Longer, Stronger, Closer Together
So here I wait in hope of You, oh my soul’s longing through and through – Christy Nockels, ‘Advent Hymn’
But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs. – Jesus, to His disciples, Matthew 24:8
It’s 2 am on Christmas Eve and I am writing.
Before you think I’m completely nuts – I think we’re all already on board with the mostly genuinely crazy bit – just hear me out.
I meant to get this out much sooner.
I mean, I really meant to get this out much, much sooner.
So if any of you still actually follow this blog,
first of all, congratulations on being the MOST PATIENT PEOPLE on the planet,
you might notice that I’ve not blogged in a luxuriant oh, say, three-hundred-and-sixty-nine days,
give or take a day or so,
and you might be wondering why.
For those two or three of you, please know I tried really hard to blog about twenty times this year.
None of those posts made it to publication.
I’d write a few things, and Life would pull me away.
And while I wish I could say that I let it because I’d like my children to remember their mother and not just what she did all the time,
and that would be somewhat true,
the deeper truth is,
I didn’t really have a choice.
Some of these attempted posts were happy. Cheerful. Whimsical, even.
Those ones always got interrupted.
So in case you’re slightly nervous that I’m about to write about pain again, please know that I’m just as nervous and probably more irritated than some of you might be.
But, frankly, this is what I’ve been given. From labour nurse to life experience, pain might be what I know best.
And I’m starting to wonder if that’s not a bad thing.
This week we received several Family Christmas letters in the mail, and they each filled even this distrustful, suspicious, fearful little heart with so much warmth.
These were the best kind of Christmas letters – funny, honest, and to the point. Letters that reminded me that friends in far-away places knew some of the same struggles we walked through ourselves.
So while we didn’t get to family pictures this year, I really wanted this post to be something like the following:
Merry Christmas 2017 from the Merediths!
2017 has been a good year for the Meredith family. Here are some of the highlights:
This year, Noelle has split her time between her HGTV show about turning eggshell cartons into valuable word art, and her preparations to enter Harvard in their pre-law and pre-med programs, after skipping grades 8-12. This year, she has also picked up a couple instruments, including the flugelhorn, banjo, theremin, and triangle.
What a great year for Elliana! Her synth-pop single, “Chi Chi Ya Ya” became a runaway hit in South Korea, and her YouTube channel now has over 10 million followers! One down side to this, however, is that she hasn’t had time to work on her line of activewear for elderly people, WearSoft. Hopefully, she can pick that back up again in 2018!
2017 brought significant change for Lana’s life, as it saw her move into the role of Premier of British Columbia. As a homeschool mom, she divides her time between governing the province, teaching her beautiful children, playing piano with the VSO, and writing novels. Her 2017 novel, The Girl Who Went with the Train Tattoo (click on the link to purchase it on Amazon), was on the New York Times bestseller list, and is up for a Nobel prize.
2017 was a banner year for David, as he was finally able to fulfill his lifelong dream of creating the AI singularity. Fortunately, he was able to keep the AI contained to an air-gapped supercomputer so that it couldn’t run amok, and he was able to harness it to achieve a few things:
- Curing cancer in all forms
- Generating several thousand Bitcoins, single-handedly raising the price a thousand-fold
Family highlights included a trip to lower earth orbit aboard Richard Branson’s private space plane, and a trip to Antarctica to help hatch baby penguins.
– The Merediths
Okay, first: if any of you took any of that seriously, I refer you to:
- any news website on the internet,
- a cursory check of youtube for the not-so-viral presence of “Chi Chi Ya Ya,” or
- the common sense we know you all have.
(You do have it, right?)
But in case that doesn’t solve your confusion, please know that absolutely NONE of that happened this year. And what did happen, well, you probably don’t want to know.
2017 was yucky.
In fact, a better summary of our year would be Paul’s description of his time apart from his Corinthian friends in 2 Corinthians 7:5: our flesh had no rest… we were afflicted… conflicts without, fears within.
Or, to put it differently, it was twelve months of things I did not see coming. Each one revealed murky waters I didn’t know I still had inside, muck I wish other people didn’t ever have to witness in me, and the overwhelming reality that things are just not as they should be.
There were periods of rest, for sure. Moments, weeks, even a stretch of a few months where all was peaceful and content and at rest.
But the beginning and end and several points in between were punctuated by waves of pain that came, intensified, died down, left,
then came again.
One day a month I get to spend a morning or afternoon with a several couples expecting their first babies.
They all want to know the same thing.
How will I know when I’m in labour?
I tell them it’s hard to say for sure, since every birth is slightly different. That being said, there are some patterns to watch for.
For one thing, they need to know the difference between true and false labour.
False labour is often called Braxton-hicks, but I don’t particularly like that phrase, because we’ve all learned to believe that Braxton-Hicks, tightenings that produce no physical change,
Here’s the thing: they’re not.
Sometimes they hurt like the worst thing you can imagine.
So while I can give these couples times and lengths and frequencies of contractions to watch for,
its not really the most helpful way to look at it,
because the biggest difference between true and false labour
is that one produces change
and the other doesn’t.
And while a pregnant woman can come to the hospital in excrutiating pain, there’s no guarantee that the pain she is going through is actually bringing her baby – yet.
What makes the difference is if the pain she’s experiencing is changing her body
and if the pains themselves are changing.
A very common call I get when I work in triage is something along the lines of
I had contractions every five minutes for an hour that lasted fifty seconds each, and then I sat down and they stopped. Should I go for another walk?
My answer is always no, because true labour contractions don’t stop.
One of the biggest tell-tale signs of real, true, you-better-believe-this-kid-is-finally-coming labour is that the waves of pain become longer and stronger and closer together.
Before I helped bring babies into the world, I took care of people who trusted other humans to cut things out of them that didn’t belong. Each time the process was horrendous, but each one of these people were willing to go to a surgeon and let them cut them open because they knew that things were growing inside them
that crowded out life.
Here’s the thing:
You and I are willing to trust other humans with scalpels to fix what is broken in our physical bodies, and yet we’re not so surewe can trust the Head Surgeon to operate properly on our hearts.
I’m not sure if its because we’ve convinced ourselves that
things we can see are more reliable than things we can’t,
or if its just that
we find it easier to believe there is something wrong with our limbs than with our hearts.
Because, let’s be honest:
Most of us think our hearts are in pretty good shape.
For the last nine years,
I’ve gotten reports that say there is something inside me that shouldn’t be there,
but they can’t cut it out of me,
because its in my blood.
So, they give me medicine to take every day and keep it to a small amount.
And the medicine has done something unusual:
it’s caused the cancer gene levels to be low enough to believe it won’t cause damage to the rest of my body, but not low enough to say its completely gone.
I won’t lie to you: This year, more than ever, I was really really ready to be done with this thing. Surely nine years is enough to do the thing it was supposed to do in me. Can’t I move on to something else? Haven’t I “earned” remission?
(I cringe even as I write that)
So almost six weeks ago, as I sat in my oncologist’s office, waiting to hear the results of those tests, I warred between this expectant anger and lurking anxiety.
In my desperation I frantically texted friends to ask them for support, and what I heard back was not only far more gracious than I deserved, but also an echo of my own desire: for good news.
But as I sat in that office and wondered if
today was the day I’d find out it’s all gone or it’d all come back,
my eyes started to blur a little bit as I heard almost audibly the echo of my own thoughts, followed by this answer:
Haven’t I already given you that?
of Great Joy
That shall be
for all people?
And it settled on me that it didn’t really matter what I heard that day.
Either way, it would have been good news: either I get to spend more time here with my kids, or I get to go and be in a place that promises we will all look back and say alll of THIS was light and momentary.
And SERIOUSLY. What kind of glory must it be to cause that?
It’s curious that Paul compares all of us to labouring women. Its even more curious that he says the process of labour should bring hope.
But after these last forty-eight hours, I think I understand a little more.
Let me explain.
Friday morning, I came off one of the most stressful night shifts I’d ever worked and prepared to drive six hours to see family and friends.
As I rallied myself to stay awake on that crazy shift, I stalked the weather app on my phone for updates on what we could expect. Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland all showed varying degrees of snow, accumulated snow, freezing rain, and winter weather advisories.
Only, of course, on the two days we were set to drive anywhere.
Still my optimist husband told me it’d be just fine.
So…. I went, headachey, whinily, and very unhappily. Not because I didn’t want to see these people, but because I was afraid of all that could happen.
All the while I kept thinking
this is not what Christmas should be.
But I’m starting to wonder if that’s just plain wrong.
What if this angsty stuff is just part of it?
And what if that’s actually the point?
What if its okay that Christmas can be wonderful and awful all at the same time?
I was in Fred Meyer in Tigard today – er, yesterday – and I could hear it all around me.
First off, I’ve never seen that many people in one place, EVER.
Second, they all seemed to be surprised at how busy that – or any – store was.
On the day before Christmas Eve.
Me, I was just grumbling under my breath: yes this is actually the line up for the self-checkout. No you can’t budge in front of me because you just can’t believe how busy it is. No I don’t really need to hear about how you can’t believe how many people are here and how you really don’t have time to wait this long, because, frankly,
I JUST BOUGHT NEW TIRES IN A FOREIGN LAND AND TECHNICALLY DON’T HAVE A CAR RIGHT NOW. YOU ALL HAVE MORE FOOD THAN COULD FEED THE ORC-ARMIES OF SARUMAN IN EACH OF YOUR CARTS AND FOR THE LOVE, HAVE WE REALLY NOT NOTICED HOW INSANE THAT IS?!
Yes. You read that right.
But that wasn’t the only misadventure of the last forty-eight hours.
Friday night, just after the sun went down, as I woke from a brief nap to find myself in Olympia and not Lynnwood, David turned to me and said,
See? We are making great time! Such an easy trip so far.
Then, a windshield wiper flew off our car.
And it started to snow.
I looked at David with the most withering look I could muster
(and I can muster pretty severe withering looks)
What I wanted to say was
I knew something like this would happen.
every year its the same.
I eagerly await the music and the lights and the cozy winter atmosphere. I sip tea and imagine how warm and life-giving all the gatherings will be and I think things like
its the most wonderful time of the year,
maybe because a song told me to think that way,
but also because I secretly hope every year it will be more wonderful than its ever been before.
And then I look at all the parts I don’t love so much and try to manage them so they don’t blow up or throw me for a loop in what’s really the busiest time of the year, knowing my defenses are already down.
But every year, two things seem to happen:
1.It’s more work than I remember, and
2. We find ourselves on a treacherous journey in the days leading up to Christmas Eve.
This year was no different.
After a deeply encouraging visit with people we’ve known more than fifteen years (and grown to love more the longer we know them), we got in the car to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s, and just as I was asking if we could stop somewhere for a snack,
David started peppering me with questions I had no answer to.
Can you feel that?
Here, look at the steering wheel. That’s not normal.
I sighed and pulled out Apple maps, which found us a Les Schwab about three minutes away.
Our tires were starting to separate and dangerously close to blowing.
Thing is, they said, we’re pretty busy today and you really shouldn’t drive back home with those. We can fit you in on Tuesday or you can sit here for three hours.
After some gentle pleading and a lot of silent praying, David talked them into calling the store closest to Grandma and Grandpa’s and made an appointment for us there, while I called Grandma to come get us.
The whole drive over I was irritated.
This is exactly what I knew would happen.
We got to our family’s house a bit more weary than we expected to be.
Of course, after they graciously fed and gifted and visited with us, someone made a comment about there being freezing rain tomorrow (today).
I looked back at the forecast.
It was legit.
Freezing rain in Portland.
Snow in Seattle.
Freezing conditions at home.
And I looked at David and said,
I think I’ve had enough car trouble for one trip.
To his credit, he nodded and said yep, let’s go,
pretty much immediately.
So we said goodbye to all our people and left for home at 8:45 pm.
We got here at 1:45 am.
But the ride home was not like I thought it would be.
For the first time, I thought through all the misadventures and saw things I didn’t before.
The windshield wiper blade that blew off was the passenger side.
There was a store in Kelso still open at night that specialized in these kinds of emergencies, which apparently, happen a lot.
(I didn’t even know it could happen until yester-Fri-day).
(FYI: We now travel with a complete spare set of wiper blades in our car).
Not to mention, David noticed the tire problem right as we happened to pass a Les Schwab.
After we got to the Tigard store, with our prearranged appointment, I started to notice the people coming into the store were getting turned away.
We got the last appointment of the day.
In fact, they stayed late just to finish our tires.
And then there’s the fact that the drive back tonight was as smooth and as swift as could be.
We listened to the album with the song I quoted at the beginning of this blog, and I looked at my sleepy-but-fairly-happy husband
(he’s always like that when we have one of these misadventures)
I wonder if this is how it’s supposed to be.
I mean, it’s obviously not.
Be honest: have your hopes and dreams for this season ever panned out, fully, in the way you wanted them? Have you ever had a Christmas without some sort of stress or angst? Without conflict? With only warm and fuzzies?
If you have, you are obviously doing something right that I’m not.
But I’m starting to wonder of all of this – the work and the preparation and the angst and the hopes and the let downs – are all the way He meant it to be.
Because if Christmas here on earth fulfilled all our hopes and dreams
then we might forget why we celebrate it in the first place:
the ages-long anticipation
of the birth of a Saviour
we all desperately need.
I realize I might be talking in ways that surprise or even anger you, and I hope you can believe me that its not at all my intent.
It’s just that I wonder now if this stuff we complain about
stuff we even philosophize against
and try to manage
and wish away
is all part of a grand plan to teach us how to long for what we really need
and freshly remind us
that we’re not going to see it here, just yet.
We might get a shadow of it, but that’s all it is: a shadow.
What’s really crazy:
We got a shadow of that tonight.
Because an hour into our epic journey home in the wee hours before the snow started in Seattle, that same misadventure that multiple times walked the line of certain catastrophe
echoed a tiny shred
of the original Christmas road trip
on a donkey
over treacherous road
with something happening that felt like really shouldn’t be happening yet
earthly kings said they had to go back to their home town
and see the people they came from.
And while some of us might risk the rejection of the people who gave birth to or raised us, or those-who-knew-us-when,
each time we go ‘home’ for Christmas,
these two received certain rejection
at every door they knocked,
and who knows if the inns were really full
or if they just had no room for a couple infamous for their apparently shameful condition?
It might even have been those who knew them best who were turning them away.
And while that didn’t happen to us in the LEAST this weekend – each home hosted with such graciousness that it made the traveling difficulties truly seem light and momentary
and even funny,
I wonder if Mary had any warning that what was about to happen to her was going to change everything.
Was there anyone there telling her
Don’t worry, one day they’ll see you for who you are
Don’t worry, the baby’s almost here
Don’t worry, the One you’re about to birth will make it all worth it?
Or did she doubt
if it was all so necessary
if it should really hurt this much
if He really knew what He was doing?
I am not in remission.
Nor has the cancer gene increased dramatically.
In fact, its right where its been for the past five years.
And for some reason I can’t yet fathom,
my Primary Care Provider
has deemed it necessary,
even productive for me,
that it stay with me for now,
at that same irritatingly glorious level its been at for half a decade.
So, while I spent 2017 frustrated that my own pain waves seemed to be getting
and closer together,
I look back now and see that the spaces between were seasons of freedom and joy,
each one less encumbered
by the weights that so easily entangle,
which are the things that will truly kill me.
And if I discipline myself to remember,
I can do what I tell all my labouring patients to do: sink in and trust the process.
Because I’m not being operated on by a human, and this Master Surgeon NEVER gets it wrong.
whether this Christmas finds you
in the middle of a contraction
or in the lull between,
know you are not alone,
and that the King is coming.
The labour He put Himself through was far worse than anything you or I will ever taste.
And if that doesn’t cause us to trust Him,
I’m not sure what will.