Saturday, August 13, 2016

Dedicating The Last Mile

Hands, put your empty hands in mine
And scars, show me all the scars you hide
And hey, if your wings are broken
Please take mine so yours can open, too
'Cause I'm gonna stand by you

--Rachel Platten


Back in May of 2005, Ben ran his first (and only--so far) marathon.  He read a couple of books on how to train, and he successfully ran it with his sister and my brother by his side.  He had been a runner for years, but not this extreme distance.  Though he trained, prepared and finished, it was still incredibly difficult for him to do.  His stomach had revolted during the race which held him up for 20 minutes, and for about two weeks after the race he hobbled around like an old man, the sides of both of his feet bruised and painful from swelling inside of his shoes during the 26.2 miles.  When he finished the race, we both cried as we hugged, celebrating his victory.  The entire process of it all was extremely inspiring and emotional.

Ben told me after the race was over that in one of the books he had read to prepare, it shared a tip to maintain motivation during the race by dedicating each mile he ran to someone significant in his life.  He said he dedicated all of his to different people; his parents, his friends, his teachers, his siblings, to me, to our unborn son (who would be born 2 weeks later) and to the other children who would follow, to God, to himself, to his sister and my brother.  He said thinking of who he was running for kept him focused, pushing through the exhaustion and pain.

Oh, tears make kaleidoscopes in your eyes
And hurt, I know you're hurting, but so am I.
And, love, if your wings are broken
Borrow mine 'til yours can open, too.
'Cause I'm gonna stand by you

Last weekend found us in the kitchen, once again crying as we held each other.  We are on the final mile of the marathon he has been running for the past 8 years.  You would think being at the end of this grad school process....being able to see the faces of loved ones come into focus through the crowds....the color of the finish line ribbon brightening as it nears.... knowing these are the very last steps he would have to run before finally being done would bring some sort of relief just because he is so close.

Instead, the fear of falling and not making it back up, the worry that he may cross too late to be awarded the accolade for starting and finishing this near-decade journey has gripped him.  The terror that the voice in his head that has tried for eight agonizing years to convince him he will never be Good Enough has finally become so loud that it is all he can hear, it has stopped him in his tracks.  He is frozen and immobile.

Even if we're breaking down, we can find a way to break through
Even if we can't find heaven, I'll walk through Hell with you.
Love, you're not alone, 'cause I'm gonna stand by you.

I am not, and never have been, a runner.  However, I am a pretty great cheerleader.  I've been given the Gift of seeing the best in others.  I'm great at motivational speeches and finding a silver lining, at seeing Gifts of others no matter how deeply buried they are, and doing all I can to bring them to the forefront.  Somehow when the mountain becomes steeper and the path more rocky, I can summon Faith, Courage and Belief in the Good that it could overcome anything--especially when it comes to those I love.

Oh, truth—I guess truth is what you believe in
And faith—I think faith is having a reason.
And I know now, love, if your wings are broken
Borrow mine 'til yours can open, too.
'Cause I'm gonna stand by you.

I'm sure being on the receiving end of me as a cheerleader could potentially become extremely obnoxious to someone who just wants to hear the words "It's okay to give up.  You've done enough, you can stop running now.  Just sit down and rest, breathe.  Don't push yourself anymore."

The thing about the marathon of grad school is that there have been so many times through this process I have felt God inside of it--writing this story, molding and shaping both Ben and I to become who He wants us to.  With each hurdle that has been put along the miles Ben has run and I have cheered along by his side, I have the sense that there is a greater purpose at work.  So the blistered feet, the scrapes and stumbles, the mistakes and disappointments we have continually faced have not devastated me, but only caused me to feel this purpose even more intrinsically than before.  My push to finish the race, my belief in the Good, my motivational speeches--they're all extremely sincere.  Where they come from inside of me, I can only describe that place as Truth.  Something I know without knowing how I know it.  It's just there, existing as honestly as something I can actually see or touch.

I'll be your eyes 'til yours can shine
And I'll be your arms, I'll be your steady satellite.
And when you can't rise, well, I'll crawl with you on hands and knees
'Cause I... I'm gonna stand by you.

Aside from potentially driving a runner crazy, another problem with being a cheerleader is that there is only so much I can do when it really comes down to it.  Ben is the one reading, training and running.  No matter how many speeches I yell from the sidelines, how many cups of water I hand to him as he jogs by me, no matter how much I can feel that he can finish this, I have no control over how much he feels it.  I cannot physically move his legs for him, breathe more air into his lungs or transfer my adrenaline into his veins.  If I could--believe me, I would.  Over and over again, no matter what that sacrifice might to do my own body.  I would do it.

You're all I never knew I needed
And the heart—sometimes it's unclear why it's beating.
And, love, if your wings are broken
We can brave through those emotions, too.
'Cause I'm gonna stand by you.

When we stood holding each other last weekend in the kitchen while our baby girl slept above us in the crib on the second floor and our two middle girls played together above us in their bedroom and our son cheered and yelled at the game system above us in the loft, I felt this as a Moment for us.  Time slows, and I'm keenly aware of all of my senses, combined with the feeling of him with me.  We've had several of them in our marriage--most of them happening during the past eight years of this marathon we have been participating in together.

"Do you remember telling me when you ran your marathon you dedicated each mile to someone, to help you stay motivated and to finish?"  I asked.  "Will that help?  I want this last mile to be for you, for you to feel your worth and acknowledge all you've been through and how hard you've fought."

"No," he replied.  "This last mile is for you.  I would not be here if it weren't for you, I would have quit long ago.  This last mile I dedicate to you."

I hugged him tighter and cried harder.  "Don't give up.  You finish this." I whispered, handing another metaphorical cup of water to my weary, incredible runner.

After a few minutes we separated, Ben picked himself back up and began running his last mile again.

Much later that night, while the kids were asleep and Ben was downstairs working, I prayed.  "Please, please, please," were the only words I could say as tears streamed down my face.  Even though I couldn't say any more, I silently finished my prayer.  Asking directly for the things Ben and I were both fighting for, even if that required a miracle happening.  Pleading for that miracle to come to pass.  Also adding in though, that if that miracle is not part of the story He is writing for us, to be able to withstand the blows.  As much as I really, really want him to receive the certificate he has been working for years to receive, I care more about the state of my runner when this is over.  

"Miracle or not, this will end regardless.  Just please give us the strength to still stand whatever the outcome is."  These were the words I silently ended my prayer with.  I felt immediate reassurance from that Truth place, that my words were heard.

It was then that I decided.

Ben may be dedicating his last mile of this marathon to me, but I am dedicating my last mile as a cheerleader and a support of this marathon to God, because without Him urging me and strengthening me so I could encourage Ben, I would not still be here.

And now as the finish line approaches, and Ben gives the last of this marathon everything he has,  and I yell my words of encouragement while he makes his way down the final path, and God continues to write Our Story,

we wait.

Friday, May 13, 2016

swinging and bending, part 8: Elastic Heart

"And I will stay up through the night

And let's be clear, won't close my eyes.

And I know that I can survive

I'll walk through fire to save my life.

And I want it, I want my life so bad

I'm doing everything I can

Then another one bites the dust

It's hard to lose a chosen one

You did not break me

I'm still fighting for peace.

Well, I've got thick skin and an elastic heart,

But your blade—it might be too sharp

But I'm like a rubber band until you pull too hard,

Yeah, I may snap and I move fast
But you won't see me fall apart
'Cause I've got an elastic heart."


{somewhat} continued from this series.  

I am no stranger to mental illness.  

Physically, Mental Illness hurt--the raised welts left by a wooden spoon or a hard plastic brush on my small naked backside and thighs subsided.  The stinging red finger marks pulsing with my own heartbeat across my cheeks as a teenager faded.  The headache that was a result of being hit more times than I can count on the head by a heavy college textbook while I sat hovering on the floor, both arms wrapped around my face to withstand the blows only took a couple of hours and 800 milligrams of ibuprofen to melt slowly away.  

But the emotional pain Mental Illness inflicted, those are wounds of a different nature.  Those are the wounds that do not fade--they create.  They create three children with no sense of self, no ability to express healthy emotions, no idea of what they need or how to ask or even have room in their lives for needs even if they could ask for them.  

I sat at the dinner table and watched as Mental Illness hurt my sibling with their words and their hands.  I stared down at the cooked broccoli on my plate, silently pleading with my sibling to just agree--to anything--so it would calm Mental Illness and the storm could pass.  When I began to work through some of these scenes years later in therapy, my silent pleadings for their submission morphed into internal roaring as loud as a lion's--an indignant rage over the knowledge that I had been witness to the breaking of the soul of an innocent child, one I loved so deeply yet could not protect.  

I heard Mental Illness tell my siblings and I why they were choosing to leave our family to be with another, full of self-lies so thick and deep they were convinced those lies were now reality.  Months later I watched Mental Illness sweep back through the home with promises of a fresh start, of trying again, of this time being different.  My ears heard the words but my heart knew--these would fall short and fail as they had already so many times before, as soon as Mental Illness was triggered and rose to the surface once again.

Mental Illness used God to shame, to manipulate, to twist, to control. It wanted the outside of our family to look a certain way to deflect from the inside chaos.  It told my siblings and I that we were only lovable if we played this part--cutting our hair to depict our righteous dedication, wearing clothing that covered the bodies they had created in the way they felt was appropriate and pleasing to God.  Otherwise we were not Good, and Mental Illness made sure we knew it.  

Mental Illness was addiction, divorce, rage, shame, lies, self-loathing, deep chasms of insecurity, manipulation, jealousy, control, and unending amounts of fear.  Mental Illness took every ounce of Safety and replaced it with internal chaos and torment.  It wreaked havoc through my childhood, destroyed a marriage, shattered a family.  In its path of destruction it left pain, confusion, fragility.  

A book once described me, the role of the All-Good Child of Mental Illness,  as "a porcelain soul with tiny fractures," and when I read those words I cried and cried.  They were my worst fears written on paper, naming what I had suspected for so long:  I was broken.  

I have worked and dug and inspected the darkest corners of the fractures inside of me with a magnifying glass.  I have laid out my most terrifying vulnerabilities on a table and offered them up as a sacrifice to Healing.  

I fill the cracks of my own fractures created by the lies of Mental Illness with Truth about my worth, with gentleness and forgiveness for my shortcomings and mistakes, with calling myself out on even the slightest shred of dishonesty and forcing myself to admit to myself and others when it exists, with admiration for not quitting the often-draining work it is to Heal, with acknowledging and often clinging to the beautiful and bright pieces of my experiences, with expressing gratitude for the Life I have been given, and the gift it is to know I can make choices that not only defy the laws Mental Illness tried to place upon me, but to completely abandon those laws and forge a new, healthy path.  I fill the cracks with having boundaries for every relationship in my life--including the one I have with myself, these boundaries creating the ability for me to feel Love all of its forms while also continue to maintain living in a space of emotional integrity.  I fill the cracks with God, and a self-love that can only come from Him.   

I have looked at my past with an objective eye, taking my siblings and I out of it and looking at Mental Illness for who and what it is--two souls even more broken than my own fractured one.  Forgiveness and unending amounts of Love poured out for Mental Illness, when I could view it this way.  Understanding and compassion replaced blame.  

Then I brought the three children back in, and saw us as innocents who--regardless of the broken state of Mental Illness--deserved better, more.  I gave myself permission to allow the emotion for these three who deserved better to take over and drag me Anger, Fear, and extreme Sadness.  I sat inside of these rooms of often suffocating emotion and felt every inch of their walls.  As uncomfortable as it was and at times continues to be, I know I cannot leave the room until I allow it to be as consuming as it needs to.  Only then does it pass, I rise to the surface, and can move on.  

These three children grew up to sit with therapists to help them search for a reality outside of Mental Illness.  They constantly worry and check in with one another, terrified Mental Illness has found its way inside of them.  Any anxious thought, any insecure feeling, any moment of depression has them second-guessing.  They wear Mental Illness like a shadow.  Is it their turn?  Will the shadow catch up and envelope them?  Their ability to gage what is normal is forever skewed.  

For years they have clung to the hope that with time, work, and loving themselves and each other through this, they can break the cycle.  They cling to this hope still.  It is the only thought that keeps the shadow where it belongs, sitting on the outside edges of their lives.  

My sister, my brother and I, we are the ones who Know.  We have sat next to each other on the couch in the middle of the night, wearing pj's and rubbing blurry eyes, our young, bewildered minds trying to make sense of Mental Illness as it fought, yelled, pushed and shoved only feet away from us.  We have heard each other's tears through the adjoining wall.  We have had a front row seat to the screaming, the locked doors, the damage control, the hammers breaking through walls, the uncontrollable sobbing, the consequences, the open-hand slaps, the silent treatments, the barefoot chases on snowy afternoons, the shattered mirrors, and the betrayals.  

We have cried to each other as adults over the pain we experienced, still trying to make sense of it all.  We have called in the middle of the night, showed up on doorsteps, taken last-minute flights and fought for each other to sort through the shadow of Mental Illness and cling to the Light and Love we can feel, and the Worth we see in one another.  We bond over the Knowing--a deep, interwoven bond that at times finds us tethered together, unable to decipher where one of us ends and another begins. 

It is from this tethered place that I write.  It is tough to find boundaries here.  When one of them is in pain, I can not help but feel it with them.  When they are breaking under the pressure of the memories and the faulty core beliefs placed upon them by Mental Illness, I feel the pull of their breaking as though it is an actual part of me.  When the Shadow that has followed for years finally looks as though it may be catching up to one of us, I know I must do all I can to push it back where it belongs.  Internally I struggle between the person I have been, and the person I have worked so hard to become.

I do not know what this last-minute flight will bring.  I do not know if the Light I can still see and the Love I will always feel will be enough.  I worry it will not, I worry I'm too late.  

But I have to try.  

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Love Letter About Tiny Houses

Dear Ben,

It's 1:28 in the morning.  I'm here alone in our bed while you're sleeping on the top bunkbed in Caleb's room.  You've taken on the responsibility of handling our vomiting son while I handle our teething daughter.  

In the morning when we're woken before our bodies have gotten adequate rest, and we blink our blurred eyes and rub our dark undereye circles and walk slowly downstairs to make our kids breakfast, they will be greeted at the table with the stuffed animals you bought for them and the books I bought for them, and we will tell them Happy Valentine's Day!  And let them know they are loved.  

Then we will make them breakfast and take care of whoever has needs and our Valentine's Day gift to each other will most likely look like trading off taking naps.  Some days just turn out this way and we do the best we can.  

Tonight before the vomiting began and the teething baby woke up crying, we were watching an episode of "Tiny Houses" and you asked me if I would ever live in one.  At first I said, "No, never!"  You know I'm a girl who needs her space to think and just be for a minute before joining back in the group.  But then I watched the episode and changed my answer.  "Well, not with our kids, I wouldn't.  But if it were just with you, I could do it."

I really do feel this way, you know.  Even after thirteen years.  Especially after.  I think that says something about us, don't you?  To not mind living in a 200 square foot house together, to still like each other that much?  

I know you know me well enough that there would be times I would need to curl up in the small space next to the washer and dryer to write something without interruption or read a book and you would give me that time.  And I know you well enough that there would be times you would need loud music and loud laughter and lively conversations that would fill the 200 square feet from corner to corner so full it would threaten to burst the teensy glass windows.  

I would decorate our 1'x1' back porch with those backyard lights I love so much and we would drag our small folding breakfast nook outside and eat dinner together there on autumn nights.  

And if we argued or things got tense because I grew tired of cooking on a one-burner stove and you've had it because I let my hair clog up the drain in our kitchen/shower....what then?  Maybe I would hide under the covers for a minute and you'd step outside and stare at the enormous sky and inhale deeply?  The good news is, I'm not really worried.  We would figure it out.  Even in a Tiny House, I have every confidence in us that we would be okay.

I've written about us many times, and will continue to.  I want our children to know who their parents were as they were growing up.  Right now they're self-consumed in their own needs, without any real idea there are two adults in their peripheral vision who have emotions and needs as well.  This is how it should be, I think--within reason of course.  The day will come soon enough when their horizon will broaden.  

When that day does come, I want them to know our story.  After 12 years of leaving his wet-from-the-shower towels everywhere but on a hook, their dad showed their mom how much he loves her by starting to hang up his towel during their 13th year together.  And I want them to know that after 12 years of wearing wrinkled clothes, their mom showed their dad how much she loves him by opening up the dryer and folding laundry that was still hot enough that the buttons on the jeans burned her fingertips, because their dad loves un-wrinkled clothes.  

Our love is a work in progress of the very best kind.  It's one built on all of the experiences we have had and will have.  Our kids are lucky to have parents who still try, and work with and for each other.  I think one day they'll realize how rare this is.  

I love you, Ben.  Your voice is still the one I want to hear when I'm worried or feeling lonely.  Your Big Laugh still makes me laugh, every time.  You walking through the door at the end of work is still the best part of my day.  

Thank you for the last 13 years of Valentine's Days and for loving me every day in between them.    

Your Favorite Wife

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Self-Love in 2016.

When I've been neglecting loving my body for too long, it starts a revolution, rioting against my choices in three ways:  

1) a terrible complexion 
2) excruciatingly painful, long-lasting headaches
3) severe (like first trimester of pregnancy severe) sluggishness and lack of energy.

So when I woke up today to find a small, yet very defined pimple on my top lip (yes it is absolutely as attractive as it sounds), which went smashingly with the angry ones smattering my cheek, and was barely able to focus my vision before 8:00 am, and had to medicate myself around the clock for the 3 days prior due to a pounding headache above my left eyebrow....I realized it was time to re-learn a painful lesson.

I started working on body acceptance in 2009.  I wrote a blog post about living my life up until that point equating feeling fat to feeling ugly and inadequate.  I was done with that form of self-hatred and worked hard to find a place of love and acceptance for my body just the way it was, right then--without any changes.  I let myself eat what I want when I wanted to, and stopped the negative self-talk, replacing it with positive things instead.  

As my body shaming decreased, I found something interesting:  loving myself on the inside caused me to really look at what loving myself on the outside required.  

I began exercising--not to torture my body, but because I wanted to begin really taking care of it.  It became my daily form of Self Care, and the one hour each day I kept sacred as only for me.  I watched my body become strong and endure more than it ever had.  I grew proud of it, and felt confident about it, regardless of what size and shape it was.

In 2012 I challenged myself to a sugar-free diet for 40 days, in honor of Lent.  I honestly did not believe I could keep that challenge--I had zero faith in my own abilities.  Sugar had been a lifelong friend and addiction.  In spite of my lack of faith, I was able to go the full 40 days with only one tiny lick of my daughter's birthday cake frosting (which was gross by the way). 

What I found during that time was a powerful combination of emotional and physical positive outcomes.  My skin was clear, my usual nagging headaches were gone, my energy was sustained throughout the day....and instead of feeling deprivation through completely shutting down and controlling my sugar intake, I felt empowered, courageous, in awe of my abilities and more than anything....I felt self-love.    

My kids watched me going without sugar, Caleb especially commenting that he thought I was crazy.  I have never used the word diet, only talking about how I felt like sugar controlled me and that I knew it wasn't healthy for my body.  That I wanted to take care of myself, and this was a way I could do it.  

That 40 days started me down a path that I continued for several years.  

When my unexpected pregnancy with Claire showed up, I went straight to survival mode to get through that time and the stressful year after my pregnancy, where I could only function on survival instead of being thoughtful of what I ate and how I took care of my body.  

So here I am in 2016, with my lip pimple, headaches and exhaustion, ready to reprogram my brain after slipping back into old unhealthy, destructive and addictive habits.  

Today I'm on day 1 of being (refined) sugar free.  And I'm on day 1 of exercising.  This work is tough in all areas and takes me a while to actually enjoy it.  But I have also been down the road far enough to know it is completely worth it, and it's a healthy way to show my mind, emotions, spirit and body the love and treatment it deserves.

If anyone wants to join me, I always enjoy company.  Here's to the new year, and to self-love.

Monday, January 11, 2016

All you can take with you is that which you've given away.

This is a true story about Prayer, and one written to inspire Hope.

This is one of those miracles we hear about that can either be acknowledged as coincidence, or luck, or the Universe, or karma--or it can be acknowledged as a direct answer from God given to two people who were at their breaking point last Christmas.  While this isn't how every story goes for every person, I share this for our children (or anyone else) who will find themselves at their own breaking point in life.  It is written as a reminder that when they think they have done all they can, they may realize there is more they can do.  

They can Ask.  

"Hello?"  I picked up Ben's phone call.  It was close to midnight, one week before Christmas last year.  I had just finished feeding and changing 3 1/2 week old newborn Claire.

"Hi.  Ummmmmm, do you know how much money is in our bank account?"  He sounded really frustrated.

"Not the exact amount, but it's not much," I answered.

"I'm here in Ohio at the car rental place, trying to pick up the car I reserved.  They're telling me I can't get it."  He said.

"What?  Why?  You've already paid for it!"  I replied.

"I know, but you have to have at least $200 in your bank account in order to pick it up, they put a hold on that money in case something happens to the car."

"Oh.  Oh no...."  I trailed off.  I didn't know the exact amount in our account, but I did know we did not have $200.

"Yeah.  Tomorrow is pay day, but they don't deposit the money in to the account until like two in the morning.  I don't know what I'm going to do.  I'm stranded in the car rental place.  It's really late here, and the people I'm staying with tonight--I would feel awful having to wake them up.  I barely know them and they're letting me stay as a favor to a mutual friend!  And they would have to bring me back by 6:00 in the morning so I can come and pick up the car in time for my interview.  This is so humiliating."

"I am so sorry Ben.  What are you going to do?" 

"I don't know," he paused, and I could hear it in his voice, and in the silence following his answer--it was the sound of someone broken.  "I'll figure it out and call you back in a little bit."

"Okay.  I love you."

"I love you too," his voice was subdued, the life having gone out of it.

I hung up the phone, leaned over, put my head in my hands, and began to cry.  This was not the first time in the past couple of months our bank account had been almost completely empty and we had held our breath until payday.

I knew he had several more upcoming internship interviews.  I also knew rent was due in 2 weeks.  I knew the amount of money coming in from pay day, and I knew that it was not enough to cover our rent as well as cover the traveling expenses of the interviews.  I knew we would have to make a decision.

My chest felt tight. I could picture Ben there in the car rental place, defeated.  I knelt down and prayed.  For me, for Ben, for the ability to endure this emotionally taxing time.

When he came home from his trip, we sat at the table and talked.  It was the most weary, humble, worn-down place I had ever seen my husband.

"I've looked at flights for the next interview, and there's just no way it's going to happen, " he said.  "We just don't have enough."

"I know, " I replied softly.  "I've been thinking though--do you remember what Paul said to us during their visit a month ago?"  My mother in law and her husband Paul had stayed with us for a few days after Claire had been born.

"No, what?"  Ben asked.

"He asked us if we had ever prayed and asked God directly for what we need.  He asked if we had ever prayed for money.  At the time I thought that sounded so...wrong to do.  It felt greedy and selfish and temporal.  But maybe it's not?  I've always prayed and asked for extra strength to get through financially hard times, or for the ability to find more work to pay the bills, or to be able to find someone we can sell some of our things to.  God has always answered those prayers...maybe He would answer this one?"  I explained.

Looking at me from across the table, Ben shrugged his shoulders and said, "Well it's worth a try I guess.  We know right now we're doing everything we can to get through this.  We're both working, we're both trying to raise good children, we're both consecrating the time that we can to God and serving others.  We're not asking for money for a boat, or more jewelry....we're literally asking so that we can further our chances of getting out of this financial situation, and to finish school." 

"We know our hearts are in a good place, and God does too,
" I agreed.

So that night we knelt down together and again separately, and asked God directly for money.

The next day my mood was somber.  I began opening 
the mail, looking forward to the Christmas cards of friends that always make me so happy. 

In the pile was a letter from one of Ben's aunts.  I opened up the card, and gasped as money floated out of the card and rested on the counter.  I picked up the money and stared.  We hadn't heard from this aunt in several years, and she had never sent us money before that I could remember.  Goosebumps lined my arms and tears filled my eyes.  I could feel God telling me this was a direct answer to the previous night's prayers.  

I continued going through the pile of mail when I came across another Christmas card--this time from Ben's grandma in Indiana.  When I opened up her card to find a check written from her, with enough money to completely cover one month's worth of rent, I went straight into what I like to call The Ugly Cry.  I read her words as tears poured down my face, with her explanation that she and her husband had worked very hard to earn that money and saved it for years, but that she realized it might be needed in our lives.  She asked us be wise with it--if it was needed then to use it, and if not, then to put it in an account for our children's college funds.  

I could not stop crying, and I'm crying again now as I'm writing these words.  I took pictures of the money sent by Ben's aunt and the check sent by his grandma, as well as pictures of the words of love and support they sent along with them.  

I sent the pictures to Ben while he was at work, saying that our prayers had been answered.  Within seconds he replied, saying he couldn't believe it and could not stop crying either.  After texting him, I went into my bedroom, dropped to my knees and cried through my spoken words of gratitude to a God who had answered my prayers, and asked him to bless the lives of those who had allowed Him to work through them.  

For the rest of the afternoon my heart felt so full.  My eyes were puffy from crying every time I thought of the cards we had received.  

Ben called to tell me he wouldn't be home from work until about 10 o'clock, so after dinner I started the bath/bedtime routine on my own.  Claire would not stay asleep unless I held her, so I tucked her tiny body into the baby wrap and walked around until I had bounced her to sleep laying against my chest.

I put Leah and June in the bath and they immediately started fighting.  Leah (who was having a rough night) began screaming and crying, which woke up Claire who also began crying.  

I was trying to lift a dripping, refusing, screeching Leah out of the bath when I heard a knock on the front door.  I set Leah back in the bath and tried to calm down Claire.  I was flustered and slightly embarrassed to know whoever knocked probably heard the insanity going on inside.  

When I opened the front door, there stood our bishop and friend Jon Mabb.  My hair was everywhere, my clothes were wet from the shenanigans with Leah in the bath, Claire was crying against my chest and I could still hear screeching from the bathroom.  I gave a little laugh and a look like "Well, this is my life!  I'm a mess!" 

He smiled and said simply, "Merry Christmas.  This is from the ward."  He handed me a red envelope and turned to walk away.  

"Oh, well thanks!"  I said, thinking the envelope must be a Christmas card the bishopric was doing for the members of the church. 

And then, I remembered.  

A few weeks earlier I had seen an email from Bishop Mabb to our ward members, saying there were some families in need for Christmas and to let him know if anyone would like to anonymously donate to them.  Ben and I had talked, both wanting to give something to people we loved so much, especially during Christmas.  As we talked we realized we sounded nuts--we couldn't even afford our own lives at that point!  What were we thinking?  "There will be a time and season we can donate money...right now is not our season," we told ourselves.  Still, it was hard for us to not do something, so we picked a couple of families we knew could use some help and decided to serve in other ways.  

As I held the red envelope in my hand I realized what it was and began to cry again.  I had not considered the fact that our family might be one of those he was mentioning.  I could barely open the envelope because I was so overcome with emotion.  I slid down against the door and sat down on the cold tile floor with Claire still attached to me.  I opened the card to find more money, generously donated to us by those doing the work of God.  I sat there for several minutes letting the tears fall again, feeling so completely undeserving yet so completely grateful at the same time.  I texted the bishop to tell him what this meant to us, I texted Ben to tell him of the third miracle of the day, and I offered another prayer to God, thanking Him for showing us of His awareness of us as individuals, and His love for us as His children.  

Growing up, my family used to watch the movie "It's A Wonderful Life" every Christmas.  I found it incredibly dull and boring.  But about 7 years ago, I bought it and began the tradition of watching it every Christmas Eve while I wrapped presents.  

Watching it as an adult was a different experience.   I began to completely understand and relate to every emotion George Bailey felt.  I watched as his shoulders grew more hunched and the furrow in his eyebrows grew deeper, and I knew that weight and worry.  So did Ben.  I watched as he almost threw the broken piece of the stair banister and Ben and I knew that inner rage and desperation.  I watched as he pretended to fix Zuzu's petals in order to preserve his daughter's innocent happiness, and I knew that feeling of love and the need to protect.  I watched as he yelled at the teacher for being the culprit of his child's illness and I knew that feeling of the need to find blame somewhere, anywhere.  I watched as he stood on the bridge staring into the dark water, and I knew that feeling of wondering if the lives Ben and I have lived really even mattered, or if somehow we were just doomed to feel like it would always be this excruciatingly painful uphill struggle with ridiculous hurdles that continued to land in our paths.  

But it's the final scene of that movie, that makes me Ugly Cry no matter how many times I watch it.  George, Mary, and their children, surrounded by those whose lives they have affected by love and service, being lifted from their darkest moment by those who could give their love and service in return.  

As I sat on the tile floor leaning against our front door, I knew it was only myself and my baby in that room but I also knew what the Bailey family was feeling as I wept, surrounded by the knowledge that our lives do matter, and though monetarily we could not show up for others...that the ways we had shown up, for each other and for others, in the eyes of God, had been enough.  

This was a life-changing day for Ben and I, and we both know we will never be the same.  Because we asked, God answered.  We were able to pay our rent and Ben was able to go to the rest of his internship interviews, specifically to the interview that brought us to San Antonio.  Our financial struggle did not end that day, but our needs were taken care of.  It was enough.  It was so much.  

We are forever grateful.   

"All you can take with you
Is that which you've given away."

It's A Wonderful Life.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Lucky number 13.

I remember all of the things that I thought I wanted to be
So desperate to find a way out of my world and finally breathe
Right before my eyes I saw, my heart it came to life
This ain't easy it's not meant to be
Every story has it's scars

When the pain cuts you deep
When the night keeps you from sleeping
Just look and you will see
That I will be your remedy
When the world seems so cruel
And your heart makes you feel like a fool
I promise you will see
That I will be, I will be your remedy

No river is too wide or too deep for me to swim to you
Come whatever I'll be the shelter that won't let the rain come through
Your love, it is my truth
And I will always love you
Love you


A couple of months ago we had an honest, vulnerable discussion about walls built within marriage.  

I knew when he spoke, he saw me--for one of the first times in a long time, I felt understood on a deep level.  I knew when he saw me, it was a cross roads.  I could either admit the hard things I didn't want to admit, or pretend they didn't exist, hoping for them to disappear.  But I know things like this don't just "disappear."  

I see couples in Hollywood crumble all over the place.  Sometimes I wonder about them--why can't they hang on?  Is it because they didn't know each other well enough?  Is it because they didn't know themselves well enough?  Is it because their work requires them to be apart for long periods of time?  Is their foundation not strong enough to withstand the distance?  Or did they merely stop needing each other, because they couldn't--because physically they weren't there to BE there for one another?  

Ben and I are no Hollywood couple, far from it.  But we are a couple built inside of 2 years of a solid, happy, loving foundation followed by 2 years of extremely stressful, fearful parenting, followed by 1 year of traumatic, chaotic group home managing, followed by 7 years of separating grad school living combined with three more amazing, yet needy children.  

These things take tolls on individuals, which in turn take tolls on marriages--there is no way around that.  Our needs as humans had been put on the back burners for so long there have been days/weeks/months/years we had forgotten we even HAD any needs.  Our marriage also had needs we had forgotten, not because the love has not been there....they've been forgotten more because there had not been the space to take care of it.  And honestly?  We took for granted the two solid years of foundation we had built in the beginning.  Our love, happiness with each other, and strong friendship and respect for one another could withstand any storm, we believed.

So far, that has worked.  I truly feel if our foundation had not been as strongly built from our beginning, we would have crumbled like so many we see and hear about.  

Yet we remain standing, though the stress and time apart has taken its toll.  

I am a firm believer when the rope of marriage begins to fray, it takes each person to work individually on their end of the rope before they can work on things together.  We are complex humans, bringing lives together that are full of two entirely separate experiences, strengths, weaknesses, needs and emotions.  

But individual work is scary, isn't it?  It's so much easier to blame the whole of the sum instead of the parts, when those parts are made up of yourself and the person you love most in the world.  It's easier to blame a baby with seizures, and teenagers with rage issues, and grad school with its so many demands, and financial struggles leading to multiple jobs, and young children with their neediness and moving 14 times.

I know what it means to look in the mirror--really look--and realize I have personally contributed to my own unhappiness, my own loneliness, my own fears.  It is extremely vulnerable, painful, honest work.  Ben also knows  this individual work and what it means to look in this same mirror, owning his parts.  

As painful and scary and hard as this work is, it is also the work of Healing.  

I have seen the ends of our individually frayed ropes begin to heal, as we each pulled apart layer after layer of our own experiences to get down to the core.  I have never been more proud of myself, or Ben, than when we are working this way.  We have allowed one another to see each other in our most vulnerable places, and a love I never could have imagined has grown from seeing each other like this.  As individuals, we watched ourselves begin to Rebuild, and we were each other's cheerleaders and best support system.  Once the two pieces of our marriage had begun healing, we then needed to work on the sum of our parts.

So when it came to that crossroads a few months ago, looking at him in our dimly lit kitchen around 2 am, I chose to let him see me again.  

As much as I want to be that perfect wife, I know I never will be, because I am not perfect.  As much as he wants to be that perfect husband, he knows he will not be.  

But that night we laid our offerings of who we actually ARE, on the sacrificial table of marriage, again.  With our strengths, weaknesses, hopes, needs, and love for ourselves and each other.  

We promised during our 13th year, it was no longer the time for rebuilding ourselves individually, it is now the time for Rebuilding Our Marriage.  We have talked about what that looks like for each of us, with an understanding that it will take time.  As quickly as the Crumbling appears to happen--it doesn't, not really.  It's something that is slowly picked apart and chipped at, until finally a cornerstone has been worn thin enough to fall, taking the entire structure with it. 

Rebuilding is a process of picking up one piece at a time, with the hope there will now be extra support built in surrounding it now, after we know better, after the individual Healing has taken place.  It takes patience, and heavy lifting at times, and always--that constant self-check of fear and needs and individual vulnerability and honesty.  

Some may read this and think it might be a depressing Happy Anniversary! post.  But I feel the complete opposite.  I am so proud of us, and of our marriage.  Weaker people and weaker love would not have been able to even get to this point.  We are still here together, after the dust has settled, picking up our pieces and Rebuilding.  We are still laughing and holding hands, and looking at each other with a newfound admiration and strength in our love that did not exist before the Crumbling.  

Thirteen years of being married to this incredibly strong, good man.  Thirteen years of being the one he comes home to.  Thirteen years of feeling his warmth on the other side of the bed, of wrapping his arms around mine.  

I love you, Ben Strader.  Ours is a courageous Love Story.  And I'm so grateful we have chosen each other all over again.  Here's to our 13th year.  

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Unseen Disability, and The Hike.

"To believe I walk alone

Is a lie that I’ve been told

So let your heart hold fast

For this soon shall pass

Like the high tide takes the sand

At the bitter end

Salt and liquid blend

From the corner of my eye

All the miles wrecked

Every broken step

Always searching always blind

Never fear, No Never fear

So let your heart hold fast

For this soon shall pass

There's another hill ahead"

--Let Your Heart Hold Fast

Last year, on an overcast but warm afternoon in February, the front door of the Grey House swung open, then closed with more force than usual.  Caleb was home from school.

"Hey buddy, how was the hike?"  I asked.  Today was the 4th grade hike he'd been looking forward to.

"It was HARD.  I'm never going hiking again!"  he replied, with a lot of emotion behind his words.

"What happened?"  I asked, but wasn't too worried.  Caleb is an emotional kid, and sometimes just needs to get the big emotions out by venting, then can see through them a little more clearly.

"It just was hard, and I hated it.  And I'm never going again!"  he repeated, yelling this time.  I asked a couple more questions but he still didn't open up, so I dropped the subject and moved on.  Today was Leah's 6th birthday, and we were going to go out to celebrate.  I asked Caleb to get his homework done and clean his room, then get ready to go to the restaurant.

Normally he would react well to going to his favorite place to eat, it would be a motivator to get him to stay on task and move quickly.  Not today.  His foul mood continued and affected anyone who crossed his path.  He complained with the small things I asked him to do, he purposely looked for ways to bug his sisters, and he wasn't just teasing Leah--he was picking on her and criticizing her.

Each time he did, I stopped him, telling him to change his behavior or earn a consequence.  When he continued, I pulled him aside, reminding him of how he had treated Leah last year on her birthday.  He had been so kind to her, and so thoughtful and fun, and it had meant the world to her.  I asked him to try harder to remember this is the one day a year that's just for her.  I also asked him if anything else was wrong--did something happen with his friends?  Did he do poorly on his spelling test?  Was he tired?  He said "No" to all of these.

In the past when Caleb has treated her this way, we've been able to trace it back to an experience that's recently happened that has made him feel really insecure or embarrassed.  He takes those insecurities out on her until we can get to the root of the problem and talk about what is really bugging him.

"Okay, well  I'm here to talk with you if you want me to.  But if you don't want to that's fine, but we do not deserve to be treated the way you're treating us.  If there isn't anything else wrong then your behavior needs to change.  Now."  I said firmly.

We all got in the van and drove to the restaurant.  While we were being seated, Caleb refused to sit by Leah, saying she always had to sit next to him.  The look on Leah's face was enough, she was devastated.  I gave him the stink eye and told him with a low voice to sit down and knock it off.  He stayed quiet, but inched over to the edge of his chair.

We ordered our food and while waiting for it, began the tradition we have on birthdays, to go around the table and everyone says what they love about the person we're celebrating.  We went around, and then it came time for Caleb's turn.  He gave a half-hearted, generic answer, and wouldn't look at Leah when he said it.  I watched him inch away from her again.  That was IT.

Ben was talking with the girls when I leaned over the table and with my voice two octaves lower than normal said,

"One more thing, Caleb.  If you do or say one more unkind thing to your sister on her birthday, you and I are taking Dad's car and you're going home to bed.  I have been as patient as I can be.  If this weren't her birthday, I would not feel so upset right now.  But she does NOT deserve this and you are not stopping.  When you act this way and can't control it, you're telling me you're too tired and you just need to go to bed."


He looked at me from across the table, and his face just crumpled.   Tears spilled onto his cheeks and he began to sob.

"Buddy, come here,"  I said with my voice softened.  He walked around the table and stood next to me.  "What is it?  Please tell me, I'm here for you."

And then it all came tumbling out, in between sobs.

"The hike was so hard, Mom.  SO hard.  My legs ached and kept shaking so hard that I kept falling, and my group left me--the only one that stayed with me was the mom of one of the kids, because she felt bad for me.  I was so slow, I could barely make it.  I was the last kid up the mountain.  By the time I got to where we were supposed to eat lunch, everyone was already eating and most of them were finished.  I was so tired and wanted to turn around but I couldn't.  I fell over and over again, even wearing my good shoes.  It was so embarrassing, and I felt so stupid and slow."

My heart broke.  As he cried, I did too.  I hugged him tightly, saying,

"Oh Caleb, I am so sorry and am so glad you told me.  I had no idea.  I don't know why your group didn't stay with you, and I wish they had.  But more than anything?  I am SO proud of you.  So, so proud.  (I could barely speak because I was crying so hard at this point.) The other kids don't know what it feels like to be in your body, with your muscles.  They don't know what it takes for you to make it up that mountain.  But I do, and your dad does.  We know the tightness of your muscles that makes it so much more difficult, and that your legs tremble when they're working hard.  We know how far you've come, and how you have to work twice as hard to keep up with others.

The thing is?  You don't look different.  And while that's a blessing most days, today made things more lonely for you.  If you had crutches, or a wheelchair, or were still wearing the orthotic casts you used to have to wear, people would know, because they would be able to see the difference.  And I'm guessing that if the kids in your group knew, then they would have stayed with you.

But the fact that you didn't quit--that you finished, you got up to the top of that mountain and you made it all the way back down, it proves again to me just how strong you are on the inside, regardless of your body's strength on the outside.  You did it, without the help of anyone.  Just you and God, getting up that mountain together.  

I know today feels like it was an awful day (Caleb nodding his head fiercely), but I have a feeling that you're going to look back on this day as one that was a turning point for you.  One where you can feel proud of not quitting, regardless of how hard it was.  You have yet again made me feel so grateful, and lucky, and blessed, and proud to be YOUR mom."

I held him while he cried for another minute, then calmed down.  The rest of the night he was back to his normal happy self and treated Leah amazing.

Watching his tears fall in the restaurant, I found myself in a strange place as a mother of a kid with an almost unseen disability.  For over two full years, Caleb's disability was obvious.  But once he learned to walk and his seizures stopped, he just kept moving forward.  He's on the small side still, but unless you look closely or know what you're looking for, you can't see his struggle.  Physical therapists spot it right away and ask, but other than that, most are surprised to find out he has Cerebral Palsy.  I have been amazed at how his body has grown, and how he has compensated from his earlier days.  I've been grateful he hasn't had to live life in casts, or with his walker.  But with this hike, I realized I was almost wishing he did look different, and stand out in some way, so others would know and be more sensitive to it.  Then I caught myself--what kind of a mother wishes for their kid to have more challenges than they already do??  

After we were home and the kids were in bed, I told Ben about Caleb's hike.  As I told him, I could feel the Mama Bear in me rising.  I had purposely written on Caleb's consent form for the hike that he has CP--even though his teacher already knew that, I wanted to give her a reminder.  I wrote that he tired easily and had less endurance than the other kids his age.  Why didn't she give him a hiking buddy?  Why wasn't there more supervision over the groups staying together?  Why didn't they start out with the slowest kids in the front, like they do in Boy Scouts?  I wanted to protect him from feeling the way he had that day, but I couldn't--it had already happened.  So getting angry seemed to be the best secondary option.  I wanted to write her an email that night, giving her my very strong opinion of disapproval at the way my son had been treated.

From the time we first knew something was wrong with Caleb, I worried about moments just like this one.  I did not know how I could bear having him hurt, or made fun of, or left behind.  I wanted to protect him from any heartache.  A few years ago, I realized that if I did protect him from all of it, I was holding him back from the opportunity to grow.  I knew the best thing I could do for him was to let him fall and teach him how to get back up, and support him by being there for him, loving him, and teaching him how to love himself.  

I believe every moment--good and bad--is a teaching opportunity when it comes to my kids.  And I know my son.  He was born with a fire in his belly, a big fun personality, and a spirited, competitive side.  He was also born with a body that has set limits on what he can do, so his spirit and his body are in a constant state of battle with each other.  The problem is, he's so competitive with himself that when there is a physical feat standing in his way, he just wants to avoid it all together.  If he can't physically be where he pictures in his mind he should be, or if he's set up to compete one-on-one against someone bigger/stronger, he doesn't want to try.  We have been through this many times.

If he's on a team, he'll go for it because the spotlight isn't on him.  But if he could potentially fail on his own, or look slow or weak--then he digs his feet in and refuses to budge.  Ben and I have had to learn how to navigate this.  We are still learning.  We want to work within his limits and be sensitive to them, while also pushing him to just do the best he can do and not give up.

I didn't send the email.  Instead I decided to sit with all of this for a couple of days and see how I felt after the weekend was over.  The more I thought about this hike, the more important I felt mine and Ben's reaction to it was.  We could either make this a big Victim moment for Caleb, or a big Victory moment.  If I really believed the words I had told him--how proud I was of him, then I wanted to focus on that.  I wanted this hike to be known as a victory.  The Mama Bear inside calmed down, and my anger and protectiveness melted away.  I did want to mention it to his teacher, but more to help her be aware of what had happened, so that maybe they could do things differently for next year.

We've talked about the hike, since that day.  We focus on the getting up part, not the falling.  We focus on the finish line, not the part where he was left by his peers who didn't know what he was experiencing.  We focus on the courage it takes to keep going, one foot in front of the other up the mountain, driven by this God-given gift of his big personality that pushes his tight, but weak muscles to move forward.

And every dang time I talk to him about it, I cry.

I am so grateful I get to be this amazing boy's mom, and watch him learn how to pick himself back up, focus on the victories, and keep going.