what to say when there is nothing to say

“…most of our kind,
sated, if only by the monotony
of unrelieved unhappiness,
turn away from the drama, disillusioned,
uncompassionate.

O you mothers and loved ones—then, ah, then
comes your hour, the hour for true devotion.
Then your hour comes, you friends and brothers!
Loyal hearts can change the face of sorrow,
softly encircle it with love’s most gentle
unearthly radiance.”

 – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from “Sorrow and Joy” in Letters and Papers from Prison

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I realize that for some, the effect of reading my last post could be a feeling of paralysis—as if any attempt at conversation and caring will only cause the hurting person more hurt. That is not my intent. When I wrote that post I knew that I wanted to follow up with another, offering suggestions on how I think you can best convey your compassion to the grieving and suffering. It’s a bit awkward to write this, fearing that I will seem to dictate the words my friends use to speak to me. But that, too, is not my intent. I know the feeling of desperately casting about for the right thing to say to people who were staring at me blankly from a cloud of pain. And, God forgive me, I am sure I said the wrong thing most every time. Now, to my sorrow, I know better. I also know what words have touched me like cool water on an angry burn—words that have made me weep with thankfulness; words I would feel privileged to someday bring to others in their own dark days.

So I offer what I have learned, in the hope that these thoughts may help some other aching souls to feel the touch of those who love them. If anything positive comes from what I share, it doesn’t make the loss of my son worth it—but it’s a small good thing nevertheless. It is only a pebble dropped into the edges of the ocean, but it makes some rings across the water.

I have 7 suggestions, which I have been turning over in my mind for months. I make these suggestions with some caution and more confidence. I would never claim to speak for every bereaved or broken person. Not everyone processes things the way I do. However, in the past couple of years I have heard and read quite a bit from people who have experienced catastrophic losses. And what I have gathered from them confirms what I think and feel myself. So I believe that my suggestions are broadly true for many of the people whose pain will cross your path.

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1. Say something

In cases of tragic or devastating loss, there is nothing actually helpful to say. You can’t help, in the deepest sense, because you can’t change what happened. But that does not mean there is nothing to say. Saying something is almost always better than saying nothing. If you are physically present with the sufferer, and your own tears are flowing down your face, they can speak for you. But in any other circumstance, your bereaved friend will not know you are weeping with him unless you tell him so. Sometimes all you need to say is, “I am so sorry. I am crying with you.” But those small words are utterly, infinitely better than silence.

If you are thinking of your hurting friend, text or email or write her a letter; tell her you remember her loss and you care. Invite your friend to join you for a fun activity (and give her an out in case she doesn’t feel up for it). If you are going to be in the neighborhood, check to see if she feels like a short visit. She might not, but I think she will be grateful that you cared enough to ask.

People have sometimes said very hurtful things to me. I suppose that a few of those occasions could have been improved by mere silence. But in most cases, I can at least reflect that the person must care about me, or they would not have attempted to say anything at all. Silence, however, is more difficult to rationalize. Please let the hurting person know that you care; if you don’t tell him so, he has no compelling reason to believe you do. Saying something is better than saying nothing.

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2. Sympathy, not sermons

The most touching things that have been said to me have always been expressions of sympathy. When you enter into conversation with a person who has suffered a huge loss, you need to limit your expectations. Don’t expect to help, comfort, or encourage. Simply aim to show the person that you care. This is not something that you can fix; there are no words that will work a magical change in the sufferer’s mind and heart. Healing takes a very, very long time and will probably never be complete in this life. And in any case, it is not your job. The best gifts you can give your friend are your presence, your tears, and your words of sympathy and compassion: “I’m so sorry.” “I am imagining what this must feel like for you and I don’t fully understand, but I think it must be horrible.” “I hate that this is happening to you.” “I wish that I could change this but I know I can’t. I just want to be here with you.” Words like these are small and simple, but they speak more volumes about your care than you could probably guess.

I think it can be tempting to think that we know, outside of the situation, what we would want to hear if we were in our friend’s shoes. I sometimes thought that in the past. But I have learned that it’s dangerous to make that assumption if we have not walked that road. I believe that most people who are facing a tragedy do not want you to attempt to provide any answer, because they are painfully aware that there are no answers sufficient to ease the agony. Even if all wounds will be salved in the next life, no Bible verse can now fill the void where my baby should be.

There may be a time when the hurting person will want to hear a sermon. Let him decide when that time has come. If he wants to talk about the theology of suffering, let him ask you. He might; my husband sought that before I did, and still finds it more helpful than I do. But let your friend choose the time, and the topic, and the person he wants to engage with that conversation. Until then, show your sympathy. You may not be talking about Jesus, but you are acting like him, which in a way is the best kind of sermon.

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3. Seek details, not evaluations

I beat this horse pretty sufficiently in my last post. I have explained that “How are you?” is a very difficult question to answer. But I would like to add some suggestions of how you can ask good, caring, detail-oriented questions.

Ask about your friend’s feelings so that you can understand them a bit better: “What has been especially hard for you this week?” “What have you been thinking about?” “I have been imagining that you might feel x; is that how you feel, or is it different?” “Did it only make you sad to go/do x, or did you also have some fun?”

Ask about specific life events and activities: how the kids’ activities are going, how she is sleeping and whether she’s remembering to eat, if she went on vacation and what she did, if she’s been reading anything good, what cute things her kids have said that week, what’s happening at work, or what TV show she’s enjoying. One of my friends asked recently if I was taking care of myself and painting my nails. That was a good and insightful question. The answer is that I felt up to it one day about a month ago, and now it’s chipped almost to oblivion because I’ve never felt like taking it off and repainting. It’s a small question about a small thing, but it was meaningful to me because she cared enough to think of what life might be like for me right now, and to turn that into a relevant and answerable question.

And don’t be afraid, if your friend wants to talk, of asking about the loss. Has he been to the grave? Is it hard to go there? Does he like going, or dread it? Does he have bad dreams? Are there any places or things he’s avoiding because they remind him too much of the loss? These are not easy questions to ask, and are appropriate at some times and not others, but in the right setting they are thoughtful and compassionate. The experience of loss can be isolating; your sensitive questions about the details may make your friend feel just a little less alone.

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4. Specific offers

Many, many people have kindly told me, “If there’s ever anything I can do, please let me know!” I appreciate that offer greatly, but the trouble is that I don’t know exactly what the offer means. I don’t know if you mean that you would like to make a meal, babysit, pick something up at the grocery store, weed my flowerbeds, fold laundry, clean my bathroom floors, or just come over and sit with me. I am nervous that a specific request I make might be outside the realm of what you were thinking of doing, so I am unlikely to ask.

The most helpful offers are specific. If your friend is like me, she will probably be more helped by an offer like this: “I have two hours free on Wednesday afternoon. Can I…[come babysit while you run an errand or take a nap/go to the grocery store for you/clean your bathrooms/make dinner/help with homework/mow the lawn/help you take the kids somewhere fun/fill in the blank with the options you would like to offer]?” Giving a list of a few specific ways you would be interested in helping will clarify your offer and enable your friend to tell you what would help the most.

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5. Sensitivity to timing

This is key: sometimes your friend will feel like talking and sometimes he won’t. Give him the opportunity to make that choice. If you’re thinking of an impromptu visit, text or call first to see if it’s a good time. If you’re starting a conversation, first ask if your friend wants to talk about it just then. One of my friends said, “You mentioned before that this has been a hard week. What has made it particularly hard?—And you don’t have to talk about it right now if you don’t want to.”

The grieving person is likely always close to tears. Sometimes she wants to share those tears and the feelings behind them, but sometimes she needs to keep operating on the surface of her life so that she can make dinner or make it to a doctor appointment. Sometimes she may be able to talk fairly collectedly about her experience, but other times she is hanging on by a fragile thread—though it may not be evident visibly—and she doesn’t have the emotional energy required to discuss it. You can’t be sure, so when you ask a question, offer her an exit she can take if she chooses.

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6. Solidarity, not sameness

When we were awaiting Simon’s almost certain death, a woman who had experienced multiple miscarriages told me that she knew what I was going through. I appreciated her desire to empathize with me, but the words left me feeling isolated, with the true character of my suffering denied. I had already experienced two miscarriages, which were devastating—but this loss felt incalculably different, and, in the context of my life, much worse. I would never deny the pain of any miscarriage, let alone many. But this woman truly did not know what it was like for me to feel my baby stir and kick inside me, knowing all the while that his tiny heart beat under a sentence of death. She did not know what it would be like for me to labor and deliver exactly as I had with my three living children—only to bring forth a beautiful, perfectly formed, silent child. By leveling my pain with hers, she invalidated my unique experience.

There are many kinds of catastrophic loss, and I don’t suggest we attempt to rank them or engage in one-upmanship with our pain. But we should recognize that every experience of loss is different. Even if I talk with another mother who has lost a child, even if that child was lost to stillbirth, I cannot know exactly how she feels, because I am not living her life. But our profound fellow-feeling for each other transcends the difference between our losses. That solidarity can flow from a very similar experience, a quite different one, or mere unflinching imagination of how such a loss would feel. There is a touch of healing in the fact that while no one knows exactly what I feel, some people comprehend a part of it. Tell me that our sufferings are the same and I will feel misunderstood and terribly alone. But stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me and say, “I feel part of this with you. I understand some of what you are enduring. I hurt with you and here is why,” and I will feel that a hand has grabbed mine in the dark.

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7. Safety

If you want to be a friend to the hurting, make your conversation a safe place. I have found few things more painful than finding that, in addition to grief, the bereaved must sometimes bear the misjudgment and criticism of others. It is a ludicrous burden to put on the bereaved: the expectation that the way they process their grief must fit tidy categories established by people who have not suffered this loss themselves. That is not the face of compassion. That is not Jesus weeping outside the cold grave of Lazarus even though he knew that he would raise him from the dead—weeping because even if you could know the endings that none of us knows, death and similar sorrows are still horrible beyond comprehension or comfort. Jesus didn’t scold the mourners for their likely lavish display of grief; he wept with them, with lamentations probably just as loud. I think that is the model we should follow: listen to the grief of our friends and join it, rather than finding fault with the words they use.

It is a great, breath-restoring gift to the hurting to be in the presence of a person who will hear whatever you feel like saying without narrowed eyes or attempts to correct you. I have some friends like that, and they help make it possible, somehow, to daily bear what is unbearable. They say things like, “It is totally understandable that you feel that way.” “You can say whatever you want; I’m not going to be shocked or offended.” “It is valid to feel however you feel.” “You have not done anything wrong.” These friends are not looking for a theological imprecision around every corner. They know the context of loss is not the time for close philosophical scrutiny; this is the time for grief, and learning how to go on living in the midst of it. Safety to say exactly what you feel without fear of criticism is one of the great benefits of counseling. But why should that safety be found only with a professional, and not also with a friend? Let’s make our friendships places where it is safe to share our hearts.

This list of suggestions is not exhaustive—but these are the thoughts that swim to the surface as I look back over the past seven months and the conversations they have held. For very insightful, related suggestions, I highly recommend Molly Piper’s series on how to help your grieving friend. I wish no one else need ever face tragedy, but I know we live in a broken world where that wish cannot be fulfilled. I hope these words may find their way to touch others who are stranded in the valley of the shadow of death.

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How is too hard

“There was a radical split between the self that did my work and the self that watched me from the shadows…I performed these duties because I had to. But I looked at life like a man having an out-of-body experience.” –Jerry Sittser, A Grief Disguised

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My silence here has been long—and so is the silence I feel on my soul when kindly-intentioned friends ask a shockingly difficult question: “How are you?”

Sometimes I stumble through an attempted explanation. Sometimes I say, “Okay,”—and then feel like a liar who has dishonored the memory of my dead son. Sometimes I say, “Not very well,” and then feel the stunned pause that tells me I have flouted all social convention—as well as denied the goodness that exudes from my three living children, and the mere fact that I get up every morning, which is an achievement in itself. Sometimes I just look at the person, hoping that an ambiguous smile will obviate the need to reply with words. After all, it is a question often asked, robotically, by people who have no real investment in the answer:  cashiers, clerks, repairmen who ring the front doorbell. But where we have an actual personal acquaintance, we generally expect a response—and we are socially and linguistically conditioned to give that response in the form of an adjective, a one-word evaluation of our entire lives.

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“Great,” we say. “Awesome.” “Fine.” I have long used the reluctant “Okay,” but even that feels like a betrayal, because I am not okay, and I never will be fully okay. I am broken, as others have been before me, and there are no adequate or acceptable words to convey that fact. If I say, “Horrible,” I launch the innocuous encounter into towering, un-navigable waves. But I have said the truth about one part of my life—although not about all of it.  Because my husband and my parents love me, and my children are darling—though wounded by this loss like we are—and I have some faithful friends, and my physical house is standing, and the roses and lavender are blooming along my deck, and I went for a run today. But my baby is dead, and my dreams for my family are shattered, and my faith is scrabbling for a foothold in the dark. And it is impossible to cover those many true things in one pithy soundbite.

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So I can’t tell you how I am. How is too hard to define. But I can tell you what I am doing.

I am getting up early, most mornings, and running in the cooler air, listening to podcasts and audiobooks so that the silence doesn’t smite me. I am simmering chili, and marinating chicken, and baking granola bars. I am scrubbing ground beef off porcelain plates, and folding clean underwear, and sweeping the crumb-strewn kitchen floor. I am sitting on the couch or a blanket in the yard, reading picture books aloud in the sunshine. I am taking three young children to the library, the grocery store, the park, and, almost every day, the pool. Consequently, I have the best tan I’ve had since becoming a mother seven years ago. I am reading my own books and listening to my own music—different books, and different music, so that they don’t remind me of things I used to feel and think and hope. I am taking pictures of my children, and texting my friends, and trying to find a new moisturizer that I like. I am picking up toys, and clearing the piles of paper off my desk, and staying up too late watching TV shows with my husband. I am living my life, and if you see me in the checkout line at Costco, I will probably look healthy and cheerful—at least as cheerful as a person can look while her small fry are whining and badgering each other and getting in the way of the cart. But that doesn’t mean I am fine.

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Because I also sit down on the living room floor, in quiet moments when the kids are watching a movie in the other room, and weep. The yard is dark outside my kitchen window when I wash the crusty pots at night, and tears run down my face into the sudsy water. I go to that pool and park and grocery store and library, and everywhere I turn, I see beaming pregnant women and gurgling babies kicking their small clean toes and families with four children—and every time it strikes me like a knife slashing into an open wound. It is unfair; it is as if the rest of the world goes on merrily and we have been singled out for devastation. People greet me with excited smiles, or casually mention someone else’s baby, or exclaim about how happy they are that some ordinary, everyday prayer for a sore knee or a distracted child has been answered. And I swallow the boulder in my throat, and keep moving, and then shudder with tears in the car on the way to my next appointment.

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“…Though I experienced death, I also experienced life…not after the darkness, as we might suppose, but in the darkness. I did not go through pain and come out the other side; instead, I lived in it and found within that pain the grace to survive and eventually grow. I did not get over the loss of my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life, like soil receives decaying matter, until it became a part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”–Jerry Sittser

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 I am doing what I need to do. I need to live, and curl my arms around my sun-warmed children, and read books that nurture my mind and my heart, and laugh at ludicrous movies, and teach my son how to ask another boy to play catch with him. And I also need to cry. I need to feel the tremendous, shattering loss that will never be repaired. I need to explore the depths of the wound or I will never walk on, bearing the scar.  Enormous loss, I am learning, tears one person into two. It divides the heart so that no emotion will ever again be whole and unmixed. I feel a flutter of joy when my daughter runs across the grass and into my arms. I am sure I will feel a stronger, steadier joy years from now when I watch her walk across a stage and take a diploma in her hand. But the joy swirls together now with a piercing sorrow that Simon is not in the crook of my arm watching her run to us, and will not be a lanky brown-headed young man watching her graduate.

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Likewise, the black burden of grief is not absolute; it can’t be. I have to haul myself out of bed when the alarm shocks me awake, because I need to exercise and my children need me to hug them and dress them and make them breakfast. I am desolate, but I love my children and I want to be the mother they need. I have to wipe away my tears, after a while, and get up off the living room floor so that I can make lunch and pack the pool bag. My heart is in anguish, but I want to feed us and I know I will be glad we went swimming. I have to struggle through the weeping and finish washing the dishes, so that I can sit down on the couch with my husband.  Sometimes it feels pointless to wash dishes, again, when my baby is dead—but I still like a clean kitchen, and I love my husband and I want to relax with him in the quiet house. While the agony of missing my son throbs in my mind and my body, while I carry it every moment like a lead weight inside my chest, I still taste the goodness in my life, and am glad of it. But nothing is pure anymore; the bitter and the sweet are entangled forever. I am two people now: one mourns and the other takes the steps that make up life, and sometimes they regard each other with an aching bewilderment. And when the question comes—“How are you?”—they look at each other helplessly, wondering who should answer.

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Having friends who care about my pain, and who weep with me, is a great gift to me in these days. And when they ask, “What has been hard this week?”, or “What are you missing about Simon today?”, or “What have you been doing with your kids lately?”, I feel a flood of relief. I am not expected to be okay, or fine, or great. I am not expected to deliver a succinct summary of my emotional state. My friend recognizes that how is too hard, so she asks me what—and that is a place where I can begin.

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words, a month later

Yesterday marked five weeks since I walked shakily into my doctor’s office, knowing the worst had probably happened, and lay on a table in a darkened room weeping into the horrible silence I had dreaded to hear. The reassuring rush of our baby’s heartbeat that had flooded me with relief at all our many appointments for many months past–its absence echoed in that room. It still echoes in my heart.

I often wonder why it is so hard for me, the word-lover, to write these sorrows down. The day we learned our baby stirred and kicked under a sentence of death, all my resources failed me. The things that have always comforted me leave me numb–or worse, they terrify me. My violin is silent, smothered in its case; the piano gathers dust in the dining room. At the first strains of music in a room I feel an overwhelming urge to flee or be sick all over the floor. And while words swirl in my head all day long, the actual writing of them is a throbbing, aching pain. I need to write, but dragging out the words hurts horribly. I have to screw up my courage.

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Monday was the one-month anniversary of Simon’s birth. Because my husband had to travel that day and I could not bear the thought of spending a night alone so soon, I went along. It was a hectic day, fraught with the ordinary-life frustrations that apparently are not deterred by the fact that our life has forever departed from the ordinary. We had to sit in the very last row of the plane. The more the lady next to me slept, the farther she relaxed into my seat, and the more she snored. I spent the flight halfway on J’s lap, while he spent it wedged against the wall, trying to type. J’s bag got lost, requiring an urgent trip to the store upon landing and a return trip to the airport that night when it was found. For our return flight, we arrived at the airport early in hopes of catching an earlier flight. The agent informed us that the earlier flight had a layover, so we waited at the airport anyway to take our original flight–only to discover at the gate that it, too, had an extra stop. These sorts of strains overwhelm me at first: can we not even expect the slightest respite? Why must small insults be heaped on our incalculable injury? This–AND my baby is dead. And then I am just weeping because my baby is dead, and nothing else–no flight, no bag, no cramped quarters–can matter anymore.

Yesterday we walked into a dusty office to choose a marker for our son’s grave. I should be 31 weeks pregnant this week; I should be decorating the nursery, assembling the bassinet and hanging the farm-animal mobile. I should be choosing new onesies and baby socks, not small, outrageously expensive granite rectangles. What do I want on my baby’s gravestone? Nothing–I don’t want it to exist at all. And everything–all my acres of love for him. But it exists in spite of me, and there is not room for even a fraction of all I want it to say.

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Every night I sleep with one of Simon’s gowns and one of his blankets clutched in my arms. The blanket belonged to our dear friend’s son and she brought it to the hospital, a gift from her son to Simon, who would have been his friend. It was the first blanket that was wrapped around him; if I hold it tightly, it still smells like my baby. I wish so many things as I lie in the dark. I wish I could go back to the one night I spent in the hospital with my son nestled in my arms. I wish I could see his face again and kiss his button nose, as I did every time I woke that night. I wish I could feel him turn inside my belly again, and laugh at the powerful kick he gave every time his daddy talked to him. I wish I could go farther back, before the day all these horrors began–if I could go back far enough, maybe it would all turn out differently this time.

The day I went to the hospital to deliver my dead son, some friends mentioned to me that I was doing a hard thing. They were right; and yet the word “hard” seems so inadequate, as all words do for such things as this. The death of a child requires you to do the impossible, to bear the unbearable, to survive the unsurvivable. It is not possible for a mother to walk into a delivery room, knowing she will walk out without her baby. And yet she does. And implausibly, incomprehensibly, days follow days. Somehow you wake up in the morning, though you don’t want to. Your heart goes on beating, stubbornly, though you sometimes wish it would stop. I don’t think the human mind and body were made to bear pain this staggering. It feels as though it must certainly kill you–and yet, unbelievably, it doesn’t.

Words cannot express all this, but they have to; they are all we have. Weak as they are, they remain one of the few gifts I can ever give my son. I want them to tell him that we remember, a month later, as we will a lifetime later.

our son

With great sorrow

we announce the birth and death of our son,

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born still at 6:14 pm on Saturday, April 6th, 2013

at 26.5 weeks of pregnancy,

weighing 1 lb, 12.5 oz;

measuring 14 inches long.

.

We buried him on Thursday, April 11th

after the funeral which was the last gift we could give him,

and the only event we were ever allowed to plan for him.

.

I have wrestled for the words to put to this,

to honor our son,

to hold our sorrow.

There are no words sufficient.

So I start where I am,

here.

Tomorrow, some tomorrow, I will write more.

Today, as all the days past, and all the many years to come,

I weep for my son.

snow at last

This winter has largely been a disappointment to my snow-loving children. They have rejoiced at every swirl of white flakes and mourned when it leaves only a dusting behind. They have bundled into snow pants and boots at the slightest opportunity, and taken their sleds down the miniature slope beside our house when there is barely enough snow to slip beneath them. They have done their level best to enjoy the smallest snowfall, but I’ve grown gradually sadder about what they are missing.

But two weeks ago B woke up one morning, looked out the window, and exclaimed, “Look, Mama! There’s ENOUGH snow!” It was only a few inches, but for this year, that counts as a winter wonderland. They bundled up and went out with Daddy to revel in it.
IMG_9386What do you do in the snow? We play baseball.

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Annnnnd….the pitch.

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We also play golf.

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Golf with some sort of foam baseball intended for swimming pool use. We have real golf balls, but apparently he was willing to improvise.

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Shining eyes and rosy cheeks in the snow.

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The sherbet-colored creature in the background is busy clearing snow from the steps to her slide. This girl loves to clean–even, it appears, outside.

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Lining up his shot as best he can with his voluminous mittens.

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embrace the camera: daddy time

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At our house, Daddy is the hero of playtime. Mama can be fun and all, and is handy to have around when food might be called for, but Daddy really knows how to play. He invents games that Mama would never think of–classics with vivid titles like Camel Ride (best played with all three children stacked atop each other on Daddy’s back), Double Fuzzy Roll, and Tentacle Monster. Last night E requested a new version of the latter: Penguin Monster, which involves Daddy waddling like a penguin in the direction of three children who scamper shrieking around the house and re-enter the living room by the other door, where they scream with glee upon encountering the same waddling monster. Repeat, over and over.

This usually takes place in the evenings, when all my camera can capture is blurs of movement, but one weekend morning I chanced upon Daddy having some of that fun with his little girl. It began with stories; Miss Independent initially thought she might sit on the other end of the couch.

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But she came to see that curling up next to Daddy was a better option:

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Shockingly, not everything went her way:

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And Daddy had to tease a smile out of her.

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Then he got a belly laugh.

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And then the real fun began. This was some variation on one of the Monster games; I can’t remember the rules. I think she’s wielding a zebra as a weapon.

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Coming around the corner to the hilarious discovery of Daddy lying in wait:

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Wrestles, hugs, and high-pitched laughter:

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Waiting for Daddy’s next move:

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There he comes!

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Hugs for Daddy.

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morning pals

 

On weekday mornings, while C is at school, B and E spend the hours knocking around the house together. In general I would say that much as they cherish her, the boys are closer to each other than they are to their sister–but as fall and winter have passed outside our windows morning after morning, I have watched the bond between my younger two strengthen and flourish. They still bicker, largely because she has discovered that taunting his inner Pharisee is endlessly gratifying entertainment, and they regularly decide that no toy on earth is more desirable than the one in the other’s hand. But they also keep each other company, and look out for each other, and want to know where their pal is at all times.

B turns the pages as they listen to a story on tape. It only took a little coaxing to get him to give her a good view of the book.

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She holds her own in the car-playing department:

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They have matching bright eyes, and the sweetest of goofy grins:

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And they are (usually) quite willing to dispense snuggles:

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And what does a tutu-wearing, glitter-booted, fur-framed pink apparition on a tricycle need…

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…but a gallant gentleman to escort her around the driveway?

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when half spent

I didn’t mean to take a month off blogging, but it happened in spite of me. A number of posts, mentally composed while loading the dishwasher or folding socks, have drifted beyond my grasp and vanished. My camera cord became temperamental and a backlog of pictures is still waiting for it to have a good day. I finally arrive, exhausted, at the evening and promptly discard my day-long plans to write or sew or do anything productive in favor of popcorn and a show on hulu. I ponder things, as the days go by, and I try to file them away with the sweet moments and adorable sayings that I want to commemorate later–but dinner and dishes and messes and homework and grocery lists and head colds and bedtime songs and laundry (always more laundry) intervene. And it’s February, and Christmas seems long ago, but there are things I want to remember.

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The candlelit awe of Christmas on my little boys’ faces.

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All three children were in the Christmas program at my parents’ church. E is in the front in the printed dress; the boys are behind her on either side. They held their stars very high indeed.

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I feared that E might put out an unsuspecting eye with hers–but all was well.

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Christmas morning: Santa brought the replacement harmonica that this little girl had been eagerly awaiting. The mysteriously lost one had been supposedly red but looked pink; this one arrived in the mail a few weeks before Christmas and was decidedly red. Santa’s helpers had to do some reconnaissance work to convince E that he might, in fact, bring her a red one–and that that might be a good thing. This helper was nervous, but when the day arrived she snatched it out of her stocking with glee. Phew.

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This year we introduced the concept of siblings choosing gifts for each other. Each child made a separate trip to Target with Mama and picked out two gifts. My favorite part of Christmas may have been watching their joy as they presented what they had chosen. Here B is demonstrating the marvels of the truck he bought for C. Luckily, C had somehow managed to choose a very similar gift for B.

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This is the face of a girl who has just received her first My Little Pony from one of her beloved big brothers.

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Every Christmas we give each child a special book. Choosing them, and writing the dedications, is one of the highlights of my year. This time E received Blueberries for Sal. She pores over it.

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The boys’ great request this year: a metra train. I was nervous about the feasibility of this, until I found some wooden ones, compatible with their track sets, online. Oma and Opa bought them for Christmas, and the boys’ lives were complete.

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A happy Christmas face, with a bow on top.

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E’s toy birthday cake: she serves us slices on a daily basis.

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Taking the new trains for a spin.

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B got a bowling set; E invented a new grip on the ball.

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It was a good Christmas, quiet and slow, with the moderated expectations I tell myself are just for now, for this stage of life, this year. We caught up on our advent calendar and Jesse tree every few days, and our crafting was simple in the extreme: I think it consisted solely of drawing and coloring some Christmas trees together, and making cut-out cookies with Oma. And we introduced a new tradition: we sat in the glow of the tree and read The Advent Book together every night, and were delighted with it. Small fingers took turns opening the doors each night, and by Christmas small voices could recite large sections of the Christmas story from memory. I hope I never forget the sound of my three-year-old exclaiming, “Gwory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to men…”IMG_9011What? You don’t decorate your house with matchbox cars?

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It was a hard Christmas, too, and I wonder if, for me, this season will now always be traced with sorrow and fear. Last year I wrote about wondering if the white horse of hope would come for me again at Christmas; this year I still waited, and still wondered.

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I thought often of the words of the old, haunting hymn, describing Jesus’ coming “Amid the cold of winter, / When half spent was the night.” The darkness had been long for the people who waited still to hear from God. And it was not all past: there came a flash of light and hope and God with us, but there would be darkness and silence again, and through it they would be asked to hold fast to the promise that had been given and only partially fulfilled. The night was only half spent, although they did not know it at the time.

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My brother’s picture on our Christmas tree: a piece of him with us each year.

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I don’t know how much night remains, for the vast agonies of the world or for the individual hurts of people like me. As Anna said compassionately on Downton Abbey, “All God’s creatures have their own troubles.”  We wait, not knowing.

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I didn’t feel much like decorating for Christmas–but I duly put everything up on the first of December, and took it down on the first of January. And I was glad I did. Maybe it’s even more important, when the night seems long, to string up small electric lights and lift treasured old ornaments out of cotton batting, to place them again in the spot that seems best and watch them reflect your children’s shining eyes.

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My dad and his parents; my boys; between them, one of my favorite decorations, which my Grandma gave me when I was a very little girl.

IMG_9038I sang Christmas songs to my children, and E lifted up her little voice with me every night, warbling along to her favorites.

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I let them decorate the tree a little more this year (with the unbreakable ornaments). I am trying to let go. They took their work very seriously indeed. After they were in bed I added the breakables, out of reach, and slightly edited a few of their more eclectic placements. IMG_9042

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The German greeting means “Happy Festival” and I believe we had that. There was football (Thanks, Grandad!):
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And there was feasting:

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Daddy had a week off work, and we enjoyed it. There was lego-building, and subsequent dramatic truck crashes, such as never occur to Mama:IMG_9063

There was reading by the Christmas tree:

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With pigtails, no less.

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There were elaborate ramps for new cars (engineered to end with the biggest possible crash, I’m sure):

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There were energetic living-room gymnastics:

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And serious matches of Memory:IMG_9108

And, thanks to a new book from Nana on how to draw their adored trains and trucks, a great deal of drawing.

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The hymn goes on to describe what the rose sprung from Jesse’s stem will do:

“Dispel with glorious splendor

The darkness everywhere;

True man, yet very God,

From sin and death now save us,

And bear our every load.”

Interestingly, the German is less dramatic: instead of “glorious splendor” it simply has “clear light.” I find this comforting. Glorious splendor seems daunting and unreachable, but a clear light, though far off, might be something I could learn to hope for. I don’t see how he bears our every load, but I do see that in the midst of the load there are points of light, blurred as through tree branches, and there are treasured loves, in pigtails and pajamas, playing card games and drawing pictures and reading books. I don’t know how much of the night is spent, but I am glad for Christmas lights.

nine years

On December 27th we celebrated our ninth anniversary. It has been nine years since we walked out, thinner and younger and much more idealistic, onto the front steps of the church I belonged to all my life, and blinked in the December sunshine, starting our new life together. I love my husband dearly, but in these nine years I have sometimes wondered how married people could say that they loved their spouses more than they did on their wedding day. Because marriage is hard, and how could the love sustaining years of marriage compare to the gleaming romance of a bride and groom, resplendent in their most beautiful clothes and blissfully ignorant of all the hardships and sorrows and fights and dirty diapers and home improvement disasters to come?

But in the last year I have looked at my husband, on car rides and home movie nights and family marches through the zoo and dark evenings when he comes home laden with groceries, and known that I do love him more than I did on that shining day and in a dress that no longer fits. All that has come to us, in the nine intervening years, has left behind a love that is deeper, graver, more knowledgeable and more grateful.

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I struggle to know what to say about anniversaries. I think hard about my words, and it doesn’t feel right to post a cheery facebook status about “nine wonderful years”. They haven’t all been wonderful years: they are studded with happy memories, but also laced with the ache of stubborn struggles. In the early years, I wanted to scream when people remarked casually about what a honeymoon the first few years of marriage are. Maybe some marriages feature that, but ours certainly didn’t. We had a moment of enlightenment, a couple of years ago, when it occurred to us that we both came to our marriage with firm wills and strong personalities, used to getting our own way and stunned when intelligent people disagreed with us. It’s a volatile combination. We have mellowed, I think–learned to roll our eyes and move on, to not make a soul-searching and life-evaluating episode out of everything, and perhaps, perhaps, just maybe to give up trying to cram the other person into our ideal mold.

So these have been nine good years, in what they have brought about. I trust they open onto many more years that will be even better, building on this foundation. After nine years, it feels like there is solid ground under our feet. Not freedom from turmoil and not, especially in the last year, the absence of tears–but a place to stand together.

So happy anniversary, my dear, whom I love more today than I did then.

family pictures 2012

Every year I look forward to taking family pictures. My husband has learned to put up with me. He bears patiently with my circular deliberations about our outfits, and then he wrangles small arms and legs into the clothes I set out. He’s not a fan of cameras, but he smiles patiently. My children are used to having a lens in their faces, but we also bribe them heavily. And I think a perfect picture is a natural, happy one–not necessarily one in which every hair is in place and everyone’s eyes are fixed firmly on the camera. That’s probably a good thing, because we don’t get any of the latter. It’s chaotic and hilarious and frustrating, but I treasure having a series of pictures that capture a moment in our family’s life, just as we are now.

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All of us.

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Talking with my girl.

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Three little companions. I love E’s downcast lashes and B’s jaunty hands-in-pockets attitude.

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Our wedding pictures were largely disappointing. Every year I am thankful to get a few more of the two of us, in the natural style that I wanted for our wedding–but didn’t know, then, how to find.DSC_4016

Daddy and his big boy.

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Running. If you know my children, it will not surprise you at all to learn that the boys were pretending to be trains. Whatever it takes.

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This is the perfect shot of our girl: sunlit, laughing, and moving so fast she flies.

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I love the hand on his little sister’s shoulder.

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My love.

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The boys are very occupied with the bridge–and E, of course, is airborne again.

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My favorite smiles in the world.

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A little hug on the side.

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My dear friend Katie took these pictures. She knows our family well and she charmed my kids utterly–as I knew she would. I’m deeply thankful for the priceless memories these pictures hold. Thank you, Katie!