Watching someone die

Watching someone die. A participial phrase hanging in the balance.

One evening this summer I watched someone I love die. It has to be one of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful events I’ve witnessed in my third-of-a-century life. It’s beautiful in the objective sense of the word… unique and relatable and human and precious. All at once.

Time passed but at the same time it stood still. I felt like I was witnessing her walk into the afterlife. And watching her die, there was no wondering if there was an afterlife. It exists and she was headed there.

All my memories of her came flooding back to me all at once, and at the same time there was only that moment. Breathing, waiting. She was hugging me for the last time, though she was supine on the bed. I could feel her soul hugging mine as she slipped away. I would say “literally” but you wouldn’t believe me. But it was a literal embrace.

When I first saw her on the bed, I knew that she was dying. There had been other times where family members had thought she was dying, or that my great-grandma was dying, that this was it. But as soon as I saw her, I knew. And it felt like it was time, and it felt like it wasn’t.

Since then, I thought that maybe I should have stayed until the end. But I’m human, or maybe just more selfish than most, and I wanted to go home to get some sleep and see her in the morning. I knew in my heart that she would die in the night, but in my head I’d see her in the morning.

Her dementia daily robbed her blind, and it robbed the whole family too. I hated the feeling after I got off the phone with her on my more infrequent calls. They were different than the phone calls in the past. She’d call me on her way home from work across the river, telling me that I just have to go outside and see the sunset because it’s a pretty one. But then the calls were five minutes long, if that. Full of questions or sighs or little laughs because she couldn’t remember things anymore. But she remembered me.

And I thought about this on a cold windy walk with my dog. A singular phrase entered my mind: watching someone die. And my heart took it from there and remembered. I experienced a squeezing feeling in my chest that was her saying, Don’t forget me. Remember what we had. I love you. You’re okay. You make me proud. 

Breaking News: “Top Nine” Doesn’t Capture Most Important Moments

I use Instagram fairly regularly, probably with more regularity now that I have opted out of Facebook. I know, I know, Instagram is owned by Facebook blah blah blah.

Everyone’s been posting their “Top Nine” recently – the most liked photos in their feeds. Once again, social media panders and quite frankly takes advantage of our desire to be liked and seen and celebrated.

I share my Top Nine, because why not? But I have to add that my top moments most were not shared on Instagram for the world to see.

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I can make quite a few assumptions about 2018 from these pictures. I traveled a lot, spent some time in the hospital, exercised a bunch, and am apparently still in love with my spouse. These are all true, but there’s so much more that happened in 2018 not pictured here, like that kid who was absent on picture day.

I will spare the weary reader nine things that happened in 2018. But I will share that one of the best memories is sitting with my sister on my parents’ porch late at night pondering the recent death of our grandmother and watching an amazing Midwestern thunderstorm. I will share that the reconciliation of a friendship was culminated in lovely time spent with her and her family. I will share that the financial and childless freedom to travel to new places has really helped me settle into my unforeseen reality. I will share that my husband and I are indeed more in love than ever. I will share that modern medicine is amazing and I am forever grateful to the surgeon who listened to me and finally was able to diagnose me with endometriosis.

All those moments and more made up a painful, wondrous, family-filled year. They say that one’s formative years usually happen before age 25, but I argue that all years can be formative, some more than others. I’m thankful I have the maturity and wherewithal to really appreciate the important work that time and openness can do for our souls.

Here’s to a blessed, wonderful, hard 2018. And let’s welcome 2019 with open arms.

 

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.

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.

The bend in the road: a reflection from January 2016

Again I write, not sure if these words will see the light of day. My last post was written almost four months ago, when I shared our story of infertility. I mentioned that there’s hope that can overshadow the disappointment that comes with this journey.

I wasn’t sure how hope would play out over the next few months. I was hesitant to try to put that into a vision of reality. But I hoped it would come in the form of a perfect baby, a product of our love (and genes).

Unfortunately, that’s not the hope that has come to fruition. We did another round of fertility treatment which wasn’t successful. I had more testing that came back normal. There’s just not an explanation. Hence, the ‘unexplained infertility’ diagnosis.

The fertility drug is the least invasive of treatments according to the doctor. But according to me, I felt invaded. My hormones were raging, I was in pain, I was moody, I was emotional. I did not feel like myself, and so we decided that that was the end of the line for treatment.

We decided before we even began this journey that noninvasive treatment would be the stopping point. And before you get to that stopping point, you can maybe make a list of the things to try after that… adoption? Fostering? Fostering to adopt? Living without children?

Now that our natural options are exhausted, we face a sea of unknown. I couldn’t even tell you how I feel about adopting. Or fostering. Except that I don’t feel ‘called’ to that right now. I don’t know if I ever will.

Living without kids? Well, living without our biological kids? That is something that blindsided me. I could have never foreseen that that would even be a path for our life.

I remember way back when Aaron and I had first started dating (almost 13 years ago…) that I saw him fling a kitchen towel over his shoulder. It seems kind of silly, as he was just helping clean up after dinner, but I was 17 and in love (only I didn’t know it yet) and made this image in my mind of instead of a kitchen towel, it would be a baby blanket or burp rag he’d fling over his shoulder, followed by holding our baby. Our baby. Ok. That’s a little crazy to think that. But it was my romantic idealized mind.

Ever since that moment, I’d always imagined what our kids would look like. I’ve had dreams about our kids. I’ve thought about what kinds of parents we’d be, and how Aaron would have to be the disciplinarian of the two of us because if we had a little boy that had his irresistible curls and his disarming smile, it would be impossible for me to give a stern look and mean it.

I’ve thought about how maybe if we had a girl, she would be interested in music, and computers, and sewing, and running. Or maybe not. But I knew I’d want her to have my blue eyes and Aaron’s thick hair.

For years we’ve had names chosen. Good, strong, meaningful names. I imagined that over my pregnant belly I’d pray for my children, that they’d embody those names. I imagined that the first time I held them, I’d say the name out loud and instead of it being in a dream, it would be proclaiming that new being’s existence in this world. An existence that would contribute kindness, love, and Christ’s heart to the world. An existence that would be light.

Maybe I knew in my heart of hearts that I would never bear children of my own. In anyplace we’ve lived, I never could truly see that a child would also live there. Even now, in our new house, each bedroom has a purpose and not one of them seems like it could be a nursery.

The past four months have been reflective, of course, and a little crazy. We’ve been taking a break from trying because of Aaron recently getting out of the Army and tackling our major cross-country move to the East Coast. I also didn’t want to be preoccupied with infertility and pregnancy while home visiting with family over Christmas. From what I read and hear, so many infertile people have a hard time enjoying the holidays, and rightfully so. But I wanted to make the most of it, and I did.

I look back over the nearly two years since we started this walk (May of 2014) and I’m astonished at how I’ve changed. Physically, I’m worse off. With hormone fluctuations, stress, and coping, I’ve gained 25-30 pounds. That upsets me because I worked so hard several years ago to lose that weight and was able to maintain. I’m back to square one with running. That also upsets me because I was doing great after the Transmountain Half.. I was the fastest and fittest I’ve been and I let it all go.

Emotionally and mentally, I’ve been through the wringer. If it weren’t for this break and also the cessation of fertility meds, you’d find me back in therapy. I’ve been in some dark spaces in the past 6-8 months especially. I’ve felt a disconnect with my body and a betrayal despite the positive thoughts I’ve forced.

Spiritually, I don’t know where I’m at, to be honest. I love God. I know Jesus died for me so I could have new life. I pray. I do devotions. I’m still motivated to be involved in church. But as far as ‘God’s plan’… I’m not even sure what that means completely in the context of these circumstances. I do know that it means that my gifts and talents are to be used to show Christ on this earth and draw people to Him. Does it really matter what I do as long as I’m doing that?

I teach. I embrace each student I meet as a person before we even get into the material. Right now I have a herd of about 150 middle schoolers that I sub for every day. Soon I’ll have community college and continuing education students who will sit in my classes to learn English. I’ve been taking a hold of every opportunity Maryland will give me.

Teaching is my passion, and it’s evident to those who know me. Talking about ESOL lights up my day and puts the pep in my step. Some women feel this way about being a mother.

At this point, despite trying to become a mother for so long, I don’t know if I would feel that way. It scares me a little bit to think that maybe I wouldn’t feel that way about being a mother. I’ve always joked about how being a stay-at-home-mom would drive me crazy after awhile, but I think there’s some truth in that statement.

Maybe I know deep down where my call is. Some women are indeed called to a life of motherhood. And I guess there is a maternal aspect to teaching. But there’s also this constant knowledge that the students I have are not my own. They go off into their own lives and directions and I’m totally okay with that. I want them to not need me. It’s a relief to know that most of the time, they’ll leave our time together not needing me.

After all that, what I really wanted to say throughout all these words is that I’m taking time to grieve and heal. I’m at a bend in the road. I see a little bit ahead of me – isn’t that only what we all see, always? – and right now, I see students in desks with expectant looks on their faces and the promise of new relationships. New opportunities to love people and give them practical tools for life.

A bigger promise

I have failed miserably at writing here every day. But I do that some thoughts that have emanated from my daily devotional on the YouVersion Bible App.

The current plan I’m going through now with a friend is all about devotions that speak to real-life. Really, that’s what I look for in any devotion. But one day so far struck me in particular.

Waiting is a tough thing. It can try the most patient person, and the type of waiting can really make that period of time hard to bear.  In the midst of it, we have to remember God’s faithfulness to fulfill his promises.

This is a noble thing – and we should take hold of it, remembering God’s promises. But the way it was presented in the devotional text was not pleasant. It discusses different life events that can cause us to wait or question God’s promises, including infertility:  “When there’s no pitter-patter of little feet, remember Genesis 30:22: ‘Then God remembered Rachel; he listening to her and enabled her to conceive.'”

This sounds like a nice thought in theory, but I think it’s where much of the ‘Christian narrative’ says that if you just pray enough, or wait enough, or remember the promises enough, God will give you what you desire. That the happy ending is coming. And I’m sorry to say this in case someone hasn’t heard it yet, but sometimes it’s just not going to happen.

I can’t tell you how strong my desire was (is…?) to have our own biological children. It was (is…? still working this out) immense. Overwhelming, all-consuming. Even as recent as a few weeks ago, I would be bee-bopping along in my actually really great life, then all of a sudden see a little girl with dark brown curls marching down the hall with her adorably too-big backpack and BAM. I was hit with that desire and emptiness that is sometimes so strong it could knock me to my feet in tears. I wish I were being dramatic.

So, considering our infertility, according to this idea in the devotional, did we not pray enough? Wait long enough? We have to look at this promise of God in context, as it’s specific to one woman, one situation in all the history of infertility.

The attitudes and apparent words of reassurance around the subject of infertility need to change, not just in the world, but especially in the church. There are probably millions of hurting women that instead of finding understanding and solace in the church when they confide their fears or feelings about their infertility are met with these one-off quotations of Scripture that really do nothing but cause more pain, at least for me.

We need a bigger promise. More than just God will enable us to conceive, because as I’m a first-hand witness to, sometimes it doesn’t happen (and maybe there is not some mysterious reason.. it could just be), and I firmly believe that our failure to procreate has nothing to do with our level of faith.

My promises from God have to be bigger to encompass and devour my fears, my emptiness, my sorrow over children lost, however intangible those children may be. My promises from God have to ensure that He holds me, He knows me, He loves me and has important and impactful work for me to do that does not involve being a biological mother or spreading my ‘maternal instinct.’

I will quote another part of the devotional that I found to be the most comforting: “When hope is scarce, remember Luke 24:6-7: ‘He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you,… ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'” That is the bigger promise. That is the promise.

Running through infertility.

It’s August 8, 2015. I’m relaxing post-run, breakfast, coffee, and shower in my (hot) house in El Paso, Texas. I don’t know if I’ll share this post today, tomorrow, or five years from now, but a voice in my soul is yearning to be heard, even if it becomes a draft somewhere in cyberspace. I don’t want to wait until I’m out of this particular tunnel before I get some thoughts down.

Sometimes the hardest things in life have no explanation. In fact, looking back on the nearly 30 years I’ve lived, I’d say most hard things have no explanation, or best case scenario, a very complicated one.

In the going-on-30 years I’ve lived, I’ve been running for roughly five of those. And I would say the past five years contain some of the most difficult life situations. I ramped up my training and signed up for a marathon when I knew that I would not be joining my husband in Korea, despite quitting my full-time teaching job and packing up half our belongings. I’ve trained through my sister’s horrible car accident that almost took her life. I continued a run streak while in Illinois for my grandfather’s funeral. I ran through mental and physical obstacles (i.e. hills and mountains) during my husband’s first and (thank God) only deployment.

Now I’m running through infertility. There. I said it. That’s tough, to see that word attached to you, your life, your experience on the earth. There’s something about that word being on the page that evokes emotions. Emotions that I haven’t always let myself fully feel or share. Somehow in 2015 there is still a resounding gong of pursed lips and shhh that surrounds talking about infertility, miscarriage, or if you put it all together, the failure to do what we’ve been told our whole lives is our biological charge in this world.

For the first six to eight months that we were “trying” (although I’d quip that anytime someone has unprotected sex, they’re trying), I stopped running altogether. We were adjusting post-deployment, which was hard. Inexplicably hard. I graduated from my Master’s program and had jumped in head first (or belly-flopped?) into a demanding four-week summer gig teaching beginning English eight hours a day. After that I was to begin my first year as university faculty, in what was pretty much my dream job. I was busy. And tired. And fulfilled from teaching.. but month after month went by and pregnancy test after pregnancy test found its way into the trash can.

Excitement. I can’t quite describe how it feels to be so excited, to think, Wow, now THIS will be the month! THIS will be the cycle! Better make plans because man, we’re gonna have a baby in nine months. I think about our baby announcement, names we’ve picked out (for years actually), logistics of taking maternity leave, where I want to deliver. Mind you, that lovely pink line hasn’t even been provoked yet and the mind goes crazy with these thoughts.

Anger. Then the one biological sign we as women have really been programmed to hate shows up. And it can’t just come quietly, either. It has to remind us with cramps and mood swings and acne (all of which are worse off the pill, of course) that yet again, my womb is empty. I’m angry. Angry at the world for telling me that this would be so easy. Okay, kids, if you have sex, you will get pregnant. You guys are healthy and active – it will happen quickly for you! My so-and-so was on the pill too and when she came off of it, she got pregnant in the first month! It’s okay if you guys don’t get pregnant right away, you’re young and you have time. So much anger and bitterness towards these words and attitudes, even if they’re meant without harm.

I’m angry. At myself for thinking this would be so easy. At my uterus, without a doubt. At the fact that I had given up “strenuous exercise” that gives me peace of mind in order to make my uterus apparently more hospitable (???). Judging by the first week of the cycle, nothing in my body is hospitable to anything except coffee and ice cream. Typical. Rinse and repeat.

Bitterness. This is the most dangerous part of the process, but the most difficult part to avoid. We’re at the age where people have been married a few years and are actually getting pregnant on purpose with first, second, third children. Twins! Natural triplets! IVF triplets! Wow! If I just hide enough friends on Facebook or unfollow enough people on Instagram, I won’t have to deal with it. The lies and comparisons creep in anyway. I think, Wow, by the time she’s my age, her kid will be in first grade. Then my heart sinks again. If I have a baby in the next year, I’ll be almost 50 when he or she graduates from high school. My parents are in their early 50’s now, and we’re all out of the house. They have a grandbaby. Congratu-freaking-lations, Elizabeth. You’re gonna be one of those “old” moms. Ugh.

So I start running again, through the excitement soon replaced by anger and bitterness. It’s my revenge at the world. Hey! Look at me! You’re sitting over there using your pregnant belly as a shelf and here I am! Running! On trails! With my husband! And I didn’t need a babysitter! Because we have no baby at home! Your kid is being a brat? Your kid is puking? Fantastic! Not my circus, not my monkeys, that’s what I say. I walk away thinking, Maybe this not-getting-pregnant thing is a blessing in disguise.

Grief. No one tells you about this. No one ever says when you’re in sex ed, Now kids, keep in mind that not everyone is going to be able to have their own biological children, so just, ya know, keep that in mind when you’re actually ready to take on the socially-acclaimed-to-be-prestigious and little-thanked full-time job of parenting. No one tells you that you could have dreams about your future children, see them, their faces, their hair, have names picked out but your dreams might not ever realize. No one tells you that this grief is actually real, though there’s not a tangible representation.

I run through the grief. It comes and goes, and sometimes I think about it on a run and sometimes I don’t. Mostly I just think about how I need water or how I wish a different song would come on my random playlist or, not surprisingly, that the run would be over. The endorphins afterwards help, especially paired with sugary coffee and a good ole West Texas sunrise.

Acceptance. I think I was at this stage prematurely, and because of that, it’s taken away most of my motivation to keep going. To endure more procedures. More tests. Set aside more money for co-pays. Our life is pretty darn amazing. I always knew it would be. But even a decade ago, I had this feeling like maybe our life would be hard. Na, I totally knew that it would be hard. We’ve seen others take a longer, more drawn out, more expensive road to parenthood. It’s not just the medical bills that are expensive. It’s the toll it takes on a marriage, on each person’s self esteem. On the hope that you had that one day you’d have a mini-you running around. Or many mini-yous.

I had it all planned out. Never in my life did I envision that I’d have trouble getting pregnant. Maybe I never thought about it because before we truly weren’t ready to bring kids into our life. Now that we’ve been married awhile and the military has graciously let our lives calm down a bit and actually live together for once, I’m becoming more and more accepting if this is not going to happen.

Contentment. I’m not quite there yet. I have a pretty optimistic and go-getter personality that I think can get me there sooner rather than later. I feel contentment in waves, much like grief. When I watch the sunrise from the rearview mirror. Or feel the warm water of a lake.  Or watch fog evaporate over mountains. Or sit in cozy silence with my husband, not having to say a word. In the laughter of nieces and nephews. My contentment will be found in other places, if not in my womb. Those places I will find as time goes on.

I’ll keep on running and training. I will focus on what my body can do rather than what it can’t do. Running provides mental stability and repair. It gives me an opportunity to pray and seek, whether over six miles or twenty-six miles. This is where I’m at. We all have different reasons for running; here’s mine.

This doesn’t make sense. I might even let my twenty-nine-year-old five-year-old self say that it’s not fair. It’s not logical. Egg, meet sperm. Sperm, meet egg. Ok? Ok. Or not. But you know what is logical? Feet on pavement. Step after step, mile after mile. The gently used stroller I preemptively bought from a friend might sit in the closet and collect dust, but my running shoes won’t.