This morning I woke up, body tired and heart heavy. I spent most of last night laying awake in bed, battling neuropathy…my current and least favorite symptom of mold poisoning. I spent most of last night staring at the ceiling, and thinking of that other night two years ago…when we did not even sleep. The longest night of our lives.
Waiting for him to come.
Knowing he was already gone.
Today, is Charlie’s birthday. Tomorrow, is Fred’s. He would have been two. He will be five. And they would have been “birthday twins,” celebrating the endless fun and excitement of the most awesome birthday week to ever grace a family’s January...if I were writing this story.
And it would actually be the most awesome week of January…if I were writing this story.
His precious, perfect cheeks would be covered in chocolate frosting right now. His nut brown hair would be sticking up in all directions under his little party hat. And his beautiful eyes would be dancing with excitement as his big siblings took it upon themselves to blow out the candles on his birthday cake…if I were writing this story.
But that is not our day. Because we did not get our story.
And tomorrow, as we celebrate our sweet Freddo’s life and hug him extra tight, it will not be the day I had wanted it to be…because I never, ever would have written that we would have to spend one day at a cemetery and the next day at Chuck-e-Cheese for as long as we all shall live…if I were writing this story.
And this, the hardest week of our lives…is only the worst reminder of the reality of every single breathing moment of our lives…that we live in the valley of the shadow of death, and I wouldn’t have chosen to write us within ten billion miles of this dark and desolate valley…if I were writing this story.
I feel it every Christmas…as we try to decide what to do about the “Christmas Card.” That proverbial, annual send-out that supposed to capture “Another Great Year” for a “Growing Family.” But Charlie isn’t growing. His soft cheeks, and knobby little knees, and tender little heart are not growing where I wanted them to be. They are not growing in my home, near my heart, and with his siblings. And they never, ever will be. And I ache in places I can’t even articulate trying to figure out how to capture our “family”…when half of my children are stuck on earth and the other half are somewhere a billion light years away.
I don’t want a happy, smiley picture of the five of us at the beach…because it isn’t our family. And it certainly isn’t the picture I would have drawn beside our lives…if I were writing this story.
If I were illustrating our story…I’d have Charlie and Fred side by side, in matching Christmas plaid, and Charlie’s little eyes would be looking up at Fred, making sure he was doing the picture “just right,” just like Sophie does with Emma every moment of every day.
If I were illustrating our story…I’d have young souls staring back at the camera instead of the broken ones I see. My heart would be thirty-three, with all that thirty-three-year-olds are supposed to have suffered and experienced by this point. And even more…my little ones souls would be three, and five, and seven. Not eighty. Because in the midst of all of the child-like moments our kids still bring to the dinner table each night, there are so very many times when I look and listen and live in the soul-moments of each day, and realize once again that there is nothing child-like about their lives.
And in that…I see something that I absolutely know I would not have seen…if I were writing this story.
I see Christ.
And His Sovereign plan over the horrendous pages that have become the ink of our lives.
And His grace in each and every dark and tear-stained line.
And as I think of today, the anniversary of the absolute darkest moment of my life, and sadly, the one and only day I got to hold and kiss and love and treasure my sweet baby Charlie…I can think of absolutely no better way to honor the memory of his short but immeasurably valuable life…than to share what has happened in our hearts only because I did not get my way, and am clearly not writing this story.
Things…only God could write.
And so, as the neuropathy rages on and my fingers struggle to even work well enough to type…I am going to love him and remember him in the only way I can…by sharing how very different we all are now…because of his life.
My deepest heartache over Charlie’s death, is that our sweet Freddo lost his very best buddy. I see Fred’s tears when he feels excluded from his sisters, I see his exasperation when he throws up his hands and says, “This is such a GIRL house,” and I see his deep soul-ache when sometimes, I hear him whisper ever so quietly from the back of the car, “Mommy, I miss Charlie.” These are the moments when I want to rage. To scream at the sky. To shatter a few more of our dinner plates. To pack up my heart and permanently walk away from this life of blind and unyielding faith in a God who seems absolutely disinterested in every suggestion I ever have for how I would write this story.
But then, there are times when I am stopped cold in my angry tracks…by the One who actually did write this story.
About a million years ago, back when Fred was two…we would have many a conversation about what it looked like to be a “Prince among Ladies.” Every. Day. Same conversation on repeat. “Freddo, I saw you hit your sister. Let’s review this again…What are those strong muscles for?” And then he would mumble, “For protecting the ladies.” And I’d inevitably walk away feeling awfully proud of my parenting finesse. Convinced that I was deftly raising a real man of God who’d be ever-quick to protect and defend a kingdoms’ worth of ladies. And then, a day or two would pass, and we would be back where we began with Fred and his fists.
Enter, two years ago this very day. January 28th, 2013. And the most painful moment of my life. The moment when suddenly, every grandiose parenting notion I’d ever held, took a very back seat to the hellish throes of grief. I was fighting for my life. And for my faith. And for every breath I took because, suddenly, even breathing was an enormous fight. And in that moment, I couldn’t have cared less if Freddo was beating up the ladies.
But somewhere in these last two years…as I grieved my baby’s death, and buried two more babies, and got sick enough to spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars at countless unhelpful doctors, and then found out about the mold and lost literally every single thing we had…somewhere in the heinous suffering that became our life on every line of every page…something else was happening that would not have happened…if I were writing this story.
Freddo, my sweet Freddo, who is solid as an ox and can pack quite a punch…learned how to protect the ladies. And he learned it from the One who is writing this story.
I see it. Every single day. Things I simply did not teach him…that suffering did.
I see it…when he takes Sophie’s hand as she walks down the stairs, just because he worries about her slipping on those socks of hers that always seem extra slippery. I see it…when he takes on kids twice his size at the playground…in defense of our very tender-hearted Emma Leigh. And I saw it the other day, when we were walking along the bay and he said to me, “If you fall…just grab my hand and I’ll catch you Mom. Actually, maybe you should just grab it now for safe keeping.”
And I know why he does it…because each and every one of his ladies are more fragile and broken and in need of care and love and protection than I will ever be comfortable with, and ever would have allowed myself to be…if I were writing this story.
I don’t want to be so sick and frail that my little boy actually feels the need to look out for me…but he does. And that IS our story.
Deep down, I don’t really need Fred’s pint-sized muscles to save me from falling. I’m frail. But most days I’m not quite that frail.
What I need…is grace. And a tender-heart that understands compassion and suffering and the deep reality that every human being walks around with broken and bleeding hearts that are more fragile and frightened than any of us would like.
But how do you build that into a little boy? How do you keep him from being shallow and thoughtless and insensitive and mean?
You don’t. Or at least I myself most certainly didn’t. God did. While I was busy simply trying to survive this horrible story.
The last few weeks have been incredibly difficult. I have been in excruciating and debilitating pain. My neuropathy symptoms are at all-time low, and I have felt so deeply weary on the nights when I can no longer even use my hands or feel my feet. Sometimes I wonder if I am going to eventually need Fred’s little arms to catch me.
And on top of it all, my soul is bone weary. The process of starting a new school we don’t like, and saying goodbye to an old school we loved…has been so deeply painful for me. I had thought that we had lost all that one family could possibly lose…but watching our kids lose their friends and their teachers and a school that they adored was deeply breaking for me.
I wanted to fix it. And since I couldn’t fix it…I desperately wanted to control the only part I could…I wanted The Perfect Goodbye. And I thought I’d found that in the school’s “Caroling Field Trip” to the local nursing home. I had it all planned out. We would meet up with the school, sing a few rounds of “Jingle Bells” with the octogenarians, and say goodbye to all of the most precious people in their lives over some punch and cookies.
But, of course, it didn’t work that way. We had to be at Emma’s new school at the exact same time as the field trip, and so we got there late. Actually, “late” is an understatement. We got there as the whole school was filing out the door, and I was devastated. Our kids had been so excited to finally see their best friends, and there they were…literally in the doorway of this random nursing home, giving awkward side-hugs, and issuing two-second goodbyes.
About three-seconds after we got there…it was over. The school had to get back for lunchtime, so there our little family stood…alone outside the nursing home, completely dazed and dizzy from such an abrupt and messy end to such a precious chapter in their lives. And something deep broke in me.
I made it all the way to the car…and then I sat right down on the curb and began to weep. And weep. And weep. I couldn’t stop weeping. I wept because I am sick and tired of being the people in excruciating pain. I wept because I am absolutely fed up that our kids have to be the ones to say goodbye to literally everything…friends and teachers and every one of their worldly possessions, and most of all…their baby siblings. And I wept because I would never ever even make our kids leave a place they love, and I certainly would have at least planned a better goodbye…if I were writing this story.
I wept because I hate our story. And I’m tired of being the people bleeding and limping through every tear-stained page.
And even though I felt miserable crying hysterically in front of our kids, the dam had finally broke…and I sat down right there on that crazy busy street corner, in a town where we know literally everybody, and wept over our nursing home-goodbye.
Finally, after I got it all out, I got back in our car. Our very quiet car. And it was there, where God cut through the silence with words that I’ll never forget, no matter how many pages are left in this truly miserable story. Because in the quiet of the car, I heard Freddo’s four-year-old voice echo the wisdom of a very long life when he said softly,“It’s ok Mommy. I care way more about you…than I do about caroling.”
And in that very moment…I saw the legacy of our baby Charlie’s life.
He has made us tender.
Each and every one of us. Most days, I don’t see it in myself. Most days (ok, most every day) I see absolutely NOTHING good that has been born in my soul out of what has become page after page of suffering. I do not feel closer to and more in love with the Author of our story. I do not feel like I am better able to love others, and especially my kids…in a deep and meaningful way. I feel broken. Not beauty-broken. Ugly-broken. Limited-broken. Barely-hanging on to my sanity and my faith-broken. Damaged-broken. And there are many, many days when I wonder if God is ever going to make anything beautiful out of the dust of any of these pages of this story I now hate.
But in that moment, in the quietness of our car, quiet simply because I don’t think anyone knew quite what to do with Mommy’s-Nursing-Home-Meltdown…I saw beauty.
The beauty born out of suffering. The unsurpassing gift of seeing that my Freddo is being made into the image of Christ…one jot and tittle at a time...by the One who is writing this story.
I want to put a bow on this. To say that that moment in the car was a real “break through.” To say that I am “ok” with Charlie’s death, because something so eternally good is being born out of all of this bad…something big enough, good ENOUGH…that it is worth all of the pain of this story. But there is nothing, absolutely nothing that would EVER make this worth it to me. Nothing that would ever make me think, “Charlie’s death is worth it for God to be THIS MAGNIFIED.”
I will never think that. At least not for the next seventy years. I wanted him. Yes, I wanted our family to know Jesus and make Him known, but I didn’t want it to be because of our endless suffering. I wanted it to be the way that everyone else (it seems) gets to “know Jesus and make him known”…by gradually receiving all of the wonderful things He has to give. I wanted it to be by getting my version of the story. And His version is absolutely NOTHING like my version of the story would be.
When you set out to write a story, you write it with an end-goal in mind. The author labors over each and every word because he wants to get it “just right.” He wants something to be remembered. Something to last beyond the story. And when the quill is in your hand…the story is for the Author’s “good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
His. Completely and exclusively.
And if I have learned anything over these exactly two years of suffering it is this: I am in the story. I care deeply about the story. I love deeply, so very many people in this story. But this…is not my story.
And it never will be.
It’s His story. He sat down with the blank pages. He owns oceans-worth of ink. He writes every line on every page, and will fill them according to His intended will…each and every day. And He will end it exactly when and how He sees fit, because it always has been and always will be…His story.
For His purposes.
Far beyond this life.
I can pray to Him, and pour out my dreams and hopes and longings for the story, but ultimately, that has far more influence on the relationship between the author and the character…than the lines on the page.
As I sit here today, I have no bow. There is no place to buy literary bows, when your baby is dead and your body is broken, and your kids by default, have eighty-year-old souls because of the world-weary weight of their suffering.
But I do have one illustration for our story. One I actually like. One that actually captures us in a way that makes my heart happy. One that actually does justice to our family. Our real family…the one that no picture on earth will ever represent rightly. One that actually captures both the beauty and the brokenness that fills to overflowing the pages of our lives.
One that gives a glimpse of both of the precious boys who have captured so very much of this Mama’s heart. My boys. My birthday twins who I would never, ever have chosen to celebrate like this….if I were writing this story.
So here it is. Our Christmas picture. Me, in my Heaven shirt. Precious Fred in his lone plaid. And maybe just maybe, my sweet baby Charlie…looking down upon a story that he is still so very much a part of, and always will be.
Here we stand…small and frail, and hidden, of course, in the shadow of the big Rock He planted our little family by. As we wait for Him with tears and trust and trembling.
For the day when we will finally meet and fall before…the Author of this story.