Thursday, June 26, 2008

Shaken to Our Core… Will Our Foundation Hold?

Most of you reading this probably know by now that we gave birth to twin girls on May 2, but one of the twins (Hope) was born with major brain damage and we had to take her off life support two days after she was born.

I looked back over my journal entries from the months leading up to Hope and Rebecca's birth recently. I see how much I prayed for the twins to be born safely and for us to be prepared for the reality of having twins and of having three children, and how much we made plans accordingly. And then, in an instant, everything changes… Things don't go as you expected they would… as you prayed so fervently over and over again that they would…

You try and brace yourself for what you think is coming. My journal is filled with prayers trying to prepare ourselves for what we thought was going to be our new reality—the birth of twins and going from one to three children in our family. You prepare yourself for the storm you think is approaching. You do the very best you can to get ready for what you think is coming—you brace yourself as best you can. And then the storm that comes is something completely different and worse than you ever imagined. We had to endure a tragedy that we had no idea was coming and that has been and continues to be extremely difficult.

Back on April 30 (two days before the girls were born) I wrote in my journal:

"The storm is coming Lord, and I pray that our anchor is secure. I hope we have built a firm foundation that will carry us through the challenging days that are coming. It seems I think I have concerns about just how secure we are. I fear that weaknesses will be exposed as we enter the rough waters ahead. I see this as one of the hardest challenges we have faced to date and we need be strong in You (God) to keep moving forward in the midst of all this."

I had no idea how true these words would end up being… I just had no idea!

If you will permit me, a meteorologist, to use a weather analogy (it's what I do! ☺) it may help you understand a little of what our life has felt like since early May.

I anticipated a storm, yes, but what I had in mind was a brief but intense storm that would soon enough pass and give way to calmer conditions as we adjusted to life with three children—something like a severe thunderstorm that we sometimes get in the summertime around here. Certainly it would be difficult for a time, especially for the first few years dealing with twins and a toddler, but it would also be counterbalanced by the joy of having three healthy children. I was sure that the joy would certainly outweigh the difficulty, so I thought we would be okay. I was wrong…

What we got was more like a stalled Noreaster pounding the coast with wind and rain for days. What we got has at times felt like a Category 5 Hurricane bearing down on our very souls. Just when you think you get a respite from the storm, something comes up to draw you back into the pain of our unexpected loss. You realize you were just in the calm eye of the storm and the worst of the storm may still lie ahead. You brace yourself and wonder what more lies ahead and whether the darkness will ever pass?

Not long after we were married, the community my where my wife Laurie serves as pastor lived through Hurricane Isabel. In the days prior to the storm, folks heard reports that a storm was coming and tried to prepare, but they had no idea just how severe the storm would be. After all, all the reports said it was just a Tropical Storm: How bad can that be? The community had lived through Tropical Storms before and they were nothing more than a nuisance. So they had no real reason to expect this one to be any different. Only one problem... the reports they relied on were wrong!

Hurricanes bring strong winds and rain, but as anyone who has lived through a hurricane knows, the worst danger is the storm surge they produce—a wall of water that the storm pushes ashore and sweeps over everything in its path. People who lived through Isabel know about this all too well. They went to bed expecting some minor flooding but they woke up to a catastrophe. The wind pattern set up perfectly to blow a wall of water up the bay and caused historic flooding in some areas. Many residents along the Mid Atlantic coast and the Chesapeake Bay were caught unprepared for just how bad the conditions ended up being… and they will never forget what happened as long as they live.

In much the same way, Laurie and I will never forget this time in our lives. I think it's fair to say that we were also unprepared for the tragedy that came our way. In fact, I think it's fair to say that no one expected this outcome when we went in that Friday morning to deliver our twins. Every report we ever heard from our doctors was that our babies were healthy. The hospital staff and Franklin Square had bassinets in our room ready to receive two healthy full-term twin girls per the doctor's reports. They too prepared for what they thought was coming. But then the unexpected happened and Hope was born with severe problems and Becca also had to go to the NICU for treatment. The doctors at Johns Hopkins were likewise shocked to discover just how extensive Hope's brain damage was. None of it was what we expected. The reports we relied on to make our decisions were flat out wrong.

It's really hard to explain what we feel to someone who has not experienced what we have experienced. But I imagine the process of grieving feels something like it must feel to live through a hurricane. There is the initial tragedy that strikes, often without much warning—in our case, having to say goodbye to Hope and plan and participate in her funeral. Although the event itself was very difficult and traumatic, like the intense wind and rain of a hurricane, you get through it and it soon enough passes and recedes into the past. But personal tragedy also brings along a wave of grief that sweeps over your life like a storm surge and knocks you off your feet. Like rising floodwaters, grief permeates every nook and cranny of your life and can cause terrible damage that must be healed. You have to let the tears and sorrow come and do their work; you can't pretend this didn't happen and stay healthy.

But I think there is an important difference between floodwaters and grief: Floodwaters recede after a few days; grief, on the other hand, doesn't just "go away" in a short time. Sometimes it seems like wave after wave of grief hits us. I suppose in some ways we will deal with waves of grief emanating from this tragedy of losing our infant daughter for a very long time, if not for our whole life.

The loss of Hope has certainly rocked our world. Saying goodbye to my 2-day old daughter was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, and now we live every day with her memory. We see her face every time we look at her identical twin Becca. When Becca is asleep and tilts her head a certain way and opens her mouth, the resemblance to the last time we held Hope in our arms is uncanny. I suppose having an identical twin survive is both a blessing and a curse in this instance. We are grateful for our surviving daughter, who appears to be perfectly healthy; but we also have a daily living reminder of the daughter we lost, and that is bittersweet indeed. Every time Becca reaches a life milestone, we will be reminded of the daughter that did not survive to experience life. We must work hard to not have a cloud of grief and melancholy hang over Becca's life. We want to celebrate Becca's life, and not always have her live in the dark shadow of her sister's death.

The grief we experience can feel like the humidity on a particularly hot summer day; it is oppressive. This intangible but very real thing hangs over your life like a wet blanket and impacts all of the other activities you try and do. You feel lethargic at times and you can't put your finger on exactly why, but then you realize it's grief—and according to the experts, it's normal in these kind of circumstances. But it doesn't feel normal! In fact, for us, nothing feels normal right now; normal has to be redefined completely.

We are shaken to our very core at this time and forced to rethink everything we thought we knew about God and about many things in life and this can be uncomfortable for us—and also for others who may look to us for support and encouragement. But after all that has happened, it should not be a surprise to learn that we are shaken. Frankly, it is not easy for us to trust God right now. After all, we struggle with questions like: Where was God when we needed him? It sometimes seems from our perspective that God let us down when we needed him most. It just seems unthinkable that a loving God would let a 2-day old girl die. And yet this is the reality that we must face every morning when we get up …

And so, we are left to pick up the pieces and try and make sense of what just happened to us—to make sense of something that just seems fundamentally wrong. The cosmos seems out of whack for us. Preconceived notions about how the Universe works must be abandoned and rebuilt from the ground up, and that is hard to contemplate.

As we live through this tragedy day-by-day, Jesus' parable of the wise and foolish builders has come into my mind frequently. Whether you are a follower of Christ or not, it probably has wisdom to impart. (The Gospel of Matthew includes this as part of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount—Matthew 7:24-27—and it's also in Luke 6:47-49.)

"Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash." Matthew 7:24-27 (New International Version Translation)

Jesus urges us to build our house on the solid rock of his teaching so that when the "floodwaters" rise in our lives our house will still stand firm. And clearly I don't think he was just speaking literally. As I've lived through this tragedy I've had to find out just how firm my foundation is. I've always heard it said that the foundation has to be laid long before the storm comes and now I see the truth in that teaching, You can't build a foundation during the storm; it has to be in place before the floodwaters rise. If the foundation is not secure, then the waters will sweep you away completely and there will be nothing left to rebuild on.

At times Laurie and I have felt completely swept away by all we have experienced the past few months, but deep down I feel that something is in place that keeps us standing even when the most intense waves of grief sweep over us and we feel all is lost. I believe that something is our deep and abiding faith in God and his goodness—even when life circumstances are anything but good and we sometimes have trouble seeing God in the midst of the darkness.

By God's grace, we are surviving and that in time I believe we will experience healing in our lives, but it is a very long road to travel and we have only begun our journey. You must rebuild after the storm passes, but as the people of New Orleans that lived through Hurricane Katrina well know, that can be a long and difficult process. We must be patient with ourselves and give ourselves permission to grieve, to feel exactly what we feel and not apologize for it, and allow ourselves to move forward at the pace that seems appropriate to us—and not anyone else! I pray that our faith will sustain us through these dark and difficult days and, even as we struggle to see God's hand in this tragedy, that God will be working to rebuild us (and especially our faith) from the ground up and make us stronger than we were before.

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