Grief is not the end of you

I’ve been trapped in the same hospital room for a year.

I can still see the two rows of glass standing guard on either side of me, my fractured reflection in each pane as I walked past the silent sadness in each room. Doors and windows and off white curtains running into each other down a beige hallway. Dated floor tiles with brown specks become a river as the smell of antiseptic and thin cotton perfumed the air.

I can tell each hospital I have visited over the last ten years apart by the aesthetics Even though they all seem the same to me now. Even if it doesn’t matter anymore.

On my worst days, this is where I end up.

I replay this scene, and many others, over and over again in a devastating loop. And I hate myself for it. For being so weak.

A long road with nine years of hospital stays, visitor badges, and frantic phone calls that came late at night or early in the morning. How else would bad news travel save for 6 a.m. Sunday morning phone calls or 11 p.m. texts on a Tuesday? The faintly blue walls and fake flowers on side tables in hospital hallways were like lipstick on a pig.

Because no one could ever assure us that it would get any better.

It was a slow siphoning. A meandering descent.

Like a giant bucket full of water, with a minuscule hole drilled in the bottom, we didn’t notice the changes at first. We didn’t notice that the silver thread of my father’s life was nearly gone until one day it suddenly was. But we had silently been careening to that moment for nearly a decade.

And still, we weren’t ready for the impact.

On my worst days, I’m back by his side, swallowing a brick of tears and burning anguish as we all waited for the lines on his monitor to flatten and anger singed a bitter blister inside of me.

I couldn’t decide if I wanted him to stay or go, to keep holding on or to infinitely release, even though that had been his life for the last decade. Even though I had already asked that of him again and again. I couldn’t ask that from him even once more because he had done all of that, and more. What else can a father give?

On my best days, I remember that it won’t always be this way.

After his funeral, we made our way to a familiar small, sandy beach. The sky churned in a wild sea of gray, the clouds turning over like a river of lava, like they were hot and flowing until they piled on top of one another, building something unknown. The water was murky. The grainy sand bone white as it crunched beneath our feet.

Somehow, the fact that it was a less than ideal day that we had chosen to spread his ashes was actually comforting.

I’m new to this grief thing.

Before that day, I had thought that maybe, by the time we stood at the edge of the water he loved so much and let him go, eight months and a few mornings after he had left us, that it would begin to feel like true closure. When in truth, letting go of some of the last tangible pieces of him was a painful act more than it was transcendent.

The day was a confusing mess of gray, rain that spit from the sky, and winds that churned the waters below. The air stung our faces, and we let him go into something wild. We gave him over to the uncertainty, and that seemed to make a modicum of sense after eight months of being confused over how someone can truly be gone.

It didn’t mean that it was over. But it meant that we began to accept that truth of the matter. That we all fade, no matter what. That those around us will fade, and we might have to be here to watch. That life was still infinitely mysterious in its at times unforgiving nature. But in the tangled web of uncertainty and beauty, something beautiful still throbs even when we are broken. In darkness, something hopeful and light pulses even still.

We accepted the inevitable that we couldn’t escape. But by setting him free into the mist, right in the middle of it, we agreed that we were trying to figure it out. To discover our way through it. To make peace with everything.

I sat on that same beach, two months later. On Father’s Day.

Aviator shades on, shoulders out, freckled skin hot, the weather and the day could not have been any more different. This was my first time back to that same place, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it. Or in what state I would find myself.

Only on that day, in the place of my sorrow months before, I wasn’t alone on the beach. Families lounging on plastic chairs and beach blankets dotted the shore. People played in the warm and clear water. I found a spot beneath a tree and sat. Watching.

You would never have believed this was the same place.

I took my children swimming yesterday. Three busy bodied children in fluorescent swimsuits stood at the edge of the shore. The older two hesitantly let the water lap around their ankles, while my third child alligator crawled through the water, the soft sand pillowing under her knees.

My two oldest were afraid of the jelly fish. They were afraid of what they could not see. My youngest child hardly took notice of their worries, instead enjoying herself on a perfect day.

She hasn’t learned to be afraid yet. She just dives right in – to anything.

I assured my children that I was watching over them. That the waters were clearer than they thought. That they were safe. From jellyfish, from waves and all manner of scaled and clawed sea creatures.

They doubted me, while my youngest continued her fun, soaking up the moments and almost becoming too brave as she inched further out.

I marveled at how brave we are before we learn to be afraid.

I realized that I might never be like that again.

 

I remember being like them. Being stung by a jellyfish hidden in the gray waters. Rocked over by the waves until I swallowed mouthfuls of saltwater. Raw wounds on my shoulders and knees as the ocean flung me back and then began to pull me out again.

I remember feeling helpless. So many times in the last year, I have felt so helpless.

How weak we feel when life mercilessly knocks us to our knees. How it clutches  at us and shakes us until the air is ripped from our lungs. How it rubs us raw even while we still suffer. We feel small, like will never be brave again. Like we couldn’t ever be again even if we had the choice.

But really, it is after life has shaken us, has devastated us, has reminded us that its language was always uncertainty, that we should feel the most brave.

Grief is a torch that will only light our steps so much.

But it is peace the illuminates the way.

Grief is not the end of us.

Even as we make bedfellows with it for many days in the dark. Even as we begin to comfortably wear it. Even as we swallow it, hold it close to ourselves and count it only as ours.

I’ve marked my grief these last twelve months. I’ve made it my own, unwilling to share it. To talk about it. To expose it would leave me helpless. It has become a shield, something to wield. As I let myself cower behind it. As I try to forgive myself over and over again for feeling so weak that I can’t move forward. When I tell myself that I can’t. I can’t move on from when he left me. What if my life is unrecognizable without him? What might he think? 

How does one move on without a place for the ones they have lost?

Grief is a torch that shows us the path, but it is peace that illuminates the way ahead. It is peace that compels us to move and find our footing again. It is peace that wills us to be brave. It is peace that tells us that we must trust the uncertainty.

One day, I pray I will be far away from that room. Where our bodies were crowded close together. Where we held his hands and whispered to him as we silently prayed that maybe he heard us one last time. That he heard us tell him that it was okay, that we weren’t going to ask him to stay one more time.

Peace tells me that grief isn’t the end. My ashes become an adornment. The thin soot of my pain. It tells me that fire can be both devastating and cleansing, and that death can make the things left behind beautiful. It can be a catalyst. The fire that sparks. The end is only the beginning, for him in eternity and now for me, still on Earth.

Grief is the end of the chapter. But not the story.

Not of me.

 

 

 

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Three ways I’m a more confident mom now

I remember my child’s first public meltdown. 

No parent asks for their child to turn red and wail like they are being abducted by a stranger over a 99 cent toy. 

I remember feeling like such a failure when this happened the first time. It made me question everything because I used to be the person who didn’t understand why children were “allowed” to have meltdowns in public. I thought I would never be that parent. 

Isn’t that cute?

Now that I have been mom’ing for a while*, I have noticed that things that may have gotten under my skin in previous years don’t seem to have the same affect that they used to.

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No, this doesn’t mean that I consider myself a perfect parent. No, this doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally feast on a box of bagel bites in an effort to eat my feelings because my children have destroyed what little bit of patience I have left. 

*”A while” is a relative term. For me, it’s been almost seven years. 

And no, it doesn’t mean that I love my babies any more than a mom who feels like she is struggling to get through each day without ripping her hair out. It just means that we moms grow more battled hardened every day that we love our babies. It’s one of the perks of the job.

Here are a few ways that I am more confident now than when I first became a parent:

1.) They’re fine. 

It used to be that whenever one of my children bumped their head, scraped their knee or climbed on top of the coffee table, I would toss whatever was in my hands to the side (so many poor casserole dishes), and rush to rescue my beloved baby. 

Now that baby number three is mobile? When I hear an ominous thud, I wait a moment…

Because she’s probably fine.

My children don’t eat as many fruits and vegetables as I would like for them to. In fact, we should probably just buy stock in Goldfish crackers at this point.

They’re fine. 

Our bedtime routine used to be a drawn out, ceremonial process. Now? We might read a book, and they may or may not even get a bath. We give kisses, say prayers and then sweetly remind them that, “if they come downstairs, someone had better be bleeding because (Batman voice) it’s BED TIME. Okay, good night, love you guys!” 

They’re. Fine.

We have learned to navigate fevers and stomach bugs, nightmares and bumps on their heads, scrapes on their knees and Dora the Explorer. We have learned that our children are okay to occupy themselves with coloring books and Lego’s while mommy and daddy have a breather on the sofa in the other room.

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I trust my gut so much more now than I used to. And my gut says that they are fine, and that a relaxed and sane parent is actually a better parent.

Even if my children appreciate Skittles way more than they ought, they are still perfectly  fine.  Everybody is alive. Everybody is happy. And that is enough for me. 

2.) Great expectations

The other night, my littlest one had me up several times, once for over an hour. We also had a storm system move through the area, so between the lightening flashing and thunder clapping, and the toddler trying to make conversation at 4 a.m., I didn’t get much sleep.

I woke up with a headache and could barely keep my eyes open, so never mind how outrageous it was that I needed to walk the dog, pack lunches, make breakfast and get the kids off to school. 

I realized around 11 a.m. that I hadn’t accomplished much for the day, and I suddenly felt guilty.

Then I decided to wait just a darn minute. I had just spent half of the night awake with the baby, the kids and husband all had clean clothes on – clothes that I washed, dried and folded yesterday – and food in their tummies that I had prepared for them.

Never mind the mess all over the house. My babies were smiling and happy. 

That’s enough. 

I realize now that my greatest critic all along has been…myself. I am always the first to put myself down. And while I believe that sometimes, this inner voice, this conviction, can encourage us to be better, I totally think that most of the time, this inner voice just needs to get with the freaking program. 

I have borne three babies in seven years, and sacrificed my abdominal muscles and private bathroom space in the process. My children know that deep down, they are wildly loved by two parents who would do anything for them. Also, my children really appreciate salads, everyone has clean underwear in their drawers, and the house is relatively clean most days. At least, if the definition of clean means not needing to fumigate.

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I realize now that the clean dishes and socks I use on the days when I can barely keep my eyes open are the fruits of labor from the days when I have it all a bit more together. Which means that I am probably accomplishing way more in spite of everything going on than I give myself credit for, even if I didn’t realize it then.

Loving your babies is the line in the sand. If all else fails for the day, ask yourself if you have loved your babies. And if you can assuredly say yes for the day, then move along.

The messes will replenish themselves tomorrow without fail. anyway.

3.) No one else matters

So, that sounds a little harsh, right? Maybe it is.  But that is a phrase I have had to repeat to myself constantly in my mothering journey. 

If you look for validation for your parenting choices from anywhere other than your spouse or yourself, you are looking for trouble. 

I could feed my babies a strict organic diet, forgo vaccinations, breast feed each of them for the first two years of their lives and co-sleep with them until they’re a teenager. 

And someone would disagree with my parenting. 

I could feed my babies a regular diet, vaccinate on time, bottle feed them, enforce rules by using time-out, and homeschool them. 

And someone would still disagree with my parenting. 

We now have this tendency to overthink parenting; to get validation from “sources” and “experts” to see if we are getting it right. I have to tell you – if in this social media driven world you look for the ultimate validation from the people on Facebook, or even from the people around you, you will eventually be sorely disappointed.

The best that you can do is…your best. Just like everyone else is doing. 

We each know our children and ourselves better than anyone else. And there is no such thing in this world as a parent who has it all together. 

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I now know how to navigate unsolicited advice with a grateful smile and nod, while letting it roll off my back. I now know how to be proud of the decisions that I have made as a parent, even if my kids are eating GMO’s by the truck load. I am now okay with the fact that I am teaching my children to love Jesus and be countercultural is this world, and that there are people who are gonna dislike me for it.

And if someone else doesn’t approve? Well,…okay then??

They are most welcome to come and see if they can do it better than me. 

 

Sometimes Church Is Just the Right Place to Be

I hardly ever get breakfast on a Sunday. 

By the time I reach the bottom of the stairs, the whirlwind begins. My efforts turn from fancying food to digging matching clothes for the kids out of the bottom drawers of dressers (and, being honest, laundry baskets), or to locating shoes that always seem to go missing only when you are in a hurry to leave the house.

I make every attempt to encourage my tiny-mouthed children to finish their breakfasts, and then we begin navigating through negotiations with one child to just brush.your.teeth. 

Sundays are ridiculous, even though they are supposed to be the most important day of the week. 

Sunday is a day for rest. 

Sunday is a day for family dinner and locking hands around grandma’s table. 

Sunday is a day for sliding into the pew at church, plastering a smile on your face and forgetting about what’s been eating you alive this week. 

Only it isn’t. 

I was a disgruntled worker these past few Sunday morning. Sometimes, the kids fling themselves out of bed with smiles on their faces, and it’s only their energetic exuberance for a new day that can make getting out the door that much more hectic. 

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Other days, someone’s tired, someone can’t even find a pair of pants, someone doesn’t want whatever it is I have prepared for breakfast (even though they asked for it specifically), and someone else doesn’t want to brush their teeth because the toothpaste “tastes like spinach.” 

Okay, well they were kind of right about that. But I can’t tell them that because they’ll never want to brush their teeth again. 

About five minutes before we needed to leave, and with wet hair still dripping down my shoulders from my shower nearly an hour before, I sent out a flurry of text messages to mom friends who were surely going through the same motions that morning. 

What is the point of going to church when you just want to pull your hair out? When you know you’re going to be more than twenty minutes late? When you’re so frustrated that listening to a sermon is the last thing you want to do??

In my frustrated state, church was the last place I wanted to be. 

We all finally made it to the car, me with my hair finally brushed and dried. I couldn’t even remember what was in the diaper bag that I hastily grabbed on my way out the door (hopefully at least one diaper), and I was just thankful that I had remembered to swipe my underarms with a stick of deodorant before leaving.

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I was flustered to say the least. I wanted to throw something. I wanted to punch the next person I saw with curled hair and an accessorized outfit right in the neck. 

Clearly, I was in the right frame of mind to be going to church. 

After circling the church for what felt like ten forevers, we settled on a parking spot several streets over. The husband was frantically looking for tissues when I left him behind with a tiny hand in each of my own to cross the street. He would bring up the rear with the fuzzy headed toddler who was wearing mismatched socks and no shoes. 

We were all finally seated together with enough time to make it through one worship song. One. 

“My life is not my own
To you I belong
I give myself, I give myself to you.

God has a sense of humor.

This is the Sunday morning rat race. Usually, no matter how early I wake up and grab a shower, no matter how quickly the children are outfitted and ready by the back door, something inevitably goes wrong. Being late is not a new thing for us, but it is something that eats me alive. 

When you’re inept with punctuation already, adding three children to the mix doesn’t help. I feel like I could quit my gym membership since I make about fifteen trips from the house to the car and back before we actually buckle our seat belts. 

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Yesterday morning, as I leaned forward on the pews, with what felt like a weight of bricks on my back as I recounted my missteps from the last week, I felt the hum of the saints singing and worshipping reverberate through the wood beneath my hands. 

How magical it is when one hundred gathered believers singing ends up sounding more like a thousand instead. 

I closed my eyes and tried to focus on anything other than myself, and I pictured the tiled ceiling and pendant drop lights being lifted away, a final wall between God and His followers breached. 

I knew that we were heard. 

It feels like when I’m in this funk that church is the last place that I want to be. I feel obligated to smile. I feel obligated to seem like I have it all together. Even when that is not the truth.

I wonder where this obligation sets in. I wonder why it is that we feel the need to hide, even though there is no hiding what we are going through, how we are feeling from our God. There is no hiding who we are from Him. He knew the stakes before we were even born.

Any pressure that we perceive before walking into church if all of our own making. There is no dress code in the Bible, there is no rule about punctuality. There is nothing in there that orders us to have it all together before we gather. 

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We are called to come, open and honest about ourselves as we listen to the message, as we take communion and as we fellowship. We are called to be glad because we are in His presence, not because we have our lives in order. 

We are called to focus on His goodness, not on our unworthiness. And He honors the heart that tries to be there as best as they can, gathered fully in the moment to Him. He desires oneness with us that we can only have it if we are honest with ourselves about who and what we are when we stand before the throne. 

We can sing with gladness when we know that after an imperfect week, with trial and failure each one after the other, God still stands. And He is still good. 

And,  as parents, we can also be thankful for the childcare offered for the service. Praise be to God. 

Have a wonderful week saints.