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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

When Skies are Gray

Spring didn’t make a very friendly entrance this year. Day after relentless day of pounding rain and gray skies. The legion of ants, making their annual trek from the maple, across the driveway, up the walls of our house into the kitchen. Temperatures that stubbornly include a “4” in the 10’s place.

And the final clincher – the spring-like buds growing in our hearts without a single encumbrance throughout the winter suddenly froze over last week with an abrupt change in Baby Boy’s case.

We still have him, and he continues to flourish and bloom. But now, a future that seemed admittedly hazy to begin with, forks out in several paths, some of which cause my gut to clench.

Right along with the foster parenting upheaval the first week of spring, biological parenting also weathered some icy blasts, reminding me of my frailty as a mom and my lack of control over the destinies and choices of my children.

This parenting business is such a journey of faith. We toil in the ground, tending the soil and the seedlings, delivering this seemingly smart lesson and that supposedly rich experience. We pull weeds and add nutrients. We make mistakes. Although there are myriad books and scriptural applications, there are no absolute promises that one’s child will take root, grow, and flourish in the way you hope.

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In foster parenting, one hardly dares to hope. I mean, who has hope for a little seedling that is pulled from its plot of origin, replanted in someone else’s garden, only to be transplanted hither and yon, at the whim of the “gardening authorities”?

But hope, one must. It is, after all, a pillar of what remains when all else fades: Faith, Hope, and Love. Faith brought us to this place, in this garden, with these little plants. Love, which sustains and stitches us all together. And hope like the promise of sunshine when skies are gray.

I hope because of our God, whose glory it is always to have mercy. This line from a book of prayers, repeated itself 21 times across the week, multiplied in my thoughts across the days, and melted icicles of doubt the first week of spring.

A track from a pretty little album I sometimes play when I’m home with Baby Boy came on this week: “You are my Sunshine”. Is there a single parent who hasn’t sung this in a rocking chair with a child? The melancholy last line of the chorus, whimsically leaving my lips without a thought with my older kids, chokes me up now.

Onward we walk into the ever lengthening light of spring, remembering that the light we carry from the hand of our merciful God will guide us through the storm. And while we walk forward, we enjoy our little sunshine, whose smile makes us happy, even when skies are gray.

baby boy

Stitches

In my family, if there is one thing that goes with a new baby, it’s a quilt. We have stacks of homemade quilts in closets, and sure enough, when Baby Boy arrived in October, more were added to their number.

With each of her nine great-grandchildren, my grandmother eagerly awaited the news from the gender-revealing ultrasound so she could commence quilt-making. Our foster care licensing period was troublesome to her. We had many a conversation in which I assured her that I had no way of knowing the age, gender, or even expected arrival date of our first foster care placement. Perhaps a block-pattern blanket in colorful fabrics for the twin bed would be nice?

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Quilt made by Barbara Pruitt

The last three months with Baby Boy have been peppered with big “firsts”, like bright patches on a quilt: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, smiles, snow. But mostly, our days have been stitched together with unseen, unremarkable moments that make up a life, a family.

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Days stretch out one after another, with hundreds of acts, mundane and intimate. Hours staring into his eyes, touching his skin, speaking strong and silly words into his ears. More minutes face to face, skin to skin, and voice to voice with this little guy than time spent on anything or anyone else combined. This is what babies require and these are the stitches that bind him to us, but more importantly, make him human and whole, capable of stitching on to other, future loves.

It’s a mystery, the way the ordinariness of repetitive caretaking tasks, performed with love and without expectation, add up to important neural connections and human flourishing.

It’s another mystery how God calls us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice for others, and this is a spiritual act of worship to Him.

I’m less in my head and more on my knees (as in, changing diapers, not prayer), with weight in my arms and snot on my shoulder these days. I don’t have time for deep thoughts or grand adventures. I have had those seasons and I will have them again. But for now, it’s a liturgy of the ordinary (slowly savoring a book by this title – thanks, Heidi!). Baby Boy was knit together in his mother’s womb by the hand of God, and for some reason we get to shelter and nourish this soul with flesh.

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Photo credit: Maria Supin Photography

It’s 9:45pm. The two big kids are sleeping over at their grandparents. Four months ago this would have equaled a quiet, blissful evening of no picky eaters or sibling squabbles, and a lazy morning with long cups of coffee and conversation on the couch. Fewer dishes, longer sentences.

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Photo credit: Maria Supin Photography

Instead two of our baby-holders are gone and we will spend the night coaxing sleep out of a coughing, congested infant. In the morning, when Baby Boy just can’t be coaxed any longer, one of us will pour coffee into two double-walled stainless steel thermoses, while the other pours milk into a hungry mouth.

Each feeding, silly face beckoning a smile, massage, pick up, put down, pacifier plug, and diaper change is our sometimes-joyful, sometimes-exhausted offering, helping stitch together the one thing every human infant requires more than food itself: attachment.

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Photo credit: Maria Supin Photography

We are the temporary substitute for the natural attachment that has been broken in his case. Entering into this brokenness is messy. But as Ann Voskamp writes in her new book, “the only way to care for the disadvantaged is to disadvantage yourself, which is guaranteed to turn out to your advantage” (p. 200).

Baby Boy adds colorful patches to our life, making us more beautiful than we were before. The abrupt shattering of my mostly-controlled, comfortable routine with the sudden appearance of diapers, bottles, crying, and sleeplessness reveals my own brokenness. My idols of comfort and control. My impatience with others, selfishness, and pride. The ordinary tasks of relentless baby caring make me weak, and I remember my need for the One who is strong, whose steadfast, never-failing love covers my failings. He patches the torn mess of my efforts with strong threads, forgiving and reminding me to forgive.

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Quilt made by Carolyn Nichols

A snuffling baby boy cries out, wakening from a too-short nap, and John picks him up, rocking him back to sleep. We don’t know how many more days or months we have with Baby Boy, but today, we will sew down another line, maybe less crooked than the one before. He may never know it was us who pieced and stitched together the first strips of his quilt in a symmetrical, Dryden-ish pattern, but that’s ok. His unique fabric is forever sewn onto ours – a flurry of color and chaos, transforming ordinary into art.

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