Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Paradigm Shift on Prayer

I've been given a lot of books since Samuel died.  I've read some while others are stacked up on the floor by my bed.  I think an author's story is what has drawn me to read select books -- has the author lived through some horrific heartbreak that makes my ear want to turn toward him or her, that makes me perk up to listen and willing to spend time delving into the wisdom he or she offers?  I find I am willing to hear what someone who has suffered has to say.  Two of the books I have read have been by women who know the profound loss of the death of a baby.  One of them I finished just last week.  What made me open the cover and start to read it was an article a friend passed along about the woman who wrote it.

When her daughter was only a few days old, Nancy Guthrie found out her baby girl, Hope, had a fatal and very rare condition.  Hope's systems slowly shut down, and she died when she was 6 months old.  Since Zellweger's Syndrome is genetic, the Guthries decided to prevent future pregnancies by means of a vasectomy.  However, the vasectomy failed, and they found themselves expecting another child.  That child, too, had Zellweger's, and Gabriel lived just short of 6 months. 

When I read the article about the Guthries' story, I had a few really bad days.  I cannot -- CANNOT -- imagine living this all over again.  And the thought that it's possible -- that I really could have to live this grief and heartbreak twice -- was terrifying.  I was reminded that God does not work the way we expect Him to.  He's not "fair."  (Thank goodness He's not because I surely don't want what I deserve!)  I don't get a pass on future hardship just because I've already suffered.  Losing another baby could, in all reality, happen again.  How horrifying.

But reading about what Nancy has endured made me open her book, Holding on to Hope.  And it made me read closely and with a pen in hand.  My copy is very marked up.  Much of what she says, I too have said on this blog.  It was good to feel a kinship with her -- to know someone else could relate to what I've felt and experienced, to what has comforted me and what has served to deepen my pain, to seeking God's face in the midst of constant heartache, and to longing to honor Him with my pain.

Some of what she says, however, has really challenged me.   For the last week I've been thinking about what she wrote about prayer.  She writes:
           
                "Often, I see the body of Christ put so much into pursuing God for healing.  With great boldness and passion and persistence, we cry out to God, begging for physical healing.  And in these prayers, there is often a tiny P.S. added at the end where we say, 'If it be your will.'
                 "But shouldn't we switch that around?
                 "Shouldn't we cry out to God with boldness and passion and persistence in a prayer that says, 'God, would you please accomplish your will?  Would you give me a willing heart to embrace your plan and your purpose?  Would you mold me into a vessel that you can use to accomplish what you have in mind?'  And then, perhaps, we could add a tiny P.S. that says, 'If that includes healing, we will be grateful.'
                  "Isn't real faith revealed more through pursuing God and what he wants than through pursuing what we want?"

Wow.  I keep thinking about this.  I have expended a lot of energy praying for what I want.  When Samuel was alive, I certainly begged for his healing.  Since he's died, I beg for my healing.  I don't regret that or think I've done something wrong, but I am deeply challenged by Guthrie's point that we should spend effort beseeching God to accomplish His purposes rather than tacking it on to the end of the prayer -- almost out of habit.  If anyone else had written this, I don't know that I would have been receptive.  Probably I would have thought, "What do you know about pleading for healing?  Come back to me after you've watched your infant son suffer and die."  But Guthrie wrote this when she had watched the long and drawn out suffering of her daughter and, what's more remarkable, when she was pregnant with her son and knew she would watch it again.  I am awed by her courage and her faith.  I think if I was in her shoes, I would spend every waking moment asking God for a miracle, for my son to be born perfectly healthy afterall.  Would I have had the courage to pray instead that He would make me a willing vessel for whatever He had in mind?  And then, simply, without ado, mention that healing would be wonderful, if that's what He wanted?  I can answer with almost perfect assurance, no!

These days I don't have a sick child to beg God to heal, but I do have things that I desperately want, and I spend a lot of time asking God to grant them to me.  How much time do I spend asking Him to accomplish His purposes in me?  It's not even comparable.  I have begged God, for the last almost 7 months, to one day grant me another child from my womb who is perfectly healthy and strong, who will have a strong heart and strong lungs, who will come straight into my arms after birth, who will be in our hospital room with us, who will come home to this house and grow up with Caleb and Joel teaching him how to do the things they love to do, who will trust in Him and grow old serving Him. That is what I want.  Desperately.  But more than that, do I want what God wants?  If I search my heart, the answer is yes, but it's a really scary yes.  Can I trust God enough to lay down my hopes and desires and pick up His instead?  I can.  And I pray that I will.  As Nancy Guthrie writes:

           "...because I believe God's plans for me are better than what I could plan for myself, rather than run away from the path he has set before me, I want to run toward it.  I don't want to try to change God's mind -- his thoughts are perfect.  I want to think his thoughts.  I don't want to change God's timing -- his timing is perfect.  I want the grace to accept his timing.  I don't want to change God's plan -- his plan is perfect.  I want to embrace his plan and see how he is glorified through it.  I want to submit."

Lord, help me submit to your plan, whatever it is.  Accomplish in me whatever it is you want to accomplish.  Give me a willing heart to walk whatever road you lay before me.  Use me and my story for your purposes, and give me courage to lay my own desires down and to pick up yours.  I love you.  Help me to love you more with each passing day and to trust you more with every moment.  Amen.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Spring and Samuel

I've been surprised these days about what's made me sad.  Spring is one of my favorite times of year, but as the weather has warmed up and the sun has shown itself, I've been flooded with memories of last spring, and they always leave me mournful. 

One of my favorite things to do in all the world is read outside.  I am an avid reader (majoring in English and theater and teaching high school English sprung out of my love of reading), and I love to be outside in beautiful weather.  So when you combine reading and lovely weather, it's about as perfect as it gets for me.  Every spring I spend hours on end (during naptime, mostly) reading books in our backyard.  This is only our second spring in our house, so I only have one year of memories reading in this particular backyard.  And those memories are of Samuel.  Reading time was my time of day with just Samuel -- when my rambunctious almost 2 year old and sweet 3 1/2 year old were nestled in their beds.  It was a time when I looked at my belly and felt Samuel beginning to kick.  It was a time I bonded with him and imagined him joining our family, when I wondered if he was a he or a she and would rub my belly to tell him I loved him already.  I associate spring with being pregnant, with a growing belly.

Exactly a year ago I was 17 1/2 weeks pregnant.  Samuel was just starting to move in me, I had my first stranger ask if it was a boy or girl, and we were going back and forth on whether or not to find out his gender in a couple of weeks.  I know the book I was reading at the time; I wasn't very fond of it.  It was about a baby born with Down Syndrome in the 1950's.  My mom was in town for her spring break, and she was going to keep the boys for a few days while Bryan and I got away for a long weekend.  I vividly remember closing the book after reading a few chapters and going inside to call my OB's office to be sure my AFP test was normal and didn't suggest our baby had Downs.  I wanted to go on our weekend getaway without the fear of Down Syndrome hanging over my head.  I got ahold of the nurse, and she told me everything looked normal.  Little did I know what was around the corner in just a couple short weeks. 

I think the thing that has caught me so off-guard as spring blossoms around me is my own reflection in the mirror.  My freckled face makes me think of being pregnant.  For some reason, I freckle more when pregnant, and so though I'm not as freckly as last year, the dark spots on my nose and cheeks and forehead draw my mind to Samuel.  The reflection I see in the mirror is the one I think of as carrying Samuel.  And when I look down at my freckly legs, I can't help but be drawn back to a year ago, when life was so hopeful, and Samuel was the child I had begged God to give me.  It hurts my heart to look in the mirror, and that is something I never expected.  To be honest, I don't know what to do with it. 

Friends and grief resources have told me that the seasons and changes in weather -- particularly the season in which you lost someone or experienced pain -- bring back the pain in fresh and difficult ways.  I have anticipated this about August and even about July and September.  But I never expected to face it in March already.  I wonder if the next 7 months will be like this -- remembering a part of pregnancy or a doctor's appointment or a scary complication because somehow the weather triggers a memory.  I guess I was prepared for the 1 year memories to commence in August, and I never considered that I also have all the months of pregnancy with Samuel to remember as well.

Though I am a bit overwhelmed by the momentum of this "remembering" grief, I am grateful that I have more than one month of memories with Samuel.  And I am grateful for Samuel.  I truly feel so blessed that I was able to carry our sweet third son, bring him into this world, and shower him with love in his short life.  His life has deepened mine, has made me a richer person, has grown me in ways I can't begin to understand, and I am thankful.  Thank you, Lord, for Samuel.

Friday, March 19, 2010

"Nothing is certain but..."

My big task last weekend was tackling income taxes. Despite the fact that TurboTax has significantly lightened the load, paying Uncle Sam remains an undesirable task. It hadn’t occurred to me that income taxes would become an exercise in grief. Little did I know. No more than a few questions into the 2010 version of this annual ritual I am asked, “Tell us what changed in 2009. We’ll tell you how we’ll handle it on your tax return”. Pit in my stomach, lump in my throat. “You’ll tell me how to handle it?,” I think to myself. I try to gauge my questioner’s interest level.

Me: Wow. Actually, it was a really hard year.

TurboTax: Select all that apply – My marital situation has changed; this includes getting married, divorced, or becoming widowed. My family life changed; this includes having a baby or supporting a family member. My home ownership changed; this includes…

I am already staggered by the pragmatic, emotionless software running on my MacBook. I gather that it doesn’t want to hear our story. I miss the rest of the list, my mind racing ahead to the conversation that TurboTax and I will inevitably have. These conversations are always hard and clumsy.

Me: Yes. Yes, my family life changed for 2009. [click]

TurboTax: We’ll Get Your Taxes Done Right – Have a baby? Congratulations! We’ll help you get all the deductions and credits you deserve.

Awkward silence. I am dumbfounded by its ignorant chipperness. I do not want to be ungrateful.

Me: Er, thanks. Continue. [click]

TurboTax: Let’s Review Your Personal Info

We’ve moved on… but only for a couple minutes.

TurboTax: About Your Dependents – Caleb C Apinis – Son, Joel M Apinis – Son. Edit?

Me: Yes, but no. I was trying to tell you we had a son last year. But he died.

More silence.

Me: Edit. [click]

TurboTax: Children and Other Dependents Summary – Here’s what we have so far. You can add, edit (change), or delete dependents.

Me: No you can’t. Edit? Delete? These are my children that you are talking about. I know that they’re just 1’s and 0’s to you, but they are my sons... and you’re missing one. I tried to tell you that earlier.

TurboTax lists Caleb and Joel and some pertinent info about each of them, and then proudly informs me of the tax benefits available to me for each of the “dependents” that I am able to list.

TurboTax: Add another dependent? Supporting children and other family members can be expensive. We’ll help you get some of that money back by taking up to a $3,650 deduction for each dependent you claim.

His cold focus is unrelenting.

Me: His name is…

Or is it “was”? I never know what verb tense to use there.

Me: …Samuel, but you didn’t ask that. He died…but you didn’t ask that either. Yes, I will claim him as a dependent. [click]

I know that it is not reasonable to be upset at a software program, but TurboTax is being particularly insensitive at this point.

TurboTax: First Name? Middle Initial? Last Name? Birth Date?

With a bit of resignation I answer quickly.

Me: Samuel. E.

I think of my brother, sad that he had only one night with his namesake.

Me: Apinis. 08/01/2009.

TurboTax: Social Security Number?

I am stumped. Did we ever even get one of those? Did we, Kathryn? If we did, I know where it is. I go upstairs and pull out the folder labeled “Personal Documents – Samuel”. I was not prepared for this. Contents: A copy of the rules and regulations of Sawnee View Gardens (the cemetery where my son’s body is laid); a birth certificate order form; two birth certificates (I think to myself: We’ll never need these.) and the receipt from their purchase; social security card (I pull it out and keep rifling.); four death certificates (Why on earth do we have four of them? Why do we have any? Why is Samuel dead?); purchase agreement and cemetery deed for a tiny plot of land at Sawnee View Gardens. For several minutes I am frozen as grief sweeps over me. I wonder at the thought that this is real, that this is our story, that this folder with these documents exists… in our home. Samuel. I go back downstairs.

Me: xxx-xx-2210 [click]

TurboTax had been waiting patiently and is unphased by my delayed return.

TurboTax: Relationship?

Me: Son [click]

TurboTax: Dependent Type? Your options: your child living with you,…

If only.

TurboTax: …your child away at college, your child living with someone else…

Yes! But, not in a way that the IRS cares about.

TurboTax: Other dependent, Nondependent – used for EIC dependent care only, Not a dependent this year.

Why is this so difficult? Is there ever a simple answer? Death is never clean, is it?

Me: My child living with me, I guess. [click] [then, forgetting TurboTax’s disinterest in perceived extraneous details] But Samuel doesn’t live with us anymore. In fact, he never actually lived in our home. He never left the hospital.

TurboTax: Months Lived with You?

Me: Finally. This is what I’ve been trying to explain to you.

TurboTax: All of the year, part or the year, or none of the year?

Me: Part of the year [click], but as I was saying he never…

TurboTax: [interrupting] Citizenship status?

TurboTax has moved on.

Me: [sighs] U.S. citizen or resident. [click]

TurboTax: Disabled Dependent?

Me: I don’t know. Yea, I think so. What do you mean?

TurboTax: Permanently and Totally Disabled – The deļ¬nition of "permanently and totally disabled" for tax purposes is strict. First, a doctor MUST certify that your condition has lasted, or is expected to last, for a year or more, or your condition is expected to lead to your death. Get the certiļ¬cation in writing and keep it with your permanent paperwork.

Me: Have you not been listening to me? Ugh. Give me a second.

I switch over to email and type a message to Samuel’s pediatric cardiologist. I feel really uncomfortable as I write a letter about my dead son to his wonderful doctor for tax purposes. He, of course, is gracious.

Me: Yes. [click]

I get a break from the tactless barrage. We complete the painfully impersonal process of updating my personal info, and move on to my federal taxes: first income and wages, and then deductions and credits.

TurboTax: Earned Income Credit – Revised for 2009! The Earned Income Credit has been expanded this year as part of the government’s plan to stimulate the economy. Let’s make sure you’re eligible for the EIC.

Me: Okay.

I quickly answer several questions.

TurboTax: Now we need to know more about Samuel.

Me: Is everything on your time?

Here we go again.

TurboTax: How many months did Samuel live with you in the United States during 2009? If Samuel was a full time student, and would have lived with you if not away at school, count the time that…

Me: Are you serious?

TurboTax: …Samuel was away as if Samuel lived at home with you. So if Samuel lived with you for 5 months, then lived away at school for 5 months, choose “Partial year”, then 10 months from the list below. The whole year or partial year?

Me: [exasperated, ready for this to be over] You’re kidding right? Full time student!?! He lived 30 days. Partial year. [click]

TurboTax: 11 months, 10 months, 9 months, 8 months, 7 months…

Counting down has never felt so laborious.

TurboTax: …6 months or less, born during the current year, died during the current year.

Me: Finally, you’re listening. Born during the current year [click] and died during the current year. [click]

As soon as I select the “Died during the current year” option, the “Born during the current year” option is deselected.

Me: You understand what I am telling you, don’t you? If this is difficult for you to understand, just imagine how hard it is for me. Samuel was born on August 1st. He lived 30 days and died on August 31st. He was born AND he died in the same year. [All the while alternately clicking “Born during the current year” and “Died during the current year” fully expectant that, one of these times, TurboTax will allow both to be selected at the same time.]

Me: [defeated] Died during the current year. [click]

TurboTax: Living Arrangements for 2009 – Samuel may be a qualifying child for more than one person if either of these situations apply: Samuel lived with someone else during the year, or you lived with someone else while you were caring for Samuel. Did either of these situations occur during 2009?

Me: Does living for 9 days at Egleston Children’s Hospital count? [a weak attempt at irritated humor… which never goes over well]

TurboTax, of course, doesn’t laugh.

Me: No. [click]

TurboTax: If you have no other qualifying children, select done.

At this point, it seems as though TurboTax is as tired of navigating this conversation as I am. We move quickly through a few final confirmations, and it never brings up Samuel again. Little did I know when I popped the disc into my laptop that I was sitting down to discuss death and taxes.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Rejoicing!

In the months since Samuel died, there has been a lot of talk in our house about Heaven.  The boys are naturally curious about it: what it looks like, who is there, what Samuel is doing there, what Samuel is like in Heaven, etc.  Heaven comes up regularly in conversation, and these days it seems like a normal topic.

Monday Heaven came up again, but this time the end result of the conversation was breathtakingly beautiful.  The boys and I were driving home from Walmart, and Joel was looking at a golden book called Bible Heroes.  Bryan and I have some reservations about how heroic some of the people in the book actually are, but that's beside the point.  Joel was looking at a picture of Samson, and he asked one of his favorite questions: "How does he talk?"  Whenever Joel wants to pretend to be a character, he first inquiries about the character's manner of speaking.  He wants to know a specific line from a book or movie that the character says and how the character's voice sounds.  Caleb is very familiar with this routine and immediately attempted to answer Joel's question. 

Caleb: "Joel, Samson is not a character.  He was a real person who really lived.  We don't know how he talked because he lived a really long time ago."

Joel: "But how does he talk?"

Caleb: "We don't know because he's not alive anymore.  But we can meet him when we go to Heaven, and then you can find out how he talks!"

Joel: "But I don't know how to get to Heaven.  How do I get there?"

At this point, I was listening intently.  I looked in the rearview mirror and asked Caleb, "Caleb, can you tell Joel how to get to Heaven?"  Caleb immediately verbalized the essence of our Christian faith with perfect clarity and confidence.  It was amazing to hear!

Caleb: "Joel, you have to trust in Jesus.  You have to believe He died on the cross for our sins, but He didn't stay dead.  He rose again from the dead.  Then when you die, you will go to Heaven."

Of course two and half year old Joel wasn't totally tracking with us and asked once again, "But how do I get there?"  So I tried to reiterate what Caleb had already said.  When I was explaining it to Joel, I used the word "no-no's" instead of sins, and Caleb jumped in, "He died for all the no-no's we're going to do too!"  When I finished summarizing Christianity for Joel :) , I asked Caleb, "Do you believe that, Caleb?  That Jesus died on the cross for your sins and rose again from the dead?"  Caleb's answer made my heart swell and joy flood my soul.  He said, "Yes, I believe that!"  What could be more wonderful or beautiful in all the world? 

At this point we were pulling into our driveway, and I asked him, "Do you know what that means, Caleb?  Jesus already lives in your heart!  What do you think about that?"  Caleb beamed and said, "That sounds pretty fun!"  I pulled Caleb out of his carseat and into my lap.  I held him close and told him, "He is with you and will always be there.  You have already made the most important choice you can ever make!  There is no more important choice in all the world than choosing to believe in Jesus.  I am so happy that you trust Him!  I am so happy He lives in your heart!  I am so happy we will be in Heaven together someday!" 

Caleb spent the rest of the day glowing with joy.  He was so delighted to learn that Jesus lives in his heart.  Bryan and I had previously talked to him about how people can ask Jesus to live in their hearts, but we wanted to be careful not to communicate that there is a magic prayer that commences a relationship with Jesus.  We've thought for some time -- in fact, I remember Bryan and I talking about it on our drive to the lake the day before Samuel was born -- that Caleb believes in Jesus, and we didn't want to communicate that all the time prior to saying a prayer asking Jesus into his heart was illegitimate in some way.  Bryan and I don't think Caleb's faith in Jesus began on Monday; we think it began a long time before then.  But it is the first time Caleb has ever articulated his faith on his own, ever been able to explain what Jesus did for him, and so it is a day we will celebrate for the rest of our lives.  I know for sure that I get to spend eternity with Caleb and with Samuel.  How wonderful is that!  And I am so thankful that I got to hear Caleb explain what it means to trust in Jesus -- and to his little brother, Joel. 

It's really cool to think that Samuel is in Heaven rejoicing that his biggest brother trusts in Jesus and has Jesus in his heart.  Samuel is cheering on the faith of his big brother, and someday they will be together, rejoicing in the very presence of Jesus.  What a picture.  What a thing to imagine.  I am so, so glad (what an understatement!) that there is more to life than just this world, that there is hope in Someone much bigger than me or my dead son.  And I am beyond thrilled that Caleb has a relationship with the One who gives life meaning, value, redemption, and truth.  We have a lot to celebrate!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Models of Grief

This week Kathryn and I saw a grief counselor for the first time. Though only an introductory meeting, the counselor offered a number of insights. One thought in particular has been especially helpful and thought-provoking for me. She said that there are essentially three models for grief: 1) getting over it; 2) filling the emptiness; 3) keeping the connection. Her observation is that while the third option is the healthiest, our culture is most prone to the second.

As I imagine what it will look and feel like for Kathryn and I to heal from the loss of our son, I am often torn. On one hand, I want to (need to?) remember him. On the other hand, I have not experienced an instance in which I think about Samuel that is not accompanied with sorrow. If healing from grief means the absence of sadness, but I cannot think of Samuel without being sad, does that mean that healing requires forgetting? If the answer is “yes,” then “getting over it” is the preferable model for grief. But, I do not want to forget Samuel. While I may slip into this paradigm from time-to-time, I know that it is ultimately dissatisfying.

At this point, I still cannot help but think of Samuel often. At a risk of stating the obvious, the sadness conjoined with every recollection of my son is not fun. Judy’s observation has helped me to identify my tendency to “medicate” the emptiness of grief. For me, I most often turn to busyness. Because my life is so full and my to-do list is never done, I don’t even have to try to fill the void created by Samuel’s death with activity. I know that “medicate” may seem like a scary word, but I believe that, in reality, we all do this in our own ways. Also, I chose it purposefully because it reminds me of the long-term dangers of the second model.

Going into our counseling session, I had observed these first two models in my life and in others’ lives. It had never occurred to me that keeping the connection – something that Kathryn and I have purposefully and repeatedly sought to do – is actually a model of grief. We have pictures of Samuel all over our house. Most of my bookmarks are the cards from his memorial service. We put a stocking up for Samuel at Christmas, and, as a family, bought gifts for others with the money that we would have used for Samuel. We have planted a “Samuel tree” in our front yard. We talk about him all the time, and at least one of the four of us prays daily for God to heal our hearts. His room is still in tact, and we still call it Samuel’s room. We are already talking about what we will do for his birthday.

I still have questions about what healing looks and feels like in this model of grief, but I am somehow comforted knowing that keeping our connection to Samuel is grieving, and that there is healing apart from filling and forgetting. This is what I hope for, what I want for myself and my family.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

And Again, More Pancakes

Here are this morning's masterpieces.  Joel chose Jabba the Hutt, and Caleb chose Princess Leia.  For those of you who wonder how Bryan does it, I am posting a picture of one in process, so you can get a better idea of his method. 
For old times' sake, here is a picture of me and my brother dressed up as Luke and Leia.  It's funny to me that my boys are now playing Star Wars like Matthew and I used to 27 years ago!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Pancakes Again -- too good not to post

I couldn't pass up the chance to post Bryan's latest pancake art.  Personally, I think Luke Skywalker is his all-time best work.  The other one is Salacious Crumb, Jabba the Hutt's pet in Return of the Jedi.  You should hear Joel say "salacious."  It's pretty hysterical -- especially since Joel can't say the letter "l" and has an adorable lisp.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Emerging

For the last week I have begun to see glimpses of the me I remember.  I am by no means thoroughly that person, but I am seeing more of my old self than I have since mid-August.  In particular, I am seeing the old me when it comes to Caleb and Joel.  I am SO thankful for this as it means I am actually engaging in the moment, thinking ahead about what I want to be teaching them and how I want to be molding them, enjoying the unexpected surprises of parenthood, and stepping into their needs as they manifest. For the past six and half months (maybe longer), I have ushered my sons from one thing to the next -- from their beds to breakfast, from breakfast to the playroom, from the playroom to roomtime, from roomtime to lunch, etc, etc.  When the boys have needed me for whatever reason, I have tried to figure out how to make them stop whining or fighting or clinging or crying so that the noise would stop and I could continue in my fog, uninterrupted.  With this mindset, every hiccup is an annoyance and an obstacle to making it to the next thing.  Consequently, parenting has been a responsibility and a chore while only occasionally being a joy and delight.

Parenting this way has bothered me terribly.  It's not at all the way I parented before Samuel.  And it's not at all the way I want to be parenting.  Before Samuel, I would have said -- and my friends can attest to this -- that I loved being a stay-at-home mom more than anyone I know.  I found such fulfillment in being a mom.  It's what I always wanted to be.  In high school or college, when anyone asked me to look into the future and predict what I would be doing, the answer was always the same: "I'll be a mom."  I never aspired to be anything "more" than a mom because I didn't think there was any more worthy thing in all the world.  There was nothing I would rather have been doing.  And being Caleb and Joel's mom was utterly fulfilling.  It was the very thing I wanted most, and it was more than satisfying.  It was energizing, electrifying, and...completing.  I felt like I was doing the exact thing God designed me to do.  I didn't look ahead and long for the boys to go to school so I could have the chance to pursue a career or have more time to myself or not have to tend to little ones who needed me for practically everything.  In fact, I nearly wept when we decided to enroll Caleb in a two day a week preschool program at our church.  I didn't want to part with him before I had to.  I didn't understand the purpose behind sending my child to school to prepare him for school.  I wanted him home with me every moment he could be.  I wanted to soak up every second with my kids, for you can never get a day back, and these days pass all too quickly.

Much of those things are still true and have remained true through my grief, but something has permanently changed.  I am not the mother I once was, and I can never be that mother again because being Caleb and Joel's mom is no longer all-fulfilling.  There is a void in being their mom that didn't exist before.  And that void is Samuel.  I don't get to look at my sons and think, "this is everything I hoped it would be and so much more.  I am complete", for now the absence of Samuel is a permanent part of me as a mother.  I don't have all my children with me.  When I look at Caleb and Joel, I only see two of my three sons, and it is not complete.  I am not fulfilled.  Being a mother has a constant emptiness attached to it, a constant ache, a constant longing for something more.  It is not everything I dreamed it would be.  And I mourn the end of that period in my life where I was completely fulfilled and completely joyful -- where life was more than I ever hoped for and being a mom was all I dreamed it would be.  I will never have that back.  I will always have a hole in my life and heart, and though God may heal what is broken and does grant me joy and peace, I will always be scarred.  I mourn my mother's heart that was unblemished and full.  I mourn what will never be again.

Though I know I won't ever feel the way I did about being a mom, I am beginning to see that deep joy return.  I'm emerging, at least a little bit, from this shroud of suffocating grief that takes away my ability to be in the moment and really and truly meet Caleb and Joel's needs.  I have found myself responding to tears with a tender heart again and wanting to understand the source of their pain and comfort them in earnest rather than gloss over it and put a bandaid on the wound -- literally or figuratively.  I have plopped on the floor on a whim when we would normally have been headed downstairs for breakfast to dump out all the change Caleb has collected over the four and half years of his life and to sort it into piles, count it, and teach him about giving, saving, and spending money.  I have walked them to our neighborhood playground to play Star Wars and assume the role of Darth Vader.  I have taken them outside for extra play time instead of going to roomtime.  I have delighted in the hardly-pausing-for-a-breath-20-minute-elaborate-imaginings that Caleb is constantly vocalizing.  I have secretly laughed at how Joel throws himself on the floor and pretends to sob when something doesn't go his way.  I have tapped back into that deep well of joy in being Momma to my two oldest sons.  And it is wonderful to feel again and to see peeking out of me bit by bit.

Saturday was a really hard day for me for a myraid of reasons, but even in that hard day, I found myself genuinely delighted by my boys.  I was solemn all that morning, thoughtful and introspective, but when I looked up at watched Caleb and Joel playing in the sunshine, my heart smiled a bit, and I thought, "I am profoundly grateful for these boys and for the joy and privilege of being their mom.  How they make my heart swell.  Thank you, God."  That was one of the moments that really awakened me to how Caleb and Joel's old mother is emerging.  As a friend pointed out, I am a different mom because of Samuel, and I should be, but I am hoping to one day be a better mom because of Samuel.  I am not there yet, but I am hopeful.  I am trusting God to do in my heart what He wants to do and to protect Caleb and Joel's hearts in the wide parenting gaps I have left and continue to leave in the wake of Samuel's death.  And in the meantime, I am so grateful for the glimpses of the old me that are shedding the chains of grief's encompassing fog.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Feeling Normal

Since sometime around Samuel’s death, I have assumed that I would schedule some time with a counselor at some point. This week I spoke to one for the first time since Samuel passed away. I had taken the day as a personal retreat at the St. Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center on the Chattahoochee River where shared the building and grounds with several staff members and about ten nuns on a silent retreat. We didn’t bother each other much. ☺ The lovely weather allowed me to spend most of the day outside. The sunlight, the running water, the paths through the woods all enabled me to slow down and take a deep breath. I needed it.

After my hour conversing with the counselor, I spent most of the rest of the day journaling. I had a lot to process and capture. My time with the counselor was more helpful than I anticipated an hour could be. Because she knew a little bit of my story, we were not starting quite at square one, and because she has counseled several friends of mine, I walked into our time with some trust and respect already accrued.

I had told Kathryn several times over the last several weeks that I felt like I needed some direction and input. I would say, “I think that it would be really helpful to have someone tell me that what I am feeling and thinking, how I am processing this, and my questions are normal. Honestly, it would even be helpful for someone to tell me that they are not normal. I’d just like to know, ‘How am I doing?’.” Meeting with the counselor provided me just that. She paid careful attention to my temperament and repeatedly helped normalize my experience: “Of course you feel that way. This is how someone with your personality approaches emotions.” She was even able to offer some encouragement in areas where I seem to be processing well. Not to say that I am healed of my grief or that I have everything figured out, but I walked away from the conversation feeling validated. My prediction to Kathryn was right. I was surprised at how much lighter I felt just knowing that what is going on in my mind and heart, especially in regards to grieving the death of my son, is normal.

In addition to the validation and affirmation, the counselor offered several questions and exercises that she feels could continue to help me process my grief and, more broadly, my emotions. The fact that I look forward to some of these exercises highlights the value of the counselor’s input. Just a day earlier, if someone had told me that they wanted me to spend some time processing this or that, I would have probably felt overwhelmed. It would have been like someone telling me to go to Cleveland when I am lost in the middle of the desert. Which way? How? Where am I? Now someone has come up to me and showed me where I am on a map and assured me that plenty of people have come through these parts before. It doesn’t make the journey easy, but it makes it feel possible.

I am still heavy hearted most of the time. I still find my swells of emotion scary. I still have a lot of healing to do. Paying attention to my soul is still not as natural for me as I would like it to be. But something has changed. I now know that these things are normal. I fully agree with Kathryn’s sentiments that life after Samuel will never be the same, that our lives will never be the old “normal” again. But, if I can use the same word in a different way, even knowing that that thought is “normal” helps me to feel “normal.” Now, instead of my inner world being predominated with isolation and fear, I feel more validated and hopeful.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Six Months

This week we passed the six month mark of Samuel's death.  Since Samuel died on the 31st, there are only 7 months in which we have an exact day to mark the months since we lost him.  With February only having 28 days this year, we were three days short of an actual sixth month anniversary.  As a result, I didn't have one day where it was really on my mind and burdensome.  Instead I have had almost a week of thinking about it here and there and feeling generally blue but not overwhelmingly sad. 

It's hard to think half a year has gone by since I last got to see and touch my third son.  And somehow -- though I recognize this is unreasonable and a figment of my own imagination -- when Samuel was dying, I always thought we would be doing better by the time six months had gone by.  Six months seemed like a long time off, and I thought we'd be pretty "normal" by then.  It didn't take me long to realize that it is absurd to think we'll ever be "normal" again.  We'll never be the people we were before Samuel.  And I'm ok with that.  I don't want to be the person I was before Samuel changed my life.  He has enriched me and drawn me closer to my Savior and given me a deeper gentleness and truth in my soul.  His life has forever altered mine, and for that I thank God every day.  It makes his life feel more real when I can look at myself or others and see how Samuel has made a difference.  But it is hard to see six months roll around and feel like we're farther behind than I had hoped we would be.  I know it is silly, and I don't actually hold myself to some self-imposed time table of healing, but I am aware of how much harder life still is than I had expected it to be.

On the last day of February, six months after the last day of August, we found ourselves in the same room where we had Samuel's memorial service.  It was the first time I had been back in North Point's Theater.  We were there for the happy occasion of witnessing a good friend's commissioning service, and we were surrounded by many of the same people who surrounded us on that dark day nearly six months earlier.  It was hard to sit there and see one of the men who spoke at Samuel's service standing on the same spot on the stage, to stand and sing with a room full of people like we did that day, to picture where our chairs had been in the room and where we sat watching the video of our sweet Samuel's life.  It was hard to be back.  But it was also good to celebrate our friend and to remember being in that room for happy occasions too -- like when Bryan was commisioned a year and a half ago.  Though I will always associate that room with Samuel's death, I will also associate it with happy moments when we were joyful and smiling.  I'm glad it isn't a place of only sorrow in my mind.

The other thing that has been really hard for me lately is looking ahead to August.  As we've talked about trips and vacations and other events that require forethought and planning, we have numerous times stumbled upon August in our conversations: "Could we go to the beach with the Apinis family the first week of August?",  "When does my mom get back from Turkey?  Is it the beginning of August?", "I can't believe Caleb starts kindergarten in August!"  Each of these moments has knocked the wind right out of me.  How can we already be talking about August -- a full year from when we met and lost our Samuel?  How is this possible?  How can it already be looming in front of us?  It's overwhelming to me.  And I am nervous about how the sorrow of that month is going to be amplified by Caleb starting kindergarten.  I LOVE having my kids home with me.  LOVE it.  I have dreaded the start of school for my boys from the day they were born.  I wonder how I'm going to survive August when it means the year anniversary of that oh, so difficult month in our lives AND the beginning of Caleb going to school.  The Lord is going to have to show up in my life in a mighty way!

It is hard to see time continually marching forward, but I know that's how life is.  It's how God designed it.  And He is continually healing our hearts, bit-by-bit and moment-by-moment.  He is working on me and molding me and growing me.  I want to heal and grow.  I know time is part of this.  And so though I hate to see August 2009 fall farther and farther behind me, I continue to reach out my hand, let God lift me gently to my feet, and walk another step forward in the shadow of my Lord.  I will continue to follow where He leads, and I will faithfully ask for the courage to rejoice in each and every day He grants me -- no matter how far it takes me from the days when I sat by Samuel's side.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Unexpected Grace

This weekend Bryan and I headed down to Buckhead for a Wheaton College alumni and parents event.  In years past we've considered going but have never felt like it was worth the time and money to actually attend.  This year, however, an alum footed the bill for the entire event, so we could attend free of charge.

Bryan and I both attended Wheaton from 1996-2000.  It was a wonderful experience for both of us, though we would describe our time there in different ways.  It's where we met (during orientation our freshman year), where we became gradually closer friends, and where we eventually fell in love.  I look on those four years as a genuinely blessed, truly deepening time in my life.  I loved Wheaton from start to finish.  It's where the most important relationships in my life began (with a few exceptions), and it's where God taught me to embrace myself -- no matter how broken, ugly, or shamed I was.  For Bryan Wheaton was a darker and harder time.  During his years there, he learned his dad had cancer, watched as his dad died, and struggled with an all-consuming depression.  But out of those hardships, the Lord deepened Bryan's heart, his dependence on God, and his already firm faith.  And out of the hurt Bryan and I were both facing during our college years, the Lord birthed our love for each other.  Our marriage began in the ashes of Bryan's grief and of my struggle to heal from some deep wounds.  Wheaton played a pivotal role in our love, our lives, and our relationships with God.  We are abundantly grateful for that place.

As we headed to Buckhead on Friday, I said to Bryan, "Are you prepared to be asked, 'How many kids do you have?' We're going to get it a lot tonight.  Do you know how you want to answer?"  We discussed it and came up with saying something along the lines of, "We have three, but our youngest passed away about 6 months ago."  Sure enough, we heard the question repeatedly.  I'd say we were asked no less than a dozen times.  The first three times I cried, but it got easier as the night went on.  Though I was prepared to get the question, I was not prepared for the kindness and compassion we received when people heard about Samuel.  I got a lot of hugs.   More than one person teared up, and everyone was gracious and gentle.  I had forgotten how very much I like Wheaton people! 

We sat at a table with younger grads, and I loved hearing what they're up to, what Wheaton was like for them, and how they are doing in life post-college.  It was rich conversation, and I loved it.  There is something about the shared bond of having gone to Wheaton -- and more importantly, the shared bond of knowing and loving Christ.  It was easy to talk to these strangers and to feel like they were friends. 

After dinner, Bryan and I went up to talk to Dr. Litfin, the soon-to-be retired President of Wheaton College.  While we were waiting to talk to him, some 1980 grads stopped us to chat.  One of the couples attends North Point, our church and where Bryan works.  When they asked about our kids and heard our answer about Samuel, they were so tender with us.  They spoke about suffering and hurt, about how hard it must be for us, about how sorry they are for our loss.  But most significantly, they circled around us and prayed for us.  It was a prayer we needed and touched us deeply.  One of the things Phil Tuttle prayed was that we would continually come to their minds that they might keep praying for us.  I was so moved by that request -- that they would want to remember some strangers with a heartbreaking story, so they could continually pray for us.  Just typing about it has a huge lump in my throat. 

When we finally got a chance to speak to Dr. Litfin, it was a more blessed conversation than I could have anticipated.  Bryan simply expressed thanks for his leadership of Wheaton and told him that though Wheaton was a hard time in his life, it was a time of rich growth and God's goodness.  Dr. Litfin immediately honed in on the "hard time" comment and asked how it was hard.  When he heard about Bryan's dad, he was so kind and thoughtful.  Then in talking about Dallas Theological Seminary (where Bryan takes satellite classes, Dr. Litfin attended and taught, and my dad was once a professor), I asked if he knew my dad, and after a few questions, he learned about my dad's affair and the subsequent divorce of my parents.  He quickly asked, "How has that been for you as your dad's daughter?  Are you ok?  What has that been like?"  A few minutes later he put his arms around us and said, "You two sure have been through a lot!" to which I said, "and you don't know the worst of it!"  When he heard about Samuel, he started crying and shared a story with us about suffering and God's presence in it.  He told us about his daughter who, in 1972, was born 3 months early.  The doctors told him she most likely would not survive and if she did, she would be severely brain-damaged.  She is now grown up and healthy and a graduate of Wheaton.  He sympathized with us in our pain and shed tears with us.  I cannot tell you how much this meant to us or how blessed we felt by it. 

When we left we both said what an unexpectedly wonderful evening it was and how we will make every effort to attend in future years.  On the drive to the event, Bryan had prayed that we would somehow be able to encourage others, but it hadn't occurred to us that instead we would walk away uplifted and so gently cared for.  The night was a blessing and another picture of our Heavenly Father's tender love for us.  Now we have another reason to be thankful for Wheaton College.