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.

Dance before His Throne

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the girl I was before my hysterectomy. My surgery was not just another one chalked up in the history of who I am. It was a life-changing event. It was something that tarnished my rose-colored glasses view of the world.

I had not been a stranger to the hospital or illnesses before. At age two, I underwent an emergency appendectomy. At age seven, intestinal adhesions caused a blockage calling for another emergency surgery. But, the hysterectomy was a far more intense and dire experience.

This surgery affected everyone around me. It was not just about recovery. It was more than that. It was a game changer. My parent’s lives were instantly changed by it. My life, of course, was too.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed life. There was still laughter, new experiences, and friendships. But, after the surgery, sadness stowed itself away in me unbeknownst to many people.

Prior to this surgery, I was a dancer. By the time I was eleven, I had danced for eight years.  I danced competitively and dreamt of performing on Broadway. My ultimate goal was to be a choreographer. However, something changed in me following the surgery. My body did not move the same way. It took more effort. My muscles had been emaciated from the infection and, to be honest, my spirit had been dampened by it as well.

Within a few years after my recovery, I quit dancing. I don’t know why really. My dance teacher told me many years later that she believed if the surgery would have never happened, I could have been a professional dancer. She too thought that it changed my body’s ability to move and nearly wiped me clean of the strength I once had.

So, here I am now at age forty still thinking of the days I danced. I’ve decided to write a poem to the little girl I once was whose dreams of dancing went to the wayside. I know that when my walk on this Earth has ended, I will be dancing before the Lord.

Dance away, little dancer. Dance before His throne. Dance for all the pain you have once known.

No longer taste the salt in your tears. Feel the movement taking away all of your fears.

Dance your life into a story, and let it be all for His glory.

Point your toes with every ounce of grace. See the expression of love on His face.

Dance away, little dancer. The one who longed to know the answer.

The answer to why that fateful time came.  The longing for a life that would never be the same.

Your life interrupted with no fault of your own. In a single moment, your life’s tapestry was sewn.

Welcome home, little dancer. For now, you know the answer.

His love is your melody. Dance your praise for eternity.

You’ve danced your life into a story. And, it all has been for His glory.

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.

Letter to my Lord

If I wrote a letter to my Lord, how would I start it? What would I say? Thank you for being there…or thank you for all of the good things that have happened through the years.  I could never fully convey the magnitude of what I am truly grateful for.  He deserves more than simplistic validations of what I appreciate.

It is not just the good things that I should be thankful for, anyway. The hard stuff – those moments that have torn me into pieces – also deserve their place in gratefulness to God. It would be a false statement for me to say I’m totally 100% grateful all of the time for being barren. Certainly, this has brought me a tremendous amount of strife. However, I sincerely appreciate the journey of it.

One might expect me to say that the best part of the journey is the adoption of my children. Well…they certainly are incredible, that’s for sure. However, for me, the best part of it has been the revelation of all the small moments, twists, turns, ups, downs, and in-betweens that helped to write the story.

Often, it is far easier to look backwards and say “I get it” than to look forward in faith. I don’t really think I could appreciate the road it took to become a mother if I had known in advance that there would be a little boy with blonde hair and a fantastic amount of charm, and a girl with bright blue eyes and blend of sugar and spice (mostly spice) who would enter my life. The road was full of painful ruts, sudden curves, and sadness as thick as tar, but still, it was the road that led to my children.

My sojourn into the world of infertility seemed so long; yet, not really. When looking back all those years ago after my surgery, I truly thought I would forever be stuck in the darkness of being barren. I know now that all those thoughts and years are just “blips” on the radar screen compared to the brilliance of the ride I’m experiencing as a parent.

I have found and continue to find great peace when realizing what all occurred to get me to this part of my life.  From the moment I woke up in the hospital bed following surgery, to the recognition as an eleven year old that I was different than my peers, to the angst as a teen wondering if true love would ever find me, to the despair of nearly convincing myself that I would never be a parent, to the longing of wanting a “normal” mommy-hood, to being captured and redeemed by God’s grace, to signing our application to become foster parents, to the nervous drive to pick up the baby boy who needed us as his foster family, to the humbling conversations with his birth mother, to leaning my head on the steering wheel following court hearings exhausted from the unknowns, to the dripping of my tears onto the court room table at our son’s adoption hearing, to jumping in heart first again by saying yes to accepting our foster daughter, to staying up night after night with a newborn, to the day she was deemed eligible for adoption, to picking out her adoption dress, to explaining the best we can to our children that they are adopted, to each moment with them….the list goes on and on.  I suspect it will until my eyes gaze on Him.

Perhaps the letter to my Lord is not really one I would write at all.  Perhaps it is my life, or better yet, how I choose to live and recognize the spaces where all I was clinging on to was His mercy, His love, and His promise.  God filled in the story line.  He flushed out the details and colored the canvas.  Living a grace-giving, mercy-showing, Christ-seeking, and love-leading kind of life would speak more than a thousand words anyway.

Yes…

my life, the letter,

my heart, the message,

and His hands, the ink.

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.

Glass door

Growing up, I felt there was this glass door between me and the other girls.  I could get right up close to it but never go through.  My surgery, being barren, not having a period…all of these things separated me from being just like them.  This is something I kept to myself though. 

It was hard enough to be an adolescent.  As an adult, it has been hard work to remind myself that while I may be different, I’m still just as much a woman as any other female out there.

I think hysterectomies are difficult for women to undergo.  Mine happened at such a young age that I grew into womanhood already feeling as if I was not wholly female.  Women of any age might not feel completely whole after a hysterectomy.  If the surgery happens at a younger age, then it is more than just losing some organs.  It’s losing the ones that are vital to a women’s experience in this life.

As I have developed through the years, the recognition of the impact on my physical, emotional, and spiritual health became clearer with each milestone or emotional age.  I could tell that infertility was not going to get easier, but harder, much harder.  I stood by and watched my friends’ life cycle continue on.  From the announcements of their pregnancies to the first baby bumps appearing, the baby showers, flushed cheeks, and swollen feet… 

I was on the side-lines watching.  I often heard them talk about their pregnancies and tried to act like I knew what they were talking about.  But the truth is, I did not know and honestly did not care to know.  It would never happen to me.

Infertility creates such a distinct type of isolation.  People just don’t know how to react when one says “I can’t have children”.  Instantly, there is an awkward silence usually followed by some words of wisdom that may or may not be too wise. 

It is sadly refreshing sometimes to be around other women who cannot have children.  The conversations tend to be more driven by genuine empathy and understanding for each other.  We don’t have to “be strong” and hide our emotions about it.

There are also those universal themes that tend to come out while discussing infertility with fellow women who are struggling.  First, baby showers are the worst things to attend when you cannot have children.  They can create a raw and digging pain that is usually held in until after the shower is over. 

I venture to guess that a lot of infertile women cry themselves home after baby showers.  I know I did before I adopted.  I actually dreaded going to them.  I would “fake” my way through them, drive home as quickly as I could,  and then curl up on my bed in a sobbing mess.  The rest of the day following a baby shower was usually filled with emotions and apathy.

Second, it really hurts when people say to you, “If it’s God’s will, then it will happen”.  Most believers agree that things happen in our lives that are within God’s will, but it does not take away the pain.  It may not be within the Lord’s will for any of us to children – biological or adopted. 

Unbeknownst to people who say this, an infertile woman might start thinking “If I can’t have children then God must not want me to be a mom”.  This is an awful place to be at.  I’ve been there.  I’ve thought “perhaps God doesn’t think I will be a good mom”, or “God must not want us to be parents”.

Third, pregnancy and birth announcements are wonderful and sweet unless you will never be the one sending them out.  That may sound selfish.  I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but sometimes I would think “why does she get to have another baby when I can’t even have one?” 

This does not mean that those of us who cannot have biological children aren’t happy for our family members or friends.  Sometimes, the announcements and the excitement that follows reminds us of what we cannot have.

Growing up, I always felt that maybe I was the only one out there like me;  that everyone else on the other side of the glass door was having the time of their lives. In some way, this may have been true since I was so young when my hysterectomy happened.  But, now as an adult, I know my experience, though somewhat different, is one that is shared by many.  Being an infertile woman in a world of baby-bearing bliss is difficult.  It can be socially isolating.  It can cause tension between spouses, friends, and family members. 

For those of you who may be struggling with handling your journey of infertility or adoption, don’t be too hard on yourself.   Just know that there are others out there on your side of the glass door.

I thought of you today, birth mother

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I thought of you today, birth mother.  I watched him graduate from preschool.  You would have been so proud.  His name was called and he was handed his first diploma of sorts.  The years have swept away from the three of us since the last visit we had together.  Four years ago tomorrow, your child became forever mine.  You did not choose to give him to me.  He was taken from you.  I know in the rhythm of my heart that you never imagined not raising your son.

I owe you nothing; and yet, I owe you everything.

Our lives are woven together by poor choices, heartache, legalities and love.  Just like the energy that is poured out of a quilt maker’s hands into the quilt, our lives are sewn and patched by the hardship of the years.  Surely, God knew when He created this precious child in your womb that you would labor to bring him into this world, and I would labor bringing him up in it.

I see you in him. birth mother.  He smiles your smile.  His left eye is just a little lazy like yours.  Your love of family poured into him.  He is rarely at a loss of words…just like you.  I wonder if you long for him when you watch children play.  I wonder if you feel haunted by this child you will never raise.  The loss you have suffered must be felt from every cell in your body.  The hollowness you feel at times must resonate deep down.  Sure, we send pictures to you, but pictures don’t breathe.  Pictures don’t smell.  They don’t bleed, hug, speak, cry, or do any of those things that remind us of our humanity.

I owe you nothing; and yet, I owe you everything.

I too have felt that sorrowful ache.  I have cried thick tears.  I have longed for a child.  Barrenness created a stale world for me; a hollowness that never ceased.  I felt haunted by a child I would never have.  What at one time seemed pointless, lifeless, and void of purpose has been replaced by immeasurable significance.

The selfishness I feel from time to time benefiting from your great and terrible sadness overwhelms me.  To be honest, all of it overwhelms me.  God’s blessing of your child has given me more than the mommy experience.  It has refreshed the staleness, filled the hollowness, and brought to life the child I thought I would never have.

I owe you nothing; and yet, I owe you everything.

I thought of you today, birth mother.  Truthfully, I think of you nearly every day.  Perhaps, the world might expect me to not care for you so much.  I wonder, “Is it really possible to separate you from the goodness and richness of this child?”  I don’t think so.  There is goodness in you, although others may not see it.  You are a part of him and he is a part of you.

I delight in his quirks.  I fret in his worries.  I am challenged by his willful spirit; yet, I love him with every pore of my being.  I hear him say “I love you, Mommy” and it stirs my soul.  I know you would feel the same way.

The hug I gave him was for you today, birth mother.  I imagined your arms wrapped around him….how good that would feel for you to touch him.

I thought of you today,  birth mother.  I said a prayer for you today, birth mother.  Your son is mine, and my son is yours.

I owe you nothing; and yet, I will not forget that I owe you everything.