Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Where My Feet are Planted

People have been asking how we're doing. How we've been getting through each day.
My short answer: one moment at a time.
My long answer: We're soaking in every minute with our kids, their laughs, their giggles, their questions. We're spending time with friends. Investing time with family. Feeling our active Baby Girl kick in utero, wondering what she'll be like and completely stunned that she'll be here in six weeks or less. We're talking, laughing, crying, remembering, celebrating, and grieving. Experiencing every emotion possible, all at the same time.

It's been almost three months since Ben entered heaven. And we've spent that time trying to find out what life without him on earth looks like.
Jack talks about his brother multiple times a day. He'll point to one of the hundreds of pictures that line our walls and say, "I wish it were... THIS day!" And he'll go on to explain the adventure they were experiencing in that particular moment. Catching a frog, making a slingshot out of the water hose in the backyard, making s'mores and spider-dogs while camping two years ago. And each of his memories is just beautiful. How else would you expect a five-year-old to remember his twin, the only person he spent more time with than his own mother? Every single one of his memories is tied to Ben. It was a relationship we had worked hard to foster since birth. Ben's absence means a whole new learning curve for his brother who is now learning life as a singleton. And so it seems that Jack's timeline of life is now divided into three sections: When Ben was alive, When Ben was sick, and After Ben died.
Oh, how it breaks my heart.

Jack drew a picture of our family, all six of us. Including his new Baby Sister, still 33 weeks in utero.
There are days when Andy and I are especially weepy, crying much of the day and into the night. And then there are a string of several days where the tears don't come. I don't know that we feel any further from God on any given day. We just hurt. And grieve. And try to move on.
We're different people than we were seven months ago. We feel more deeply. We love more passionately. We hurt more severely.
Oh, how I wish we never had to walk this road. How I wish that God would have allowed us to have Ben - the healthy Ben - for a long long time. What I wouldn't give to have my whole family together again.
Throughout these past few months, I've had a lot of tough moments. Moments that made me cry until my eyes burned. Moments where I missed our old life with Ben so much that I wanted to throw up. Moments that made me so angry where I just wanted to give it all up and just hide in a corner. But in thinking about our horrific journey over the past few months, one moment stands out as my worst. And it lasted much longer than a few moments.
My lowest low was just before we came home from the hospital with Ben. Our compliant four-year-old had emerged from life-threatening brain surgery with flying colors, just days after discovering the source of his headaches, and we waited a pain-stakingly four days for them to determine what kind of tumor we were dealing with. Up until that point, I was full of faith. Scared, but hopeful. There's no way God would take our son, I thought. He needs us to trust Him. Just like God tested Abraham. He wouldn't ask us to sacrifice our own son. He will carry us through. I just know He's going to heal Ben. We knew our God was capable of a complete physical healing, but we were also aware of His sovereignty. God was in no way obligated to intervene. But we weren't allowing our imaginations to go there. Not unless we had to.
And then we had to.
The neurosurgeon said Ben's tumor was Stage IV Glioblastoma. Cancerous. Aggressive. The most aggressive of the aggressive tumors, just shy of the line where doctors would have deemed him 'untreatable.' Ben had a 3% chance of survival with this cancer that normally showed itself in a man of his fifties. But it also had a 100% reoccurrence rate. We would undergo an extensive treatment plan, but even in the best case scenario, that would only give us a little more time with him on earth. It would not heal him.
It was a death sentence.
The tears of anguish Andy and I cried in the hallway of Children's Hospital that night tasted even bitter than the thousands of others we had shed over those past few days. Without a miracle, we had a pretty good idea of the road that faced us. Even after looking into several homeopathic options and running them by our doctors, we were being sent home in order to watch our son die.
That, my friends, was my lowest point.
I was at the bottom of the pit. In darkness. Completely confused and angry at my God for allowing this to happen. We had always tried to be so faithful. How is something like this even possible? Our story had begun to spread and people felt invested in seeing how God was going to carry us through. Was this some sort of reward for being a faithful follower? Was it possible that we were just too grateful, too proud, of everything He had blessed us with?
That's when it's especially important to know where you stand. To have chosen a solid foundation where you keep your feet planted. Because without it, we would have surely drowned.
It was during this time where I was especially grateful to have memorized scripture in the past.
I'm telling you, there is no one in the world that can pull you out of a pit that deep. No word of encouragement from a friend of stranger that would shed light on your situation. No self-help book in the world that can talk you off the cliff. It's that silent voice of God, speaking to you in the midst of the darkness. Those quiet words of faith that you memorized as a child that speak against the words of doubt, worry, and fear. Those words of truth you've cling to all your life. That you knew to be true because you had seen them in action for many years as you've walked with God.
When I was in high school, I kept a small notebook of some of my favorite verses. I still have it. Throughout different points in my life, I've taken it out and scrolled through until I found one that encouraged me and then committed it to memory. Not only did that simple practice help get me through some challenging times, but it also helped keep me focused. In times of doubt, those were the words that were brought to my mind.
This past weekend, our pastor talked about having a Life Verse. A verse (or collection of verses) from the Bible that you've chosen to define you. To outline your faith and give you structure for your life. And the one I've always identified with was Jeremiah 29:11.
"For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord,
“plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give
you hope and a future."
Those horrific few months where I had to watch my baby struggle were some of the worst moments of my entire life. Largely because I couldn't see where truths outlined in that verse fit in anymore. I had always been able to see God's hand in my life. Even when things didn't go exactly according to my plan, they always turned out even better than I could have expected. We prayed for God's protection, His blessings, His favor. And He had always proven to be a merciful and gracious God. But this situation seemed to throw all of that out the window. God wants what's best for me? How is this good? How is this positive? How was this going to benefit me? How could this possibly give my family a hope and a future?
Honestly, I still don't have the answers to those questions. I'm doubtful that I ever will. I do see glimpses of how God used our story for good. And that brings me a lot of comfort. But it doesn't take the pain away. They are, however, the closest thing to "answers" as I can muster.
And yet, in the midst of it all, I hold to the truths I've memorized:
  • God is good. All the time. (1 Timothy 4:4,5)
  • Only good and perfect gifts come from Him. (James 1:17)
  • He loves us more than anything. So much so, that He sent His only son to die so we could be saved. (John 3:16)
  • He will make everything perfect, in His time. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
  • Everything will eventually work out for His glory. (Romans 8:28)
As much as I may have wanted to abandon my faith over the past few months - and Lord knows, I tried - I couldn't. Because God has always been so real to me. My faith has always been my stronghold. Andy was the one who had to remind me when we were in the thick of things: "Mindy, we can't do this on our own. We need the Lord." Oh, he was so right. The truths listed in these scriptures weren't just words on a page. They were breathing breath into my lungs. My silent strength. Even when I struggled to see their validity, I felt them to be true. Just as they always had been. I could never abandon my God because He had never abandoned me.
It still makes me cry to see Ben's picture. To remember how much joy he added to our family, to Jack and Megan... and knowing he won't be here on earth to be a big brother to our newest daughter next month... to know that Jack will be entering kindergarten alone... to know we will be experiencing a whole new "season of firsts" without him. I absolutely hate it.
But as much as it pains me to think of Jack having lost his brother, the possibility of Jack and Megan losing their mom too hurts me even more. I refuse to allow grief to swallow me up and steal my identity. To steal my joy. I refuse to allow my pain to influence and lessen my kids' quality of life. I absolutely refuse.
And so I continue to read scripture. Spend time with my husband and comfort him in his grief. Remind myself of God's sovereignty and take comfort in the fact that God did use Ben's story for good, even though Satan meant for it to destroy us. Read books, care for my growing belly, and spend time with Godly people who encourage me to be myself. To cry, weep, mourn, and remember. To look positively into the future while also being mindful of the past and how far God has carried us. Because as "final" as death feels, I know that it is merely the beginning. And there is coming a day where we will be reunited with our dear son, where God will wipe away our tears, and He will escort us into our forever home, saying, "Well done, my good and faithful servant."
I'm not gonna lie. As much as I know that God still has a plan for me on earth, I am really looking forward to heaven. A quarter of my heart is already there.
And because for the very first time, I'll be Home.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Thoughts from a Modern-Day Psalmist

Psalm 13

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.
One of our pastors used this text in his sermon today. And on Ben's second-month heaven anniversary, I felt every word.
It seems unusual to have passages in the Bible - much less entire chapters or books - dedicated to people complaining to (or about) God. Frustrated when things don't go their way or when it feels like He has somehow remained quiet in our pain. Especially when we know how capable He is of turning things around completely. It almost feels unspiritual. As if we should only be pointed to examples where people blindly accepted God's master plan, even when they didn't understand. 
But I know that I am not alone in saying how comforted I am by many words of the psalmists, who have been given the opportunity to voice their pain, to question God's plan, but always end their rant in praise. The Bible is FULL of stories where people struggled with what God appeared to be doing. It's as if we needed those stories included in God's holy book to reassure us that it's okay to be human.
You see, none of us live absolutely perfect lives. Not a single one. There's not a single human in this world that could exclaim that everything has always gone as planned and that God has always provided everything they wanted, at the moment they wanted it. At least they couldn't do it with a clear conscience. It just doesn't happen.
The only thing we are guaranteed is that in this world, we will have trouble. We will get sick. We will have pain. We will struggle. But Jesus continues in that same verse to say, "But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Perhaps that's why passages like this one in Psalm 13 bring me comfort. It doesn't end with pain and suffering. Death doesn't have the final say. God does. Not only is He the ultimate encourager and comforter, but in conquering death, He literally overcame the world!
We have HOPE!
Shortly after Bed died, I had breakfast with a long-time family friend and pastor. All along our journey, she empathized with our pain and her heart also cried out to God for Ben's physical healing. Her oldest grandson was just two months older than my boys and we had great memories of the three boys playing together last summer. She said that the news of Ben's aggressive diagnosis frustrated her and was one of the very few times in her life where she was literally mad at God.
I knew exactly what she was saying. I had had those feelings, too. I have been a Christian my whole life. I always felt His blessing on my life and so it was somewhat easy to trust Him. And yet, the moment when things started to look bleak, when it looked as though I could lose my son, I was ready to just throw in the towel and give it all up. I was very angry. And I definitely let God know.
But then she went on to say how beautiful it was that somehow, God had been using our gifts to tell the world about His goodness and even the joy that can be found in the midst of so much difficulty. If we were willing to acknowledge Him. "You're a modern-day psalmist, Mindy," she told me. "We read your cries to God and we feel your pain. And yet, you're reminding us to come back to Jesus. Because He's the only one that can heal our wounds."
A modern-day psalmist. Yes.
I am just as imperfect as the men who wrote those psalms. I get angry with God and question His motives. I wrestle with my emotions just as much as the psalmists struggle to see God in the midst of their afflictions. David, the writer of this psalm and many others, was far from perfect. He fell in love with a married woman, got her pregnant, had her husband killed in battle to make his death look like an accident, and God STILL used him to reach many people for Christ. Because God is not looking for perfect people. He's not looking for people who don't struggle, whose feelings don't fluctuate on a daily basis. He just wants us. As we are. To be honest with our humanness so God can do the rest. When we're willing to be used by Him, there is just no telling what He can accomplish.
Like David, I like to think of myself now as a psalmist. A regular imperfect person who's used a platform to complain, vent, scream, and yell my frustrations to my God. But because I've been walking with God for a while, I am far too aware of His goodness and grace to just stop there. Even as I acknowledge my wounds, I have so many good things around me to point back to His never-ending faithfulness and generosity.
As our pastor reminded us, "Faith isn't the absence of questions. It's knowing who to ask."
That's why I won't allow my psalm to end when my rant ends. I can't help but come back to God's sovereignty and power. To be reminded of His mercies that He provides every morning. To celebrate the life of my four kids: in heaven, on earth, and in utero, and just be in awe of His goodness. He is still God. And He is good.

God, even though I am so angry that this had to have happened... even though I hate the pain that my family had to suffer in losing my child... even though I hate knowing that I will never see that beautiful boy on this side of heaven again... I am so grateful that You allowed us to care for him, even for a short time. I am grateful for the ways you remind us of the mark he has left on our family. And I am very grateful that you are a God whose mercies are brand-new every single morning. I will continue to praise You in the midst of my pain. Because You have always been so very good to us.
I am so grateful to serve a God who is big enough to handle our questions. Our frustrations. Our bouts of disbelief and sadness. This world is full of so much sadness: friends move away, people die, kids get sick. And we, as Christians, are nowhere near exempt. The fact that we grieve, mourn, and hurt only mean that we are human. And we should take comfort in the fact that that is precisely how God designed us. But we also need to be reminded that that's only the first part of the story.
God is still God. And He is good.
The pastor ended the sermon with this:
"God has a perfect track record. He has never let a single person down. And He's not going to start with you."

Saturday, July 5, 2014

When God Winks

A friend of mine gave me a book called "When God Winks at You" shortly after Ben died. It's filled with stories of amazing coincidence, showing us the subtle and not-so-subtle ways God uses to show us that He's caring for us.

It was a relatively quick read and it gave me words to be able to communicate when I experienced one of those divine appointments. The huge frog and snake Jack found the morning after his brother died: a God-wink. The sparrow that he found when our heads were spinning just a few days later: another God-wink. Examples where the God of the universe proved to us - in very tangible and meaningful ways - that we were not alone.

God has continued to show Himself in unexpected ways along our path through grief. But the most recent happened almost two weeks ago while more than eight hundred miles away from home.

Andy and I took our kids to Myrtle Beach last week for a family vacation. We knew it would be tough. This was Ben's favorite spot and he begged for us to fly on an airplane to go earlier this spring, but we went to Florida instead because the weather would have been more tropical in March. We last ventured there in August and it was - by far - our best family vacation yet. We knew it would be emotional, staying in the same place, swimming in the same pool, frequenting the same restaurants and attractions. But we decided that it could also be a time of healing for us. Andy drove straight through the night and we arrived last Monday, the 23rd.

Immediately after we arrived, Jack wanted to go to the beach. So after we got settled and had something to eat, we brought our new shovels and nets to enjoy the warm breeze and the gentle waves of the Atlantic while our kids rolled in the sand and searched for critters.

Two of our earthly blessings on the dock of our favorite beach
Jack fishing for anything that was willing to jump inside his net
Megan Joy, truly a ray of sunshine
Meanwhile, Andy and I sobbed.

We were expecting it to be emotional. Not physically painful.

After we put the kids to bed, we wept. Andy cried himself to sleep and I went on the back patio to let it out and not wake up the kids. I wanted to throw up. My stomach hurt. My heart ached. It felt like someone had punched me in the gut. Repeatedly. And I desperately wanted to go home. This was just way too painful.

You know, maybe this was just too early for us, I thought. Maybe it was just too much, too soon. We could literally see Ben run alongside his brother in the waves. Jack still fit into the same swimming trunks he had worn in August. Physically, he doesn't look that different than when we visited less than a year ago. Megan rolled in the sand and made funny faces as the waves crashed on her little body. And she looked sooo much like her brother. This was just way too difficult.

If I hadn't just gotten out of a car after fifteen hours of straight driving (and on the eve of my third trimester,) it would have been easy for me to convince Andy to leave. He felt the same way. But Jack and Megan were having so much fun. Jack had been counting down ever since we told him we were leaving, just nine days before. This mommy knew I couldn't have handled more questions of 'How much longer till we go to the beach?' than that. We couldn't let them down. We would have to stick it out.

As with most things in life, I'm so glad we did. The first two days were the hardest. We cried at almost anything. Especially when Jack would excitedly ask us, "Remember when me and Ben used to do THIS?" We continued to cry as we needed, whenever we missed our son more than we could contain.

But even in the midst of our storm, God was there. More than eight hundred miles away from home, and God chose to show Himself in the smallest and most meaningful ways. To give us hope. And peace.

The biggest fish we caught was grabbed by Megan! She was ecstatic.
The second day we were there, we saw a cardinal. He was beautiful. His high-pitched little chirps got our attention first when we were swimming in the pool. And then we'd spot him: on the fence, in the tree, on the bench. Just a few feet from us. Such a lovely sight.

On the bench inside the pool
Now, I've been to this same exact same vacation spot just south of Myrtle Beach about a dozen times. It had been my family's favorite getaway since I was in high school and I had spent many summers there enjoying the simplicity of the pool and the beach even before I met Andy. Once we were married, we went there for our first summer vacation and then we took the boys when they were eighteen months old. Then we were there this past August and then again this June.

And this is the FIRST cardinal I have ever seen there. Ever.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But I seriously disagree.

That cardinal visited us every single day during our visit. It was as if it were trying to make sure we were paying attention to it, the way it flew around us and screeched his loud chirp. Right away, we knew that it was a sign from God, a sign that He was with us. That Ben would not be forgotten. A God-wink. The third day, we started saying, "Thanks, Ben," whenever we saw our new friend. Jack would excitedly jump out of the pool as if he were trying to catch him. It became something we looked forward to everyday.

I believe that God sent that cardinal to that exact spot just for us. We all did.

When we returned home, sun-kissed and rejuvenated, I uploaded several pictures onto Facebook to share with my friends. Another mom of twins commented on the photo/story of the cardinal saying that one of her friends posted this a while back. And it gave me chills.

"A cardinal is representative of a loved one who has passed. When you see one, it means they are visiting you. They usually show up when you most need them or miss them. They also make an appearance during times of celebration as well as despair to let you know they will always be with you. Look for them, they'll appear."

Now, I don't really get into folklore or myths or old-wives tales. But c'mon, now. That is just beautiful.

A God-wink.

An opportunity that God used to remind us of His grace. Hope. And security.

The wounds we carry are deep. As someone said, we loved much and so we grieve much. Over the past few days, I have sobbed unexpectedly after taking off Ben's Toy Story bed sheets to replace them with new girly ladybug bed sheets for Meg (who's been sleeping in his bed, next to her brother.) I cried to see Megan wearing the lanyard with the kids' photo IDs from the town pool last summer. And just today, I sobbed uncontrollably after receiving our new insurance cards with only four family members listed; it was just another harsh reminder of Ben's absence. I honestly thought that it would get easier. That I would somehow cry less or feel less of our loss over time. But that has just not been the case. If anything, it has gotten harder. More difficult as we experience the consequences of our loss in our everyday activities and celebrations. In my head, I am grateful to know that Ben is not in pain and that he is enjoying the fullness of God's presence in the glory of heaven. But in my heart, I miss my son. I miss his influence in our family. And I don't suppose that will ever go away.
As I was enjoying a quiet moment on the beach, I wrote Ben's name and then Megan came up and put a sand crab inside the heart above his name. It was as it should be.

But even in our grief, there is much joy. I have now rounded the corner of the third trimester and our (seemingly very healthy) baby girl should be here in about ten weeks, just after our oldest begins kindergarten. Jack is enjoying his new summer activities and Megan is just exploding into such a vivacious and fun-loving young lady right before our eyes. Yesterday, I asked her if she liked fireworks. "No, I not like fireworks," she responded. "Dey scare me. I yike worms, though!" How is she only two? Jack's simple child-like faith daily encourages my own.

Where there is sorrow, there is also joy. Where there is grief, there is also much happiness. Andy and I have discovered depths of God's grace we never would have cared to know if we hadn't needed to rely on it as much as we do. As difficult as it may feel at times, God is there.

Our family at the Medieval Times. We were cheering for the yellow knight who not only won that evening, but he also awarded Megan as the Queen of the Tournament (who apparently, wore the appropriate color!) Needless to say, it was a pretty special evening for our family.
I hate that this has happened to us. I hate what my son had to go through. I hate that my kids will grow up without Ben right beside them. I hate the pain that our extended family and friends have had to experience right along with us. But as little as I understand, as much as my heart aches every day, I am confident to serve a loving God that swoops me into His arms on a daily basis. Who lets me cry, vent, and scream. And then wipes away my tears and gives me the grace to continue forward. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time.

I wish I could say that I'm over it. I'm recovered. I'm fully healed and at peace. But I'd be lying.

I will always carry this wound, this invisible wound. All of us will. But I am so grateful that I'm not doing this alone. And even though I can't touch my Heavenly Father, I know He is there. Even though I haven't heard Him speak audibly, He has spoken to me in so many ways. Even though I can't prove that these stories aren't just mere circumstances of fate and coincidence, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that He is real. That He is God. That He is sovereign. And that He will continue to look for ways to tangibly remind me of His goodness.

To God be all the glory.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Invisible Wound

On June 25, 1992, my oldest sister and I took a bike ride with our friends. Coming home the local diner, we rode down a reeeeeeeally steep hill before turning onto our road. In retrospect, it really wasn't all that steep, but as a ten-year-old, fifteen degrees on a bike felt like a step down from Mount Everest. My sister was leading the pack from the front and I was carrying the caboose. As I watched her start to round the corner, I saw her hit a big newspaper box at the end of a driveway and somersault over the top of it. She looked as limp as a rag-doll. Twenty two years later, I can still see it. And it happens in slow-motion.
I panicked. I was already coming down fast. So as I turned the corner, I pressed both brakes on my handlebars, bringing my bike to an immediate halt. Immediately. As in, it stopped right in the middle of the road, sending me sailing over the top of my bike and into the street.
I remember crawling over to my big sister, who was unconscious just a few feet away from me. One of our friends rode back to our house to get help while everyone else was crowded around my sister. Those few seconds felt like hours. Was she still breathing? Would she be alright? We all saw her flip over that box. And we were all scared to death.
One of the neighbors came out of her house when she heard the commotion and tried to ask my sister questions. She regained consciousness, but still hadn't the foggiest idea what had happened. She had no idea how she had gotten there.
I scraped my left wrist, but hadn't realized the extent of my injuries until my mom came and picked us up a few minutes later. It felt more comfortable for me to support my left arm with my opposite hand. All of our attention was on my sister. She would need a scan to be sure she was alright, to be sure she didn't have any internal bleeding. I was afraid my parents - who were always hesitant to let us go for rides without them - would ban us from ever leaving the house again. Maybe we were going down the hill too fast. Perhaps we were being negligent. I was silent as we drove to the hospital, except for the parts where I tried to remind my sister of exactly what had happened. After several times, I started to doubt it myself.
My sister's diagnosis: a concussion. She would be fine. Thankfully. It could have been so much worse. Me, on the other hand? I had a broken arm. I would need my arm set back in place (which was probably more painful than the initial break) and then heal for a few weeks with a cast up to my elbow, just three days into the summer. Bummer.
As the summer progressed, people would often ask me what had happened. How did I break my arm? How long would I be unable to get it wet? Could they sign it? But no one even knew that my sister had been part of that same bike accident until I told them the story. It wasn't that her injury was less serious than mine - on the contrary - it was just that her wound was invisible. Mine was highlighted by an obnoxious cast that even got strangers' attention. That's why I was the recipient of so much more initial sympathy.
She had an invisible wound.
I've thought about that story quite a bit over the past few days as we continue to grieve our son's death. I've often heard it said that losing a child is a lot like having an invisible wound. No one can tell by just looking at you, the amount of pain that you have - and continue - to suffer. No one can sense the amount of time you have spent crying over your loss, questioning why God didn't choose to heal Him, and yet praising Him for the wonderful time He had allowed us to have with such a wonderful little boy. It's an invisible wound, much like my sister's from our accident.
I can think of several people in my community that have lost loved ones in the past few years. Tragic circumstances. The kind that just makes your heart sink. A baby who drowned in a backyard pool. A little boy who was hit by a car in his driveway. An otherwise healthy teenager with an undetected blood clot in his lung. All of these precious children died, leaving behind a hurting family, grieving under some of the most tragic circumstances you could imagine. Years later, they still hurt. They still grieve their loss.
But if you put each of those mothers in a line-up amongst other women, you would never be able to determine who was who. Because there is nothing physical on them that demonstrates their loss. Because they chose to go on, to wear a smile even when they would be justified to stay home and cry every day. Because they chose to continue to find good in the everyday. To find ways to celebrate their children's lives, taken too soon. For themselves, for their families, for the loved ones they will see again in heaven.
They, like me, wear an invisible wound. It may not be visible to the naked eye, but given the opportunity, they can share the depth of their wounds and show evidence of their scars. And even in the midst of their own pain, they can give comfort to others.
Mine is an invisible wound. But given the vast number of people that had followed Ben's story, that had been touched by those long eye lashes and dimples of our Benjamin David, I don't feel like it's entirely invisible.
I run into so many people every day who had fallen in love with Ben. When I'm getting bloodwork, at the playground, in the bathroom at Walmart. And each time, women want me to know what a difference Ben's story had made in their lives. That his life was not in vain. Initially, they may apologize for making me upset. For reminding me of my loss. For reminding me of my pain. But honestly, I can't thank them enough.
I feel fortunate to have such a great community of people who are willing to surround us during this time. To acknowledge my invisible wound. To acknowledge the events of the past few months and not dismiss his life as if he never existed. Because that would be even more painful. Having so many people around me has helped with my healing. It helps comfort me in times when I feel sad. When I get discouraged at the possibility of finding joy again. When I worry that I will never be able to look at pictures with him in them without bursting out in tears. Because those people are reminding me that my invisible wound is real. That it hurts. But that it will be okay.
Broken bones heal. People recover from concussions. The invisible wounds sustained by a loved one's death, however, will always be present. But thankfully, the memories can never be erased.

When my dad signed my cast, all he wrote was "Romans 8:28." As a ten-year-old, it seemed kinda funny for a guy that I would have expected to draw a silly picture of himself or write something witty. Something to make me smile. But I probably wouldn't have remembered that if he had. Instead, I committed that verse to memory:

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

And more than twenty years later, I am still finding that to be true.

Friday, June 13, 2014

One Month Later

Today we celebrated Ben's one-month heaven anniversary.
And by "celebrated," I really mean, "had a stomachache almost the entire day because of how much I missed him."
There are a few things I've learned about grief in the past few weeks. It is unpredictable. It is volatile.
And I absolutely hate it.
Not only are we working through the feeling of being a family of five-minus-one, but we are also preparing for another one to join us in about thirteen weeks. We are trying to find a new normal, celebrating Ben's life while also mourning his loss. It's tough. I remind myself of scriptures that point to God's hope, His peace, the strength He offers to those who hurt. And yet there seems to be a big disconnect between my head and heart. What I know to be true and yet what I feel to be true. I still cry out to God in pain, asking why He had to choose Ben. Why our family. Why our son. But then I remind myself that I am not God. These things are not for me to decide. God is sovereign and He is Love. He is working out a bigger picture and we just need to trust Him.
Sometimes, you just have to fake it 'till you make it.
Our biggest concern has been for Jack's well-being. His behavior was up-and-down. In addition to his moments of being especially thoughtful and sweet, he was whiney. Easily irritated. Angry. And neither me or Andy knew how to handle it. We prayed for wisdom, to know how to appropriately act and react to his constant mood swings, from super sweet to super irritable. When to simply love and when to discipline. Jack has always been the more independent one, likely to tempt the limits, but the past few weeks have seemed to push his tendencies to the extreme.
Last weekend, I searched online for helpful ideas to support Jack through his loss. I found a site called "The Twinless Twin," and read about how to counsel a family going through the loss of a twin. They said losing a twin - much less that of an identical twin - can be as painful as the loss of a spouse. I read through much of that information in tears, feeling so sorry for my firstborn. That he had to give up his twin. That he would now grow up as a twinless twin. His birth certificate even identifies him as a twin and always will. Would he always feel this loss? Would he someday have guilt that God chose to take Ben home and not him? My thoughts twirled all over as Andy and I cried over our loss. Jack's loss. Megan's loss. Our unborn baby's loss. It is such a deep hole that has been left. How would we ever recover?
Overall, the site did provide some encouragement. The suggestions they made to provide stability to the surviving twin were things we were already doing: keep pictures around of the twin that had passed, be open in talking about your emotions, and finding opportunities to celebrate their life. I went to bed that night slightly encouraged, but still completely overwhelmed.
As we pulled out of the driveway for a play date that next morning, Jack randomly said, "Mom, I just wish Ben could have grown up to be a man." I started bawling. I couldn't help it. All of my emotions about my twinless twin emerged from the night before and I cried out of sadness and confusion.
"I know, Jack. Me, too," I said in between tears. "I really wish he could have grown up with us here in earth. It makes me sad to think about how much I miss him."
Jack's wisdom - once again - took me by surprise. "Mom, it's okay to be sad sometimes. But Ben is with Jesus in heaven. How many times do I have to tell you?" We laughed about the fact that he's the one encouraging me when I'm supposed to be the one that is comforting him. "Don't worry, I'll keep reminding you of things to be happy about," he told me.
Tell me again: why am I worrying about this boy?
I told Andy about our exchange that morning and we agreed: Jack is going to be just fine.
That afternoon, it occurred to me that, in addition to mourning his brother's loss, that he was working through the normal lack of routine that summertime brings. Now that preschool is over, our family has lacked any regular structure that had been part of our lives since September, even through Ben's sickness. So Andy and I sat down and instituted a list of chores for Jack to complete every day to support our family, as well as an allowance schedule. I'm not sure if it was just good timing or if that's what he really needed, but he has really stepped up to the challenge and seemed to have found a bit of identity and purpose. His behavior in the past five days hasn't been perfect - he is a normal five-year-old, after all - but we have noticed a huge difference since giving him more responsibility around the house again. He seems to have found a new sense of purpose. A source to receive encouragement. And it has been helpful to everyone.
He and Megan are also learning to interact again. But this time, without their mediator. It has been refreshing to see their relationship transition into a new one. Slowly.

But oh, how I miss my Benjamin. Especially through these nice weather days. Days where we would lazily watch both boys chase creatures in the backyard, go to the zoo, the museum, and to my parent's house. We do all the same things. Just without Ben. I hate it. But I suppose I'm getting used to it. Because I have to.
I'm learning that I will never come to a point of being finished with the mourning process. I will never be able to say that I am completely over it. Never. I feel Ben's absence almost every minute of the day. He was a significant part of our family and that's not something that you can just get over. I cry to remember our hospital stay, the pain he had to go through, and how he blindly trusted us to care for him. It hurts. And I hate it. But I am learning to redirect my thoughts. Focus on the positive. Celebrate the laughs, the blessings, the good that God has brought from it. Because I cannot make things better by wallowing in the events of the past. I cannot change a single thing that has happened by simply crying about it. I don't want to be bitter. I want to be a good wife, a good mom, a good friend. While it's okay to be angry at God sometimes, it is not a place where I can stay. It's an empty hole that only gets deeper, the more time you spend there.
And so we move forward. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time.

I told Jack this afternoon that we were going to visit Ben's grave tonight after Daddy got home. "Why?" he asked.
"Because it's been a month since he's been in heaven. It's a way to celebrate his life."

"I don't want to go," he said indignantly.
"We're going to go when Dad comes home. It's a way to remember Ben."
"But I remember Ben. I don't want to go!"
I was nervous to push him into doing something he didn't want to do. But I also didn't want too much more time to pass before we made our first visit back to the burial site, a place we pass by at least twice a day and yet have never stopped with the kids. Andy and I decided that I wouldn't say too much more about it, but that we would stop for a short time on our way to dinner.
Perhaps I should have mentioned proper cemetery etiquette before getting out of the car. Jack was all over the place, climbing on the gravestones, and jumping over plots while chasing the ball he was throwing in the air.
I had a much different idea of how this was going to go.
We put a few roses on my Grandpa Albrecht's grave (who we buried last May just four rows ahead of Ben) and then stood at Ben's site and thanked God for caring for him in heaven. And then we made a swift exit so neighbors wouldn't be offended at the way our son was jumping around the existing gravestones.
But Jack had made it clear that he did not want to be there. I suppose his actions were a way for him to cope with the situation. To handle such a weird event. It must be awkward, to talk so much about your brother being in heaven and yet your mom insisting that you visit the place where his old body is buried. I'm glad we went, though. He did ask a lot more questions as we left and I'm sure our next visit will be a bit more smooth.
Tonight at bedtime, Jack reiterated his love for his brother. "Mom, Ben was my favorite boy in the whole world. He was a really nice boy. Everyone in the world loved him."
Normally, moms would take a comment like that and throw it up to five-year-old exaggeration. But there are a lot of people out there who have come to know - and love - his brother. Even strangers that neither of us know at Target mention how much they love Ben and have grown closer to the Lord because of his testimony. Jack's comment might not be too far from the truth.
Jack asked to feel the baby kick after we read a story, his eyes widening as if each time were the first. I told him that at twenty-six weeks, the baby can hear noises outside of the womb. So tonight, we heard a lot of, "Hi baby sister! This is Jack! I am your big brother! This man is Dad, this girl is Mommy and this girl is Megan! Can you hear me!?"
I honestly have no idea how we'll get through tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the one after that. Each milestone we celebrate without Ben, each anniversary seems to get more and more difficult. But those are not things I can think about right now. I'm only thinking of today.
I know we're going to be alright. I know we're all going to be okay. Not because we won't feel the pain in a few years or forget how much we loved Ben. But because we choose to keep going. To find JOY. To celebrate the good, weep over the bad, and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. Because as much as I long to be with Ben, I can think of no one else I would rather care for my son than my heavenly Father... at least until I get there.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

His Eye is on the Sparrow

It's been more than three weeks since Ben passed away. I honestly thought it would get easier.
Not quite yet.
We have periods of intense faith. Confidence. Ben is whole again. Healthy. With Jesus. There is no greater comfort than knowing that to be true. We have hope in God's promises. And that comforts us immensely.
But then we have periods of intense pain. Especially when we remember the little boy from before the headaches. The laidback, goofy, and self-sacrificing little boy who was such a huge part of our family. The peacemaker. The teacher. We feel hurt to feel his absence, pain to remember what he had to go through, and anger to think about life in the future without him.
I had to look up the seven stages of grief today. I wondered where exactly I fit on the spectrum.
Looking it up gave me words to talk about it with Andy tonight. To describe where I felt like I was in grieving our son and see where he was.
This website describes seven stages of grief including:
  1. Shock and denial
  2. Pain and guilt
  3. Anger and bargaining
  4. Depression, reflection, and loneliness
  5. The upward turn
  6. Reconstruction and working through
  7. Acceptance and hope
As it turns out, I'm not in any one stage. I'm in a constant flux of almost all seven stages, all at the same time, changing from one minute to the next.
As much as our emotions fluctuate, we've seen the same in Jack. He is only five, though, so he mourns much differently.
Jack is our firstborn. Independent and impulsive. He is a thinker and very passionate. And so we've seen him act out - on both ends of the spectrum.
The same sweet boy that offers us cold glasses of water, extra pillows for my back, and patiently teaches Meg how to play badminton... is the same boy that makes unrealistic demands, uses a nasty tone with his mom, and loses his temper on a moment's notice. We can see him working out his grief, learning to manage without his twin brother at his side, and navigate through an otherwise familiar world. He's just as volatile as we are. His emotions are just not as sophisticated as ours. We guide, comfort, correct, and pray for wisdom to help us discern when to use each.
I took the kids to the town park the other day. It was a relatively last-minute decision, so I hadn't organized anyone else to meet us there. It was one of the boys' favorite spots. A lake with snakes, ducks, fish, and frogs, as well as a playground for Meg. I was extremely exhausted, (being six months pregnant will do that to you,) waddling around the park, trying to be sure Jack didn't jump into the water to find another water snake for himself, while also entertaining Megan who just wanted to ride on the swings. And Jack wasn't listening. "I'm NOT leaving until I find a frog!" he insisted. I just about had it. We had already been there for almost two hours. I didn't pack any lunches because I was at the end of my grocery week and so we were all hungry. It was getting close to Megan's naptime and I wanted nothing more than to sit down. "We can't go now!" Jack cried. "Then who else am I going to play with today?" I somehow managed both kids into the van and we headed home. Jack was sad when I admitted I didn't have energy to find him another playmate while his sister napped. And I was angry.
Angry that I had to worry about finding my son additional playmates. I never had to do that before! I worked hard to teach my boys how to play nicely with each other. For the past two years or so, I felt like my hard work had paid off (although it was probably just because of who they were.) Jack and Ben played beautifully together, complimenting each other very well. When they did have a conflict, they seemed to resolve it relatively quick. It was so easy just to send them outside for them to entertain themselves while I enjoyed watching from the sidelines. We went on play dates all the time, but they weren't anything I had to construct more than once or twice every single day!
I sobbed. And sobbed. The whole way home. It's a good thing there weren't many cars on those back roads I took home that day. Because if there were, I would have had to pull over to recover. I almost did.
Why, God, did you have to take Ben? Jack needs him! I need him! I hate the fact that I have to work so hard to entertain my firstborn these days. Especially while carrying for this new life inside of me. He never needed this before. Why did you have to take Ben?
Driving by the cemetery where Ben's body is buried didn't lighten the tears either.
I was so angry with God. WHY did this have to happen?!? Couldn't we have all learned the same lessons if You would have given him the complete physical healing we had so desired at the end of it all?!? You would have still gotten the glory!
I let Jack watch Curious George while Megan napped and I laid down on the couch next to him. I was spent. Sad. And not knowing how we could ever reach the other side of this nightmare. Near the end of the first episode, Jack came over and started snuggling into my lap. "How is the baby feeling?" he gently asked. "Can I get you anything?"
Oh, the forgiveness of a five-year-old. So resilient. So sweet. It was as if he had forgiven my frustration earlier. He wanted to move on, too.
His faith is just beautiful, too. The other night at bedtime, I asked him if there was anything he'd like to pray for. He said he wanted Jesus to heal his bad cough. Then, with the next breath, he added, "But if I die, I'll be able to see Ben!" Sheesh, talk about a silver lining!
Today while driving, Jack and I started talking about Ben. I don't even know how it all began, but I do remember saying something about how Ben's tumor wasn't like having a cold or a bad cough. "The doctors knew that Ben's bump was serious. They told me and Daddy that he probably wouldn't be able to walk or talk after a while. And that they thought he was going to die." I suppose I felt it was important for Jack to know that Ben's death didn't really take us by surprise. That Jack wouldn't receive a similar fate if he complained of a headache. My heart just sunk to feel his deep hazel eyes stare into the back of my head. And my emotions took control.
"Sad tears?" he asked. We talked again about how it was okay to cry sad tears because of how much we would miss him. How we will always miss him. But those sad tears are also happy because we know he is with Jesus. And that there truly is nothing better than that. "But I will work hard to distract you from sad tears, Mom!" he told me.
Ben is with Jesus. That's all my firstborn needs to hear before he snaps back toward optimism.
The faith of a child. So simple. And yet so profound.
But God is not only using our son to help heal our pain. Even in the midst of our grief, God seems to have been going out of his way to show us signs of His presence.
This spring has been a (surprising or perhaps not-so-surprisingly) good one for wildlife around our house. Snakes and frogs have been unusually large and colorful. Butterflies have been prevalent and meaningful. Even squirrel, chipmunk, robin and bunny sightings have brought an incredible amount of joy to my kids. And in turn, their parents.
Yesterday, Jack caught a huge frog, "Kermit," at my sister's house. Meg really enjoyed him, too.

Today, Jack rescued a baby bird who fell out of a nest. "MOM!!!" he came running up to me on the back deck, "Look what I found! Dad will be so excited! And Ben would've been so 'frilled!" He said birds were his favorite because they could fly. Just like Ben.

Jack was really excited to show Andy when he got home, which thankfully, was only ten minutes later. "Is it a sparrow?" Andy asked. Curious, I looked up pictures on my phone. Without realizing, I started humming that old familiar hymn from my childhood. Initially, my thought was that it was a robin. But then I realized that baby sparrows had that little yellow stripe under their beak.
"Yes! It is a sparrow!" I told them excitedly.

We named him Jack. Jack Sparrow. heehee
And then I started crying again. God sent a sparrow. To our house. To my son. To my family. To remind us that He is caring for us, just as He cares for this sparrow. Oh, the symbolism was just too much to be a coincidence!
Here are the lyrics of the song:
Why do I feel discouraged?
Why do the shadows come
And why does my heart feel lonely
And long for heaven and home
When Jesus is my portion?

A constant friend is He
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me

So I sing because I'm happy
And I sing because I'm free
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me

So I sing because I'm happy
And I sing because I'm free
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches
And I know He watches
And I know He watches me
And here's a beautiful video, too.
We still feel anger. Peace. Sadness. Hope. And I'm sure those feelings will continue to fluctuate as we experience life without Ben. We grieve much because we loved much. That little boy's death left quite a hole in our hearts. But it always seems to come back to God. The fact that He has not abandoned us. He has not left us without hope. He is big enough to control the universe and yet small enough to live comfortably in each of our hearts. And send us reminders that He is still there, still in control, still loving us along the way.
If He loves a little sparrow enough to care for its every need, how much more does He love us?
It is almost unfathomable.
Thank you for the reminders of Your love, God. Keep sending them. We are very grateful for each and every one.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Grieving with Hope

At Ben's Celebration Service, our pastor shared 1 Thessalonians 4:13. That as Christians, we "do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope."
Hope. Such a powerful word.
We grieve. Yes, we grieve. We cry, remember, laugh, celebrate, sob, and hurt. Christians feel the same emotions as the rest of the world. We are human. But we are also Christ-followers. And our God has conquered death. And we have the promise of heaven if we decide to surrender the control of our lives that He asks.
Because we belong to Him, we have Hope.
I remember having a shirt in high school that read: "No Jesus, No hope. Know Jesus, Know Hope."
This is our hope: Ben is in heaven. We will see him again. And we still have a God-given purpose to fulfill while we are still here on earth.
Without the possibility of hope, I would have crumbled months ago. I wouldn't have had a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I wouldn't have been able to let the funeral home carry Ben's old body out of my house the evening he breathed his last. I wouldn't have been able to let them bury him in the ground. Because I have hope, I know that this was not "the end" for our son. It was just the beginning.
I'm learning that it's okay to cry. To grieve. To mourn. The reason we grieve so much is just a reflection of how much we loved Benjamin. We feel his loss. We miss him being an active and physical part of our family. And that's alright. But rather than dismiss the pain, seal it away in a jar... we need to accept it. Welcome it. And see it as a part of healing. Because we will be with Ben again and for him, it will have felt like only a few minutes since he had seen us last.
Hope. It makes all the difference.
I saw a picture of hope today at my doctor's office. Her name is undecided, but even at only 24 weeks gestation, she is definitely a Sauer and she is just beautiful.
Through everything - the heartache, the pain, the anguish - God chose to bless us with another life. Even before we had learned of Ben's diagnosis. Perhaps God knew we would have needed this gift from the beginning. And we couldn't be more honored.
I will admit, though, that I'm a little scared. Having had gone through the events of the past few months, there's a part of us that would like to think that we're somehow exempt from future trials. That we've "paid our dues" and are now officially off-the-hook from any hardship that may occur in the future. But we know better. God never guaranteed that. In fact, He guaranteed the opposite: that we would have trouble here on earth. But to take heart, He has overcome the world!
We don't have much choice as to what happens to us here on earth. The only choice we have is how we react to it.
It requires a little more faith than I feel like I have most times. But I'm learning to trust. To let go. And give God permission to continue to use us as He sees fit. I don't expect to get it right every single day. But that's my goal, that's where I'm headed. And by God's grace, I know He'll guide me in the right direction. One day at a time.
For now, I choose to celebrate the God of Life, who richly hands out miracles on a daily basis. One of my miracles is comfortable in heaven. Two are sleeping soundly upstairs. And the other is quite cozy at 1 pound, 11 ounces, kicking her mommy from the inside.
Wow. How lucky can a girl be.