Monday, February 1, 2016

About Bran

I remember that I was lying right here in my spot on the bed looking out my huge picture window into the branches of the fir tree right outside, but instead of Winter sun, low and filtered by slowly rolling, thick clouds, the golden light of a Summer sun, shining into my window since about 5am, was starting to warm the room. Wearing an unbuttoned nightgown for easy nursing and skin-to-skin contact, I did my best to soak in the moments. I felt incredible, almost euphoric. The co-sleeper was to my left, extending my nest and forming a hedge to hold in my pillows. I used 5, I think: 2 behind me, one on either side of me, and one beneath my knees. It was the time for luxury. My favorite sheets were on my bed (like they are now.) Out the window, the peace and beauty of the trees provided calm while the excitement of siblings buzzed outside and through my bedroom door on the opposite side of the room.

Except for the co-sleeper, the biggest clue that something had changed was the baby himself. We didn't need a ton of baby stuff. Except for some diapers and wipes; I was all he needed. I don't think I even clothed him for a week or so. It is amazing how so small a thing can become a new gravitational center in the home and for my heart. My heart and thoughts revolved around him. Our schedule and meals were different because of him. My other children were in awe and overwhelmed with love for him in their own ways. The feeling of him being in our house and lives felt so exactly right. It still does. For me, the beauty of this fourth child lies in his wanted-ness, and like a little mirror, even from his earliest days, he reflected back all the peace and joy I felt at his being here. Anxiety appeared here and there. “Is that considered a retraction? Does his umbilicus look OK? Is that a little bit of tongue-tie?” But every question was quickly resolved. He certainly showed no signs of worry or insecurity. I only 3 times in the last 6 months have heard even a hint of stress in his cry, and those came only in the last few weeks, never in the first few. Never.

My little Bran; my buttery, new, ruddy pink baby, all wrinkles and tiny bones, fuzzy head, kissable cheeks. There is simply nothing else like feeling that velvety body against your chest or in the crook of your arm. The floppiness is a bit unsettling on the first child you cradle; the fragility reminds you of the weight of responsibility now resting upon you. But with Bran, the ginger movements I used with him simply felt like reminders to pay attention to every soakable moment, to go slowly on purpose because his life was already moving rocket-fast enough. Nursing is best done while seated, comfortable, and adoring, not on-the-go. I understood for the first time the use of the term “mother-baby.” We were like one thing. It would have felt so disruptive and even painful to me if I had had to share him and show him off very much. No, we stayed in our nest, and that felt exactly right. It was difficult to protect our time, but, having successfully done it, I will be a mother-baby protection evangelist forever.

My other children were permitted to join us regularly and get to know their new brother, and I had a few moments of feeling like one thing with all of them and with my husband. Bran's arrival made our invisible bonds palpable again. I have often heard people say, “I cannot imagine having any more children because I don't know that I have the capacity for giving that many kids what they need.” I cannot imagine it either if I didn't know from experience that growing throughout pregnancy, like the placenta and baby, is a new store of love. My mother heart has stretched along with my uterus every time I have born a child to this family. I picture the Grinch heart bursting the bounds of the x-ray frame.

I wish that these scenes were a part of every baby's experience, of every mother's. But I know they are not because of injustice, illness, death, and even pure selfishness and evil. Watching Bran being loved by our family, loving him myself every moment, I have often cried for babies and families not having this experience. There are so, so many. I do think that more families could have this experience if they felt the permission to slow down and if they were not pressured by families to “hand over that baby.” I really hate that phrase. While there are many aspects of my life with Bran so far that have been lovely simply because 1) he is our fourth child, and 2) I advocated for us as mother-baby (things that can be enjoyed and utilized by many other pairs), there are some very precious, Jessica-Bran specific rays of goodness and beauty that I have to record.

I was sick when we decided to try to get pregnant, and there is much evidence that now I am well. We anticipated, with fear and trembling but also with faith and hope, that life with a fourth baby may be the hardest thing we ever had done. We knew we might be asking for a bedridden mother, but we did it anyway. I took a lot of convincing even though I was also the one arguing vigorously for us to do it! The beginning stages of weaning from some medications and wading into the pregnancy were terrible. I was afraid, and one of the worst nights of my life was New Year's Eve 2014 when I was suddenly terrified that we had made an awful mistake. I never, ever want to feel again that a child, a real, human, heart-beating baby, could be a mistake. I woke up on New Year's Day feeling like I had purged a virus. That fear needed to be expressed so that it could begin to dissipate, but like any flu, fighting it was painful and left me weak and humbled. One thing I felt very strongly, like I had when I took my pregnancy test, was that THIS baby was intended to be on the planet. THIS person already had his or her days appointed by God.

By the time we learned that this person was a boy and soon decided was Bran, I was already feeling much better emotionally and physically. Selecting his name was a great joy. He is a man named for women as well as his father. I gave him a “B” name to remind me of some dear women filled with qualities I hope all my children will display, mainly bravery, godly boldness, compassion, kindness, and belief in Jesus. His middle name is Raphael which means “God has healed me.” I liked it because it is Italian like my husband and me and goes well with the first name which is Irish (also like my husband and me.) I hesitated a bit, though, to give him this name that declares God HAS healed me. It's so emphatic. The word “heal” was important to me, meaningful. Brendan and I now knew what it meant to long for healing in THIS life. I did not want to demand something from God by naming my child such a thing. As I mulled it over, though, I kept thinking of my greatest comfort in all my days dealing with POTS, “I am already safe and healed in Christ. My life is already hidden in Heaven with him.” The fact was: I was already healed; already, but not yet. So, we named him Bran Raphael. And all my little Ninja Turtles were thrilled.

At counseling one day in Summer of 2014, I shared with my therapist that I was harboring hope that perhaps a pregnancy would somehow reset me, that the POTS would go as mysteriously as it had come. “That sounds like magical thinking,” she responded. We had no real reason to think the POTS would disappear. I had been told by my neurologist that I'd probably have it forever. “But,” she said after a moment. “Maybe it isn't so magical because we don't know why it came, so maybe we don't know what might make it go.” I carried these two thoughts around. I didn't get too excited or hold hope that pregnancy would definitely cure me, but I allowed myself to be excited to see what might happen.

As of late in my third trimester, around June of 2015, I was no longer having POTS symptoms. Doctors attribute this to the increased blood volume, and that makes sense. Bran is now 6 months old, and with the exception of occasions during illness or related to gallbladder attacks when anyone might have heart rate problems, I have still not experienced symptoms. Some women with POTS report that breastfeeding seemed to keep their POTS at bay, but this is by no means universally true. I will soon be speaking with my doctors to discuss a trial of medication weaning. I never imagined feeling this good. The other day I had to run up the stairs two extra times because I kept forgetting things I wanted to bring down. I realized during my second trip that every step was a huge blessing, and I took two stairs at a time- gulping the opportunity like a kid offered a sip of soda.

The threat of my POTS returning does hang over me like Wile E. Coyote's anvil. I have cried pretty hard about it a few times, and I ask regularly for prayer regarding that worry. I try, though, to not get sucked into that hole. Why go down it when I can be enjoying the days that it is not here? God HAS healed me.

I never pictured my postpartum year with Bran being the healthy, busy year that it has turned out to be. Bran's joyful, generous smiles reflect the great gifts our family has been given, a sweet, sweet baby and a healthy mommy. I am humbled to my core. He will smile at you and then somehow smile deeper; he crinkles up his little nose and shakes his little head as if to say, “I know! I can't believe it either!” He loves to hear music and listens intently when I sing to him of God who gives generously. I made up a little song that I used to sing to Hazel for naptime when I was newly pregnant with Bran based on Psalm 103:
He forgives all your sins and then
heals your diseases too.
He satisfies you with good things
so that your strength is renewed.

He redeems your life straight from the pit
and puts upon your head
a crown of love and compassion.
Oh, my soul! Don't ever forget.

My sweet Bran and all my dear children, I pray that you will learn these truths and then, please, don't ever forget. God does great, kind things. Life is full of difficulties and shocking, terrible troubles, but our God even has use for those. Not a one of you would mean all that you do mean to me, and I would not be able to love you as deeply as I do without having lived through days of darkness and sorrow. Seek his kingdom! Look for him always, and you will see amazing things everywhere.

My littlest Bran Raphael, sweet, smiling declaration of God's healing love, I am so glad for all you represent to me, but you will live your own life. Moving forward your story will be your own, and I will only be a fraction of what you have to tell about. But, this needed to be set down for you and for me. We cannot be mother-baby forever, but I have enjoyed this time immensely. Please don't grow too quickly. I cannot bear it.

Love, Mommy

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Belonging Art Show (Including Yours Truly!)

I got to talk out loud! It was pretty fun. I learned a lot by preparing for it all, and I hope to find some more mic opportunities in the future. I had some positive feedback including some that began with my favorite words, "I feel that way too..." 

I will say that my poop joke didn't go over nearly as well as I thought it would!

IF you go to Green Lake, I gotta say: you really missed out if you didn't come. And, no. I don't mean you missed out because you didn't hear me speak. Union Gospel Mission's Art Therapy program showed up with tons of great art and fascinating stories and did the hard work of hanging the show. The Bruised Hearts Revue played some swinging, toe tapping, western music filled with beautiful lyrical content. I had a great time as did my family. There were even art supplies provided for the kids to fill their own wall in the gallery. 

And now... the script I wrote myself. I memorized the whole thing and was able to speak without notes (a la the Moth!). Brendan took video that I will try to post. The video taught me that I should stand up straighter! And, please, laugh at my jokes, wouldja? 

I am so happy to participate in this art night. These events have been very special to me over my 15 years attending this church. I helped plan them for many years and ran point for a few. I also have shared my own artistic efforts. When I was 18 and dancing for Pacific Northwest Ballet, I danced right there on the subject of Love and made eyes at my boyfriend whom I married 4 years later. A couple years after that I showed a painting which was the product of my self-led art therapy (before I knew art therapy was a thing) to process and mourn the loss of my first baby to miscarriage. And, now, I'm here behind a microphone.

I was invited to participate in the planning of this event and decided that I had too many other things requiring my attention. 4 of those things have names, Ezra, Ivo, Hazel Belle, and Bran, my children. As the event flyers were posted and requests for submissions were going around, I felt a tug. Art, my desire to produce it and roll in it, has a place of permanent residence in my heart. But, motherhood, busyness, illness, etc. have really put a damper on it for the last few years in particular. And, you should know about me, that by 20, a stage accident led to a pretty serious injury that suddenly ended my ballet career. That left me in a very weird, complicated relationship with Art. Imagine: my whole life I loved Art, believed in it's importance for all people and in me, and I was surrounded by the ballet world. I had this perfect way to engage it all. I had intensely trained. Then, I was dropped down into this other world, the normal world with the muggles, and I can't do it anymore. So I was forced to struggle with these questions: Is Art still that important to me? Should I find a new way to do it? And for 14 years now, I've wrestled with whether that part of me should be allowed out. And when my mommy years set in I was able to get busy and distracted enough and love my children enough to just not think about it or even try to do it as much. This past year in particular I have been feeling how much that has hurt. Because I love the storytelling aspect of art. I enjoy looking at the world through an artistic lens, but what I love the most is saying, “Hey, look at this.” I love an audience.

So I haven't done much art, but what I did do during these mommy years was to start blogging. People began talking to me about “my writing” and saying things like, “well, you're a writer...” “WHAT? no. I'm just doing more of that self-led art therapy stuff. I'm just processing and pontificating from a place of safety behind my keyboard.” After a while, though, I really started to enjoy writing more and more and I started to hear a knock. I feel like that after ballet, that Art relationship became so painful to think about that I just stuffed that part of me way, way down. I put my artistic self under a trap door in the floor, locked with a little hook, and rolled out a big, thick, dusty Persian rug over the whole thing. But, she knocks. And as my writing started to develop that self was like, “Hey! I'm still down here! You should let me out! We could totally use this writing thing! And, maybe, oh, I don't know, just maybe, we could love on an audience again!”

So, I let her out, and she immediately repossessed the controls, and I became a writing fiend. Because ballet training doesn't make you very good at moderation. You know, ballerinas aren't really known for loving ambiguity. “Oh, let's just create, and just see what happens!” No. We're like this is how we do ballet and we will be the best someday. So I immediately came up with this training program filled with goals, and practices, and on and on. And, mostly, I've loved it. Because Art fills me up. It inflates me, makes me feel like I'm fully occupying myself. I feel animated as in alive. And, you know, I'm a Believer in Jesus, and I know that I'm filled with the Holy Spirit and that there is no God but God. Back when the ballet stuff fell apart and even still though less frequently, people would ask me or imply that maybe I liked ballet too much. Maybe it was becoming an idol, and maybe that's why God let the ballet thing crash. And, I gotta tell you, that question buried a deep fear in me that the artistic desires that I have are selfish, and wrong, idolatrous. Naturally, that has made trying to engage it all the more complicated. But, as I get older through years, but also through life experiences and spiritual gowth, seeing how amazingly loving and huge God is, I am coming to the conclusion or at least the next landing pad) that God is honored and praised by my using the love and creative skills that He gave me, and so I am trying to be less afraid of being a whole person, of engaging Art. But it is hard.

So, back to, I felt a tug. I emailed Katie, who in addition to being all the wonderful things she is, is my sister-in-law. And that's good because I probably would have been to scared to ask anyone else, and I honestly thought the answer would be “not this time.” The question was could I maybe have some mic time to do a little storytelling... or something... And, to my joy and terror, she said “Sounds great!” Well, then I went like this [BLANK STARE] because I had no stinkin' clue what I should tell! I sat down at the laptop more than once to get started. I had stories of backstage excitement and audition embarrassments from my dancing days. I was really obsessed for some reason with trying to describe and expound upon my first existential crisis at age 6... not sure what THAT was all about. And those are all pretty good stories, but none of it was feeling right. I really wanted to have a tie-in to this theme of BeLonging, and everything I wrote just felt a little forced. This whole time I kept saying to God, if you want me to get up there, if I'm going to try to do this Art stuff again, I need you to tell me what to say, and I really believed that he would... or wouldn't and that I could always just squirrel out!

Fast-forward to this past weekend. By Saturday night, I was terribly sick. My kids go to three different schools, so we have a diverse influence in our home: three sets of teachers, three sets of traditions, and three sets... of viruses and bacteria. Our poor family is like this massive petri dish accepting donations from ALL over. So I had this bad upper respiratory thing going on from preschool, then a stomach thing appeared, I think from 2nd grade, and the piece de resistance: friggin strep throat from Kindergarten. And let me tell you, strep throat is my kryptonite. One of the symptoms for me is frequent bouts of weeping, and I would rather (and I know what I'm saying because I did it 4 times) go through unmedicated childbirth or break an ankle than have friggin strep throat! All through my three days of bedridden illness I had THIS, the mic moment, in mind, and I thought, “well, there goes that. I'm not going to have any time to come up with anything, and it's not like that was going well. So, at least now I have a better excuse to give Katie.” And with that I think I was mentally attempting to get that girl back down under the rug.

Then, I woke up on Wednesday morning, and I thought of all the ways my period of sickness kind of answered my prayers for God to give me something to share. And, no, I am not here to breathe strep throat upon you all; my antibiotics took care of that. I thought about how I could tell some stories about coping with a sick mom in a family of 6, or about the horrible fight that handsome boyfriend now husband and I had in our sickness and health moment, or the comic tragedy of taking two children and myself to the doctor's office while suffering from sudden, uncontrollable... ailments. While I settled back into a somewhat healthier body, my artsy self quietly settled back in behind the controls, and I sat back down at the laptop as soon as I could.

So, what you have just sat through is what came out. Nothing about it has felt forced. And here is the BeLonging tie-in:

No matter what, I belong to God. Me with a lost ballet career. Me with a lost baby. Me with friggin strep throat and a family of 6. It all belongs to God. And the skills, love, desires that he has given to me belong to me, and no matter how many times I try to hide under a trap door, I'll always be longing to be let out.

Thank you so much.