Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Turning Corners

Well, the last of the "first day of ___ grade" pictures have ticked through the scrolls of social media.  As the breezes begin to carry a slightly cooler tune, the mamas and papas have slipped (slammed?)  back into the routines of sack lunches and earlier bedtimes.  The tears have been shed over the waving goodbye to all the babies eagerly walking into dorm rooms, bravely walking into high school, timidly walking into first days of kindergarten and middle school. Ready or not, the sun tanned and flip-flopped feet have scooted into the fresh darkness of scuff-less school shoes. 

 After months of making big decisions and gathering records and researching and weighing options, we were all ready to set sail on a new adventure as each of the kids started at brand new schools. New neighborhood, new district, new schedules, new friends, new parents, new opportunities.  After such a process, I found myself mildly unamused when I received a notification from one of the kids' old schools, informing me that my child had been marked absent for one or more class periods that day.  I was quick to see to it that the confusion was corrected, admittedly with an eye roll.  It wasn't until later that the seemingly insignificant miscommunication sunk in.

The beginning of this school year finds me with one starting high school, one starting middle school, and one at an elementary school without an older sibling there for the first time.  (Enter, "How did I get so old? How did THEY get so old? Enjoy them while you have them.  The days are long and the years are short....etc.") Yep, a lot of land marks for us this year.  Oh, and the one starting kindergarten.  That's a big one.  The very first time away from mama for more than a few hours.  The very first lunch box.  The picking out of the very first school outfit ever.  The practicing of writing her name, and pronouncing her teacher's.  Choosing between pigtails or braids for that first day, and learning what number the little hand has to get to before mama will be waiting out front with a big smile and open arms.   That is what got forgotten though;  I didn't get a phone call about her missing class.  Because nobody missed her. 

The words whipped the air right out of my chest, and my eyes stung fierce.  That lone elementary student of mine? She shouldn't be alone; she should be the older sibling this time, holding that nervous little 5 year old's hand as they walk into school together.  But just like the rush of cars in the drop-off line quickly dwindles to silence, the rest of the world has moved on.  Her teacher still stands in front of the class and introduces herself with a welcoming smile, and her friends still dash pink-cheeked around the playground looking for one more to join their game of tag, but her teacher will never know she is absent from class, and her friends will not know they are missing her brown pigtails and her easy smile. 

There will always be these breathtaking moments in the ebb and flow of grief I suppose; some familiar, some untraveled, and all of them needing to be stared in the face and acknowledged and felt.  Each of these hashes on the blank timeline of my life brings the juxtaposition of experiencing wonderful new adventures coupled with wrenching absences that cannot be called in and excused.  Never will hurt obscure my ability to seize the joy in these life moments, nor will the presence of great excitement mean that the potency of my empty spaces has diminished.  Because I have chosen to open my heart to love, it has also been lain bare to the things which scar.  These moments which steal breath and threaten to break souls may leave me grasping for words and understanding, but the dark will always be at my back at I turn my face up to wait for the sun that always comes.  Always.


Sunday, July 31, 2016

PICU Pick-Me-Up

As anniversaries and birthdays tick by,  I will never stop believing that those beautiful, inspiring, powerful 4 and a half months were meant for so much more; that such a short life was meant to be a catalyst for something exceptional.

So here I stand in the heat of another heavy July searching for ways I can use my little girl's story to encourage kindness and inspire hope.  Well guess what, this one is not just on me... I'm laying this all out there because each one of you reading this has the power to make a terrible day a little bit better, to bring a flicker of hope to a hurting heart, and to keep on shouting that kindness matters.

One of the most trying things you can go through as a parent is having a critically ill or injured child.  Your world stops, and all your focus goes into every detail of the fight for more time with your little one.  I remember it uncomfortably clearly, but because of that, I can see a need that's easy to meet.

On the 5th anniversary of standing in a crowded PICU room, watching my whole future change, I took a solid breath, and pressed the familiar button in a quiet elevator to be whisked to the 3rd floor.  Stepping off was a shock to every part of me as the colors and smells and sights all came screaming back.  I was on a mission though, for my brave daughter who fought on the other side of those doors, I could help bring a breath of grace to another parent shouldering the weight of the world.

My kids had helped me gather things throughout the weeks that we set aside for this very occasion.  It was easy to remember being a parent pacing across scuffed tiles between a stiff vinyl chair and a bed that contained a piece of your very being.  A parent who when asked, couldn't actually remember the last time they had eaten an actual meal, a parent that spoke toward the ground so as not to exhale too deeply the breath of stale coffee that had sustained the 72 hours of numb awakeness  preceeding the current sunrise.  I could clearly remember being the parent that in each hurried bathroom break had wadded up wet, scratchy brown paper towels drizzled with disinfectant smelling hand soap and had desperately scrubbed at salt stained cheeks and sweat soaked shirt seams in hopes of concealing the fact that they dare not leave their child's room long enough to run home for a shower.  I shook my head at remembering the emotionless nurse that had told me they weren't allowed to spare me a Tylenol for my pounding head, but that I was welcome to check myself into the ER downstairs and have some prescribed by a doctor.  I acutely recalled the desperation coupled with simply surviving without having time to think about your own needs.  Well here is where WE can make a difference.

The kids and I put together care packages meant for the parents of each of the children in the PICU.  Took time to think through all the things I remember needing or wishing for during our long hours there, and tried to put together a smattering of things that would actually be used and appreciated.  I'll share with you some of the things I came up with, and I hope some of you will run with it from there.  You can do as much or as little as you want.  It could even be just one good care package; I know that you will be making a difference in someone's life during one of their hardest days. 

If you decide to go spread some "Ellie Love" on your local PICU, I would so love to hear about it! You can reach me in the comment section, or by my email displayed in the sidebar.  Remember that whole "ripples in the pond" analogy?  This is one of those opportunities!  Get out there and spread some kindness and encouragement, make those small but meaningful moments spread joy in a way that's contagious; that shouts the victory of the short but mighty lives like Ellianna Grace.

I grabbed an "adult" coloring book for some mindless distraction.  Something to keep you occupied that doesn't require much thought.  Crayons break, colored pencils need sharpening, so I tried to play it safe with markers.  BONUS was coming across little LED clip on book lights. No more straining your eyes trying to use the dull glow of your phone because you don't want to wake your sleeping kiddo.

Tissue that is not made from recycled sandpaper.  Or whatever it is that the hospitals use.  I realize they probably get a discount, but after the 37th time of scrubbing at your teary eyes and runny nose with those things, people start asking you how you got rug burn.  And seriously, look at th sweet message on this package of Kleenex.  They get it.

It's safe to say a good majority of the meals a PICU parent has consumed were rattled from a vending machine with various pocket change, chased by some carbonated mess of sludge which is going to give them the mother of all sugar crashes later.  Its hard to be portable AND nutritious when doing this, but do your best to think outside the box of cookies, pop tarts, and potato chips.  Peanut butter and a spoon perhaps?  We love these fig bars because you get a decent serving of fruit, and they tend to fill you up for a good stretch of time.  Also think what you can do other than soda... something they can't get from the hallway vending nook.  Again, not going to be the healthiest choices out there, but it is a good change to have something refreshing to snack on. The Werther's?  Well those are just all out comforting, and perfect for keeping your mouth moist and your jaw doing something besides clenching.

GOOD gum.  Many of these items I was able to get at my dollar store, but a few things I specifically hit up the grocery instead, because quality mattered.  Imagine your breath already reeks from days blending into nights blending into days of eating whatever you can wherever you can, and usually washing it down with a steady flow of whatever coffee is most readily available.  Well then you're talking to doctors and techs and asking questions of the nurses, and let's just not have to worry about whether or not they can smell that you haven't brushed in 3 days.  Splurge for a gum with a powerful flavor that's going to l a s t.  I love the 5 brand flavors.  Especially their mints are super strong and not only wake you up and freshen your breath, but you're more likely to spit it out because you're tired of chewing rather than the flavor having worn out.  Again with the eating and the coffee comes along these handy little disposable mini toothbrushes, pre-loaded with toothpaste.  Come on.  Those have to have been invented with the hospital parent in mind.  CHAPSTICK!  Basically my security blanket, I think most women and some men would agree it's always good to have some within arms length.  Excedrin tension headache is what I picked, but any similar product that's going to fight a headache or an ache or pain could be a daysaver for one of these parents.  As I mentioned before, the hospital is too legally bound to slip you a few Tylenol, and most parents are probably just going to suck it up and fight through the rest of the day trying not to think about their throbbing head or aching muscles from standing vigil for 11 hours. 

Hygeine.  Well, let's take a poll about how many parents are stepping away from a PICU bedside to indulge in a hot shower.  That's going to be basically... none of them.  Having a few things available that allows a parent to take a quick bathroom break and come back feeling a little fresher is  a valuable investment.  I grabbed packs of disposable body cloths (basically thick, better smelling baby wipes that you can essentially take a sponge bath with), hair ties or clips... because any woman like me is never going to be able to find one when she actually needs it, and dry shampoo.  That's one of those inventions I would like to shake someone's hand about.  It can go for guys or for girls, and when you're skipping out on your shower for a few days, it's really refreshing to be able to get your hair looking and smelling cleaner without much effort.
A deck of cards.... realizing no one may be in the frame of mind to be concentrating on a game, but they can just as easily be a stress relief used to shuffle and shift through idle hands.  ALCOHOL FREE HAND SANITIZER.  We have all noticed that around pretty much every corner in the hospitals is a handy dandy machine quick to eject a foamy mess that will kill most every germ, as well as the texture of your hands.  For a parent that has been in the hospital for several days or longer, that stuff starts getting really harsh on your skin.  If you can find an organic, non-alcohol hand sanitizer, get that in your care package pronto.  Of course I pitched in the brand I stand behind, which is Young Living's Thieves anti-bac.  It smells amazing but not overpowering, and leaves my hands feeling smooth and refreshed in contrast to the goop so readily available around the hospital.
I packed each care package into a gift bag with a hand written note, not sharing the details of my journey, but letting them know I have stood in their shoes and hope in some small way these packages can make a few things simpler while they are fighting a bigger fight.  So get out there, find a PICU or a NICU near you and reach out.  It may seem trivial, but standing on those broken grounds, it's the little things that fix the big picture.
In honor of my Ellie Grace, I will never stop saying your name, sharing your story, and spreading the love that you so easily coaxed out of everyone who met you.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Look Up

It was 4:00 in the morning when I left the hospital, and as I hit the first traffic light, the dam that had been holding back all of my fear, anger, and desperation crumbled into a million broken pieces. Tears coming from a depth beyond understanding carved slick rivers down my neck and pooled in my shirt.  I was aware my car was drifting between the painted lanes of the empty interstate, and I glanced for blue lights that would assume I was drunk.  My voice scraped raw as I screamed my questions to a moonlit sky, daring His promises to be kept.

Knowing my other little ones were tucked sleeping in a quiet house, and needing to do something tangible that felt productive, I pulled off into the only store open at this desperate time of morning.  Despite trying to slow my heaving sobs in the parking lot, hot drips still occasionally seeped from my stinging eyes as I wandered the empty aisles.  I chose a few items mindlessly, that I thought at the time would bring comfort, and I trudged my way to the lone check out stand with a flickering light.  A slight embarrassment prickled over me as I became aware of the frightening sight I must be with my blotchy face and swollen eyes.

The checker grabbed my things and began swiping them across the counter without looking up.   "How are you today?" he beamed. "I'm ok." "That's good," he replied.  He continued to ring up my things and take my payment without ever making eye contact. As I grabbed my bag and turned to leave, he swung the hammer one last time.  "Have a great rest of your day!" 

If you have spent much time around me, you may have noticed that often when someone asks me how I'm doing, I don't ask the same question back.  It may come across rude.  It is not because I don't care though, it is the exact opposite.  I don't ask because I either know that that person was just asking to be polite, and they don't really want the true answer from me, or because I know that I am not at a time or place I can truly give thought and caring to their answer.  I ask how someone is doing because I sincerely want to hear their heart, and not just the glossed over "I'm fine, how are you" that we all are guilty of giving sometimes.  I've learned to pick out the people who honestly want to hear how the real me is doing, and the people who would be completely uncomfortable if you let them see beyond the surface.

When I am standing in line at the grocery, I know that there may not be the time for me to be a listening ear to someone's bad day, but on the other hand I do not want to ignore the person in need of some encouragement. If I notice a rude or grumpy employee, I will leave them with an "I hope your day gets better."  They didn't have to share what is weighing on their mind that day, but they will know they are seen and given validation.  I will not ask you how you are doing or how your day has been unless I authentically have the heart to hear the good with the bad.  I'm ok with you taking the time to tell me what you are struggling with, and will not make you feel ashamed for not finding the good in a new day of life.  The truth is that life is hard, and we should stop conditioning each other to put on a brave face and pretend everything is fine. 

I challenge you to stop your robotic motion and your scripted lines, and look up.  There is a world out there of hurting people.  People who in the sticky messes of their daily lives may not need you to spend an hour listening to their problems, but need to know that they are not invisible, that their pain is not ignored, and that we are all in this together.


Thursday, January 28, 2016

When Mama Can't

There is this moment when you first look upon the fresh, new face of your newborn and you instantly know that you would do absolutely anything to protect them, to keep them well and happy. Honestly, in that moment it is hard to believe anything bad could happen to them.

When Jacob was a toddler, he was very sick.  We were young first time parents sitting in the children's hospital in a city far from home, watching the sunken eyes of parents shuffling in and out with fragile, bald children, and we were terrified.  As we checked off each appointment and treatment though, we grew confident in what could be done for our son.  We knew that the hours spent watching him be poked dozens of times, and the flow of medicine that left him cranky and sick was serving a bigger purpose.  We knew that the pain he was going through was helping him, and so we pushed through it to get to healing.

I never imagined there coming a day when we wouldn't know what to do for him, or that there might not be an option to help him get better.  Parenting is a scary venture, but I think to some extent we always believe that with God's grace there will never be anything we can't find hope in.  We believe there will always be some kind of answer, something we can do to protect our children and help them heal. Until there isn't.

I am standing in this hard place, wondering what it is that God wants me to understand through what seems an endless season of uphill battles.  I'm looking at myself and wondering if I will still see Him as good if we don't get the answers we are asking for. It's a painful thing as a parent to offer empty hands, to stand knowing that there is nothing you can do to fix this, that this pain they are enduring might be a path to healing, but this time, it might not be.  We might endure this agony and still not get  the outcome we pray for.

I can keep praying for the situation to change, and I may be crushed by the answer. Or I can pray for God's nearness, whatever the answer may be.

Please add your prayers to ours; we will never stop praying for healing, but most importantly let's pray that pain would not be wasted, that the story of grace would triumph in our hard, and we would be gentle and gracious as we are changed.


Friday, January 15, 2016

The Bottom

"When you think you've hit the bottom, then the bottom gives way... when you fall into a darkness no words can explain... you don't know how you'll make it out alive... Jesus will meet you there."

The words to this song by Steven Curtis Chapman are the groanings of my heart right now.  I fight, claw my way to the light to grasp hope, and still sometimes in the struggle I let my ear be bent that it is hopeless, that the shuddering gape of pain is stronger than the will I have to fight for more.  It is rare that I don't have words to illustrate my soul, but somehow, that's where I'm finding myself right now;  speechless, burning, afloat in a sea that renders me flailing, gasping, waiting for rescue.

We are facing things I never dared to imagine.  We get like that, don't we?  Confident in ourselves that certain things will never touch us.  Thanks for the dose of reality...

How would our hearts even know what to pray?  Mine doesn't, and people don't want to hear that.  I am in one day at a time mode; focusing on the next thing, and then the next thing.  There are promises I am clinging to; I know I won't be left here in this valley alone. I know He will meet me there, but the waiting is tough.   

Please, dear community, pray us through this.  We know in our hearts that beauty comes from ashes, but we have a hard fire to battle first. 

                 Steven Curtis Chapman~ "Jesus Will Meet You There"


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Sitting in the Middle

This morning we sat in the plastic folding chairs of our Life Group, which felt suddenly hard and uncomfortable in the ear-splitting silence that had come over the packed room of people.  I tucked my chin to disguise my tears, and the entire frame of my eyesight grew crowded with the feet of the people surrounding our two chairs. In that moment, my emotions were confusing.  Frustration, embarrassment, and because no other word could describe it, resentment.  Not at the people around me, but I felt so discouraged at being the chair in the middle.  Once again, hands were laid upon us as we stood in the middle of tragedy; broken, weary, with the arms of our community holding us up.  I am tired of being the one that needs holding up.  It feels like season after season after season of hard has kept us on the defensive, treading deep waters and relying on the people around us to carry us.  I am ready to be the one who gets to give instead of always being on the receiving end.  It feels selfish, uncomfortable, and humbling.

Humbling...maybe that's the buzzword.  It's not comfortable to be vulnerable, no one likes to be needy.  On the flip-side, isn't that what we are created for?  Community?  Yes, I'm sure of it; we weren't intended to carry our burdens with our own strength.

Perhaps in this long season, God is waiting for me to learn to surrender to being vulnerable, to gracefully accept the help that He provides.  One would think that sitting back and letting others tend to your needs would be the easy part, but we groom ourselves to be independent, self-sufficient, mighty in what we can handle.  It takes grace and humility to learn to receive with open hands.  This is something I first learned from Kara... she implored us all to work at letting people help, at tending to their hearts by letting them do something for us.  Still, it's easier said than done.

We are immeasurably blessed to be surrounded by all the feet in that room.  Right from barely knowing us, this body of believers has jumped in with both feet to love us, pray for us, and fill the gaps that we have needed filled.  They are the gospel in human form, who am I to let my stubbornness stand in the way of letting community be exactly what it is created to be?

For now, my seat is in the middle. I am weak and struggling and needing the strength and prayers of my people to carry me through. I am confident that one day I will get to stand in that outer circle.  I will get to be part of the army that reaches out to link arms with a wounded soul and helps to carry them out of the valley.  While I'm waiting, I'm learning to sit, to breathe deep in the compassion that is poured over us, to accept with a humble and thankful heart the many blessings that have been extended, undeserving, to see us to the other side of this dark storm.

How does it make you feel to be the one needing help?  Who are the people that are there for you when you're going through something hard?  What stands in the way of you opening your hands to the help of those who offer?

Please leave me a comment, it lets me know you're listening!!!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Hoping for More

A year of dreams and magic and smooth sailing, less struggle and more blessings; that's what we're all hoping for, right?  I imagine we all felt the same at the beginning of this year too; high hopes for 12 months without conflict or illness, but then not too far in, we started facing disappointments and hurts, and before we knew it we were scraping by the months, just trying to survive, determined to make it to the fresh start of a new year. Suddenly we are at the end of a string of long, hard places, clinging desperately to the fray and looking up for a stronger, longer rope, just to realize that our safe passage isn't guaranteed.  That those hopes to slip through unscathed are just that, hopes, and the days ahead of us have just as much potential to leave us burned as the barren months behind us did.

 To be honest, I held my breath for it too.  For the clean slate, the fresh start; the promise of a year filled with goals and newness and such determination for good, that surely this would be the year to whisper about, the one that brought great good.  Well I shudder to admit, but as we rounded the corner of the end of December, 2016 kicked us in the gut before we even crossed the threshold.  Or maybe it was 2015 getting one last punch in. Either way, we already know this year isn't starting with the expectations we placed on it.  In fact, I flat out didn't even want to celebrate it; dreaded this night and the tears and the pain and the reality that once again we stand in a place of reality where we have no control over our lives.

But you know what... hanging onto to our own ability to control our lives is what sets us up for heartbreak.  I have held too long. Even when I know I can do nothing to help myself, I have been hell-bent on self preservation.  That's not what our Father asks of us.  He asks simply, gently for us to open our hands... to surrender our lack of faith and trust that even when the weight of the world threatens to crush us, He will never let go.

There are no guarantees for this year to come; our dreams may crumble, our relationships disappoint, our health fail, our people leave us, but we don't have to be sure of the future to be sure of our security through it.  So lean with me, press into whatever is coming, walk into this new year with a brave heart and a determined faith, because we don't need to know what's ahead, only Who is behind us.

I knew tonight I would be standing at the edge of this new valley, looking out over the unknown, watching from the outside as everyone else was sharing the joyful moments of ringing in their new year, while I stand holding broken pieces.  I know I have a choice to let fear and sadness overwhelm, or to trust that I can free-fall into the unknown with the confidence that I will never hit the bottom.  Never,

I can be thankful for all that has happened, because in the end, that's what my faith is made from.  I know that whatever goes bad in 2016, He will work for good.

So happy New Year, my friends.  Let Him make your broken so, so beautiful.