Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Life Jackets

"The life jacket won't make you swim," I tried to explain. "You'll still need to do the work; it just keeps you from sinking."

She wanted to swim so badly. She felt it was time to move from the shallow kiddie pool over to the big kid pool. But she was afraid because she didn't know how to swim.

We borrowed a life jacket and strapped her in. The second the belt snapped in place she squealed, "now I can swim!"

Oh, buddy, I thought. If only it were that easy.

Avery and her life jacket

Maybe life is like swimming and faith is like the life jacket. 

Let's say you've got to swim across this huge span of water. You can't even see the other side and, while the waters appear calm and quite pleasant right now, you've heard stories of dark and stormy seas. Of waves that swell so big they threaten to swallow you whole. Of the torment the waters put on a body, making every muscle ache and lungs plead leaving you crying and completely broken, begging to just give up and give in to what attacks you.

But you've also heard stories of the gentleness and softness of the water. Like silk gently trailing across the flesh and the sun warms your face and the birds above you sing and you can lay your head back and soak in the goodness, smiling as it feeds your soul, overflowing with a love that you can't even put into words.

And you can't even see the other shore. So you know that when it is good you'll want it to last forever; but when your body is failing you'll want some relief.

And that's where the life jacket comes in. 

God's love wrapped tight around you, secured with his goodness and mercy and grace. His promises keeping you afloat. He provides the eternal life jacket for your soul. 

But you still have to do the work.

Because you can't just enter the waters wearing His life jacket and expect to suddenly get to the other side. 

You have to move your muscles. One arm, then the other. Kicking your legs, propelling you forward. Yes, you have the assurance of your life jacket - but that life jacket can't do the hard work for you.  

As we travel through the earth-waters of our life, knowing God's arms are wrapped tightly around us, God is telling us to kick! Move your arms!  He is the swim coach of our lives and the buoyancy that allows our head to keep popping up for air, allowing us to breathe in His greatness at that exact moment we felt we would fail.

And just as you must keep swimming through the torrential rains and work extra hard to swim through the waves that swell taller than we ever imagined, so God reminds us that when our earth-waters threaten to pull us down, suck us in, finish us off - it is then that we must try harder, faster, stronger! 

Because God is many things. He is love and light and goodness and compassion. He forgives and redeems and blesses and showers us with grace. But He won't do the work for us. He wants to see us do for ourselves. We need to do it for ourselves. 

A little bigger and a bit more confidence.

I watched as my daughter struggled. I watched as she became discouraged because she couldn't figure out how to move herself forward. I watched as her eyes narrowed in frustration as other kids swam quickly past her. I watched as she cried and complained when another jumped in next to her, causing a wave to splash into her face. I watched as she gagged and spit out water from her mouth.

Several times she looked at me, calling out for help. And I would answer, "You can do it, buddy. I know you can. I'm right here."

And, you know what? She did do it. 
She blew it out of the park.

Avery on the South Central Swim Team

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Spiral

"Buddy!" I ran over to Brody, just 4 years old, and scooped him up into my arms. "Why are you crying?"

I swear, He was just fine. I had just walked by, glanced at him happily pushing his train around the wooden track not more than five minutes ago. Suddenly he's sitting up, staring off into space, tears streaming down his little-boy cheeks.

"Buddy! What's wrong?" I rocked him back and forth, carefully pushing aside tears with my fingers. "Oh, honey, please tell me what happened!"

My eyes started an inventory, scanning his little body for hints of pinched fingers or maybe an errant bug bite. Something, anything, to make this sudden silent stream of tears make sense.

"I can't remember Avery very well anymore" he whispered, lower lip jutted out in the saddest pout I'd ever seen. "I know I should be happy because people can still tell me about her, but I just want to remember her for me." 



This was big.

And I got it. I really, really got what he was trying to say.

Time is passing. And with each passing day she gets a little further away.

Where before it was like I couldn't see a thing without seeing her face first, her beautiful smile - like I had to blink her memory away in order to pour the coffee in the cup because I couldn't see past her beautiful face that my mind always saw -- now, I can see the cup. And the coffee. That's not to say her sweet face isn't always there, it's just, well fading. Kind of like when you put a clipart image on your document and it's super bold and bright, but then you turn on the Watermark option. She's becoming a Watermark.

And I think it's like that. I think it has to be like that. Because if your grief doesn't Watermark you can't get anything else done. If your grief stays bold and bright you're always going to spill the coffee whenever you try to pour it, and pretty soon you're going to stop trying to pour it all together. So, your grief has to fade. It has to lessen. It has to become the Watermark so you can keep living.

But Watermarks aren't clean and crisp and clearly defined. They're hazy. They're light. Because their place is in the background. And while that's good for the "keeping living" part, it's kind of bad for the "remembering" part.

And Brody's sister is becoming a Watermark to him.

It's harder on him, I think, because what person really remembers what they did when they were three? Or two? And so he'll have the memories we tell him. He knows in his heart he misses his big sister, but he's struggling with remembering what exactly he shared with his big sister.

He has one terrific memory that makes me smile and laugh: "remember when me and Avery played hide and seek and I couldn't find her but then she was in the bathtub?!" He laughs so hard at this. Laughs just as hard as the afternoon it happened.

I remember it so clearly. Avery would hide, Brody would find her, and then he'd hide in the exact same spot he just found her in. We tried in vain to get him to hide in other places but he never would. Avery was such a good sport and would pretend she had no clue whatsoever where he might be located. She was so good that way.

Anyway, so one day Avery hid in the bathtub. Brody looked in all the usual places but couldn't find her. Just as he was getting frustrated and thinking about giving up, I said (loud enough for Avery to hear), "maybe if you're really quiet, you'll be able to hear her...."  I was expecting a sneeze or a cough. Maybe a loud sigh. Instead, she crowed like a rooster. Loudly. "COCK A DOODLE DOOOOOOOO!"

I about died laughing. But that was her. She was just ---- neat. Like, you just wanted to be with her because she was funny and witty and a good sport. And she crowed like a rooster during hide and seek.

A couple more crows and Brody found her. Both of them laughing so hard they could barely stand it. He couldn't get over the fact she hid in the bathtub. The bathtub! To this very day we all crow in public places in order to find each other. (Think clothing stores where little boys might wander.... yep, you'll hear a rooster.)

But even that memory I wonder if it's truly his or if it's just one of those that we've repeated so many times it's become his. Know what I mean? But then I think it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if he remembers first hand or if he remembers second hand, just that he feels like he knows a little bit about his sister that loved him so much.

As timing would have it, I had an appointment and needed to drop him off at my mom's. We showed up, me with a flushed face and red rimmed eyes, choking back tears as Brody, with his head down mumbled, "you ask." 

I took a deep breath and explained to my mom that Brody was feeling sad because he couldn't really remember Avery and that he wanted her to tell him what she could remember about his sister.

"Well," my mom said. "She liked to climb that tree."

"What tree?"

"That one, right there in the front. She'd climb up and sit on that tree limb."

"What else?"

I smiled and turned quietly to go.

We're the keeper of our own memories, sure. But we're also the keeper of his.

As I drove away I started thinking about Avery. About how she talked with a lisp and loved to play dress up. How she loved to eat lettuce and called it salad. "Can I have salad on my burger?" About how she spent the summer before she turned three (or maybe it was four) wearing her bright pink moon boots every day; even to church with her cute little sundresses. I thought about how her art teacher told me that the morning of the day she died someone had spilled paint and she stopped and helped clean it up and I thought, Brody needs to know this.

Because what if something happens to me? Where will the details of his sister go?

That night I went home and grabbed a spiral. On the very top of the first page I wrote ALL ABOUT YOUR SISTER. And I've been filling in memories as they pop up. And they do. Usually after something someone will mention or a song on the radio.

She loved Adele's song Set Fire to the Rain.

She ate sushi for the first time at a Demi Lavato concert at Ravinia a couple months before she died. She spit it out. 

She once got strep throat the day after eating Pop Rocks; she insisted the candy made her sick and would tell people she was allergic to it. 

She wanted - begged - us to move above a Sandwich Shop so she could work in the restaurant. I think the show Wizards of Waverly Place had a huge impact on this dream of hers. When The Latimer House (an old historic home that had operated as a restaurant with living space above it) was placed For Sale, she relentlessly pleaded that I purchase the property. She would spend her free time planning menu items. 

And so it goes. Some days lots of things are added. Some days go by where nothing is written down. But it's my way of saying to this broken little boy, "it's okay that you can't remember it all; I will help you."

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Love is Worth the Grief

In passing, someone said something to me about grieving for a child you lost has to be so hard. I get what they were stumbling to say (trust me, even though I'm going through it, I never have the right words and always end up sounding so, well, off). But the truth is, grieving for a child you lost is the easiest thing in the world.

I took no special training. No special classes. Shoot, even when I was about to give birth there were Lamaze classes. But there were no your child is going to die unexpectedly so we'd like you to learn how to breath through the grief pains tutorials.

No, grieving the death of someone you love comes very, very easy.

It's the grieving while attempting to appear normal that is very, very hard.

There is a spot in the back of my neck at the base of my skull  that has been in a constant, thick knot for over a year and a half. It's a tumor of grief. But I'll just pass it off as I must've slept wrong.

There are days I would rather sleep for 115 hours straight than face the day. I'll tell you I think I'm getting a sinus infection.

But I can't have a sinus infection every day so you'll probably see me at Walmart picking up the bread and the paper towels like a normal person when inside my heart is on the verge of crashing into an oblivion of sorrow.

Songs on the radio will tear me to shreds - and if I'm alone I'll cry. But if I'm with someone you'll notice I take a big gulp of air and then say something incredibly random and probably way too loud to drown out whatever lyrics are tugging at my heart strings.

No, grief comes very easy. It's the appearing normal while you're grieving that is difficult.

I wouldn't wish grief on my worst enemy and while I feel like I've felt enough sorrow it ought come with some lifetime supply of Kleenex.... I chose to walk straight back into the face of grief. And I'll choose it again and again and again.

Because grief isn't possible without a whole lot of love.

When I went to Haiti this second time, I knew in my heart it would be harder than the first. Some inkling in the pit of my stomach said this ain't gonna be easy. And yet you couldn't have stopped me from hopping on that plane. I needed to come back to see this boy:

March 2014
He has my heart. I love all the children at the orphanage. My days and nights are filled with the memory of their faces. Of their words, their laughter, their singing. Of their hugs and hard questions. My prayers are longer than they have ever been as I ask God's protection over each and every one of these precious lives. I pray that Noramy continues expressing himself through art and that Ricardo continues to use his gift of singing. I pray that Vita can take that fiery spirit God has instilled in her to be a leader among the other girls. I pray that Jerry can feel the depth of God's love during those times when he is feeling alone and sad.
I love each and every one of these children. Children whose past I do not know. Whose families I will never meet. Whose names I can barely pronounce. I love them all with an unconditional love that I cannot explain but just know that by the grace of God I can feel it.
But this boy. This boy has my whole heart.
July 2014

One evening I found myself sitting with Riquelme and 6 other boys ranging from the ages of 12 - 16. We were talking about many absolutely inconsequential and superficial things. They find it incredibly funny that I cannot pronounce names and words properly in Creole. So there was a lot of laughter.

Then someone asked if I had any children.

"Yes. I had three children ---" I started to explain.

"But one died, right?!"

I smiled. I suppose in any other setting the appropriate response at such a bold interruption would've been shock or repulsion. Maybe I should have been appalled at the audacity of such a remark. And yet, this is their world. People die. Siblings starve. Parents fall prey to AIDS. Friends don't have the money to purchase medications for treatable diseases. Children die.

"Yes!" I said, showing the young boy how proud I was that he had remembered my story from months before. Or perhaps my sponsor son had explained the situation during my absence. "Yes, one of my children died."

"When? When your child die?"

"About a year and a half ago. Not quite two years."

Another boy looked up at me, "how old your child when they die?"

"She was eleven."

"Oh." The boys looked around at each other, at the ground. That age hit a little too close to home, I suppose.

It was quiet long enough to make it feel awkward, but I've learned that the best way to learn from children is to just wait and they'll fill in the silence with what they want to say.

After a bit, one of the boys looked at me with a huge smile on his face: "You have three children but one die so you only have two! But then you get Riquelme and now you have three again!"

I laughed and threw my head back! "Yes! Yes! You are right! You are absolutely right!"

We talked then about sponsor parents and what that means. I am careful that I don't give the impression that I can adopt Riquelme. (The rules make it so it's not possible. Unless God moves mountains, it's simply not possible.) I learned that I am one of the good ones because I write letters. Some kids have multiple sponsor families but they never get letters.

Don't misunderstand me: financially supporting these children is an incredible, selfless calling that needs to be answered. And when answered, these children are blessed beyond measure. Just $35 a month allows these kids to have access to safe drinking water, food twice a day, an education, a safe place to sleep, running water to bathe in, and access to medical care. Financially supporting these children needs to happen.

But they long for connection. They long to feel chosen. Wanted. Loved.

Letters received are kept treasured. Amber (the American Missionary) told me that many children ask her to keep their letters safe with her. This way they will not be lost, stolen, ruined, ripped, etc. From time to time the children will come back and ask to simply hold their letter - even if they can't understand the words on the page. They will ask her to translate it again, and again - even though they learned it by heart two years ago.

I learned that packages are good. A small toy, deodorant, underwear, a book, crayons. But if they had a choice between a package with no letter and just a letter, every single one of the boys in front of me that evening told me they would want the letter.

Letters mean love. And I write letters. So that's how they know I love Riquelme.

I don't pretend to know anything about the life these kids are living. I don't have a college degree and I have no special training. I haven't gone to school to understand psychology of children or earned any letters after my name that declare I'm some sort of expert in the field of orphans.

I just know I know how to love. God calls us to love unconditionally. He calls us to show others who He is by loving others the way He loves us. And I am broken. I am racked with sin a mile long. I have shamed my parents and embarrassed my siblings. I am quick to anger and slow to forgive. I hurt by the hands of others but mostly I hurt others by my own hand. I forget to give thanks and I forget to count blessings. I am lazy and I am full of contempt. And yet, God still shows up day after day to love me. He has never missed an opportunity to whisper in my ear how much He loves me. He has never turned His back on me for someone better, cuter, smarter, nicer, more well behaved.

He simply loves me.

I can do that.

Of all the things God has asked me to do, I can love a bunch of hurting children.

But loving has it's risks. Especially when it comes time to say good bye. I loved Avery with all of my heart and it crippled me when I had to say good bye.

I know what I'm getting into by loving again. Especially loving children in another country.

And so to love these children means to open the door to grief. And for them to open up and risk loving back means they, too, will have to accept grief as part of the deal. Because we will always have to say good bye.

I will grieve my boy during the seconds, minutes, hours and days I cannot see him, talk to him, hug him, laugh with him. I will grieve each second I cannot look into his eyes and ask do you know how loved you are? I will grieve each day that passes that I cannot explain to him that the love I feel for him pales in comparison to the eternal love God showers him with and that God's love will never, ever go away.

It is so hard. Not the grieving. That part I've got down. No, it's the grieving while trying to appear normal that I struggle with.

So, I might be having coffee with you and will try to laugh along with your story but part of me will wonder if  he's happy today, or struggling with sadness or his own grief. I will worry that he is alone and I will pray that God sends the right person to hold him up. And then I will laugh at the appropriate time in your story because it seems I'm getting a bit better at this grieving gig.

And just like I count the days until I see my Heavenly daughter again, now I count the days until I see my Haitian boy again.

And I'll do it over and over and over again. Because the love is always worth the grief.

And now abide faith, hope, love, these three;
but the greatest of these is love.
(1 Corinthians 13:13) 

To sponsor a child at Global Vision Citadelle Ministries,
or to donate directly to GVCM,
please visit their website at

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Question for Mothers

It's a conversation no parent really looks forward to having. It can be awkward and uncomfortable and, as parents, we worry if we're giving too much information, or not enough, or if it's not being understood quite right. But as parents we're charged with the duty of seeing our young children through puberty and into adulthood. And so, we are required to talk about the things that might make us feel uncomfortable.
This week while I was in Haiti, I was given the task of teaching Human Health and Development to girls aged 12 and up. I prayed in earnest that what we would be discussing would be understood in such a way that these young women would come to understand how unbelievably beautiful and perfect and wonderful they have been made. I prayed that I was honoring their mothers while I acted as a stand-in. I prayed I would get it right.
We talked about pregnancies and HIV and AIDS. I answered questions that made me want to laugh out loud the information being so incredibly faulted. But I remained straight faced and explained that this is exactly why we were having these discussions: to learn truth. 

I wanted them to be okay with what was naturally happening to their bodies as they grew, but I also wanted them to whole heartedly understand that while their bodies might be old enough, emotionally they were not. Orphans having orphans is not a good thing.

And so we talked about purity. We talked about waiting. We talked about how God has ensured someone special in their lives and He's probably not going to send them to you when you're 14. And they had questions. Lots and lots of questions.
But it was one question that brought me to my knees. One question that had me wanting to wrap every single one of these amazing young ladies into my arms and hold them tight in my heart.

"Why do some mothers give their children away?"

The room grew quiet and the tittering-giggling girls looked down. The question everyone but no one wanted to ask finally spoken out loud. Broken hearts laid open in a room with a white woman who doesn't speak their language but who can feel the crying of their souls.
You see, not all of these orphans are orphaned through death. Many - most, perhaps, have been abandoned. Left to sleep and eat and learn inside the stone walls of this God home, while just through the gate a used-to-be mother and father and brothers and sisters talk and laugh and play without the one they left behind.
They do this because there is hope here. Here there is safe water to drink and two meals of rice and beans to eat daily. Here there is a safe place to sleep and sit and walk and a school that will teach everything they need to know. Here there is hope of a future, not just an immediate one, but of an eternal one as each child learns about God.
But none of that matters to the girl who just wants Mama arms wrapped tight around her. None of that matters to the girl who craves for Mama hands to braid her hair. None of that matters to the girl who dreams of words like "I am so proud of you" and "you are my everything" to be whispered in her ear by the Mama voice she strains to remember.

My answer? Incredibly inadequate.

"I don't know," I answered quietly, looking straight into her eyes, slowly drawing in a deep breath. "I know that every mom has her own reasons and it's difficult to understand what those are sometimes. It might be that they don't have enough food to feed all their children, or maybe they're sick, or maybe they just don't have the support they need to help raise a baby. But I do know it's a very, very hard decision for a mother to make."

I think about this question a lot while I am at the orphanage. I think about it throughout my trip home and I think about it while I wrap my arms around my little boy who has missed me for an entire week.

I think about all the fine families I know. The ones with the moms who volunteer at school and play board games after dinner. The ones with the moms who lay comforting their crying teenaged daughters after their first real heartbreak. And their second and third. And I think how strange it is that two beautiful children can be handed two incredibly opposite fates. One with a Mama and one who'd give anything to have a Mama.

It isn't until much later I remember Psalm 27:10 - "For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in." I want to rush back and tell them what I know to be true: that humans fail us over and over. That, yes, even our mothers will do things to hurt us - but God never will. That the arms of Christ are wrapped tight around them right now, even as they crave and plead and beg for the Mama arms they remember and dream of to come back and take them home.

Why do some mothers give their children away? This I do not know. But I do know that there are women just like the ones on our team who will travel all day long after leaving their own families just to come love on these girls. And they do that because these girls are worthy and beautiful and perfect. And these girls need to be told that in person.

** For more information about Global Vision Citadelle Ministries (the orphanage we stayed at), please visit their website and "like" them on Facebook.

** For more information about Children's World Impact (the group we travelled with), please visit their website and "like" them on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Four Boys and a Cupcake

At this point in my life I realize that the things that stick (words, images, experiences, conversations) stick because God wants them to stick. That is, He'll be using those same words, images, experiences and conversations to grow me, teach me, and, more than likely, humble me, exactly when I need it.

Usually, I begin writing with a vague understanding of what the lesson is about and figure it out in more detail as the words get typed on the page. But this? This I don't know why this stuck. I just know it did. And I know I need to tell you about it.

I was in Haiti last week, at the same orphanage we were at in March. There was a point in the middle of the week when I found myself sitting at a small table with one of the older boys from the orphanage, a translator, and the American Missionary, Amber. We had talked for a half hour or so and at the end of the conversation, Amber stood up and retrieved a beautifully decorated cupcake to give to the boy. (Cupcakes were on hand since we had celebrated a 40th birthday on our team.)

I watched the boy hold the cupcake in his hand. Just hold it. Once in a while he'd look down at it so I finally said, "that's for you. You eat it." He sort of smiled then took a finger to try the smallest bit of icing. The icing was thick and piled high and I thought there was no way I could hold on to that delicious looking dessert as long as he had.

Soon I saw some other boys headed our way. I was getting kind of antsy. I wanted him to just eat the cupcake before the other boys came. I didn't want to be sitting there when they realized there weren't any for them. I didn't want to be the one who had to listen to the complaints. I thought of the many times I would go through the drive-thru with one of my own children and tell them they had to finish their chocolate shake before we got home and the other kids saw. I thought of the many that's not fair! and where's mine? I tried desperately to avoid by giving treats in private. And here was this boy, sitting in an orphanage where they only have two meals per day, holding a cupcake while three other boys come walking straight up to him.

I tried to prepare myself for the onslaught of whining and complaint.

But none of the boys mentioned the cupcake with its bright white frosting sitting against the mocha skin of one of their peers. Instead, they talked about soccer. And while they did, the first boy carefully drew down a section of the cupcake paper and took a small bite. He then handed the cupcake to the next boy, who took another careful bite. They continued to talk about soccer (Tiga is the best player; everyone agrees) and share bite after bite of cupcake.

Four growing boys.

One small cupcake.

No complaints.

No one accused any one else about taking bites of too large a size. No one complained that it wasn't fair they didn't get a cupcake of their own. No one demanded to know why one kid got the dessert and the others didn't.

Life isn't fair. These kids know that all too well. It's what makes me want to pick them all up and bring them home with me.

But they know something that too many of us don't know: the art of sharing. When you own nothing, nothing is yours. Instead, it is everyone's. And everyone deserves something.

I believe that young boy would have never eaten that whole cupcake all on his own. I believe that he knew it was a special treat that was worth sharing with others. I don't think he gave much thought as to who he would share it with; it just so happened these three particular boys trudged on up to where we were sitting. He would have shared with any three (or more) that appeared.

His heart. The way he sat still and didn't horf down that dessert in two bites. The way he quietly shared, like it wasn't a big deal, just the way it is around here.

I saw it later on in the week. When a boy received a birthday card, even though the bright blue number on the front reflected an age he passed two years ago. Throughout the day different boys held the card. Opened it. Flipped it over. Inside was a photo of a family and they each held it. At least three different boys showed me the card and the photo, even though it wasn't theirs.

When you own nothing, nothing is yours.

Isn't that what God teaches us? What life shows us? We don't really own it. The houses, the cars, the television sets. We won't be buried with it. We won't have it after we die. We live here for a time amassing objects and items for what, exactly?

The way he held on to that cupcake to share. It's that reason I would never want to take all these children home with me. I would be embarrassed to teach them to keep, to shove, to hoard. I would be ashamed to show them our way of life. It's never enough; you need to have more.

Oh, I wish I had video of the calm, quiet way these 12-14 year old boys passed around a single cupcake. That right there? Restored my hope in humanity. The kindness. The giving. The love.

It was so good.

And I can't wait until that time in my future when God uses these four boys and a cupcake to show me what I need to see.