Sister’s Keeper, viii (One Thing Leads to Another)

Amanda and I are really good at imagining worst possible outcomes. Sometimes, mental gymnastics are required, but we were raised with a vibrant imagination for catastrophe.

I remember as a teenager calling home on a pay phone to let Mom know that dance camp (or whatever) was going fine. She was happy to hear that I wasn’t lying dead in a ditch somewhere, which was exactly where her imagination went.

I no longer dwell on possible calamities, but I’m still fairly skilled at catastrophic thinking. On Amanda’s surgery day, I thought: what if she dies under anesthesia? When her jaw was wired, I thought: what if she chokes to death? When she had severe nausea, I thought: what if she’s asphyxiated by vomit? When we left her to manage her own meds, I thought: what if she accidentally overdoses? What if she becomes addicted to these magic opioids that have ruined so many? And when she rode the awful roller coaster of pain, I thought: what if it didn’t work, this last-ditch surgical effort, and chronic pain is now a way of life?

One thing leads to another, which leads to catastrophe.

So far, in real life: no catastrophes. Slowly and steadily, Amanda is feeling better. By late July, she’s on her own again. When we all go out to dinner to celebrate her August birthday, she orders salmon and mashed potatoes—and savors every tiny bite.

At her next follow-up appointment, the surgeon releases her to work but not to drive. Because her house is in a cellular dead zone with unpredictable WiFi, she works from my house. For the next couple weeks, she sets up her laptop at my kitchen table. I pick her up around 7 a.m. and take her home in the evening.

Just when she’s feeling like a normal person, physical therapy begins. And . . . she’s back in the house of pain. The aim of the therapy is to trigger an inflammatory response that wakes up the immune system to do its healing. This inflammation hurts like the dickens.

One thing leads to another, which leads to more pain.

After a couple weeks, physical therapy gets easier. Amanda can drive herself to work. This is the new normal we’ve been waiting for. And . . . the headaches begin. Jaw pain is no longer an issue, but she’s having vision problems. She gets an eye exam and new glasses, but she’s plagued by cluster headaches.

Having taken off two months for recovery, she now has to call in sick. This is not the new normal she’s been waiting for. She doesn’t want to be known around the office as the one who’s always sick. She feels defeated and humiliated by the constant struggle to be well.

One thing leads to another, which leads to embarrassment.

Meanwhile, the hand that I stupidly cut open heals quickly, thanks to copious globs of Neosporin. All that remains is a tiny pink mark. Strangely, it aches now when the weather changes. One thing leads to another, which leads to a weather-forecasting knuckle.

The other day I stumbled across a verse in which one thing leads to another. Paul wrote in his message to the Romans,

“[W]e know that suffering produces perseverance; 

perseverance produces character;

and character produces hope.”

If this is true, by the end of her ordeal, Amanda will have unquestionable character and unquenchable hope. And although she’s embarrassed by unrelenting illness, there’s no reason to be ashamed: “[H]ope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts . . .”

We are not yet whole, but we do have hope.

Note: This is Part 8 in a series, which is ending soon. If you missed the beginning, jump back to Part 1. Thanks!

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Amanda & I at Legoland, January 2018

She Came Home

Earlier this June, some good friends invited us to meet up at the movies. It was part of the free summer movie series at the Lincoln Theater, so they kindly got there early and saved seats for Caroline and me. Good call on their part — the parking lot was packed and the theater was nearly full, too, with groups from kids’ summer camps, day care facilities, and day camps for people with special needs.  Lots of matching t-shirts.

I wasn’t that excited about the movie, but I was excited to catch up with Kelly and Abi after a couple weeks of summer vacation. The title of the movie was A Dog’s Way Home, and, to be honest, I thought the trailers would be the best part of the experience (especially with the sequel to Frozen coming out this fall).

The movie sounded like something I would tolerate more than like. When we were kids, my sister had The Incredible Journey on VHS. She nearly wore out the tape from watching it over and over. For me, the journey of two dogs and one cat was more stressful than incredible, with too many moments of animals in danger. I saw bits and pieces of it — it was unavoidable with only one TV in the house — but I’ve always found it risky to invest in an animal movie.

Anyway, as we watched the trailers before the movie, the crowd was already pretty lively. When Elsa appeared on the screen in the Frozen 2 trailer, I heard at least two little voices gasp, “Elsa!” Then the movie started, and I started to think of places where we could eat lunch with Kelly and Abi. Also, because the parking lot was full of buses and minivans, I’d parked in a semi-legal spot. A couple minutes into the movie, I was worrying about what kind of parking ticket awaited me.

But then . . .

Then the people sitting a couple rows back got invested in the stray puppy named Bella who was raised by kindly feral cats until the perfect man-boy rescued her. There was oohing at the cute puppy and awwwww’s at the motherly cats. The crowd was really into it. And so a movie that I might have dismissed as cheesy or sappy was getting to me.

The whole story bent toward the dog getting back home to her family. In all, the dog managed to travel from New Mexico to Denver, Colorado, with the help of other strays, benevolent humans, and a mountain lion kitten who’d lost her mother to hunters, reminding us that inter-species friendships may be the most heartwarming.

But the very best part was when Bella the dog, after many dangers, toils, and snares, found her way home. The audience burst into applause. Not polite applause but raucous clapping that came in waves, fervent applause with zero irony.

Eventually, after the applause died down to a few quiet sniffles, someone a couple rows away shouted tearfully, “She came home!” and, I kid you not, the applause started all over again, in waves, ebbing and flowing spontaneously through the dark theater.

It tickled me, this unabashed celebration, and I clapped and laughed at the wholehearted sweetness of it. The feeling of unity among the movie-goers was nearly tangible. We loved that dog, darn it, and we agreed one hundred percent that she would find her way home.

Pretty simple stuff. Also pretty deep, because, aren’t we all somehow trying to find our way home?

-Em

Coming next month: Caregiving Diaries    

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Elementary Gifts

This school year has been a gift.

Back in September, God dropped an opportunity in my lap, and I’m so grateful for the chance to help out at my daughter’s elementary school. I’ve volunteered in the past, but this year I began working every day with a fourth grade student (as well as subbing now and then, library work, and miscellaneous other stuff).

Many aspects of the job felt like a gift, but perhaps the biggest gift was laughter. What can I say? The end of the school year brings out the funny.

A couple weeks ago, the teacher was handing out math worksheets. One little boy pushed his worksheet back towards the teacher.

“Do you know if this paper was made from oak or maple trees?” he asked. I was working with my student across the room, but the boy’s question caught my ear (probably because it sounds like a Portlandia sketch).

The teacher seemed reluctant to engage yet remarkably patient. Sliding the paper back across the desk, she said, “I really don’t know what kind of tree was used to make this paper.”

“’Cause I’m very allergic to oak and maple tree pollen, and I really hope this math sheet isn’t made of those.” At this point I’m in awe of the boy’s creativity and cracking up.

He knew that paper was made from trees, he knew he was allergic to certain trees, and he really didn’t feel like doing another stinkin’ math worksheet. The kid’s an unsung genius!

Also, is it summer yet?

Another day that week, I subbed in my usual fourth grade class. Although I knew all the kids well, the afternoon felt a bit hectic. They have a special talent for keeping me on my toes.

At dismissal time, a boy told me he’d left his Spider Man lunchbox at school last week and wanted to go check the lost-and-found box for it. He came back a few minutes later with the lunchbox and a sheepish look on his face. I asked what was wrong and he said, “There’s something in it.” I peeked inside and saw a thermos.

“Ummmm, is it an animal?” I asked, not sure if we were playing Twenty Questions or what.

“I . . . think so,” he said slowly.

At that moment, I hated being the grown-up in charge. Hesitantly, I unzipped it all the way. Under the thermos were five or six roaches of different sizes – a family of roaches staring up at me. I zipped it up as fast as I could and asked, “Do you really like this lunchbox?” He looked confused, maybe a little scared.

I told him there was a whole family of roaches inside – Mama, Daddy, Bubba, Baby Sister, a cat-roach, a dog-roach, a hamster-roach. I was in shock, not sure what to do.

“Maybe we should burn it,” I said, half serious.

“My lunchbox?”

“No, the school. Down to the ground.”

That sweet boy couldn’t tell I was joking. I wasn’t quite sure, either. That’s when his friend stepped in, the tiniest girl in class, and said, “I’ll take care of it!” She took his lunchbox outside the double doors and turned it upside down. Out fell Mama Roach, Daddy Roach, and the whole family, which she stomped to death with her pink Chuck Taylors. It was like a tap-dancing recital right there on the blacktop.

A thing of beauty, really.

Meanwhile I stood inside with the other kids, squealing in disgust. It’s a wonder they still ask me to sub. I’ll never forget how my little friend saved the lunchbox, the school, and the day.

These are just a couple things that made me smile, but there are bursts of joy in every day. One day it might be my student discovering the handicapped stall has great acoustics for impromptu math songs. Another day it might be the sheer exuberance of a second grader with a sequin glove moon-walking in the year-end variety show.

Or it might be hearing twenty-six fourth graders try to sing along with Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World.”

Yes, I think to myself . . . What a wonderful world.

Oh yeah.

-Em

Painted in Waterlogue

Things that Matter

A few years back I heard a speaker at a writing conference who said something that has stuck with me. Author David Dark said that the culture in which we live has one nagging message: “Hurry up and matter.”

Are you famous? Are you rich? Are you a viral sensation on social media? No? Then get busy — hurry up and matter.

I dislike this message. As a mom, I especially dislike the pressure of having to prove yourself special at an ever younger age. And I hate that the measure of mattering has so little to do with character and so much to do with piling up likes and views and subscribers.

Oh, and racking up “friends,” the kind that require quotation marks.

It makes me worry about my daughter, who is naturally impressed by people who have built up a following online, whether by sheer talent or sheer desperation. These people seem to really matter.

I want her to recognize the difference between image and substance. I wonder if this distinction is becoming harder to make.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that she matters. Already.

You matter, too. No need to hurry up and matter.

You are an image-bearer of God. Ignore the voices that say you’re not enough.

You do matter.

Already and always.

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That’s all. Love, Em

No Place Like Home

It was a rough winter. Normally, I don’t mind cold weather. I much prefer wearing sweaters and coats to shorts and T-shirts, but at this point, I am just plain sick of long sleeves and fleece.

This winter, with its snow and low temps and days off school, seemed to go on forever. (Note the leap of faith in using past tense here.) And my annual sickness, a nasty cold that spanned February and March, made it feel even longer.

But something interesting happened this winter. While being penned in by cold weather and pinned to the couch by germs, I became really, really grateful for our home.

Out running errands, I’d pick up groceries and then become suddenly homesick. I’d drive straight home, put on my fleece pants and fuzzy socks and plant myself on the couch. The dry cleaning (or whatever) could wait. Home was my haven.

I have always appreciated our home. Yet in the past, I thought of home more as our default place, the place we are when we’re not out. This winter, however, home was the place I most wanted to be.

An upside of being a homebody is having plenty of time to read, and one book in particular fit perfectly the feeling of home-as-haven: Christie Purifoy’s Placemaker.

In short, her book is about home – being at home wherever you may be and making yourself at home by cultivating beauty in your spaces. She writes, “What is placemaking? It is deliberately sending your roots deep into a place, like a tree. It means allowing yourself to be nourished by a place even as you shape it for the better.”

The book is not a hospitality guide, but being hospitable is part of being a placemaker. Nor is the book a home decorating guide, although curating spaces that evoke peace and comfort is part of placemaking. It is memoir-ish, but its narrative arc moves through places rather than life events. Christie is a gardener and lover of trees, and the landmarks of her life – in the various places she has lived – are uniquely botanical.

Christie’s writing is lyrical and gentle, with a way of deftly pointing out things in the world worth noticing. I especially loved her musings on an oak tree: “Each acorn is a wish for more, a dream of a tree, and a desire for enduring legacy.” Reading that sentence, I thought Well said! That’s why I love acorns.

Now that the weather has started to turn, will I remain a homebody? Probably not. I’d go for a bike ride right now if it was warmer outside.

I always love finding a book that speaks to my life at the moment – the right book at the right time. Christie’s book came at the height of a season when I felt the sheer comfort of making home a comforting place for me and my family – not just a landing spot between flitting here and there, but a soft place to land.

Purifoy Placemaker

 

Full disclosure: I’m a member of Christie’s book launch team. Still, I would recommend Placemaker even if I weren’t, and I do not benefit from making this recommendation.

 

 

-Em

The Joy of Spray Painting

Since my daughter hit the age of double-digits, Christmas shopping was difficult this year. Her tastes are more sophisticated now – and more expensive.

However, I was excited about one gift I’d gotten her: a beautiful brocade dress in wintry shades of red and black. I stuck it under the tree, then let her open it a few days early to wear to church.

The dress fit her well, but there was just one problem. She had no dress shoes except for a pair of silver ballet flats from last Easter, which looked bizarre with black tights. And we had to get to Christmas evening church in twenty minutes.

I quickly grabbed a can of black spray paint and took the shoes out to the front porch. It was forty degrees and rainy, which are the least ideal conditions for spray painting. I coated them in black and sat them in a cardboard box while I rushed inside to get ready.

When I came back to the shoes ten minutes later, the paint hadn’t dried a bit, so I brought them to the bathroom and blasted them with a hair dryer. It occurred to me that hot paint fumes might kill me, so I flipped on the bathroom fan. In the midst of the whirring frenzy, the phone rang – my sister. I told her I was very busy blow-drying shoes I’d just painted for church.

“That’s the most redneck sentence I’ve heard in a long time!” she laughed. “I just gotta ask: did Phil know what he was getting into when he married you?”

Just then, Phil walked in from work and asked if we were ready for church. Then he asked why I was blow-drying shoes in the bathroom.

People ask a lot of questions.

Anyway, he wasn’t surprised. What some people call redneck I call resourceful.

We made it to church breathless, with no time to spare. She slipped on her newly-black shoes and hurried across the parking lot, avoiding puddles. As we walked into church, I trailed behind her on high alert for black footprints. There were none. And I didn’t even smell paint fumes during the service!

Rust-Oleum for the win!

Under normal circumstances, I love to spray paint. When the temperature rises above 65 degrees, I start looking around the house for things that might look cool in a fresh, new color – picture frames, small furniture, you name it. While our shoe-painting emergency was not a case of painting for fun, the result is the same: taking something old and making it new. By the magic of aerosol paint particles, nothing is wasted.

I like this idea.

When it comes to yard sale finds and wall décor, nothing is wasted. When it comes to shoes in the wrong color, nothing is wasted. And even when it comes to experiences in our lives –  whether accomplishments or disappointments or heartache or joy – nothing is wasted.

Last week I woke up on my birthday filled with thanks. “Thanks, God,” I said in a sleepy stupor. “I get another one!” Another birthday. Since my last one, successes have slipped through my fingers. I wonder why; still, I trust that nothing is wasted.

Nothing is wasted because God wastes nothing. God is the original up-cycler, turning fig leaves into clothes, water into wine, depression into dancing, old things into new.

So when I wonder, was all that writing for nothing? I know deep down it was not. Truly, nothing is wasted. That’s the joy of knowing God can redeem the unworkable, old silver ballet flats of our lives.

That’s the joy of spray painting.

Nothing but a Number

Lately I’ve been more aware of my age. My body creaks when I bend down to pick something up. There are strands of gray in my hair. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be. At 42, I notice these things.

In the middle of a sweaty yoga class, one of my favorite teachers gave this advice: When thoughts come to mind, don’t dwell on them and don’t drive them away. Just notice them. So that’s what I’ve been doing with signs of age: just noticing them — like slow-drifting clouds in the sky.

Several weeks ago I sat around my friend’s dining table with our Bible study group. Next to me sat a sharp-dressed, sharp-minded woman in her nineties. Across the table, an equally sharp woman in her eighties. As twelve individuals, we span the decades. One of the things I appreciate most about these women is the wide range of ages – and the wealth of wisdom and experience that comes with it.

Recently a friend who’s about a decade younger invited me to lunch out of the blue. As we caught up over soup and sandwiches, she described herself as “over-caffeinated.” Maybe so, but she also radiates the energy of youth. I’ve been meaning to tell her it meant a lot that she reached out to me. She wasn’t even selling lip gloss or vitamins or energy drinks — just a lovely friend connection.

Differences in age shouldn’t set barriers between people. Once I was twenty-seven; someday I hope to be seventy-two. God, please give me the memory and imagination to relate to youngsters when I am a bona fide oldster.

The latest season of my favorite reality TV show – The Real Housewives of NYC – opens with this unexpected nugget of wisdom:

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter!”

All truth is God’s truth – and isn’t that the truth?

Our days are numbered, but let’s not make too much of the number. If you don’t mind, age doesn’t matter.

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Hey there — thanks so much for reading! If you’re on Facebook, find me here! -Em