I stare at you, and I stare at you, and I’ve stared at you for a month now and I can’t believe you’re here.
I hold you in one arm in Shawn’s big been-around-longer-than-me recliner, and Noella (plus her big teddy bear, plus her little white bunny, plus Minnie Mouse) in the other arm, and I can’t believe we have two daughters. I can’t believe this is reality, and that God aligned back to back miracles to come into our lives.
Don’t doubt God. He’s capable of big things. He’s at work when we can’t see it. He’s good beyond our earthly definition of good. He’s a miracle worker.
Shilo Hope, you’ve been with us for one month already, and we’re so glad you’re here.
Now, let’s go rock with sister and the gang in the recliner. Okay? Okay.
Our love is an adventure. One that God orchestrated.
It began as an adventure: meeting in Bolivia, driving in a bus loaded down with luggage, leaning too close for comfort to the edge, seeing missions first hand, seeing a dense jungle, and people sleeping under tarps tied to banana trees, and eating cow utter. Yes, cow utter. It tasted like a sponge. It tasted nothing like chicken. Thanks for asking.
Many Valentine’s Days ago, you sent me a three-page handwritten letter asking if a guy like you could ever have a chance with a girl like me. You took the risk and poured your heart out. And the fact that it arrived on February 14th was all God. That letter kick started the adventure. One that in 16 moves brought us all over the world, and back again.
The adventure included long waits in the doctor’s office, wondering what the protocol would be after another failed attempt at IVF. It included nerve-wracking flights and trips on ferries to get to our home in the village, in the southern region of Senegal. It’s included “in sickness and in health”, lessons on being the first to apologize, the first to forgive, and the relationship bonding power of making fun of each other.
The adventure has included dodging tear gas, (many) language faux pas, mountains, beaches, and volcanoes.
Today it includes two beautiful daughters who you call Buddy and Spike. (Which I think is so adorable because they sound like two bikers you met downtown as opposed to two sweeties in matching heart pajamas.)
The adventure looks different now. It’s one we fought hard for. It’s showing one girl how to use a spoon, while swaddling another. It’s one of less sleep (no rest for the with kid) and one of diapers and feedings and so much joy. It’s an adventure we wouldn’t trade for anything.
We’ve been side by side through a lot.
Flying over the Andes Mountains on a small five-seater airplane in Bolivia on our way to a remote village in the Amazon, moving to Quebec (and its five feet of snow) in our car and learning French, arriving in Conakry, Guinea after a 24-hour international journey, not knowing where we’d sleep or live once we arrived. Evacuating from our home in Guinea in a few days’ time, going through years of infertility and heartache together, living in an African village for a year (and all that entails…), 16 moves, welcoming our first daughter into the world, and now, side by side documenting this time of anticipation for the birth of baby girl #2.
Maybe darkness isn’t just in extreme sadness or difficulty, but in gloomy days, in the dog chewing up the ropes and ruining baby’s swing, in dropping raw eggs on your clean rug, on breathing treatments and nebulizers and waiting two hours to pick up your prescriptions. Maybe it’s in those moments of doubt and wondering if you’re cut out for this, in wondering why dinner isn’t planned yet. Maybe darkness is in questioning your worth. Maybe it’s in congestion and runny noses and sore throats and bills and dishwashers breaking. Perhaps it’s in those big and little inconveniences that throw you off your game.
Our culture presents Christmas time with a pressure for perfection, hallways and mantels lined with evergreen and berries. And good gosh, if there’s raw egg on your clean rug, and you’re asking God to help your baby breathe better, how can we soak in the magic of the season, with violins playing Silent Night in the background?
Here’s how: we remember that the mess never intimidated Jesus. Not then, in that dirty foreign place where he was born, and not here and now in our world. He’s not intimidated by the mess in your world, in your living room, with the laundry and the noise and the sinus pressure and your struggle to find your place. He sees our doubts and pressures and he whispers hope into our being. He whispers purpose because in him we have what we need. He came to be our joy so we don’t have to find it in ourselves or this shattered world that leaves us feeling empty. He came to be the solution. He came to save us from the darkness that we were born into.
This is the good news that makes us want to turn on the Christmas tree lights and let them shine brilliantly into the street for all to see.
It’s a loss that’s hard to define. But who says losses have to be defined? There’s pain because there was love. Even the love of an embryo, or six, that never grew to full-term, or made it into your arms, or even onto the screen for an ultrasound.
One of the hardest things about a failed IVF transfer is that not only are you grieving the loss of that baby and that pregnancy, and the dreams that came with it, you’re reeling from the realization that you’ve just tried all you know to try, medically and physically, and you’re at the end of the road. Again. You’ve invested your money, and your time, and you’ve gone through hundreds of painful shots and so many procedures and another surgery, and the thought of this being the end of the road, the, “Well, we did what we could. I guess we’ll just never have kids” mindset is an unwelcome reality that must be faced.
In the mess of this season, this season of back to back (times three) failed IVF transfers, someone gave us a crib. It was an innocent gesture because it was given to us to use in the guesthouse we were managing at the time, if there was a need. But it was also a “use where needed” crib. So we thought maybe, just maybe, it would become our crib. But then it was made clear from our most recent failed transfer that it wouldn’t become our crib. It would become someone else’s baby’s bed. Someone else would decide if it should be painted, or if it should be on a rug, or placed diagonally in the corner by the window, and if neutral or colored sheets would be used. Those weren’t our decisions to make anymore.
Lots of things caught me off guard and made me want to sneak out of the room and sob in the bathroom: comments that were made, a newborn being passed around, women standing around “planning” how many kids they vs. their husbands wanted to have, pregnancy announcements, and the like. Shawn and I learned that it was okay to grieve differently, because we were different, but to still communicate to each other how we were feeling. It was okay if I wrote an angry letter to God that I would burn later, or if Shawn needed time alone in his workshop with the music turned up loud. But the crib thing didn’t bother me quite like it bothered Shawn. As the man, and the provider, it was a need he was happy to meet, a need he could physically meet, a project he was happy to take on for us. But for the need for a crib to be coldly labeled “c’est negative” by a nurse (because our results were negative) was too much for him to think about. He’s the one who saw the crib every day in his workshop, sitting there needing to be assembled, another job he would have happily taken on. Now it was just a pile of wood that symbolized another loss. The crib found a new home where a baby was confirmed, and on the way. Loading that crib up for someone else was heartbreaking, but necessary.
Fast forward to today, many years later, and Shawn just finished putting the second coat of paint on our SECOND CRIB! It’s so easy to want to jump to the end of the story. No one wants to experience grief and loss, or to read about it, or to have to sit on the couch next to someone who’s trying to tell you through choppy tear-filled sentences why they’re heartbroken. But would joy and hope and answered prayers mean the same if we never had to experience or come face to face with what it feels like to be at the end of the road, or to go to sleep and wake up with a heavy grief?
All I know is, I’m so thankful that this story has gone on to include two cribs, when we thought there might never be a crib, and that God works hope into every story.
I shuffled out of our bedroom like a 90-year-old, hair in its truest rooster form, glasses smudged, heading into the kitchen to make oatmeal for the just-woke-up-and-needs-to-eat-breakfast-NOW little girl in her crib.
The demands of feeding a young child are felt most to me in the morning because you’re not really given the luxury of waking up slowly, allowing your eyes to adjust, your back to stretch into place, or your slippers to be on the right feet. You get up, and you spring (shuffle) into action.
And just like that, the day has begun.
I turn the corner and am stopped in my tracks by a striking sunrise out our kitchen window. The oatmeal can wait. I see the handiwork of God before me. He knows I like those bright, vibrant colors. Especially when the morning feels drab. This sunrise feels exceptionally close, like I could touch it if I wanted to reach for it. It was brighter and closer and just altogether more present than it normally is. I walk closer to the window and can almost hear the beauty whisper to me, “I have it all under control, my child.”
I felt at peace. The master artist created this sunrise with his voice, and it was there to remind me that if such colors and textures can awaken the birds and the people, and it can tell of his glory, then it can also remind me that he is in control over any and all worries, concerns, anxieties, fears, things that easily overwhelm, the future, the pain of being human in a fallen world. He had control over that sunrise and look – it’s perfect in all of its majesty.
The sunrise whispered that I was his child. The one who spends her day caring for another is cared for. I can trust the artist. I can let the artist’s love be as real and tangible as those colors, the shading, the texture, the placement, and layering of that sunrise.
As I made the oatmeal, I stared out the window at that vibrant sunrise as long as the changing sky would let me, still amazed at how close it felt, and I woke up slowly to its sweet message painted across the sky for me, his child.
If there’s one thing I’ve had to learn how to do, and then do over and over, it’s make friends. Our nomad lifestyle over the years has forced us to learn a thing or two about making friends and valuing those friendships. Living far from our families for most of our married life has also allowed some of these friendships to turn into beautiful and unexpected adopted family relationships. What a gift.
What’s ironic is that most of the time, we’ve been the leavers, the movers, the “we’re only here until April-ers”, but twice now since our return to the US we’ve been placed (by God and by Shawn’s job, but mostly God), in military towns. It’s ironic because so many people are here temporarily. And for once we’re trying to settle (we’ve lived here for almost two years… is that a new record!?) and everyone’s all, “Yea, we move again this summer.” Or (worse…), “Next month.” And if they aren’t military moves they’re oil field moves and for crying out loud I just want to live somewhere where we stay, they stay, our kids and husbands are best friends, and we host holiday parties together. IS THAT REALLY TOO MUCH TO ASK?!
So here are a few things I’ve learned in my life crash course of moving and making friends:
– Be the first! Send a text, message them, follow them on Instagram. Don’t wait around for someone else to make the first move. You think you’re shy or awkward? Newsflash: everyone else feels the same way.
– The “little random texts” are the biggest. Like when Carolyn wrote me this week and asked if she should get bangs. That meant everything to me because it meant she was thinking of me when she could have texted 50 other people with this life-altering question. So skip the formal and just jump in head-first into the world of random text messages (that also means you have to actually ask for their phone number). “What did you say the name of that donut shop was?” “Hey neighbor, do you have any use for 15 egg whites?” (PS- Donna, we can’t wait to taste test those meringue cookies that you have magically created from an oddly colored sack of 15 egg whites that I carried to your house. And Carolyn, I say to skip the bangs. Your forehead is perfect and bangs are always more work than they’re worth.)
– Find a way to be present in their life and they’ll in turn be present in yours. That’s friendship!
– Along those same lines, make a plan to hang out. Have them over. Embrace the mess or the just-vacuumed. You do you. Just let them in. Meet for coffee or for a walk. Or at the library for free. Or plan a party. You need friends, they need friends. So hang out. Don’t overthink it. (Or you can do like African Jenn and just stop by to say hi.)
– If making friends with Africans taught us one thing, it’s the power of a phone call or text saying simply, “Just wanting to say hi (greet you) and see how your family is doing.” That’s it! That always made us feel loved and thought of. You had to pay for phone credit as you used it over there, so sometimes that was literally the extent of the phone call. But guess what? It spoke volumes. And it taught us to do the same.
– Don’t forget about basic stuff that you learned in Kindergarten: smile, say hi, introduce yourself, toss out a compliment, exchange numbers. Who knows where that could lead.
– It’s hard to make friends if you’re at home watching Netflix all day. (Or so I’ve heard…) So get out there and get involved in something. A ministry at church or in the community, take a walk in your neighborhood, join a small group, take a pottery class, join MOPS, etc. Our culture says that people are too busy and that we should leave them be, but how offended are you when someone says hi, and crosses beyond your basic pass-in-the-hallway greeting. And for crying out loud (at risk for sounding like a grandma here, but also I don’t care) put your phone down. Life on the screen isn’t real life. Even *GASP* in line or in the waiting room, make eye contact and have a real conversation with someone. (Side note: how can we ever share about the hope we have in Jesus if we’re scrolling our lives away and never meeting people or talking to them?)
– Don’t judge a book by its cover. Just because half her head is shaved and her ears are gaged all the way to her collar bone doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t be good friends. And the same goes for the mom in her old college sweatshirt with three kids hanging on her and no time for makeup. People are people. It can’t ever hurt to get to know them.
– Don’t just migrate to friendships in the same lane as you. I love friendships with older women, younger women, single women, veiled women, career women, women in the same season as me, women from vastly different cultures as me, etc. Variety IS the spice of life.
– Not every person is a “next level friend”. And that’s ok! Love them at the level of friendship where you are and see where it goes. Care for them because we’re called to love all people. Serve them if and when the opportunity arises. But you don’t have to beat yourself up if your paths don’t cross that often or they’re not the first person you text when wondering whether or not you should paint your bathroom an eggplant purple.
– When you do find those few and rare gem “next level friends”, make time for them, talk to them, work at it as you would any relationship of deep meaning and value.
– Invest in the mover/relocating/soon-to-deploy person too. You never know when it could be you, and at the same time, you never know when your paths may cross again, how keeping in touch could mean so much, and if/when you might end up in the same town again.
– Long distance friendships can still pack a lot of punch and value for your soul. So just because you’re moving or they’re moving doesn’t mean it’s over.
– Cliché as it may sound, they don’t have a friend like you. And don’t assume they already have enough friends, or that because they have family in the area they don’t need friends. Wrong. We all need people in our lives, and friendships enrich our lives in so many ways.
– When tragedy or grief or hard days come, don’t shy away. That’s when they need a friend the most. Don’t know what to say? Then say, “I don’t know what to say. But I’m here for you.” And in my own personal experience with grief and hard times, food goes a long way.
– If you’re needing a certain kind of friend, or friends that fit you as a couple, or friends to help or encourage you, or friends to have fun with (etc.) take it to God. He knows, he cares, and he’s the maker and provider of all good things. Throw out your cares and requests to him! And in the meantime, know that there is no better friend than God. Although, honestly, IDK if he would choose eggplant for your bathroom.
Three pieces of French toast in the skillet, all for me. Shawn’s already at work, purple paisley tie in place, and Noella is napping with lavender chest rub on her chest, and her humidifier on high because she’s sick/allergies/teething/who-knows-really. I make myself some coffee, pour some orange juice, and give myself a shot in my belly. I give myself that shot every morning, and I’ll continue to until the baby is six weeks old. Although it’s not pleasant, it’s my daily reminder that I’m pregnant. Of course, her kicks and movements are also a reminder that I’m pregnant. It’s our second front row seat to a miracle we never knew if we’d get to experience. And I love it so very much. I try to visualize what body part is poking me in my side, and tickling me under my skin, and I wonder for the 7500th time what she’ll be like. I wonder if she’ll look like Noella. I wonder how her eyes, personality, and newborn preferences will differ.
Yesterday Noella made a loud happy screech about something (probably Cheerio’s) and the baby in my belly responded with full body flips and kicks. They say babies in utero can hear and respond to noises from the outside, and this was no doubt a clear response. It warmed my heart because it was like they were communicating. There was a connection between sisters, even if they weren’t fully aware. The same movement happened the other day when Noella was screaming in an attempt to boycott a mandatory diaper change, and it just made me smile to think of the little one hearing and knowing her sister’s voice/cry/screech/laugh/scream.
Noella loves to pick up my shirt and “look at sister” which is so cute until we’re in public and then it’s so many shades of awkward, and the public is exposed to the belly bruises from my shots, resulting in looks of confusion. It’s also adorable when she lifts up her shirt and looks at, pokes at, and pats her own belly. I died a little the other day when she crawled over and gave the baby pictured on the wipes box kisses. ONE THOUSAND HEART EYES. Aside from the way she violently throws her dolls, and ruthlessly slams them to the ground, I think she’ll be a great big sister.
It feels like a far away dream I’ve been dreaming my whole life to have a baby, and then two, and then to think of them meeting, and to see Shawn holding another newborn baby girl, and to see and hold her in her first moments of life. It’s beyond me!
But the reality of those first few months, and the adjustment does overwhelm me at times. I need God to give me strength. We don’t have family here to help, Shawn will have to go back to work, there will be nursing demands 24/7, and the frenzy of two under two, and a house to sweep and meals to make, and laundry and dishes, a dog to feed, no doubt a scorpion or two to kill, two to bathe and dress and feed again, all mixed with who-knows-what postpartum insanity and hormonal rollercoaster of the day. Oh my!
I’m so so excited and ready, but I acknowledge that I need God’s strength. I know that now, having gone through it once. I want to soak up every sweet moment when our time as a family of four comes. So I pray now for the strength I’ll need then – and it’s a strength that will be available to me by God’s grace! And meanwhile, I’ll enjoy one of the sweetest things pregnancy has to offer: the anticipation of the joy that is to come. And three pieces of French toast to myself!
Addiction. Anger. Abuse. Affairs. Anxiety. Thrilling topic, throw a cricket in my coffee while you’re at it. Infertility. Loss. Miscarriage. Depression/Post-Partum depression. I wouldn’t mind stepping on a Lego right about now. Disease. Suicide. Debt. A rocky marriage. A teen pregnancy. Children who are struggling. Pass me the Chick-Fil-A sauce, I think I will stay for lunch, after all.
It seems there are two cultural responses to ‘the struggle’ (whatever that struggle may be):
Tell everyone. Have shirts, wristbands, hats, hashtags, tattoos, and bumper stickers of ‘the struggle’ made. Alert the media. Find a way to get on the TODAY show, if possible. Talk about it, even story top at parties if necessary. Yours is the only struggle that matters, so make that known. And definitely don’t bother to listen to someone else’s struggle, or even ask their name or where they come from. And certainly don’t get help, because if you do, what on earth will you tweet about?
NEVER TELL ANYBODY.
Examples one and two may be slightly extreme, but that’s how it seems to me, often times. When you find yourself in a new social circle, or hey, even with your same old group, when and how do you bring up ‘the struggle’? “Thanks for loaning me your weed eater. Btw, my husband and I are dealing with ongoing, unexplained infertility.” “How’s your cinnamon and spice latte? Ps- my brother is in rehab. Again.”
Our world may have an extreme and skewed way of sharing, or (I’d say more often than not) NEVER sharing ‘the struggle’. But when we can be vocal, as Christians, about the hardships, the loss, the pain, the rockiest road we’ve ever walked… then we can also freely and openly point to a God who redeemed us, saved us, brought healing, and a way out when we saw nothing but darkness and no light. There is hope, and there is a cure. THAT’S something to share from the rooftops. “I was blind, but now I see.”
We can own our stories not because there’s any glory for us, but because our God works in the mess, and only he can take a bruised up story and make it beautiful for his glory.
If there’s one thing that could make me cry every time I stop and think about it, a sweet place my mind wanders to, a place of deep gratitude, it’s the feeling of knowing that I’m loved by Shawn. He has told me, and shown me, and proven it to me a million and one times. Even in the midst of my own childlike fits of rage, rudeness, and disrespect, he’s shown me that he will always love me. I don’t deserve it. When I’ve messed up, and have finally given in to the burning tears, I ask, “So do you hate me now?” And he says, every single time, without hesitation, “I could never hate you.” And he means it.
Most anniversaries are a celebration of how the couple has made it another year. I’m a huge fan of anniversaries and I think they should be celebrated. For our 10th anniversary we had a beautiful custom cake made for ourselves with a gold fondant “10” on it. Because it’s worth celebrating. And also… cake!
But this anniversary, our 14th, I want to let my mind wander to that place of deep gratitude where I can reflect on this undeserving grace I have been given in knowing I’m loved. That has impacted me more in my life than probably anything else. To have, and to know this kind of love is the greatest gift of my lifetime. But let this be a reminder to us all that God loves us this way, and in even bigger and more powerful ways than we can even wrap our minds around. He pursues us, he looks at us when we’ve landed on the floor in a pile of sobs and says, every single time, without hesitation, “I could never hate you.” And he means it. He loves us because he loves us. He loves us because that’s his character. He loved us at our worst, at our darkest, and he still chose to step up and take torture, death, and hell on our behalf.
Most anniversary blog posts don’t mention hell, and most wives don’t brag about how much they’re loved. It feels… oddly… conceited or something. But it has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with God, and it has to do with grace, and it has to do with Shawn choosing to love me no matter what, and taking his vows seriously. May we all learn from his example. May we all choose to love without hesitation. Because this kind of love does, after all, exist. “We love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19