Sticks and Stones

It was the second miscarriage that got me most. Not the first, and arguably most surprising loss. Not the fourth and little known loss. No, it was the one in the middle, the anniversary miscarriage. That’s the one that nearly undid me.

My first pregnancy met me in a state of total naiveté. I believed I would have a healthy baby as much as I believed I wouldn’t get hit by a bus that day or diagnosed with Ebola. Things could go a different route, sure, but it was highly, highly unlikely. So nine weeks in, when I dashed off the patio at a summertime birthday party and headed to urgent care, I was completely caught off guard. Everything about bleeding and cramping and emergency room ultrasound machines—“These aren’t as good as the one upstairs. Hang on a minute ma’am; we’re so sorry; we are going to get you taken care of; you know this happens all the time—everything about it was shocking.

But I wasn’t devastated yet.

My fourth pregnancy came upon us suddenly, unexpectedly but welcome, like a friend who calls to say, “Hey I’m in town can we meet up?” But what they actually mean is they are getting off on your exit while they talk. My baby daughter was only eleven months old, her first birthday party still weeks away. We weren’t even trying. We had planned to wait at least six more months. But a pink line is a pink line and seven of them are really not kidding, so there I was, pregnant in the final days of winter. Little life number four.

I was pregnant only eight days. Long enough to have two names picked out, but quick enough the news only needed to make a short trip. We sent the sad text to two people. “It wasn’t meant to be” felt true for maybe the first time ever. “Next time” felt right too.

But that second pregnancy. I am still recovering.

Maybe it was the uncanny timing of it all that broke me so thoroughly; I learned I was pregnant on July 15 two years in a row. And August 21, two years in a row, I found out with graphic clarity, I was pregnant no longer. That could be it. Whatever the reason, I can be minding my own business, painting my nails or stirring dinner, and the memories will pounce. I’ll hear the sound of the doctor’s voice and see the way her pursed lips twisted when she leaned in to inspect the ultrasound.

“Hmm.” She said. “Maybe baby is just small.”

I’ll remember leaving the formal ultrasound days later, still startled by the coldness of the tech who’d examined me, and walking to my car wondering if my baby was floating dead inside me (again). On the way home I passed on a coffee stop as a tiny demonstration of hope for the maybe just small baby. I see myself driving to a meeting at work the Monday after that ultrasound. The doctor called with the results ten minutes into my drive. She said the words, “Hi there,” but with a tone like “Hang in there,” and then she said a bunch of sentences that began with the word sorry. And I just kept saying, with a steady unwavering voice, “It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s okay Doctor Carter, it’s fine.” Like she was coming late to a dinner party. Like she’d forgotten the wine.

It was not fine. I made it to the meeting. I made it through the meeting. And then I cried so forcefully on my trip home that I had to pull over on the freeway to steady my own thundering body.

That’s when I started visiting a doctor named Google with alarming frequency. That’s when I started losing weight without trying. (It is only now, four years later, that I understand with a broken heart oft comes a loss of appetite; it being cliché makes no difference.) I had a strong marriage, a decent mortgage, and a body that until that point had always come through. I’d known feasting.

Now I’d know famine.

I survived on hempseed granola bars and black coffee. I didn’t really eat again until our son came. Our first adoption class took place at a hospital three weeks after that second miscarriage.  Ridley was finally in our arms a year later. He made me a mom. He made me very hungry.

That first Easter with Ridley I had a sixteen-month distance between me and miscarriage. And for each one of those sixteen months, we’d tried not to get pregnant so as not to jeopardize our adoption. Our son was home, though. And it was time for an ancient meal: Passover.

Our Bible study hosted a Seder in my friend Frankie’s backyard. There were a bunch of us, maybe thirty adults, and because of some last-minute guest-list changes and some poor calculations done inside a wine store, we ended up celebrating Jesus, the true Passover, with about three bottles of wine per person.

If you follow the traditional Seder practice with fidelity you will end up pouring four glasses to the brim (the brim!) with red wine. And in a span of an hour at most, before the meal is served, you will be instructed to drink two of them. Quickly. Every drop. Then you’ll eat. If you’re paying attention you’ll hydrate over dinner. (I can think of four people who paid attention at our Seder.) Then you’ll drink two more. Hebrew style. To the brim. Quickly. Every drop.

Four glasses of wine, less than three hours, no food at the start . . . When I walked into the house to grab more candles someone was dancing by herself in the middle of Frankie’s office. More than a few people dropped trough and peed into in his backyard (and we are ever thankful for large trees and an old shed that gave them the privacy they failed to seek). There was lots of giggling and accidentally loud whispering, and at one point I leaned into my husband and said, “Whoopise daisy, I think I’m a little drunk.”

It will forever be one of my favorite dinners ever. Not just because I’d never seen my friend Jenny tipsy before or because two people brought extra dessert, leaving us with so much cheesecake we had to sneak some into people’s cars to get rid of it.

 It will forever be one of my favorite dinners because it was where I learned to laugh at death. That’s what we were really doing, after all. Underneath the wine surplus, the cake surplus, and the lamb Erica cooked to perfection, we were raising glasses filled to the brim with deep red wine to remember this: we were once slaves in Egypt, our babies were drowned, our babies were slaughtered, frogs and fire rained from the sky, we thought we’d perish in the promised land and all we asked for was a King.

I read once that Peter, the apostle of Christ-denying infamy and a regular Passover attendee, would have grown up hearing the story of the warrior King to come. His stick of choice was a sword and he would have been waiting for his chance to use it.

Peter knew a little something of the hopeful anticipation I felt holding a positive pregnancy test in my hand. He would have understood why I clutched the vanishing certainty of those fifteen-dollar sticks. For unto us a child is (will be!) born. A dream is (must be!) realized. A heart’s desire (has to be!) made flesh.

For all the control sticks and swords promise us, it’s remarkable how much of it they take. Peter wanted the type of king he’d spent his youth imagining. Someone to overthrow the Roman Empire. I wanted the baby I was sure my body could sustain. Someone who couldn’t be taken from me. It’s frightening how much these dreams begin to control us.

We’d learn this, Peter and me. The hard way.

Despite all the warnings from Jesus Himself, Peter wasn’t expecting Him to die. And when Jesus was sacrificed, Peter had far more than the proverbial rug pulled from under his feet. He had the very narrative upon which he’d built his life destroyed, ripped from him, removed farther than any stick, no matter how sharp, could reach and remedy.

The wine and celebration and laughter of meals gone by, it was in vain. Passover wasn’t reality. I’m sure Peter believed this for a time. Because despite all the time spent shoulder to shoulder with God, when Jesus was killed, Peter wasn’t expecting death to die.

So my favorite story about Peter is not the one where he walked on water. It’s the one where he ran toward death. He had enough shards of hope left to believe that maybe death was doomed: A man of sticks and swords and certainty became a man running toward a rock.

And while another disciple may have outrun him, it was Peter who was first willing to enter the tomb where Jesus’ body should have been.

I want to learn to run like Peter.

I want to run toward the call that death has passed away. Even now. Even after three vanishing pregnancies and one D&C and the indisputable knowledge that sticks can break my heart; I don’t think it’s too late for me to become a woman who answers the call of the rolled away stone.

At a Seder in a backyard in springtime, among candles and crabgrass and people peeing and friends, I laughed at death and hopelessness and the notion that “this is it.”

Four months later I found myself praying that God would make my heart reckless so that the fear that threatened to swallow me might be kept at bay. God did me one better. He gave me a reckless heart and starving legs hungry to run.

Four pregnancies, two beautiful babies, and all the heartache and blood. Would you believe that I am ready to remember the rolled-away stone when I hold the next pink stick? No matter how I feel or what sense I have or what my untrustworthy gut tells me might be wrong, I am going to spend every second of every next time charging toward the God of empty graves.

Watch me run.

Run with me.

Dormancy

I recently ordered some tulip bulbs from my niece for a school fundraiser. I’m always a sucker for a cute kid with a clipboard, what can I say? But truthfully, I love tulips. I’ve been known to grab more than one bunch during my weekly Trader Joe’s trip.

I live in the mountains of Northern Arizona, so growing tulips here requires planting them in the fall, when the evenings are cold but the ground has yet to freeze. I will situate myself in the flowerbeds, turning over the soil and carefully place the bulbs in their respective spots. I’ll make sure they are properly situated and allowed the best possibility to thrive.

And I will wait.

For months those tulip bulbs will lay dormant. Spring will come, and I’ll be distracted and the tulips will be a neglected thought. The snow will melt and the days will turn warmer and I will start to wonder if my hard work was for failure. Perhaps I missed a crucial step, or the conditions were too harsh. Each time I pass my flower beds I will search for any sign of growth.

Only then, will they emerge and bloom with the most surprising beauty.

***

A new friend recently invited me and my kids to dinner. We met at church a few weeks ago, and our kids are the same age. We share similar career backgrounds and the conversation between us flowed easily.  

That night the baby was cutting a tooth, miserable and clingy – and the toddler was bouncing off the walls. My husband was out of town for work, it was 4:50 p.m. and I needed to make a dinner plan, fast.

Her text was an almighty life raft in the sea of immense motherhood.

“What are you guys up to tonight? Come over for a campfire in the yard. I’m making Mexican food.”

My fingers couldn’t respond fast enough.

“We’ll be right there!”

I’m a true believer of inviting people into your life and into your stuff. Seeing another Mama in her home is encouraging and life giving. We all know that there’s laundry to be done and diapers to change and mac ‘n’ cheese to be made. We don’t often want other people to observe us living in our “mess.” But, so many times that’s where the beauty is, in the mess of everyday life.

Dinner was everything you would expect with 4 kids under four. It was fun, and messy and loud. There was whining and some pouting and few moments of “1,2,3 … ” We coaxed, corrected and mothered our way through the meal, while attempting to talk amidst the revolving requests for drinks and reminders for all to sit properly on their bottoms.

After what felt like my hundredth plea to my son to stop playing with the dog under the table and to just eat his cheese quesadilla, I looked at my new friend, and I said, do you ever feel like some days you are just constantly correcting them?

She smiled, nodded and simply stated, Yeah, but we’re putting in the hard work now so we can enjoy the benefits later.

***

Each night before bed we pray with our boys. For over 3 years now I’ve prayed over my toddler, beginning our nightly prayer with “Thank you Jesus for this day …” and we pray for protection and guidance and the health of our family.

Recently he’s become the one to initiate the prayer. Crawling into bed, after we read his favorite books, he pulls the covers to his chin and looks up to me with eyes-wide, and simply says, “Prayers?” And we begin.

A few nights ago I decided I would ask him if there would anything he would like to pray about. In his sweet and soft-spoken toddler tone he requested to pray that Jesus would help him to not be sad during preschool drop off.

I could hardly form the words as my eyes welled with tears.

***

The symbolism between gardening and parenting is recognizable, and yet it’s still remarkable how parallel life can be sometimes.

I often feel like I’m in a deep and dormant phase with my parenting. How many times must I speak the same sentences for rules and order over my children? Will it ever connect with them? Am I wasting my breath?

Multiple times this week I found myself broken and on the verge of tears with my kids. Thinking, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m not equipped for this. I’ve failed and nothing I do is even making an imprint on them.

Motherhood can feel fruitless at times, with our efforts going unacknowledged for seasons. But, just under the surface the words we speak are taking root. They may lay dormant for longer than we’d hope – someday to bloom as a sweet reward.  


Guest post written by Daniella Murphy. Daniella is a wife, boy mama and Los Angeles native recently transplanted to the mountains of Northern Arizona. A former Hollywood Assistant, she traded rolling calls and fetching lattes for rolling strollers and fetching sippy-cups. She loves Jesus, her morning coffee (still warm!) and a luxurious solo trip to Target. You can read more from her over at www.themerfett.com and follow along on Instagram.

Can't Force It

“You didn’t come here to rest, you came here to WORK!” she barks into a headset microphone from across the room.

Is she talking to me? A bead of sweat falls from my forehead as I try not to grunt. I propel my body forward on the machine and feel a cramp forming in my leg. The woman to my left is also struggling to keep up, which makes me feel better about myself. I reach down for my water bottle and take a sip.

“We only take water breaks in between exercises!” the instructor calls out in my direction.

Okay, she’s definitely talking to me. I do not bother hiding my eye roll.

For the rest of class, I do the bare minimum in a not-so-subtle act of defiance. Who does this chick think she is anyway, telling me I can’t take a drink of water? This is not the military. This is a fitness class … that I paid for.

I'm sure she was trying to motivate me. She probably thought reprimanding me in front of the entire class would drive me to work harder. Little does she know: I’ve birthed two children, and I have nothing to prove. I did not show up to this class to push myself into a state of dehydration; I showed up to move my body, tone my arms, and burn some calories before a pasta dinner. 

When the class ends, I wipe down my machine in silence, gather my stuff, and bolt. I stew the whole way home with a scowl on my face.

I hate exercise. I'm never coming back here.

***

The following weekend I am in a different class. A better class. 

“Listen to your body,” the yoga teacher hums. “You, and only you, know what it needs tonight.

We move through a vinyasa flow to the sound of soft music and rain pelting the sidewalk. I feel strong and in control of my own body. I take a drink of water whenever I feel like it. The instructor calls out a series of commands and we obey: warrior I, warrior II, extended side angle, triangle, half moon, downward dog, rinse, repeat. A bead of sweat trickles down my forehead as I curve into updog. We move together in unison and the instructor offers modifications whenever possible.

“You can drop your knees here, if you need to.”

Tonight, I don’t need to.

Someone else in the class drops to child’s pose, and she affirms the decision right away, “Good. Listen to your body.”

I am listening to my body tonight. My body wants to work. When we move from goddess to crow, I place my legs on my arms and float in the air like a spider. It’s not an easy pose, and I start to feel wobbly.

“Lift your head,” she softly calls out in my direction.

I realize I’m looking back through my legs, which is making me top-heavy. I raise my head and immediately feel more balanced. I smile at her in gratitude even though she can’t see my face. I move through the rest of class with great effort and intention, aware of how much I want to push myself. 

“Chair pose … now twist to the left!” she calls out.

My legs are shaking, but I don’t give up. I feel strong, and able, like I can do anything. I know if I need to fall to the floor in child’s pose, I can. It’s counterintuitive, perhaps, but having permission to go at my own pace actually inspires me to try harder. I prefer freedom over force. I love having room to explore, to get to the destination in my own time, in my own way.

Maybe we all do?

I often forget this in motherhood. I think about how many times I’ve tried to force my way, my expectations, my plan, my goal. I think of how many times I’ve tried to force my toddler to nap or tried to force my kids to behave well in public. I think of all the times I’ve yelled, the times I’ve been stubborn and impatient, willing my desires onto my children through crazy eyes and clenched teeth.

But the truth holds as much today as it did the day I brought them home as newborns from the hospital: I cannot force my kids to do much of anything. Sure, I can discipline and follow "proven" methods and set boundaries with the best of ‘em, but that will only get me -- and them -- so far.

I can look for tired cues and stick to a foolproof schedule, but I cannot force my baby to sleep. I can make my toddler sit at the kitchen table all night long, but I cannot force him to eat the food on his plate. I won’t even bother telling you the lengths I’ve gone to in the bathroom, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I say: I sure as heck cannot force my kids to poop. Only God knows how hard I’ve tried (on all accounts) over the course of the past five years.

It can be scary to admit these children under our watch are born with their own sets of freedoms and wills. At the same time, I’m finding that it relieves some of the pressure on me as a mother. I can work day in and day out to shape their hearts and steward their souls, but at some point, they have to do a little bit of the work themselves. It’s my job to discipline, to pray, to give them the best map to explore and gently steer them in the right direction, but it’s their job to put one foot in front of the other. I suppose I could technically push them, but that’s not the kind of mother I want to be.   

I can’t force my kids to sleep through the night or eat broccoli today anymore than I can force them to be kind and say no to drugs when they get to high school. This is all practice — learning how to equip, not demand; how to prepare, not repress. 

And I guess the question is: am I going to run my household like a boot camp or a yoga studio? Am I going to yell at my children every chance I get, scaring them into obedience? Or am I going to look at these tiny masterpieces in front of me and watch them bend and stretch and breathe on their own while I occasionally advise them to lift their heads? Am I going to monitor their water intake like a drill sergeant? Or am I going to remind them they can drop to their knees if they need to fall?

I've done both. And I can tell you which one is almost always more effective. 

“Now twist to the right!” 

My legs are still shaking, but I hold the pose. Just when I think I can’t take it anymore, I hear the teacher call out forward fold. Gravity pulls my head to my knees.

One more flow and we all collapse to the ground in Savasana. My sweaty body melts into the mat with a long, satisfying exhale. Our collective breathing slows. The gratitude in the room is as palpable as the hot air pumping through the vents. We’re grateful for this day, for this moment, for the way our bodies just worked like hell to finish that class. We showed up today. We worked hard today. Not because anyone forced us to — but because there was enough freedom and grace in that room for each of us to listen to our own bodies. 

We close the class with a single Ommm and part ways into the rain.

I smile the whole way home. I can't wait to come back.

I Need You

And then, just like that, she wakes up screaming. Wailing, pitiful cries. Sobbing the way I do when I'm overtaken by the belief that I’m all alone in the world, when I huddle on the sofa late at night, inconsolable. Her crying takes on a rhythm, hitches the breath in her throat.

We lie in the darkness in the next room over, waiting to see if she'll settle. If we’re still, maybe she will be, too. Please, girl, find your pacifier. Lay your head back down. Breathe, girl. Breathe.

I can picture her little arms pressing her body up, back arched, neck tense.

Go to sleep, little one.

As if it weren't enough to hear the wailing, the lights on the monitor flash from green — Take note, I imagine it saying, your baby is stirring — into red: High alert! Your baby is screaming! My heart beats wildly with all the stimulation. There's no way I can fall back asleep now.

Unable to handle it, I roll myself out of bed and go in. Her crying subsides almost immediately, diminished to sniffling, though she’s still pushing up. I reach over the edge of the crib and feel for her pacifier in the dark. I find it wedged between her neck and the mattress and offer it to her mouth. She suckles it. I rest my hand on her head, her wisps of hair silky under my touch, and I press down gently against all the resistance, trying to persuade her to sink back onto the mattress and into sleep. 

At six months, this is only her third night out of our room. None of us know the routine yet. The books tell us to be consistent, to do our calming work quickly and avoid picking her up. My breast would calm her in an instant, I know, but I am determined in my attempt to convince her she doesn’t need us.

Wondering if my scent will soothe her, I pull the nursing pads out of my bra and set one in the far corner of her crib. I put the other in her hand. She grasps it, pulls it to her, buries her face in it. Which makes me nervous, worried that she'll smother herself, so I take it away and stack it on the other in the corner and offer her my hand instead. She holds one finger.

With my eyes closed, head resting on the crib railing, I whisper-sing all the verses of Amazing Grace, even the third verse, the one I had forgotten existed until we sang it from the hymnal in church a few weeks ago. The Lord has promised good to me. Slowly, her fingers relax around mine. When she has been still for a few minutes, I carefully withdraw my hand and step out, making my way back to bed. I lie awake for a long while, certain I can hear her whimpering again. Now I am the one straining, my ear trying to put a pattern to the night’s sounds. But the monitor is dark; the crying, phantom. I coast into sleep.

It’s not long until another wail shoots out of the monitor and sends the lights flashing. I fly awake, groan, and will her to fall back asleep. The crying continues.

Again I hoist myself from the bed and pad into her room. There she is: straining against the mattress, mouth wide and wailing, pacifier out. As before, I locate the pacifier, pop it in, and press down on her head until she relents and lets it fall.  

Exhausted, I curl up on the floor next to her crib and pull a baby blanket over my bare legs. Weaving my hand in through the bars, I lay it palm-up near her head. One by one, her tiny fingers find their way over: first, it's just one that grazes my thumb, and then two are brushing against me, and then, like little sweet spider fingers, all five stroke my palm. Her hand opens and closes, sweeping against my skin each time. Soft, sweet, like my grandmother whispering, Tickle, tickle, tickle, as she cleaned my ears with a cotton swab after a bath.

Eventually, her head drops, the heaving sobs now little sniffs. My own tension dissipates and I lie on her floor, grateful and quiet.

When I finally crawl back into bed, I reach over and brush my husband's back, find his foot with my toe, trying not to disturb him. I just want to know that he's there. I need reassurance that he is a real presence, nothing phantom, a physical body, the smell I've come to know over five years. His back is bare, broad and warm and smooth under the sheet. His foot is there.

He doesn’t stir, but I don’t need him to. I am satisfied. I roll over and drift to sleep.


Guest post written by Grace Claus. Grace is managing editor of RCA Today, the denominational magazine of the Reformed Church in America. She lives near Grand Rapids, Michigan, and blogs, pretty infrequently, at forsythiaroot.wordpress.com. You can also find her on Instagram.

Photo by Amy Melissa.