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Red Footie Pajamas

I distinctly remember my first time visiting the childrens’ unit at Cedar Springs Hospital. I was new to the city as an EMT, and while I had run my fair share of adult psychiatric calls, this was my first child.  Actually, in my naivety, I didn’t even know there was such thing as a psych unit for kids up to that point.

There I was, walking into the building for a boy under the age of 6 with an arm injury… thinking he must have been the son of someone who happened to be visiting.  I’m certain there was an audible squeak of my boots stopping abruptly against the hard floor as I turned the corner to find the entire wing of the building occupied by children of various ages. A staff member began rattling off the details of how he fallen out of bed, and my mind was searching for the inexplicable reason that he had been sleeping in a tasteless wooden bed in a duplicated room with hard sterile floors instead of tucked into the shelter of his parents’ hugs and kisses in his own familiar bedroom.  I was silently trying to piece together this mystery when another staff member ushered my patient into the hallway; a dark-haired little guy, hardly taller than my hips, padding silently in red footie pajamas.

That night I learned one of those hard life-truths that you don’t learn little by little; one of those truths that smack you in the face like the concrete-sting of a belly flop into icy water.  Though I lost that bit of innocence on that call I still had many questions bouncing around between my mind and the soul that stared out at me from those young brown eyes.

It wasn’t long before running psych calls for youngsters wasn’t unusual for me.  I ran the frantic 9 year old who pleaded with his grandma to give him one more chance after tearing apart the whole house.  I ran the 15 year old cutter who had run away from home, and the 13 year old boy who successfully took his own life.  I saw a new world of confusion and pain and I struggled to understand it.  There were those who were vocal about their opinions; it was easy to assume that a lack of parenting or responsibility had created this brokenness, or that these were just bratty children needing firmer discipline.  While I was never one to say it out loud, I suppose in some ways I thought the same thing.  I wondered if the guardians were just tired of dealing with the hard work of parenting, and wanted to pass the adversity off to someone else.  I wondered if these kids felt so invisible that their gashes and outlandish displays of defiance were the only means left to spark some flames of attention from the people they craved it from.  While I refrained from joining in the open toxic banter of judgement, I still pondered these questions because some things you just can’t understand until you’ve tasted them more personally.

Fast forward several years to my own boy standing at the dawning of teen-hood.  Two parents who loved him unconditionally, a stable home in which all his needs were met, a routine of discipline and appropriate freedom, and yet his soul was changing, darkness clouding his once crystal blue eyes. Despite all the good things in his life my young boy had experienced tragedy that he was never meant to have to bear.  His normal had been ripped and shaken by such affliction over a short amount of time his soul halted in shock from the uprooting of all he knew to be true and safe.  So began this terrible and frightening battle of his entire being trying to reconcile things that his young soul was not created to understand.  He learned to build impenetrable walls to guard his bleeding wounds from further pain.  He forced himself to not feel so that he would never again know the devastation of a hurting heart.

Somewhere between watching his destruction from an utterly helpless distance, and screaming helpless tears into starlight night after night I came to understand the full story of that boy in the red footie pajamas.

It’s not for anyone to judge why these kids are the way they are, because the truth in all of them is that at some point they experienced a hurt that was more than they knew what to do with.  There are insecurities and scars and genetic dispositions, and I guarantee you not one of these kids suddenly woke up one day with a desire to be angry or dangerous or out of control or truthfully, an outcast. There is a world of hurting young people who need not our judgement and our assumptions, but our understanding and our unbiased desire to reach out to them and help fill those gaps and holes that created their unbalance to begin with.  What would the world look like if all the adults stepped up to give the attention and meet the needs that these kids so desperately need met?

It is with greatest sincerity that I say thank you to the adults that have stepped in, or even been forced in, to stand in the gap for my son.  I get it, I do.  I know that your 25th patient contact of the day is exhausting.  I know that you came in not feeling well to begin with, or with your own trouble going on, and yet you still showed up to give of yourself to help my boy, and so many others, with his healing.  I know that in the big scheme of things, the little issues these kids are making monstrous seems so outrageously ridiculous that’s it’s tempting to give a shoulder-shake of reality.  I know that after a long day, 2am was not the time you felt most compassionate when you had to get up and deal with a new admission, or a meltdown,  or a half-hearted suicide attempt for attention, or an all-out brawl.  I know that there are a lot of days you wonder why you chose this, or you think about moving on.  I know that it may seem thankless and pointless some days, and that you may question whether you are even making a difference.  The truth is you are some of the bravest, most selfless, most compassionate people to walk this earth.  This world does need you, and you are making differences, even if they are tiny baby ant steps.  In our universe, those ant steps are huge.

So thank you for what you do day in and day out; for the sacrifices you make and the things you endure so that every story has a chance at a happy ending, and that every hurting young heart that crosses your threshold knows that someone fought for them, even the boy in the red footie pajamas.

Please leave me a comment, it lets me know you’re listening!

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Sharing Kara

Today is the anniversary of my daughter’s death, but it also an anniversary of a beautiful life. I’ve wanted to share this story since the first friend stories of Kara started surfacing, but my story didn’t fit the “instant best friend” mold, so I held back. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful and important story, and has left a lasting impression on me.

I met Kara Tippetts after her cancer diagnosis. I had caught bits and pieces of her blog posts from mutual friends, and knew she and Jason were starting a church plant based out of the church I attended through my teen years. When we were wanting to find a new church home a friend reached out and said Westside might be a good fit for us, and that she thought Kara and I would hit it off and have a lot in common. So, we went.

We awkwardly tiptoed into the back of the small room where the tiny crowd was meeting, unsure what to expect. Obviously in a crowd that small, new people stood out. We were greeted by all kinds of people, repeatedly introducing ourselves and giving the short version of how we came to be there. I wasn’t sure how Kara was even doing, or if she was well enough to be there, but my wondering was quickly answered as I saw her bounding energetically across the room to greet us with a beaming smile on her face. She had been through surgery and finished grueling rounds of chemotherapy, and had been regaining some of her strength and growing tiny sprouts of fluffy hair on her previously bald head. I had my tiny baby boy recently released from the nicu, and she scooped him right up and cooed over him and joked over him having more hair than her. Then, barely knowing our names, she insisted we come home with her for lunch. Of course we accepted, and I spent the rest of the morning being intrigued by the joy that poured out of Kara, the ease with which she talked to everyone, and the relaxed demeanor she held even with her young children sprawling on the floor, spilling cups of water, and rolling crayons under the metal chairs.

After the church service we got the Tippetts address and briefly talked about stopping at the store to grab some provisions to make sandwiches. Again I was struck by how unconcerned she was at things not going according to plan. If I had been the one having people over I would have been thinking about it for days ahead of time, not brave enough to just throw open my doors and figure it out later. I liked Kara’s calm confidence.

When we arrived at their house and clamored inside, the first thing I noticed was the kitchen trash. I know, weird, but hear me out. The trash was full. It had reached its max capacity, and as I stepped closer I could detect the discarded fruit peelings giving off a sweet rancid smell as they sat in the warmth of the kitchen. My mind raced for a second; “oh no, I need to help, she must be completely overwhelmed!” My eyes darted around looking for Kara so I could ask where she needed me to lend a hand. But she was perched comfortably on a chair, chatting and laughing with a few of the others who were gathering to eat together. I suppose that’s the first thing I noticed because it’s something I wrestle with and long to be free of. The pressure to make sure things are presentable, comfortable, not embarrassing… but on that day I saw a glimpse of what it was to put your focus on the people rather than the pretense, and it was beautiful. Kara didn’t stress about stinky kitchen garbage, or not having a menu planned out for lunch, or whether or not all the shoes were stashed in the closet, because she instead spent her time investing in people’s hearts and making them feel right at home regardless of what was going on around them.

In the months that followed, as Kara had to go through more treatment to battle back the cancer, she warmly accepted the help of the community around her. She allowed me to make the birthday cake for her boy’s 7th birthday, which was wonderful to take one thing off of her plate by doing something I enjoyed.

Knowing that cooking dinner is not my greatest strength, I didn’t sign up to help bring meals, but eagerly volunteered to make school lunches for the kids and help with house cleaning to lesson the burden of all the things that took precious time away from loving on her closest people. It was humbling and also comforting that Kara allowed us to help her, as we all felt helpless in so many ways. I’m good at cleaning, and it gave me joy to be able to do something useful. Kara was supposed to be resting, and sometimes she was, but other times she was offering a cup of tea and telling me she felt guilty that I was cleaning for her while I was toting my own tank of oxygen along behind me. I told her how meaningful it was for me to be able to help a little bit when so many people had been there to help me too.

We sat on her bed on her birthday, my daughter’s anniversary, and cried over the sadness of being separated from our loved ones, and imagined over what Heaven is going to be like. We talked about my baby leaving for the place she knew she was leaving her babies for. It was so meaningful to be able to talk about the hard things with someone who didn’t shy away from the raw and broken parts of living. (Kara wrote about that day Here)

One of the last times I got to visit with Kara she had to pause often to catch her breath while speaking. She was growing frail and the cancer had brought harsh edges and hollow eyes, but her smile still gleamed big. She was so sick, and we all knew her time her was growing shorter, but she was still asking me how *I* was doing, and if there was anything she could do for me. She always joked that we we needed to stop competing with each other for the hardest story, because it seemed like every time we got together there was another bit of hard to swallow for one of us. This woman, nearing the end of her days saw my comparatively minimal struggle and she offered me the meals in her freezer that had been brought to lessen her own load!

The night before Kara passed away I had a dream that she died. It was so vivid that I woke the next morning and checked to see that it was just a dream. Kara was still here, but something in my soul knew the time was coming. It was Sunday morning and Jason stood in front of the gathering of people at church and announced he would be taking some time off to tend to his family. When he stepped down from the podium I saw that he was going to walk right by me and I remember quickly turning my eyes away because something in me felt like he would see the remnants of that dream in my eyes and he would know. Jason already knew. Kara went home to be with her Jesus that day, in the paradise she wondered over during her long goodbye.

I shook my head in amazement the first day I met her, and I shook my head on the last day I saw her; this woman with a heart wrenching story and every right to be withdrawn and discouraged challenged me to open my arms to the messiest of life and embrace all of it; not just the planned menu and the tidy house, but the hearts that need to be seen and loved and made to know that they matter.

Kara was never my bestest friend like so many others could laid claim to, and I didn’t get to know the vibrant before-cancer Kara, but our lives crossed paths exactly when they were meant to. The friendship we shared left me with lasting memories and important lessons that I will always carry with me, and I’m so grateful that in spite of her plate full of friendship and family and tragedy and grace, she so eagerly made room to see me and welcome me in.

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Different

This past March we celebrated Ellianna’s 7th birthday. I thought we pretty much had the hang of that down, but this year was a different kind of day. Since we had moved out of Colorado, there was no visiting the cemetery to leave notes and flowers or eat cupcakes near the etching of her beautiful name. It felt hard and sad and unfair to be so far away from the town where we were closest to her. There was still celebrating; there was cake and pictures and remembering her big eyes and her tiny fingers, and there was wondering over what our sweet girl would be like at age 7. But it was different. I had more tears and some angry feelings about being so far from all the tangible places of her.

In April I made a whirlwind weekend trip back to Colorado for a conference, and got to stop by her resting place to leave fresh flowers on my way to the airport out of town. I experienced deep gratitude to get to be there, as well as a downpour of guilt and regret, and sadness to have to leave again. In the months of not visiting that place, a multitude of emotions had built without the trigger of release. I boarded my plane with scratchy red eyes, and a rosy face washed clear of my morning makeup.

Now July is upon us again, and we are remembering the day that we sang over Ellie and kissed each baby piggy toe and watched her body give up its hard fight and her soul fly free of all the hurting. This July though, we are back at the foothills of our breathtaking Colorado mountain, on a brief visit to the city that holds the entire history of her short and beautiful life.

I wondered over what we would do to remember and celebrate our girl this July 14th; an exciting trip packed with joyous memories and reunions, punctuated by the difficult anniversary of one of our hardest days. In past years we have prepared care packages for other families with a little one fighting for life in the picu. We have escaped far from civilization to camp under the twinkling canvas of stars, and we’ve climbed sand dunes to release soft-glowing lanterns into the sky. We’ve had quiet days in at home, and have escaped for a night away to numb our minds with the unfamiliar.

I have some unresolved thoughts about the medical staff that cared for my girl, so I considered making care packages for the doctors and nurses and techs. Each time I started to collect items though, I came up a little bit blank and overwhelmed. The emotion connected to my interactions with the picu staff is strong and difficult to sort through. I decided to keep it simple; it was still a kind gesture of acceptance for these medical professionals, but without the intense process and emotional drain of gathering well thought out individual items for care packages. I called to ask how many would be on shift in the picu where we said goodbye, and brought down a yummy and filling breakfast for when they get to break away from the business of saving lives and tending to souls.

The healing for me was in the handwritten note expressing my thanks for this calling they’ve given their lives to. I know there are days it must feel like a thankless job, and it’s possible I was one of those parents who was so fearful and wounded that I came across as more critical than grateful. It helped me to at least say that I know they are human just like me, and are simply doing the best that they can with what they know.

I could point fingers and choose to hold a grudge for our experience in that picu, but I’m trying my best to instead remember the shining moments of grace and kindness that were scattered throughout those dark days. There was the tech who sat and talked with me honestly about what his job was like, and enthusiastically encouraged me to pursue my hope of a job inside the picu. There was the nurse who in the middle of all the chaos took notice of my wincing and offered me some Motrin from her own purse to help keep me on my feet in the marathon hours of standing at that tiny bedside. There were the nurses who went scrambling for the right sized hat to snuggle over Ellie’s hair when the fresh wounds on her head made me feel panicked while I was holding her. There were the kind nurses who gently helped me bathe and dress the breathless body of my little love, and carefully made treasured keepsake molds of her perfect hands and feet. Those are the moments I want to dwell on when my mind wants to wander and question and doubt and wonder how things could have been different.

As painful as it was to walk back through that slick-floored hallway to the picu doors this week, there was a bit of healing in getting to offer loving kindness to the very people that were part of one of my deepest wounds. I hope that our gesture will help renew their fire to keep fighting for the tiny lives that rely on them, and to keep offering gentleness to the parents who may seem ungrateful and unkind in the terror and pain of watching their little loves hurt.

Our visit to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains also allowed us the privilege of visiting the cemetery where our sweet girl was laid to rest. We soaked in the comforting warmth of the sun as we sprawled on the fresh grass surrounding her headstone, and arranged a masterpiece of flowers that only barely began to capture the miracle and the beauty that was our Ellianna Grace. My littlest scrambled around picking every dandelion he could find to carefully place by her name, just as he has done since he was barely crawling around. We reminisced about the butterflies, the rainbows, the family that came to link arms with us. One of my littles retreated in tears to the car, overwhelmed with the weight of it this time. It changes a bit each time; little pieces of the joy and the sadness and the beautiful and the hard to look on have different meaning as each of us grow and learn and experience more of this life through which we filter all of our deepest emotions. We were honored to get to remember our girl in this place this week, and we surely are the luckiest to be the family that calls her ours.

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Someday. A letter to my children.

There has been a lot of praise this week for the Mothers. I love and cherish each and every “you’re the best mom in the world,” but I can’t help but wonder what my kids will remember of me long from now. It flatters and humbles and melts me in a puddle to hear them say they would pick me again out of all the moms, but I hope they know that I am equally aware of the holes I have left them.

Someday, my sweet babies, when I’m no longer here to look over your shoulder or come running from another room, I hope you remember that I absolutely loved being your mom. I hope you believe me when I say that you were my world. I hope you remember all the silly times and happy times and treasured memories we made, and that they bring a smile to your face every time you think on them. I hope you remember the sad and the hard times too, but I hope what you remember about those times is that we made it through. We didn’t always have the answers, and maybe we didn’t always choose the best choice, but we stuck together and we looked to Jesus, and we kept on pushing forward until things got a little easier. I hope you remember that in the sad times you still brought me much happiness.

I hope that you know how keenly aware I was of my mistakes. I hope you’ll forgive me for them; for being too protective, too selfish, too impatient, too narrow-minded, too angry… I hope you believe that I was doing the best that I could at the time. At least, that’s what I thought I was doing.

I pray that you not only forgive my mistakes, but that you learn from them and carry into your own families a deeper knowledge and a better way than I had. I hope you’ll carry some of me too; like getting up early to make a big Sunday breakfast and singing at the top of your lungs like you just don’t care.

Please forgive me for the empty spots I left and the hurts I caused. I know they are there. Forgive me for not being brave enough and humble enough and wise enough to always see them. I so desperately hope that there will be strong and meaningful people in each of your lives who can speak truth and strength to where I gave you weaknesses, and you will discover yourselves more whole.

Each one of you were the most precious, unimaginable gifts to me. I could never have dreamed of being given such blessings as you. You rocked my world and colored it and made it full of laughter and music and fun, and I could never have lived such a magnificent life without you.

Thank you for teaching me to look outside of myself; to relax, to trust, to slow down and enjoy, to take risks, to fight, to have courage and hope and ambition. I hope that the string that I gave you is enough to hold onto and run into the world; exploring and learning and conquering and becoming everything you dream you can possibly be.

I hope you will feel glad that I was your mom. I hope you can keep the good parts of me and ditch the bad, and keep making an infinite number more of the best of yourself.

You are my children; you made me a mama. Showed me how strong and how flexible and how silly and how important I could be, and it was incredible.

I love you each; from the bottom of the ocean, to the top of the sky.

Love,

Mom