Sunday, December 21, 2014

Maybe This Christmas

It never fails, this time of year.  It is the height of the Christmas season and, despite my very best efforts, I find my heart and my mind wandering to Life After The Holidays.  It always seems to offer the promise of a certain kind of quiet.  Not serenity, exactly.  Just...  a different frequency of chaos.

The seed catalogues arrived even earlier than usual this year but I've resisted the temptation to start dreaming of my very own Warfleigh Garden of Eden just yet.  (My growing belly serving as a constant reminder that weeding and pruning will come a distant second next spring is, admittedly, a helpful tool in controlling these impulses.)  Still, as Rob and I surfed through the hundreds of channels last night we passed by one of the many cooking networks just in time to see a chef slicing into a beautiful, pink fleshy cantaloupe and for a second my mind wandered to our backyard, and dreams of a trellis heavy with a dozen warm, juicy, sweet and sticky melons that are destined for many meals at our kitchen table.

Then I snapped out of it.

I love the Christmas season.  It usually grips me sometime just before Thanksgiving but I put up a valiant fight against succumbing to the commercial trappings that bombard us everywhere.  I roll my eyes at the displays I see at Lowes when I go pick up my autumn mums, but by the time mid-November arrives I'm secretly chomping at the bit to bake and shop and play my favorite Christmas albums.  Loudly.  Over and over again.  (We love to sing along.)  We have a lovely Thanksgiving and the very next day the Christmas preparations begin and they don't really stop until we've had the last get-together with the last relative that we couldn't possibly not see before the end of the year.

So all of a sudden here we are, days away from the holiday that annually reminds us - in tinseled and twinkled-light glory, no less - that we were all gifted with the most amazing treasure God could bestow on the world and every life here in it.  But despite daily, hourly, sometimes minute-by-minute reminders to myself, I am easily pulled into the mania of the season:  so much left to bake, fighting real-life living with children and pets and a husband in an effort to keep a clean(ish) house, worrying that I've not purchased enough for him, or that I've purchased too much for her, of that I've completely forgotten someone Very Important, or that I've sabotaged my own battle to instill a sense of gratitude in my children by picking up Just One More Thing because she would love it!  It's so easy to sink into not only fatigue but almost resentment about what is expected of you.  The thing is, I'm pretty sure I'm the only one with the expectations.

The manger was messy, and though there were gifts I don't believe Mary kept score of whose was best or who brought the most so she could reciprocate in equal measure.  All Jesus needed was a warm place to sleep, a full belly, and loving protection from his parents.  And He got it, with no resentment anywhere.  There was life buzzing around everywhere in that barn and I can't imagine that making do with a newborn in a stable could be described as anything other than chaotic.  Even so, there must have been a certain kind of quiet, too.  Being in the presence of God Himself, full of grace, glory, and wonder - I imagine an overwhelming peace that comes with that.  A beautiful, still fullness.

Maybe there is still time, this Christmas, to find that.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

God meets grief (and wins)

I started having problems talking with some of my patients at work when it became clear that Mom was going to die.

Up to that point I was blessed with the ability to detach from emotionally charged situations.  I could give patients and their families very bad news, talk to them about end-of-life decisions, and keep myself empathetic but professional.  I wasn't cold; I was, as they say, "appropriate."

And then the shitstorm of dying from cancer hit, and I have never been the same.  Even almost 10 years later it's like the grief that I still carry around - because you always do, just a little bit, even if it isn't what you put on every day - latches on to the grief that these families feel and it takes over.  Their feelings of fear and sadness and shock are mine, too.  I know those feelings so well, the memory of them deeply etched in that part of me that also remembers the joy of seeing my children for the first time and understanding that my husband really, truly loves even the worst bits of me.  There is nothing complicated about these emotions, they just are.  They are the most real things I know.

Today I met another one of those families.  Although I didn't know it yet they had just learned that their baby, their only child, is going to die.  What I did know was that this baby was very sick and from what I could surmise the prognosis was going to be poor.  His parents were friendly and calm but obviously nervous.  It's tricky to navigate these situations: keeping things relaxed but respecting their fears, establishing yourself as an ally all the while knowing you are most certainly about to give them a serious blow and the last thing they will consider you is an ally.

The results of my test were, as expected, quite poor and I could feel the emotions rise as I sat behind the glass trying to figure out how I was going to talk to them.  They didn't need my grief to arrive, uninvited, into their own; they needed truth and compassion and a refuge.  I had no idea how I was going to offer this to them so I did the only thing I could think of.  I prayed.  I prayed that I would be able to talk to these lovely people with grace and composure and honesty, that my grief wouldn't once again intrude and keep me from giving them what they needed.

God has a funny way of answering prayers some times.  He knows what we can and cannot do.  And He knew that today wasn't going to be the day for me to rise to this challenge.  So instead, just seconds after I opened my eyes, the door opened and a nurse on the baby's medical team walked in - a nurse that, truth be told, I'm not especially fond of.  We talked a bit about what I had seen, and it was she who led the discussion about the results and what would happen next.  She included me in this conversation and I was able to offer my own expertise and perspective, but the onus of delivering yet another heartbreaking result was not on me.  Not today.  Not this time.

I guess it's pretty obvious that I still haven't shaken this family from my thoughts.  It was hard to come home tonight and see my beautiful, healthy happy baby girl and not also see their beautiful, broken baby boy.  The magnitude of their grief must be immense and even now it invites mine to come forward, too.  But what I also haven't shaken is the recognition that God heard me in my plea for help and He met me, right there at that very minute in that awful radiology suite.  He didn't make me wait, or allow me to fail this family, or scold me for needing Him when clearly there were people just a few feet away who needed Him more.  He was there.  He is here, everywhere, for all of us, all the time.  Fully.  Mercifully.  Full of grace.

Thank you, God, for your mercy and never-ending love.  Amen and amen and amen.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


The other day I put on a pair of Dad's old argyle socks, and I wondered out loud (aka to the internets) about how it's funny what matters to us.

When Dad died I very deliberately saved a few of his things: a big, fleecy green shirt that I have been known to wear as a jacket in the fall; a red wool Pendleton shirt with camel-colored suede patches on the elbows that he would wear in the winter.  And these socks - navy blue, periwinkle and maroon argyles, a little worn in the heels but still serviceable.  I really couldn't tell you why I saved the socks.  I don't have any great memories about them, and it's not like my dad was much of an "argyle man."  But there they were, in a drawer full of brown and blue and black work socks and so I took them.  And now they sit in my drawer full of brown and black and grey work socks, rarely worn but always still there.

There are a lot of great things I could say about my dad, and sometimes, on lucky days, I still get to hear other people tell me about what they thought was great, too.  But Dad was human and not everything was always so great.  He was flawed like the rest of us.  There were times when those flaws made life hard for him and for me and for a lot of people, and sometimes, when things were at their worst, it was all I could see of him.

But all of those flaws evaporated the moment he died, almost as if they were carried away with his last breath - a gift of sorts, I think.  And what I'm left with now are good memories, a green fleecy jacket, a red wool Pendleton shirt, and a pair of argyle socks.