Reaching the Bottom of the Barrel

Shortly after Samuel died I began to struggle with my faith.  It showed itself slowly.  I didn’t feel God’s presence or strength after the accident, even though I publicly said that I did.  In those first few weeks I felt shock and numbness that I labeled peace.   As that faded, and the pain surged, I relied on faith.  God is good, I can trust him.  God loves us, God will help us through this.  I didn’t see it or feel it, but I had faith stored away like food for a long winter.  We let everyone know we still trusted God’s mysterious ways even in the middle of tragedy.

Maybe it was the questions that started to consume my faith.  Or maybe it was anger.  I watched the world leave the funeral and go straight into celebrating the Christmas season.  My head understood this, but my heart felt it as injustice, as insincerity.  It could have been the loneliness.  Maybe I needed someone to hold my arms up like Moses, and without help, my heart grew discouraged. Maybe it’s just difficult to avoid doubt in deep grief.  Whatever it was, God’s silence continued, and my faith diminished.

It’s hard to pray when it feels like God isn’t listening.  It’s hard to read the Bible when it feels strangely feigned.  Without faith, a verse about God answering my calls for help seemed about as reliable as Disney lyrics that tell me to wish upon a star so my dreams will come true.  Sweet, yes, but fantasy.  Music, always my joy and expression of hope, was a roulette of bad feelings.  My head was filled with despair, not songs of praise.  And certainly not songs of surrendering to God.  Surrender?  God wants to take more? Hadn’t I given enough for at least a year or two?

This should be my place of peace.  I should find comfort and strength in God.  

God is not my comfort.

It is an awful thing to lose a child.  It might be a worse thing to lose God.

Some days I hold on.  I find a crumb of faith and start breathing again, desperate because I don’t want to lose this most important thing.  Crumbs don’t last long.  The floor is picked-over.  Was that the last one, or is God preparing a feast?

Unhappy Becoming

How is it that life can change so completely in a fraction of a second?

There was no warning that things were about to change, there were no screeching brakes. Just impact. And suddenly there were ambulances and helicopters, and we were frantic because all three kids needed help but there were only two of us, and we couldn’t even get them out of the car. And a week later we carried Jana out of the hospital because she could hardly walk. Her eye was swollen shut and she had surgery scars along with the injuries from the accident. We couldn’t hug her close because we were afraid to hurt her fractured skull, and besides, she was so mad she pushed us away. We comforted Michael, whose only visible injury was a scratch on his chin. Somehow that little scratch scarred into a thin red line, and he is proud of it. He doesn’t want it to go away. He can sense how deeply the accident has changed the identity of our family, and it helps him be a part of it. It says “see, I was in the accident too, I was there.” And I stood next to a casket that was way too small, staring at blue bunny tucked next to Samuel’s still face. His face looked funny, they didn’t do a good job with his funeral make up. I could see it in streaks on his cheek. I should have touched him, mother’s touch their children, but I couldn’t. And my world fell apart.

God was gone in an instant. The last thing I prayed was for God to heal Samuel, and I really, really believed he would. There was nothing the doctors could do? That won’t stop us, God has brought this child through so much, it can’t possibly end here. God is bigger than any doctor, we aren’t worried. But nothing happened. He never woke up. And God had nothing to say about it. In three months I can count the times I’ve prayed on one hand. I’ve started to pray a few times, and stopped myself. Why am I engaging God about this, when it doesn’t make any difference, when he clearly doesn’t care? I’ve yelled at God, doubted His goodness, and given him the silent treatment. I’ve pulled out my Bible to read it, and ended up more mad than when I started. The words are hollow, the reassurances are clearly meant for someone else. Or maybe they are empty for everyone, and I’ve been fooled for all these years.

I’m angry that I’m stretched so thin I can’t manage the little bumps that happen in every day. That I cry when I see mothers with wiggling kids at the store. That I get annoyed with my children for normal things, and that I can’t seem to put away laundry. That simple decisions overwhelm me and bring me to tears. That I can’t remember what shampoo we use. I wonder which awkwardness I’d rather face, to wear sunglasses in the store so I can hide my eyes, or cry in the shampoo aisle.

But mostly, it’s about God. Where is he, why has he left us? And I’m ashamed, because I would have told you last year that suffering is part of this sinful world, and it’s only pampered American Christians who think that God protects us from ever suffering (and of course, I was not pampered). But now that I’m in the middle of it, I doubt. And rage. And hate what I’ve become. A empty-armed mother who cries when I drop just two kids off at school every morning. Hyper-sensitive to every questionable driver on the road, sometimes screaming and cursing at them in my car. Angry at the people who have sacrificed and cared for us the most. How small of me, how selfish. I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know if the accident has exposed ugliness in my heart or helped create it, but it’s there.

And where, where is God? If God is there…no…if God cares, then He will be there again some day, right? Maybe? How long do I have to wait? I need Him now. Why would he disappear when we need him most? I’m told, kindly, by several people I respect, that in the end I have to choose to trust God in this. If answers don’t come, I still have a choice. Acceptance. Surrender. Trust. And I think they mean I have to trust God about the accident and Samuel. But I know in my heart it’s bigger than that. If I trust, it’s everything. If God was right and just and loving to take Samuel, then he is right and just and loving no matter what he does the next time. He can take Michael and Jana, he can take Jeremy. He can wound us, take anything we have. He can teach us any lesson. And I’m fearful, I see ways every day that God could take the rest of my family. What if that’s his plan, will I submit to that? What if he hides his face forever? Can I surrender everything, absolutely everything? This is dying all over again. I’m frightened and I can’t let go of what I have left.

I try to remember Samuel’s face smiling and warm, instead of his face motionless in the casket. I try to remember his name as he would write it proudly and crooked on his paper, instead of carved perfectly onto a stone. I try to remember the firetrucks he loved to draw with red crayon instead of the ones that responded to his dying. But the unyielding face in the casket and the unyielding name in the stone are most often with me. I sit in the wet grass in front of his grave and trace my finger over his name and weep at the coldness and hardness of it. Samuel, the name that means he belongs to God. Yanxiou, the name that shows he belongs to China. L., the name that proves he belongs to us. Oh my little boy, I miss you so much. I’m so sorry this happened, that we couldn’t protect you. How do I move on without you?

God Has Something to Say

On Friday I had an email conversation with our pastor about what the Bible says about death and children.  I read some of the verses we talked about, and then somehow ended up reading the whole book of Ecclesiastes.  I couldn’t stop, it resonated with me in a new way.  It was pessimistic, but read from the darkness of grief, it was perfect.  We come from dust, we will return to dust.  Our days are numbered and we can’t take anything with us after we die, so constant seeking after money, success, and even wisdom are meaningless.  It’s better to go to a funeral than a feast.  The laughter of fools is meaningless (which I feel strongly, and which is why I avoid scrolling through my Facebook feed these days…too much laughter of fools).

And in the middle of the book some words jumped out at me.  Ecc 5:1-2 says “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.  Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God.  God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” I’ve done a lot of ranting towards God lately, and I took this to mean that maybe I need to get quiet and listen.  

I mentioned this to Scott who told me those are the exact verses he’s preaching on this weekend.

Apparently God is telling me to go to church on Sunday.  And to listen.

I have not gone to a regular church service since the accident.  Too many memories, too many questions, too many happy praise songs that stick in my throat.  But I can’t brush this off as a coincidence.

And in a very kind gesture, Scott offered to keep the lights off in church on Sunday, so I can cry all I want and not worry about everyone staring at me.

Fighting for Control

I’m far enough into this that I know it’s real. Samuel is not coming back and we cannot change what’s happened. But I still find myself resisting it. As if fighting against it will somehow reduce the consequences or the pain.

It does for a little.

I still want control.

Apparently the control I had over my life was a delusion, but it was a comfortable one. It gave me security. Looking back I realize it was a shaky security. I must have known, deep inside, that it was pretense, otherwise why would I have been afraid? I worked diligently to keep my family safe, but still worried about something bad happening. I’d tell the kids things like, “don’t play at the top of the stairs” and “don’t jump on the top bunk, you could fall and break your neck.” Through proactive mothering I tried to increase my control and ensure the safety of my family.

I also used faith to protect our lives. I knew that God didn’t protect us from all bad things, but I still prayed that way. Keep us safe, guard us from this or that calamity, heal our illnesses, bring peace to our stressful situations. Maybe God would protect us from most bad things, even if he didn’t protect us from all of them. And when those moderate bad things came, it was simple to trust God. Food allergies, celiac disease, complete overhaul of how we cook and eat…a burden for sure, but God is sovereign, and we trust him. The stress of raising young children, including one with some attachment issues…God is in control and will give us what we need. Even when the tree fell on our house and destroyed half of it, we praised God for protecting us and were eager to see his faithfulness. The whole top half of our house was rebuilt and remodeled and paid for by insurance. See, it was really a blessing in disguise. I had faith. “All things work together for the good of those who love him…” God was in control, so I felt in control.

I’ve lost that now.

God might still be in control, but he has absolutely and completely taken the last little bit of control away from me. And yet I keep trying to get it back by not giving in. This is not something I can accept, and I don’t want to find the silver lining. It isn’t fair that Samuel died. He won’t grow up, fall in love, have kids. He won’t even graduate from kindergarten. Not even that. And it’s so wrong I can’t stand it.

My life is all wrong now too. I don’t want to be a grieving mother. I don’t want to go to a grief group. I don’t want to be one of them. I don’t want to be sad and disheveled or for anyone to see that my house is becoming a cluttered mess. I know it’s normal in my situation, and that’s the problem. I don’t want to get flustered and red-eyed when someone asks how many kids I have, and I don’t want to be the woman, 20 years from now, that blurts out to strangers something about having a kid in heaven. I am so tired of crying. I’m tired of being so tired. This is not my life. I reject it all. I want control back.

I’m like a child, refusing to get in the car. I’m going to kick and scream as I’m dragged to the car and snapped into my car seat. And even as we drive down the road, I’m glaring, arms crossed, furious, refusing to go. I’m aware that it’s futile. I can’t stop.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

I didn’t expect it, but this afternoon I met “one of them.” I met another mother who lost a child. Her son died years ago, when he was 26. Today this mother was laying on her couch, recovering from knee surgery. She didn’t spill out the story of her son in an awkward way. She told me to let me know that she’s on the same road, she understands. And she seemed lovely to me, with a beautiful heart. She spoke with joy and contentment. I didn’t want to leave. It gave me a piece of hope.

Sunrise

20161201_063521Sunrise from Jana’s hospital window

I’ve watched many sunrises in the past few months. Even though they mean another long and weary day is starting, I look forward to them.  The house is still quiet, and the coffee maker is about to turn on.  I’ve been awake for a while, reading, writing, crying, or just sitting in the dark.  Each sunrise is different, but they are always silent and somehow calm the anxiety in my soul.  Some of the sunrises are incredible, with vivid color splashed all over the sky.  You can’t turn away from them.   They are so brilliant it seems that you could close your eyes and still feel the changes in the sky reflected on your face.  These are the mornings that people stop on the side of the road and take pictures.  Others are more subtle.  Pink and pale gold creep in, pushing away the darkness.  And sometimes the sky is thick with clouds and you can’t see the sunrise at all. It still gets light, dim and gray, but light. 

Every time I see the sun rise I think of Lamentations 3:22-23.  “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.”  Since Samuel died, Bible verses of hope and love leave me feeling angry, because I can’t see how they are true.  But these verses, in front of the sunrise, do not.  Maybe because the sunrise itself feels peaceful.  If I start thinking about the rest of Lamentations, I get confused and angry again.  So I have this one sentence.  I’m not even sure what it means or if I believe it.  I can just hear it without resentment.  That’s not much, but it’s something.

I wonder if God’s mercy is like the sunrise.  Sometimes it overwhelms and it’s gorgeous. You can’t turn away, everyone notices.  God writes his compassion and presence in bold, obvious ways.  Other times God’s mercy is like the subtle sunrise.  His peace steals in quietly, privately, calm and comforting.  And then there are the gray days.  Mercy might still be there, moving in the background.  But you won’t notice unless you try and look for it:  God’s mercy in a friend who drops dinner off at your door, or in an email from someone reminding that they are thinking of your family.  An apology.  A knowing look between you and your spouse.  A spontaneous kiss from your kids. 

Is God’s mercy is like the sunrise on a stormy day too?  Not the gray mornings, but days where the little light that makes it through the thunderheads does less to cheer and more to reveal the branches and leaves and shingles littered across the backyard.  In the dark you can hear the storm on the house, but morning reveals it’s true danger.  You can see it battering the trees, threatening to tear them over.  Rain weighs everything down, storm drains overflow, and the toys the kids left in the grass are swept down the hill and lost in the woods.  It is frightening, and you wonder if you will survive the storm or if a tree is going to land on your roof.  You cannot see the sun.  You believe it’s there only because you trust the pattern you’ve seen all the other days of your life.

I guess most of the time we make it through the stormy days.  The winds calm, the clouds thin, and the light becomes pleasant again.  We go outside and clean up the damage. 

The storms of life, well, not everyone survives those.  I don’t think we are promised an end to all storms, either.  Will God’s love be new to us again?  Will we see it when we figure out how to live in this storm?