Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Maryann Got Married

Years ago, when Exreme Makover, Home Edition was at its peak, I watched an episode about a widow with a handful of children and a crumbling house.  I can’t remember how her husband died, or much about the makeover, but I do remember that in the middle of touring the gorgeous new home Ty Pennington and crew had just created for her, she stopped and, with a look that was somehow a mixture of both hope and resignation, she said, “There is happiness for us, in this life.”

I remember this because I was enduring my own hardships at the time.  Like many believers, I had a slew of Bible verses and stories at my fingertips and I knew about Gods love, His ability to make beauty from ashes and rescue His children from danger.  I wanted to find comfort in these things, but I know the truth, which is that God doesn’t always make beauty from ashes and some of His children don’t get rescued from danger.  (Don’t waste our time trying to talk me out of this point.  I’m a Calvinist, and I’ve been to Ukraine.)

Besides, reading about the end of someone else’s story, even if they do get rescued, isn’t all that helpful when I happen to be in the middle of my story and might be headed for a different conclusion.  I’m glad Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead but He hasn’t been doing that sort of thing lately, so it looks like I might need to accept the alternate ending for my own time on earth. 

What I really wanted was someone here, now, who was enduring some of the same things I was enduring, with no promise of an imminent miracle, but could still look me in the eye and say, “yeah, I don’t really get what’s going on here.  I’m in agony and I hate this but even so, I know that God is good.”   That widow’s happiness, even in the midst of all her sorrow, was more along the lines of what I needed to hear.

Fast forward to 2014.  I don’t hate my life, but I have been in a bit of agony.  A few years ago, I wrote about the death of our good friend, Bruce, and his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.  It was three years ago, last month, that we buried him.

When Bruce died, I told his wife, Maryann, to call me anytime (day or night) that she needed to talk.  Her mom had died when she was in college and her dad died a few years later.  I hate the idea of anyone feeling alone in this world.  So, I kept encouraging her to call me and to my great relief, she did. 

That first year, she called every day and sometimes two or three times in a day.  Once or twice she called in the middle of the night.  I didn’t mind. I was grateful that she trusted me with her grief.  

Often when we talked, the first thing she would say when she got on the phone was, “I miss Bruce!”  Then we would both tear up and I would ask, “what would you tell him if he was here?” 

So, that first year we spent a lot of time together.  We had Thanksgiving together and Christmas.  We made sure she had plans for things like their anniversary, the anniversary of Bruce’s death, Bruce’s birthday, Maryann’s birthday...   It’s bewildering, the extent to which events that are usually so very wonderful become so very not wonderful when someone is missing.  

Sometime toward the end of that first year, I ran across a friend of ours from church.  His name is Mike.  I was in a women’s Bible study with his wife, Brenda, a few years earlier.  She had been fighting cancer for a long time and tragically died about three months before Bruce. 

As we were talking and catching up, Mike, in his charming way, mentioned that he had a date, which meant that he was open to dating, which meant that I could start plotting. 

I waited a few more months, and then I introduced Maryann to Mike. 

So, there was a year of loneliness, then a year of dating.

They went back and forth for a while and I really wasn’t sure they were going to make it.  They lived two hours apart and were attempting to blend a lot of family history.  Most of my conversations with Maryann were still about Bruce or their kids.  She still missed him dreadfully and I wondered if her heart was really open to anyone new. 

And then one day when I picked up the phone, to my great relief and joy, instead of saying, “I miss Bruce,”  she blurted out, “I miss Mike!”   

So, there was a year of loneliness, a year of dating, a year of engagement and last week they got married. 

My friend Maryann got married to someone who is not Bruce. 

I went to the rehearsal dinner at Maryann’s home and I watched Mike, so happy, smiling down at Maryann in the middle of the kitchen that Maryann and Bruce re-modeled, while their kids played pool together in the middle of the rec-room that my husband, Bill, and Bruce re-tiled. 

I held it together though, because I’m just that good. 

The next day, I watched Maryann, who is not Brenda, walk down the aisle to Mike, who is not Bruce, and get married. 

I was really doing OK for most of the ceremony.  It got hard in the middle because they had invited the families of their first spouses and I got a glance of Bruce’s dad sitting in the front row.  Bruce’s dad looks almost exactly like Bruce and Brenda’s sister looks almost exactly like Brenda.  That was hard enough to swallow, but on the way to the banquet hall, a friend of mine mentioned that I was the only person at the wedding who had been friends with both Bruce and Brenda.  For some reason, this brought clarity to the one thought that had been lurking at the back of my mind all weekend, “Please… don’t let this be real.”

I totally lost it then, because I’m just that pathetic. 

Of course, there were no tissues anywhere and the bathroom was outside the banquet hall and it was raining. I went over to the food table, grabbed a napkin roll and threw the plastic silverware in my purse.  By the end of the night, I had a table setting for six. 

I looked around and realized that I was the only one crying.  I had planned ahead for this.  I took on the job of decorating the getaway car.  Bill and I found a few boys to help us collect cans, borrow a few hydrangeas from the table centerpieces and make a sign.  Then we all went to the parking garage and decorated.  

Wouldn’t you know, when Maryann and Mike left, he escorted her around the front of the car and the photographer didn’t follow them outside.  No one saw the decorations besides me, Bill and handful of boys.  To be fair, it was raining, but it was an awful waste of some good centerpieces on a mighty fine car.  Unappreciated beauty is so tragic!

I realized as we walked back into the banquet hall that Maryann and Mike were handling things much better than me, even though they had lost far more.  The upcoming week in Cancun might have had something to do with it, but even so, Maryann has mentioned that one of the hardest things about marrying Mike was the full understating that God might take him away too, at any time, just like He took Bruce. 

It was not the same as other weddings I’ve been to, where God seems so much more kind and the world seems so much more safe.  Yet here were Mike and Maryann, beaming as they got into that car.  They were reveling in their supreme act of bravery—being willing to love another person, despite the challenges, the pain and the risk involved.  It was not that God made beauty from their ashes.  It was that they accepted His beauty, along with their ashes.

I’m starting to understand that look on the widow’s face.  There is happiness for us, in this life.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Laura's Many Surgeries

So, here is a picture of my sweet baby girls.  Laura is four and she is holding Harper, who is two. 

Laura’s first surgery was to fix the cleft palate, which is the hole in the roof of her mouth. 

I took her to the hospital Friday morning, September 20th.  We were told to arrive at 8am, but of course, it was just after 11am when we were finally taken to the prep room, three hours  can be very long when you’re holding a four year old who hasn’t had anything to eat or drink since midnight.  The staff met me in the pre-operating room and explained the procedure. Then, they gave Laura a much needed sedative and let me carry her to the operating room and hold her hand until she fell asleep. 

The staff were wonderful, but let me just say here that this is the sixth time I’ve had to watch one of my babies fall asleep and leave them in the hands of perfect strangers.  It’s not getting easier.  I realized as I walked out of that waiting room that I will never get used to it.  It’s that same pang I feel as the school bus disappears around the corner every morning, only this time, I’ve just signed a release form that fills up a whole page of single space type and include the phrase, “possible death.”

I went back to my corner in the waiting room and paced the floor.  The surgery took three hours. Apparently, they are sometimes able to just sew the two sides of a cleft palate together, but Laura’s hole was so large, they actually cut a patch of skin from the back of her throat and used it as a patch.  If they cut the skin off entirely it would die, so they cut a three sided flap and pulled it into her mouth and sewed it in place.  It’s still attached to her throat and the air from her nose comes down either side of the skin flap. 

She stayed three days in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit because they were worried her throat might swell and hinder her breathing.  The white thing in her nose is a tube that goes through her nasal cavity to ensure an unblocked airway.    She looked so bad when she first got out of surgery, I didn’t take any photos of her mouth.  There was dried blood all over her face and it was caked on in thick layers.  We just left it until the last day because she was so sensitive to touch. This picture was taken the third day, after we got her cleaned up a little. 

The staff told me we could leave her alone in the PICU, but there was NO WAY I was going to let my little girl wake up in a strange place and in pain with no one familiar to comfort her.  Bill and I ended up alternating 12 hour shifts over the weekend.  The surgery was Friday and by Monday morning when she was discharged, we were wiped out.

She was in surgery again on November 20th for some dental work.  We found a dentist who is specializes in cleft palate patients.  She only had four cavities, but he recommended putting her under since the unique anatomy of cleft palate children means they can’t always guarantee their mouth will be numb at the needed spot.  So, she was under anesthesia for the seventh time, but just for an hour.  

The final surgery was Friday, December 13th.  This time, she was the first patient on the docket, so we didn’t have the long, hungry wait.  We went through the same routine, with the same release forms and I handed my baby over to relative strangers for the eighth time.  It never gets any easier, but this was especially hard because it took all day long.  They did a great job of updating me every hour, but man, that was a long day. 

This time, they worked on her whole face.  They sewed the extra opening on her left cheek.  They released the skin from her bone on her right side and
 pulled all the extra flesh toward her nose in order to raise her bottom eye lid, close the gap in her cheek, and form an upper lip.  It was well after 6pm when I finally saw her for the first time.  They did a marvelous job.  She looked so wonderful, I just couldn’t stop crying. 

They told me that the few hours just after surgery would be the best that she would look for a long while and they were right.  She started to swell up the next day and then the areas with stitches turned bright red as they started dissolving.

This is after about two weeks, just before Christmas.  The blue piece over her eye was a bit of foam they sewed in place.  It was there to secure a place holder for a future prosthetic eye.  And so it goes.  I'll try to post more photos as she heals.  But, if you are wondering why I haven't posted in five months, this is my visual aide.  We've been wiped out, but also grateful, very, very grateful.