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

 

dear jackson: about your dad’s second book

Dear Jacks,

You are finally asleep. You have taken to resisting it unless someone is holding you, rocking you, standing up… you have a pretty specific list. I love how much you already seem to know about what makes you happy: our faces, your bright red fox toy, your yellow and purple rattle. You light up this world, you light up the rooms where you are. You’ve caught the hearts of your nurses and your doctors, and that smile – oh Jack, that smile – we will do almost anything to see that smile, to catch it for just another second.

Last night your dad gave you a bath. You smiled and smiled and smiled at him. You already know a lot about your dad. He is the one who sings to you with the record player, the one who catches you up in his arms, keeps you safe, rolls you over and over, tummy to back and back again, helping you be strong. He is so good at that work, helping us be strong.

I want to tell you about your dad’s book – Out of the House of Bread. In the chaos of your arrival the months slipped by. I meant to write this when he finished it, as soon as we knew about you last year. I meant to write this all summer, while we were waiting to meet you. I meant to write this all fall, and time rushed past, slow and too fast all at once.

Your dad wrote a book that kept me, that keeps me, tethered to a life of prayer. It is a book about bread. It is a book about talking to God. But Jacks, this is the thing. It is a book where Dad lays out gently, moment by moment, practice by practice, ways for people to connect to Jesus. It comes out next week, right before you are four months old.

You must have heard him pray, all those long months while you were growing inside me? He would close his eyes and place his hand over you, and you would kick him back with your fierce assertions that you were listening, that you were there. He would pray with the Psalmist, pray with Scripture, pray with wonder. He would help me pray the examen. He would pray, day in and day out. He still prays this way.

Your dad wrote a book about prayer. I bought you a copy. I know someday, when you have questions (because we all have questions) about this living conversation with God, about the work of prayer, this is the book I will want to have ready to give you.

The kitchen is a place of great prayer in this house, Jacks. When you have questions about the work of prayer, I will tell you to go into the kitchen. I will tell you that there, sitting with your dad, I learned to pray.

Chances are good Dad will be in there, his hands full of spices or dough, his eyes alight. Chances are good that the kitchen will be a place where you go to talk with God. Chances are good that God will meet you, again and again, along the hallways and among the smells and tastes in this home.

When you ask me what to do, what to pray, I will offer you this book. I will offer you this kitchen, so well loved by your dad. I will tell you that this is where God meets us.

Your dad will teach us so much about prayer. Much of it will be lived, something we can’t write down. Some of it he wrote down, in this book, and we can read it again and again and practice it together, the three of us and everyone God sends to join us on the way.

I wanted to tell you this, Jacks – your dad is a man of prayer. I can’t wait for you to ask me those questions. I can’t wait to give you this book.

Love,
mom

dear jackson: you show me Jesus

Dear Jackson,

You’re in six month pajamas tonight, and I can see that the feet are far too big for you, the little husky puppy faces on the ends dangling helplessly where your toes can’t quite reach. You’re growing so much, buddy, that I can’t really believe that we were in the NICU all those weeks ago. I just wrote down “months” and erased it, because this is the truth – time has changed for us. Hours are days and months are minutes. I think this is what they try to tell you when you become a parent – time reshapes itself in the midst of you.

You’ll know this yourself someday, I imagine. For now, you’ve been out in this wild world with us for 10 weeks, and you’re sleeping, hands up by your face the way you always seemed to sleep those long months on the inside. I looked at those ultrasounds again (do you remember any of that? The echoes of strange voices talking to me and Dad about you? Did you ever shake your head, at how little we all knew of the mighty person you already were?) yesterday.

There is no picture of you I do not find remarkably beautiful.

In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus. All the world, to be registered. This is one of the beginnings of the story of Jesus.

There are many, though. There is the beginning with Mary and Gabriel, the Holy Shadow, the be it unto me. There is the beginning with prophets who cried out in wilderness and desert to make straight a highway for God. There is the beginning song of creation, the Word by which everything was made

This is the season where we begin the story, where we prepare, where we make ourselves ready

I want to tell you something about Jesus, Jack. But who am I to tell you anything about Him? You know Him. You know Him in a way I have forgotten, with your one eye scanning the world, always looking for Him, always eager, always anxious for another sighting, another glimpse.

And then there you are, in the midst of the world where you are looking for the answer to your being here and the world being its beautiful self, and everyone who looks at you sees Jesus. You show Him to us.

Oh, how you show Him to me. Every minute.

Someone might think it’s because you show me something about weakness or vulnerability. Someone else might think it’s because you needed a trach and a feeding tube and it was so hard and I had to believe that God had good plans in spite of or even in the midst of.

But you, Jack, you show me Jesus risen in glory and power. Jesus whose love is wild and unyielding. Jesus who walks the hallway of the NICU. Jesus who reigns in operating rooms and who comes in the might of other children who kneel the afternoon of your surgery to pray.

You show me that Jesus is King and always has been.

What can I say to you about Jesus? In those days, a decree went out. An annunciation was made, and a visitation. There was a leaping for joy by John, after whom you’re named (your names mean God has been gracious. But you already know this).

When you open your eye in the mornings and smile at me, creasing your NAM tape, when you kick your feet up in the crib and toss your body back and forth as you reach for the toy fox, for your reflection in the mirror above your head on the play mat – you show me Jesus.

In those days, God announced that He was sending you to us. In those days, God announced that you had been formed differently, that what nature often does it hadn’t done the same way in you. In those days we walked, you and me, down many of the streets of downtown Waco, and in those days we caught glimpses of you – black and white, three-dimensional, printed on computer paper and clutched on the long ride home – and in those glimpses we knew. I know you, I would whisper over and over when I passed the fridge where your pictures hung. I know you, I would shout in my heart when the technicians swirled the ultrasound wand around my belly, looking for what makes you different, looking for a diagnosis. I know you. 

You show me Jesus, Jacks. Risen in glory and power, coming to us palms open, scars lit by the same glory, wound open so that we too can put a hand inside and touch the wonder of His work and rescue. You show me Jesus who comes in those days when the decree goes out.

You show me Jesus, who holds you in those glorious scars and pours His love through them over you, and through you over others.

In those days a decree went out. This is the season where we remember, where we tell the story, where we prepare for Him who is coming to live with us. And you, Jacks, you are leading me.

Love,
mom

a life of septembers (a letter to my husband)

Dear P,

It’s been a long time since I tried to write you something. Today we finished J’s nursery, and I was standing in the doorway while you positioned the icons above his bed, staring at the ordinary miracle of it – how we built this space, this child, this ark of marriage. How much has changed in the long bend of years. 3 Septembers ago, beloved, we were arguing on Skype about long distance.

And 2 Septembers ago I sat in your parent’s dining room, a bit overwhelmed and overjoyed, my first birthday gift to you tucked upstairs. I had put trash bags over it for the plane ride, but I am so terrible at wrapping gifts, I didn’t even think to tie a ribbon on them. They’re hanging behind me now.

And last year we fought and loved and laughed through the first few weeks of grad school, my anxiety unraveling between us, all those things I’d planned to keep safely tucked away from you discovered so soon. Isn’t that just the way marriage is?

I believe we will measure our lives in Septembers.

This year, this September, our first child will be born. We named him and loved him together far before he was the wildly kicking baby he is now. I wanted to write you something, for this September, this moment in our ever-turning world.

How you astonish me, P. You’re out on the back porch grilling for the family who’s coming for dinner. I see you march in and out of the kitchen with that joy of purpose. And you always, always, always have time for a kiss as you pass me on the couch. You always have time to answer some other question from this little corner where I sit, where Jacks kicks me. You astonish me, you know? I’ve never lacked words except for the words for you.

This September we meet Jackson. And we’re out here in the water with Jesus, P, hoping wild and trusting big. I wish I could tell you what it’s like to drive back from Austin with you in the late afternoon, singing that one praise song, my voice catching again and again and again because I realize that I believe these words – and I look over and there you are, crying too, smiling. Your faith is an anchor in my soul. Your hope in Jesus, as you move through the kitchen, through the rhythm of our Septembers, is a reminder to put my hope in Jesus.

I’m more in love with you now than I was any of our last Septembers. I’m in love with your kindness, how you get me water when I don’t want to leave the couch, how you champion others, how you remember things so many other people would forget. How you love. You remind me of St. Francis. I think you both understand that if we dared to hope it, if we dared to ask, God would show us that God is far more deeply in the midst of our lives than we imagine. I think you both know how we need only ask and the grace of Christ will move in us, will open us to receive Christ Himself. I think you both pray to the God who loves birds and peonies and a green plum in season. How this creation it is good, very good, and we should pray like we actually mean to see and speak out that goodness. I sometimes praise God for the peonies, for the greenness of the backyard, for the Brazos river where we go sometimes to just be together, hands linked like they have been since that first walk that June. That’s you, teaching me.

This September, I am in more in love with you than I could have been, because the gift of being married to you is that I have grown, my heart is bigger, my heart has more room for loving. Thank you, for the gift of you, for the daily, gracious rhythm of life together. For how you teach me to sing praise to God. For how you praise next to me when my voice is faltering.

Let’s measure the turn of the years together, September by September, grace by grace. I believe there will be so many more wonders for us to see. I believe you will teach me to see so many that I would miss on my own.

Love,
h

dear jackson: it will be better

Dear Jackson,

You are growing so much, little man. I am amazed at your hard work – the doctors say you’re right on time, even measuring a few days ahead. You move and squirm around a lot, but I know that the space is starting to feel small. The world here is bigger, and there will be much more space for you on the other side. We have a big backyard and sidewalks, we have the river walk where Dad and I go sometimes to talk and sift through our thoughts, where we go to wonder out loud.

It’s been a little while since I wrote to you about your cleft. We had the MRI, the ultrasounds, the follow-up appointments and there will be a few more before September. You are being such a good sport about letting these strange people take pictures of you. And I know it is a lot, and I think we’re both relieved when we pull out of the hospital each time, heading home, the three of us still making our way through.

I have been talking about you to God, every day. Lately I’ve been asking how this is happening to you, this complicated, challenging stuff.  I keep saying that it seems like you’re too little to have to go through all of this, that it’s so unfair, how much I wish I could be the one to have this instead of you. How much I would give for you not to need any extra help, how much I would give.  And I tell God that I don’t understand how this can be happening to someone I love so much, because, little man, I love you so much more than I can explain.

But then Jesus asked me while I was standing in my closet, trying to pick out something to wear, in that silence that so often carries the voice of God to our noisy hearts: Hilary, do you believe that I love Jackson? 

And then Jesus asked me, Hilary, do you believe that what I will do for Jackson is better than what you can imagine? 

Little man, I do believe this. And I want you to know that I believe it. I believe that when you are born, in those few short weeks that stand between us and the mystery and adventure of your birth, Jesus will be celebrating. Jesus will be rejoicing with us that you are here, that you are finally here in the world with us. And I believe that if you are miraculously healed before birth or if you go through some surgeries, if you come out screeching or if you need a little help breathing from the doctors and nurses in the NICU, if you have some or all or none of what we are preparing for right now, I believe that Jesus will do, and is doing, better things than I can imagine.

I could try to trust in ultrasounds, in MRI reports. I could try to trust in miraculous healings or dreams or prophecies or the late night prayers we are praying over you. I could try to predict what will happen, to imagine you, to imagine what is ahead. But I believe, little man, that it is better to put my trust in Jesus.

And Jesus has better plans for you than the ones I could come up with. Jesus has better things for you than I can ask or imagine. Jesus knows you and loves you so much beyond my imagining.

Jesus led me to your dad – and he is so much better than I could ever have imagined.
Jesus led me to studying philosophy, to asking big questions about disabilities and differences, about human nature and the image of God – better than anything I imagined when I was applying.
Jesus led me to the right college, to the right high school – both better than I could have imagined when I first set out.

And Jesus brought you to us, and you are already so much better than I could have imagined. Carrying you along with me, every day, I remember: what God has in store is always far more than we could have imagined by ourselves.

So, Jackson, these last few weeks, I am leaning on this for both of us. I don’t know what is up ahead. I don’t know where we will be in 8 weeks or what it will be like. But I know, I know, I know that Jesus is with us and ahead of us. He will be rejoicing when you’re born, for there are far better things in store than the things we can imagine.

I can’t wait to see you, little man. Just a few more weeks. We will be rejoicing.

Love,
mom

this is what I’m waiting for.

Dear Jackson,

Your godmother asks what I’m looking forward to about you. She asked as she was holding your soon-to-be friend, her sweet daughter. I was staring, lost for words, worrying, making those lists in my head with big words like NICU and surgery and MRI and cranio-facial team – all those words that if I am honest, just mean the people and the tools that are in place to help you and me and Dad as we begin our life together. They’re just words for the friends and things that Jesus is bringing with Him in this wonderful season of your arrival.

But I was running short on words, a little scared, and right then, you kicked me. You have such a personality, little man. Mom, I’m here. I’m okay. Every day when I start to worry, and I stop and put my hand over you, you kick back. Mom, I’m here. I’m okay. 

We have read a lot of the stories of Jesus’ healing power these last few months. You know about Jairus’s daughter and about the son who Jesus raised from the dead. You know about the woman who reached out in the crowd, just to touch the hem of his robe, and she was healed. And all those crowds, after Jesus walked on water, who just touched him, and were healed.

But one of my very favorite stories to tell you is the one about Zacchaeus. Remember him? He was so curious about Jesus – like most of us are – that he climbed up a tree to get a better look. The Bible says Zacchaeus was a tax collector and very rich. This tells us that Zacchaeus was probably not a very just man, who was unfair to others in the city, who did not treat them well. He doesn’t really seem like someone that Jesus would hang out with.

But Jesus sees him and comes to the tree where he is sitting. And guess what, Jack? Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and climb down, for I must stay at your house today.” What do you think about that? He sees Zacchaeus, hiding up in the tree and he tells him to hurry, climb down, because I’m coming to your house. Jesus isn’t just able to see where Zacchaeus is hiding, but Jesus wants to be with him. Jesus is going to stay at his house.

Zacchaeus is so overwhelmed and excited that he scampers down the tree and is happy to welcome Jesus. And he says to Jesus that he will make right the things he had done wrong – he will pay back people he had treated unfairly. He will give half of everything he owns to the poor. And Jesus tells everyone there, “Today, salvation has come to this house… For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.”

There is so much I want to tell you about this story. But right now what matters, Jack, is that sometimes I have been a little like Zacchaeus hiding in the tree. I have been scared to come down from my worrying to welcome you because I have been so scared that I won’t be able to be the mom that you need me to be. I have been scared that maybe I won’t be good at this or ready, that I will do things wrong.

But then I see Jesus standing at the foot of that tree holding you, and Jesus tells me to hurry, climb down, because you two are coming to stay at my house. You are coming to be with me. And when I hear that, and I see you and Jesus standing there, I climb down and realize that I am so happy. I am so excited for you, just like Zacchaeus was so excited about Jesus.

Jack, my little man so fully alive:

I can’t wait to hold you. To sit with you and reading you the books our friends have been sending you – Ping and James Herriott’s Treasury and The Going to Bed Book and The Mitten. 

To sing and dance around the kitchen for so many years that even when you’re 22 and you come home after college and you think I’m ridiculous, you’ll still join in.

To put you in the wrap or the carrier or the stroller or the whatever-baby-gadget-we-get and showing you the world. I’ll show you the leaves and their greenness, the water and the ducks that swim along the Brazos in spring. I’ll show you the big sky on our drive down 7. I’ll show you the cows, the wild orange and blue and purple flowers in April. I’ll show you the lilacs in Boston outside Grammy and Granddad’s house.

To introduce you to your aunt and uncles and cousins – they’ll show you the paddling pool and how to toss a football back and forth and probably how to get into mischief, too. I hope they teach you that.

To hold you. I already said that. But I’m so excited for that. Just to hold you.

Hurry, climb down, for I am coming to stay with you today. Jesus is bringing you with Him, Jack. He is bringing you to me and Dad. I can’t believe that we get to hold you, laugh with you, rock you to sleep, teach you about leaves and ducks and cows and the good things Jesus made.

I’m not hiding in the tree anymore. You and Jesus, you are waiting for me. You make me too happy, too overjoyed, too excited, not to scamper down.

Love,
mom

put on a little emmylou (a letter to preston)

Dear Preston,

It’s the one-month-mark today, here at the end of the winding road, the one that will so soon become that impossible stretch of green grass between us, aisle to union to marriage on the other side.

Tonight, I’m playing songs on a playlist I made called, “h&p” – with everything that’s indie and everything that’s country and everything that’s the way that these last days make me feel. I’m cleaning the almost emptied room, looking at the bags packed, the dresser drawers that creak with their once full life, their own sort of sweet goodbye.

I’m playing the first dance song from J&E’s wedding last weekend, the one that made me cry, the one where I was leaning against you, feeling your chest rise and fall with the steadiness that belongs to just you, that’s more than oxygen entering and leaving, but the very tenderness of being next to each other.

I wanted to write you a marriage letter early, the way Seth and Amber have written those, calling out on the waters of these blogs something, I don’t even really know what, but something, some echo of the impossible hope that I feel building in my chest when I look over at you, after more than a year, awestruck and comforted all at once.

But we aren’t quite yet married, and for all its ache, there is something about being engaged that I felt like I had to remember, now at its closing days. So, Preston, here – a last-month-of-engagement letter.

Put on a little Emmylou with me?

We will move slow across the room, just a sway like that other time, and the time before that, when the work was too much and for a moment we shrank the world to the small steps across the ancient wood floors. We will move in the sticky rhythms of a second summer together, make our way around her voice laughter tickling our ears.

Put on a little Emmylou with me, and I will press my hand into yours, we can drink lemonade along the water and you can steal more than one kiss before I duck my head, blushing, as the teenagers walk past in their colorful struts. I will wear your favorite dress and ask you a thousand questions about your favorite kind of pie and whether you think you’d ever live in the South of France.

Put on a little Emmylou, Preston, and we will reread our story in the pages of graduate school applications and gall bladder surgery recovery, in wedding menus and Pinterest pages, in my grandmother’s lost and now found ruby ring that I’ll wear in a month and again, in the smallest whispers across a French 75 or a morning cup of coffee or a birthday present and a made bed. We will remember how we build this, and I’ll make a joke that you laugh at and roll your eyes, and I’ll make that face and you will laugh again.

Put on a little Emmylou, darling, and I will start singing the way you like me to, unafraid, my feet up against the dashboard on the long drives, and I will promise you again and again, there is nothing quite as wondrous as stumbling on another way you’ve loved me – the boxes you’ve saved to open together or the the way you remember how much I love the Trader Joe’s twizzlers or the way you relentlessly force my hand with Jesus, day after day, so sure that the only way to heal my heart is to ask me to open it again to God. Again, and again, I will sing it out, one year and two and ten and sixty-five, how it wasn’t just happenstance, this love, but whole, and maybe even, holy.

I’m singing with Green River Ordinance, now, again that line, put on a little emmylou, and we’ll dance into the night, singing hold my loving arms, my loving arms are for you. 

And I remember how much love was singing at their wedding, in this song, in this dance, and so, my not just yet husband,

put on a little emmylou,

and slow, in the softness of these last days –

hold me. My loving arms are yours.

Love,
hilary