amazing grace…continued

 

photo credit: Martha Temple

photo credit: Martha Temple

If it weren’t for Ava, I wouldn’t have these characters. That’s how I choose to look at it anyway.
I’m thankful for her lessons every day, but today there will be cake.

Happy birthday, Ava.

 

 

 cracked

My baby was coming early. I tried to ignore it, wish the contractions away, but there was no denying it. It was happening. This was my fifth child, so I knew.

The school of life had already given us plenty of intense lessons: our third child surprised us with Down Syndrome and our fourth shocked us with a birth defect that required immediate surgery and a month long hospitalization two hours from our home. We thought we had graduated, but life had other lessons for us.

As I labored in the bathtub, the fear came in waves along with the contractions. The memory of the ultrasound five weeks earlier surfaced: the suddenly silent technician excusing herself to get the radiologist. The radiologist bluntly telling us of the many abnormalities. So many problems that her condition was deemed “incompatible with life.”  Our baby girl would not survive.

Or would she? I felt I had to have hope for the little life inside of me. Ava. Sweet Ava. Couldn’t she defy the odds? For five weeks I oscillated between cheering my miracle baby on and knowing that she would die. The constant peaks and valleys of these emotions were relentless and exhausting. My labor truly began at that ultrasound. All the questions, questions, questions, tormenting me every hour of every day and into the night. What would this mean for my family? How would we get through this? How would this affect my other young children? Why? Why us? So much uncertainty.

Until finally there was no more room for thought.  The moment when everything changed, when the worries of the past and future can no longer exist. Every sense focused on the now. Any birthing woman knows this intense time: transition-the time when you cannot go on, yet the only choice is to move forward, to move beyond everything you thought was possible, opening beyond what you thought your limits were. You cannot bear for things to escalate, yet they must for this new life to be born, for the world to change.

And Ava would change us in the deepest, most profound ways and answer all of the questions. There was nothing that could be done for her, nothing for us to fix. Her body was just not made for this world. She would leave the world in the very same room she entered. She would only know the touch of those that loved her, the sounds and smells of a busy, loving home. This tiny life would be with us for just ten days, yet she would be one of our greatest teachers.

New and fascinating questions emerged for all of us to ponder: What happens when we die?  Where do we go?  What is Heaven like?

We were able to openly explore these questions and my older children would come up with even more: If death happens to everyone and every living thing, why are we so afraid of it? Together we journeyed through life’s most awesome mysteries and for a small bubble of time, death would not be dark and scary, but graceful and peaceful and full of love.

And mixed with this grace would be life itself. The full spectrum of which would unfold before us in ten short days.

And then, abruptly, we would be marched forward.  The fragile, beautiful bubble of that sacred time would burst and the urgency of life would take over once again: children to feed, dishes to do and balls to be kicked.

But Ava opened us all up to the glorious possibility of angels and that could never be taken away.  Suddenly, there was a whole new dimension added to life. What a comfort it is to think someone is looking out for us, helping to guide our way.  Maybe we are not alone in all of this. Maybe there is more.

I would never have asked for this gift. If the gods had sat me down and said, “Listen, we’re going to give you a baby. We know that you’ve been through a lot already and you’re not expecting another, but this one will teach you so much more!  She will be born with a lot of problems and you and your family will have to face them head on. You are going to have to dive right in and explore the full spectrum of all that life has to offer, from birth to death.  You ready for that?”

Hmm, gee…No, I think I’ll pass on that experience, thanks all the same.

There would be no way to understand how the depth of this experience would alter the very fabric of who I am. I would have no way of knowing that having and losing this child would leave me more appreciative, more spiritual, more compassionate. More. Just more.

This tiny soul would stretch me in ways I didn’t know I could survive. She would take me places I didn’t know I needed to go. She would change me and mold every part of who I am, never to be the same.

The experience would break me open and when I would heal, the pieces would not fit back together so seamlessly.  There would now be cracks, and through these cracks, slivers of light would touch places inside of me that had known only darkness-places that I didn’t know were there.

Ava taught me that there are some things I just cannot control, no matter how much I question, or worry, or work. She showed me that despite how hard I fought, I would never be in charge. And when I finally gave up the fight, surrendering would bring sweet relief. I learned how nice it was to give up the illusion of control.

This experience moved through me and changed me. It did not crush me. Things were okay. They were really okay.

These lessons are hidden in the scars that now make up the intricate tapestry of who I am. They are not unsightly and they are no longer painful. Their complexity and depth add a whole new dimension to this person that I call me. Now all of life has to pass through the filter of these scars, making my everyday experience is more rich, more colorful and more delicious because of it. They are lessons that I would never ask for, yet they have been essential to my growth, my evolution. They cracked me open to the idea that maybe this is exactly what life is about: healing and learning and growing and healing and learning and growing.

I wish I could say that the next time life comes a-calling, I will greet her with no resistance, but I cannot be sure of that. I know that the intensity of my time with Ava has left me wiser and stronger, but I am not totally fearless.  Not yet.  That will take more work and more lessons- lessons that I have no doubt life will supply.  And with these inevitable lessons part of me will crack and, hopefully,

I will welcome the light.

my girls

my girls

retreat

The cat wakes me at 5am. He slept with the twins and is trapped upstairs. He is usually banished from the sleeping quarters at night, but Nicky begged to sleep with him. I tried to take the cat out of their room before I went to bed, but he was draped on Nicky’s chest, face comfortably tucked into my little boy’s neck. I couldn’t bring myself to separate them.

So I reluctantly pull myself out of my warm bed to free the yowling cat before he wakes the entire family. After his release, I stumble in darkness back to bed and hope for sleep to return.

But something is wrong. I feel the nagging seed of dread deep in my belly. It takes my tired brain a moment to pinpoint the source and then I remember…I am going away today. Apprehension washes over me and I am now completely awake.

An incredibly talented friend of mine is hosting a women’s crafting workshop on Cape Cod this weekend. She has been advertising it for months and has asked me if I wanted to attend many times, but I never had any interest. I can craft with the best of ’em, but the idea of spending a whole weekend doing it-especially with a bunch of people I don’t know very well- did not appeal to me one bit.

But two days before the workshop, something happened: the idea of going popped into my head and would not leave. Something deep inside me whispered, “Go.” Before I thought it through, I texted my friend and asked if there was still room. The next thing I knew, I was packing sheets and towels and preparing to sleep in a room with strangers. What the hell did I do? The sinking feeling in my gut tells me not to go, but I have committed. “How bad can it be?” my other voice asks. I am going to the ocean, for goodness sake! I take a moment to appreciate this privilege and remind myself to be open. I have to honor whatever impulse it was that called me to this workshop. I have to have some faith in that inner voice.

I arrive after dark and am a bit disoriented. FullSizeRender (6)

 

 

 

 

 

My GPS has lead me to my destination, so I haven’t even seen my surroundings. I haven’t even glimpsed the ocean. Disappointment creeps in. I walk into a warm, inviting house full of strangers. Everyone is friendly, but I am way out of my comfort zone. I am led up the creaky stairs to the campy room that I will share with three other women. I have never done this before. I like to go on weekend escapes, but I always, ALWAYS, have my own room. Shit. Shit. Shit. I should not have come. I want to flee, but I am four hours from home. I sit in the drafty (shared!) bathroom and take some deep breaths. I try again to remember the instinct that caused me to send that damn text inquiry in the first place, but whatever it was has been smothered by this ridiculous, disproportionate fear. The only thing that comes to me is the Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

And then I remember that I am at a crafting workshop and not preparing for battle.  

My “grow the hell up and get your ass downstairs” voice forces me out of the bathroom and into the mass of unfamiliar women. I get something to eat and drink and settle on the couch. I relax a teeny, tiny bit. But then the hosts introduce the next crafting project and everyone seems to be enthusiastic but me. 

photo by em

photo by em

The pit in my stomach grows. I am tired. The doubt tries to get hold again: “These are not my people.” “This is not my thing.” “What was I thinking?”  

As the others dive into their project, I quietly sneak away to my strange, cold bed. Before I crawl in, I consciously take a moment-just a moment- to abandon my self-pity. I close my eyes and appreciate the fact that I have a weekend to myself, away from the demands of my family, and that I am indeed at the ocean, even though there is no evidence of it yet.

When I open my eyes, I see that one of my roommates has entered the room. She has a soft, kind voice and lovely aquamarine eyes. I know in an instant that this is a beautiful soul. She quietly excuses herself and begins meditating in her corner of the room. I turn off my light and snuggle into my flannel covers. My belly finally relaxes as we breathe together in the dark. I close my eyes, but now I see some light.

I wake before the sun. I know the ocean is out there somewhere and I must find it. My meditation parter is in synch and quietly descends the stairs with me. We silently make tea in the kitchen as I prepare for the worst November can offer. With hat, gloves, down coat and a steaming mug of tea, I step alone into the darkness. I have no idea where the beach is, but the waning moon is out to guide me. I sip my tea and fill my lungs with the cold, November air. Before I even find the ocean, the realization comes to me:

Oh…this is why. This is why I am here.

FullSizeRender 2

I smell the ocean before I see it. I am unsure how to access the beach, but then I notice that the private beach association has kindly left their gate open for me. I walk out onto the deck and receive my gift.

deck

I walk to the waves and sit in the company of both the moon and the sun. It is so beautiful, I am not sure where I should keep my gaze, so I close my eyes and breathe with the ocean.

thank you.

I sit and sit and sit. The sky changes to something more astounding each and every second. The offering is almost too much to take in. But my physical body limits me; I am getting cold. I pull myself away and head back to the house.

The house is now awake. Morning yoga is being offered. I roll out my mat and am met by it’s comforting, familiar scent. I move my body and feel my strength.

thank you.

Some angel has prepared breakfast and we eat together. The crafts begin again. They are not projects that I am drawn to, but I know I want to be in the room with these women. I decide to work on something for my children. I let my anxiety go and I talk and listen and create. There are 19 women at this retreat:  19 different styles, 19 different perspectives, 19 different lives. We all have something to offer. I listen. I share. I learn.

One of my dear friends arrives and I am thrilled to see her lovely face. She has come to offer bodywork to anyone in the group that is interested, so I don’t see her most of the day. She finally emerges from her room as the sun goes down in the sky. She catches my eye and nods her head to the outside. I get my coat.

Together we share the gift of the sunset.FullSizeRender (3) We talk. We dive deep.

thank you.

Back at the warm house, the crafting continues. I get it now, this creating in community thing. We are all given the same project, yet each woman has a different set of skills and expectations. The end result is always beautiful and uniquely her own. It is about creating an object, but it is also about conversation and connection and sharing. All of that will live within these creations.

I sleep later the next morning. I have tea on the deck of the house overlooking the marsh. The day is delightfully mild for November. I am joined by my lovely friend, a cardinal, a flock of geese and a great heron.

FullSizeRender (4)

 

thank you.

Then it is time to go. Our group does a closing circle where we all join hands and share a piece of gratitude for the weekend. Our connection grows stronger with each proclamation. When we are finished I am filled to overflowing.

thank you.

Before we all disperse, I seek out my meditation partner. She creates a line of greeting cards that I love. I ask her to choose some for me. She looks me in the eye, smiles and accepts the task. When she hands them to me she thanks me for letting her choose. “I enjoyed that,” she says warmly. I take my treasures back to my car and look at them in private. My eyes fill.

reflected in the cellophane are me and my lovely friend. I gifted this card to her because she, too, is brave.

reflected in the cellophane are me and my lovely friend. I gifted this card to her because she, too, is brave. card by Susa Talan

 

She is right.

perfectly imperfect

IMG_4227

I passed by a mutant pumpkin at the grocery store. I was running late, but this squash was calling to me. I liked that it wasn’t perfectly round, had a deformed stem and warts all around. I liked that it had some character, not a boring ol’ globe of orange. I had to go back and buy it.

As I put my purchase in the car, I thought about all the other seemingly imperfect gifts in my life: I chose both of my cats because they have extra toes and huge front feet. My dog was the runt of the litter that barely survived. My house is over 100-years-old and bears the scars of twenty years of parenting six children. Then, of course, there are the children themselves- three of whom were born with what some people would call imperfections. My beautiful daughter was born with a life threatening birth defect, as well as several other not-so-normal attributes. One of them is a set of very unique feet. photoSomeone once asked her if she would want to “get them fixed” and she just looked at them, perplexed, and asked, “Why would I want to do that?”  She loves her feet because she knows they add to the amazing package that makes up Grethe. She understands that her unique features make her special. 

Our imperfections make us extraordinary.

I can trace my appreciation for imperfection back to the birth of my third son, Kelly. Before Kelly, I was living a pretty average life: I had a nice, handsome husband, a lovely home and two beautiful, healthy young boys. Everything was neat and tidy and perfect.

But I didn’t have the capacity to fully appreciate any of it.

And then Kelly was born and he took my perfect world and gave it a good-ass shake.

Kelly surprised us with Down syndrome and forever shifted how I would be in the world. At first, of course, there was shock. Never in my life had a known a person that had a disability and I never cared to, to tell you the truth. People like that made me a bit uncomfortable. What was I supposed to say to them, anyway? And would they even understand if I talked to them? Easier to not take the chance and just walk on by.

Then, suddenly I was a mother of a handicapped child. How could this be?

It didn’t take me long to get over my self-pity, however.  After the initial shock of his diagnosis, our family concentrated on loving Kelly completely as he was. It was not a difficult task. Kelly was absolutely adorable and a delightfully easy baby. As he grew, we enjoyed Kelly’s differences and were never concerned when he didn’t meet traditional milestones. Kelly did things in his own time, in his own way. We already had two typically developing boys, so we knew what “normal” was supposed to be like. Watching Kelly grow was (and is) a delightful adventure. We never look at him as being disabled or handicapped. He just thinks and does things differently, and we happen to think that different keeps things interesting.

Having Kelly in my life allowed me to understand that we are all imperfect And while the word “imperfect” carries a negative connotation, it shouldn’t. Who wants to be perfect anyway? Our differences are what set us apart. Our differences are what makes the world go ‘round. Imagine what a dreadful place the world would be if we were all the same. So, why the hell would we aspire to that?

At some point after having Kelly, I heard something about parents choosing plastic surgery to alter the shape of their special child’s eyes. This astounded me. Why would I take it upon myself to alter this glorious being? And for what purpose, to make him blend in with the “normal” crowd? Changing Kelly’s eyes would not change Kelly, even if we did decide to put him through such a procedure. Kelly, at 14, has no typical teenage insecurities or angst. He is the most content person I know. Clearly, his imperfections are working for him just fine.

This amazing human’s entry into my life prepared me for the lessons that were to come, and there was a lot to come– just like there will be for anyone playing this game of life. We will all experience times in our life when things seems less than perfect. The key is to be malleable enough to redefine one’s definition of what is perfect. Having Kelly taught me that. He changed the way I looked at life.

And these changes made me stronger, they made me more resilient, they made me wiser.

I no longer yearned for everything to be perfect and I learned how futile it was to fight what came my way.  It was so much easier to let go and accept, no matter how challenging the circumstance, than to fight the unfightable.  I learned to have faith that what I would end up with would indeed be absolutely perfect- a new, revised version of perfect.

I learned to look at imperfections- in situations, in individuals, and in myself- as gifts. I’m telling you, this attitude makes life so much nicer, so much easier! And in my mind, nicer and easier is the way to go. Embracing acceptance and moving toward appreciation, instead of perfection, is my goal.

This type of thinking invites the most brilliant kind of alchemy; right there in front of you, the things that once seemed flawed, transform into objects of beauty-

Objects that have been patiently waiting for you to wake up.

photo by Anna Stockwell

photo by Anna Stockwell