My Favorite Prayer

Sometimes I wonder if God smiles when I say things like “Tomorrow I’m going to spend the entire day at home.” Or maybe he laughs out loud. Because I believe he knows what’s happening around us and I believe he knows what tomorrow brings. Unlike me. I try to make plans and stick to them. But sometimes my day turns out exactly the opposite of what I’d planned. Thy will be done.

And there it is. My favorite line from my favorite prayer. The Lord’s Prayer. I’ve loved it ever since I first heard it as a little girl but over the years it has become more and more precious to me. I trust that God’s will is more important than mine, even when, or perhaps especially when, I don’t understand why he’s allowing things to turn out the way they do.

Like Wednesday. The day I planned to stay home and get some things done. Instead, I ended up driving around 300 miles as I helped my son get a new tire on his car, pick up the spare tire from the tire store that had “forgotten” to put it back in his car when he replaced a different tire two weeks ago, purchase a gas can and gas to get the car to a gas station so I could fill it up, and get the car back to my son so he could get home from work. It was an exhausting kind of day. A day where you spend most of it racing to the next destination so you can get the next thing on the list checked off, while trying to be patient, as all of those things fall into place–slowly.

Brett drives 80 miles each way to his new business venture. He’d made it 25 miles north of town when he had the flat. I’d already driven 40 miles from our home in the country to meet him, then across town once or twice trying to get a good tire at a decent price, then north again to change the tire, get the gas can, fill it with gas, and return to the car again. Then I let him borrow my new car and get to work while I drove his all the way back to town to pick up the spare (the business said they had to have the actual car there so they would know which spare tire went with his car). And while I had his car I wanted to do something to cheer him up so I took it to the car wash, a really nice one that vacuums it out for you and hand dries it with towels, had his oil changed, and bought him new wiper blades since his didn’t work that well. Then I drove the 80 miles north again to his new Herbalife shake shop, swapped out the cars, and drove the 100 miles back to my home in time to pick up my daughter and take her to her RE class at our church. It was a full day.

But it was also a day with unexpected blessings because I spent several wonderful hours with my son. I got to have breakfast with him while we waited for the new tire to be put on the rim. I got to drive around with him as we traveled back and forth to his car so he could put the new tire on and put the gas in. I got to see how beautiful his new shop is and enjoy one of Herbalife’s delicious shakes. I got to meet his business partner, his partner’s girlfriend, and their newborn son. And I got to see his smile when he saw his clean car and I told him what else I’d done for him.

But that wasn’t all. He also had a surprise waiting for me in my car when I got in. Earlier in the day a pack of cigarettes fell out of his coat pocket while he was in my car. He’d smoked in the past but had quit and he was embarrassed that I knew he was smoking again. I wasn’t really surprised. The amount of work he’s put into getting this new business started has been quite stressful for him. And just last week he and his girlfriend broke up. Mom’s know things, kids. Even if we don’t say anything, we still know. So when I opened the door and saw the pack of cigarettes in my seat with a note attached, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The note said: “Help me quit. Throw these away, and call me after 5. Love you, Brett”

I think it’s the best gift he’s ever given me.

I called him after 5 that day and every day since. He hasn’t smoked another cigarette. He knew it was time to quit. His grandmother died of lung cancer in 2012 so our family is acutely aware that they are deadly. He just needed a nudge. And it came from an unexpected day with his mom.

Thy will be done.

Thank you, Lord.

 

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How Many Hours are in a Lifetime?

The day began as normally as it could when you have a child home from school with a fever. My son, Brett, was six years old and in the first grade. Since this was the third day of his illness and the fever didn’t seem to be breaking, I called his pediatrician’s office and scheduled an appointment for 1:30 that afternoon.

With no energy or appetite, he lay lethargically across my bed while I plugged a rented copy of Babe into the VCR and hit Play. I propped some pillows against the headboard and hauled myself up onto the bed to watch with him. He nestled in beside me, curled his arm across my protruding abdomen, and gave my belly and the baby inside, a few gentle pats.

* * *

The baby had kept me awake until well after midnight with his usual antics. He would be a night-owl I was sure.

I already knew that he loved music. Every time I turned the radio on, he’d wake up and listen. Once, when my husband—a classical pianist—was performing a recital, he woke up and then barely moved throughout the concert. I could tell he was awake because I could feel his small hand, nestled low in my womb, moving ever so slightly every few moments. Perhaps he was already conducting in there.

Oh, and he hated seat belts. I would snap it closed and he would start rolling. Not that I blamed him. It went right across his head, which I’m sure didn’t feel too nice. He paid me back for this apparent cruelty by kicking every rib he could reach several times for good measure, pummeling my bladder with his small hands, and rolling from one side to another as he tried to find a comfortable position in his cramped space.

* * *

I was awake and getting Brett ready to leave for the doctor’s office when I realized that I hadn’t felt the baby move for a little while. He always slept in, often not waking up until around lunchtime, but even while he slept he moved and his twitches, hiccups, and other little motions reassured me that all was well in there. Then I remembered that often babies slept very deeply—storing up energy—just before labor began. I made a mental list of the last-minute items I would have to add to my suitcase before we left for the hospital.

I snapped the seatbelt across him and he didn’t move. I tried to turn on the radio, but it only worked sporadically so I couldn’t. For a few minutes I considered asking the pediatrician to listen for the heartbeat when he finished examining Brett.   But I dismissed it as my overactive imagination running away with me.

Brett had a virus. His ears weren’t infected and his chest was clear. The pediatrician told us to wait-it-out and we left to pick up my nine-year-old daughter, Valerie, from school.

We had a couple of errands to run before dinner, so I told the kids to stay in the car as I ran inside our home for a moment. Before I walked out of the house again, I quickly lay down on the couch and gently shook my belly to try to get some response out of him.

I waddled back out to the van. My brain was now in “automatic” mode as I drove to my husband’s office to pick up a check that he wanted me to deposit before the bank closed. I really wasn’t very aware of my surroundings; I was distracted and distant. I wanted to get home as quickly as possible so that I could try again to wake up the baby.

“What’s wrong?” My husband, Jay, asked as he scanned my face.

“I haven’t felt the baby move for a while, not even when I used the seatbelt.” He knew how unusual that was.

“Okay, well, go home, call the doctor and see what they say. I’m sure everything’s fine, but call them. And then call me and tell me what they say.”

“They’ll probably think I’m overreacting.”

“That’s why they’re there, to help you when you need it. Call them.”

“Okay, I will.”

I deposited the check before returning home. When I got home, I went to my bed and lay flat on my back so that I could really move the baby around. When that didn’t get a response, I called the doctor’s office.

The nurse reassured me that it was probably just the baby sleeping deeply. She gave me two options. The first was that I could drink some orange juice, eat something, and see if the baby responded within an hour. But by then their office would be closed and I would need to go to the hospital if I needed further help. The second was that I could come in now and they would strap the monitors on me so I could see the baby’s heartbeat and relax. I chose the second option and called Jay to tell him. I was surprised when he told me to come pick him up because I knew he would have to cancel a few of his college students’ piano lessons. I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted.

When he got in the van, I told him that I hadn’t been able to turn the radio on. He fiddled with it and got it going. Classical music floated around us. The children were unusually quiet in the back seat.

We arrived at the doctor’s office around 4:30. The office was preparing to close for the day; there weren’t many people around. Valerie and Brett sat down at a Lego table and began to play with the toys. The nurse assured us that they would watch over them for the few minutes we’d be in the room.

She led us back and I struggled to lie down on the narrow bed. I was so big that I had to have assistance to lie down and to sit back up again. My CNM (Certified Nurse/Midwife) came in and greeted us. Her manner was reassuring and calm, but also ready to get down to business and go home.

I pulled my shirt up exposing my mountain of a belly and flinched as she squirted some cold gel on my taut skin and moved a small, black Doppler device over it. At this stage of pregnancy, it was usually extremely easy to find the heartbeat. We heard the steady beating of a working heart and I was instantly relieved. I looked at her, but she hadn’t relaxed.

“Is that the baby’s heartbeat?” I asked.

She took my wrist and her lips moved as she counted. “No, that’s yours.”

All I could think was, “This can’t be happening to me.” She moved the Doppler again and again as she tried to find what she was looking for. After a few moments she said she was going to try something else and brought out the more sophisticated portable monitors that they strap on you during labor. These were so sensitive that they could also record the pressure from the contractions. She belted them across my abdomen and turned the machine on. Nothing. She rearranged them a couple of times. Still nothing.

Next, she told me that she was going to get an ultrasound machine and left the room.

My eyes sought Jay’s. His brows were furrowed over his eyes, which were intent on my face. He squeezed the hand that he’d been holding since we arrived.

The CNM backed into the room pulling a cart with the ultrasound machine on it. She turned it on, and I didn’t notice immediately, but she had the screen turned to her instead of me as it usually was every other time we’d used it. She picked up a different device and started working it across my belly.

After a few moments she turned to me. “I’m not as experienced at using this machine as the OB/GYN’s are. I’m going to go find one of them to help us.”

She returned with an obstetrician who knew exactly what she was doing.   She studied the screen briefly and then turned the monitor screen to me. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but it’s not good news.” She pointed to a spot on the monitor. “Here’s the baby’s heart. It’s not beating and it’s dilated.”

As I think back on those words that were spoken to me on April 15, 1996, they are concise and terribly easy to understand. But at that moment I struggled to make sense of them. “You mean my baby’s dead?” I asked. My eyes were locked on hers. Her face reflected a cautious sympathy.

“Yes.”

With that single word, a very specific part of my soul—the part that contained all my hopes and dreams for this baby—began to die a slow, excruciating death.

Small revelations broke through my sorrow. I stifled the sobs long enough to choke out a question for my husband. “You mean, now I have to go through labor for nothing?” It was a nonsensical question, but I panicked as I considered the hours of labor ahead of me.

His voice was rough with grief, stress, and most of all worry for me, as he answered, “Yes.”

With a great deal of effort I pulled myself together. We had to talk with my doctor and find out how to proceed. She gave us two options to consider. Since I was nine months along, they could give me medications that would start my labor, or I could go home and wait for my body to go into labor on its own. I needed time to think, so we left. As we drove home, we talked about names; we didn’t want to use the ones we’d already picked. We hadn’t wanted to know the sex of the baby—I liked that reward after the laboring was over—so we needed to allow for both possibilities. We decided if the baby was a girl we would name her Elizabeth Joy, and if he was a boy, Stephen Lewis.

We arrived at home and Jay started making the phone calls to relatives and friends. Each time he explained what was happening, it was like another slash to my heart. And I realized, as I listened to him tell people over and over again, that I didn’t want to wait for labor to begin. I needed to get it over with. I called the doctor and told her what I’d decided.

We walked into the hospital around 7:00 p.m. At 10:45 they induced labor and at 1:39 a.m. on Tuesday, April 16th, Stephen Lewis Hershberger was born.

Stephen weighed exactly seven pounds and was twenty-one inches long. He was beautiful with reddish brown hair, long fingers that were shaped like mine, full cheeks like his brother’s, and the little ball at the tip of his nose that resembled his Papa’s. But his lips and the beds of his fingernails were a deep red and his skin was a dusky gray instead of pink. And he was too still. Stillborn.

We knew after his birth what had happened. While he was still very small, a knot had formed in the umbilical cord, and on April 15th it had pulled tight, cutting off his oxygen. So I held him and told him how sorry I was that I hadn’t been able to keep him alive. Guilt was added to the sorrow. I felt that, as his mother, I should’ve instinctively known something was wrong in time to save him.

We took pictures of him. I tried to memorize every little wrinkle in his hands and feet, the shape of his ears, and fingers, and toes. How do you cram a lifetime of loving into a few hours?

The nurse gave me a peach quilted bag. It contained a little yellow sleeper, a blue flannel blanket, a tiny stuffed giraffe that some church ladies had sewn, some booklets on dealing with the death of a child, and a typed note offering their sympathies.

I gave Stephen his first and only bath, dressed him in the yellow sleeper and wrapped him in the blanket. Afterward, the nurse offered to take some pictures of him in the hospital bassinet, with the little stuffed giraffe. She took some great pictures, and one of them—my favorite—is framed on my bedside table.

Through the minutes and hours I held him, our pending separation hung over me like a suspended tidal wave. I knew it was coming and I knew I couldn’t do anything to hold it off forever.

At around 5:30 a.m., I told Jay that I knew it was time for me to give him up. He buzzed the nurse and told her. I held Stephen’s hand, stroked his face, and kissed his tiny head once more before she carried him away. When she walked out of the room with him, the tidal wave surged in, burying me.

I didn’t think I could survive. I didn’t know if I wanted to anymore. It was hard to breathe. Jay held me, rocking me gently. I asked him to read to me from the Psalms again. They had calmed me down while we were waiting for Stephen to be born. I fell asleep to his soft voice reading the poems that David had written all those centuries ago.

Jay was my rock through the storm. He couldn’t keep the rain away, but he shared his strength so we could get through it. I needed him more than I ever had in our thirteen years of marriage. And while I gratefully acknowledge this, I also have to confess that at times he made me really mad. Like when he insisted on talking about the funeral while we waited for labor to

begin. I was holding onto a delusional hope that maybe they were wrong, or maybe this was just a nightmare. But he kept asking me what hymns I wanted, what scripture verses. It made me want to lash out at him. But I didn’t. I couldn’t, because I knew that he was trying to help me.

I found out later that day, that Jay and I both had a feeling something was going to happen to me during labor. It had crossed our minds that I might die. We hadn’t said anything about it; neither of us wanted to scare the other. But since I was still alive, it was a reason to feel just a little bit of relief during this oppressive time.

The days ahead were torturous. I didn’t know how to handle the grief. I cried so long and so hard that my diaphragm felt bruised. It hurt even more to breathe. One morning, while I was still in the hospital, I walked into the bathroom and when I looked into the mirror I was shocked. The face that was staring back at me didn’t look like mine anymore. The pain in her eyes—my eyes—made me wince. I tried not to look in mirrors after that.

When I was released from the hospital, we drove straight to Herberger’s to pick out the clothes that Stephen would be buried in. From there we went to the funeral home to drop off the clothes and plan the funeral. We had to pick out the programs, decide the order of the funeral, and then—as if all of that weren’t enough to deal with—we had to pick out his casket.

I wanted to tell them to stop, to give me some time to think about it, but we couldn’t. The funeral was in less than forty-eight hours. So I picked the small, white, steel casket to bury my son in, and when I found out that the casket I was standing beside was going to be the casket he was buried in, I kissed my fingers and placed the kiss on the pillow that his head would rest upon.

Friday morning, April 19, 1996, was the day of his funeral. Family and close friends met us at the funeral home to view Stephen for the last time. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it ahead of time, but I vividly recall the moment after everyone else had left the room, when I realized that in a few minutes I was going to have to say goodbye to my son for the last time.

We were truly out of time. I knelt beside his casket and told him again how much I loved him and that I would always love him. Jay helped me up, and slowly walked me from the room.

It was a cold, blustery day with the high only in the thirties; quite a shock after having several days of temperatures in the seventies. After the funeral, a handful of family and close friends stood with us beside Stephen’s casket at the gravesite. We stood, huddled in our heavy coats, shivering against the bone-chilling wind. Three young men stood on the other side of a copse of trees, leaning on shovels and speaking quietly together. Their services would be required again after we left.

“Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” The pastor said, sprinkling dirt on shiny white metal.

Jay placed his hand on top of the casket. I placed a kiss.

* * *

On Saturday and Sunday our home was a study in opposites: tears and laughter, loud children and quiet adults, hellos and goodbyes. The first time I laughed, I was surprised by how good it felt. This realization was instantaneously followed by guilt. What kind of a mother was I?

My milk had come in the morning of the funeral. My breasts were so full that every time someone hugged me, pain lanced through my chest and into my back. I didn’t have breasts anymore—I had boulders.

I alternated between Advil and Tylenol every two hours to try to mute the pain I was enduring from more and more milk being stored in already full milk ducts. I stuffed my bra with ice packs that had to be exchanged about every thirty minutes. Hormones don’t understand stillbirth.

* * *

After our relatives left to return to their homes in other states, I had to learn to deal with my new reality. Valerie and Brett went back to school and so did Jay. I was left at home, alone. Before Stephen’s death, I had been looking forward to those hours when the older kids would be at school and I could have a few uninterrupted hours with the new baby. Now I dreaded the silence. I knew what I was missing—what I should have been doing. And as the permanence of death settled into my mind, I got angrier. I’d been unsuccessfully fighting the growing anger since the day of his birth.

As the days dragged by, I drew away from Jay. I didn’t want him to know how I felt. How I was mad at God and questioning Him. And, because he was able to go to work every day, he seemed to be getting over this tragedy so much quicker than I was. That also made me mad.

I still tried to be a good mom for Valerie and Brett.   I did most of my crying when they were at school, but I couldn’t help but cry occasionally around them, too. We talked about Stephen whenever they wanted, but they were also handling his death well. I understood that, even though they’d seen and touched their younger brother, he’d never been a part of their lives. They had other concerns.

* * *

“Mom, if I died like Stephen, would you cry as much for me?” Brett asked, standing in front of me, staring up at my tear-streaked face. I was sitting in the kitchen, listening as Jay informed others about the death of our baby. I looked him straight in the eyes as the agony of just the thought of losing Brett or Valerie pierced through my hazy brain. I silently prayed, Please God, not them, too.

“Brett, if you died, I would cry even more,” I answered honestly. He gave me a timid, relieved smile and nodded his head. I opened my arms. “Come here, bud.” The smile grew as he walked toward me and reached his short arms as far around my bulging belly as he could. I enveloped him in my arms and laid my cheek against his hair. “I love you, son.”

“I love you too, Mom.” His arms began to loosen; he patted my side a few times. I quickly kissed the top of his head before I released him. He ran off to play.

His question became a talisman against the thoughts of giving up—wishing for death. I couldn’t leave them motherless.

Valerie, a few days after the funeral, told me she’d seen Stephen the night before. I said, “In a dream?” I was immediately jealous. I wanted to see him again—even if it was only in a dream.

“I’m not sure. Is Stephen an angel now? Is he wearing white?”

“I don’t know exactly how it works. Maybe that’s a question for your dad. Why? Was Stephen wearing white when you saw him?”

“I think I woke up last night, or I dreamed I woke up, and Stephen was floating in the doorway of my room. He just looked at me; he looked so sweet. When I blinked, he was gone. I really miss him, Mom.”

* * *

Two weeks after Stephen’s death, Jay got a phone call from one of his co-workers whose wife had just had their second child, a daughter. I was very glad that their baby was okay, but my arms were so empty. I started to cry while he was still on the phone and left the room. After he hung up, he came to find me. I was furious. In my mind, I’d been singled out by God. How could He love me and put me through this?

Jay could only tell I was very upset at first. My anger was manifesting itself through torrential tears. He tried to hug me—I pushed him away. He tried to get me to talk to him—I clamped my lips closed and shook my head every time he asked me a question. He sat quietly beside me on the couch, watching my leg swing back and forth in agitation. He finally let out a long sigh. “Cindy, I love you and I want to help you. But I can’t if you won’t talk to me. Please don’t shut me out.”

There had been many times in our marriage when I would recall the vows I had made on our wedding day. It had been easy to repeat after the minister, “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part,” because I couldn’t imagine a time where they would be hard to fulfill.   I had thought I loved him so much. Now, as I sat beside this man who was trying to show me how much he loved me, I was reminded of them again. I had to make a decision. Was I going to continue to shut him out and slowly kill our marriage? Statistically, I had read that something like seventy-five percent of marriages fail after the death of a child. I could see why. Or was I going to let him in and let him help me?

“I’m not sure you really want to know what I’m thinking right now. You’ll know what a bad Christian I really am. And He’ll know, too.”

“Cindy, doesn’t God already know your thoughts? Will He be surprised at anything you tell me? And, honey, He’s big enough to take whatever you have to say. Just get it out.”

So I did. And Jay wasn’t surprised or angry or hurt or appalled. He just listened, and asked questions. I couldn’t answer one of them yet: “Can we trust God?”

My mom called and I told her, too. She also asked me a question: “Is your anger hurting God?”

Mom’s was easier to answer. I knew that my anger wasn’t hurting God, it was hurting me. If I didn’t want to become one of those bitter people who can’t get over the bad things that happen, then I was going to have to let my anger go. But how? I set that question aside.

Can I trust God? Do I still believe? It didn’t take all that long for me to have my answer. Yes, I do believe. Yes, I can trust Him.

That day was the turning point. I realized that God loved Stephen even more than I did, and His Son had died once, too. He could understand my grief. I gave Him my pain, my anger, and my bitterness. It came down to a matter of my will against His.

“Thy will be done,” I finally prayed, and He gave me peace.

It’s been fourteen years since Stephen’s short life changed mine. I now have empathy toward other people’s suffering that I never had before. And, when a friend of mine had a stillborn son a few years after Stephen, I walked through the pain with her.

Every April 16th, if you were to visit his small plot in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in South Moorhead, you would find a rose lying across his footstone, and a small gift that reminded me of him. One year it was an angel, another it was a whirligig that I could picture him blowing on, yet another it was a bouncing butterfly on a pole because he would have been at the age where he would have been chasing them.

And in the summer, geraniums bloom continuously on top of his grave.

Metamorphosis of a Reluctant Caterpillar

Today is the 19th birthday of my son, Stephen Lewis Hershberger. But there will be no party, no cake, no candles, no singing. We’ve never even sang the Happy Birthday song to him. Because he was stillborn at 38 weeks gestation.

I’ll post his story separately so that anyone who’d like to read it may do so, but this post is about the journey since that day.

This morning I woke up and my first thought was “It was over by now. The metamorphosis was complete.” But then I corrected that thought. Because it wasn’t. Not quite.

That morning, nineteen years ago, was the most brutal day of my entire existence. I’d had to say goodbye to my newly born, stillborn son. And he was so beautiful. Perfect in every way. As I held him, bathed him, kissed his lovely, peaceful face, I marveled at his perfection. And I asked God why. Why would he go through all the trouble of making him so well, knitting him together in my womb so breathtakingly, and then take him away from me? It didn’t make sense. I held his hands, studied the way his fingers lay draped over mine, and pictured the way he should’ve been grasping them instead. I kissed his eyelids and wished with all my heart that I could see his eyes flutter open at the gesture. Could picture him stretching and yawning and squirming in my arms. Smacking his little lips as he anticipated his next meal. He was my third baby. I could picture it all very easily.

He was born at 1:39 a.m. on April 16, 1996. By 5:30 that morning I knew it was time to let him go. His body had grown cold, even though I held him close. So I told Jay to call the nurse to come get him, my heart ripping to shreds at the thought of the separation. And then I kissed him and handed him over. As I watched the nurse leave with him I couldn’t breathe. I panicked. I didn’t know how to really let go of him. This baby who was still as much a part of me as if the umbilical cord were still attached. All I could do was ride out the waves of desperation and overwhelming grief. Let the sobs and the tears break free once more. And then the numbness took over for a bit. I calmed down. I asked Jay to read the Psalms to me again, letting the soothing words wash over me. Understanding David’s pain better than I ever had before. Eventually I fell asleep for a short time but you can never sleep for long in a hospital. It was about 7 a.m. when a nurse came in to take my blood pressure and do all those normal things that they do for new mothers.

And the very reluctant caterpillar I was, started seeing things very differently. Jay turned on the television where I listened to reporter say that a singer famous for pushing the envelopes of decency had just announced that she was four months pregnant. I was furious. She would be allowed to have a baby and I wouldn’t? Pride reared its ugly head. I was sure I would’ve raised my son much better than she could raise a child.

Stephen was born on a Tuesday morning. I was dismissed from the hospital on Wednesday. After stopping at a department store to purchase clothes, a blanket, and a stuffed lamb to bury Stephen with, we headed to the funeral home and there I was overwhelmed with decisions we had to make for the funeral service. Jay and I had talked about hymns, special music, what Scriptures we wanted read, etc, while I was in the hospital. But I wasn’t prepared to pick out the guest book, funeral bulletins, thank you notes, and worst of all, the casket to bury him in. I wasn’t numb enough to get through it without tears.

We couldn’t see Stephen until Thursday so we went home. What should’ve been a welcoming time was horribly empty. My husband, a college professor, had students with recitals coming up. He tried to spend as much time at home with me as he could, but he had to help them prepare. My daughter and son were at school. Those quiet moments I’d been looking forward to as time alone with the new baby, now scared me. Then the friends and relatives started arriving. I was rescued from the aloneness. Besides, I told myself, at least I’d weathered the worst of it, hadn’t I? It had to get better from here.

Thursday arrived and I was able to see Stephen again. He looked better than I thought he would and I was relieved. Our son and daughter got to meet him for the first time. I wanted to hold him so one of the funeral directors picked him up and placed him in my arms. It was the closest I’d felt to normal for two days. I was almost happy for a moment. I could see him again. Touch him again. But it still wasn’t right. He was still too still. I don’t know how long we stayed with him that day. It was both too long and too short. I tried to memorize every hair on his head, every crease in his fingers. More relatives were arriving. We had to go home but I only wanted to stay there with him. We left and I looked forward to seeing him again the next day.

Friday morning was very busy. The funeral was at 2. We all had to be completely ready before we left but we got there plenty early since many of the relatives hadn’t seen Stephen yet. I stood nearby, my eyes constantly returning to him lying so still in his tiny casket, and wished I could hold him again. So many flowers and plants. So many dear friends and family. So many tears. But I was holding it together, for the most part. And then people started to leave. It hit me then. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it earlier. But all of a sudden I realized that this was the last goodbye. When I walked out, I would never see him again here on earth. I panicked. My husband was beside me. Only God knows what I experienced during those final moments. And every mother who has had to bury her child. It’s indescribable. Jay had to guide me out of the door.

And that was the final moment of metamorphosis for me. I, the reluctant caterpillar, changed that day. I entered the chrysalis and would never be the same again.

I tried to explain it to one of Jay’s cousins who couldn’t come to the funeral but called to talk with me. I told her that everything had changed for me. But she disagreed with me. She told me that time would heal me and I was still the same. She was correct in saying that time would heal me, but I could never go back to being a caterpillar again.

Change was slow. Diversions were few. I couldn’t watch the news because my buffer for dealing with tragedies was gone and I couldn’t concentrate well enough to watch movies. The Weather Channel seemed like a safe bet but the Michelin commercials, with the sweet baby riding in the tires, brought back the pain. I couldn’t watch anything for months.

One day, jealous of my husband’s escapes to the office, I asked if I could go with him and surf the internet. We didn’t own a computer at that time and I needed to know I wasn’t the only person going through this constant grief. He agreed and I spent the afternoon on the SIDS Network page reading stories of other stillbirths and infant deaths. As strange as it sounds, reading other mothers’ stories helped. It was a step toward accepting the inevitable. Stephen was gone. I had to go on without him.

It took time. A lot of time. Spring had always been my favorite season of the year but it would be six years before I felt even an inkling of joy at spring’s arrival.

The new butterfly took a long time emerging.

I am a new creature now. Time has healed me, but grief trumps time over and over again. Because I will always miss Stephen. He is, and will always be, my son. How can I be whole when he is always missing?

I am like a butterfly and on my wings are the initials of my son. They are scars of a painful metamorphosis. They are also a beautiful part of me.

Aging Parents – Finding Joy in the Present Realities

Last week was a tough one for my parents and me. The three of us are learning, as we explore this aging business, that it’s rarely easy. Or, as my dad likes to joke, “Growing old isn’t for sissies.”

There are stages in the process. Sometimes they creep up gradually, giving both the older person and the caregiver time to adjust to the changes. But sometimes those earlier stages are preempted by illness or an accident, throwing both parties into the fray with little preparation or warning.

If you’ve read my earlier post about my parents’ health you will know that we hit it hard and fast. Dad was misdiagnosed with pancreatic cancer and Mom had a stroke a few months afterward. It’s pretty incredible how protective you get of your parents when they’re struggling to survive. For me, my mothering instincts kicked into overdrive.

Dad was hospitalized last December and I flew out to be with them. Mom was exhausted from staying with Dad in the hospital and the night before I arrived, she had to go home and get some sleep. She couldn’t know that Dad would stay up most of the night praying that God wouldn’t give up on him. He was that close to dying but had such a strong will to live. And he felt more alone than he ever had before. He told me all of this the next morning when I spoke to him before I left my home to go to the airport. I was so grateful that he kept talking because I was sobbing and couldn’t have responded if he’d asked me a question. I never wanted him to feel alone like that again.

Fast forward nine months and here we are. Dad and Mom now live less than fifteen minutes away from me. I see them almost every day. They are semi-independent now. They own a home in a small town and both of them are improving, health-wise, every day. Dad is 80; Mom is 73. Things are settling into a routine, but everything has changed.

Last week I spent one entire day cleaning and reorganizing their basement. There were several boxes left to unpack and everything needed to be rearranged to make the areas livable. I did almost all of it by myself. Mom and/or Dad would come down every once in a while but Mom would look around and get overwhelmed (a lingering aftereffect of her stroke) and have to leave, apologizing to me over and over about it. Dad would come down and wander around fiddling with this or that for a bit before he returned to the main floor. His obsession was finding a cord so he could set up his printer in his office. We eventually went through every cord in his impressive collection without finding what he needed. (I found it upstairs in the guest room just before I left that evening. He’d told me repeatedly that he’d just seen it earlier in the day. I don’t know why it was on the guest room bed.)

My reward was seeing the looks on their faces when they came downstairs just before ten that night. Mom was so excited and I could tell how relieved she was to have it done. The little touches, like unpacking some of their knick-knacks and hanging pictures, etc, on the walls made such a difference. They sat on the couch in one of the living areas and watched the news while I finished dusting. We talked and laughed, enjoying the moment. Finding the joy.

Also last week, Mom had two doctor’s appointments. I went with them to both. It’s an hour drive, each way, from their home to the city. Both days I drove so that Mom could study for her driver’s exam to get her new license. On Friday I brought my tablet along so that she could take practice tests. She kept taking them (there are over 500 questions and each test consists of 25 so you can take test after test and not have the same questions) until she felt like she knew it well enough to pass the exam.

Note to self: NEVER go to get your driver’s license on a Friday afternoon. Dad and I waited in the car for TWO HOURS before Mom came back out. She’d passed but the lines were so long that it took a while for her to take the test and then another while before she could get her picture taken for the license. She was frazzled and exhausted when she got in the car. The entire next day she was still wiped out.

I was pretty tired by then myself. In addition to helping out my parents, I still have to take care of my family—my husband and two younger daughters still living at home. They’ve been pretty awesome at sharing me, by the way.

On Friday, as I was driving home, I was tired from the exhausting week, but as I looked at my dear parents, I thanked God again that they were here with me. I have new responsibilities toward them now. I cook, I clean, I help with their finances, I go with them to their doctor’s appointments, and do whatever else they need me to do. The one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is how much I love them. No. That’s not true. It has changed. I love them more. Every. Single. Day.

Joy! My cup is overflowing with gratitude. I don’t know what the future holds, but right now I have my parents nearby. After 29 years of seeing each other only two weeks out of the year, these days are precious to all of us. Joy-full!

 

 

Redefining Parental Roles – the Transition from Daughter to Caregiver

We’ve all met them. People who are never happy, never content with the way things are. If there’s a silver lining, they’ll find (or create!) the tiny pulled thread in a one-of-a-kind piece of fabric and bother it until it’s a mess.

My Dad is the cure for people like this. His nickname is Eeyore, but only because he’s self-deprecating to the point of silliness at times. And yet, he is one of the most positive people I’ve ever known. Even through a cancer diagnosis and the months following.

Thanksgiving 2013 was a laid-back dinner for my Mom and Dad. Mom baked a turkey breast and the fixings and Dad tried to eat it. He’d been feeling poorly all week and thought he had the flu. As the days progressed and he didn’t recover, Mom worried that it was something more.

That Friday she thought his eyes looked a little yellow, jaundiced, but Dad didn’t think so. By Sunday she was sure his skin was taking on a yellow cast. She got him in to see his doctor on Monday and within a week, following multiple scans, blood tests, specialists’ visits, etc, he was told he had pancreatic cancer. AND something else that had to be fixed immediately–his common bile duct was completely blocked.

He had a procedure to try to open up the duct but they weren’t able to do that through endoscopy. So they went in surgically and put a tube in so that the bile could drain out of his body. The next week they did it again but tucked the tube inside his body for it to drain. The week after that they went in again and put in a stint so they could remove the tube.

Each time they did one of these procedures, Dad had to stop eating for hours beforehand. He didn’t eat a lot anyway, but for these he had to fast. Every time they went in, they took biopsies.

This went on until December 22nd, the day he fell for the third time and didn’t have enough strength left to even help Mom as she tried to get him back up. My father, who in August helped me landscape around my home, who worked out three days a week at the gym, who took his puppy for 12-mile walks the week before he got sick, could barely hold his head up. He collapsed and Mom called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. The doctors told them he was dehydrated. They said he needed to stay at least overnight until they could rehydrate him. They spent Christmas Eve and then Christmas in the hospital.

On December 27th I flew down. My plan was to be there when Dad was released from the hospital so that I could help out with him while he regained his strength. I was shocked at how thin and how sick Dad was when I walked in his room. He saw me and his face lit up. He said my name and smiled so widely that it relieved my fears. He was still weak, but he seemed determined to get well. His appetite slowly returned. They were pumping him full of very strong antibiotics.

The day I flew in, my dear aunt stayed at the hospital through the night with Dad. She said Mom and I needed a good night’s sleep. After that, I started staying all night with Dad in the hospital. I didn’t want him to be alone. And I wanted to question his doctor when he came in each morning because I didn’t trust him anymore. And maybe it’s my imagination, but it seemed like they started kicking it into high gear after that. They started him on physical and occupational therapy. They prescribed him meds to bring his appetite back. And finally, on January 3, 2014, they released him to a rehab center so that he could regain his strength.

And his specialist, who told us after each biopsy that they hadn’t found the cancer yet, also said that even though he couldn’t prove it, he still felt sure that Dad had pancreatic cancer. He mentioned other things that they couldn’t explain–like immature white blood cells–but didn’t give us any other scenarios for Dad’s illness.

Mom and I were fed up but Dad liked his doctor so we kept it to ourselves. Dad stayed at the rehab center for three weeks. I had to leave a week before he’d be released but by then it was apparent to all three of us that Mom couldn’t handle Dad by herself any longer. They put the house on the market and we set a date for my return–this time to help them pack up the house and move in with me.

Dad and Mom lived with my husband, two youngest daughters, and me for three months. In that time, Dad saw numerous specialists and underwent more procedures. The difference, however, was that Dad was slowly getting stronger! His lab results improved without any treatments, he gained the weight back that he’d lost, and the tumor near his pancreas shrank so much it was difficult to find on the MRI.

In the meantime, their house sold for exactly what they’d hoped to get for it, and they found the perfect house, in the perfect town, at the perfect price. Dad says he knew it was THE home for them the moment they walked in.

Let me tell you how many miracles there have been:

1. For years, my Mom, sister, and I had tried to talk Dad into moving to our state. He was never ready to seriously entertain it enough to even list the house to see if it would sell.

After Dad was released from the hospital, we found out FROM THE PHYSICAL THERAPIST READING HIS CHART, that Dad had been SEPTIC in the hospital. Mom and I were never informed. But Dad survived even though he was weaker than he’d been since he was a small child. Dad agreed, without too much encouragement, that it was time for Mom and him to move in with me.

2. Within six weeks of the move, Mom had a stroke and was hospitalized for five days. I took care of Dad and when Mom was released I took care of her too! If they had still been living alone, I don’t think Mom would still be here with us. I doubt she would have ever left Dad to go to the hospital. As it is, I couldn’t convince her to go to the ER until the symptoms returned the second day!

3. Mom and Dad got the offer on their home and we started looking for an apartment because Dad didn’t want to commit to living here long-term. But the monthly rent was much higher than they’d imagined. So one morning Dad came into the living room and said they wanted to start looking at houses. They wanted to be in the city, but as we looked up houses in their price range, it became clear pretty quickly that what they needed in a home was too expensive in the city.

4. I mentioned to a close friend that my parents were going to look at a home in their small town and she told me that a house had just gone on the market that week. We decided to take a look and put in an offer that night. After some negotiating, a price was agreed to, and Mom and Dad had a closing date!

5. Mom, Dad, and I, with help from aunts, uncles, and cousins, packed up the house, signed the final papers on the sale, and moved 600 miles north. The owners of their new house allowed us to unload the moving truck into their now-empty house and everything else fell into place. We found out later that the owners had been telling their neighbors they were going to sell it for over 20 years. It had only been on the market 7 days when Dad and Mom bought it, and the realtor’s sign had only been up for 2 days!

6. It really is a perfect town for Mom and Dad. It’s so small that they don’t have mail delivery service so everyone has to go to the post office to pick up their mail. Dad, and his Cocker Spaniel, Buddy, walk every day to get their mail. It’s about a block away. Dad ties Buddy’s lease to a pole outside and goes inside while Buddy waits. Sometimes they walk to the convenience store about a block away from the post office. Dad does the same thing with Buddy and everyone knows whose dog he is. Mom says the only thing that would make it more perfect would be a full-size grocery store. And maybe a restaurant. Haha!

7. In the meantime, every biopsy they’ve taken from Dad has come back negative for cancer. His blood work, which used to have markers which could indicate cancer, have all returned to normal. And his new gastroenterologist now believes that Dad’s a walking miracle! He thinks that what Dad has had all along is an auto-immune disorder that attacked his pancreas (and will continue to do so until the pancreas stops working entirely). The normal treatment for auto-immune disorders like Dad’s is steroids, but Dad can’t take them because of his diabetes. Fortunately, they have pills that Dad will eventually have to take to compensate.

It’s been an adjustment for all of us, this reversal of roles. For quite a while I paid all of their bills and balanced their checkbook. Mom’s hand shook so much, a side-effect of the stroke, that she couldn’t write checks. Dad doesn’t really like that I have that much knowledge about their finances, but he also asks for my opinion before they make major financial decisions. And he takes my advice. It’s a big responsibility and one that I try to fulfill to the best of my ability.

It’s also difficult to watch your parents’ health decline. They’re both rebounding from their illnesses, and Mom can handle the checkbook again, but I’m not sure if Dad will ever fully recover. Those high-powered antibiotics they gave Dad in the hospital, hurt his kidneys substantially. They’re still functioning, but at 30% less than they were a couple of weeks before he fell ill. He’s now on insulin for his diabetes and will be for the rest of his life. Mom’s on blood thinners for the rest of hers.

But they’re here, 10 minutes away from me, and I usually see them every day. When I don’t, Dad tells me how much they’ve missed me, so I know he’s gotten used to being close-by. His memory isn’t what it used to be either. And every once in a while he says something about making the most of our time because he might have to move Mom away to someplace warmer if she can’t take the winters up here in the North. Mom and I just listen because I don’t think they’ll be going anywhere. We’re doing our best to spoil them so much they won’t ever want to leave! And I don’t think they’ll ever be strong enough to live far away again.

I know the adventure’s just begun for us. I know there will be a time when I’ll have to say goodbye to these two people who’ve shaped my life with their love. Knowing this makes me treasure our time together even more. I’m thankful that I can see my parents more than twice a year now. I’m glad to go with them to their doctor appointments and help with their finances.

I thank God for the gift of time. With them. Right now.

There are Times when it’s Hard to be Optimistic

I’ll be honest.  I’m not always cheerful, content, happy, peaceful or thankful.  I’m usually optimistic, but sometimes that feels impossible.  There are sounds and pictures locked in my brain that sometimes sneak in and haunt my dreams.

For example, if you’ve ever held your child down while doctors or nurses administer their immunizations or have to start an IV, then you will understand that those cries of pain have been seared into my very molecules and I cringe when I remember them.

Or when I’ve looked into my older children’s eyes and see pain reflected there–emotional pain from break-ups or betrayals–and know that all I can do is listen and sympathize/empathize with them.  That there are no band-aids to cover this kind of pain and make it better.

But the day my optimism took the biggest hit occurred in 1996 when I gave birth to a full-term stillborn baby boy.  He was physically perfect: 7 lbs exactly, 21 1/2 inches long.  No flaws, nothing to suggest a problem except for his gray color and dark red lips.  It was an umbilical cord accident–he had a “true knot” in the cord which had pulled tight earlier in the day and cut off his oxygen supply.  I’d only realized something was wrong when he stopped moving for over an hour and by then it was too late.  If the cord had tightened while I was in labor his heart rate would have dropped and he would have been delivered by emergency c-section and probably still be alive today.  How can anyone be an optimist in a situation like that?

At the time, I couldn’t.  I’d never experienced emotional pain like that before.  I was amazed every day when I woke up that I was still alive.  Our bodies can withstand an awful lot and keep going.  The part of my brain involved in keeping my body alive seemed to be unaffected by the part of my brain that was grieving.  Or maybe it was affected, but kept doing what it was supposed to do anyway.

Every evening, as the sun began to set, I would sigh with relief that another day was over.  I had gotten through it somehow.  Twilight became my favorite time of day.  I could quit pretending that I was okay.  I could put the kids to bed and let the tears flow freely.  But the middle of the night was the worst part.  I would awaken at regular times through the night, almost as if my body knew it was supposed to be feeding a baby.  And I would feel so horribly alone; my arms so painfully empty.

If you don’t know me well, you don’t know that my favorite season of the year is spring.  It has been for as long as I can remember.  But Stephen’s death was in April and for the next five years I couldn’t appreciate spring.  I dreaded it instead.  It brought another anniversary marking another year of living without a part of my heart.

What got me through it?  My husband was my rock.  He listened to my rantings and held me when I cried.  And, most importantly, he didn’t let me keep quiet about my anger at God.

I was very angry at Him.  I felt like He was the only one who could have changed the outcome.  When Jay made me express my outrage, it was the beginning of the healing.  My mom helped too, by asking me gentle questions about my faith and getting me to think through the implications.  Could I still trust God?  Did I still believe that everything He put me through was going to ultimately work out for my good?  Why did He take my son?

Every week, in church, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer.  Now the words “Thy will be done” took on extra significance.  Was it His will that Stephen died?  I found out, through the many sympathy cards I received and conversations I overheard, that Christian people have differing views on this.  Some believe that God had nothing to do with Stephen’s death.  That He was just as surprised as we were when he died.

Believe it or not, that made me even madder.  Where should I direct my anger if God didn’t have anything to do with my son’s death?  Does what happens here on earth matter to Him?  Or is it insignificant–our lives.  No, I couldn’t accept that.  I believe we matter so much that He sent His Son to save us.

Which left me with the fact that God knew what was happening and He still let it happen–or made it happen–depending on what you believe about predestination.  Either way, Stephen was dead.  And I had to deal with that.

I could go on and on about my struggles during this time and for the 15 years since then.  But I don’t want to lose anyone who’s trudged through this post until now.  I’ll cut to the chase.  For me it came down to a battle of the wills.  I wanted things my way.  God said no.  And now, this might sound really stupid since my decision wasn’t going to change the outcome in any way, but I had to decide whether or not to submit my will to His.  To accept that His decision was the right one and trust that His reasons would make sense to me sometime (probably in Heaven) or deny Him and walk away from the faith entirely.

Truthfully, there were days when I thought I was going to chose the second option.  I was that angry.  I kept going to church though.  And one day we were singing a hymn, “Jesus Shall Reign,” with a verse that said “Infant voices praise His name” and I broke down.  Why wouldn’t God want infants in heaven?  They are the purest of us, aren’t they?  That made sense.

But when I got to that line in the Lord’s Prayer I stopped.  Was I going to accept God’s will even if that meant He chose to take my son?  Yes, I still believed that He had a purpose to everything He did and does.  I still do.  And, incredibly, accepting it brought peace.  And hope.

I believe God has Stephen with Him.  And I believe someday I’ll see him again and get to hold him in my arms.  The answer was tied up in faith and trust and acceptance.  I had to let go of the anger and believe that what the scriptures say is true.

1.  He didn’t give me more than I could handle because He gave me the grace to get through it.

2.  He knit Stephen together in my womb for His glory.  He shared Stephen with me for those nine months and I will be eternally grateful.

3.  Christian’s don’t grieve without hope.  When it comes to death, we are cock-eyed optimists, knowing that things aren’t what they seem.  Our loved ones are still alive, in a spiritual dimension that we can’t see and experience until we get there.

4.  He works out all things for our good and for His glory.  I am changed since Stephen’s death.  But I’m changed for the better.  I have a new capacity for compassion that I’ve never had before.  I have a desire to help others who have experienced/are experiencing the aftermath of a stillbirth or infant death.  And I have more patience for those who are suffering through the torment of questioning their faith.  I pray they will come through it with a stronger faith, as I have.

For who better understands the pain of losing a son, than the Father God who gave up His only begotten son for me.  For us.

This is a part of my story.  It’s my story and may be completely different than yours.  That’s okay.

I’m not really sure why I’m sharing this with everyone.  I keep re-reading it and not pushing the publish button.  I’m afraid to open up like this.  Afraid I’ll be criticized or dismissed or considered one of those “religious nuts.”

But maybe my story will encourage others to become cock-eyed optimists along with me.  So I thank you for reading.  I hope you feel you know me just a little more.  And please feel free to comment, but be kind.

Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

A week ago my daughter, Valerie, and her two girls, Natalie and Isabel, came out to Grammy’s house for a swim.  Valerie, Jillian, Julie, Natalie and Isabel all got in pretty quick.  I took longer.  Even though the day was just a tish on the warm side (upper 80’s) the water was cool so it takes me awhile to adjust.  I finally climbed in and immediately started walking around the pool doing some clean-up.  Leaves always fall in and bugs drown so I get my net and clear out all of the debris that finds its way in.

Natalie wasn’t content with this.  “Come on, Grammy!  Sit down,” she said often and with emphasis.

I walked around for 20 minutes or so, acclimating to the water and trying to keep from getting splashed.  I finally put my net away and sank into the cool water.  Jillian had gotten out before this and was sitting on a towel nearby.  Natalie and Isabel found a new plaything–me.  We had a blast as you can see from the pictures.

As the summer winds down we’ll do our best to enjoy every day.  And Nat King Cole’s song–about one of my favorite seasons–echoes through my mind.  =)

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