A Letter to my Daughter

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My last post was on “being well.” The lapse of time between then and now is because I have been. I’m finished with all required clinical hours for medical school and currently at the beginning of a required vacation time for interview season. This winter, I will continue doing rotations simply for further education before my third daughter is born. Until then, I’m just a wife and mom who occasionally travels for an interview, and I am well. I am reading and writing a lot–you just haven’t seen most of it here. I’m approaching a more contemplative time of year for me as daylight hours become fewer and the air chills, and I have a feeling you’ll find me here more often. After all, I’m spending my days with a great source of inspiration–my husband and children.

One of those children turned two this weekend. Today marks two years from the day that she become very ill, and I feared for her life–it’s so hard to believe when I look at her now. She is unbridled joy in human form. She is the comic relief to her sister’s intensity. Time spent with her gives my heart rest, but never my body. I wrote a letter to her one year ago on her birthday (you’ll find it below), and I don’t really have much to add to it this year, except to say that this year with her brought me even more joy than her first.

A few details about her NICU stay remain seared in my mind. One is watching her nurses perform “neuro checks,” which included assessing her response to pain. There wasn’t one for a time. As a parent, it seems natural to feel relief when your child doesn’t wince and cry in response to a painful stimulus. As someone with medical knowledge, it is terrifying. I remember crying tears of joy the first time she pulled her ankle back in response to the discomfort of a blood draw–she was coming back to me.

My journey with faith has been painful…but pain usually has a purpose. Sometimes it is to warn us of danger or pathology. At other times, pain can be a comforting reminder that we are still alive enough to feel. And–as in labor and childbirth, which are only 14 or so weeks away for me–pain is sometimes necessary to bring forth something completely new and miraculous. Then comes the different, less intense but longer-lasting pain of adjusting to the newness and grafting it into your life. I think there are times when the purpose of pain does not justify its intensity, and in those times I am thankful for that there are limits to our lives on earth.

My heart still feels pain on this journey, and I’m not sure what kind of pain it is or what stage of the journey I’m in. I am only sure that the pain has a purpose, and my precious daughter’s life reminds me of that.

Dear EK,

We’ve been waiting to celebrate your first birthday for so much longer than a year. I remember when I discovered that you existed. I cried, and they weren’t tears of joy. They were tears of fear and of grief over losing you. Two years of hope and then loss and then more hope and more loss had taught me that sorrow follows swiftly behind joy–so I skipped the joy altogether and went straight to grief over a loss that hadn’t even happened yet. “The numbers” didn’t look good at first, and they told me to wait through the weekend and check again Monday. I don’t remember anything about that weekend except praying for you and wanting you. Monday came, and the numbers were perfect.

A six week ultrasound showed us a beating heart, and I was moved from the care of my infertility specialist to the regular clinic. Another ultrasound at 9 weeks showed a growing child–reassuring, because my only symptom of pregnancy was a daily nosebleed. At 16 weeks, we discovered that your daddy was outnumbered 3:1, and that EM would have a sister. From that point on, you had a name. From that point on, EK, I allowed myself to believe that this day would come.

We still had a long way to go, but the rest of the pregnancy was uneventful. I only knew you were there because of your movements, 35 extra pounds of weight (twice what I gained with your sister–I craved oranges with her and hot dogs with you), and the daily nosebleeds. One year ago yesterday, we decorated the Christmas tree, not knowing that it was my final act of “nesting.” I went into labor 2 hours later and it continued with perfect steadiness until you were born 13 hours after it started–at exactly midnight on November 7th. You weren’t even a minute late to your birthday. You were 7 lbs, 4 oz and 19.25 in long, born at exactly 38 weeks. When they held you up to let me see you for the first time, your eyes were wide open–and they stayed that way all night long. I had declined all forms of pain medication during labor so I could have a more alert baby for early nursing–by morning, I questioned the wisdom of that.

Your sister met you later on that day. EK, she was enthralled with you. She still is. She stayed home sick from school this week, and you went. I found her in bed snuggled up with your stacking cups yesterday morning. “I miss EK,” she said, “and these remind me of her. They’re her favorite things.” I know you feel the same way about her, because of how you squeal and smile when she comes into your room with me every morning. May it always be so.

Over the next day we had visitors and vitals checks and videos about not shaking the baby we had been wanting for two and a half years. And then they set us free as a family of four, and we went home.

And then you got sick. I went from feeling relief that you were a “good” baby to feeling paralyzing fear that you were “too good.” No healthy breast-fed baby sleeps 12 hours straight on her third night of life. An ER visit turned into a week in the NICU, and for the first half of it, we didn’t know if there would be a celebration of your first week of life, let alone your first year. I lost all sense of time during that week. It could have been hours; it could have been years. I don’t remember eating a single meal other than crackers and cheese in the parents’ lounge–although I’m certain I actually did. You wouldn’t even respond to pain for days. The day you finally did is the day they said the words I’ll never forget: “She will pull through. You’ll bring her home.”

And you did pull through. And we did bring you home. And you continued to be “too good”–but with time, my nerves calmed down, and it brought me joy instead of fear. There have been mornings when your unbridled enthusiasm over seeing me has brought me to tears. It would be enough for you to just be alive, but you are so much more than that. That smile, that laugh, those squinty eyes, those out-of-control squeals when you see someone you love. The way you patiently sit while I clip all twenty nails. The way you smile and wave when I drop you off at daycare, as if you’re the one reassuring me that it will all be okay, and that I will be back soon. All of these things compel me to adore you. All of these things go so far beyond what I require of you–which is simply that your heart beats, that your skin is warm, that your body grows.

One of my favorite things about you is that you’re not in a hurry. You didn’t sit until 8 months old. You didn’t crawl until 2 weeks ago. You have still never rolled over, although now I suspect that your body type prevents it. You eat and eat and eat, sometimes half an hour after the rest of us have finished, even after the meal has been cleaned up. You nap a total of 6 hours every weekend day when we have you at home. You enjoy life more than anyone I’ve ever known.

There’s one thing you did too fast–you turned one year old today. I wasn’t ready for that. But isn’t it what I wanted? Didn’t I pray next to the isolette of the most beautiful baby in the NICU, begging your Creator for a first birthday? And here we are. And although I wish I could slow down your growth, I am so thankful that you are healthy and growing. I am so thankful that we now celebrate every year that passes, instead of every breath you take. And although I wish I could keep you from all pain, I’m so thankful that you are alive enough to feel bonked heads and bug bites–and that you are no longer familiar with deeper pain.

We finally made it to a year–a milestone we’ve anticipated for your first twelve months of life, for the pregnancy preceding them, and for the two years prior to that when we waited in hope for you. A milestone we feared we might never see during the days when your number of respirations mattered so much more than your number of days. For so long we waited for this baby who is never in a hurry–yet somehow you still reached one year too quickly.

And one year has never meant more to me. You are worth it all–worth thousands of dollars in hospital bills, worth anxiety and tears, worth delaying my graduation by a full year for more time with you in the early days. You were worth the wait.

So now we move on to year two. Some days the time will pass quickly, and some days I’ll feel like we’ll be stuck in this stage of life forever. So on the days when we’re stuck, I’ll take the time to know you, to memorize you at that age. And on the days when time laps me over and over, I’ll be thankful that you are growing as a healthy child should, and that my NICU prayers are being answered–prayers for the celebration of years instead of breaths.

Happy birthday, EK. You were worth everything it took to get us to one year. I pray for many more years of the joy of knowing you. Whether they come quickly or slowly, with the peace of easy days or with the triumph of overcoming great difficulty and with pain that reminds us that we are alive–my prayer is simply that they come.

[Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

When Glass Shatters

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Glass shot across the floor—second ornament down. We needed a new game plan. It was December 1st and the first year that my four year old was decorating the tree with us—and she wanted every ornament she hung to be placed front and center. I was handing her ornaments one would ordinarily like to have placed front and center–until I realized that I was dooming some of the prettiest glass balls to destruction the moment that they left my hand for hers. I reached for another box and sorted through ornaments to find ones she could safely hang. Winnie the Pooh from 1993. Garfield from 1994. Barbie from 1992. A Popsicle-stick picture frame with my three-year-old mug shot from 1989. A reindeer made out of a clothespin. A crayon-marked manger cut out of paper and strung with a pipe cleaner—the ornament she made at church last year. Plastic cheerleaders, ballerinas, cellos—all the ornaments commemorating my husband’s and my childhoods—these were the ones once restricted to the back of the tree. This year they would hang front and center. I would not break her heart; I could not restrict her to hang ornaments where they would only face a wall. So we decorated our tree as a family, and my one-year-old rearranged as she saw fit. I don’t think we really ended up with any ornaments in the back, because my daughter wouldn’t have it—they all had to be included, had to be visible.

I laughed as I handed my daughter another ornament with my own picture in it as a preschooler—truly a face only a mother could love, and I think even my husband agrees. But on the tree it went, because she wanted more ornaments to hang, and it couldn’t be broken in a fall. And I realized as I watched her hang it that this is my favorite tree ever, because it’s full of stories, not glass balls. I can tell you the story about most of the ornaments on that tree—for each one I remember who gave it to me or where I was when I bought it. I remember the reason I selected it or the aspect of my life that it represents. I remember the glue on my fingers as I crafted it in Sunday School, and I remember wanting it in a highly visible position on the tree, just as my daughter does. This tree proudly holds and tells my stories.

I’m staying with my sister and brother-in-law right now a few hours from home. I had to take a certification type of exam for work on the 5th, and I chose to take it in her city so I could stay the weekend and celebrate our birthday together—something we always did growing up but haven’t been able to do since I started my job a few years ago. We’re also taking the time away from my kids to build a dollhouse for my daughter and start (and hopefully finish) the Christmas shopping that we weren’t able to do online. My sister is my best friend after my husband, and she has so patiently taken the back-seat for several years now because of my job. I owe her this, and I love being here. Her house is perfect. She’s in a different place in life than I am. She shops at high-end furniture stores; I shop on Main Streets of small towns and at garage sales. And her tree—oh, it’s beautiful. Every ornament is part of a theme, perfectly placed in what almost looks like a formation with the other ornaments. Every ornament is one of a set of six. Every ornament coordinates with her living room decor. Every ornament is worthy of a front and center position—but not one of them tells a story. My ornaments wouldn’t fit in here. It makes me a little homesick.

It’s funny how my grown-up Christmas tree looks more like my childhood one than ever. It’s funny how the tree itself tells my story. “What’s your tree’s theme?” My friends ask. “Stories,” I say. Almost every ornament has one. My tree doesn’t revolve around a real theme, and it doesn’t have to.

My life doesn’t revolve around a theme, and it doesn’t have to.

Themed trees remind me a little of my former dogmatic attitude. Every idea that came into my head was filtered through my beliefs and tossed out if it didn’t fit in with what was already there—like a pink ballerina ornament attempting to hang among my sister’s green glass balls. Every story, every testimony of another person that didn’t point to the God I believed in was pushed to the back like an ornament I would rather others not see. You’re wearing jeans to church? Hopefully you’ll sit in the balcony. You’re pregnant at 16? Surely you’re not going on the youth ministry hurricane relief trip. You speak in tongues? It’s probably best not to do that here. You don’t believe in a literal hell? We can’t let you teach Sunday School.

That’s the church and the family I grew up in, and I am also guilty of thinking some of the things I wrote. Sadly, I’ve noticed some of the same things in my current church. Someone doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God? They’re not worth talking to. You’re having doubts about your belief in God? Stop messing with eternity—I’m afraid that if you died today, you would go to hell. The first was said in front of me by someone who didn’t know I was doubting. The second was said directly to me by someone who knows where I stand. I don’t belong here. I’m out of place. I’m a back-ornament at least—and maybe off the tree altogether. So then there’s the question I often hear—Without Christ, what will you build your life around?

What will I build my life around? What will be my theme? How did I lose my theme to begin with?—it was so well-constructed, so fitting with my environment, so complete. I lost it as I replaced one piece at a time. I listened to others’ stories, and I eventually placed them in an area of high-visibility in my heart. I listened to my husband’s doubt about the reliability of scripture. I listened to my Hindu friend tell me about her own idea of God and of its influence on her life. I listened to lifelong atheists tell me what brings purpose and meaning to their lives. I cherish these people, and I value their stories. They helped me to overcome an over-dependence on a theme I was emotionally bound to, and I discovered my own doubts and false beliefs with time. My whole life was decorated with fragile glass.

For many of you, the faith I left is your theme. For some of you, it’s stronger than glass and won’t fall or shatter no matter how hard you are shaken. Honestly, I thought my faith was that strong. If that is true of your faith, I am happy for you and value your story too. I will, however, urge you to let your understanding be questioned. Let your beliefs be shaken. Anything that falls so easily was likely not worth holding onto anyway. Let whatever remains become your theme—a loose theme that allows for new additions and subtractions when necessary and won’t shatter under light pressure.

My life doesn’t have a unifying theme right now, and I’m okay with that. If you make me pick one, I’ll tell you my Christmas tree theme—stories. I love to hear them, and I love their tellers. I crave the personality and the diversity they bring to my life—my world is so much bigger and more colorful now. I try my best to hear and learn from them all—not just the ones that fit with what I know or what I’ve always believed. And I value them by giving them a prominent place in my heart—not in the back where they are concealed in shadows. In doing so, I’m loving others more than I’ve ever loved—more than I ever did when I had that theme. Like my grown-up Christmas tree, my grown-up life looks more like something out of my childhood than ever. I’m inquisitive about others, I’m more pliable, and I love fearlessly.

We cleaned up the mess from shattered glass balls, but we’ll probably still step on jagged pieces of them from time to time. Sometimes it’ll hurt, and sometimes we’ll bleed. But I’m glad those ornaments are gone—they’re too fragile if not placed just right, and they sometimes hurt when they break. Most importantly, they are produced for the masses and fail to tell my story. Stories are the closest thing I have to a theme for my tree and my life, and your stories are welcome here too—whether your story is of a life without the faith I rejected or a story that has derived its meaning from that same faith. You all have a place in the front—let the glass ornaments fall.

(Image is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is linked to the source.)

Jehovah Rapha

This is weariness like I’ve never known. This is my tenth day of an illness, I’m about to take my 4th pill of a double-dose Z-Pak, and my body temperature is rising by the minute as symptoms worsen. I have worked 60 hours so far this week and will work 20 more out of the remaining two days. I’ve slept a total of 20 hours since Sunday morning. One week before this illness started, I had a head cold for a few days. The weekend before that, I had a stomach bug. Four days of the week before the stomach bug I had a more severe cold than the more recent one. And whatever I have now surpasses them all, combined. Missing work is not an option. Sleeping through the night is not an option (I’m still feeding an infant). Sucking it up is my only option, and people “suck up” far worse conditions every single day, shedding light on how trivial my problems really are. But still, I’m suffering–I have been blessed with excellent health and do not know physical pain beyond the pain of childbirth. My easy ride so far in life has made me a wimp in comparison to those who suffer greatly, so yes–I am weary.

We all have a tool-kit for times like these, when you have to reach for something deep within yourself just to meet the very next demand–you’ll figure out the others after this one. My parents began filling my kit when I was a child. They filled it with prayer, scripture, godly friends and a church family. My mom texted me today and asked how I was feeling. When I told her, she said “Well I’m praying for you!” Of course, I said something like, “Thanks–I need all the prayers I can get!” But really, chicken soup for the soul isn’t going to cut it. Prayer isn’t really in my tool box any more (although I sometimes reach for it out of habit), and that’s hard for me. I won’t say I never benefitted from it–I believe placebos can work, and sometimes the prayer placebo worked well for me. Knowing that there was a purpose for suffering and a greater strength than mine that could be revealed through it helped me make sense of much of my life and gave me energy in times of physical or emotional weakness. But right now the only things in my kit are antibiotics, narcotics, expectorants, antipyretics, and an inhaler. And even they aren’t cutting it. And in this moment, I’m at a loss. In this moment, I wish I could just pray and actually feel something, but all I can do is cry (without letting my family see, because I realize that this is utterly pathetic).

I remember the first time I got sick in college–the first month away from home–and how I laid on my bed in tears and told my roommate, “I just really want my mom.” I’ve outgrown that specific need, but this one feels so much like it. I just want a Savior to comfort me in my pain with a sense of His presence, but for the first time in my life I can’t muster up enough weak faith to ask for it. Instead of grieving how far away He is as I have for the past couple of years, I grieve because I don’t even believe He was ever there at all. And I’m discouraged because my work friends all keep the same hours I do, and all my church friends are offering is prayer and scripture about healing or encouragement that I’m not receiving. How many times have I done that–offered prayer instead of meals or scripture instead of my own words of encouragement or my own presence? How many times have I offered advice instead of genuine affection, sympathy, or companionship?

My mom can’t help me, many of my friends can’t help me, my other friends offer me empty platitudes, and even medicine can’t relieve what I’m enduring. So I’ll ride it out–tomorrow is day 11. But I miss finding a purpose in pain. I miss the offer of strength made perfect in my weakness. I miss casting my cares and being sustained. Just like the first sickness in college, I’m here in tears during one of my earliest trials since walking away–and I just really want Jesus.