April 13, 2015

What If I'm Still Broken?

(Backstory: It's been three years since the start of Mary Brooks' ordeal; last week was the second anniversary of the loss of our third baby.

Chapman's pregnancy, which mercifully began quickly afterward, was marked by severe, unexplained bleeding throughout and capped off with a premature delivery. He had a NICU and separate Children's Hospital stay, followed by months of anxious efforts to help him grow, something he is only finally doing in the roly-poliest way.

Our life is beautiful, but there was a long season when I braced continually for the next blow. I struggle mightily with the knowledge I'm still broken, even armed with my faith, my Savior, my family and the passage of time.

So there's the Cliffs Notes version.)

I don't know how to introduce myself anymore. I used to be simple Anne who went to Clemson, fell in love with her best friend, had a beautiful boy, started a small business and found the humor in each of her awkward moments. I am insanely talkative; of those there were plenty.

Then my life got thrown into a blender. We were tossed about in fits and spurts, more violently in some moments than others, and are just now emerging after years of being smacked against the walls. 

I worry what people need to know most about me is I'm not who I used to be or who you might have known. It's been three years since the first of the dropkicks came, but I'm still someone bruised and more delicate than before. What I see now is viewed through a wholly new lens, colored by what flipped us inside out without warning.

I imagine you're tired of my incessant talking about it. It scares me, as what I've learned, what I've come through, who I've become is the most available part of me.

C.S. Lewis wrote that "[p]art of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection: the fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer." A season of introspection makes you question whether you're truly processing or just dwelling on something others would have swept away by now. There's endless room to doubt.

From day one, I wanted to feel legitimate in my hurt. "This wasn't exactly a scheduled appendectomy," I'd tell myself, "but we're home now. Why am I not over this?"

A wise friend first used the word "grief" to me when Mary Brooks' future was unclear. Grief, I believed, was something for people crying at a graveside; it turns out that's just the clear-cut kind. There are infinite iterations of grief, and it's more than possible to mourn a person who hasn't been buried.

I mourned what I had before things got messy - when I trusted life would be good, because it always had been. When I had that optical illusion I was captaining my own ship, directing and managing what came into my life.

In that long season I mourned my daughter's health, my happy-go-lucky state of mind, my older son's delicate and broken heart, the baby and innocence we lost, the ability to enjoy pregnancy without debilitating fear, the simple conversations I could have with strangers when my greatest troubles were dusty baseboards, dirty diapers and whatever sad story played out on the evening news.

To this day I struggle with whether what I've felt - and what I still carry - is legitimate. Do I deserve to be broken? Hasn't enough time passed? Don't I get to be that old girl again? Because people may not tolerate this much longer...

How could people believe I've earned this much room to process if they don't understand what "this" is? We barely understand it ourselves. How could they give me grace in the meantime if they don't know our story? How can they extend me patient kindness when I can't extend it to myself?

Do I have to describe the scars and ultrasounds and bleeding and expenses and panic and "failure to thrive" and unexpected traumas? If people don't know how the hurts started coming and didn't stop - how could they see me as anything but self-indulgent and a bit off my rocker?

I imagined walking around in a sandwich board with my laundry list spelled out for all to see. Maybe get a facial tattoo so no one could miss the memo? You need to know who you're dealing with, world, and she's all cracked up. She's not in the thick of things anymore, not wearing her mourning clothes or staying up nights, but she may not be "normal" quite yet.

One question has weighed heavy for some time now: What if I'm still broken?

Our brains are designed to function in crises; it's fascinating to me how your body keeps moving, your mind keeps processing things. Not everything, but enough to remain vertical, to put one foot in front of the other when it's necessary. Enough to stay in one piece.

It's after the crisis passes that the bottom can fall out. You're left keenly aware of how utterly broken you are, smashed to smithereens. Your trauma wasn't a simple slice to be glued together; it's a series of rifts, jagged cuts that reopen unexpectedly.

There's nothing straightforward about healing. Even Lewis agrees:
"I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history...
Sometimes you're still healing even when good things happen around you. Circumstances change, celebrations are had, babies come home, everyday life resumes - but there's still a guilt and weight behind what appears to be easy joy.

How long can you feel duplicitous, can you wear two faces alternately? When is the expiration date for what you've borne? Is it when every last ounce of the burden is gone? When the bills are paid off or the stitches taken out or the first anniversary has passed?

While I'm not the best at living it out, my approach and advice for others is this: Look at yourself with the eyes you'd cast on a hurting friend. Would you be gentle? Empathetic? Encouraging and understanding if grief pops back up for "no reason"? How would you speak to her? How many tears would you allow?

Why is it so exceedingly difficult to extend the same heartfelt compassion to ourselves?

My other approach, besides talking to myself (in the non-literal sense when possible) as I would a dear friend, is to accept the ugly with open arms.

Look, simple Anne is gone. Your rage at a long Starbucks drive-through line is going to be lost on me. I've got bigger fish to fry, and that just isn't one. These days I'm going to hear "surgery," and before you get to the part about "three-minute outpatient procedure to put tubes in my child's ears," I'll be planning meals for six months and naming our forthcoming community outreach event.

At some point - hopefully this point - I'm going to have to accept that the wreckage of the last few years is my life. There's no getting the old one back. I can be useful here even as I sort things out. I was called to this place. I am needed and I am equipped.

May exposing my raw edges publicly - and coming to terms with them on my own - opens me up to be more valuable, more vulnerable, more keenly aware of how I can serve others.

Maybe suffering creates for us a new kind of ministry: giving not just of our time or our resources, but of exactly who we are. Shattered, taped together and even unrecognizable.

And maybe there's no timeline or bell curve or fade-out schedule for sadness. What I carry doesn't feel the way it did before I had Chapman in my arms, but it does still feel like something. There are a lot of hard months directly behind me, and that truth doesn't dissipate as soon as the calendar flips.

Our hard season was a loss, obviously. It was a series of losses. The baby we lost was a part of me, a piece of all of us, and then she was gone. I had to grieve that; I had to prepare myself for more sadness when it seemed Chapman's story might not end happily either. But there's a voice inside me that whispers, "You only get to think about this so much before you're wallowing."

I don't want to wallow; I want to matter. I want to let the hurt seep out if it needs to, and reach out in the knowledge that some of you are hurting too.

I know now these aren't our lives; this tale doesn't belong to us. In the simplest sense, I suppose it does, but once things hit the skids you quickly see you're not the author here, just a player - albeit one who can contribute greatly. It's not a story OF you, but THROUGH you.

You don't have to hold back who you've changed into or what you're carrying. The damage you've seen can power your life, your ministry - even if you haven't reached the (likely unattainable) finish line of "wholeness."

I'm here to tell you your brokenness doesn't disqualify you from contributing to a greater plan.

Today I'm walking alongside a friend whose beautiful son has been fighting hard in a NICU since his birth five weeks ago; born with what Mary Brooks had, baby G had three emergency surgeries in his first four days on Earth. I'm replaying the words that propelled me in the longest days. His mama is as in the trenches as it gets; I am saying to her what I needed to hear three years ago, and I'm keeping some things to myself.

The life-or-death disasters are adrenaline-pumped first chapters, but they aren't where it ends. There's so much work to be done in the quiet afterwards. The 'afterwards' lasts a lot longer, and sometimes it proves your mettle more than the emergency. (Though my mettle is counter-intuitive; it's throwing my arms open, my head up and asking to be used even though I still feel empty sometimes.)

I say all of this, every word of this non-fiction novella, both as an encouragement and a two-parted plea: Keep going. And bear with me.

Wherever you are, you can be useful. It's my most fervent prayer that I am useful in each step, shaky ones included, out of this hurricane.
The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just that time when God can't give it: you are like the drowning man who can't be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.
Lewis was a perceptive man. I never felt God couldn't help me, but I do now work to ensure whatever cries I have are punctuated by praise and silence. I want to find my purpose in this, and I can't do that without seeing how far I've been carried and without listening for the One leading me out.

I know I can't do this on my own, and I want not just to take strength from a community of believers - I want to add to it, too.

So - what if I'm still broken? I just don't know. That part of the story is a mystery.

I'm certain I'm damaged goods, but I'm equally confident that's not the only evidence of what's happened here. A powerful story is brewing just as big as the storm we survived.

Whatever your storm is, hang on. And keep moving in the middle of it - you're not a loss to us, wearing us down, using up our grace or testing our patience. No one's writing you off.

You're who you were created to be, cracks and all. And no one sees those scars but you.

(Unless, of course, you make that sandwich board or face tattoo. I wouldn't blame you, and it sure would make recognizing one another easier.)

"There is strength within the sorrow
There is beauty in our tears
And You meet us in our mourning
With a love that casts out fear
You are working in our waiting
You're sanctifying us
When beyond our understanding
You're teaching us to trust

Your plans are still to prosper
You have not forgotten us
You're with us in the fire and the flood
You're faithful forever
Perfect in love
You are sovereign over us
-Sovereign Over Us by Aaron Keyes

March 23, 2015

A Change of Seasons

It doesn't seem much has changed around here: same babies, same jobs, same routines.

Little by little, though, the seasons have turned. Just when I think I've had enough of dark winter, spring swoops down in the nick of time.


Baby legs are out for the squeezin', sunshine lasts into the evenings and our moods seem a bit lighter.

There have been picnics on the patio already, 101 pounds of Smiths piled into a trusty red wagon and walks to the neighborhood park.

There's a little denial that this is Mac's last spring before kindergarten. (He's reading this over my shoulder as I type. and giggling)

The rites of passage sneak up on me: first our bedtime stories are read by a younger voice, then our five-year-old gets his first library card.

His pride is so sweet to watch, and it takes away the sting of watching him grow up so quickly.

Our peanut is growing faster than I realize, too. Once off the bottom of the charts, Chapman is plumping up and learning to let us know what he thinks. We couldn't love him more, not one of us.

I waited through a cold, icy winter for the sun to come back - and it has. Now I need to remind myself not to wish away anymore seasons, or else I'll be else sweeping an empty nest. (Though that laundry pile might finally get tackled...)

February 15, 2015

Three Years!

On Valentine's Day our Brooksie girl turned three. She had a wild beginning, and the spunk she showed from the start is still her signature.

Mary Brooks, I love your laugh, your fearlessness, your protective nature, your "big sister" sweetness, your (too-rare!) snuggles and your many strong opinions.

I love your perfect little face, your fading scar, your whoops and squeals and joie de vivre.

I just love that we get to be your parents. (And that I can post-date this entry so it looks like I still keep up with our family milestones.)

Happy, happy birthday to the girl who wants to be a "doctor princess" when she grows up so she can "help sick people and look in dem ears." We rejoice at the thought of God's plans for your life!

January 20, 2015

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas...

Chapman Collins Smith, the little peanut who could

...my true love turned one.

Two weeks ago today my littlest sweetheart grew up on me. Well, he's been doing that for a while, but now my Chappers is officially a year old.

His absolute delight at the world, his adoration of two besotted siblings, his sweet-natured squeals when we walk in to the room - every piece of him adds up to be just the boy our family needed.

Some people would call him a rainbow baby, the promise of hope after a storm of loss. I simply think he was just the right baby at just the right time to capture all our hearts.

We need you far more than you need us, little man, and we loved you from the very start.

You are the happiest Chappy, the most content child who wants only to be with us, to soak up the noise, giggles and excitement of two boisterous big siblings.

You/ve taught me so much, Chapman. After a season of grief over your sister's struggle and sadness at the loss of a baby before you, you taught me how to swim without sinking. I could keep moving without going entirely numb; I could be sad and still experience the joy of you. I didn't shut one bit out; I didn't lose a year of memories or pretend it wasn't happening.

You kept me going in the hard parts, kicking from the inside and beaming through big brown eyes once we met.

You've brought out the softest, most selfless parts of Mac and Mary Brooks, who I thought couldn't get much sweeter.

You, my love, were just what the doctor ordered. Thank you for growing at your own pace, for forcing your very scheduled mother to allow your strengths to develop on a timing not her own.

Thank you for being the snuggliest one yet, for grinning wider than any other peanut could have, for having a personality that belies your tiny stature.

You're finally on the charts, big boy! Without adjusting for your early arrival, you're first percentile for weight, seventh for length and twentieth for that noggin you balance between your shoulders.

I'm not sure what we did before you, Chapman, and I'm so glad we don't have to do without you anymore. May the years to come pass a tenth as quickly as this one did!

Happy, happy birthday to the best belated Christmas present I ever got.

October 28, 2014

The Best Kind of Busy

The start of Mac's very first field trip!

We have a full house, but life isn't as crazy as you might think for our party of five. We're slow-movers, we Smiths, and tend to build a good bit of rest time into our week.

That said, this past weekend was a doozy - and so, so fun.

Psyched for another photo op, obvs.

Friday morning was Mac's first field trip ever, a perk of being a "big kid" in K4. The whole family joined his class at Fisher's Orchard, and it was the warmest, sunniest October morning to be there!

The orange made Mac (and Bradley, for that matter!) easier to spot.
We saw goats, chickens, baby bunnies, a turkey and a cow. We picked apples out of giant crates, as we were about a month too late for the real deal, and left with armfuls of kid-approved pumpkins.

With my boys after our wild rompus of a hayride
Our gang enjoyed a hayride during which Mary Brooks and the younger brother of Mac's best buddy held hands behind his big brother's back. Eep! There was wind in our hair, enough bumps to make me thankful Chappers was strapped to me, and more screaming giggles from the little people than I could count.
Please note the hand-holding preschoolers and tiny cowboy boots.

We drove home with two extra passengers, Mac's best pal and his younger brother, grabbed some pizzas and let the combined five children wear themselves out before naps and quiet time.

At our old stomping grounds cheering on the Tigers
After stashing a few things in suitcases, we headed to my in-laws' near Clemson for Homecoming weekend. Bradley and I spent Saturday tailgating and catching up with friends while Mac, Mary Brooks and Chapman had whatever their hearts desired courtesy of Nana and Papa.

Burning off a birthday-cake sugar high.
Sunday morning we scooted back to Greenville for an early afternoon birthday party, after which we all collapsed into our beds.

It was a fast, filled-to-the-brim weekend, and while B made me promise next weekend would be homebound, I know he'd do it all over again. Plus a few naps.

October 6, 2014

Our First McWeekend

On October 5, our firstborn had his golden birthday: Mac is five whole years old! (Let's pretend I'm not writing this in 2015, shall we?)

To celebrate, Bradley and I decided to give him a whole weekend as an only child, doing all his favorite things with us. Two weeks before the big day, my parents happily took the little two to Columbia, and we had Mac help us set up the agenda for his first "McWeekend."

That Friday evening we had friends over for a double date (plus Mac) at home; they brought a takeout supper and, to all of our great amusement, watched Mac inhale half a pizza all by himself.

Saturday morning we slept in, and Mac requested his dad's homemade blueberry oatmeal for breakfast. Next up we took our first two boys, Blue and Mac, on an "almost 100 minutes" hike in Paris Mountain State Park.

Mac was so proud to walk close to the water, climb tricky rocks and handle other "big kid" issues he couldn't have if our younger two were with us.

After our hike, Mac picked Sonic (yes, Sonic) to try for lunch. He picked out a slushie with his kids' meal and beamed at every nibble of tater tots. How did he live five years without tater tots?

That evening, we went to watch the Clemson-FSU game with friends, and they had a giant cupcake ready as an early birthday surprise. He felt so grown-up!

I expected the post-dinner kickoff time to wear Mac out, but I was dead wrong; he stayed up for every last minute of the game - even overtime. I only wish we'd pulled out a W!

Mac finally crashed when we tucked him in at 12:45am, and he stayed in bed until 10:30 Sunday morning. I don't blame the boy!

The sweetest part of the weekend was reuniting all three siblings. As much as he reveled in his time as an only child, Mac was so excited to see Mary Brooks and Chapman again. (The little kids loved their time away, too!)


I'm pretending this post was written last fall, but it's actually early spring - and Mac hasn't stopped asking for another McWeekend.

We hope to make this an annual tradition, and look forward to time with each of our little people around their birthdays. The one-on-one time with our biggest boy meant the world to all of us.

August 28, 2014

And Then There Was You

Bradley and Chapman  
Six weeks ahead of Chapman's due date, he was trying his best to be born, regardless of our plans. That's some gumption.

Bradley sped back to the hospital after dropping Mac and Mary Brooks with a friend, placing a call en route to finalize the purchase of a suddenly-very-necessary SUV. The pieces of the puzzle we'd hoped to put together by Valentine's Day were sliding into place shortly after New Year's; it was miraculous and terrifying. 

The doctor on call checked me before B made it up to my room, and it became abundantly clear that my hope of stopping Chapman was a fantasy.

My husband, in his infinitely calm and even-keeled wisdom, suggested we let go and enjoy the day. Now that we knew this was our son's birthday, we needed to make the most of it; there was no use fighting what was already happening.

It was a bit too sudden for me, though. At dawn I'd woken up in pain; by 8:30 I was at the doctor's office. Two short hours later I was gowned up, epiduraled (this is not a word, but can I get a hallelujah for medicine!) and wondering what on Earth had happened to my Monday.

I'd been pregnant for 12 of the last 13 months; it bent the boundaries of time for me. Only zoo animals carry babies that long, right? The entire year of 2013, save one very sad five weeks, I'd been growing someone. I was determined to meet this child, and not one minute before mid-February.

It raised the stakes physically and emotionally having lost our baby only nine months before, just when I "should" have been out of the woods. With Chapman we never quite settled into the confidence of previous pregnancies, the giddy sureness that a big bow would be on our front door at 40 weeks.

There had been panicked phone calls, urgent ultrasounds, hospital rooms and steroid shots. Thank God no real problem could be pinpointed, but the symptoms were constant reminders, and fear nagged me. Chapman was the boy we promised ourselves we wouldn't lose.

I remember standing in our pitch-black sunroom at twelve weeks pregnant, begging Bradley to promise, despite the bleeding and the worry and the trip we were taking to the ER, that this was still our "take-home baby." This was the baby we wouldn't have to bid farewell to without ever meeting.

All eight months of Chapman's pregnancy I'd pictured that glorious moment just after delivery when I'd snuggle him on my chest, resplendent with hormones and happiness and the joy of taking part in a miracle.

He was coming, praise God, but I wouldn't get that moment. It's a lot to process in a few contraction-filled hours.

My parents flew up the interstate from Columbia, as they always do, and my in-laws retrieved Mac and Mary Brooks and treated them to a Chick-fil-A lunch at the hospital. By the time Mom and Dad made it into my room to say hello, I had to rush them right back out after the briefest of hugs; it was go time.

Everything led up to this. Despite my OB's objections, believing strongly that all was well with our boy, the NICU team began hurling facts and potentialities my way. They stayed in the corner - my doctor made sure of that - but I had to try my hardest not to focus on what they signified.

After one last statement of the obvious ("I'm not quite ready to meet him; I really wasn't planning to do this today!"), Chapman was here in a blink.

Chapman Collins Smith, our take-home baby.
He was pink, perfect, tiny and crying softly. He was here.

Our OB kept the NICU team at bay for a moment so I could see the son I'd carried so many (but not quite enough) weeks. I looked at him and my heart dropped. "Hello, my love!" I remember hearing the words leave my mouth as though I was a bystander; so much was happening at once.

Chapman was weighed quickly, and I was relieved to know he tipped the scales at 5 pounds and 7 ounces. Five pounds was some odd fixation of mine, as if somehow he'd be healthier, be safer if he crossed that arbitrary, invisible line.

As they wheeled him out, I whispered after him that I loved him, that I was sorry. Bradley and a small team of experts left with the newest, most scrumptious piece of my racing heart.

Little is as shockingly quiet as an empty delivery room. Our doctor kept me company until my parents returned, not 45 minutes after they'd first arrived.

Mac and Mary Brooks came in later with my in-laws, wide-eyed and laughing. It was such a happy occasion for them - waffle fries, grandparents and big sibling stickers!

Mac's discomfort with hospitals goes back to his earliest memories, so I'd prepared him thoroughly for a typical birth. I'd stay in the hospital a day or two, and his brother would be a in a "clear box on wheels" beside my bed.

Mary Brooks was giddy, but Mac wasn't buying it.
He entered exuberantly, rushing to my bedside before welling up. "Where's my baby?!?" Bradley had told them Chapman was arriving early, but the NICU hadn't crossed our minds. Mac dropped his head to the mattress and wept, splitting my heart even more.

I'm more than thankful I was able to hold it together that afternoon. The children were on my lap an hour after Chapman arrived, and I knew if I started crying I'd never stop. So I smiled. I took Bradley's advice and soaked up the gift of our growing family; I shoved aside the ache from an empty spot on my chest where a newborn should've been.

God gave us a beautiful, eager-to-be-here baby. His time in the NICU is another story, but I'm grateful for the perfect timing of Chapman's birth, even if it didn't seem that way to me at the time.

Seven-plus months later, it still twists my stomach to think about sending my sweet newborn away. A half-effective (but better than nothing!) epidural left one side of me numb for hours, which delayed our first NICU catch-up and snuggle session.

Gussied up in my best robe for my first date with Chappers.
It wasn't the dream sequence I'd played in my head for eight anxious months, but Chapman was our take-home baby, just as I'd fervently prayed. 


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