Friday, January 11, 2013

Mix Tape for the Melancholy

Have you ever yelled for your child to be quiet because your favorite song is playing on the radio?  Or turned the car radio up really loud while not-so-subtly asking them to be quiet by saying, “I REALLY LIKE THIS SONG”?  Have you ever sung very loudly and emotionally along with your favorite song using an umbrella or a spatula as a microphone?  Yeah...I have on way more than one occasion.  I love music.  I’ve always been quick to find personal connections to song lyrics, deep meaning in someone else’s words.  I have always been the “music person” in my family.
You know how in most - not all, but most - relationships, there is one person who is just more musically inclined?  I don’t necessarily equate being “musically inclined” with playing a musical instrument or being trained to sing well, but with liking and relating to music more.  One who not only sings loudly along with the radio but who can tell you band name, album, song title and year it came out; one who assigns real life value to lyrics that “move me and that mean something to me” versus one who kinda likes that guitar riff and sorta remembers the refrain of that one song, you know, the one that goes “la la lalala“ by that one group….sort of, you know?
Maybe that’s just the way my marriage is, but since I’m the one writing, we’re just going to assume that most relationships are just like that.  ;)  I enjoyed all sorts of music growing up - 80s music, hair band metal, country, pop, Latin, alternative rock, etc.  The ABCs of my CD collection - yes, CD collection (with a few MP3 downloads thrown in for modernity’s sake) - run the gamut from The Avett Brothers to ABBA, from BarlowGirl and Black 47 to Andrea Bocelli and Sara Bareilles, and from Coldplay  to the Cure.  My musical tastes are nothing if not eclectic.  I’ve always liked listening to music while driving, doing crafts, cooking dinner, cleaning the house, etc.  But that all changed in the days and weeks following my daughter’s death.
When my sweet girl died, I wanted nothing more than silence.  I could NOT stand noise - loud, soft, words, songs, any noise at all.  Noise was too hard to be around.  I didn’t watch TV.  I didn’t listen to the radio.  I left my cell phone on vibrate, just as it had been set while I was in my daughter’s hospital room for all those months.  I didn‘t want to hear a ringtone.  I asked my boys to talk softly or not at all.  I didn't want to hear anything.  I just wanted silence, as though silence could ever translate into peace.  But at a certain point, even the silence got to be too loud.  Silence and the non-stop, can’t get away from them, can’t make them stop images of the last days of my daughter’s life and especially of her death.  At a certain point, I had to let noise, and more specifically the music, back into my life.
But it took weeks before I could tolerate any noise while driving.  When I did finally allow noise in the car, I could only handle so much.  No crap, no kids’ music, and NO CRAP.  So that ruled out a majority of what’s on the (secular) radio nowadays, especially pop/rock and even quite a bit of today’s country music.  Heck, it even ruled out some of the Christian music on the radio.
But I eventually started listening to KLOVE.  Oh, how I hate the name of that radio station.  It makes me roll my eyes to even say it - KLOVE -  but it was and still is the only station that gives me what my heart and soul need.  I was still so angry with God at that point, yet I couldn’t listen to any music but that which praised Him or talked about Him.  I was furious that He took my baby away from me, but even in the midst of my anger, I knew that listening to most of the drivel and tripe that passes for modern music wouldn’t help my mood, my spirit or my soul.
Music, and more specifically Christian music, has been a balm for my soul, providing comfort and reassurance when mere words couldn’t and offering hope and even a little bit of light during the darkest time of my life.  The lyrics of certain songs just spoke to my aching soul and broken heart in ways that other words could not.
So without further ado, I present my play list - a mix tape for the melancholy - full of songs that have meant so much to me and have helped me the most during this past year.  I think that several of these songs would provide comfort to anyone experiencing difficulty, not just those in the throes of grief.  I’m sure we’ve all felt very far from God at some point in our lives, as though all sorts of crap is raining down on us while He appears to be keeping His distance, watching but not helping, hearing but ignoring.  It’s nice to know that the simple words of a randomly played song on the radio could bring us closer to Him and just might be the way He reaches out to us when we need Him most.

You’re gonna have all of me
You’re gonna have all of me
“Cause you’re worth every falling tear
You’re worth facing any fear
You’re gonna know all my love
Even if it’s not enough
Enough to mend our broken hearts
But giving you all of me is where I’ll start.

Of course, a song written by a heart dad had to make it to this list!  It’s one of the first that I remember noticing and really listening to after I let the noise back in.  Matt Hammitt’s son Bowen was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a congenital heart defect that usually takes at least three surgeries to correct.  The first time I heard this song, I couldn’t stop crying.  I was driving at the time, so that wasn’t good.  I honestly felt like I could have written every single word in this song because I lived every single word of it.  The lyrics took my breath away; they were my own thoughts and emotions set to music.  Mine was a reckless love for my daughter, and she was worth everything, every sacrifice, every tear shed both then and now.

I was sure by now
God, you would have reached down
And wiped our tears away
Stepped in and saved the day
But once again, I say “Amen”, and it’s still raining. 

As the thunder rolls
I barely hear You whisper through the rain
“I’m with you”
And as your mercy falls
I raise my hands and praise the God who gives
And takes away.

It is so easy to praise God when things go well, when life is good and when the blessings are abundant.  To praise Him when everything goes south is beyond difficult and can seem downright impossible.  It’s hard to praise the One at whom you’re shaking your fist and swearing like a sailor.  This song serves as a reminder that God deserves my praise, my thanks and my adoration in all circumstances.  And believe you me - I have needed that reminder time and again for the last year!

Two months is too little
They let him go.
They had no sudden healing.
To think that providence would
Take a child from his mother while she prays
Is appalling.
This is what it means to be held
How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive.

You only have to listen to the first verse of this song, changing a few words here and there, to understand why it touched me.  It is truly appalling to pray and to hope only to have those prayers seemingly ignored and that hope crushed.  But God is faithful even when we aren’t, and though the prayers aren’t always answered in the ways we want, He holds us through it all.  This is a lesson I have to relearn with each new day.

Sometimes I feel it’s all that I can do
Pain so deep that I can hardly move
Just keep my eyes completely fixed on You
Lord, take hold and pull me through
I’m alive even though a part of me has died
You take my heart and breathe it back to life

Oh, heavens, this is another song that could have come straight from my own hurting heart, and it‘s another one that makes it hard to breathe for all the crying I do while listening to it.  I was so freaking ANGRY after my daughter died, but in the midst of that anger, I still found myself turning to God, talking to Him constantly and relying on Him to carry me through the pain.

And with your final heartbeat
Kiss the world good-bye
Then go in peace and laugh on Glory’s side, and
Fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus and live!

I heard this song for the first time while listening to a CD that my boys got at vacation Bible school a few summers ago.  Even then, before experiencing the soul crushing pain of losing a child, the song made me well up.  Now that my own sweet girl has flown to Jesus, it touches me more.

And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles’ wings
Before my God fall on my knees
And rise
I will rise

What a beautiful thing to imagine - my sweet girl forever before her King, no longer in pain, no more sick and broken heart.  That I didn't want to hear such a sentiment after Ella died or have those words offered as comfort doesn't change the fact that my little girl's heart has been made perfect in Christ.  For as much pain as I am in, for as much as I desperately miss her, for as much as I ache - truly, physically ache - for not being able to hold her in my arms, I would never begrudge her Heaven.

You’re in a better place, I’ve heard a thousand times
And a thousand times I’ve rejoiced for you
But the reason why I’m broken, the reason why I cry
Is how long I must wait to be with you

I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength to make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now

I’m afraid.  That’s the long and the short of it.  I’m afraid I’ll forget what she looked like, what she smelled like, what it felt like to hold her in my arms while I swayed back and forth, her head resting against my chest while I kissed the top of her head.  I’m afraid I’ll forget how the weight of her wee body felt as I held her against my chest, sang her silly songs, and whispered “I love you” in her ear.  I'm afraid I’ll forget the words to the songs I sang to her.  I cry because I miss her.  I cry because I know where she is, but I can’t see her or visit her.  I cry because I wanted more time.  I miss her so much, and though I have the hope of seeing her again in Heaven, that just feels so far away.  Only God can get me through the wait until I see her again.

I set out on a great adventure
The day my Father started leading me home
Said there’s gonna be some mountains to climb
And some valleys we’re gonna go through

But I had no way of knowing
Just how hard this journey could be
Cause the valleys are deeper
And the mountains are steeper
Than I ever would’ve dreamed

Not all the songs have to be sad or melancholy!  This song is catchier and more upbeat than almost all the others on my list.  Heck, it has a ukulele in it!  As Chapman said, “you can’t frown and play a ukulele.“  I don’t think you can listen to one while frowning either!  That it’s upbeat certainly doesn’t take anything away from the message.  We are all just pilgrims on our way home to the Father.  It’s just that some journeys are longer and harder than others.  We have to trust that we’ll make it, even if “we’re taking the long way home.”
This song is much more poignant when you realize that Chapman lost a daughter (whom he and his wife adopted) to a tragic accident a few years back.  When your child dies, you want to get to Heaven that much quicker, if only to see her again.  The hard parts are the wait and the journey YOU still have to take even when your child’s journey is done.  [Chapman’s song “Heaven Is The Face”…oh, it says so much, too.]
Oh, for the love of pete, do you really need a reason to blast an honest to goodness, foot stomping, play it loud and sing it louder kind of song?!  This one gets played in the car with the volume set at 15.  Crank it.  Yell the lyrics.  ENJOY.  And then when you’re done listening to that one, listen to this one.  Fantastic and fun!

 Forgive the pun, but listening to music has been very instrumental in helping me through the grieving process.  It has given me words to sing, say and pray when my own have failed me, and it has given me an emotional outlet like no other resource has.  I truly believe that God used my love of and need for music in my life to reach me even when I felt completely unreachable.  He spoke His words of comfort and peace and love to me through the lyrics of the songs I heard when I finally let the noise in again.  I’m grateful for that because I cannot imagine what kind of head space I’d be in today if I hadn’t had those songs.  Music has absolutely been among the most valuable of all the cheap therapies I’ve relied on over the past year.
And if nothing else, perhaps by writing this post and providing some links for you to click on, I’ve introduced you to some new sounds or reacquainted you with some old ones.  Who knows?  Maybe you’ll come across some cheap therapy that you didn’t even know you needed.  ;)
St. Ella, pray for us!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

My Fiat

I try to post a picture of Ella on my blog every week, my “MABOP Monday” posts that always showcase the Most Awesome Baby On the Planet but aren’t always posted by Monday.  I post Ella’s pictures not just because I love to share her beauty and awesomeness but because they give a face to the name in all my stories and the reason for this blog.  Those pictures help me keep her memory alive.  So each week, if I don’t already have an idea of which picture I’m going to post, I search through the photos we have on our computers.  Yes, computers.

We have a finite number of pictures of Ella, but they're spread out over three computers and a memory card or two.  Some are on our old computer, and some are on the laptop I had at the hospital.  Where we stored them depended upon where and when we took the pictures and where we were when we needed to make more room on the camera’s memory card.  Thankfully, though, most of the pictures ended up on my husband’s work computer.  After Ella died, we did our best to consolidate the photos onto one computer.  Even knowing that, though, I have moments of panic when looking for a particular shot.  I panic because I can’t find it.  I panic because it’s not where I think it should be.  I panic because I need to see it; I need to reassure myself that the picture is still there.  God forbid I’ve lost it or it’s somehow been accidentally deleted because I can never get it back.  Those pictures can never be replaced.

My husband - God love him and his patience with me - bought a thumb drive this week that has A LOT of memory.  He bought it so that I could have everything Ella related from his computer here at home, no longer having to rely on his work computer for access to those pictures and videos.  He transferred not only Ella items but also all the old pictures he had of our boys.  It took a while because there was quite a bit to transfer, thank God.  When all was said and done, I was able to sit down and take a long walk down memory lane.  The older pictures of our boys cracked me up!  They were as cute and goofy back then as they are now.  The early pictures of Ella…those broke my heart and opened my eyes.  She was so small when we first brought her home!  The pictures we have out on the fridge are from when she was a little bit older, so I think I’d forgotten just how tiny she was.  She was just a wee little thing swaddled up in her crib, my sweet little burrito of love.  And then to see her so small in a hospital bed with lines and tubes coming out of her…wow.

Ella was six days old when she was first hospitalized, still a newborn really.  We have a picture of her from the first (local) children’s hospital after she was admitted but before she was flown to a different children’s hospital where she would spend over half her life.  She was still in her “I’d rather be in the womb than out here” mode – legs pulled up, hands balled into fists, face scrunched up, just so wee.  Her pacifier seemed to take up half her face, it was so big!

Because she was a heart baby, she was not only smaller than other babies but she also grew slower.  Her chances of making a big splash on the baby growth charts weren’t helped by the fact that, for the first part of her hospital stay, she wasn’t allowed to eat.  Because of the variety of congenital heart defects that Ella had and the problems each caused, the doctors had to make sure enough blood was perfusing to the lower half of her body, including her stomach.  Inadequate blood flow to her stomach would have caused serious problems, including lack of proper digestion and possible tissue death.  Even when feeds were started, they were very slow and of very small amounts.  So my wee girl stayed wee.  She was feisty and awesome and strong, but she was wee.

Looking through all of those early Ella pictures brought back so many memories and emotions.  They reminded me of how helpless I felt while Ella was hospitalized – helpless in my complete dependence upon God and His infuriatingly incomprehensible plan, helpless in my complete reliance upon all the nurses and doctors to keep me informed of everything that was going on, helpless in my complete inability to do anything to heal my daughter.

To feel completely helpless to do anything for your child is a horrible feeling.  I never felt more overwhelmed by the feeling of helplessness than I did one evening when my daughter needed to have her blood drawn.  Drawing blood from a person isn’t necessarily a difficult task for the average nurse, but when the patient is a small, newborn heart baby with perfusion issues who’s not only a difficult stick but is also clamping down [her already small veins seemed to shrink (clamp down) because it was more important for her vital organs to get blood than for her arms and legs], then that average everyday blood draw becomes decidedly un-average.  On this particular evening, several nurses had come into Ella’s room to try to help.  They tried to take blood from several locations on Ella’s body – hand, foot, scalp.  After quite a long time and numerous failed attempts, the fellow on duty came in to draw blood from the femoral artery.  An arterial blood draw is never the first option, but in this case after well over half an hour, several unsuccessful tries, and the angry cries of a very vocal, pissed off baby, it was the best option.

And all I could do while this was going on was watch, pace, pray, and cry silently.  I did my darndest to not just sob outright while this was going on, but it was very hard.  I could do absolutely nothing to help my daughter.  She was very angry and agitated.  She was screaming and crying, and I could do nothing to make all the pain and bother stop.  I rationally knew that the blood draw was for her own good and that it was medically necessary, but rational thought doesn’t mean jack when it comes to watching your baby experience pain.  A simple blood draw, yet it still makes me cry to think of it more than a year later.

In all of the emotion of that evening, I distinctly remember a thought I had that seemed to come from out of the blue:

If this is how I felt watching my baby girl have blood drawn, if I could feel so helpless as a witness to her helplessness, so overwhelmed by the desire to stop the pain and just hold her to me, so primal in my passion to protect her from all harm, then how much more did Mary feel while watching her Son, her sweet, innocent Boy, beaten, scourged, abused, taunted, tortured, and crucified, His own blood flowing down His brow, from His hands and feet, pouring forth from His side?

It used to sort of piss me off when people would say that I could look to Mary as an example, that she, too, was a mother who had to watch her Child suffer immeasurably, that I could learn not only how to say yes to God in all things but also that I could follow her example of grace-filled suffering.  I could trust God’s plan and say wholeheartedly, “May it be done unto me according to Thy word.”  In my grief, I would just scoff at that.  I would jump past the example of Mary to the make the point that this was different because her Son chose to suffer.  Her Son knew that He would have to suffer and still chose to go through all of it anyway.  My baby, born with a very sick heart, didn’t have a choice.

It took me months to calm down enough in my grief to remember Mary, His mother, who also must have felt helpless as a witness to her Son’s torture, so overwhelmed by the desire to stop the pain and just hold Him in her arms, so primal in her passion to protect Him from all who would harm Him.  How totally her heart must have been pierced by a sword with each and every scourge on His back, with each thorn in the crown He was forced to wear, with each hammer of the nails in His hands and feet, with each strangled breath He took while hanging on that cross.  The suffering I endured watching my sweet daughter experience pain was maybe one-one millionth of what Mary endured.  How humbling to realize how much pain and suffering her willing and unconditional “yes” to God, said with total obedience and trust in His word, brought into her own life!

Throughout my own journey with my children, most especially with my Ella, I’ve come to a certain realization:  when I said yes to the vocation of wife and mother and when I said yes to my children’s lives and their presence in mine, I opened myself up to the possibility of my own heart being pierced by a sword.  That’s all well and good when the only pain your children experience is the occasional scraped knee or bloody nose or when the only things that hurt are their feelings or their bruised egos.  What I hadn’t accounted for was the deep, soul-crushing piercing that happens when you spend day and night at the side of your critically ill baby, when you are powerless to help her, when even your mommy kisses aren’t enough to make the pain go away, and when you can do nothing more than hold her in your arms as she breathes her last breath, as her heart beats for the last time.  Nothing prepares you for the pain of such a piercing.  Nothing.

On January 1, the Catholic Church celebrated the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, the woman whose unconditional yes to God changed the course of human and salvation history.  I thought that it was such an appropriate way to start off the new year – remembering Mary, my mother; contemplating what it means to say yes to God’s call and to His will in my life, no matter how hard that may be; really thinking about how many times I’ve said “no, not now, maybe later, it’s too hard” instead of “yes!”; and understanding that God will not leave me alone or abandon me after I do say yes, that the strength to do His will does not come from me but from Him, and that I will be strong enough to do His will if I trust Him to lead me through it.

I’m not making any new year’s resolutions this time around.  I guess I could work on being better organized or on eating healthier.  There’s always room for that kind of improvement in my life, that’s for sure!  Instead, though, I’m going to focus more on making Mary’s fiat my own.  I’m going to work on saying yes to God more.  I’m going to pray more honestly Jesus’ own words “not my will but Thy will be done.”  And I’m going to remember that the deepest pain I’ve experienced in my life thus far, the pain of Ella’s death, a pain that pierced my heart so deeply, came hand in hand with the most overwhelming joy – that of being the mother of the most awesome baby on the planet.

St. Ella, pray for us!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

MABOP New Year

Silly Ella!  She would always stick her tongue out when we took her picture

Oh, I miss my sweet, silly, goofy, gorgeous little girl!  That cute face always brought a smile to my own.
I am hoping and praying for a peaceful new year and wish you all the same.
St. Ella, pray for us!