Happy Birthday to me

I turned 33 this month. I hadn’t expected it to be a particularly significant birthday, but it was.

For the past 15 years or so, I have asked myself the same questions every birthday: Does my life look like I wanted it to look at this age?  Do I have what I think a 23-year old/26-year-old/30-year-old should have? Do I earn what a 23-year old/26-year-old/30-year-old should earn? Am I happy?

Year after year, I’ve assured myself that getting older is a wonderful gift and I can feel good about it because I can answer yes to all my questions. The boxes on my life-so-far to-do list are all checked. Yay me.

This sounds quite narcissistic, but I always perceived it as an exercise in gratitude. I was acknowledging my many blessings for which I felt both proud and immensely thankful.

Last year, my birthday journal entry read: “I’m 32! We picked our kitchen! Jensen cooked dinner. Bry made me a very special card. I had good quality time with Brody. I adore my family.”

We were building our dream house at the time. It was another box to check. I was still working through the shock of having a baby with a disease, but I was in a good place overall. I considered myself worthy of my age.

But this year, I can’t answer yes to all my questions. I have suffered a profound loss and our family picture is not what I dreamed it would be. My situation feels unfair and my future uncertain.

I’m not going to feel terrible about getting older though. I’m not going to measure my worth by checked or unchecked boxes.

This birthday, I asked myself new questions. In fact, I decided to end my former birthday tradition for good.

This year, I asked myself if I am who I want to be at 33. Do I treat my family with love and kindness? Am I generous with my friends? Do I have a good sense of humour? Am I learning new things? Am I brave?

I can’t answer yes to all of these questions consistently either, but it feels incredibly freeing to disinvest myself from the outcomes I can’t control and to put my energy toward who I am. Doesn’t who I am matter a whole lot more than what I’ve done or what I have?

Even if I end up being tremendously successful going forward, even if all my dreams come true, I don’t want to go back to the boxes. I think it’s much more important to live a life that honours my values than it is to try to create one what meets my expectations.

Older and wiser, I guess. Yay me.

Don’t let go

I am good at letting go. It’s something I like about myself. I find it to be a useful skill as a writer, a mom, a wife.

My boss can shred what I write, my four-year-old can pee on the floor, Jensen can be human and mess up, and I can let it all go. I will feel what I feel, I will learn what I can learn, and then I will tell myself not to care until I genuinely stop caring.

I have done this with success enough times to know that I can think and self-talk my way out of any emotion. I am like a drill sergeant that tells my mind what to think.

Forgiving certain events has taken months of constantly repeating: “It’s over now. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care.” At first, it feels like I am lying to myself, but I am eventually convinced and my feelings come into line. There is no longer any pain attached to what was the most painful of memories because I know that it is over now, it doesn’t matter and I don’t care.

But losing Brody has presented me with a whole new challenge.

I am terrified of forgetting even the littlest detail. It hurts to think that I don’t know him the way a mom should know her child. And I don’t ever want to stop caring deeply about this part of myself, this part of my story.

Sometimes it feels like the only alternative to not caring is to be overwhelmed with grief. I tried to create his photo album recently and I broke down within 15 minutes. I was consumed with sadness and the weight of our family’s loss. I couldn’t find a way to look at his beauty without suffering.

But I am convinced that there must be a way. Please God. There must be a way to remember my boy with joy and thanksgiving. I want to recognize the gift of his life without fury at the injustice of his death. Is that too much to ask?

A Bible verse that has always challenged me says: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Allow perseverance to finish its work, so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-4).”

And Paul writes in Romans 5: “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts….”

That’s what I am aiming for—character and hope. I want God’s love poured out in my heart. I am challenged still to understand how suffering and trials can inspire rejoicing and pure joy, especially a trial as harsh as death. But I’m hoping that’s what you discover when you persevere. Because it is not over, it does matter and I do care, and there needs to be room for that in healthy mind and a happy heart.

This time, I am not letting go.

How to have a good attitude – no matter what.

Right before Brody was born, Jensen and I reflected on how difficult things were with our first baby. Bryson was four weeks early, he was missing fingers on both hands, and he had an internal malformation that required him to go immediately into NICU for an IV of sugar water. Doctors didn’t think it was safe for me to nurse him before the severity of the malformation was assessed and the issue resolved. Fun times.

Jensen and I were looking forward to an easier experience with our second child. I remember rubbing my large belly and saying to him, “I know things will be better this time…”

He didn’t even make me finish my thought. He looked me in the eyes and said, “We will have a good attitude no matter what.”

Today, Bryson has a few bizarre abnormalities, but he’s a gorgeous kid and his health is excellent. He is the brightest light in our life.

We talk to him often about attitude. Sometimes we tell him that, “Boys with good attitudes get rewards; boys with bad attitudes get consequences.” It’s a bit simplistic, but it helps get the point across.

I’ve decided I need a line or two like this to repeat to myself. Because, having a good attitude “no matter what” has been tested to my limit.

In that moment, when Jensen and I were looking forward to a less dramatic birthing experience, I sincerely believed that our faith and commitment to positivity would protect us from tragedy. Of course, it didn’t – at least not in the way we expected.

Our experience with Brody ended in the worst outcome imaginable. We would chose – in a heartbeat – to have merely repeated what we went through with Bryson.

Then, what is the point of having hope? Why look at a pile of shit and say to yourself and the world: I am still thankful for all of the beauty around me? When circumstances feel unbearable, why proclaim: I am still thankful for all of the beauty I’ve yet to see? And when your heart is broken, why decide that, no matter what: I am committed to protect the beauty within me?

Why not just look at the mess and get angry and bitter and cry? That seems fair.

I believe a good attitude raises you up beyond your problems and allows you to see solutions, opportunities, hope.

Helen Keller said, No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.”

If I am going to write myself an attitude mantra, perhaps it will be: Women with good attitudes are light. Women with bad attitudes live in the dark.

I will still have days when I feel anger; some losses are infuriating. I will forever allow myself to cry when I need to; tears can be healthy. But I cannot let anger take over my heart. I cannot let crying become my only song.

A good attitude did not keep Brody from dying, but it can keep me from dying on the inside. It can save me from a failed and wasted day or year or life. And that seems worth the effort, no matter what.

Be still and know

Some mornings I open the blinds and hope the sunshine will remind me of the light. I drink coffee and hope the caffeine will shake the weariness from my soul. I wake up feeling like I have nothing to give the day, and maybe a bit like the day has nothing to give me.

What am I doing?, I ask myself. What is the point?

I am determined to focus on what I have power over and not on what I cannot change, but I still have moments when my inability to protect what I love is paralyzing.

I don’t want to hurt like this – not now and not ever again. I just want to go back to the image I had of my life – the expectations, the dream. I see the perfect family picture and I don’t want to look away. I don’t want a new picture. I don’t want to change my expectations. I want to be God so that I can make this right. I want to be God so that I can fix what’s broken. Sometimes, it is too scary to trust.

In my state of restlessness this afternoon, I checked the Bible app for the verse of the day: Be still and know that I am God, Psalm 46:10.

It is good to stop, sometimes – to take our eyes off our expectations, our dreams, our wins and losses. It is good to be still and know that we are welcomed into the presence of our creator, the source of love, the author of peace.

I am not God, and though I often wish I was, I know that is just a temptation, just a mirage. I can’t be God in my own life or in anyone else’s, and that is by design.

One thing my pastor told Jensen and me (while he was patiently sitting with us after Brody’s death), was that God is a God of relationship. He is not relentlessly asking us to do – His ultimate purpose for creation was not to see what we could produce.

That is such good news. That is what I need to remember when my heart feels weary and feeble and inadequate in the face of the life I want to create. The purpose of every day is not to wake up and produce – though I sure do enjoy a productive day. The purpose of the day is to wake up and love. God’s ultimate purpose for creation was love, and sometimes, I just need to be still and remember that.