Between songs

When a beautiful woman in her sixties, with a serene face and an artistic hand, sits beside you at the craft table and asks to hear your story, you do not refuse. Nor do you refuse when a fun-loving stranger offers to do a coconut-oil-honey-and-cocoa-powder facial with you, and all the supplies are laid out. Nor when another cute and sassy stranger says “Hey, want to take a selfie with me? It’s my Sneaky Card assignment.”

I did not say no.

But this story starts long before that.

1.

This summer my left foot was stepped on by a six-foot-something stranger, who apologized profusely and said “I’m sorry, it was only a matter of time. I’m no good at dancing.” I am so happy it did not occur to him that it might have been my fault, the little Mennonite lady standing beside him in the front row at a Christian concert.

Well. When my eighteen-year-old brother told me that his guy friend had a last-minute change of plans and couldn’t make it, and would I be interested in joining him at an open-air summer concert, I did not say no. I said, “Will I like it?” And then I looked up the band online and said, “Well, they sound pretty mild.” He just grinned at me.

The night of the concert, he showed up holding an iced coffee he’d bought for me. It turned out there were three bands playing that night, none of which I’d ever heard before, and I do not think mild was necessarily the word I would choose in retrospect – they were handing out ear plugs in the front row and my, did we need them. But the confetti and smoke were fun. And what I could hear of the music I liked just fine.

My little brother was very sweet, he kept asking me if I needed anything and when I spilled my coffee on the dirt he got napkins for me, and when I cried he gave me a hug.

Yes, I did cry.

I did not go to the concert expecting to hear from God. I went to have an adventure with my brother, to eat funnel cake and to spend an evening happy and free. The songs made me loosened and peaceful – but it was between songs, when a new artist began to speak of his wife’s loss of an unborn baby, and of the wise words of an old woman in their congregation, that I suddenly melted and began to cry. I cried a hard and healing rain on that clear summer night, because I know about loss, and because in that story and in the golden shower of confetti I heard God say Shari, I see you.

2.

And then came a venue even stranger.

I watched a silly and fanciful movie, The BFG, based on Roald Dahl’s book about a Big Friendly Giant who concocts dreams to blow gently into the minds of sleeping children. I say the movie was silly because although I really like the BFG himself, there were too many scenes of drama for my liking, too many children in danger from the bad giants. But at one place there is a scene where the BFG tells Sophie that he hears everything in the world, and he will always be listening. He says, “I is hearing all the wonderous and all the terrible, terrible things. All the secret whisperings of the world.”

At the end of the movie, I closed the computer and went up to bed. I was scheduled to meet with my mentor the following afternoon. I planned to tell her about the stressors, the questions, the guilt. But we had to cancel at the very last minute, and my husband said, “Why don’t you take some private time anyway?” I drove to my favorite green-grassed graveyard, a quiet place of rhododendrons and old trees, and sat against a gravestone in the warm sun. I sat there, thinking and whispering to God, falling in and out of sleep, and while my mind was quiet I heard him say I hear you. I am right here. I am always right here, waiting for you to talk to me.

That was so good of him. I’d been pretty sure he wasn’t listening anymore, but now I had a picture of his face lighting up when I open my mouth, when I even whisper to him. Right there. He doesn’t miss a sound.

I see you. I hear you.

3.

Then then I told my friend Joanna that in October I’d go with her to a foster moms’ retreat, Rejuvenate PA. I wanted to go with her and she made the offer irresistible, but in the weeks leading up to the event I worried I wouldn’t belong. We don’t have a placement right now.

We don’t have a placement because we said goodbye to some small and precious children we could not keep, and took a break to care for the ones who were born to us, and the guilt and fear from that decision slowly rose to choke me this past year, a woolen shawl drawn ever more tightly around my chest and neck, prickling, constricting, choking. What had I done? What if I’d ruined everything? How did I ever think I could survive this?

I didn’t need a vacation at the fostering retreat. I needed healing. I needed hope.

That is how I found myself laughing and crying with strangers, doing crazy things like high-speed hayrides and board games past midnight, fake Italian accents, impromptu selfies, chocolate facials. We shared every activity: creating decoupage and planting fairy gardens, enjoying long massages donated by professional therapists, hearing the word of God, singing, painting, eating food we didn’t prepare, getting up early to worship and pray, soaking in the beautiful weather, listening to each other’s stories, talking, talking, talking.

We had creative generosity dumped on us, all weekend long.

When I arose for prayer one morning (after having decided to sleep in, and then wakening early after all, too excited to sleep), I found that the leaders had set up prayer stations all around the edges of our main room. Each station had printed instructions waiting for us. One station had a poster board with a cross drawn on it, where we were invited to write our troubles and let Christ carry them. On the cross were newly-written words like fear and control and guilt. There were many stations. I walked across the room to one and sat down. On a table were hand mirrors, and the instructions said, Look into a mirror. What do you see when you look at yourself? What do you think God sees? What is keeping you from accepting God’s version of who you are?

I looked into the mirror began to cry silently, hopelessly, without words. “I have not liked myself for months. I see shame, I see pain, I see worthlessness. I see a woman who is not enough.”

I let my Father look at me, there in the mirror. In his eyes there was nothing but love.

I see you. I hear you. I love you.

I cannot explain the works of God. I cannot say the darkness will not return. Sometimes I don’t talk to my Father about what I feel; sometimes I don’t hear him when he talks to me. But I know I experienced his healing in that place by hearing his voice, by letting his daughters care for me, and by worshipping his son Jesus.

By the end of the weekend I could look around the room and think “I know the name of that woman’s son, and what his needs are. I know this lady’s court date, and what she worries about. That woman gave me painting tips. This one sat by a campfire with me and reminded me of what the truth was. That one prayed for me. And she, and she, and she, will carry my story home with her.”

And now I am ready to go on.

Peanut butter and dragon wings

Confession: My son caught me crouching in the pantry with a large spoonful of peanut butter and honey halfway to my mouth.

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??!!?? he said.

The spoon made it the rest of the way, hastily.

Regan, I said firmly, I am gathering shthrength to care for my children. Now go play.

*

Three weeks of intense coughing by Mrs. Zook developed into 100% of her kiddos sick, including foster-baby-for-at-least-the-weekend who turned into foster-baby-for-at-least-two-weeks and then began upchucking violently. The washing machine stopped working and several inches of water pooled in the basement from all the rain. My mother got her first chemo treatment and my sister arrived from Israel, but I stayed away for the sake of all those germs.

A great weight loss program, all told; I highly recommend it. There is so little time to actually eat.

That is why I was crouching in the pantry fortifying myself with a chunk of peanut butter. I figured it was better than eating the entire bag of York mints.

And it was within reach, too.

But things are looking up. My man hotwired the washing machine and drained the basement. My friends sent food and comforting text messages, despite sickness in their own troops. I made it to the doctor, and the baby stopped puking (and oh, she is sweet), and the coughing bug caught the final child. We are fresh out of children for this bug to catch. Unless it starts catching them over again, which—heaven forbid.

*

My friend Anita owned the one piece of clothing in the world that I coveted, a webbed scarf knitted in a dragon’s wing pattern, deep turquoise with flecks of all colors woven through it. Her mother made it for her; not the kind of thing you can go buy at Walmart.

The week after Christmas I got a surprise package from my friend Heidi in Canada. I unwrapped a beautiful light turquoise store-bought scarf with flecks of color all through it. Hey, my son said. That looks kind of like the dragon’s wing.

I laughed in delight, and wrapped it around my shoulders. I wore it in season and out of season, matching and not matching, shelter me in the shadow of your wing. His provision is not a sparrow’s wing, as I always imagined, but something akin to a dragon’s wing. I wore it on the night the baby came and on the nights I sat up with her and I wrapped it around everyone I rocked to sleep.

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I think He sent it on purpose, right before my crazy time. I wore it till I could feel it around me whether I was wearing it or not. I’m wearing it now.

I debated and debated about the color, Heidi said. I thought you liked blue.

*

I had to fill another spoonful of peanut butter and honey for the sake of a photograph, but I didn’t mind. Neither did Regan, who stayed home sick today from school. He got to eat this one.

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Of lost doors

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I dreamed I saw her again

Her sweet little grin

Her sister hung back and wouldn’t touch me

But she came to my arms

And snuggled

And smiled

I held her

And when I woke there was a pit of darkness in my heart

That will not go away, still

And no matter what I am doing

There is crying in my heart

That does not show.

I am dying

 

I hate writing of loss

Because the tamest and wildest descriptions

Are equally true and equally ridiculous

 

There is a house near mine

Stately and serene

It had a pale blue chipped door

Like the blush of morning

And the soft, soft skin of an old woman’s hand

And the tender ageless hope of a robin’s egg.

I have loved it for years

Looked and longed and loved

The owners are renovating the house to sell

And one day they got out their paints

Their pretty, tasteful paints and made the door

Red.

Red. It is not chipped anymore, and it needed to be

Chipped and crackling and the palest blue

door_8905

Why did I not think to photograph it while I could?

An old door on an old house is an unspeakably beautiful thing and

It is gone clean out of the world

 

On their birthday I obsess, full of regret and fear

Because we loved them, we loved them

But we could not keep them

We said we could not adopt them

Because of what it was doing to our family

Because the needs

Never ended

And we were never enough

And all six children deserved more of us

The twins deserved a home with less, and more

We stayed in the story and helped bond them with amazing pre-adoptive parents

Some days I know we did right

And some days the guilt and fear choke me

 

On their birthday

I want to bake their cake, want to see their morning faces bright and new

Want to make the homemade soup they loved

And suddenly I find myself sobbing because of the thing that hurts the most

I cannot remember how Twin B said soup

 

I am foolish, sobbing over a silly little bit

But that is the thing about

Loss

You do not lose once and then remember losing

You lose and lose, and go on losing

You lose the first birthday and the first Christmas and the first memory you cannot pull back

And maybe if you forget too much it will be like

They were never

Here

 

Several hours later, I hear it in my mind

She said zthoop—a perfectly irresistible lisp that made me fill her bowl again.

I laugh in the middle of my crying and am grateful for this memory

For a photograph of what is gone

Gone

 

The girls are gone and the door is gone and sometimes we cry

 

The rest of the story

Confession: I told you I miscarried a tiny baby last January. I didn’t tell you the rest of the story. Of necessity, this post contains personal details I would not normally share publicly. There are not many; I have been as discreet as I could. But I ask, especially if you are male, that you read respectfully.

The Rest of the Story

The problem with backing up to the beginning of the story is that it’s hard to know when to stop backing. You pass through months and years of events-that-led-to, and land not only in the hospital where you were born, but somewhere just before the book of Genesis, when all these things were developing in the heart of God. So I can’t tell all the rest of the story.

The piece I am going to tell you now started the month before my miscarriage, in December of 2014, when we said yes to a dream opportunity. A newborn foster girl was coming into care. Her older siblings had all been removed from the home, one was being adopted right now, and there was no kin. Would we be willing to take her? Continue reading

In the thick of it

You might cry, at nine o’clock pm on a Saturday night when you’re cleaning the last bathroom and your man comes in and finds you. “Hey, hard workin lady,” he says gently, and holds you.

You might cry then, though you’ve been strong all day. They’re in bed now.

It’s not so much that you mind cleaning the house in the dark and quiet, it’s just that you’re so flat tired. You don’t know how it happened, but somehow the second week of the twins’ life with you coincided with the first week of summer vacation, and the birth of four goats, and the mail delivery of twenty-one newborn chicks. It didn’t help that you had sick babies all week, and three lengthy doctor’s appointments in there. It doesn’t help that you’re ten weeks pregnant.

There is no part of your life you would dispense with, not for worlds. It’s just that you’re so flat tired.

You say you forgot what it was like, being in the thick of mothering toddlers, but you’ve never quite been here before. There’ve never been so many small people dependent on you for life and happiness, so many piles of laundry, so many poopy diapers. There’s a perpetual explosion of toys all over your floor, but it’s not only toys, it’s also the whisk attachment from the Kitchen Aid, the expensive phone they know they’re not supposed to have, somebody’s socks, the latest issue of National Geographic for Kids, the foot pedal of your sewing machine, and fifteen Kleenexes pulled from the box. The mess from a single lunchtime looks like this, when you broom it up.

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You forgot the brain-numbing aloneness, and the blessed relief of a friend’s face at your door, with a box of donuts and enough warm jackets for the twins, in just the right sizes. It hasn’t really been that long since you interacted with other adults, but sometimes you’re afraid you’re forgetting how. Could you even have a normal conversation anymore? Do you remember the rules? Speech these days comes in short bursts, disjointed praises and commands.

Good job, baby!
Yay!
Honey, please don’t slam the door.
Thank you for helping me, son.
Oh no-no, don’t eat that!
Give Mommy a kiss…
Can you put away your own laundry?

Every part of your body—your dish-soapy hands, your sniffly-allergic nose, your strong feet, your growing belly—gives thanks to Jesus for His gifts.

Oh thank you thank you thank you thank you.

But you make a lot of mistakes, and you have to pray for grace and forgiveness. You lose your temper and you drop out of communication with people, and you nag your husband too much about a thing that really doesn’t matter.

You begin to take an absurd joy in the smallest achievements—getting one section of the kitchen floor swept clean, folding a shirt smooth and straight, killing that fly.

You’re going to make it. You can feel it in your body—you have enough for these kiddos, and for the one growing inside you. Enough food, enough love, enough body fat. After the crying is done, you sit on the stoop with your husband in the cool evening air, and refresh yourself with strawberries, and garden tea, and ten minutes of quiet talk under the stars. And then you go to bed and sleep in peace.

Tomorrow is new. You’re going to be okay.

*****

I wrote this in second person, because that is the voice in which I heard it in my head. “You” won’t identify with all of it, but which parts ring true?