When I am weak, then I am strong.

I don’t write very often now.  I feel like I mention that at the beginning of every blog post.  There is less urgency behind my need to express myself.  I feel resigned to the fact that my heart hurts day to day and the desire to share that has diminished.  My grief has become a constant background noise instead of a immediate din that needs to be explained.

Today marks four years since the morning Jen died.  I woke up seconds before my sister breathed her last.  I was sleeping in her hospital room, curled up on a chair with my brothers and nephews and parents arranged around the room in various levels of sleep and sorrow.  My father sat on Jen’s left, stroking her hand and Chris sat on her right, softly speaking to her.  Her breathing was ragged and loud; it was clear that the time was coming soon.

Some silent whisper from God woke me up that morning in time to hear my father and Chris say to Jen that they loved her and that she should stop fighting and let go.  Seconds later, I heard Chris cry out in mourning and I knew she was gone.  I prize those few seconds where everything was still and I was able to see her go from my perch across the room.  Slowly, everyone else in the room started to stir and we all gathered together. I know Jen would be pleased to know we were all there for her.

Many days I feel so weak for being sad all the time.  I cried at a wrestling tournament a few weeks ago singing a lullaby to Finn because I just missed everyone so much.  There was nothing special about that song or that place, I just couldn’t hold back the tears anymore.  That seems weak to me.  And if you have met me, you probably know that weak is one of the last words I want anyone to use to describe me.

In fact, I spent a majority of my childhood trying to make sure that everyone around me knew just how tough I was.  That meant that I was often aggressive, pushy and punchy.  That meant that I was bossy and take-charge and controlling.  My edges have softened, but I think some of that still hangs on.

But in church on Sunday, I was reminded what it means to be weak.  In 2 Corinthians, Paul says: (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10) “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

I’ve read this many times.  I’ve had people send me portions of this as inspirational encouragement, but I don’t know why it stuck out so much this week.

First of all, I realized that it’s pride that makes me want everyone to notice how strong I am.  It’s pride that makes me feel like I have to put up a front all the time. It’s pride that makes me feel better when I can hold back those tears and no one knows that I’m hurting still. I have a student I admire who will just let it out when she needs to.  She doesn’t worry about it too much – she just quietly cries all over her physics work because the math reminds her of her dad and she wishes he was still around to help her with it.  I want to be like her in many ways.

Secondly, I realized that my focus is in the wrong place.  When Paul says he pleaded with God to take the weakness away, God’s response had nothing to do with Paul.  God’s response is about HIM.  God doesn’t say, “You’ll get stronger in time” or “Don’t worry!  No one is watching.”  God points to himself and says that He is enough. His grace is sufficient.  I lose sight of the fact that God is working in me when all I feel is weak.  I forget that this plan is bigger than me.  I forget that this plan is bigger than my reputation or appearance.  I forget that this life has nothing to do with me and everything to do with Christ.

Finally, I realized that my attitude was all wrong.  I should not be ashamed of my weakness or spend all my energy hiding it.  I should boast in my weakness because in my weakness, God’s power gets to shine through.  In my hardships and difficulties, when I am less, God is more.  And I should boast gladly!

So here I am, folks, I’m a wimp.  I cry at pretty much any movie I watch and most of the time I’m watching Disney movies (and still crying).  I can’t take a long drive or watch a comic book movie without missing my dad and I can’t wear the color purple or talk on the phone without missing Jen.  I can’t make eggs and rice or meatloaf without telling my kids a story about my brother Jake and I certainly can’t look at the moon without crying about Luna.  I wake up every morning and forget for a split second that I’ve lost all these people and when that split second is over, it feels like the wound is opened fresh.

There are days when instead of getting sad, I just get angry.  I am impatient and short-fused and spend more than a reasonable amount of time making the mom face at people who aren’t even my children.  I snap at my mother-in-law when she offers to do my dishes.  I make my kids go to bed an hour early because I am afraid I’ll yell at them for nothing and make them hate me.  I mumble to myself about all the injustices I feel like I’m experiencing and then paste on a fake smile when someone comes in the room.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

It is not enough to admit my weaknesses.  I think the next part of this is to acknowledge the perfect power of Christ.  God in his perfect wisdom uses these weaknesses to direct me to Him, to make me more like Him and to reveal Himself to others through me.  When I am weak, my message is strong because my message is that God is BIG and God is in control and God is good.  God is enough.

I am weak, but I am not perfectly weak.  I witnessed perfect weakness on this day four years ago, when Jen’s human body achieved perfect weakness and God’s grace took her from this world and this world’s weaknesses.  Jen was one of the strongest people I know, but she knew when to let go – NO ONE would call her weak. And through her God was and is glorified.

So those of you struggling through grief (and there are a lot of you), I encourage you to embrace your weakness.  For in your weakness, you are strong.  In your weakness, GOD is strong.  His grace is enough for us.  He is enough for us.  And I am praying for you.

The Sun Shines through the Trees

I have a confession to make.  I haven’t been writing in my blog because I haven’t been feeling like I had anything important or wise to say in my grief.  In fact, my father’s death hit me like a ton of bricks, as the cliche goes and I haven’t felt quite the same since.

There was a day this past summer when I was riding in the car with my mom on the way to Lancaster when I noticed something was different.  I looked out the window at the beautiful scenery and I didn’t feel sad.

We were on our way to Green Dragon – a huge flea market – and were going to spend the day with many of my extended family members.  I brought all four kids, including the newbie that was just weeks old.

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Taking a break from the flea market shopping to take a picture with my children.  You can’t see it, but I’m wearing Finn too.

The last time I had gone to Green Dragon had been with BOTH of my parents, and I was already preparing for moments where my eyes would fill with tears and I’d have to hold it back.  Memories of laughing with my dad and eating with him and walking with him. Wishing he was still with us to buy big jugs of beet red pickled eggs and munch on sausages and pretzels.

But they didn’t come.

Well, the memories did, but the tears didn’t.  Not that I wasn’t sad that he wasn’t there to form NEW memories, but I wasn’t sad about the old memories.  I was actually happy about the old memories.  Happy to have them.  Joyful to share them with others.  Glad to remember him and those moments with  him.

My dad had been dead for over a year at that point and that was the first time I could feel like I was peeking over the mountain that is my grief. It’s almost like every time someone I loved died, the grief was piled higher and higher and it became more and more difficult to pull myself up to the summit so I could see the sun shining on the other side.

And for the past year, I think I’ve been stuck clinging to the edge of my grief by my very fingertips, getting more and more exhausted trying to hold on.

I’ve struggled with anxiety and insomnia.  I’ve worried and cried and worried some more about who was going to die next and what I would do if I lost someone else. What if the house catches on fire?  What if I drop this baby down the stairs?  What if that ache in my stomach is actually cancer?  As though being hyper-aware of every possible catastrophe would allow me to be better prepared.

I’ve struggled with depression.  I’ve carved a seat in the cushions of my couch that held me for days, wearing the same sweatpants and t-shirt the whole time. I’ve told myself that it doesn’t matter.  That I shouldn’t worry because as time goes on, more people are going to die. That’s just a fact of life.  People die.  I’ve chanted in my head a quote I heard when I was very young:  “From the moment we are born, we begin to die.”  As though being fatalistic would prevent me from having any hope and therefore keep me from feeling disappointed when someone died.

I was clutching my grief to my heart with all my strength.  Holding on so tightly that I couldn’t function in normal life.

But that day in Lancaster, I was lying on a picnic blanket staring up into the sky through the dark green leaves of a summer tree, listening to the tones of the voices of my family around me – not the words.  Just the tones. The bright tenor of my Uncle Joe and the warm altos of my aunts Chrissy, T and Mecky.  The sharp squeals of small children laughing and playing. The whispered sigh of a Nana holding a new baby while he sleeps.

And I realized my grief was beneath me.

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This is the exact view from that morning.  

It’s still there.  Ever present. Inescapable.  I am constantly standing on top of a mountain of grief.  But it’s not the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last thing on my mind at night.

Standing on the summit, I can see the sun.  The Son.

And feel hope.

Hope in knowing that life – no matter how hard or sad or complicated – is not about our brief time on this Earth.  And that hard times will keep coming, but I have hope that God will refine my heart through them.

That his purpose is greater than what I can see.  Maybe even greater than I will ever see.  Definitely greater than I am capable of seeing.

So, today, on the third anniversary of Luna’s stillborn delivery – the day we celebrate as her birthday, I ask you to have hope. To remember that God is calling us to lives of difficulty and trial.  But to lives that glorify Him.  To have hope that life is not actually about this time here.  Or about the death that ends this life here.

I went back and read some of the blog posts I wrote when I lost Luna and I wonder who the heck that woman was.  I want to meet her. Her words filled my heart with joy and my eyes with tears.  My grandmother quoted one of my blog posts recently, and I didn’t recognize those words as my own words.  Like I had lost a bit of myself in my struggle with grief.

But I slowly feel it coming back.

I just have to look up to see the Son through the trees.

10 Lessons I Learned in My Big Family

The whole family can get in on this silly face thing.  Even the in-laws are adept at these skills.

When you are raised as part of a big family, you feel a sense of pride in the number of siblings you have.  I would feel angry when I wasn’t the student in the classroom with the most siblings.  (I have vivid memories of meeting a girl in high school Spanish class who had 9 siblings when I had 8 and I probably missed out on having an awesome friend because I swore to hate her forever after.)

It becomes a competition after that. “Oh yeah?  You have more siblings?  Well, my mom is one of ELEVEN children!”  Or you qualify your numbering by saying, “And none of those are twins or triplets” like multiple births is cheating.  Or you say, “And those are all from the same set of parents” like having one set of prolific parents counts for more points than multiple sets of prolific parents.

Regardless of who wins the biggest family competition, you realize after talking to your competitors, that they understand you in a way your other classmates just don’t.  There are aspects of their personalities that just make sense in your big-family-minded psychology.  And this is because living with a big family teaches you lessons.  Makes you special.

Lesson #1:  You have strengths and weaknesses.  Partner up accordingly.

When you have enough siblings to make teams, you learn to very quickly size up the people around you so that you can form the best possible team for the competition.  Whatever that competition is.  An argument.  A game.  A manipulation.  A chore.  Whatever.  Not only that, but your siblings are not shy about explaining to you why they chose someone else for their “team” and so you become (sometimes painfully) aware of your weaknesses.  Instead of making you feel helpless because of these weaknesses, it reminds you to find someone to compliment them and make your team stronger.This also makes you feel valued for your strengths because they are equally bold in explaining why they want you on their team.  

This is not limited to formal and official competitions.  If you were in a room and an argument over what to eat for dinner begins, you automatically pick sides based on who is in the argument.  I learned fast to always pick Jen’s side in an argument because she was ruthless and never pick Jes’ side because she would fold in a heartbeat. (I love you, Jes.  You fold out of love, not out of weakness.)

Lesson #2:  Someone is always watching you.

Seriously.  ALWAYS.  You can’t do anything without someone knowing about it.  You have older siblings who want you to toe the line and younger siblings who want to emulate you. And if your parents are good at this big family thing (and mine were) your younger siblings have been trained to innocently spy on you.  It’s not that we’re trained to tattletale, it’s just that a simple statement like “Go check and see how Bo is doing” or “Can you make sure that Jake is doing okay?” makes a younger sibling feel like they’re helping an older sibling in a very special way.  So when we come back with, “Bo is great!  He’s showing Jake how to mudwrestle in the backyard,”  we have no idea that we’ve just betrayed them.  And younger siblings remember EVERYTHING.  At least mine do.  (Ahem, Joe.) So you learn quickly to make better decisions and you also learn that you will eventually get caught.  Almost inevitably.

Lesson #3:  Figure out who is in charge.

In a big family, there is always someone in charge.  This is a big thing that I’ve noticed about smaller families – there is no desire for someone to be in charge.  They can sit in a room and have very little power-play because they are comfortable with everyone being in charge of themselves.  Not in a big family.  In a big family, you are trained from birth that your older siblings are in charge of you simply because they’re older than you.  Sometimes there are events that occur that disrupt that age hierarchy, but that’s rare.  For example, my older brother Jimbo did not like to be in charge.  He wanted to be alone.  So when he was left in charge, he put me in charge and locked himself in his room to play Savage Garden at an unhealthy volume.  I think in some ways this has damaged me in a way that makes me believe that I am permanently in charge….

Anyway, once you’ve read a room and figured out who is in charge, this will help in case of arguments or if one of your siblings tries to tell you what to do.  Only the sibling who is in charge can tell you what to do. If there is an argument, the final decision goes to the sibling in charge.  If you can’t decide what to watch on TV or what to eat for lunch or what to do for fun, the final decision goes to the sibling in charge.  And everyone else has to respect that.  (How do you small-family people make decisions if no one is in charge?!  I guess everyone makes their own decisions independently?  You mean, you don’t make ONE thing for lunch and everyone has to eat it without whining?  Everyone can make their own lunch?  No way….not possible.)

Lesson #4:  Make your expectations known.

When there are so many people in the same house, it would be stupid to assume that everyone knows what you want all the time.  Maybe in a small-family house, everyone would know that you like your cereal in the big orange bowl because you eat it that way every day, and they would stay away from it.  But in a big-family house your younger sibling wants to use that bowl too just because you use it every day and you have to make sure they understand it’s off limits.  You never assume that they’ll understand without your say-so because they won’t.  I would get a monster box of Frosted Mini Wheats for Christmas every year and even if I would write my name on box, the only time my brothers wouldn’t eat them was when I would write “DO NOT EAT” on the box multiple times.  So you just get used to telling people what you want and how you want it.  You can’t blame them for not living up to your expectations if you never told them what you expected!

Lesson #5:  Go with the flow.

When there are too many people to accommodate everyone’s every whim, you get used to rolling with the punches.  Sometimes you get it your way and sometimes you’re the one who gets disappointed, but you NEVER get upset when it doesn’t work out your way.  It’s all about what works for the majority.  You want to do Christmas on Christmas morning?  Okay.  Who else does that work for? If it doesn’t work for most of the siblings, then you figure out another time.  Even if it doesn’t work the best for you.  You just learn that things don’t have to be perfect and you don’t throw a fit when they’re not.  Can you imagine what it would be like in a house with 11 people if everyone threw a fit when it didn’t go their way?!  Goodness.

Lesson #6:  Take care of each other.  Sometimes that means you drop everything.

You definitely learn to take care of each other in a big family.  In the obvious ways, like helping your sibs find their shoes or pouring them a cup of milk, but also in less obvious ways like making faces at them while they nervously prepare for their band solo or bringing your obviously uncool sister to parties with your friends because she’s scared of public school.  You know exactly what to do to make each one of your siblings feel better after a bad day and you know exactly how to do it.  To this day, I know when my brother Joe is having a bad day and I’ll sometimes say to his wife (even though she knows better than I do) “He needs to watch a movie.  Any movie.”

Sometimes this means that what we need is for all of us to get together and we’ll end up making some excuse for a party and staying up way later than we wanted to and keeping our kids up past bedtime just because we need to be together.  It’s all about taking care of each other.  There is an intense connection in big families and we don’t question it when the spirit moves us to be together.  It’s like we’re all connected by these elastic cords and when they’ve been stretched too far too long, they snap us back together and we have no choice but to obey.    

Lesson #7:  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

My mother would ask us all the time growing up, “What is the golden rule?!” usually out of desperation and exhaustion.  But it really hammered into our brains that we should treat people the way we want to be treated.  When you live in a house that is constantly full of people who can recall at any moment any of a thousand things you have done wrong in the past, it really helps to try to be nice to them.  I remember one time I was arguing with Jen (because she was in charge and I don’t respond well to not being in charge) and Jake was in the next room keeping score. (He literally had a paper and pencil and was making tallies every time someone said something particularly good.) At the end of the argument, he told me I won and, after a brief pause to sift through some mental files, I said, “You know that time you drew with permanent marker in one of my books?  You’re forgiven.” I just remember thinking that maybe he’d forgive me one day.  Or maybe Jen would forgive me one day.  Or maybe ANYONE would forgive me one day.  

So I remember this when I am tempted to do something awful to someone.  If I do this awful thing, I am opening myself up to the possibility of awful things being done to me. Like when Jes locked Bo out of the house and then he broke a window coming back into the house and they both got in trouble. Or when I let my cat kill Bo’s snake and he farted into a jar and left the jar in my room for me to find…and open….(P.S.  Never open a seemingly random empty jar.)

Lesson #8:  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I first heard this phrase in that classic episode of The Twilight Zone where an ugly lady goes in to get her face surgically altered so that she could be attractive again.  I won’t ruin it for you, but they talk about how beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I had to have my dad explain it to me.  He also used to say “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”  Or once (when eating a bowl of cereal that was all crumbs because it was the bottom of the box) “One man’s crumbs is another man’s cereal.”  

This was something we definitely experienced in our big family.  A joke I used with one sibling would fall flat, but the same joke with another one would be quoted decades later.  I used to play this game with my younger brothers where I was a psychiatrist and they would come to me for therapy sessions. Jake and Joe played along because it made me happy, but eventually they told me it was stupid and they wouldn’t play anymore.  But Rico honestly enjoyed his sessions and he would totally dive head first into his therapy.  I’m not certain, but I think he actually thought I was qualified to provide psychiatric help.  It’s the same with just about anything.  Jes and I are completely addicted to my mother’s pies, but Jen thought they were no good.  We learned very quickly that not everyone is going to love everything you love.  And sometimes that meant you had to sit through The Iron Giant AGAIN because Jack just couldn’t get enough. But eventually you will probably find someone who agrees with you and loves what you love, if you just ask enough people.

This also means we are not quick to share our opinion about everything.  You know those people who just have to tell the room how they feel about every single thing?  We don’t do that.  We wait to share until our opinion might add to the conversation.  Well…this is true for all members of big families except the oldest sibling, because they were alone long enough to think their opinion is the most important.

Lesson #9:  Why do anything alone?

The only thing I did alone growing up was bathe, use the toilet and change my clothes.  Every other time, there was someone around that I had to interact with.  When I was reading a book, my brothers would ask me questions about the people on the cover or what was happening in the story.  When I was making dinner, my brothers were providing their suggestions for what it needed or whining about what they wanted to eat instead.  When I was cleaning, my brothers were complaining about the fact that I was making them clean too.  But we never did anything alone.  We went to the library as a group.  We went to the store as a group.  We walked to the bus stop as a group.  We went to school as a group.  We did church events together.  We ate meals together. If we asked to go somewhere, the answer almost always included, “Take so-and-so with you.”

How this looks in my life now is that I like it when people tag along at the grocery store.  I turn the television on to make my home a little more noisy while I’m doing housecleaning or grading or napping.  My gut reaction to a party invitation is “I wonder if Jes is going” or “Maybe I can ride with mom.”  Even now with three small children, I wonder if I would enjoy some alone time, but I have a hard time imagining what I would do then.  Maybe take a nap (with the tv on).

And I feel weird when I talk to my youngest brother Jack because he’s the only one at home with my mom now and he does quite a bit alone.  I don’t know what that’s like at all.  When I was a junior in high school, Jake was a freshman, Joe was in 7th grade, Rico was in 4th grade and Jack was 2.  There was no chance I’d get a moment alone.  But I think Jack still has some of the same habits.  He is constantly listening to music because it’s “too quiet” otherwise, for example.  On days he doesn’t have to go to school, he sometimes chooses to come to MY school just because.  

Lesson #10:  Do your part.

When there are a billion people living in one house, the mess can be enormous.  Seriously monumental.  We found very quickly that if one person refused to do their chore, everyone would refuse to do their chore and chaos quickly ensued.  Not only that, but when we have to get something done – anything done – we are quick to divvy up the responsibilities and delegate.  Part of this goes back to knowing strengths and weaknesses, so we know who to put in charge of what, but we definitely break it up.  We never have a party where one person is in charge of food.  No way.  We never plan something without everyone’s input and we definitely don’t forget to invite people to participate even if we know they won’t come.  This means we have huge whole-family conversations on Facebook where our phones are buzzing and beeping every minute for an hour and a half.  My husband can’t keep up with these conversations and by the time he sits down to read them, he has 50 unread messages and most of them are inside jokes or personal insults aimed lovingly at each other.  He waits for me to tell him the important parts.

But there is a distinct understanding that you are going to carry your load.  That you are going to uphold your end of the bargain.  And you expect everyone else to do that too.  And again, you’ve made your expectations clear so there is no confusion.  I think I’m starting to repeat myself.

And so, when I was still very young (after I was in my I’m-going-to-be-a-nun phase and right before my I’d-rather-remove-my-own-ovaries-with-a-spoon phase) I decided that I was going to have a big family.  I knew that these were lessons my kids needed to learn and that I wouldn’t teach them as well as a house full of people would teach them.

And I’ve discovered something since then.  I don’t have to fill my house with my own children to make them learn this.  I can fill my house with my brothers and sisters and their children and they can learn the same lessons.  The more my house is full – of ANYONE – the more my children learn about people and how to handle them.

That said, we are expecting #5 in August.  Yay to full houses!  (We NEVER forget to count our Luna.  Even though she doesn’t get to fill our house physically, she fills our house emotionally and losing her taught us and our kids just as much as having her would.)

Camera Shy

When I was a child, I remember smiling big for every picture – posing and innocently smiling and carefree.  I never worried about how I looked or thought about how the picture will turn out.  Who cared? Someone loved me enough to take my picture.

So cute and showing no signs of insecurities...

So cute and showing no signs of insecurities…

Then I was in kindergarten, and all of a sudden my school picture was a big deal to me. I practiced smiling in front of the mirror in my room so that I would look good in it. Teeth?  no teeth?  Hair up?  Hair down?  All of a sudden, the final product mattered.  I remember agonizing over what shirt to wear (I settled on a red shirt with a picture of Mary the mother of Jesus on it) and how I was going to wear my hair.  I tucked it behind only one ear and when the photographer tried to tuck it behind the other ear, I pouted and pushed her hand away. Then I tried hard to smile, but thought my teeth might look funny, so I ended up with a tight lipped grimace that conveyed more of a get-me-out-of-here attitude than the sweet little girl I was trying to show the world.

What are you doing with that camera? (At least my kid seems happy to get his picture taken...)

What are you doing with that camera? (At least my kid seems happy to get his picture taken…)

Thus began a lifelong struggle with cameras. While I love seeing pictures of me with my loved ones, I had a hard time posing for said pictures with any kind of confidence. Even when I tried to look normal, my face just somehow took the presence of a camera as an invitation to twist into a variety of monstrous expressions that should never be recorded on film. My junior prom picture is evidence of that, where I stand snarling at the camera while my “just a friend” date (now my husband) looks debonair and confident. No, I will not show you that picture. Or my face becomes an angry stare that promises retaliation when the camera is put away.

Get that camera away from me.

Get that camera away from me.

And so began the habit of making purposefully hideous facial expressions in photos. So now when people say to me, “what are you making that face for?” I can pull a Jim Hansbrough and say, “For free.

Love this picture of my daddy.  Look at the muscular abilities of his face to morph into such an expression!  That is one talented man.

Love this picture of my daddy. Look at the muscular abilities of his face to morph into such an expression! That is one talented man.

In fact, I think we all inherited that method of camera avoidance from my father. Make a silly face on purpose and people will stop taking pictures of you.  And it works! Like a charm!

My sister, father and brother demonstrating that inherited method for making cameras go away:  stupid faces.

My sister, father and brother demonstrating that inherited method for making cameras go away: stupid faces.

Except now the problem is that I wish I had more pictures of me with the loved ones I’ve lost.  Didn’t I love them in real life? Weren’t we with each other a crazy proportion of the time?  Why aren’t there more pictures of us together?  Why don’t we have record of these amazing relationships in my life?

Even as babies, we learned to make faces to keep cameras away.

Even as babies, we learned to make faces to keep cameras away.

So here is my request to those of you who are apt to take photos of me. Please do it. Do it despite my protesting. Do it despite the fact that my face will by impulse contort itself into an expression that would frighten small children. Do it as often as you can. Do it as annoyingly as you can. Your chances of success will probably be greater if you capture some candid moments so my face doesn’t know a camera is around, but make me pose for them too.  Make me pose with the people I love.  Point a camera at me and make me stand next to my mom or my siblings or my cousins and put my arm around them like I love them and tell me to smile even though we all know that could end poorly.

My students get me.

My students get me.

And those of you who are professional photographers?  Try your hardest to make me look at least a little normal.  It’s a challenge, I know.  But try.

Especially the extra weird ones that like to dress me up with props and pose with me.

Sometimes I let them dress me up in costumes first…but at least she posed with me.

Record these moments that we all want to look back on because having them recorded will help us remember. And even if that means I have to be uncomfortable for all of five seconds while you snap a picture, at least my children will have it on record that I love them because I am willing to get my picture taken with them.

I do really love these kids.

I do really love these kids.

And while I know this means we will have to tolerate the likes of you, oh family photographers, I am willing to do it because I wish I had more pictures of those who are gone now. I don’t want my silly selfish insecurities about how the picture will turn out to keep us from recording family history.  It makes me so sad that I don’t have more pictures of me and Jake or me and Dad or me and Jen. So forget my silliness and take more pictures of me. Please.

In the same vein, don’t get mad when I take pictures of you. So there. More photos. More happy memories. More memories we can share. More opportunities for laughter.

The whole family can get in on this silly face thing.  Even the in-laws are adept at these skills.

The whole family can get in on this silly face thing. Even the in-laws are adept at these skills.

Maybe it's not genetic, because it seems to have spread to my husband's side of the family...

Maybe it’s not genetic, because it seems to have spread to my husband’s side of the family…

A Merry Little Christmas

Merry Christmas from a happy Korn family to yours!

This was such a strange Christmas for us here. For the first time EVER, we missed Christmas Eve at my aunt and uncle’s house. The snow made the forty minute trip too difficult for us and for most of the rest of the family too. I have gone to their house every Christmas Eve since I was born and consider it one of my most cherished family traditions.

You know in elementary school when they are trying to teach you the meaning of the word “tradition” and the teacher asks everyone to think of an example from their family? This was my example. My tradition. My family encompassed in one night.

First, there is the food. Piles and pounds of gloriously rich holiday food. Each family bringing their very best so that there isn’t a single questionable dish in the bunch. And how we Jardelezas can eat. I remember fondly having to protect my plate from my very enthusiastic uncles and cousins. I remember distinctly one year one of my uncles poked a finger around in my plate while asking “Were you going to eat that?” And you have to be fast about picking up your plate so the cousins who are wrestling in the middle of the floor don’t roll over your food.

Then there is the music. With literally almost fifty voices singing together, it is impossible to escape the swirling layers of harmony. My favorite is the song we sing for grace called “Thank you Lord” sung to the tune of “Edelweiss” from Sound of Music.

Thank you Lord
Thank you Lord
For our many good blessings.
Thank you Lord
Thank you Lord
For our many good friendships
Glory to God
May you hear our prayer
Guide us on forever
Thank you Lord
Thank you Lord
For our blessings and friendships.

But of course, we can’t escape the Christmas carols. We used to pass out folders with pages of lyrics and sing all the verses to all the classics, but we’ve since lost the lyrics and we race through the first verse of every carol we can think of. The goofy young ones favor Rudolph, but I prefer the slower, hymn-like carols because I can feel the rumble of my husband’s baritone wrapping around my uncle Joe’s bright tenor harmonies and my aunts’ rich altos. If there is one thing I identify with my Jardeleza family, it’s the sound of those fifty or so voices singing together. It really makes me think of what it was like to be a shepherd in the field that night listening to the angels sing glory to God.

We always do this game called Posadas where we choose an expectant couple to imitate Mary and Joseph going door to door seeking room at the inn. My husband would complain and say that our classic understanding of the Christmas story is faulty and would start to explain the meaning of the word “kataluma” which has been translated “inn” in so many versions of the Bible, but would be better translated “living space.” But the fun part about posadas is the crazy concepts for each inn my cousins come up with. One year, my teenage male cousins answered the doorpost their “inn” shirtless and in diapers fashioned from bed sheets. Don’t ask me why, but it was hysterical. I usually choose to be one of the audience that follows our Mary and Joseph door to door singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

We close the night in a flurry of wrapping paper as we open a few presents and pass out hugs and love. Every year, my aunt Chrissy makes everyone a giant sack of cookies and I look forward to those extra pounds on my hips and thighs with great anticipation. The room always gets a little warm and everyone gets sleepy. We change the little ones into their pajamas because we know they will fall asleep on the way home, and we wish we could do the same. Then we grab some leftovers on the way out the door.

This is what I missed this year and yet, it seemed fitting to celebrate Christmas Eve at home this year. We took a trip to see the doctor to make sure that the dizziness, general discomfort and chest tightness I have been feeling the past week were nothing to be worried about and came home to cuddle by the tree and watch a barrage of Christmas classics on TV. The doc says I am just stressed and my husband insists that I have to give myself permission to feel that way.

I get it, but the thing is, I just don’t feel stressed. I have been home with my wonderful children, showered with love and support, gifted, dined, dated, hugged, cuddled and kissed. And I feel a little annoyed to discover that I really am stressed even if I am trying to convince myself that I am not. How contrary to the holiday it is to feel stressed. Here we are celebrating the birth of Christ, the ultimate symbol of God’s sovereignty, and we still struggle with trusting God with everything. In the midst of remembering that God himself became man to open the gates of heaven for sinners like us, we still think He can’t handle our junk.

And that is why I know that we needed a home Christmas Eve this year. God made it so we were stuck home this year, missing all those things I identify with Christmas at my aunt’s house. I had an awesome Christmas this year at home with my amazing husband and beautiful babies. Celebrating the sovereignty of a trustworthy and faithful God.

Plus even though I didn’t get my aunt Chrissy’s cookies, my gorgeous sister in law Erica made sure my hips and thighs weren’t neglected this year and gave me a cookie jar full of cookies. My family rocks.

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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.

On Mothers and Daughters

I went through a phase when I was a senior in high school where I was certain I did not want to have children. I think my line was “I’d rather cut out my ovaries with a spoon.” At the time, I was determined to become a doctor and I knew a family would complicate that. I saw how tired my own mother was and in my self-absorbed way, I knew that could not be me.

Fast forward a couple years and Patrick and I get married. I have decided that I don’t like the type of person I would have to be in order to excel in med school. (Cut-throat. Ambitious. Selfish. Self-centered. Successful at the expense of others.) And even while I have decided a family is something I want, I have decided I don’t want daughters.

Come on, ladies. We all remember what middle school was like with our moms. This was a typical conversation:

Mom: “How was your day?”
Pubescent Me: “Fine.”
Mom: “Just fine?”
Me: “What?! Is that not good enough for you?! LEAVE ME ALONE.”

Anybody relate?

So I was sure a brood of sons would make sure I didn’t have to repeat that cycle with my own girls.

Baby #1 was a boy. Success!

Baby #2…oops.

There hadn’t been a girl in my immediate family since me 20+ years earlier. My younger siblings are all boys. My sister had two boys. I had a boy. I had changed twelve million diapers in my life and not one of them was a girl baby, until my Maggie Jake was born.

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My beautiful mommy and her first granddaughter, MJ.

And daughters are different. In weird ways. In wonderful ways. In frustrating ways. In awesome ways. And if my husband doesn’t mess things up 😉 MJ will be raised to take care of herself and not depend on others for everything in life. (We are strong women, us Hansbrough/Jardeleza women.)

With Luna, I think God is teaching me not to take any child for granted. I am always reminded of something my parents told me.

In 1982, my parents just moved to the rural town of Taneytown and bought their own house. They had the perfect family: two girls and two boys. Everything was as it should be. They were feeling like they could be done having children. Until three-month-old Josh died of SIDS. I was born the following year.

My parents had nine kids. And everyone always gives me a face and says something like “That’s a lot!” Yup. It’s a lot. My parents learned to value every tiny life God gave them because they know what it was like to have life taken away.

And that’s about where I am. God gave me Luna just like He gave me Bo and MJ. All three are an important and essential part of the family and God is the one building my family. Not me. So if He decides that Luna doesn’t get to be born, I will accept it like I accepted the fact that Maggie is a girl. Luna is HIS baby before she’s mine.

And for the record, girls are pretty awesome. I am incredibly fond of my nieces Lucy, Grace and Lolo Fe.