Thursday, January 15, 2015

Saying Goodbye

This morning I sat in a dental hygienist's chair, cleaning tools in my mouth, tears seeping from under the safety glasses, and I said goodbye to my husband.

In the weeks since Nathan went to heaven I have alternated between acceptance and denial. Sometimes reality is crystal clear: he is gone, and I have to learn to live without him. Other times - most of the time - I come across a picture of him in all his vibrant aliveness and my brain cannot wrap itself around the fact that he is no longer here. Nathan was taken from earth to heaven in a millisecond. I've been assured of that repeatedly. But I wasn't there. I (thankfully) didn't see it happen. I kissed him and waved goodbye as he left for work, and I never saw him again. My Nate, dressed in dark blue pants and a Carolina-blue work shirt with his name embroidered in red, drove away and honked his horn at me in farewell - a final farewell, as it turned out.

As grateful as I am for the ability to "remember him as he was," it makes his absence that much more unreal. My phone rings, and I expect it to be him. I drive down the highway, run errands, nurse Elissa in our bed, and all the time am just waiting to see him pop his head in the doorway or emerge from a crowd or appear around a bend in the road. I've visualized him coming back countless times. I dream that he was gone but now is back again. I know God could say the word and Nate would find himself back on this earth just as suddenly as he left it. And I want that more than I've ever wanted anything in my life. It is so wrong for him not to be here. So wrong to be constantly on the go between two houses, to have our entire life together packed away in boxes, to take our baby girl to the cemetery to visit Daddy when, for other kids, "visiting Daddy" means swinging by the office or cheering from the sidelines of a pickup soccer game.

Until last night, I hadn't made peace with the fact that Nate's time here on earth is finished. I wanted, hoped for, half expected him to come back again. The idea that he is never coming back was, and still is, inconceivable to me. I cannot begin to imagine living years, decades without him, and I don't want to. I hadn't said goodbye. I wasn't willing to relinquish my wishes to God's obviously different and higher purpose. In many ways I was caught between reality and wishful thinking - unable to grieve and heal well because of how hard I willed this not to be true.

Last night, as I unpacked some of our things and tried to squeeze four years of marriage into the bottom level of a townhouse, my eyes fell on one of Nate's Bibles. He had at least four, and this was not one he used very often. I picked it up, not expecting much, and noticed sticky tabs attached to two pages. The Bible fell open to the second tabbed page, and I couldn't breathe. In this barren, barely-used Bible one passage was highlighted several times, in blue and then in green:

"For I am already being poured out as a drink offering,
and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the
good fight. I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteous-
ness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me
on that Day." - 2 Tim. 4:6-8
Tears streamed down my face as I turned to the second tab. Attached to the story of Gideon in Judges was a sticky note in Nathan's handwriting. He had outlined a sermon he preached to our youth group one Sunday last year, and the words at the bottom took my breath away again. Nate had clearly printed these words:
"We have a race to run; Jesus has conquered death; God will be with you."
Over this past week I've been reading Mary Beth Chapman's Choosing to SEE, recounting the loss of their daughter Maria and the daily choices towards faith and hope they've had to make since. As I read the chapter where the family returned home after the accident and found a specific, healing message that Maria seemed to have left them, I prayed for such a message from Nathan. I was desperate to somehow communicate with him, but it feels like a thick dark veil has been drawn between us since his passing.

Last night that veil was lifted, if only for a moment, and it was as if he took my face in his hands, looked me deep in the eyes with that famous, reassuring smile of his, and gave me his message. It was loud, and chillingly clear. He fought his fight. He finished his race. He has received his crown and his reward. It is time to say goodbye, for now...

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Birth of Elissa Rose

Dear Elissa,

Today you turned four months old! Time with you has flown by so fast, and I can hardly remember life without you in it. You are the sunshine of my days and the sweetness of my nights. We've had a lot of milestones over this past month: you love to push up first your front, then your backside and I know you will put them together and crawl before too long. You can sit by yourself as long as you have something to hold on to, and you love holding your own toys to taste and examine. You are such a little lady and always have your hands folded properly. You have strong little legs and can stand without support as long as you have someone to balance you. You are very conversational, especially first thing in the morning and just before bedtime. Even when you don't feel good you are the happiest baby! You love experimenting with new sounds and trying to copy me when I talk and sing to you. Your favorite song is "The Birdies' Ball" and you always break out in a huge smile when I sing it, even if you're sad. You love to look at and talk to pictures of your daddy, and can pick him out of a crowd - you grab pictures of him and kiss his face even if there are others in the picture!


It's hard to believe that you're already one-third of the way through your first year of life, and I can think of no better gift than to share the story of how you entered the world. God was so kind to send you to us a week before your due date. You got to have nearly four priceless weeks with your daddy,
and the first week he took off work and spent almost every minute with you. He came to your doctor's appointment, rocked you and sang to you, changed and dressed you and helped feed you. He called you his "little girl" and his "princess," and when you were too tiny to fit in the clothes we had for you he picked out the cutest little newborn things. He loved to take you on walks around the lake, to church and out to eat, showing you off to everyone. I hope you grow up knowing just how much he treasured you, how fiercely he loved you. He was willing to sit through seven natural birthing classes with me, and was the best coach and support during the 18-hour labor! A week before your daddy went to be with Jesus he helped me write the story of your birth. I've kept it just like we wrote it because it's one of the last pieces I have of him.

**Reader Advisory: This account is somewhat graphic in parts, and not for the faint of heart**

                On Sunday, September 7, I went to church while Nate slept in to get ready for his night shift work which was starting that night. I came home with lots of energy and a long to-do list – we ironed and hung curtains, rearranged wall art, and organized the nursery. Nate left for work around 4 pm and I made a big pot of chicken soup, washed and folded a load of tiny baby clothes and crawled around on the floor taping down our entry rug. There was absolutely no sign of labor except for this mad nesting urge; looking back I’m so thankful I got those things done just in time! I went to bed early but had a hard time falling asleep without Nate. I woke up 2 hours later, shortly before midnight, feeling very strange. I had a tightness in my belly and really had to use the bathroom. I had never had contractions before but knew immediately what the tightening every 5 minutes was. I noticed that I was leaking fluid, so I texted Nate and my mom to let them know I was having contractions and might be in labor. My mom had somehow fallen asleep with her phone and called me right away. I didn’t really think I was in labor since I wasn’t due until the 14th, and I expected the early stage of labor to last a long time with me doing most of the work at home. I told Mom that I was contracting every 5 minutes and leaking fluid, and she said I should call the hospital. The on-call doctor told me to come in, which I wasn’t excited about but called Nate anyway. I couldn’t reach him since he was in meetings, so I texted his co-worker and started getting some things ready for the hospital. Soon the contractions were intense enough that I knew we needed to go, so I called the main console and asked the operator to please get Nate for me. He was really excited and went into Nate’s meeting with a huge grin on his face. Nate was in shock when the operator handed him the phone! His first night of turnaround and suddenly he was racing home in the middle of the night to get me to the hospital. By the time he got home my contractions were 2-3 minutes apart and I had to stop what I was doing and focus on breathing through them. He started worrying that we wouldn’t make it to the hospital in time, so we threw everything in the car and got going. On the drive there my contractions were 2 minutes apart and lasting about a minute; at one point I almost threw up because of how intense they were.

                We got to the hospital about 2:30 and Nate dropped me off and went to park the car. I somehow made it to the 11th floor with my suitcase and checked in while taking lots of breaks through contractions. The nurses got me to an exam room and admitted me when they saw I was already at 4-5 cm. I got excited thinking this wouldn’t take too long since I was already halfway there! I changed into a nightgown and they put in an IV port. Nate had to walk around and distract himself from the needle; he told me later this was the only point during the birth where he almost passed out :) I got in a wheelchair and they took us to a labor and delivery room. I had requested nurses who specialized in natural birth, and my nurse showed me some positions to try. I got on all fours in the bed for awhile, then sat on a birthing ball. She gave me some chicken broth to drink, but I panicked during an especially strong contraction and hopped up from the ball, which made me immediately throw up. I was really scared that I would throw up all through labor, so I focused on my breathing and relaxing as much as possible through each contraction. I walked around the room for awhile and would stop and lean over the counter for each contraction, trying to surrender to the pain and work with it instead of tensing up and resisting what my body was trying to do. Nate was super quiet up to this point and I finally asked him to please talk me through the breathing/relaxing process and encourage me. He was so supportive, just hadn’t known at first if I wanted to be coached or left alone to work :) He helped me get in the tub which helped for a little while but also slowed down labor, so soon I was back to walking laps around the room again. I walked countless circles around that room, which probably amounted to a few miles by the time it was all over! I lost track of time but noticed that the sun had come up and my nurses had changed shifts. The new nurse was optimistic that we would have a baby by lunch time, but when she checked me after 3 hours of active labor I was only at a 6. Three hours later I was barely a 7. There would be lots of really intense contractions, then they would stop almost completely and I’d fall asleep.

Mom had managed to change her flight in the middle of the night without paying any extra; our friend Eric picked her up at the airport and she got to the hospital around noon. I was lying in bed exhausted, hurting and discouraged because I’d been laboring hard since 2:30 am and was still only a 6-7. Mom immediately started comforting me and encouraging me along with Nate, and soon he took a 15-minute power nap since he’d been up all night. Mom read Scripture to me, prayed over me and encouraged me through each contraction. At this point I hadn’t eaten anything since some soup and bread around 3:30 pm the day before, and all I could have was sips of juice and water. I sucked on a few fruit snacks and somehow had enough energy to keep walking endless laps around the room. I remember being really confused because the contractions were awful, but I could still smile and joke between them. I told my doctor a story about a friend who pushed so hard that her baby shot out all at once and the nurses barely caught him by one leg. When she left the contractions got much worse than they had ever been. I stayed on my feet and tried to sink down into each one; I would grab onto Nate and beg God to help me and Nate would breathe with me and remind me to relax through each contraction.

                The nurse eventually checked me again (being checked was the worst because I’d be lying in bed helpless and she would check me with a contraction which was almost unbearable). She said I was a 9 but with a cervical lip – she tried to move it out of the way which was torturous but then said I still wasn’t ready to push quite yet. She recommended that I take Pitocin to make the contractions more effective, but I was adamant about no drugs and said I wanted to try for another half hour. She left and I think at that point I fell asleep – the contractions seemed to stall and I was so worn out and felt like this baby was never coming. The nurse came back half an hour later and was shocked that I’d been napping at a 9! She got the doctor, who strongly advised me to take Pitocin since the baby had been in the birth canal all day and my body wasn’t effectively getting her out. I finally agreed and they started me on a level 2, the lowest possible dose. I continued my laps around the room, pushing the IV cart and leaning on it for support with each contraction.  45 minutes later nothing was happening, so they increased the dose to 4. The contractions really started to get more intense then, but still weren’t as bad as the ones I’d had before the Pitocin, which confused me. I kept asking the nurse what an urge to push would feel like, but she just said I would know when I had to push. As soon as she left the room I felt that urge, just once, and my mom raced out to get the nurse. I sat on the bed ready to be checked again, and suddenly felt intense pressure down there. I knew the baby’s head was right at the opening! Nate had gone to get something to drink and was shocked when he came back and I was ready to push.

                The room suddenly filled with people; a bright light came down from the ceiling and my doctor appeared at the foot of the bed asking me what position I’d like to push in; she recommended lying on my side. Nate and Mom each held one leg and I started pushing for all I was worth. Everyone was so encouraging with every push, but soon I got incredibly tired of hearing that her head was coming out and going back in every time! Pushing was by far the worst part of labor for me; even though I only had to push for about an hour I was completely drained and just prayed that God’s strength would take over because I had none left. The contractions were much more sporadic at this point, but I would try to push 4-5 times with each one. It was the most intense thing I’ve ever done – almost 3 weeks later I still have a burst blood vessel in one eye!

                Finally I gave the hardest push yet and Nate, Mom and the doctor said she was coming out! As she crowned I had the worst “ring of fire” burning sensation and it was all I could do to listen when my doctor said to push slowly to get the rest of her out. It literally felt like I was ripping in half, but a split second later I heard a hearty wail and our wet, wriggling daughter was placed on my stomach for the first time. I’d been prepared for a grey, wrinkled alien-like baby but she was red and alert and absolutely perfect. I couldn’t get a good look at her right away because I had to be stitched up and cleaned and massaged, but Nate stayed right with her and raved about how beautiful she was. She was so awake and ready to meet us; she stared at Nate and held his finger and latched on the minute she was placed on my chest to nurse. She knew exactly what to do! We had been debating on what to name her from the day we found out we were having a girl, but when we met her we knew her name was Elissa Rose – Elissa means “promised of God” and that is exactly what she was, coming so soon after we had lost our first baby, Hope, which means “a confident expectation of good.” Rose is after my sister Christene, who was nicknamed Rose when she was little. Nate and I were both exhausted and running on no sleep and very little food, but we couldn’t stop staring at our sweet Elissa and marveling at how beautiful she was.


Elissa was born at 6:30 pm on Monday, September 8, weighed 7 lbs 1 oz, was 19 ¾ inches long and had an Apgar score of 9. We spent a couple days in the hospital where I worked with lactation consultants and nurses to learn all about caring for a newborn. She passed all her tests with flying colors and I healed remarkably well with no side effects, even though we learned after she was born that she had been “sunny side up” the whole labor and delivery, which no one knew till she came out! I did some research and learned that face-up babies often result in a much longer, often stalled labor and Pitocin is usually needed to stimulate stronger contractions. The c-section rate is much higher, and severe tearing during delivery is normal. I’m so thankful that I was able to have as much of a natural birth as I did, even with this complication. After Elissa was born my first thought was “I never want to do that again,” but since she was a first baby and sunny-side up I have good reason to hope that subsequent births will be easier :) I won’t lie and say that an epidural wasn’t far from my mind the whole labor, knowing that I could just say the word and the pain would go away – but I am so glad that I didn’t give in! Nate and I had rehearsed what to do in the event that I begged for an epidural (he was supposed to pep talk me about how I was in the worst of it and it would all be over soon), but thankfully neither of us even mentioned it the whole 18 ½ hours of active labor.  

In the end I can’t take any credit for the whole labor and delivery experience; my own strength was maxed out long before Elissa made her appearance and I know without a doubt that God carried me through the worst of it. We had Jared’s worship playlist on repeat for most of the labor, which gave me so much peace. Mom and Nate read Scripture to me, prayed for me and encouraged me when I felt like I couldn’t go on. They gave me invaluable physical, emotional and spiritual support; I know I never could have made it on my own. Our families and friends were praying for me and checking in for updates the entire time. My nurse, who was on shift for most of that day’s labor, was so kind and agreed with us many times in prayer. After the delivery she gave me a big hug and kiss and asked where we went to church; God was so kind to give me a fellow believer as support! My doctor stayed late to personally deliver me and was so consistent to check in all day and cheer for me; I’d had to switch doctors later in pregnancy and she was definitely an answer to prayer.
Elissa is now almost 3 weeks old; Mom left on Friday the 26th and the transition has been harder than I thought, but thankfully we’ve gotten the hang of breastfeeding, she is gaining weight well and learning to sleep at night – she’ll usually give me 6-7 hours of good sleep which is amazing! Nate is working night shift for turnaround and only gets to see me and Elissa for a couple hours each day, but she adores her daddy and loves to look deep in his eyes while he talks to her – she also saves her special poop explosions for when he’s changing her diaper :) We are head over heels for our princess and so thankful to God for this amazing gift of a daughter!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Three Months Later: How We're Coping

It has been nine months since I wrote my last post. Nine months ago I was grieving, empty, fighting daily to find joy and hope in a world where our precious first baby no longer existed.
Nine months later, I hold the gift of healing, of answered prayers and silent tears wiped away. When we buried our baby God gave us a name: Hope, a "confident expectation of good." We had no idea what came next in our story, if we would struggle to conceive or never have children or immediately get pregnant again. But we knew that, regardless of circumstantial outcomes, God was GOOD. And just two months after we said goodbye to Hope, I was pregnant with our Elissa - "promised of God." Now she is here, and perfect, and we love her more than we ever thought possible. We couldn't know it at the time, but she is the good that God promised in our time of despair. 
I typed these words on September 30, 2014, five days before my husband was killed by a drunk driver going the wrong way on the interstate. He had been working night shift and got sent home early, around 3 am, to enjoy his day off with me and our newborn baby girl. He didn't suffer, the sheriff told us - one moment he was on the highway and the next he was standing in the presence of God. My world has been shattered. What I've always known to be true about God is no doubt still true, yet it has been unspeakably difficult to connect what I believe to what has happened to me.

When I initially started this blog, I spent weeks thinking of a creative and meaningful title. One day the name "Taste and See," came to me so clearly that I knew it was God-inspired. Psalm 34:8 says, "Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!" I so named my blog and started posting away, with no idea that my belief in and acceptance of God's goodness would soon be tested to the extreme.

I spent much of 2013, a year defined by dashed dreams, relearning what the definition of God's goodness really meant. My last blog post, written over a year ago, describes the fight for hope after our first baby had been laid to rest under a memorial stone in our back garden. Yet in the wake of our baby's death, Nate and I found comfort and genuine joy in just being together. Our favorite saying that year became, "at least we have each other." Now, under this cruel and crippling loss, I can never say that again. I don't have him. He has been taken from me, and I am left to assemble the broken pieces of our life into some crude and horrifying new normality.

I've largely avoided deep and intimate conversations since October 5. I dread questions about how I'm doing. Trying to put a world without Nathan into words feels ludicrous and trite; the most apt phrases are gross understatements. My world is a sea of constantly fluctuating emotions; one minute I feel okay and the next I have no idea how I will keep breathing. Many days I wake up and all I have to look forward to is when it will be time to sleep again. I both dread and anticipate time's passing: in one sense I hate the relentless days and weeks that move Nate further and further into my past, into "what once was." In another sense time flies so quickly and each new day is another step towards that final cliff I long to walk off of into an eternity with him. 

The future takes my breath away in its numb bleakness. Life, which held all I wanted as long as I had my Nate, now seems like a long dark threshold that must be crossed before I can be with him again. Yet in the midst of my sorrow, the unfairness of being left on this earth without the better part of my self, there are things that I know that I know that I know to be true. These truths enable me to make it through the next five minutes, to love my daughter and fight the fears of losing her, too. These truths lift my eyes from the dreary road I'm left to walk alone and offer me hope if I choose to grab hold of it:

- On October 5, the day Nathan was killed, the verse of the day was Psalm 34:8. Taste and see that the Lord is good. God intentionally reminded me of His unchanging character and goodness when my life lay in broken pieces at my feet. God is who He says He is. My personal circumstances do not alter His character and His promises.

- Nathan, at this moment and for every moment of eternity, is being overwhelmed by Love. And God doesn't love him any more now that he's in heaven - that same unconditional, all-satisfying Love is available to me now.

- Nathan is not dead. He is alive in heaven, waiting and interceding for me, and he is completely free. He is uninhibited by sin and human limitations; he is fully himself as he was always meant to be and fulfilling the eternal purpose he was created for.

- God has never promised me answers. He doesn't owe me anything (when Job's life was shattered he reasoned, "shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?"). I will never grasp with my finite human understanding why Nate was only given 26 earthly years. What God has promised me is a peace that will surpass all understanding.

- Nate's early dismissal from night shift did not surprise God. Neither did a drunk driver screaming down the wrong side of the highway in his lane. All his days were divinely ordained, before one of them came to be. And God never turned His back - He was right there, with open arms, welcoming Nate into Paradise.

- Nathan is home. He has everything he ever wanted, and infinitely more. He was created for fellowship and union with God, and when I join him on eternity's shore we will be in the presence of God together, forever.

These truths don't annihilate the pain. Every day is a fight to believe and to trust when I just want to sleep and wake up on the other side. I've had to make decisions regarding my grieving, my perspective, and my relationship with God. On January 2, Nathan's 27th birthday, I chose to press into the Lord when it felt the most unnatural. The circumstances surrounding Nathan's departure from earth were not random; they did not happen by chance. They were allowed by a God who has surgically removed so many things from my life already. On October 5 He cut out my heart. It makes no logical sense for me to run into His arms. But if I push Him away, this loss will destroy and define me. I am doing my best to imagine Nathan's now eternal perspective and adopt it as my own. If he could say one thing to me now it would be, "just wait, this is all so worth it." He would tell me to finish strong, to never give up, that God is so much more wonderful then anyone could ever imagine. Nathan spent his birthday worshipping in the presence of the Lord, so we did too. His family and closest friends and me, united by our pain, laid our souls bare before the Lord and worshipped - like Job, who, when his entire world was torn from him, fell on his face and worshipped.

Elissa Rose both breaks my heart and comforts me. She has so much of Nathan in her, and I can't begin to imagine raising his child without him. She will miss out on so many traits that made him the best man I've ever known. Thank God that He promises to be a Father to the fatherless. And, in her own baby way, I think she knows. Every picture that she's ever seen of Nate she talks to, reaches for and kisses. She will grow up to bedtime stories of her daddy, and his face will be the first thing she sees when she wakes. She has given me purpose in a world now largely devoid of meaning; she is a tangible piece of Nathan's legacy and will grow to do amazing things. Already she is my dream girl - content and happy and full of personality and so beautiful. We are the best of friends and I am so grateful for her. I just hope Nathan can see how much comfort he has left me through her.

Every ounce of my "normal" has been obliterated, yet I am keenly aware of the ocean of prayers that has borne me up with a supernatural buoyancy. I am floundering, but I have not drowned. I am crippled by grief, but not destroyed. This is in no way of credit to me. Navigating a cross-country move, mothering a newborn, dealing with a mountain of financial and practical and legal matters while trying to wrap my head around my new role as a 26-year-old widow is not humanly possible. Elisabeth Elliot said that those whose loss is greatest receive the greatest share of grace, mercy and peace. This has certainly been true in my case, and much of that grace has been in the form of prayers and gifts (of time, money and practical assistance) from countless friends and strangers. God knew that I could not do this alone, and He has rallied the troops to surround and lift me up in ways that I could never have imagined. Friends, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.