The ongoing battle with questions of suffering…I feel raw tonight, exposed, and as tenuous as a sand sculpture.

For Christmas, Tim tracked down one of my favorite movies, Shadowlands, which tells the love story between C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham. Tim and I saw it first in 1993 and marveled at the performances by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger — so pitch perfect, so precisely consistent down to every murmur and half-gesture. It’s a terribly sad story (and a true one); Lewis married Joy knowing she was dying of bone cancer, so the story has a tragic inevitability as she declines and he grieves. That said, this isn’t a predictably manipulative film, wringing tears out if its audience for the sake of jerking us around. If anything, it presents love and life and even death as far more robust than we choose to see most of the time.

Near the end, during a brief remission from the cancer, Jack (Lewis’ nickname) and Joy take a trip through the English countryside. While they take shelter from a sudden cloudburst, Jack pronounces himself happy and says that he never wants to look around the next bend because right now is enough. But Joy forces him to remember that this moment will not last. He tells her that he’ll manage somehow and not to worry about him. So stuffy, so Oxford-don-like, so emotionally repressed — he’ll manage, he says. She smiles at him almost indulgently and says, “No. I think it can be better than that. I think it can be better than just managing.” She pauses as if trying to find the right words. “What I’m trying to say is that the pain then is part of the happiness now.” She looks up at him with the purest affection. “That’s the deal.”

These lines have stayed with me (I wonder if the real Joy Gresham ever uttered them), perhaps because I recognize a certain truth here. At the core of this life’s greatest joys is also — whether we can see its shadow like Joy did or remain completely oblivious — the spectre of loss and suffering. Because when we choose to love, we also choose to risk losing that love. This isn’t a contract that we often enter into willingly, but there’s a contract just the same. Stay with me here, because I’m not saying that we necessarily become grim about the future or mire ourselves in anxiety. That’s not what Joy or I think God is saying. I think, instead, that sometimes we are granted a glimpse — such a tiny glimpse really — at the wonder of God’s love for us, at his willingness to suffer anguish and loss on our behalf. As I or those I love suffer, I know that I cannot worship a Lord who hasn’t walked in these footsteps. If Jesus had not suffered, if God the Father had not lost the person He loved most, then what comfort could He offer any of us?

So…to put this more personally: The happiness then with my mom — summers spent together at our Lake Erie trailer, giggling into the night like school girls or picking out my wedding dress or sharing a bottle of wine at the end of the Gulf War when we realized Tim would be coming home — the happiness then is part of the pain now. And would I have chosen differently if I could have? Would I have chosen to forgo the happiness because the prospect of losing her breaks me wide open now? Of course not. That’s the deal.

And I have to believe that in God’s sovereign plan it’s not a raw deal. When we love someone well, I believe that some kind of eternal transaction has taken place — not just in terms of heaven and the future, though that’s a part of it — but love imprints itself on our spirits indelibly and becomes as real to the here and now as a limb or beating heart. Beyond that, there’s a permanency in choosing to love and be loved that so far surpasses this earthly body’s end. Surely, suffering now will be worth all that God has in store for us. I stake everything on that.

Merry Christmas Eve!

December 25, 2006

Riding home from my sister-in-law’s house after one family Christmas celebration, my son cuddled up next to me on the van seat. While I leaned my head atop of his head, I realized that perhaps Christmas will never again be exactly this kind of magic for our family. We never really intended for the kids to believe in Santa, but despite our talks about the historical St. Nick and the fun of pretending, they want to believe. And so they do. A plane flew overhead and Abby pointed it out to Dan and said, “I think that’s Rudolph.”

“Oh no, honey,” I said. “I’m pretty sure that’s just a plane.”

“No, Dan, it’s Rudolph,” Abby assured, with all of the natural authority imbued in the eight year old older sister.

“Bye Rudolph!” Dan called, choosing to believe.

Sure, I worry a bit about their coming down from belief like this. I don’t ever want them to feel like we lied. But at the same time, this magic — this joy — is something to behold. And they all get that Christmas is all about Jesus’ birthday, more than it is about lights or presents or even Santa.

The excitement in our house this evening crackles like a warm fire. My children are so blessed and probably not nearly aware enough of their blessings (are any of us, though?). How can they completely intuit that this holiday isn’t about presents when Mom spends time asking what they each desire and then shopping a whole lot? I suppose that like the Santa issue, we’ve sent them mixed messages. We tell them it’s better to give than to receive. And then? We — Tim and I, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, their friends — make sure they receive a whole lot by the time it’s all put together.

But maybe, fundamentally, Christmas is about receiving. For we must truly receive Jesus on Christmas morning and on every other day of the year as well. In fact, we’re desperate to receive if we’re honest with ourselves. If we really grasped the height and depth and breadth of God’s love for us, maybe we would go to bed each night, too excited to sleep, anticipating the good gifts He has in store the next day.

I don’t have a consistent theology here or even all the thoughts worked out in my own mind. But I know this: my children’s happiness spreads throughout this house like the best home-baked bread in the world. And there’s something holy in the purity of their joy that transcends the material stuff they get and speaks to the expectancy of awaiting our Savior.

By next Christmas I would guess that Santa may not be so foregrounded in my children’s Christmas. That particular piece of the holiday may be less shiny and full of wonder. So I pray that the real magic of Jesus shows itself all the more clearly to them tomorrow and in the coming year.

Bad Mommy, Bad Mommy

December 22, 2006

Whew…today I finished those few last minute (which unfortunately take hours because of traffic) Christmas errands for everyone and I’m officially DONE with my list — just a wee bit of wrapping to do and this Christmas is a wrap (heavens, I’m clever).

Really, though, I’ve been simply ghastly today toward my children who have done little more than have the misfortune to be born to me. How can their little idiosyncrasies make me so so angry? So angry that I’m embarrassed to admit it to others. Must.Quote.Anne.Lamott: (fyi — this is a small tic I have because she says things so much more eloquently and precisely than I ever manage.) This is from “Heat” in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts of Faith:

“If regular people spotted your hidden angry inside self, they’d draw back when they saw you coming. They would see you for what you are — human, flawed, more nuts than had been hoped — and the they would probably not want to hire or date you. Of course, people have such bit parts in your life that they’re not around to see the erratic panoply that is you. But children, my God — attending to all their needs is so physically and mentally exhausting and unrelenting that our blow-ups may be like working out cramps in our legs.”

And later when describing conflict with kids:

“All you’re aware of is the big windy gap between you, with your lack of anything left to give, and any solution whatsoever.”

Anyone know what she means?

I wanted to be a mother for as long as I can remember. I recall a conversation back in graduate school with a professor, a woman not much older than myself. At the time I was 26 and she was just past 30. I was nearing the end of my studies (an MFA in poetry) and Tim and I were planning to have kids soon after I graduated. Note: Men plan, God laughs, because for those of you who can do the math it was several years before we were blessed with first Abby and then the boys.

“So you guys plan to have kids pretty soon?” she asked me.

“Yeah, it’s what I’ve always really wanted. I love writing, but being a mother is my major career aspiration in all honesty.” I remember her looking at me for a long moment. This was a woman for whom writing poetry was everything, and she writes exquisite, intricate, heady poems. Her gaze was not unkind or even confused, but I could tell that her choices and my own were possibly on opposite ends of the spectrum.

“How about you and H? Do you think you’ll have children?” I asked. She and I had become close enough in working on my thesis that this question didn’t seem too intrusive.

Another pause. And then she smiled and said, “I don’t know whether we’ll have children. But if we don’t, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”

But to me? Not having children was the worst thing in the world I could have imagined. Tim and I went through a lot to have these children — a story for another day, but let’s just say needles were involved and no, twins don’t run in our family — and I wouldn’t change one blessed thing. They represent the best of what God has given us.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I realized how very difficult it would be on some days. I wish I could say that I remain in a beatific state of thankfulness, glorying God with my every parenting decision. I wish I could say that I always always know how much I love each of them, that I’m constantly making each of them feel the love in my heart. But, oh sometimes traffic is heavy and I just…suck…I bark and I growl. I pound my fist on the steering wheel. I say dismissive and cruel things. I feel hemmed in by the responsibility of always being their mother.

Back when I had that conversation with my professor, I assumed that I would somehow seamlessly blend my maternal and writing lives — I mean, of course one can be a great mother and great writer, right? Yes, the kids would always be more important, but I would easily maintain a life outside of them that included my writing.

The truth is something closer to this: my kids require daily, sometimes minute by minute laying down of my life and my desires. I am so much less important than they are. And I’m not saying that as a martyr or a doormat or someone who believes that my own needs don’t matter. The God-given reality of the situation: the kids don’t give a rat’s ass if I ever publish a book, but they sure as heck care if I’m here, if I’m available to them physically and emotionally, if I minister Jesus’ love to them, if I put their many needs before my own. That’s what being a mother is. And it’s not to say I can’t be a writer (or a trapeze artist or a secretary or a pharmacist) too — but it’s a matter of remembering the priorities and being willing to die to my own selfish desires to make my life work the way I want all the time.

Unfortunately for my selfish side, this is an entirely Biblical concept. See Romans 6, just for openers.

Luckily, we have a very good heavenly Father who knows us so thoroughly that He often lets us have more than one gift. He is not stingy with His gifts. It seems very possible that in a heavenly box that bears my name, there is plenty of provision for me: for strength to be a better mother tomorrow — for thankfully, His mercies are new each day. And there may just be some provision for my writing as well. He’s a good Dad that way, you know?

I ran into my professor at a local mall recently. Though her eyes flicked over me with a sense of almost-recognition, it’s been twelve years since we’ve spoken and while she was my one professor, I was one of many many students. She and H are divorced and she is in another relationship — to my knowledge, she has no children. I know that she continues to write lovely poems and I wish her the very best. But I wouldn’t trade places with her for anything in the world.

Sometimes, I swear that God allows sickness to come upon me to slow-me-the-heck-down. I felt so mad at Him Monday night when it was clear that illness was descending upon me like a sudden thunderstorm. “Can’t you cut me a break?” I whined at Him, in the car on the way home from celebrating Christmas with my friend, Kathryn. If He replied, I couldn’t hear Him through my coughing. I went to bed that night and awoke the next morning all angsty and pissed at the world…went to the doctor who gave me an (another stronger) antibiotic and some good cough medicine. The sweet nurse at the office told me, “Honey, you’re just plain worn out. You have to get some rest these next few days.”

Tim stayed home Wednesday and got to be Daddy at the school Christmas parties, which actually entertained both him and the kids. I stayed home and slept and coughed and read. Today, my friend, Tracy, took the kids out and ran errands (a brave woman, certainly) while I stayed home and slept and coughed (a little less) and read. My friend, Deneen, keeps offering to help…and again, I realized that I’m pretty loved. I’m not indispensable to the running of the world, you know? God and the others have managed just fine without my interference these past few days. I’ve actually had a moment or two to reflect on the holidays without simply thinking how much I have left to wrap or what last minute items I need to buy. I feel calmer. Calmer about my mom and about Christmas in general. And in those wee parts of my brain and heart where I think I sometimes hear God, He seems to be saying, “See, daughter. I know you needed this.”

Only God Almighty could redeem bronchitis.

The boys, awaiting their ride and already riding on my last nerve are rolling around the floor laughing with each other. Rob had asked me last week about Chinese restaurant appetizers. Through my haze of coughing and chills I hear them joking about a “poopy platter.” Apparently when you’re six this is uproarious.

“Guys,” I say in my most reproving mother tone, “it’s not called a ‘poopy platter.’ It’s a poo poo platter.”

Which, actually, strikes me as pretty damn funny. I start to laugh but begin a cough like someone’s grandpa that has way too much phlegm. But they saw me crack a smile.

You can shoot me now

December 19, 2006

The minutiae as it stands: I was sick. I did take an antibiotic and got somewhat better. But now? Sicker, sicker, sicker. Bronchitis maybe. Pneumonia? After I cried on the phone to the nurse who said my doctor had no openings, she called me back and I’m being squeezed in at 4:15.

My son threw a fit worthy of a toddler because his gameboy, GAMEboy I say, refused to heed his vigorous efforts at control. He sobbed, “But I’ve worked sooooo hard!” as I took it away from him.

“You worked? If you think that’s work, then we have a real problem here,” I replied. I am considering giving all his Christmas presents to a homeless shelter. Really.

I fell into a feverish sleep where I kept dreaming that I couldn’t move or wake up. I feel like I’ve been on a bad LSD trip.

I threw something lunch-ish at the boys and a friend (oh, thank you!) will pick them up to take them to school in 25 minutes. I think I will sleep all afternoon.

Pray that Tim can get home early today so I don’t have to take my offspring to the doctor, which just might endanger their thankless little lives. All 3 are so wound up about Christmas, overly tired and just plain difficult in their own particular ways. I’m supposed to be at both school Christmas parties tomorrow afternoon so I can cough up one lung in the kindergarten and one in the third grade. Super. At this point, I don’t think I’ll even be well enough to see my mom for Christmas, much less spend lovely time together.

Okay, perhaps I’m seeing it all a bit darkly right now.

Or not.

Rewrite

December 18, 2006

You know how sometimes your entire schedule of oh-so-important events can change in a moment? Something happens and you find yourself rewriting the next few days of your life.

Last night while I was out finishing Christmas shopping and doing the weekly Meijer trip (yeah, I have an exciting life — Saturday night at the grocery. It doesn’t get any better or sexier than that.), Abby fell at the bottom of the basement stairs (in a story that involves her somehow tangled up with her brother who was apparently chasing her, whereupon she hit her ankle on the door frame, she thinks??). However the injury occurred, she cried for a bit, Tim carried her upstairs and into her room. Her best friend was spending the night and the girls were playing computer games and drawing in Abby’s room when I got home.

As we unloaded the groceries, Tim told me that Abby had “banged up” her ankle and wanted to see Mommy. He had iced the ankle initially and said that it didn’t seem swollen or red at the time. So the worst was past.

Well…notsomuch.

When I entered Abby’s room I saw that she had her leg propped up on her sleeping bag. And her ankle looked like a tomato.

Rewrite!

I knew in a moment of complete clarity: we needed an X-ray, probably that night. We would not be going to church in the morning. She would not play in the park on what proved to be a beautiful spring-like afternoon. I would drive her to school Monday morning instead of sending her with our carpool friend so that I could help her with her backpack and potential crutches.

All of this has been borne out. We went to St. Ann’s (at a painful 11:45 pm with her best friend and her mom, my dear friend). Luckily, the ankle is not broken, only sprained. She’s already beginning to limp around without the crutches. She should be back to normal by the end of the week.

So not a major rewrite. Thankfully.

December 15, 2006

Relapse. Abby is studying prefixes and suffixes at school and she knows that “re” means again. And so again we head toward treatment for my mom’s cancer. Unbelievably, the James has misplaced (?) her myeloma protein count, but based on how far up her IGG monoclonal protein (oh yeah, you learn a lot of stuff you don’t want to know when someone you love is sick) climbed, the doctor believes that treatment should be imminent. So my mom makes another appointment to discuss in detail the treatment options (shouldn’t there be a better word for this than “options”?), but the probable course of treatment will be taking a drug called Revlimid. There’s a lot of stuff on the web about this drug, but this site always has the most updated, if a bit technical, information. Plus, the people there have been wonderfully helpful.

Things to be thankful for:

  • My mom still feels pretty well right now.
  • The doctor’s decision to start treatment is most certainly wise, because this cancer can take a relatively well-feeling person and turn her sick unto death in a few short months.
  • The James is as good as it probably gets (lost blood result notwithstanding). Nowhere is good when we’re talking about being treated for cancer, but new research about multiple myeloma is being conducted all the time at the James.
  • My mom’s doctor seems both sensible and kind.
  • My mom is so loved that her sister called her twice and her best friend called her twice yesterday while we all awaited the results.
  • My husband had a chance to go out and hang out with friends last night, and he opted to stay home so that he could uncork the wine bottle for me (and I’m not speaking metaphorically here!).
  • God is with us. No matter how many times I hear Immanuel this season, this fact bears repeating.
  • Lots of people are praying and I thank you guys.

When my mom first got diagnosed, I went to a cancer store at St. Ann’s Hospital to pick up bracelets for me and the kids. Tim said that he wasn’t a bracelet kind of guy, but he picked up a cap that proclaims the great truth: “Cancer Sucks.” I couldn’t have said it better.

Waiting

December 14, 2006

Feeling a sick-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach sense as I wait to hear from my mom regarding her myeloma counts. She had an appointment at the James last week where they took blood, and she should get the results today. Barring divine intervention (which we’ll take!), I anticipate that the numbers will be up (which in this case is bad) and that the doctor will probably want to pursue some treatment — I’m virtually certain of the former, not so much of the latter.

Please pray for both my parents — sometimes I think it’s actually harder to be my dad who has to stand by and be a support, all the while coping with his own fear and health issues. Pray that by some miracle the numbers are NOT up. Pray that we all remember that God is enough. Somehow, He really really is.

Thanks.

Edited to add:

Okay, I’m officially at crazy on my dial.  My mom has called the James twice.  The last time she called (around 2:30), the nurse assured her that the messages were on the doctor’s desk.  Then the nurse said, “I have the results right in front of me.  He’ll definitely want to talk to you.”  Okay, what the hell?  If she can’t tell my mom anything of substance, why say anything AT ALL????  Why taunt her?  “Nanny nanny boo boo.  I know the results and you don’t.”  I realize that she may have been trying to be helpful, along the lines of letting my mom know that the results are in and that the doctor will indeed call.  But why not just say that.

I recognize that I never got in line for optimism and probably stood in line at least twice for pessimism, but the doctor “definitely” wanting to talk to her doesn’t sound good to me.

I just wish that medical personnel would remember that each patient is someone’s something:  someone’s wife, mother, sister, friend…and treat them accordingly.

My kids are playing around me and I’m having the hardest time engaging.  I just want to curl up under a blanket and read a mindless romance novel.  Holdin’ on to God (or at least trying)

Update

December 12, 2006

Oh the forms, oh the forms, oh the forms, forms, forms, forms…

Apparently, my new-found ability to capitalize Cookie is going to get me exactly nowhere.

Let me preface everything by saying that people I met tonight were very friendly. Very kind. Very knowledgeable and willing to share that knowledge.

I filled out my volunteer responsibility form — this is like gold. I cannot pick up, distribute or even think about Cookies without this form. Must.Not.Lose.This.Form…

When I picked up my troop’s Ginormous Packet, I joked to the gentleman handing them out, “I hope I’m responsible enough to handle all this.”

A long yawning pause while he took my measure. “Well, I hope so,” he replied. Note to self: do not joke about one’s own fitness as Cookie Mom.

After that rather inauspicious start, the bombarding with information began. Why use 1 form when 3 will do? Truly, there are no fewer than 4 forms to track everything. But the T-2 is all. This is the form of all forms. It has many layers to be turned in at different times, places I fill out and places that “Council” (which is always spoken of in somewhat reverent, if frustrated tones. Apparently, one does not want to deal with “Council” more than one has to. But I did find out that they have their own collection agency, so attention you slackers who said you would pay for your Cookies: Council knows. Council will collect.) fills out. According to the Cookie handbook, my van can hold 100 cases of Cookies — a fact that Dodge should certainly note to its customers as a selling point.

Banking procedures? I’ll get back to you when I’ve further steeped myself in the Cookie handbook. It’s all horribly, horribly confusing to me right now. Note to Council: Online Banking. Really.

The bottom line: I must really really love my daughter (as must all those other parents!) to do this much work in an area far outside my comfort zone. This Cookie sale begins in January, so buy some Cookies from my girl and for heaven’s sake pay your money or I have to fill out yet another form. Work with me here, people.

Oh no, now what did I do with the volunteer responsibility form? Hmmmmm..