Sunday, November 24, 2013

I shall have bird feeders

Psalm 108:6 (NIV)

Save us and help us with your right hand,
   that those you love may be delivered.
When I am an old man, I shall have bird feeders. And a big aquarium. I will take a photography class at the community college, and I will go on long walks every day the weather permits.

The children will come visit us for holidays and, most importantly, their birthdays. We will dote on our grandchildren and always keep on hand the foods their parents won’t. We will drive to see the great sights of America — the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the Golden Gate Bridge. I will choose a favorite restaurant where everyone on the staff knows me so well they just wave when I walk in the door and five minutes later my lunch comes to the table.

I could keep going for a while here. This tends to be the sort of thing I ponder when jamming my thumb in a fussy infant’s mouth long after the sun has set. But I’ll stop for two reasons. One, Jenny Joseph covered the ground expertly with her poem “Warning,” the first line of which is “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.” And two, I’ve been made all too aware recently, again, of just how fragile and fleeting life can be.

It would be easy enough to run through a laundry list of tragedies large and small to further illustrate the point, and I’d scarcely have to go back more than a week, or even outside my family and close friends. But I could write something similar seemingly every week. Tragedy is all around — the sudden loss of life or health or security are constant, though the individuals and families so stricken are chosen at random.

The takeaway lesson is simple: none of us are promised anything in this life. Every day we have is a precious blessing that ought to be cherished and lived in gratitude. And as sure as I express that sentiment I have to admit how routinely I fall short of that ideal, arguing with the kids about getting into the car so we’re only five minutes late to church, fretting over a glitch in the DVR or grumbling because I gazed into a refrigerator full of food and couldn’t decide what to eat. I know better, but that knowledge can be fleeting at any moment.

Still, the future is not mine to decide. So when I think about my bird feeders and my aquarium and my photography class, I realize it’s about as real to me as playing second base for the Cubs or filing columns for the Chicago Tribune. If I’m blessed enough to one day celebrate a holiday surrounded by wife and our boys and their children, hopefully I’ll be fully aware of the source of that blessing and appropriately grateful.

But more importantly, I have to live every day between now and then in thankfulness for the chance to simply wake up and move about the planet. Some days are rich with joys, others laden with sorrows. And most of them lie somewhere in between, not too high and not too low, but spectacular gifts nonetheless, each and every one of them. To God alone be the glory.

A prayer for November 24:

Lord, thank you for everything I have, for each breath, each day I get to be surrounded by my family, each chance to look into my children’s eyes and make sure they know how much I love them. Help me as I strive to remember the precious nature of life, to take nothing for granted and to live in gratitude for the blessings of this life and the promises of things to come. Tell me what I need to hear and show me the path you would have me walk, and may the things I do and say bring you praise. Amen.

• • •

I didn't get into the specifics in this post; however, if you are so inclined as to click for more information, I offer this link to the clearinghouse for tornado relief in Washington, Ill., and this page about a scholarship fund for the family of our dear friends who last Sunday suffered an unexpected loss.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

He cries alone

Psalm 111:1 (NIV)

Praise the Lord.

I will extol the Lord with all my heart
   in the council of the upright and in the assembly.
Isaac can be very loud. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, least of all me, since I’ve walked this road three times before. But for as much as I expected the noise, what I couldn’t guess was how unfazed the older brothers would be when the new arrival is screaming from the bottom of his toes.

To be fair, he seems to save his most curdling shrieks for the middle of the night when only he and I are awake. We’ve not yet had the whole family in the van for much more than 15 or 20 minutes at a shot, which means I’m holding my breath for our first cross-state drive to see Kristie’s family. But even around the house when he can get sort of ornery, the big boys just don’t seem to care.

Believe it or not, this guy can get pretty worked up.
The thing is, I’d be pretty understanding if they were bothered. Infant crying can be incessant and piercing, and I don’t recall Jack, Max or Charlie requesting another addition to the family. Yet so far they’ve displayed preternatural grace under pressure. They’ve almost always been patient when the baby’s needs have to come first. They haven’t shown a shred of jealousy. And when he cries, they take it as some sort of fact of nature — this from children who sometimes act personally insulted if it’s raining outside. Jack knows when it’s the right time to pick up Isaac and Charlie tries to kiss his head to make him feel better.

At the risk of jinxing the whole darn thing, the big boys’ reception of Baby Four thus far has exceeded my grandest hopes. I was steeled for the worst-case scenario, but their acceptance and understanding is making this transition into our new normal somewhere between tolerable and downright fun. I don’t even recall praying for this kind of blessing, but I’m certainly expressing my gratitude for whatever’s been making it possible.

Perhaps if I had more sleep or a shorter to-do list I could mine some deep truth from the way our big brothers have adapted. Surely there’s something almost primal about the familial bonds and they way children have almost a better sense for human nature than adults. But mostly I’m happy to still feel like this is a house where love reigns.

It’s not all sunshine and roses. Bath time is a nightly war, homework is a daily struggle and there are days where everyone’s attitudes could use a drastic improvement. But at the same time, we all seem to have made room in our hearts for the new guy, and that’s why it already feels like he fits perfectly. He was always supposed to be here, even before we knew it was time.

I don’t claim to understand how these things work, or even have a good handle on explaining how they feel, except to be thankful to God for these many blessings. Life can be absolutely wonderful, and when those moments wash over me, I try my best to remember the source.

A prayer for November 16:

Lord, thank you for simple gifts in overwhelming amounts. May the works of my hands and the words of my mouth be sufficient to give you praise in gratitude for the opportunity to delight in the wonderful people I count among family and friends. Thank you for allowing me to feel loved, and help me share that joy with others. Amen.

Friday, November 1, 2013

That was the week that was

Psalm 40:11 (NIV)

Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord;
   may your love and faithfulness always protect me.
There comes a point when, while holding your feverish, 18-day-old son down on an emergency room exam table for a chest X-ray around 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night, you both kind of look at each other and silence falls on the room. At least that was my experience with Isaac earlier this week, a kid so new my fingers still don’t automatically type his name when I envision his face.

In that moment, when I knew words would do me no good, I hoped against hope my face would reveal a calmness beyond my own capability, and that somehow the eight pounds of baby on the table would look at me and trust he would be as fine as we kept saying he would. And while I’m not entirely sure how well a person that tiny can see anything, sure enough the silence came.

Maybe he was just too tired after screaming through the collection three bodily fluids. Maybe the 101-degree fever sapped his extra energy. Maybe he was so wracked with hunger he couldn’t put up a fight. Or maybe, just maybe, he could sense serenity in a father taking one of his four sons through the emergency room for the seventh time. He was the youngest, by far (the others were all well past their first birthdays), and the only to earn admission (for three nights), but considering the chasm between the worst-case scenario and what actually happened, you’ll find no complaints here.

Three weeks old today; a third of those days spent in a hospital.
In the simplest of terms, very young children with high enough fevers need to be tested and preventively treated for bacterial infections. Once the fever goes away and the tests come back negative (some results take 48 hours), you get to go home, and that’s what we did this afternoon. But when you have four children, two in school and two in diapers, nothing is really simple.

When they told us we’d be spending Tuesday night in the hospital, the first caveat was only one of us could stay unless we were the only occupants of a double room (we were). But then came the logistical worries. We’d dropped the big boys off with my parents earlier and got approval for them to spend the night. Already on the next day’s calendar were an IEP meeting and a kindergarten costume parade. Two days in to working afternoons in an attempt to ease back into postpartum office life that plan got put right back on the shelf.

God bless my parents, by the way. This is the third time since the start of September we moved some or all of our family into their house with little to no notice. I’m eternally grateful for their hospitality and willingness to step right into direct parenting of our big guys, but we’d all be fairly happy to go years and years without any more extreme situations or extenuating circumstances. Our house still bears the marks of sewer-related damage, but it’s home no matter what, and it’s good to know we’ll all sleep here tonight — provided the five-year-old watching movies in the basement because his own illness led to a five-hour nap this afternoon actually goes to sleep at some point, and provided the two-year-old hacking up organs upstairs actually stays asleep.

Even with those hurdles, having us all under one roof is a comfort. Contrast that to my Wednesday: Around midnight, I left the hospital for home to get the things I’d have packed if I’d known we’d more or less be moving out for the rest of the week. Got back to the room around 2 a.m. By 6:45 I was out the door, over to Pops & K’s to pick up Jack so I could drive him home to meet the school bus, as well as get the garbage and recycling cans to the curb, take a quick shower and head back down to the hospital, grabbing breakfast for Kristie on the way, hopefully in time to catch the report from the morning shift doctor.

By 10 a.m. I was out the door again, head back north for the IEP meeting. After that there was enough time to snag lunch, then go back down to get Max and Charlie in time to get Max home before the bus. Shortly after he rode off Charlie and I drove to school for the costume parade. Then we hurried home so as to be here before Jack returned. Then we waited for Max and eventually got everyone back in the car to go back to Pops & K’s. I left them and headed to the hospital so Kristie could leave — when she finished feeding Isaac — to grab her first shower in more than 36 hours.

She left shortly before the World Series game started, and while Isaac did not so much sleep (who could blame him given the medications, tape, tubes and wires), he and I did watch quite a bit of uninterrupted baseball, and when Kristie returned around 8:30 with leftover pizza, I was able to exhale and feel like I’d done my caffeine-aided best to take care of my entire family as best I could for one day, not quite realizing Isaac wouldn’t be sleeping for another three hours at least.

And that’s the meat of the matter. There’s nothing like a medical situation in the midst of an already busy everyday routine to drive home just how much our kids depend on us for everything. That it happened while Kristie is still recovering from childbirth and also acting as the sole source of nourishment for another person is an extra degree of difficulty. That the battery in our minivan failed to function in the middle of a pouring rain Thursday afternoon when I had all three kids loaded right outside the bus stop was a straw in search of an overtaxed camel.

Not here. Not this family. Somewhere along the way we all earned an extra measure of resiliency. None of us would choose the flooded house or the feverish newborn fears, but all of us managed to make peace with the things we can’t control and make the best of the rest. Somewhere the abnormal starts to feel routine and rolling with the punches is a badge of honor. It’s not like we enjoy this stuff, but it’s still far too easy to find another family going through something much more difficult. We were never promised perfection or an easy path. Part of those wedding vows mention being broke, being sick and just plain worse. And yet tomorrow the sun rises and we have a chance to all be together, so what’s the use in complaining?

I hope Isaac never remembers anything of his hospital experience. I hope our older boys understand and forgive their mother for not being able to be at everything while we fight back to regular. But I pray none of us forgets the boundless love of the people who care for us, the simple yet rich blessing of being a family and the promise of a God whose love will sustain, save and guide us in this life and beyond.

There’s no place like home, and there’s no home like family. It’s great to be back.

A prayer for November 1:

Lord, thank you for our health, our home and our family. May we rise each day in full appreciation for the many blessings we enjoy in this life, and may we go forward into your world as thankful people, returning those blessings to you in praise and allowing others to see in us what it truly means to be transformed by your love and amazing grace. Amen.