As Time Goes By

Do you ever think about the people who used to live in your neighborhood?  Your house?  Who used to sleep in your bedroom before you bought that house?  What happened to them?  I remember taking car rides with my dad when I was a little girl and I would spend the time looking out the window and wondering what everything would look like a hundred years ago.

I actually think about this often. When I’m out driving around, I look at houses and I wonder about what went on inside them.  Because on the outside, my house looks normal (a bit ratty, but normal) and cheerful maybe.  Random passersby would have no idea of the loss we’ve experienced or the pain we’ve felt.  They have no idea that this Saturday when it was snowing like crazy, the family was gathering to celebrate a man who died almost a year ago on my parents’ 39th wedding anniversary.  They would have no idea that the smell of bacon, scrapple and sausage was because my dad loved big breakfasts (although, I think he would have wanted some fried potatoes too).  They would have no inkling that half of the family was unable to get out in the snow and were having their own celebrations at their homes.  They wouldn’t be able to share in the memories and stories we told about the ones we love.  They would drive by and completely miss out on what was happening inside.

What history am I missing in my little house?  What happened to the generations of people who lived here before me?  Over time their stories are lost and I find that sad because I could have learned from them.  I would have grown from them.

Modern American families have lost the ability to prepare for death.  We expect that all of us will be healthy and well and that if we’re not, the doctors should be able to fix it.  Death comes as a surprise these days – even if we know that someone is sick!  Jen had leukemia for eleven years and I still expected the doctors to run in at the last minute and say that they had an idea for something that would save her.

And all of us take for granted the days we have with our loved ones.  We assume that we have lots of time left with them to say the things we want to say.  To do the things we want to do.  We think we’re doing ourselves a favor when we avoid thinking about death.  Why be so morbid? I don’t think being prepared for death is about being afraid.  I think being prepared for death is a celebration of life.

Imagine a time when disease was commonplace and death was everyday.  Didn’t parents prepare their children for death instead of hide it from them?  Oh, how I hope these losses in recent years have helped me to prepare my children for the possibility, no – the EVENTUALITY of death.  How I hope I have not made my children afraid of death, but instead make them see it as a distinct part of life.  As I live this life, I am more and more convinced that it is our duty as parents and relatives to prepare them for loss.  From simple loss, like a broken toy, to big loss, like the death of a loved one.  They will lose things.  They will lose people they love.  And if we don’t teach them to deal with it, who will? Society?!  I don’t think so.

Sure, my kids see me at my worst.  Like when I start crying when I’m cleaning a room because I’m afraid of cleaning away the last vestiges of Jake, Jen and Dad.  Or when I illogically demand to watch a pretty silly movie because it reminds me of someone I love.  But I hope my children also see me at my best – when I can show them the peace that I have in Christ and the hope that we will see our loved ones again in heaven. When I can feel happy in the memories I have with Jake, Jen and Dad and we can laugh and smile and talk about how they would have enjoyed our celebrations.  When I can teach them what my loved ones would have taught them about faith, creativity, individuality and strength.

So, no.  I don’t hide death from my children.  Bo was 14 months old when Jake died, and we had a discussion with him about Jake’s death.  He totally understood what was happening and cried with us in our mourning.  But he also gave us more hugs, gave us more reasons to smile and reminded us of all the sweet things about life with Jake.  Even at just one-year-old, Bo learned from his loss and helped to teach others through it.

More than that, my family and I have resolved to CELEBRATE our loved ones at every opportunity we have.  Of course we celebrate them on birthdays and anniversaries, but we also celebrate the anniversaries of their deaths – not by mourning, but by gathering together and remembering them together.  By being together with the loved ones who are still alive and creating more memories and taking every opportunity to enjoy the life we have.

So, my family, the two-year anniversary of Jen’s death is coming up in about a week. Where are we getting together?  What are we doing?  I’m thinking we need to crank up the New Kids on the Block and watch the movie Annie (the old one – NOT the new one) and eat some gummy bears, peach rings and sour gummy worms.

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Luna Turns 2

This Sunday (November 23) marks the two year anniversary of the day we delivered our Luna Eugenia.  She was delivered stillborn after being diagnosed with a chromosomal disorder called Turner Syndrome.  We still celebrate this day as her birthday.

In the hospital on Luna's birthday.

In the hospital on Luna’s birthday.

I also had the privilege of starting a new chapter in Biology class this week – Genetics.  I hadn’t anticipated really getting to talk about Luna so close to her birthday, but it just so happened that today we looked at karyotypes and I got to show them hers.

Luna's karyotype, showing the missing X chromosome in the bottom right.

Luna’s karyotype, showing the missing X chromosome in the bottom right.

We looked at the missing space where an X chromosome should have been, and I told them about how grateful I was for the technology to allow us to know what was going on with our baby girl.  I asked them to imagine being pregnant and thinking that everything was going well until one day you go in to the OB and they can’t find a heartbeat.  That would have been more difficult to bear than what we had. I am grateful for the six weeks between diagnosis and death that I had to value and savor every single moment with Luna.

There was also a rare chance where I got to speak to my students about why we named her Luna.  I explained that the moon has no light of its own and only reflects the light of the sun.  In the same way, as a Christian, I know that I have no light of my own and I only reflect the light of Christ to the world.  Luna’s name and Luna’s story remind me to shine brightly for Christ no matter what the circumstances are.

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I anticipated these holidays being difficult without my dad, Jen, Luna and Jake, but I have found that my mood has been better recently.  Perhaps the constant reminders of those I’ve lost have actually served to keep my focus in the right place.  Maybe I’m just happy that I get to see the rest of my family more during the holidays.  Regardless, I’m thankful that I get a little break from the grumpiness and anxiety of my grief.

I came up the stairs in MACA to go to my lab and there was a slanted rectangle of light on the floor where the sun was streaming in a glass door.  You know the kind.  The kind where the light hits all the particles in the air and it looks like a snow globe and the whole world seems to glow.  I stood in that doorway and felt the warmth of that sun and it really felt like a hug.  I don’t usually say cheesy things like that, but it really did feel like a warm hug. And it made me think about what I have to be thankful for.

1)  I am thankful for Luna.  For the experience of having her.  For the reminder of how to live because of her.  For the warmth of knowing her. For my children who still talk about her and make things for her.

The ornaments I made this week at MOPS.  My children reminded me to include Luna on everything.

The ornaments I made this week at MOPS. My children reminded me to include Luna on everything.

2)  I am thankful for losing Luna.  Without losing Luna when I did, I would not have been able to be in the hospital when Jen died.  She died two days after my due date with Luna and I would have had a hard time being there with a newborn (or being so enormously pregnant).  Also, if I had not lost Luna, I would not have Joe.  And Joe lights up my world. He hugs like my dad, bosses me around like Jen and makes goofy smiles like Jake.

My Joe and the smile that makes me smile.

My Joe and the smile that makes me smile.

3)  I am thankful for my family.  Both living and dead.  I have learned so much from all of them and I value each and every one of them.  They shape me.  They support me.  They make me who I am.  They are funny and smart and attractive.  They are kind and generous and patient.  They are everything I am not and everything that I am.  They fill all my gaps and make me into someone whole.

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Even though my struggle through grief hasn’t been easy and I have so much to work on, I am thankful for the life that God has given me.  It has given me a platform that I wouldn’t otherwise have. It has taught me to rely on Christ when I have nothing left.  It had made me compassionate and patient.  It has created in me a grateful, joyful heart.

My parents with us on Luna's birthday.  I am so thankful my dad could be there to hold my hand.

My parents with us on Luna’s birthday. I am so thankful my dad could be there to hold my hand.

That God really knows what he’s doing, doesn’t he?

So when Sunday rolls around, we encourage you to think for a moment about the light you are reflecting and we hope that Luna reminds you to reflect the Son as brightly as a full moon.

Dear Daddy

Dear Daddy,

I keep waiting for you to help me deal with everything.  Your death.  All of the death. I keep waiting for a giant hug and some words of wisdom. I keep waiting for reassurance that everything will be okay.

You kind of always assume that your parents will die before you. Or at least that they are “supposed” to. But my life doesn’t make sense without you here. You were a rock. A foundation. A constant. You know how people tell you to focus on the horizon when you are seasick? You were my horizon.

Dad with my baby girl - the first girl in the family since I was born!

Dad with my baby girl – the first girl in the family since I was born!

I’m sorry.  I’m sorry for a million things.  I think we’re all still in shock, Daddy.

Here is what I am most sorry for. I am sorry that I have leaned on you the way you taught me to lean on Jesus. I am sorry that all those lectures and pep talks about faith and trust in God and His sovereignty made me put you on a pedestal the way I should have elevated Christ.

Help me to build a throne for Christ the way you taught me.

Is it any wonder that you and God are linked so strongly in my heart? We call God our father because of the connection and love and dependence we feel for our earthly fathers. Because of the unquestioning trust and security and hope.

Because you were such an incredible earthly father, my understanding and love for God is that much more huge. It is because of you that I could fall in love with God the father and cling to Him in times of trouble.  It’s because of your protection, provision and care that I understand how to feel about God’s love.

When I remember you, you are all warm hands, big gut and scruffly chin. I see salt and pepper hair and the scar on your neck from your childhood surgery. I remember being tucked up under your arm with my arms around your belly and my ear against your chest. I see you laughing with your mouth open and your head thrown back with no noise coming out of your mouth. Crinkled eyes and shaking belly.

Dad and Jack hugging it out.  Best hugs ever.

Dad and Jack hugging it out. Best hugs ever.

More than anything, I remember your voice and your warmth. I miss these things the most because I cannot get these from looking at a photo.

Bo told me once that your death was so sad to him because he woke up in the morning and you were gone. He had plans to watch monster movies with you. I feel like that too. I had plans with you. Visions of seeing you play with my children. Visions of making fun of you as an old man. Visions of shared moments, hugs, advice and good-natured teasing.  And I am angry and disappointed that my plans have been spoiled. More than that, I am coping by not wanting to make plans with anyone else for fear I will be disappointed again.

You have been everywhere lately. Bo chose fish sticks for dinner. There was a ridiculous commercial on TV that used a slightly changed version of “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” by the Gap Band. Bo asked to watch Flight of Dragons this evening. I walked by the fridge today and saw the picture of you wearing the Big Bad Wolf mask. The kids requested Papa stories for their bedtime stories. I told them about the time you rolled down the hill in elementary school and scared your teacher by busting open your surgical wound. I told them about your neighbor’s baboons and your pet monkey and your potty trained cat.

I even had a conversation with 9 month old Joe this morning about you.
Me:  Who loves you, Joey O?
Joe:  NAANAAAAAAA!
Me:  Nana?! Okay, but who loves you the most?
Joe:  PAPAPAPAPAPAPAPA!
Me:  Yup.  Papa loves you.  How about Mama?
Joe: <shakes his head and screams like a banshee>

Always happiest with kids on his knee

Always happiest with kids on his knee

When I was a little girl, you smelled like Old Spice.  As I got older, you smelled like  well…like you. Do you remember when you would accidentally wear mom’s jeans and how mad she would get? Or when you drove me twelve hours to Maine and then turned around and drove home with nothing more than  a potty break? Or when you took me and Jack on a tour of Shenandoah and we almost got the car stuck looking for the last house you lived in?

Oh, Daddy. Help me to cling to the faith you’ve grown in me. Help me to hold on and trust the God you taught me about. That brings me to what I am most sorry for – sorry that I am totally not handling this the way you would have taught me to. Sorry that I am struggling with this. I miss you.

And I am mad that you didn’t go see a doctor sooner. You felt bad for hours before you died. Now I am paranoid that my body is trying to tell me something is wrong with me too. And I am sorry, but I blame you for that.

Ugh. I am writing this because I miss talking to you.  I miss seeing you and just talking and talking and talking until neither one of us is really paying attention anymore. I miss arguing with you over nothing and then laughing when your rebuttals fail to make logical sense.  I miss watching that belly jiggle when you laugh.

dad profile

Where losing my brother, my baby, and my sister really beat up my heart, losing you has crushed it. It still works, but I am working hard to put it back together so that it could beat without these stabbing pains. I know I have to choose another foundation and I am going to try to make that horizon the immutable, omnipotent, holy God – with no other distractions.

So, thank you. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to shift my focus from that which is earthly to that which is supernatural. I pray I can make you proud.

Love you, Daddy.

Love,
Stinkweed

Broken Hearted

Everyone grieves differently. If I had a penny for every time I have heard that in the past four years, I would, well…I’d have a whole lot of pennies.

Yes, I get it. I won’t process things the same way as my husband, my mother, my sister and my brothers.

And I think I have nailed down how I have chosen to deal with losing a brother, a baby, a sister and my father in less than four years. My grief has manifested itself as irrational anxiety regarding my health and the health of my loved ones.

In other words, this is a conversation I have with myself often:
“Ouch! My arm aches!”
“Oh no…is that a sign of something bigger?”
“Like what?”
“Osteosarcoma. Myocardial infarction. Arthritis. Osteomyelitis. A million things!!”
“Are you sure it is not from the three hours I spent pulling weeds in the yard yesterday? Or the baby I carry around 24 hours a day?!”
“Psh. No way. Oh! Is that chest pressure? I am leaning toward a heart attack.”

And on and on and on it goes. I begin to convince myself that my body is trying to tell me something and I become hyperattentive to all the little aches, pains, twangs and twinges I feel. I convince myself I have chest pains or that those twinges and cramps are signs of cancer.

I start to outline all my imaginary symptoms to Patrick so that he can report them accurately to the ER doctors when I fall over unconscious.

So I spend my life in constant fear of dying. I know what it feels like lose a parent and I see what it has done to my nephews to lose their mother. I don’t want my children to feel that. To know that hurt.

I feel like there is a tiny beast curled up in the space where my heart used to be and it bites me now and then to remind me to be afraid. At least once a day.

Part of me wants to ignore it. This anxiety is a result of my grief. I need to breathe deeply, relax and everything will be fine. You are imagining it, Katie.

Then I think that I am ignoring my body. My dad spent the whole day before his heart attack feeling sick and promising that he’d see the doctor if he still felt bad in the morning. Would he still be here if he had listened to what his body was telling him?

My grief is no longer predictable or reasonable. I feel like I have slipped in something sticky and the more I struggle, the more of this junk I get on me. And it’s keeping me down on the floor because it’s too sticky to pull myself up.

The accumulation of my losses has really started to chip away at my sensibilities.

Then this morning, at 5 o’clock after I put my sweet baby Joe back to bed, I decided I was going to ignore my sleepy eyes and study my Bible. According to my notebook, the last time I had a good and thorough exegetical study was the day that Joe was born. Maybe here is part of the problem? And I clearly didn’t finish it as I stopped in the middle of a paragraph. Galatians 2 and I stopped in the middle of verse 17.

So I picked up where I left off.

Business as usual until I got to verse 20. “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me.”

Forgive me for taking this verse out of the context of the passage which is talking about being justified by faith and not by the Law. My husband would (rightly) hang me by my toes. But I read that and thought about my current stage of anxiety…

This life is not my own. I was so willing to admit that when I was trying to mourn the loss of my daughter Luna – that I didn’t own her and that God had every right to take her from me. I even remember praying daily when I got pregnant for the first time that I would accept whatever happened to him because he was a gift from God and not something I was owed. So why did do I feel so differently about my own life?

When I chose to live my life for Christ, I died. I already died. The person writing this right now is a work that God will continue to improve on my whole life. In fact, in verse 19 it says “for through the law, I have died to the law so that I might live to God.” All the church and ministry and prayers and studying that I do, that is an expression of love to a God who made it so that I don’t have to do all those things to get to heaven. And if God wants me to die, it should be my joy to do so.

I have lost sight of that love. I resented the loss of my father especially. I was angry. I was so angry that I couldn’t pray as much as I used to because my favorite way to start a prayer was “Father in heaven” and now my father is in heaven…so it hurt to say that. It was like I was giving God the silent treatment. And if I am being fully transparent, I am still reluctant to fall into his arms the way I need to. It’s like I am talking to him, but I won’t hold his hand. Instead of the warm and affectionate “Father in heaven” I use a more distant “sovereign Lord.”

Then I thought of my love for my husband and children – the love that makes me afraid to die because I don’t want to leave them behind. The love that makes me anxious that I will discover some sort of mysterious terminal illness. And verse 20 tells me what kind of love Christ has for me – “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me.” Would I give up my life for my children? Absolutely. Would I sacrifice myself for my husband? In a heartbeat. But why am I afraid to let God choose that for me?

You know, Christ also was anxious about his death on the cross. He prayed fervently that God would choose a different way, knowing all the time that He wouldn’t. My husband mentioned something to me the other day about how God knowingly designed the human wrist, full of sensitive nerves and ligaments. He designed the wrist knowing that Christ would one day feel a nail driven straight through those intricate and painful nerves. Christ knew exactly the nature of his death and he still accepted it.

And so it is with a more human hesitance that I try to accept that God’s will for me may WILL include death.

I am not saying that I am magically no longer anxious. Because I still am. But I am working on focusing on the ultimate goal here which is not me. It is not even my husband or children. My ultimate goal is to live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.

Pray for me to be able to remember that when my anxieties creep up on me and that beast in my chest where my heart used to be bites me.

Everybody’s Best Friend

Two years ago today was one of the most important days of my Christian life.

It was a Monday. I got up and got ready for work and woke my brother Jacob up at 6:50 to take care of baby Bo like always. He didn’t live with us, but stayed in our spare room during the week so that he could be our “manny” or man nanny. He grumbled a little and Patrick said something about how awful Mondays are. Jake says “Hey Bogus” and goes into the bathroom which is directly off the bedroom.

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One-year-old Bo and his best friend Jake

That is where it stopped being like a regular Monday.

I sat Bo up on the counter with a slice of peanut butter toast and got lunch together. I even remember which plate his toast was on. Patrick offered to wait for Jake so I could go to work. (He knows I hate to be late and we were driving separately anyway.) I go out to the car and try to back down the driveway which I have done a million times before but I keep riding up on the hill, so I throw my hands up and go back inside to ask Patrick for help. While he is out moving the car, my heart drops a little and I start to worry. Jake doesn’t take that long in the mornings…

I walk into his room and ask the closed bathroom door “Are you alright? Jake? For real…are you okay?” No answer. Patrick came back in and I pretend I am not flipping out and ask him to check on Jake. He knocked on the bathroom door and tried to open it. He had to force it open because Jake was leaning against the door, completely unresponsive.

Patrick yells for me to call 911 and starts CPR. I remember having to yell at the 911 operator because she was asking me stupid questions just to keep me on the line. “Do you need me on the line? Because you’re not really helping me anymore and I need to call my family!!!” I call my dad and don’t get an answer. My mom doesn’t answer her cell either. I run down the driveway to move the car so the ambulance can get up to the door. Finally I get a hold of my dad.

The rest is a blur of calling all my siblings and answering the EMTs questions. I accidentally say Jake is 24 when he’s really 25. The EMTs can’t get a heart rhythm and they scratch the wall with the gurney. We load Bo into the van and follow the ambulance to the hospital where my Aunt Mecky meets us and takes us to some secret waiting room for people with serious cases or something. The bereavement room. My mom is already with Jake. My dad shows up soon after us and my brother Jack joins us in the secret room. Too soon my aunt is back and she takes my hand and whispers like she can’t bear to be heard, “He didn’t make it.”

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Me and my little brother Jake cuddling on the couch.

My whole life changed that day. I can still hear my brother Joe screaming on the phone when I tell him Jake died. No…it was more like wailing. The way I imagine they wail and mourn in the Old Testament, ripping their clothes and throwing ashes on their heads. He was in the car with is fiancé and Jake was his best man. I remember saying something stupid to Jes about her trying to get off of work. Duh. Of course she would take off work and come to the hospital. No one had been able to get a hold of my brother Jimbo yet. Jen was in the hospital fighting off pneumonia and Chris was driving to Hopkins to tell her in person.

That morning was a mess, but in that morning I saw more clearly than ever that God is in charge.

If Jake had died ten minutes later, one-year-old Bo would have been by himself all day until I got home from work around 4. If he had died ten minutes earlier, he wouldn’t have seen Bo one last time and I wouldn’t have seen him. If I had backed down the driveway like I always do, I would have been on the way to work when Patrick found Jake. Since Jake died at our house and not at home, he was taken straight to the hospital where my mom was working. And my aunt was even at work at the hospital that morning too, so she could be there for my mom and for me.

If God had not crept into my heart that morning, I would have been impatient and angry that Jake was taking so long in the bathroom. I mean, that’s my natural frame of mind…my typical response to life. Anger. Impatience. Selfishness. But that morning, I wasn’t angry at all. Not one tiny bit. God even controlled my heart so that I wouldn’t live in regret for my attitude that morning.

God orchestrated every detail that morning. Right down to my heart. Right down to my sinful, angry, selfish heart.

I mean, it was Jake’s heart that gave out. He had his first heart attack at 16 and his last nine years later. Nine years we didn’t know we were going to get. Nine years God blessed us with.

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This photo was taken after Jake’s first heart attack at my high school graduation dinner

Don’t misunderstand me. That day was awful and every day since has felt incomplete because Jake isn’t here to share it with us, but I trust that God has got it all under control because HE managed to control even my temper that morning. It certainly wasn’t me. I have been fighting that thing for almost three decades now.

Even though I miss Jake more now than ever before, I get to see bits and pieces of him in my Bo and in my siblings. I can watch a movie and feel like he’s sitting right next to me because I have watched that movie with him so often. I can eat certain foods and feel close to him because the smell reminds me of him and I can see him standing by the stove with his pony tail down his back.

And I am certain that this peace I feel about losing Luna is totally God’s doing. But I blame Jake too.