Road to Joplin

Day 2 with Joplin flag

This weekend I had the privilege of riding in a cycling event called the MS 150.  Every  year hundreds, if not a thousand or so cyclists make their way to a small town in southwest Missouri to complete a 150 mile bike ride.  This is done to bring attention and raise funds for Multiple Sclerosis.

This was my third year riding in this event.  I always seem to walk away from it with a great sense of accomplishment.  It is also quite humbling to be cheered on at the start line by people who live daily with MS.  This year, a woman with MS said to us, “When you get towards the last few miles and your legs are burning, just remember me saying Thank You.  Just remember that you are riding for many of us who cannot.”  Then, at the finish line, the same man every year, bound to his wheelchair, holds his hand out with a medal dangling from it.  As one reaches for his or her medal, the man gently says “thank you”.  It is quite humbling and I hope to ride in future 150’s.

This year though had even more of an impact on me, but for a different reason.  This is the first year that the ride took us back to Joplin, MO after the deadly tornado which claimed the lives of so many in May 2011.  Last year, the ride had to be rerouted and completely taken out of the Joplin area due to the devastation of the storm.  I had been there about a week or so after the tornado struck, and was silenced by what I had seen.  Cars with windshields blown out laying on top of each other, buildings that looked like they exploded by the force of a bomb, houses upon houses crumbled up like sticks, and trees stripped completely down to the bark.  It was shocking.  Just shocking.  The city I live in is close to Joplin and we are so lucky that the storm did not rumble its way towards us.

Although my work has taken me back to Joplin a few times, I usually do not drive through the area where the destruction took place.  This year, the MS committee planned the route specifically to take us through some of the path of the tornado.  Before I entered this area, my legs were screaming, my mind was off in some other place, there was pain tucked right in between my shoulders, and I was ready to be done.  I had been in the saddle for about seven hours, and my own “saddle” was telling me it was time to get off.

However, this changed when I entered the area where that beast of a storm stole normalcy from the lives of so many.  The few trees that survived were mangled.  Their bare branches looked like hands reaching towards the heavens in desperation.  Others bent over, all leaning to one side; yet, fresh green leaves bushed out from whatever spot they could find.

As I got closer to the eerily flattened area where houses once stood, I thought about the families and children who once lived there.  I imagined kickball being played in the streets, children swinging from swing sets, families walking their pet dogs or washing their cars.  All of this wiped clean.  Sure, there were new houses being built and definitely the vision of new growth could be seen, but I just kept thinking about how much destruction took place on those grounds.  The names of streets had been painted on the roads.  The ground was completely stripped of grass. There were partially crumbled buildings still being torn down.  It just went on and on.

As I drew nearer to the “end” of the destruction zone, I became overwhelmed with emotion.  I thought about the mothers who lost their babies, the babies who lost their daddies and mommies, and all the others who never woke again on this Earth to see the sun rise.  All I could think was “so much destruction, so much despair.”

But there in that moment on my bike with nothing but my own thoughts, I realized, or at least was reminded, that the Lord is not a god of destruction.  He is not a god of devastation.  He is not a god of despair.  He is the God of regrowth, rebirth, restoration, and life.  He lifts up our heads.  He carries us through the storms.  He gives us life.

The next morning as 800 or cyclists gathered around to start day two of the cycling event, small Joplin flags were handed out to each of us.  We placed them in our helmets, on our bikes, or held them in our hands as we rode through part of what was named “Memorial Miles”.  With just the sound of wind, the breathing of fellow riders, and the hissing-like noises from spinning our wheels, we rode in silence in honor of those killed by the Joplin tornado and in honor of the courage it has taken for the city to rebuild.

This year the road to Joplin became more than just a cycling event that I love to participate in.  Yes, it was done in an effort to support those struggling with Multiple Sclerosis.  However, I left the event with Joplin on my mind.  This weekend turned into a reminder of the blessing of health, of love, of family, of home, and of our incredible Heavenly Father who restores, renews, and leads us to Life.

Dear Infertility

Dear Infertility,

Hello, it’s me again. You know…the little girl you once made to feel inadequate, the teenager you once strived to isolate, and the adult you almost accomplished stealing joy from. Well, I’m here to tell you what you cannot do.

You cannot diminish moments of laughter that echo in my mind for days following. You won’t determine my capacity to love other people and children. You no longer make me feel less of a female or parent or anything else you once tried to convince me of.

You don’t stalk me like you used to. I don’t think of you when I see babies anymore. I actually enjoy going to baby showers now. You used to tag along uninvited just to make me feel uncomfortable.  You are not invited, anymore.

You no longer cause a wedge between me and the loving Father I believe in. You used to do that, you know. I used you as an excuse to not listen to Him. He is bigger than you will ever be.  He reminds me what His plans are for my life, not yours.

You cannot take away forgiveness. You do not replace hope. You obviously offer very little grace, but I do not look to you for it anyway.

For the most part, you were one of my darkest secrets. I hid you away for so long.  Funny thing now is that I’m exposing you to the world. You have become my motivation to write, to reach out, and to love.

At one time, I was incomplete. You filled an ever-growing void with even more sorrow, but not anymore. I will never use you again as a way to justify my lack of purpose or meaning in this life.

Dear infertility…this is not goodbye. I can still use you to be a more passionate person. I can still reminisce of you as a reminder to try and love my children more each day than I did the day before. I see you trying to pull others down and I recognize you right away. I use this as motivation for being a more genuine and empathetic listener. The tears I cry now are not for me, but for those of whom you are trying to take over.

Dear infertility…you have not stolen my ability to have a bountiful life. I have a full, rich life that involves children despite your attempt at taking that away. My life is no longer barren. You did not create a wasteland in me. Oh, I won’t forget you. How can I really? You have traveled with me the vast majority of my life, but you are not my life. Ironically, you have caused me to view life as being precious.

Dear infertility…this is not goodbye. This is me saying hello to all the things that you will never be.

Genuine Loss

Some may wonder what it is like to be barren. Or, what it feels like to be at the place where there is no hope of ever having children. Try, after try, after try…and still no baby. I never had to experience the ups and downs of infertility treatments, but I do know the roller coaster of emotions experienced when realizing that there is great potential of being childless for the rest of life.

The only way to best describe what it can feel like is to use the word death. That seems so melodramatic, melancholy, and extreme, but really it is the one word I can come up with that embodies the pain felt. It is not a physical death but it can feel like it. The grief accompanied with the diagnosis of infertility is no different than what one may experience when grieving a loved one; and yet, it is unique. People don’t expect someone to “get over” losing a loved one quickly, but they may expect it when infertility knocks a woman down.

One time while visiting with an acquaintance and her daughter, the woman leaned into me and whispered “my daughter can’t have babies…poor thing”. Her daughter heard every word of it and I’m sure she was desperately trying to escape inside her own skin. I sat there for a moment stunned at what was said. Well, not so much what was said because I’m obviously comfortable with infertility, but more so at the tone and total lack of sensitivity.

Why in the world would a mother disclose this news in a pitiful tone while whispering it to someone her daughter had just met? I had been given information that cut right into the heart of what her daughter had been despairing over. I just wanted to grab her daughter by the hand, run with her out the door, and let her breathe for a moment. I can’t imagine someone leaning over and whispering “her child just died”. Yet, this is how it can feel…empty, heartbroken, sorrowful, aching.

Growing up, I didn’t know how much infertility would eventually start to feel like a death. I found myself crying over things related to babies and pregnancies, but was not really even sure why I was crying. I was just overwhelmingly sad. I didn’t know what to do with the strong emotions of grief. I was confused, and at times, felt like the loneliest person in the world. Then I realized that I would never be able to look at a child and say “she looks just like me”. I would never be able to experience feeling a child kick in my belly. I would never know the look on my husband’s face when I told him “we’re having a baby!” So…in many ways, I became fully aware that infertility was a death sentence to all of those things I wanted to experience during my walkabout on this Earth.

I got to the place where I allowed myself to grieve my loss. There was shock and denial; although mine was just at the awareness of the traumatic event that took place my eleventh year of life. There was anger. I was angry at doctors (although they saved my life). I felt jilted by God, and anger towards people who don’t take care of their kids or at least act as though their kids are disposable and not important. There was bargaining…it was retroactive in some sense…kinda like “God, maybe if the infection would have been caught a day earlier, then perhaps this wouldn’t have happened”.

Then, I was just stuck in the acceptance phase of grief. But, this was far from pleasant. Acceptance is a strange concept anyway. I didn’t want to accept it. I just wanted to know if I would ever have a child to call my own; regardless of biology. Sometimes the not knowing was far more painful than the knowing. I mean I knew that I couldn’t have children but I had no idea how it would all work out for me or if I would ever be a mommy.

I’m not sure, but I suspect those women who are undergoing treatments or even those who have had multiple pregnancies that have ended prematurely probably start and stop the grieving process over and over again. How terribly exhausting…how horribly draining. I’m sure each time a woman gets a negative pregnancy test, or is told that the treatments are not going to work, or learns that there is “no medical reason” why she can’t have a baby, it tears her heart out. The wound gets ripped open time and time again, and yet, she is supposed to just “get over it” and go back into the world while the dream of mommy-hood starts to die slowly.

The best thing someone can do for a friend or family member who is struggling to start a family or has been given news she will never have a baby is to acknowledge her circumstance for what it is – a genuine loss. She may need someone to allow her to cry about it. Or, better yet, she needs someone to withhold judgement of her because she is crying about it. Don’t expect her to want to talk about it all of the time, but be there for her if she wants to. And please…please do not remind her that there is “always adoption”. She knows that, and it actually devalues adoption as if it is second best.

Allow her to grieve without setting a time limit. The notion that time heals is partly true, but with infertility all she has is time; yet, what she really wants is a child. And lastly, allow her to find herself again. Give her the time to figure out what her next step will be. Her dream of being a mommy has turned into a nightmare. She needs to figure out what is best for her and how she is going to handle this loss, not how others thinks she should.

I no longer feel the sting of death-like pain.  I am filled with the hope, joy, love, laughter, and busyness of my children.  If I were still at that place of silence and emptiness though, I would want someone to understand my sadness and allow me to grieve it.  I would need someone to pray for me, encourage me, and give me the sense that there is hope for the future of my mommy-hood dreams.