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Grit and Bear It

February 9, 2018

Do you know that scene from Braveheart where William Wallace turns away from his band of soldiers to face the coming onslaught, every muscle taut, letting crazy adrenaline fuel his war cry as he hurtles himself toward battle? I bet you can see his blue-streaked face now. That, to me, is THE picture of true grit.

I’ve been William Wallace for the past six years. And it’s wreaked havoc on my relationship with Reed.

Without even realizing it fully, six years ago at Reed’s diagnosis, I adopted the trite (and naive) mentality that what doesn’t kill us, will make us stronger. My Americanized sensibilities encouraged me to pull myself up by my bootstraps, put my head down and get to work, and turn my focus towards self-sufficiency. Perhaps some of my self-sufficiency grew out of a disappointment towards God for allowing this kind of situation in my life. If I couldn’t depend on God to bring good things into my life (because were there enough good things in this world to outweigh this one truly terrible thing?), then my only option was to depend on myself.

In parenting Reed, I plowed through month after month of doctor and  specialist appointments, question after unanswered question, and days and weeks of exhaustion, learning to live in our new reality of life with special needs.  Even when I was tired and felt like life wasn’t fair and just plain didn’t want to face reality, I still had to. I kept pushing through, somehow forgetting Jesus’ call to the weary to come to him for rest. I largely ignored my emotions and just kept moving. These legitimate emotions, left unattended to, did not just disappear. I just kept muscling them back down under the surface.

The problem is when we force a muscle to function the wrong way for too long,  it compensates for the added strain, performing as we’re asking it to but developing scar tissue. Similarly, months and now years of facing Reed’s challenges with grit has created emotional scar tissue because I wasn’t made to live life simply by my own resolve and courage. As the emotional muscle fatigued under the constant strain of grit, disfigured emotions formed and influenced how I interacted with Reed. Rather than a person to be loved warmly and kindly and gently in all tenderness, he became a difficulty and task to be managed. Rather than cultivating tenderness in my heart for a very special child the Lord had given me, I began growing bitterness and resentment towards him. As the scar tissue thickened around my heart, becoming numb and difficult to cut through, emotional apathy and resentment began to grow. I had to learn that my relationship with Reed is not a crisis to manage but rather a life long relationship that will thrive more through tenderness than grit.

In contrast to grit’s self-focus and self-determination, Scripture encourages us to be tender-hearted towards others.  This means being gentle, kind, affectionate, compassionate, sympathetic, warm, giving, and vulnerable. Both Peter and Paul call us to this tenderness in our relationships, and it’s a tenderness we cannot produce apart from work of the Spirit in our lives. Peter writes, “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind,” and similarly, Paul encourages us to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted” (ESV, 1 Peter 3:8; Ephesians 4: 31).  If we instead muscle our way through difficult circumstances with ourselves at the center, we’re like rocky soil in which it becomes difficult for new, tender growth to emerge, and ultimately our relationships suffer. Tenderness, on the other hand, enables us to  bear the image of Christ to others and learn that we don’t have to white-knuckle our way through life.

Just yesterday, I was driving to the hospital to sit with Reed who had been admitted for bilateral pneumonia, a common health complication for him. As I drove down the interstate, counting that this was probably our 11th or 12th hospitalization, I felt the familiar tug to just put my head down and power through, to ignore the emotions I was feeling and to think I had to bear the weight of all this on my own. But in this moment God graced me with that reminder of the importance for gentleness and compassion in this very situation: gentleness and compassion from God, through me, and for Reed.



Green Beans

January 24, 2018

They became the soft, mushy backbone to our Sunday dinners, a staple that even as an adult I crave and come back to again and again for their nourishment. As a child, I ate these green beans by the bucketfuls. Sunday after Sunday would roll around, the thick scent of fat back melting into the gargantuan pot of stewing green beans. I never let her down, at least not with this vegetable: my mom could proudly proclaim that her kids ate their vegetables.

The process of cooking down these beans started usually Saturday afternoon, would periodically stop overnight (beans stored in the fridge because Mom swears they’re better if you do the fridge step), and then resume cooking until lunch the next day. We weren’t much for gardening (at least not back then; two working parents, small kids, a sometimes consuming church life), so it usually meant opening up one of the giant cans of green beans bought at the local Food Lion on our weekly shopping trips.

Crank open the can. Dump the beans in. Turn the burner on almost the highest setting. Let ‘em cook hard. But watch, make sure all the liquid doesn’t burn off. Add some fatback if you have it. Let the cycle of cooking hard and cooking down run continuously, again and again. Add an undetermined amount of salt. Oh, and water; add the water (I always forget this step) when the liquid is getting low. Always come back to the pot to make sure those beans aren’t burning. But you must cook them hard enough to bring out that perfect, slightly sweet, definitely salty flavor.

I don’t know how long she cooked those beans most Sundays but I was always in awe of the process. Always in awe that she didn’t forget about the beans. Didn’t burn the beans (like I did the first time I tried). She coaxed the most delicious taste straight out of those beans, and it tasted like exactly like Sunday dinner should. So good that I’ve known people to drink the left-over juice straight from the bottom of the green bean pot.

Even when arguments erupted during the week, I always knew Sunday dinner was coming. Even when my sister refused for the 768th time to play with me, I knew Sunday dinner was coming. Even when we uprooted our life and moved to a new town in middle school. Even when boys broke my heart. Even after my nuclear family dissolved, Sunday dinners still came. Even when life rose and fell with its terrifying unpredictability, those green beans filled my plate again and again. And I savored the sweetness and the saltiness and knew instinctively, even then, that life mostly tastes just like those beans.

Remembering with Light

October 15, 2017

8264279 - two burning candles

Zoey and Eloise.

Though these two names are stitched into my heart, I’m grateful for a reminder to pause and remember with their parents today, October 15th, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. There’s a 10 year old and two year old little girl missing from my family’s gatherings, and despite the years that pass, their absence is felt. There are times, even now, ten years later, I find myself ruminating over who they would have been, which parent they would have most looked like, whose quirks they would have shared, and how uniquely them they would have been. To have been brought so close to the brink of knowing them and then to so unexpectedly lose them, is still just out of reach of words for me.

But sometimes it’s easy to shrug off such a day and maybe even think there’s one too many of these remembrance-type days. But for those of us who have stood facing the onslaught of grief in the wake of this kind of loss, knowing that the greatest fear is always that they will be forgotten, a day of remembrance is important and meaningful.

But why? Why is infant loss so hard? So gut-wrenching? I’m sure the answers are as unique as the individual who experiences them. For me, when my sister Erin learned at 36 weeks that Zoey had died in utero, I was devastated because it felt like the rug had been ripped out from underneath our family. After unexplained infertility and unsuccessful fertility treatments and then many months of prayers, Erin surprisingly became pregnant without any outside intervention. We were ecstatic. It seemed like God had heard our prayers; so why eight short months later were those answered prayers being taken back? What kind of cruel joke could this be?

I was completely devastated and honestly my vibrant faith in a good, loving, life-giving God was shaken to its core. As I watched Erin shoulder this impossible grief, my spirit sagged under the weight of this loss, too. I know that my grief is only a fraction of what Erin experienced, and because of this, I never could understand why I struggled so intensely to regain my spiritual vibrancy after Zoey. I knew grief was normal, but it wasn’t like I had lost my baby. I think my proximity to and the primacy of the loss contributed; for the first time in my very manageable, neat and tidy life of faith, I confronted the unfairness of a loss so totally out of my control. Did I really believe all those things I had professed so easily about God? Was any of it every really true? I had operated under the assumption that if I prayed hard enough, faithfully enough, righteously enough, my prayers could keep this sort of thing far from me and my family. I cringe a little at my self-righteous, naive thinking. And to this day, I see that loss and the ensuing grief as one of the primary crucibles of my faith.

I know it’s naive considering all the terrible things that happen in this world. And I’ve even, at times, been incredulous at the ever-rippling effects that Zoey and Eloise’s deaths have continued to have on me and my faith. Then just a few weeks ago, I was reading an excerpt from the forthcoming book Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church by Winn Collier, which finally helped me name my grief. One of the characters, Jonas, writing about friends whose 21 month old daughter had passed away, says, “It was my friend’s grief, but it became my crisis.” I wept reading those words because like Jonas, my sister’s (and then later my best friend’s) grief had become my crisis of faith.

Grief can make us frantically search for closure, but in the spirit of honesty, I haven’t found full closure, have never been able to fully reconcile my heart and mind with these losses.  To live in a world where in the natural rhythms of life, some babies never live outside their mother’s womb, is still heart-rending. For ten years I’ve continued to let grief take its course, have continued to let the questions linger, and have let these losses shape and reform my heart. And even without total closure, Jonas’s reflection on his grief brings me comfort: “Beauty, which I understand to be another word for love, offered the only hope I could imagine for the horror my friends had experienced. It was the only hope for the endless anxieties and labyrinthine questions I carried. I needed love in person, love powerful and alive. I needed beauty to overwhelm all the ugly. As I understood the Bible’s story, I needed Jesus.”

So to Zoey, the one whose name means life, and to Eloise, whose name is rooted in the word warrior, I will remember you for the love you infused into our lives and will always, along with your parents, remember you.

Happy 2nd Birthday, Ansley!

September 12, 2017

Dear Ansley,

Happy birthday, baby! Just a couple months ago I was worrying myself over your not-yet-talking ways. But, just like always, you weren’t in any hurry to impress anyone (least of all your mama). Instead, it’s like you woke up one morning and decided that was as good a morning as any to start sharing your words with us. You tell us about your boots (you’ve been living in those rain boots since we bought them) and say “I love-ee” (I love you) and scold Ree and Wu (Reed and Luke) while wagging your tiny toddler finger at them (I’m glad I have someone to help me keep those brothers in line), excitedly exclaim “puppy!!” at every dog we see, and ask repeatedly to go out the playground and ‘wing. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Oh, and people often remark on how serious you are. But, baby, just look at these pictures. Serious? Nah, that’s just your poker face.

You are smart, determined, witty, and oh-so-sweetly sassy. I can’t freeze time. And I can’t keep you from growing up and growing out of all these ways I treasure. But I can capture you, bundle you up in my words. And then let you go, let you grow, let you blossom into the beauty God has made you. Because who you are, who you will become, I’m convinced, is better than any story I could ever imagine.

Happy second birthday to you Elisabeth Ansley.

Love, Mama

Happy 7th Birthday, Reed!

September 4, 2017

Dear Reed,

This year, the day before you turned 7 years old, you lost your first baby tooth. And while there have been many signs along the way that babydom and toodlerhood are far behind us, this was the final billboard announcing to the whole world that you are in fact a young boy. A young boy who, to me, is devilishly handsome, with a cheshire cat-like grin, and a propensity to towards generosity that humbles me a hundred times a day. Whether it’s the matchbox car you’ve snagged that Luke begs to play with or a coveted piece of candy meant just for you that Ansley demands “too me” for or me needing your forgiveness for being far too impatient yet again — you give it away, somehow seeming to intuitively know that giving is the only way to gain.

These pictures frame you in my mind: the way you study books, know which letters begin each person’s name,  love digging in dirt, always ask for walks down to the lake, perfected your frisbee throw, made friends at school, love movies almost as much as your daddy, can’t stand to be left out just like your mama, ask a million times a day to play hide-n-seek or tag, are delighted when someone sits down with you just because; and then your thick, wavy strawberry hair, your crazy hilarious dance moves, your throw a blanket over your head when the world outside is just a little too much — ruminating over these things makes my smile stretch wider, grows my love by a million inches, and fills me up to the tip-top with gratefulness that you are you. That you belong to us. And that life will always be better and sweeter because you are a part of it.

Love you biggest buddy!

Elbert Ray Estes, March 4 1935 – July 3 2017

July 23, 2017

19665606_10154959684008661_674441105584711547_nPapaw’s favorite story to tell of me was the time, when I was about 7 or 8, that I was so mad about how “far” we had to walk back to their apartment after taking a swim, that I stomped right past their apartment building, muttering angrily, without even realizing it. I can still hear him chuckling through telling that story. His favorite second story of me he told was the time Matt covered my school picture, hanging at their house, with a picture of Ronald Reagan. For reasons I can’t even remember now, other than I hated getting picked on, I sulked and pouted for the better part of that visit about being replaced by Ronald Reagan. I think Papaw was always amused and a bit confounded by these stories and how easily I got riled up — because he rarely did. There’s no memory I have with him without his calm, kind, and gentle demeanor. He was always a steadfast, loving presence in my life and in our family. I love how he loved his great-grandchildren. He meticulously put together state quarter collections for each one of his 13 great-grands, and a visit with Papaw was never complete without him giving a great-grand a dollar bill and a big ol’ Papaw hug. He was always the first to tell me how amazing he thought Reed was doing, and for that I’ll be forever thankful. Sometimes grief comes hard and fast, but my grief today seems a lot like Papaw — quiet, steady, and now, always with me. Papaw, you are loved and you are missed, today and always.

On My 6th Mother’s Day

May 13, 2017

My dear, wildly precious children,

Being your mother is, to me, a mostly impossible task. I’m being asked to be who I am not yet.

You see, I didn’t often feel the sting of failure in my mostly sheltered and protected suburban American upbringing. That is, until those nurses placed one tiny red-headed baby into my trembling arms, and then another, and then one more — I didn’t really know the full weight and measure, the intensifying humility of failing more times than I can recount.

All of my impatience, all of my fear, and all of my short-sightedness. My not yet good enough. Or kind enough. Or brave enough. My simply not enough. And yet you keep calling me mama and mom and mommy. Keep asking for my squishy hugs, my off-key singing, my silly games. You keep asking for all of me.

And some days it feels like I am cracking wide open.

So I look to those who have mama’d before me and around me. I search for reassurance that all these cracks aren’t disassembling me. No, you are breaking open deep wells of grace and light, all running together in a masterful design not too late in coming.

You, my dear ones, are my grace bearers. Grace upon grace upon grace. Because you know nothing more than to love me fiercely with your quick forgiveness and eager, whole-hearted affection. Your sweet kisses, and belly laughs and crazy joy.

Maybe, I’ve been thinking, this making parents out of failings, is purposeful. Perhaps Dr. Nixon is right – failure isn’t the problem, it’s the point. As your mama, I am both not enough and just enough. So that even though I am not yet who I ought to be, I am becoming.