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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.

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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.

The Year that Made You Four

April 30, 2017

To the boy who declared he turned 44 this birthday,

You are joyful and vibrant and full of light. You love purple and pink and swords and glitter and songs and numbers and dress up and dirt and treats. Your wild embrace of life swells up inside my heart. And there’s this spot, this wildly lovely spot, that you’ve taken up in my heart. Just like the spot you snuggle into early most mornings, right next to me waiting for the sun to yawn awake. You unfolding before us, sweet and loud and silly and passionate and louder still. And we love you, as you teach us to love a little louder and little better and a lot more freely.

Love, Mama

These Hands

April 2, 2017

21145432 - aging process - very old senior woman hands wrinkled skin

Has the skin of your heart ever seemed stretched thin? Like the canvas of an old lady’s hands?

Risen, well-marked life tracks. Smooth, fine wrinkles, a little bit gnarled. Worked over, stretched out. Bent round, cupping, loving, living, lived. Valleys, deserts, ridges, weather-beaten, sunset fading. Blue veins, slowly beating.

Wider, gnarled knuckles. Soft like Avon lotion. Reminiscent of coffee and linen. Washed a hundred thousand times. Kneaded like dough, risen and fallen. Thinned out, translucent. Cool and airy, slowly dying.

Spread wide, embracing. Lightly falling. Growing forward like thousand-year-old oak roots. Mountain ranges of glory after glory. Sun marks. Age spots. Lived life’s crowning beauty.

Secrets. Wisdom. Holding, loving. Shushing. Braiding. Smoothing. Stirring. Full of life and knowing. Marked. Criss-crossing. Knitting, knitted, knotted up. Life hazarded across these hands. Imprinted, stamped, etched deep with life, life that sometimes gave, often took, sometimes blossomed, others withered.

Hands that ache and show of aching. Of a life so lived that it’s worth telling. Tracing rivers and ravines, to see and feel the love and giving. To remember love in flesh, love in real. Gripping strength in the face of dying, giving strength despite the years.

Hands made by the molding and the pressing, the cradling and the straining, by the work and by the doing. These hands wrapped in thin-stretched skin.

The skin of my heart seems stretched thin, just like the canvas of an old lady’s hands.