I’ve been reading the book “Choosing to SEE” by Mary Beth Chapman, the wife of Steven Curtis Chapman. First of all, let me say thank you to Mary Beth for being willing to write and share your life and your grief with honesty, humor, and humility. Although I enjoy writing, writing about my own personal tragedy has been difficult and at times even impossible. There truly are no words. And yet, as I read and pray, I feel led to share my tragedy, and the ways I saw God in the places of deepest grief. Maybe, just maybe, there’s someone out there who will be touched by my story.
May 18, 2004
The day everything changed. The memory of this day has been fragmented into a million places in my brain. Some things I remember clearly. Others are fuzzy at best. And some, well some are so hidden that only the most random of things will trigger the memory at all. The hum and flicker of flourescent lighting can pull me back into the doctor’s office. A squeaky, uncooperative wheel on a shopping cart can pull me right back into the hospital. When subjected to extreme stress and trauma, my brain seems to switch from being an HD video camera, to a Polaroid, capturing only still life images of chaos.
I am sitting on a sparsely padded bench covered in Mauve vinyl with flourescent lights flickering overhead, staring at a bulletin board plastered with pictures of babies the doctor had delivered, waiting for my turn in the bathroom to pee in the cup. I am 36 1/2 weeks pregnant with a little boy we named Ethan Arthur Nelmark.
I am laying on an exam table with my white shirt pulled up, huge belly fully exposed. The doctor has a concerned and almost sad expression on his face. He has been using the Doppler, searching for Ethan’s heartbeat for what could only have been an eternity, with no result.
I am at the hospital. Jason is holding my hand tightly, eyes fixed on the ground, as I look expectantly toward the Ultrasound admitting window. This had happened once before at around 4 months pregnant. And after all, I’d just felt his foot on my rib cage, in the upper right corner, where he’d kicked quite the sore spot.
I do not remember the ultrasound. I cannot tell you what the ultrasound technician said to us. All I remember is that he liked the Oregon Ducks and I was an Oregon State Beavers fan.
I do not remember talking to the doctor or how we knew when we were supposed to return to the hospital for my labor to be induced.
I am sitting in the passenger’s seat of our teal 1996 Chevy Cavalier, on the phone with my mom. I can’t tell you a single word we said to each other. The only thing I remember is the sound she made as she first started to cry.
I am on the hospital bed, in the delivery room. Jason is next to me, one hand holding mine, and the other stroking my hair. My mom is standing in the corner of the room. The stretching and burning is so intense I want to scream, but I stay silent. I shake my head from side to side, and the nurse tells me firmly to use the breathing techniques I’d been taught or I was going to hyperventilate. I want to scream at her too, but again I remain silent, though I’m pretty sure I glared. THIS CANNOT BE HAPPENING.
Ethan has been wrapped in a white blanket and laid on my chest. My arms are wrapped firmly around him, willing life into his limp body. He is warm and snuggly. I am honestly expecting him to open his eyes at any moment. My eyes dart constantly to his chest, expecting to see it rise. Any minute now he will wake up. Come on, baby boy, you’re taking too long. Mama’s here. It’s ok now. Just open your eyes. Everything will be alright.
I see the doctor’s face come into focus in front of me. He says, “In situations like this, we rarely are able to determine the cause. There’s a tiny possibility it could be something genetic. Would you like us to do an autopsy?”
My thoughts race. You want to cut open my baby!? What the heck is your problem!? Don’t you dare touch my baby, you psycho!
I look to my left, and my eyes meet Jason’s. My thoughts are mirrored there. I look back to the doctor, and say only, “No.” in a meek voice.
Ethan has changed from warm and snuggly to cool in my arms. I hold him tighter, trying to keep the warmth in.
I am in the recovery room, the hospital gown wrapped uncomfortably around me. I am fixated on the squeaky, uncooperative bassinet wheel as Ethan is taken from our room for good.
So many other things happened. I know Jason’s family and many others were there. I know Ethan spent the night in our room. I know the funeral director came and offered to do the funeral for free. I know I was given a Willow Tree Angel figurine and have since started a collection. But memory is a funny thing. It can be gracious enough to allow us to forget that which is too painful. And yet forgetting is cruel in its own way.
May 22, 2004
The funeral. Once again I remember little. I know the funeral was done for free and our friends and family showed us amazing support both financially and emotionally. And yet, only a few things stand out in my mind about this day. One is the hug I received from my Grandma Myrna. She had lost a baby to SIDS shortly after her first husband had passed away. In her hug, I felt a kindredness. I remember my former youth pastor’s wife, Brooke, who made quite a drive to be at the funeral. She had a newborn baby at the time. I wanted nothing more than to hold it, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask. I remember Jason’s father having a complete breakdown, and his mother and sister having to lead him away. I remember Jason and I being at the grave as the casket was buried. We wanted to be alone for this part. The sun was shining as we arrived at the cemetery. At the exact moment they started filling in the dirt, the first raindrop fell, and by the time they were finished the entire sky was dark gray and ominous. So were out hearts.
Ummmm…I thought this was supposed to be about God in the midst of grief???
Yeah, yeah, I’m getting there! There are so many little places that God met me in my grief. I could never begin to cover them all. But there are two occasions that my prayers were answered in such a miraculous way that they could not be ignored, and they have continued to serve as a solid foundation for my faith in other hardships.
The first was a few months after Ethan’s stillbirth. At this time, I was really struggling with God. Was he actually real? How could he let something like this happen? How could he claim to be good? Was he punishing me? How could I ever be ok with this? Did babies go to heaven? At times the sadness and pain was too much to bear. I was desperate, and I needed something, or someone, to pull me out of this. I couldn’t sleep. I barely ate. Even moving felt like a struggle. I just wanted to scream! There’s so much I could say about this dark time in my life, and yet, at the same time, there are no words to express the depth and the horror of it. After a month of this, I finally said, OK, God, I’ll give you a chance. It’s beyond all reason. After what you’ve allowed in my life, I don’t know that there’s anyway I could ever trust you. Here’s your one shot.
I flipped my Bible open to a random page, plunked my finger down and started reading…
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.
I saw it then. He had gathered Ethan in his arms. He was carrying Ethan close to his heart. At this thought, I felt an instant sense of peace wash over me, and I realized then that not only could I trust God, but that I HAD to trust God. God was the hope. God was the only thing worth hanging onto in all of this. Am I still angry with him sometimes? Yes. But now I have a message of hope to speak to those angry emotions. As Mary Beth would say, I choose to SEE. I choose to see God welcoming Ethan into heaven, gathering him in his arms, the same way as he had gathered his own son, the Lamb of God, upon his return to heaven. I choose to see Ethan safe in the arms of God, carried close to God’s heart. He is happy and he is pain-free. I choose to see God as good and trustworthy even in the hardest of times. What Satan intended for harm, God will use for good. His plan and his ways are so much bigger and better than mine. Isaiah 40 goes on to make exactly that point. I will always want Ethan with me, but I choose to surrender my desires and see myself as an important part of God’s ultimate and all-important plan. Does that mean that my emotions always match the things I have just said? Am I always happy about God’s plan? Absolutely not! But I make a choice everyday and in every circumstance to see. I speak God’s truth to my emotions, and I learn to surrender my feelings to him, in all of his grace and goodness.
If God is not real, and if God is not good, then all of the suffering I have experienced is for nothing. That thought is absolutely unbearable to me. The pain I experience is not only for something, it is for the greatest thing. It is for something worth suffering for. It is for God and for his ultimate plan to destroy Satan and for those who believe to spend an eternity with him. This is what I have been called to do, and I will continue to do it as faithfully as humanly possible until I can spend eternity with him…and with Ethan. God really made the most of his “last chance”!
OK, so you’re a crazy person!
Oh just wait, it only gets better! Let’s jump ahead to Ethan’s first birthday, the second time God met me in my grief in an undeniable, good, and gracious way. At this time, I was working as a secretary/receptionist for a real estate firm. I was happy there, but this day was just a struggle. I don’t think I said more than 2 words to anyone all day. I just threw myself into the data and tried not to think. Afterall, it was very unprofessional to cry at work! Looking back, I laugh at this! Who cares about being professional at a $10/hour podunk job!? Not a single person there would have minded if I bawled my eyes out! But, I made it through the day tear free. The night was a whole nother story!
It could really have only been described as a breakdown. I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t stop crying. And you know what I spent all this sleepless time doing? Kneeling beside my bed, with my arms outstretched, begging God to let me hold Ethan just for a few seconds, just this one time. I normally consider myself a very rational person, though some of you may find that hard to believe. I knew what I was asking was impossible, but I couldn’t stop myself from asking, from begging really. My desire to hold my son was so great that my arms physically ached. I was so overcome with sorrow that I had to try. I had to ask for the impossible. There was nothing else to do.
And God met me there. In that place of despair and desperation, he granted me my impossible wish. I couldn’t see anything, but I could feel arms slide in over mine, then pull away, leaving behind a heavy weight. I knew I was holding Ethan. He had gotten so heavy. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe he had grown so much in just a year. I pulled him in close to me, and I could physically feel his head turn to look at my face. I whispered, “I love you baby!”, and then those arms, God’s arms, reached back in and took his weight away.
I don’t know if it was just an illusion. I don’t know if I completely imagined the whole thing. But it was as real as anything has ever been to me. Be it illusion, be it imagination, or be it God reaching through the veil between heaven and earth, it is the single greatest blessing I have ever been given, besides my husband and Owen. That simple, kind, delusional event brought me a peace and a joy that I never could have imagined possible, right there in the midst of my darkest time. God touched me. He touched me in a way no one else could. I will never forget it.
When I start doubting that God is good, I can go right back to that place. In that place there is no doubt. God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.
*Nearly all God’s jewels are crystalized tears*
~Mrs. Charles B. Cowman, Streams in the Desert
May you also see God and see his goodness, even in the hardest things, as you walk through life today!