Perfect

Lately as the sun’s been rising a little later every day, I’ve been awake in time to see some spectacular sunrises. The best one painted the entire sky with a neon rainbow of color, constantly changing like the turning of a giant kaleidoscope. Though the pageant was brief, I faced my day grateful to be alive.

I recently read that while there’s no perfect life, there are perfect moments. That is achingly true. In this season of my grief, I’ve had so many perfect moments that I’ve almost felt guilty. Shouldn’t I be constantly, overwhelmingly sad? Is a moment of joy a sign I didn’t love deeply enough? I know that’s not true, but either my heart or my head—I can’t tell which in the moment—fleetingly introduces a pang of doubt.

Since the phone call this year which sheared me in two, I’ve patiently cooked dinner remotely with my niblings 1,200 miles away. I’ve found an Amish store which sells homemade bread as good as my grandma’s. I’ve experienced a patchwork quilt of fall colors on the Shenandoah mountains in the morning fog. I’ve watched my mother’s joy as she passed down the childhood memory of candle-dipping to a new generation. I’ve watched my children take successful steps toward settling in as adults. I am so very blessed.

But I’ve also struggled…with grief and exhaustion and energy. I have not been myself. Occasionally, I have to push myself hour by hour until I can fall into bed again. But in between are these perfect moments: some like the sunrises which just happen, and others which I have to create space for or they’d never happen. They’re a reminder—of why I can’t give up, but also that God is so very good. Wishing you many perfect moments in your imperfect life.

“Life fails to be perfect, but never fails to be beautiful.” —Syed Tuba


30

You’d have turned 30 today. You were scheduled to be born two days later by C-section, because of course you took a contrary position from the beginning. It was a sign of things to come.

You were a magical child: adorable, sunny, stubborn…and, oh, that laugh. When you stood in the doorway at church greeting admiring parishioners in your miniature khakis, Mickey Mouse clip-on tie and smoothed-down hair, I knew I had the best little boy in the congregation. You were my treasure.

Things grew more complicated as you grew up, as typically happens in the teenage years. You were the first—but not the last—of my kids to enter and then exit what I now call the “dark years.” We survived it. You came back to me, and we grew close again. I’m beyond grateful that’s how it ended between us.

Today I made your favorite cake—the recipe you found for the extra dark chocolate cake, with the peanut butter frosting made creamy with real cream. Everyone else quietly sang “Happy Birthday” to you, but I couldn’t…it was too hard. We told stories about you, some I’d never heard before. Mostly, we missed you. Yours was a life worth living. Happy birthday son, I miss you.

Love, Mom


Fleas

I just finished Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place at the recommendations of a friend and niece, and I can’t get the ending out of my mind. The first two-thirds of the book is an entertainingly written biography of a family serving the Dutch Underground in German-occupied Amsterdam. But the last third took an unexpected turn as a riveting story of absolute faith and service that left me gobsmacked. I have new heroes in all of the amazing members of the ten Boom family.

It’s the fleas that I can’t shake. They were just one of the many divine interventions enabling the imprisoned ten Boom sisters to minister to hundreds of forgotten prisoners of the Nazi regime. The small miracles on their behalf appeared so frequently they’d have rendered a fictional story unbelievable. Only the truth can truly be stranger than fiction. The wonder of this true story is the deep hope that it offers: if faith and love can survive what the sisters survived, then there’s hope for the rest of us shouldering our own, significantly smaller burdens.

On my toughest days, I have infinitely more love and companionship than Corrie’s lone ant friend. When I’m exhausted from grief and stress, I have a soft bed far superior to Corrie’s fetid straw mat. If Corrie could sustain herself on brief slivers of nature’s glories during short walks to grueling prison labor, then I can surely be cheerful during my own tiny hardships.

God used the tiniest of creatures—fleas—to help the ten Boom sisters do His work; they had the faith to thank Him for what most others would have cursed Him for. I have my own “fleas” for which I, too, need to find the faith to thank God, so I can let Him use them…and me…for whatever work He has planned for me. I, too, believe in miracles.

“When God doesn’t grant your miracles, remember that you are the miracle that He sent for somebody else.” —Nick Vujicic


“I no longer fear death.”

I understand why another bereaved mother wrote this. Though I’ve long had the peace of a strong faith and a belief in heaven, that’s not what she meant. We all live with fear, but mothers especially worry about what could happen to our children. When the unimaginable happens, fear’s power is broken.

Once you’ve helped the coroner identify the child you carried and bore, you realize you can survive the unsurvivable. Those sayings that God only gives us what we can handle, or what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, are crap. No hollow if well meaning saying will help a child’s death make sense or make it ok: I won’t ever understand it, and things won’t ever be fully ok again.

However, I’ve learned I can still laugh and experience joy. I feel loved and even blessed. And I’m no longer afraid: I’ve had my head in the mouth of the monster and survived. I no longer fear death. I’m not in a hurry, but when my time is up, I’ll be running to get where I’m going.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.” —C.S. Lewis


Dream

I don’t have a Dream. I never have, at least not a big Dream with a capital D. I’ve fulfilled small dreams along the way: bearing one and adopting two amazing kids; writing a book; visiting Chernobyl. But I’ve never known what I was driven to accomplish before I’m done.

A friend recently shared progress toward her Dream and inspired me to want one. My youngest has a laser-focused Dream. My best friend has an inspirational one. Both of them have had the same Dream for years. I’m a little envious, yet I wonder: do their Dreams cause them stress that I don’t have because I don’t have one? Part of me only wants a Dream because I feel like I’m supposed to. I really envy those whose Dream and Purpose are the same…now that’s ultimate clarity and direction.

But I don’t have a Dream. Most days my dream is to get enough sleep or sit awhile in the sun or hear my kids laugh. I sometimes feel guilty that’s all I aspire to at the halftime of my life. Maybe that’s ok. Maybe parading our one-eyed dachshund at the farmer’s market or indulging in chocolate peanut butter ice cream or zip lining for the first time is enough. For years, I’ve said that boredom is underrated, especially during the terrorizing times. Maybe I do have one simple, overwhelming Dream: to live in peace. Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll astonish myself and dare to Dream.

“If your dreams don’t scare you, they are too small.” —Richard Branson


Silence

It’s the silence that kills me.

Since you’ve been gone, I think about you, if not continuously, then frequently. Nearly everything makes me think of you: a picture I bought on a trip together; a favorite recipe of yours that’s now a favorite of mine; meaningless news I’d have called and shared with you, knowing you’d understand. Instead, the universe returns only deafening silence. No more calls to or from you. No more reminiscing. No more commiserating. No more celebrating victories, big or small. Only memories…in complete, utter silence.

It’s still a jolt, triggered memories which mercilessly remind me—over and over—that you’re gone. My mind is still processing the unthinkable…it’s not supposed to be this way. So while my brain factually approaches the unimaginable, my heart keeps ripping in two—again and again.

In complete silence.

People who know say it will get easier with time, and they’re already right. I have energy again and the fog is slowly receding. Sometimes my memories of you make me smile instead of cry. But those same knowing souls also tell me that it won’t ever not suck. And I already know they’re right about that, too.

It’s a shitty path I get to walk in your silence, but I don’t have much choice. I haven’t yet made meaning out of your departure, but I will. Your time here was too short, but it mattered. You mattered. When I’m ready, when I’ve figured out how, I will make a tsunami of noise so loud that everyone around me will hear you.

“If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart, I’ll stay there forever.” —Winnie the Pooh


Dr. Robert Jastrow

Robert Jastrow was born in New York City in 1925, graduating with a PhD in physics from Columbia University at the age of 23. Ten years later he joined newly formed NASA as head of its theoretical division, becoming founding director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies three years later, a role he held for two decades, until retiring from NASA to teach and contribute to public policy. Wikipedia describes Dr. Jastrow as an astronomer, physicist, author, and futurist, as well as a prominent climate change denier. The New York Times headline when he died in 2009 called him “the man who made space understandable.” To this teenager growing up in a small Kansas farm town, he was my inspiration.

I now realize how tiny my high school library was in our town of 1,300 souls, but at the time it was a treasure trove. I’m sure I’d consumed one quarter of its contents by the time I graduated from six years of junior high and high school. Period romances, classics, science fiction, biographies…I was a voracious reader. At some point I stumbled upon Dr. Jastrow’s The Enchanted Loom. In it, he described how the human brain evolved and works in simple layman terms that an ordinary 14-year old girl from Kansas could easily understand. It was a revelation: I instantly recognized that his singular gift was not from being a literal rocket scientist, but instead was his ability to explain complex concepts in a way that made them accessible to the masses. I was transfixed. I quickly devoured his only other book in the library, Red Giants and White Dwarves, describing the nature of the universe, and then begrudgingly went back to more ordinary fodder. While I largely forgot about Dr. Jastrow as I went on with my life, a critical seed had been planted, creating a deep admiration for the ability to make the complex understandable. That seed would change my life.

Twenty years later I was struck with what can only be described as divine inspiration for what became my first book, The Best Possible World. I was a busy career woman and mother – I didn’t have time to write a book. But the seed planted so long ago in that tiny library by a stranger couldn’t be shaken, and so I gave in. It turned into one heck of a faith journey that I wouldn’t trade for anything, plus two additional books, one of which gave me a new “family.” Though our paths never crossed, a NASA physicist changed my life.

Through his work on the Mercury and Apollo space programs, his work in public policy, and his legacy from his books and television appearances, Dr. Jastrow left a mark on history. And yet, he was married only once briefly and had no children. I could find no biography written of the man’s work or life. He’s not known for any discovery which would have made him famous. And so any direct impact from his life is, like most of our destinies, gradually fading as those who knew him decrease in number every year. But I still remember him. Not the man who I never met, but a man whose unique talent left an impact on a teenage girl in a small prairie town…proof positive that we can never know the ripple effect of one life on another in this vast universe.

“Astronomers now find that they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation to which you can trace the seeds to every star, every planet, every living thing in this cosmos and on the earth. And they have found that all this happened as a product of forces they cannot hope to discover. That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact.

“For a scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” —Dr. Robert Jastrow


Help

I’m not good at accepting help; I never have been. I’m an independent type, the product of industrious German Mennonites who did for themselves. It’s in my blood to suck it up and muscle through whatever comes along. Until I find my limit, like I did last month.

I gave up the board chair position of the non-profit I loved, and I scaled back at work. I took time for self-care and indulged in activities I enjoyed. It wasn’t enough. I needed help.

A friend had connected me to another mother six years further down my path. Another connected me to his pastor who’s also sadly familiar with this journey. I sat on both names for a long time…so long that one of the friends sent me regular, nudging reminders. I finally reached out, partly because I knew I needed the help, and partly because I couldn’t keep avoiding his gentle nudges. We’ll see what happens.

I’ve written before about another friend’s long ago lesson that you give the gift of giving when you allow yourself to receive. I’ve been on both sides of that equation many times since, but I’m only really comfortable with one of those roles. I do know by now that it’s ok to do both. In this season of my life, I’ll ask for and accept help, so I can heal and recover and be ready to pay it forward when it’s someone else’s turn to give me the gift of giving.

“Ask for help, not because you’re weak, but because you want to remain strong.” —Les Brown


Purpose

When bad things happen, some people say that it’s God’s purpose. While I understand the appeal of trying to find meaning in suffering, I think that’s a load of crap. The Bible describes God as our Father who loves us. No father who loves their child would have any purpose in making their child suffer.

I think, instead, that God can create a meaningful purpose out of any suffering. This is a subtle but critical difference. Espousing that God sends us hardships is cruel and inconsistent with what the Bible tells us about Him. It makes complete sense, however, that by trusting and turning our suffering over to Him, we can find solace and peace and Love. When life delivers a sucker punch, we can either harden our hearts to protect against the next hurt, or we can soften our hearts and work to find the strength and motivation to walk beside others who are suffering on a painfully familiar path. We can be candles, shining His Light in a dark and dreary world.

I once read that there are two types of people: those who say, “Because I’ve suffered, so should you,” and those who say, “Because I’ve suffered, you should not.” Let me turn my sorrows into a purpose that God can use to provide comfort to the next soul destined to walk a similar path.

“You can do the impossible, because you have been through the unimaginable.” —Christina Rasmussen


Stigma

TW: Suicide

My son died by suicide.

I’ve practiced saying that until I can say it without flinching. Expressing it this way was the request of another mother whose son died by suicide. She wondered why we blame suicide victims for their last act by saying they “committed suicide.” Why is there still a stigma associated with suicide, anyway? Well, fuck stigma. My son died of an illness just the same as if he’d died from heart disease, cancer, or COVID. It was the mental illness of depression, but it was an illness nonetheless.

In some ways, his death was a shock; I truly didn’t see it coming. That said, in hindsight the clues were all there. I’ve had the normal “what if” thoughts, but I know in my heart there was nothing I could have done—he was determined for it to be successful. But still, I wish…

The grief has been new territory: the best comparison I can make is a concussion from a blow to the head. Though I’ve never had one, I imagine it to include the same fog and reduced mental capacity and occasional stopping dead in my tracks unable to function. Except for when it’s like a hard punch to the gut, without the physical blow.

The only consolation is the huge gift my son’s life was, though it was too short. He was one of the three true loves of my life. He was laughter when I was down. He was help when I needed it. He was a light in many lives. Though I miss him like crazy, I have peace that he’s no longer hurting and a deep faith that I’ll see him again. Until then, Bryan, “I love you a Brazilian.”

“Remember me and smile, for it’s better to forget than to remember me and cry.” —Dr. Seuss