This morning on my walk, I stumbled upon a Monarch butterfly struggling in the grass. I wondered if she, too, had just dropped her kindergartner off at school. She kept reaching out with one of her legs to find the next piece of grass but she couldn’t quite get there. I pushed the piece of grass closer to her and she moved. She flopped her wings. I looked to see if one of them was broken. I pulled my dog away from her. Perhaps, she was dying. Did you know that Monarch butterflies have hairy backs?
I decided to pick her up without touching her beautiful wings. So delicate and vibrantly patterned. As I held her on my hand, she flew away. I nearly cried. Then, I started thinking about how God is here. In everything. He sees the broken-hearted mamas and he lifts us up. He changes our perspective. He shows us that we weren’t meant to be down in the grass. We are meant to fly.
For nearly twelve years, I worked with hospitalized kids and families enduring horrible traumas, never-ending sicknesses, and unimaginable accidents. I’ve played with orphaned siblings and cried with grieving mothers. I’ve found blankets for lifeless children. I know for a fact that every single one of these families would have given anything to see their children walk into elementary school, middle school, and high school. Growth is a beautiful thing. Growth is an honor. It’s a privilege.
But growth is still hard on a mama’s heart.
Especially this mama’s.
My older sons walked their little brother into his kindergarten classroom today. He didn’t need me, his mama. On day two. I watched their three backpacked bodies walk away. Their little healthy lives flashed before me. Their giggles. Their first steps. The enthusiastic ways that they jump off of the couch onto the pillow forts they have created below. Suddenly, as I walked away, I laughed at the goofy way Patch, our dog, runs through tall grass. I smiled.
Then, I looked down and saw the struggling butterfly.
One of mine and my boys’ favorite memories of my grandma is when she held a flower from my mom’s garden and suddenly, a butterfly landed on that flower. Today, a struggling mother, me, held a struggling butterfly. It’s undeniable proof that God can use the most fragile and tiny creatures of this world to shift our perspective from the dirt to the clouds.
I have broken into the extra school supplies, especially the boxes of Kirkland kleenex. I have sat in my Grandma’s chair and cried with the dog staring awkwardly at me. Yesterday, I told my husband that I was not going to share my writings because when you’re vulnerable and raw with your emotions, some people try to proofread your feelings or predict or edit them altogether. This really hurts and can feel like someone is rubbing alcohol or lemon juice on an open wound. He said that’s not everybody and that’s not fair and that I have to keep writing. He’s right, I suppose. Thank you for those of you who say comforting things like, “I’m sitting beside my mama. The mother/child bond sure is a strong one.” I will keep sharing for those of you who do the hard work of feeling emotions deeply and as a result, sometimes feel like a paralyzed butterfly.
You’re not. You may just need to be gently lifted up. You’re beautiful and capable. You have unique and extraordinary wings and you will be flying again soon.
There is something extraordinarily healing and powerful that takes root inside of me knowing that Jesus wept.
The other night I had my head bowed in shame as I sat at the kitchen table. I had just overreacted to one of my boys climbing on the outside of the steps, resulting in a broken thrift store umbrella holder. After I cleaned up the mess, I sat there alone and began crying so hard that my tears dropped down onto the kitchen floor. I think it could have been classified as “weeping.” I mentally backed myself into a corner and beat myself up about all the ways I fail as a human being. As a mother. As a wife.
Because isn’t that we do? Beat ourselves up when we don’t have the strength to go grab a Kleenex or some toilet paper to soften the blow of our tears. And when the tears of guilt flow, they sure know how to awaken the dried up wells of inadequacy, loss and despair.
In my heightened emotional state, I texted my husband and a friend letting them know what an asshole I had been. They each kindly offered to help me out of the pit of doom. I thought it may be helpful if I created a hotline for parents, “1-800-ILOSTMYSHIT.” The operator could have a file folder ready to remind you of all the other times when you handled chaos better, a bit more gracefully. The kind person, probably a volunteer, on the line could perhaps console you and tell you about a time that they also overreacted to routine kid chaos.
The thing is that I usually can cry it out, apologize to my boys and hope and pray for their forgiveness and God’s strength to do better next time. Then, we move on. To the dog park or to a game of checkers. Or whatever. My boys, thankfully, have this crazy awesome ability to forgive me and love me through my guilt and shortcomings as a mother.
In hindsight, like a few days later, who really cares about a thrift store umbrella holder? Obviously not the person who donated it to the thrift store. I don’t want my boys to be wreckless and purposely break stuff, but if anyone should understand breaking stuff accidentally, it should be me. I realize that I had some built-up, constant mud and mess-cleaning up anger that I should have released at ripple glass therapy.
Sadly, and not so sadly, sometimes, those we love the most intensely get to see the yucky, jagged and broken sides of us. Inside of our homes. Our cars. Unfiltered, not touched-up, the raw ugly-cry moments. The moments when we feel exhausted, sad, hopeless, helpless and burdened by our own imperfections. The difficult and painful moments of growth, roots shifting or branches getting pruned.
As I did my Lenten sharpie marker art this morning, I realized just how grateful I am to cling to the belief that Jesus gets me the most. So, I am reminded to grab on tightly to the hope offered in the extra soft, aloe-infused Kleenex He hands me. Time and time again. Today, I’m humbled and gratefully aware that his grace daily protects, strengthens, and carries us.
I will meet you at the place. The place where it hurts.
I will meet you in your pain. I will hold you through your grief.
I will meet you in the place where your dreams shattered off the wall.
I will join you in your tears. I will drop my hand gently on your back when you’re sobbing. When you’re curled up into a ball with your back turned away from the world.
I get it. I understand. The rest of the world should be crying too.
I will journey to that place with you.
The hurting place.
That place where I have been before.
I know the way.
I don’t need a map.
I see you. Your eyes. I hear you. The words you don’t have to say. I feel you. Your pain. The after shock.
I recognize your broken eyes. I can sense your empty, crowded brain.
I can help you take a breath.
I can tightly hold your hand.
I can hug your shaking body.
I can sit up against the wall with you.
If you only will let me in.
I’ve been to the hurting place many times before.
I know it can be an awful, lonely and scary place especially if no one ever comes to knock on the door.
Let me help you. Hold you. Hear you.
Let me in.
When you’re ready, I will lift you up. We can take one step and then another. Or we can stop and take a break.
I will be with you. You don’t have to look up. Yet. You will know that I’m there. We can journey to the healing place.
I’ve been there before too.
I will show you the different paths that I have tried.
Maybe you will see a different way. We can journey together.
Next to each other.
We will make it to the healing place.
I guess I will get my emotions dressed up for you. You seem to handle them better with make-up on. All nice and pretty and seemingly unaffected by the storm of life happening around me. I don’t like to pretend but I can’t handle the pain of my feelings being used against me. So, I will disguise them in humor or unrealistic optimism and perhaps a bit of exhausted joy just for you. Then, you will feel better about me. And my diseases.
Every day I wake up, in the middle of the night, like tonight, and I live my life with diseases that let their presence be known. Always. Every single day. I don’t forget that I have them. Ever. My body won’t let me and neither will my heart and mind. That’s the definition of chronic. But I make a conscious decision daily: I choose to rise above the pain, the frustrations, the inconveniences, and the disabilities. It’s an extremely delicate balancing act which is difficult because I’ve always been a bit clumsy. If I talk about it too much, I’m perceived as letting the disease control me or define me. If I don’t talk about it all, I’m somehow resilient yet I feel ashamed, dishonest and like I’m denying myself of tiny, yet powerful everyday kind-of luxuries that I grant to those whom I love. When I say luxuries, I mean vulnerability, compassion, grace, forgiveness and honesty.
Most days, if you looked in on my life, you would never know the burdens that I carry. Because I probably don’t want you to. I don’t want your pity, your hopeless looks or your unintentional alienation. I also don’t want to feel so damn different that I become the chameleon who is awkwardly late to adjust to her new surroundings. I know I’m different. But I also believe that, thankfully, we all are. There’s no possible way that nearly twenty years of chronic disease cannot impact your physical, mental and emotional well-being. It affects who you are, how you relate to others and all the ways that you live your life.
If I show you or tell you about a horrible experience or a day that will make you want to cry, it’s because I trust you to handle my disease in a dignifying way. Or perhaps I’m willing to sacrifice a bit of my pride or privacy in hopes that you will grow in your understanding, compassion or sensitivity to others around you. I’m not trying to gain attention to boost my ego. But is it helpful when people who I value encourage me? Yes. Especially in the moments when I’ve been wounded so deeply that I’m tempted to never speak of this disease again.
I will pull myself back up again and remind myself that oftentimes I speak for a group whose voice has been muffled or lost or ignored. Or misunderstood.
I will write for the mothers who are too damn tired because I have strength in this moment. I will write for the daughters who are scared and hopeless and feel excluded. I will write for the boys and men who have been told they should keep fighting yet that they’re not supposed to cry. I will write for anybody who has ever been momentarily bullied by life. I will write for all those who feel the shivering, aching presence of grief. I will always write because the light, the good, and the extraordinary capabilities of the human spirit triumph all of the shit. Time and time again.
Life is rarely a bowl full of cherries but that doesn’t mean that it still can’t be something pretty great.
I guess I have changed my mind. And my heart. Again.
I will not dress up my emotions and feelings to make them prettier or easier for you to handle. They are real. Raw. Truthful. Difficult. They are joyful. They are powerful. And they are practically impossible to conceal. I spent many years pretending and hiding and being truly myself to only a handful of people. Fear had a tight grip on my shoulders. I didn’t fully trust God’s beautiful awesome power to use the bad to cast a spotlight on the good. Thankfully, I have adapted and evolved over the past twenty years. God continues to perfectly place people in my life who fill me and strengthen my soul with hope.
The beautiful, rare and unexpected gifts that accompany pain and chronic illness will always loosen the ever-present restraints. I breathe easier with an adjusted perspective, overwhelming gratefulness, a heightened awareness of mortality, and the undeniable presence of being surrounded by unconditional love. Thank God for the camouflaged gifts and for all of those who graciously give my heart more space to grow through it all.
It’s a dark and lonely land. You don’t go there often because you know that not much good comes out of even a brief visit there. It’s totally quiet in the house. After bedtime. Outside your window, you can hear the crickets and locusts talking nonstop to the moon but that’s about all.
You’ve somehow managed to make it through another day, but you’re so tired. More like exhausted. You desperately need rest. You crave sleep because your body keeps borrowing calories from itself to fight the diseases. Your diseases.
You let yourself think about it momentarily. Living with chronic illness. Even when the physical symptoms subside, the emotional and mental drain persist. The disabilities you think you disguise so well in attempts to not gain pity or unsolicited attention, worry or that look in another’s eyes.
But tonight, you let go. You give yourself the freedom to temporarily think about all of the hardships. The many ways your life is different, more difficult. How even now in the dark, by yourself, you’re afraid to take the deep breaths that you need because you may start coughing. Damn lungs. Then, your guts will ache. Damn guts.
Your sad late night thinking helps you catch the red-eye flight. Destination: “Nobody Understands Land.” You’re on the plane. Without flight attendants. All alone.
Welcome to “Nobody Understands Land.”
Only nobody is there to greet you. It does not feel like an all-inclusive vacation. Or a romantic get-away. It feels cold. Empty. Desolate. It feels like you’re standing in an uncomfortable place. A place where your thoughts and feelings chose to go. But strangely, your weary body knew better. You don’t have a jacket. Big surprise: all of your luggage got lost.
Everyone you were traveling with must have hopped on a different plane. A plane that you could have caught a long time ago before your life changed forever. Before you got sick.
Your life is different now. From all of theirs.
Tonight, you’re right. Nobody understands the pain of living with the daily physical reminders of your fragility. Your broken guts. Your struggling lungs. Your twisting kidneys. And all of the other parts that ache or quietly whimper. Nobody could possibly understand the isolation associated with the millions of different directions your diseased thoughts can go.
Yet, somehow their favorite guilty pleasure and escape is, “Nobody Understands Land.”
Only, it feels hopeless there. It should never be a final stop. A brief lay-over might be okay. A place to sit for a moment. “Alonely,” as one of your boys might say. You stop, sit down. You think and think until you feel a tapping on your shoulder. That nudging. Oh. God interrupts you, picks you up and carries you to catch your flight back home. As you’re in God’s arms, you look around. Ahhhh. You see. It’s not empty. It’s not so dark anymore. There are others. Tons of others. All of them are looking down as they hold their heads in their hands. You can’t leave yet, you need them to know too. They are not so different. They are not all alone. You see them. You need them to see you too. You jump out of God’s arms to tell them that you understand. Because you do.
Every single time, He gets you out of “Nobody Understands Land.” Because it’s not true.
Somebody always understands. Somebody sits in the chair and aches right next to you. Perhaps a different physical hurt but somehow the same feeling. A universally understood hurt. Empathy can be real. There’s always someone somewhere who gets it. Someone who truly understands or wants to try and understand. Someone who feels your pain, recognizes the pain in your eyes and wants to take it all away. But since they cannot, they sit next to you. Holding your hand so you can feel their presence or so that they can feel yours.
You are not alone. You never have been. You never will be.
Somebody always understands.
My rational thinking mind knows that it’s pretty selfish to assume that God sent hundreds of different kinds of birds to my backyard this morning. It felt like a beautiful gift. Just for me. Perhaps, He sent them to bring me hope or joy or to peck away at my grief or sorrows, my heartaches and hopelessness.
Despite my disbelieving mind, my spirit-filled heart completely trusts and believes in a God that hears my cries and hates for me to feel the heavy burden of grief, loss and heartache. I believe that He hates for me to be trapped in my feelings. Isolated. All alone. I believe He lifts my chin and helps me see the beauty, the freedom outside my window.
So, as I sat staring out my kitchen window in amazement and wonder at the sudden appearance of all of the Thanksgiving Day birds, my soul surrendered to the simplicity, the beauty, and the ease at which His tiny creatures fly from branch to feeder to fence post. I made eye contact with one of my favorites, the yellow finch, “my Grandma bird,” whose feathers have transformed to accommodate the next dreary season. No longer the striking, bright yellow summer feathers. I sat close enough, only a few feet way, separated by glass. I could barely see the pale yellow neck feathers hidden beneath the new tree trunk-brown winter feathers.
In moments like these, I feel my Grandma and I miss her in an indescribable way. I want to be in her presence. I want to hear her voice. I want to feel like everything is going to be okay. I don’t know that she understood the secret gentle power she possessed. The ability to heal my aching heart.
She had this instinctual ability to relate to me on a level that few can. I miss her honesty. I miss her openness with her feelings, the joyful and sad, painful-to-hear ones and all of the complicated ones in between. I miss the little things, like sitting next to her and filling her cup up with fresh iced water. I miss watching my boys run down the hall to swing open her door and surprise her. I miss her sweet voice telling me some powerfully encouraging words. I miss hugging her and telling her, “I love you, Grandma.” I miss her habitual response, “I know you do. I love you, too.”
Holidays are typically supposed to be happy times but they can be so hard when you’re missing a person. They can serve as a painful reminder that someone who was always around is not here anymore. Just gone. The robins, blue jays, yellow finch, doves, cardinals, and all the other birds flying around today reminded me of my Grandma. I like to think of her as strong and totally freed from pain. I like to think of her. I’m grateful that the zipping crowds of birds outside my window helped remind me of her and her never ending love.