Friday, May 5, 2017

Celebrating and Remembering

The first week of May is always a bit of an emotional roller coaster for our family.  It’s a week to honor both my twin daughters.  We celebrate our daughter Becca May’s life while at the same time we honor Hope Marie’s memory—and try to live in the inevitable uncomfortable tension between those two tasks.

The writer of Ecclesiastes says: For everything there is a season. Paul tells the Romans to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. Most of the time life allows for a separation between those "seasons".  Babies are born healthy and we rejoice over a new life; people die after living a long life and we mourn their loss.  But every now and again, the neat divisions break down, such as they did for me on May 2, 2008.  Suddenly, joy and sorrow exploded into my life simultaneously.  I had identical twin daughters born that day; one was perfectly healthy, the other clearly was not.  She never cried and was surrounded by medical staff who struggled to keep her alive. She was quickly taken from the delivery room to the NICU at Franklin Square, and later that day she was transferred to Johns Hopkins.  

Hope looked perfect on the outside, an identical match to Becca in every way physically, but it soon became clear her body was just a shell.  The medical diagnosis was grim.  As I lived through that long surreal 48 hours, the neat boundaries I thought existed between joy and sorrow came crashing down around me.  It was emotional whiplash.  I struggle to handle one emotion at once—much less the torrent of feelings that came with these events that changed my life.  I remember, more than once, asking God to breathe for my daughter because clearly she was struggling to do it on her own.  She never did breathe on her own, though.  In fact, she barely survived the transfer from one hospital to the other. When we came to Hopkins the day we let her go, machines were the only thing making her lungs move.  We knew what we had to do… We felt what I can only describe as peace in the midst of the pain.

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 I have always been thankful that, in our situation, we had a slight separation between the day the girls were born and the day that Hope died—two days later. (Not all who lose a twin are so fortunate.)  The separation is by no means perfect, however.  May 2 is, after all, the day both Becca and Hope were born.  Even May 4 is a bit of a mix, since it happens, is my brother's birthday.  Yes, my daughter died the day my brother was born.  Despite our best efforts, life often refuses to cooperate with our attempts to compartmentalize our emotions. 

We mark the occasion a little differently each year, but we always try hard to focus on celebrating Rebecca on her birthday.  This year for example we surprised her; her mom and I picked her up early from school.  We took her to the American Girl store at Tysons Corner and had lunch, and then she bought a new doll—Gabriella.  I had to take some time off work to do it, but the hug she gave me when she got in the car and realized dad was coming too made it all worthwhile.  It was a true God-moment I could not have planned.  She felt the joy of a happy surprise; and I felt the joy of a daughter's love for her dad.  I know it won’t be that many more years before she won’t be as interested in being with mom and dad on her birthday, so we need to take advantage of these moments together while we can.

May 3 is the day in between the celebration and the remembrance—it almost has a Holy Saturday quality to it for us.  This year I spent it working.  My wife attended a clergy meeting.  The kids went to school.  Brady had a baseball game in the evening.  It was, in many ways,  a “normal” day for our famiy, and the weather was beautiful too.  But we were also well aware of what tomorrow would bring. 

Our family refers to May 4 as Hope Day.  As we do every year on that day, we visited the cemetery where our daughter is buried. A line from Lauren Daigle’s song,  O Lord,  says: “I will stand my ground where Hope can be found.”  While Hope’s earthly remains are buried in a tiny casket on the edge of Miranda Cemetery in Huntingtown, MD, we believe that her spirit soared beyond the limits of her weak mortal shell the moment she passed from life support to life eternal.  Wherever Hope dwells now, she is not confined to a rusting box in the ground.  We do not have to be in a specific geographic location to commune with Hope.  

Nevertheless, there is something significant about occasionally and intentionally making a pilgrimage to a specific plot of ground in Calvert County (right now, a 45-minute drive from where we live).  There, we “stand our ground where Hope can be found” and honor her memory. (I might add that this is where my wife and I will some day be laid to rest, “reunited” with the dust of the earth—and with our daughter’s physical remains.)  My wife and I have done this pilgrimage to Huntingtown every year on May 4, sometimes alone and sometimes with our children.  We stand before the marble monument representing our daughter and take a moment or two as a family to acknowledge that, though Hope’s life was all too short and ended tragically, her story is forever part of our story.  She was real and she mattered deeply to us.  Others may have mostly forgotten her but we most certainly have not.  Our family portrait will always be missing someone. 

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The Lent after Hope died I recall that I appreciated the song When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, as I never did before.  I was particularly drawn to the lines that say, "Sorrow and love flowed mingled down.  Did 'ere such love and sorrow meet? Or thorns compose so rich a crown."  I think I appreciated it, because, for about nine months, I felt I had been living it.  

I’ve been living in a place where love and sorrow met for nine years now. You may wonder: Have I reconciled things?  Not really.  I don’t think you ever really reconcile the gap between sorrow and love, rejoicing and suffering.  I think rather you learn live within the tension between those conflicting emotions.  After all, when you think about it, our world is a place where love and sorrow mingle quite frequently.  So we get lots of practice in this earthly life.

When people ask how we got through the loss of a child, the first answer I give is: God.  I unequivocally believe we could not have done it if God were not with us every step of the way.   But, I also believe that God works with us—not for us.   We had a role to play in our healing too.  Specifically, when Hope died, my wife and I had a choice to make.  Would we become better or bitter because of what happened?  I know I have had moments over the past nine years where bitterness got the better of me (my guess is Laurie would tell you likewise), but I hope and pray the overall arc of our lives has pointed toward betterness.  We’ve done our best to focus on living these past nine years.  From early on, we determined to keep on getting up every day and moving forward as best we could—and as much as we might have felt like staying in bed some days.  In a way, our other children made our choice easier.  After all, we had an infant daughter depending on us, not to mention a toddler son.  We often reflect that our children were our salvation in those difficult days immediately after Hope died—and their life energy keeps us moving forward still today.  I often say my daughter Becca carries “the spirit of two” within her.  Watching my children “live life to the full” brings me joy.

As time went on, I have become increasingly comfortable living a both–and existence. I learned to make both the joy of Becca May and the sorrow of Hope Marie part of my story.  The passage of time has helped to scab over the wounds of our painful experience in May 2008, but, to this day, they still can easily be reopened.  We are especially prone to reentering our wounds in the weeks leading up to the girls’ birthday.  It happened to me just the other day at Target, when there just happened to be, not one—but two—sets of healthy identical twin girls in Target shopping with their parents.  One of the sets had to have been close in age to Becca.  What is this God: sarcasm?!  I think seeing twins make me think of what I missed out on—being a father to twins.  I watch them being "normal kids" and want to stop and ask them what their life is like.  

Our celebrations with Becca are fun, and we try hard to make it a joyous occasion but there is inevitably a shadow.  We sometimes feel sad we can't celebrate the same way with Hope.  We are left with only a few photos and other mementos of her brief stay here on earth.  Looking back, we wish we had taken more time and preserved more icons of her existence.  But then again, they won’t bring her back to us.   Yes, we would give anything for more time with Hope, to have a chance to celebrate milestones (e.g., birthdays, Holidays, school and church achievements) with her, the way we do with Becca.  But alas it is not possible.  I offer myself consolation by imagining that the celebrations Hope attends on the other side are pretty darn special too.  I’m confident they know how to celebrate in heaven!  It must be wonderful have a seat at the heavenly banquet.  It must be great to have Jesus "planning your birthday".

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