Sunday, January 18, 2015

Searching for Your Set

When I was in college (and I use that term lightly, since I was, at that time, a single mom who was taking night classes over an hour away and never graduated), I had a friend who was always on the lookout for some sort of antique pink wedgwood china. She'd scour antique malls and rummage sales, attend vritually every estate sale in the tri-state area and planned vacations around flea markets.

When she was successful she'd bound into class like a little kid jumping off the ferris wheel at the local fair. You will not believe what happened! she'd practically scream, and we would all settle in for a detailed account of the successful purchase of a dessert bowl or service plate. Because it was never just about the plate; it was always about the journey to find the plate.  

It was a set that had originally adorned her grandmother's table, belonging before that to her great-grandmother, and she always assumed that the love she held in her heart for the bone china meticulously displayed on special occassions was so apparent and so obvious that the set would one day become hers. (Secretly, I always thought that was ridiculous. She had many cousins and aunts and in-laws who also probably loved the china just as much, if not more so, so I never understood why she felt she had a "right" to it. But in the end it didn't matter.)

The grandmother died and the dishes left and no one thought about it again. 

Except for her.

And I suppose she may have gone through a time when her cousin or aunt (or whoever the recipient was) was the evil selfish one to blame for her heartbreak. And maybe she spent too many lost hours lamenting over the unfairness of it all. Who knows. I sure don't. Because I met her after she changed her attitude, after the paradigm shift, when the disappointment finally morphed into hope and grew into action.

The bottom, unchangeable line, was that she couldn't have her grandmother's dishes... they would be missing from her life forever. And she could sit in the ashes of her dispair and want or she could do something about it.

One day, she took a deep breath and realized she still had blood pulsing through her veins. Her heart was still beating and she was still made up of air and water and the only way to fill the missing part inside her was to find something to fill it with

So, she pulled her car into the third parking spot at the right of the front door of a resale shop and grabbed her purse. She walked up and down crowded aisles filled with old dresses that had once been pretty and tin signs brightly advertising tobacco and flour, and old wooden chairs with broken seat bottoms pleading to be replaced. And when she turned the corner her heart leapt and she stared down the aisle of hope: green milk glass and tea cups of toile, a mixing bowl the same color yellow as her grandmother's and a vintage butter dish in eggshell blue. As she lightly brushed her fingertips across the  plates decorated with chickens and garland of flowers, she suddenly, for the first time in years, felt like she had a purpose.

She didn't find the pink wedgwood design that day but it didn't stop her. She woke each morning knowing it was out there. Knowing and trusting that slowly, bit by bit, she'd find what she was looking for. And she did.

By the time I had met her, she had amassed quite an impressive set. I remember asking her when she would be done, when she would consider her collection complete. She shrugged, sadly almost, her eyes looking out into a distance I couldn't see. "I don't know," she said quietly. "In a way, I hope I never do."

At the time I thought that was ridiculous. Why spend all that time and money trying to replace something that wasn't even what she had lost in the first place? That would never even be complete? But, now? Well, maybe now I understand it a bit more.

I will never have, in this lifetime, on this earth, the ability to have once again the one and only thing I want at my table; the one thing that, for me, would make my table setting feel complete. 

And I can lay blame and lament about the unfairness of it all and sit in the ashes of my despair and want.... or I can go out and find something to fill my missing part in with.

For me, it won't be bone china and my missing part won't ever be filled. Not really. I get that. But that doesn't mean that the journey to find the good things isn't worth trying for. 

I guess that's why I sponsor my sweet son in Haiti. He, too, is missing a piece. And I guess that's why I sponsor my special girl in Rwanda. And probably why I spend so much of my time with other broken children, loving on them and listening to them. Because we're all missing bits and pieces and maybe, just maybe, at the end of our lives, when we're all gathered in heaven, we'll be able to look around at each other and smile when we hear God exclaim, "oh, my sweet children! My set is complete!"

I'd like to think that the journey to find the others - the soup bowl and the bread plate - is, in part, mine. Mine not just to pass the time while on earth, but mine to help make sense of my loss. To make me realize that, although my original daughter was precious in a way that no one else can compare to or replace, that there are other children just as wonderful, just as precious, just as lovely, that, without me taking the time to search for, they might be destined to sit in a crowded orphanage, dusty and forgotten on a cramped shelf, wondering if anyone will think they are beautiful enough to belong to someone's set. I want them to know how beautiful and precious they truly are.

And so, whether it makes sense or not, I'll continue to spend the time and the money searching for the kids that are meant to be in my set. And, maybe they won't ever sit at my table, or, if they do, maybe they'll only sit at it for a little while - a week, a month or two, maybe a year or eleven... but, I think the journey to find the good stuff - to love on the kids that deserved to be loved on - well, that's worth it. It's worth it to me.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Parenting of Grief

With each child I gave birth to, I found it impossible to figure out how to successfully shower within the first four days. I was sore and tired and filled with these overwhelming emotions that threatened to consume me. And I didn't want to leave the side of this new life force - not even for a second - not even when people offered to arrange for it to happen, not even when people suggested it should happen. I wanted to be selfish in my emotional connection. I wanted nothing else and no one else to interrupt what God had allowed. This baby was mine. This experience was mine. And I wanted to breathe it all in by myself; fill every cell of my body with the knowledge that no one, no matter how hard they tried, could ever begin to feel the complexities of the love that pulsed through my veins.  

Then one day I showered. It was quick and cursory and born out of necessity and I quickly changed into the sweat pants and baggy shirt that looked eerily similar to the sweat pants and baggy shirt I had just discarded because, truthfully, I didn't care what I looked like. I was beginning to tire of being tired and I couldn't remember what day it was because it felt like a lifetime since I gave birth and yet it was only just a matter of hours and I didn't even remember what exactly I had done in the last 60 minutes except that somehow I must have gotten through it because here I was, hair dripping, armpits shaved smooth, thinking isn't it funny how fast hair grows?

And  just when I figured out that the baby sleeps well and not only can I shower but I can also wash the dishes, the baby decided it's more fun to stay awake and make noises and start to roll over and now I had to find another way to make it through my day. Because the changing baby was changing my normal every fourth or fifth day and just when I thought I had it figured out it changed again.

But babies are supposed to grow. I know this. I just didn't know how hard it would be to adapt to the growing, changing days that come when you've been chosen.

But adapt you do because, really, what choice do you have? 

Some days it looks ugly. Messy. Like you're the last person in the world that will ever get it together and figure it out. But somehow you do. You can't explain it other than to say you put one foot in front of the other because that's the only thing you know how to do. Even if it's clumsy.

Losing a child is an awful lot like giving birth. 

The initial shock and disbelief that my little girl is now in heaven; my little girl is with Jesus... that God decided that on this day, at this moment, He would allow for this to happen, that I would be chosen and I am now forever redefined. I could only sit in awe and wonder. Was this really my life now? How did this happen?

I couldn't figure out how to shower.

And yet I didn't want to. I wanted to sit in my grief - MY GRIEF - and let it consume me. I wanted to be selfish in my emotional connection. I wanted nothing else and no one else to interrupt what God had allowed. This grief was mine. This experience was mine. And I wanted to breathe it all in by myself; fill every cell of my body with the knowledge that no one, no matter how hard they tried, could ever begin to feel the complexities of the sorrow that pulsed through my veins.

I was scared to step away from it. Scared, in a sense, because I had no idea what to do with it and I didn't want to do anything wrong. I didn't want to mess it up. How did God even think I was remotely capable of taking care of something so precious and so fragile as the death of my daughter? I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't have the right training or qualifications. Does life just let anyone lose a child?

As the days passed, I found my grief growing, just like a baby does. But not growing in a bad way - not like taking over and taking control; but rather becoming self-sufficient so that I didn't need to spend every single second cradling it. 

One day I found myself able to place my grief in the middle of a blanket spread out on the living room floor so that I could take a shower. And again to wash the dishes. And again to answer the door.

I found myself able to fall into a routine. But as soon as I figured things out something shifted, something changed; the grief changed, demanding more of me, demanding something new of me - and I had to figure things out again.

The stages are the same, it seems, whether birth of a baby or birth of grief: the lack of sleep as I kept strong hold, always cradling stage. The zombie like trance somehow taking me from minute to sleep deprived minute, in a way I couldn't recollect if my life depended on it. 

The come on in and let's talk while the grief baby is playing on the floor stage. Some days I held on tight, still craddling even though I didn't need to, while others I was able to sit next to the grief baby, keeping careful watch, but not needing to grab hold of it. I could form sentences now. I had complete thoughts.

The I can walk into the other room by myself and nothing bad will happen stage. There's a trust needed in this stage. A trust that I can take my eyes off my grief, that I can look toward something else, and while I'm enjoying the splendor of whatever I choose to take brief interest in, my grief will be just fine on its own. I'll be able to come back to my grief and I won't need to feel guilty for leaving it.

And if you can make it through that stage, you can move on toward the toddler stages. The ones where you can drop your grief off for a couple hours a day while you find yourself again. You will always have your grief, but you weren't meant to be consumed by it.

In some ways, I suppose I feel like I have two Avery's. My earthly Avery, who grew long and lanky, with sparkling eyes and the best out-loud laugh ever; who carried a Bible and cried during the tragic Justin and Juliet tween love story of Wizards of Waverly place; who only had 11 years on earth with me, but, oh! How I treasure each and every one! And then I have my heavenly Avery, who is growing bright and beautiful, with a faith so strong it's all anyone can see and it's all everyone needs to see; who continues to make me proud every second of every day, making me want to shout from the mountaintops how blessed I am to be included in her story, even in the slightest way.

My heavenly Avery is only two, having passed away on October 24, 2012. She's still so young. And I'm still a newly grieving parent. Learning as I go. Making mistakes, handling things wrong. Worrying too much and being wound way too tight. Allowing anxieties and fears to trump common sense and natural tendencies. But it'll come. It always does. For me. For you. For all the grieving mamas. 

We just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other... even if it's in a way we've never done before.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Resolutions that Matter

I have a love/hate relationship with New Year's. 

On the one hand, getting sloshed and insluting your wife or driving drunk and wrapping your car around a tree just doesn't seem like the right way to celebrate anything in life. I also have a hard time with the comments that stem along the line of we made it through this year! because what about the ones that didn't make it through the year? In my admittedly oversensitive heart you just called a bunch of my loved ones failures and they are nothing of the sort. They simply didn't have the choice to finish off the calendar year here on earth. And that hurts. Thanks for the reminder.

But on the other hand, I love a makeover. There is something incredibly empowering  about washing over the old color of a wall with a new one, symbolizing a new start, a fresh start, a chance to finally get it right.

Resolution suggestions abound the interwebs: lose 10 pounds, stop smoking, drink more water, save $10,000 and finally take that trip to Fiji. They all seem so.... selfish

How does it improve the world if you vacation in Fiji? Yes, yes, I know... you'll be better rested and relaxed and therefore more pleasant to the populous at large. I get it. I really do. But, well, I want more.

I want to make resolutions that matter.

I want to spend less on frivolous things (like soda and pens) so I can sponsor children that otherwise won't have access to safe drinking water or an education. I go out to dinner and it's an easy $30 -- if I eat out just one time less each month I can sponsor another child. So maybe you stop smoking and use the money you would normally spend on cigarettes to sponsor a child of your own.   {you can go to to do just that} 

I want to travel internationally - by going to Haiti on more mission trips and encourage others to go, too. I know people who have served in Honduras and Costa Rica and Moldova... and they keep going back. They need to go back. Their heart calls them to it. So, maybe you save Fiji for another year. Why not consider a short term mission trip? You could always stay on for another few days or a week to view things as a tourist. 

I want to save more so I can give more. Clipping coupons and Kids Eat Free deals are great... but  they're even better when it means the free meal is being shared with a foster child. Have you considered fostering? Have you considered a program similar called Safe Families? Save $25 extra out of each paycheck and use it to buy supplies for your local homeless shelter. Take those buy one get one free foods and donate them to your local food bank. 

I want to lose weight - but the weight I really want to lose is the heaviness of a materialistic life that tries to convince me I'm not successful unless I am surrounded by the $78 frying pan and the $65 shower curtain. Instead I want to live simply so I have the means to provide more for others. I want to pack food for the hungry and deliver Meals on Wheels and mentor a single mother who has somehow bought into the lies that all she knows how to do is make mistakes. I want to lose the weight of the world and pack on the pounds of love needed to serve God's people of the world.

I want to make resolutions that matter.

Because if I don't make it through 2015, I want to at least be known as someone who tried to make a difference with the time she had.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Climbing the Highest Mountain

For my 40th birthday, my friends threw me the most epic surprise party ever. I usually pride myself on having this sixth sense that those around me are keeping things from me, but not this time. I was honestly 100% taken by surprise. It was the best party anyone could ever throw for me. 

But what's perfect for me doesn't mean it's perfect for anyone else. Discussing it, my friend Ginger explained she would absolutely hate being the center of attention like that. She preferred something small and low key, more intimate with less fanfare. And that's exactly how her 40th went. It was absolutely perfect for her. Perfect location, perfect size, perfect fun.

My friend Kim turns 40 next. You'll remember Kim as being referred to as My Rock. When the police officer looked down at me, hand on my shoulder, and asked, "who is your rock?" I answered, "Kim. My friend Kim." And we called her. She was at work but she answered. "Avery's dead," I sobbed into the phone. "I'll be right there." And she was. How she got to my house in the 27 seconds that seemed to pass I'll never understand. But she was there.

And she drove me to the hospital.

And called the others.

And she grabbed my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes and said, "you are going to put one foot in front of the other in a way you've never done before" when I weeped what am I going to do? I don't know what to do. And I trusted her. 

And she helped find funeral clothes for my son because I didn't know what I was doing and she made sure there were black pants for me to wear because I didn't have any.

And she did whatever she did to make sure the 600 people who attended Avery's funeral were fed, asking her employer for donations and working with the church ladies she had never met before.

And she told me, "I don't care if you cry the whole way, but you need to get out of this house so I'm taking you to Galena." And she did.

And  she's answered my hard questions, the ones no one really wants to go back to: "did I say anything in the car on the way to the hospital? Did we talk on the way home? How did that person know Avery died? I remember coffee, but I don't know how it got there..."

And she's not afraid to say Avery's name. She talks about her and remembers things that happened with her and she has her picture on their family fridge. 

And, yes, she's turning 40.

When she talked about her 40th she explained that she wanted to spend it alone. Climbing a mountain. (This is where I tell you that she's climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Like for real. In real life. And I pant walking up the stairs from my basement.) She didn't know how it would happen: she's got two kids, and a husband and would it be fair to leave them and where would the money come from and she would need to train for it - because you don't just get out of bed and announce today I think I'll climb a mountain and off you go. There were supplies needed and airplane tickets and details to be hammered out, but, yes, spending her 40th climbing a mountain is exactly what she wanted!

I just don't think she expected what her particular mountain would look like.

Six months ago, Kim's mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. 

Kim's mountain doesn't look like the one she had pictured in her mind. Instead, its ragged edges consist of chemo treatments and daily injections. Blisters formed not on heels from walking miles, but on bended knees praying for miracles. Exhaustion from trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy for the sake of her young children while organizing doctor appointments and prescription drugs. 

The higher the climb the harder it is to breathe; the air too thin around the mama who gave birth to her as she lay ever weakening in her bed. Waiting, I suppose, for God to come take her home. How does one breathe deep enough while waiting for death? 

My Rock is climbing the most unrelenting mountain of her life. We have talked, Kim and I, about death and dying. About losing people we love. We have asked the question is it better to know death is slowly but steadily approaching? Or is it better to be completely taken surprise by it? 

We haven't come up with an answer. Both options suck.

Any minute now my sweet friend will say goodbye to her mother in a way that no one should ever have to. And I will continue to pray her way through. It's funny; you'd think since I have experience with this sort of thing I'd know what to say, but I don't. I just know that grief is the highest form of love a person can feel for another. We don't grieve people we don't know or we don't like. So grieving means loving and loving is good. But grieving is hard. And it doesn't go away. Even after you come down the other side of the mountain. I suppose there's some mountain climbing analogy I could insert here - I remember Kim telling me all sorts of stories about how bodies have to reacclimate on the descent... that people are often surprised by how easy the climb up was compared to how difficult the coming back down is. They underestimate the return to normalcy.

I hate that two years ago Kim was standing beside my daughter's grave and soon it will be her mom's. I hate that my sweet friend has to know anything about cancer and what it does to a treasured love. I hate that her precious daughter, the one who drew me beautiful pictures of Avery as an angel and who currently wears Avery's shoes to school has to feel a loss even closer to her sensitive heart. I hate that sorrow and pain has come knocking on their door when they deserve joy and sunshine and laughter and fun and long, lazy days with family and friends. I hate that after all she did for me during these past two years of my personal hell, she was ushered into her own. 

You know that surprise party my friends threw me for my 40th? It was at Kim's house. If only I could find a way to give her a better mountain.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Light for Lilly

This picture has been printed in various community newspapers in the past two years. It shows my precious daughter, Avery - second from the right - smiling with her sweet friends at a sleepover at Katie's house.

Too soon after this picture was taken, Avery passed away as the result of a car accident.

Too soon after Avery died, another little girl in this photo was called home to be with Jesus.

You guys. My heart.

Lilly, the precocious young lady on the far right on this photo with her arm around Avery, was full of so much life it is impossible to think she would ever leave this earth.

She cracked jokes and asked bold questions. She laughed out loud and made me shake my head at how insanely wise she was about things you wouldn't think a kid her age would be. She never made any excuses for herself and taught me a great many things about being bold. She played football with the boys. She played hard. She played good. She played real good.

And just like that. Gone. The most audacious child I have ever met is gone.

No warning. No explanation. Just - suddenly not here.

And her Mama was wailing. Wailing in her grief. Wailing in her missing. Wailing in her without.

And it dawned on me that I know her pit. I know that darkness.

I know the struggle to breathe and the way it suddenly hits you like a bat to the heart: how can this child just be gone? 

You guys. This story hits too close to home.

Not just to me... but to our entire community.

Extra psychologists and counselors are called in. Again.

Kids are suddenly made aware that it's not just our old grandmas and grandpas and the great uncle you have never met that die - it's your friend, the kid who sits next to you in Math class, the girl at the bus stop. Again.

I don't know why this happened but, yes, I still have faith in my God. Faith that He is good always. Faith that he will redeem all things and he will use this in the most magnificent, glorious way ever. Even when my heart feels like it's in a million pieces and I want to rage out and scream at God, "seriously?! From the same group of friends? What is wrong with you that you think this is a good idea?!" (Don't worry; my God knows I wrestle hard.)

I don't expect an answer right now. Or in the next couple days. But I know there is one. And I trust Him.

Friends, a whole family has been plunged into sudden darkness. We need to shine our light. We need to keep shining because there will be a moment between the tears that a small sliver of light will sneak through and give hope. If we don't shine, they won't see it.

Don't over think things: send the card. Drop off toilet paper. Deodorant. Dish soap. I don't care if you don't know the family. They don't care. Trust me when I say grieving Mamas aren't going to even remember who was around them... they just remember someone was. And people holding you up always feels better.

Don't forget Lilly's siblings. They're grieving, too. Many times, it's the kids that get overlooked. Not because their grief isn't real and huge and hard; it's just that Mama grief usually gets top billing. And it's just not fair to the kids.

Be sensitive. I know you're craving to know what happened - it's natural. (I think we do that so we can fake ourselves into thinking we'll be safe. I don't drive on the highway so I won't crash. I don't smoke so I won't get cancer. I don't go hunting so I'll never have to worry about a random bullet.) But, friends, please, please, PLEASE stop publicly posting, "how'd she die?" on Facebook pages. There is (1) a private message option you could use and (2) something called decorum. A simple "thinking of the family" or even just typing "so sad" sounds a whole lot better than "what happened?" That just makes you sound nosey. And insensitive. No grieving family needs that. Not know. They want messages that give them hope - not remind them that the crappiest thing in the world just happened to them and you're antsy to know the details.

Be kind. To everyone. Lilly was audacious! I just cannot think of another, better word to describe her. She was genuinely incredible. I think of all the light she herself spread in our world and cannot imagine that light ever being extinguished. I just know that YOU can spread light in her honor. Think of how awesome it would be if everyone who knew that spunky smile or was touched by this story decided to start shining their light a little brighter? Man, how this world would light up! #lightforLilly  Do it. Make this world a better place with your smile and genuine kindness. That's what she did.

And on a practical level, if you can, financially support this family. They'll never ask for it. Not in a hundred years. So, we'll ask for them.

Funerals are expensive. Did you know there's an extra charge for digging during the "frozen" months? Headstones. Funeral luncheons. Not to mention the hospital charges. The grief counseling the members of this family will need. They'll want to print every picture ever taken. There's a charge for that, too. No one budgets and saves for this. So, maybe you have an extra $20 you were going to spend this week at the movies. Rent one from RedBox instead and donate $19. You can do that here: GoFundMe: Lilly Perry

And pray. Lilly believed in God. Her family does. She's probably tossing the pigskin around with Jesus now. Or maybe she's just walking alongside him asking all the hard questions that she always wanted answers to. Whatever she's doing, I know she's there. And she'd want us all to pray for her Mama and her siblings. She'd want us to pray for all her friends who are grieving all over again. (Two deaths in two years is going to leave lasting effects on way too many children.) So pray. If nothing else, pray.