Funny what a little sweating can do to the heart. I remember our palms sweating when we held hands in the beginning, the pure euphoria of skin touching skin. Actually, the first time felt normal, like how it feels to hold hands in a circle to pray, and you’re next to someone else’s husband and think every casual thought about it. Nothing special. But later. Later holding hands was like magic. And magic is sometimes sweaty.
This morning he woke up when the baby cried to nurse. I refused him the last time. Trying to help our fat five month old learn how to sleep a solid night without stopping to eat. Everyone else does. But this time it had been at least 8 hours, so I rolled over and asked him to let me have the baby. He told me the bed was too wet, and walked into our shadowy bathroom holding the baby to get a towel. This wasn’t the first night of sweating through sheets. We have three piles of formerly-wet sheets, and a guest bed upstairs waiting to be stripped of the same problem. I counted six nights, last night was the sixth, and then I did the thing you should never do when the person you love most in the world has a strange symptom. I read about it online. Some website with “Med” and “RX” in the title, so you know it probably isn’t trustworthy. They said the penicillin he’s been taking for strep could be causing it. A commenter said he has night sweats and cancer, so in 3/4 of a second I have seen my never-gets-sick husband grow pale and thin from the chemo, his wife a church pity case, his children asking questions that make you cry. A whole life passes as I nurse the baby on a brown towel over his wet side of the bed.
We went to sleep last night in a disagreement. Our night had not gone well. I asked him to help me clean up the kitchen after a day I’d spent preparing food for 150 college students and also a quick dinner with friends. He told me how loved he feels when I ask him for help instead of doing the work myself and stewing on the inside because he isn’t helping. I told him I hate asking for help, want him to love me enough to notice when there’s work to be done and join me, or better yet even beat me to it! Then it was 45 minutes of the same conversation played dozens of ways, every little thing two people who love each other can do opposite ways and appear instead to not love anyone at all. He kept telling me he wants me to compromise, leave the dishes and love him by feigning interest in whatever nonsense he’s into at the moment, always on the computer and almost as certainly on a topic I’ve long considered the Most Dull Thing Ever. I told him dishes are not actually “mine,” that I’m not doing something I’d rather do but rather something which Must Be Done, by all grown-ups everywhere. There was no resolution, although I told him I’m right even if he doesn’t agree. This is almost certainly a way to not win an argument in marriage or in life. He made closing remarks about wanting me to love him more, how he misses me. I made closing remarks by rolling as close to my edge of the bed as possible and saying nothing at all into the darkness. My mind was crammed full of all the things I wanted to say, of an essay about how I understand why people quit on their marriages, because in the moment it felt like a choice a person could make and have just cause for, if ever there could be just cause to quit on a thing you’ve expressly stated you will not quit on under even the most dire circumstances. I would not be quitting, of course, but in my frustration wanted to commiserate with the quitters.
And then I fell asleep, next to my husband with the night sweats just a few days out of what he calls the sickest he’s ever felt. Surely not a person to pick a fight with. A person I should be making nourishing soups for and putting back to bed, not someone to split hairs with over whether I do or do not ask for the help before he cleans all my dishes and even wipes down the counters. I could have, should have, just said thank you, gone to bed. But somehow my resources were so low in that moment, our patterns of him being on the computer and me doing The Thing That Must Be Done around the house so worn in my mind, I couldn’t even see how he helps me. It took the sweating for me to see.
It’s funny what a little sweating can do to my priorities. I pick up my fat baby, patting his back, put him back in his little crib. Walk into our steamy, dark bathroom to make sure he calls the doctor in the morning, and to tell him I love him. He starts sweating again as soon as I hug him, maybe because of the hot shower, maybe because of whatever mysterious illness is making me take inventory of my life.
I’ve spent the past few weeks talking with one of my best friends about ways she can save her marriage, how she can pull up from the screaming nose-dive of motherhood and find balance, joy in the toddler chaos, fulfillment on her own so she can fully enjoy her marriage too. Such irony, for powerful women taught to Figure Things Out, and Take Charge, and Get That Degree; now full-time mess-managers, entrepreneurs of nothing much at all, wielding absolute authority over the dishwasher. It feels frantic to find you’re not who you planned to be. Panic sets in and the closest thing to claw at, to manage, to structure the life out of, is a husband.. Even deeper irony is the kind of person I married wants nothing to do with my schedules and lists, wants to go camping this weekend with four tiny children and take a night hike to star gaze at the top of a huge rock. And that would sound like pure magic if only I could think about anything other than how we’d make it back down off that rock in the dark with those four tiny children.
I see my gaunt husband again, suffering from his night-sweat mystery. We’re crowded on a hospital bed together, reading something and laughing. The kids come in and want to join us, squeeze into the imaginary hospital bed. I see light between us, how happy I am to be with him in that moment, and I understand what he was saying to my darkness last night. He doesn’t want to be sick, doesn’t want to have to die for me to stop in our days and take pleasure in what he takes pleasure in. But isn’t that what happens in all the stories? Two people never quite see each other until one of them almost dies, or dies slowly, and they suck the marrow out of their short life together? Only he has vision to want that without any disease. Wants that kind of intimacy without the threat of death. He’s a better person than me. He can see happiness where I see trash that needs to be taken out and dirty dishes clouding my blue skies. He loves me well enough to know I could love him better. Loves me enough to believe I can grow an interest in even The Most Dull Things. Loves our kids enough to want those parents for them, ones who really see each other, who really enjoy each other, a thing that can never be pretended.
He’ll go to the doctor today. I asked him to promise me he won’t be sick. He told me he’d try not to be sick with anything serious. I cry into his back as I hug him, hoping he notices and also hoping he doesn’t.
Funny what a little sweating can do to my heart. I want to keep hugging him, ask him what kind of Dull Things he’s been reading about lately. Only he’s been reading about night sweats, a topic I’m keenly interested in at the moment. And also I have to let go, because he’s sweating again.
Typical Saturday. David is working and the kids and I had a birthday party to go to, which is actually the better kind of Saturday than when he’s working and there’s no party. With lots of sugar in them and no husband to help, bedtime was surprisingly smooth. All three big kids in bed by 8:05, only half an hour after their “official” bedtime. Then I just needed to convince the baby his nap at the party wasn’t enough sleep, and I could finally sit down to rest. Rest for me tonight looked like this: pumping milk to replace the bottle I fed Ethan at the party while deleting all my unwanted emails. I scrolled past Old Navy and World Market (delete delete), kept the two messages from church, then there was this one I stopped and stared at. The subject was:
Here’s Where You Can Find the Rest
Such a bold invitation. Something inside me thrilled at the prospect, even though I knew deep in my bones it couldn’t be better than what I already know. Still, I was excited. I didn’t recognize the sender’s name but clicked hopefully, imagining her secret oasis.
Maybe you read that with the right definition of “rest” in mind. What I didn’t expect to find was a few links to “the rest” of her helpful information about reading to your homeschooled children. Ugh.
I was intrigued in that disappointed moment not by the homeschool book expert but by my own longing heart. What is it in me that is so tired? Why did her mirage look just exactly like water and turn out to be pavement? Why did I dive into that shimmery pond when I am supposed to have a living water source splashing out from inside me?
Love. Freedom. Rest. Power. These are four promises Jesus gave us, four promises I’ve been trying to understand for the better part of this year. Especially rest. I’ve lived a striving life, from my tiny beginnings to this very moment, always expecting to hear a gavel pound and some voice declaring, “You’re just not good enough.” I told my Dad once that I never feel like I’m enough (also simultaneously knowing I’m “too much” most of the time). He told me, “I’m not sure why that is. I don’t know many people who are more than you.” Loving words from a dad who has poured water into a cracked vessel my whole life, never filling me up. It’s hard to fill broken things, that’s the problem. There either needs to be a tsunami of affirmation (which is why falling in love is the happiest of all seasons for us cracked ones) or the love can’t outpour the leak.
This is where you can find the rest.
The problem with rest is, it sounds so passive, like a pillowy cloud I can leap on and experience sleep and joy simultaneously. A place of doing nothing but getting everything. I imagine one of those fancy theaters with reclining seats and a feel-good movie that ends with a long nap. Rest. But maybe rest is more like that email was talking about. Maybe it’s the rest of the story, the part we can’t get to unless we keep on reading. Maybe rest is active, the way my body feels 10 pounds lighter after a run. The rest is after weariness. It’s “come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest, ” not “come if you’re lazy and tired of sitting on the couch.” It’s a verse for us strivers, because no one needs to tell us to try hard. We’re hard-wired to do that. But someone does need to tell us to rest, and Jesus took that one himself. He is rest. He isn’t still, though. He’s inviting me to love orphans and widows and give generously and watch heaven open up and pour storehouses out, and turn the other cheek, and invite the ugliest people to the party, and stop to help that guy who got robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. He’s inviting me to be just like him, and he’s this guy who can sleep in the middle of a storm, because deep in his bones he knows rest. God has the rest. All I have to do is come and after whatever striving I’m doing he’ll give me: rest. He’ll give me himself. And every time I go there, I find my cracks are being mended and he’s making me whole.
Sometimes prayer feels like talking to the ceiling. It can be therapeutic, sure. There’s something about saying my request out loud or at least getting it on paper that has its own value, apart from the chance an all-powerful Deity is listening in and wanting to answer with a “yes.”
But what if someone is listening? For me, this isn’t such a big What If. I’ve been taught since birth that God exists, and he “rewards those who earnestly seek him” (that’s from Hebrews 11). But even me, with my history book full of people faithfully showing and telling me about God, even I have my empty feelings. Praying to the ceiling feelings.
Our pastor Kyle spoke today about the spiritual rhythm of a community gathering together then being sent out; gathering and going. Like dots on a map, becoming a solid mass in the pews on Sunday, then spreading out to our separate places and spaces of influence the rest of the week. Breathing, in and out. He talked about how this rhythm is the pattern of the church, how we are called to gather (reaching inward) and also to disciple (going out).
As I listen to him I picture a flower opening and closing. I open my own journal, on my lap, and am carried back to the moment of my writing. April 2, 2015. Almost exactly a year ago, an entry about crossroads, asking my Ceiling for some direction as we grope around in the dark, wondering about extending our lease, staying in community in South Texas, or saying goodbye to everything and plunging into the unknown. I beg for illumination, that lamp even one step ahead so I know I’m not lost. I flip forward through April’s pages, helpless cries from a tired mother praying breakthrough for strong-willed children. More questions about the future in May, as a name rises into my prayers: Nacogdoches.
Life in the rearview mirror is so simple we can miss it. Today during the course of an average Sunday I had conversations with several people who are now dear to me. My kids love their teachers. One of them saw I needed help after church and held Ransom so I could take the big kids to the bathroom. A small grace. My life is overflowing with these, so small I can miss them. But sometimes I read my words written in darkness and remember: this is the future I was terrified of. This bright place of belonging and blooming and healing and connecting, this is what I didn’t know was around the sharp corner.
I ran into a sweet friend on my way to pick up the kids after church. We had a quick exchange about How God Works. Last week our midweek community group was presented with the idea of merging with another smaller group to make one bigger, happier group. My instinctual response was No. Why change what’s been working and risk awkwardness and potential discomfort? What I didn’t know at the time was that, the other group? It’s my friend’s group. Hers, the sweet one I was talking to.
I don’t know where my heart learned to distrust Change, why I think the tender-hearted Father is maybe a cold flat surface above my head, blocking out the sun. But when I read my own history, I see nothing but goodness and graces. No ceiling, just God above turning everything into glory.
Birth stories are their own genre. I have three so far, this one written just after it happened but then never quite finished, like so many things in my life of having three babies. But however long it takes I like to finish things, so here it is.
It’s raining today. Ransom’s second day, and it has been gray and beautiful and storming. Sort of like our life right now. Sort of like the last week, especially.
Let me tell you about it.
Ever since the day of the positive pregnancy test, January 24th has been Our Day. Due date, hurray! My sister said she could come to help, just needed to know when. We picked a nice big window: 2 weeks beginning January 20th. That way, maybe the baby would already be here and she could help! Or at the very least, she would get to be here for the birth, and that would be so fun. And she could help!
So. January 24th came but there was no baby. I’m sure you’re not surprised, with how I’ve been painting this canvas. I was going to be overdue again, like with Judah (induced at 41 weeks). But this time the stakes were higher. I planned the whole time to have a vbac (vaginal birth after cesarian) since Sarala was breech delivered via c-section. David and I both wanted this from the beginning since it carries lower risks overall and better chances of having more healthy births in the future. So beginning a few months ago, the conversations about natural childbirth started swirling in our house. I called my friend who had her 4th with no pain medication after breaking down and getting an epidural 3 times in a row during previous labors. I asked for Ina May’s book Spiritual Midwifery for Christmas. My friend lent me her copy of Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, and I read through big sections of both late into the nights before and after the dreaded due date. I diffused lavender and poured over those crunchy birth stories. The thing about me is, I’ve seen plenty of natural births. It was the only kind available to women in the village. Their only pain relief was from changing positions (as much “relief” as that gives), and hanging on for dear life to a piece of bark looped from the ceiling and gripped during the worst of the worst. I watched all of this calmly as a child, having no idea I was witnessing some of the most intense pain a person might ever feel in her whole life.
Ina May and others talk about how a pain-free experience is possible, about visualizing yourself riding on the waves of the contractions, conquering the pain by calling it what it is: a mental response to physical stimuli. So. I was ready, sort of. Except I’d heard myself say to a few people (my doctor included) that it was “David’s plan” for me to have no epidural this time. I even told the nurse this when we were chatting through introductions the morning of my fated induction, the morning of February 2nd.
Let me back up. Before February came, before I realized I wasn’t going to have a January baby after all these months of waiting, my sister came! And it was great, mostly. As great as it can be to spend days waiting together for the Main Event, wondering which moment might turn every other moment into splendid color. Also while being 40, then 41 weeks pregnant, tired, and having 2 toddlers who are mysteriously fevering several days of the second week. But we pressed on! Played games, watched movies, cleaned the house together. She watched the kids while I went to doctor’s appointments every few days where my cervix would make every appearance of being Ready & Waiting. Hope! Then, nothing.
I realized I could not induce my body to labor. I started walking several miles a day, even running a mile twice, once on my due date, then again at 41 weeks, just in case the message to my body hadn’t been clear enough: It Is Time. I tried castor oil, tried every previously pregnant person’s trick that certainly was The Thing That Shot Them Into Labor at least once.
I went to more appointments, and we had to make a plan. Originally we thought there would be no induction possibility since I was attempting a vbac. Then we started to hear about the options. They could break my water. We could wait just a few days past even 41 weeks, as long as the baby was still looking good. We made a plan for Monday, 41w2d, to have my water broken. That would be The Day, only I told everyone it would not be since I was planning to go into spontaneous labor long before then. So I walked and walked, took more castor oil (I gag now just thinking about that vile liquid), woke up several nights having contractions, but still: nothing.
Then, something finally happened.
I developed a weird sore throat, out of the clear blue, on a Wednesday afternoon. By Saturday (week 41, 2 days before Induction Day), I was feeling pretty doggone bad. But I had the brilliant idea that we should pack the family up and drive to the zoo (30 minutes away) to give the kids something fun for the afternoon. The kids certainly had fun, but Cori and I did not. She had the same weird sore throat I did, then coinciding aching backs, soreness, and general awful feelings which were growing with each step past animal enclosures. By an hour in, we were miserable. David was literally jogging up and down hills while we hobbled to keep up. Finally we were standing in front of the tiger exhibit, two orange tigers and one rare white one, and the cats were restless. One of the orange ones had its sights on Sarala, and looked like he would eat her if only he could climb through the glass. We have never seen the cats pacing before, so at first this was exciting for all of us. But the longer we stood there, the worse I felt. Then David started to record the pacing tigers on his phone and I lost it. In the background of his tiger video are my immortal words: If you knew how I was feeling right now, you would be doing everything you could to get me home instead of videoing these stupid tigers.
Words of wisdom.
As we drove back to Harlingen, I started to take my temperature with the thermometer I keep in the diaper bag but never used before. 99.6… 99.8… 100.4. For those of you who don’t know, only a body temperature of 100.4 or higher is medically considered a fever (if you never knew before, you’re welcome). So, I had a fever. My mind was going through the options. Had I missed my water breaking and my fetus was infected inside me? Was I having some strange labor-fever? Was this a sign?
It certainly was a sign, but not of labor. Turns out, I had the flu. After a quick test at David’s clinic, I had a name for my misery (and knew my sister did, too). This was the splash that began our deep dive into the details of flu and pregnancy and labor and newborns. It was the twist I never saw coming, and 2 miserable days in bed with hot eyes, aching head, waiting uterus. Finally my overdue baby made sense to me. Maybe God was protecting our little baby. Maybe He knew all along. Maybe it really was for the best that I hadn’t found the magic potion to start my labor. Suddenly I was in no hurry to push my baby into a world infected with influenza. I had 5 days of Tamiflu, 2 days to become fever-free, and 3 days to wade my poor unborn baby into hopefully less dangerous waters for his first days of life.
So Monday came, February 2nd, Induction Day. After a few sunny, warm ones, this day was biting. My father-in-law told me I needed to wear my winter coat. I drove to the hospital with our three packed bags, even more questions and fears, and a shiver down my spine.
David had already seen a few patients that morning and met me in the parking lot. We used his card to take the back way to Labor & Delivery, checked ourselves in, met our nurse, and I changed into my backless green laboring uniform. My doctor came at 10 am, checked me and said I was 3-4 cm dilated and looking good, then used a long white piece of plastic like a crochet hook to rupture my sweet baby’s amniotic sac. I felt the warmth right away. We were off.
The problem with reading about natural childbirth is it is often written about with so much love and mysticism that it seems fairly impossible to a normal-to-slightly-neurotic person with over-thinking tendencies. I had asked David several times in the last weeks if there was maybe something “wrong” with my body (or maybe my mind?) that was keeping me from going into labor. To this day, I have never found myself in that blessed corridor, the place where pregnant people go from being pregnant to pushing out their own child without any human intervention. First I was induced with pitocin, second my baby was cut from my uterus with a scalpel. This time the ticket was the crochet hook, followed by lots of hope that magic would follow.
So the first hour was a little tense. We pretended to not watch the monitor too carefully, but were dissecting every pain. Was this it? Was I actually going into labor? I arrived at the hospital having only erratic, painless contractions. Was a little tear in an amniotic sac going to change that? At the same time, we were receiving kind but quite distracting visits from every medical friend passing by. They just wanted to say hi while I began to labor. This is how I knew I was finally having real contractions: I was no longer excited to see the shadows of a coming visitor under the curtain by the door. I just wanted to be alone with my husband and the pain, and for my cervix to open and let a baby out.
The first two hours flew by. I remember looking at the clock just before noon, nervous that time had passed so quickly and my contractions were still five or more minutes apart. Plus I was starving, since they told me I couldn’t eat after being admitted. Naturally I cheated just a little, but mostly because I knew I couldn’t labor an entire day without eating anything. David gave me a banana, small bites of a granola bar, and some applesauce. This was my last meal before meeting Ransom.
By 2pm, I was no longer afraid to hope for labor; I was in it, and I knew it. The pain was something I had hoped for so long that it almost felt good. Almost. David was playing our special birth playlist, so in the background of every memory I hear John Mark McMillan, Coldplay. When I started to get more uncomfortable, we tried to watch an episode of Downton Abbey. Our nurse interrupted us; we abandoned the show. I needed David to rub my back during every contraction and was already losing the “riding the wave” feeling and beginning to drown in pain instead.
I know it can be discouraging to be “checked,” so I was avoiding this. But by mid-afternon I knew there had to be some kind of good change. When our kind nurse came to see us we asked her to check. 4-5 centimeters. 4-5? What? I started to feel desperate. If I had hardly progressed in 5 painful hours, what hope did I have of reaching that glorious finish line unmedicated? I made a deal with myself (I do this when I run, too): I would wait all the way until 6:30. If at that point I was significantly dilated, I would go for it: have the natural childbirth of my husband’s dreams. But if not, I wanted that epidural.
The minutes ticking by until 6:30 were dramatically different than the first hours. This hurt. This hurt BAD. I had read about people closing their eyes to imagine their way through each contraction, but then my nurse came during one, saw this, and told me I needed to keep my eyes open. If I was going to control the pain, I had to be focusing on something or it would wash me away, she told me. I’m not sure if she was right, but I knew this was her job. She helped people like me every day. So I picked the painting on the wall, this strange picture of a child, and stared it down with each contraction. David faithfully massaged my back. These massages were my only hope; the pain of his knuckles in my lower back was just distraction enough to get me through.
Finally it was 6:30, that appointed Checking Hour. I knew I was getting close, knew it was going to be a much higher number. Then the pronouncement: 6 centimeters. Six. Verifiably higher than 5, but still: much further from the finish line than I was able to handle in that moment. Our nurses were changing shifts. The new nurse was so pleasant and calmly agreed with me that certainly an epidural would make me more comfortable. How could it not? Its one job is to completely remove the pain!
6:30-6:45 I spent begging David to not be disappointed in me, to let me have the epidural, to still love me. To still think I was brave. He told me I was a warrior princess galloping down a hill on a beautiful white horse. I was not comforted or inspired by this. My only hope was the nurse was going to get me what I really needed.
She came back a few minutes later with a bag of fluids. Because my blood pressure is already low and could drop with the epidural, I had to get the entire bag into my laboring body before they would call the anesthesiologists. WHAT?! I watched that terrible bag drip and drip, clawing on the bed with my contractions, moving from the chair, to the ball, to the bed, like a wild animal. The contractions were coming so hard and fast that I felt insane. At last the bag was empty and I made David RUN to tell the nurse. Call my angel of mercy! Get me an epidural!
It was about 7:15 when they told me: the doctor is with another case. She’ll come as soon as she can. I didn’t know how to keep going, but had no choice. Nurses started ripping open sterile packages for the anesthesia. It gave me hope, for a moment. I stood up so I could lean over during the next contraction, then turned towards the bed and the next one was already coming. There was no break. Surely I would die before the anesthesiologist arrived.
I started shouting, then heard myself screaming, “I need to push!” As I shouted, a calm Asian woman arrived, my sweet angel of mercy, but she was too late. The baby was coming, with his golden raisin head bulging outside of my body. It was nearly over.
I don’t remember how long it took to push little Ransom out. I just remember hearing David call our doctor, who wasn’t in our room, over and over. I can hear her voicemail message in my memory, telling us she wasn’t available, leave a message. He kept trying until someone just handed him the sterile gloves and gown. He would be the doctor in the room. And suddenly the atmosphere shifted as he turned from his primary role of kneading bruises into my lower back to delivering his own baby. Nurses began addressing him as “sir,” and then the hands lifting up our new baby were my husband’s, sore for massaging, but trained to do this. At 8:05pm, Ransom was born. He came out screaming, a trend he would continue for the first nights of his life. If only I had slept more in that last week! But that didn’t matter. All I cared about was that I had done it, somehow. I had given birth to my son without so much as a Tylenol. It wasn’t glorious, and I wasn’t strong, but I was the victor in spite of my own surrender.
Mostly that’s the end of the birth story. I still had the flu, had to wear a mask to hold my beautiful new baby. My sister’s flight left the morning after he was born, and she also still had the flu, so she came to admire him from across the room but never got to hold the baby that visit. It wasn’t what I had pictured, but so few things ever are. We named him Ransom Paid, a reminder to ourselves and to him of what on earth is important. He reminds us every day, too. The way babies are born, these birth stories, are part of our rituals as mothers. But the everything after that of having a baby, that’s what really changes us. I’m glad to have been changed so much for the better three times over. We love you, Ransom Paid!
She wanted me to kiss all her dolls today. “Mr. Bear has bump!” Then, “Me doll has bump, too!” I kissed faux fur and plastic cheeks, and they were all better. What I really wanted was to kiss her little face, her wiggly front tooth that was knocked by some Other Kid in child care today. It bled and she cried when I gave her pasta for lunch. It hurts. My baby girl’s tooth hurts and I wish I could use my magical kisses to make it all better.
I’m reading Choose Joy by Kay Warren, an amazingly encouraging book for any human being who has ever struggled with feelings lagging behind the all-in commitment we’ve made to trust God with our destinies. This morning was Bible study (where my sweet girl got her tooth knocked loose), and Kay Warren said to me through the screen hanging in front of our little group:
“Why are you so afraid God won’t be enough?”
In my imaginary future, where something much worse than a wiggly tooth happens. I hold a brand-new baby and am filled simultaneously with wonder and dread. Wonder because there is no word for the way parental love knocks the breath out of me, and also breathes new meaning into every nook and cranny of my heart. And dread because suddenly there is a helpless, vulnerable creature whose existence depends on me and whose non-existence would unravel me completely.
Maybe I’m crazy for thinking these things (I feel crazy), but I often do. And I never pull through the projected devastating loss with any sort of dignity. In those imagined horrors I am empty, inconsolable, undone.
Why am I so afraid God won’t be enough?
It’s the Real Question, the one I’ve never been asked. I talk myself down with wisdom passed around years of Bible study circles. God doesn’t give grace to cover imaginary futures, just grace for today.
Today, there is a wiggly front tooth. And although I panicked a little when I realized she wasn’t shaking it off and there was real pain happening in her little mouth, we’re both ok. Grace. There is grace enough for today.
I don’t think it works like a pill, like I am suddenly cured of all fear of the future. But I want to answer the question. Why am I afraid? What ground do I have for that kind of quaking dread? What have I been given but grace on grace, the most beautiful gifts in a place that promises nothing like that. This is a broken planet, but I am loved here. This is an unfair, unjust, unreliable world, but I have never, not once, been abandoned by God. He has been more than my daily bread, he’s my morning and night song. In exchange for insecurity and fear I’m given a rock-steady track record and a promise that, no matter what happens here, this isn’t the end of the story. He’s the end of the story, and he’s good.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” Revelation 21:4-5
A few months ago, a few weeks after having my third baby, I sat on the floor next to my friend’s green couch and cried with her. She started bleeding the day before, was up the whole night as her body brutally expelled her hopes and dreams. The only reason I knew this was happening is because her husband was scheduled to work with mine that day, so David was asked to take on extra patients to cover the load. Because he knew, I knew. And even though I also knew she was hiding from the whole bright world filled with new life and growing families to break her heart over and over again, I needed to knock on her door and, if she let me, enter that sad place with her.
She let me in. I’m so glad she did.
This was probably a place I should have held a quiet vigil, but I’m not very good at that. So we read a few verses about God collecting our tears, and talked about miscarriage. It’s nothing I ever wanted to be an expert in, but I’m one of the 50% who miscarry during the first pregnancy. So is she. So are so many of us, quietly walking around wondering what it must feel like to be pregnant with none of the nightmare. Never wondering when they go to the bathroom if this is the moment all others will turn on.
I will never forget the way my stomach dropped the first time I saw blood in the bathroom during the first pregnancy. For some people this is a normal part of a healthy pregnancy. It was just a little, nothing to worry about. I’m not sure if I knew from some deep place of understanding or if the story could have had a happy ending with that same sinking feeling in the middle. For me, there was no happy ending. The second time, I was supposed to be a practice patient in the residency clinic. Schedules got off and I was left waiting and waiting, finally using the bathroom with my two toddlers and then that familiar feeling of the bottom dropping out. I wasn’t the practice patient after all, just a devastated woman in a dark room with two doctors, searching the screen for a heartbeat. There wasn’t one. My baby was dead.
I’ve written a lot of words about the losses, mostly in my journals. Wrote a eulogy we read in our backyard as we buried the little ball of flesh in our overgrown garden. My family had sent a miniature rose bush; we planted it over our baby.
I have three babies now. One just turned four, so I guess he isn’t much of a baby any more. I hope there will be more, which means there could be more losses too. I am among the sadly initiated, the ones who feel along with the deep joy of anticipation a cloud of what-if. What if I don’t feel sick? What if I don’t feel the baby move? What if it happens again? Can my heart grow back together again?
A few weeks ago our little Ransom was shouting through our monitor in the quiet middle of the night. I was back and forth between his bed and mine, nursing, giving Tylenol, back to bed. Up again. Tired. In the middle of my pilgrimage across the house, I started to think about the losses. About those babies who never woke me up. It was the first time I thought about the words “blessing” and “miscarriage” in the same space. Not that the losses were worth the trade for some extra patience with my teething baby. Nothing like that. But in my deep loss I feel an equally deep gratitude. A healthy baby isn’t the expected end for me. I know the way it wrecks a soul to dream about the milestones, then watch those dates pass silently on the calendar, uncelebrated. How isolating the grief is, because no one wants to say the wrong thing so they usually don’t say anything, like it never happened. But I’m here to say it did happen. It happened and I’m better for it. Not happy, but better. Better at crying with people, better at fumbling for the right words because I just want them to know they’re not alone in their suffering. Better at getting up with my baby because I’m thrilled all the way to my toes that there are real teeth growing in a real baby that grew nine months in my belly.
We own two couches. One of them, a red and green plaid couch that almost looks fancy, David found in a dumpster about 9 years ago. I was tired of it back when we first were married, tired of how it looked and also how it was starting to rip and was already sewn back together in the middle from when he first pulled it out of that dumpster. When I was taking the couch apart to throw it away, I saw a silk tag sewn underneath the cushion: Ethan Allen. I’m not usually aware of which furniture is better than others, but my friend owned a few Ethan Allen pieces because her mother-in-law used to work there, and had just spent close to $1000 re-upholstering her own old-ish couch to preserve the good craftsmanship. With fresh appreciation for the ugly couch, I decided it could stay.
Instead I threw away a falling-apart faux leather couch with an unknown designer.
The second couch in our living room was found on Craigslist, to replace the faux leather one. An Asian grad student listed it that morning for $50. He was finished with his master’s at Michigan State and moving to Colorado for a doctorate in some higher math. Although his English wasn’t as good as his math, he helped us carry the couch down the stairs from his second story apartment. He even offered to throw in a floral-print stuffed chair which we had the presence of mind to decline–it would never match our plaid Ethan Allen (nothing ever does).
We strapped that $50 couch to the roof of our Thunderbird and drove away like we’d just won something. We finally had a nice-ish place to sit and hold our future babies.
(Yes, those are books holding up one side of the couch. It is, in fact, only nice-ish.)
That was four years ago this summer. We moved from Michigan to Texas, moved those two couches with us. We’ve held lots of babies on them, had lots of Bible studies on them, taken lots of naps on them. The tan couch has blue crayon on it right now since Sarala colored there immediately after I washed out the marker she drew on before.
Last Sunday, our neighbors drove a moving truck back from their wealthy parents’ home a few hours north. The parents are moving and getting rid of their fancy house full of fancy things. I mentioned off-hand to her that I am on the lookout for a new couch, if she happens to see one in a garage sale this summer. “I wish I had known,” my sweet neighbor told me. “The old people (her in-laws) had a really nice leather one they kept trying to get us to take.”
A leather couch. A nice leather couch whose previous residence was a mansion.
I’ve been thinking about this couch now for days. I’ve never seen it, but I can’t stop imagining how perfect it would’ve been to sit in. How I would’ve finally parted with the Ethan Allen that matches nothing. How our living room would maybe finally look put-together, like someone put things there on purpose.
“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal.Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal.Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.”
Jesus said this a long time ago, and also this week, to me. He said it to me about this couch, and also about so many things I’ve wrapped my heart around. Some of them are real, like my nice dishes and expensive double stroller. Lots of them are imaginary, like my leather couch, like living near all of my friends and their kids and our kids all going to each other’s birthday parties and then someday marrying each other and all of us sharing one easy lifetime on a quiet cul-de-sac.
The thing is, we are planning to move our little family to another country. Planning to pack things in suitcases and boxes so we can live with the marginalized and share holidays with them, share Jesus with them. Couches don’t fit in suitcases. I know this. My dreams of a quiet cul-de-sac don’t fit in that future. And my treasure, though I try to store it in heaven, is sometimes (lots of times) tightly clenched in my fists, here where moths and rust (and can I add: children?) destroy.
So today, I’m thinking as I sit on my ripped couch about treasure and heaven. About how I can let that leather couch go . It was never mine anyway. None of this ever was.
When I eat a piece of chocolate, even one of those small ones that comes in a box of 20, I make it last. I take small bites, letting every piece melt in my mouth. David tends to take huge mouthfuls. He actually says he enjoys it more when there’s a bigger bite to chew. He’ll eat the whole chocolate in one quick bite as I break mine into happy little pieces.
I want life in small bites too. I remember complaining to my sister once that the difficulty with our life during boarding school and then beyond was that we either had no family time or only family time, nothing in between. Months where we couldn’t even call to check in or get advice in a crisis, then three weeks at Christmas with zero interactions outside our family. I called it family concentrate, like everyone else got to mix water with their frozen orange juice for a pleasant beverage and ours came undiluted.
As I picked up toys in a permanently messy play room just now, I thought about how being a mom feels like this too. I was thinking about my Mom, who would probably love to visit her fullest day 25 years ago when all four of hers were still just kids. How missing those days might even make her cry, and how living mine right now makes me want to cry (not all the time–don’t worry–just in the overwhelming moments). I have what feels like a permanent assignment in kid-ville, all sugary cereal and Veggie Tales and people who either don’t know how to pee in the toilet or purposely aim at the floor. All day every day. It’s feast or famine, this life.
And I want it bite-sized. This is what makes me feel crazy. I love my kids, love being a mom, only I wish I could have the fun size (that’s why they call it that, right?). Like, 8 hours a day of tiny people who do virtually nothing on their own except create chaos, then the other 8 waking hours to do “me” things–write, keep the kitchen clean, have long conversations with my husbands about things other than the kids, catch up with friends on the phone. (I think they call that situation daycare?)
But the strange thing is, I choose this.
Over and over, when we look at our life and try to figure out what’s best for now, I keep choosing this. Because the choice is either my regular order of chaos with kids, which I will miss desperately in 25 years, or letting other people take on the mess, where I’ll miss them in the here and now.
I’m not writing this to offer any of us any solutions. I don’t have one. I’m just filing my days under a heading so they make more sense to me. I choose this, it’s chaos, and I feel like I’ve gotten stupider. But I choose this, because it’s also my one glorious moment to be mom to these small, irrational, beautiful babies. There’s only one form these things come in, and it’s concentrate. So I’m swallowing this sticky-sweet frozen stuff straight from the can, hoping to savor as much as I can.
When we were brand new parents with a perfect little newborn, we stood in our church in Lansing, Michigan, and did what people do: we dedicated that sweet baby to God, and declared before our church family that we were going to do our level best to raise that baby with Jesus’ love.
He had never talked back, never deserved nor received any form of discipline. His only failing was that he hadn’t slept more than four hours straight, but this was easily forgiven. We were all newborn, recently awakened into the magical world of loving another person so much it physically hurt, but in a good way. We had probably made a few parenting mistakes already, but were blissfully unaware of this. I’m pretty sure we were beaming.
Fast forward to today. Today I sent pictures of our two younger babies for the dedication happening this Sunday. Somewhere in the mess that is our lives, we made it to Sarala’s 2nd birthday without doing this with her. So on Sunday we’ll stand in front of a different church family with not one but two babies to dedicate. And instead of the fresh, hopeful faces of newborn parents, we carry three-and-a-half years of experience, disappointments, strain, sleeplessness, and doubt. Also three-and-a-half years of shouted celebrations of firsts, 5 birthday parties full of smiles, dozens of full-speed-ahead zoo trips in awe of every little creature, years of oatmeal pancakes and syrup dripping down sweet faces. We are tired but happy, fully aware of our limitations as humans and as parents but still hopeful (Jesus still redeems our losses). We’ve lost 2 babies along the way so we hug our 3 that much closer.
So I was thinking about that word: dedication. I’ve always thought it was just about dedicating the babies to God, making a promise in front of our church. But this morning as I looked at those little faces I realized: this is also a place to re-stake our clam on this parenting thing. To re-remind ourselves and these precious little people that we are committed to them. We’re dedicating not just them but ourselves. Dedicating ourselves to getting up every day brand new, forgetting our mistakes and also theirs. Dedicating ourselves again to the the daily hard work of being boring together: eating, cleaning, mess-making, cleaning up messes, potty-training, dish-washing, bed-making, floor-sweeping, cartoon-watching when we’ve run out of other things to do in an afternoon. Dedicated to celebrating them, pursuing their hearts, praying, tucking blankets around cold feet in the middle of the night, stopping ourselves before we say regretful words. And mostly dedicated to pursuing Jesus because that’s the only way we’ll ever be any good at this anyway.
These are the crazy days. I write this with hope, in great anticipation of that someday when I’ll look back and think: Ha! That was nuts, wasn’t it? When this will be over, and I’ll smile about it.
What is this, exactly? What shape is my crazy?
It’s being 6 days past my due date, coming down with a fever, and finding out I have the flu. Then giving birth two days later to a miracle with chubby cheeks I can’t kiss for a week.
It’s a 3 year old, a 2 year old, and a baby, all crying at the same time for problems of various complexity from the back seat. I turn up the music. It doesn’t help.
It’s nap time, when the older two are asleep, and I have been commanded by seasoned mothers just this morning to sleep when the baby sleeps (take care of yourself, honey!). Only the baby isn’t sleeping. He’s crying, strapped to my swaying body with a sling. If I sleep when he sleeps, there will have to be cartoons on for the 3 year old, and nothing keeps the middle one still, so she will be dumping cereal out, unloading wardrobes of clothing, hiding pieces of puzzles so we can never, ever have a complete puzzle in our house. Sleep now, pay later.
It’s whispering goodnight to my already asleep husband who’s been up for 36 straight hours at the hospital. Watching his chest rise and fall against the silhouette of a month-old baby who will sleep only there, only in the warm place between two exhausted parents.
It’s cleaning rice off the floor, cleaning Lucky Charms off the floor, cleaning strawberry yogurt off the floor. Then watching my little girl knock a full bowl of milk and cereal onto the shiny wood just as we’re about to leave for church.
Speaking of church? It’s loading the three kids up by myself on a Sunday morning because David’s on call. Disciplining the older one who knows how to buckle himself but would rather climb disobediently into the front seat and turn on the windshield wipers, flashers, steering wheel (so it’s locked when I try to start the car). Strapping the middle one in while the baby cries because he only likes being in the car when it’s moving. Throwing shoes in as we leave because no one knows how to put them on by themselves yet. Then? Backing straight into the garage door, bending that blessed metal in, because I don’t even know how to drive anymore.
It’s finally getting the baby to sleep for 4 or 5 hours at a time, only to discover 2-year molars aching through bloody gums just five days before she turns two. She wakes up every hour, 2 days of that week. I have a cardiac episode after one of these nights, a heart that starts racing as I stand perfectly still stirring scrambled eggs. Doctor says caffeine and lack of sleep can cause this. Have I had either of these? Ummmm, yes?
It’s a 3-year-old who mysteriously develops hearing loss in the exact frequency of his mother’s voice, unable to respond to commands, correction. It’s saying seventeen times in Sam’s Club do not climb on the shelves, only to find he’s disappeared into the plastic display model of a storage shed. Then leaving the store without eating our cheap pizza and hot dog because the baby is crying, everyone is whining, and tables full of winter Texans are watching as I slowly lose my mind.
Some day, they assure me, I will miss this. What is this, I asked a group of more experienced moms once, the this that I’ll miss? There were some nice answers, and the gist of it is: I’ll miss everything that I don’t miss. (Isn’t that profound?) Will I miss the crazy? Probably not. Will I miss the messes? Nope. Will I miss the zero nights of uninterrupted sleep I’ve had for the past 3.5 years? Not a chance. But I’ll miss the little people being little. The big blue eyes that look back at me (however defiantly) when I’m repeating myself, again. They’ll be all grown up some day. I won’t feel crazy like this some day. I won’t miss the crazy, but I’ll miss the crazy-makers. Right?
And the craziest part? I might not even remember just how crazy it all feels. So I wrote it down. (Someday me, you’re welcome. When you’re making this trip down memory lane, be sure to imagine how your shoulders were aching as you typed this, because of all the fat baby-lifting.)