Erik Never Comes Home

January 15, 2013 in Uncategorized

Psalm 10

  Why do you stand so far off, O LORD, *
and hide yourself in time of trouble?

On day ten of Erik’s stay in the hospital, a technician arrived with an EEG machine. The technician was quiet and somber. Careful hands covered my tiny son’s swollen scalp with electrodes. He was looking for a flicker of life.

I studied his face. His experience and training kept him level, but his soul was in his eyes. He tried not to look at my child. He kept his actions by-the-book as he moved efficiently around the tiny bed.

Once, he paused. For an instant, he looked directly into Erik’s face. His hands hovered like a hummingbird in front of a flower. A wave of pain crossed in front of his eyes. It was an instant, a passing shimmer. They had been talking. They were doing this test for me.

Another PICU mother made frequent stops to see us. Her own tiny daughter lay a few beds away, eyes rolling and darting, unable to focus or see. She was the recent recipient of a donor liver. Her mother, also named Erika, propped up the sagging portions of my faith. “He is going to be fine! Keep believing it! Keep praying!”

I did. Small successes like concentrated medications and unblocked catheters had lifted my insistent faith. This was a fight, just like it had been in the NICU. We had scary incidents then. We had apnea episodes. We had intestinal bleeding. Yet Erik had gone home. At four pounds. With no monitor. I hadn’t protested hard enough. That would not happen, again. I wouldn’t stop fighting until they speared me to the ground. They would have to spear me to the ground.

It was quiet around his bed during the test. Only the technician and I stood near him watching the jiggle of the EEG needle. I thought the jiggles were brainwaves. He told me they were only static. His tests showed nothing.

Dr. Joe was not there. Dr. Death was on duty. Soon, she began to circle. She was coming for my son.

I spoke to anyone and everyone I could. Was this test absolutely conclusive? Is there any way that it could be wrong?

There was enough doubt to cast a shadow. They would do one more test. Now, they would look for cerebral blood flow. This was the test of tests, the one test that, all on its own, could make the call. If there was no blood going to his brain, then there was no life.

Erik’s body fluttered on the bed. Shaken by the thump of the oscillator, he’d traveled a thousand miles. Part of me saw it clearly. How could he take anymore? Part of me was insistent and angry. He had been awake, responsive and crying before the sedation ten days ago. What happened? No one could tell me. Until they could tell me, I would hold on to the sound of his voice. He cried for me. “Mama, help me!”  I was trying.

I went from arms to arms as they set up the test. There was dye and some kind of scan. I can’t clearly remember. Heather’s red-rimmed eyes held me and Erika pushed with her impossible enthusiasm. I plucked the fruits from their vines to nourish me as I held my vigil.

The nurse who had done the catheter was there. She hadn’t stopped crying. PICU patients had a dedicated nurse, so Erik had been her only responsibility for the past two days. She and I had bonded over fears, frustrations and successes. She was there. Her whole being was there. She wanted life for my son, and she fought for it.

I want to write it out like a novel. I want the details to be exactly right. In truth, many details are lost in the grinding jaws that took my son from me, one little piece at a time.

There was no blood flow to his brain. Suddenly, all the carts and monitors were rolling away. All the technicians were gone. My son lay, bathed in white, with only the oscillator to rock him to sleep.

I was in the process of breaking down. Someone had said all hope was gone. Someone told me I had nothing more to fight for. I didn’t understand it. No more pumping? No more pink meal slips that meant it was time to eat? No more reading books? No more changing gauze? No more soft, warm cheeks to rub my cheeks against? No more twinkling eyes that knew more than such a small babe should? What were you saying? What were you people saying??

Fred appeared. I was gripping the foot of Erik’s bed and the back of my stool. When I felt him, I let go.

“THIS IS RIDICULOUS!!!” I cried. My voice came out in a blast, punctuated by helpless ire. My fingers dug into the furniture as I cried out, again, “THIS IS RIDICULOUS! THIS IS RIDICULOUS!

I cried out those words over and over. I lifted myself from the ground, holding on to the bed and chair. My feet paddled the air, kicking down nothing. “THIS IS RIDICULOUS!!!!!!!”

The soft voice of Fred scooped me up, “Yes!” he answered. “It is! It is ridiculous! It is!” It was such a relief. No talk of heaven, nor angels nor wills; Fred echoed my own heart. It was ridiculous.

Suddenly, the staff was in motion. With practiced efficiency, they organized a death. Erik was being taken from me. I couldn’t protest, anymore.

The Death Chair was rolled in. The well-worn armchair was stained in unseen blood. How many children had breathed their last in that chair? They would thrust me into it, and Erik would die in my arms.

I screamed when I saw it. “O, hear it comes!” I cried. “O, God! How can this be!!? What the hell is happening!? This is RIDICULOUS! This can’t be real!”

I wanted someone to tell me that it was not real. I wanted them to stop this ugly series of motions. But they were practiced; so they moved on.

In the cloud of my ending, Dr. Joe appeared. He was off-duty. They called him when the test results for Erik were confirmed. He came straight to me, without stopping. His eyes were red from tears.

His arms were around me. I couldn’t even cry as much as I wanted to cry. If I really fell on the floor, then this was real. What was I going to do? The Sculpture’s chisel felled blow after blow. My mind went, “break, break, break…” Things that once were, fell away.

Dr. Joe curled his long frame around me. Down at my level, he whispered in my ear, “My wife and I lost four before we had our fifth. We lost four before we had our fifth. I want you to listen to me: We lost four before we had our fifth.”

In the hotbed of hell, something happened. Though it wouldn’t connect for a long time later, Dr. Joe’s words had been very important. His arms pressed me in sincerity. As many deaths as he’d seen, he grieved with me; and his grief was real.

I didn’t go for the rituals. I was in the depths of horror. I wasn’t going to pretend it was any other way. Instead, I looked directly at individuals, “This is unspeakable!” I would say. How could I fluff the last moments of my son’s life? “This is unspeakable!!”

I made one important request: Don’t Let Dr. Death Near Me, or My Son.

I had to accept it at least some of their procedures. It was this; or never hold my child, again. These were the last mama and baby moments we would ever have. I had been terminated, let go. It was over.

They disconnected Erik from all his machines and brought him to me. His heart was beating. I wrapped my arms around my beautiful son, my reason for living. I let his tiny head rest on my hand so I could study his face.

He was gone. These swollen features were not my spirited child. I said good-bye to my handful of dreams, my son, dweller in the ether. At the same time, I rejected it. My mind broke, again.

Ten days ago, Erik had weighed five pounds. Now, he weighed about 15. As I cradled his head, I felt it shape itself around my hand. I wanted to scream. “Break…break…break…”, I kept on changed.

Dr. Death came from around the corner. With sufficient ceremony, she victoriously announced his death. From my underground cage, I clawed at my ceiling. Heavy earth rained down within.

Suddenly, blood pooled in his mouth. It welled up, and ran down his cheek. I dabbed with something I had in my hand as I watched it continue to flow. His blood vessels were rupturing. There was no miracle that would remake this child.

I dabbed and dabbed and dabbed. His head on my hand grew more and more visceral as I reached forward with all that I was. Blood began to run from his ears, and I couldn’t keep up. His little body kept bleeding, and suddenly it was gone.

I was in a room with a lot of chairs. I wouldn’t sit in the chairs. I wasn’t sure why I was waiting or what was going on. Two members of my family sat above me while I writhed around on the floor. I was screaming, and then I was kicking. I remember wanting to bite myself, but not wanting to go to the psych ward. Get away from these people. Then I would let go.

There had been a social worker in the PICU. I hated her. She came at me with a twisty-head style that broke off at the waist as she leaned in to my sphere. It wasn’t genuine. I could feel it.

The door opened to the room, and she was there. She had a bag in her hands. Her head twisted towards me like a chameleon. She pressed something into my hand.

“We cut off some of his hair for you.” Her mouth moved in front of me like ghostly “o”s. Eyes, without meaning, drifted above.

I looked into my hand and saw the golden sparkles. I screamed. I flailed like an animal caught in a trap. I kicked tables, chairs, boxes, and bags of death supplies gathered from my son. “Get away!” I screamed, “Get away!”

My family absorbed the auspicious duty of after death talks. They were naturals. As for me, I ran. I moved my feet faster and faster as their voices faded away. I had to get away from the social worker. If she saw into me, they would lock me away.

On the curb, at the exit, my two family members met me. They were ready to cling and cry for hours. I wouldn’t do it. Just like those practiced rituals above, I was out. I was gross and out of place. I didn’t want their company, now. I wanted their company when my son was premature and newly home. I wanted their support when it could have saved his life. Now, I wanted to get away.

“I’m sorry,” I told them. “I can’t grieve with you. I have to go. I’m sorry. I will see you later. I have to go.”

In the  Pittsburgh winter, it had started to snow. About three-inches lay on the ground. I parked near a state store a few blocks away and went in. I left with two pints of whiskey.

“My son just died,” I told the clerk. Not much about the clerk seemed to  change. “His brother died a few months ago.” Our transaction was over.

I sat out front of the family house in my Lincoln Towncar. It had been a gift from my ex’s grandparents after my ex destroyed my car. I had escaped from him in it to protect my sons. Today, both of my sons were gone.

I made crazy promises to myself. Give me back my son. We’ll walk away on foot, leave the car, leave everyone we know. We can make it. Give us a chance. Let us show you how we can make it, Lord. Give me back at least one.

I drank one bottle and half of another before I went in. I had the phone number of a PICU nurse. We talked. I heard a voice that sounded like mine as I died and I died and I died, again. I had traded all I had for motherhood. There was nothing left.

 

Erik at home. I miss you, sweet baby!!

Erik at home. I miss you, sweet baby!!

 Job 14

1“Mortals, born of woman,
    are of few days and full of trouble.

 

Erik Goes Back, Part 5

January 14, 2013 in Uncategorized

Isaiah 40:21-24

21-24 Have you not been paying attention?
    Have you not been listening?
Haven’t you heard these stories all your life?
    Don’t you understand the foundation of all things?
God sits high above the round ball of earth.
    The people look like mere ants.
He stretches out the skies like a canvas—
    yes, like a tent canvas to live under.
He ignores what all the princes say and do.
    The rulers of the earth count for nothing.
Princes and rulers don’t amount to much.
    Like seeds barely rooted, just sprouted,
They shrivel when God blows on them.
    Like flecks of chaff, they’re gone with the wind.

Erik at home

Erik at home, in a dream

Erik hadn’t moved in nine days. His soft, pink skin and delicate features were grotesquely puffed. His tiny, five pound body held an extra ten pounds of fluid. Beneath it, I placed stack after stack of new gauze. Yellow lymph rose in beads like sweat, and then rolled down his quiet sides. Motion and sound came from the rhythm of the oscillator.

I lifted his bloated limbs like a sacrament. Every cell of my body cried, “Mother” as I changed his lymph-soaked socks for new ones. I studied each toe. I created pictures meant to last for a lifetime. Every precious detail of his body was carved into my mind. In each slice of the carving, something else was cut away.

On one little hand one was little finger. Near the nail of that finger was a tiny slit. On the last day of our life at home, I had accidentally nipped him with the nail clippers. In the PICU, the wound slowly began to heal. I studied it. My grand error. How many more invisible ones had led to this? In how many ways had I failed?

As the fluid in is body increased, a nurse warned me of the consequences. Pressure on the blood vessels would compromise blood supply to his organs. The fluid from 16 vials dripped day and night. The row of vials might as well have been gallon jugs. It was too much.

A day or so before, one doctor had come to a brilliant conclusion: give him concentrated doses of medication to decrease the amount of fluid he was receiving. As relieved as I was, it made me angry. Why hadn’t this been done from the beginning? Why had he been allowed to swell like this when it could have been minimized? Now was not the time to fight that fight. Everything was for Erik.

Piles of books lay around the bed. My life had become a rhythm of singing, talking, reading, eating, and praying–speckled lightly with sleep. I was a student of the nurses on rotation. I watched them closely as they cared for my son. Studying eyes as I asked my questions, I hoped for evidence to support my faith. Sometimes, I found it. It was enough.

Ministers had been to see me. One especially had reached my heart. He didn’t try to make poetry out of my disgusting situation. Fred was real, without flourish. He gave me the feeling that he was on my side, but never the feeling that he understood my feelings better than I. His medicines were sincerity, compassion and respect. I quieted under their effects.

Erik had been re-warmed; but he did not wake up. An optimistic Dr. Joe hadn’t crumbled. He told me that my child was very sick, but he didn’t throw him away. His kind eyes fell on Erik from his face high above my head. I stood close to him, listening to each word, often with my arms around him. He greeted me with hugs each time, more good medicine. I trusted him, and I believed him. We weren’t ready to close the door.

The other prominent doctor had continued in her way. I snarled bitterly at her back each time she left. “She wants to plan his funeral,” I would say. She casually assessed all efforts as futile. For her, Erik was already dead. Not for me.

Don’t think I was free of doubt. When I held my cheek close to his, I let my heart secretly fall open. What did I feel? Could I feel him? Did I feel a presence like the one I felt from him as he slept near my side? Was he there?

“Erik,” I whispered. “Are you there?” I waited for the movie-miracle-finger-twitch, the slight bend of a toe. I waited for an eye to move under a lid. There was nothing. In his stillness, I felt alone. But he was very sick. Maybe he was sleeping.

Around the edges of my faith, I began to consider life with no living children. My mind cracked, cracked, and cracked, again. At the foot of his bed hung Jeremiah 29:11, written out for us by our friend, Heather Allen,

11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

I wouldn’t let go of that scripture. I said it over and over, like an incantation. I lay hands on my son. I rested them gently on his tired body as I prayed and prayed and prayed. I channeled healing. I channeled love. I channeled my dreams of our future together. I saw him as a man, arm around me, kissing the top of my head.

On that vision, I broke. That vision had once been of two tall boys, not one. Now, around my daredevil faith, I sometimes saw even none. I broke, and broke, and broke.

After he had been warmed, his pupils were examined. It was hard to get his lids to separate because of the fluid. His eyes bulged like a frog’s, his tiny mouth almost turned inside out with swelling. They found his pupils. They were still.

This was not conclusive. The medical staff said more tests could be done. “Do them all,” I said. I imagined my tiny son, locked inside. I imagined him reaching for me but unable to raise his hand. I heard the voice of his heart, “Don’t leave me. Don’t abandon me.” Only when every question– every single question–was answered “no”, would I give up, give in.

On day nine, there was a sharp drop in output from his kidneys. Staff concluded that his organs were shutting down. “No,” I said. I don’t remember the details now, but immersed as I was in his medical condition, I had fair recent for crying “No”.

One nurse supported me, and through her excellent medicine, was found to be right. As a last ditch measure, she changed his catheter. Having been catheterized for so many days had traumatized his body. Pressure from fluid caused immeasurable problems.

I was breathless as I waited for her to remove the catheter. So was she. I watched the emotional energy in her steady hands, her most sincere love evident in her care. My being was one with hers as she acted, two people united in cause and prayer.

An energy shifted in my brain as I watched her. My warm, wiggling baby was on the table. He hadn’t moved for days. I did not recognize his body. This was the last fight for his life.

She inserted a new catheter and blood-tinged urine gushed. She turned to me, face bright with a holy miracle, and cried, “The catheter was blocked!”

Our triumph took the day. I watched this woman advocate for me, and feel with me, for all of the last hours of Erik’s life. I wish I knew her name so I could thank her, personally. She treated me with such compassion and dignity. Remembering her, I’m moved to tears.

With his pupils still, they scheduled an EEG. My teeth ground themselves to powder. Dr. Death was going to eat her words and I was going to live at his side for as long as it took him to recover. We’d done it this long. I would follow it on. In a way, I couldn’t wait.

 

 

 

Erik Goes Back, Part 4

January 10, 2013 in Uncategorized

John 5

One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

Erik and Mama, home at last

Erik’s departure from the NICU had been like a dream. For months I waited for him outside of his plastic shell. Snaking arms through the portals of his den, I touched him. Downy hair on his face turned from white to gold, catching light like strands of spider’s silk. I studied the areas around the tape that held in his oxygen and feeding tubes, watchful for damage to his delicate skin. “Give me,” said my hunger, “Give me what is mine.”

As we pulled away from the hospital, I hovered above his car seat. Finally, we would be alone. Terrified to be without a monitor, I studied each breath. I would do this for as long as he lived.

That one Christmas, Erik was home. I felt royal. I carried my son like he was the Ark of the Covenant. I ferried a miracle, a survivor, a font of direction. He was both tragic and profound. Nothing else could catch my interest. My breath had no starts or stops. It was a circle, a constant flow, a round of life fed by the magic in his face.

He was tiny and he was intense. He had a look  that suggested great amusement. In him I sensed a wisdom, and a beguiling view of the world. He was beyond me already, but he loved me. I lived to serve.

Still, I sensed it. His tie to me was light. Something about him was like a puff of smoke, like a scent on the wind. He was the suggestion of a child, a spirit in human form. As he moved in my arms and at my breast, he reached into me deeply. With his tiny hands he smoothed out my knots, broke off old ties, and remade me. I surrendered to his work.

That Christmas, there was a small family gathering. Constantly Nursing Erik was on my lap. Some moved in the kitchen while a few sat uncomfortably across the room. Nursing Erik made them uncomfortable. My frequently exposed breast dampened the holiday cheer.

When dinner was served, Erik was nursing. I let the family know we would be done soon and hoped that they could give us ten minutes to get to the table. By the time we got there, the meal was done. I sat down to Erik’s only Christmas dinner at home as the dishes were being cleared.

My feelings were hurt, but I stepped back to regroup. I carried the Ark of the Covenant, the creator of dreams. In the end, the prize was mine. Christmas dinner alone could be endured. I licked my wounds in Erik’s soft glow and kept my eyes down.

Down. I looked down at my son that morning of the 5th and saw his face was blue. “You’ll know!” the staffed at Allegheny General had laughed. “If he stops breathing, you’ll know.”  He had. I knew.

When he was in the NICU he’d stopped breathing several times. Monitors alerted nurses instantly and a slight rub was all that was needed to start his breathing. A monitor lets you know right away so you can act. I was asleep. I was alone. There was no one and nothing on watch over this fragile infant. When you think about it, it is almost insane. Why no monitor? What do you lose by giving it?

Now, Christmas dinner sat in me bitterly. Why couldn’t they have waited ten minutes to eat? Why were Erik and I alone that morning? I called on God to show me compassion and generosity, and He did. Along the way, however, I felt the bitter mire of disappointment, betrayal, and heart-ache. It added to the sadness and set me adrift.

I remember the feeling of my footfalls. Well polished halls punched the bottoms of my heels sending echoes into my core. I thoroughly mapped the inside of my shell with the ricochet of my own inquisitions. I had ferocious faith. No one could stop me. I felt like a carnivore with nothing to hunt, hungry and on alert. This was a game to outfox death. It could not have another one of my children.

I made my life a prayer. Each step, each chew, each motion of my body had my attention focused on God. I won’t say that I did it well, only that I did it with a feeling of panicked urgency that makes me sick to recall. We are so helpless and this world so brutal. I acted with power. I acted as if.

Erik had continued to swell. He was now easily twice his normal size. I began to see yellow droplets on his skin. I spoke to one of his nurses, “What is this?” I asked. “Lymph,” she told me. He was so full of fluid that it was leaking out through his skin.

They had begun to change his bedding more frequently because of the slow drip of lymph. Gauze pads caught it where it pooled under his extremities. When I noticed them doing this, I took over that job. It made me feel like I was still parenting him. Instead of nursing, I pumped. Instead of holding him, I replaced the damp gauze with dry ones.

Life took on a rhythm. We pumped, we ate, we watched, we prayed and we slept. I say “we” because I watched my friend, Heather, do it beside me. Her presence in my life was the warmth I needed to live each day. As I stood next to my still son, I could feel Heather at my back. Without touching, she squeezed my hand. We went on.

It was suggested that a revived Erik would face major challenges. I still said, “No way.” It was still not written on paper that he had been responsive, crying and fighting the vent back at Wetzel County Hospital. To me, that was a sticking point. Sure, maybe they were right. But from my experience, there was a chance that they weren’t.

I went to the hospital library and checked out books. I read to him and sang to him for hours. I could feel the energy burning, something pushing from behind. Jostled and frightened, I dug in my heels. My son was innocent. He went against the odds. I would not give up.

erik at five pounds, up 1 since leaving the NICU

Where there were obstacles, I sought to smash them. I would smash them with prayer. I wore faith like a garment. Each moment I took away from Erik I spent on the phone feeding prayer chains and circles across the country. Countless prayers went out from places unknown. We were blanketed with prayer.

In the back of my heart there was another thought. Losing Arthur was “punishment enough”, if I was being punished. Sometimes, it’s hard to know. Was this a thorough ass-kicking for my list of  unrighted wrongs? Surely, losing one child was enough. Losing both of my children was unthinkable. What then? How could I live? I wouldn’t think about it. I would keep my vigil, and I would pray.

Each night, I stayed with Erik well past bedtime. In the cool, low lights of nighttime, I dabbed his skin. I watched for changes. I waited for tests, and for answers and for hope. He had woken up in West Virginia. He was crying, then. He was trying to breathe. He responded to me. What had happened? Where was he now?

“Come back,” I whispered at each night’s good-byes. “I love you, Erik. Mama needs you. Come back.”

 

 

 

Erik Goes Back, Part 3

January 7, 2013 in Uncategorized

Psalm 103

  He forgives all your sins *
and heals all your infirmities;
  He redeems your life from the grave *
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We were only home for two weeks and two days. The routine of the hospital was familiar. I sat by his bed, I ate food in the cafeteria, and when it got late, I slept.

I had said on the 5th that I was in family housing, but I was confused. I actually didn’t get into family housing for several days. For the first three days I entered a hospital lottery for the few sleeping spaces they had available on site. After signing up for a daily drawing, you waited to see if you would have a bed that night. If you weren’t selected, there was no place to go.

An ache of hope rose from the spaces we shared. The first night, I lay elbow to elbow with a dozen others in a room crammed with cots. Another night, I shared a closet-sized room with a frantic woman woman who paced more than slept. I met them at the edge, the brittle place where we twiddled with sanity. Unblinking eyes waited for morning, hot moons afloat on seas of tears. We burned holes in the ceiling, sparse light catching the glitter of our eyes, and waited.

Erik’s I.V. was connected to 16 different tubes of liquid medication. They warned me that his tiny kidneys couldn’t process all that fluid and that he would begin to swell. Within a few days, I no longer recognized him. His body lay dressed in only a diaper and socks as they were keeping him cold. Elastic dented his fluid filled legs, and the lids of his eyes bulged. The delicate curves of his ears became oddly translucent, puffed to an unnatural roundness under the pressure from within. I pressed my lips to them and whispered, “Mama is here, Erik. Come back to me. Come back.”

They told me that the cold would keep him unconscious. Only after they warmed him would we wait for him to respond. Until then, he lay spread like a frog pinned down for dissection. Limbs splayed, head faced to the sky, the delicate casing of his skin was tested as it stretched and stretched and stretched.

The ventilator was stressful for his tiny lungs. They switched him to another machine called an oscillator. The oscillator delivered air in tiny, rapid puffs and shook his bed and body like he was riding on a train. The chug chug chug of the equipment rattled our corner spot on the PICU floor sounding like a sputtering engine. Now, when I lay my head next to him, I vibrated with the unnatural jiggle of the aggressive machine. Even more of him had been taken. I prayed, and sought a place of peace.

I drifted more and more towards my new friend, Heather. She was Everett’s mother, and kept the same constant vigil as I. We talked quietly, held hands, prayed, and insisted on making our present lives our history. We plucked at faith, chewed its fruits, and helped one another to insist on healing.

I stood with her at Everett’s bed. In his three-month-old neck was a tube thicker than my thumb. Another was placed somewhere under his sheet. A machine called an ECMO served as a complete heart/lung bypass. “He choked on my milk,” Heather told me, kind eyes aching in a velvet rim of red. Later, she would learn that he had a rare genetic condition. It wasn’t her fault. Everett muscles were weak and he could not swallow. When our children hurt we always blame ourselves.

I looked at Everett’s face as he rested. His thick, dark brown hair glittered at the temple with copper and gold. He was beautiful. He was perfect. The tube in his neck drew out his blood, circulating it through an enormous machine. It was impossible to conceive. It was so unnatural.

Everything that took place there was an experiment. As a teaching hospital, many procedures were new or being tested. Keeping Erik cold was an experiment. Maybe it would help him; maybe it wouldn’t. When rounds were made, I stayed close by. I saw the clutch of doctors, students, residents and interns moving towards us like a common body. I waited to add my voice, and to hear theirs.

There were two doctors on rotation. One was a tall man with a loving face who erred on the side of hope (I came to learn later that he is internationally recognized). The other was a woman, practical and cold, who I came to call a funeral director.Each day, as the man came around he would review Erik’s case, and look for options. Each day, as the woman came around, she planned my son’s funeral. I came to hate her. He hadn’t even been warmed. There were more tests to be done. I would not let her steal my hope.

I ached for the NICU. I hated the NICU. At Children’s Hospital, NICU protocol was to keep babies until they weighed at least five pounds. Erik had been sent home at four. At Children’s Hospital, preemies went home with a monitor. When I had begged for one at Allegheny General, they laughed at me.

I ate my fury. I ate the words of Doctor Death and I ate my rage for Allegheny General. I felt it shooting through me with each heel strike as I walked the halls of Children’s Hospital. I force-fed myself on faith, and the assurance that my son, my only living son, would continue to live.

 

Erik Goes Back, Part 2

January 6, 2013 in Uncategorized

Psalm 72

11   All kings shall bow down before him, *
and all the nations do him service.
12   For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, *
and the oppressed who has no helper.
13   He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; *
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.
14   He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence, *
and dear shall their blood be in his sight.

They took Erik by helicopter to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. I wasn’t allowed to join the transport team. I slipped into another tunnel, tight as a glove. It moved my car towards Pittsburgh.

Judy and her husband, Russ, stuck to me like glue. My brain was vibrating from shock. At once a mouthful of screams and an emergency in motion, I set out to claw together necessities and get on the road.

Judy and Russ stood with me at the mouth of the drive. They wanted to take me. They wanted to carry me. But my need was for silence. I couldn’t risk exposure to a misplaced word, one that might send me into fits of agony. “At least you have another one,” some had said when Arthur died. If I heard something similar, I would snap.

When I got to Pittsburgh I learned Erik was classified as a brain death; yet a few hours before he was crying, fighting and responding to me. I told them what I’d experienced and they were shocked. One doctor said, “We thought it was brain death because of the swollen lung, but we wondered why it was only on one side.” Wetzel County Hospital had not reported his condition prior to sedation.

I refused to accept an answer of death. Suspended by faith since the season of my narrow escape from Arkansas, I slapped plaster on, hammered supports to and threw weather-proof tarps over my collapsing faith. With new ferocity I stood on promises rung white in my grip. My son would live.

Like the rest of the broken mothers in the PICU, my path was laid to the pump room. Erik would not be growling and wriggling at my breast anymore. The Hospitals ferocious machines were ready to efficiently have me, and I would submit.

I hate the pump. I hate it. With my babe at my breast, we are a life joined as one. Torn at by the machine, I feel an unnatural and reluctant union. It triggers anxiety and pain around still-too-recent abuse. My babe at my breast night-and-day had been like a vacation. Now, the mechanical mouth waited for its meal.

In the plain of my lap hands jerked painfully. They struggled to rise, reluctant fledglings fluttering shakily down, again and again. Shoulders trembled above them with the heave of my sobs. The rise of wails filled the pump room. Plastic-on-plastic squeaked and clacked in the assembly of the machine. The sound was coarse, gutteral and impossible to bear.

Lost in sobs, my hand hovered somewhere near the power button. All that I was bore down on the switch and the mechanized animal roar its waking hunger. My head went back; my milk was devoured. The sweet, soft mouth of my babe was gone. My baby was gone. The separation seared me through like hot iron as I contracted against the panic and grief.

The Hospital had a Family House. A bed, a kitchen and transport were available. They gave nursing mothers free meals. I was one among many which, in itself, is an unusual experience. All the ways in which I was different from these other mothers fell away. We were a clan of the fearful hiding in  hope from the ragged jaws of grief. We would not be next.

I prepared for a miracle. I got books to read him, thought of songs to sing him, did all I could to break through the silence. I was at his bed from early morning until late at night. I rested my cheek near his tiny body, cool and still. The doctors were keeping him below body temperature to prevent brain swelling. When they warmed him up in three days, we might have some answers.

Next to my son’s bed was Everett Allan’s. They shared nearly the same birthday, though Everett looked like a plump, healthy little boy. Still, his condition was grave. I watched the back of his mother, long red curls waving above her quiet son. Eyes red with tears shone softly, tender soul bare for any who would see.

In the PICU, all patient areas were open to one another. His mother and I drew together near our common boundaries. Neither wanted to step away from her child. We took turns admiring babies, listening to hopes and fears, and just standing close. A camaraderie formed in our world outside of the world. We leaned in.

I had no idea how long he had. I dug in to see it through, to see my son back home, again. I would not accept this. It would not happen, again. I would raise this son.

In the dark night of the PICU, I kissed my child. I knew he would be there in the morning. With my whole being transformed into a living, walking, breathing prayer, I went back to the family house to rest.

Erik and Mama

 

Erik Goes Back, Part 1

January 5, 2013 in Uncategorized

Hebrews 11:35-12:2

35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning;[a] they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Five years ago today, my sweet son, Erik, went back to the hospital for the last time.

On the 18th of December 2007, they announced that Erik was going home. The following day he would be ejected from the NICU. I had no baby supplies at home, had made no preparations. My sons were born at 28 weeks. I had been at the Ronald McDonald House since. I was not ready.

He weighed only four pounds and had only been off of tube feedings for a few days. He had spent one night outside of his isolette, and none disconnected from the vigilant monitors. I was shocked. “No,” I told them. He wasn’t ready. We needed more time to be observed as a nursing pair, and Erik needed more time to grow.

They laughed at me. “You worry too much!”  Erik had stopped breathing several times in the NICU. The nurses were alerted by the alarm connected to his monitor. “He needs a monitor at home,” I told them. They laughed some more.

“How am I going to know he’s still breathing?”

Belly laughs, and a casual, “You’ll know.”

Panic began to take me. Everything in this NICU happened without warning. Flash: you are nursing. Flash: no more isolette. Flash: you are going home. I waited for the next Flash.

Do you know how small a four pound baby is? Without holding one in your arms it is hard to comprehend. The sight of my tiny son bundled for his “car-seat test” dwarfed him even beyond my own understanding. As I looked at him I wondered how he was going to survive.

Our last night in the hospital we were given a special good-bye room. Erik slept next to my bed. If he survived the night without incident we’d be set adrift in the morning. In the morning, we were both still alive. They sent us home.

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I knew what the hospital was doing. They wanted to say he’d be home for Christmas. Part of me liked the idea, but the bigger part did not. His isolette was decorated with my Christmas drawings and cut-outs. I was happy to stay in the NICU if it meant him coming home stronger and more ready to live without constant monitoring. I sent out a scatter-shot of words, “At least give us a monitor.” It echoed back as a laugh.

The evening of December 20th they sent us home. They wheeled us out like a new mother and babe; and with a bit of pomp and worn-out fanfare, we launched. I felt myself break on the rack of grief. Battle-worn from the NICU, I felt like a fraud. My face sought the sky as I choked on tears. When would I get my answers? Where was my child?

I was short one babe. Nothing could change that. In the hall, the sound of two little boys grew distant behind me. The days following Arthur’s death, two ghostly boys has flitted in my shadows. A laugh would nearly sound at the edge of my ear. I grieved what I was missing, the joy of my beautiful pair as I moved toward the identity I rejected, the mother of only one living son.

Erik was in my arms. Finally, no plastic between us, he was in my arms., No one could say when to stop holding him. He was mine, and we were free. My heart surged again and again against the same rock, cracking. My mind built boxes and locks for those boxes as the free reign of my heart learned boundaries. I was bringing home my son! But my joy waited behind a thick, black wall of grief. In many ways, it is waiting there still. Grief was my new life.

It felt wrong. The whole ride home I watched him. No tubes. No wires. The forceful beak of Allegheny General had ejected him as a fledging; yet beneath his pile of blankets lay a naked chick. I was scared. His quietness might represent peace or death. I coveted the monitors at Allegheny General. Resentment rose in my gorge.

Two weeks and two days. That is how long we had. I didn’t know it on that two-hour car long ride home. We stopped twice for Erik to nurse, me so anxious and exhilarated, him unaccustomed to the unending offering of warm flesh and milk. More and more we merged, a nursing pair at last.

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Those two weeks and two days were magic. Erik’s hunger for human contact was ferocious. As he nursed, two fists gripped themselves nearly white as tiny growls insistently surged. I laughed when he nursed. He sounded like a Tasmanian devil. If you’ve never heard one, listen to their sounds on YouTube. That was Erik at the breast. Tiny fists worked, legs pumped, and his warm little body squirmed closer to mine with and between each suckle. He nursed like he was starving. He had waited for me for so long.

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His stomach was the size of a raisin. he would nurse for and hour-and-a-half, pass out, and then wake up fifteen minutes later to nurse again. I got less sleep than when he was in the NICU. I didn’t care. He was finally mine. This was the life I had imagined, and I loved it.

What bliss. My sleeplessness only merged with my euphoria. A soft envelope of joy suspended me over a sea of snakes. I turned my back to the writhing as much as I could to drink in the miracle in front of me. Erik needed me. Grief would have me forever. More boxes rose up from the blunt force of my hammer.

For the first two weeks and one day, I had help. After two weeks and two days, I was on my own. Sleepless but focused, we were going to be alone together for the very first time. I still wanted help; but just like the forceful ejection from Allegheny General in Pittsburgh, this wasn’t my choice. Erik and I were alone.

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It was around 9:30 a.m. We had been awake all night. Finally full, you fell asleep. Completely exhausted, I decided to nap.

Your face was like an angel, Erik. You were an impossible miracle alive on the earth. Everything about you said wisdom. Your bemused look at the world reflected it. I was waiting to hear what your gorgeous thoughts were thinking, Erik. I watched your smiling face as you were sleeping, watched the golden glow of the sun lift behind you. I wanted to know you.

You were gone. I snapped awake with a fear, fixing on the blue of your face. “Erik!” I lifted you and blew. Once before you had done this. I blew in your face and you revived. That had been about a week ago. Again, they laughed and said I worried. Brief examinations showed nothing wrong and the issue was dropped. I blew again, started CPR, and dialed 911.

I had no help. I don’t really know CPR. I reflected back on my high school health class and did the best I could. I continued CPR as I put on my shoes and talked to 911 on the phone. They couldn’t find my house. I had to call back.

My son was limp and blue. I couldn’t feel. A nerve plugged into a brain, I buzzed like a downed electrical line flailing imitations of life against the snow. I screamed at the ambulance as it passed once, then twice and then three times, unable to locate my street.

When they finally pulled in and took my son from me, I fell. On my knees, I pressed my face into the gravel and screamed. Screams and screams turned into prayers that turned into a long slide through another narrow tunnel even more confounding than the first. This is one of the last pictures I have of Erik. This was the shirt they cut off of him in the emergency room as they struggled with how to resuscitate an infant so small.

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They weren’t prepared. I heard what they were saying. They didn’t have equipment to treat a baby that small. They struggled to intubate him, did an x-ray and found they’d pushed the tube in too far. His lung was damaged. They backed the tube out, shifted him on the bed, and ripped out the whole apparatus. It began again, was inserted too far, another x-ray was done, and his lung was traumatized further. I sat and watched. I went dead.

Someone was touching me with something that felt like love. It was a nurse. Her eyes were looking at me, her hands were about me and her voice was leaking into my ears. I wanted it. She said she was calling someone, a minister; and a woman appeared. His wife. Her name was Judy. She never left me.

I want to say it was smooth sailing from then on. In truth, Wetzel County Hospital continued to let us down. After Erik was resuscitated, they called me over to talk to him. He was crying. He was fighting the ventilator. He was responding to my voice.

None of that was recorded. Instead, they almost immediately administered paralytic drugs and prepped him for transport. I begged them not to sedate him in his fragile state. The staff, untrained in the care of babies like my son, said it was protocol. Heavy sedation was administered. I never saw him awake, again.

At Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, Erik lay in an open-sided isolette. They knew he wasn’t going to move. What happened to the crying baby I had seen in New Martinsville? I asked my question into the dark to a PICU nurse who had no answers. The Hospital had taken him back.

…..to be continued

 

Hope and a Future

December 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

Jeremiah 29:11

11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

The morning was still dark. I crawled deeper into the sanctuary of the blankets. I wasn’t ready. Little murky lists of undone things and must-be-done things nipped at me from within. Twisting away from one forced me to face another. Ten more minutes of unconsciousness, could it be had, would bolster me.

The familiar silhouette of my dearest one popped into the blue-gray path of my deeply smeared vision. Without glasses, the whole world looks like large, colored clots of wool. In the blue-grey haze, he was bouncing.

“Tiiiiiiiiime to get up!” My rooster had crowed. Beneath the blanket, this hen ruffled her feathers. “Not without coffee.”

This is a daily negotiation. Will he stay for less than five minutes without me while I go get milk and water for coffee? He never wants to stay. Often, it’s raining. In recent weeks, early mornings are cold. We negotiate. We Skype.

Frost glittered at my elbows as I walked the familiar path to the big house. The forecast said rain/snow mix. I didn’t hold out hope of real snow. My little one’s face bobbed in front of the camera. “Mama? Mama? Hi! Where are you!”  I watch him like he’s a miracle. He’s a miracle. I put love in my gas tank, which could still use some coffee. I can make this day o.k.

Back from the frosted tufts of Kris’s backyard, coffee began. We hunkered down inside, filling our atmosphere with warmth. Christmas lights strung over our window twinkled on the milky surface of our cups. I prayed to let a little of that sparkle shine out from within, and I reached for my sewing box.

Energy sparked as craft supplies covered the bed. J has always loved my sewing box. Careful hands examined one needle at a time as I handed him the ones he requested. A tiny finger touched each tip, “Ow!” or “Not too bad!” often came back to me. Finally, we found the round tipped yarn needle, and he got to work.

With an unused Christmas card, a crop-a-dile, and some yarn, we created a hanging for our front door. (In the Episcopal Church, you celebrate Christmas for 12 days, until Epiphany. Making Christmas decorations and cookies, singing Christmas songs, and all other Christmas-y stuff is still on.) The bottom of the card said, “Happy Holidays”. He insisted I cut it off, but not damage it.

“We’ll hang this up, too!” he said. That way everyone will know we are holiday people!”

He thrilled at the feel of punching the holes, of passing the long, slick needle through hole after hole. Together, a new thing came to life. “This is fun!” he cried. I let myself enjoy a small moment of success.

When it was done, he was ready to hang it. “Put it right out front! Let everybody know!”  I opened the door and froze. It was snowing. It seemed it might even be sticking. “Babe, let’s go for a walk.”

He was ready. He wanted to shovel. I couldn’t find his shovel (I am afraid we left it at Saint Ann’s). He wanted to eat snow. I put a bowl outside to catch some for our return. “Around the block…” I told myself. I didn’t want to be cold. I didn’t want to be wet; but it doesn’t snow in this part of Washington; we had to go out.

The snow was over an inch thick by the time we left. I forgot that I wanted to stay home. I was warm in my coat and everything was pretty. The boy practically leapt as he collected the energy of nature. His bounce took on a skipping motion, and his arms swung in a rhythm that paid it compliment. Handfuls of wet, perfect snow compressed and flew, polka-dotting our coats with celebration. We laughed. We played.

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I found a semi-sanitary row of parking barriers, one where cars never actually park. I scooped up snow. Lost in the white sky was the expulsion of a nearby paper mill. It snows once a year in Washington. One taste…

I ate it. Crisp and clean, it tasted like good water. “Can I?!?!?” The bounce, with the strength of snowflakes, became a vault.

“Here comes Susie Snowflake,
dressed in a snow-white gown,
tap tap tapping at your window pane
to tell you she’s in town!”

I sang without shame in the streets; but that is how I usually do it. Lacking some kind of natural barriers, I am a natural at making myself the fool. Still, singing is more joyful than composure, so I sang.

“If you want to build a snowman
I’ll help you make one one-tw0-three!
If you want to take a sleigh ride,
the ride’s on me!”

As we came to a corner, we saw a family playing. A mother, father, young girl and tiny boy scooped snow as they talked. “Look!” I cried, “People! Let’s go talk to them!”.

At the same time I said it, I felt regret. Over exuberant public singing is one thing. Rejection sucks; but I’m perpetually self-conscious and perpetually hopeful.

J turned to me, “Can I go, Mama??”

“Of course!” I told him, “Go!”

My ambassador blazed the trail while I measured. The sad little girl in me had a different pace, even as my heart ran ahead. Were we going to be o.k.?

With each snowball, I studied the faces of our accidental friends. Slowly, conversation began. Soon, we were cooperating to build not one, but two snow people out of the Washington snow. So precious and rare, we would elevate it even higher through a community of laborers.

The little girl and I started first. “I am so glad you came here today,” this six-year-old told me. “You need to give us your phone number so we can play, again.”

My heart jumped up. I looked at the mother. She wasn’t frowning! A tiny trill, like the rise of a flute, lit inside me. Friends?

Soon, our activities crisscrossed the yard, lifted on the sweet buoyancy of fellowship. The mother and I touched minds, and hearts soon followed. We shared so many of the same values. Small children, like magical sprites leapt around us. “Children are a gift!” I offered. “If only more people realized that!” echoed my new friend. A bond was budding.

The little girl, Abby, and I rolled like we meant it. “Yours is bigger than mine,” she lamented. “I don’t want the biggest one,” I told her. “I only want to be a part.” Together we constructed not one, but two snow people. “We should make them kissing,” she said.

As time took itself back, bit by bit, Abby continued to extend and invite. We had already been invited for numerous meals and play-dates when she said, “Do you want to come in and eat? My dad will cook for you.”

In her tiny face shone the love of Christ; and most especially, the Christ of Christmas. In the fresh and fragile essence of a babe came the message of something new. It came as a child, delicate as a child, without rigidness, without ferocity, without pomp. A humble hand, a tiny hand, reached for us. In the gesture, a simple invitation: Love.

I leaned over and I rolled. I heard her father cry out, “It was your idea, and now you are not doing the work!” I answered back, “I don’t mind!” I finished the sentence in my mind, “I love to serve.” I served the purpose of joy. I served the purpose of fellowship, I served the purpose of love.

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After over an hour, it was clear my babe and I weren’t prepared for the snow. The yard’s bounty of white had been smashed, rolled and thrown almost to it’s own end. “Ow!” cried my boy, and a shocking, sock-less foot slipped out of his boot. It’s as if his toes have built in sock ejectors. I can’t keep them on. I was horrified as I surveyed the pink, sock-less toes.

Within moments, our new mama friend, Emily, had a solution. She had shoes, and dry socks, ready to share. I looked toward her and opened to to God. With a nod, she was holding his feet.

Bent over him, she slipped on warm purple socks and small sneakers as I stood back and watched. In the bend of her head I saw our own Mary. From our conversations, her essence was more radiant than snow. She was a sister, serving in love. I rested in the unexpected love of the day. The Spirit was alive. The Spirit was carrying us.

I woke up so tired. I didn’t want to go one step. As life’s requirements propelled me as our God of Love took my hand. Like a relay runner, I grabbed the baton. Later, with a snowy glove, I passed it.

When we got home we were soaked and tired, but we glowed with promise and peace. New friends! Abby promised us a play date. A new life! God promises peace. In the bliss of God’s own sanctuary, we celebrate it all.

Amen.

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Richie Mylar, Let Your Gentleness Be Known

December 16, 2012 in Uncategorized

Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Richie Mylar (Richard E. Mylar) sat across from me in the fourth grade. In our odd, round, experimental school house, rooms had open fronts. In those rooms, we were often clumped as grouped desks or tables that divided us into 3′s or 4′s. In my and Richie’s case, we were two.

To me, Richie seemed a wild animal. He pressed towards me across the table on his forearms, fists made into balls. “I’m going to kill your mother,” he told me. “And your cat. With my .22.” His sea-blue eyes cut the air between us. Unattended red hair spiked from his head in dull tufts. No one had combed it. No one had cared for his clothes. How did this boy even make it to school?

From across the table, I saw a boy’s face. It was hungry, dirty and full of rage. Even to my young eyes it was clear: no one was caring for this child. My world was soft. The difference terrified me. Day after day, he leaned into me to describe his plans. The stress wore me down. Finally, I told my mother.

My mother entered that classroom like the blade of a knife. Her eyes burned a path as she headed for Richie. Moving sideways on her crutches through an isle of desks and tables, her target was clear. Richie had made a terrible mistake. He had entered a grizzly’s den.

Of course, I had no idea what happened between them. I only knew the sight of my own mother frightened even me as she maneuvered down that isle. When I turned to see her coming, I was scorched to the gut by the burn of her fixed eye. She spoke directly to Richie, and then escorted him away.

After, there was a sudden peace. Richie didn’t pick on me anymore. He didn’t even behave strangely toward me. It was just over. For the rest of our school years, Richie raised a friendly arm to me and met me with a genuine smile. In fact, I shortly grew to like him, and he me. Nothing had changed in his hard life, but he brought no grief to mine. He was a friend, though distant, and he offered real warmth.

Actually, the incident in fourth grade was an isolated one. The year before he had made the friendly offer to share some crawdads. Secreted under his third grade desk was a pot borrowed from his home kitchen. In it were countless crawdads that he had caught. He whispered to me about the various colors and sizes he’d discovered. His little scientist marveled at their differences, displaying them with pride. I took home three, a gift from Richie.

My senior year was irregular. Forced to change schools for twelfth grade, I was separated from Richie, and the rest of my class. At the end of our senior year, luck crossed our paths for one last moment before we thrust ourselves into the world.  In a gas station in Paden City, suddenly, he was next to me. His sea-blue eyes hung on a backdrop of red, and his smile was ready for me, along with a hug.

“You know, I still have nightmares about your mother!” he said. “I dream about her coming after me with those crutches!” I looked into his face and swam with worry. “Richie, please, take care of yourself. Stay away from drinking. Stay away from drugs.” I don’t remember the content of his response; but it was delivered with a hug, a shrug and a blessing as we drifted apart and into the world.

I worried so much about what would happen to Richie. Alcohol and drugs are common ways that young people self-medicate when their lives are full of fear and pain. It often leads to addiction. To me, he was the neglected boy from fourth grade. A fragile child had been brutalized, and then abandoned at the edge of life’s road. What kind of miracle would life demand from this one? Never taught the skills of life, how does one survive?

Whenever I talked to someone back home, I asked about Richie. When I got news, it was never good. Richie struggled with drugs, sometimes stole to support his habit, sometimes shared a stash for the very same reason. Everything about him was defined by the degree of trouble he was in. Never violent, never cruel, Richie’s path was more painful for him than anyone else; yet, the neglected child that grew into this man was forgotten. Now, he was just a villain.

In 2007, I was running for my life. More than for me, I was running for the lives of my boys. Arthur and Erik were stirring inside me, and I wanted safety more than anything on earth. Back in West Virginia, my rattled nerves reverberated off of the tight gaps in the hills. I kept my hand to my stomach, soothed my babes, and held on. I hoped to see Richie; but I didn’t.

Life plucked those children from me, one by one. From deep in my grief, I reached up with a desperate hope. I created J. From abuse, to NICU life, to grief, to new motherhood, to grief, to expectant motherhood, again: I felt so broken. I was happily pregnant, but I was worn.

My feet rocked against wooden floor of the TruValue Hardware Store in Paden City, where my aunt worked. My pregnant belly was robed in checkers as my worried eyes darted around the room. Abuse had made me cagey, while motherhood had made me calm. In the middle of my half relaxed, half tensed state, Richie walked in.

I froze, and I gaped. “Are you Richie Mylar!?”

His smile awoke like a flower. His voice, husky with time, said my name. I started to cry.

I cried as he hugged me. I saw that young boy. I saw his dull, red hair clumped over his eyes. I heard all the rumors and relived the articles from the paper. Sweet Richie. Look what life had done.

He gave me his phone number, but late pregnancy and new motherhood filled up my world. When I went to look for Richie, he was gone.

An article in the Tylar Star News from December of 2008 describes his sentencing hearing. Richie was going back to prison for attempted breaking and entering. It wasn’t until after he was gone that I heard. His brother happened to become my neighbor. He told me where to send a letter.

When I heard Richie was coming home, I sent word with his brother. “Stop and see us!”  He never did. I wasn’t surprised. I know how hectic life can get. Still, I worried.

Then, last Christmas, I ran into him in the store. “Erika!” his sea-blue eyes fell right on me. I felt a full, round touch on my soul. We touched shoulders and gripped forearms as we spoke, exchanging bits of news and our personal lives. “Have you been working?” he asked me.

When I told him no, there was a break in our chatter. Richie reached for his wallet, without pause.

“Merry Christmas, Erika,” he said, pressing money into my hand.

I protested, but Richie would not take it back. It was fifteen dollars. There was little green left in the brown leather folds of his wallet after he gave it to me. “No,” he said. “Please.”

In life’s shuffle, five of those dollars were spent. The other ten stays folded in my wallet, just as he handed it to me. I won’t spend it. This is a reminder of a gift. It is a reminder of the touch of Christ that came to me through Richie Mylar, and a tie back to our beloved friend.

I heard recently that Richie is back in jail, this time, for selling prescription drugs. I looked up the article in the Wetzel Chronicle. The accompanying photograph made me snort out a bitter laugh. A bit of money was spread around to look like a lot. A few pipes for smoking marijuana were pictured, along with a small bag of weed. There were also five pill bottles. Richie did have legitimate prescriptions for some things. I know friends with far more bottles than he. What I saw in that picture was an addict’s stash, and a few pills slung to maintain it. This man needed compassion, love, treatment and life skills, not more wasted time in jail.

After searching the internet, I found an article about his 2008 arrest. He was worried about returning to jail because the last time he was incarcerated they had denied him his cancer medication. When I read that, I burst into tears.

Tonight, I talked with a friend of Richie’s son. She told me about Richie from her perspective. With the skills that come only from the heart, he had loved his boy. Even if he didn’t always know how to be the perfect father, he was a father. He was present with love. That was more than Richie had ever known, but he had found a way to give it.

This Christmas, Richie will be in jail. How many Christmases has he spent there? What were his Christmases like as a child? How many tiny ones are following in his footsteps, right now?

In Richie’s hometown, they seem to revel in maligning him. Where he came from is a thing of the past. He is, as he has always been, an easy target. Yet, let’s think about Jesus for a minute. What kind of people did Jesus hang around with? What seed of goodness did he see in their hearts?

When I am feeling all out of hope, I take out that ten dollar bill. I see Richie’s face, and see the warmth of his eyes. In his act of love, he was lifted. A life like Richie’s is full of forgotten moments like that. Sometimes it’s a few crawdads, sometimes it’s a few dollars, but every time it comes from a place deep inside that he’s learned to tap on his own. It comes from a place that is pure.

Please, this Christmas season, let’s remember Richie in our prayers.

And if you have a moment, please send him a hand written note to let him know he is not forgotten. GREETING CARDS ARE NOT ALLOWED BY THE JAIL

Richard E. Mylar
Northern Correctional Facility
RD 2 Box 1
Moundsville, WV 26041

 

Luke 23:32-43

32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[a] And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”

36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[b]

43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

through-the-red-doors-erika-quiroz-richard-mylar

Summer is Near

December 12, 2012 in Uncategorized

Luke 21:29-38

29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

In our wet, northern pacific world, the only thing sprouting is moss. Spongy, green pads grow on trees, benches, stones–even replace lawns–in the abundant presence of Washington’s heavenly dew. It doesn’t rain every second, but it is always wet. This new climate is the backdrop for our every excursion.

At 52°, with a persistent drizzle, we darted out under the heavy Washington sky. Today, I was on Mission Arica. Arica has no phone, so it’s hard to keep in touch. The episodes of life have woven a web between us, but I’ve been looking for the path through it for a while.

Today, the drops finally opened onto the smiling face of our friend, Arica. A corridor opened in traffic as we approached the cross walk (according to Washington law), and we ran towards our friend, who we could see through the store window. I called her name even as we ran. Her bent head raised to meet us, and a smile raced across her face.

The motion of the wet world behind us resumed as we jingled the bells of her door. Arica stood, polishing a dainty for display. “Erika! Juice! Where have you been?!” her whole face radiated with her genuine warmth. I ran toward it. I threw my arms around her and felt relief rush in. I had wanted to make contact with her so badly. I wanted her to know how glad I am that we are friends, and how much we enjoyed Thanksgiving. But Life, you are a complicated conspiracy set against my own designs! Still, today, I defeated you; Arica was mine.

She had lost my contact information. She said we were M.I.A. All of her friends had been asking about us. There was a birthday party to which J was invited. How were we going to do Christmas? From a damp, cold rain we took a place by the fire. We looked for a place to settle in and catch up. Since the kid wanted to see toys, we headed to the rear.

As we headed back, I noticed she was limping. I asked her about it. It took several minutes to untangle the tale of her ongoing foot problems and lack of insurance. She was working hard, an active participant in moving her life forward; yet, she wouldn’t take off a day to get treatment for herself because she couldn’t afford either the loss of pay or the medical treatment. I felt a hot crackle inside. That is not justice. There was a time when she would have qualified for some kind of assistance, but those days are gone. What has been spared at the expense of this working, single mother-of-three who can barely walk?

Once we found a place in the back, Arica found a chair. With a bin of Barbies to the right and a bin of clothes and accessories to the left, she sought to create gifts that anyone’s child might enjoy. On the right was a bin of well-worn dolls with hair too matted to comb–most with all their hands and limbs. On the left sat a bin of mismatched  clothes and accessories.

I volunteered to help. I couldn’t stand and chit-chat while Arica sorted through those bins.

“I like to be useful,” I told her.

Arica set her warm face on me. “That’s what you said at Thanksgiving,”

I started brushing Barbies. As I passed the brush through one frazzled head-of-hair after the other, my heart broke. People were not donating, giving something of themselves. In too many cases, they were dumping garbage. This is what our culture thinks of the poor.

When I collected donations for the reservation there were very strict rules. If things were not new they needed to be in like-new condition. If you would not accept it for your child, don’t donate it: simply put. Still, there is not one toy in that shop that isn’t broken or missing pieces.

We have spent a lot of time in that shop, watching little ones pick over the bones. As you watch these little hollow faces meander, questions come up. When parents are deprived, it is only these who suffer? Poverty breaks in on every level, and affects us as a culture on every level. As long as some of us are without, none of us is really whole.

Some of the Barbies needed haircuts. I brushed and cut doll hair like i was a kid again. I thought of each little girl who might hold that doll. And we talked. A lot had happened, and yet all was the same. Still, I gave her mine and she gave me hers.

At Thanksgiving, I had promised to teach her the delicious art of pie crust. She said she had blueberries. Before long, we were making plans. On Saturday, I will show a beautiful young woman how to make homemade pie-crust.

I don’t think either of us has a rolling pin. I made pie-dough for Thanksgiving with a can of Pam. We’ll work it out.

Something is in the air. Our adjustment here has not been easy, but hands are reaching out. Some are near, and some are far. From across the miles, hands touch us. Friendships continue to grow as we reach forward together, in faith. God is assembling a family.

Like lights coming on in a darkened house, the faces of friends light the way. As each branch rises to make us stumble, a hand reaches out to catch our fall.

Leaves are spouting.

Can you smell it?

In the air, there is spring.

 

 

 

The Labor of Love

December 5, 2012 in Uncategorized

1 Thessalonians 2:1-12

Instead, we were like young children[a] among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

Check out the words of Paul. He gives us a window into the disciples’ way of spreading the Good News of Christ. They go in with a message. Following the guidance of Jesus, they approach like servants, delivering that message with both word and action.

Imagine the Thessalonians, hearing the values Jesus espoused for the first time. As Paul enters to teach he rolls up his sleeves to work. Caring for others, contributing to others’ work, they worked and sweated together as Paul shared the message. He shared it in words, and he shared it in actions. Give more than you take. Broaden the family. Try love, says Jesus. Open sesame.

People are looking for this kind of open-armed embrace. People with a loving core reach out for love; but too many find closed doors. Through the log in the eye comes a chant from the inner circle: “Get clean, get clean, get clean.” But it’s more about adhering to culture than to ethics. “Get in line, get in line, get in line” seems to be the actual message.

Hey, Episcopal Church: I’m about to praise you, again. In the seeds of The Church rests a radical message; and I do see it described each week. In practice, the Episcopal Church is open-minded, curiousity driven and respectful. A range of beliefs exists within; and no argument need take place nor exact point be agreed upon. It is justice, peace, love and equality that define it all.

This weekend, we had the chance to attend the Light-Up Night Christmas Parade. Unprepared for a Washington parade, we had no umbrella. We darted from leafless tree to leafless tree, leaving a trail of lukewarm hot chocolate. Finding a prime piece of curb, we stopped. It seemed wrong to stand openly in the rain, but there was no other option. Huddled in the chilly dark, we listened for a far off cadence of a marching band.

A couple stood to the right of us, a young man to our rear. My boy, in typical open love, started a conversation with the young man. The young man’s shy, loving eyes glanced from my babe to me. A space of kindness and understanding was created between us and my boy slipped right in.

His name was Grant, a teenager, a satellite of his friend’s parents. The edges our of experiences crossed at the curb. My son asked boldly for a share of Grant’s umbrella. Grant lowered it with a tender smile, and stood in the rain. I ceased to wait for the parade. I had found something else to watch.

I didn’t let Grant stand in the rain. I got him to raise the umbrella and urged my sweet one to stand closer to him. The three of us continued to fellowship in the wet night as we waited.

It was almost a taste of Glenwood in those few shared moments. We touched on justice. We touched on the needs of our fragile earth. We exchanged small bits of concern and messages of kindness, beads strung together on the thin band of time that stretched itself from our tiny, new community to the distant start of the parade. Like jewels, they hung in the wet and in the dark; and they glittered, with love and with hope. Every young, conscious mind is a hope for tomorrow.

“Walk in love, as Christ loves us” they tell us in church. You say it over and over until it’s meaning fades away. Brought sharply back to the words “walk in love” the world takes on a new shape when we look around.

On our way to the parade, I passed a woman playing air guitar on a large, guitar-shaped cardboard imprinted with the image of a pizza. My first reaction was amusement, but it didn’t last. It was raining. The woman was easily in her early fifties. She was standing in the rain, playing air guitar on a cardboard pizza. What was this woman’s life like? What was it like to earn your living by humiliating yourself in the rain?

Some of you may think my question is poorly thought out, or inappropriate. “Hey, in today’s economy, she’s lucky to have a job!”  The point can be taken well enough. I don’t have one. My daily searches have, as yet, been fruitless. My efforts to sell my own work are a struggle. Still, I’ve been in her shoes. From her point of view, it’s probably hard to feel lucky.

A few years ago, I escaped from a maniac. After living for over a year as a prisoner on a remote farm, I was cautiously free. I had no money, and no work. He had taken everything. My job of over nine years had ended because of him. My car, just paid off, he destroyed. My radical feminism and insistent independence was kicked, punched, raped and strangled away. My thin legs were poor crutches for the load that I bore.

Have you ever heard of Liberty Tax? They do a promotional gimmick at tax time. They hire people to dress up like the Statue of Liberty and dance at the side of the road. I took that job.

When I went in to try on the costumes, a problem arose. My abuser had worked me very hard. He had fed me very little. Around my bones I wrapped yards of cloth that dragged on the very near ground. Being winter, after I layered up with five layers of sweat clothes, I was ready for the rainless, Arkansas cold. At 40 years old, I stepped to the curb dressed like a statue, nearly as lifeless, down to my core.

I danced. With earphones in my ears, I danced on the side of the highway. Often, there were tears running down my face. I laughed into the traffic. My laughs ricocheted within the cavern of my being, looking for a seat. From inside, I listened to my voice and I watched my face. I was radiant. Inside, I was an animal fresh from a cage. I broken, beaten and raped, odd green rags hung from my bones beneath a foam headdress. I was lucky to have a job.

After a few small checks, it was done. Soon my sons would start to grow and I would have to run. To all those people who passed me on the road, I was forgotten. My family was within me, and we were moving on.

That night at the parade, we cheered and we screamed. We scrambled for candy (most of which would not be eaten) and exclaimed at the animals, music, cars and lights. As we did, our eyes would flash at Grant, our partner in the glittering spectacle out in the rain. A momentary bond of peace, love and kindness was forged.

Grant’s kind face was an opening. I treasure it when I find them. There are moments, small windows, that we slip into as we travel through life. In this town, they are few. That makes people like Grant all the more precious as we look for purchase on uncertain ground.

Today was my birthday. My babe and I celebrated by making a cake in the crock pot like we did for our friend, Kris. When he asked to lick the bowl, I set few limits. His clothes and body were soon covered as I watched through the thin veil of adulthood. I reach towards his joy.

We are not finding this coast as open as we hoped. Experiences like those with Grant are very precious. Sadly, people often turn their backs to us, even ignore my boy when he tries to speak to them. Yet I know, difficult as it is, in this experience lies an important message from God. I listen for it, and I wait.

Today was also the Feast of Saint Nicholas. We celebrated with other people from our church. The boy and I volunteered to help. We showed up early to sort and position ornaments for the tree. In fellowship, I worked along side Buddy and Stephen as we laid the foundations for the children’s’ decorating bonanza.

Balls rolled, glass broke, and my sweet one ran for the dust pan, each time. At the end, we were full, tired, laden with crafts, and ready for bed. A few from our new church family let us know we were missed on Sunday. “We were worried!” we heard from several congregants. A small warmth slipped in against the cold.

A few arms pressed tighter. Their gentle pressure released my ready tears. We don’t feel welcome in this town, but we are rolling up our sleeves. With a message, and with a mission, we come offering our all. We are ready to work. Will you have us? Only time will tell.

 

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