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Labor Days, Or Learning to live as TP

Labor Day. What does it bring to mind? Work, sure. Also, ironically, play–how many people frolic or relax on a day off from paid employment today? Understandably, mothers might think of the unforgettable process of birthing their children. I think of that, and many other days like and unlike them, today.

One year ago, on Labor Day Monday, I crept into my bedroom where Jon was still sleeping. “Hey,” I said softly, touching his shoulder. “Want to come have coffee with me and the baby?” He murmured something indecipherable, his eyes still closed, and I repeated what I said. Then he opened his eyes, like I’d pricked him with a pinpoint. “The baby?” he said, with a searching look. I nodded. He got a huge smile on his face and wrapped me in a  hug.

That is a sweet memory. It’s all the more poignant because that pregnancy never resulted in a baby, and it began a year of days and weeks of contractions of grief, buoyed by hope and indescribable blessing, with yet more lessons of patience and suffering. It’s been a lot of labor, and there’s still more to come.

***

The day Christian was born, August 5, I labored in a quiet room. 

I hadn’t want to walk into the hospital. We’d gotten everything together, driven through the sunny morning to a coffee shop, then gone on to where our son would be born. As we approached the front door, I hesitated. I almost stopped. I had known about this moment for months. I knew Christian was dead and that he needed to be born. But I knew that once I walked through those doors, the end was near. I would walk out of them without my son. 

All through that quiet day, I watched clouds form and dissipate and reform outside the window. I saw the rocking chair, meant for laboring mothers, sit empty. It was sad, but it was simple. That chair was not meant for me that day. 

I was glad for the sunshine and the clouds. 

***

Grief is a funny, sneaky thing.

The pain of loss is mostly dull, like a quiet ache that one learns to accept because it doesn’t disappear. I expect it at certain times. At church, always at church. Driving past the cemetery. Reading a newly-arrived condolence card. These times make sense. They are direct reminders of Christian and of what we mourn.

Sometimes I can feel it coming, like a creeping storm. I received a call from a medical group, evaluating my stay at the hospital. I answered questions because I wanted there to be some formal record of the compassion we experienced–me, Jon, and Christian. But I wept when I got off the phone.

Jon stopped by our kids’ school, where another volunteer and I were cleaning and organizing in the library. We went by the stairwell to talk. He’d ordered the headstone, but after seeing more options–why is even death in our culture drowned by consumer choices?–wanted to see if I wanted something different. We spoke briefly, but I could feel the wave rising, the emotional wave threatening to crash. I couldn’t switch from school mode to grief mode. “I’m sorry. I can’t talk about this any more,” I said, abruptly. He nodded. He got it.

Sometimes grief flares up sharply, cutting my breath and choking my throat, at times I least expect it. On a hike with my daughter, after just marveling at the wonders of the view on the mountain, I see silvery-green leaves quivering in a soft breeze. Why should the shimmer of leaves, when a moment before I was alive and joyful to the wonders around us, make me want to weep?

Our girl walking down a mountain trail, while I try not to cry.

How do people live with this? I think. I know of harder cases, the ones that I think would be more difficult to bear. The parents who’ve buried three adult children, all of their children. The new friend who had a stillborn son this year. And yet how can anyone learn to live with this or any suffering except to slog through it, to labor and be carried?

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Not “I will take your heavy burden.” But rest. The crosses are still there.

It is exhausting when it hits, this grief. I wrote this a few weeks ago after writing down some theological thoughts pertaining to grief: “I stand here, fully caffeinated in the morning, dishes washed, list getting checked off. I’m in my prime time. And after thinking about and writing these few words, all I want to do is crawl back into bed and sleep, deeply and without dreams.”

***

Yet I go on. What else can I do? People have been so incredibly kind. They are sympathetic and encouraging. “You are so strong.” “Thank you for your witness of Christ.” I am grateful, but my thoughts are garbled, struggling to reconcile the incongruity. I know hope during grief is good, but I do not feel good, or at least worthy of any special attention. This is gagging on a translucent, existential gnat to most people–most probably just mean to be sincerely supportive, while a small part of my brain hears them presupposing some herculean act of will on my part, Emily the Mighty Sufferer, standing athwart hopelessness and yelling, “Stop!” But I know that I am utterly powerless, and I can’t help feeling uncomfortable with the comments. What else can I do?

My choices seem woefully stark. Truly, all I can do is either reject God or surrender to His mercy. To definitively reject Him is to enter a darkness that frankly scares me more than it entices me, though the temptation to push away is real and angrily persistent. But I am so afraid of the hole that rejection presents that this means that it’s not an option. So I surrender to God’s mercy, to Christ’s bleeding hands. And even the surrender is weak and childlike, like a newborn mewing sibilant cries for food. He does not even reach for the nutrients he so desperately needs. He opens his mouth in helplessness and need. That’s all. Just as I lay, one day old, before a pastor in a hospital room, baptized into Christ in tiny weakness, I turn again into that premature babe. I am not yet grown. I do not yet understand.

Rev. Dr. Gregory P. Schulz knows this cognitive searching. In The Problem of Suffering: A Father’s Hope, the pastor, philosopher, professor, and husband and father watched and wrestled as two of his children suffered and died. Kayleigh, his daughter, was almost one year old. Stephan, his son, was fourteen. “I often look at the crook of my right elbow and know it as a sacred place [the last place he held his son, Stephan]. Now I want to understand, if I can, what it means for me to feel the way I do, not just about Stephan’s suffering and death, but how I feel toward his God.”

I know how he feels now. I too confess the hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Cognitively, I believe this. Theologically, I cling to this. Emotionally, I break under this necessity–that we die, that we need the hope of the resurrection. Death is awful.

Christian’s grave in August.

I visit Christian’s grave alone sometimes. They are quick stops to clear away fresh flowers that have withered–how incredibly fast they wither and brown–and to pray. I gaze at the mountain and take deep breaths in the quiet of the trees and wind-swept stones. I watch the antelope that quietly graze in the clear spaces between the dead.

I visit my son’s grave to place my hand over him. I can still see the place where men cut away the grass to turn it back before the hole, the hole that holds the small box in the earth where our son’s body lies. I grip the grass, and smooth it, and I can’t seem to stop wanting to touch it. Because, I realized, it’s the closest I have to touching my son in this life. I weep when I touch the grass, and I weep writing this. Weeping is part of my soul’s rejection that death was ever supposed to be a part of life.

Then I stop weeping, and I go on, resting on Christ, the only One who keeps me going.

***

Approximately 87% of the time, give or take, I’m in daily life mode. Pouring yogurt and milk, wiping bottoms, clearing and cleaning and sorting and planning. 15% of the time I’m thinking, or reading, and of course the times and the roles–and the percentages–overlap. Vocations don’t always neatly delineate labor. It just happens, and I do what’s in front of me. The 2% of grief hides much of the time, but when it emerges, it feels like 200%.

Jon and I visited with good friends one Friday night. Lisa sat with me at the table while our husbands smoked cigars outside and the kids ran amok and alternately watched a movie. “How are you?” she asked, reaching for my hand. It was a creeping storm grief moment, one I had seen coming. I shared and cried, and she cried, and then she suddenly jumped up and ran down the hall, emerging again with a roll of toilet paper that she unrolled slightly, tearing off some sheets. “I’m completely out of tissues,” she said, handing me the paper portion. “So you’ll have to use this.” She set the roll on the table in front of me. We spoke some more, and the tears rolled down my face.

Just then, her husband came in. He took in the moment in a glance, and then said, “I brought the beer in for you, Lisa, but I think Emily needs it more.” He said it gently and caringly. But it was funny. I laughed through tears. Lisa did, too. 

The beer and the TP.

I never wanted to be a part of Those People, the ones like Pastor Schulz and the church people who lost three children and my new friend Becca who lost her son this year. Before, I admired them and others, and I feared what they shared. I secretly hoped I’d never, ever, have to be where they are. It’s like an out of body experience sometimes, explaining to people who don’t know our story, and I’m listening to myself speak calmly about Christian, his life and his death, while the whole time I’m incredulous. I’m not actually the one talking, am I? Did this really happen to us? 

But I am one of Those People now. And sitting with Lisa, and looking at the toilet paper, I thought, “Yep, that’s what this is. The TP Project.” The Toilet-Paper-necessary-for-tears, the Time Project of living here while waiting for eternity, the Those People embrace. Because the fact is that unless I am one of Those People, hopelessly broken and in need, I don’t really need Jesus. No, I didn’t need Christian to die to believe that the Son of God dead, buried, and resurrected is true. But loving Christian, and living and laboring through my own helpless grief, continually points me to our Savior who labored mightily for me and for him. The grief will go on, but it will not last forever.

I’m a little TP. I giggle, and wipe away my tears, and drink a beer. And the labor goes on.

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A Full, Blooming Fifteen Years

Jon and I celebrated a milestone last week. On August 14, 2019, like a bashful but happy, coming-into-her-own teenager, our marriage reached a gangly, blooming, and substantial fifteen years together in Christ.

Us, beaming and thrilled, on our wedding day in 2004.

It feels substantial, this anniversary. In part, that substance is circumstantial. Numbers ending in zero or five get more attention from us, for better or for arbitrary reasons, and this one is no different. Why does fifteen seems more special than, say, thirteen or sixteen? Because it does. So there. (Hey, I said like a teenager, right?)

And, of course, the other substance that makes us cherish this anniversary is truly weighty and special.

Jon knows how much I love pink. And roses.

That substance is a priceless combination of time, experience, and God-given perseverance.

In fifteen years together, we’ve moved seven times and lived in Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. We’ve studied and completed graduate degrees. We’ve rented apartments and houses. We’ve bought and torn up a house and remodeled it over ten years. (Well, Jon remodeled. I watched and cleaned up drywall dust.) We’ve lived in another house that has needed little fixing, thank God. We won’t even count the cars we’ve gone through. Suffice it to say that we have fought and cried and kissed and made up, over moves and renovations and many other things.

We’ve grown together from husband and wife to father and mother, together. We’ve been blessed with six living children, their rambunctious energy and delight matched only–maybe–by our exhaustion. We’ve learned a lot from these gifts. We’ve learned humility and patience and stamina and frustration and unimaginable joy.

We’ve also learned suffering.

Us, one week after our miscarriage in 2005.

We lost our first child early in my pregnancy, just a few weeks after we learned we were parents, and only eight months after we said our vows. We learned to mourn together and to hope together. Three years passed before our now oldest son was born.

We have said goodbye to a mother, grandparents and other relatives and friends. Earlier in August, we said goodbye to our tiny son, Christian. We have learned, and are learning, what it means to live with pain and grief that, though it might subside, will never fully disappear in this life.

At Christian’s committal on August 9, 2019.

We have learned to appreciate God’s amazingly good gifts. Five churches have been homes to us, with scores of others offering us Jesus through the Word and Sacraments. There is no counting all of the blessings we have received through Christ’s Church and faithful believers in Him from all over this country and the world. We have learned how little we are, and yet how bountifully and thoughtfully God loves us. Our cup has truly runneth over.

We have gained gray hair and wrinkles, laugh lines and tear stains, heartaches and heart swells. We have most decidedly relished some silly moments.

Practicing goofiness in 2017.

Last Friday, we attended the wedding of a young couple. I choked and wiped away tears as we chanted Psalm 127 during the service. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. … Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” Jon and I exchanged glances numerous times from opposite ends of the pew, me with the inquisitive and antsy two-year-old, he acting as pillow to a sleeping boy, with children in between us. We cherished the reminders of God’s faithfulness to us and to so many others, as He carries the crosses we bear.

Then we attended the reception, where Jon dealt with voracious and relatively mannerless children at the buffet while I recovered from our four-year-old’s missed aim in the bathroom and discovering he was wearing no underwear (there was no good explanation for this). 2004 Us would have huffed and puffed and resented the kids for cutting in on the party. 2019 Us laughed and knew that all of it, the poignant and the petty, the beauty and the mess, was the party.

Still there: my wedding ring after fifteen years.

As I sat and waited for Jon to return to the table, I admired my wedding ring. Such a small, really valueless token, in the whole scheme of things. But the fidelity and blessing it symbolizes is precious beyond price. With Christ’s guidance, the newly married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson, will learn how impossible their union is without their Savior and how glorious it is with Him. We’re still students at these marriage lessons, too. But after 5,482 days together, Jon and I are getting there. And God willing, we will share many, many more awkward, flourishing, and meaningful days, and years, together.

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Tomorrow and Forever

Tomorrow, my vocation of mother will include a task that no loving mother ever wants to complete.

Tomorrow, we will bury Christian. Our son. My son.

I know our children are not ours in the sense of proprietary ownership. We are merely temporary guardians of these precious souls whom God has created for His good purposes. But we never expect to see them die before us. We expect that they will bury us, not that we will bury them.

Tomorrow, we will go to the cemetery, Jon and I, and our six living children; my parents; two dear pastors and their wives. We will commend our son’s body to Christ, confessing that on the last day, Christian will rise again, he and all the dead. And we will see him, and them, again, and live forever together with Christ in heaven.

I don’t want to do this. But I know this is what God has given us to do. As long as he lived, Jon and I strove to feed and nourish Christian; to take him to church so he could hear the Word and receive Christ; to care for him by acknowledging that God made him a unique individual placed in our family for a short time. We did this imperfectly, of course. Yet God gave us these tasks to love and serve our little Christian.

I got to hold Christian late Monday night, after he was born. He was so small, and his body was swollen from all the fluid that had been growing in him. But he was beautiful. Every cell on his head was intricate and flawlessly connected. The fine cuticles and nails on his tiny fingers were so detailed and immaculate. His wide-topped head was like his five-year-old brother’s. His deep brows were like his Dad’s, his long fingers like his mine. His button nose was just like his biggest sister’s.

I don’t know how God could have ever chosen us over His Son. When Jesus sweat drops of blood in the garden, asking for His Father to take His cup away from Him; when He staggered up Golgatha, beaten beyond belief; when He hung gasping on the cross–I cannot fathom the love of God who would see and know His Son’s excruciating suffering and allow Him to die because He loved and loves the world so much. As a mother, if I had to choose between saving my son Christian and saving the rest of the world, God help me, I would choose Christian.

And God knows that, and He has given us this glimpse into His unfathomable love in this: that when we lay Christian’s body down to sleep in the earth tomorrow, when my hopes and dreams as a mother to love and to see my son grow up and thrive in this world are buried, I will still yet have hope. I will grieve for the rest of my life, but I will have this: Christ has made all things new. He choose us. He will raise our son from the dead, and He will raise us if He does not come again to the earth first. And we will hug our Christian, and bow before the pierced hands of Christ, and He will embrace us all forever.

Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abram’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my Fount of grace,
Lord Jesus Christ,
My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.

~”Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart” Lutheran Service Book #708, vs. 3.

The Lord Gave and the Lord Hath Taketh Away

We are both sorrowful and joyful in sharing that our son Christian has died. We found out earlier this morning that his heart had stopped beating sometime over the weekend. His body will be born today.

Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped,

And said, ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.‘”

~Job 1:20-21

We are beyond grateful for all the messages, hugs, meals, tears, and prayers given on our behalf. We truly can’t thank our friends and fellow pilgrims enough for all the support. We thank God for all of His good gifts, and especially for the gift of His Son, Jesus, who has now welcomed Christian into eternity.

The artwork is a screenshot of Kelly Schumacher’s “The Kingdom of Heaven Belongs to Such as These.” You can see this painting and more of Kelly’s art at http://agnusdeiarts.com/.

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Ephemeral Daylily Flowers and Extra Days

Flanking the sidewalk down the steps from our front porch are two giant daylily patches. They’ve been there for years–we’re not sure how long, as they predated our arrival to this house several years ago. They’re hearty and require next to no care, and in the last week or so, their bright yellow buds have begun opening, revealing spectacularly vivid, sunny flowers. Our daylilies don’t last long. “How long?” you ask. I’ll let Wikipedia explain.

Daylilies are perennial plants, whose name alludes to the flowers which typically last no more than 24 hours (about a day or so). The flowers of most species open in early morning and wither during the following night, possibly replaced by another one on the same scape (flower stalk) the next day. Some species are night-blooming. Daylilies are not commonly used as cut flowers for formal flower arranging, yet they make good cut flowers otherwise as new flowers continue to open on cut stems over several days. … The daylily is generally referred to as “the perfect perennial” by gardeners, due to its brilliant colors, ability to tolerate drought and frost and to thrive in many different climate zones, and generally low maintenance. It is a vigorous perennial that lasts for many years in a garden, with very little care and adapts to many different soil and light conditions. Daylilies have a relatively short blooming period, depending on the type. Some will bloom in early spring while others wait until the summer or even autumn. Most daylily plants bloom for 1 through 5 weeks, although some bloom twice in one season (“rebloomers)”.

As I read about these plants whose flowers I love for the brief time they bloom, I can’t help but think about our son, Christian. He, too, is blooming for as much time as God gives him.

This morning, Jon and I went again for an ultrasound to see if he was still with us. Dr. S, filling in for Dr. M for a week, dimmed the lights and we watched the ultrasound screen glow. Christian’s heart beat steadily, if a little more weakly. It slowed, almost to a crawl. Then it sped up again. “Some of these little guys are really tough,” she said. We talked about the weekend, and what would happen if I needed some piece of mind, or if my symptoms pointed to labor. We left and came home, bringing the bag I’d packed just in case we’d needed to go to the hospital instead–for an induction, and for a final physical goodbye to our little boy. But here we were again, coming home from yet another appointment, and Christian was still with us.

Jon and I walked up the front walk, and I saw the daylilies, blooming away, heedless of the cloudy sky. Seeing them comforted me, and they reminded me of Jesus’ words.

“Consider the lilies of the field , how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Matthew 6:28b-33.

While we wait for Christian’s death, we acknowledge the hard, exhausting toil of waiting. It is not easy to watch someone, even–or maybe especially–a little one, slip quietly toward death. But our anxieties are covered. “Who will help with the kids?” “Am I going into labor?” “What will we have for supper?” “Can we get a photographer from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep to come when I’m in the hospital delivering Christian, even if he’s not twenty weeks yet?” “Do the boys have any clean clothes?” “What should we say to our kids about Christian?” “Where are your shoes? We need to leave for swimming lessons now!” “When will we know?”

All of our questions are answered. Sometimes immediately, sometimes not. It can be hard to wait. But our Heavenly Father knows what we need, when we need it. He already knows what will happen, and how. And He has taken care of the most important thing. He has arrayed us, and Christian, with His eternal glory. Even Solomon, that great and wise king, was not arrayed like our simple flowers. And how much more does God love us than these simple, sunny blooms? Infinitely more.

So as much as we can, we wait with trust and quiet thankfulness for the beauty He has given us in these extra days. May you be able to cherish His gifts to you, too.

When Time Runs Short

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living!

Wait for the Lord;
   be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord!

~ Psalm 27:13-14

What happens when time runs short for a child? How do we wait?

On Monday, July 8, Jon and I visited a high-risk pregnancy doctor at an exclusively high-risk practice in Denver after receiving a referral from Dr. M. We met Dr. L, a friendly man in his 60s, who introduced himself. Then he sat at the ultrasound monitor, explaining that he was going to show us some things. But then he turned back to us, looking directly at me.

“The first thing I need to tell you,” said Dr. L, “is that you didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t use the wrong shampoo. You didn’t stand too close to the microwave. You didn’t eat the wrong thing. You didn’t cause this.

“And the second thing,” he said more quietly, “is that there’s nothing we can do.”

That’s when all of our fears from the prior month were confirmed. Our son, Christian, had less than a five percent chance of survival, and he would probably not live long in my womb. Dr. L told us to go back to Dr. M for checks at least every two weeks. If you were my daughter,” he said, “I’d probably fit you in once a week. Just to see if Baby is still alive.” We spoke about another high-risk appointment in a month or so, maybe even meeting with a cardiologist, but both Jon and I felt like that talk was perfunctory, a going-through-the-motions. Neither of us felt like Dr. L thought we would need that appointment.

At the front desk, as the receptionist and I discussed dates and times, I was acutely aware of the mothers waiting behind me. I tried to speak calmly, normally. The last thing they needed was to see a distraught pregnant woman, a fulfillment of their own fears. And the last thing I wanted, at that moment, was to be that mom, the one who’d just received heart-shattering news.

***

So what did we do? Jon and I decided that, as long as I felt physically able, we would to try to maintain our normal routine. This would help us cope, it would help our other children, and it would give Christian what we hoped was a little bit of normal life. The day after our meeting with Dr. L, I took the kids to a parade. It was jarring, and unreal, but it was also life. I watched the little ones run for thrown candy and mesmerizingly watch four-wheelers and tractors and floats. It was sunny and warm. We were together.

We kept on. During quiet time when some of our kids napped and others quietly played or read books, I read a book about continuing pregnancy when Baby is not expected to live. I usually cried. I cried in the shower and at night as I prayed. I would talk to Christian. “I’m sorry Mommy is crying so much. I love you.” And I talked to him about his siblings. “Boy, your big sister sure is loud sometimes, right? She loves her blanket. You hear her yelling about it a lot. She likes to snuggle with you.” She did, and she does. “‘Nuggle?” she says. “‘Nuggle?” Then she climbs over me with her blanket, her Dida, nestles right above my belly, and comfortingly puts her finger in her mouth.

During the other times of the day, right after the news, life was quietly blessed. The kids and I sat on the patio swing or porch rockers, sometimes talking, sometimes reading, sometimes just sitting. We went swimming. We visited with friends at parks and on a few playdates. We are with generous friends who brought us food. We went on walks together. We sang songs. We watched movies together and ate ice cream and popcorn. We read books like Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. We went to the library. We laughed together when Jon would wrestle with the kids, them screaming in glee. We prayed together and read Psalms. We went to church and received Jesus together. We snuggled a lot.

I would get emotional sometimes, and occasionally the kids noticed. “I’m just sad because I’m thinking about Baby Christian,” I would say. “But I’m glad we have time together.” Unfailingly, they would speak of how they loved him and prayed for him. Sometimes they would just hug me, and in hugging me, they would hug him.

***

At sixteen weeks, a week and a day after we met with Dr. L, I dressed up as though for church and went to see Dr. M. to see if our Christian was still alive. Jon came, too. We spoke together with Dr. M of what will likely happen, which includes induction after finding out Christian’s heart stops beating, to me suddenly going into labor with no warning. Finally, I climbed up on the table, and Dr. M got out the Doppler. I expected to hear nothing–no heartbeat. I expected to hear that our son was dead. This is what I wrote after that visit.

“The relief and joy at hearing our son’s heartbeat–I can hardly describe it. Hours later, I’m still joyfully incredulous, delirious on the high of knowing he is still alive. Our son is still alive. Every moment is precious. Yes, if I think about what will probably happen, and soon, I am terrified. At the same time, I was reminded today that only God knows our times, and they are in His hands. I pray we can cherish every moment, and every day, that he is with us.”

***

Outside of the doctor visits, life was–I don’t want to say simple, but it was simple. Eating. Drinking. Thinking. Talking. Chores. Visits. So often, simple moments were charged. The hidden thought was always there: this is probably one of the last times/the only time Christian will be here for this. Playing Horse with our rising fourth-grader and laughing at how bad Mom was at taking shots. Poking toes in the sandbox. Grocery shopping. Brushing the girls’ hair. Tickling the little boys before bed. Talking on the phone in the kitchen. Every day, and every week was poignant, but mostly in a cherishing kind of way. This time is special. Only occasionally would I fall apart, thinking of what would never be. Seeing a plane pass overhead on a drive home and thinking, “He will never be a pilot.” Tousling my eldest boy’s unkept, sun-lightened hair and thinking, “He will never stand next to me like this.” The tears would run and run down my face the way they are running now. But I needed those moments like I needed the crazy herding kids “where-are-your-shoes-we-need-to-go-NOW” moments. They were, and are, all tied together.

***

At seventeen weeks, last week, I experienced some cramping and spotting prior to my appointment. I went in, again with Jon, fully expecting to hear no heartbeat. Once again, Christian surprised me. That time, I was shocked–actually dumbfounded–that he was still alive. Once again, we had an ultrasound to see our son.

“See his feet here?” Dr. M pointed out. We marveled at his tiny toes. But I could see that something wasn’t quite right. “You can also see how they’re swollen,” she went on gently. Our son has been slowly swelling with excess fluid, most likely because his heart isn’t strong enough. It’s like congestive heart failure in adults, who deal with bloating and water retention. I had worried about pain for him and asked Dr. M before about that, not sure if I even wanted to hear the answer. What could we even do about it? But she had explained that as a baby in utero, Christian’s nervous system wasn’t fully developed yet, so he likely wasn’t feeling pain. “Also, this is his normal,” she said. “He’s never known anything different.” As I looked at his feet, for the first time I thought, You need heaven.

***

Yesterday. Another week, another appointment. We were silly, waiting with the big boys who’d just had dentist appointments, telling them a story about me that made them embarrassed, grinning, and acting like they didn’t want to hear any more. They stayed in the waiting room when Jon and I went back.

Instead of the Doppler first, due to a nurse shortage, we had an ultrasound. We saw Christian right away, a white figure moving in the black on the screen. His heart thumped. Da-dum. A pause. Da-dum. Another pause, a little longer. Da-dum.

Both Jon and I thought, “Maybe Dr. M isn’t holding the wand right.” We all watched Christian move for a moment, the lines from the erratic beating creating a messy pattern below him, the sound of his heartbeat a pausing, uncertain staccato-like sound. Then Dr. M said quietly, “So you can see how his heartbeat is irregular.” My eyes blurred, and tears ran down my cheeks.

This was stark and real. Christian’s slowing heart was telling us the end of his time on earth was fast approaching its end, and though we’d expected this, I suddenly ached, almost gasping. No! Not yet! my heart screamed.

I pulled it together. In spurts, I managed to ask, “Is there any way to know how long he could make it?” Dr. M was already shaking her head. “His heartbeat could have been irregular before, and we just missed it. Or it could have just started its irregularity. He could last a week or just a day–we don’t know.”

***

That happened yesterday, at our third weekly appointment since our meeting with the high-risk doctor in Denver. Today, I will see Dr. M again, to see if Christian is with us. If he is, I will go in more regularly. I no longer feel comfortable with weekly checks. I know we don’t have that much time.

If Christian has died, between yesterday and today, I will be induced to go into labor, and the last part of Christian’s life on this earth will commence. This has all been so surreal and yet real at the same time. I don’t really want to sleep–I want to be awake as long as he is with us. As I write this, I think I just felt him kick. That started last week–the fluttering kicks of his quickening. I never thought I’d experience that. It is an extra gift, just as he is.

After the appointment yesterday, through my choking sobs, I spoke to Christian. “You’re going home soon, Baby. Home to Jesus. He loves you more than all of us combined.” He died so Christian will live. His body will be perfected and on the last day, he will rise with a terrifically strong heart. The kids gave me hugs last night as we told them Christian’s time was short with us. “Tell him you’ll see him again,” I said. “We love you, Baby!” our five-year-old yelled. “See you in heaven!”

So we wait now, not knowing what today will bring. We wait knowing while our time here in earth is short, we will live forever in Jesus. There with Him, we will have all the time in the heavens. And He will wipe every tear from our eyes.

A Letter to Friends

Dear Friends,

This is a letter that no true, loving friend wants to write. But she does so precisely because she knows true, loving friends need and yes, even want, to share her burden.

For multiple reasons, I have not spoken to you of our latest news. The biggest one is that I am emotionally pacing myself. Even the most loving friends will grieve with us, and to grieve together means I must grieve again. And I can only grieve so much and still function, and tie shoes, and wipe noses, and slice and fry potatoes, and try to smile and enjoy the countless little gifts that surround us even as we mourn.

And why do we mourn? We mourn, in fact, because we have first been given a great and priceless gift. In early May, we learned that we had been given the gift of another child. In June, we learned that our child was a boy, our fifth son. We have named him Christian. And after many, many doctor’s appointments and ultrasounds in June and July, we understand that Christian’s physical heart is not as we would wish. It is not pumping properly, or not constructed as most healthy hearts are, or just not developing as a child’s heart in the womb is supposed to grow. We don’t exactly know what the precise problem is. But we do know that Christian is retaining fluid, far more than a baby should. And there’s nothing we can do to change that.

So, in the seventeenth week of pregnancy, we prepare to release Christian back to God much, much sooner than we would like. That time could be tomorrow, or in a week, or maybe in a month. It is a very hard and often strange reality to manage–great wonder and humility at what God has done to create and sustain our son thus far; fear and uncertainty about what exactly will happen; and at the same time great and terrible grief, now anticipatory grief, as we wait for Christian’s death.

So what can you do, dear friends, as we walk this road?

You can pray. You can pray for Christian, that he hears the saving Word of Christ and believes by hearing. You can pray that he feels no pain. You can pray for Jon and I, that we cleave together as we grope forward into the unknown. You can pray that I can weather the physical weight of pregnancy, giving Christian the best care he can get while he is still in my womb. You can pray that Jon knows best how to care for me and our family as the head of our household. You can pray that as parents, Jon and I can love and care for all of our children as they need, even while we struggle with our grief. You can pray that our ex utero children are comforted with the knowledge of Christ’s unending love to them and to their brother. Most of all, you can pray that all of us in the Olson family continually put our trust in Christ, placing all of our hopes and fears in Him, who does all things for our good and who will never leave us or forsake us.

You can cry with us. It can be awkward for people to hear our news, even when they love us. That’s okay. It can be awkward for us to share, and we (okay, I) will sometimes cry in the sharing. Sometimes that’s because I’m sad about Christian’s prognosis. But sometimes I cry because I know our friends truly and deeply grieve with us. And that makes me so grateful that I am moved to tears. So don’t be afraid of our tears, please. And share your stories of grief, too. Empathy bonds friends and makes comfort between us all the more poignant. It helps us to know that others have walked similar roads. And we are glad to give support to others as they bear their own sufferings and griefs, too.

You can rejoice with us. No, really. Please rejoice with us! Every child is a gift, even Christian. We are glad he is ours. We cherish every day with him. And I can’t emphasize this enough: all good news our friends have to share–an engagement, a marriage, an anniversary, a special birthday, and yes, a pregnancy or a birth announcement–we want to share with you, too. Few things become so clear in times of immanent death than how incredibly precious and beautiful life is. It has been such a joy to learn of blessings in other’s lives during the last few months.

I will write more in the days and weeks ahead. Thank you for loving us, dear friends. We love you, too.

Love in Christ,

Emily

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Like Snow in May

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.’ And when they wake up in the summer, Kitty, they dress themselves all in green, and dance about – whenever the wind blows.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass (Macmillan Collector’s Library). Affiliated Link.

We love to complain about the shocking, simply shocking turns of our fickle spring weather. Not just here in Wyoming, of course. Americans as a whole find the outlier climes of our natural world as disquieting at best and monstrous at worst. Coastal hurricanes in September, Midwest tornadoes in April, western mountain snowfall in May–these disturb us, scare us, and even horrify us, based upon the ferocity of their whirling winds and wrath and the destruction they can wreak upon us. We marvel at it, and talk and talk and talk about it, and shake our heads. “It’s not right,” we say.

What these storms don’t usually do is convict us of our willful pigheadedness of thinking weather to be some sort of predictable, and thus peaceable, component of our physical life. If the skies and sunlight and seasons are normal–that is, neat and tidy and comfortable–we wear them with a familiar and faintly condescending kind of neglect, a habitual ignoring in which we can safely box them in, quite like an ordinary old hat, and set them aside, like forgettable scenery to the more important parts of our lives. I’m reminded of any number of those lovely, neat, colorful children’s books about the seasons. There’s no way, really, to allow for the true wide-ranging orthodoxies of our weather patterns in a few pages of illustrations directed to the youngest among us (or if there is, I haven’t discovered such a book or books yet). But such texts invariably shape how we expect, and even emotionally demand, our seasons to be, even when we know they cannot be so cleanly understood.

Screenshot of Anne Rockwell’s Four Seasons Make a Year.
So nicely organized; so neatly oversimplified.

I love books like these precisely because they present a cohesive and predictable view of the elements. They are gloriously comfortable, like homemade macaroni and cheese. But they play into our desire for a safe and easy world. For when spring, say, turns fickle, and mild temperatures plunge as ominously heavy grey clouds amass above us, the soft flakes that fall upon our upturned, wondering faces break our smug certainties. We are left cold, startled and shaken by the unexpected. No matter how gently the white powder caresses the newly-budded trees, we know, deep in our bones, just how little we comprehend the mysteries and depth of our creation, just how small and vulnerable we are under the vast expanse.

Or at least we should. Last week here, we watched as our freshly green locale was covered once again by wet, thick snow. For three days, the sun hid, the cold persisted, and frosted crystals swirled and stuck. My irritability over the snow, the dragging out of newly washed and stored snow pants and gloves, my shivering body which had grown used to sunny, pleasant breezes, all reminded me how I had fallen, once again, into thinking the outdoors was somehow a companionable canvas of my personal expectations. May means flowers, and short-sleeves, and bare feet soaking in the rays of a long-absent warmth, my childlike thinking went. The snow shattered my illusions.

And lest I sound bitter, let me acknowledge that such moments in time and in life are invaluable, precisely because they can yank us from the self-contented complacency that so often dulls our thoughts and senses. “You are not in control,” the swishing, soft snowflakes whisper. Unlike their work on Alice, they do not lull us into sleep. Instead, they hammer us again to turn back, to remember what will always be true. “You lift me up on the wind; you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm,” said an indignant Job. “For I know that you will bring me to death and to the house appointed for all living.”

Who can Job be speaking to? Who controls the natural world? We all know, surely. This is both the source and the answer to our deepest fears when the skies darken.

God replies that such disquiet in the air and on our skin, both Job’s and ours, is truly from His hand. “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? … From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the frost of heaven?” Such power and threat are terrifying, if not for the One Man who like His Father commands the seasons, saying “Peace! Be still!” He has not left us alone. And the storms are not heretics. They rage an impotent orthodoxy of dying brokenness, and they portend the Day when they shall finally cease at the sound of that one perfect Voice breaking them forever.

I can’t pretend that from this point onward I will happily embrace the untidy, unruly, and unfathomable power of storms. But I can accept them as the signs they are, of time inching slowly toward its glorious, terrible end. That is a truth both formidable and hopeful. For then, like snow in May, we will one day dress in garments of white in a green and golden land, and dance.

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The Magnitude of Motherhood

A week or so before the birth of our first child, I suddenly realized that I no longer feared labor. Let me clarify: while I held apprehensions about the intense birthing I’d never experienced, my thoughts had turned less to that one-time event and more to what came after. In short, I realized that the birth of our child would only last hours, perhaps days at the most. But our child would be ours to cherish and support for the rest of his or her life. While labor approached, so did lives—my life as a mother, my husband’s life as a father, our life together as a family, all wrapped up in our very needy, physical, helpless child, whose own life ex utero would begin shortly.  The dwarfing, sobering reality of what would soon happen—the beginning of the rest of all of our lives—and the all-consuming magnitude of motherhood made my previously fraught ruminations on labor and delivery seem short-sighted and small.

Nearly eleven years later, and five more babies later, motherhood is no less gigantic to me. If anything, the frivolous has become smaller and the significant weightier. My clueless confidence has long since been refined, over and over again, to humility at the sheer ridiculous responsibility motherhood requires of women. It is ridiculous responsibility not because it is silly, but because it is impossible. There’s no possible way I can mother my children well, and in just the right ways, all the days of their childhood lives, or even, God willing, into their adult years.  

G.K. Chesterton, the famous British commentarian, understood this. In What’s Wrong with the World, he spoke to the baffling characterization of motherhood as trivial. Instead, Chesterton articulated, in words we can still appreciate, the immeasurable magnitude of motherhood.

Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean.

When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.

Yes, indeed. Pity us mothers. Have mercy and compassion and empathy for the magnitude of our roles. Forgive our pride and self-importance and negligence and whining, understanding our sinful responses to motherhood and our sins within our vocations with the best possible construction: on our hearts are written the searing, impossible, gigantic responsibilities of lives, lives which we know we don’t and can’t maintain or keep perfectly. We are both exalted by our gifts and flattened by their hugeness. Remember us in your prayers, and commend us to the only One who ever did, does, and can handle giving us worlds, both created and spiritual, and making them well and perfect for us.

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Connecting with Lutherans: Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka and beyond

A Good Wilderness seeks to help Lutherans and other Christians cultivate faithful community and learn how to live in lonely places. One of the ways we can do this is by hearing from other Christians who own businesses, write and publish, or share life experiences that can give us insights, encouragement, and hope. You can find these interviews here at “Over My Neighbor’s Fence.”

On Easter Sunday morning, we awoke to the news that churches had been bombed in Sri Lanka.

We were horrified. Faithful Christians had been maimed and slaughtered as they celebrated our Lord’s resurrection. And we also feared for our good friends, Edward and Monica and their children, who live in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where Edward is a missionary. Over the next days, they communicated with family and friends about their experiences, and I asked Monica to share them here. Below is a lightly edited email interview.

Give us a brief description of who you are and why you’re in Sri Lanka.

The Naumann Family in early 2019.

My husband, Rev. Dr. Edward Naumann, is a called Theological Educator of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. In this capacity he has been teaching seminary courses, managing a small publishing house, and mentoring some colloquy students, among many other things. I get to stay at home and care for our six children. Formerly, I spent eight years working as a Family Nurse Practitioner in charity clinics around the United States.

One of the Naumann boys walks on the beach with the Colombo skyline in the background.
Photo courtesy of Monica Naumann.

What was your experience on Easter Sunday?

Our home congregation in Sri Lanka is about a twenty minute drive from our home across the city of Colombo. However, this Easter my husband wanted to visit a pastor he is currently colloquizing or mentoring, Father Ariarathane.  Father Ariarathane’s congregation is in a small Sinhalese (the term for the majority population of native Sri Lankans) village about a 2.5 hours’ drive from Colombo.

The Naumann family during the Easter service at the Sinhalese village.
Photo courtesy of Monica Naumann.

We left at approximately 6:45am to start our drive to the village. We arrived with a few minutes to spare and were offered tea by our gracious hosts. People started filing in slowly as the service began. Eventually the church was full as Edward began his sermon which was translated into Sinhala. I distinctly remember Edward preaching about the persecution the church would face, which I presumed was referring to persecution from the Buddhists. (Christians are approximately 7% of the Sri Lankan population, while Buddhists are 70%.) Following the sermon, there were three infant baptisms. This is remarkable because previously the congregation had done infant dedications only. There was no font, so baptisms took place in a small inflatable, plastic pool outside. Edward was honored to baptize two babies, speaking the words in Sinhala.

Rev. Naumann baptizing one of the little girls. Photo courtesy of Monica Naumann.

As the service ended, we were ushered back to the pastor’s home directly next to the church. We were served a traditional Sri Lankan lunch: rice, chicken curry, lentils, and several vegetable side dishes. Edward caught my eye over lunch and said he didn’t know if we could return to Colombo. He had received a text during the service which notified him of the explosions that happened at several churches and hotels in Colombo. We spent the next hour deciding whether we should risk going back to Colombo, or simply stay at a hotel near the village. We were completely unprepared to spend the night anywhere, so eventually we decided to risk the drive back.

As we drove back, we received two phone calls from another pastor in Colombo notifying us of two additional explosions that happened, one close to our church, and one close to our home. Still we pressed on. Along the way, we had to drive through Negombo, a city just north of Colombo where a church bombing occurred. On the main road is a hospital where many of the victims were taken. Military guards and a crowd of people had gathered outside. Yet all the roads remained opened. By the grace of God, we arrived safely at home by the late afternoon.

What’s been the most scary aspect of your experience? And what’s been the most hopeful?

Never have I personally felt targeted in such a direct manner. The places attacked in Sri Lanka were Christian and/or places for foreigners; I am both. (“Foreigner” is a commonly used term in Sri Lanka identifying anyone not native to Sri Lanka. Foreigners are very often singled out and treated differently, both for good and for bad.) The hotels attacked in Colombo are places our family has been. Two of the three hotels that were bombed are places we have been in the past two months. In fact, we were in one of the bombed hotels having brunch just the week before on Palm Sunday. That’s scary for me to think about–how easy it would have been for us to have been victims.

At the time of this writing, many arrests have been made and blame has been placed on an Islamic terrorist group. While the threat has not been eliminated and life has not returned back to normal–for instance, our children haven’t returned to their school, which has been closed temporarily–I have hope that it will eventually. This is our home now, and we pray for stability.

What kind of response did you get from family, friends, and supporters in the US and elsewhere?

The response has been remarkable. Shortly after the attacks, the government shut down Facebook and WhatsApp. But even before the social media shut down, I received many messages asking if we were okay, some from people I have not heard from in years! I have received many messages since then, but have not been able to read them because the messages are blocked. Several people have reached out via email and text. It’s been overwhelming to receive so much concern and support.

How has this experience made you reflect upon your expat/missionary life? What do you want people who care about their Christian brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka to know?

In many ways, I feel guilty for all the attention and concern we have received, since our lives and health have been spared. All we have faced are minor inconveniences, which pale in comparison to the heart wrenching losses some of our brothers and sisters in Christ experienced and are facing. It will take a long time for Christians here to grieve and learn to live with this tragedy and what it might portend.

A nightly flag ceremony at Galle Face Green in Colombo.
Photo courtesy of Monica Naumann.

How can people support you and your ministry, other missionaries in Sri Lanka, or those suffering after the bombings?

I ask for people’s prayers for the courage of Sri Lankan Christians. Many people (Christians and non-Christians) are living in fear now of further attacks. Many churches have cancelled their Sunday services three days in advance. But this is precisely the time when we must show courage to attend corporate worship and demonstrate forgiveness and love for our enemies. Sri Lankan Christians have been given a tremendous platform at the moment; the world is paying attention to a small minority group in an obscure country. This is an amazing opportunity to share the Gospel message of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. So Sri Lankan Christians must act with courage and love while the world is watching. Rarely is there such a poignant time as this, that Christians can act their faith rather than just speak their faith.

Rev. Naumann at a recent service. Photo courtesy of Monica Naumann.

To find out more information about Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod missionaries in Sri Lanka, visit here. To support Rev. Edward Naumann’s mission work, please visit here.