Nightlights and darkness

I walked into the apartment where my perfectly put-together aunt was waiting. I would be staying with my cousin while my aunt made a quick day trip to Houston. She showed me the hospice care instructions neatly printed on a note pad. She showed me the medications, the necessary ones and the in-case-of-emergency ones. I didn’t understand all the big names, so I amended the instructions with my own notes, like “take this one if she throws up.”

I remember when Allyson’s cancer returned most recently. It was August two years ago. I was standing on a curb in Denver outside of my parents’ house when she called from children’s camp. She already had a scheduled surgery. The cancer was raging and moving quickly through her body.

I’ve never seen someone fight so hard like Allyson has—someone who stares down pain even when it steals everything from her. She has some kind of ridiculous determination, a goal invisible to outsiders. And with all of her physical and emotional force, she’s kept moving toward life—a life that was moving farther and farther away from her.

With each round of chemo, she’d dig in her heels, fighting to get 5 more months, 5 more weeks, 5 more days with her three sons.

Allyson’s the best mom I know and she knows how to raise boys.

It turns out that cancer can’t steal your mom skills. .

Allyson’s situation makes me question everything I know about the suffering we’re allowed to endure.

She shouldn’t have to go through this—not when she’s so needed, loving and faithful. And why does the suffering have to be so intense? Why isn’t death the peaceful journey I want to pretend it is?

“Christina,” my aunt said, “If she dies while you’re here you’ll remain calm, right? And then call me.”

I nodded.

Aunt Pat kissed her daughter goodbye while Allyson held her arm.

“I love you with my whole heart,” she says, which she’s said as long as I’ve known her.

Then, after final instructions on the oxygen and bolus, she left.

I sat next to my cousin.

“It’s just you and me,” I said.

“Are you overwhelmed?” she asked.

“No, only because I’m expecting you to take care of yourself,” I said, smiling. “You know more about being on hospice than I do. Now that your mom is gone we can make inappropriate jokes about cancer and dying.”

“I know. I’m excited.  Oh, and after i take a nap, I want you to take me to Chipotle.”

“Your mom is gonna kill me.”

Throughout her struggle, Allyson keeps saying she only has Jesus. And she means it: “Besides you, what do I have on heaven or on the earth?”

I don’t understand how, but for Allyson, the nearness of God is what is good to her. God is her refuge.

Over the last couple years, she has spoken of slats of light in the midst of her darkest days. Now, the days are getting more defeating and discouraging, and yet even in this place of dark, there are pockets of light—somehow little pieces of light still slip in, even here at the end. The dark is overwhelming, but there’s no denying the stubborn nightlight in the corner.

Hope remains.

Jesus is all Allyson has.

Her boys love her. Her family loves her. She has an incredible mom, dad, brother and sister. Friends and church and random people she’s never met are drawn to God through her.

She causes others to thirst for Christ because she lives out of a deep desperation for God.

Jesus is not a source among others—Jesus is her sole source for life and satisfaction.

Allyson’s heart verses are from Psalm 73: My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

There is no promise that our heart and our flesh won’t fail. It almost seems inevitable, whether it is momentary pain or deep devastation. The trauma and angst of pain will come, but in this place of solitary confinement, something happens: strength is accessible. God is near. God is so near that he becomes refuge. God is so real that he becomes our provision. Even when you’re starved and cut off from anything else this world extends, provision is still accessible. God still remains.

There’s always a nightlight in the corner.

And Allyson has found him not only where she least expected him, but where she least wanted to be.

Hope shouldn’t live when life is so terrible. But, water shouldn’t come out of rocks. Blind people shouldn’t be able to see. Dead people shouldn’t be able to live.

And yet, these things happen.

Because flesh and heart aren’t all we have. Love, family, health and stability will never be enough. Beyond what we can obtain or even maintain, we have God. A God who is present to us whether or not we are present to him. A God who always provides hope in surprising places. The pain doesn’t always dissipate, but no pain is strong enough to kill the presence of Jesus.

Nothing puts out the nightlight.

That’s why Allyson has had strength to fight. She fights for her boys, but she is sustained by the strength of God—a strength that often flies in the face of pragmatism.

My flesh. My heart. Any other element on which I’m convinced I can rely—all of these can and will fail.

But God.

God. Both now and forever.

In sickness and in health.

In life and in death.

“But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge.”

Allyson has listened to me as I’ve wondered if refuge in God even matters. And she’s commiserated, but she’s decided that yes—from her experience with such deep losses, yes. Refuge and strength are found in nearness to God.

Take it or leave it.

Lean into God, even in the form of tiny slats of light, or be buried under the darkness.

“You’re ready to go, aren’t you?” I asked her recently.

“YES!” She said, rolling her eyes. “I’ve been telling you that for weeks!”

I smiled.

She wants to go to the place where the refuge is even more tangible.

“Whom have I in heaven but you?

And besides you, I desire nothing on earth.”

Hope is now. Hope is hers. Strength is present.

Even while she waits.

outbursts and empathy

Ellia was born at 12:50am. She was an emergency C-section and I couldn’t see her when she was delivered. And I couldn’t hear her, either. She was so laid back and ok being in the world that she didn’t cry. She waited till we got home from the hospital to test those lungs.

And today, that same baby got a makeover as part of her seven-year-old birthday present. A lady decorated her face with glitter and horrible blue eye shadow. Her face made any 80’s makeup look normal. Her lips were purple and her eyes looked like someone had dumped a blob of blue tempera paint right below her eyebrows.

She looked old while she sat getting her hair braided.

She felt grown up when she chose flashy red for her nail color. But then she came home and colored in her coloring book. There are days she can’t wait till she’s 8. Other days, she wishes she could stay 6 forever.

Today, I watched her eating a snow cone then diving to the bottom of the pool for water toys, and finally getting her hair sprayed with Rave—a hair product I was convinced was no longer being sold.

Ellia vacillates between wanting to be 16 and wanting to ride in the stroller.

Our kids are always on the fence of moving toward independence and resisting change.

The reality is, it’s a very brave thing for kids to grow up.

Adults often take it for granted because we’re past that stage in life—the one where you grew up because you were in a different grade with a different teacher year after year. But it is not an easy thing to be a kid.

Scientists say that the emotional part of our brain doesn’t fully mature until around age 25. This means we are consistently on the fence facing the choice to grow up or resist personal or circumstantial change.

And often, we’re unsympathetic regarding our kids’ uphill struggles toward maturity.

So, we become impatient or we take personally the responses of our children.

Maybe it helps to know that our kids are fighting a huge battle. They are trying to keep up with their own emotions—emotions they often don’t understand. They are trying to navigate the tricky waters of learning and living and socializing and being. No wonder they roll their eyes and don’t always do what we ask.

It’s tough to grow up.

And maybe our kids need our compassion. Maybe they need us to walk in their tiny, overpriced shoes.

Maybe before we grit our teeth or roll our own eyes we should consider the unbridled and confusing emotions of our tiny humans.

Tonight, Olive had a complete breakdown because she didn’t get a yellow plate for dinner. She responded to the pink plate as if she’d been simultaneously sucker punched and informed that Disney World had burned to the ground.

And yesterday Ellia began to cry because Olive got to pretend drive a pretend car before she could.

Both times, I won the mom of the year award by saying in full-on exasperation, “Who cares??!?!?!?!”

And then it hit me—they care. This little person cares. Today it’s a big deal. Today, the internal and external battles are small and mostly insignificant. But they matter right now. And they probably even build some lasting character.

We can be so judgmental of our kids—we criticize what makes them cry and what makes them angry and what devastates their little hearts.

And our criticism pushes us to be dismissive or condescending. Don’t kids know we have far more important things to worry about in the world??

But we can be just as petty. And we need validation and love and understanding because it IS hard to grow up. It IS hard to share. It’s hard not to want what others have.

We know this because it’s still hard for fully-grown adults.

Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t let kids get away with anything they want just because they’re fighting torrential emotions left and right. Of course we should deal with the whining, but perhaps we also need to be willing to look beyond it.

When there’s an outburst right in front of your face, there’s also a little person who needs you to love and teach them. And it’s hard to teach from a position of eye-rolling or yelling or dismissing their concerns.

Teach your kids how to be conscious of others by listening to them.   Now. And help them become people who grow up—people who feel valued and learn to respect the opinions of others.

And remember—sometimes your concerns are just as stupid. But God gives us compassion for our real concerns and our petty ones. Give love as those who are loved. Parent out of grace as you yourself are being parented.

 

One crazy year

A year ago, Brett and I spent the night in the hospital with 6-week old baby Owen. He was still in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Scott and White, but we had to prove to the neonatologists that we could care for him for 8 hours.

All night, I panicked.

Right next to me, with no nurses in the room, was a tiny little human with a heart catheter who had only recently survived major abdominal surgery. He was in and out of heart failure at the time and the tumor in his liver was a big question mark.

His doctor watched as I attempted to clean his Broviac port.

She loved this baby. She had taken care of him since he was care-flighted from a hospital in Waco where his brave birth mother delivered him.

And the doctor wanted to make sure we could handle the challenge in front of us.

“Can you do this?” she asked, skeptically.

It was a time, perhaps, that I should have feigned confidence instead of being honest.

“Of course I can’t!” I told her. How can anyone say they’re going to be the best person to care for a meth baby with a tumor who may not live past 4 months?

But we did it. We survived the night. And no baby was harmed in the process.

I left the hospital feeling anxious. His first doctor’s appointment was with an intervention radiologist only three hours after he was discharged from the NICU.

Owen cried a lot when he first came home. He cried more than Ellia but less than Olive. We bounced between oncology, cardiology and surgical appointments. And we waited for him to grow. We celebrated every pound as if it was a year of life. And we learned how to be the new family we had become.

There were some difficult nights. Two weeks after a five-hernia repair surgery, I heard Brett screaming from Owen’s room.

Owen’s clothes were soaked through with blood, as if he’d been shot. Owen was inconsolable. His surgical incision had opened, and fluid was leaking everywhere.

On the way to the hospital, I tried to put pressure on Owen’s incision. I was panicked and clueless. At one point, Owen’s eyes began to roll backwards, and I thought I was watching my son die.

The surgeon decided to leave the wound open, and we cared for the incision at home until it finally healed.

Parenting can be so hard.

But then there were good days, like the day when we headed to court to make Owen’s adoption official.

We took Ellia out of school, the kids dressed up and we bribed Owen’s sisters with Skittles so that they would be compliant and make us look like capable parents. During our long wait, our lawyer prepped us for our time with the judge. It was very straightforward—she’ll say this, you say this.

When it was our turn, the crazy Gibson clan danced our way through the courtroom to stand before the judge, on behalf of our son, but also on behalf of us as a family.

The judge asked us all of her questions, then, she looked at me and said, “Do you think it is in the best interest of this child to be raised by you?”

Oh, dear God. Things they don’t ask you when you’re having your kid cut out during a C-section.

I stood there at that bench staring at her.

Should I disclose to the judge that I had just given my kids candy and told them to lie if someone asks them if I let them drink coffee? Should I tell her the truth, that there are better moms in the world? That other people have read more books or have better methods of discipline?

But that day I realized that whether or not I was most qualified, I still get to be the one that tries my best.  Maybe that’s what it is to be a mom.

I get to be the one that often fails, but keeps showing up. I get to be the one that wakes up in the middle of the night and stumbles toward the crib to make sure Owen hasn’t fallen prey to a midnight diaper explosion. I get to be the one who fishes the pacifier out of the toilet and learns the hard way that Owen’s army crawl rivals cheetah speed. I get to be the one who teaches him how to be brave and how to cry and how to respond when someone hurts his feelings. I get to be the one who figures out how to flush an IV and falls asleep with him in the hospital.

And I’m so lucky.

It’s been a year. A wild ride of ups and downs and smiles and tears, and all I know is our family was finally complete when Owen Gibson came home last June. He makes us laugh. He is both serious and hysterical. He loves to entertain his sisters, but he has no interest in performing baby tricks for anyone else. He’s happy, resilient, determined, and calm. He’s amazing, beautiful, and perfect.

The judge’s question was difficult because it was a question I had been afraid to face. However, due to awkward stares from the people in the courtroom, I finally answered her.

“I hope so,” I said.

“I guess it is within his best interest to be raised by me. Because this is his family. And I’m his mom.”

And maybe that’s all I know today—until tomorrow when I learn something new. But, Owen, I get to be the one that loves you.

And son, I’m so deeply grateful for that chance.

 

the gift of imperfect moments

We took an impromptu trip to see my east Texas grandparents this morning. I woke up sick and crabby and wanted to sleep for another 3 hours. As always, I had one kid in my bed. Apparently, Olive had slithered in sometime in the middle of the night and had made her place with her legs on top of my throat.

Owen woke us up early. He let me know he was hungry by screaming like a banshee in labor.

I drug myself into my closet and sniffed the armpits of the shirt I wore yesterday to make sure it was wearable. Olive, per usual, was sucking her thumb in the middle of the floor alternating between trying to go back to sleep and begging to watch Phineas and Ferb on the iPad.

In the midst of the frenzied attempt to leave, Ellia was calmly gathering all of her belongings. She pulled out her suitcase. She packed an extra set of clothes. She packed the books and dolls she wanted to take with her. She packed rain boots in the off chance it was muddy in Papa and Granny’s yard. She put on an Easter dress and did her hair and wore her church shoes and packed a pair of play shoes in case Papa and Granny’s yard wasn’t muddy.

She brought a full suitcase for an 8-hour trip.

We packed Owen’s 70+ items, all deemed “baby necessities” while Owen sat on the rug in the living room and watched.

Owen doesn’t crawl, but he’s mobile. He self-transports with a highly developed roll. He rolls everywhere—across rooms and halls and public areas. And he moves at an alarmingly fast rate. When he really focuses, he can go 20 feet in 20 seconds.

I assume he’s training for the rolling event in the Olympics. I don’t have the heart to tell him that professional rolling may not be a real thing. And if it is, he’s probably going to lose to a Russian.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when Owen kept rolling toward the garage where we were loading the car with plastic Target bags that we fondly call “luggage.”

Olive climbed into the car wearing a ballet outfit with her panties sticking out of the leotard like little wings.

And, after packing up every drawer in her room, Ellia finally got in the car.

The trip felt 9 hours longer than it was. Owen forgot he was supposed to sleep and cried most of the way. In addition to yelling he threw his pacifier every time we put it near him. He has developed the ability to throw the pacifier into the no-man’s land between the carseat and the door. I spent my car ride reaching toward the back like a crazy person, slapping the back seats in an effort to find the pacifier. And, of course, after each failed slapping attempt, I’d unbuckle, climb into the back seat and search from a standing position over Owen’s car seat.

#safe

I’ve learned little baby snacks are a good pacifier substitute, so I always keep a stash of puffs with me. For those of you who don’t know, a puff is nothing more than an easily-dissolved cross between a Cheeto and a cheerio. However, it costs twice as much as actual Cheetos and Cheerios and tastes like Styrofoam.

I take advantage of the fact that Owen can be placated by food.   I want to make sure he learns that when you want to cry, you should eat. This way, he can eventually tell his therapist where his emotional eating began.

The girls listened to a Bible verse CD and fought the whole time about which songs to skip and which ones were keepers. After a few moderate to severe breakdowns, I threw the iPad to the back seat and told the girls to watch Dora. Now, Ellia and Olive can eventually tell their respective therapists that I taught them to escape conflict through mind-numbing entertainment.

#winning

In the midst of wanting to punch out a window, I looked in the rearview mirror and looked at my three kids. And then, I really saw them—these three amazing lives. I realized each moment and each personality quirk and each squirm or yell or fit was a part of my kids’ development. And we as parents get to be present to this process. We get to watch the internal struggles and the interpersonal battles our kids face. And we deal with our issues right alongside our children.

Maybe this is what it is to be present to being family—not creating perfect memories but learning to partner with each other as we all grow into who we were made to be. Maybe being family means walking through the crabby, whiney parts in all of us and doing it with love and patience.

And even if being a part of our kids’ development means getting night-kicked by a child in my bed or cleaning up mess after mess, I don’t want to miss a thing. I want to be present. I want to get over myself long enough to look at the lives right in front of me. And maybe I’ll even learn to laugh at the chaos.

 

dropping babies and healthy parenting

Ellia was my travel companion starting at 6 weeks old. She came with me to meetings and on errands and coffee dates. She accompanied me on retreats I taught and trips I took. In her first year, she traveled across Texas, Colorado, California, and all the way to Mexico, Maui and Japan.

She was four months old when I brought her to Maui. I was leading a retreat for a young adults group at a church on the island. One morning, as Ellia and I took a leisurely walk near the beach, I decided to take her down to the shore. Disregarding the warning signs of slippery rocks, I stepped on a wet downward slope and slid, holding Ellia as I fell. I tried to hold her up as I hit the ground, but she landed headfirst on some lava rocks.

Mom of the year.

I panicked and yelled at people on the beach, calling for someone to call 911. It was terrible. People came running. I couldn’t stop crying. Ellia couldn’t stop screaming. Her face was already bruised and the side of her head and her ear began to swell.

All I could think was that I broke my baby by doing what I wasn’t supposed to do.

While we waited for the ambulance to arrive, I sang a Rich Mullins song to Ellia. It was her favorite. The part she loved the most referred to whores and drunks loving the grace of Jesus and so I stood in the middle of a crowd of Hawaiians holding my crying baby and singing, “The whores all seem to love him and the drunks propose a toast.”

Spoiler alert: Ellia turned out to be fine.

And I’d gotten my first dropping-a-baby event out of the way.

It came with a freezing reality—our choices deeply and widely affect our children.

What we do, what we choose directly impacts those in our home. We want to pretend we act in a vacuum. We want parenting or ministering to others to be limited to our words instead of our internal choices and our own maturation.

Sometimes we’re tempted to think good parenting means creating a perfect world in which our kids can live. So, we try to develop an immaculate little terrarium by intervening in all potentially bad situations, making sure our kids never skin their knees.

But so much of parenting is in the way we ourselves choose to live.

Good parenting is more than what we say or do or even our disciplinary style. It has much more to do with who we are becoming than our skills in communication or maintaining a chore chart.

If we are healthy people who live out of forgiveness and grace then we parent with that same message.

Even if your kids don’t see your personal decisions, they are still impacted. When I fell on those rocks that day, I broke my tailbone. But I took Ellia down with me. Disregarding the warning signs affected more than just me.

And kids aren’t stupid. They pick up on emotional dishonesty. They know when you’re just saying you’re “fine” and when you actually are operating from a calm state.

Parenting and ministering is not just about teaching mercy and generosity—it’s about being people who are merciful and generous.

Too often we try to teach what we don’t do.

But, in reality, we’re far better off thinking through our own health and what we need and how to practice self-care and forgiveness than we are reading a parenting book.

In an effort to be good parents or good ministers, it’s easy to become distracted from the important work of who we ourselves are becoming. We trick ourselves into focusing on our kids’ development instead of realizing our parenting is a direct result of our own development. And we end up stunted in our own spirituality and growth. We’re likely to become the emotionally immature parents obsessed with living vicariously through their children.

Healthy parents are more likely to raise healthy kids.

I believe we avoid our own spiritual well-being because it’s easier to shape another mind than it is to pay attention to our own transformation. We’d rather overprotect than deal with our own fears and lingering insecurities.

But it’s impossible to truly love your kids if you don’t love yourself.

If we are people who actively live out of the love of God then we will free our children to live out of that same love.

Godly parenting isn’t found in taping bible verses around the house or forcing kids to go to church choir. Real, life-giving parenting comes as we ourselves learn to remain with the God who takes responsibility for our kids. We are in need of the same love and grace that we want our kids to experience. As we grow and learn and follow we’re less likely to take our kids down with us on an unnecessary fall.

We’ll do well to pay attention to the needs of our own hearts. Then, we can walk with our children and shepherd them, not as people riddled with anxiety, but people who rest in the deep love of God.