“She is nine, beloved, as open-faced as the sky and as self-contained. I have watched her grow. As recently as three or four years ago, she had a young child’s perfectly shallow receptiveness; she fitted into the world of time, it fitted into her, as thoughtlessly as sky fits its edges, or a river its banks. But as she has grown, her smile has widened with a touch of fear and her glance has taken on depth. Now she is aware of some of the losses you incur by being here–the extortionary rent you have to pay as long as you stay.”–Annie Dillard
Danica has a journal where she’s kept heart longings for recovery after her surgery. In her innocent child handwriting she wrote healing wishes. They are hopes like swimming, running and playing outside at recess with her friends again. Every numbered list is a little different but each one has a common desire. She wanted a puppy of her own.
When your child is facing brain and spine surgery and months of restrictions and losses before and after you will promise them almost anything and worry about making good on it later. The dog was a yes like that. As the summer began to slip through our fingers and Danica’s next big scan and neurosurgeon trip to Johns Hopkins in early August approached her longing for a dog grew. The finances, logistics and the energy to make this addition to our family happen were difficult. I was particularly hesitant because I know the majority of caring for a new dog falls on me once the girls go back to school. My parents offered to help with the purchase, but I was dragging my feet. Danica was searching dogs online for hours each day. She studied breeds and made lists of names. She kept a log of the money she had and asked how she could earn more to help with the cost. And then she prayed. Every night when I tucked her in she asked God to please bring her a dog.
She is nine. Everything she’s endured has not hardened her, but she is changed. She can’t go back and reclaim the losses or forget the suffering. But she can believe sometimes putting something on a list enough times is like saying the earnest prayer over and over. She can believe dreams come true through the people who love you most and would give anything to see your pure childhood joy just one more time.
“This is freedom. This is the force of faith. Nobody gets what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing is to be pure. What you get is to be changed.”–Jorie Graham
I’ve logged in to write here dozens of times since my last post. The cursor blinks, but I can’t seem to shape my ongoing heartache into words.
It’s been a month since I drove myself to the doctor to have my staples removed. Each chunk of metal she pulled loosened a deeply embedded piece of sadness. I wept. My dear physician gently reminded me of where I’ve been. She’s seen me worse. We talked about my adrenal crises in the past after surgery and the ways my very real physical symptoms feed my anxiety. We spoke about the trauma and grief of another wounding.
I’d seen my counselor earlier in the week as well. For ten years pieces of the life I thought I’d live have been falling away. I’ve begged God for restoration. Some kind of “magical thinking” has prevailed. I’ve still believed I will heal, and I will be more well. I’ve imagined the surgeries would eventually stop and the progressive nature of my EDS and all the resulting conditions would be slowed. Over and over I’ve visualized my body becoming strong again.
I’ve talked of loosening my grip, surrendering my life and opening my heart to this hard, but I’ve never fully considered that almost everything I hoped and planned for is ‘impossible’ now. In the face of permanent physical disability I have to accept the reality of my limitations.
I began writing on two sides of my journal. The left side is full of all the things my life used to be and the ones I hoped and prayed for the future. I crossed through almost every goal or dream. On the right side is Option B. I’m still staring at the mostly blank page. I’m sitting in this empty space. I’m waiting quietly. I’m praying the words of Calvin Miller,
“Teach me the wilderness simplicity. Help me to point to You, honestly and joyously, as the threshold of all that really matters.”
“But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned into a new strength…and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that could neither despair nor weariness, nor endless barren miles could subdue.”–J.R. Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings
I’ve been home from Virginia for a week now. I continually reach up to run my fingers over the prickly hair growing back around a head wound gathered together with brutal metal staples. It throbs in a mending kind of way. Despite days of heavy rain and barometric pressure changes I’ve had no intracranial hypertension headache, and I can see clearly. This is what I prayed for. It is what I asked you to pray for.
It was my twenty-fifth surgery. It was certainly not minor. It involved replacing a clogged valve in my shunt and tubing in a ventricle in my brain that allows built up cerebral spinal fluid to drain. I had an unnamed anxiety I don’t have with my spinal surgeries, but the time in the operating room was much shorter, and I was in the hospital only forty-eight hours post-op. The few days of respite I found in late February in Arizona were completely undone by the flight home and the loss of my shunt function. The fifty-nine days leading to this surgery included three trips to Charlottesville, Virginia, the last two with hospital stays. Danica’s Hopkins trip was sandwiched in. If you’ve read our story long you know I manage different kinds of pain with varying levels of grace. Pressure at it’s worst renders me completely disabled and hopeless. There is no medication that brings me relief. The level of fluid that collects in my subarachnoid space puts me at risk for stroke and permanent blindness. This is my fifth shunt. I had three lumbar peritoneal shunts that all eventually failed due to calcification of the device and tubing. My first ventricular peritoneal shunt was placed exactly one year to the day before this revision. It was a miracle and gave me total relief from symptoms. I can’t imagine having gone through my huge fusion in October or Danica’s surgery and recovery without the healing I was given.
The trauma of the process of surgery when multiplied over and over cannot be explained. Something about this shunt failing when it did, the suffering along with the fighting and traveling for help and the reopening of my head unhinged me like nothing else has before.
I’ve been completely undone.
I’ve wept buckets of tears.
I’ve hidden in shame.
I’ve lied and said I’m okay when I am not.
I am not okay.
I’ve been curled in the fetal position gasping for jagged breaths. My mom dropped the girls off after school every day, and they would find me in bed with bloodshot eyes and a pile of snotty tissues. I cannot disguise this kind of fear and grief from them. I tried to explain, “This happens sometimes. It’s the anesthesia. It’s the stopping of pain medication. It’s the first opportunity I’ve had to mentally and emotionally process an impossibly hard year…” I prayed with them. After all, this is the right thing to do. When we are hurting we take it to God. When we are afraid we trust in Him. I answered texts and emails with the tone of healing, but I did not answer my phone or let anyone visit. Before Dan would get home I got out of our bed, washed my face and greeted him at the door. I pretended for him in a way I didn’t feel I needed to with Delaney and Danica. He says he is only as well as I am. I couldn’t bear to tell him how desperate he should be feeling.
The anxiety has been all consuming. For the first time in a decade I’ve begun to doubt my salvation. It’s as if I suddenly realized THIS IS MY LIFE. There is no asking for this cup to pass. EDS cannot pass. None of this intervention can be fully healed on this earth. This is not a faith issue. This is strands of DNA and failing flesh. What do I do with that? My body will never be more well than it is now. I’m forty-one years old. I won’t ever turn my neck to the left or the right again. I’ll never not have a bulging device sewn into the front of my head. The relief I’ve sought has plunged our family into a chasm of debt we will never recover from. I feel selfish. I feel ugly. I’m second guessing every time I’ve fought for better if this is as good as it can be. I feel like a liar, because I’ve said hopeful things for so long now. I believed them. I held others up with the faithful words of a God I now question. I want to open my laptop and delete all of Gauntlet with a Gift. I want to delete the files from the years I wrote at Team Danica and the years I’ve written here. Was any of it real?
Friday I did everything I could to move myself into a different head and heart space. I didn’t get back into bed when Dan and the girls left for the day. I made the bed. I showered and shaved my legs. I washed my hair and tried to style some pieces over the hideous incisions. I was exhausted. I needed to go to the post office to buy stamps for bills and mail a few love gifts. I had a panic attack. What if the postal workers notice my head or a stranger asks what happened to me and I break down in public? I considered not going, but my friend’s birthday was the day before. She’s fighting cancer, and I was late to love her, so I breathed in and out, and I got in the car. In the pouring rain I drove myself to a tanning place, and I went in and paid for ten minutes of light therapy. UV rays and vitamin D have helped in the past. It was full of people with the same idea including a rogue Axe body spray wearing male somewhere in the salon. Half way through my time I was in a crazy mast cell attack. These are always worst after surgery. I cried. I used a gross tissue in the bottom of my purse to try and straighten up. I went through the Starbucks drive thru and bought a venti white mocha with whip. I just needed to practice some self care, right? It was going to be fine. I drove to school to pick up my Delaney and Danica in car rider line. I listened to my favorite worship music. I cried. I used my sleeve to try and straighten up. I felt something stir inside me, and I posted a picture of healing IV bruises on Instagram. Sometimes saying things are getting better might actually make things better. Words have power like that. But not this time. I got home and crawled back under my weighted covers.
Yesterday was Dan’s only day off. For our family this means we have to get things done, because I cannot lift laundry baskets or grocery shop. While I was away Dan helped Danica go through her drawers and take inventory of how little she fits in and make a list of what she needs for a new season. We drove to Old Navy first. The smell of the store brings me to my knees. I knew I had twenty to thirty minutes max before I got deathly ill. I fake smiled and acted excited as we looked through the clearance rack and sale priced items and matched a few outfits together and found two dresses, because Danica is determined to get this family to church no matter what, and she has to wear a dress. I had a fifty percent coupon for Michaels and Danica needed a plain white t-shirt to paint at school for field day…a day she won’t attend, because of her restrictions, but she still wants to do a shirt. If Old Navy is Agent Orange to me then Michaels is Napalm. Our in and out trip left me shaking. We were back in the car and were supposed to get the Target health and beauty and groceries next, but I couldn’t. I had to get home immediately. I cried. I spent the afternoon between bed and the bathroom. The fallout from visiting those two stores would be hours of sickness. Danica was so happy with her new things. Dan and Delaney had to go back out. Danica came to snuggle me, and I cried. I told her I was sorry. I reminded her our family rule, “We all get to feel how we feel.” I reminded her how sad surgery can make you. She squeezed my hand and went to her room to play with her dolls. I cried.
Finally, I did the brave thing. The hardest thing. I reached for my phone and dialed the number of my older sister, Rochelle. She’s the one who has seen me at my worst and never looked away. She’d driven to the hospital just a week before to sit with me. She’s done this more times than I can count no matter what state my surgery is in. She shows up. Just a week before she somehow came over the mountain from West Virginia, a three hour drive, to sit in the UVA emergency room with me for an hour. She just shows up. I do pretend with her sometimes, but she knows. She can hear the empty lilt to my voice as I offer very little personal information and ask her a bunch of questions instead. This call began the same way. I asked how she was. I listened to the joy of her busy week watching my nephew Avery play tennis in a regional competition. Without warning my pain came pouring out of me like a river breaking dam. With every word I was finally moving towards truth. Of course, I know this. Say it out loud. Name it, and it loses power. Tell someone who knows your whole story. Tell someone you can trust with your heart. They will speak gentle words back to you, and you will move an inch toward healing and light. She listened. She cried. She allowed me to be exactly where I was without judgement. The only thing she wouldn’t let me leave with was the feeling I was no longer a child of God. She reminded me He already finished this big fight and won, He is for me and there is nothing I can do to to lose this love.
Later in bed I was crying again. Dan took my hand and held it tightly. He never tries to rush me to something else. This morning he left for Dayton for an overnight overtime trip. His leaving brought my fear back to the surface. I did something else brave. I texted my parents. I told them how I’m not okay. I asked them to pray. After church they brought me a chai and picked up Danica to spend the afternoon with her. I sat here in my nest chair and opened my Bible to Psalm 88. It’s a Psalm of lament that doesn’t try to end on a high note. It doesn’t try to rush you to something else. God gave it to us for a reason. The last words from Heman, one of the pioneers from the singing guild set up by David, are, “Darkness is my closest friend.”
“Three times in the Psalm the word ‘darkness’ occurs (v. 7, 12, 18). The effect is to say it is possible to pray and pray and endure and things not really get any better. The Psalm ends without a note of hope and so its teaching is that a believer can live right and still remain in darkness. Darkness may symbolize either outside difficult circumstances or an inner spiritual state of pain. That is the very realistic, tough message at the center of this Psalm. Things don’t have to quickly work themselves out, nor does it always become clear why this or that happened. One commentator wrote: ‘Whoever devises from the Scriptures a philosophy in which everything turns out right has to begin by tearing this page out of the volume…The very presence of such prayers in Scripture is a witness to His (God’s) understanding. He knows how men speak when they are desperate.’ Kidner’s point is this. If we believe that God through the Holy Spirit inspired and assembled Scriptures for us, then we see that God has not censored prayers like this…God remains this man’s God not because the man put on a happy face and controls all his emotions, but because of grace.”
And so today I sit with a God who doesn’t try to rush me to a praise especially when my Hope seems to be dying. Somewhere in the deep sorrow I feel the tiniest shiver of a goosebump of joy. I want the ache to eventually drive me into a greater sureness of His love for me and strengthen the belief that my afflictions will someday be once and for all eclipsed by His glory. Until then I lament and He listens and loves just the same.
I get the notification every day on my facebook feed. You have memories. Most of the time they include a blog post from the old Team Danica blog where I was much more faithful about writing for you. They also include status updates about pain, sickness, medical tests, treatments, surgeries and hospital stays. Either I am asking for prayer and support or thanking you for it.
I’m tired of our story.
I’m sure you must be too.
Danica’s healing since her surgery has been a miracle. You know I don’t use the word without understanding the full weight of it. Our joy in the excellent news during her visit to Hopkins several weeks ago and celebration of removing her neck brace has been tempered by my suffering.
After a random April snow last week I’m convinced spring is here to stay. I am wildly in love with the birds and blooms. I want to slosh in the mud and hunt all things new. I want to sit still and study the rebirth of dormant life. This is the season when my hope is made visible. It is also when my mast cell disorder explodes. My skyrocketing histamines raise my intracranial pressure in tandem. My already hurting head and accompanying symptoms are somehow worse on these pollen soaked sunshiny days than when the roller coaster barometer reeked havoc on my fluid filled brain. I forget this happens every year. Social media memories remind me.
It’s holy week. Danica has been sick with a fever and headache since Saturday and home with me. After Dan and Laney leave each morning we’ve been reading through the Old Testament prophecies and New Testament Gospel accounts of the days leading up to Christ’s death and resurrection. We aren’t at the foot of the cross yet, but we see the sadness of Jesus as He nears and hear His aching lament. It comforts me to know my fully God yet fully man Savior understands the cry of a heart that trusts my Heavenly Father but wails just the same.
Tonight I am crying out.
It’s been hard for me to read and write since my shunt failed. I have always said the pressure is the one part of my complicated diagnoses that I cannot live with. A year ago I was so desperate I wanted to die. After three failed LP shunts God directed me to a vascular neurosurgeon at the University of Virginia who had only recently begun seeing EDS patients and was brave enough to help us. The VP shunt he placed gave me complete and lasting relief for almost a year. I didn’t take a day of it for granted. No matter how broken the rest of my body is I most desire to be mentally and emotionally able to think clearly, read, write and learn and form and nurture relationships. When my pain and brain fog cloud these abilities I become frantic. I’ve come to terms with all the other loss and disability, but I beg God to leave the core of who He created me to be in tact. My habit of voracious reading comes to a snail’s pace when I am in this much pain and lose so much vision in my right eye. I edit my list of books and slog through the ones I most want to read. “Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death” by Russ Ramsey moved to the top of my stack.
I read it cover to cover in one sitting. Like always, I read with a pen to mark up the margins and a journal to copy words I needed to save. I have to admit there were points in his story I felt upset. All the things he was experiencing with one sudden diagnosis, surgery and recovery I’ve been through repeatedly. In the last ten years many people have begun a conversation or note or email with something like, “It’s nothing compared to what you are going though…what you’ve been through, but…” I cringe. Every time I cringe. Here’s the thing I always tell people who are going through different but no less hard things,“There is no monopoly on suffering.” Once I got past the self indulgent contrast between my life and his I began to gobble his experience seasoned with truths.
Days before I picked up “Struck” I’d read an article on Desiring God by Matthew Westerholm titled “Lament Like a Christian Hedonist: How Joy in God Bears Real Pain.” I book marked it and returned to it several times. I found comfort in the reminder it’s biblical and okay to wrestle hard with your hardships. It was this prepared soil the seeds of chapter fourteen fell.
Because the Lord often withholds explanation for our pain, we must not look at suffering as though it is some divine gimmick designed to teach us some important life lesson. That would make too little of the reality. God’s people do not walk through suffering toward the moral of the story. Rather, we walk toward the eternal presence of the Maker and Love of our souls, This I must remember…Suffering is not an event. It is a path…There are plenty of advisers out there who would counsel me to dress this up with positive thinking. But I do not think it would be honest to try to pad my experience with cleverly contrived optimism that denies what is true. My faith in Christ provides a deeper, truer way. I want to feel my sorrow. I want to walk in it. If the Lord walks there with me, what possible advantage could there be in conjuring any other way? No, I choose the road of suffering, and I pray for the courage to walk it honestly. The truth is my heart is broken. I need time to say as the psalmist said, ‘When I remember God, I moan, when I meditate my spirit faints.’ As part of my confession of faith, I need to say that I am not okay–not completely.
Tonight I am not okay. I can beat on the breast of my Father God, and He will hold me close and listen to every cry. “Though I continue to ask why, more often than not the question on my mind is ‘What’s Next?’ Sometimes He will answer, sometimes He will not. And I will again have to lean on what I know of who He is when I cannot make sense of what He allows.”
The God of the universe. The same God who sees Syria tonight. The same God who sat with my beloved friend this afternoon as she met her oncologist to see if her brutal cancer treatment is working. The same God who watched my sister and her family bury their dear Pops today. The same God who sits in the psych ward at the bedside of a fellow zebra’s husband who tried to take his life because he cannot bear to watch his wife and children suffer any longer. The same God who formed my Danica in my womb, fearfully and wonderfully, errant DNA and all and knows why she is running a fever for so long. The same God who sees my CSF logged brain and feels the bulging behind my right eye. He is good. He suffered hell for me. Love like that can be trusted with ALL THIS.
As I lay my throbbing head on a tear soaked pillow tonight I pray Russ’s song of lament:
Lord, You are with me. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death together. Since I do not know the way, I have no choice but to trust You. To trust You means I walk a steady path believing you are with me. The sound of my footfall echoes the two operative words you use to call me to the communion table–remember and proclaim. I remember that You are a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, and I proclaim that I have no better guide. I have no better guide for two reasons: because You are God and because no one has stepped forward to lead me in a worthy manner. So I follow. What else can I do?
I haven’t asked for prayer lately.
I am tired of our story.
I’m sure you must be too.
But God is not tired. He does not grow weary or faint. Danica asked me to post something on facebook this afternoon when her fever spiked. Her childlike faith remembered your prayers for her miracle and wanted the same prayers for her sick body now. I was humbled. Won’t you please pray for her tonight? If she is still spiking by morning we will head to the children’s hospital. Please pray for my brain. I am terribly anxious about our trip to Charlottesville on Monday and my procedure Tuesday and what the next steps might be. I am terrified of a shunt revision. Please pray for Delaney. She is so sad about Dan and I leaving next week. She wants the joy of the sunshine and warm breeze to play as a song in our home instead of the dirge of sickness. Please pray for my Dan. He worked overtime this past Sunday offsite to help pay for another expensive medical trip, and he is working all week and then Saturday and Easter Sunday so he can take the days off to drive me to UVA. He is exhausted. He comes home to do laundry and dishes and look into the faces of a woman and children he loves desperately and wants to save somehow. Please pray for healing and provision and strength and Grace to do each next thing we think we cannot do.
Our Hope Remains.
What is your song of lament tonight?
I’m listening to Michael Gungor’s “Beautiful Things.”
“Unexpected Grace always settles in the palm of Heaven turned hands.”–Ann Voskamp
It’s perfectly quiet here this morning except the achingly perfect coo of a morning dove. The comforting bird song I’ve treasured since I was a child lulls me into deep breathing. Since Arizona I’ve returned to practicing meditation. I’m learning much about how often my mind wanders away from truth to fear. Each breath in and out is a chance to BEGIN AGAIN. No judgment. Back to Jesus. I’m realizing how Grace can be simplified to gratitude for each next long inhale and exhale. Every intricate detail of my physical being is a miracle. As I scan my body for pain I pray through the suffering. I’m alive. I am filled with the Spirit of God. My body is not an enemy. I end each session with the words from Psalm 19:14, “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.” I arise in strength and dignity.
March is a month of hard for us. Every spring break for my girls the past decade has included some kind of medical trip for Danica and I or surgery for me away from them. This year will be no different. During certain seasons I return to what I’ve written to gain perspective and remember God’s faithfulness when I am discouraged. I wrote this in March, 2014:
I’m looking at the flat, barren landscape of 71. This stretch of pavement between Columbus and Cincinnati is one I have grown to hate over the years. If you paint our journey with a broad stroke or view this piece of art from a distance you may only see the colors of hope and healing. They are vibrant and breathtaking. But for us, the ones who have watched this masterpiece morph, no matter what news comes at the end of these trips, the road is bump after bump of pain literally and figuratively. The dark shadows most think we should have moved on from are still looming at every mile post. We see the financial drain each mile we move closer. No matter how God has provided we still come to this thicket wondering when and where the ram will appear. Our new year deductibles chase us. Knowing the cost is thousands of dollars to even walk in the door is a weight we drag behind us like chains on our ankles. Because of my shunt revision surgery , Maryland trip out of network, more hotels nights, more driving, more of it all we gasp for air. There is no choice but to keep moving even though it feels like quicksand.
I canceled this important trip earlier this year, because I was simply not well enough, and I just didn’t have the strength to do this. Weeks before we come here I begin to have racing thoughts about the hotel, the hospital, the anesthesia, giving our girl up to strangers for hours while we wait, and the dark room where they show us the scans. I hate the smells and the glazed over look in almost everyone’s eyes as they wander from appointment to appointment or down from their child’s room to get a meal in the cafeteria. I have flashbacks of Danica in those days following her surgery when she thrashed insanely in pain, and I went days without sleeping trying to save her and orchestrate her care. In the end there is the obligatory gift shop trip to reward a little girl in some tangible way for her bravery in all this, and it seems like it is all a bad Lifetime movie. Only this is not two hours with a happy ending or at least some inspirational and didactic meaning to carry away. This is our life. My chest is tight. My head is aching. I know the exhaust of the cars and trucks on the road are adding to my increasing feelings of anxiety and manic mind and heart. The silence between Dan and I grows more caustic. He closes himself off. It has never been any different. I want to talk this all through for the thousandth time, and he just needs to drive and do what needs to be done. I begin to cry. Every single time tears begin to fall down my cheeks the closer we get.
I remember the first trip here. It was April 2010, almost exactly four years ago. We knew Danica’s decompression in November of 2009 for her Chiari malformation had failed. Many of her symptoms had returned and even escalated in the few months since we let them cut open her head and neck and shave away bone from her vertebrae to make more room for her brain. Her little neck falling to the right again was the most glaring sign we did not succeed and perhaps had even made her worse. Suddenly we needed to be much more informed about the condition and what underlying genetic mutations might be causing it. We were scared. Although the first brain surgery was scary, we still believed it was something really hard God was asking us to do just for a time. We thought it was something broken in our girl we could fix. Our first trip to Cincinnati solidified this “C” word was here to stay.
Our “simple” Chiari story which seemed like a miracle for the first few months became our entire life. You began to read here and raise money and pray. We were overwhelmed as people from all over the United States and the world wanted to support us here at our little blogspot blog which became Team Danica. I had always been a writer, but I never needed an audience for what I scribbled and pecked away in private. I even tried to hide my writing. Suddenly, I had hundreds of people checking in for updates, and not just to see how we were or what the plan was but to truly share our hearts in all this. Somehow, in all the lament and torment of those early days, this place became where I could honestly share what this kind of journey looks and feels like. Dan joined occasionally to show his husband and daddy heart. It wasn’t always easy or cathartic to keep coming back here, and I took breaks for sure because of fear or sadness or just plain exhaustion, but whenever I would stop writing people would email or message or call and tell me they needed to keep reading and following. Team Danica became as much a blog about my health and journey as our sweet girls’. Still you came to read and pray and support us.
Four years we’ve been here.
The well of love has always been deeper than the well of pain and suffering.
The strength and grace of our God has always been ENOUGH.
The provision has always come.
Our Hope has remained even on the darkest days, because we believe.
We believe because He causes us to trust and loves us even when we don’t.
. . . We are here in the hotel now. Michael Card’s “Sleep Sound in Jesus” plays on my itunes while I type. Dan and Danica are drifting off. I can see the Children’s Hospital sign lit up in the dark from our window. My prayers try to cover the hundreds of beds full of children who sleep there tonight fighting some illness, healing from a surgery, waiting for a diagnosis and the parents who sit vigil with them. I pray for the doctors and nurses who sacrifice to join in these wars. I pray for those who do not have a voice like we have to ask for prayer or support or a meal or a hug.
I feel a calm peace about our tomorrow. It may be my Ativan (smile), but more likely it is the prayer with Danica before bed and heading back to the arms of Jesus in the simple words of these lullabies. I am reminded of a God moment from my Tuscon trip when He allowed me to see a big picture view of our life as it intersects so intricately with people we don’t even know.
On my last flight home from Atlanta to Akron/Canton God sat me next to a woman from Wichita, Kansas. I was tired and grumpy and very anxious about how my body was going to react to the pressure and weather changes. I had the best and healthiest week of my life since before Danica’s diagnosis. Besides missing my family I did not want to come home. I politely settled into my window seat and asked her where she was from and where she was going. She asked me the same questions. I mentioned my shunt surgery and a trip to heal. She asked me why I had a shunt, and I shared a quick headline blurb. I really wanted to finish writing in my journal and listen to some music on this last flight. She told me her nineteen year old son Jack was born with a spinal cord issue and at four months old they flew him to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for surgery. Guess who Jack’s surgeons were almost twenty years ago? Yes, Dr. Kerry Crone, neurosurgeon and Dr. Alvin Crawford, orthopedic surgeon, banded together in a joint surgery that had never been done before. This was no coincidence. We gushed our stories to one another through tears. Then it came out and stopped us both in our tracks. It was the summer of 2010. Danica was scheduled for surgery and Dr. Crawford pulled out leaving us with a brain surgeon but no willing bone surgeon. Far away her son Jack was also scheduled for his last orthopedic surgery with Dr. Crawford to fix an issue with his foot. He was fifteen years old.
We now know Dr. Crawford was considering retiring that summer and so he was shying away from difficult cases he could not follow, especially a little girl with atlas assimilation and a failed decompression who no one else wanted to fuse until she was six or seven. Jack could have had one of Dr. Crawford’s up and coming surgeons, and it might have been fine, but it wouldn’t have been what their family needed or wanted after so much care from one man. I can still see myself praying on my knees by Danica’s door at our house on 35th St. I didn’t understand why God would bring us to this dark place if He wasn’t going to see us through it. If you go back in the archives and read my wrestling, the tension in Dan and I’s marriage, the palpable hysteria of not knowing where to go next you will understand in part my desperation. Suddenly, Dr. Crawford was back on board. He put himself completely into Danica’s case including designing the special hardware and having it made and taking her images and having a 3D model of her skull and cervical spine made to teach from. Jack got his surgery too. He is doing well four years later.
I can’t think of any other way God could have shown me how brilliantly He in charge and how little we need to know about it to trust Him. One of the most beautiful lessons I learned early on in all this was how most of what is happening to me and around me is much less about me than I ever could have imagined. Yes, He’s working in and through me but it’s for something so much bigger. Oh how I cheapen my life when I make my God small. I see in a mirror dimly what He will make clear someday. For some reason He chose to clean the mirror a little on my flight so I would SEE Him in even the last hours of my trip…
I promise for a quick update on the brain part of our trip tomorrow. Danica’s MRI is scheduled for 7:30 am, and we will see her neurosurgeon, Dr. Crone, at 11:15 am. The orthopedics scans and visit are on Tuesday. We have every reason to hope for a perfectly good scan. Danica has almost no symptoms of Chiari or any neurological deficit at this time. Thank you for praying for the anesthesia to go smoothly and for all the details of the day. We treasure your lifting us up! Please pray for our Laney who is back home with my mom. She was very emotional about us going and called crying twice today. This is not like her, and it breaks my heart. It was a reminder how much each one of us carry around because of Danica’s health and especially what Delaney has been asked to walk through since my pregnancy with her little sister. She is so brave and independent, but the first to say we should move to Arizona so she could have her mama back.
No matter what you are carrying tonight, I hope this wandering of words down our past four years and the glimpse He gave me of His sovereignty will encourage you to not crumble under the weight of what He asks you to bear. He is doing something bigger than you can see.
I know it for sure.
A year ago we planned the girl’s spring break as another trip to Cincinnati. We thought it would be a graduation of sorts. We were sure it would be a celebration of complete fusion and release for Danica to finally be able to return to the childish play she’d longed for. Instead we found her broken hardware. I took a long jagged inhale and held it. I am realizing now I hadn’t exhaled for the entirety of the past year. On my recent trip to Arizona I remembered to breathe again.
Monday we will leave for Baltimore on another spring break. We will see Danica’s neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins and look at new scans. We expect good things, but we go with open minds and hearts to whatever they show.
Seven years we’ve been here.
The well of love has always been deeper than the well of pain and suffering.
The strength and grace of our God has always been ENOUGH.
The provision has always come.
Our Hope has remained even on the darkest days, because we believe.
We believe because He causes us to trust and loves us even when we don’t.
Thank you for praying for us. I am still recovering from my chemo treatment Tuesday. My shunt is simply not working properly, and I cannot deal with the needed steps to move towards fixing it until we get through this Maryland trip for Danica. The financial avalanche begins to take us down by the third month of each year. I spend hours each day on trying to sort through what must be paid for continued treatment, what necessarily will fall into collections and what must be approved by insurance for the next access to care. I make hotel reservations not for fun but for bodies flung in exhaustion. Dan takes vacation for a road trip to doctors and hospitals.
I wonder what it would be like to heal without this stress. Could I be more well?
I believe Jesus paid it all. I cannot feel guilty about something I did not choose or cause. He has always been enough. He will always be enough. He is enough. Open Hands.
I’ve been listening to Laura Story’s new song by the same name on repeat this week. The Lord gives and He takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Our Hope remains.
I bought the beautiful hardback book “Every Day Sacred: A Woman’s Journey Home” by Sue Bender in January, 1996 at a Walden Books at the Valley Mall in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The simple rendering of the empty red bowl on the cover drew me in. My life was out of control. I was lost in my faith. Nothing seemed sacred anymore. As I flipped through the pages I saw lots of white space, rudimentary illustrations sketched in black and only a few words. I realize now that my life word, Dayenu, was being planted way back then. In Sue’s introduction she spoke of a begging bowl,
“All I knew about a begging bowl was that each day a monk goes out with an empty bowl in his hands. Whatever is placed in the bowl will be his nourishment for the day.
I didn’t know if I was the monk or the bowl or the things that would fill the bowl, or all three, but I trusted the words and the images completely.
At that moment I felt most like the empty bowl, waiting to be filled.”
Sue’s book became a treasure I’ve carried with me everywhere. There were more than a few times I could fit everything I owned into my powder blue two door Chevy Cavalier marked with the Grateful Dead dancing bears sticker on the back windshield. Somehow my Bible and this book were never lost in the fray of my vagabond life.
If you visit my home you will see little bowls everywhere. Some are sitting empty. Some hold a rock and a feather, a small cross or piece of sea glass. They are not all displayed at once. I rotate them in my decor. They tell a kind of story. In late November, 2003, the night before my brother Neculai died, I painted a rather large bowl at a pottery studio with my mom. I scratched the date and my initials on the bottom. It’s now a deeply emotional space. I brought it out on my kitchen counter the week of Thanksgiving, a holiday that will always be tempered by sudden loss. Every time I’ve passed it since returning from Danica’s surgery in Baltimore I get a lump in my throat. I knew my word for 2017 was somewhere in the hollow of the simple blue glaze.
Since my own complicated fusion in October I’ve been the monk begging, the empty bowl waiting to be filled and the sacrifice filling the bowl for someone else.
I first heard the poem “The Singing Bowl” by Malcolm Guite at the opening of The High Calling retreat at Laity Lodge in November, 2014. I scribbled down the words in my blank Moleskine. Later that night in the silence of my room I read them over again and again. Each stanza was emptying my heart for every sacred thing I would receive in that hallowed place. There was no internet access in our rooms. I desperately wanted to google Malcolm and find his work. Sitting quietly with the scrawled letters in my own handwriting was gift. Before every session that weekend I opened my green notebook and read them again. Waiting at the San Antonio airport a few days later, finally with Wi-Fi, I found his book of poetry by the same title and ordered it.
Begin the song exactly where you are,
Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air,
Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood
And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.
Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.
Become an open singing-bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.
And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.
My word for 2017: BEGIN.
God made a way for me to take a solitary trip to Tucson last week. It was something I’d prayed for and desperately needed. In this world of constant sharing I wanted to keep it quietly tucked inside my hurting heart. It was everything I’d hoped and more. After spiritual famine and astigmatism I could taste and see good again. Tuesday morning I sat at the airport waiting to return home with absolutely no pain. Zero. No headache. No neck pain. No joint pain. No cardiac symptoms. No burning and stabbing needles in my feet. No mast cell attacks sitting near people with all kinds of scents. I was well. I filled my journal pages with gratitude for the body and spirit healing. I wrote about the things I long to do in this new year, specifically a dream I’ve had for some time to host a retreat for young zebra women in Arizona. I want to offer them respite from their medical lives, encouragement in community together and a few days of knowing there is a beautiful place where they could feel some better. I made important contacts and explored locations moving the idea into real planning. I was hopeful and excited.
My travel home included flights from Tucson to Chicago and then on to Akron/Canton. A little over two hours into the first flight the captain alerted us there were extreme storms around Chicago and no flights were being allowed to land so we would hang out at a high elevation circling above Nebraska and Iowa and hope things improved. An hour later he let us know we would have a very uncomfortable landing in Milwaukee through turbulent weather. It was during this descent and pressure change I experienced an ice pick pain in the right side of my head, loss of hearing in my right ear and fluid leaking from it. We sat on the plane in Milwaukee waiting for some kind of small window in the Doppler radar to make it into Chicago. Almost all of us on a large packed flight were making connections there. Suddenly we were ascending quickly and descending again through lightning and pouring rain at O’Hare. The airport was in total chaos. Every passenger needed to be booked on new flights for the next day. I stumbled off the jet way and began to cry.
With each new surgery I’ve been increasingly afraid to do things alone. I had to work through this doubt before I committed to the Arizona trip. I’ve felt more and more of myself being swallowed by disability. I’ve found myself resenting my broken body as an enemy instead of caring for it as a temple of the Holy Spirit. I used to be a seasoned solo traveler. In the past I’d have been frustrated by the inconvenience of an unplanned night in Chicago, but I would have jumped on the Marriott app and found a room, hailed a taxi and adjusted my sails. Instead, I felt like a lost and injured child. It wasn’t just the circumstances upsetting me. I was instantly questioning my theology and belief in everything I’d just been grateful for. Thousands of people were being affected by the weather. Of course God was doing things providentially in many hearts and lives through this maddening detour. My myopic view left me sobbing in a wheelchair by the baggage claim holding the howling shunt side of my head in my hands.
The first time I ever spoke of the desire to host a zebra retreat was with my friend Christy who lives just outside Chicago. I knew her from Chiari and EDS support groups on Facebook for several years before she went out of her way on a particularly difficult day of her own tests and appointments in Maryland to visit me during a long and lonely hospitalization for my initial AE/PANS/PANDAS treatment. We are kindred. Since meeting three years ago we have written many #pentopaper cards and notes and letters, emailed, texted and talked on the phone. Both our lives are impossibly knotted. We’ve longed to see one another again face to face, but it’s never happened. Tuesday night I texted her without hesitation, and she jumped at the strange and stressful opportunity to show me hospitality. She arranged for a car to pick me up and came out to the driveway to greet the mess that I was with an umbrella and a smile. It was late. Her husband and girls were in bed. She was reeling from a challenging and emotional week away for invasive diagnostic tests in Georgia. Everything about me showing up in the middle of the night was inconvenient. Sitting across the table in her warm and cozy kitchen with a cup of hot tea sharing hearts for hours…falling into the most comfortable guest bed with silky linens and perfectly plump pillows…waking to her beautiful face shining Jesus the next morning was God giving me a glimpse of His purpose for this detour in my life.
Since returning home Wednesday afternoon I’ve continued to experience intense intracranial pressure. Other symptoms that accompany this pain are also constant. My amazing miracle VP brain shunt is not working properly. Tomorrow my dad will drive me to Charlottesville, Virginia for a Monday scan and appointment with the University of Virginia vascular neurosurgeon who placed my shunt last April. I am undone. I begged God for a year without surgery. It was difficult to leave my family for the time in Arizona. Leaving them tomorrow is crushing. We are so close to Danica’s trip back to Baltimore to see her fusion and meet with her neurosurgeon. I don’t understand.
The rule of St. Benedict, “Always we begin again,” reminds me of fresh starts in Jesus. It invites a trust for my daily bread and the strength and Grace to move through time and space with exactly what is given to me. It encourages me in my Dayenu life of always enough. Chronic illness and daily suffering have a way of emptying over and over. Rising each morning asking God what He wants to do through this brokenness is a part of healing but never being healed. I am a beggar, aware of my need and completely dependent on His love. My life is an offering.
I can’t tell you what new thing He is doing in this pain, but I believe. I have to believe.
“‘Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you. I’ve called your name. You’re mine. When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and a hard place, it won’t be a dead end. Because I am God, your personal God, your Savior. I paid a huge price for you’…This is what God says,…’Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history. Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? There it is! I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the badlands.'”–Isaiah 43:1-3, 18-19, The Message
Six weeks ago Danica was coming out of huge brain and spine surgery and getting settled in the PICU at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. If you’d been there and whispered in my ear that she would be home today doing math and language homework, playing Legos and breezing through an OT evaluation, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you’d told me the first weeks post-op would be the greatest test of physical, emotional and spiritual endurance we’ve ever experienced, but, if we held on, it would become the most miraculous part of our Gauntlet story yet, I wouldn’t have believed you.
The absence of pain.
Six weeks later it’s all true.
Twelve weeks ago I was coming out of a major spinal surgery at Doctor’s Community Hospital in Lanham, Maryland. If you’d come along side my bed while I was struggling for oxygen and writhing in pain and told me I would survive the trauma of the next three months, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you’d told me God would not only meet every single need but lavish love on us in ways we never could have asked or thought, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you’d told me I would have the greatest hope for my Danica’s life and perhaps even my own, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Twelve weeks later it’s all true.
I’ve been a ‘One Word’ person for a long time now. I began writing about my 2017 word last night. ‘Bloom’ was the runner up. I didn’t remember the following post from the old Team Danica blog, written on January 4th, 2012, until it popped up on my facebook memory feed this afternoon.
Tomorrow I have a meeting at Lake Center Christian School with Danica’s teachers, guidance counselor, special needs coordinator and principal to revise her 504 plan so she can return to school for half days next Monday. She will use the wheelchair initially to protect her fusion and her healing rib graft. I know she is ready and trust she will be safe and loved, but I am facing my own ache of letting her go. I’m facing the great mother “risk” so my girl can blossom again.
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”–Anais Nin
My dear friend Angie facebooked this quote to me today. It’s not strange that her kindred heart would know this is the very quote I was thinking of this morning as we walked our Danica Jean in the doors of Lake Center Christian School for her first morning of preschool.
It’s all been a risk with this child. The pregnancy was high risk for her and especially for me. Her birth was an emergency and very dangerous. The methods we tried to fix her tortocollis and find the real root of her pain and growing diabilities were risks. The many exposures to radiation were a risk. The first brain decompression was so scary. At her age we knew going in the outcomes were mostly just buying time. Just a few months later we began the fight to find answers anywhere we could because the first surgery was already failing. This led us eventually to her second surgery and fusion. It was riskiest of all. No one wanted to do this surgery although all the experts agreed it needed to be done. Every day after October 5, 2010 EVERYTHING became risk analysis. For more than a year we kept Danica from doing almost anything normal three year olds would do. We said “No”, “Be careful”, “Watch out”, “Hold my hand” and the words “We have to keep your neck and brain safe” more times than I could ever count. Have you seen her beautiful white swan neck? Have you? Do you believe in miracles? Have you ever witnessed one? Have you ever lived one?
Danica had many dreams of her own as she patiently waited in this bud of hope all these years. Attending preschool is one that fell right under her Disney wish trip. She is exceptionally bright and more than ready for this social interaction, time away from her mommy and lots of learning and exploring. We are beyond blessed she is able to begin it at such a special place where so many of the school families have been praying for her for years, following her story and loving us well. Danica is like a hero there. Everyone knows her face and name. My mom’s office is just across the hall from her room too. It’s pretty amazing to have your grandma be your principal!
This cold January morning was a day we will never forget because our family got up TOGETHER. Danica excitedly got dressed and was bursting at the seams with anticipation to bloom. She had no anxiety at all. She has lived in a world of adults and scary machines and pain and limitations. This day was not tapping into courage at all. It was only joy for her.
We went in. Danica hung up her coat and bag in the little foyer area, and she signed herself in on the board. The other children were ready for her. Mrs. Barber, her teacher, was waiting with open arms. There was no look back to me for any reassurance. She was gone in a second to wash her hands and choose an activity. Dan and I stepped out of the door, and I let a few tears fall. Mrs. Pappano was just outside. She gave me a hug and reminded me how everyone there already loved Danica and would take such good care of her.
I was supposed to begin physical therapy this morning, but there was some mix up with the prescriptions getting faxed over so instead Dan and I went to breakfast. He brought me back here to the lake house, and we snuggled for a little while which is such a rare treat. I can still smell him, and it makes me feel less alone. As soon as Danica left at 11:30 Danica’s teacher emailed me to share what a success today was and how Danica instantly blended in. She said they had a large motor skill activity that would be on Danica’s restriction list and Danica was sweetly compliant to sit out. I loved knowing especially they were taking her safety seriously and understanding the limitations that remain. I called Danica at home to talk to her about her morning, and Dan said she got home and said, “We need to take naps!” She had gone in her room to take some down time already. This is so Danica. She takes rest when she needs it. She is in many ways so much wiser than her age. She is a rare flower.
Last night I stayed at home and tucked each of the girls in like normal since Dan is working nights for the next month on her preschool days. Danica fell asleep in five minutes as “Sleep Sound in Jesus” played, and I rubbed her back and sniffed her sweetness. I lingered. Then I made my way across the hall to my Laney. She had so much new art to show me and we talked about print making and how her designs of colors and patterns could be used in fabric or wallpaper and other ways, expanding her understanding of how art could be her career. She talked and talked to me, trying to catch me up on the weeks I’ve missed, and then she said, “I’m sorry I’m so chatty tonight. I just missed you.” Oh, special girl of mine, me too. So much. We hugged and prayed and then I slipped out to my own bed. I cried. It’s going to be okay. There are so many more blossomings in our coming year. I know it. Thank you, God.
I’ve been working on my “vision board” for 2012. It’s like the quarterly collages I make only on a much larger scale. I found a picture of bulbs coming up through a late spring snow. I have this quote beside it,
“Underneath the drifts, seeds are waiting. Their courage is incomparable. Their patience unequaled. Hunkered down and hopeful, they sit out the frozen tundra, knowing and trusting that spring eventually will arrive. If ever you feel unsteady in the face of life’s winters, consider seeds and their faith.”–Tovah Martin
Spring always comes. Today was a little taste of how seeds of faith and patient waiting on God always bloom into something beautiful.
“Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.”–Psalm 126:5-6
“The only way I know to be honestly willing to receive hard things as gifts from God is to consider how they foster the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Even the best gifts may come with an unexpected cost. Every gift changes something–the shape of the day, the balance of a relationship, or just the space available on a shelf or in a drawer. To receive it is to accept that shift, slight or dramatic, and to make an adjustment. When Jesus gathered the disciples after the Resurection, he conferred on them a gift that changed them and the course of history when “He breathed on them and said to them ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” It wasn’t what they were expecting. Nor, when the Spirit comes to us, with inspiration or direction or unexpected comfort, are we fully prepared. But we can practice the open-heartedness that says “Yes–thank you–I accept,” whatever it may cost, knowing the gift, yet to be fully disclosed, holds more promise than we imagine.”–Marylin McEntyre, Word by Word: A Daily Spiritual Practice
I’m sitting here in a recliner in the infusion room at the cancer center, eight long hours into my day of IV medications and slow Rituxin drip. It’s the longest I’ve been away from Danica in over five weeks. I feel like a piece of me is missing. I thought I might finally exhale today. I’ve desperately needed time alone. Unfortunately the TV has been blaring talk shows and soap operas for an elderly lady in the back row. Even my ear buds and peaceful music cannot drowned out the raucous sounds. I’m sicker than usual and frustrated at my inability to accomplish anything except breathe in and out. I brought a stack of thank you notes addressed and stamped, but I haven’t been able to write the same old gratitude. Nothing I say can fully express the depths of pain and the heights of joy that come from receiving the love you’ve shown us.
Dan wrote and emailed me the following post Christmas day. His words and the heart behind them overwhelmed me. If you know my Dan you understand he is the “strong, silent” type, but his rivers run deep and true. He found a new way to say “Thank You” when I cannot.
I volunteered to work today, Christmas Day, as a small sign of how grateful I am to my employer. I was out of paid time off when I requested FMLA for our very open ended trip to Baltimore. They generously paid me for the time while we were in Maryland for Danica’s surgery. My abbreviated five hour shift on one of the slowest days of the year gives me plenty of time to think back on 2016 and offer a husband and father’s perspective on what’s transpired. Monica is the writer in our family, but she’s asked me to write a Christmas letter most years. It brings a new voice and perspective to the one she frequently shares here and on social media. I feel like you could scramble the dates on most letters I’ve written, and it would all still apply except for small nuances. My dad was at the hospital for Danica’s surgery. While hugging me goodbye the day after he said, “It’s been a hard ten years.” It felt strangely good to have someone so close to us validate the decade of extreme difficulty our family has suffered. I’m unable to talk about it most of the time.
When I try to articulate the feelings I find myself back at my favorite Bible verse, II Corinthians 12:10,
“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
The second book of Corinthians is a letter from the Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth. It describes some of the challenges he faced upon his many travels spreading the word of Christ Jesus.
“Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food,b in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”
Many of you are new readers here, but if you have been following since Monica began old Team Danica blog in early 2010 you will spot a few parallels between Paul’s travels and my ten year journey alongside my wife. Weight training in the gym is my only real “hobby.” The phrase “For when I am weak, then I am strong” has a certain resonance in a simplistic way. My personal weakness is the anger produced from the recurring futile question, “Why is this happening to my family over and over again?” This anger leads to a mental push in the weight room where I’m usually able to dissipate this negative energy before returning home to do what needs to be done. Working out has long been my therapy of choice. But Paul is not referring to physical strength in this passage. Paul is referring to the Grace of spiritual strength to endure.
My family opened our Christmas gifts the day before Christmas. I heard Monica mumbling drowsily around 7 am, “Sounds like the girls are up already.” Immediately this casual observation created a huge warm spot in my heart. I was comforted in realizing our two daughters were safe in our small warm home, and we were all together. Nothing about the holidays this year feels celebratory or nostalgic. Monica, Danica and I are still processing much of the trauma from the surgery and hospital stay. Our usual family Advent worship was non-existent except for our reading of the Christmas story from the book of Luke last night. Delaney has been pushing to finish her semester and exams and feeling cut off in some ways from the hard we lived without her while we were away.
Only a freshman, Delaney is already focusing on post-high school life. I like to believe the independence she has learned being apart from her family many times since Monica’s long hospital stay during her pregnancy with Danica is an asset towards her accomplishing her goals. She sees the world as an adventure but maturely understands planning and hard work are the keys to success. She has a faith in God but knows walking on water is rare and rowing to shore is the usual course. Danica is still recuperating from surgery and will be in a neck brace throughout winter. She will return to school part time at first. Her healing well offers the amazing hope of the most full life she has ever known. Being five years younger than her sister, she still displays the outward affection most teenagers have outgrown. She likes to snuggle and will reach out to hold hands without asking. She is protective of her mother’s feelings and keenly aware of her pain. She will often ask “How are you feeling mommy?” and follow up with a hug. They have a connection that will play out much differently than Delaney and Monica’s relationship. During a particularly painful moment in the hospital Monica said, “She is the bravest person I know,” to which I replied, “It’s like you are looking in a mirror.” I am in awe of them both.
Monica’s health struggles and disability remain and continue to be a source of my weakness and anger. She has been pushing herself since her own emergency fusion just six weeks before Danica’s surgery. She is experiencing unsettling pain on the right side of her skull base. All the signals of an AE/PANDAS flare confirm she needs her next scheduled chemotherapy treatment tomorrow. When her physical condition plummets to these low valleys I am mentally right there alongside her. This is by far our greatest challenge in our relationship. I get my “life” energy from her when we are physically close. As I try to fend off the toll of age by staying as fit as possible, time has ravaged her body. Of prominence is the new long scar on the back of her neck and the way she cannot bend it forward or backward or side to side. I think it makes her look valiant and sophisticated. She has changed significantly since the day we met. I believe God is using her to show us all the true meaning of Grace.
Paul could be blamed for taking pride in all of his extraordinary sufferings in the name of Christ thus possibly placing himself on a pedestal above all other Apostles. But verse nine reads, “And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Matthew Henry’s Commentary notes, “When we are weak in ourselves, then we are strong in the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; when we feel that we are weak in ourselves, then we go to Christ, receive strength from Him, and enjoy most the supplies of Divine strength and Grace.”
No one embodies this verse more so than my wife. In weakness Monica receives the strength to care for others. Her thoughtful care packages shipped and received are familiar to many of you. She is always willing to listen to and provide encouragement to others in need. When possible, the experiences from her twenty-four surgical procedures help many patients answer their own medical questions and concerns. She still believes a slow pen to paper letter is the best means of showing one cares. I’ve seen her work through the great loss of a successful career she loved to the humble place of serving through prayer and encouragement instead of doing. Though her persona may change during times of pain, her trust in God rarely lets her outwardly complain. I admire her passion for books, her commitment to reading the Bible often and her time on her knees at her prayer bench. After all these years of marriage, all of the surgeries and scars, when I hug my wife, it feels like my whole world resets and I can continue on. Holding her immediately gives me calm. There is something about her, about us, when we are together we experience true love and even peace.
In contrast to Monica, I seem to do what is required to make it through the day drawing upon Grace in a different way. God’s love demonstrated to us through you is a huge part of His strength being made perfect in my own kind of weakness. A husband and father wants to feel in control. I want to control our wealth, our health and our happiness. I want to have the power to change what is wrong for my wife and my girls. I am committed to the path that is laid out before me, but I go along often times with resentment for that which I cannot control. My Grace comes from those of you who have taken it upon yourselves to help me support my family. Some of you have been helping us faithfully for the past decade of trials. A few of the many recent expressions of love include my aunt’s elaborate hand-made cards accompanied by prayers and support; My brother’s church in Mississippi sending prayer and support; A friend of my sister in-law in West Virginia with no real family of his own sending Holy Spirit led love at the most needed times over the past few years; Friends who have their own serious health concerns like fighting cancer still taking the energy and resources to encourage and share; Those willing to drive anywhere at any time of day to help, especially since Monica cannot drive since her most recent fusion; Those willing to take in our Laney and our Twixie puppy while we traveled to Maryland; A retired couple with a large family of their own who has adopted us as part of their family including us in an “inheritance” of sorts that our parents are unable to provide; Delaney’s tuition to Lake Center being paid year after year by her great-grandmother; The staggering love through donations from your giving and sharing and praying that have literally given Monica and Danica access to the best medical care possible; Cards and gifts from each family in Danica’s class and surprise caroling at our door to cheer us; Meals showing up on our table from people we’ve never met but are praying for us; Christmas gifts under our tree from many who wanted our girls to have some kind of abundance even in our need…All this and so much more has helped me show strength in times of weakness. Your love has been Grace to me.
Monica tries to write an individual note for every act of kindness, but there is really no way to cover them all. I see her heart to never let even one of you think we take your sacrifices and care for granted. Please know how important it is for me to express how grateful I personally am to everyone reading this. Understand how much we appreciate your time, your generous gifts and most of all your prayers for strength and healing. I hope against hope that 2017 will be a year of more normalcy for our family. Although there will be continued recovery for our Danica incuding careful watch over her fusion and regular chemotherapy for Monica indefinitely we are asking God to give us a year without any surgeries. We look forward to sharing breakthroughs of light and life with you so you can feel part of our success enduring and overcoming all the challenges we have faced through Christ Jesus. I am committed to my family, my marriage and whatever is to come no matter what. At the end of the day, when my two daughters are asleep in their cozy rooms across the hall, my wife is snuggling beside me with her Twixie puppy, and I have but a moment to think about my life, I am spiritually moved to give thanks.
Saturday night, New Year’s Eve, Monica and I plan to let Danica stay overnight at her parent’s house and Delaney with a friend, and we will go on a date and have a night alone in our own house. I emailed Monica last week and asked her to marry me again. I know Grace because ten years of hardship that would have broken most marriages and families apart have solidified a kind of fierce and rare love I can scarcely believe exists. I recently told my girls I wouldn’t change one thing about my life, because if one decision, even the seeming missteps and failures, had been different we wouldn’t be here together now. I’ve lost all control over the things the world tells me I’m supposed to be planning and providing for my family. There is no 401K or college funds or even a nest egg. We may never own a home again. Instead I’ve humbly learned to receive and trust and say “Thank you.” I’ve learned this beautiful way of manna living is as much a miracle today as it was the first time it showed up on our doorstep, and I’ll keep waking up each day calling it gift.
This beautiful Nichole Nordeman song has long been on our family playlist. Gratitude. It’s ALL Grace.
“The theology of the Tree, of the Cross, always seeks the presence of God in the belittled gifts of the world…Because in the rush, in the hurry, in our addiction to speed –— there might be miracles if we slow and don’t step on the unassuming shoot that sprouts from the stump.”–Ann Voskamp
It’s Sunday morning. The Lord’s Day. Without attending church I still wake to play hymns and spiritual songs. I drink my steaming cup of coffee with my neglected Bible open. I desperately ache for a glimpse of God and a Word of truth.
I’ve forgotten how to do this still, quiet and sacred thing. I’m afraid of it, because I’ve felt so cut off from fellowship with God and others. I’m not ready to loose the dam of emotions that will surely flood this place when I allow myself to process what we’ve been through the past few months and particularly during the days and nights in the hospital with Danica. There will be a time. I can’t risk traveling there yet, but I can be HERE, NOW.
The continued pain I am having, Danica’s restrictions and gradual healing, our financial insecurity and all the wondering about what the new year will hold for us is being covered by the soft falling snow I’m watching outside my window. I’ve prayed for this peace over and over. I thought it might come in a crazy miraculous way like water into wine. I imagined something sudden we could shout from the rooftops. Instead it is growing like a baby in my womb. I trusted the seed was there before I could even feel flutterings. I have the stretchmarks to prove it. I am great with child. My hope and expectation are sure, and I believe new life is coming. He makes all things new. I believe this. Most of the time I believe this, but it’s true even when I don’t.
This peace and joy and hope are slow. At times they are barely perceptible in the hard, but they are a shoot straight from the stump of Grace.
Henri Nouwen writes:
“A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him . . .”–Isaiah 11:1-2
Our salvation comes from something small, tender, and vulnerable, something hardly noticeable. God, who is the Creator of the Universe, comes to us in smallness, weakness, and hiddenness.
I find this a hopeful message. Somehow, I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me and others of God’s saving power; but over and over again I am reminded that spectacles, power plays, and big events are the ways of the world. Our temptation is to be distracted by them and made blind to the “shoot that shall sprout from the stump.”
When I have no eyes for the small signs of God’s presence – the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends – I will always remain tempted to despair.
The small child of Bethlehem, the unknown young man of Nazareth, the rejected preacher, the naked man on the cross, he asks for my full attention. The work of our salvation takes place in the midst of a world that continues to shout, scream, and overwhelm us with its claims and promises. But the promise is hidden in the shoot that sprouts from the stump, a shoot that hardly anyone notices.
I’m paying attention. I’m watching. I’m waiting.
I see Him in your cards and letters full of love. I see Him in the hundreds of facebook posts of prayer and shares I’m just now having a little time to filter through. I see Him in your generous donations to help with our overwhelming medical bills and new deductibles that take our breath away on January 1st. I see Him in the meals on our table prepared with tender care for us and yummy cut out sugar cookies I wish I had the strength to bake and decorate. I see Him in the gifts showing up on our doorstep making Christmas for my Dan, Delaney and Danica. This is something my mama heart will always long to give them, and something I couldn’t do at all this year.
All of this kindness creates the fertile soil for the shoot straight from the stump of Grace.
All of this is Dayenu. Enough. More than enough.
Three weeks ago we were arriving in Baltimore tangled in hope and fear. Two weeks ago we stood vigil by our little girl with a collapsed lung and burning with fever. A week ago we were in a hotel in Maryland aching to come home. We are here, now. Last night we all crawled into the big bed snuggled under a pile of blankets and watched Elf. It seems such a simple thing. For us it was a layer of healing over months of upheaval and survival. We belly laughed together. I felt a gentle kick…a quickening of Jesus in a silly and secular movie. Grace growing up in a least likely place.
Our Hope remains.
I’m playing this song on repeat today. QUIET. SOFT. SLOW.
“In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia
rising from the souls of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.
If you watch, you will see
the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one
Some of us walk in Advent
tethered to our unresolved yesterdays
the pain still stabbing
the hurt still throbbing.
It’s not that we don’t know better;
it’s just that we can’t stand up anymore by ourselves.
On the way of Bethlehem, WILL YOU GIVE US A HAND?”–Ann Weems
We have weak hands and feeble knees this morning.
We were discharged from the hospital yesterday late afternoon and made our way to a Springhill Suites in Gaithersburg for our remaining time here until Danica sees Dr.Theodore again is cleared to travel. Discharge went as smoothly as any I’ve ever been a part of. Many departments assisted in helping us with the details of support and care after leaving. This included arranging for physical and occupational therapy to come here to the hotel so there would be no lapse in Danica’s healing progress. Danica and I had negotiated a plan for taking her oral medication that seemed to be working after a horrific period of trying to transition her that included vomiting and hysterics. They were ready to bring in behavioral psych for an evaluation…something I opposed as strongly as discharge to a rehab facility. She had taken several doses with no event, and I thought she was ready. There are several beautiful photos of us leaving the hospital smiling. The pictures I don’t take tell a larger part of the ongoing struggle.
We arrived safely to Washingtonian Center. Many of you know we lived here for over three years. Danica was born just down the road at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital. This feels like home to us. The Children’s House was a convenient and much less expensive place to stay pre-op and a perfect crash pad within walking distance to the hospital for Dan and our things during Danica’s week long hospitalization. Unfortunately the building and rooms are very old. The rooms are not set up for the kind of accessibility and devices Danica needs for her particular kind of recovery. This hotel room is arranged in the traditional Springhill Suites style that has always worked best for our family during trips for medical appointments. We have a small refrigerator and microwave, a sofa that folds out into a comfortable bed for Dan and a king size bed for Danica and I to snuggle in that keeps me at her side constantly throughout the night. Most importantly the ground floor suite has the extra room for ambulating, grab bars in the right places to assist Danica and a handicap shower with seat and bars. It is perfect. We are close to every possible kind of food to help get Danica to eat, and the Target which includes CVS pharmacy is right here too.
We checked in and EXHALED. We had done each next thing and graduated to a place closer to getting home.
Within the first hour of check in the manager of the hotel knocked on our door with a gift bag of treats for Danica. I’ve written before on my old blog about extraordinary customer service at many Marriott hotels across the United States as we’ve traveled for the best care. These are not Ritz Carlton hotels, but they carry this level of service across their brands in the training of exceptional employees. This gift bag came from THEIR heart and not a company manual. This was unexpected grace.
We dosed Danica with oral Tylenol and Valium and replaced her Lidocaine patches around the large wound on her back just before leaving to try and make the drive here the least painful as possible. She was so visibly thrilled to be here without the constant rounding of doctors and nurses coming in and checking vitals. We were all thrilled. Dan ran out to get her favorite macn’cheese from The Corner Bakery. She ate the most we’ve seen her eat in over a week. I held off on the Valium dose until closer to bed so we could possibly not do any meds in the night and really rest. She was hurting. Her biggest complaint is not actual pain but the tightening and spasms of the muscles cut in the neck and her back. The PTSD reared it’s ugly head. I was tired and having a bit of a panic attack myself as the struggle in coaxing continued. Dan was trying to be helpful, but he had not been part of the majority of our negotiating the deal to take this particular medication if we were allowed to leave the hospital. She did tip the tiny amount back but proceeded to gag and throw up the medication and ALL the macn’cheese. I fell apart. She kept crying, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just can’t do it.”
I slept some last night holding her sweet little hand with our feet touching under the covers. She was restless. This morning I snuck out into the lobby for coffee and came back to begin my phone calls to make a new plan. In the last hour the neurosurgery resident has worked out for Valium in pill form to be called into the pharmacy here. Dan will go to pick it up, and we will try to crush it in something she will eat. We’ve tried this before. PLEASE pray we can find a way to get her to take this regularly without the battles and without throwing up.
Brain and spinal surgery is hard.
Hospitalization is hard.
Doing the next minutes and hours, days, weeks and months of healing and recovery on our own is perhaps the hardest.
Our hands are feeble.
Our knees are weak.
Thank you for all the ways, big and small, you’ve given us a hand. I’m receiving messages and emails about how you can help provide some kind of Christmas for us and how you can help when we return home. I plan to take some time today to work on the details and share. At this point I realize I will not be able to do any shopping or planning. Your love in these specific ways will be the hand we need.
Even miracles take time.
Our Hope remains.
“Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
‘Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come…'”–Isaiah 35:3-4