Everyone in my immediate family has surgical scars. It’s one of the things I’ve always pointed to when highlighting ways we’re alike, even though we don’t all share DNA. When the girls were little, our new puppy “played with” a beloved stuffed Tigger, requiring surgery to repair; even Tigger was proud of the scar which made him one of us. While I’ve pointed to our scars to help us focus on what makes us family, I also wanted the girls to be proud of the scars from the heart surgeries which saved their lives. Little did I realize this lesson would come back to teach me one day.
Megan and I were passing time recently on one of the long drives to Little Rock, retelling family folklore. It comforts us both, somehow, to process our past as we face a somewhat scary future. I was sharing the story of adopting her kid sister when I realized, for the first time and with the full clarity of hindsight, how much fate intervened so that our youngest would end up a McCleary.
We were a few months into the adoption process when we discovered that I had a stomach tumor. We spent the next six weeks on a cancer roller coaster, which included a major and unpleasant surgery. By the time we got the all clear, we needed time to recover from some pretty deep scars, both physical and emotional. When we eventually restarted the adoption process a year later, our little peanut with the million dollar smile joined our family.
I now realize that without that unwelcome interruption, we would have ended up with the wrong daughter. While I’ve long been grateful for the gifts of perspective that specific trauma gave me, it hadn’t dawned on me that I owe the very makeup of my family to those scars. But I suppose that’s often the case, isn’t it? Our scars make us who we are, not just shaping us inside and out, but acting as serendipitous detours which help get us where we end up. Thank heavens I was never really in charge of shaping my life after all…if so, I’d have gotten it very wrong.
“Scars show toughness: that you’ve been through it, and you’re still standing.” –Theo Rossi
“I have learned the true definition of hell.” That was written recently by a mother watching her child suffer, fighting one of the deadly histio diseases on its relentless march through another defenseless body. It’s a horrifying and helpless feeling. My heart breaks for the parents as well as the children when I read their stories.
When I look back on the nearly five decades of my life, I realize that two general phases have cycled back and forth through it all. There are stretches of okay, middle of the road times that have lasted months or even years, interrupted by wrenching, stressful bottoms. The truly wonderful moments haven’t been stretches at all, but just that…moments. But I’ve been blessed that the vast majority of my life has been spent in the averages versus the lows. The lows sure stick with us, though. I remember a stunning level of detail from those times. I am grateful not to have had more of them and am right now walking a leisurely country road.
Then suddenly you get a peek into someone else’s life who is at this moment deep in the pit, and you remember what it was like to be there. All the details–the overwhelming emotions and scars you still carry–come rushing back. And it hits you: those middle of the road stretches are the good times. You haven’t been cheated out of some third, higher level of bliss, in spite of what modern media and our consumer culture try to tell us. Life will never be perfect. Any time of my life where we’re all relatively healthy and safe and together, with a sound roof over our heads and enough to eat is good. Yes, life is very good.
“Life comes from physical survival; but the good life comes from what we care about.” –Rollo May
A friend recently shared an old joke with me that if you ever want to make God laugh, tell Him that you have a plan. I love that, because that’s exactly who I am. I’ve always been a planner, which is just my face-saving euphemism for control freak. I’ve recently faced a big decision that removed much of my control through the process. It has proven a wonderful, frustrating growth opportunity in which to learn to trust God.
Learning to trust God–that sounds simple, and it is. But just because something is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’ve had to tell myself over and over again that God’s plan is perfect. Every time I found myself getting stressed out over it, I realized that I had tried to take back control of the decision, to figure it out on my own. And every time I recognized this and gave it all back to God, a strong sense of peace immediately followed. Why did it take me this long to discover this amazing secret to managing stress? Of course I know why…I’m stubborn and thick-headed and fiercely independent. These are all assets which can serve me well in some aspects of my life, but not in my relationships, including with God.
So I have learned another valuable life lesson, better late than never. I am thankful for the peace this lesson has brought me. And I am especially grateful for a God who does not give up on me.
“The most important lesson that I have learned is to trust God in every circumstance. Lots of times we go through different trials, and following God’s plan seems like it doesn’t make any sense at all. God is always in control, and He will never leave us.” –Allyson Felix
I used to think that Ronald McDonald Houses, which provide temporary housing to family members of children in hospitals, are a good idea. I was wrong–they’re actually life savers for those who suddenly find they need them, something that’s hard to appreciate until you’ve experienced it.
When we packed our car a year ago with enough stuff to last us the expected six month hospital stay 700 miles from home, we were literally driving into the unknown. Topping our list of stressful uncertainties was, of course, concern for our daughter. The vast majority of HLH patients require a bone marrow transplant to save their lives. But BMT itself carries significant risks, and as an Asian adoptee, the chances of even finding a good match for our daughter were low. Then there is the unimaginable disruption of indefinitely splitting your family in two, especially heading into the holidays. How do you keep life and school as normal as possible for your other child? How do you juggle work so the paycheck keeps coming in? What do you do with the family pets in the shuffle? The list is long and overwhelming: even with the tremendous support we received from family and friends, we were always in full-on coping mode.
Enter RMH. After a couple of weeks of living in the hospital with our daughter, a cherished room opened up across the street. Basic but functional and clean, it featured a real bed and, best of all, a private bathroom. Plus a very pleasant surprise: volunteers providing a wide variety of services. There was entertainment, ranging from music to puppet shows to story time. I even got a chair massage one day. But the best volunteer service was the meals. When you’re away from home for an extended period, home-cooked food is quickly missed, especially when the next best option is the hospital cafeteria. These wonderful people, from a different business or organization every night, gave up an evening to make us tacos or chili or spaghetti. Normally a picky eater, I was beyond grateful for every single meal. As a Walmart associate, I was touched by the local Target store team which brought plush Spot-the-dog toys for the children. I love that dog, now sitting on my daughter’s dresser.
So if any of you live near a RMH and are looking for a community service opportunity for your work or church group, please consider RMH. The meal or toys or music or quilts you provide will, trust me, make a difference to families going through the roughest time of their lives. Your gift will be in showing them that they are not alone.
“There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.” –Jane Austen
The older I get, the more I realize just how much life is a marathon. The miles, the wear and tear, the exhaustion. I’ve never run a real marathon, but I think before it’s over, we all have.
Every year I’ve lived has been different, but patterns of sameness have emerged. The years of grief or overwork or stress become familiar. With time and repetition, we learn that we will survive this, too. Sometimes the discomfort is enough to make us change our circumstances, but mostly we just learn to endure.
Endure. That’s the key to a marathon and to life. The silver lining to it all is the love and the beauty which we encounter along the way. There is never enough of either, but their powers are so great that only small glimpses along our path – a lone daffodil, the silvered outline of a cloud, the warm smile of a familiar face – are generally enough to sustain us. Without them, it would be only a long and brutal journey.
I have learned that I need to continue to hone my ability to notice these blessings, as I find it far too easy to focus on the exhaustion and the stress. But the beauty and love are there, if we only remember to look for them and remember that we, too, have the amazing power of bringing them to others on their own, long journeys.
“Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another.” –Walter Elliott
We love Easter. Easter is a time of hope and rebirth. Spring is in the air, the weather warms. But this Easter is especially poignant for us.
Last September, Megan had passed through the valley of the shadow of death. The chemo had done its job of arresting what only a decade ago would have been an inevitable, tragic conclusion. The worst danger had passed, yet all was not well. Her disease markers indicated remission had not happened. We packed the car with provisions for at least six months and drove to Cincinnati, the doctors telling us a bone marrow transplant was next.
In what I will always believe was a miracle, the doctors were wrong. We checked out only a month after we checked in, with Megan suddenly improving. In the best possible circumstances of transplant, we would have been coming home only now. With any complications, we’d have been there for months longer. A little girl and her mother that we met have been there for two and a half years. We are beyond blessed.
As spring and Easter have arrived, I’ve been remembering what could have been. We’d have gotten through it, as people do when they have no choice. Instead, we will dye eggs and decorate Easter cookies and plant our garden. We will laugh and eat a ham dinner together just like it’s supposed to be. But I will also remember those still fighting, still separated from home and family. And I will pray for them to receive the Miracle that we celebrate today.
“And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.” –Luke 24:2-3
Tomorrow is Megan’s first day of school since she became ill last summer, and she’s excited to get back to her friends. We’re excited for her, too, but also nervous. Nervous because a routine virus triggered her illness, and a routine virus could trigger a relapse. Nervous because the chemo altered her appearance; she won’t look exactly the same to her friends who haven’t seen her in six months. And we’re nervous about whether her stamina has recovered enough to last through even the shorter day of a reduced schedule. Although we’re nervous, there was no question that she should go back to school once the doctors cleared her. We can’t keep her in a protective bubble, tempting as that may be.
Returning to school is a significant step on the road back to normalcy. We’re finding, however, that returning to normal isn’t as straightforward as you might think. In five short months, we whiplashed into critical illness and hospital living, and just as suddenly, back into our normal lives. Except it’s not normal. We must look that way to outsiders, and much of daily life is. But it’s taking time to readjust, like the way your eyes adjust when suddenly coming into the light after a period of darkness. I’m convinced that only those who’ve been there can understand it. I’m not sure I fully understand it myself yet.
While I don’t usually put much stock in the symbolism of the new year, this year is different. I’m relieved to put 2014 behind us, along with all we lost. But I’m also grateful for what we gained from the experience, though we’d never have chosen it. Changed, stronger, we will take the good from this forward into our new normal, into our bright new start. Happy first day of school, sweetie…I’m so proud of you!
“Beginnings are always messy.” –John Galsworthy