Monday, December 19, 2016

Aunt Yaya

Christmas has always been my favorite time of year. As a kid growing up in the rolling hills of southeast Tennessee, Christmas was filled with family, good food, caroling, and lots of presents. We were spoiled. On one side of the family, there were only two grandchildren: me and my sister. Every year on Christmas Eve, the tradition was to go to my mom's parent's house "in town." We were showered with gifts, an amazing spread of goodies, and I couldn't get enough of the multicolored lights on the tree, reflecting off the blue crushed velvet couches in my Nanny's formal living room. She always made me my very own sweet potato casserole in a corningware dish that was loaded with extra marshmallows. If we didn't get the presents we asked for at their house, we knew we still had two more chances since gifts would be opened the next morning at home and the next night at the other grandparents.'

On the other side of the family, there were seven grandchildren. I am the oldest, then my sister, then there's Britt, Eddie, Catie, Lindsay, and Alesha. Five out of the seven of us lived within several hundred yards of each other. My grandfather owned land and when the four children married, he gave them their own piece of that land on which to build. There were very few other houses besides ours for miles. My cousins were daily fixtures and my aunts were more like older sisters. We grew up roaming from house to house, begging for snacks and romping through the fields, rock piles, and woods. There were a couple of ponds for fishing, gardens, where we were all expected to help when it was strawberry or corn season, and a swing that my grandfather hung from an old oak in their front yard. The words that come to mind when I remember my childhood in that place are WARM and ADVENTURE.

But, as they tend to do, things change. Everyone moved away from our family land except for one aunt and uncle. The cousins grew up, and we traded days of adventure for lives of responsibility and grown-up things. Many of us are married and have families of our own. And I, for one, have spent some time wishing I could re-create what we had back then for my own daughter. We only see each other a few times a year now and for the past several years, we've been excited to come home for family gatherings at Cathy and Ed's house. I think of their house as "home" still because they are the only ones left on the old property.

Turning down that road, heading toward their house, is like going back in time for me. Everywhere I look, there are memories. Like the time we walked down to the church cemetery at Halloween to scare ourselves, and the time we forked Cathy's yard and put shaving cream all down her fence. I remember where the gardens were and I see all of us still, on strawberry picking day, coming in with red faces and half full pint baskets. I see the weeping willow by the pond and the ducks that waddled up every time we came near in hopes of the dry corn we fed them. I see hikes into the "enchanted forest," between the two tall trees, looking for leprachauns. I remember our horses, sledding in winter (with the ducks), dogs and cats by the dozen, and being pulled behind Papaw's tractor on a wagon. And oh, the bicycles. Our bikes were our freedom! We were allowed to ride anywhere between my grandparents and all of the aunts and uncles.
As an adult, the fun times included Cathy and Ed's hot tub on the back porch gazing up at the starry sky and wishing we could freeze time. We would campout at their house for holidays, and loved Cathy's elaborate decorations for Christmas. It was cozy, familiar, and we knew we were loved and accepted there.
Two summers ago, in 2014, we had the absolute perfect July 4th at her house. The weather was PERFECT...not hot, cool breeze, and everyone was there. We even had a pickup softball game in the front yard. My Papaw had not yet died and for a few hours, life was just the way it should be. Now, I'm so grateful for that day. So.much.good. Papaw sat all day in a chaise lounge under a huge tree in Cathy's yard. We took turns sitting beside him, visiting and laughing the day away.
Then, just a month later, my Papaw was gone, and the very next August, Cathy was diagnosed with cancer.

Last weekend, after Cathy was moved to hospice, my cousins and I went down to her house to clean and just be together. Somehow, during a tragedy, you just want to be with the people who get it. Get you. The ones who know what it all means to you, even though you can't express it. In those moments, when you're with your people, no explanations are needed. So we went down to do something. Feeling helpless, knowing we were losing her, being at her house was hard and at the same time, the only place I wanted to be. But I noticed that chaise lounge. Now, it was overturned, rusted, and the tree was bare. It was glaring. So much had changed in only two short years in our family. The people who made me who I am were leaving, one by one. And as much as I tried, I could not hold on to them.

To date, we've lost four people from our original families: my uncle Tristan, my sister, Papaw, and now Cathy.  Death is strange...we all know it's coming, but it's never enough time. That place and those people are so much a part of who I am, I'm still learning how to live without them. This blog is just my process in telling the story...part of healing. I had a mentor tell me once that, "it really is dumb what we do as humans. We love...knowing we're going to lose people...but we do it anyway. It really is dumb." I would add that it's even dumber when we don't allow ourselves to love for fear of being hurt. For then, we've lost so much more than if we never loved.

I'm so thankful for my family.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Bella Notte

This is a fun parenting stage. Well, not always, but for the most part, this kid is keeping us laughing, her imagination is running wild, and she is starting to ask really poignant questions. I wanted to be sure to record one of the sweetest memories we've made so far.

I had purchased a new dress to wear to a wedding. I don't buy dresses hardly at all (just for weddings and funerals) and so I tried it on to to show Justin. I came strolling out in the dress and the shoes, hoping, as most wives do, for a positive reaction from my hubby. Amber Joy was in the hallway outside our bedroom and saw me coming. She immediately knew this outfit was out of the ordinary for me and said, "stop mom!" She then proceeded to "announce" my arrival into the living room to Justin, who was sitting on the couch watching TV. She said, "presenting, princess mommy!" Then she fell to one knee with both arms pointing my direction. I chuckled, wondering where she had learned this. So I walked into the living room and she kept going. "Daddy get up and dance with the princess!" Justin reluctantly got up, told me he liked the dress, then began to dance with me. Amber Joy grabbed a marker that was close by and began to sing, "for this is the night, it's a beautiful night and we call it Bella Notte..." She sang the whole song. By heart. She made us keep dancing.

As I danced with my husband as our daughter serenaded us, I thought to myself, "this is what life is all about."

I'm in love with my family.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The gift of touch

Many of you know that when Amber Joy was born, she was very early...well, God wasn't surprised, but according to the 40 week gestational calendar, she was 14 weeks early. When a baby is that premature, and there is a decent NICU, the baby will spend the next several weeks in an incubator. They will receive as little stimulation as possible, and when their senses are stimulated, it will be for short, controlled time periods, typically with only one sense "awakened" at a time. For example, it is routine in a NICU for parents to be told only to touch, but not to sing or talk to the baby simultaneously. Or, if they want to make eye contact, not to touch. These babies are so tiny and their brains are still developing, that it is believed that over-stimulation can lead to heart rhythm changes, blood pressure increase, overall fussiness, and even hiccups.

We don't know, but we assume that after she was born, she entered the NICU and these protocols were put into place. She would have likely been touched only when absolutely necessary for diaper changes, IV/ventilator maintenance, and other medical procedures. The NICU had very caring nurses, and when we visited the Taiwan hospital where our girl was born, we met a precious social worker who had been on Amber Joy's particular case, working to find a family. We imagine that this social worker visited her at times, perhaps even touching her. When Deana Pan found out about Amber Joy, she visited her as well. We know she was well cared for in the NICU.

In November of 2015, our nephew was born in Pensacola. In an odd turn of events, he was born at 26 weeks and 3 days, exactly like Amber Joy. It was surreal to see his tiny body, fighting for life in that incubator. He wore little velcro "glasses" that kept the glare from the heat lamp out of his sensitive eyes. Justin's sister wasn't even allowed to touch him for several days because of his frail condition. We spent time at the hospital there after his birth so we could see him and visit with Liz. One of the things the nurses told her was that, when she touched him, she should do it with a firm touch, not light and feathery. They explained that gentle touch produced irritability in these babies: they needed pressure, no stroking, and just a firm hand that says "I'm here."

As I thought about that over the next few days and weeks as our nephew slowly fought his way out of the NICU and home (in February), I was surprised at the range of emotions that hit me in the face. Every update from my sister-in-law about our nephew was like getting to experience what it might have been like for Amber Joy. There's more to that, but I've decided not to divulge her story in my blog since it's HER story and not mine...

Our nephew's journey has made me aware of some things that we began to try to integrate into our life with Amber Joy. I've discovered that she loves a firm hand on her back while she's trying to go to sleep. She fidgets a lot, and if we leave her room before she's asleep, she'll call us back in half a dozen times. But if I lie next to her with just one hand heavily on her back, she's asleep in 15 minutes. When she was a baby, many nights, I remember sitting on the floor, holding her hand until she fell asleep. She's super ticklish, so light, feathery touch is not her favorite.

She is also easily stimulated. If there are too many senses being used all at once, she is prone to meltdown. It's easy to get aggravated when she doesn't make eye contact while she's eating, playing, or doing any number of other things, but because of what we now know, we're much more forgiving, realizing that it's not that she is being willful, rather she is sometimes incapable of managing more than one or two senses at a time.

Honestly, there have been days when I've grieved the fact that we weren't there throughout Amber Joy's first months. I wanted to be there to touch her the first time, feed her, hold her, dress her, change her, and learn every single detail of her. But instead of dwelling on the time we didn't have, I'm choosing to concentrate on the now. At the end of the days, we're so tired. She's quite the chatterbox and by 8:00 p.m., we're done. But then I hear, "mommy, you snuggle with me?" Not every night, but most nights, I'm reminded that I have a chance and an invitation to be there for her NOW and that every time I lay beside her, sing to her, pray with her, place a firm hand on her back, it's sending a message to her. I hope she hears that message loud and clear: we're here and we're with you...FOREVER.

P.S. Our nephew is doing well! He is home, seven months old, and he's growing every day. We can't wait to see these two get to know each other as they grow...

Thursday, June 16, 2016

What is this Kindergarten thing you speak of?

How did we even get here?

Just five short years ago, we were dreaming of the day we would finally hold our baby girl, and today, I'm about to order her school uniforms for Kindergarten. It's true what they say..."the days drag, but the years fly."

Amber Joy 'graduated' from Pre-K in May and we had a plan for next school year. It was a good plan. We had met with her teacher and decided, for some really good reasons, that we would wait to let her start Kindergarten. We had talked to the school system. Her dad and I both went to public school so we were happy with our "good" plan. We had discussed possibly doing private school in middle school, but we found out about the Kindergarten readiness program in the public school and decided it would be a good fit for her: only 15 students and a teacher who was highly recommended by people we trust.

But God. God had better than good in store for our girl. God had her best in mind. Please don't read this as me saying no one should go to public school...that is not my message at all. My message is this: trust the Lord with all your heart and don't lean on your OWN understanding...acknowledge Him in all your ways, and He will direct your path (Proverbs 3:5-6). That path looks different for all of us.

For Mother's Day, my mom wanted to go get her nails done. As we were sitting there, I told her I still wasn't sure about school for next year, even though we had a good plan. A lady at our church teaches Kindergarten at a small private school, I said, and I was going to talk to her about her opinions and Amber Joy in particular. Mom asked where she taught and I told her the school was called Redeemer. Mom began to giggle. Confused, I asked why she was laughing and she said, "my friend at church has been praying specifically that Amber Joy would go to Redeemer." This stopped me in my tracks because I know my mom's praying friends. They're the kind you don't want to pray for you unless it's something you REALLY want, because it's likely to happen.

She proceeded to tell me that her friend is a stand-in grandmother to a young girl who attends Redeemer. Her friend also loves Amber Joy and decided a while back to begin praying that Amber Joy would go there. I had no idea until that day that any of those prayers had been said.

A few days later, Justin received notification of his merit raise for the next fiscal year. It was a fair amount and we were thankful. Fast forward a couple more days and I spoke on the phone with the Kindergarten teacher at Redeemer. At the end of the conversation, I said, "oh, by the way, how much is Kindergarten tuition?" Her reply stopped me in my tracks. It was the exact amount of Justin's the dollar.

Mom and I visited the school and were so impressed. It is the Classical model of education and the class sizes are small. Justin had wanted Amber Joy to go ahead and start Kindergarten, but I had worried about the class sizes and the amount of hours she would go every week (35). Redeemer provided an answer to all of that: she will go only half days and there are 10 kids in her class! Personalized attention, short school days, a place where all the teachers know all the kids and families, and a Christian environment...we couldn't have asked for more.

God has amazed us through this whole process. On the day after I first visited Redeemer, I took Amber Joy to the public school where we had intended to register her for Kindergarten readiness, in case something fell through. As we pulled into the parking lot, the bright sunny sky literally clouded over and it looked like the bottom was about to fall out. As we walked toward the school, Amber Joy said, "mama, will there be a picture of Jesus at this school?" I shook my head.

The next day, when we went to Redeemer for Amber Joy to have her evaluation, she peeked into the office where there was a canvas of Jesus behind the desk. She exclaimed, "There he is, I found him!"

We're excited about how God has worked this out and can't wait to see how our girl blossoms next year.