My mother

Confession: There is a whole new level of pain and beauty involved in seeing your mother without her hair. It was such pretty hair, long and thick and shining white. I miss it, and I miss the part of her that is not the same without it.

The first time she took off her hat to show me her shorn head, it was a jolt and a sickness, a thing wrong with the world that could never be made right.

But I also got a good look at her face. It seemed revealed, as though a skin had been pulled away, giving a glimpse of personality I’d never seen before. I’m a face reader, but I had missed a whole layer in my mother.

Once I went to a ladies’ seminar where each attendee was asked to bring along a sheet and a pillowcase, no explanations given. When I arrived at the registration table, I was told to wrap the sheet all around my clothes and put the pillowcase on my head, covering all of my body but my face. Every lady at the seminar wore that absurd disguise for half the day, and I was a little sulky about it and let some of my hair show. But the point was (and I liked it afterwards) to see how you felt about yourself, and how you viewed other people, if all you could see was a face.

Gone were the quick summaries – Oh, she goes to that kind of church – She has gray hair, so she must be over this age – Wow, nice dress – Okay, I’d never wear that together – She’s a trendsetter – That one’s Amish – All of it was gone. All you had were the faces, and what nice, friendly faces they were! Separated from all other impressions, they were more visible, more speaking, more important.

So with my mom.

She has common sense and grit and earthy wisdom and not-quite-kosher humor in that face.

And she is not well right now. But she is well cared for. It’s a team effort, loving a cancer fighter, and I am a small cog in the wheel with my four kids and my multi-faceted sickness germs to steer away.

But family and friends are offering incredible support. My siblings and their spouses send up love and texts and beautiful gift packages – my two nurse brothers stay tuned to her numbers and vitals – my remarkable sister with a cancer history of her own used her furlough to offer in-home support for a whole month – and my dad is doing everything else singlehandedly. Okay, not quite. There are many, many other givers: You know who you are. Thanks so much for doing this for my mom.

On the right is my mom with my baby, last summer. On the left is my mom’s mom with me!

We are very proud of her. And God is in the redeeming business.

Shari

Call back later

Confession: When my phone rang at 5:44 Monday morning, I thought it was the alarm, and groggily I punched around on its face a few times until it finally stopped.

That is how I sent a text template to Faith Builders Christian School (calling to inform parents of a two-hour delay), saying Sorry, I’m busy. Call back later.

After I stopped blushing, I wished I could’ve used that response on several more of the unexpected events December brought me.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is the third person in my immediate family to face the c-word, not to mention my sister-in-law, my aunt, and my late grandma. Sorry cancer, we’re busy. Call back later. Mom is brave and calm, trusting Jesus to take care of her through chemo, hair loss, and a lumpectomy. But oh, we dread to walk this path again.

My baby got hand-foot-and-mouth disease and spent a miserable week with it. We missed a Christmas party or two. Sorry, I’m busy. Call back later.

And then (all three of these events occurred in the same week), my six-year-old daughter developed acute stomach pain at school one lunchtime, moving from a pained face to tears to sobbing to screaming in less than an hour.* We thought appendicitis, but when they did the CT scan in the emergency room, they said “If it is her appendix, it’s already ruptured. There’s a mass in there. We can’t tell for sure.” And they transferred us to Children’s Hospital. Sorry, my daughter is busy. Pain, pain, go away. Please, please.

*(This is how my friend Anna described it, and she was there.)

in-the-hospital-20161206_074000

Hours crawled past us.

“There’s a mass of tissue, not fluid. Probably an ovarian cyst,” the surgeons told us after the senior radiologist’s report. “We don’t know what to expect until we remove it. They’re usually benign, but we may need to take her ovary as well. Please sign here.”

I will sign if you will help my daughter. Please, please.

In surgery, the doctors found and corrected an ovarian torsion, the “mass” nothing but her own body tissue, swollen but healthy. Nothing to remove? Really? Oh Jesus, really? And because it was all laparoscopic, she had very little recovery time, no stitches, no scars. The path felt interminable as we walked, but in retrospect I could measure it—from the onset of the pain to the first apple juice post-surgery was exactly 24 hours. Two days after her operation, she returned to school for the dress rehearsal of her Christmas program. On the third day she was her own sassy self, having to be reminded not to run.

Our resurrection story, just in time for Christmas. Thank you, thank you Jesus! We felt his miraculous healing in the skill of the surgeons, the kindness of the staff, the gift of living in 2016.

I spoke with another woman I love. She was cutting vegetables at my sink. She said, “I know it’s supposed to be such a season of joy, but it’s hard. It’s always been a little hard for me.” I know, I know. There are so many things we cannot say.

Sometimes I think that if we really knew what was involved, we’d say no to everything. Sorry, I’m busy. Call back later. Picnics and marriage and doorways and friendship and babies—and it hurts worst when everyone around seems so happy.

(Didn’t you know they each carry their own sorrows?)

But if we said no, we would never have the answers, the miracles, the resurrection stories, love. Sometimes I think if we really knew the joy on the far side, we’d say yes, yes, yes! Pain is the unexpected ring of the telephone, the bad news. Jesus is the one who shows up at the door at the same moment, with a loaf of warm bread and a stiff drink. His body and blood. God with us.

He is not afraid of sorrow, a man intimately acquainted with grief. We don’t have to make ourselves rollicking and carefree to celebrate Christmas properly. We just have to watch for him, answer when he calls, pick up the pain and say hello.

He said it will be all right.

Tribute to a childhood friend

Dear Naomi,

We first met over a cat. Four cats, to be precise, darling little mewling things with a sign that said “Free.” I fell instantly in love with them. We were at an autumn barn social, as I recall, where we bobbed for apples and ladled cider out of a brand new toilet (whose idea was that?!). And you, another 12-year-old with curly-wild hair and oversized glasses, brought four kittens to give away.

If my dad has told this story once, he’s told it a hundred times. I came to him, my eyes shining. “Dad! There are kittens! And they’re free!”

He smiled, sort of. The smile may have been rather pained. “Remind me again how many cats we have already?”

“Eight,” I confessed. “But they’re all grown up.”

“And these will be too,” he said. “In a few months.”

“Daaaa-ad.”

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “If you can get someone to take one of our cats, you can have a kitten.”

I thought it a surprisingly low bar. I am not an aggressive saleswoman, but within minutes I had found a lady who said “Well, we were thinking of getting a barn cat to keep the mice down. Do you have a male?”

Yes, and I knew just which one I could part with—a plain and non-personalitied tom. So I got my wish: a white and orange puffball of my very own. I was radiant. You and I talked cats a while that night, and found we understood each other. You even came to visit me and see how Butterscotch was getting along. And I think you were as devastated as I was when he died an untimely death.

Later, you invited me to your piano recital, a Christmas party where we ate and played silly games and got stuck on icy roads. That was fun.

The point is, I’d lost track of you until my sister moved to your part of Virginia. There you were, all grown up; married; two kids.

And then one winter, when the worst fog of my depression had settled over me and threatened not to lift, I heard that you had cancer. A horrifying cancer, growing fast. I am ashamed to confess this, but I envied you. I was sick too, Naomi, deep in my mind—and I envied you your ticket out of this world.

But you? You were a fighter. You lost your unborn son to that cancer and you lost your hair and your health and your future, but you fought like a Samurai. People around you knew you were losing, but you had a few more tricks up your sleeve. Even at the end, you spoke of ice packs and Vitamin C and nutritional supplements. You laughed till you coughed and you made us laugh with you and almost the last words I remember you saying, when the doctor sent you home for the last time, were “He thinks I’m dying but I think I’m not.”

In this I envy you still: you knew that cancer is not a Thing That’s Meant To Be, and you pulled from deep internal sources and gave it a run for its money. Last week I heard it won, and my heart broke. It backed you into a corner and took away weapon after weapon and treasure after treasure and forced your earthly life from your hand, but in the end I think you smiled—because in the corner behind you there opened a door of glorious light. And you were the one to deliver the fatal blow: cancer died and you passed through the doorway. You won.

I join you in fighting the evils of a broken world. Cancer is not Meant, nor starvation nor incest nor abortion nor betrayal, and we fight these things if they cost us our lives. That’s because the God who allows them will take the things of slime and horror and turn them on their heads. All things are Meant—or will be by the time He’s done with them. (Genesis 50:20) The earth is good, and worth fighting for. You learned this before I did, but I get it now. I don’t envy you your ticket anymore.

I wish I could see you for just a moment. I hope He gave you back a double portion of that wild-curly hair. I hope you’re loving on that baby boy. I hope you’re looking into the eyes of Jesus and seeing the Answer.

If I can find a kitten this time of year, I’m going to get one, and keep it for you for old times’ sake. I will name it after you: Free.

Tell Jesus I love Him but there are a few things I need to have explained, someday.

Shari

*****

Please join me in praying for the family and friends of Naomi Schrock in Catlett, VA.

Out and about

You’ll never guess where I am right now.

me n my sis

me n my sis

Yes ma’am. Down Virginia way.

The unbelievable mercy of Jesus, that’s what I call it—

  • That she is well enough to sit up, to eat fried chicken, to laugh at my jokes.
  • That I was provided with a complimentary ride to Virginia on Monday, and a complimentary ride home on Thursday.
  • That church women offered to help babysit my children before I ever made plans to leave.
  • That my husband—my guy Rye—he is willing to fill in; to comb hair and shuttle to school; to attend the meetings I miss; to bake the freezer pizzas; to care for our three children.
  • That my mom offered me half of her beautiful private suite. She also shot this picture, which some would take as an explanation of why it’s so blurry, but don’t tell her I said so… Oh hi mom. You are reading this? Yes, I was just telling them of your generosity. #themovie late last night was awesome.
  • That I am here.

Oh, bless Jesus. I am allowed to be here.

Red

Confession: You already know this about me–sometimes I write about caterpillars when I can’t write about cataclysm.

My grandfather is dying today (my only grandpa, pillar around which my earliest memories twine), and my sister is in the ER for the third time in a week (my only sister, oh my sister). I hold this at bay with words about little things, and pray that when I need to write the big ones, grace will come. Remember me and the people I love to Jesus today.

*****

Confession: I didn’t know how to do it.

Visiting a new church, I sat with other mothers chatting in the nursery, my two-year-old playing around my knees. The door opened. A woman and a man entered, the first holding a silver plate, the second a silver chalice. “Would the mommies like communion?” They turned first to the regulars, then looked to me.

Gladly I reached for His grace.

“The body of Christ, broken for you,” said the woman softly, and I took a piece of wafer from the bits on the plate.

It was a large piece. I put it in my mouth and began to chew the hard, dry cracker, thinking of Jesus.

I looked up and saw one of my new friends receiving the juice—dipping her cracker into the cup, then putting it in her mouth. Oh no. No!

The man with the chalice turned to me. “The blood of Christ, shed for you,” he said.

Red stained my cheeks, red stained the cup. Mutely, I shook my head. Mumbled around my crumbling cracker. I already put it in my mouth. Hand to my face, eyes on the floor, I stood there shaking my head at the blood of Christ, as though I wanted no part of Him.

But my mouth hurt from wanting Him, from the cool juice of washing that did not touch my lips, until at last in the evening He came to me and I cried against His shoulder. He took the sting into the wounds that held the sin of the world, carried it in the wounds that filled the cup.

*****

What can Jesus carry for you?