With-ness

At the end of the summer, we added four kids to our family. Two of them live outside. They have big brown eyes and brush-clearing prowess, and we call them our “goat babies”.

The other two are also a sister and brother. They have rosy cheeks that press upwards into hazel eyes, into grins that contagiously spread to anyone else in the room. We call them our “littles”.

Two seasons have come and gone since I typed words in this space. I recently learned that Ellie has been reading all the posts I’ve ever written. She says she likes my old ones better because they are not as sad. Then she asked me to write more.

What could I say to her about this year?

Ellie, I didn’t understand the math. That healing the pain of a child could mean assigning a measure of pain to another.

Capitol

I make agonizing navigational decisions every day; decisions like, for this hour, who do I heal and who do I hurt? Because what I’m learning is that there is not enough of me to go around, and sometimes the absence is felt as actual pain.

river

I thought I was the one on the other side of the equation. I was prepared to absorb a lot of discomfort. I expected the tantrums, night wakings, diapers, therapies, off-the-charts neediness. Our kids also said, “Yes,” but there is a reason children cannot legally give their own consent for important decisions.

Foster care stories are messy and unpredictable; the road visible only a few steps ahead. Sure, I can hope, and hope is a lembas wafer, sustaining me one day at a time. But I want to know how we’ll all make it out on the other side. Whose hearts will be broken, whose will be strengthened, which relationships will flourish or wither, and if they will look back on this season with bitter regret or amazement.

ellie snow

 

Jack (my philosopher) pondered aloud recently, “I wonder what I’d be like if we hadn’t done foster care…More carefree, more relaxed, less wise…”. The mores and lesses of the life we chose for him are piling up in ways I don’t even know yet.

Curious, I asked Ellie the next day how she thought she would be different if we were not a foster family (I caught her in a non-sarcastic, adequately nourished, hormonally balanced moment which are as common as Sasquatch sightings for a 7th grader). She said that there are a lot of “hard kids” in her classes this year. Because of foster care, she thinks she has a better understanding of why these kids act the way they do and where they are coming from. “If we had not done foster care, I would just be annoyed at them.” I let out the breath I didn’t know I had been holding.

Lincoln

God created us to need each other, and this truth is never more evident than when the system breaks down. Foster and adoptive families, relatives, therapists, and educators who care for abused and neglected children understand (with ear-piercing clarity sometimes), the visceral effects of an absent caregiver in a child’s life.

When a child’s most important relationship is dysfunctional, inconsistently functional, or abruptly removed, the outcome is less like the heart equivalent of a broken leg, and more like a spreading childhood cancer. The impact is deep and multifaceted, and the treatment must be too.

Is it hyperbolic to suggest that bringing a child with the emotional/behavioral equivalent of cancer into a family with 12 years of relative stability and health is a tsunami? The initial impact sudden and overwhelming; the rescue, recovery, and rebuilding long term with layers of support and inevitable mishaps and wrong turns.

pumpkin patch

Bringing brokenness into our peaceful home may be a tsunami. God flipped that model on its head and sent Peace and Love in the form of a baby into the whole ugly brokenness of the world.

Emmanuel is one of the names given to the Jesus babe: God with us. It’s like he spelled out to us in actual letters what our broken hearts need: presence, with-ness. Not just a string of words or a name to proclaim, but a relationship. “Stay here and keep watch with me,” Jesus begged his friends, hours before his death. When the resurrected Jesus returned to heaven, he sent his Spirit, a helper for our confused and weary souls.

With-ness is our job description right now as a foster family to our two littles (affectionately called “Bam-Bam” and “Llama Drama” by my friend who now knows them well).

Here I am, right here, always coming back to you for as long as I am yours. My ears listen to your questions (so many), cries (so loud and long), and strong new words (so powerful). My arms pick you up, tuck you in, hold you close. I have two legs, which makes two laps, one for each of you. John pours love into you with every story, snuggle, and banana. Ellie holds your hand in the car, softly crooning, “You’re ok, you’re alright, good job getting calm, I’m so proud of you…” Jack puts your broken train tracks back together, chases you across the house, wields the remote control with true parental authority and wisdom, and wrestles with you on the carpet.

train table

The ministry of with-ness is not only going on in our living room and rocking chairs. Our people have swooped in.

Heidi and Karen avert a child’s beeline trajectory to my tired arms and scoop her up in theirs. Annie cajoles an overstimulated toddler to her lap with smiling eyes and the tantalizing line, “Do you want to hear a story?” Jake and Sarah drive Jack to and from taekwondo practice each week, and the gift of that mile-long commute smack in the middle of bath and bedtime drama taken off our plate is continental. The Kellars and Cowarts take turns entertaining and tiring out our two littles with help from their passels of boys when we need a break. Danielle delivered a to-die-for lasagna, and I can see in her eyes that she just knows, without judgment and with compassion, exactly what is going on in my head. Every single Tuesday, Tanya and I swivel our office chairs toward each other as I unload my week; her questions, concern, and enthusiastic affirmation are like bananas and storybooks to my needy heart. Allison, Jenny, Dayna, Lisa, Gail, Sarah, Katie, Mom, Dad, and others ping my phone with reminders that I’m being thought of and prayed for.

Soupheidi and goats

A new friend, one I would not have met if we had not said this most recent “yes”, reminded me of the faithfulness of God when the future looks bleak and the present is hard. How much he loves his children, from the tiniest to the biggest. He hears our prayers, and weaves his plan according to his purposes and with our participation, however headache-inducing and jam-smeared it may look on a particular day.

skyzone

I don’t know for sure what my kids will one day say about their childhood; how their parents pulled the rug out from under their easy life during their pre-adolescent years. I do trust in a faithful God who is with us while we are with these little ones. My ears and my arms fail – they fail my husband, my son and daughter, and two more every single day. But his never fail. And I join the weary world, rejoicing once again at his coming, his life well spent, and that he lives today.

Every week a Holy Week. A thrill of hope shimmers through this wounded heart.

MLKbends toward justice

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Dads, Poets, and Thanks

It’s not really fair that I ended up with two dads who love me unabashedly, but both my dad and my father-in-law have poured so much goodness into my life, I will spend the rest of my years trying to sort through all their love and kindness. John, as you know, is a Man among men, and most days I just give up trying to out-love, out-work, out-smart that husband of mine. As if that were not enough (and it’s not), my identity as a beloved child of Father God was formed and strengthened from my earliest days. I will probably end up in counseling for a really confusing reason (“I’m just not sure how to respond and live with all that love, you know?”).

fam selfie

Yellowstone National Park

Most of my life’s balance has tipped heavily toward goodness, success, health and security.  Loss, grief, injustice, failure, and uncertainty were not part of my story.

But in recent years, the balance began to shift. John’s dad was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disease; a dear uncle with a different progressive brain disease; and last fall, my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer.  For 14 months, we helped shape the connections of a newborn baby’s brain and heart into strong, healthy functioning, then watched a system snip the cord that bound him to us and attach him elsewhere. We enter into messy stories of traumatized children.

Lately we find ourselves walking a long and dark road of grief, loss, pain and anger.

 

bear

Grand Teton National Park

Disease, maybe especially brain disease, confronts our assumptions of body and soul and mortal life like nothing else.

The human body is a miraculous machine. My father-in-law knows this better than most as he worked as a medical doctor specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation.

The human soul is more mysterious and miraculous still. My dad sought understanding of the ephemeral soul through music, song writing, scripture, and literature. John’s uncle devoted his entire life to introducing others to eternal life found in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. To know each of these men was to know kindness, joy, intelligence, strength and love.

G&D

So, how does one reconcile the harsh reality of brain disease upon such men? Upon their wives, children, siblings and parents?

john and jack

Losing a family member to a degenerative disease is comprised of hundreds of deaths over the progression of the illness. I have watched my mother-in-law and aunt lose their best friends and husbands, neuron by neuron. I drove my mom to the emergency room after she was shaken awake by my dad’s grand mal seizures in the middle of the night, and stood next to her as she received the news of a large mass in Dad’s brain.

surgery

Bad things happening to innocent children confronts our assumptions of the goodness of God like nothing else.

I see children repeatedly lose parents and important caregivers and experience the aftermath. In the community of foster care we hear of terrible atrocities acted on innocent children. I have walked by slums in Nairobi and seen children begging in India and Central America. We support an organization that fights cyber sex trafficking, child prostitution, and forced labor slavery.

Combing out lice and tucking in sad and scared little girls at night who miss their moms but have to sleep in a stranger’s bed are duties I wish never had to be done.

And here is where I land. I do not believe that everything happens for a reason. I do not believe that all of this pain is part of God’s plan.

I used to think I had to have a neat and tidy defense to speak such “Christianese” blasphemy, and I don’t have one.

But hear me, my vision of God and his love for his children has grown exponentially these recent, painful years. He is bigger, more good, stronger, and safer than I realized. This world is both a piece of dog excrement and a breathtakingly beautiful work of art and engineering, but it is so very small and weak compared to the goodness and love of God.

glacier

Glacier National Park

For reasons I do not understand, here I am, with these people, on this piece of geography, at this point of time. My life is a breath, and it is beautiful, and it is painful. And underneath, all around, up above, and within is God and his unending, unbreakable, steadfast love.

Although an embarrassingly large portion of my life could be described as such, I’m not one to throw around the word, “blessed”. I prefer “grateful”. It’s probably just semantics, but I can’t utter the word “blessed” to describe my financial security, my kind husband, amazing children, and the beautiful river in my backyard. How could I be blessed with these things while others are denied food on the table, the ability to conceive a child, or a safe home to live in?

avalanche

Glacier National Park

Instead, I open my hands and give thanks. I cry out with gratitude for those gifts that bring me joy and I cry out with anguish over a broken world. I give thanks for the way God draws near in our suffering. I give thanks for the outpouring of kindness from our people. I give thanks for every neuron and the functioning it allowed for the time it was assigned. I give thanks for the example of Jesus, walking a road of suffering and death during his time on this flimsy earth, taking heart that he overcame the world. I give thanks that this blue, green, and gold rock we circle upon is filled with wonders and opportunities but is not the end.

highline

Glacier National Park

God’s plan was never for children to be separated from their mothers or for cancer or lice or brain disease. Things in this world are not as they should be. Yet we discover glimpses of love, beauty, courage, laughter, creativity, and joy in regular and unexpected places.

canyon hike

Grand Teton National Park

river

Washougal River

Lately I’ve heard this question posed around the internets: “What is saving your life right now?”

My answer: The poets. The women and men who string together words and notes into verse, story, and song, revealing a truth invisible in the physical world. They throw me a rope to cling to when I’m drowning in grief. They tear down the dam that encloses my tears and anguish. I climb upon their wings to soar above the weak limits of my own ability to feel and describe joy and love. When my week is full to the brim with busy-ness and Hard Things, they sing through my speakers and pour grace from pages.

What is a neurosurgeon other than a poet who takes raw material of flesh and cuts, rearranges, and stitches it into healing and hope? What are hospice nurses, occupational therapists, mental health counselors, foster parents, and helpful insurance agents other than poets whose words can make the ugliest experiences of our lives into moments of laughter, new possibility, relief, and comfort? Who are my friends whose texts, emojis, and GIPHYs can make me snort with laughter and ugly cry in a single digital conversation? Poets, every one of them.

God’s ways can be inscrutable, but they are not bad. I love how he uses regular dads, moms, poets and other humans to be part of his creative work of healing and beauty-making and prayer-answering.

kids

teachers

Back To School

My dad is now tumor-less and in some ways healthier now than before the diagnosis. John’s dad and uncle continue to steadily decline, in different, but heartbreakingly relentless ways. We currently shelter two small children in our home with a ferocious love.

In provision and in loss, I will yet say, thank you.

 

The Forty Year-Old Man

If you had added our ages together when we first met, it wouldn’t have reached 30.

We caught each other’s notice as teenagers for similar reasons. We were both tall, quiet, thinking people. We wore the same size of jeans. You played basketball, rode your bike, and loved your dog, but mostly you were not like other teenagers I knew. I didn’t know other boys who had real jobs building robots alongside 40-year-old engineers at age 16. Not many kids read physics textbooks for pleasure or skipped high school pretty much altogether. You were quiet, as in, I had to ask you to speak up to hear your voice on the phone, but the words you spoke mattered and rang of truth and kindness.

montana

Your story began in quietness. Your parents held the tiny secret of you, their firstborn, tucked safe in your mother’s womb for many months, praying for and cherishing their treasure alone, together.

You were born into a rich heritage. Generations stretched out on every side, filled with men and women who loved God and their neighbor, walked in faithfulness, spoke truth, and crossed the country and continents to bring good news to the brokenhearted.

Your great-grandmother traveled to India as a single young woman to rescue baby girls from a life of temple prostitution. Your grandparents founded institutions like Multnomah University and Eagle Fern Camp. Your dad has been a camp counselor for at-risk youth, a rural high school metal shop teacher, and a medical doctor specializing in spinal cord injuries and amputations. Military veterans, teachers, pastors, artists, musicians, and missionaries are scattered throughout your family tree. But more important than their actual job titles, your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins work hard at whatever task God assigned them. They are men and women of courage and integrity and do everything in love.

men

I spent many hours with your family, figuring out the Dryden ways. I learned that Drydens work first, then work some more, then have something to eat, then work some more, before they play and eat ice cream. To hang out with you meant participating in activities such as pulling rocks from a quarry to build a retaining wall, digging ditches, laying roof shingles, laying and stamping concrete, shivering in a cold garage while rebuilding an engine, tearing stuff down, and building stuff up, over and over again. Your mom was a force to be reckoned with, the first to pick up a tool belt, and the last to lay her shovel down.

I met dozens of relatives and friends who regularly circled your family’s table for nourishment of body and soul. Your mom’s hospitality and your dad’s way of drawing people close with his kindness and a well spoken question set people at ease in their home. Laughter rang out but so did serious discussions. All four of you are preposterously intelligent. Your brother Andy both amazed me and drove me crazy with his audacious achievements and confidence.

john and andyI’m not sure how I got to be the lucky one that you loved. I know I didn’t deserve it – the deep, steadfast, single-minded loyalty you fixed on me before I even got my driver’s license. It almost frightened me, the depth of your affection. I couldn’t help but be wooed by it, even as I told myself I sure enjoyed just being your friend. When I finally made that leap from friend to girlfriend, I knew it was for life.

And life with you has been beautiful. Both of us have changed from those teenagers who accidentally fell fast in love. We laugh now at how little we knew, how shallow and self-centered we were, and how God saved us and continues to save us from ourselves to create a good marriage and a good life.

selfie-zion

Life with you has been less like tumbling through white water rapids, and more like a meandering journey by canoe. We are ok with slow and steady. We have slipped past quiet, fern-laden valleys and breathtaking peaks. We have paddled through scarred, clear-cut lands and endured long stretches of cold and rain. We added a couple explorers into our canoe and figured out how they fit and delighted in the ways they changed our adventure. We took a sharp turn, added another member, then said goodbye.

You have always been our guide. We take turns calling out ideas and inspiration, but you are the one who prepares, counts the cost, identifies the risks, checks every box, measures twice. You keep us safe. You make things work.

John and kids

When our friends encounter a problem, they ask themselves: “What would John do?” (Or, “Whoops. What would John have done?”) When in doubt, they invite you over or send you a text to discuss the problem, and examine the project or broken item. You are called on for such tasks as helping a teenager with his math homework, building a deck with a relative, diagnosing the noise in someone’s car, and discovering that the source of flies in a friend’s home is a decomposing, maggot-filled possum in their crawlspace (I’m looking at you, Brosnans).

But who you are is more than a 40-year-old kindly, smart, Mr. Fix-it. Every one of us is stamped with the image of God, and what he dropped into your soul is a piece of his unbreaking, compassionate, steadfast, sacrificial, chesed love. Your heart breaks with what breaks the Father’s.

No one has to explain or convince you of your role as a privileged white man, because the rhythm of your heart beats to the drum of justice for the oppressed. You have to be careful what you fix that heart of yours onto, because you intuitively know that nothing here on earth will last, nothing is certain, and to love here on earth often means joy, but it always comes with pain.

I flit here and there, calling out the opportunities, the beauty and possibilities, ignoring the dangers. You like to remind me,

“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

princess bride

You sometimes say that if you hadn’t met me, you would have built a treehouse in the wilderness and lived as a self-sufficient hermit amongst the trees and rocks, probably with a dog and books lining every wall.  I can picture that, and I think heaven might look a bit like that for you.

Instead you chose a life of love. You let that big heart of yours break many times over for me and the kids, for your family and friends, and for deep hurts in the world that you have never seen but have not shut your eyes to.

When we became foster parents, my biggest fear was what it would do to your heart. Your love for Baby Boy was evident to everyone. Watching you cradle and care for someone else’s son without holding back or protecting your own heart was a picture of the immeasurable, sacrificial love of God. When you had to let him go, you felt the Father’s pain of releasing his Son, and his love for sons and daughters who are lost to him.

john

You have more gray hair (and less hair altogether) than when I first met you. We no longer wear the same size of jeans. But you are stronger, more handsome, and more worthy of praise than you have ever been. Your wrinkles remind me of where we have been and what we have accomplished and endured together.

Your 40th birthday comes in a year etched with sorrow, and no number of  candles can make your wishes come true. But there is Happy to be found on this Birthday. Happy wife, married to the man she always wanted. Happy daughter and son, whose dad takes them on grand adventures, instructs them not only in algebra, physics, and geology, but in kindness and generosity. Happy mother and father whose son fills them with gratitude. Happy baby who knew the love of a father from his earliest days. Happy brother, friend, cousin, grandparent, and uncle who have in their cell phones the number of a man who can be counted on, can answer any question, and will speak the truth in love.

Happy Birthday, to you.

john and jack

Winter

One month ago we moved Baby Boy into his new home and family.

He is well, he is loved, and he has a bright and hopeful future. We get to have a relationship with him and have visited him a few times. For all of that, we are grateful.

I have been quiet in this space for many months. Life began to unravel from every direction in the beginning of Fall and the words that normally lay a path between my brain and heart, tangled and bled together and abandoned me.

This is a winter of deep sadness coursing through every day. We are functioning: working, cooking, eating, playing, sleeping, driving, reading, talking and even laughing. But there is an ache that never leaves and rises up and swallows me in a moment. Tears spill without warning, especially when I stumble into stillness or monotonous activity. The empty space in our home, at our table, in our car, in the shopping cart, at family gatherings, and in every single memory, thought and decision I’ve made for over a year, crushes me with the weight of his absence. The pain I feel from his perspective, wondering what happened to us, is a terrifying chasm I constantly have to back away from.

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I’ve never known grief like this before. I have never felt such powerlessness and anger at a decision, made by strangers, whose words can rearrange a child’s family like a doll in a dollhouse.

We are back to a family of four, but not one of us is the same person and we are not the same family. It’s too soon to know who exactly we are yet. Or to describe the grace that has accompanied the suffering.

I’m thankful for the words of others; the poets and musicians and truth-tellers. They have buoyed my soul, strummed a melody for my tears, and defined my lament.

Dear friends and family members walked closely with us these last few months. They have been ministering angels. One such poet-friend sent me these words the morning after a particularly devastating day.

When we held the tiny package of you
We saw your sweet face, your precious hands
Your funny toes
But we didn’t know
That you were a catalyst
That would propel us into
The deep water wading of faith
We didn’t birth you
But you birthed us
Into people we weren’t before
The flood will lessen
The waters recede
And we will keep going
Stronger than we were
Before your sweet face
– AK

I don’t have any deep closing words to that right now. But if you are one of the lucky ones who has seen Baby Boy’s toes, I know you are smiling.

 

Worth It

The last nine months have seen some changes around here. Mainly in the hair department. Every time John runs a hand across his head, a flurry of tiny escapees falls onto the surface in front of him. Now that the sun has finally made an appearance, it has the annoying tendency to highlight a fresh crop of grays glistening from my tresses (“I think you have more gray hair than I do!” my mother helpfully remarks).

In other words, nine months of sleep deprivation and nearly constant feelings of powerlessness have taken their revenge on our scalps.

But it’s ok. The grays and the grace multiply in synchrony. Dopamine levels around here are surely at an all-time high due to Baby Boy’s sweet nature and chubby cheeks. I arrive at the medical clinic (again), and first the receptionist, then the medical assistant, and finally the primary care provider all burst into smiles when they see their familiar patient. He fills the arms of men whose strong, healthy days on this earth are past but whose hearts still respond to a baby, each giving the other exactly what he needs, and grace abounds.

grandpa cropped

We watch him grow, change, learn new things, his brain making the connections that his world is safe. His people are good and trustworthy. I took so much of infancy for granted with my kids, not recognizing the deep privilege it is to guide a child through his early months, building a foundation of trust and felt safety in his brain that no one can ever take away and that will shape the rest of his life.

Ellie boat

We didn’t exactly know what we were saying “yes” to when we signed up for this gig. We had a vague notion of “loving a child” at the cost of giving up some of our comforts. We didn’t know how indescribably hard it would be and how indescribably good. How my capacity for remembering, focusing, and accomplishing would drastically diminish, while the skin covering my scattered brain would form new lines (that don’t go away) from smiling and laughing and worrying so much.

river heart

People ask all the time, “How will you let him go?” The question also implies, “How could you say ‘yes’ to a love that might be snatched from you?” I admire these people, because they know that foster care isn’t just about babysitting. It’s not just taking care of a kid you’re ready to pass back to his parents at the end of the evening or weekend. It’s welcoming a child into your family, and loving him with your whole heart like he was your own, forgetting sometimes that he isn’t your own, wondering every day when you won’t get to wake up to him anymore, read him stories, and snuggle his face into your neck. Saying “yes” to a future, painful goodbye, where baby won’t understand why he doesn’t get to live in the house with the people who were the only parents and brother and sister he ever really knew.

E&J

We said yes, and we continue to say yes, because he is worth it. This isn’t about us and getting a dopamine rush from baby snuggles, and teaching my children compassion “for the least of these”, and parading around an impossibly cute blue-eyed chubbster (who looks nothing like our family), and getting to read board books again. It’s about him and giving him everything he needs because of the love of Christ for us and His power in us. We can love that which we hold loosely because God holds us firmly, as He holds him, come what may.

John

We just finished our first summer read aloud, The Bark of the Bog Owl. The young hero is given sage advice in the beginning of the adventurous story: Live the life that unfolds before you. Love goodness more than you fear evil. Living this life daily unfolding before me, navigating the tumbling waves of foster care and growing children, loving and looking for goodness and trying not to fear the future – this is good advice for me, too.

I look back at what has unfolded already, marveling at the grace that we have been chosen to be actors in this particular drama. Already this summer, John has been to Haiti, playing a small part in the unfolding story of redemption among school children in an impoverished context. Ellie graduated elementary school, bedazzled with awards, and confidently looks ahead to middle school. Jack has refused to get his hair cut for months, enjoying a new shaggy look, while onlookers comment how much he now looks like me! He is about to embark on a week of summer camp at Eagle Fern. Baby Boy is finally babbling, much to my speech-y delight (who cares about crawling).

Unlike last summer with its thousands of miles and monuments, this one is going to be quiet and lazy. We won’t be wading far from our shore, and accomplishments will be few. Loving three children and one good man will be enough for me, as long as I have mint green tea and iced coffee on tap for fortification.

river

The summer sun never fails to remind me of His goodness. It also lightens my hair a shade, blending in the grays, grace always coming from unexpected places.