If all of life were sunshine,
Our face would long to gain,
And feel once more upon it
The cooling splash of rain.-Henry Jackson Vandyke
I was born in Kirkland, just outside of Seattle, WA. This fact alone is nothing special unless you consider my parents and siblings were all from Virginia. My childhood was spent playing from dawn to dusk in the city neighborhood of St. Charles, Missouri followed by my formative teen years in southern Maryland. My wife and I met in Northern Virginia where I owned my first home. Delaney was born in Rittman, Ohio and Danica was born in Rockville, Maryland five years later. “Glass half full” readers will appreciate how adventurous my life has been while “glass half empty” readers might look upon this never putting down real roots as a challenge. I tend to view the volume of liquid in my glass as what God has provided, nothing more and nothing less. But my soul aches against this simplistic truth.
Thanks to blessings beyond what words can describe, I live in Tucson now. My daughters attend a Christian school and my wife no longer suffers debilitating pressure headaches every day. Hours upon hours of mowing the yard, raking the leaves, shoveling snow or driving in inclement weather are of no concern here in the desert. I rise each morning with the light anxious to stare at the everchanging mountains as each peak slowly comes into focus while the sun travels across a pure blue sky. Desert tan ridges and valleys turn orange as the sun sets to sleep in the west. The firework finale is held each evening as the sun disappears exploding its prism of orange, pink and yellow rays of light far into the atmosphere. We step outside this borrowed home almost every night to marvel how He does it again and again. The photos we post online do not come close to conveying this experience in person. The many stars in the clear sky get brighter each hour. My soul is still searching.
I haven’t written here in a very long time, but if you read Team Danica you might remember I referenced my favorite book in the Bible as second Corinthians. Paul encourages the readers that God’s Grace is always sufficient, and His power is strengthened in weakness. My family and I’s hardships and faith struggles have been well documented by my wife. But my private weakness, something I rarely share, is in not trusting the Lord enough even after all I’ve seen Him accomplish. I feel like I have been left wandering in the desert for forty years fearing each day and what’s to come. Every morning my last words to my girls as I drop them off at school are, “BE SAFE, BE SAFE.” Energized by the Tucson climate and a true chance to be more well my wife is exploring more of her world, venturing off to the grocery store, a Bible study or the writing workshop she just began. When we sit and talk in the evening, I am always fearful she will tell me she’s twisted her neck or spine. I live just one breath away from her or Danica needing another surgery. When most men my age have achieved success in their career and may be thinking of retirement, I am still needing to update my job resume and plan for interviews. I’m faced with a feeling of shame and despair that I will never be able to fully provide for our complicated needs. When most families I know are secure in their home and saving memories, I am stressed about where we will live when our current miracle runs out. We have seven months left in this house. My soul is restless.
It’s been raining all day here in the desert on this Super Sunday. My wife has a headache though it’s a “Tucson headache” which means she can at least get out of bed, but her heart hurts where her shunt empties fluid. She is running mostly on adrenaline now. We will be driving almost two hours away for her first Arizona infusion on Wednesday. Her autoimmune encephalitis/PANDAS/PANS symptoms are worse every day. She’s gone too long between treatments. Medicare finally approved paying eighty percent of this very expensive drug. Driving far for health appointments is nothing new, but we feel the same dread every time. I plan to study the long six to eight hours during her drip for a new technical certification with hopes that I can find yet another job to support my family more adequately. Even if a new job just means being able to add primary insurance for Monica it will be better.
We read in the book of Isaiah this morning. In verse two of chapter forty-nine he says, “…in the shadow of His hand hath He hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in His quiver hath He hid me.” I feel like I have lived in the shadows most of my life. I’ve never seen them as protection or a version of grace. Only since our move here have I gained a perspective to try and understand all our hard and all your love as a kind of holding or covering and maybe even safe hiding. But I’m tired. So tired. My soul longs for rest.
Each morning I do what my father taught me. I wake up and slay dragons. I do the next thing one day at a time. I do not boast of my struggles, for when I am weak, for Christ’s sake, then I am strong. My gratitude for those who have walked with my family and I over the long years is unbounding. It is with deep appreciation that I strive forward. A wandering soul was born in the west years ago. Now when I see a shadowy cloud seemingly lost in the blue sky I will remember it can be shelter. When I feel the desert rain I will understand it is the watering of a rooting soul at peace.
“Never be afraid of broken things–because Christ can redeem anything.”-Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way
I should have stayed home. My very flared and untreated Autoimmune encephalitis/PANS symptoms have kept me from restorative sleep. My face twitching. My shoulders dislocating. My brain swelling. My heart hurting. My neck screaming.
I pushed hard to make it to my first memoir class at The University of Arizona Poetry Center last night. Five Monday nights I’ve committed to learning about this thing I know I’m called to do. I want to do it well. Writing comes instinctively, but writing well comes from practice and a community of others who know more than I do. I drove to downtown Tucson and sat around a cluster of tables for over two hours. Reading aloud. Writing exercises. Sharing and discussing. I tried not to strain my neck, but it’s rude to keep your back to someone continually or to not look at them when they are speaking. I wish I could wear a sign. People so kindly ask, “Do you have a stiff neck?…Were you in a car accident?…So, you can’t move it at all?” It’s exhausting. The class was everything I’d hoped and more. I drove myself home in the dark. This is big, brave stuff. A year ago I couldn’t have imagined trying to do anything this independent and long term. I was excited and grateful. But I was hurting.
This morning was week three of a Tuesday morning Bible Study at the church we are attending. I missed last week, because I was in bed all day. It was one of a hand full of days since we moved here I could not move through the pain. I wanted to go so badly. I’d done my reading. I missed the ladies I met at week one. I rose early, got dressed and did my hair. If you know about the spoon theory you understand this getting ready to go somewhere can be more exhausting than the going, especially on bad days. I saw my family off to school and work. I looked in the full length mirror. In my head I heard, “But you don’t look sick.”
It’s hard when no one knows your story. I don’t want to lead with the pain. The version I’ve been telling is a quick synopsis. I was very sick for a long time. I had four shunt surgeries in 2018. The last one was August 12th, and we picked up and moved here just two weeks later. It sounds crazy because it is. People can’t believe we came here without Dan having a job. They can’t believe I took the risk of losing insurance and access to treatment. They can’t believe much of the story, and I’m giving them the cliff notes and leaving out the miracle provision that told us to go. A variation of this conversation happens every time I meet someone. I want to leave the hard parts out and shine it all up. It’s grace. Monica, don’t forget to tell them it’s ALL grace!
I’d made it almost all the way through our study when the dear leader looked at me. There were already tears balancing on my eyelids threatening to fall. I was holding my left shoulder in place with the opposite arm. She noted I’d been quiet and asked if I wanted to share. Others had been talking about finding time to pause and be with God. Most communicated the difficulty of juggling all they had to do with the desire to meet Him regularly. I began to cry. I said something silly like, “I want to be the one who brings the cookies.” I want to be doing and serving. I want to host another Option EDS-the retreat this May in the Outer Banks. I want to help others find the most well life by building a non-profit here that will support a respite house. I’ve had a decade of quiet time. Hours and hours of time alone with God in prayer and in His word. I want to finally tip the scales of all the love my family and I have received and somehow become the abundance for others. What if I could somehow earn all that love on the backend. Then your scandalous support wouldn’t have been wasted. Yes, God, that’s what I want to do.
I chose the class because it is a study through Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way. I read this book when it released in November, 2016 at the bedside of my Danica Jean at Johns Hopkins. I’d had major fusion just five weeks before her scary brain and spine surgery. I was utterly broken and terrified. My copy is marked up and cried over. I pulled it out of a box in the garage for this study. My brokenness is different today. I’m bleeding from a wound I didn’t even know was there. In this starting over life of more well, and I have been much more well, a strange desire is eeking out. These people don’t know how busted I am. They don’t know I’ve lost everything. They don’t know… I’ve said it over and over. I want the story to be something new. If I put on pretty shoes and some lipstick and smile while saying how good God is all the time maybe I won’t have to be known for my suffering.
Sitting there crying in front of all those beautiful women I heard Ann’s voice,
“I hadn’t known that full cruciformity looked like this. To give someone your broken heart means breaking pride, breaking lies, breaking fear. There’s no communion unless someone breaks their ego. All along, had I only been scratching the surface of what it meant to be broken and given? How had I not lived like the brokenness itself is a gift?
Why not embrace the life work of embracing suffering, embracing brokenness? Why avoid the gift of more God, more vulnerability, more intimacy, more communion–the gifts brokenheartedness offers? Why had I found that terrifying to incarnate? Suffering is a call for presence; it’s a call for us to be present–not only to the brokenness in the world, but to the brokenness in our own soul, and to risk trusting others with our wounds. I think that is what’s terrified me–trusting others with my wounds…”
For ten years I blogged with open wounds. I bled right here on the screen, and you met me, sat in my brokenness and loved me like Jesus. My gifts in the gauntlet were more God, more vulnerability, more intimacy and more communion. I never felt alone. And then I stopped. In my pride I wanted to move the trajectory of my story to something new.
Those ladies joined hands and prayed over me. I haven’t had in the flesh prayer like that since the circling of prayer at The High Calling retreat in 2014. Everyone of them is broken too. I’ve just begun to hear their stories. The broken body of Christ. The visible invisible flesh and bone of God’s redeeming love.
“The fellowship of the broken believe that suffering is a gift He entrusts to us and He can be trusted to make this suffering into a gift.”
Gauntlet with a gift.
Always a gift.
I’m sitting in the dark now. I’m exhausted, but my brain is on fire, and I know rest will not come easy.
In my efforts to resurrect my book manuscript I’ve come to a clarity that changes everything.
My story only matters to the extent it is part of His story.
My brokenness. My pain. My loss. My healing. My hope.
It’s by Him, for Him, through Him or not at all.
I will crawl into bed with the hearts of all the hurting I know and love and the faces of my new family. I will pray. This is my endless and proper work. Be still, my child. Lean hard. This broken way is the only way.
“Never be afraid of broken things–because Christ can redeem anything.”
“The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”-Psalm 34:18
Once again the “Image of God” is on repeat. Christa Wells came to the EDS retreat in May for a private concert for the girls and their moms. I helped her make the set list, and I asked her to end with this song.
The fellowship of love is the new story.
Suffering is the footnote.
The miracle happens in the breaking.
My Hope remains.
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”–Hebrews 11:8-11
Have you read Hebrews lately? I’ve always loved chapter eleven. It’s like a highlights reel of the faithful and brave from the Old Testament. There are a lot of relocation stories scattered throughout. We know there was bold trust in God, but these men and women were human. They had the same needs and desires for a secure home, close family and friends and daily provision we all do. I picture Abraham holding a family meeting to discuss the big move. There was no elaborate relocation package or move coordinator provided. Just a sure call to GO.
Everyone asks how God picked our family up in early August and carried us here so quickly. Even though we’d prayed and asked you to pray for this move west for several years it always seemed just too hard and scary. There was a life changing gift in 2017 that began to make the way. After our trip to Tucson in May we took bold leaps of faith even to the point of preparing the house to sell and renting an apartment here, but things fell apart. In late July after two of the three shunt surgeries I journaled a prayer asking God to help me let the dream go if it wasn’t His will. I questioned if my deep desire to move was motivated by me selfishly wanting to be more well at the expense of my marriage or our family’s highest good. There were people who told me I should come here alone or the girls and I should come and Dan follow if and when he found employment. They said it would be choosing life. My husband sacrificed for me over and over again, and he stayed. When almost any other man would have left. He stayed. I would stay with him too.
From the very first serious talks about moving here I knew Dan was the most afraid. As the sole provider he did not believe we should move unless he had a job here. Finding a job here while in Ohio was complicated, and we did not have the resources for him to travel back and forth for interviews that might become dead ends. Dan’s resume is not deep. He worked faithfully for over a decade at his IT job to provide the best insurance coverage possible for the complex medical needs of our family, most notably many out of network physicians and surgeons. During a time when most men would be taking opportunities to advance in management or more responsibility Dan did not. He worked hard. He worked overtime. He took the menial jobs of hardware setup and moves that no one else wanted. He worked more holidays than I can count. But he never got ahead. Along with this faithfulness came a position of humility not many men are asked to take. He was a beggar. There was no way he could fully provide as our list of surgeries grew longer and our travel took us further. He assumed the position of grateful accepter of help. It wasn’t until the miracle phone call on August 2nd that he heard the clear directive to go.
Only a few of you have been reading from the beginning…since Team Danica. After her second brain surgery and big fusion leading into my own decompression and fusion we moved into the lower level of my parent’s home. There was perhaps nothing more humbling for Dan than that. In late 2012 God made a way for us to have our own home again. It was an accessible ranch less than a mile from my parent’s house and the girl’s school. Our medical debt was truly only beginning, but it had already leveled us. My parents bought the home and rented it to us with the spirit of it being completely our own. We loved it as such. I’m crying as I write this, because I miss that house every day. A little three bedroom ranch with a cozy nest corner I thought I might die in. For a family who felt so unrooted and who was struggling for light and breath in a basement this place was a gift beyond measure. My disability being approved allowed for our payment to be faithful and on time every month. We had no retirement, no savings account and lots of agreements to pay massive debt, but we settled in on the safety of having a home. We never took it for granted.
Moving here meant leaving the one thing Dan and I felt we most needed. Our home. It was terrifying.
This is what I’ve learned.
Fear is a liar.
I’d scribbled this from Ann Voskamp into my planner:
“The greatest motivator can be fear. This will kill you. The greatest fear can be that grace won’t be enough. We won’t be enough. This fear is a fraud. Let go of the lie. All fear is executed with one line. THERE IS ENOUGH. Fear invites the impossible to happen. All fear shrivels when you serenade it with one refrain: THERE IS ABUNDANCE.“
This is my life song.
More than enough.
Perfect love that casts out fear.
God gave us a buyer for our lovely home immediately. It cost $6,731.89 to move our things even though we’d sold what seemed like most of our furniture. (It turns out books are the most expensive thing you can possibly move.) Shipping Dan’s car was $1,350. Plane tickets for our family to fly here were $1,200. My sweet old 2003 Murano with the aftermarket backup camera that gave me my little bit of freedom and independence when I thought I’d never drive again was not worth shipping and would have never made the drive here so we left her behind. We had to rent a car for several weeks so I could immediately help get my girls clothes and supplies and settled into their schools. All of this seemed impossible. It was scary. But God made a way. We moved here with Dan on FMLA and no job. The one thing Dan said he wouldn’t do…he couldn’t do, he did. There were several months we completely lost our medical coverage, the one thing we thought we could never let lapse. But we did. There was a sure call to GO.
We came here on a 365 day plan. Through what I like to call “the economy of love” God’s provided this home for a year. We have seven more months with this view. God gave me a beautiful, safe, reliable car that will last for many years. It was literally dropped off in my driveway several weeks after we arrived here. Crazy love.
Dan and the girls are insured now, but I am not. I have Medicare, and I’m finding roadblocks for access to care over and over again. I’ve already needed to fly back to Ohio for my chemo. I’m due for an infusion now. Medicare has denied payment for this expensive treatment I’ve relied on for over two years. Dan is underemployed. He needed to take something. He needed to get at least some insurance coverage. We cannot live on his salary. The girl’s amazing, loving, God’s arms around them every day school is costly. Without it we never would have moved here. It is how we chose this part of Tucson. If they aren’t okay I would never be more well.
This is what I’ve learned.
Fear is a liar.
This is my life song.
More than enough.
Perfect love that casts out fear.
The faithfulness of God has been our food and shelter and medical care. We’ve been supported by the relational redistribution of your abundance. It’s made us rich beyond measure in every way that truly matters. It’s a story you’ve helped write and one I’m only now beginning to tell.
Last week I felt the most well I can remember ever feeling. I’m fully alive for a reason. God did not bring my family and I here to live only unto one another. He is calling us out in more faith to trust Him for each next thing. He’s growing something from the investments you’ve made in us to give to others. I’m sure of it.
What is your greatest fear? Bring it out of the dark places of not enough and let God’s perfect love shine on it. Name it. Take a deep breath and risk to walk into the lie. It will lose it’s power.
Fear is a liar.
God is enough.
Our Hope remains.
I am having trouble finding words. Following each new trauma it’s taking me longer to recover, and I see pieces of myself disappear completely. There is scar tissue in my heart and mind where a rejuvenation simply may not take place. I am frustrated. I wish I didn’t have to keep writing, but I must try now more than ever.
I’m a month post-op from two shunt surgeries at Hershey Medical Center in Pennsylvania. Something is wrong again. The lumbar peritoneal shunt is hurting more than any brain pressure relief it could bring. My dad will drive me back to Hershey Sunday for a Monday surgery, my 4th since March. I’m broken. I won’t try to describe my pain anymore. It refuses to be named. I’m afraid for my life.
Months ago I walked into Delaney’s room and heard a hauntingly beautiful song by Kristene Demarco playing on her little bluetooth speaker. It’s become my anthem.
I’m desperate. I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m confused. I’m misunderstood. I’m lonely. I’m scared. I’m tired. Oh so tired. When these feelings try to define me I play the truth. Over and over again.
I am no victim. I am who He says I am. He is who He says He is. I’m defined by all His promises. Shaped by every word He says.
In my suffering I am tested. I hear Him asking me, “Who do You say that I am?”
You are God. More than able, Ever Faithful. Always good.
There are beautiful stories to tell. He’s put His arms around me and called me Beloved. This would be enough. Dayenu. This is enough. But His Grace is greater.
I began blogging in 2010 on Team Danica because so many of you wanted to know how to pray, how to give and how to carry our hearts. It was a way for me to share information when I had no strength to share the emotions over and over on a personal level. I am in this same place right now.
God is making a way for our family. I will have surgery again next week. Somehow in the following weeks He will carry us to Arizona, a place where I feel the most well and will have the best chance to heal and live. Dan will take some time off work to care for me. There are a hundred details that are unknown. If there was ever a stepping out in faith this is it.
Thank you for praying and for loving. Your steadfast friendship shines truth too.
This song is on repeat as I fall asleep every night. This album is playing over and over again in our home, on my phone, on my Kindle and in my car. Find it. Download it. Stream it. Buy an old school CD. Know for sure. Whatever hard you are facing. You are no victim. You are who He says you are, and He is who He says He is. Believe it. Rest in it tonight. You are beloved.
Our Hope Remains.
“I have called to God and heard no answer,
I have seen the thick curtain drop, and sunlight die;
My voice has echoed back, a foolish voice,
The prayer restored intact to its silly source.
I have walked in darkness, He hung in it.
In all of my mines of night, He was there first;
In whatever dead tunnel I am lost, He finds me.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
From His perfect darkness a voice says, I have not.”–Chad Walsh
Two weeks ago I sat on the North Carolina coast with the sun in my face, the clean ocean air filling my head and my heart and my bare feet grounded in the sand. I was without pain. It was the perfect and oh so rare cocktail of environment, weather and wellness gifted to me a few days during our family vacation. I didn’t take a minute for granted. I scribbled in my journal all the beautiful things that flow from the kind of hope born in pure light. Mary Oliver’s words echoed in the ebb and flow of the waves, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
This is day seven of unspeakable suffering I don’t understand.
In the fall of 2013 I had my very first lumbar peritoneal shunt placed after several years of struggling with Intracranial Hypertension. Of all my pain, the brain pressure puts me in bed, holding my head, weeping and even wanting to die. I lose vision in my right eye and hearing in my right ear. On the worst days I am completely debilitated. I knew that shunts, both lumbar and ventricle, are not engineered well and are especially problematic in EDS patients, but I was desperate. The first LP shunt clogged quickly, and I had a revision in February, 2014. A week after surgery I flew to Arizona to heal. I arrived being pushed in a wheelchair with a large wound just under my ribs where the device was replaced and incisions in my side and back where the tubing snaked around into my spinal cord. I left having hiked over a mile the last day there. It was the most well I’d felt since 2007.
Since, I’ve had another LP shunt revision and a VP shunt placed in my brain that needed revised last April. The brutal Ohio months of January and February were always a catalyst for failure. Escaping to Tucson became a way for me to get relief. Because of planning and executing my first Option EDS – the retreat in May I didn’t plan on traveling west this year, but my tell-tale symptoms of a clogged device escalated. Delaney and I took a last minute, emergency trip in February. My relief was instant. On the flight home we both wept.
The following weeks of drastic weather changes battered my brain. I was more scared than I’ve ever been. My vascular neurosurgeon moved from Virginia to Pennsylvania since my revision last spring. I reached out, and he had me come immediately. March 22nd Dan and I drove five hours to Hershey Medical Center. I was admitted through the ER, and he revised my shunt late that night. The device and tubing were clogged. The next morning Dan asked him how long he thought this one would last. He said maybe a year at best and next time he would have to place a shunt on the left side of my brain instead of the right. It’s too much cutting. It’s stenosis in the arteries and ventricles. It’s trauma that cannot be healed anymore. I’ve had six shunts in four years, and there is no real fix in sight.
With thirty staples in my head I returned to Tucson with my dear friend Janet. It was another unplanned trip. I spent my time there seriously considering what I’ve known I need to do to save my life. I looked at schools for the girls. I looked at real estate. I spent the few days imagining what moving there would look like.
Several weeks later, in early May, my family and I and my parents traveled to Tucson together. The girls visited their possible schools and shadowed students that may become their friends. We looked at short and long term housing options. We spent time exploring what we’ve known we have to do to save my life. We put an application in on an apartment even though we felt the multi-family environment may be unstable for my mast cell disorder. We took a step in faith.
The day before we left I received my insurance EOB for my most recent shunt revision surgery at Hershey. The cost is shocking. $145,566.16.
We can’t afford to move. We can’t afford not to.
We flew back into Cleveland on Sunday afternoon. A pressure system was bringing rain. I literally walked off the plane to an escalating headache. I cried. I sat on the baggage carousel and cried.
We can’t afford to move. We can’t afford not to
In all the preparation for the retreat I also began to ready our home for sale. It’s complicated because this house is in my parent’s name. It was…is a miracle, and we are deeply rooted in these literal four walls. Dan began sending his resume to job opportunities in Tucson. I wanted to ask you all to pray, but I didn’t want to distract from the important work of the retreat. Dan had a Skype interview the Monday of the retreat week. It didn’t go well. He was distraught. I was not here. He became afraid. The girls were absorbing the weight of his emotions. I was experiencing the untold beauty of a calling fulfilled. It was exhausting and exhilarating. I flew home to a storm of doubt and backtracking. The expectation of a plan to relocate so quickly was not easy for Dan. He is a man of faithful doing. He has not hustled or sold himself even once during the last ten years. He’s sacrificed any personal ambition to care for our family. I did not fully realize the kind of inadequacy he was feeling about a job search. The girls and I met and prayed. We had a family meeting and removed the “deadline” date of the beginning of school in early August. I watched my husband reappear just a little. We leaned into our family beach vacation. While sitting on the beach I wrote an email canceling our lease which was to begin June 15th.
We flew back into Cleveland in pouring rain. My head felt like it would explode. It’s been hurting since. The past week has been a testing of everything I’ve said about not cutting my brain open again. I’ve tried every possible treatment. I went to the ER Saturday and asked for IV meds which only took an edge off the constant debilitating pressure. I’ve hid in my cool, dark room and cried out to my God. I’ve been in touch with my neurosurgeon who suggests a large volume lumbar puncture to remove fluid and provide some relief and also give information about a shunt failure. I would have to travel to Pennsylvania for this. I believe I am not supposed to have another surgery.
I received an email from the realtor in Tucson last night. The community we would love to live in is releasing their first lots. There is an opportunity to build a small home with a suite where family could stay or we could host EDS warriors who need to know there is a place they could heal and feel more well. This has been a dream of mine since I began traveling to Tucson. The retreat only reinforced this desire to minister to others in such an intimate and life changing way. In my desperation I wanted to delete the email. I couldn’t even get out of bed. How in the world would we ever make it to Tucson now?
I had a Toradol injection yesterday and began a medication that has helped in the past when my shunt has failed. I am trying to write this clunky post while I can.
My life doesn’t seem wild or precious at all. The long hours curled up in the dark feel like wasted time. What are my days worth?
I spent time with a wise counselor this morning. She has walked every step of this journey with my family and I for so many years. She’s seen the medical costs that could have bought a half dozen homes. She’s seen me heal and even blossom on trips to Arizona and regress when I return. She knows my complete devotion to and admiration for the man who has loved and served my family and I through a decade of doing the faithful and sacrificial next thing. She championed the purpose that grew from my pain and became Option EDS – the retreat. She understands this particular hurt is the one kind of suffering that brings me to the utter end of myself and makes me want to disappear. She believes I am supposed to stay. Today she reminded me of what’s been possible, because we’ve been vulnerable enough to admit we could never do this on our own and then humbly ASKED. This has been no easy thing. Especially for my Dan.
You all have been invested in our story from the very first blog post on Team Danica. You’ve prayed and encouraged and supported and loved us into miracles. This is big. We are ever grateful. I cannot even begin to imagine how God will do this new thing. But I’m asking you to pray. Plead with us for a way in the wilderness. I want the story to have some kind of restoration, celebration, land of milk and honey resolution here in this life. It may not come. But the changing of our hearts day by day and the healing of our eyes to really see Him and know Him is preparation for the eventual total healing of my body and our souls forever and ever. This is Grace. Our Hope is built on nothing less.
In my crying out today I echo the voice of the one who endured the ultimate suffering for me. We share the same Father who has a perfect plan for our good and His glory.
I feel forsaken. I am not.
I believe. Help my unbelief.
“For from Him and through Him and for Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever! Amen.”–Romans 11:36
“For all the promises of God find their ‘Yes’ in Him. That is why it is through Him that we utter our Amen to God for His glory.”–II Corinithians 1:20 ESV
To every one of you who have touched our lives in prayer, cards, meals, visits, gifts and donations and shared our story with others:
Remembrance is a powerful catalyst for gratitude and hope. After my November spinal surgery I suffered a frightening loss of memory. Besides a few blips here and there I cannot tell you what happened to me beginning in the recovery room until almost a month later. This time is lost. It is why I’ve not written here. I’ve experienced none of the usual post operative trauma, grief and sadness. I’ve not cried. I’ve not wrestled with my slow recovery. This has been a peculiar blessing. But, I’m trying to piece it together now, because it matters deeply. God was doing something so big. I can’t help but think He wanted me to step completely outside my mind for awhile so when I walked back through the door I could see the impossible made possible for exactly what it is…A MIRACLE.
People disagree about this miracle stuff. A baby born of a virgin, definitely. Water into wine at a wedding, sure. A few loaves and fishes feeding thousands of people, of course. But is God working supernatural wonders here and now?
If I’d been shown ten years ago the path God was asking us to walk would I have obeyed? Even now I see only in part what He has been doing in our hearts and lives and the hearts and lives of people around us. One thing I know for sure. We have been active participants in real miracles.
Miracle. The word holds so much power. I used to hesitate to use it much because it’s very definition implies the occurence is rare, and it should always point to Divine intervention. It’s often thrown about in careless ways that dull it’s shiny meaning. Still, I’ve read over and over the accounts in the Bible, and I know God is doing these same kinds of amazing things today. The focus of Christ’s miracles during His earthly ministry was always faith and always the heart. Even when bodies were healed, water was turned into wine and waves were made to cease He was always pointing to spirit and soul issues. He was always showing His power to bring God the glory.
Are Danica’s little ribs fused in her neck making her brain and spinal cord stable while freeing her from all pain less a miracle because God used human ingenuity and hands to accomplish the result?
“When Christ died he purchased for you the ‘Yes’ to all God’s promises, and that includes the promise to use His sovereign power to govern all the inexplicable, maddening detours and delays of your life for wise and loving purposes. He is doing a thousand things for you and for His glory in your disappointed plans.”–John Piper
There have been dark days of doubt in this Gauntlet, but deep down I’ve always known every single detail of our narrative was more about Him than us. We’ve pleaded with God for a break in the suffering. We’ve begged for a time of peace and restoration and an end to this story. We’ve ached for something new.
I’m telling you now. Something is ending. God is doing something new.
In Dan Allender’s book “To Be Told: God Invites You to Coauthor Your Future” he writes about how our culture fails to celebrate endings. He talks about the literary idea of “denouement.”
“Denouement is an ending that serves as a prelude for a new beginning; there is always a next turn in the road. A new story begins the moment an old one ends. But a denouement is a respite that calls us to stop the journey for a brief interlude–to eat, drink, sing, dance, and tell our story to others…One of our greatest failures in our busy, driven culture is that we don’t celebrate the temporary untying of a complex narrative…We don’t allow endings to be noted, let alone celebrated. Therefore we never let denouement to invigorate the upward movement of a new story. And we will only love our story to the degree that we see the glory that seeps through our most significant shattering. To see that glory, we must enter into and read our tragedies with confidence they will end better than we ever could imagine.”
A thousand things. God was always saying, “Yes.” He is still saying, “Yes!”
Our gratitude for ALL your love is rippling now. It flows from us. We eagerly expect the new things God has planned for our family.
When Danica first became so ill we closed every note and email with a Willa Cather quote, “Where there is great love there are always miracles.”
Expect miracles. I’ve see miracles. We’ve seen miracles. By Him. Through Him. To Him. All glory. Forever and ever. Amen.
(This song by Christa Wells is such an important part of our life soundtrack. So many times little Danica would ask me to play it. We would cry. Could God use all this ‘exquisite pain’ to do a thousand things?)
…I would choose no other life than the life I have had.”–C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle
Facebook memories have become more an Ebenezer than I ever could have imagined.
I’m curled up on my heating pad. I haven’t been able to keep any food in my stomach. I feel frightfully dehydrated. I’m weak, and my very heart hurts. Things are a blur since my surgery two weeks ago in Maryland. I’m wandering through the hours and days trying to make sense of the Versed laced memories. There are full days missing. There are conversations I’m sure I had, gifts received and messages answered I just can’t piece together. All this adds to the grief of lost living. It always feels the same. The weeks of preparation to leave, the time gone and the return to weeks of recovery feel like wasted time. God, what are You doing with this time?
Today my memories pop up back to 2010. There is a photo of Danica sitting in her wheelchair and Minerva brace playing trains on the table. What a miracle her second surgery was. Oh how grateful we were to be back in our own home, if only for a little while. A year later the posts are blog updates from Dan and my friend, Angie. I was in the hospital in Maryland on Thanksgiving Day after my first brain decompression and fusion. Five years ago there are photos of a Thanksgiving meal delivered from Feast for Families to our new home. This house has been another miracle we couldn’t have written into our story. He did this. Three years ago I was gifted the most meaningful retreat of my life at Laity Lodge in the Texas Hill Country. God continues to thresh out harvest from seeds planted there. And last year, there is a photo of us around the table. I’m wearing my Aspen collar, recovering from my huge fusion, and we were clinging to one another looking towards Baltimore and Danica’s surgery.
These memories hurt in the way rubbing up against hard things do. They also call to remembrance the sustaining tune of Grace gifted in measure year after year.
There are new stories to tell about the gratitude we live today. They will come in time. Our holidays look sad from outside, but our expectations are whittled down past the tinsel now. We know too much to ever forget. They begin at the cradle and point to the cross.
If we could look back over a decade and make a different life, we would not. Streams of mercy, never ceasing. Mount of redeeming love. Hither by His help we’ve come. He’s rescued us from danger and interposed His precious blood. Our wandering hearts are sealed and bound forever to His courts of love.
Come Thou Fount of every blessing.
Our Hope Remains.
“Suffering is a call for presence; it’s a call for us to be present–not only to the brokenness in the world, but to the brokenness in our own soul, and to risk trusting others with our wounds.”
My eyes were filled with hot tears welling over, streaming down my face and neck as I collapsed into bed last night. Dan held my hand. We’d come from the calling hours of a friend. Earle was more than the father of a dear friend. He was a man who loved our family faithfully with his ability to give. For years this humble man who kept his checkbook down to the penny and budgeted every part of his simple life would write a check for $25.00, wrap it in a piece of white paper and mail in a plain envelope to our house. There was no note. The sacrifice and the surety of this love was one of the ways God reminded us month after month that He is for us. Our families became entwined through relationship. I loved his daughter, Sharon, fiercely during a time when she was lost and very alone. Her life has become a trophy of Grace and redemption. He and his wife, Pat, never forgot my willingness to open my heart and our home to her when she was holding them at arm’s length. This woman has become my own fierce friend. She has loved me back in a hundred ways. Isn’t this how it’s meant to be? The giving and receiving become the same thing.
I checked my phone before trying to fall asleep and found an email from my sister-in-law with the obituary of her dear dad. He was another man I loved. He and his wife, Jackie, opened their hearts and home to Dan and I early in our marriage. We celebrated holidays with them and Dan’s brother, Steve, and Amy in Bay Village. We celebrated birthdays in Rockville when we lived in Maryland. And last spring, when I was in Charlottesville for my first VP shunt placement, I spent several beautiful days with them at their new home in Virginia. Frank had just received his liver cancer diagnosis, and I sat with their family on the deck in the sunshine as they began to talk about the tough things he was facing. I saw him in April this year when I returned to UVA for my shunt revision. I asked my dad to drive me to Culpeper to visit them. He was so thin, and I could feel his tired. My heart has keenly carried my Amy’s and mama Jackie’s hearts as things became more grim. I admire Frank’s brave desire to leave when it was time to go and the great love of his family to release him peacefully. Amy called me early this week to tell me she was working on her dad’s remembrance and her mom wanted our family to receive any donations in honor of Frank. I was struck again with the way love always come full circle when it’s given and received with no expectations. It’s a flow of opening our joy and pain to one another, promising we will be there by showing up and trusting someone will always show up for us too.
I cried again. I wondered out loud to my husband about the things our lives are made of when we have to boil them down to three paragraphs. We are all terminal. Our days were written when there were none of them. What will my lines say?
I’m facing my brokenness head on this week. I am in continuous pain from the tethered cord. My legs are like jelly. I have a constant headache. I’m sleeping less and less. I feel like every movement is too hard. I was back to the hospital early yesterday for more adrenal testing. This afternoon I have a biopsy of my right thyroid. Thursday I have chemo all day. Sunday I will celebrate 42 years of life. Monday I will say goodbye to my girls and my puppy and leave for Maryland for my twenty-sixth surgery. I’m broken.
I’ve been quiet of late about all this pain. I’m so weary of the question, “Will this be your LAST surgery?” I’ve wanted to be able to tell a miraculous ending to this story. I’ve begged God for something new. I’ve been slowly digging back into Ann Voskamp’s book The Broken Way. I read it last year while sitting vigil beside my Danica’s bed at Johns Hopkins. There was so much I couldn’t swallow then. The smoke of suffering was too thick.
Yesterday while sitting in the infusion room at Mercy giving blood, being injected with steroids, waiting and giving more blood just to wait again I read these words,
“The miracle happens in the breaking…
How have I tried to avoid suffering, mask my suffering, terminate all suffering instead of sharing it, letting others participate in my own, choosing to stand with others in theirs, stay with their suffering and break the heart open and let people into all of my own–so that suffering might be shaped into an intimacy that transcends and transforms the suffering? The heart has a far greater capacity for pain that can even be imagined–because it can love far greater than ever imagined.”
Dear ones, the love we’ve received and the communion of suffering is gift. I’ve been unable to ask louder than a whisper for help with this surgery, but we’ve laid it down at the feet of our God who has scandalously provided every need. Dayenu. Enough. MORE than enough. Once again we are surprised somehow by His plan to care for every need and meet us with grace so we will be equipped for the next hard thing. He gets the glory.
The fellowship of love is the new story. Suffering is the footnote. The miracle happens in the breaking.
Thank you for coming close. Thank you for once again sitting with us in the burn. Thank you for giving and receiving. Our Hope remains.
(Oh how I love Christa’s song art.)
“Did you ever imagine that what we call ‘vulnerability’ might just be the key to ongoing growth? In my experience, healthily vulnerable people use every occasion to expand, change, and grow. Yet it is a risky position to live undefended, in a kind of constant openness to the other—because it means others could sometimes actually wound us. Indeed, vulnera comes from the Latin for ‘to wound.’ But only if we take this risk do we also allow the opposite possibility: the other might also gift us, free us, and even love us. But it is a felt risk every time. Every time.”–Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance
I’m sitting in my favorite place in the world. It’s not the beach or the Shenandoah Valley. It’s not the Tucson mountains. It’s my worn “nest” chair in the corner of our little ranch in Uniontown, Ohio. It’s chilly today. I have the windows cracked and the screen is still on the open front door. I’m listening closely for the change in the bird songs. The cicadas are gone. The breeze in the leaves has a different tone as if they are saying a sweet farewell to one another before they let go. Five years ago God gave this home to us. Do you remember the miracle? So many of you prayed. It’s the longest Dan and I have ever lived in one place together. There is not a day I don’t utter gratitude for this sacred space. I follow the light from east to west. I know which plants will bloom first and where the cardinals will make their nests in the spring. I cherish the sound of the rain on the chimney flue. I love the old Magic Chef stove that bakes more evenly than any oven I’ve ever had before even though it doesn’t match our other appliances. The seasons change in the farmland around us. The corn is mostly harvested now and the fields feed the geese and birds beginning their journey’s south. Great is His faithfulness. Good gifts. I’m paying attention.
It’s almost time for the girls to get home from school. A dear friend began bringing them every day she can for me. It’s out of her way and takes a half an hour off her afternoon, but she does this thing that saves me anxiety and spoons. It protects my spine and keeps my children and others safe on the days I truly shouldn’t be driving. Last week she grabbed us Panera for dinner on a day we would have eaten cereal. Good Gifts. I’m paying attention.
Lying beside me on the side table is beautiful hand designed letter from a friend who has followed our story since we were on a book launch together. She and I finally met in real life at a retreat this spring. Their family has been praying for us. Over the past decade of hard I thought I’d seen specific kindness in almost every form. Their love is fresh. Dan has been working any overtime he can to help with our always challenging financial situation. This friend’s husband is a physical therapist. He committed to taking at least one extra client a week in solidarity with Dan. They have been sending what he makes to us to help with our bills. Good gifts. I’m paying attention.
I scroll through the texts on my phone to find the one I received Friday from the same friend who flew from Denver to Maryland to drive me around to my most recent appointments. It says, “Booked November 13-17th. Woohoo!” I was confused. I thought maybe she meant their condo at Winter Park. No, she booked plane tickets to come be with me in the hotel after my surgery. I’ve been most frantic about being alone after my operation. Dan has to leave Sunday, the 12th, to return home to work. My surgery instructions clearly say I need a caregiver four weeks post-op. The first few days after discharge are rough because of pain and wound care. I was worried about coordinating rides to my appointment where I’ll be cleared to come home and to the airport, my desired mode of transportation back to Ohio, while trying to keep my spine straight and juggle my things. She will be there to help me. This friend who just fought Lymphoma, who works full time, who has young children with busy lives is the answer to my prayer, “Please, God, I don’t want to do this alone.” The sacrifice is not only hers but her husband’s as well. He will step in once again and hold the fort down while she shows up for me. Good gifts. I’m paying attention.
I spent a few weeks after finding out about my re-tethered spinal cord and needed surgery in grief and shut myself down emotionally. I needed to move through Danica’s sadness about having to adopt Rolo out to a new family and throw myself into making her tenth birthday a kind of redemption for this huge loss I felt personally responsible for. The birthday surprise would not have been possible without the great love of a friend and her daughter who took Danica and I to Columbus for an overnight American Girl celebration. I pushed my body to make a long ago planned trip to Jacksonville, Florida with my family to attend my little sister’s wedding. It was good, but I paid dearly. I had a kind of breakdown last week when I returned. I didn’t move from the bed Tuesday. I had a video session with my counselor, and everything I’d been holding in came rushing out. I hadn’t shared my fear, my sadness or my shame with anyone. Another surgery is incredibly painful for the people I love. I especially try to protect Dan and the girls from how close I am at times to just quitting this fight. My support system has shifted. People I relied on previously have been called away to care for others in their lives. I don’t want to lay even a bit of this burden on their already full plates. I most of all didn’t want to share specifics about the money we need for this necessary surgery to even happen. I want to give everything back tenfold and never receive again. I want my husband to never feel the guilt he experiences when someone else meets our needs, because he has done all he can, and it feels like it’s not enough.
The kind of wound that comes from being vulnerable hurts even when good blossoms from it. My wise counselor encouraged me to once again take the risk to be loved. She reminded me how continuing to tell our story here, allowing provision to come and then paying attention and telling about the gifts, is the place where we change and grow and invite others into this exquisite dance of caring for one another. She reminded me of my ministry of prayer and #pentopaper and beautiful dream of the EDS beach retreat being realized. She reminded me I am giving too.
The girls had off school last Friday. Delaney and I were listening to Adele. She was singing passionately about “Turning Tables.” Laney said she couldn’t imagine a relationship making her feel that desperate or sad. This led into a conversation about the great risk of giving your heart and mind and body to another human being with very little control over their response and their ultimate decision day after day to stay or turn around and leave you. Knowing this we can decide to protect ourselves by never risking, but we would miss the gift, the freedom and the love possible because of vulnerability.
As we talked I realized the writing I do here is a long and meaningful relationship with those of you who’ve invested in us. Shutting down now or becoming informational instead of baring my heart, because it feels too risky, is a little like walking away from the great love of God through you.
I’m ever humbled. I’m opening again to allow the hurt and the healing of this next surgery to expand, change and grow my family and I. I’m stepping out hoping someone shows up and just maybe they will receive a gift through our fleshy bare and trusting souls. Good gifts. I’m paying attention.
(If you would like to donate towards my surgery deposit and the two weeks of hotels in Maryland you can give here and through the gofundme link on the right of this blog. We trust and wait and suffer gratitude.)
The cursor blinks. I edit every thought before it can escape through my fingers. I’m back to a place of intense and unrelenting physical pain that clouds how I see myself, my family, my community and my faith. I’m at a point where talking about my suffering in any forum, even my close personal relationships, seems self indulgent. This thorn is not going to be removed. Be quiet. Try and make your life about something else. Anything else.
Today I’m in bed with deep heat along my thoracic spine. I spent the first hours of my day making phone calls to follow up on recent adrenal testing I had at the hospital and pre-registering for one of several kinds of MRIs I need before my appointment next Thursday with my neurosurgeon in Maryland. I wrote several cards to sister warriors recovering from their own surgeries. I was back and forth to the bathroom. I had a serious mast cell attack over the weekend leaving me more ill than usual. I cannot seem to recover. I will get dressed soon and drive to the girl’s school to deliver snacks for the golf team’s away match and pick up Danica. This will take any spoons I have left.
Yesterday I made a rash decision to take my Danica’s Rolo to boarding for a few days and nights. I spent Sunday in frantic pain, and I began to count the number of times I was bending to help put him on the leash or take it off or put him in his crate and get him out or grab him when he was chewing something he shouldn’t or was playfully chasing my little Twixie. I was doing more than before because Dan was working overtime again and Danica was still recovering from her fall last week. Her spine was hurting too. I woke with desperation. I had to know if being still could improve the suffering of neck spasms and the scary symptoms of dystonia in my limbs, neuropathy and loss of feeling in my hands and feet. Most of all I needed a break. The guilt overwhelmed me.
“What good is guilt? We ask. We like the sound of the question. It puts a crude finger on a heartbeat in us that won’t stop racing, a pulse broken in sympathy. It makes us talk. It makes us talk about ourselves. It makes us confess. We want to purge something even confession won’t justify…”–James Agee
Someone wise once told me guilt is not an emotion. You either are or you aren’t. It is not my fault I am so broken and ill. But I did promise my daughter a dog if she would hang on those long days and nights following her brain and spine surgery. I let her draw pictures and dream of names and study breeds while she wore her brace and sat still. I took the money from my parents, and we drove her to meet this little dog who we all now love but wonder if we can keep. I am guilty of saying “yes” to something I should have known may be the literal straw that would once again break my back. And now I face the forever guilt of perhaps needing to give him away to another family better suited for his care. It is one more thing my children will have sacrificed or lost because of my disability. This is an overriding theme in their narrative. I’m missing for large chunks of time, either away for surgery, in bed recovering, skipping school functions, concerts and awards programs to avoid mast cell attacks, absent from volunteering in their classroom or for the PTF and building relationships with other families because I cannot commit to anything. I’m not guilty, but I’m confessing my heart breaks every single time my hard robs something from their good.
I’ve long loved the artwork and words of Ruth Chou Simons of Gracelaced. I was gifted a beautiful print that hangs framed in our bathroom. My 2017 calendar is from her stunning collection of desert watercolors, and I frequently mail her lovely notecards. Her beautiful book by the same name was delivered last week. Each page is a new gift. I am working through it slowly. I’ve stayed in the third chapter titled “Sufficient” for almost a week now. I’ve sat with the image of my thorn in the flesh, the one God has not chosen to remove. Ruth writes:
“We miss the lesson when we pick at the thorn…nurse it…bemoan it…curse it. The enemy would have us so blinded by the pain of the thorn that we can’t see the beauty of the rose garden. I’ve been there so many times…so consumed by the discomfort that won’t go away that I can’t experience what fragrance of grace lies just ahead. Look past the thorn to how Christ is enough in the midst of it. His Grace is sufficient for the thorn He chooses not to remove.
Friend, would we praise Him for His sustaining strength in our lives if it were not for reaching the end of our strength?
Would we consider Him enough if we did not find ourselves lacking?
Would we know humility if not for the discomfort of obstacles and the pain of intrusions?
Would we, as did Paul, rejoice to boast in weakness if not shown the truth of our Father’s seemingly backward paradigm of greatness–humility?
Today’s thorn stands guard over tomorrow’s rose. Don’t be surprised when our heavenly Father chooses to allow the wounding of our pride this day. He does so lovingly, sovereignly, and without mistake-in our unremoved pain-the rose we long to behold, just beyond the thorn.”
I’m weak. I’m poor. I’m humbled.
I’ve been meditating on I Peter 5:10:
“And after you have suffered a little while the God of all Grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.”
Restore. Confirm. Strengthen. Establish.
The rose in the bud closed so tightly. I prick my heart on the thorn. It’s bleeding, but there is love in the blood.
Our Hope remains.
(Thank you for continuing to pray for our family. We are hard pressed on every side.
We need great wisdom to know what to do about Rolo. I’ve been in contact with a trainer who could work to make him similar to a therapy dog for Danica and myself. This would be a two week boarding situation away from our home and then some learning on our end when he returns. This is very costly and not an option right now, but it is the desire of our hearts. Whatever we decide please pray for Danica most of all.
Please pray for my trip to D.C. next week. The flying, brutal scans and appointment and the courage to face whatever we see in those images never gets easier. My dear friend, Kristin, who many of you have been praying for as she fought Lymphoma, is flying from Denver. She will drive me, and we will have sweet time together as friends. I also plan to meet the founder of Healing Hearts, the respite organization hosting Option EDS (the retreat) with me. There are some very specific financial needs associated with this appointment. Please pray I will be able to negotiate payment. We have maintained access to care with always enough. I am weary of the fight. I become more panicked when collections interfere with actual needed appointments.
Please pray for Dan and I. We feel like we are drifting and out of sheer exhaustion and pain it is difficult to make the space and time to reconnect. Our family is only as strong as our marriage.
Please praise God with us for protection over Danica during a big fall last week. She is okay. Please praise Him for provision for the window that needs replaced in Laney’s room. God showed up in the most amazing way to meet the specific request. It’s such a relief to know it will be installed before winter.
He is still good. Thank you for being the one’s carrying our mat to Him over and over. We suffer gratitude.)
“We didn’t need our own miracle to believe that God can perform miracles. His word already speaks this truth. We needed His perspective, sown into our inner understanding of Him, to be able not just to witness but to receive the real miracle He was working. Again, it was looking at Him, long and rightly, that was performing miracles. Adoration makes walking with God more than just reacting to a series of externals. Adoration calls the circumstances, no matter how high or low, into proper submission in our hearts. Adoration roots us in a reality that no amount of pain and no amount of blessing can shake. Adoration steadies us. It repatterns our thinking. It centers our lives around a God-man instead of forever trying to make sense of the God-man through the lenses of our circumstances. Adoration aligns us under Him. This is the place where life is found.“–Sara Hagerty, Every Bitter Thing is Sweet: Tasting the Goodness of God In All Things
I am sitting in my bed with pillows propped around my braced neck and crumbling spine. I’m in pain. I’m in the kind of pain that makes me bite the insides of my cheeks raw and cry without warning. I’ve done basic hygiene and made my bed. I wrote a note to a friend who is struggling. I answered one text. I drove Delaney to Sable Creek golf course, there and back home, twice today. Driving is the hardest thing I do. I’m done. That’s all I have to give. It’s 4 pm. In my body’s demand to completely stop my mind begins to race.
The tree company arrived next door early this morning. They are still working. The sound of the vibrating machines is almost more than I can bear. Every synapse is firing. I’m so overstimulated I might go mad. It’s the third time our neighbors have had tree work done this summer. Both our homes back to woods. We have one towering dead tree on the hill behind our house. Dangerous branches have fallen during recent storms. It threatens us, but we can’t imagine a time we will have the money it would take to have it removed. We haven’t been sitting on our deck this summer because we can’t bear to look at the dead tree or the bank leading to it without mulch for the second year in a row. We haven’t grilled once because the propane tank is empty, and we don’t allocate the money to refill it. The ‘replace filter’ light is blinking on the thermostat. I’ve added it to a list of escalated things I need to rearrange the budget for. Delaney’s bedroom window is taped shut and literally falling out of the front of the house. We planned to replace it this spring, but there was my shunt surgery, and it never happened. We should not live in a home we cannot maintain. This little ranch rescued me. It saved our family in a hundred ways after living in my parent’s basement. It was a miracle, but it was a stretch. Five years later we are worn thin.
I was hospitalized two weeks ago. After finding out I was in serious adrenal crisis, most likely since my April shunt revision, I began taking a medication I’d used before after surgeries for Addison type symptoms. For some reason it began causing horrific peripheral neuropathy in my legs. I suffered in writhing pain for days until I surrendered to the fact I needed medical attention. The sixteen hours in the emergency room and days admitted there were traumatic. They are always traumatic. Only my EDS family can fully understand how hard we have to fight and how vigilant we have to be with every interaction. With all due respect to the wonderful men and women who give care in these settings, it is a brutal exchange for those of us with a rare disorder, a rap sheet of surgeries and accompanying conditions and a scary list of medications. I was released in less pain but completely broken. I am waiting for an endocrinology appointment while barely dragging my body around.
In counseling I tried to explain this never ending life of ‘fight or flight.’ The financial part of this is as real as the physical. We cannot catch our breath or ‘rest and digest.’ We have reached a point where we must take stock of what we’ve lost, what is owed and seriously consider if this survival mode is sustainable any longer. If it’s not, where do we go? What do we do?
I quit writing because my old, hand-me-down laptop crashed and died. A new one showed up on my doorstep just as I was needing to create a website for an exciting dream coming true. (I can’t wait to tell you all about it!) Delaney needed golf clubs to begin practice for school and a family we hardly know from Cleveland drove some down to her. Enough. My parents took Danica to shop for her school supplies. A friend texted me to let me know she mailed a gift card to help with some of the other things the girls need. Enough. At Rolo’s first vet visit last week we found out he has a few health issues. I cried and hyperventilated as she went down the list of medication he needs. Checking out, I had twenty dollars left over after paying the staggering amount we owed. Dan was getting paid the next morning. Enough. A gofundme donation came through as a medical bill escalated in collections, and I could pay it. Enough.
Our God has been ever faithful. He’s always provided enough. But what if His ‘Dayenu’ is a different currency? Would I recognize this kind of wealth? Would I call it abundance? What if enough is only ever found in knowing and adoring Him?
We had a family ‘come to Jesus’ meeting last weekend. We looked our girls in the eyes and talked to them as straight as we always have. We tempered the reminder of our reality with the goodness of God through the love of so many. We assured them we would be okay, but let them know we are at a crossroads that requires input from each one of us and a lot of prayer. Somehow we came to the question about choosing. If I could choose a fresh slate…all our debts forgiven…a new start for my family or complete healing for myself which would I pick. I answered too quickly. I would choose to set them free. I would take the pressure off Dan. I would have a college savings account for Delaney. I would hear the phone ring and check the mailbox without fear and panic. Even as I thought it I realized how flawed the question was. Either answer would be wrong, because this place of perceived lack is exactly where God wants each of us to be. He is working a thousand things we cannot see in my suffering and in our need. These are fashioned for Dan, Laney, Danica and I in a perfect way to train our hearts to know Him and depend on Him alone. He has been glorified in my pain and in the pouring out of provision over and over again. We are rich in Kingdom currency.
I’ve been living in the Psalms this year, and they have slowly retrained the way I see and know God’s character. I visit them first thing when I rise. Dan makes me coffee. I sit in my nest chair and open my Bible to a book of songs and poetry about God. Tim Keller’s little gem of a book, The Songs of Jesus, has guided me. Several days ago I was in Psalm 86:1-7:
“Hear me, LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. Guard my life, for I am faithful to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God; have mercy on me, LORD, for I call to you all day long. Bring joy to your servant, LORD, for I put my trust in you. You, LORD, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to you. Hear my prayer, LORD; listen to my cry for mercy. When I am in distress, I call to you, because you answer me.”
Tim ends the devotional with this prayer:
Lord, I am constantly asking You to give me Your strength, to change me and heal me. But nothing is more empowering and life transforming than simply adoring You. Inject the truth of Your wisdom, love, holiness and sovereignty down deep in my heart until it catches fire there and makes me new. Amen.
I’m grinding my teeth as I type. I have to focus to relax my face and my mouth. My neck literally twitches in spasms. It’s easy to stay fixated here, because my pain screams at me. This is when I call out in distress and believe He will answer me, because I know who He is. He is forgiving and good and abounding in love. And He is enough. His Grace is enough. And even this is Grace.
This is where life is found.
(Will you please pray for us. We feel pressed to make some kind of change. We need wisdom to know each next thing. Please pray for my health. I have chemo next Tuesday, and I will see the new endocrinologist in several weeks. Until then I have to keep functioning. Please pray for Danica. Her scan and neurosurgeon appointment in Baltimore are on the 15th. Her neck has been hurting her. I rubbed it last night as I tucked her in and felt the all too familiar lumps of knotted muscle around her hardware. She is so hopeful for most of her restrictions to be lifted before school begins. Something in my gut says this is too soon. It will break her heart. Please pray for Dan. I see him crumbling in a new way. We have always stayed close in our hard, but this feels different, and we are both struggling to connect. Please pray for Delaney. Oh how I wish I could make this different for her somehow. Her compassion and empathy has grown. We talked candidly about her personal faith yesterday, and it reminded me again of all the soul business God is doing in what looks like a hot mess from the outside. I have to trust Him with the most precious currency, the hearts and lives of my husband and girls. Our Hope remains.)
Photo by Audra at 12th Street Portraits
“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.
Welcome to our family, Rolo.
“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.”
Timothy Keller writes about this Psalm in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.
“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.”
I’m giving away a copy of “Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death”. Comment here on the blog or on social media with your heart cry by Sunday night. I will randomly choose a winner from the comments and send you a copy of this special book.
“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.
“Always we begin again.”–St. Benedict
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:
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
This is my heart song tonight. Soli Deo Gloria.
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
“I have lost nothing
in my life
that I could not find again
with God.”-Corrine De Winter
It’s raining in Baltimore. (Cue Counting Crows.)
Over the past 48 hours Danica’s little lungs have inflated again with vigilant respiratory work. (Think bedside prompting to inhale and exhale deeply into two different devices every fifteen minutes even though you know every breath is hurting your girl in a place you’ve been wounded yourself.) Her lungs are only slightly diminished now. Her constant and sometimes burning hot fever of six days is gone. She’s stepping down from continuous dosage of IV narcotic pain medication to trying oral substitutions in movement towards discharge. She did some tough physical therapy and occupational therapy today. She joined other children for a fun science experiment making snowmen. She had a visit from the most amazing golden retriever, Milo, who loosened a full smile and prompted a deep belly laugh. She had a very painful complete shower. She cried through the entire thing. I felt relieved to see her allowing herself to lean into the truth of this hard. There is something innate from her struggle in the womb, her warrior past and also learned behavior from watching me navigate post-op over and over again…we move forward like soldiers. Dramatic emotion is mostly a waste of time and energy we cannot afford. The next thing comes. We hurt so badly and hope so fiercely we don’t need to even say it. The fact we are still here doing this is the proof.
We thought we’d made the most possible progress. Then the bottom dropped out. Danica refused to take her oral Valium. This is the one medication she needs no matter what. How does a little girl who can brave brain and spine surgery and call her ten pain a three refuse to take a few ccs of liquid medicine from a cup? It’s the second time since being here something prompted PTSD for her as well as Dan and I. We used to have to hold her down to squirt her meds in her little mouth. Often she would spit them out while screaming. She became so worked up, crying hysterically, turning on Dan and I who were trying to be her allies and fussing at the kind nurses trying to help. I called a time out. I left the room. It’s only the third time I’ve looked her in the eyes and told her I needed to step away from her. I found my way into a little sitting area and bawled my eyes out.
Sitting next to a beautifully decorated tree outside the room I remembered it is Christmas soon. I remembered tonight Danica’s classmates were having their Christmas program. I felt this jagged breath of complete sadness. Not self pity. Utter sadness. It was a deep seeded ache for simple milestones in my girl’s life she cannot make up. They are gone. Lost.
It’s easy to feed on loss when days and weeks and months have turned into years of giving up everything we are told means so much to focus on just surviving. Even after ten years there are still those who innocently say something pithy about this being a “season” that will pass for us. They head out to the park to watch their children run and play in the snow or facebook about a special concert or the ballet or a simple shopping trip to the mall to visit Santa. They pick out shiny outfits with matching shoes and decide on Christmas cards. They look at their December calendars full of invitations to parties and celebrations with people who are glistening in the fullness we are supposed to feel this time of year. Real or imagined I see the parts being played out around me like I am watching a perfect winter scene in a snow globe.
This loss is much longer than a season for us. This loss will not pass. This is our life. Wrapped in strange newspaper recycled with the stories of days of exhaustion and pain and long nights in the hospital…tied up with twine borrowed from something useful or given to us in charity our celebration is no less real than yours, but I can promise you it feels different because it has to be.
I think back over our “holidays” since 2007, and there are very few things that look or feel like I think they should. This year is no exception. My Laney will play the flute in her first high school Christmas concert Thursday night, and we will not be there. How many times since she was four years old have I been absent from the snapshot moments of her life? Someone else will take her picture, and I will miss it . . . again. Someone else will post on facebook my brave and beautiful girl, and I will be here losing the moment that can’t be lived again. Gone. Lost.
I’ve not left the hospital since my one walk and shower last Thursday when my parents were here. This is not a masochistic falling on my own sword kind of commitment to Danica. This is love. This is the sacrifice of a mother who is the best advocate for her best care in every detail of this difficult hospital stay. We know the really hard part begins the second we leave and have to do this on our own. Dan must return to work. I will not have a day to crash and regroup. I will need to be with my girl every second she is ambulating. I will be responsible for helping her to the bathroom during the day and the night, bathing her and dressing her. I will keep schedule of medications and document every detail of her recovery. I will lobby for the best home health and fight to get the adaptations we need to make our home as safe as possible for her recovery. My warrior mama heart drives this broken body farther than I ever thought possible. I can only describe this as supernatural strength and great Grace from a good God. Still, I wonder when the crash will happen. Not if it will but when it will.
Dr. Theodore, Danica’s spinal neurosurgeon, came by late this afternoon to check on us and talk about our discharge expectations and possible days and time to see him again in clinic before being cleared to travel home. He did the most telling thing. He came in and sat next to me on the little blue couch, looked me in the eyes and fully heard my questions and concerns. He showed me the first image I’ve seen of Danica’s new fusion hardware. I cried. I’ve felt like 2016 has been another lost year until right now. This image may mean nothing to most of you, but I can tell you it is everything. A second miracle.
We have challenges. My mind is swirling with the hundred things I need to do for continuation of care. We need to buy Danica a new mattress. We need to buy plane tickets home. We need to make further accommodations to our home for Danica’s safety and to assist me in her care.
I need to find some way to make some kind of Christmas for my family.
The day after Christmas, Monday, December 26th, I am scheduled for all day chemotherapy. I have to get one more treatment in before my insurance deductibles reset on January 1. I need to have a scan here in the Washington area to look at my recent fusion. I’ve not wanted to speak of the pain I’m in or the damage I may have done by my participation in Danica’s care the past week.
I’m lost. There is no way to plan these days.
I’m empty. There is literally nothing left in my tank.
I’m afraid. What if my brokenness impedes the best healing for my girl.
He is God. I am not.
This is Dayenu. Enough. More than enough.
Thank you for never tiring in your supplication for us.
Thank you for your giving hearts. It makes some of this needed care a reality for our Danica Jean to give her the most whole life possible. Thank you for showing me grace in slow gratitude for your love. I carry it with me into these days and nights.
Danica is sleeping quietly in the dark room, and I must try to rest before a 4 am med administration and the rounding that begins most mornings around 5:45 am. I cannot wait for a full night’s rest with all my medications on board.
Keep praying! I know He is doing a thousand things in this one thing. I know it. I believe everything lost will be restored in exactly the way Dan, Delaney, Danica and I need and even in ways we wish for.
#SoulBusiness #OurHoperemains #TeamDanica
I’m sitting in a hospital recliner facing my Danica’s bed in the PICU at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. She is resting comfortably, but I don’t want her to open her eyes and not see me here. She was in surgery for over six hours today. Just before 8 am I followed the anesthesia team into the huge operating room to hold her sweet hand. She looked up at the many masked faces and back to mine, and she began to cry until she breathed enough gas for her to drift off. In that moment my brave broke into a thousand pieces. I came out to hug Dan and see my dad and mom who were in the family waiting room, and I began to cry too. The doctors said the first update would come in an hour or so. It would take that long to place all her lines, prep her and get the initial imaging done before the first incision. I needed coffee and a distraction. Dan and I went right away so we could hurry back up to wait as closely as we could to our girl.
I stopped at the chapel alone.
Kneeling in the empty, dark and perfectly quiet room I prayed.
I’ve been reading Ann Voskamp’s new book The Broken Way the past six weeks. I’ve had to take it in bite size pieces, because I am a bruised reed. I’ve been feeling like a sham…saying the “right” things about hope and healing in the light while secretly covering a spreading hematoma of doubt, fear and even anger. The leaking has gone deeper than the surface tissue. It’s become a blood clot in the main artery to my spiritual heart. I’m not just bruised. I’m broken.
This morning in the make shift sacred space, prostrate before the good God I’d been forgetting in my pain and my daughter’s suffering, I took a ragged breath of Grace, and the oxygen of Jesus fanned the smoldering wick back into a tiny flame. The blockage cleared in the yielding.
Ann’s words underlined, copied on a note card and carried with me in the Bible I’ve struggled to read echoed in my mind.
“What happens if you just let the brokenness keep coming? Surrender. Let the wave of it all break over you and wash you up at the foot of the cross. What if I lived like I believed it: Never be afraid of broken things–because Christ is redeeming everything.“
I am cracked open yes but not trampled. With my head on the ground the Spirit ministered with the truth from Psalm 34:18. “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” Gently Jesus splints my snapped soul with bandages of compassion.
Danica’s surgery went well. Exceeding, abundantly above all we could ask or think. The details are amazing. The “Gauntlet” bringing us here may even be a gift. I haven’t given up on that yet.
“The fellowship of the suffering believe that suffering is a gift He entrusts to us, and He can be trusted to make this suffering into a gift. The fellowship of the broken take up the fearless broken way, are not afraid of brokenness, and don’t need to try to fix anyone’s brokenness, or try to hide it or mask it or judge it or exile it…Never be afraid of broken things–because Christ is redeeming everything.“
Thank you for being part of the “fellowship of the broken.” You were praying us into today, through today and will continue in the coming hard days of recovery. Thank you for being the given in our need. Our Hope remains.
I’m quietly playing the achingly beautiful song “Image of God” sung by Christa Wells and Nicole Witt. Still your heart. Close your eyes and listen. Play it again.
“What does the title “Imperfect Birds” mean?
It’s a line from a poem by Rumi. The line is ‘Each must enter the nest made by the other imperfect birds’, and it’s really about how these kind of scraggly, raggedy nests that are our lives are the sanctuary for other people to step into, and that if you want to see the divine, you really step into the absolute ordinary. When you’re at your absolutely most lost and dejected … where do you go? You go to the nests left by other imperfect birds, you find other people who’ve gone through it. You find the few people you can talk to about it.”–Anne Lamott, from Writer’s Digest May/June 2010
We made it. Danica is tucked in bed next to me in a room at The Believe in Tomorrow House in Baltimore Maryland. We can see the Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center at Johns Hopkins from our second floor window. She and I flew from Akron-Canton into Reagan National yesterday. Dan and Delaney drove the turnpike and timed it perfectly to swing by the airport, pick us up and drive to Baltimore. We had a good family night at a hotel near the inner harbor. We were able to meet up with some of Dan’s Maryland family earlier today, and Laney left to spend a few days with her aunt and uncle and cousins here.
This evening we had a beautiful meal prepared by a mother and her daughters who choose to come once a month and feed the parents and children staying here. (If you are a family with healthy kids who need a little perspective find a local Ronald McDonald House or something similar and volunteer there. You will walk away grateful and inspired.) Danica was so excited for the homemade ziti to come out of the oven. Our room is right off the kitchen. I was already in my pajamas. A woman I’d briefly met earlier in the afternoon was waiting too. She began to ask about why we are here and about Danica’s surgery. My throat was sore, and I was beyond tired. In my head I was thinking, “I just can’t tell our story right now, and I certainly can’t ask you about yours.” But I did. If you know me you understand this is where I believe the “thousand things” are happening. This woman is from Seattle and here alone with her fifteen year old son. He is in the hospital on a ventilator. He got a simple cold virus that spread to his spinal cord…something like polio. It paralyzed him from the neck down. They expect to be here several months at least. She was hungry for someone to listen. I leaned in. As different as our children’s medical conditions are and the reasons we are here we are much the same. Our conversation moved through the issues we face and the emotions behind them. This is the real beauty of respite homes like this. They not only ease the financial burden of hotels with a minimal fee, but they offer close proximity to the hospital, home cooked meals, laundry and places for the kids to relax besides your room. Most of all they offer a community of others who are looking for a nest as imperfect as their own where they can rest awhile. Lying here in the dark I’m worn so thin you could see straight through me. I’ve been following Danica’s lead. Her courage amazes me. I’m being more careful about showing my fear and sadness around her the closer we get to Wednesday. I didn’t realize how badly I needed to rest in this woman’s messy nest too.
Some of my dearest friends are mothers of children who have Ehlers-Danlos and Chiari. They are waging their own health battles and having surgeries while searching for the best care and fighting for the most whole life for their loves. We are spread across the United States. Our lives intersect in person occasionally at the same hospitals or doctor’s offices while traveling to see the few experts who understand these complex diagnoses. Most of the time we support one another online. We have private message boards and email and text. We mail #pentopaper and care packages. We laugh and we cry about the specific brand of hard we’ve been given. We are one another’s life saving pit crew. We are one another’s heroes. Jodi Picoult wrote in Second Glances:
“Heroes don’t leap tall buildings or stop bullets with an outstretched hand; they don’t wear boots and capes. They bled, and they bruised, and their superpowers were as simple as listening, or loving. Heroes were ordinary people who knew that even if their own lives were impossibly knotted, they could untangle someone else’s. And maybe that one act could lead someone to rescue you right back.”
As Danica and I were closing up the house to leave yesterday I walked Twixie one last time and peeked in the mailbox. Our mail was supposed to stop Wednesday, but apparently the postal carrier hadn’t gotten the message yet. I was meant to get the letters waiting there. There was wisdom and encouragement from my ninety-four year old grandmother, a beautiful card from my older sister, a letter from a younger hero I adore and precious words from a kindred friend I met at The High Calling Retreat two years ago. Cindee and her children were just being diagnosed with EDS and Dysautonomia, several of the many comorbid conditions we share. I’d been baptized by the fire for years. God brought us to the Texas hill country to sit in one another’s nests for awhile. Since our meeting she’s co-founded Chronic Joy, non profit ministry whose mission is: “Radical hope. Compassionate change. Equipping those affected by chronic physical and mental illness through community and education rooted in Jesus Christ.” She wrote and published Discovering Hope, a beautiful handbook for those who are suffering from chronic illness and the people who love them. I was humbled to write the foreword to this book. Her letter sits with me now as I hide in the tiny bathroom to find some light.
“I ache for your weariness…for your mama heart that has to be strong for your little that is going through so much and longs to salve, solve, shield, comfort, cheer lead, encourage and love on, yet alternately has to endure, cajole, persuade, swallow down, smile through the pain…I have no easy words, no quick solution, because we both know those fell away long, long ago. So I lift you up on the wings of prayer and hold you close and write these books, design the images, follow the call of this ministry for US, for our precious kids…because it matters, because WE matter. Every heartbeat. Every moment. Every breath…”
Danica will have an invasive test called a CT myelogram tomorrow. She will be under anesthesia and have dye injected into her spinal cord to give the surgeons the best image of the drain stuck in the fourth ventricle of her brain. Dan and I will give her up to strangers and let them take her away while we sit and wait and pray. Please pray with us. The risk of a spinal fluid leak is real. I’ve had a leak after a lumbar puncture producing the worst headache of my life. Please pray she will have peace as we get her settled and come out safely and more confident about Wednesday because of making it through this difficult procedure.
To all the imperfect birds who have invited me into your nest or come to sit in mine, I thank God for you. I pray circles around you and your families. You make me braver.
There is a poem titled “The Invitation” by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. (Totally made up name or hippie parents!) I have loved it since college and lean into the last few stanzas over and over again,
” . . .It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.
It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away. . .”
Everything is packed. Danica is tucked in her own cozy bed for the last time before we step out the door into the unknown. We prayed with our fingers laced together and tears running down my face. “God, bring us back here to this place.” I told her how I take a mental picture of my bed and my room in my sanctuary, and it becomes the thing I fight to get back to when I am in the hospital or hotel after. When I think I’m too far into the pain or the trauma of all these trips and all these surgeries I think of home.
I am weary and bruised to the bone. My recovery has been slow. I know the stress of the fire we are headed into is part of the reason my body has resisted rest and healing. My cervical spine continues to spasm, but the searing pain is below my fusion rod in the thoracic spine. It is learning to hold my body and sustain all the movement I need.
Our entire family has moved back to survival mode. This is something we know. We understand these relationships are built on something stronger than good days. We have loved one another through very hard times before. As we move towards Danica’s surgery on Wednesday morning EVERYTHING ELSE FALLS AWAY. What will sustain us THIS time?
I read these beloved verses from Deuteronomy this morning. “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now CHOOSE LIFE, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life.” My heart was hard and there was a root of bitterness. This powerful message dug it up in one big chunk and then watered my parched soul. We will keep choosing life. He will sustain us.
Your outpouring of love is part of His plan and purpose in our lives. Thank you. Your cards and gifts and continued donations to our family are sometimes the way He reminds us, especially on really bad days, He has not turned away. Your faithfulness mirrors His faithfulness.
We are humbly asking you to be prayer warriors for us. Please pray for travel mercies tomorrow as Dan and Laney drive the turnpike to DC. Danica and I will fly direct from Akron-Canton to Reagan. Our hope is the easy security, no luggage, close gate and one hour flight will save spoons and cause much less pain for Danica and I’s necks. Please pray for our last night together as a family for quite some time in the hotel in Baltimore. Please pray for Dan and I to grow closer not apart. We both have a hard edge about us today. It’s difficult to be so wounded and know we are heading to allow wounding to our daughter and not lash out or pull back. Please pray for Delaney as she visits family, comes to see Danica post-op and returns here while we stay on. She has such a brave face, but we’ve been leaving her and sending her away since she was four years old while I was fighting to give life to Danica. It’s a painful reality, and she’s conditioned her heart to protect it.
I checked my email tonight. I found the promotions tab which was emptied yesterday full of 405 Black Friday sales sent today. What if there is nothing in this whole wide world that matters except your little girl making it to one of the best hospitals and two of the best neurosurgeons in the world and surviving a rare and difficult brain and spinal surgery? What if all you want is to see her through this…out of danger and out of pain…back in her bubblegum pink room with “Sleep Sound in Jesus” playing her to a peaceful and comfortable sleep? This is when ALL ELSE FALLS AWAY.
I’m going to crawl into my bed now. I’ll play my hope playlist and try to sleep a little. I’ll try to pray a little too.
“Father God, Love us as a mother loves her children. Pull us to your breast and give us comfort and rest. Hold our hands and our hearts in this hard and bring us through the gauntlet to give you praise and glory. By Him. For Him. Through Him. Amen.”
“I’d like to say we had to learn the art of receiving, and we did, no doubt. But the longer we’ve walked through this season of suffering, we’ve seen that those two words, giving and receiving, get blurred in Jesus. We have received so much from others, but I believe if you were to ask them, they’d say they’ve been on the receiving end. It’s funny, isn’t it? When weakness and vulnerability are the foundation, It seems like everyone wins…It IS somuch easier to give than receive. It’s just plain hard to receive, and even harder to ask.”–Kara Tippetts
I’ve slowly learned that vague requests for help and well meaning broad offers of help are often lost on one another. “Call me if you need something” becomes a very hard way for a person in need to reach out. What if I ask for something you can’t provide, don’t have time or energy to provide or in the swirling ache of so many needy relationships aren’t compelled to provide because God is calling you to serve someone else in another way?
“Offering specifics not only gives the opportunity to serve in an area we’re gifted in but also allows people to begin to ask for help more easily.”
My dear friend, Janet Morris, has offered to be our care coordinator over the next few months. If at anytime you have questions or personal ways you want to reach out to us she can be reached at MonicaDanicaHelp@gmail.com. I will be using this blog as a place to clearly communicate with you, our tribe, on how you can serve us as we walk through the next few months. This is an overview here, but it may change because so many things are truly unknown. If you are interested in following along please subscribe for updates.
From now until we leave for Baltimore, Saturday, November 26
Our primary need is financial.
Donations can be made at the Team Danica-Monica GoFundMe now and throughout our trip. They can be mailed to 3195 Rockingham St. NW Uniontown, OH 44685. Know if you are mailing a check our mail will be stopped Wednesday, November 23rd, and we will not receive anything until we return several weeks later.
Dan has three paid days left and the rest of his time off will be unpaid FMLA. Insurance premiums will still need to be deducted. He is covered for 12 months and will need to take other unpaid time for post-op trips until his PTO time reloads at the end of March. Danica has out of network deductible and out of pocket costs that must be met prior to surgery. January 1 all our deductibles start again and care is cash pay until they are met. Danica’s first post-op will require expensive scans and be early January. We have a hotel reserved for several weeks but are praying for an opening at the Believe in Tomorrow house across the street from the children’s hospital. Please pray about this! Additional trip costs include gas, tolls, food, parking, post-op meds and wound care supplies and airfare for Danica and I home.
Requests: Beginning this coming Sunday, November 20th, we ask that no one just DROPS BY to visit. We will be having our family Thanksgiving on Sunday since Dan is working Thanksgiving Day and the Friday after. We need the last week to love on one another, pack and prepare. We are also trying to protect from any illness. If you have a gift or something to drop please leave it on the porch and let me know by text if you have my number or email Janet at MonicaDanicaHelp@gmail.com, and she will let us know.
I have a distinct need of having someone help me pack next week. It is a physically hard task with much to consider not knowing how long we will be gone. I cannot be bending or reaching or folding at all. As uncomfortable as I am with just sitting there giving direction I know this is one way I must humble myself.
There are several home items that I have been trying to take care of. We have a broken windowpane in the back of the house where the mower threw a rock. It is double pane so the house is secure, but I’m concerned weather between the panes will ruin the window frame. I have a vague appointment scheduled on Monday for someone to come give me an estimate. They have already not showed once. I’m hoping to schedule a repair and would need someone to meet them here if this happens while we are gone.
I have resisted offers for meals since returning from surgery. My girls eat when they get home from school and Dan much later when he gets home from work. I haven’t been eating much at all. It is also difficult for me to engage at drop off. Corralling our little Twix, opening the door and even chatting for a minute is stressful. My compulsion to have a washed face and clean pajamas on makes it worse. Clearly, my masochistic casserole behavior today is not a great alternative. I don’t want to set up a meal schedule for the remainder of our time, but if you would like to feed us please let me know.
During Surgery and Hospitalization
From Saturday, November 26th-mid December
Our primary need is PRAYER! Please set a reminder to pray and ask others to pray.
Danica has two days of pre-surgical tests and appointments beginning Monday, November 28th. Her surgery is scheduled for Wednesday, November 30th at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in the Bloomberg Children’s Center. It is a long and big surgery that will last 4-6 hours at least. They will be taking part of her rib to use for fusion material. One neurosurgeon will be going into the brain to try to remove a drain that was left there in her last surgery. A spinal neurosurgeon will try to remove the broken hardware he can to make her safe without disturbing the fusion with embedded hardware in her skull base and lower cervical area. Then they will refuse what is needed with the bone slurry made with her rib graft and new hardware. Danica’s head is full of foreign stuff like a cerebellar sling holding her brain stem up, a wire mesh between her brain work and bone work, the drain in her fourth ventricle that poses a danger and the rare broken hardware. After surgery she will spend several days in the PICU and then be moved to a neuro floor for up to a week if all goes well. We will then be discharged to a hotel until she can have an additional post-op appointment and wound check.
Requests: While we are in Baltimore: PLEASE do not send flowers or balloons to the hospital. They are not allowed in the PICU. They make me very ill. Children are often moved to multiple rooms during their hospital stay. Moving all that stuff can be cumbersome. Those of us present will make sure Danica receives cheer. If you would like to give something to Danica you can gift itunes or amazon cards by sending ecards to firstname.lastname@example.org. Danica and I will be listening to audible books and when she is able she has a tablet to watch movies or play games or music on.
I will be updating my personal Facebook, the GoFundMe and blog daily if possible. There is always someone coming in and out of a hospital room day and night. This is grueling especially as the main advocate. I will not be taking personal phone calls or answering text and emails everyday. Please leave your love and prayers, and I will share with Danica and Dan and respond when I can. My silence means I am focused on Danica’s care and support.
Sometime the second week of December or later
I will post our homecoming information when we know.
I am still not able to drive, and Danica will be homebound as well. Dan will return to work immediately. Delaney has rides to and from school scheduled. I have a list of people willing to help if something falls through.
Meals. There will be a “Take Them A Meal” site established and shared once we know our return date. We are eating very simple and healthy. Look for likes/dislikes and special requests on the site when you sign up. We will only need meals a few times a week.
Groceries. I am trying to use the Giant Eagle Market Place service of ordering groceries online and they will be ready for pick up for Dan. If I have a specific need for shopping I will share.
Non grocery items.
This is the single most exhausting part of our shopping. Dan works all week and then cleans the house, does laundry, yard work and shopping on the weekends. We buy all our paper, cleaning and beauty products at Target. I try to go along with Dan on these trips. There will be a “Sign Up Genius” site established and shared once we know our return date. It will list specific needs in this area. This is true gift to Dan especially.
These sites are helpful because you and I can see when a need is met.
I’m sure there will be other things that come up we need help with. I will share here.
We may return just a week or so before Christmas. Many of you have already asked for a list of things the girls might need or want. We are grateful. I will not be able to do much shopping. My one greatest joy and their favorite part of our Christmas tradition is stockings. I will have someone take me out to do these myself or order things online. In the interest of no duplicates for their wishes I have created an account at “Gifster”. It is an open account named “Snyder Christmas.” I will add in the notes who the gift is for, actual web links and any sizes or colors, etc. Amazon cards are always wonderful, because we can buy for the girls there and find almost anything. PLEASE do not have these gifts shipped to our home until we return from Baltimore. If it’s something that has a longer shipping time or you just want to get it done and off your to do list please email Janet, and she can share an address where it can be shipped and later delivered to us.
Closer to Christmas I will need help wrapping gifts. This is very hard on the neck and back.
Requests: Please do not buy a lot of things for us. Our greatest wish this season is to be back together in our home. Advent is a special tradition we celebrate daily as a family. We will miss the first few weeks of this treasured time where we nightly light candles, read and sing together and focus on the real meaning of Christmas. It is wonderful for the girls to have a few gifts to open, but a greater gift is financial assistance to pay bills, continue access to care and the resources to perhaps create special memories once healing has occurred. Delaney has a band trip to Disney in February and a Chicago trip in March for school. She is doing her own fundraisers locally with the other students, but she is asking for money to put towards the trips. This brings lasting joy and something for her to look forward to. She is often the “forgotten one” in all this hard.
Danica and I are looking forward to hearing Christa Wells along with Jess Ray and Taylor Leonhardt sing and play during their “Three Little Birds” concert tomorrow night at a intimate church in Akron. It’s a push for us, but I know it will fill some empty places in our hearts.
For every one of you who have given…are giving, have served…are serving, this Christa Wells song is for you. We need one another. We are sisters and brothers. You make us more than we are alone. Thank you.
“Nurturing friendships is hard enough when everyone is healthy. But when you show up and do the work of being a friend to someone who is suffering, it will cost you something. In other words, you’re going to have to sacrifice your comfort, your schedule and maybe even aspects of your faith.”–Kara Tippetts
We are three days in, and it’s already been a week of hard. Monday I had my stitches removed. If you are a facebook friend I’m sure you cringed at my “over sharing” photo. (Please remember that at least half my “friends” are people who are walking through similar surgeries and recoveries. We celebrate healing no matter how gnarly, and our wounds are truly the places where light filters to our souls.) During the same visit Danica had her pre-op labs drawn and other tests for screening. Her last needle experience in Cincinnati was brutal with several failed IV attempts for a CT with contrast. She was anxious. As much as we talked about how this blood draw was a quick stick with no straw and a much smaller needle she lost her courage when it came time. Both of us showed our needle PTSD. It was ugly. It took the doctor, two nurses and myself to hold her down to try to get a stick, but she jerked, and we missed. She was sobbing. I was sobbing. I left the room for a minute to tell God He got this all wrong. “I CAN’T WATCH HER SUFFER AGAIN.” I was really thinking how impossible this was going to be. We are headed for brain and spinal surgery, and we can’t get through a needle stick. I came back in and moved from the completely understanding and comforting ally to get tougher on her. We had to get through this. We switched to the other arm, held her at four corners, and I began to pray over her. “Jesus, Calm Danica’s heart. Help us stick this vein.” We got it. On our way out our dear doctor hugged us both. She knows how fragile I am from my recent surgery. She’s walked the long road with me for over six years. She knows how impossible all this seems, especially right now. Her hug validated all those things and then said, “You can do this!”
Afterward my dad took us to Chic-fil-A and then to Danica’s special hair appointment where she had the underneath of her head shaved and a purple stripe added for Chiari. It was sad and fun all at the same time. Every step makes November 30th more real. We are all feeling the weight of it.
I had my every six week maintenance chemo drip yesterday. It was painful to sit in the chair for over eight hours with my neck in such spasm. By mid bag I begin to feel oh so sick and the deep bone ache began from the inside out. Last night I was exhausted but could not sleep because of the steroids, the hurt and how sick my tummy gets. I was up and down, up and down…finally I gave up trying to rest. Around 4 am I slipped out to the cold, dark living room and picked up the book “Just Show Up: The Dance of Walking Through Suffering Together” by dear Kara Tippetts and her friend Jill Lynn Buteyn. My friend Kristin had given it to me in January of this year. At the time I skimmed and shelved it. I brought it out to read at chemo but didn’t have the energy. I finally read it cover to cover this morning with a pen and a highlighter. I got out old school college ruled notebook paper and wrote Kristin a long letter stained with some tears.
Kristin is my friend from Denver who first loved us when she heard God telling her to “Drain it.” (If you’ve never heard this story before you’ve got to read it!) We worked remotely for the same company based in Northern Virginia. I’d only briefly met her twice face to face when I’d traveled to Virginia for work functions and a third time when she came to visit me after one of my surgeries in Maryland before she moved to Colorado. I often say we are the least likely of friends. We are different in many ways. All my life I’d found friends who were almost mirror images of myself. This was someone I could learn from in a whole new way. We became close. She became the person who made me laugh out loud when no one else could. She allowed just enough whining before kicking my butt with the perfect amount of tough love. Even though we live very far from one another she has consistently found ways to “show up” for my family and I. Last October we took a very special girl’s trip to Galveston, TX to celebrate me turing forty. It was the first time we’d spent quality time together in the flesh. We shared hearts. I learned more about her walks with a former fiance’ and her dad who both fought and lost cancer wars. I understood more about how she knew what so many people simply can’t when it comes to loving someone in chronic suffering. When I found out about my emergency surgery she immediately called and said she was coming. She flew to spend a week with me in the hotel after my hospital discharge. It wasn’t easy for her to find care for her children or for her husband to handle all the details while she was gone. He told her “Go be the hands and feet.” (Seriously, this guy lets her obey God and “drain it” and now this. Corey, you are Jesus in skin.)
Kristin hasn’t been feeling well for some time. It’s strange how long and hard we have to look to find what becomes glaring when it’s finally seen. I hugged her in the parking lot of the Dulles Virginia Residence Inn on October 28th as the sun began to rise. She flew home and went to a doctor’s appointment on Monday to explore a lump. Two days later she had a CT that screamed malignant tumor. A week later she had a biopsy that named it. She has cancer. Big cancer. I checked flights to Denver. I wanted to go so badly, if only to ring her doorbell and hug her again. Neck healing be damned. I should have hugged her harder and longer.
This giving and receiving thing still seems so complicated to me. I’m proud. After all this time, I still really want to become independent again. I want to pay all our debt on our own merit. I want to go back to work and save the day. I want to disappear off this screen and be a person who shows up in flesh and blood for others. I want to bring you dinner, or clean your bathroom or fly across the United States to care for you post-op. But I can barely put my own socks on. I can’t drive now and maybe never will again. I’m disabled in all the ways I think the world needs me…in all the ways you, my friends and family, need me. I’m humbled over and over again. I even fight it with my own parents. I fight it with my husband and my children. They see me wincing through a smile. They see me faking it but hear me saying I’m not. I want to find my worth again in their lives too. Everything in this world screams this is by doing. What if you can’t do? What if you can only be?
Like Kara Tippetts I’d like to be known as a “keeper and grower of friendships, a tender nurturer of those around” me even in my suffering. Stripped of all the trappings of what I do for a living, where I live, what I wear or plans for any future I am left with a worn chair in the corner of a living room where I sit and read and write and pray. I pray circles. I mail words. I pray circles. I’d like to believe this is a kind of showing up too…a kind of giving. I’d like to believe BEING in Jesus really is enough. There’s my word again. Dayenu. More than enough.
Kara was dying as she finished writing “Just Show Up.” The way she lived and died impacted the hearts and lives of thousands and thousands of people because she wasn’t afraid of the one thing that remains when everything else falls away. She wasn’t afraid of community. She wasn’t afraid to give and receive. Some of her last written words were these:
“Friends, Community. It is the only way to know and be known. It’s where we see our own humanity and frailty, our gifts and our weaknesses. When we show up for one another, we invade each other in love and become witnesses to the truth that trials and sickness and pain are not the whole story. There’s more. So much more. We can remind one another that our lives are not a mistake. And, most importantly, that we are loved with an everlasting love.”
I’m four weeks out from surgery today. Two weeks away from my baby girl’s huge operation. I am healing slowly. Anything I do jeopardizes what we just tried to accomplish. This surgery can’t be repeated. It HAS to be the last time inside my cervical spine. I HAVE to find a way to ask for and receive specific help. I spent a lot of time in bed on heat after Dan and the girls left for work and school. Chemo recovery day is hard. I still had many phone calls and follow ups to accomplish. And my lists of things to do in the next week and a half before we leave for Baltimore seemed to grow longer not shorter. Around 1 pm I got up to make my family their favorite chicken casserole. It sounds simple, right? I reached down for the large Corning Ware dish. I reached down for the heavy Calphalon pan to boil the water for the stuffing. I bent over to put the chicken in the big pan in the oven. I reached up to get a mixing bowl for the sour cream and soup mixture. I leaned back down to get the chicken out of the oven and then cut it in little pieces. I lifted the large bowl to dump the ingredients and mix them. I lifted the stuffing pan and my wrist slipped out of joint as I scattered the stuffing on top. What if this one meal…this one personal act of love and assertion of independence ruined something? My neck was screaming. Now there were dirty dishes. The dishwasher was full and clean. This is rare. Usually Dan runs it each night and empties it each morning. I have no business reaching in and out of a dishwasher ever. But I did. Doesn’t a sink full of dirty pots and pans and a full dishwasher negate the encouragement I was trying to give by making the meal? So I emptied it.
My girls came home. Danica had homework to make up from Monday. She had a lovely gift bag from a teacher at school. We went through the things. Of course I needed to find a journal to begin a list of gratitude. The mail came. There was a box from my dear friend in Wisconsin with things for Danica. We went through the things. My body was howling, but I kept a cheerful face and spirit for my girl. We added the gifts to the gratitude journal. I took the cardboard to the recycling bin in the garage and sat down to wail.
I need help. We need help. I’ve pushed your offers away, because I wanted to do these weeks cozied here as a family. I did work on a list of specific ways you can help during and after Danica’s surgery, but I kind’ve wanted to keep you out of this part. It’s ugly. I’m ugly. I’m in full on lament. I realized this afternoon I cannot even pack for this kind of trip. I need help.
I got on my knees and with no head bowing ever again I prayed for God to help me ask and receive. I begged Him to help me be honest and detailed about how others can help and trust Him to fill the slots.
The next post will be this ask. Humbly, I will ask you to “just show up.”
Chiari Decompression, November, 2009
Chiari Decompression and Cervical Fusion, October, 2010
Twenty one days.
Five hundred and four hours.
Thirty thousand, two hundred and forty minutes.
This is how long it’s been since my total cervical spinal surgery in Lanham, Maryland.
Twenty one days.
Five hundred and four hours.
Thirty thousand, two hundred and forty minutes.
This is how long until my baby girl’s brain and spinal surgery in Baltimore, Maryland.
I’m in bed today. I woke to a cold November rain. (Cue Guns N’ Roses.) I got my hubs and girls off to work and school. I did my ridiculous “fly lady” stuff just in case Southern Living stops by for a photo shoot. I put a roast and potatoes and carrots in the crock pot. I washed my face, brushed my teeth, freshened my deodorant and changed my underwear before putting my pajamas back on. I switched out the dressing on my neck wound, changed the gross pads on my neck brace and adjusted the velcro for a sturdy fit. I swallowed two muscle relaxers and a pain pill and crawled back into my made bed with a heating pad on my still very aching hip where they aspirated bone fusion material. Then I cried.
I don’t do this.
I don’t crawl back in bed.
I haven’t been treating my pain since last Wednesday.
Two weeks is my personal limit for narcotics following surgery.
The next stage is what I call “big girl pants.”
I still think my life is worth a little bit more sitting up in a chair instead of lying down. I’ve been PUSHING…working for hours each day on the details of planning a big surgery at a huge hospital far away. The paperwork is overwhelming. Danica is a new patient. Every single detail of her medical history has to be documented. I need to have specific conversations with the dozen people who will have direct contact with us during her care. I have to manage FMLA paperwork for Dan’s work. He will have to take unpaid time off for this trip and most likely to help care for Danica after and drive us to post op visits. I have to make hotel reservations and figure out navigating the city and parking. I have to talk to insurance and the hospital and understand the cost of this out of network care at one of the best hospitals in the world. What do we pay up front? What needs pre-authorized? What is our responsibility after the large deductible is met? How does Danica’s individual out of network and my individual out of network combine to form the family out of network. What is and isn’t included in patient maximum out of pocket. Is that even a real thing in our situation? This is mind numbing and soul sapping work. After all our hard and all God’s faithfulness I still ask, “How in the world will we do this?” I repeat my mantra over and over. “Thank you God for access to care. Thank you God for access to care. Thank you God for access to care.”
Lists. What needs bought. What needs packed. What meds do I need? What does Delaney need? What school work needs done? Who needs informed at school for Danica and Delaney? There’s a form for that. Don’t forget to stop the mail. There’s a form for that. Should we put up our Christmas tree since it could be mid December when we get home? Should we skip it all together? Danica needs her cast off. I can’t drive. Find a ride. Danica needs her pre-op history and physical and labs. There’s a form for that. Find a ride. I need my stitches removed and post-op wound check. Find a ride. Danica needs her hair cut and the back of her head shaved. Find a ride. I have chemotherapy all day next Tuesday. Yes. Chemo. Find a ride.
I haven’t written any thank you notes for the love surrounding my surgery. Okay, maybe one or two, but the rest sit here beside me today. They are addressed and stamped. I feel shame. Gratitude is my life blood. Without thanks how will you know how your kindness changed everything? I won’t go to bed tonight until I write just a few.
Twenty one days.
Five hundred and four hours.
Thirty thousand, two hundred and forty minutes.
I will STOP.
Time will stand still.
I will send my heart…my Danica Jean…my heart…the little piece of me carved off into her…my heart…into a cold operating room with the best hands I could find and let them open her skull and her brain and her back and try to work another miracle.
Time will stand still.
I’ve been thinking of a conversation between beloved Tolkien characters.
“Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo.”
I can’t turn back.
I must PUSH.
I must keep going.
I must hold on.
Friends, please pray us through this.
Keep loving us through this.
There is good now.
I have to believe there is good in the end.
I know for sure there is His glory.
I have a friend who will be taking over as a kind of “care coordinator” for us when we are gone and when we return. We are working on some practical ways for you to help like Amazon wish lists so we don’t get duplicates of the few things the girls are wishing for Christmas (thank you to everyone already thinking of them in this regard) and more importantly an over abundance of beautiful gifts that become meaningless when what we really need is help paying our basic bills or traveling back to Baltimore for more care. She will be a single resource for you to help get meals to us and have you pick up paper towels and toilet paper while you’re at Target when we are out. I do not know if and when I can drive again so all this stuff that needs done is compounded by my inability to run even a single errand on my own. The biggest need and continued way to help is to donate financially. I’m learning how to use Prime Pantry and even Giant Eagle’s service of grocery shopping and having it ready for Dan to pick up. I find some comfort and control in being able to do these things. I promise I will dedicate a post to specifics including her contact information in the next week. Most of all please continue to pray. Please share and ask others to pray. I know the covering of intercession was the single most encouraging part of Danica’s last huge surgery and recovery. Ask God for us. He knows our needs and oh how He loves us. Our Hope remains. It does. It has to.
This Need To Breathe song is a favorite on our family play list.
I still walk.
down at me, say
YOUR SPINE IS DISINTEGRATING,
STAY IN THE WHEELCHAIR OR ELSE.
Or else what? I’ll never walk again?
Never stand up? Of that
I am not afraid.
I am afraid
of sitting down
for the last time.
I still walk at home.
Unlock the door,
wheel inside, then
My remembered feet
on the cool slate,
My gaze straight into Gran’s painted eyes.
Someday, I will have to look up
or take her down with me.
I still walk at home.
Nothing fast, nothing fancy,
Nothing but one foot in front of the other,
Which is everything, really,
Everything if you appreciate
the shift of weight from heel
to toe, the way your arches
sigh into the carpet, and
the small dance that happens
when you just stand still.–Lynn Goldfarb
I searched for a stock image of a younger person using a walker. One in a medical institution would have worked, but I really wanted one outdoors, maybe a young woman like me walking in the sun and leaves. There were hundreds of photos of older people with someone caring beside them helping them take each next step. There were no photos of a forty year old wife and mama gripping a metal support with wheels praying each step will take her closer to restoration.
In a way it’s sad I don’t write much during the several weeks between major surgeries and days like today when the fog begins to clear, and I’m able to process the pain and grief I’ve endured. I know I’ve lost wise things, and I’m sure I’ve buried others. This is how we survive any recurring trauma isn’t it?
Twenty-four. It’s a lot of anything. It’s a crazy amount of wounding.
I felt afraid. This terror was new and different. Fear is rarely part of these operations anymore. My pain becomes a place I’d rather die than keep living. I get a scan, see the new damage and mark the date on a calendar. I don’t ask myself how many patch jobs we can do before my spine disintegrates. This time as I woke from anesthesia I wondered if we’d gone too far. I had oxygen, but I couldn’t breathe. If I stayed awake I could make myself take breaths, but I was under the plastic bag of too many drugs. I just wanted to sleep. Every time I fell asleep I stopped breathing. An alarm would sound. I’d jerk awake. The nurse would remind me, “BREATHE.”
There was something about the way my body was positioned during this surgery that completely ruined my hips. The op notes are vague. I know part of the pain and inability to walk alone was from the bone marrow aspiration from my right hip. Once we moved to the hotel my sister and sister-in-law would help me to the bathroom. I felt my legs dragging behind me as I held onto the walker for dear life. There were burgundy stripes in the hotel floor, and they became like little mile markers for my marathon.
I’m grateful for hard fought battles won. I’m thankful for the scars, new and old alike. They are my beauty marks.
I won’t JUST sit in a chair.
Not even my “nest” chair.
I will put one foot in front of another.
Which is everything really.
I love to slip out of bed when my husband and girls are still sleeping. Tucked under warm covers with their precious heads cradled in soft pillows, I watch their bodies rise and fall with sweet gift of breath. I see their faces relaxed in perfect peace. I quietly sneak out to a mostly dark living room and settle in my nest chair with a steaming cup of coffee. My chunky throw is wrapped around my legs, and my dear Twixie pup is snuggled beside me. I watch the night become day as light slowly rises in the east and in perfect quiet I pray.
I pray for my Dan, lover of my heart, my mind and my broken body. He cherishes me like Christ does the church. He is the man who says, “Whatever is happening to you is happening to me.” When I returned home from my Maryland trip last week we sat on our bed looking at the calendar trying to make sense of the days to come purely from a logistics stand point. At first it seemed it was truly impossible for him to come to Maryland this week with me. He wept. He said, “You know you’ve reached rock bottom and are a failure as a man when you cannot be there when your wife goes into major surgery.” Many times before we’ve made Dan staying here with the girls the priority. He needs to work. The girls need continuity and the comfort of one parent being present with them. Now, more than ever, it is difficult to leave Danica. The situation with her neck is precarious, and she fell and fractured her wrist and elbow last Saturday. There is something about this particular operation, the bigness of it and my own anxiety, that makes Dan want to be there more than usual. We’ve made a plan. Dan will drive me to Maryland Tuesday and be there forty-eight hours to make sure I come out of surgery okay, and then he will rush home to Ohio. Yesterday, I was sitting here in my usual place of morning ritual, and he brought me a #pentopaper card. He knows I’ve been doubting the value of fighting any more. He reminded me of my own vows. “If I do nothing else but love Dan, Delaney and Danica well it will be ENOUGH.” He reminded me of the deepest parts of myself, my love for others and my good God that transcend this brokenness.
Father God, If there was no other evidence of Grace in this life, the abiding love of my husband Dan would have me completely convinced. You see how he is hurting. You know the shame he feels when we once again have to beg others for provision, as if any family, even a wealthy family, could have carried such a heavy financial weight for this long. Encourage his heart by each gift of support. Help him to find joy in the love we continue to receive. Help him to know his wife and children, those who are giving and especially You do not see him as inadequate in this regard. Please give him strength in the days and weeks to come. He is a servant leader in our home. Help him know the groceries and the laundry, the cleaning and the yard work and the care he provides the girls and I are not small things. They are a living sacrifice. Protect his body from illness. Please give him mental and emotional strength to move through the drive to Maryland, the long waiting during my surgery, the seeing me in such a wounded and pain filled state, the hard drive home alone and the many days here working and loving on our girls while I am away. Help him know for sure You love him and have plans for a future and a hope. Amen.
Dave Matthew’s “Steady as We Go” is one of the love songs on our life playlist we slow dance to in hard times. It is exactly the way my Dan loves me.
I’m pushing over the next forty-eight hours to do all the things a momma does before she leaves her family for two weeks compounded by the fact I will be in great pain and recovering when I return. We have exactly six weeks between my Wednesday, October 19th surgery at Doctors Community Hopital in Lanham Maryland and Danica’s Wednesday, November 30th surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore Maryland.
We are grateful for your great love for us. It is God making a way. Many of you have asked how you can specifically help in other ways. There are needs. After my surgery I will form a private facebook page where we can post how and when we need help and you can respond in kind.
Our Hope remains.
YOU keep us waiting.
You, the God of all time,
Want us to wait
For the right time in which to discover
Who we are, where we are to go,
Who will be with us, and what we must do.
So thank you … for the waiting time. –John Bell, quoted in The Westminster Collection of Christian Prayers
Friday marked 37 days since I pulled my car over and talked in detail with the Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon about Danica’s broken hardware and cervical instability. We picked a “tentative” surgery date of October 12th. I broke up with Cincinnati Children’s. And then it was quiet. We know all too well how difficult it is to get the OR for such a long period of time with all the right people scheduled, especially two head neurosurgeons who have different clinic and surgery days. Because the doctor is brand new to Hopkins he had to order special equipment, something in particular for Danica’s difficult operation, as well as the instrumentation for her new fusion. I guess it makes sense you don’t take a position at one of the best hospitals in the world and then waltz in and use whatever stuff they have. I keep saying something breezy like, “God’s got it on His calendar!” But we’ve been getting antsy, and I’m wanting to orchestrate the hundred things that can only be planned after we have a firm date. You can imagine my “beautiful mind” notebook, right?
My dear friend Kris Camealy has written a new Advent devotional titled Come Lord Jesus: The Weight of Waiting. I began reading an advanced copy the same week we made the decision about the surgeon and hospital for Danica’s surgery. Oh how I needed the disciplined walk through holy anticipation of God’s good plan of salvation through the birth of Jesus Christ. Every day of the Advent journey is deeply rooted in Scripture. I’ve gone back to read the passages again and again. I began to realize. God is not asking me to do nothing in the wait. He is asking me to prepare my heart and mind. He is asking me to humble myself and sit in hopeful and trusting expectation. He is asking me to believe He will work His purpose perfectly in the fullness of time…His time and not mine. If a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day then a month can definitely feel like two thousand years! He is asking me to believe He is there in the silence. (I will be posting about Come Lord Jesus again when it officially releases on October 16th and doing a giveaway!)
During another difficult waiting season in my life my friend Violet send me these words written by Oswald Chambers:
“God’s silences are His answers…Can God trust you…or are you still asking for a visible answer?…His silence is the sign that He is bringing you into a marvelous understanding of Himself…You will find that God has trusted you in the most intimate way possible, with an absolute silence, not of despair, but of pleasure…If God has given you a silence, praise Him, He is bringing you into the great run of His purposes.”
I already see the beautiful things He’s providing in this quiet time of waiting. With no firm surgery date I have been able to just be with Dan and my girls. I was able to celebrate Delaney’s fourteenth birthday doing “normal” mom things like taking her and her friends to try on formal dresses and out to eat. The first month of her freshman year of high school I was not just physically here but fully present. It has made all the difference. Just the simple stability of picking Delaney and Danica up from school every day has created calm in all of us. I was able to schedule new family pictures and actually follow through. I’ve mostly stayed off my computer and phone and snuggled, read books and had long talks with my Dani J. We celebrated Danica’s ninth birthday with her friends this weekend and will have cake and presents as a family tonight. There are barely traces of frantic Monica, because there was nothing I could do but WAIT and live real life in the quiet instead of holding my breath. This is Grace.
I canceled my Friday, October 7th scan and appointment in Charlottesville, Virginia with the vascular neurosurgeon who placed my VP shunt in April. The logistics of flying there are much more expensive and trying to navigate the several hours from there to DC without being able to rent a car and drive myself are just too difficult. My shunt is working beautifully, and I have continued to have complete relief from pressure headaches and symptoms. It rained buckets last week. I’ve been overwhelmed realizing what a true gift my surgery was. I never could have continued to fight for this relief without all of you praying and encouraging and donating. You didn’t give up. Thank you. We suffer gratitude. I will keep on thanking you because there is nothing else I know to do.
I am keeping a long standing appointment in Maryland with my neurosurgeon on Monday, October 10th. I am suffering increasing neck pain and symptoms. There is definitely spinal cord compression. If Danica’s surgery had remained on the 12th I would have needed to cancel my own scan and consult. I’ve wondered if I could even make it through being Danica’s advocate and caregiver during surgery, hospitalization and long recovery in the pain I’m in. Much like my emergency hysterectomy before her last big surgery I see God making a way for me to put on my own oxygen mask first. The plan is for me fly to DC this coming Sunday, the 9th. I will have my upright flexion and extension MRI and see my neurosurgeon on Monday and fly home that evening. I’m secretly praying if I need a one or two level fusion he would keep me and just do it even though I have no idea how my family would function here if that happened or how we would financially do it. I would be a much better mom to Danica in post op mode with more stability and less pain. Will you please pray specifically for this trip? I also have all day chemotherapy tomorrow. The new treatment plan is for me to have a full bag of Rituxin every six weeks indefinitely. Over the past week or so I have begun getting the blisters back on my hands and feet and my eye and legs have been twitching. These are always the first signs infection is ramping back up. Will you please pray this chemo will suppress the fires and be a long term answer, so I can completely avoid plasmapheresis? It is always healing, never being healed.
Before Danica’s big surgery six years ago Dan and I both read Tony Woodlief’s book Somewhere More Holy. (I can’t recommend this book enough.) I pulled it off the shelf to read again, and these words settled in my aching places:
“We have forgotten the God of small things, which is mostly what He has been with us because we ourselves are small, fragile things. We wait impatiently, sometimes hopelessly, for the burning-bush God, or the booming thunderclap God, forgetting that even a righteous man like Job covered before the whirlwind of God’s voice, that holy Moses could bear only a glimpse of God’s backside. We assume that we would hold up well against a visitation by the whirlwind God, and in our narcissistic longing we forget the God of the still, small voice, the suffering-servant God, the God who said of children that His kingdom consists of such as these. ‘Part of the inner world of everyone,’ writes Frederick Buechner, ‘is this sense of emptiness, unease, incompleteness, and I believe that this in itself is a word from God, that this is the sound that God’s voice makes in a world that has explained Him away. In such a world, I suspect that God maybe speaks to us most clearly through His silence, His absence, so that we know Him best through our missing Him.’”
I did finally get THE call from the Hopkins neurosurgeon late Friday afternoon. I met a friend for coffee yesterday, and I broke down for the first time. I realized I’ve been holding everything really close in the silence and the waiting. As sure as it was time to be quiet and still, I now need safe places to lament the hard that’s coming.
When I make the call to Baltimore today to officially reschedule everything will change. My body will leave my skin. My brain will leave my head. My heart will leave my chest. I will stop eating and sleeping well. Everything will become fast forward. Nothing will change about my God.
This morning my family left for school and work, and I sat remembering one of my favorite passages about waiting: “‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him. It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of the Lord.”–Lamentations 3:24-26 I prayed for strength to do each next thing and for complete surrender and dependence on my good God.
His Hope will not disappoint.
Our Hope remains.
This song from All Sons and Daughters album Poets and Saints is on repeat.
You’ll notice a few changes here on my site. I’ve added a specific place for Team Danica posts. If you subscribe at the top you will receive updates in your email. So many of you are asking about next steps and what we need. I don’t have specific answers for you. I plan to mail prayer cards to those of you who’ve faithfully prayed and supported us once we have the true surgery date.
“Then you’ll take delight in the Almighty; and will turn your face toward God. You’ll entreat Him and He’ll listen to you as you fulfill your vows. When you make a decision on something, it will be established for you, and light will brighten your way.”–Job 22:26-28
How many times have we fallen into a hotel bed in Cincinnati, Ohio? I should have been keeping a tally along the way. Our first trip was April, 2010. Danica was two and a half years old. We saw the crazy 3DCT confirming her atlas assimilation and how badly her first Chiari decompression failed her. The five months between the tragic news and her second decompression and difficult fusion were filled with second, third and fourth opinions. The surgeons threw their hat in the ring only to second guess themselves and the risk vs. benefit for our little girl and their own surgical careers. There was so little information about a case like hers. We were praying like crazy but moving forward in fits and starts. Many of you read our story as I pecked it out on our little Team Danica blogger site. You were witness to the wrestling of faith and fear. You saw the strain in our marriage and family. You saw me breaking physically and mentally as I fought for the best chance at the best life for my girl.
I’ve been reading for an online Bible study I’m doing from Suzanne Eller’s book Come With Me: Discovering the Beauty of Where He Leads. I’m seeing myself in the humanity of the disciples as we dig deeper. These men saw crazy impossible miracles and days later questioned the economics of a few loaves and fishes and thousands of people. God gave us a miracle. As time passed I thought God was punctuating Danica’s suffering so we could move on to my own bitter fight. The disciples were always forgetting, weren’t they? I don’t want to forget our first miracle. Suzie writes about her husband’s cancer diagnosis years after her own fight with breast cancer. “We beat the odds, and that was a gift. For a long time I thought that was the big miracle, but later I realized the true miracles came as we dug deep into our faith and came up with enough to make it through the day–or the hour if that was what was required.” Whether it’s been six days or six years you’d think I would forever remember the kind of healing and scandalous provision God made for us, but sometimes I don’t. There were moments leading up to our Cincinnati trip I was too blinded by what was unfolding again to turn back and SEE. My heart is fused forward, like my literal neck. Forward. Do the next thing. Do the next thing you think you cannot do. In the past few weeks I’ve been reaching through our story to remember. It aches in the deepest place. You’ve been asking. You’ve been praying. If I write it. If I say it. It’s more true. So I haven’t.
“God, I don’t think we can do this.”
Danica needs another complicated surgery. Her beautiful hardware is broken along with at least one level of fusion. She also has a piece of shunt tubing left near her brain stem. It’s dangerous and needs removed. I could write a neurosurgical and cervical spine treatise here, but it would confuse most of you. We went to Cincinnati with trepidation. After our scans and appointments in late July her case was escalated to new surgeons. We had no idea what our meeting there would look like. I approached it as an information gathering session. The surgeons were humble and kind. They patiently let me ask every detailed question. Dan and Danica mostly listened but felt comfortable in raising their own less clinical concerns. We walked away with an ambiguous scope of surgery and some warning flags. We returned home dealing with Danica’s escalating anxiety about the hows and whens of surgery. “Mom, I just want to know what’s going to happen and MOVE ON.”
While waiting for an important opinion from a surgeon at Johns Hopkins we prayed for guidance. I begged God to make the crooked path straight and help us know for sure where we needed to be. He answered. Last week I got the second call from the Johns Hopkins surgeon after he reviewed every single bit of Danica’s history, prior op notes and her imaging. All the concerns were addressed before I could even raise them. A light shone bright. There are still many details to work out, but her tentative surgery date is Wednesday, October 12th, in Baltimore. She needs an invasive myelogram to see exactly how to approach the drain tubing in such a precarious place. We will have several days of pre-op there before surgery. She will be hospitalized a week or so after surgery. Depending on how she is healing we may need to stay in the area for awhile after discharge. And she will have to wear a brace. There’s no posturing. This is a hard surgery. The brain part. The hardware removal. The new fusion including taking some of Danica’s own rib to make fusion slurry for her neck. This is harder than the prior one, but it must be done and soon and in a new city and at a new hospital.
I’ve been pushing myself to get the girls settled into their new school year. I’ve been trying to spend heart to heart time with my Laney. I finished my last big round of chemo last Tuesday. I will have a Rituxin treatment every six weeks moving forward. My C4-5 is cachunking every time I move my neck. My appointments planned with Dr. Liu at UVA for shunt post op and my scans and appointment in Chevy Chase with Dr. Henderson are the Friday and Monday before Danica’s planned surgery. I know in my heart I won’t be able to make them, but I refuse to cancel them. I need them. I can’t figure out the logistics, but I hate to be so close and not follow through. I’ve been on the phone for hours every day with hospitals, billing departments and our insurance company. It’s soul sapping work. The Virginia hospital where I had my VP shunt placed in April sent my account to judicial affairs. They are suing us. In all our crushing medical debt this is only the second time a hospital has gone to this measure to get a judgment to pursue a levy of Dan’s wages. I’m trying to understand the amount. My insurance company is helping. If I agree to make any payments then I’m accepting the amount which we think is wrong. I’ve focused on paying Danica’s bills this year to prepare for possible surgery at the hospital in Cincinnati. (The money you’ve donated has made the way for us to take those trips and pay most of those bills. Thank you. Thank you. Can you feel our hearts? Thank you.) I try to keep the stress from Dan while quietly informing him. He is working so hard. We can only do what we can do. He can’t become paralyzed by the weight. I try to carry it. I’ve hit a wall. My left eye is twitching. My jaw hurts from clenching and grinding. I ache all over. I’m out of cortisol. The adrenaline is spent.
“God, I don’t think I can do this.”
I’ve felt the needle in my spinal cord. The cut in my back to take a rib. The slicing of the back of my head and neck for a third time. The spasms from damaged nerves and cut muscles. It hurts like hell. To look in my Danica’s eyes knowing that agony is suffering multiplied.
A week ago Danica and I were driving to Paper Allure, a sweet #pentopaper shop I love, to pick up a birthday gift for a friend when the call from the Hopkin’s surgeon came. I pulled over in a parking lot, put him on speaker and jotted notes. Danica heard the entire thing including new, more scary parts of her surgery. She was quiet the few blocks from where we stopped to our destination. At the store she saw a display of bracelets hung by clothespins with one word on them. They are made of swarovski crystals and were a little pricey. She asked if she could have one. I reminded her that she had a birthday soon and maybe it would be special to get one to wear for her surgery. The young lady helping me overheard us. She went in the back room to wrap my gift, and the owner of the shop told her she could let Danica pick one. Kindness changes everything. Danica’s eyes lit up and out of all the possible words like hope and courage and believe she picked trust. The bracelet is from a beautiful project called Little Words. It has a little gold tag with a number you register online with your own story. You wear the bracelet as long as you need the word. When you meet someone who needs the word more than you it’s time to pass it on. They log on and continue the narrative of the life of the bracelet and the one word. In the car on the way home I asked her why she picked the word she did. With the simple faith of a child she said, “Because I TRUST God.” She’s asked for me to read her old entries on Team Danica. She wants me to tell her about the Gauntlet. She still believes in the gift. Oh, God, I can’t see it, but she can. As I tucked her in bed that night she asked to see ALL my scars. She said “If you can go through that many surgeries and be okay, I’ll be okay.” This weekend we worked on making a folder of photos and short video clips from her journey. I’m wanting to make a multimedia slideshow with a new fight song. I played a few I was considering on YouTube for her. She ran to her room and grabbed the first edition ipad with the shattered screen, the one someone bought her six years ago while she was in her wheelchair, and said, “This is the song we should use.” It was Kari Jobe’s “Steady My Heart.” It’s a song on her own playlist she listens to over and over again. I cried as we listened to the meaningful lyrics.
We can trust Him.
Even when it hurts. Even when it’s hard. Even when it all just falls apart.
We can run to Him.
He is lover of our hearts.
He is healer of our scars.
We find refuge in His arms.
My Danica Jean is taking the lead. She’s grabbed my hand. She’s reminding me to lean hard. She’s showing me how to trust again.
“God, we can do this.
Through Your strength.
By Your Grace.
We can do this.
Please, steady our hearts.”
My Danica girl woke this morning and shuffled her way to my lap. She knows she will always find me sitting in my corner chair wrapped in a cozy throw with a cup of coffee in my hands. I put my steaming comfort aside, and make room for her. Her lanky legs stretch almost as long as mine now. She’s so tall it’s hard to kiss her head, especially with my fused neck, but I always try. Our fingers entwine, and I squeeze her hand as if to say, “Good morning, my dear. No matter what today brings I am here for you. I love you. Jesus loves you more.” Some of my favorite talks happen as she shakes off her sleep and begins to think out loud. Today her words took me off guard, “Mom, If God is in control of everything why did He even let sin and sickness happen?” I stumbled as I backtracked to Eden. Things were perfect, but there was this one tree. All God asked was for them to remember He was God and they were not. I see her reaching to make it more personal. Life is pushing her outside her mother’s faith and asking her to claim her own. Her next question knocked the breath from my lungs. “Mom, why did He take my miracle away?”
“It feels like an ocean of sorrow is under my skin…”
I haven’t been able to find words to tell about our trip to Cincinnati on July 26th. We left with incomplete information that has been filtering in since. Today we have more questions than answers. Danica’s rare and messy case has been escalated to new surgeons. We have been asked to return to Cincinnati quickly, on Thursday, August 18th, to discuss a joint effort with neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery.
“Even the ocean eventually meets with the sand…”
Since our March trip, when the scans showed the shocking views of broken hardware and broken fusion from Danica’s skull base to C1, we knew this was coming, but we thought we had months to watch.
“Sorrow on sorrow I’m waiting. Heavy I’m anticipating…”
My mama gut, made much more wise from years of reading X-Rays, CTs, MRIs and radiology reports in addition to dozens of neurosurgical and fusion surgeries of my own, told me the hardware was not the most concerning problem. Yes, it’s broken. It’s broken unevenly and moving on flexion and extension, but Danica’s own words told me instability was the greater issue. “Sometimes when I wake up my neck is stuck, and I have to reach up my hands and put in back in place. I hear a click.”
“Trusting the current will carry me.”
I finished my plasmapheresis before our trip and began my first of four chemo treatments on Tuesday. I’m worn so thin I’d swear you could see right through me. My dear friend came to sit with me at the cancer center. I told her how I was feeling. I cried. It’s as if those closest to me…closest to Dan, Delaney and Danica, don’t seem to understand this could be the thing that breaks us. It’s been almost a full decade of hard that can never be quantified. Dan is numb. Delaney is sad. Danica is scared. I’m completely and utterly broken. She told me I don’t wear it that way. I put on a clean shirt and some makeup. I smile and deflect the conversation to you. I say words about God as if the speaking makes them true.
“You are my strength. You are my song. You are my salvation. You hold it all together. You hold it all together.”
He is God. We are not.
“We come with great expectations and fears in our hearts.”
I didn’t know how to answer Danica this morning, so I reached for my Bible and turned to her life passage. My life passage. I read Psalm 139 aloud.
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
“Send us Your light as we’re making our way through the dark.”
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.
“All of the earlier troubles, chaos and pain they unravel”
He is God. We are not.
This afternoon we snuggled in the big bed and watched the movie Miracles From Heaven. There were so many similarities to our story. The mama bear fighting. The faithful daddy staying behind doing what needs to be done. The older sister who gets a little lost in the shuffle and sacrifices more than most know. The crushing cost of travel for care and out of network doctors. The lonely divide the physical distance creates between a community of support and hospital halls walked alone. The hurtful words from well meaning people about why this is happening or how just a little more faith might change the outcome. Once again my girl’s little hand found mine. She squeezed it at certain parts. Parts I knew she understood fully because she’s been there. She jerked it away to wipe the tears running down her cheeks. I asked her several times, “Is this too hard for you? Do you want me to turn it off?” She wanted to see it through. We hugged as the credits rolled. I didn’t need to tell her I was skeptical about visiting heaven and living to tell about it. I didn’t need to explain to her how against all odds God can decide to heal someone completely. She felt the power of the narrative, because she knows it to be true.
He is God. We are not.
Danica is sleeping next to me now as I peck away in the dark. She asked for the heating pad for her legs and the cold pack for her neck. Dan is gone working overtime all day and night. Delaney is at a bonfire with her girlfriends. I wandered back to the old Team Danica blog and read the posts from August, 2010. It’s unsettling how easily they could have been written this month, six years later. There is one glaring difference. We know for sure…
He is God. We are not.
We’ve seen His faithfulness in the land of the living. We’ve seen Him provide. We’ve seen Him make a way when there was no way. We’ve seen Him bind up our wounds and heal our broken hearts. We’ve seen Him preserve our marriage and our family. We’ve seen Him rescue us from the root of bitterness. We’ve seen Him shine through the darkest night. We’ve seen Him perform a real in the flesh miracle.
“Looking ahead we rejoice in You.”
He gives and He takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
Danica, I believe this, my brave girl. I do. I want to mirror this to you. A thousand things are happening in this one thing.
He is God. We are not.
September 20th, 2009 we found out Danica had a Chiari malformation. Not knowing all that would mean, I wrote this:
Do I believe God makes no mistakes? Do I believe He lovingly formed this child’s skull and brain how we find it today to fulfill His purpose in her life and in ours? Do I believe we lack nothing God’s grace can’t give us including strength for today and the days ahead? My verse for this week has been Mark 9:24 “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.”
I’m afraid. I’m so very tired. I know that trusting God with my child is perhaps the hardest thing He will ask me to do. As He grows my faith and asks me to rest in His promises. I will fall. I will have moments of anger and confusion. I will want to quit and walk away.
Oswald Chambers wrote, “Living a life of faith means never knowing where you are being led. But it does mean loving and knowing the One who is leading. It is literally a life of faith, not of understanding and reason — a life of knowing him who calls us to go.” Knowing a God who is unchanging and will do everything He says He will do is the only way I will navigate through the next weeks and months. I believe.
“You are my strength. You are my song. You are my salvation. You hold it all together. You hold it all together.”
Tonight. This song from All Sons and Daughters upcoming album Poets and Saints is on repeat. My heart melody. Part lament. Part praise. Yes.