December 14, 2014

And Still I Hear The Angels Sing

I should be in bed right now. It's late on a Saturday night and tomorrow is set to be one of the busiest days the Nortons are going to have this month. I should be asleep, and I will head that way soon. But I need to say this first. I've just come in from an evening in Asheville, and even though everyone in my house is sound asleep, I'm here at this keyboard instead of my bed.

Advent is supposed to be this time of quiet. Of waiting and watching. Listening and hoping. And yet, it sometimes feels impossible to find time for those important things. One of the hardest parts of being a clergy family is that holidays like Christmas and Easter are the times of the year when our calendars are the fullest. When we are the most stressed for time and peace and perspective.

For the past three years, I found a way to get at least one night of Advent back. Travis and I have been attending the Shane & Shane Christmas concert in Charlotte. They create a wonderful show each year, half Christmas concert, half worship experience. It allows us the rare chance to not only pause during Advent, but also for Travis and I to worship together, side by side. Our family is always working in some capacity on a Sunday morning, so it's something we've seldom done in our marriage. That concert has become increasingly important to me each year. But much to my dismay, I found out in November that they weren't coming our way this year. Just the idea of that concert not happening was creating sadness for me, so I started searching for a replacement and stumbled across the Christmas at The Cove series up in Asheville. Sara Groves happens to be my soulmate, so I was beyond thrilled to discover she was coming close.

It wasn't convenient...a Saturday night concert, two hours away. A busy Sunday that didn't allow for me to be gone overnight. Travis couldn't get away with me and it was expensive. But it was necessary and I didn't hesitate to buy a ticket. I half-heartedly asked people to go with me, but I was relieved when ultimately no one could go. I know that sounds funny. I know most people don't want to go to a dinner and concert by themselves. And normally, I wouldn't either.

But I knew that as soon as she sat down at that piano and started playing, my heart was going to break open, and it was going to be messy. I knew it would happen, I needed it to happen, and I didn't particularly want an audience for it. Beyond the other 200 strangers in the room, I mean. I was just hoping she could help put it back together again before I had to drive home.

It's been a rough couple of months for us, and just when I think I'm ready to stand back up and move on, I fall over again. And this week, especially, I've been raw and hurting.

Travis shared with our congregation (with permission) last week, our sad news as of late, so it feels okay to share it here. too. For the past year, we've been trying to get pregnant and in August, it finally happened. We were so excited. Having been down this road a few times before, and knowing my prenatal care would be different this time because of having a previous child with a congenital heart defect and Down syndrome, I wasn't in a rush to make my first appointment. I finally booked one for the last week in September. We were going to be traveling in October to see our family out west, and we were hoping to be able to hear the heartbeat before we went so that we could share our good news upon arrival.

My first month came and went fine. The morning sickness and exhaustion were clicking into place just as they had with my first two pregnancies. And then one day around 7 weeks in, I woke up bleeding a little. My doctor wasn't worried, but ordered an ultrasound for later that week. But I kept bleeding and bleeding, and by the time the ultrasound tech showed me the empty gestational sacs that Friday, I already knew what was happening. By the end of the weekend, my pregnancy symptoms had vanished. My doctors checked dates over and over, ordered more blood work, and waited. It finally became clear that there was no hope left for this pregnancy, it had stopped advancing at 5 weeks. And yet, two weeks later, at 9 weeks into the pregnancy, my body still couldn't figure out what to do. So, the day before we left for Utah, I had a D&E.

It was the right decision for me. I felt a thousand times better the next day, and was hiking in Zion National Park 3 days later. I came home from vacation, cleaned my house from top to bottom, tucked away all evidence of our hope, and shut the door on that sad chapter of our life.

And yet, I'm finding that door won't stay shut. It creeps open every once and a while, and I am flattened by grief all over again.

I don't know if it's because we went public with the news, or if it's because Christmas is getting closer and being sad at Christmas is infinitely harder than any other time of the year, but by yesterday, I was just done. My heart was broken for so many different reasons, and I didn't know how to mend it. I found myself short tempered and irritable, unhappy without cause, and sad that I just didn't feel like myself.

Life is hard, you know? I mean, I know you know that. You probably have your own door you are desperately trying to keep closed and move away from. And this time of year, any open wound tends to hurt just a little more than normal. Walking into The Cove tonight, I felt like I was covered in them. Wounds from the miscarriage, wounds from disappointments about Sam's progress, wounds of sadness over my lost Christmas traditions, wounds of stress and busyness, wounds of being disappointed in myself.

Sara Groves was sweet and kind and funny. She sang and played wonderfully, and I felt honored to listen. I was fine at the beginning, but just a few songs in, and my heart just split.

You beneath life's crushing load
Whose forms are bending low
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps so slow

I've sung these lines over and over my entire life, and yet I didn't really hear them til tonight. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear isn't my favorite Christmas song, not even a top 10. But it's what I needed to hear tonight. I've felt like I've been beneath a crushing load, even though I didn't have those words before tonight. 

Look now for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing
Oh, rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels, and hear them sing

But there is good news. The angels are singing. They are filling the Heavens with song, telling us God wishes us peace. He wants good for us. He sees the pain and the heartache and the sadness and he has a way to fix it. He is sending his Son.

Singin' peace on the earth, goodwill to men
From heaven's all gracious King
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels, to hear them sing.

I needed to hear tonight that even though I am bowed down and carrying a heavy heart, all I have to do is stop and rest to hear the angels sing. It may be faint and distant, but it's there. I just forgot to listen for it.

Still through the broken skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled
And still their heavenly music floats
Over all the weary world

I have been so wrapped up in my grief and pain these past months, I forgot to listen for the singing. For the glory, hallelujah. What a perfect reminder of what Christmas is. Angels bending low over our weary world, and not whispering comforting words...not whispering at all. There was nothing subtle about the message the angels brought. A multitude of angels filling the sky with sound. He is here!

Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing
And ever over Babel sounds
The blessed angels, the angels sing, sing, sing

And I can hear the angels sing
And I can hear the angels
And I still hear the angels sing
And I still hear the angels

August 5, 2014

I Mean, I Don't Even

Dear Luke,

I think it was during the 10th minute of your latest meltdown that I started questioning myself as a parent. The first 9 minutes I could completely rationalize and explain away with your being hangry and tired from a morning at gymnastic camp. You had a busy morning of having to follow someone else's rules, and I know that always results in control issues for the rest of the day (See also: the first month of preschool for corroborating evidence). As minutes 11, 12, and 13 continued past and your behavior escalated, I was less and less certain where it was coming from. However, by minute 15, it was clear to me that I was a rotten mother and this epic tantrum was all my fault. I'd become complacent in my parenting style and I'd led you down this road where telling you that you could have two choices for lunch once we got home would make you so colossally angry that you lost your ever-lovin' mind in the backseat of my Hyundai.

After being gone for a week last month, I came home to realize that you have become a master manipulator in your 4th year. It wasn't until I had stepped away from you for an extended period of time that it became evident. You argue, you talk back, you are relentless in wanting to get your way or your point across. You are too smart and too stubborn. It's becoming a frustrating combination that your father and I are working hard to address.

Mindful of your new tactics, minutes 16-20 are spent trying to break the pattern of arguing back with you. I remind myself over and over, "You are the parent. He is the kid. He can't rationalize away this behavior!"

At minute 21, with us home and you in your room in Time-out, I had to start dealing with my own anger issues. What is the matter with you?! Why are you such a punk? Where in the world does it make sense to launch into a tantrum over something so trivial as not getting what you wanted for lunch when you have TWO PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE LUNCH OPTIONS AVAILABLE TO YOU!?!?!

Minutes 22-23. Wait. Did you? Was that? Yes! It was! You are throwing stuff at your closed bedroom door. You KNOW you aren't supposed to do that. Time for a refresher course at what Time-out entails.

Minute 24. Another block goes flying against the door and I just about lose MY ever-lovin' mind.

Minutes 25-30 were rough. I'm not going to lie. I tried to call your dad to get someone to talk me off the parenting meltdown ledge. Unlucky for you(me), he didn't pick up.

By minute 31, with you still wailing at the top of your lungs, and every toy you keep in your room doing it's damnedest to come through the door, I decided it was time to try a different tactic. I came into your room, picked you up off the floor, and sat with you in my lap. We talked about why you were crying (I hurt your feelings), and we talked about why you were in time out (You don't know). We went over how talking back to me and arguing with me about lunch is not okay (You tried once again to state your case). We talked about ways to handle being angry besides destroying your room and yelling at me (You were avoiding eye contact during this whole segment).

But eventually, the hiccuping cries slowed down and your little body started to melt into mine. You were quiet and calm. I was beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel (Spoiler Alert: It was a train).

I told you that in order to get out of Time-out, you needed to tell me what you did wrong, that you were sorry, and that you would try not to do it again. You bargained back that you just needed to say you were sorry but not any of the other stuff. You got this look in your eye that said, "No way in hell, lady, am I going to admit that I did ANYTHING wrong. No way." I insisted in hearing the whole thing, and off we went again.

I lost track of time at this point. I went into the kitchen, made your lunch (no more choices for you!), unloaded the dishwasher, and played with your brother. Things were finally quiet in your room again, so I went back to see where we stood.

When I opened the door, you looked up at me with your big, beautiful, brown eyes full of tears....and told me it was all my fault. You were just about to say all those things about being wrong when I shut the door and put you back in Time-out. If I had just done what you wanted me to do, you wouldn't have had to cry and yell again.

You eventually made it out of your room, after you humored me by saying what I wanted to hear. You thanked me for making your lunch, which you ate quietly and without complaint, cleared your dishes from the table and asked me if I wanted to play Legos. Like it was no big deal. Like, sure, I just called you mean things and screamed and yelled for 45 minutes and tried to tear down a door, but that was so 20 minutes ago. Forgive and forget, Mom.

Luke, I am not at all exaggerating when I say that I am terrified of the possibilities of your adolescence. Your stubbornness and emotional intelligence/ability to manipulate mixed in with gallons and gallons of teenage hormones...I mean, I don't even...I just can't fathom. Your dad is always getting onto me about my pessimistic attitude, so I will do my best to think about how those things could be a great asset and how you are going to be the most awesome teenager ever. And the truth is, you probably will be. You are great with other people, sweet and kind and thoughtful. And I am so proud of that Luke. But the Luke who tears apart my house and who tricks me into arguing back every. single. time. That Luke and I have a long road ahead of us. I know the reason you can push my buttons is because I gave you the remote...the DNA that makes you stubborn and gives you the desire to always be right, I know exactly where it came from. So, we will figure it out, you and I (with your dad to referee). And we will get it right (at least, some of the time) eventually.

Love you, my sweet, stubborn, endearing, aggravating boy.


March 21, 2014

3:21 2014

A few weeks ago, I went in on a Thursday night for a meeting at the swim school. Our owner had hired a speaker from Australia to come in and do a couple of session with our group and with our leadership team. He had experienced a session with this man during a large swim conference and had been so impressed, he wanted us all to have that same experience. So, we shut the school down for a night and we all gathered around for his presentation.

The first night's session was more generalized information since it was the whole company in attendance, from high school students to the senior managers. I was only able to come to the second half of that meeting, but I could tell the moment I hit the door, that he was doing a good job and had their full attention. And he was very good. He was funny, and energetic, and he hammered a few catch phrases into our lexicon. He exposed some cracks in our happy little family, but he also gave us some tools to work on those flaws. Mostly, it was what you'd expect from these types of things: it made you think about your job and your work environment from an outsider's perspective and see how "the way we do things" isn't necessarily the best.

As he was winding up his presentation, I was happy with the night. I thought it had been worth the hour long commute I'd made in the rain to get there and worth leaving my family to fend for themselves for the night. He was talking about the "Facts of Life" and how if we can just accept these "facts" (i.e. traffic will always be bad at rush hour, your kid is always going to spill the juice, your coworker is always going to be late, etc.) and not spend the time dwelling on our anger, we can be more productive with our thought patterns.

It wasn't until he started to talk about how sometimes we have to adjust what we consider the facts of our lives that I had any inkling that this was going to hit closer to home than I had expected. He started talking about the birth of his daughter, 17 years ago, and how their "facts" had changed in an instant. He talked about how a doctor had rushed into their hospital room and had three "facts" that would forever change their lives.

And I knew.

My eyes started to water, my throat got tight, and in my head, I was lying in that hospital bed with my own shaky doctor delivering me the new facts of my life.

He flashed a picture of his daughter in the NICU on the screen, and that was it. I was sitting there, surrounded by 30 people who knew me to varying degrees, trying my hardest to not break down into sobs. I could feel the weighted stares of coworkers who knew me best, I could feel the sympathy and concern pouring off them. But all I could see was that sweet little face on the screen. I knew that face. That face had Down syndrome. She looked just like my sweet Sam did.

He went on to tell about how amazing his daughter is and all she's accomplished in the last 17 years, while I struggled for control. Looking back, if he had started his story anywhere else than in that hospital room, I would have been fine. Show me pictures of teenagers at Special Olympics or gap toothed kids running on a playground and tell me they have Down syndrome, and I'm all smiles. Start with flashbacks to the hardest moment of my life, and apparently, I'm a weepy mess.

At the end of the night, I wanted to apologize for my tears in the middle of his presentation, so I waited around to say goodnight. I pulled up a picture of Sam on my phone and just held it out as my only explanation:

Here's my boy. My own deliverer of new facts. My entrance fee to this club we are both part of.

Today is World Down Syndrome Day. We started celebrating this during Sam's first year, and people around the world have been celebrating it for the past 9 years. Luke's preschool invited us back again this year, and we sat in the gym, surrounded by kids wearing yellow and blue and talked about Down syndrome. We talked about how there are things that are hard for all of us: tying your shoes, riding a bike without training wheels, learning to sit still; but if we practice hard enough and long enough, we can learn how to do it. Sam has to work that hard on things like walking and talking, but just like them, if he works hard enough and long enough, he'll be able to do it too.

This is my favorite day of all the new things we were given with this diagnosis because like I said last year: "We aren't asking for money. We aren't asking you to walk or run or climb a mountain. We aren't asking you to sign a petition or to call your congressional representative. While those things are helpful in the bigger battle we face in making sure our children and members of the DS community are taken care of and given a voice, that's not what today is about."

World Down Syndrome Day is a day set aside to help us open our eyes a little bit more to the people around us who may be working harder because genetic defects exist. It's a chance for us to show support for those families and people who are affected by this diagnosis and to resolve to learn more so that we can do a better job making space for people with Down syndrome in our world.

This year, for me, it's about sharing a hug with a virtual stranger from the other side of the world because despite all the things that make us different, we are both parents of one of these incredibly joyful, difficult, amazing, life-altering children, and that gives us an entire world in common.

For more resources about Down Syndrome, check out the National Down Syndrome Society.
There have been some excellent videos made recently about Down syndrome. Check out these favorites of mine:
Just Like You:
The 1000 Miles of Luca:
And this new movie, which I haven't watched yet, but I can't wait to carve out the time for:
Friends of Mine: