A flashlight in the dark

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Here we are, the day after the solstice, when our world literally becomes a little brighter. This metaphor makes so much sense to me for the darkest times in our lives when things are bleak and despairing. If we get through the pain there is a light at the other side. We may have no sign of it, no inkling, but it will eventually come. 

In early November I had one of these nights. A night as a parent, when time stops and the world around you ceases to exist. The doctor gets disturbed by a phone call at 9pm on a Monday night. We floundered our way through and eventually the morning came. The kids were safe. 

But mental health is sneaky and hard to predict. Sometimes it feels too much to bear. If I am the one who is supposed to hold the hope and the hope isn’t there… what happens then? 

A week later I sat down for Thai food with a close friend. I let it all out, baring my soul over green curry. I didn't couch it with, "I know it's going to be ok." She listened. Like, really listened. She said yes all of this is true and here are the things that are still amazing in your life and steady, too. She held the hope for me. 

Who can hold your hope for you?

Find Your Helper Along the Road of Trials

As you (our heroine), find yourself along what Joseph Campbell calls, The Road of Trials, you will be encountering lots of suffering. That's one of the reasons I like the Hero's Journey - the suffering is an acknowledged part of it. The Road of Trials is represented in the image as Challenges and Temptations. You'll notice there are also Mentors and Helpers along this road. These figures vary in their description depending upon whose writing you read. But I like to think of them pure and simple as helpers or teachers. 

Thanks  Wikipedia!

Thanks Wikipedia!

So, as you are working on re-writing your story (you're doing that, right?) the template of the Hero's Journey can be really useful. Especially if you aren't sure where to start and how to organize. The more I dive into this, the more I like using it as a template because of these Helper figures. The thing is that when you re-visit your story, you are likely recalling a lot of pain. After all the reason you want to re-write your story is so that you can find the glimmers that existed amongst the pain. 

While you are re-engaging with the suffering you experienced, recall a Helper. Who was there to hand you a flashlight in the dark? Who called you out of the blue when you were driving along the highway, tears streaming down your face? Your Helper might be a good friend or your Helper could be a complete stranger whose gesture reminded you of the goodness in the world. 

I know re-writing your story isn't easy. The Road of Trials can be dark and scary. There is no way around it though. The only way to get to transformation is to keep going down your Road. In doing this work, remember a Helper who nourished you along the way, who provided you with sustenance to keep going. 

Trust and Faith

When you whisper "I love you" to your dear, beautiful child every morning, every goodbye, every evening. She usually looks away, she may occasionally shout "bye", but the three words you long to hear don't come out. You keep it up; every morning, every goodbye, every evening.

When you stand at the front of the church, the church he took you to every Sunday, except this time, you are standing in a different place. It is you in the pulpit, speaking to the people in the pews. And you are talking about him. He is gone. The people in the pews are a blur, but you notice curly blond hair in the back that you would recognize anywhere. You didn't know she was coming. She drove eight hours to be there. You find the strength to finish the eulogy.

When you know you've tried all you can and it's still not working. The day is a marathon and you're only on mile three at 11am. It hurts to come around to the realization that you are not able to figure it out on your own. Because you are the person who is always able to figure it out. You pick up the phone, in spite of this, and make the call for help. 

When you look your girlfriend in the eye and you see the same pain you feel in your heart. The specific pain of being a mother to a specific kind of child. You've been looking around for this spark of recognition and it feels like a homecoming to see it. You bring her a cup of coffee and say, "I know". 

 

Remote

Dedicated to my dear friend Kristin in memory of her son Matthew.


My headphone wasn't working so I found myself yelling at my phone alone in the car. It was Maryland and the last thing I needed was a ticket. I hadn't really wanted to call my mom, but knew she would be upset if I didn't tell her about my trip. 

But you've never met her before, right?

I could feel my blood pressure mounting, my chest getting hot.

Are you sure you should go? It's such a long drive and I'm worried about the weather.

A baby had died. Wasn't it always worth the trip? 

But, as I hung up and flung the headphone across the seat, I acknowledged that my mom was right. I had never met her before. In person, that is.  

It was in the midst of a months long hire spree when we first interviewed Kristin. What I can recall most is that she was upbeat with an energy that shot right through your earpiece to announce I'll be a great addition to the team! She was hired in no time and I was assigned to be her trainer. 

Only our manager worked in an actual office building with cubicles and a water cooler. The rest of us fanned out around her, little chickens to our mother hen, spread throughout this country and Canada, sitting at tables in our home offices, guest bedrooms or kitchens. 

Kristin and I hit it off from the start. To be clear, she would have hit it off with the lowliest slug of office life, because that's just who she is. We became fast friends and colleagues, always willing to extend each other a hand for work and connecting about family life when we could. With only a virtual office space, it was sometimes challenging to build personal relationships, but ours came easy. 

Kristin was pregnant with baby #4 when we started working together. As the consistently overwhelmed mother of two, I was in a constant state of wonder when I pondered her growing family, successful career, and world-traveling husband. I came to understand that she makes it look effortless because she truly adores being a mother and revels in her role. 

Not too long after we started working together, Kristin learned that the baby she was carrying would be born with serious health complications. I remember scrolling through my Blackberry as we drove home from a family beach trip, skipping past all the actual work to pinpoint the ultrasound update she had promised to send me. I never found it because she didn't send it. A familiar sinking feeling developed in my stomach as I realized what that meant: not good news.

From right around that time I started believing that a force bigger than both Kris and myself had brought us together. Becoming labeled as a high risk pregnancy and facing the reality that the baby you are carrying may not survive was something I had experienced just a few years before I met Kristin. The first few weeks after my son's in utero diagnosis were some of the loneliest of my life. I felt honored and compelled to figure out how to be there for Kristin as she navigated that time.

Adorable baby Matthew was born after an extremely eventful delivery on September 18, 2014. He faced many pokes, prods and procedures during his first few months but seemed to be making progress. Kristin essentially moved into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), setting up office and take conference calls from the family waiting area on the floor. Just imagine this for a moment - your tiny, medically frail baby in the NICU with no real idea of his future, three (three!) other children at home, and working mostly full time at your baby's bedside.  She did this all with the beautiful grace that is singular to and defining of Kristin.

We were in close contact during these months. We still hadn't met in person as we live eight hours apart. We mostly texted - she sent me details that only a person with a medical background could understand. I would read them, cry, and text back. I had no words so I said the same things over and over again. l send my love. I am here for you. I am praying for you. I saw scariness and unknowns. She saw small steps forward and blessings everywhere. 

In December Matthew underwent a surgery that his family hoped would be his ticket home for the new year. But instead of moving him forward on that path the surgery seemed to send him on a new one altogether. Things were bleak. When that terrible acronym, ECMO (a form of life support), came across on a text from Kristin I knew that we may be nearing the end.

Matthew died on January 14, 2015.

On my son's 4th birthday.

The day of the funeral I walked into the church with my colleague and a little note of apprehension in my chest. I hope she doesn't think I'm some stranger seeing her on one of the most vulnerable days of her life. But the moment she saw us she smiled in recognition. The first thing I said to her was: You are so much taller than I expected!

This story I'm sharing is not meant to be Matthew's story or the story of my friend's grief. Those aren't my stories to tell.

This is the story of a friendship. It's the story of two paths crossing at a very particular time. It's the story of noticing; choosing to see the connections between us and believing that we were brought together to serve a purpose to each other.

I've moved on to a new job. Kristin and I communicate much less often. She is bringing communities together for fellowship and fundraising in memory of her son. She's doing amazing things and infusing her spirit into the world. Her message - to love and embrace life - will always stay with me.  

A Cup of Grace

This essay was published in the November issue of Holstee's Mindful Matter

There was a crispness in the air as I plunked down on my neighbor's driveway. It was twilight of a beautiful early fall evening. The first day of the new season that we had put on our sweaters to go outside. My son and my neighbor's son, both recently minted kindergarteners, were running and laughing and pulled out a big bottle of bubbles. My job sitting there was to keep the bubbles from toppling over and to watch for cars as they ran screaming into the cul-de-sac for their bubble popping game. 

I sat on the hard, chilly cement, letting the boys' laughter wash over me. I told myself to breathe, to listen to the sound of their voices. To be in the moment. I was glad to be out of the four walls of my house for a bit. It had been a long day, a day in which I was mostly stuck in my head contemplating and lamenting my changing relationship with my aging parent. We had several big, looming decisions to make that would significantly impact her life (and mine). I needed some air.

My neighbor, mom to my son's playmate, a lovely Cambodian woman with gorgeous, long, jet black hair and the warmest eyes you've seen was suddenly at my side. She was crouched down holding a steaming turquoise, ceramic mug. She held it out to me and I grasped the mug in both hands and let the heat warm them for a moment. I put the mug to my nose and soaked in the sweetness of the honey and tangerine. Then, I took a sip. The warmth, the sugary syrup, the pulp of actual tangerine, it filled me like a warm hug. As if my friend had given me a special elixir for my worry. What was this stuff? For the next ten minutes I relished every sip of that tea. I could smile with ease at the boys' game and the cloud of uncertainties fogging up my mind was lifted. It was such a gift, this cup of tea from my dear neighbor. 

Life doesn't slow down when big things happen to us. It seems as we get older, those big hard things just keep happening faster and more frequently. The daily small acts of kindness we give to each other are our fuel to keep us going. It was just a cup of tea, but it was really so much more.