The Gift of Enough

Sometimes I do the torturous math and think that if we had had a child soon after we started trying, he/she would be a preschooler. And sometimes I think that maybe we’d have had another one by now, too. I guess I aspired to be a mom with kids close in age, and voluntarily participate in the (observed) crazy that goes along with that, especially on Christmas morning.

More children, more gifts, bigger house, more shoes, more socks, more laundry, more…

But my life years not just later but apart from those possibilities is, from a bird’s eye view, empty.

Our Christmas table has four place settings, two more than it usually does. Actually, four more than it usually does since Aaron and I generally sit at the counter on stools to eat almost every meal.

After our Christmas Eve meal and time with friends yesterday, our sink was full of coffee mugs and wine glasses… with more than there usually are. After opening gifts from each other and then with friends, our tree stands alone in its simple glory: white lights, red ribbon, and matching ornaments, not to be outshone by a plethora of gifts below.

It can be anxiety- or depression-inducing to think of all the ways that our life is not enough, but I’m here to tell you (and most importantly myself) after years of infertility and a whole (blessed) year of therapy (thank God), this is all enough.

My one now-dirty coffee mug lovingly embracing my second cup of coffee is enough. Our house, quiet though it is on Christmas morning, is enough. My artificial pre-lit tree enthroned by a beautiful sunrise is enough. Our small Christmas Eve and Christmas Day gatherings are enough. Our simple yet rich meal today will be enough. My husband and I are enough. I (and my empty womb) are enough.

Last night at the candlelight service, our pastor preached on how Jesus met people where they were. That Jesus’ birth in a manger was announced to the shepherds because they would know to find a manger in a stable. That the wisemen were given a star because with their knowledge and wisdom of the cosmos they would be able to find Jesus.

And on this quiet Christmas morning with just my sleeping husband and dog upstairs, Jesus has met me where I’m at, and that’s enough.

“Good with children”

I’ve always been this way, good with children. If there’s such a thing as a maternal instinct, I have it. As much as I’d like to say I always played with Legos and didn’t prefer my Cabbage Patch Kids and doll house and play kitchen, I’d be lying if I did.

Not that having a maternal instinct and being domestic, as it were, go hand-in-hand, but for me they do.

So when I was first in the throes of infertility after its discovery, I for awhile believed that my being good with children was a farce, and something forced on me. But truly, it’s not.

I internally cringed when my therapist told me that I’d find ways to ‘mother’ others. I did not want to mother other people’s children, you know. I had wanted to mother my own, dammit.

But here I am to say that she was right, and I have known that this thing about myself is real and true and I can’t divorce it from my empty womb and healing heart.

I act on it all day long in my job with elementary aged students, attending to their sad faces and knee scrapes and tattling about their classmates. I act on it when I ask the youth if they need a ride home. I act on it with my many nieces and nephews, even from afar. I act on it when I run with a friend’s daughter during a 5K.

It’s just manifesting itself much differently than I thought it would, but I’m so grateful for those opportunities that other afford me with their children because infertility or not, it’s who I am.

A Little Bit (of) Sad

Today during a lesson with a newcomer student, she and I were chatting in Spanish and she said that I seemed a little sad to her. I told her, I was a little tired actually. And in her sweet Honduran Spanish, looking down at the letters she was tracing with her adorable dark pigtail braids, she told me that in her heart and mind she knows I’m a little sad.

She’s right.

In addition to being a little sad, I’m also so touched by the perception of a seven year old child who for all intents and purposes acts like a drunk adult, hiding under the table, jumping out from behind the door, skipping in the hallway. But still she (and I’m convinced all children everywhere) has an innate and intrinsic knowing about humans. They see straight to the truth.

How presumptuous we adults are, thinking that kids aren’t listening, or that they’re too young to understand. But their amusing and sometimes downright frustrating behavior belies the knowing in their hearts.

I have no idea the trauma or struggles this student of mine has gone through to now be here, on the East Coast of the United States, immersed in a language and culture she hasn’t fully grasped yet. But she knows what sad or hurt people look like. And she calls it out.

I think I’ll always carry this little bit of sad with me. I think everyone has a little bit of sad they carry with them as well. Some are just better at hiding it than others, stuffing it deep into lined pockets. Concealing it in between the couch cushions.

But unlike adults having to dig to find the little bit of sad, children can see exactly where it is and hold it gingerly for us to look at and ponder.

How interesting and providential that the absence of children broke me and now their presence has been aiding in my healing.

Catalyst

I went through a few years playing faith and going through the motions. I felt I really had no viable option otherwise. I hadn’t lost my faith but I didn’t feel connected either. The time after my first grandma died was also the time I was initially grieving children we would never have, and for its entirety I felt like I was watching faith and religion be played on the big screen after I had given away my ticket to the show.

I prayed, most definitely I prayed. I felt God’s presence, but more as an obvious thing, like the fact that on a sunny day the sky will also show itself to be blue. I believed, but believing in Jesus was believing the sky is blue.. an obvious fact without depth.

About these references to the blue sky. I spent, and do spend, a lot of time viewing, admiring, and analyzing the sky – particularly sunrises and sunsets. On summer days I was convinced that the sky was just not as poignantly blue as it was in El Paso.

And then I’d start to reminisce about El Paso and begin to miss it. But not the physical city itself.. the feeling of belonging and home. In a city where I was the minority for once, I still made sure to make it my home. Inevitably in my mind I’d get off on a tangent about what am I doing in Maryland anyway. What is my life amounting to. What’s the purpose of my life anyway.

That thought of purpose brought me back to sitting on Mimi’s deathbed with a fuzzy blanket. A literal bed where her death occurred. There have been very few times in my life where God has revealed himself to me. But in those last hours before we left her, God was there. Just as He was there when she came into the world as she left it: alone. He was orchestrating the entire event. And before my heart had broken with the finality of her loss he’d already begun to mend it.

To be completely honest I had no other option, and He knew that I think. It was all or nothing at that point for me, and I needed a catalyst to not be a wallflower to my faith, or my life, anymore.

Fulfilled

For the past couple years I’ve been on a quest to find out what on this earth makes me feel fulfilled. What can I do, where can I go, that makes me feel the best kind of emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. I haven’t quite found the pot of gold yet but I know for certain one thing that fills the gap is long distance running.

I never wrote a Philly Marathon race report, partially because I was busy, partially because I was lazy, and lastly because the last three miles of 26 shifted my perspective in a big way and I didn’t quite want to share it yet.

It’s not a secret really: do what you do because you’re motivated to do it, and the only person stopping you is you. Thats it. But it’s something I’ve been battling within my soul.

Once I gave myself permission to break through the confines of pain, exhaustion, and basically any physical barrier, my mind was free to control my body instead of the other way around.

I no longer felt dread or like I was slogging my unwilling body through the mud step by step. Instead, I felt like I was truly free and fulfilled for the first time in probably 2 or 3 years.

The high lasted for little more than 12 hours. When I came down, I came down hard but I knew what to expect. My first question was how to feel like this not just again, but always. I think I might spend the rest of my life trying to figure that out.

To my little girl.

We had names for you both.

One of you was going to be Dagny Elayne, the first name after Dagny Taggart of Atlas Shrugged, a real go-getter with a kickass personality; the second name was after a character in your daddy’s all time favorite book series, Wheel of Time. To be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of Dagny when your father suggested it. But over several years, it grew on me. Together your names would mean “new light”. Perfect, I thought. Leah Beth gave me a little pair of pink linen shorts with a bow at the waist and told me, “These are for little Dagny” because she knew that that was going to be your name. I don’t have those shorts anymore.

At your great-grandmother’s funeral, I decided then that I wanted to change your name to Eleanor Jane, after her. Your daddy didn’t even mind – he loved her too. I always loved old, classic names. This is one thing I agreed with your Mimi on – someday, a little girl was going to grow up and be a professional or doctor or something with a nameplate outside her office, or have her name read at a graduation ceremony, so she should have a really strong name. I totally agreed with that. I thought it would be so poetic, if a little tragic, if I had conceived you the same month your Grammie Jane passed away – I saw it as her spirit living on. She would have been so happy.

I saw you in my dreams. I don’t remember seeing your face in every dream, but I knew that you had bright blue eyes, just like mine. My whole life they’ve been my claim to fame (ha) and I wanted to pass them to you. I know with these eyes you’d be an honest, caring, compassionate child. I saw your long brown hair, a few inches above your waist, a rich brown like your daddy’s. All I ever imagined is that my daughter would have more beautiful hair than I ever did, thick and unwieldy. And now my hair’s going gray. My theory is that we tried so long to have you that all the stress started making my hair gray.

When you grew to be a little girl, I was going to make sure I read you all of my favorite books. And I’d read these to your brother too – Goodnight, Moon; Are You My Mother?; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; Little House on the Prairie; A Wrinkle in Time – we’d sit on your little bed under a fuzzy blanket and read by the lamp next to your bed. You’d be curious and not be able to wait until the next day to read a new chapter. You’d be a bookworm, just like your daddy, and have shelves and shelves full of books.

Your father and I always discussed how important it was for kids to try lots of new things. We wanted to make sure you stayed physically healthy and meet new friends, so we would have loved for you to join a local tee-ball team, or do karate, or participate in an community art class. We’d also want you to be involved in something musical – not because we were going to be overbearing parents, but because we both were musically inclined and wanted you to enjoy music as well. Maybe your little hands would have graced a violin, or clutched drumsticks. Maybe you would have sung in a choir or had a solo. Maybe you would have been able to just play any song you hear, and not be like me where I can’t memorize anything. I never would have been mad about you innocently plinking away on the piano that was your great-great-grandmother’s if you had wanted to.

I was so enamored with you as a little girl. To be honest, I never pictured you being older than 4 or 5. I never pictured your wedding (if you wanted to get married), or your children (if you wanted to be a mother). I never pictured you talking back to me as a tween. I only pictured the sweet memories we would have had. I would have been kinder and more patient than your Mimi. I would have let you keep your hair long when you were little, if you wanted to.

I would have taught you how to spell and write before you entered kindergarten. I was unsure about putting you in preschool or pre-kindergarten, because you know, I am a teacher and would have made sure you were ready. I kept aprons for you to help me cook in the kitchen – and I wouldn’t have gotten mad at you for spilling something on the clean floor.

I had a dream one time where I saw you, face to face, and you, Dagny (Eleanor), were just the sweetest little girl. I told you in my dream as I held you close to hug you and pick you up, “I wanted you so badly. We both wanted you so much.” That’s it. That’s all we said. I woke up on my side of the bed with your daddy asleep next to me, and cried silently into my pillow. I don’t know if he knows this. But I cried.

I also wanted to give you my maiden name as a middle name. I didn’t want to hyphenate it though. I liked how your name looked written out – Dagny Elayne (or Eleanor Jane) – and I was going to call you Dag for short.

And now I have to say goodbye before I even get to say hello. It’s a cruel world out there, sweetheart, and even though I was a good little girl, and then a (mostly) good teenager, and then became a good responsible woman, I still never got to welcome you into our life. Dagny, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s how life is. You don’t get to pick and choose – sometimes you have to deal with whatever comes.

But Dagny Elayne, I have to let you go. I’m sorry. Mommy is sorry. Daddy is sorry. Mommy has to let you go and let your spirit be free.

Rejecting platitudes and accepting the pain of grief

I couldn’t hear one more platitude as I shared my story. I couldn’t stomach one more look of pity, or even worse, blank space behind the eyes. It was just too painful.

I became exhausted listening to all the things people said to me. And I say me specifically because for some reason the man’s role in reproducing just isn’t on many people’s radars. And for some reason the questions about kids – whether we had them, why we didn’t have them – were directed towards me.

 

Thanks.

It seems that the ‘thing’ these days is instead of being present with people as they’re rocked by the waves of grief, we try to fix the pain. We’re uncomfortable as a society to see people in pain. And it needs to stop.

I experienced this with the death of my grandmother, Jane, who I absolutely adored and loved. I found myself justifying my grief at what to our whole family came largely as a surprise – how ridiculous is that?

“My grandmother passed away, but she lived a long life.

“My grandmother died last month, but now she no longer suffers.

“My grandmother died suddenly, but she’s with Jesus now.

These are things I said, and I so longed to just allow the discomfort of the heart-wrenching loss and let people join me in my grief.

We look at the other side as greener. It’s the American way, right?

“We can’t have kids, but now we can travel and do whatever we want!”

“We could have gone through IUI or IVF, but it just would have had a horrible impact on my mental state.”

These “but….” phrases are dangerous. Not only do they not satisfy us and make us feel better, but they allow us to completely drive by the very real grief a person is going through. I don’t owe anybody an explanation or a platitude to make them feel better, for God’s sake. When we’re grieving, we have a horrible propensity to do unnecessary emotional labor for others.

I was (am) desperate to just say, “We couldn’t have kids.” and allow that truth, however uncomfortable, to settle in. I wanted to say for once, “I lost my grandmother and we were very close.”

I had to do this on my own. Even my church community seemed to be at a loss, more about the intangible loss of parenthood than about losing a person who was lucky enough to live 87 years.

There is a lot of work to be done in the area of grief, death, dying, and trauma in this society. But those of us who have been afflicted can’t stay silent. We need to be willing to compassionately educate others – to have the difficult conversations,

To let the uncomfortable truth of loss fall where it may. To allow space for discomfort. To reject platitudes. To accept our grief. It is only in this acceptance and space that we as a society can get closer to the hard things and be okay with it. And from there, we can better comfort those in need and in grief.