grace, a year later (sharing at Christie Purifoy’s)

I get the chance to share a piece at one of my very favorite writers, Christie Purifoy. Her book wrapped me up in a new way to see the seasons, in the world, in my life, in this always-beginning relationship with God, anew. It has meant so much to me, and I’m honored to share at her space today. Join me?

Here is a little excerpt:

I was all grace-less worry the first six weeks of my son’s life. He was born into the bright steadying lights of the NICU. He was born into weeks of poking, prodding, scoped up and down. His first pictures besides our Instagram snapshots were the flickery black and white of heart and head and kidney ultrasounds.

Two by two, we would go into that ark, my husband and I. Two by two, and no more than that at a time. In the mornings the attending physicians and residents would form a crescent moon standing around his bassinet, and the real moon would take the night watch alongside us.

We are all born into motherhood. The labor is from us, and for us, and so I too was welcomed by bright lights and pulsing blue and red monitors. I too was born into an endless click, click of blood pressure cuffs and kinked IV needles and blanket forts to hide us while we slept.

Keep reading, over at Christie’s?

Love,
hilary

dear jackson: on daring, and prayer

Dear Jackson,

When you were small, in what feels like a different country, hidden behind hills of time, when you lived in the country called the NICU, I used to number the minutes. I used to count your breaths, the dip and climb of your oxygen. I used to pray each time you inhaled that the breath would come back out and that you would take another one. I prayed single words as you breathed – keep. breathing. one. more. breath. It was not that you were in imminent danger, exactly – the doctors told us daily that you were stable, that you were safe – but having once witnessed what it was for you to cry out for oxygen, I could never shake the need to count each rise and fall of your chest.

Today I realized I have stopped counting.

Now I watch the rise and fall of your chest with a confidence that comes, not from the little tube we slip in your neck each week, not from the nurse who watches over you in the long nights, but from you.

It comes from how you run from your room to the record player, how you bring us the puffs when you want more, how you love to be chased down the hallways. It comes from how you laugh when you see us, hair sticking up wildly in all directions, when you wake up from naps. It comes from how you press against me in this phase of being afraid of strangers and then how you push away from me back into the world. You are daring, you are adventurous, because you feel safe.

And so I stopped counting your breaths.

I tell you this as a way of telling you something about prayer. I prayed once by counting. And now that I have stopped, that I have dared to believe you’ll breathe without being watched, I find myself at a loss for how to pray. It was easy when there was panic, to keep me focused, to keep the demand right in front of God. Is this trust, I wonder as I watch you attempt to crawl up onto the couch? Is it resignation?

We are in a new country, God and I, unfamiliar and brighter. I have to squint my eyes to make out the horizons of where I think I might be going. In the old country of the NICU, the only way I could talk at all was to yell and to count. Now I have stopped counting and stopped yelling – what is left? How will I begin to say something again?

 

 

So I pray to you, Lord Jesus Christ, together with the Father who is without beginning and Your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages Amen.

I once memorized the feel of these syllables in my mouth, in the anxious wanderings of my freshly 18 year old heart, my knees knocking as I stood in the unfamiliar familiar, Greek and English twisting up and out, past icons and candles, the singing. Every Amen is a comma in the Eastern Church, a pause in the endlessness of worship. I would walk in, often a few minutes late from idling in the car afraid to walk in alone, worship having already begun. I would leave clutching the blessed bread from the priest’s warm hands, a piece of the liturgy to go into the world with me. Every Amen a comma, a pause.

Back then I thought it proved something to pray conspicuously. I would go into the small windowless study room on my floor, a few doors down from my room, holding a small white spiral bound book of Orthodox prayers – all but announcing my piety to the tangle of women walking the hallway or simply finding the time to take a shower, do their homework, sink their roots into college. I would fumble through the prayers at noon, holding a knotted bracelet to count repetitions of the Jesus prayer. I would make confession, ask forgiveness, pray in a more righteous voice as time went on. I hid my heart in the glorious prayers of other people – surely, God would be more impressed with me if I prayed in ancient words instead of my own.

But I want to tell you, Jack, you whose spirit is full of daring, full of courage, full of light – prayer for me now is laughter. Prayer is silence, prayer is half-formed thoughts I say in between tickling your stomach. Prayer is singing “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” night after night and feeling your head sink onto my shoulder as you remember where we are all going – out into that Jordan River, out towards home.

Do not be afraid if someday you reach for words – your own, the Church’s – and you find your hands come back to you empty. Do not be afraid if you come out of one type of prayer and walk the road for a long while without knowing what to say next.

Every Amen is a comma, a pause, and courage is sometimes pausing long enough to feel God’s friendship in the weight of your son on your shoulder. That is prayer enough. God hears.

Love,
mom

a story about skin to skin

I got to share some words over at Lisa-Jo Baker’s space yesterday– words about mothering, words about what I had expected from my first pregnancy and how everything and nothing changed when Jack made his grand entrance into the world. It’s a day late to be posting but of course, the real work of mothering involves convincing a 14-month-old that it really is raining outside (getting into coats and boots and going outside, then crying, then coming inside…).

It’s a story about the wondrous hard work of mothering. It’s a story that you have all helped me write, as you ponder with me this walk into being someone’s mom. It’s a story you’ve taught me to see, in all your comments and prayers and well wishes. I know it’s been quiet around these parts, but the semester is ending and there is new space carved into my week to write and reflect.

I can’t wait to walk through it with you.

I spent a year and 20 days grieving an empty five minutes. They were the first minutes of my son’s life, minutes of quick, quiet NICU intervention hidden from me where I lay, bleeding profusely onto the delivery room floor, the doctor remembering three stitches in that she hadn’t in fact given me an anesthetic before starting to sew me back together. They were the five minutes I had once imagined as the moments of transformation, the moments I thought I would become a mother, the moments when I would begin, if there is such a thing as beginning after nine months of pregnancy…

Keep reading over at Lisa-Jo’s?

love,
hilary

dear jack: one

Dear Jack,

Today you are one. You said “mama” to me yesterday, looking straight at me, babbling it over and over and over as you pivoted in your trademark style, tried to turn over the trash can, unplug a light and topple a bookcase. This morning we went outside – the air is finally cool and light against our skin – and you stood up on your own on the sidewalk and looked at me defiantly. You’ll take the step when you want to, and you want me to understand that clearly.

Before you were born, there was a lot we didn’t know. We didn’t know what it meant to have only one eye and ear. We didn’t know what cleft surgeries were like, the stiff smell of sanitizer in the room where we waited for you to come out of surgery. We didn’t know the particular beeps of oxygen saturation monitors, when they dip a little low, or too low.

But I talk about that a lot, don’t I? And today, on your birthday, I want you to hear what we did know. What we have always known.

 You belong.

We always knew that. We knew that in the first search for your heartbeat at 9 weeks, the first ultrasound at 12 and the second that become the next seven. We knew that when I was sweating through the fetal MRI, and when we drove back and forth to the hospital. We knew that through timid genetic counselors and surgeons and phone calls. We named you and we knew you. You belonged from the beginning, and we belong with you.

You know what else we knew, buddy? We knew that a different body doesn’t make it a broken one. We told you – did you hear us back then? – that you are the very fullness of the image of God and Jesus rises with his hands and feet and side split and opened and these are what the world calls broken but we call glorious. You have always been the fullness of that image.

We knew it then and we learn it from you every day. And we learn to keep electrical cords and breakable cups out of sight, that the trash can in the bathroom makes the best drum, that it’s better to ride in the big laundry basket and that our laughter is funny enough to laugh at.

All this ordinary glory.  One year doesn’t seem like enough time to contain it all. Time itself seems to have stretched to make room for all that you’ve given us.

One year ago, you took your first few breaths. John the respiratory therapist helped you, but you pulled your breathing tube out on your own when the nurses weren’t looking. And every day since, you’ve lived fully and unapologetically and determinedly, and you’ve pulled out trach and gtube and laughed at me while doing it, you’ve learned to sit up and stand and crawl and almost walk even though they said you were “disenfranchised” and you never look back unless to check that we’re keeping up. You pull us into the gift of your life. There won’t be enough words for it, maybe ever.

When you were born, you took all my old life away with all its old thoughts and fears, all its questions, and those first few breaths, you gave me back a life that’s bigger.

I’ve always loved you with my whole heart. One year in, Jack, I love you with the whole heart that you’ve made wider.

Love,
mom

on champagne and learning to walk

Preston bought me a nice bottle of champagne tonight. The kind of bottle that means we are having a big celebration, that there is something amazing deserving of the best feasts. We drove to buy the champagne after I finished class for the day, just after I got my comprehensive exam results. Our exams are graded; I got an A-.

While Preston drove, he declared that this was worthy of that nice bottle of champagne. I called it “pretty good.”

What he wanted to celebrate, I wanted to say only, well, I passed. 

I couch my pride in a constant future improvement, I feel good only if I get the chance to do even better next time. But of course, there is no next time for comprehensive exams. That’s part of the joy, isn’t it? It should be. But there I was, holding the nice champagne in its paper sack in the passenger seat, calling it only “pretty good.”

What is it about the future that dulls the shine of the present? What is it about the possibility of something even better that makes the real somehow less glorious than God has declared it to be?

I told someone this summer that, Jack? He is the real. He is what my ideals give way before. The ideals of me as a mother in her all-natural, breastfeeding, right-kinds-of-product and no-screen-time and … glory. That sheen of imagined glory. I said that Jack has cut through it all. He looks at me and I give way. I give way to his real laugh, that dolphin squeak of joy over his trach. He looks at me and I give way, I give way to the goodness of the formula that keeps him growing, the screens that bring him people telling stories in ASL, in a language that he already seems to love. I give way to the real of his life.

Why won’t I let Jack cut through the sheen of my imagined glory as a student?

Why do I hold the nice champagne and permit myself only to say “pretty good”?

This is the summer where Jack first started to learn to walk. He pulled himself up onto chairs, plastic toy tables that make over 1,000 unique noises, along precarious couch cushions. He fell and he pulled back up and he banged his hands against the surface and he laughed.

This is the summer where I sat down to watch him learn how to walk. I could have given that up, I could have studied 30 more hours a week, I could have spent my time grasping the sheen of the student I think I ought to be.

And when I first saw the A-, I said to myself, you could have, you should have. 

Jack was learning to walk. He wanted to hold my hands in the dining room and cross the floor on two feet. He wanted to be held and then to launch himself away from my chest to grab the icon of St. Michael that hangs on the wall near his door. Jack was learning to play peek-a-boo with me. Jack was ripping my copy of Marx and Wittgenstein in his frenzy to stand up independently, pulling my high stack of books down around him.

Was all that only pretty good? Was all that not worth the champagne, the celebration?

I am learning to walk, too. I am learning to walk down that well-worn path and answer myself differently. Was it only pretty good? No, it was more. It was the fullness of what I had, it was pouring out the hours, the understanding, the work. It was spilling out onto the altar the hours I had spent – standing bent double to anchor my son’s first steps – perched in a chair on the second floor of the philosophy building reading and rereading Kierkegaard, Mill, Hume – worrying myself sick over Heidegger and misunderstanding Marx – singing a human being to sleep.

I am rewalking the well-worn path and saying something new. It isn’t just pretty good, it is good, full stop. I gave way to the real of my son’s life. I gave way, but I did not give up. I gave way, but I did not give in. I gave way, but the way was still full, still fruitful, still full-stop good.

 

We popped the champagne, we laughed and kissed Jack and watched him try to pull St. Michael off the wall.

This is good. Full stop.

Love,
hilary

when I haven’t joined the gym

I used to live for the exalted feeling of sneakers on my feet at 4:30. The work day ended I would change clothes in my tiny office, slip into new running shoes-real ones-and take off down the three flights of stairs and bound out into the woods behind the campus where I worked. I ran, and I prayed, and I felt in the singing of my bones a bond with the world, with God, with myself.

I have an eating disorder. She is not easily described or categorized. I like food, and I eat it. So far, it seems reasonable, the relationship we are all supposed to have. But there are stretches of days and hours and weeks where she panics at the thought of ice cream and wine and that extra bag of pretzels last Friday lunch. So she writes me notes to remind me that delight will always cost me something, and here I will pay in ounces and pounds, the disappearance of my hip bones under flesh, the dress from three months ago too tight here, and there, and there.

She writes me warnings, exhortations – if you don’t join the gym you’ll just keep gaining weight, if you only did yoga you’d be a better mother, don’t forget that someday you’ll regret the extra indulgences… everything in moderation, Hilary, no excess, self-care, self-love, it’s what well-balanced people do… 

She was the reason I put on sneakers every day and ran and ran and ran. I was running away from her, running to fulfill her, running to keep her at bay and keep her my best friend.

I had a baby almost exactly 10 months ago. In the chaos of the NICU I lost the weight of him, all the evidence of his presence in my body, so quickly that I seemed disjointed in my skin. For the next nine months I pumped milk for him, and when I pumped I thought briefly of how the calories would slip away from me, safely into someone else, how I could breathe freely for a little while because the eating disorder, she was satisfied with the knowledge that nothing I ate could come haunt us.

She promised me that it was better to be this new, loose self ill-fitted in her skin, that it was good to see the ridges of ribs and spinal chord. She promised it made up for the fact that I hadn’t joined the gym. It made up for the fact that I hadn’t put on those sneakers, that I didn’t even know where I had left them.

I stopped pumping earlier this summer, and my flesh appeared again, different, new. The eating disorder sat next to me on the couch, weeping. How could I – become so different, lose control of my body – but she dried her eyes and she resolved with a smile – now is the time to join a gym, Hilary. Other moms do it, other moms make time for self-care and self-love and they go running with their babies and … and… you can, too. You’ll be okay that way. 

She is always promising me that if I stretch a little farther I will hold onto something better and more beautiful, that feeling of exaltation she used to give me on those long runs in the woods. She is always promising me that riding on every run is the proof of my commitment to doing what is best for my body, my self, my family, my world.

It’s time to join a gym, Hilary. 

I miss the woods, the exaltation of them and the singing, the place where I would stop and look at the water and feel myself in the world and in love with the world. I miss the way the ground pressed up against my feet and the burning of my lungs while I raced myself up the hill. I miss the sweat and the satisfaction. I miss the simplicity of giving her what she demanded of me, the daily thirty minutes, the sense that it relieved me of guilt, that it washed me clean.

And I cannot love her anymore, the eating disorder, the person she promises me I’ll become if only I give her what she wants. I cannot love her anymore, and I wonder how to escort her out of my house, out of my car, out of my closet. I wonder how to give up all her promises and to press my hands into my skin again and to feel my bones only as mysteries beneath flesh. I wonder how to put Jack on my hip, day after day, and notice that it holds him on its own, how to feel gravity dance with my feet and to see that there are marks, memorials, of pregnancy on my stomach.

I cannot love her anymore, and so I don’t join the gym. The tiniest, first beginning, and a new feeling – not exaltation, not absolution for a guilt she invented – but hope.

Love,
hilary

dear jackson: the work on the ground

Dear Jack,

I have begun so many letters to you. Each one drifts away from me in the busyness of joy, this business you set me about, to be your mother, to become your mother. Day in and day out, you set me back on the ground, back at the beginning. You are learning to sit on your own, and you always turn back to me, grin widening to let me in on the secret – that all the work begins here on the ground. You turn back to your toys and you press the button one more time, the music comes back on, you clap your hands, we repeat.

All the work begins here on the ground.

This was the time, last year, of my first letter to you, named as you are, Jacks, Jackson, Jack. More often we call you buddy. Most often we call out to you with our laughter, and you call us with yours.

Last year I told you that you might need a little help breathing and eating. That was true, but last year it was so new and we pricked our fingers trying to hold all the hard words at once, searching the damp and crinkly pages of the ultrasound for answers. It was rushed and we were trying to be unafraid for you. I want to reach back to me then, I want to reach back with you and your laughter, your smile that is wide enough for past and future, for a world good and difficult. I want to reach back through the folds and wrinkles of time to tell her that it is you, learning to sit on your own, who can make us unafraid. That it will be you teaching, not me.

This time last year I wrote to you, afraid as I was that we wouldn’t begin on the right foot with the right language with the right protections around you. This time last year I thought my skin and muscles and bones weren’t enough to keep you safe in the world where most people have never examined a stoma in a neck, where most people don’t know how a barium swallow study is performed, where to have only one eye or only one ear is to beg a question – “So someday, will he look normal?” This time last year I thought I was to stand in the gap, stretched far and wide like the thin coils of wire that hold up bridges. I would be the wire and the bridge, I would be the guard and the keeper, I would be safety, salt and light.

I imagine someone might think I’m telling you too much about myself, the ways I thought, the things I feared. But transformation’s not a work I want to hide from you, not anywhere, and I’m in a chrysalis too, little one, and you should know how much of me God keeps changing.

I wrote you a letter May 9 last year, afraid to fail in giving you exactly whatever was right to give you. I was up high above the ground, whispering over and over, making rope and a bridge out of Jesus’s words, take heart, it is I, do not be afraid. But here you are, calling me to the ground. All the work begins here on the ground, here where we take off our shoes. I wanted to build you a bridge to keep you from what I feared was a dangerous world, a dangerous life.

Instead you have brought me to the ground of your life, you have set me to work unraveling the rope I wove so tightly, fear coiled inside it. You have set me here, among your favorite toys – Sophie the giraffe and the multicolored hedgehog, your zebra blanket, the orchestra turtle – and here I see how you haven’t needed me to build you a bridge or carry you away, you’ve just wanted me here sitting with you, clapping and singing and making animal sounds, doing it all on repeat.

It is impossible to write, Jack, what you’ve taught me, but the closest I can come is to tell you that I am here on the holy ground of your life unraveling a bridge I didn’t need to build, neck deep in love with the self you’re becoming. You lift up your arms to meet mine and we laugh. We reach back to a year ago, we pull that woman down to the ground with us, to pull her into the holy, into the good. You reach around for another toy to shake. You laugh again.

All the work begins on the ground, buddy.

Love,
mom