Wednesday, March 27, 2013

AVERYday: All Day, Avery Day - Part 29

I couldn't potty train Avery. She had no interest. No desire. I would attempt to make going potty on the toilet the most exciting thing ever and she would stare at me as if I were a potato sitting on the counter.

And then, when she was almost 4 years old, she stood mesmerized in front of the television set watching gymnastics, something she had never before seen. Through her mostly incoherent speech, she told me she wanted to do that. "Too bad," I said. "You can't learn gymnastics until you're potty trained. They don't allow diapers in the gym."

She stared silent at the TV, taking in every movement of the entire routine playing out in front of her. Then she turned, walked into the bathroom, and went potty on the toilet.

And that was it. No accidents. No problems with bed wetting. She was decidedly done with diapers and ready to learn gymnastics.

She was never the best, never the stand out. But she did give 110% at every practice. She would go home and practice bridge kick-overs off the couch for hours at a time. She was scared to death of the height of the balance beam but still, she got on it. She loved flying from one bar to the next; where I saw the shaky nervousness of an unsure body, she felt only the graceful fluidity of a soul in flight. 

We would find ourselves at a new youth program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater called the  GymHawks Youth Gymnastics Program... and it would change our lives.

The GymHawks program is awesome because the kids train in the same gym as the college gymnastics team. Side by side. And the college girls coach the young girls. And nothing is more exciting to a young, impressionable girl that being coach by the young lady whose picture graces the poster in the hall, whose stats are updated on the Internet, and who travels the country competing with other universities. The coaches worked the girls hard and the girls worked hard for their coaches. 

Avery was in heaven in that gym. The coaches were her friends. She knew more details about them - how many had big sisters, who struggled with their beam routine, and who couldn't get enough Flamin' Hot Cheetos.

Avery went to three separate weeks of summer camp that was held on the UW-W campus. She loved each and every week. She was a bit homesick and would spend more time in the coaches rooms than in her own. It made her feel incredibly special. I apologized to the coaches, afraid Avery was intruding and overstaying her visit to their rooms, but they assured me they loved Avery. That she was welcome any time.

Photo Credit: Allison Annala

Avery planned on attending UW-Whitewater and being part of the college gymnastics team. She, too, was going to coach. "And then, when kids get homesick, I can tell them that I know how that feels because I was homesick, too." That girl has my heart.

Some of the young ladies from the college team attended Avery's visitation and funeral. My heart soared when I saw them. Avery would be so beyond thrilled to know they came all this way to see her! And then my heart fell to the floor. Avery would be so thrilled... if she were here.

On January 26, 2013, the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater Gymnastics Team hosted their first home meet. They were going to honor Avery. Oh, how Avery would love to be the center of the Gymnastics Team's attention, I thought. It took every ounce of strength I had buried in me to walk into that building. That was the last place Avery was on earth. She left the gym... and died.

I walked down the hall and saw all these beautiful, amazing, talented young women sporting purple All Day AVERY Day shirts -- how is it possible to feel so much gratitude and so much loneliness at one time? I just wanted Avery there. I wanted her to sit by me. I wanted to listen as she told me the names of every single person on the team, the names of their siblings and whether or not they had a dog growing up. I missed her so much I couldn't breathe.

Photo Credit: Allison Annala
I hope these girls understand how amazing they are.

They would go on and set two school records to win.
Avery was definitely in that gym.

I've tried to blog about this day so many times and what it meant to me; but there comes a time when too many tears can block a keyboard for far too long. If you want to know a bit more about that precious, precious day, please read THIS AMAZING BLOG POST from Avery's coach. (I'm pretty sure you can see my joyful/anguish face in the photo.)

Monday, March 25, 2013

AVERYday: Ethereal Happiness - Part 28

I sat in Julie's kitchen. I love Julie's kitchen. It feels like family, strong hugs and honest compassion. The kitchen was filled with laughter and chatter and the most beautiful spread of gluten filled snacks I couldn't eat. In the center of it all, on a glass pedestal cake dish, stood the most amazing Red Velvet Cake any of us had ever laid eyes on.

The icing was delicate and gentle, tempting me to slyly drag a single finger along it's edge. Julie sliced into the center revealing the most vibrant red. It was simply the most beautiful cake I'd ever been in the same room with. But I couldn't eat it. I have Celiac Disease and I cannot consume gluten. I wouldn't get a chance to taste this cake.

Women to the left and right of me tried to describe it: it's so moist and creamy and soft. "What does it taste like?" I asked. Well, it's not chocolate, and it's not vanilla.... it's just, I don't know - tastes like happiness!

I watched as forks slowly picked up piece after piece, eyes closed as people chewed, no - savored. I wanted so badly what they had. I wanted to taste what they tasted. I wanted to feel as satisfied as they looked.

I placed my finger on a tiny crumb that had fallen on the counter. Watched as it clung to my finger as I carried it closer and closer to my mouth - and then, I tasted it.

But it was so small. I could tell it was a moist cake, I could tell it was good, but I still didn't know what it tasted like. Not chocolate, and not vanilla. Because I had never personally experienced Red Velvet Cake, I could only choose to believe it was more delicious than anything I had ever tasted.

About a month ago a woman approached me and carefully, cautiously began to tell me about how she has seen Avery at various times since Avery died. As soon as she saw I was open to receive her information she explained how she has had the gift of seeing people who had passed since she was a small girl and that her grandmother shared the same gift. She explained she was initially confused by what was happening to her, yet her grandmother simply explained, God gives people many different types of gifts. This woman went on to explain that she normally only sees family or very close friends, people she knew and loved, and so she was surprised when she first saw Avery, since she hadn't known Avery that well at all.

"I always see her around little children. She loves their laughter. She just really loves the little kids." Oh, yes! I thought. That's my Avery! The little Mama! She went on to tell me that Avery was really happy. Like, really, really happy. "I can't explain it - she is just - so happy. The happiest I've ever seen anyone. She doesn't understand why people are sad for her. She just wants everyone to know that she is really happy in heaven with Jesus."

And then, on March 11th, I received an email from a friend who never met Avery, to tell me about a dream she had. She noted that Avery was dancing, twirling around - and how little her legs were. (Avery had very slender, skinny legs; she hated being called skinny.) "...she was just HAPPY. Ethereally happy.... I needed to tell you how absolutely happy she was."

Haven't we always been told that heaven is a place of happiness? Revelation 21:4 reads, "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Think about it: no more tears. No mourning. No crying. No pain. Nothing but what brings joy and happiness.

But, do we even know what it means to be truly, ethereally happy all the time? Just, so, very, very happy?

I've been happy. I've had happy moments. I've laughed until my sides hurt and tears ran down my cheeks. I've had days that I'd be happy if they lasted for years. But when I think about the overall majority of any given day, the majority of the emotions experienced would not be classified as happy.

Imagine a day when you never get hungry. Or thirsty. You never have to think ahead about what you're going to make for supper or if you have to stop off at the store for additional ingredients. There are no calls to make to insurance companies, or to the electric drain service, or to schedule an oil change for the car. Banking accounts would not need to be balanced, paper cuts would not sting, and there would be no Kleenex to purchase for that cold that's been lingering for the past four days.

You would never experience a stiff neck or an upset stomach or constipation. You would never have to referee siblings who can't seem to agree on a television station or remind your neighbor that walking her dog through your yard so it can do its business isn't working for you. You would never have to hear an unkind word from your boyfriend's mother, or his sister, or his aunt. You would never have to pump gas in a torrential downpour. Basements wouldn't leak, babies wouldn't get ear infections, dogs wouldn't eat through brand new sofas.

There would be no asthma inhalers, diabetes, high blood pressure, seizures, cancer, pneumonia, dementia, brittle bone disease, migraines or celiac disease. There would be no toddlers having epic temper tantrums in public, no nasty sweat socks that need to be unfurled, no discovering a tree limb crashed into the back window of the car when you're already twenty minutes late.

See, while life isn't necessarily awful, it is filled with a bunch of things that distract us from pure, unadulterated happiness. We have to react and respond to medical needs, emotional needs, physical needs, financial needs. We have to deal with a plethora of personalities that don't always mix with our own. We get fired from our jobs, robbed of our belongings and disappointed in the leaders of our community. Friends hurt us with stinging words, teachers get cross and punish the whole class, and we forget our lunch on the counter at home.

What will we do, then, when all that is left is happiness? How do we even begin to wrap our heads around what this truly means? To be happy. So happy. So ethereally happy. Every second of every day with no distractions. No more tears. No crying. No more pain.

We catch glimpses. And, since we understand these are gifts, most of us want to create more glimpses of happiness for others. Because those glimpses show us promises of the future. An eternal future that I cannot wrap my head around but that I desperately want to be a part of.

What is heaven like? It is neither chocolate, nor vanilla, but it tastes like happiness.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

AVERYday: Soaring with the Angels - Part 27

"Would you like us to pick out something for you?"

I snapped my head up and looked around the room. Matt was sitting next to me, completely out of his element. My Mom sat along the wall opposite the table, on a bench. I looked at my Mom. My Mom would know. My Mom knew that spraying Aqua-Net would take blue ink off  the sleeve of my white shirt. My Mom knew how to file taxes and hard boil eggs and how to varnish woodwork. She would know.

I turned back to the funeral director. "Um? Can I?" I stuttered. "I just? It's, uh? I just, uh, don't want her to be stuck in a corner...." I turned back towards my Mom, pleading with my eyes, help me!

My Mom spoke. I heard her but couldn't make out most the words. I heard my grandfather's name. The funeral director suggested we meet the next morning to pick out a final resting spot together.

Except, the next morning I was late. I was sitting stoically in a sterile chair that was trying too hard to pass for comfortable and reassuring, watching, as my oldest daughter sobbed tears of rage to the counselor who nodded her head in a pitying manner when I should have been picking out my youngest daughter's final resting spot. And as I sat I noticed no mascara fell because for the first time in years my daughter's face was naked with pain; who bothers with foundation and blush and a smokey eye when a sister lies dead?

I gripped my purse too tight on the drive back to the church. Tried not to let my panic and fear slide into my eyes. We were so late. Too late. I bolted from the car, to the small gathering of Mom and Sister and Brother-in-Law. They pointed up the hill to the cemetery. We began to climb. I tried not to run, but I wanted to run. What if they put her in a corner? She wouldn't want to be in a corner? What if she's all by herself? I don't want her to be all by herself. I didn't understand how this worked. What I was allowed to do or say. Can I request things? Can I tell them no? What are the rules? No one ever tells you the rules.

When a child is born you read all about how to cure diaper rashes and have long discussions about the value of making your own baby food. No one ever says, as they sit cradling your newborn, or sipping a much-needed glass of wine at a Mommy Play Date, "so, do you plan on burying your children or cremating?" "Oh, Bob definitely wants a burial. He's sort of old fashioned that way. But he wants them all to be buried by his parents and well, I just put my foot down. Why would we bury the kids in Sarasota?" "Well, I'm afraid that if we bury little Annabelle here, what happens if we decide to move in ten years?"

As a mother, you are so incredibly unprepared.

I was so incredibly unprepared.

I planned on watching years of volleyball games and school plays and suffering through beginning band concerts that pay off beautifully by high school. I planned on shopping for fancy dresses for dates to dances and teaching her how to cook. She wanted to live above a sub shop, just like in Wizards of Waverly Place. I had laughed it off. But if meant she would be back in my arms I'd do it. I'd buy that blue Victorian downtown that used to be a restaurant and I'd make sandwich after sandwich, slathering on mayo, shredded onions up to my elbows, just to see you one more time. Just once more....

Ahead of me a truck was parked between too many headstones. Three men stood. My eyes filled with tears. I didn't want to be doing this. I wanted to fall to the ground, let the dirt fold over me, feel my pain seep into the tunnels already dug by earthworms and bugs. I wanted my anguish to fall into the waters and the flowers to feed off my sorrow.

The man whose back was to me turned around and smiled; Pastor Dan Roeda, the pastor of our church. With his right arm, in a graceful, sweeping motion, he led my gaze to behind where they stood, "we thought you might like this spot."

Instead of falling to my knees and spitting grief into the soil, I laughed. I laughed and I smiled and I cried and I yelled, "YES!" It was as if a thousand angels sang out and caught my heart.

Because the spot that was picked out, was the spot right behind my grandfather's grave. The one where he was laid to rest so very long ago. My grandfather, who wanted to come back as a hawk because his vision had been so poor, and on the day of his burial we looked up, and a hawk flew over our heads. That same spot.

I don't understand how such joy can exist among such anguish and sorrow but I know that it does.

My grandfather's grave, with Avery's unmarked grave behind it.
The flowers were beautiful. Avery always wanted to live in the country.

On the day of Avery's burial, my cousins raised their heads and saw not one, but three hawks flying over head. A sign (to me) of my grandfather, Henry, my uncle, David, and my daughter, Avery. I had prayed to my grandfather as I had prayed to my uncle, please, please take care of her. And, once again, it was as if the angels reached out their hands to me and said, we have her. She's going to be just fine.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

How to Help Kim and Other Grieving Mothers

Yesterday the world lost the most precious 14-month old little boy. I didn't know him. I didn't really even know his mother except as an occasional passing in the halls at school and as a picture in our yearbook. Years pass and, although we live in the same small community, we're only in touch through the shared stories of others. But I know the feeling of a mother's heart imploding.

My heart was so heavy last night. Not another baby. I was angry. Didn't Avery take one for the team? Wasn't that enough? Why?

I thought about this Mom - a mom now without. She is going to have to be strong. So incredibly, unbelievably, strong. She is going to need help. Our help.

But how?

1.) Shut up.
Seriously. Keep your opinions and your comments and your judgements to yourself. She doesn't want to hear them. You weren't there. I wasn't there. Just like I didn't want to hear your opinions about young drivers and cars without side air bags. I can beat myself up enough without you helping. She is beating herself up in ways that none of us can imagine right now. She doesn't need to hear about dogs. This isn't about dogs. Whether dogs are good or bad. Whether kids should be allowed around dogs or not. What breed of dogs are good or bad. Don't you get it? She doesn't want to hear about the dogs. She doesn't want to think about the dogs. She just wants her arms to hold her child.

Also: you don't know. Even if you think you do; you don't. I've lost a child and even I don't know. So do not say that you do.

Let me say it again because it is that important: you do not know.

2.) Just listen.
Seriously. You don't have to say anything. Just listen. If she wants to talk about her son, listen. If she wants to yell and rail and be angry, listen. If she wants to sob in your arms, just wrap your arms around her tightly, and listen. You do not need to fill the air with words. Some of the greatest people who helped me simply held my hand and looked at me with tears in their eyes. I knew they cared deeply. I knew they didn't know what to say. I also knew they were filled with an incredible amount of love and hurt and compassion.

3.) Feed Her.
She won't want to eat. But someone, please make her take a bite now and then. And have her drink water. A swallow here, a swallow there. Her broken heart doesn't care about food. Care enough for her. Also, she won't starve if she doesn't have a full complete meal, so quit harping on it.

You'll want to bring food - because that's what we do. We feed grief. Bring it in containers that don't need to be returned. Don't make her try to remember which pan goes with which person. I had someone bring me a casserole in a brand new glass pan and told me to keep it. I don't know what it is about that pan that just smiles at me with so much love... but it does. Another helpful hint is to make a full meal but package it up for freezing purposes. I got a lasagna that was brought over in individual bagged slices. All I had to do was pull one out of the freezer, put in on a plate and warm it up. That was so helpful.

4.) Enough With the Food.
Too much food goes to waste. Here's some other ideas: paper plates, cups, silverware, napkins. (She isn't going to want to do dishes.) Clean her house. (I had someone come and dust my fake ficus tree. I didn't notice until much later how sparkling clean my house was. She isn't going to want to vacuum or wash mirrors.) Toilet paper, saline solution, hand soap... all those things she isn't going to want to go to the store for. And right now, emotionally, she doesn't need to go to the store for more toilet paper.

4.) Pictures.
When something horrific happens to your child the mind seems to get stuck on images that you cannot erase. The images that Jadrian has from when she got back into the car and held her sister have haunted her. Traumatized her. They threaten to take over who Avery truly was. We put pictures up. On the counter, table, end table, on top of the TV --- even in the car. Smiling from every direction. One of the counselors suggested we carry a favorite picture of Avery around with us in a pocket, so that no matter where we are when the awful images start we can pull out the truth and focus on true beauty.

If you have a picture of Kim's little boy - give it to her. It doesn't matter if he's in the background, it's just the side of his face, or a foot. It's him. One of my favorite photos someone gave me was a picture of Avery from a birthday party a couple years back. She's in the far corner with her head turned. But it's the only picture I have where I can see her neck. Oh, that beautiful neck.

5.) Mail.
I kind of struggle with this one. In the beginning the mail was so much. I didn't know how to focus on the words written inside (and the words don't have to be anything amazing - just "I am praying for you." It helps a heart heal bit by bit.) and by the time my mental faculties returned the mail dwindled down to a trickle. Now, four months later, we just have bills. So I suggest this one for the long term as well as the immediate.

Share a memory of her son --- even if you don't think it is one. "I remember seeing you at the grocery store with him in the cart; he was smiling and so precious." It's a way of telling this Mama that you saw him. He was here. And he will always be here, living on in the memories of others.

6.) Gift.
There will be bills. So many bills. Ambulance, hospital, flight for life, emergency response, funeral expenses that no one ever wants to think about, especially when we're talking about a child who should still be in his mother's arms. (And funerals are really, really expensive.) There will be insurance nightmares and fees for things that hurt a broken heart even more. (Side note suggestion: when the time comes, bring a large envelope to put the death certificates in when you pick them up. That one about brought me to my knees.)

This Mama will be looking at a bed her son will never again sleep in. She will be remembering his tiny hand wrapped around a toy truck and the way he looked when he first woke up from a nap. She doesn't need to be worrying about bills. In fact, she'll probably forget to pay the ones that were due this week because her mind isn't focused on electricity or car payments. If you are able, ten or twenty dollars adds up.

7.) Avoid.
Avoid the details. Avoid the graphic descriptions. Avoid pictures of the accident scene. I had a fabulous group of supporters that made sure I didn't see any pictures of the car my daughter died in. I never saw a newspaper article (or the comments following). No one spoke about seeing anything. If they saw it, they kept it to themselves. For some reason our society is keen on that... needing to know the details. The shattered Mama's heart just wants to savor the details of their child, his touch, his voice, his smile, the way she could breathe him in under the assumption she would be able to breathe him in until she turned old and gray.... don't bring any unnecessary details or descriptions to her. Those are conversations we know you're having, but have them in private, away from the ears of the grieving mother.

Mostly, the best thing to do is pray. Pray with all your might.

A memorial account has been established at ASSOCIATED BANK. You can walk into any Associated Bank and ask to donate to the DAXTON BORCHARDT MEMORIAL FUND.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

AVERYday: Remember and Keep - Part 26

I can't explain it except to say, I wish time would stop. I wish I could go back to those moments of just finding out. I know that sounds strange - why would I dare want to revisit the most horrific time in my personal history? But, well, there's something so absolutely sacred about that time. It's like that moment you give birth, and finally hold that previously imagined baby in your arms for the first time; the emotion that floods you - it's sacred. Over time that fades. Sure, you say you remember how filled with love you were; but can you actually still feel it?

When you get that knock on the door, or that phone call, or however the awful news is delivered, that emotion - although sprinkled in disbelief and wrapped in sorrow and pain - the emotion at the center of it all is love. Nothing but love. Sacred love. And I don't want that feeling to fade. Ever.

Time goes on. Clocks keep ticking. Calendar pages get flipped. But still, my heart aches.

I try to keep my head centered but I lose my breath when I pass the girls section at the store, or when I see a bunch of girls in their gymnastics leotards, or when I think about how she would love to go bowling, or ice skating or out to dinner, to the movies, horseback riding, and why didn't I take to the Renaissance Faire or Great America, and why can't she read a book, ride her bike, try out for the school play, practice piano or learn the trombone? And why can't I hear her laugh? I just want to hear her laughing.

And then I lose it. Again. Hands gripped tight the steering wheel, tears staining my face because the only time and place I have is the seven minutes in my car between work and home; because inside that car I don't have to be strong for anyone. I can be weak for my grief for my beautiful, now gone daughter.

Because I cannot sob at work because it scares the customers and there are phones to answer politely and papers that need to be filed and questions to be answered cheerfully.

Because I cannot sob at home, always detected by the 3-year old who looks at me with puppy-dog eyes and asks, "are you crying because you miss Avery so, so much?" "Yes, buddy. I miss Avery so much." "But you're so happy because you still have me here with you?" "Yes, buddy. I am SO HAPPY that I still have you here with me!" And I wipe the tears on the back of my sleeve and smile and hug reassured.

And you would think with my insurance it'd be easy to see a counselor but I've been only four times in four months and that's just not enough.

And it's been four months. Four months without.


The 4th commandment is "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." Remember.... and keep.

Remember. Do not forget.

Remember what God has done for you. Created this amazing beautiful world, formed the fishes and the sloths and the armadillos and the hues of tulips that never end. Remember the gifts, so many gifts, He gives us each and every day: gently fallen snow, the sun peeking over the ridge, the smell of fresh cut lawns and lemongrass.

Remember her eyes and her smile and the way she laughed out loud which was the best laugh in the world. Remember how gentle she was with her little brother and the way she carried him, half slipping through her arms even though he could walk, down the hall to get him ready for bed. Remember her plans and her faith and the way she stood up against someone hurting or demeaning another.

Do not forget.

And keep it.

'Remember the Sabbath,' He told us. 'It is holy. I have put you in charge; it is in your custody. Keep it holy. Protect it.'

Protect her. Keep her. For her memory and her love are in you. She is in your custody.

I have a responsibility as a Christian to remember all that God has given me. I have a responsibility as a Mother to remember all that she has given me, too.

I have a responsibility as a Christian to keep all that God has given me holy. Observe it. Protect it. Do it. Open my hands and take it; fall to my knees and give thanks; drink in His blessings and celebrate His joy-gifts! And I have a responsibility to keep all that Avery has given me. To celebrate her, to drink in her memory, to do something that will honor her. To fall to my knees and thank God for the time I had with her.

I have a friend at Bible Study who is an AFS Parent. This means she opened her home and her heart to care for a student from another country, so they could come to the United States and be immersed in our culture, learn our ways, experience our part of the world. I can honestly say that my friend and her family accept this student as their own. She has become part of their family, and my friend loves her as much as a mother could love a daughter... She took this borrowed-child into her heart and her home even though she knew full well it will end in heartbreak. She knew that her heart would swell, overflowing with love and happiness and laughter and then it would break completely. She took this on even though she knew that in one year's time she would have to send her borrowed-child back to a home where she herself has never been.

I feel like that. That maybe I was just the borrowed-parent. That Avery was borrowed to me for but a short time; that all of my children are on loan; that my role is to welcome them and love them and usher them into my heart and my home and that my heart will overflow with learning who they are, and laughing at their wit, and being so proud when they try something new --- but that I must also be prepared to send them back home. To live where they came from. Even though I've never been there.

God looked at His daughter, Avery, and chose the Host Family for her that He thought would learn the most from her. He chose this overwhelming love, and overwhelming heartbreak, for us.

That, just as my friend must parent, speak to, lead, this borrowed-child always thinking in the back of her head am I honoring her true parents? I, too, must remember that as I go about my days with Jadrian and Brody. Am I honoring their true Father?

I would never say to another person's child, "what is wrong with you? How could you do something so stupid?" And yet, I have said these same awful words to my oldest in anger about something unimportant; something that didn't matter, something I don't even remember - school or grades or friends. I thought she should know better. I thought she should have done different. I was angry, exasperated, frustrated, annoyed, tired, spent. But that is no excuse. There is nothing that can excuse that.

Could you imagine sitting across from God trying to explain why you chose the words you did? Why you chose the reaction you made? As He sat across from you with His child on His lap. Could you do anything but weep and beg for forgiveness?

I read the newspaper. Watch the news. I see post after post from my sister encouraging people to open their homes to foster children. All these mistreated children... God's children. We sit by and watch as another of His children are harmed. Emotionally, physically. Switch the channel. Turn the page. Pretend it isn't me causing the damage. Pretend I didn't notice the tears.

Did God want His child back because He was afraid she would be damaged in my care?

Or did she do such an amazing job teaching us about the unashamed faith of a child that God needed her to do bigger and better things from her real home?


And keep.

The One in which I take my Father for his Covid Vaccine

I got a voicemail the other day from the hospital saying ‘since you’re the contact on record we just want you to know your Dad can get a Cov...