Monday, December 31, 2012

Lessons Learned

"Many of you will be staying up late tonight to welcome in the new year. Personally, I'll be staying up to make sure that the old one leaves."

The above is an excerpt from a year-end speech given by State Farm CEO Ed Rust Jr., after a particularly tough year for insurance a few years ago. You may remember a certain nasty storm named Katrina. Rust was himself paraphrasing the late Bill Vaughan, who was an author and columnist for the Kansas City Star. Vaughan's original quote places the two viewpoints in the minds of an optimist and a pessimist, respectively. Personally, I prefer Mr. Rust's version. Tonight I will be staying up until midnight for only one reason. I want to watch the toughest year of my life end.

Of course, the notion that an arbitrary date from the Gregorian calendar is somehow a significant milestone in my emotional timeline is complete hokum. There is no guarantee that next year won't be still tougher than this year. There is no rule or edict that demands that anyone's emotional turmoil must remain below a certain threshold within a calendar year. There is no promise that things will get better next year.

Brimming with optimism, aren't I? Hold on... I'll get there. Even though I have had to come to grips with some very difficult realities this year, those hard times have left important lessons in their wake. If I were to ignore these lessons, then all of the pain of this past year would truly be for nothing. Here are a few things that 2012 has taught me:

  • Family is critical - One of my wife's nurses told me about a young woman, a patient of hers, who had faced a situation much like ours. Her son had been diagnosed with Trisomy 18 in utero, she had carried the baby to full term, and he was stillborn just days before his due date. The nurse noted, however, that this young woman had effectively no family support. She was estranged from her parents, she had no siblings, and the baby's father was completely absent. The only person who came to visit her in the hospital was her roommate. As difficult as this year has been for us, we didn't have to do it without help. We have each other, we have a wealth of family and friends, and we have our other two children. I can hardly imagine having to face something like this alone. Hold on tightly to whatever family you have. Be there for them when they go through hard times. You might be the only thing that carries them through.

  • You are who you choose to be - I've heard it said that when things get tough, you find out what you're made of. That's baloney. Sure, you learn things about yourself in hard times, but more importantly, you make choices that will define you. When faced with tragedy or crisis, you don't just "find out" what you're made of... You decide what you're made of. You choose, right then and there, if you're going to let it destroy you or not. Life isn't what happens to you, it's how you react to what happens to you. Cori and I certainly discovered some tendencies in each other through this, but far more important were the things we demanded of ourselves. We refused to give up on Aiden, we were adamant about protecting Isabella and Brady from as much of the pain as possible, and we vowed to cling to each other through the entire ordeal. You are not just a set of immutable personality traits waiting to be unveiled. You are an infinite array of possibilities, and you get to choose which ones will represent you in this world.

  • Any port in a storm - Few people seek out sadness. Most everyone in this world would prefer to be happy. I would prefer that my restless nights be the result of a fussy infant, rather than that of the unshakable memory of holding my son's lifeless body in my arms. But there is still happiness to be had. I find comfort in knowing that Aiden's story inspired people all over the world. I am encouraged by the idea that he drove people to pray, even some who would normally refuse to do so. There is joy to be had in seeing my other two children open Christmas presents, even if that joy is somewhat clouded. When things are dark and desperate, find something good... anything that can even be loosely interpreted as positive... and hang on for dear life. Don't let the sadness become all you have.

  • Prayer works - I bet you didn't expect to hear that one, huh? Even with thousands of people praying all over the world, our baby boy still ended up buried in the cold ground of Minier Cemetery, and here I'm saying that prayer works? Well, I should clarify. Prayer, at least so far as I understand it, isn't a quantifiable currency with which we purchase favors from an omnipotent vending machine. There's no giant fundraising thermometer display in the sky indicating "progress to goal". More remarkable prayer requests don't cost more prayers. Too often we think of prayer only as a way for us to beg, plead, or demand things from God. That's simply not what it's about. Prayer is our half of a conversation, and we can initiate it any time we want. I can't call up my senator on a Monday afternoon just to check in. I can't video chat with the president and ask for his advice (let's pretend for a moment that I'd want his advice). I can't request an audience with Queen Elizabeth II and expect to get one. I can, however, speak with the creator of the universe any time, day or night. I can seek guidance, I can offer up my concerns, I can scream and cry and rage over my misfortunes. I may not always get an answer that I can understand, and I clearly won't always get the answer that I want, but being allowed to speak to God is its own reward. As such, prayer works, but not in the way we often suppose or hope it will.

It's been a long year. I hope next year is better, but if it isn't, I've already decided how I will respond. I will hug my kids, kiss my wife, and weather the storm. I will continue to do my best to keep my chin up and my head bowed simultaneously (which is quite difficult, by the way). I will keep praying, I will keep clinging to the good things in my life, and I will keep finding ways to learn whatever lessons I can. Happy New Year, everyone.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Learning to be thankful

Just over five months ago, we buried our son Aiden. This has been the most painful year of our lives, and the holidays are shaping up to be excruciating. It's perhaps understandably difficult for us to be as festive as normal this year, but we're trying.

My youngest brother and his wife graciously hosted Thanksgiving this year, and while it was good to spend time with the family and eat five metric tons of turkey, Cori and I had to fight off a constant sense of melancholy all week. You see, even the good days feel somehow empty now.  Even the happiest moments are tinted with just a shade of sadness. Trick-or-treating, Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas shopping, all of these things would be different with a healthy baby in the house.  They would be busier, more stressful... they would be better.

That said, I am being purposeful about being thankful for the good things in my life, and I feel as though I should take a moment to list some of them.  In spite of the rough year, I'm thankful for:
  • My wife Cori - She continues to impress me with her strength.  If asked, she would quickly name me as "the strong one" because of my typically stoic nature in the face of tragedy.  She would be quite wrong.  Her burden in this was uniquely painful, both emotionally and physically, and the fact that she still manages to drag herself out of bed in the morning to care for our other two children is truly remarkable.
  • My daughter Isabella - She's clever, curious, empathetic, and infinitely forgiving.  She makes me smile every single day.  She took on cancer and won, and she continues to inspire me with her bravery.
  • My son Brady - He may burn my house to the ground before he enters Kindergarten, but I love him anyway.  He's relentless, tenacious, and jovial.  His mischievous grin will probably make him a movie star some day, but for now, he's my favorite little wrecking ball.
  • My new job - As we closed in on Aiden's due date, my previous employer fell on some hard times.  Things started to get very tight, and the stress level was ratcheted up.  I made the very tough decision to leave for another job, and the new gig has been very rewarding.
  • My family - They have their quirks (as does every family), but when there is a crisis, my family shows up and offers their support.  My father describes my family this way: "We may not be very useful, but we'll be there, and we'll be eating."  Having my family show up from all over the country helped greatly in the days after Aiden's death.
  • My wife's family - Yes, really.  My in-laws are all great.  They have been very supportive through all of this.  Having family that lives nearby is a big deal.
  • My son Aiden - Here's the difficult one to articulate.  I'm thankful for Aiden... not for his Trisomy or his passing, of course... But for him.  I'm thankful for what he taught me, for what this experience continues to teach me, and for what I hope it will teach me in the future.  I'm thankful for the overpowering love I feel for him, even though I never got to properly meet him.  I'm thankful for the prayers that flooded in on his behalf, even though they weren't answered in the way that I had hoped.  I'm thankful that Aiden's story caused so many people to pray.  I'm thankful that it continues to do so.
Being thankful is really not going to come naturally this year.  It would be far easier to turtle up, shut down, fold in on myself and lock out the world.  Being sullen and miserable for the rest of this year (and maybe for several years thereafter) would be forgivable.  Being constantly sad would be effortless right now.

Here's the thing... I don't want to be that way.  I want to be happy.  I want to give Bella and Brady a magical and meaningful Christmas.  I want to sing carols, drink mulled cider, eat ham, open presents, bundle up, light a fire, and be thankful for what this holiday means.  And so, I will.

But it won't be easy.