A lot happens in the last twenty minutes before bedtime.
A lot happens in the last twenty minutes before bedtime.
When I was a sophomore in college, I was assigned to write an essay for a linguistics class about the origin of my surname.
I thought, I don’t know. I think it’s German?
What I discovered about my name has stuck with me.
It wasn’t German. It was Frisian. And Frisian is the language that is most closely related to English.
I learned that my ancestor, Okko Peter Tjaden I, the seventh of eight children, arrived in the United States on June 4, 1856. In the United States, he met and married his wife, Anna Ubben Juttbrook on May 17, 1857 in the Silver Creek Reformed Church in Forreston, Illinois. They both died in Ocheyedan, Iowa (population in 2010–490 people).
Okko grew up in a city called Emden, which is currently part of Germany. But it hasn’t always been German. When you look at Emden’s political situation over the past five hundred years, it makes you weary.
It made me think, How did my family view their national identity? Did they consider themselves to be Germans?
When I asked my father about this while he was still living, he gave me a very broad answer, something like, They were Dutch-speaking Germans. They didn’t speak German. They spoke Dutch. But Germany controlled the country.
It was all very confusing to me, a twenty-something who was still actively untangling my own identity. If they spoke Dutch, why was the origin of the Tjaden name Frisian? Which parts of my values and beliefs came from being an American? Which beliefs came from my religion? What did I think about politics?
Over time, I’ve been able to sort through what I believe and what I value and trace back their origins.
It makes sense now that my ancestors probably didn’t value their national identity as much as their religious identity. Politics can change. Governments topple and are rebuilt. But the Kingdom of God is forever, they would argue.
I understand much more fully and more completely now just how important religion was to my ancestors.
When I was in graduate school, I dug into the research on Dutch immigrants and their cultural assimilation in the United States. I found that compared to their Catholic Dutch counterparts, Dutch Protestants stuck together as a cultural group and resisted assimilation.
Many Dutch Protestants came to the United States to establish Dutch-speaking religious schools where they could teach their children without government interference. In the past, there was increasing pressure on schools to outlaw Dutch children from speaking Dutch in schools.
It’s a story we’ve heard over and over again. A government forces children to learn their language in order for them to be considered True Citizens of wherever they’re living. Forget your old culture and embrace our new better culture.
So they were forced to use German in the schools. Obviously, this didn’t go over well with Dutch families and some of them even decided to leave the whole country behind and forge ahead in a new country, where they were told by relatives who had already settled in the States that they could set up their own religious schools and teach what they wanted, without government interference in the language and values that were taught in the school. (By the way, we have religious Dutch immigrants to thank for Betsy DeVoss. Sorry about that.)
I don’t know if this is the key reason that Okko Peter Tjaden left Emden, but he did join a large community of Dutch immigrants who had settled in Iowa. His arrival in 1856 suggests that he probably left because of the decline in agriculture (an influx of American wheat was driving down the price where he lived). However, he and Anna were married in a Dutch Reformed church, which certainly had members who had left behind Holland/Friesland and other areas because of school indoctrination issue.
For whatever reason, I’ve always felt that I’ve had a strong connection to my father’s side of the family. It’s not because I spent a lot of time with them. I actually spent more time with my maternal grandmother and aunts, uncles, and cousins on my mother’s side. They are the people of whom I have the warmest memories.
But there is no doubt that I don’t look like my mother’s side of the family.
I look like my father, and my father’s brother, and a cousin on my father’s side.
It turns out, I was right.
I did the 23andMe genetic test and found that I have the following ancestral components:
The French/German made sense. That was the Tjaden line through my paternal grandfather. The Eastern Europe made sense. That was my paternal grandmother (nee Osimowicz), who was 100% Polish.
But Scandinavian? 22%? Really?
I looked back at the family tree that I had mapped out so far and thought, Oh. That’s interesting.
My paternal grandfather’s mother was 100% Norwegian. Her parents immigrated from Norway in 1870 and I’ve been able to trace back the Norwegian line all the way to the 1600s.
Genes are fun.
My mother’s father’s line has been established in the United States far longer. Her family (the Bundy family) can be traced back all the way to William Bundy, who first showed up on records in Rhode Island in 1663. That’s twelve generations of Bundys in the United States (No close affiliation to Ted ((he was adopted)), Clive, Ammon, or Al Bundy, thank you very much). They lived in North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. They were hard-living people. Homesteaders and farmers. And also very religious.
My mother’s mother’s line has also been in the United States for hundreds of years. They were the Combs and Haburns. Five generations of the Combs family were born and died in Spirit Lake, Iowa. They were even buried in the same cemetery.
What both sides of my family have in common are
They crossed oceans and nations. They worked in multiple vocations in one lifetime, as my grandfather did (farmer, watchmaker, jeweler). They married across ethnic groups (German – Norwegian – Polish) because a shared faith was more important than shared nationality.
I’ve learned that creativity–in a variety of forms–has been a legacy of the Tjaden name. My great-uncle, Otto A. Tjaden, was sign painter, wood carver, and sculptor in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. I found a newspaper article from the local paper in which they talk about an art exhibition of bronze and metal sculptures that was on display in downtown Fergus Falls.
My own father, Leland Tjaden, was a terrific storyteller. Very theatrical in his performance of just about any story that had made an impression (good or bad) on him.
My uncle, Dennis Tjaden, has a love for photography.
And I write. A lot.
Which is not something that happens on my mother’s side of the family. They are a family of few and carefully chosen words. No need to be emotional or superfluous. Just say what needs to be said and be done with it. I have some of the letters that my grandmother wrote to her sister-in-law. Mostly reports on the weather and the children, and occasionally news about who had visited whom lately.
So when my grandmother passed away, there weren’t many people who were jumping at the chance to give a eulogy.
So I did.
Here are some of the words that I said,
Grandma was practical. You could always count on her to reuse an old box of checks for storing rubber bands or a tub of laundry detergent as a garbage can. She wasn’t sentimental. If a soap opera was on TV, she’d usually fall asleep during it. She never said she loved you. She showed you she loved you. She cooked you food and sent cards in the mail. She was a private person. She kept a lot of her own thoughts to herself…
Grandma, you will be deeply missed. I will miss the quiet hours as I would knit and you would doze off peacefully in the armchair. I never cared that you weren’t much of a conversationalist. Just being there was enough. I know you never liked being the center of attention. You were always a fan of serving behind the scenes and laboring without recognition. Know that your life did not go unnoticed. May you find rest from the struggles and labors of life.
What does it all mean?
What does it mean for me to be a descendant of so many travelers who derived their identities from their beliefs and values rather than the country where they lived?
Who could live for years in isolation, miles and miles from neighbors, surrounded in open country where the whipping winter winds chilled them for months, no matter how many fires they made?
What does it mean for me to have the blood of ancestors who struggled through harsh winters in the upper latitudes, who lived modest lives, who worked the land for food, who watched governments rise and fall and clung to their religion to give the world — and their purpose inside of it — meaning?
What does it mean for me to come from families that never once rubbed shoulders with aristocracy and nobility?
Who were for generations uneducated and illiterate? And when literacy came, it came in the form of the Bible?
Who weren’t formally taught science, but who learned about science through tinkering and trial and error?
And what parts of my genetic ancestry have I passed on to my own children?
Will they also have the wandering, curious, creative spirit? The steely resolve? Or will they have their father’s problem-solving and efficiency? Or his penchant for minimalism and order?
Or will they have something else that has been lying dormant for several generations, just waiting to emerge?
I wonder if my heritage is part of the reason that I’m always looking out on the horizon, wondering what is next.
Caught between the gratitude for today and what I have and the curiosity of knowing about what’s down the line. Always thinking about the next thing that I’ll create or write or research.
What is the next thing that I’ll discover or learn or understand or convey to others? What lessons and messages will I be able to share before I join my ancestors in Death? How much of this vast tapestry of life and everything inside of it will I know before I die?
The answer, I’m sure, is Not Enough.
There’s too much beauty and mystery in this life for one human being to ever be able to hold it all at once in one human mind.
It’s too wonderful.
Even when it’s the worst, it’s too wonderful.
On February 2, 1913, Anna Juttbrook passed away in Ocheyedan, Iowa. Okko followed her a year later on February 14, 1914.
104 years later on February 2, 2017, I lifted my hand to the bright winter light that streamed through my hospital window, crying out in pain as I moved into the hardest part of labor.
In that moment, I felt the spirit of my father beside me, although he had passed away three years earlier. In my worst moments of pain when I wasn’t sure I could go on, I closed my eyes and saw people around me. Some of them I knew. Some of them I didn’t. But the people whom I didn’t know, I had a strong feeling that they were related to me and the child for whom I was laboring was a continuation of their blood.
That was what kept me going.
The knowledge that I was not alone.
That I would forever be connected to those I loved and to those who gave me Life.
And humbled by their presence, I said,
I will try.
I will try for you.
I don’t know if I’ll succeed.
But I’ll try.
Three hours later, I gave birth to our second child. A son named Henry.
I did not know until recently that this was the name of Anna Juttbrook’s father.
And her son.
On my worst days, I think about the courage that I had on this day. To step out into the unknown, into the heart of pain and danger, and feel no fear. Because there was no room for it. I was surrounded by Love and strengthened by the Life that was coming through me.
On my worst days, I remember that I was born with ferocity and resilience. I remind myself to feel gratitude for what all of those who came before me have done. Unlike the rugged individualist story that I learned in American history classrooms, I didn’t grow like a magic bean from the ground, dependent only on my own fortitude and industriousness.
I am here because of Okko Tjaden and Anna Juttbrook and Laurence and Mary Osimowicz and Hans and Kari Vaagesar and William Bundy and so many others whose names I’m still learning.
I am here because they left their homelands and struggled in this new foreign country where they were often scapegoated and resented as newcomers for generations before they were considered “real Americans.”
I am here because they chose uncertainty and the hardships that come with it over stability and familiarity.
Am I grateful enough?
Do I make them proud?
Holy Mary, Mother of God…
I’m not Catholic, but this is what I feel like saying when I’ve opened my baby’s diaper lately.
Just… Dear God…
But that’s not where this story starts. No, this story starts way back in a more peaceful, almost utopian, moment in time called “Our Anniversary.”
It was a time of Hotel Bliss. A time of Sleeping In and Room Service. A time of Binge-Watching and Massages. There was even Sex!
Yes, we’ve been married for twelve years.
It was last Saturday afternoon. Snow softly fell outside of our swanky hotel room. We ate a delightful lunch, brought to us on trays and adorned with cloth napkins and adorable bottles of Heinz ketchup. And because I could, I ate that delightful lunch in my bathrobe.
We spend time hammering out several scripts for upcoming episodes for our YouTube channel. (Check it out here).
We talked about the future. Of possible Ph. D. programs and how old we’ll be when the kids graduate.
We talked about politics. Of just how many men in media and politics and business will fall from grace under the crashing wave of sexual harassment allegations. Of the possibility of a pedophile in our U.S. Senate. (Dodged that bullet. Thank God for small favors.)
And of course, we talked about our kids. They’re such good kids, aren’t they? We really lucked out. Felicity has such a big heart. And “my little man”… Oh, I can’t get enough of that face! (taking phone out) I just have to see that face one more time. Oh my God… He is so ridiculously cute. Mama loves you, Big Boy!
It was perfect.
When we arrived home on Sunday afternoon, the Conveyor Belt of Life from which we disembarked on Friday afternoon had accelerated from Challenging-But-Doable to All-Systems-Go.
We still needed to:
This is the point in the story when It All Goes to Shit.
As I was feeding Henry his 3:00 p.m. bottle, Diarrhea was engaged.
Okay. I knew this was coming. My mom (who was watching them while we were away) told me that he was having bad diapers since she picked them up at daycare on Friday (He had an explosion in the highchair… From shoulder blades to knees…)
But we were on vacation.
And Mom had it under control. And when Mom has things under control, everything is fine.
We would come home just as the diarrhea was going away.
Oh, sweet naive little Me.
Sunday evening was unpleasant, but we survived. I explained to Felicity that “the puking bug” that was going around daycare wasn’t something that was going to crawl into her food, like a spider.
“It’s a virus,” I tell her. “It’s a… a… really small germ that can get into your mouth and make you sick.”
Her new saying that she likes to apply to all contexts is, “Well, I was going to…”
So what she said was: “Well, I was not going to eat the puking bug.”
“Good idea,” I told her.
It was early Monday morning.
3:00 a.m. He was crying. A cry that said,
Harmph… What is wrong with me? I don’t like Life. Life blows. Argh… < asleep >
Wait… I still think Life blows… < asleep >
Arghhh! Isn’t anyone going to come help me? < asleep >
As I stared at the ceiling, I kept praying that he’d work it out. That he would eventually go back to sleep. I was going to get up to exercise at 4:30. At least, that was the plan.
I ended up holding him from 4:00 until 5:30 that morning as he softly protested, moaning and groaning, clearly fighting something.
We pulled through. We got them to daycare. We worked. I thought back longingly to the Anniversary Weekend. It felt like that had been months ago instead of the mere 24 hours that it had been. I listened to my co-workers talk about their lazy Sundays of Not Doing Much of Anything.
I was intensely jealous. But I kept it in check. You’re the one who wanted to have kids, my Evil Ego said. Then, there was my Good Ego, saying, Don’t freak out on people who don’t deserve it. This too shall pass.
That evening, the Conveyor Belt of Life kicked into Panic Mode.
We spent an hour just feeding and changing Henry’s diaper. Over and over again. Which doesn’t sound too bad until I tell you what is involved in that process.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Every single time that he poops.
It’s a vicious cycle of, Should I feed him? What should I feed him? He just calmed down. Should I really give him something else? I don’t want him to get dehydrated. But he needs protein. But is soy formula okay? Or not? How many days is this going to go on? Should I call the doctor?
Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday.
A midnight cry that turns quickly into a scream.
It takes a moment to realize, but you do. It starts with unzipping the footed pajamas that you hoped would contain any leakage. (Wishful thinking.)
But it’s on his legs, his belly, even his torso. It’s all over his footed pajamas.
For the love of God, it‘s between his toes.
There’s poop everywhere.
On his sheet. On his blanket.
It’s the definition of Lovely.
Then the screams, the tears, the twisting full-planked baby, fighting your every move to stop you from removing all the shit that is literally everywhere.
It makes you frustrated that you can’t just do the Shitty Job that you have to do.
You have to do the Shitty Job while your ears bleed and you’re tired and you’re angry and you just want to go to sleep and your baby can’t say, Thank you. Hell, your baby isn’t even non-verbally saying thank you by just going to bed.
He’s going to scream way down into the Seventh Circle of Hell while you try to shush and rock and sway him to sleep. You try patting his back and butt the way your husband does (It works every time. He likes it that way.)
All to no avail.
So you leave your baby screaming in his crib, shut the door, and cry in the hallway.
Then, you call in your husband and pray that he’s able to get the baby back to sleep.
It makes you hate your baby.
It makes you sad that you just thought that you hate your baby.
It makes you feel like a failure.
But by the time morning comes, the night terror is a distant memory.
And covered in poop again. (Of course.)
With my hands under his armpits, I carry him at arm’s length directly to the bathtub.
And we try again.
Maybe this will be the last day of this Shit.
To clarify, it’s not like I don’t do anything at work.
But I get to decide what I’m doing.
(At least, it feels like it.)
When I sit down at my desk in the morning and take in a breath, my space transforms. My desk turns into my own little sanctuary from Motherhood, where I can mentally escape from the Tasks that You Do But Are Never Done (dishes, laundry, feeding people, shopping, The Checklist.).
Here, I can finish something.
Here, I can decide to do “That” later.
Here, when the class is over, so are my responsibilities for my students (except for grading. Booooo…). I don’t have to take my students with me everywhere. I don’t have to worry if they haven’t gone to the bathroom in a few hours (I hope she doesn’t need to pee when we’re in the middle of the store). I don’t have to think about when they ate last, or if their runny nose means they’re getting sick (and do we need more Tylenol?)
Here, I can take a break when I want to take a break. I don’t have to eat standing up or devour my lunch in the few minutes before the baby loses his mind about not having the bottle in his mouth.
My good friend, whom I call “Bear,” was telling me about the annoying points of fostering a dog (which he and his wife are currently doing.) The dog whines. The dog makes messes everywhere. You’ve got to worry about what the dog is getting into.
Oh Bear. I love ya, Bear.
Bear is a portrait of me before I had kids.
Sometimes, when I hear him talking, I can almost see myself in 2012.
Look at her in 2012. Going out to dinner. Taking a nap on the weekend. Seeing a New Movie. Sleeping in until 6:30 a.m. Staying up late and drinking too much sometimes.
Bear and I share the pain of the introvert — the person who must have “downtime” away from other people in order to recharge their batteries. But I’ve lost the easy accessibility of recharging mine. I just can’t seem to get away from people for very long. (Maybe that’s why I get up so early to exercise by myself for an hour before the day starts?)
Introvertedness isn’t about being shy (although some introverts are). Being introverted means that you get your energy from inside yourself, not by being around other people. So if you’re constantly surrounded by other people, your energy just goes down, down, down, and down.
Until you just shut down.
Honestly, the scarcity of downtime in parenthood makes me anxious if I think too much about it. I’m a little glad that I didn’t think too much about how this area of my life would change before we had kids. And now that we have two… (Introverted stay-at-home moms… How do you do it?)
Usually, I just think about today. When can I be alone today?
Oftentimes, the answer is: At my work desk.
In between grading and planning and meeting with students, I ferret away time for myself. I check Facebook (because I took it off my phone). I drink something hot (water lately, since I’m cutting way back on coffee). I work a little for this blog (although I often make more drafts than I actually publish. Wonder if this one will make the cut?)
Ahhh… Those two magical words that have become damn near mystical to me.
It really is the hardest part about being a parent for me (right now at least).
Because even when they don’t need anything from you and they’re not interrupting you with feedings, changings, questions, gibberish, crying, or cleverly crafted requests to watch another episode of My Little Pony… (It sure would be nice to see what happens to Pinkie Pie, Mama…)
Even when you can finally sink your eyes into A Dance with Dragons…. You still keep looking up to check whether or not the baby has got something in his mouth that he can choke on (99% of the time, he doesn’t. But that 1%…)
After kids, you need to pay for your Free Time. You want to go out for dinner and a movie? The cost now includes the babysitting bill, which is usually more than the cost of dinner (since we spent all the money on babysitting).
(And if you’re lucky enough to have grandparents nearby that will watch your kids… You lucky dog, you.)
But honestly, we might get to dinner and a movie once per year now. Maybe. What we usually do is go to dinner and then Target. Movies usually happen at home now, but let’s be honest, those movies are usually Carebears and Hello Kitty. If we want an actual adult movie, both kids have to be in bed, so we could start the movie at 8:00, but I would be asleep at 8:25 because I started the day at 4:45 a.m….
You get the picture.
My own mother worked on and off when I was growing up. She was a part-time cake decorator who regularly worked over 40 hours during the months of May and June (graduation and wedding season).
I imagine that she may have had some of the same feelings about working.
Here, I can finish something.
Here, the responsibilities are clear and defined.
Here, I can see be alone with my thoughts.
Here, I can take a break from the Hardest Job Ever.
I miss the Weekend.
I think you can imagine the rest of the post from here.
My absolute worst fear is suffering the death of one of my children.
I can imagine coming to grips with the death of anyone in my life.
Except my children.
Last Friday, I was reading my Facebook feed and read a horrific post from a member of my church.
Her daughter-in-law, Britney, was driving on a two-lane road with her five-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, and two-month-old son, Jonah, in the backseat.
You already know how this story ends.
An oncoming car illegally crossed the center to pass a car.
It killed the little girl.
The mother and baby boy survived.
In the picture, Jocelyn was balancing on one foot, as if in the midst of dancing. She was posed proudly with her baby brother. Smiling. Blond and smiling. Happy. Just like my daughter.
There at my desk, I cried.
Britney was me. Her kids were my kids.
And my heart was broken for her.
All of this happened just days before Mother’s Day.
It was too cruel and unfair for one person to bear.
How could Britney face life and the world, now knowing, now feeling every day, that horrific things like that can happen?
Just like that.
How could she keep going?
But of course I know how.
We all know how.
She’s a mother.
This is stuff that mothers are made of.
Loving through pain.
Living while part of you is dying.
Believing through despair and doubt.
Resiliency beyond measure.
Pure grit and strength.
Britney has already undergone several surgeries to repair her broken bones, including her pelvis. She has been moved out of the ICU and into the trauma unit. (And let’s not forget the fact that she’s just three months postpartum.)
Her newborn son also suffered extensive injuries. Two broken femurs and a broken arm.
He is currently being cared for around the clock by his grandmother, Lanae, who works as a surgical nurse. He couldn’t be in better hands while his mother is recovering.
I made myself imagine what I would do if I were living Britney’s reality.
What would I do?
I would sob and ache and grovel and resent and rage.
For a Long Time.
I would lash out and blame and despair.
I would be out for blood. I would crave Revenge. I would want to hurt and crush and obliterate. I would want to empty the life of the person who didn’t think first, who would rather take a risk, who thought the laws didn’t apply to him.
(Because I think first. Because I don’t want to take the risk. Because I don’t think the laws don’t apply to me.)
And while I would be going through this, I would still have to Get Back Up.
Although I would want to take time off from Life to mourn and process and make meaning, I would have to immediately Get Back Up.
For my son.
Because he would still need to eat and sleep and grow.
He would still need my arms to tell him that he is safe, even though I had just seen how unsafe the world can be.
I would need to decide every hour to keep on practicing the appearance of Love even though I’d be simultaneously steeling my heart from the possibility of Future Pain.
Because Love would have just killed off a part of me.
Love had created a trove of beautiful moments of my little girl — but now there would be no more. And the more time that would pass, the more those memories would lose their clarity. And if I forgot any part of those memories, it would be like losing her all over again.
All I really would want to do is climb into the ground with her so she wouldn’t be alone in the dark.
I would be like this for a Long Time.
But I also know that One Day, through the crisis and search to find meaning, I would finally choose Love again.
Because Love is the only path to Peace.
I would keep walking.
I used to pray that Life Would Be Okay and Get Better. But I’ve stopped doing that.
Because that’s not what Life is for. The life worth living isn’t a life without pain because the pain is what shows us life’s worth.
When I say prayers now, it is in moments for others who are in pain.
And the prayer is that they keep moving
And keep walking through the pain
And that if they fall, that God will reach a Hand down to help them get back up.
Our hearts ache with yours in your time of hurting and grieving. My prayer for you is that you keep walking through the pain. Keep moving. And keep believing that there is good in the world even though it is also so very bad at times. In fact, perhaps the world is good because it is bad.
Years from now, I hope that you can look back at these dark hours of your life and see all the light that people are shining on it. It’s always the people who have suffered and cried and walked the Path of Pain that will be the first to reach out their hands to you. Take those hands. Let them help you get back up. And don’t feel guilty about it. You are not a burden.
Because Some Day, it will be you who is the one reaching out and saving someone else.
You are not alone.
And you are Loved.
If you would like to help this family financially as they cope with medical and funeral expenses, you can contribute through their GoFundMe fundraiser here.
No gift is too small and you can give anonymously if you prefer.
If you would like to provide financial assistance to Lanae as she takes care of Jonah full-time, you can donate here.
Last year, I began the year on an ending.
I woke up empty. Finally.
On New Year’s Eve, I had a D & C to put an end to the miscarriage that my body wouldn’t let go. We picked up my painkillers on the way home, along with a piece of apple pie from Whole Foods. (Sometimes, food really does make you feel better.)
That night, we watched Interstellar through Amazon Prime.
I thought about the moments in my life when I would want to reach back through time and space and tell myself to do something differently.
The truth is, I don’t have many regrets in my life.
But the regrets that I do have are moments when I couldn’t accept that a part of my life was ending and another was beginning. Even when the change was good change. Staying in a relationship that I knew was ending. Staying in jobs that not only sapped my joy but also my dignity.
Given the choice between embracing the unknown and holding on to the familiar, my heart wants to cling to the familiar.
But there is goodness in letting go and allowing the emptiness to move in.
It’s the emptiness that allows us to imagine a different future.
Beginnings cannot begin until the endings end.
So after closing the door on last year’s miscarriage, I gave myself some time to feel empty again. To regenerate and heal.
I got pregnant again.
Now, I’ll be giving birth this January.
The symmetry almost makes me laugh. Perfect bookends on a very strange year. It’s one of those odd parallels that seems too coincidental to be true, but there it is nevertheless.
As this pregnancy enters its final weeks, I’m thinking more and more about the art of letting go and letting it be.
To be clear, I don’t define “letting go” as forgetting the past. That is impossible. Even dangerous to our emotional well-being. When we divorce our present selves from the past, we lose part of our identities. Finding peace in yourself, I believe, requires that you make peace with every version of yourself, past and present.
If you’ve watched any of HBO’s new show, Westworld, you’ve seen how the writers of this show explore the relationship between memory and consciousness. To be human is to construct a present self that is informed by the experiences and decisions of our past selves. It’s this constant creating and recreating of our present identities that makes us human. In the absence of the ability to access memory, we lose our humanity. We become beings that move on pre-programmed “loops” of motivations and behaviors.
In that sense, a healthy respect for accepting endings in our lives helps us become the best versions of ourselves.
In a few weeks, I’ll be closing the door on this version of myself. Mother of one daughter in a family of three. The days of being concerned about only one child’s health and development will be over.
I’ll have to accept that I cannot just fit this new child into the current patterns, behaviors, and structure of this family of three.
Everything will shift.
Everything must shift.
Accepting that shift is how I can keep all the heartaches in perspective.
Heartache? some of you may be asking.
Yes. Because I’ll need to accept that this is the last time I’ll give birth. The last time I’ll look down on that perfectly, unwrinkled face, just minutes old. The last time I’ll rub my hands over that soft, velvety newborn skin.
It takes courage and grace to accept that these moments are so fleeting. If I think about it too much, I feel paralyzed by the grief of watching all these moments pass and pass and pass, knowing that my child is changing, changing, changing.
It is all so brief. So very brief.
But everything shifts.
Everything must shift.
Before this pregnancy, January never felt like a month for giving birth.
The trees are bare. The grass is frosty. The birds don’t sing. The wind stings and bites your face. It’s the peak of the cold and flu season.
Nothing makes me think of the promise of new life.
But the word January comes from the Roman god, Janus, a two-faced god who could look back on the past while looking forward. His presence symbolized beginnings and endings and transitions. He was the god of gates and doors. People worshipped him in times of harvest, in marriages…
And in births.
In these final weeks of pregnancy, that is what I will try to do.
To look on the past even as I move forward.
Into this new identity.
Mother of two.
When I was five years old, my family’s house burned down. To the ground. What was left was a smoky, black carcass that used to be our home. I still remember returning to the site where our home once was.
I didn’t understand. Not really.
We walked through the safest part of the site, our toes nudging burnt, sooty items. A comb. A jacket. That one stuffed animal that looked like a cat, but was really a mouse.
The smell. Oh. The smell. I will never, ever forget that smell. Smoke and soot and water and grass.
While our house was still on fire, flames still clawing at the windows, the fire trucks and ambulances arrived. I saw my oldest brother, Phillip, throw my youngest sister, DeAnna, from a window on the right side of the house. A firefighter caught her. She was just a toddler. I can still see her sobbing there against the backdrop of flames, wobbling on rubbery legs.
I saw my father climbing out of a second-story window, still in his T-shirt and boxers.
I wasn’t thinking about where my other brother and sister were.
I remember thinking,
“I wonder when the fire will be over so we can go home.”
I remember thinking,
“Mom is so going to be so mad when she comes home to see this.”
That’s the way a five-year-old thinks.
My mother worked as a part-time cake decorator for a grocery store on Saturdays. I never knew who called her that day. Someone had to make that call. I wonder now what was it like to put aside the bag of icing that she had been using to decorate a cake for someone else’s celebration… only to pick up the phone to hear that her world was on fire.
That night, we stayed in some stranger’s home.
I don’t remember the people, but they lived in a large, well-kept home in old North Dayton, presumably a family who had signed up to provide temporary housing through the Red Cross.
In the middle of the hardwood floor of their living room was a large, oval, braided rug. While my mother talked to the homeowners, my eyes traced the outer edge of the oval rug, around and around and around. Until it ended in the center.
I wondered what was there in the center, holding it all together.
Someone handed out some canvas bags from the Red Cross. Five bags. One for each of us. The homeless kids.
Inside, there were crayons and a coloring book. A toothbrush and toothpaste. Some soap. A towel. There might have been a T-shirt and sweatpants. I don’t remember for sure.
But I remember the smell of those bags. Sterile.
Like the smell of the hospital where we had just been. Where I had just seen my father hack and cough black mucus into a beige dish just minutes before he was officially discharged.
I remember holding that canvas bag, thinking that it was the only thing in the world that was mine.
Hoping that my parents could afford to buy it for me.
And then the surprise and gratitude when I realized that we didn’t need to pay.
We went to church, and the Sunday School teacher looked at me with wet eyes. In her quiet, shaky voice, she told me that everything was going to be just fine.
She pulled out some paper figures from a crinkled envelope. They were dressed in robes and sandals. One of them fell to the ground and I picked it up, feeling the fuzz on the back side. Then, she handed all the figures to me and I helped her arrange them on the felt board as she told the story of the Good Samaritan.
My child, here is what I want to tell you.
Believe in the goodness of people.
Certainly, not every person will be good to you. Some will bully you. Some will mock you. Some will see you hurting and walk to the other side of the road to avoid you.
Do not expect kindness and empathy from those who have never suffered. Too often, they will find a way to either minimize your pain or blame you for what has happened to you. In their eyes, it will always be your fault. And if they cannot blame you for what you have done, they will blame you for what you have not done.
You really didn’t have it that bad. You should have tried harder. You should have asked. You should have done this. You should have done that.
But always, always, always remember this:
As long as there is injustice and trauma and pain and tragedy in this world, there will be empathy.
Because those who have lost and suffered and cried and bled will be the first to reach out to you when you need help.
Every. Single. Time.
Do not wish away misfortune and pain.
Because a life without either of those is a life without true empathy.
And empathy is what has kept the human race from extinguishing itself.
Have faith, my child.
Paradoxes abound in a world where we lean on logic to make sense of the hard times.
This world is good because sometimes it is bad.
Goodness and tragedy can exist at the same time.
God is both light and darkness. Fullness and emptiness. The loud, booming voice and the stillness beside you.
It is all so hard to understand now. Even as you grow and learn and experience, it is still hard to understand. Even I don’t understand it.
But my prayer for you is that you remain open. That you are always looking for more answers. That you never feel that you have arrived at the truth. Because your truth is not someone else’s truth.
But that doesn’t mean Truth doesn’t exist.
Some of us are lucky enough to have a life that gets better and better, from beginning to end. As Americans, that is what feels normal and right and just.
But the truth is, most of us don’t.
The truth is, much of the time, we don’t get what we want.
Most of us struggle. We fall. We’re pushed back. We lose. We become sick. We grieve.
And this can make us feel that something has gone tragically wrong. It can make us feel that life is unfair and has no meaning. It can drive us to determine that God isn’t real.
How could God be real when there is so much suffering in this world?
How could God be real when I am suffering so much?
What I want you to understand is that believing that life always improves from beginning to end is an illusion. In fact, some cultures in the world do not plot life’s path as a line, rising at equal intervals, ever into the horizon.
Instead, they see life as a spiral.
A constant moving away and returning.
Moving away from what matters.
Returning to what matters.
Moving away from truth.
Returning to truth.
Around and around and around.
Until we arrive at the center.
Until we return to God.
What you’ll learn as you walk this path of life is that over and over again, every time you return, you will be caught by the hand of God.
That hand of God is your mother’s voice when you come home with a broken heart.
It’s the friend who sits with you at your father’s funeral.
It’s the doctor who tells you that there is no heartbeat. But it’s not your fault.
It’s the teacher who tells you that everything’s going to be just fine, even when her eyes say otherwise.
It’s the non-profit organization that steps in with a bag of normalcy on a very strange day.
It’s the stranger who opens their home to you when you’ve lost everything.
My child, be that hand of God.
Be the one who gives and comforts and heals.
As Mother Teresa has said…
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
My child, welcome to this wonderfully complex, sometimes painful, but always beautiful world. It is my hope for you that when you face the hard times, that you are still able to see the larger Truth.
With all my love,