Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Grief in Everyday Life

We were at our neighborhood pool recently, and I saw a very pregnant woman there with her family.  It occurred to me, "I was that woman last year!"  As I thought back to a year ago, I remembered how big I was in the summer.  I know all pregnant women claim they were huge when they were pregnant, but in my case, it was true.  I can back it up with facts: when I was 36 weeks pregnant, I was measuring 43 weeks pregnant!  A full term pregnancy is 40 weeks.  I was 4 weeks before my due date and measuring 3 weeks past my due date.  Mostly this was because I had polyhydramnios -- or too much amniotic fluid.  Pictures of me from last summer look downright uncomfortable.  I don't recall feeling uncomfortable, but I sure looked it.  As I thought about my pregnancy with Samuel and how, because of my enormous belly, my close friends would just laugh at me when they'd see me, it hit me: Samuel's first birthday is a mere 5 1/2 weeks away.  How is that possible?  I don't feel at all ready for his birthday.  How are we almost a year away from when he first came into the world?  It leaves me a little shaky when I think about how quickly this anniversary is approaching.

Last week I "visited" Samuel's grave for the second time.  Other than the burial, I had been there only one other time, and that was in September.  (On a side note, I think I hate the word visit in reference to a cemetary.  I'm not visiting Samuel.  And visit has such lighthearted, nonchalant connotation.  It feels all wrong for going to my baby's grave.)  I didn't really want to go, but we had an errand to run a mere three mintues from the gravesite.  I am never up that way, and it felt wrong to be around the corner and not go.  As we set out on our errands, Joel asked, "What errands do we have to do?"  I told him the list and then said, "And we might go see where Samuel is buried."  Joel immediately asked with joy in his voice, "We're going to Heaven?!"  I felt so bad that he was confused and tried to explain that we were going to his grave -- a place where we can go to remember Samuel.  We talked about the white box, and mostly I felt at a total loss about how to explain it so Joel could understand.  Caleb seemed to track with me from the beginning, and he tried to chime in and explain it to his little brother.

When we got out of the car, I was holding Joel in my arms and immediately started crying.  It was a sniffing kind of cry, and Joel asked without looking at me and recognizing my tears, "Mommy, what are you smelling?"  I choked out, "I'm sad, honey," and he said, "Sad about Samuel?"  We walked over to Samuel's grave and looked at the temporary marker.  I read it to the boys, and we stood there for awhile, me crying continually.  Joel squatted down and put his finger into the earth: "Samuel is in here under this dirt?"  I told him, "Joel, Samuel's body that didn't work is buried under this dirt.  His heart that didn't work and his lungs that didn't work and all of his body -- which wasn't healthy -- is in the white box under here.  But the part of Samuel that loved people or would have laughed or smiled or been sad or happy, that part is Samuel's soul.  And Samuel's soul is in Heaven with God and Jesus, and he's very happy there.  This is just a place where we can come to remember Samuel."  Joel looked pretty perplexed, but I didn't really know how else to explain it, so I hugged him close, and we stayed a little longer before heading out.  It was hard to go to the grave -- really hard, but it wasn't horrible, and it makes me think I could go back without so much dread and trembling beforehand.  And we're finally working on his headstone, so soon it will be a relief to know his permanent marker is there.  Maybe someday it will be a place I go to feel connected to my baby and to joyfully remember our time together. 

The last two Sundays at church, there has been a new lighting effect on the walls during worship.  The production crew uses some sort of screen to project what looks like branches of a tree with lots of extending twigs on the wall.  Bryan leaned over and told me, "I like that new effect," and I vigorously shook my head in disagreement.  When he asked why, I tearfully told him, "It reminds me of what the vasculature of Samuel's lungs should have looked like."  It still surprises me sometimes what sends me lurching back into grief and commences the onset of waves of sorrow.  I spent the rest of our singing time in tears.  There are painful reminders everywhere, and there is just no way to predict when they will assault me and when they will sit passively by and let me pass unaccosted. 

I have always thought that I would continue to record this journey of grief until the first year has passed, and grief has faded a little, and life resumes a more normal rhythm, but I am realizing again how I keep imposing a time table on myself.  I keep expecting grief to operate on some sort of calendar where predictable markers come into play.  But as we approach Samuel's first birthday, I am almost dumbfounded by how real and hard grief still is.  I feel like the last three or four months of grief have been fairly similar -- a steady sorrow in the midst of continuing and mostly joyful life.  It's an undercurrent most of the time, but it's always there, and it's very, very real.  There are no signs of it fading anymore than it already has anytime soon.  I am realizing how foolish I was to think a year of grief would mark any significant ability to leave this blog behind and quit documenting what I'm feeling and experiencing.  It continues to be a healing and truly helpful part of my grief journey, and so I think I'm going to ditch my pre-set plan of blogging for one year.  Whenever it seems right to stop, I will.  But until then, this place will continue to be where I come to emote and to find a little peace after I finally jot down my emotions and the latest parts of my journey.  So, I guess I will blog on. 

And on that note, I will call this entry done because I haven't the slightest idea how else to end it.  :)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fear, Faith, and Folly

For a few months now, I have had this image in my mind of a road stretching between two deep ditches.  On one side, there is a ditch called folly.  It is where the impatient fall, the impetuous tumble, and the prideful slide.  It where the person who disregards counsel slips and where the fool flops.  On the other side is a ditch called fear.  It is where the anxious squat, the trepidatious topple, and the mistrusting stumble.  It where the person huddles who amplifies cautious counsel until everything is off-limits and nothing is safe.  Running steadily between these two disastrous pitfalls is a thin, delicately balanced yet well grounded path called faith.  It is where the trusting, wise, obedient, and humble journey.  It is where I want to be.

In these months of missing and grieving Samuel and of meeting with repeated disappointment in our attempts and desires for another child, I have found myself tottering on the edge of each these ditches at various times.  When we have hit roadblocks with my thyroid levels and been told to wait to conceive again, I have peered down into folly and wanted to jump.  I have wanted to do it my own way and force my own path instead of waiting patiently on God's perfect and good timing.  I have wanted to wave off the doctors' advice and direction and tell God I was being brave and jumping in regardless of wise and knowledgable counsel.  I pretended it would be faith for me to take the reins and assume control, but it wouldn't have been.  It would have been folly, and I would have found myself floundering in a pit I had deceived myself into calling something pretty and virtuous despite its rank odor and clear signs of rot.  It would have been foolish, but I was sorely tempted.

And now I find myself peering down into fear and wondering if I am going to go roly poly, pell mell into it.  We got the official go-ahead from the most conservative of my doctors yesterday, but I find myself anxious and fearful, timid and uneasy.  Some of my numbers are still not where we want them to be.  In fact, my TPO antibodies, which are most associated with miscarriage, are still seven times higher than the normal range.  But this is the best combination of levels we can achieve at this point since the medicine that regulates my thyroid is the same medicine that reduces antibodies, and I am now at the bottom of the normal range for my thyroid.  We cannot increase my dosage and stay in the acceptable range for TSH, so this is as good as it gets.  Part of me wants to say "No risks!  I can't possibly survive another miscarriage.  We can't take any chances.  We'll have to keep waiting and pray things eventually even out and everything is perfect and no chance of heartbreak remains."  But then we'd be waiting forever, and I'd be heartbroken anyway.  But I see fear just over the side of the road, and a part of me wants to be curled up down there, holding tightly to my dreams and sheltering them from danger. 

But where I really want to plant my feet is on the path of faith.  It's a precarious journey, staying firmly grounded in God and not giving in to my desire for control or my desire for safety, but it is the only road that will be truly rewarding.  I want to heed the wise counsel I receive but ultimately filter it through God's Word and God's character and lay my hopes, dreams, fears, and prayers at His feet.  I want to move forward with courage and honor and humility.  And I want to be willing to accept whatever Christ gives me -- be that a healthy baby, another miscarriage, months of failed attempts to get pregnant, or even -- and I shudder when I think of it -- another Samuel.  I know I can indeed face whatever comes because I know God is with me, and I know nothing is too big for His mighty love, grace, strength, and sufficiency.  He will carry me through whatever fires lie ahead, and I can trust Him to be enough.  I can walk in faith because He is gracious to lead me on His path. 

So as I look forward and see a plethora of possibilities and mountains of uncertainty, I firmly plant my feet on the road of faith.  Whatever is around that bend ahead, I will walk it.  Whatever lies just beyond the shadows, I will travel there too -- with my good God who is faithful to provide what I need to honor Him, trust Him, and ultimately follow Him no matter where He leads.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Merciful Pruning

I've avoided saying this directly for many months now, but I have finally decided to just disclose it.  I guess I was holding it close out of a myriad of reasons: self-protection, fear, a sense of privacy, habit, and who knows what else.  Probably this will come as no surprise as I've alluded to it enough, but Bryan and I have been trying to get pregnant again since November.  Well, that's not exactly accurate.  We were trying to get pregnant again until my thyroid news forced us to put our plans on hold.  In fact, the only reason I know about my thyroid is because 3 months went by without us getting pregnant, and that was unusual.  With Caleb, Joel, my two miscarriages, and Samuel we got pregnant immediately.  Three months without a pregnancy was strange, and I had noticed that something in my cycles had changed, so I went to my OB to do some bloodwork.  That's when my hypothyroidism showed up -- something very influential in fertility. 

Since learning about my thyroid, I have been very, very anxious to get everything in order so we could get pregnant again.  Every bump in the road (and there have been several) has felt like an enormous hurdle and a huge disappointment.  There is a correlation between untreated thyroid issues and miscarriage as well as high thyroid levels and poor fetal brain development, so obviously it's something we need to get under control.  But it has taken much longer than I anticipated. 

At first I was told that I would need to wait two cycles, and that sounded like an eternity.  I prayed and prayed for my numbers to come down, and numerous things suggested my levels would be good at the end of those two months.  But they weren't.  I had to wait another cycle.  I was deeply disappointed and had some hard days, but I surrendered another month.  Then I had to wait another month.  More disappointment and frustration. 

As the waiting has dragged on, I have had to surrender over and over again my hopes for the future.  And I have had to learn a lot about trust, about my heart, about my reluctance to let God work in His own timing -- or in His own way.  I have felt like God was asking so much of me.  Not only did I have to surrender Samuel, I had to lay down my picture of our family.  Each month I have felt the grief of our family not growing on top of my grief for Samuel.  For two years now, we have been trying to grow our family.  Right about two years ago we got pregnant with the first baby we miscarried.  And now, two years later, I still have only two children in this house to raise and love.  It has felt like a grief upon a grief.  Of course I grieve Samuel and the baby boy I sat by, sang to, prayed over, and read to.  I miss him all day, every day.  But I also grieve the family we aren't, the children we don't have and aren't expecting.  They feel like two related but separate griefs.  And some times it feels like too much.

Ask my friends, and they will tell you how challenging this road of not getting pregnant has been for me, how much it's on my mind, how desperately I long for it, and how frequently I talk about it.  It has been the theme of my journal entries and a focus of my prayer times.  It feels like so many more than 7 months have passed since we began to meet with disappointment in this arena.  I have struggled and struggled with this season of infertility.  I have wrestled and wrestled with God.  I have wanted to buck the doctors and take things into my own hands and throw caution to the wind.  I have wanted to take back the reins and blaze my own trail and do it my way.  I have not wanted to wait.

A couple of weeks ago, Bryan came home from work, saw that I had had a hard day, and sent me to Starbucks for an hour to be alone and recover a bit.  While I was there, I pulled out my Bible and started reading John 15, a very familiar passage.  Though it's a chapter I am well acquainted with, I had never thought about it in terms of Samuel or this road of waiting to get pregnant.  But that evening, it struck me afresh, and it was a pivotal paradigm shift for me.  I read the first few verses and then got out of my seat to ask the barista if he had a pen I could borrow so I could mark the passage: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch that doesn't produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.  You have already been pruned for greater fruitfulness..."  For the first time, I saw this road of suffering as God pruning me.  I thought of Samuel and how through Samuel God has already pruned me for greater fruitfulness.  And then I thought of this constant struggle in wanting more children and being denied again and again, and I thought that He is pruning my "branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more."  For the first time, I saw this road we've been on as merciful.  This suffering is God's mercy in my life.  It is Him pruning me so that I can bear more fruit.  It is His loving gardener's hand wanting what is best for the sprig that is my life.  It is Him giving me more life, richer life, fruitful life, deeper life, abundant life.  It is His mercy.  And for the first time I felt grateful for this fire we're walking through, this period of infertility.  I am grateful that He loves me enough to prune me.

Honestly, reading that passage changed everything for me.  I am peaceful about this road, about the uncertainty of life ahead, about my longing for another child and having to wait who knows how long.  It is all His mercy, His kindness and love.  And though I still desire another child more than any other earthly thing, I am content to trust Him and let Him work how He wants to.  I don't need to usurp His authority in my life.  I can rest in Him, the perfect Gardener, who guides and feeds and prunes and loves this soul that is His handiwork.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Comforts of John

A few weeks ago for his bedtime story, Caleb picked a children's Bible.  We have one children's Bible that we absolutely LOVE (The Jesus Storybook Bible) and one we really don't care for.  He picked the one we aren't too fond of.  Then he proceeded to pick a story that I wouldn't choose for my 3 and 5 year olds: Cain and Abel.  Talk about a hard story to explain and ideas I don't really want my two little boys to have.  :)  At the end of the story, Caleb asked a couple of questions.  He asked Bryan, "Daddy, why wasn't Cain's sacrifice pleasing to God?"  I had always grown up thinking it was because Cain didn't give God his "first fruits" -- the best of his vegetables, but apparently the Bible doesn't actually say why his sacrifice was displeasing.  Bryan knows this from his seminary classes, and he told Caleb, "You know, Caleb, we don't really know why.  The Bible doesn't tell us."  Bryan could see Caleb processing this information, and he could tell it was unsettling to him.  Bryan continued, "But Caleb, you don't have to worry about whether or not something pleases God because we have the Bible which Cain and Abel didn't have.  It tells us what makes God happy.  We know what honors God."

Something about that statement -- that we know what honors God -- scared me a little.  I started to think, "Do I know what honors God?  For all my desperate desire to honor him in my grief, do I really know what does please Him?  What if I have it all wrong, and I'm making assumptions about what honors Him?  What if I've just settled on something that feels comfortable to me?  I like the idea that God would be honored by my faith, by my longing to please Him, by declaring His goodness to me.  But what if that's not it?  What if it's something harder than that?  What if God is not so compassionate and loving as I think but something more stern and exacting?  What if my sacrifice is ugly to Him like Cain's was?"  I kind of panicked inside, fearing that I don't know my God as well as I thought I did.  I resolved to start reading the book of John to try and learn about Jesus, about God, about what truly honors the God I serve.

So I did.  Though I've been consistently reading my Bible since I was eight years old and have read the whole thing at least 5 times, John struck me anew this time.  Sometimes my habit of reading the Bible can be pretty rote.  I grew up with Christianity, with Bible stories, with church.  It's all so familiar and such a part of my entire life that sometimes I'm a bit impervious to the words of Scripture.  They don't really sink in if I'm not careful to truly pay attention while I'm reading.  This time through, the words sunk in.  John has quickly become one of my favorite books of the Bible.  Not only is Jesus the Savior I thought and hoped He was, He is more.  He is deeply compassionate, kind, loving, gentle, righteous, sacrificing, and full of grace.  He is steadfast, wise, generous, and the bearer of true hope.  I am so glad I had my moment of panic because I am so glad to learn anew who this amazing God is that I love and serve.

And something I wasn't expecting happened in my reading of John.  I saw for the first time just how much Jesus talks about eternal life.  I haven't really paid that much attention in the past because it wasn't particularly important to me, but after Samuel's death, eternity in Heaven matters a lot.  I want to spend eternity with my baby boy, and I want Samuel with Jesus now.  I want Samuel to be whole and full of ultimate joy.  John has comforted me immensely in this regard.  Jesus talks over and over about eternal life.  It's not just his disciples who talk about it; it's my Savior Himself.  In my journal I started writing down all the verses that talk about rebirth, eternal life, and Heaven.  So far I have three pages, and I'm only through chapter six.

I am so grateful for a God who allows us to know Him, who tells us what honors and pleases Him and doesn't leave us guessing, who saves us by His grace and not by our merit or our good works.  He is a God I want to serve, a God I long to honor, a God I delight in loving, and a God I seek to know more and more as He grows and refines me.  He is a GOOD GOD I follow.

"They replied, 'What does God want us to do?'  Jesus told them, 'This is what God wants you to do: Believe in the one he has sent.'" John 6:28-29

"There is no judgment awaiting those who trust him."  John 3:18

"I assure you, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life.  They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life." John 5:24

"I am the bread of life.  No one who comes to me will ever be hungry again.  Those who believe in me will never thirst...And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given to me, but that I should raise them to eternal life at the last day.   For it is my Father's will that all who see his Son and believe in Him should have eternal life -- that I should raise them at the last day."  John 6:35, 39

"Jesus replied, 'If you only knew the gift God has for you and who I am, you would ask me, and I would give you living water...but the water I give them takes away thirst altogether.  It becomes a perpetual spring within them, giving them eternal life." John 4:10

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Picturing Samuel

Yesterday was nine months since Samuel died, and today Samuel would have been ten months old.  It's hard to believe that much time has passed since we were sitting by our son's side in the CICU. 

This past weekend we went to see my grandparents in Arizona, and we had a lovely time.  On the flight back, we were on the tarmac with a woman who was clearly overladden with a baby, bags, and baby gear.  I asked her if I could help, and she said, "Yes!" with such enthusiasm and gratitude.  She clearly could use a hand or two.  I took one bag, Bryan took another, and she held her baby girl.  I asked her how old her daughter was, and she said "Nine months."  That's pretty close to Samuel's would-be age.  The boys were enamored with the baby as they usually are.  I kept thinking, "That baby looks familiar to me," but that felt like a bizarre thought.  How can a baby look familiar?  Hours later it hit me that her daughter reminded me of Samuel's first neighbor in the CICU.  He had been next to a bright-eyed baby girl who was adorable.  Her parents were seldom there.  In fact, we never saw a dad, and we may have only seen her mom once when she came and sat ten feet away from her and didn't even look at her.  I don't know what happened to that little girl though I'm fairly sure she moved to Step-Down a few days after we arrived at Egleston.  I wish I could remember her name so I could pray for her more personally. 

Seeing the baby on the airplane certainly made me wonder what Samuel would look like now and what he would be up to.  My niece who is 16 hours younger than Samuel is pulling up on things and trying to walk.  Would Samuel be doing the same?  Sometimes I get tripped up when I try to imagine Samuel if he had lived.  I don't know how to imagine him.  Do I think of him as the boy we never had -- totally healthy and a "normal" 10 month old, or do I think of him as the Samuel who would have survived all his defects but still been living with the reality of a weak heart, defective vasculature in his lungs, and consequences of longterm intubation and TPN feedings?  Do I picture a plump baby like Caleb and Joel were, or do I picture a baby who is underweight and possibly tube fed?  Do I imagine a busy, active boy, or do I imagine a boy who is developmentally delayed because of his rough start to life?  I don't know, and I get so confused that I can rarely picture anything at all.

Yesterday was Caleb's 5th birthday, and he declared at breakfast that no one was allowed to be sad on his birthday; we all had to be happy.  He got out of his seat and went to the fridge where he turned all our emotion faces to happy.  (Judy, our grief counselor, suggested we cut out sad and happy faces for each of us, so we can put up a face to let the family know how we're feeling that day or hour.)  Thankfully Caleb's birthday made it easy to be happy on one of my thirty-firsts. 

Here are a few pictures from our time in Arizona.  The boys LOVED seeing their great grandparents and especially loved our first family hike in the mountains.