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?”).

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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.

 

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Grand Teton National Park

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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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