Thursday, June 19, 2008

Beauty from Ashes

Last night I woke up to find my six month old son lying in a pool of blood. His jammies, his sheets, and menagerie of stuffed animals were completely covered in the bright red fluid that was flowing from his arm. It was four o'clock in the morning, and the only thing that kept me from waking up the entire southern half of the country was my son's smiling face when I rolled him over.

Ty was born with a vascular tumor that has consumed most of his left arm. The doctors examining him after birth assumed that the large purple mark spanning from his shoulder to his hand was a just a bruise resulting from a somewhat traumatic c-section. As the weeks passed, however, and his shoulder grew large and lumpy, it became clear that something more sinister was going on in his little body.

To be honest, I wasn't initially bothered by my son's "defect"; to my untrained eye, it looked like a birthmark. But as Ty got older, more and more comments were made in my direction. The grocery store clerk would ask me what had happened to his hand; children in the park would tell me that his arm looked "gross"; our extended family started making noise about getting him checked out by a specialist; and one dear friend wrote me a letter reminding me that my son was "still beautiful on the inside." I tried not to be hurt by these well-intentioned remarks, but when I held Ty close and kissed his sweet fuzzy head, I was grieved to think that he could be hurt. I booked a consultation with a pediatric dermatologist to determine if Ty's mark could be treated with lasers.

By the time we were able to see the doctor, Ty's left arm was nearly twice the size of his right; his hand was puffy and swollen, and scabs dotted his shoulder. The ulcerating hemangioma, as it was officially diagnosed, was outgrowing its blood supply and needed to be lasered 10 to 20 times over the course of the next two years. However, no one told me that in the meantime, those scabs could get irritated and break open; last night was terrifying shock!

So this afternoon I find myself sitting in the waiting room of a top Atlanta dermatologist. The office looks like it was designed to be slick and contemporary - in 1988. It's painted dark green and black, with chrome accents and frosted glass. Since Dr. K is the only one willing to treat Ty without anesthesia, I've been forced to take my son to see a cosmetic dermatologist. I guess that's why most of the patients in the waiting room look surprised to see me; their eyebrows are pinned high on their faces, but their foreheads don't move. One taut-faced lady keeps telling me how pretty I am, and how blessed I am to be young. I guess she doesn't notice the giant zit forming between my eyes. I refrain from asking her age; her wrinkled hands give away the secret she's obviously paying so much to keep.

Ty is happy and cooing away in his carrier. He loves the one-on-one time with me, probably because his sisters usually consume the bulk of my attention. A pretty, clear-skinned nurse comes out walk us back. The work "Botox" is emblazoned in rhinestones across the front of her black T-shirt. (She probably got it as a gift from the pharmaceutical rep I see chatting with the front office staff.) She escorts us into a tiny room packed with equipment. The only place to sit is a black leather examination chair. I'm informed that the doctor will be in shortly, and without having ever made eye contact, she shuts the thick black door.

I'm feeling claustrophobic. The room is hot, and I can hear the equipment humming loudly. The only decor in the room is a large butterfly collection; the assortment of dead insects are held in place by long stick pins and hung for display in a rectangular plastic box. I'm feeling queasy, but Ty seems captivated by the pretty colors.

Dr. K and another pretty nurse breeze into the room. They don't have much to say to me. Ty smiles at them while the doctor tests his laser and decides to ratchet it up. ("He seems like a tough little guy.") The nurse hands me a pair of protective goggles and tells me to keep Ty as still as possible. There aren't any goggles small enough for him, so I sit in the black leather chair and hold his face against my chest. He doesn't mind snuggling up to me until the nurse takes hold of his tender arm. Then Dr. K presses the laser to his skin and begins zapping small portions. The procedure isn't supposed to hurt much, but Ty is screaming.

The flashes of light coming from the laser are blinding, even through my goggles. I close my eyes and press Ty close, but I catch the scent of something burning; I glance up to see puffs of smoke rising from my son's arm. I feel faint, but I know I need to be still and keep breathing. Though the session only lasts about seven minutes, it feels like thirty.

Finally, Dr. K is satisfied; he removes his goggles, shuts down the machine, and, backing out the door, reminds me to call him if there are any problems. His nurse follows. With both of them gone, I focus on my wailing child. I've got a bottle ready, so I walk back out to the waiting room and give him the meal I've delayed for this purpose. He's sucking frantically, anxious to find comfort. I'm anxious, too, so I cuddle him close and try to sooth us both. His arm is spotted with small, cigarette-sized bruises. They look like burns. I've been assured that this is all normal and that his arm will look better in a few weeks. But looking at his arm makes me feel light-headed again. I pack him up and head for the car before the tears I feel pressing against the back of my eyes spill out in front of this room full of strangers.

I'm back in my car and facing a long drive home, but Ty is calm and I've finally managed to stop shaking. A familiar verse from the Book of James is drifting through my head: "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him."

I know that what Ty and I faced in Dr. K's office today isn't the kind of trial that the Scriptures are referring to here. James was reassuring a persecuted people that the trials they were enduring would result in a mature and complete faith. I live in freedom - free of the persecution he is referencing. And yet I find comfort in this verse, because it reminds me that we are blessed by our perseverance. Though we are in the midst of a trial, God is blessing us. We are blessed because the tumor is on Ty's arm and not his face; we are blessed to have access to the technology that can repair it; and we are blessed to have the insurance to cover Ty's numerous and expensive treatments.

As I thank God for these many blessings, I am reminded of another favorite passage - this one from the Book of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning." Again, this Scripture is referring to something far greater than the medical procedure we faced today. But as I reflect on this verse, God is allowing me to imagine the pain and ugliness of Ty's tumor being burned away by the laser, and replaced with the beauty and wholeness of a healed arm.

As a believer, it's sometimes difficult to accept the transforming power of pain. But the truth for all of us is that our faith does not exempt us from trials, and so we face many - emotional and spiritual trials such as bitterness and depression, which assault our minds; physical trials such as pain and illness, which assault our bodies; even corporate trials such as the persecution of believers, which assaults the Body of Christ in nations around the world. But our Great Physician allows these trials to burn away that which is ugly and to reveal the beauty beneath, all the while holding us close to Himself. He is Healer and He is Father, and He will bring forth beauty from the ashes even as He cradles us in His arms.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Conspiracy Theory

After nearly three years of taking anti-anxiety medication, I've come to the realization that the drug companies who manufacture these delightful little happy pills are conspiring with experts everywhere to make new mothers crazy. The assault usually begins at that first obstetric appointment, where the doctor gives the latest mommy-to-be a list of "suggestions" to keep her little embryo safe:

"Don't lay on your back. Don't take hot baths. Don't eat tuna. While you're at it, stay away from lunch meat and cheese. Hot dogs, too. Don't drink caffeine. Watch out for aspartame. Don't forget to take your pre-natal vitamins. And don't forget to eat lots of spinach - you need the folic acid!"

Of course, having lost three pregnancies prior to Ella, I freaked out every time I rolled over in my sleep and woke up on my back. I never took more than a lukewarm shower, and since I couldn't keep anything down, I didn't eat anything on the list of forbidden foods. Of course, since I couldn't keep anything down, I also opted not to swallow those pre-natals, and I confess that not one piece of spinach ever crossed my lips.

To make up for my dietary neglect, I decided to train for a "natural" childbirth. (There are a lot of experts - conspirators - who argue that epidurals are bad for both mom and baby.) I should have known better, but in the end my husband and I attended a twelve week marathon of birthing classes, where we were scarred by slightly pornographic birthing videos and frowned upon for eating meat. All the while, I was consumed with "kick-counts" and weight gain. By the end of that agonizing nine months, I was ready to hold my baby girl in my arms, and know for sure that she was safe.

Of course, once she arrived (after 21 hours of agonizing, drug-free labor), I received a whole new list of "suggestions" from my pediatrician:

"Don't let her sleep on her tummy, but make sure she has plenty of tummy time; we don't want her to get a flat head. Are you nursing? Breast-milk is best. But make sure your baby is getting enough to eat. Don't ever leave her alone, because she can roll over. Of course, make sure she's rolling over by six months. Have you childproofed your house yet? Here's the number for the Poison Control Hotline if you haven't. I also suggest you get a fire extinguisher."

It turns out that Ella was a whole lot safer while I was pregnant. Now that she was out, I realized that all kinds of horrible things could happen to her. Sleep was out of the question. (It was out of the question anyway, because she cried all the time.) But now I had to worry that something was wrong if she stopped crying. What if she wasn't eating enough? What if she got dehydrated? What about SIDS? What about fires, floods, wars and pestilence? In my post-partum haze, it was too much to handle.

Of course, I eventually calmed down. The happy pills helped to dull that sharp edge of fear. But I am periodically reminded that, even present, I can't always keep my children safe from harm. Like the time I locked Ella in the car, and the fire department had to come and rescue her. Or like a week later when, after delivering cookies to those kind firemen, I locked her in the car again. Or when I caught one of the twins sitting in the middle of the kitchen table, licking some questionable food off her fingers. Or even this past week when, going out to get the mail, I turned around just in time to see Emily and Evie standing on their second-story window sill with their faces squashed up against the glass like bugs on a windshield.

The truth is, short of locking my kids in a bubble-wrapped room, there is nothing I can do to protect them from the things that might, or could, happen to them. And even though swallowing a little pill every morning has calmed some of my anxiety, it can't erase the realization that bad things can happen. My ultimate comfort, then, comes only from God, Who is using motherhood to teach me a awful lot about surrender: surrendering myself to His will; surrendering my children to His plan; surrendering my time to prayer and to the study of His word; surrendering my fears to His great and loving faithfulness. Though it's hard to believe, God loves my kids even more than I do. And even though it feels like I am surrendering an awful lot to Him, I am reminded even now that He surrendered His Son not only for me, but for those little ones I hold so tightly. Surely I can cast my fears upon the Lord, because He alone is my Rock and my Fortress!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Can Somebody Get Me a Manual?

My best friend had a child last month: a much anticipated baby girl who arrived two years after the devastating stillbirth of her sister. This little girl is a truly beautiful newborn. I really mean that. Somehow she managed to avoid showing up in the world looking all red and scrunchy and other-worldly. (Because no matter what our post-partum bliss might have led us to believe, most of our kids weren't too terribly cute those first several weeks out the the womb.) But Ryan is soft and pretty and pink and cuddly; and apparently she cries a lot.

I confess that my first thought upon hearing this news was, "Really girl, how bad can it be? It's one kid. Toss her in the crib, pop a plug in her mouth, and catch the last ten minutes of Oprah!"

Thankfully, four years of sleep deprivation haven't rendered me completely stupid, because I managed to avoid actually voicing my thoughts. Instead, I bumbled my way through a few words of cliched comfort, like "It's hard now, but you're going to miss this stage so much! Just keep her fed and changed. And, hey, remember to sleep when she sleeps."

It wasn't until I got off the phone that I remembered some babies - my first daughter, Ella, for example - never actually sleep. I think I'd repressed those early memories of Ella and replaced them with ones of my youngest child, Ty, who is, as far as I can tell, THE EASIEST BABY IN THE WORLD. He only cries for one of three reasons: 1) he's hungry, 2) he's wet, or 3) he's tired. That's it. Aside from those three times, he's quiet. Every day he rolls on the floor, plays with his feet, looks at his toys, and spits up 1-3 ounces formula on the new rug. (I didn't say he was perfect.)

Ella, on the other hand, is a whole other type of kid. She didn't make a peep during the two days we were in the hospital, but the minute we walked through the front door, she started screaming. I quickly changed her (dry) diaper and tried nursing her, but she wasn't hungry. I tried rocking her, but she twisted and turned and bowed her back to get away from me. After that, and as far as my new-mommy instinct was concerned, I tried everything: swaddling, patting, swaying, singing, pacifying, soothing, and - eventually - crying. Several long hours later, she took the bottle of hospital formula we'd come home with; I assume she needed it to replace all those calories she'd just burned off, because following that 2 ounce energy boost, she quickly resumed her ear-splitting torment!

I don't know when the crying stopped. I kept waiting for some kind of manual to arrive in the mail, telling me how to take care of my baby. I mean, they give you one when you buy a new car. They come with every piece of baby equipment ever created. Even plastic bags come with a warning, in case we get the urge to wrap one around our heads.

Of course Ella's manual never showed up, so those earliest days are a blur, dotted with foggy memories of dozing on the floor next to the crib, the swing, or the bouncy seat, praying that Ella would just go to sleep. Eventually, we navigated our way through those first three months by figuring out two things: 1) Ella had colic, and 2) she thrives on routine. In fact, I kept a typed copy of her daily schedule taped to the refrigerator, which meticulously detailed each of her naps (there was only one), meals, play times, baths, and Baby Einstein videos (again, only one). Every trip to the grocery store, every visit from friends, and every meal had to follow Ella's schedule.

Actually this still holds true today, because there's a third thing I learned about Ella during those first few weeks at home: she is not an extension of me! God has created her unique. It was a shock to come home with the infant I had carried for nine months and realize that I knew nothing about her. She didn't eat when I thought she should eat; she didn't nap when I thought she should nap. Thanks to the free will wired into her from conception, there were very few things about my child that I could actually control.

I'm not sure if those are the words my friend wants to hear, since her days are now consumed with trying to get her daughter to eat and sleep, but I'm thinking about passing them on to her anyway. Motherhood is, among so many other things, part scientific method; there is a great deal of observation and experimentation that goes into raising each of our unique children. At the end of it, I suppose there is a manual - but its one that we mothers have to write for ourselves.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Getting My Feet Wet

The house smells faintly of week-old left-overs and dirty diapers; my shirt is still damp with the rejected portions of my six-month old's bottle; our recently-dented minivan sits in the garage with its doors open, spewing out the remains of an ill-conceived morning trip to the pool; and when I last walked through my kitchen five minutes ago, I barely avoided slipping on my daughter's discarded dinner. It's 8:10, this kids are in bed, and after evaluating the state of my home, I've made a decision: It's perfect time to start blogging.

The truth is, I've been thinking a lot about this whole blogging thing for awhile. (Okay, I confess that I didn't actually know what "blogging" was until a few days ago - or that you could use it in a sentence as a verb.) But as the last four years of my life have flown by (and those same 1,460 days have simultaneously crawled by), I've felt the perpetual need to document the horrors and hilarity of mothering four children under the age of four.

But I have to tell you, in the words of that cranky American Idol judge: "If I'm being honest...," I am terrified of the creative writing process. Those things that sound witty and insightful in my head often make me feel silly and foolish when I see them in print. And since I'm not terribly ept in my computer skills, I'm assuming that once something is posted on this blog, I can't get it back!

So as I take this plunge into the pool of writing (or at least dabble my toes in the water), I want to be sure to thank my dear blogging friend, mom2drew, for her inspiration. She doesn't know it yet, but her talent for observing and writing about her own parenting experience is what drove me from the security of my lounge chair. And if I drown out there, I'm blaming her!!!