March 22, 2018

Everyone's at the Table

There's a reason we call her "everyone's baby."
You're likely here because you know me in some capacity - in person, across a preschool playground, online, from college, from the sound of my snort-laugh ringing in your ears around town...

As such, you unlikely know what our family looks like today. It's tough to miss us, both because we're noisy and because there are so many of us!

If you'd only followed me by blog, however, my three-year silence ends today with a sizable, 30-pound update. Her name is Mae.

On February 15, 2016, the day after Mary Brooks turned four, our missing puzzle piece made her debut. Margaret Ilse Smith charged into the world with all the purpose and speed she currently displays in her daily laps of our home - and only a smidge less arm-swinging and attitude.

Mae is named after two of her great-grandmothers. She's the second Margaret Smith her daddy has ever loved and the fourth generation of Ilses on my side. I know she'll wear her full name proudly, but to most who know her now, she's "Mae-Mae."

I'm often asked what it's like to have four children. For us, it feels like all our people are here; everyone's at the table. There's a completeness we never experienced before Mae came crashing into things. The cockiness we had juggling three children is gone as well, but that's another story for another day.

Mae is "everyone's baby." She has brought out sweet, nurturing, servant-hearted sides of Mac, Brooksie and even Chapman. It's a precious thing to behold.

She's freshly two and received the memo early on about what this milestone entails. We're testing boundaries, lying on the floor, giggling one moment and falling to pieces the next. Through it all, she has three older champions and protectors who advocate for her in every situation. She's going to be spoiled rotten, y'all, and it won't be one stitch of my doing!

I can't wait to tell you more about Mae and about how far we've come in the three years since I stopped putting virtual pen to invisible paper. For now, though, this will have to do.

Talk soon, friends! Or - most likely - future Anne scrounging this blog for memories of the years that sped by far too quickly...
How old are these smiling Smiths? Two, four, six and eight.
(Who do we appreciate? Gooooood sleepers!)

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.

Maybe 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 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.


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