the car is going to leak again. All the signs are there. I wish I could make a pithy connection between my leaking car and my battered heart, but I can’t. In time we’ll replace my well-traveled Ford Freestyle with some leather-seated model, but my heart is another matter. It cannot be replaced, and I’m not ready to let go of any of the experiences or memories that have shaped it.

 


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14

Fourteen was supposed to mean two times the dirty socks, putrid laundry, misplaced sports gear, and cracking voices. Pimples, insecurity, and a look-out-world-here-I-come attitude: boys on the cusp of manhood.

Instead fourteen is a house full of three girls, ages 12, 10 and 7. There’s a healthy dose of pink and purple in the laundry basket. Soccer cleats, shin guards, goggles and swim caps fight for room among a collection of bicycles, helmets, sidewalk chalk, Miracle Bubbles, and sleds.

There are no footballs or baseball bats; the pull-up bar and weights belong to their daddy. So do the golf clubs and the ball caps.

Fourteen wasn’t supposed to happen this way. But it did, and we’re okay. We held our boys for a few precious minutes, and they’re never far from our thoughts. Especially today.

The shock, raw grief, numbness, and anger have worn away to faint memories, and in their place is a tenderness for others who didn’t want to–or didn’t get to–say good-bye to their children. The need to know why my sweet boys arrived too early has passed. In its place is the realization that we probably wouldn’t have known some–or any–of our girls if the boys had come home from the hospital. And that just isn’t a trail I want to follow today or any day.

Our lives are full and our days are long. Stocking the fridge, folding laundry, and checking math homework takes up my time. Coordinating medications, keeping track of blood sugars, and writing lesson plans seem more urgent than ruminating on the what-ifs and whys.

But every so often I do wonder. Would their eyes have been blue like mine or brown like Ryan’s? Would their hair have been blonde like S and G? Or curly and dark like H? Would they struggle with anxiety or attention problems? Would either of them have developed diabetes? What animals or sports would have become their obsessions? Would they be the ones driving us to our knees in prayer to survive adolescence?

I don’t know any of the answers, but I do know that fourteen years hasn’t changed the depth of my love for my first two babies. Happy 14th birthday, Seth and Owen.

 


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February 24

It comes every year at the same time: February 24. It’s a bittersweet day. This year it marks 13 years since I became a mother. It’s my boys’ birthday. Seth and Owen would turn 13 this year if they were still with us. Teenagers! That would make me the mother of two teenagers! (That must explain why I’m starting to sprout grey hair.)

But they aren’t here to celebrate with us this year or any year. Instead we have a tradition of sending them helium balloons. We write birthday greetings on the balloons and then–this is very environmentally unfriendly–we release them outside. We stand and watch the wind carry them off until they are too far for us to see any longer. Today was no exception. The girls wrote elaborate messages in Sharpie and then let their birthday wishes fly.

DSCN0648

My babies didn’t live long enough for others to get to know them, but I knew them and loved every day we shared together: 23 weeks and 5 days. Ryan loved them, too, though he only held them once. The girls have come to know and love their brothers through asking an endless number of questions, most of which start with the words “What if….”

While we were in Norfolk last weekend, we stopped by the cemetery. The boys are buried together in the same row with their sister Lucy. The girls see nothing strange about cemeteries and understand the rules of a visit: Don’t step on markers and don’t move any of the graveside mementos that other parents have left.

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H loves the sister she has yet to meet.

My eyes stayed mostly dry today–most likely because of the scar tissue on my heart. Instead, my heart has been heavy for another friend whose brother is losing his battle with leukemia. I’ve been missing someone else, too. Today is the birthday of a man who was like a second father to me and a substitute grandfather to my girls. I know that today Uncle Bill celebrated his birthday with Seth and Owen.

While those who loved Bill and Seth and Owen are feeling a little more lonely today, we look forward to the time when we’ll see them again. Whether my eyes are clear or clouded over with tears, I celebrate that there will come a day when my tears will be no more.


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7 Things

February can be a tough month for me. I became a mother in February 2001. My twin sons Seth and Owen were born on February 24, more than three months before their due date. Seth Michael lived less than one day, and Owen Patrick lived almost two days. As soon as I turn the calendar page to February, I think of my boys.

In the 13 years that have passed, we’ve added three thriving girls to our family, but we’ve also buried another daughter whose life ended before it began. My heart has healed, but I am forever changed—in ways too numerous to describe in this post.

Today I thought I would share 7 things not to do or say after someone you know loses a child. All of these suggestions are from personal experience, and my purpose is not to chastise or shame. I just want others to think before they say or do something that may further wound someone who is already broken.

  1. Show up unannounced with pictures of your baby who died. I was speechless when this happened to me, especially since I only casually knew this woman and didn’t know she recently had lost a child. I literally walked out of the room and refused to return until my husband and mother escorted her from the house.
  2. Monopolize the conversation with details about your loss. This isn’t about you, even if you’ve had a similar experience. Be quiet. Listen. Let your friend grieve. It is okay if you don’t know what to say. It is even better if you just say, “I am so very sorry.”
  3. Use phrases like, “My womb became a tomb.” Do not use conversation with a grieving mother as your own personal therapy session. Make an appointment with a licensed counselor or psychologist. Do not attempt to transfer your guilt, grief, or irrational beliefs to anyone else.
  4. Ignore what happened. Pretend that everything is normal. Because if you wait long enough, your friend will get over her loss and you won’t feel so uncomfortable. Right? Wrong.
  5. Say, “If there’s anything you need, just call me.” People who say this have the best of intentions but often don’t realize that it may just be too hard for a grieving parent to do this. Also, who calls someone to say, “Would you please bring my family a meal tomorrow night? We eat low-carb; my husband hates mushrooms and nuts; and I despise mayonnaise”? Really?
  6. Ask questions about insurance coverage. Especially if you’re pregnant and trying to figure what Tricare (or your insurance company) covers.  This happened to me at a spouses’ get-together not long after my first loss. I was trying so hard to get through the day without crying, and I just wanted to have a normal outing. Some gracious friends redirected the conversation; however, this is why insurance companies have customer service representatives, Web sites, and 800-phone numbers! Show some sensitivity!
  7. Fill in awkward gaps in conversation.  Don’t say, “Well, at least your baby is in a better place and isn’t suffering anymore.” While that may be true, that baby’s mother and father are suffering, and your attempt to make sense of the unthinkable isn’t necessary. And please don’t say, “At least you have other children.” Yes, that may be true, but one child isn’t a substitute for another.

 

So what should you do when a friend or acquaintance is in this situation? It’s simple, really. Here are 7 suggestions.

  1. Call before you visit. Do not bring your personal memento box. Do not bring books about infertility or others’ experiences. Save those for later. When she asks.
  2. Listen when your friend wants to talk. Keep her company. Pray for her. Give her a hug. You don’t always need to use words.
  3. Don’t share your own experiences until later. Spare the gory or graphic details.
  4. Continue to invite and include your friend. Don’t give up if she doesn’t accept the first or second invitation.
  5. Don’t wait for your friend to call you. Insist on bringing a meal. Ask if there are food allergies or preferences. Ask which day is best. Even better, bring something that can be frozen or consumed at a later date; use disposable containers.
  6. Show some sensitivity, even if you have to put a piece of tape over your mouth. If you are pregnant or have a newborn, realize that she doesn’t hate you or your baby; however, she may feel awkward around you. Don’t take it personally.
  7. Sit and listen if she wants to talk. If she doesn’t or can’t, make her a cup of tea. Buy her a fancy $5 latte from Starbucks. Suggest that you take a walk together.

 

Readers, what about you? What are your dos and don’ts after the loss of a child or loved one? Leave a comment if you can improve on my suggestions!


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Things I Am Learning This Week

It’s been a few days since I’ve written. Here’s what’s going on this week:

1. No more home school co-op for us. Yes, we’re going to take a bold step and actually educate the girls at home. Brilliant concept. In fact, it’s been about 5 years since we last tried this approach to schooling. Home schooling is a wonderful educational option, and there are so many ways to accomplish it; however, there is also a seemingly endless list of educational opportunities that keep us out of our house. And let’s just say that carving time out of our family’s schedule for unicycling just wasn’t something Ryan and I thought was a good idea.

2. Insulin pumps break when you are least expecting them to do so. Then again, I can’t think of any time that seems right for S’s pump to stop working. Yay for the loaner pump that is making its way to us. And boo for the two to three weeks that it will take for Tricare to approve our new purchase.

3. My littlest running partner, H, slows way down when it’s hot outside. To clarify, I’m the one running, and she’s the one pedaling the Cutie Cat pink and purple bike. At her fastest, we’re logging 9:30 miles; our slowest mile clocked in at 11:00 last Friday. The time spent with her is totally worth the slower pace.

4. The smallest accomplishments bring the greatest joy. S won her heat in her second freestyle race at yesterday’s swim meet. Her face was radiant when she held that blue ribbon in her hand. My face was radiant this morning when her endocrinologist’s secretary read me her latest a1c results: 7.1 for the second time in a row.

5. Life is a constant exchange of stresses. Now that I no longer have to design and plan a creative writing/public speaking course for middle school students, I have plenty of time to earn my E-level soccer coaching license. So far I have completed the online Level 8 referee course and the Heads Up concussion training. After I write a couple of papers and spend a weekend on the soccer field, I will be licensed. (Why, why, why did I not do this when I was younger and single???)

6. On a serious note, the gift of life is a beautiful thing. We attended a sweet memorial service for the tiny baby boy of some church friends of ours. Born at just 22 weeks, his little life has already made a permanent impact on his parents, big sister, and extended church family. To paraphrase our pastor’s words, we were confirming the choice his parents made to celebrate his brief life at a stage where the majority of Americans believe his existence is part of a woman’s choice. I shed a few tears, gave quite a few hugs, and took great comfort in knowing that little Walter is running around heaven with my Seth, Owen, and Lucy. I look forward to the day that I will join them.


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Quite a Week

Running provides all sorts of opportunities for me to sort through my thoughts. On the weekends, I am blessed to have a running partner or two who allow me to share what’s going through my mind. For those of you who don’t run, this is called distraction. It’s what enables runners to keep running long after they want to listen to their legs and other body parts that are begging them to quit!

This morning my friend Tracy and I got a late start on our 7-8 miles. The temperature was still in the 70s, but the humidity was intense. We spent several miles just catching up on the events of the past week. Around Mile 5, I shared two events from my week. I needed some distraction at this point in our run.

On Wednesday, the girls and I hosted some homeschooling friends for lunch. We hadn’t seen these friends in at least 2 years, but our paths recently converged when my girlfriend’s young son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. My 8-year-old S is also diabetic and has been for the past 5+ years. I remember the days during and after her hospitalization vividly. Our family’s life turned upside down: We learned a whole new vocabulary that revolved around blood glucose levels, and we developed new skills like counting carbohydrate grams and administering insulin. We cleaned out our pantry and decided that the entire family would adopt a diabetic diet. We educated friends and family on spotting the signs of low blood sugar, and we carried our glucagon pens everywhere we went. It was an exhausting, terrifying time.

Fast-forward five years, and our life still revolves around S’s diabetic care. We affectionately call diabetes our fourth child, but we are no longer afraid. We can’t change her diabetes, we don’t know why her body decided to attack her pancreas, and we acknowledge that life isn’t fair. In fact, we live as normal a life as is possible. She plays soccer, swims, and rides her bike. She just got out of her first cast for a broken elbow, and she adores her 2 hamsters. But I still count every gram of carbohydrates that pass through her lips; I still lose sleep over late-night BG checks; and Ryan still sneaks out of bed when everyone else is asleep to make sure that she’s still breathing.

I sat and listened to my friend. I answered questions. I promised her that she’s going to get through this first year. I reminded her that I’m still not an expert on diabetes, but I am 5 years past where she is. And I thought to myself, “I can’t believe how normal it seems to have a child with diabetes.”

That was on Wednesday. On Thursday I called a dear friend–a lady from our church who has adopted our family while we are living far away from our own relatives. I hadn’t talked to her since last Sunday’s service, and that’s unusual for me. The first thing she shared was that her niece had lost her baby. You see, this niece whom she had helped raise and considers to be another daughter had recently learned that the baby she was carrying was in trouble. The details aren’t mine to share, but they are heart-breaking nonetheless. Babies aren’t supposed to be born too early or too sick too survive. Her baby was both.

All I said was, “I’m so sorry.” I’ve learned that sometimes these are the best words to say to someone who has just had her heart torn out and crushed. I know this from experience. My experiences are named Seth, Owen, and Lucy. These are the 3 children I knew just briefly on earth but who I will see in eternity. Knowing them and grieving their loss has changed me permanently, which is why all I could say was, “I’m so very sorry.”

There will probably be a funeral service next week, which I will attend. I will probably weep for this mother and father, but I won’t be weeping for myself. You see, I am a changed person. In the 11 years since I said good-bye to Seth and Owen and then to Lucy, I know that life goes on after loss. Grief dries up with evaporated tears, and living children remind us that their needs are important, too. Yes, my heart has several tender spots which don’t like to be poked, but it is a strong heart. It has survived the trials of bearing 6 children and the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease.

When I was pregnant with H, I loved these verses from Isaiah 43:

18 “Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

I don’t think God means for me or for anyone to literally forget the experiences of the past, but He doesn’t want us to cling to them. Dwelling on past disappointments, hurts, and loss clouds our vision and distracts us from the new things that He is doing for us. And this week, I saw these verses come full circle in my life. I haven’t forgotten the experiences of my past, but I have learned not to dwell on them. Instead I am looking for these new things that God has promised me. And perhaps–just perhaps–these new things are the ability to comfort others who are undergoing similar experiences.