charlie's song


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Bears and Goats and Empathy

Today, our son Charlie would be six years old. And I have thought many many times, about what we would be doing if he were here…the birthday party we would be planning, the little-boy presents we would be wrapping, and all the things we would be sharing at our annual encouragement dinner tonight. It’s my most favorite of all of our birthday traditions: that moment when we gather around our chaotic family dinner table and share all of the things we appreciate most about the birthday star. But since our sweet guy isn’t here to celebrate with today, I can only tell you what I wish I could tell my Charlie of how much his life has changed absolutely everything about mine.

Last year, on Charlie’s birthday, I shared a few of the things I wish I could have told myself in the days and months and years after Charlie died. Things I so wish I had known. Things that no one else around me knew to tell me. And ultimately… things you can only learn one broken day at a time in the hallowed halls of suffering. But this year, what is most on my mind: is what I wish those around me had known, as they watched us suffer through the valley of the shadow of death one agonizing day at a time.

It is difficult to adequately describe what it was like for our family to bury our fourth baby. But as I think of the moments in suffering when I felt even a little less-alone, ironically reading The Hunger Games, is one of the things that comes to mind. From the moment Charlie died, I felt like our entire family had entered the Arena of suffering. Every day felt dangerous and scary. Every moment felt overwhelming and lonely. And most of all, we constantly felt like we were both utterly alone, and yet someone living in a glass box through which everyone else could passively view our suffering. It’s not that people didn’t care. There were many people who came to Charlie’s funeral, and sent words of comfort, and even those who (which by FAR meant the most) wept in sorrow over Charlie’s life. But most of the time, we felt like those around us stayed far outside our suffering- watching us suffer, and waiting for us to either fail and die (to keep The Hunger Games analogy going) or to somehow miraculously, triumph and survive. To be sure- we definitely had sponsors and cheerleaders, and many people who cared enough to watch…but very very few people made us feel like they were not just safely outside the Arena looking in…but truly with us through the horrible game called Grief.

And then, a few months later, just when I thought I couldn’t endure anymore heartbreak and continue to function on this earth…another baby died in my body.  And then in November, when another baby died- it was like we were being sent back into the arena for the very next Hunger Games. And finally…in January, only days after we celebrated Charlie’s first birthday…we lost absolutely everything when we discovered the toxic mold that had plummeted us into the pit in the first place. And I distinctly remember feeling in that moment, as we watched literally every thing we owned being fire-bombed by mold right before our eyes, that we were no longer being sent into an Arena to battle through each day…the Arena had become our lives.

In the month of February 2014 alone, we lost everything we owned, visited 16 doctors between the 5 of us, and somehow in the midst of all of this, our friends began posting about our story, and 20,000 people started reading this blog overnight. There were calls from the TV station about interviews, and emails from the agents asking us if we’d be interested in publishing our story, and in true Katniss Everdeen fashion…all I wanted to do was crawl into a dark and quiet school-supplies closet and avoid absolutely everybody. Because when you are knocked down to the point of being completely incapacitated by catastrophic and endless suffering…the last thing you are interested in being is poster children for the Hunger Games.

I could go on forever about how God used Katniss Everdeen’s story of imaginary suffering to speak comfort and not-alone-ness into the deepest places of mine. But instead, I want to share with you this one thing I would have said about suffering if we had agreed to the TV interview or taken the book deal at that time. The one thing that suffering has taught me about loving others through this life.

And it is this:

Be the Bear.

A few months ago, Emma was home from school with a tummy ache, and since we had this special and unexpected day with her, Reid and I decided we wanted to introduce her to a Brene Brown TED talk we really like. Afterwards, we had such a great conversation with our sweet 10-year-old about the many deep and lasting theme’s Brene Brown shares in the clip. We were feeling pretty impressed with our parenting prowess in that moment, when Emma completely stunned us by saying, “Hey, that was a great clip, thanks so much for sharing. And now, can I show you MY favorite Brene Brown clip that really encourages me?”

Um…your favorite clip? You don’t even have internet access…how do you have a favorite Brene-Brown-most-famous-researcher clip?

Well, it turns out she did. Somewhere along the way, in her public school education, Emma saw a clip in school of a cartoon version of some of the greatest words Brene Brown has ever spoken. And as I sat there, watching this short clip that my 10-year-old had guided me to…tears began pouring down my face. Here, using only a few simple words and some rather simplistic cartoon sketching, were the words that I desperately wish every single person in my life had been able to hear and live out…as they watched us in the glass pit of our own Arena of Suffering.

I have included the two minute “short” clip here, and I highly recommend taking the few minutes to watch it. Brene Brown Clip on Empathy

But, here is the gist of her words on “Empathy”…

In this world…there will be dark and lonely pits of horrific suffering no matter who you are. If you live long enough, and love hard enough…you cannot escape the brokenness of death and suffering and loss in this lifetime.

When you find yourself in the pit/arena/valley of the shadow of death, whether that be through the loss of three of your children, your health, and everything single thing you own like it was for us, or a different kind of suffering…the pit will be utterly overwhelming and devastating lonely. And, it is your pit. No one else can fully understand it.

But…there are two kind of people:

The Bears: Those who TRY to understand what you are feeling in the pit, and breathe words of hope and life into the deepest places of your pain through the simple act of Empathy. Humbly posted on the walls of the cafeteria at our kid’s elementary school is a small, but profoundly important sign, “Empathy is feeling or understanding what someone else is feeling.” And that’s it. THAT is the elementary school definition of “empathy.” Can you communicate that you are at least TRYING to imagine what the other person is feeling? Or, even better- can you actually feel it?  If you can’t…you will miss them completely. But, if you can, you will change their lives.

And the Goats: Those who fill your pit (and your heart) with an even deeper feeling of hopelessness and despair by breathing judgment and expectation through the words that they speak. Those who say, “At least,” those who say, “Wow, this is bad,” and those who try to make things better because they are feeling better than you and are deeply uncomfortable with your suffering.

This whole entire post breaks down if you don’t take a moment to watch this clip.  But let me tell you a few things I have learned about the gall of Goats and the bravery of Bears.

First, Anyone can be a bear. And most people are not.  If I told you some of the awful things that well-meaning people said to us during the deepest and darkest places in our journey you would be horrified. Most of these people were Christians. Most of these people were even Christians who loved us. But, let me tell you, Christians do not have this bear thing down and are oftentimes even worse at empathy because our black and white world-view simply cannot handle the horrific and unnerving gray of suffering.  However, I truly believe that anyone can grow to be a bear, and some of the very best bears I know…are the children in my life. Not just my own children, but also some of their friends. I can’t tell you how many times the little people in our life were SO much better at speaking the right words to our hurting and grieving hearts- than the big people in our life. Maybe it’s because children often feel a greater helplessness than adults do about their ability to “fix” things when people are broken, or maybe it’s because children are simply so much better at imagining…but we grown-ups have so much to learn about the empathetic response from some of the little people in our lives.

Second, No one is ALWAYS a bear. I can’t tell you how many times I have walked away from a moment with my own kids and thought, “Wow, that was way too much goat and not enough bear.”  A few years ago, I walked into Sophie’s room at bedtime and she looked at me with tears and said, “Mom, I have decided to forgive you for the four things you did tonight that really hurt my heart.” And after she shared each of the ways I hadn’t listened to her and had completely missed her heart, I knew she was absolutely right to feel hurt over those things. So, I said the four most important words any Goat can say, “I am so sorry.” And then we hugged and said goodnight, knowing all was once again right. Because honestly, no one expects you to always get it right…they just want to know that you understand they are in a pit, and to know that you will crawl down into that dark hole no matter how many times you have to, until you find and meet their heart in that fragile and tender place of pain.

So there it is: the one thing I would tell you about how to care for a grieving friend, or really- how to love any hurting person in your life. As Elisabeth Elliot once said, “Suffering is either having what you don’t want, or wanting what you don’t have.  And today, as I reflect on my precious Charlie’s life and all that he taught me about life through both the suffering of NOT getting to have him, and all the suffering the not-having-him brought into our life…I realize that Charlie’s life taught me one of the greatest lessons I will ever learn:

When you are suffering- find the bears.  And when you see someone grieving- be the bear.

And to those dear, and precious few, who dared at times to crawl down into the deepest and darkest pit our family has ever known…thank you for not just standing outside the arena and cheering us on from a distance- thank you for your words and your tears and your co-suffering through your simple words of empathy.

Thank you to my friend Jenn, for that moment after Charlie died when you got so angry that you ripped the wallpaper straight off of your walls right in front of your shocked and terrified children. Losing Charlie made me feel so incredibly angry, and you felt that same anger even from thousands of miles away.

Thank you to my sister Julie, for remembering Charlie all of the time, and for weeping every time you talk about him because you feel so incredibly sad that you missed out on his entire life. Losing Charlie made me feel so incredibly sad, and you felt that same sadness even though you had never even carried a baby in your body, let alone buried one in the ground.

And thank you to my kindred Catherine, for choosing to dive into the deepest pit of suffering with a total stranger who lived thousands of miles away, because you once had far too few bears in your own pit, and you couldn’t bear the thought of my being alone in the darkest depths of mine. Losing Charlie made me feel so incredibly lonely, and you felt that very same loneliness in your own life and met me through a kind of empathy that only comes from living a similar story.

And to all the other bears, all the Mama Bears, and the Papa Bears, and even the little, bitty baby bears who loved me and my family by crawling into the pit of our suffering and imagining our pain…you have left an indelible impact upon our lives.

If there is one thing these years of suffering have taught me it’s that Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said, “In this world you will have trouble.” Um, understatement of the millennia. Someday, each and every one of us will find ourselves in the pit at some (or many) moments in our lives. Someday, each and every one of us will suddenly find those around us- friends, family, or even our worst enemy- in the pit at some point in our lives. And I am absolutely convinced that what will change the world, one broken heart at a time, is if we, broken nation that we are, broken church that we are, and broken people that we are…can move towards one another one bear-like moment at a time. Dear friends, please take a moment to look at this simple clip. And even more, please take those moments to be the bear in someone else’s life.

And to my precious Charlie, losing you was the heartbreak of my life. And yet, your life has taught me more than any other about the fragility of my own heart, and how much it matters when we enter into the fragility of others stories with tenderness and empathy.  And it is only possible to be in so much pain, if you lose something or someone you love deeply. I love you deeply my sweet boy.

And until that glorious Forever day, when there are no more arenas and no more pits, and no more tears and no more pain…we are committed to loving others through all we learned by loving forever and always, a little boy named Charlie.

 

 

 

 

 

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Our Advent Calendar

When my sister-in-law texted me this morning to ask if I could send her all of the things I do for our family Advent Calendar…I did not think it would result in a blogpost tonight. I never planned on this blog being a place where I talk about all of the “little things” of parenting, and advent calendar activities definitely qualify as the little things.

But as I think about what the season of Advent has come to mean to my children, I can see how important this calendar has been to our family story. Every single Christmas, during both the happy ones- like the December when we first brought our rainbow baby home from the hospital, and during the sorrowful ones- like the year when we reached December 1st and I didn’t think it was humanly possible to endure any more suffering…our Advent Calendar has been a means for life and hope and joy to push into our story day after day. Somehow these simple advent activities we shared together…of remembering the coming of Christ…came to mean so much to each one of us, because they forced life (or at least forced me to fight for life) even during the darkest night.

So tonight, when I posted that I had finally jotted down some of my Advent Calendar ideas (after re-inventing the wheel every single year for a decade straight), and that I could share my ideas with others in need of fresh Christmastime magic- the response was overwhelming. Though I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the outpouring of interest from the mamas in my life. Because if there is anything that suffering has taught me, it is that Christmas isn’t so much a party for the merry, as it is an invitation for the weary. And most mama’s I know, are at least a little bit weary. Weary of pushing through naptime, and bedtime, and dinnertime, and well, every blessed “time” in between.

But far beyond that, there are mamas in my life who are a different, and far deeper, kind of weary. This is for the mama I know, who will spend her very first Christmas apart from the precious baby she was forced to bury. This is for the mama I know, who will spend her very first Christmas apart from her children’s daddy. And this is for the mamas I know, who will spend their very first Christmas fighting constantly for a real and lasting kind of joy, both for them and their little ones, as they battle depression and anxiety and loneliness and despair…in a world filled with a very empty kind of merry.

So this is for you, you mamas who are the kind of weary I feel tonight…as I finished another installment of sixth grade homework and told my toddler for the hundredth time to stop touching the ornaments on the tree. But this is also for you, you mamas who are extra close to my heart, and who feel the kind of soul-breaking, heart-shattering weary I have felt for far too many years of my children’s “little years”-lives.

And if it helps at all, to have something to turn to at the end of each of these long December days…in the few minutes it takes to read a poem, eat a sweet, and focus your hearts on the coming of Jesus in some small way…it was worth it to me to finally get organized.

So without further adieu, after a decade of December days- here are 24 of the dozens upon dozens of ideas I’ve tried. (Some of my past ideas bombed so badly that they didn’t survive. But hey, if your kids can successfully camp out under the Christmas tree all night without getting in a fight…then by all means!) Just take what you like. Invent even better ideas. And then pass them back on to me. And let’s keep on fighting together to seek after the kind of Christmas-joy that only the advent of a Savior in a manger can bring.

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The Zeller Family Advent Calendar (11th Edition)

A few words of clarity: I’ve entitled each one just so you have a simple lesson you can share, especially if your kids are very small. Mine are currently 2, 7, 9, and 11- so they are all over the place in terms of understanding the complexity of the coming of Christ. But I like the idea of the headings because I want to point their hearts back to the simple reminder that each day is about Jesus above all else. You can use any kind of calendar, and we’ve had MANY, and I’ve included a short poem that I write out and put inside the calendar each night. These poems are not brilliant- most of them I wrote today. But they are the kind of poems that would impress a 7-year-old…(and let’s be honest, the whole thing need only impress a 7-year-old.) After each poem, I included a little (or sometimes big) activity we do for each day, but they can be done in any order you’d like except the first and the last one. 

Tonight I asked my kids which activities were their favorites, and I was surprised by their answers. I cannot stress this enough: what your kids will love most about this… is the BEING with you. This is really about 24 days of being together as a family. Of playing together & feasting together & scavenger-hunting together…what you do is so much less important than your presence in each Christmas memory you make.

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Jesus is the Reason for the Season. (December 1st)

“Today we begin the Advent Season- where we celebrate Christmas for a special reason. As we search for Jesus like the wise men true…let’s search for sweets and read the Good News.” 

I hide special chocolates around the house, and after they find them we get out the nativity, and read the first Christmas chapter in The Jesus Story Book Bible to begin the Advent season. The Jesus Storybook Bible is absolute gold and we read it all year long.

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Jesus is our Refuge and our safe place to hide.

“Put on your matching jammies and gather round the tree…it’s time for popcorn and our favorite Christmas movie!”

Each year we give them matching Christmas jammies (Target has a great selection), and then we watch Home Alone after the tree is up and decorated. Home Alone is a mixed bag, and we have to mute a few parts, but I LOVE the scene when Kevin runs to the church and hides near Jesus and his family.  I think it is pure magic, and I love talking to our kids about how Kevin chose to hide by the manger and felt safe near “Jesus” when he was being chased by all the bad guys.

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Jesus is the Light of the World and we can seek after Him.

“Get on your coats, and hats, and gloves…we’re off to look at Christmas lights, just because!”

We pack up thermoses of hot coco and doughnuts from our favorite bakery, and use a printed Christmas Lights Scavenger Hunt to search for Christmas lights hidden all over town.  (There are dozens of good ones on Pinterest including this one: Christmas Lights Scavenger Hunt).

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Jesus is the Reason we GET presents. (St. Nicholas Day on Dec 5th) 

“Tonight we travel to a far away place- with pickles and gingerbread and smiles on each face. Can you guess the place we go-to remember a Christmas of long ago?”

Then the kids guess Germany…for “St. Nicholas Tag.” First, we hang little glass pickle ornaments on the tree, and they have to find the hidden pickles just like kids in Germany do.  Then, we have them pretend to fall asleep on the “plane” (couch), and when the Christmas music starts they “wake up” in Germany on the morning of December 6th (since it really is the morning of the 6th there).  And then we open the St. Nicholas Day presents hidden in their stockings and we eat a German breakfast feast. This is a great way for us to get the whole Santa thing out the way, so that he can be remembered and honored, but not focused on all season. Our kids are well aware that Santa is just a nice guy who loved God and loved his town by bringing presents to all it’s little people.

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Jesus is the Reason we GIVE presents. 

“Just as we remembered St. Nicholas true, and how he brought presents to kids just like you… Let’s look through the Christmas catalogue cause it’s fun to do, and then chose presents for kids in Timbuktu.” 

Really- it’s not Timbuktu where we send the presents, but they love this one. Every year, we page through either the Compassion International or the World Vision catalogues and each person choses a present to give to kids in need somewhere else in the world.

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Jesus is the Bright, Morning Star.

“Long ago, in a field of stars, the Wise Men looked up at a sky much like ours, They wanted to find a Savior who would guide them Home, so let’s look up at the sky and know we’re alone.”

I hide Trader Joe’s shortbread star cookies all around the house, we read our “Christmas In the Manger” board book, and grab hot coco and cookies and go stargazing outside. It’s a fave. And if you are very early risers, you can even see the morning star some days.

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Jesus Calls us to Love our neighbors.

“Christmas is a time for spreading cheer- and love and kindness far and near. Let’s bake treats and share Jesus’ light…by bringing love to our neighbors tonight.”

We either bake sweets or make a craft and then bring them to our neighbors with a Christmas carol. We just do a few neighbors, but we let the kids run the whole operation.

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Jesus Plans exciting surprises.

“Guess what, Guess what!  Just wanted to say: “No School! Hooray! It’s your first snow day!”

Each year, there are surprises. Like last year, when it snowed here and there was no school, so we did a sledding adventure on our favorite hill and hid new winter hats in their Christmas stockings. Or when I found adorable tabletop trees in the Target $5 bin, and they each picked ornaments and twinkle lights to decorate a tiny tree for their rooms. Each year I throw in a few surprise days like these, and they are always favorites.

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Jesus offers Light in the deepest darkness. (Hanukkah Party)

“Break out the Yamika, it’s time now for Hanukkah!  Let’s spin the dreidel and open presents tonight…To celebrate the Jewish Festival of Light!”

We are not actually Jewish, but there are so many things I love about this tradition and sharing it with our kids. We talk about the meaning of Hanukkah for God’s people in Israel who still celebrate it today, and then eat latkes, cinnamon apples, lamb kabobs, and star of David cookies. And of course, spin the dreidel for little Hanukkah presents.

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Jesus brings Sweetness to our days.

“Gather around and have a lookie, It doesn’t matter if you are kid or wookie, Because tonight you get to make your favorite Christmas cookie!”

We bake my grandma’s peanut butter kiss cookies. And talk about how much sweeter life is at Christmastime because we come together to remember Jesus and to focus on His love for us and our love for one another. And then we have the kids make Christmas cards and cookies for each of their teachers.

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Jesus Loves us through one another. 

“Tonight we begin something brand new…though a fun tradition that’s tried and true. It’s called “Secret Santa” and it helps love abound, so grab a name and spread Christmas-love around. “ 

We chose Secret Santa names and use each others stockings to hide presents and notes each day.  (It largely bombed last year, but I think it will get better as they get older. : ) 

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Jesus Leads us on an endless adventure. 

“Quick! Get dressed in your best clothes around, Let’s celebrate Christmas out on the town!”

Each year we go somewhere new and fun as a family- the local Christmas Carousel, the Zoo to look at lights, iceskating, sledding, really anyplace special around town.

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Jesus gives Purpose to every life.

“Just as these trees were given meaning to each of their stories, Jesus wants to use your life for His glory.”

We read the “Three Trees: A Traditional Folktale” book by Elena Pasquali, the kids find tiny trees I’ve hidden around the house, and then we talk about the meaning in each story when it is lived for God’s glory.

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Jesus is the sweet Sacrifice that saved our souls.

“In churches of the Old Country long ago, a choirmaster made candy so that children would know, The One who paid the ultimate price…to bring heaven to earth and sweetness to life. The true meaning of Christmas is both sweet and deep, Jesus the Shepherd came for you and me. Can you find the hidden candy canes….?”

The kids find all the candy canes I hide around the house, and then we talk about how they were first made by a choirmaster in Cologne, Germany to keep kids happy and quiet during church and to remind them of the blood of Jesus, the purity of Jesus, and the Shepherd’s heart of Jesus. The mint is also a reminder of the hyssop plant used for purification in the Bible. I love this one because this simple reminder of God’s heart is everywhere at Christmas and hardly anyone knows of its deeper intentions.

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Jesus Invites us to remember His Story.

“Grab the dishtowel, the Swiffer, and the manger stall, It’s time to reenact the Christmas story y’all.”

At first, we had to be more “involved” in the directing, but our kids are now fully in charge of this. I read the story, my husband films it, and the kids reenact the Christmas story in their own words. Then we do some fun iPhone editing with Movie FX and watch it together on the big screen. (One year we edited it so that a huge crater hit Herod just in the nick of time, which was a nice twist to the story).  This one is even better when you have holiday guests and a live studio audience.

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Jesus brings Color to our empty lives.

“Grab your color crayons and sit by the fireplace, Let’s have a coloring contest and prizes for this race!”

We print coloring sheets of the Nativity Scene (Nativity Coloring Printable), and have a coloring contest with prizes. I love talking about the difference between a colorless life, and one filled up by God and His love.  And I cannot tell you how intense this contest gets in our home. : )

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Jesus is our Forever Home.

“A house is a place to dwell in and live, and tonight we make sweet houses to give, As a reminder that Jesus is the shelter we crave, this tiny baby whose first home was a cave.”

Each year we make either gingerbread stables or gingerbread houses (Walmart has great ones for so cheap- 4 houses for $8!) and then either give them to someone or use them to decorate our home for the season. I think they are barely edible, but the kids love them.

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Jesus is the Life (green) & Light (twinkle lights) of the whole world. 

“Tonight we gather around the tree, to light candles, and sing songs of victory. Jesus has come, let the good news be heard, He has brought life and light to this weary world.”

We talk about the origin of the German tradition of Christmas trees as a reminder of new life and bright light. Then we gather around our tree in our pjs, hold candles (which they love), and each chose a Christmas carol to sing before bed. Another fan fave.

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Jesus is our Victory and will lead us in triumph one day.

“Tonight you must find all the wreaths hanging low, to reminds us of Roman times long ago, When people would wear wreaths high on their head, to celebrate victory and the triumphal stead.”

We like to talk about the meaning behind the Christmas wreath, and how they were once made in Roman times to symbolize victory and conquering in life, but how now they remind us that Jesus conquers all. I hide Trader Joes wreath cookies around our house for them to find or we do a wreath craft together (Christmas wreath crafts for kids).

Wreaths were a part of clothing for ancient Rome. Laurel wreaths were used by military and public officials in parades. Wreaths made out of olive leaves were worn by consuls and senators. During a period of the ancient Roman civilization, it was a custom for soldiers rescued from a siege to present a wreath made of grass to the commander of the rescuing force. In Christianity, the wreath represents the resurrection of Christ and therefore eternal life, more appropriately the victory of life over death. The crown of thorns was placed on the Head of Jesus at His execution by crucifixion and became a symbol of the Passion.

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Jesus is what Matters in this season…more than all the trimmings. 

“Let’s put on our jammies and make puppy chow…it’s time for Snoopy and Lucy and Charlie Brown. Let’s watch the real meaning of Christmas unfold- on national TV for the world to behold.”

This year I bought them Peanuts jammies from Target because I LOVE the Charlie Brown Christmas story that much. But we always have a Candlelight Christmas Tea Party in our pj’s, make puppy chow, and watch the Charlie Brown Christmas movie because it’s so incredibly good and tells the Christmas story in the most believable and beautiful way.

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Jesus Calls us to create beauty, because He is the maker of beauty.

“Break out the crayons, yarn, scissors, and glue, Today we make Christmas crafts, to enjoy all the year through.”

We like to read the first chapter of The Jesus Storybook Bible and talk about Jesus’ Creator-heart and all of the good things He made both at the foundation of the world and in our lives today. Then we do some sort of Christmas craft, usually something I find in the Target dollar bin, or something simple I find on Pinterest. There are SO many cool ones and the kids really like these to keep from year to year, or to give their art to others as a gift.

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Jesus is the Joy in the Journey to Bethlehem.

“Pack up your bags and bundle up tight, Onward we journey to Bethlehem tonight.”

Every year we chose a local hike.  We pack a picnic of beef jerky and dried fruit, make the kids carry literally everything, and then hike around just long enough for everyone to be a little tired, and a little muddy, and LOT over the journey. We find a quiet spot to read the Christmas story, and to talk about what it was like for Mary and Joe to have to travel all the way to Bethlehem in such difficult conditions. Then we pray and thank God that He guided them safely on their journey and us safely to Him. We’ve done it every year, even the years I was eight months pregnant, and it’s my very fave.

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Jesus is Still the Reason for this whole crazy season.

“Amidst all the tinsel and holly and lights, it’s easy to lose sight of that dark Christmas night. When angels and shepherds and wise men drew near, to focus on Jesus just as we do each year. Let’s stop and bask in the wonder of this night, so it’s simple magic is remembered just right.”

This is a great night to do a Nativity Craft, have a special Nativity breakfast-for-dinner, or read the Christmas story one more time. We have lots of good Christmas story books…our Little Golden one from 1952 is my favorite. There are so many cool nativity crafts online (Nativity crafts for kids) and this is a simple way to reset our hearts for Christmas Eve. 

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Jesus is the Life we celebrate today. (December 24th)

“And now at last, It’s finally here, Let’s sing “Happy Birthday” and gather near, Jesus has come, Joy to Behold! Let’s celebrate the best story ever told!”

Bake Jesus a birthday cake and celebrate that tomorrow is Christmas Day!

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Dear Broken Me,

Today marks the five year anniversary of the worst day of my life. I didn’t even want to write this post, but I knew that if I didn’t write today, I would never write again. I promised myself when I began this blog that, since writing was one of the only ways available on this wretched earth for me to love my baby boy…I would take it. Even if I only wrote one post a year, every year on Charlie’s birthday. So here I am putting in my one post a year, and dreading it with every fiber of my being.

I thought about what would possibly, in even some small way, help the devastated humans who visit this page, whose hearts are as equally broken as mine, because they too had to endure the heart-wrenching, soul-altering trauma of out-living their own child’s life. Then I thought of what I wished I had been told on January 28th, 2013, during those first horrific hours of waiting in the hospital room for the birth of a baby who had already died. I thought of what I needed to hear then, and knew what I needed to say now.

Dear broken Me,

5 years later, this is what grief will be like.

You will still be broken.

In the darkness of our hospital room, as we wept silently, and waited for hours in the darkness for Charlie’s tiny body to be taken out of mine, I remember turning to Reid at one point and whispering, “Are we going to be ok?” I’m not even sure what I was asking exactly. It was like we were two people emerging from ground zero of an atomic bomb that had just destroyed our entire lives. Surrounded by flying debris, blinking into the blinding light, and bleeding from gaping wounds so deep it literally took our breath away all I could think to ask was, “Are we even alive? And are we going to be ok?”  It’s like I needed assurances that at the end of all of this there would still be… life. I distinctly remember thinking, “I can’t do this. I need to know that we can endure this hell on earth, and still come out on the other side.” So, dear broken me…Yes, you will be ok, and No, you won’t be. Because the “you” who walked into this hospital room late last night, is gone permanently. Take one long last look; your life as you knew it is officially over.

Five years later, you will still feel as if a part of your heart has been amputated, and there will be real and lasting pain. You will still weep constantly throughout the last week of every stinking January. You will still sometimes, be hit by waves of searing pain on moments like Christmas Eve, and special family adventures, and whenever you hear his name…pain that comes on so sudden that you can’t even breathe. You will still feel the acute agony of life without him, and the impact of this incalculable loss on every aspect of your life. You will still miss him so much that you will want Heaven, more than Earth, on almost any given day, but… you will be alive.

You will still miss him, every moment of every day, and his birthday week will be a reminder of this horror every year of your life. 

This week is hung like a shadow over each new year, and each end of January is a lousy reminder of what I was doing five years ago when we were still happy. It was those last fleeting moments of happy, stacked on January 24th, 25th, 26th, and the worst, the morning of the 27th…when the innocence and naieteve of the “life-is-basically-good” mentality hadn’t yet been beaten from our lives. Now, I hate those days. “The last moments we were happy” are hellish days, and we relive them every January, right before we relive the other days…the 27th, 28th, and 29th, which truly were the worst days of our lives as we were thrown at the ground zero our own story. Yes, we feel the loss of Charlie’s presence, and the loss of a life spent knowing and loving our brown-haired baby boy every single day, but his birthday week is a special kind of affliction, because we have to relive the agony of his death (which also happens to be his birthday) and there is absolutely no escape. And then, Fred’s birthday is the very next day. Yes, I hate the complexity of this week, and I wish I could have warned the new broken me how unbearably hard this week would always be.

You will feel further from him than you ever have, and yet be closer to meeting him than you’ve ever been.

Sometimes, I still wake up and wonder, Did ALL of that suffering actually happen to us? Did I actually give birth to a full-term baby named Charlie who looks exactly like Freddo, and could have grown up in our arms if only he had lived during that fateful January? I still feel the emotional, spiritual, and psychological disorientation of loss, upon loss, upon loss, and the sorrow of a story I wouldn’t have wished upon my worst enemy, and yet God wrote and chose for our lives. And yet sometimes, the whole trauma feels so very bad, and so very long ago, that it’s hard to fully grasp that it is in fact MY life. I know that, five years ago today, I really did sit in that dark room, and hold our tiny boy as my tears poured down his face. But five years seems like a eternity in suffering years, and sometimes it feels like that moment of holding him and loving him and knowing him in even some small way, is very, very far away.  As my friend Catherine once said to me, when I was still very new to this Coffin Ship of grief,

“Misty, you are suffering the death of your son. And despite your desperation, you are on a boat moving further and further from the shoreline of that day and one day the shoreline will not be visible. But the hope that we have is that we are moving from that which is broken and dead and horrible and moving toward that which is perfect and permanent. You are moving forward, moving closer every second of every day, toward the perfected Charlie. You are actually moving toward him. It is true, you will stand for a long time at the back of the boat and stare at the shoreline until it is gone. That is the way of grief. But at some point, your heart will want to turn fully, and you will walk to the front of the ship and perch yourself there, scanning the horizon for your baby boy who is being held right now by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That is longing for heaven. That is what God tells us to do. To long for our perfected life when we are with Him.”

I vividly remember reading those words during that first year of grief and thinking, “Clearly, I am still very much at the back of this boat.” But now, five years later, I feel like my heart is drawn far more to the moment when I will finally get to be with him again, than the moment I last held Charlie in my arms. I don’t know how long I will be stuck on this boat, craning to see heaven’s shores, but suddenly that day seems closer than Charlie’s birthday, even if it is still decades away.

God will still be good and you will still be you, but neither of you will look ANYTHING like you do in this hospital room today.

I wish someone would have warned me how much everything was going to change. I don’t even recognize the person I was on Charlie’s day of birth, five years ago today.  Sure, we were brave. But we had to be. We were thrown into the depths of suffering, and there was absolutely no escape. Giving birth without a working epidural, with nurses who didn’t even care enough to be in the room, and a heart so broken I could barely even function…took an inhuman amount of courage and faith. And I sincerely believe that the Lord carried us through every hellish moment of that impossible day.

But we were largely running on fumes and faith. WE HAD NO IDEA that the next five years would look eerily similar to the unspeakable fear we felt that day. We didn’t understand that not just that hospital room, but our entire lives were about to become a constant battle to trust in a God who suddenly didn’t seem “entirely” safe, and to live within a body that was too sick and broken to carry life. We had no idea that it truly would be “fight or die,” every moment of every day, as a very real battle was being fought in the heavenlies over the souls of our entire family. We were just trying to survive a horrible moment, not fully understanding that it was not so much a sprint, but rather a marathon of Suffering we were facing. I wish I had known that the soul within me was going to be permanently wrecked and altered and reborn through suffering in every possible way, and that the man beside me was about to be changed just as drastically. We are not the same people, and though we are better in many significant ways, we simply aren’t who we once were, before who were were was decimated by suffering, and there is loss even in that.

Most of all, I wish I had known that our understanding of the character of the God we were clinging to, would be as altered as the broken souls who were doing the clinging. Our cord of three strands was about to have the world’s worst thrown at it, and to be tested with every possible form of suffering, from the loss of our health, the loss of everything we owned, the fear of more death, the reality of more graves, and most of all…the shaking of the foundations of our faith. It would have been nice to have a little heads up that the Lord Almighty, the New Broken Misty, and the New, Equally-Broken Reid were about to look so drastically different that we would barely even recognize them today, and that I would need to meet each one of them all over again in entirely new ways. So dear broken me, say your goodbyes.

You will find joy.

Really, really wish someone could have mentioned this to the broken me. I know that only the Lord knows the future, and anyone who promises joy apart from Him is foolish at best, and cruel at worst, but I wish God had told me that there would still be moments of genuine joy in our new life.

Joy, when God reveals glimpses of His heart to me, so profound that I had NEVER seen it to this magnitude in the old, “mostly happy” life I had before Charlie died.

Joy, as I held the miracle of Finn’s life in my arms, and looked into his baby blue eyes, even though we had absolutely no sane reason left to hope for a rainbow baby.

Joy, that Emma would chose to share about her baby brother and the sadness of this week with her entire fifth grade class, even though I could NEVER have done that in middle-school, and she is just plain crazy-brave.

Joy, that the future of this world is filled with a shocking number of fifth graders who actually know how to respond with true empathy.

And joy, that even now, as I sit here contemplating how much I HATE this week, and how much I wish my five-year-old Charlie was here, and how completely differently I would have written the story if the writing had been left to me…even so, there are moments of true joy as we stand on this side of the boat looking forward to Eternity.

As Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote so poignantly, after the death of his own son, “Sometimes I think that happiness is over for me. I look at photos of the past and immediately comes the thought: that’s when we were still happy. But I can still laugh, so I guess that isn’t quite it. Perhaps what’s over is happiness as the fundamental tone of my existence. Now sorrow is that. Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea.”

The fundamental sea surrounding our existence was forever altered by the news of Charlie’s death on January 27th, 2013, and it will always be different now, this side of eternity. But on this long journey there, we have indeed sailed by genuine islands of unexpected, God-ordained Joy, and it is that joy that keeps us going.

But in the end, perhaps the thing I would have most wanted the fragile, broken me to know five years ago today is that…

Waiting isn’t easy.

Actually, waiting just plain sucks, because waiting magnifies whatever is already true, like staring at a roaring waterfall when you’re so thirsty you think you might actually die. This half of a decade has by far been the darkest and hardest and longest years of my life. I hate waiting to know my own son. l hate watching my other children suffer the lifelong sorrows of missing out on life with half of their siblings. I hate the constant fears that now lick at our heals like hot fire, since most of our fears are sadly not even “catastraphizing” nearly as much as they are admitting the horrors that have already happened, and fighting daily the fear of it happening all over again. Most days, I hate that we are on this boat at all, looking forward with such anticipation to a redemption, and a Forever chapter that has already been promised and waited for, but is still probably a long-time in coming.

However,

Dear totally incapacitated, forever-altered, completely broken Me…

The wait has not been in vain.

Keeping fighting the fight to be human, in this awful place of sin and sorrow and suffering that was not meant to permanently house humanity. Keep staring at the beautiful horizon of the future, desperately trying to get to know the God- and the humans- who were alone in that dark hospital room with you on the worst day of your life. Keep living for that better Day, knowing that the one thing we have going for us in the midst of a truly horrific story, is that this is not the ending.

And a good one is still coming. Someday, your Savior will reign supreme. The islands of sorrow will finally be eradicated for all time, and joy will be the whole dear Sea.

I know that these foundational truths have in fact always been true, and believing this reality is actually the redemptive hope for every human story. But it was my precious son, Charlie James Zeller, born into the arms of Jesus on the morning of January 28th, 2013, whose life made it all poignantly and irrevocably real to me. And I am deeply grateful for his legacy. His was one of the shortest lives in human history, and yet, Charlie’s being has had the most profound impact on mine.

Happy Birthday, baby boy. I love you dearly, and look to the horizon, waiting for the day I will see your perfect face, and finally, properly celebrate your incredible life.

 

 

 

 

 


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365.

It’s been exactly 365 days since I last wrote on this page. All I remember of Charlie’s birthday a year ago, was the moment the five of us found ourselves sitting together on the couch, looking at Charlie’s baby book…and weeping uncontrollably. That was last January 28th, and ever since- I have been dreading what was coming in 365 days.

Over the last year many people have written and asked if I would update the blog and share a little of what was happening with our family.  Honestly, I just couldn’t.  And if today wasn’t our sweet Charlie’s birthday, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have written today either. It’s not that I’ve had nothing to say, it has just felt too incredibly difficult to get all the things swirling around inside of me, unto the pages outside.

In the years since Charlie’s death I have thought countless times about the words C.S. Lewis wrote after his wife died: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.  I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.”  And in the last four years, hellish years filled loss upon loss, as we lost first Charlie, and then two more babies, and then everything we owned, and then finally, the hope of ever again having another baby and a different ending to the story…in all those years C.S. Lewis’ words have resonated true to me.  Grief did feel an awful lot like fear, and I did feel so overwhelmingly fearful at times.  Afraid of more loss.  Afraid of a world that could get this dark and scary.  Afraid of a God who would let it.  Afraid of being this completely out of control of my own story.

And then, we came to 365 days before today.  In January of 2016, I was the very sickest I had ever been.  Our environmental doctor had made it clear to us from the very moment we left the Mold House that it would likely take, “Three to five years to truly feel healthy again.”  From the moment she said those words- we planned on five years, and prayed for three years, and secretly hoped it would take even less time.

Because more than anything in all the world, I so badly wanted to give birth to another living, breathing baby.  I so desperately wanted to hear a baby’s first cries of life…instead of the devastating silence that we had experienced on Charlie’s birthday. I desperately wanted my children to know that sometimes, even after all the “No’s,” God in His infinite sovereignty also choses to say, “Yes.” And far more even than wanting a baby, I desperately wanted the miracle the baby would mean.  But as much as I wanted another baby, I wasn’t about to try to conceive again now that we finally knew why three babies in a row had died in my body.  I wasn’t willing to risk it, until I was absolutely sure my body was healthy, and I hadn’t been anywhere near healthy since the moment we moved out of that abyss of death that stole so very much from our lives.  Which is probably why I felt such despair one year ago today.  Even now, as I read over the last post I wrote, I can feel the deep despair of wanting a baby and not even being able to try. 365 days ago, I was almost certain that another baby would never ever be.

And last year, on this very day, as I sat in the hopelessness of a story I did not want to be living, I had to tell myself the very same thing I told myself in the hospital on the day we found out Charlie had died: “Your life is about one thing and one thing alone: To know God, and make Him known.” Because anytime I have ever wanted it to be about “more than” or “other than” that- the depths of our endless suffering, the despair of this broken world, and the certainty of death that awaits absolutely everybody, simply became too much to bear, and all I wanted to do was drive into incoming traffic.  Not literally, but soul-fully.

There have been so many times since Charlie’s death where I have felt despair set in, and the only thing that made sense of the suck of this earth, and gave meaning to each long day- was the simple reminder of those words- words that give purpose even when absolutely nothing is as you want it to be. And so, last year I dragged my soul through yet another heinous birthday spent apart from our precious Charlie, fighting through each breath to “know Him and make Him known,” and fighting to accept all over again, the hardest thing I have ever had to accept: that God alone writes the story.

And then, something happened that I absolutely did not see coming.  A twist in the story.

God Himself…turned the page.

I don’t know why, or how, or exactly even when, but sometime between Charlie’s birthday and Easter of 2016, God moved my body to heal in ways it hadn’t up to that point, and He moved my soul to ask the question I had basically given up on asking, “Father God, would you give us another baby?”  

One week later, the God of the universe wrote another baby into our story.

And from the moment I saw that little pink line, I realized that the whole C.S. Lewis thing about grief-being-like-fear, needed to be thrown straight out the window…because I had never, ever, ever been so afraid.  I know that every loss is filled with terror, but having a full-term still birth is a particularly terrifying kind of loss because if you ever again want to have a different ending to the story- you have to relive every moment of another pregnancy not knowing what the next ending will be.  And I had already done that. Twice. But I had never been pregnant since we moved out of the Mold House, and in the back of my mind I lived with the nagging fear/hope/uncertainty of what might be if we finally tried to have a post-Mold House baby.  And all of that uncertainty, was just plain terrifying.

Which is probably why I couldn’t blog about it.  I could barely even talk about it as I lived it all out in real time.  Grief brings with it this awful feeling of finality.  Grief is: simply put, the worst thing that could ever happen to you- actually happening.  And then learning to live with that 365 days a year- for the rest of your life.  But fear, is so very different than grief, because fear is present.  Fear is: that the worse thing that could ever happen to you, could still happen to you- at any moment in time.  And suddenly, as Finn’s tiny body grew slowly inside of mine, “grief” felt absolutely nothing like fear. Because, let’s be honest, C.S. Lewis had never had a living, desperately loved and longed for, baby die in his body.  Let alone three.  And though having to put Charlie’s tiny body into a dark hole in the earth was by far the most difficult thing we have ever had to do…carrying his baby brother Finn through the longest nine months of our lives was by far the most scary.  Scary for me, scary for Reid, and especially scary for the little people in our lives.

And I simply couldn’t write about it.  I couldn’t put words to what it felt like to fear every moment of every day, and way too many sleepless nights- that another baby was going to die in my body.  I couldn’t put to words what it felt like to walk into a room and find my six-year-old son vacuuming.  And to ask him, “Freddo, what in the world are you doing?” And to live in the heartbreak of his reply, “I’m vacuuming mommy, because I don’t want you to have to do it, because I really really want to live life with this baby.” I couldn’t put to words what it felt like to see my children’s tears, as they too lived through each long day fearing for this new baby’s life.

And I most definitely couldn’t put to words what it felt like to spend more time thinking about where we might have to bury this new baby, than thinking about all of the things we would have to do for him if by some miracle Finn actually came home to live with our family.  There was no “nesting.”  There was no baby shower.  There was absolutely no dreaming, only very, very fragile hoping.  And when we drove to the hospital before Finn was born- we brought nothing.  No car seat, no pacifiers, no going home outfit.  We left for the hospital with one thing and one thing alone, the almost minute-by-minute reminder to one another and to our kids that, “Life is about knowing God, and making Him known.”  End. Of. Story.  Because God alone makes Himself known, by writing every line of every page, and we simply cannot hope, or pray, or “good-decisions” ourselves into the ending of our choosing.

And until the moment we held our sweet Finn Isaac alive and well in our arms, I held my longing for the story of Finn’s life more loosely than I have ever held anything.  Like Abraham, trudging up that terrifying hill with his precious Isaac, we too trudged through nine months of pregnancy, holding Finn’s story with open hearts and shaking hands. I wanted him to live, more than I had ever wanted anything.  I wanted it for our kids, and I wanted it for Reid, and I wanted it for me.  But more than anything, I wanted it for God’s glory.  I desperately wanted for God to make Himself known to me, as the one who chose to write a different ending to this story.  And chapters later, we are so deeply grateful for the joy of Finn’s life.

It is hard to write about Finn on Charlie’s special day.  I have wrestled constantly with the tension I feel in my heart of waiting for nine long months for Charlie to come home to live with our family, and instead bringing home a different baby boy. I have struggled with how to love Charlie now that he is four years-gone from our lives.  And last night, as we once again found ourselves sitting on the couch weeping…this time a little baby boy was also nestled in my arms and crying along with the rest of the family.  Of course, Finn was crying because he was hungry, and it will be years upon years before he will truly understand why every 365 days on the dot, we cry over Charlie’s life.  But I am learning that I cannot escape the reality that Finn’s and Charlie’s lives are deeply intertwined.  They are different chapters of the same long story: The story of God’s glory.

I am also learning very slowly, one birthday at a time, that God is not less glorified through Charlie’s life spent in heaven, than of Finn’s miraculous life on earth.  Because in the midst of all of the ache over the loss of Charlie’s life- the one thing that has gotten me through each long day since the day he died…is maybe even more true of Charlie’s life than it has ever been of mine: Charlie lives to know God and make Him known.  He is with Him.  He who was born into His very arms.  Charlie knows God in a way I can only dream of and wait with longing to finally know Him Someday.  In the end, Charlie has what I can only desperately pray for each one of my kids on earth to have someday: unbroken fellowship for all eternity with the God who wrote their story.

To know God and to make Him known– that is the heart of Charlie’s story. And more than anything in all of my life, more than marriage, more than being a mother to living children, more than being a missionary- Charlie’s life has made God known to me.  Because Charlie’s life has given me the greatest gift of all: A longing for Heaven, and a genuine longing for the rest of the story.

I long for heaven now in a new way, not just to be with Charlie, but because in losing him we learned that this life has absolutely nothing on Eternity.  Charlie’s death made this life look so… small.  Small, and uninviting, and empty, and ugly, and it has made knowing God and making Him known the best and sometimes only good thing in this life some days.  And that is actually as it should be.  Louis Armstrong can keep his song about “What A Wonderful World.” The truth is that the world is actually filled with infinite pain. And last night, as our precious Emma held Charlie’s picture in her arms and wept like no nine-year-old should ever have to weep, empty words about how “wonderful” this life is- simply wouldn’t suffice.

Because when life actually hits you, when you can no longer run from a world where children get cancer, and marriages crumble, and in our case- babies die, when some of life’s universal pain actually happens to you, and not just to a friend of a friend on Facebook, it is no longer such a “wonderful world.”  Life suddenly only has meaning if you are living to know God and make Him known. And four years ago today, life suddenly, and permanently became merely a stepping stone to a far better place that feels far too long in coming, but coming just the same.

Which reminds me of something else C.S. Lewis said that I can still relate to as I sit here on another birthday, sobbing as I type…“And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen…”

All this time, I had thought I was waiting for another baby, but it turns out what I was really waiting for…was Eternity.

We love Charlie, and we miss him deeply. We still spend 365 days a year, longing for a life together that is still coming. We also love Finn, and treasure every unexpectedly wonderful moment we have been given with him on this side of eternity.  And at the same time, our life is still broken and messy and far more complicated than I would like.  I still feel completely stuck and confused and sad and angry whenever someone asks me how many kids I have, or why there’s a five year gap between Finn and Sophie. But those same kids are teaching me so much about what living in the midst of a story of suffering should look like, as they grow into the people God has written them to be. The other day, I looked over and saw Sophie standing right over Finn, squishing his cheeks in her hands, and breathing germs all over the place.  I was about to yell at her to, “back it up lady” when I heard her whisper softly into Finn’s face…

“Finn, you have to love God and Jesus more than you love me.  That’s the only way to love God at all. OK?”

And it took my breath away. Little Sophie, who still bites Fred when she’s angry- living to know God and make Him known, and teaching her baby brother to do the same.  Little Sophie, full of temper tantrums and flawed five-year-old theology, offering genuine words to live by.  Words, meant for every last one of us.  365 days of the year.  Words that transcend circumstances, that give hope and meaning to every single one of the years 365 days, whether those days are spent in a hospital room cuddling a cooing newborn, or standing beside a baby-sized grave.  I know now that whatever God has written for the story, the parts that I like, and the lines and pages and chapters that I still absolutely hate, the goal remains the same:  To know Him and make Him known, and to love Him most, so that I can love Him at all.

For someday, every single one of my kids will leave this world for eternity.  And my life will either have been spent loving them, and living to know them and make them known, or loving Him and living for Him alone.  It will either be spent on empty things, and filled with empty when every one of life’s treasures finally disappoint, or living in light of the the tomb that was empty.  And for a God who shockingly wrote a cross of suffering and an empty tomb- right into the world’s most important Story.

As I think back on Easter 2016, and the week that little Finn first came into our lives- I vaguely remember the cold Easter ham I made that day, and the Easter baskets filled with leftover Halloween candy.  Those moments are just a blur though.  I do however, vividly remember the moment last Easter when our family of five sat squished in the darkness of our windowless kitchen pantry, during yet another one of my wacky, “teachable-moment-ideas.” I had wanted our kids to feel the darkness of the tomb. I wanted them to sit in its darkness together, and then to feel the hope of suddenly being brought into the Easter Sunday light.  And as we sat there in the darkness, I got out five of those colorful plastic eggs, and each one of us wrote something on a piece of a paper to hide inside the empty egg.  Just as Jesus was hidden in the darkness of the tomb.  Just as the darkness of despair fell over all the land the moment the world’s Savior died.  Just as the disciples had felt the empty in their hearts at needing God to do something only God could do on that day.  I told them to chose something that felt hopeless and empty and too hard to even trust Him for, because we were going to write it down, and hide it in our eggs, and trust Him for it anyways.

Because if it isn’t big enough that it is actually hard to trust Him for it, is it really trust at all?  After all, “You can’t be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you.”  And if that is true, we’ve had an awful lot of moments to be brave.  And so, last Easter we filled those colorful, empty eggs with all of our empty, and the brave things that we desperately longed for God to do.  And it felt brave to even ask Him for such things.

And then, exactly nine months later, on the week Finn was born, Reid opened his Easter egg and showed me what he had written and hidden in there last Easter Sunday…

“Another baby boy.”

I can’t believe he really wrote that.  Reid, who grieves each day over the loss of our precious ones.  Reid, who sometimes holds Finn in his arms, and weeps right unto his sweet, balding baby head, over all of the moments lost with the ones who came before his life.  Reid, who lived bravely with a very scared and deeply scarred wife, through each terrifying day of Finn’s pregnancy.  Reid, who has stood over three buried babies, and still had the courage to ask for what we were most afraid of losing all over again: Another precious baby with a different name.

And the God who walked with us through every long day of each of the year’s 365, chose in that one singular moment of time to make Himself known to us by saying “Yes” to that longed-for story written in that Easter egg.  And guess what? The same exact thing was written inside of mine.

I still wish Charlie was here.  I still can’t believe that Finn actually is.  The whole entire story is becoming so complex amidst so many layers of fear and hope, and sorrow and joy, and Here and Eternity, that I am starting to have trouble even feeling all the feelings.  But I can say again, what I clung to 365 days ago, and the 365 days before that, and the 365 before that, and the very hardest ones before that…that life is about knowing God and making Him known, and we trust Him for one reason alone…because the tomb was empty.

Happy Birthday, to our precious Charlie James.  Thank you for teaching me more than anyone ever has, about the God who reigns over all of the empty.  My sweet boy, I think of you 365 days of the year, and I can’t wait for my last one here, and my first one with you There.  Until then, I will follow in the beautiful example that your life has been to me of living to know God and make Him known in my imperfect ways here on earth, just as you get to do so perfectly in Eternity.  And I will cling to the words of your spicy big sister…and live to love God most.

One long day at a time.  For 365 days a year.  Until finally, there are no more days.

 


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Three.

It’s raining today.  Which is unremarkable, here where it rains most every day.  But sometimes, just sometimes, the rain feels less like a meteorological event, and more like tears from the sky.

Today, is a tears day.

I look out a window, at the towering pines behind our home, and watch the sky weep.  And tonight, as the clock ticks on toward that fateful moment between 11:59 of one birthday and 12:00 of the next, more tears will fall.  And even though I hate everything about this story, and certainly the timing of this pain, this is and will always be: The birthday week of our boys.  Our sons’ birthdays.  Which feels hard to even say, because I never ever use the term, “our sons’.”  I have absolutely no reason to.  They never got to be together in any way, except for one- our sons share this week.  The best week of our lives…and the worst week.  The moment I held Freddo in my arms and turned to Reid and said, “We have a son.” And then, the moment exactly three years later…when I held Charlie in my arms, and wept in the silence and stillness of the kind of hospital room that should never, ever be.

The other day Freddo asked me if all babies cry when they are born.   As my mind flashed back to the utter silence of our birth room, I looked at his big brown eyes filled with questions and concern, and tears filled mine. He’s been asking lots of questions like this lately.  Some of his questions are because, seriously…he is a brilliant little being. Like the other day when he asked me, “Mom, do identical twins have a “split-wire” placenta,” followed by a peppering of questions about the exact nature of “the sack” where babies are carried by their mommies. I’m trying to keep up with our little Doogie Howser MD, but honestly, I’d rather play legos…than fight to sort out these mysteries of life.  And so, we sort while we play.

Some of these questions, are because of our story.  Questions that most children will never have to think through and ask…ours do.  Questions about cemeteries, and procreation, and suffering.  This last fall, after a solid week of Emma’s incredibly deep, excruciatingly painful questions about the cause of suffering, I finally just broke down and told her the whole story of Job and his family.  Not the cutesy, children’s-Bible version…the real thing.  I figured if she has to be in a Job story, she deserves to know the truth about these things.

I know our children are suffering, and in ways even deeper than they did in the days that  followed January 28th, 2013. They are reliving our story, through eyes that can finally see and hear and feel the pain.  And in that, there is new pain. When we lost Charlie, it was the most agonizing sorrow of our entire lives.  The actual person of Charlie, gone forever from our story.  His little hands.  His sweet cheeks.  His name, and narrative, and uniquely-fashioned soul…irreplaceable in every way.  But in that very moment, we also lost the hope of Charlie…the hope of having a baby brother exactly three years younger than his hero Freddie.

And eventually, slowly, in future moments, written on pages deeper into the story…we also lost the hope of anybody.  For some people who lose a child, they get to have more.  They will never replace the unique person lost…but they do get to replace the hope of having a new little person join their lives.  The hope of having a different ending to the story.  The hope of a rainbow, and not just this endless, drowning rain.

And then, we lost that hope too, as baby after baby died.  The one we wanted and what we wanted, gone forever on the same day. Both losses horrific, and both needing to be grieved.  And though we big people suffered through the loss of all of that at once…I realize now, that our little people have only truly grieved the first thing.  Now as they grow, they are beginning to grieve the entire package of our suffering. And though I have tried fervently to protect them from the depths of our pain, by talking about Charlie mostly only when they initiate, this is the first year where they are beginning to lead us into the pain.

At least once a week, usually while we are playing together in his room, Fred will ask me, “Mommy, if Charlie were here…how old would he be?”  This is the question he asks when he is lonely.  When the girls are in the other room playing dolls or Nail Salon, and he is alone, in the quiet of his bedroom…another silent room much like that hospital room from three years ago tonight.  Another room I had thought would be filled with Charlie’s life and cries and joy and voice…but isn’t.  Freddo is alone in his room, and in that silence, the questions come.  And I say, “Well, if Charlie were here, he would be almost three.”  And then we both sit there, silent again, with our Lego creation growing between us and our hearts breaking inside.  Both thinking of what it would be like to have the daily joy of a wild and wonder-filled, three-year-old-boy who looks just like Freddo, tearing into his precious things, and driving him bat-crazy.  And…hugging him tight at night.  And…asking for another bedtime story.  And…filling this death-ache with life.

I know just how deeply he is hurting right now, because our Freddo is generally regarded by all who know him, as one positive little fellow.  In a childhood filled with the darkest storms, he has had a remarkable ability to see silver linings.  And yet, there is a sadness creeping in, that is real and completely reasonable, and so deeply devastating.  Like the other night, when he asked me again how old Charlie would be and what crazy, little-brother things he would be doing. We chatted a while longer about several other I-don’t-want-to-go-bed-so-I’m-stalling-type-things, and then he leaned back into his pillows, and said softly, almost to himself, “I have had such a hard life.  I have lost my little brother.”  And suddenly, it didn’t feel like 1,096 long days ago, it felt like Charlie died yesterday.

And in those moments, days when I might have even been having an “Ok-I’m-almost-surviving-the-suck-that-is-our-life”-kind of day…suddenly I am so not ok.  Because half my children are dead in the ground, and the other half are hurting. Deeply.  And I can’t take any of it away.

He doesn’t know how much it hurts my mommy heart to see his grief, and I don’t want him to, because my greatest fear is that the grief would be buried, and that he would learn to manage his pain in an attempt to manage mine.  Or even worse- that our kids would learn, through our response to their grief and pain- that grief is not ok.  That the unspoken sorrows of death, and suffering, and unanswered prayers, are taboo subjects on this long road called life.  And then, they would become so, so…American.  They would become the kind of people, who most hurt us in our grief.  The kind of people I still fear we will someday be…people who can’t live in pain.  People ill-equipped for this spinning sphere we’re all stuck on- where everybody dies and every life is brimming over with seen and buried pain.  And since I am more terrified of that, than even of suffering…we sit in grief together, and ride the waves of one another’s pain, as the sea billows roll right over our kid’s souls and stories, just as they crash on forever in Reid’s and mine.

Our children couldn’t possibly understand the new kind of hurt I feel, foreign in nature and yet familiar in agony, as I watch them relive my grief in their own tender lives.  In those moments, I suddenly feel very, very old, and akin to God’s Father heart in a new way: The pain of watching as your child is suffering.  I’ve heard He knows a thing or two about that kind of pain.  I’ve heard He wrote the Book on it.  And as today marks three horrifically long years spent being His children in suffering, somehow, in the midst of this, I am beginning to see God’s heart in new ways.  How small I am as his child, and how little I really know about Him.  I see this so much more clearly now, as I see myself through the new waves of grief in Fred’s life.

Because my Freddo- is the seriously the smartest little person I know, and yet you could fill a book with all he doesn’t know about…me.  He doesn’t know…that for the last month whenever he would say, “Mom! It’s almost my birthday week,”…I couldn’t even breathe.  So happy for him that his birthday was coming, and so deeply dreading the sorrow of this week.  There are limits to what my child could know of my heart and my grief…and in those limits, I see how little I must know, of what these years have been like from God’s side of the sky.  Just as I save most of my tears over Charlie, for the moments at night when our kids are asleep…does God perhaps, hide His tears from me?  Might He, maybe just maybe, be hurting for us as His children far beyond what I can see?   I don’t know.

My Freddo is seriously the most kissable little person I know.  I am absolutely convinced that his cheeks are made of a special kind of butter cream.  He knows I love him, and he knows I love to kiss him.  He doesn’t know…that he gets a double portion of my kisses each night- as I sneak into his room like a less creepy version of the “I’ll Love You Forever” lady.  He doesn’t know that I come in each night to put two extra kisses on those cheeks.  I didn’t intend to, it just happened during that first agonizing bedtime after grief, when I had to kiss someone, and my Charlie was suddenly ten billion miles from me.  But it’s got me thinking- just as I love Fred in ways He doesn’t even know because of the suffering in our lives…might He, maybe just maybe, love me in the same special way, far beyond what I can see.  I don’t know.

And my Freddo is seriously, the most affectionate person I know.  He says things that could melt pretty much anybody, and especially a very broken Mommy.  But he doesn’t know…how much his affection means to me.  Like this week when he declared, “Mommy, if you’re sick on my birthday, I’m going to cancel the whole thing.” Or how much it meant to me when he cried big crocodile tears about turning six, “Because it means that someday I’ll have to go to college and I won’t get to be with you for always!”  Fred doesn’t know how those are the moments when I feel most loved by him. He knows I love him, he just doesn’t have a clue how much his love back means to me.  And as I sit here, on this day, THE day every year when I feel the absolute least loved and cared for by God…it makes me wonder if I’m missing something.  If…might He, maybe just maybe, be moved by even my broken-version of love back to Him, far beyond what I can see. I don’t know.

All I know, is that if there are limits to what my own children can know of the depths of my love and the breadth of my grief…maybe, just maybe, there is a chasm of unknown, between my Father and me.  I look at the picture of our celebration of Charlie’s life, and I don’t feel the love.  I don’t feel cared for by God, and I certainly don’t feel lovingly carried up to this very moment in time.  I feel like we have limped here, with three blue balloons in tow, bleeding and broken, through all 1,096 days.  Even this morning, as Reid and I looked at one another and said, “I don’t think I can do this day, ” what immediately came to mind was my new version of that chipper little verse. “This is the day that the Lord has made…and so I will suffer through it.”  And I believe that.  I absolutely do.  I hate it, but I believe it.

But, I believe with all my heart that something else is also true.  That just as Freddo will fall asleep tonight and wake up to a room covered in streamers and a sea of balloons in Seahawk blue and green…other surprises have been written into the story.  Because what Freddo doesn’t know…is that we’ll be up late tonight, turning Daddy’s old t-shirt into a Jedi robe, and making the world’s most awesome Death Star cupcakes.  He doesn’t know that tomorrow he is getting his first real hiking backpack, and his first Swiss-army knife.  He doesn’t know that Daddy is taking him on a waterfall adventure, or that Mommy is planning the very best birthday breakfast surprise.  He knows almost nothing.  He just trusts me.  He simply trusts that deep down, it’s going to be a really good day and a really good life, filled with really good things, in spite of it also being a life filled with pain.

And Freddo just wants, above all else, to be in it with me.  Heck, he doesn’t even want to HAVE a birthday if I’m not coming.  And that is how my Father wants me to be.  I don’t need to apply my theological degree to this one, or even search deep in my heart through the university of suffering we have endured for the last 1,096 days…the deepest theological truth ever to be known, is already buried deep inside.

And best lived out by the little boy still in my life…

Jesus loves me.

This I know. And I don’t know much right now. Suffering and grief is messy and horrific, and in our case it seems, absolutely never-ending.  But I do know this- Freddo is right.  Just as a birthday isn’t worth having if the one who loves you most isn’t there…so too is life with God.  I have no idea where He is some days, or if He’s hearing our endless cries, or if He sees our forever pain…but if Freddo and I are any indication of what I might not know as God’s child…I’m just going to close my eyes tonight, and try desperately to be a little more like Fred and a little less like me.

And so, I will go to sleep tonight, on my least favorite day of the year, during years upon years I don’t particularly like much anyways, believing that maybe just maybe, God comes into my room, and gives me a double portion of love just as I do for my Freddie.  Even love that I cannot see.  I don’t know.  But I’m going to believe it by faith.  Until the day when we no longer have to send balloons up to the sky, and finally get to celebrate our Charlie face-to-face.

In a place of no more tears, and no more rain.

Where maybe just maybe, becomes forever and always.IMG_4748