Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Whale

One of Clara's most discernible words is whale. She says it often and quite clearly, even with a pacifier in the corner of her mouth.  Her version is lilting and sweet and seems to follow the trajectory of her hand as she mimics the motion of a breaching whale.  I am mesmerized every time. Whale. Of all the words, and of all the animals, I wonder why this one that has risen to the surface of her simmering vocabulary.

The answer is probably simple. Whales inhabit our home. Not in a nautical way.  If you are picturing a beachy sea shanty - if that is even a thing - you've got the wrong idea. The average visitor to our home might not even notice them, but whales are everywhere.  There is a distressed wooden sperm whale in robin's egg blue near the front entry, a plush stuffed humpback in the toy bin, cartoony blue whales on the bath mat, a wooden whale lamp in my bedroom, and Simon and Clara often cuddle two little striped whales I made from Jonah's clothing when he died.

When Jonah left us it seemed necessary to remember him symbolically.  I can't really explain why.  But I have observed the same pattern in other's grief.  For my cousin's baby it is an acorn, for another the ruby hues of a sunset, and for Jonah it is whales. When I see these little tokens in my home I think of him, and I'm glad they are there.

When I hear Clara's sweet voice say whale I often wonder how she will know her older brother.

Sometimes in the mornings our babies crawl into our bed under the pretense of cuddling, but really they are interested in access; access to items that are usually unreachable.  They step across our heads and pillows to swipe framed photos from our bedside tables.

One photo is of me and Jonah on his first birthday.  He's holding a gold mylar balloon and I'm wearing a patchwork apron. Clara often holds this photo and looks at it carefully.  First, she points to me "mom" and then the balloon and then Jonah.  I say "That's your brother, that's Jonah." Confused, she looks at Simon knowing that he is her brother.  I say "Simon is your brother. This is Jonah, he's your brother too."  She usually points at Jonah's sweet face and then moves on to the next picture frame. After these brief interactions I wonder how I will ever tell her the rest of the story. "Jonah came first. We loved him so much. He died, in an accident, before you were born." It makes me sad to think that death will always be a part of our family story.

The name Jonah came to me one day while I was sitting in the temple.  I was waiting for Jordan to meet me at the entrance, and had been hoping to think of a name for our expectant little boy.  I anxiously sat through our temple session, listening to ancestral names, ready to receive inspiration. Yet nothing came. I was frustrated. Jordan and I have struggled to name all of our children, but the first seemed especially daunting.  It felt so important, and yet, so arbitrary to name someone before you even know them.  But that was our task and we were floundering.

As I waited for Jordan in the quiet of the lobby I picked up the scriptures and began reading from the Old Testament book of Jonah.  Honestly, the full story of Jonah as a prophet isn't really that inspiring. He ran from his responsibilities out of fear, judged the conversion of an entire city, and seemed to be a bit pouty at the end. But the part about the whale, that's where Jonah's story becomes remarkable and miraculous.

When Jonah is thrown overboard in hopes that his sacrifice will calm the troubled seas and save those who remain on board he is swallowed by a large fish, perhaps a whale.  The scriptures say that the Lord had prepared this fish to swallow Jonah, to hold him for three days and three nights, and to deliver him to the safety and warmth of a new land.

At the time, this story felt so common to me that I didn't think deeply about it.  I only felt the name Jonah stick to me.  When I suggested the name to Jordan he said it was "too whaley" and then facetiously suggested "Ahab" as an alternative.  But time passed and eventually we held a living breathing nameless infant in our arms and when the nurses asked us for the umpteenth time for a name we said "Jonah."

Now, when I think about Simon and Clara, and Jonah's death, and the large fish that the Lord prepared I think about our story, and I wonder how much God knew.  Did he know that my own Jonah would be swallowed up by death, in an instant, as I watched helplessly? Did he know that whales would fill our home?

In the last few weeks as Clara's soft voice has reminded me of the whales around me I have wondered if this large blue mammal is not a bit morbid as a symbol of remembrance.  After all, in the biblical story of Jonah, the whale is the undertaker, the darkness, and death itself.  The prophet Jonah prays diligently to be delivered from its prison, just as I prayed for our child to be delivered from death's reach.

As I've read the story of Jonah again and again my view of these whales has shifted.  In the New Testament Jesus taught that the story of Jonah and the Whale is an allegory about the Savior's death and resurrection.  This perspective changes the story and the whale becomes about more than death, but deliverance.  It is not merely a punishment, but rather a vehicle, prepared by a loving God, to cross to the safety of a distant shore.  It is a symbol of our ultimate hope that death is not the end.

As Simon and Clara get older I hope that I can use the whales around our home to teach them about their brother and about the belief we hold close to our hearts that we will see him again, and that God has prepared a way to carry each of us home.

Friday, February 3, 2017


I have been haunted lately by a memory.  It comes to me in quiet moments when my mind seems to wander between to-do lists and crazy politics and craving sleep.  It clears a space for itself amid the clutter to grab my attention and demand my focus.  But it is painful.  This memory brings with it shame and regret and speculation.  I find myself wishing I could reverse it and relive it.  But I can't. So instead I have been trying to pay attention to it and learn from it.  I have never told anyone about this moment other than Jordan, but now I feel compelled to tell it to you.

It happened a couple years ago when I was pregnant with the twins.  Jordan and I had spent most of our savings and all of our emotional strength on trying to bring these babies into existence, and my pregnancy still felt new and vulnerable.  We had ongoing worries about losing the pregnancy and became hyper vigilant in avoiding risk.  I avoided questionable foods, rested abundantly, took all my medications on time, and prayed every night that our babies would arrive safely.

One frigid winter evening Jordan and I stopped at Harmon's to pick up some tasty bread or pumpkin cookies.  I ran into the store while he waited in the car for me.  I grabbed the one or two items that I needed and headed to the check out stand.

I noticed a few things about the woman in front of me. Her little boy sat in the cart in mismatched and threadbare pajamas, his hair hadn't seen a comb for a while and his face was dirty.  He was busy and rambunctious and pushing her to her limit. She snapped at him a few times as he grabbed things off the shelf.  Her appearance matched his, unkempt hair, faded sweats, and an oversized jacket.  But the thing I remember most was an intense weariness in her eyes and across her shoulders.

I stood behind her, waiting patiently, arms resting on my swollen belly.  She purchased her food and left, and without a second thought I did the same.

Then I saw her again. This time just inside the automatic doors, unloading her cart, lining her arms with grocery bags while trying to wrangle her young child.  It became clear that she was preparing to walk home on this bitter winter evening.

Something told me to stop and talk to her.  So I did.  I asked her if she had a car.  She said no.
"Do you live nearby?"
"Yes."  She said.  "A few blocks away."
"Would you like a ride?"

I watched as her burden seemed to lighten, and she thanked me for the offer. "I'm so sick" she said. "I've had bronchitis for a few weeks and can't seem to get better."

Suddenly fear came over me like a wave, starting in my head and moving to my heart.  Sick, I thought.  What if I get sick?  What if something happens to the babies?  Is this safe?  Should I do this?  Although probably irrational the fear of losing the babies overwhelmed me.  I asked her to wait while I talked to Jordan.

Moments later I returned and told her we could not take her home.  I offered a brief explanation about my pregnancy and my fear of getting sick and then turned away.  I don't even remember her reaction. I just remember feeling her presence behind me like a shadow as I walked away.  My fear and shame and sorrow all swirling together yet propelling me out the door into the cold night air.

It has been a couple years since this happened, and I still agonize over the choice. I'm sure she made it home - she didn't live far away.  But I wonder if she felt a little less sure about human kindness because of me. I wonder if she stayed sick a little longer, if she was unkind to her child, if she lost faith she could have gained.  And although I could make a very logical argument for the conflict I felt that night, in my heart I know it was a betrayal of my values and of my spirit.

When this experience visits me I think of the apostle Peter walking on water with the Savior.

And Peter answered him (the Savior) and said, Lord if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.  And he said, Come.  And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.  But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.  And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? (Matthew 14:28-31)

Fishermen at Sea, by JWM Turner

I have always felt empathy for Peter in his imperfect faith.  I relate to his desire to do great things, while being hampered by his own human frailty and fear.

I have also reflected on the call of the Savior to step out of the assumed safety of the boat to follow him.  He simply says "Come" and expects us to move forward through the boisterous wind and waves that create fear in our hearts.  

That cold winter night I was swallowed by the waves.  I sought the safety of the boat rather than heeding the whisper of the Savior to help one of his children.  

Each night Jordan and I pray together.  We pray as a family with Simon and Clara and we pray together as a couple.  In the past I have heard these familiar words come out of my mouth "bless us with safety."  But lately I haven't been able to say them.  As a mother it seems like there should be nothing more that I would want in the world than for my children and my family to be safe. Especially since I know the excruciating pain of losing a child.  But I can't pray for safety anymore.

That night at the grocery store I secured my safety, but I lost a little piece of my soul. I realize now that when I pray, I need to pray to be brave.  Safety will only insulate us from the troubles of the world, and make us feel as if they don't concern us.  Bravery will compel us to act when sadness and sorrow and weariness seem to be as prevalent as the air we breathe.  As I've studied the life of the Savior I've found very little evidence that he is concerned with our temporal safety.  He has always called his followers onto unsteady ground, past dogma and platitudes, and toward his example of healing, cleansing, ministering, and loving.  

So tonight when I kneel to pray with my family, I will let this memory haunt me once again.  Then, instead of asking God to grant me some sort of ubiquitous safety, I will ask him to teach to me to be brave.  

It seems to me that the Savior is saying to each of us that unless we lose ourselves in the service of others our lives are largely lived to no real purpose....He who lives only unto himself withers and dies, while he who forgets himself in the service of others grows and blossoms in this life and in eternity." - Gordon B. Hinckley

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Last Night

Last night Simon woke up crying just after midnight, moments after my own tired head melted into the softness of my pillow.  I'm not sure why he woke up.  Teething? Cold? Hungry? Wet?  My tired brain can never really figure it out.  Sometimes on really bad nights I change diapers, add a sleep sack, open windows, and dispense Ibuprofen in hopes that I've covered all my bases and we can all sleep peacefully for a few consecutive hours.    

After letting him cry for awhile and whispering prayers to heaven that he would just fall back asleep, I flopped my legs to the floor and wandered into his darkened bedroom.  When my eyes finally adjusted and focused I saw him sitting against the crib slats looking almost as disoriented as I felt.  I gently laid him back down and gave him his pacifier which he angrily grabbed and threw across the crib, as if he was offended by the suggestion that he could be soothed so easily.  He rolled over and around his blanket like a crocodile in a death roll and eventually bumped his head on the corner of the crib crying out even louder and longer than before.  

Afraid he would wake Clara I gathered up his fuzzy blanket and hoisted his pajama clad body over the crib rail.  We settled into the chair next to his crib and I laid his long body across mine.  At first he tossed and turned and wiggled, but then slowly let himself relax into me as I brushed his wispy hair with my fingers.  His body became heavier and softer and his breath slower.  I traced figure eights across his back until sleep returned. I shifted my weight to move him back into bed, and then stopped.  My inner voice whispered "stay awhile" and so I held him longer.  I brought his face to mine and felt the warmth of his velvet cheek.  I breathed in the sweet smell of his hair, a combination of sweat and lotion and grass and love.  I noticed the way he felt in my arms - simultaneously long and lanky and yet small enough to hold forever.  

I held him longer because I remembered this very night five years ago when I held his brother the same way. A sharp cry in the middle of the night.  A bottle made.  A diaper changed.  A sweet boy soothed and cherished.  I felt something hold me back that night too.  Something that said "stay here longer" "remember this." And I did. I held his brother, and smelled his sweet smell, and let his feathery hair brush across my lips.  I pushed away the exhaustion and stayed in that moment with him until we were both full of love and memory, not knowing then how much i would need to remember. The next morning would be our last together in this life. 

I thought about that moment 5 years ago as I held Simon and it scarred me.  The need to stay longer, to soak it all in, felt like a bad omen.  I've often thought that I was given that prompting to hold Jonah longer because God knew I would lose him the next day, and maybe that is the truth.  But as I held Simon and shook off the superstition of losing him I realized that voice is always with me as a mother.  It whispers to me everyday, "be here, be present."  Sometimes I'm too tired or distracted or frustrated to hear it.  Sometimes I hear it and ignore it and go about checking items off of my to-do list.  But in the middle of the night when the world is quiet and the room is dark, I listen.  Not because calamities are coming, but because life is fleeting.  

I am reminded that tomorrow everything will be different.  My babies will be one day older, and they will know new things, and say new words, and climb on top of the table.  Eventually they will sleep all night, and then sleep too much.  Someday they will not fit in my arms or even want my touch.  They will make choices and mistakes, and the only thing I can do about it is to listen to that voice, to be present, to be slow, to smell their hair and listen to them giggle, to let my muscles memorize their heaviness.  Beyond that I am powerless. No matter what I do, tomorrow will come and bring with it all of the possibilities of joy and sorrow.  

I believe that voice is always present, always reminding us to notice the life we've been given.  We may only notice it when tragedy visits us, but I have a feeling it is always there.  

Eventually I moved Simon back to his bed, gave him his pacifier and covered him with his blanket.  I slipped back into bed beside Jordan, and pulled the comforter up around my shoulders. As I drifted off to sleep I heard a gentle rustling and then Clara's distinctive sputtering cry.  I held my breath for a moment and waited. Then I left the warmth of my bed to hold my little girl.  

When I woke, bleary eyed, in the morning I wondered what this day would bring. Today is a day of sorrow for us and for remembering.  It is the day we said goodbye to our first born and learned what it meant to be broken and bruised. 
I hoped for a day of happiness and peace and a nap.  As I remembered the loss I experienced five years ago I tried to listen for the voice.  I heard it when Simon and Clara spread tuna fish all over their faces at lunch and when we visited their brother's grave.  I heard it when we sat in the late afternoon sun watching the babies throw birdseed toward a roving flock of chickens.  I heard it when our family gathered for dinner, and when Simon splashed in the bath until the water ran out. "This is important" it whispered, "be here." 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

One Year

There has been something so familiar about this past year.  Even though having twins is very different than having a single baby, the flow and seasons of this year have matched those of Jonah's year with us.  Jonah was born on the 14th of July and our twins were born on the 22nd, five years and one week apart.  As a result, every milestone and every "first" has followed a similar chronology.

Jonah's first smiles came in the fall and this year as the leaves fell Simon and Clara started to smile.  In the winter Jonah began to roll and scoot and Simon and Clara followed his example.  This spring Simon and Clara ventured outside and explored the grass and leaves and tried to eat them, and as I watched them I thought about Jonah tasting rocks and dirt and crawling through the grass.  And summer...summer is by far the sweetest: playing in the water, swinging, exploring the neighborhood, climbing, walking, and celebrating first birthdays.  It's all the same.  When I hold Simon next to me and feel his weight and the way he turns to direct me through the world I think of Jonah.  When Clara squeals in delight as she gets in the bath and splashes water all over her face but doesn't seem to care, I think of him.  I see him in every moment I share with his brother and sister.  In a way it is so comforting and beautiful, and it also scares me.

I am constantly reminded that we only had one year with Jonah; We had one Halloween, one Christmas, one birthday.

We celebrated the twins' birthday last week and even that echoed the experience of their brother.  We played in the yard with grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and cousins.  It was a hot afternoon, even in the shade of our giant walnut tree.  The air smelled the same - a combination of heat, and wind, horses, and grass.  We played in the water to cool down, ate fried chicken, opened presents, and watched excitedly as Simon and Clara approached their first cupcake with caution followed by full bodied appreciation.

When I think about Jonah's birthday I think about what I didn't know.  When Jonah turned one we didn't know that we would only have two more months with him. We didn't know that a small fruit snack could take the life of our precious boy. We didn't know that he would leave our family and in his absence a crushing sorrow would emerge.

Sometimes I wonder what I don't know now.

As we celebrated together I thought about time passing or rather marching, marching toward September. There is something in the familiarity and passage of time that makes me feel like I'm headed towards the same experience.  I realize that August and September were the last months I had with Jonah, and I wonder what the future holds.  It is a hard feeling to shake.

The weather at Simon and Clara's party was bizarre.  One moment it was blazing hot, followed by a swift thunderstorm, then giant raindrops, and back to scorching heat.  Those who attended moved quickly between the shade of trees, the shelter of our garage, the warmth of the sun, and the protection of patio umbrellas.  It rained on our chicken and cupcakes and presents.  My mom mentioned that she was looking for a rainbow, but none appeared. The sky only held black rain clouds or blinding sunshine.

At the end of the party the showers drifted towards the mountains and the sun was lower against the western sky.  As we cleaned up and said our goodbyes I looked towards the east, past the large pine tree in our yard.  I looked towards the same patch of sky on the day of Jonah's funeral, when the weather was identical: hot, then stormy, then peaceful.  That day two rainbows appeared like a message from heaven and temporarily calmed my troubled heart.

In this moment, just above the mountain a faint rainbow appeared, peeking through, as if not wanting to steal away our attention.  I stood on my patio and watched Simon and Clara playing with their cousins under the shelter of the pine, unaware of the beautiful rainbow above them.  I thought of Jonah and my heart hurt and soared at the same time.  The women I love gathered around me on the hot cement and looked toward the sky.  It seemed clear that they knew what I knew.  We simply said "Jonah." "He came."  And we believed it was true.

Rainbows are symbols.  They are symbols of promises and peace and freedom and love.  They are symbols of a protecting hand.  The two rainbows I saw on the day we said goodbye to Jonah felt like a promise that God knew my pain and that someday things would feel right again.  And even though that seemed impossible at the time, it was true.  Our lives feel good and whole again.

This rainbow felt like a different promise, a promise that Jonah was still a part of our family, and that there would be many happy days ahead.  I felt overwhelming gratitude for such a simple but profound moment, looked up to the heavens, and believed it was true.

Be of good cheer.  The future is as bright as your faith. - Thomas S. Monson

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Blessed are the Peacemakers

A few months after Jonah died someone I love very much told me he was gay.  His revelation was simple and sincere and not really a surprise, but we had never talked about it before.  He had never said the words "I am gay" and I had never asked.  Jonah's death seemed to open up a safe space in our hearts to be honest with each other about our lives.  I can't remember the specific words that were said, but I remember feeling overwhelming love for him.  I loved him more than I ever had before, and I knew without a doubt that our Heavenly Father loved him deeply. I also felt sure that my responsibility wasn't to persuade or to preach, but to love.  It has never been hard to love him.  
This week I've reflected on that experience amid the whirlwind of accusations and explanations surrounding the LDS church's new policy regarding the membership of children from same-sex marriages. I have tried to tap into that feeling of love as I have read articles, comments, and opinions on the subject. But instead I began to build a wall to protect my faith and to protect my family.  

I felt defensive because I love the LDS church. It feels like home to me. I have been carried through my darkest days by the simplicity of its doctrine and the Christ-like love of its members.  I have felt my hope restored as I have listened to the messages of it's leaders.  And most of all I have watched my parents and grandparents devote their lives to its ministry. My father is a Stake President, which means he presides over hundreds of individuals and approximately 10 congregations.  He serves them without pay. He sacrifices his limited time, outside of his profession, to help families meet their needs and solve their problems.  He shares his testimony of the Savior at countless meetings in hopes that each member of his flock will find peace as they deal with their unique trials. He rejoices with those who rise above their challenges, and he mourns with those that feel lost and alone.  He is good and honest and kind.  I know that there are thousands of good men and women like him throughout the church at every level of service and leadership.   

So my immediate reaction to accusations of bigotry, hatred, and nefarious intentions was to defend my faith and my family vigorously. 

But as the days have passed I have felt gently guided away from my defensive fortress and into a softer space of empathy. I have prayed that God would help me understand the actions of my church and the feelings of those who oppose it. I think one of life's greatest challenges is to mourn with those that mourn, and to sit in sorrow with someone even if we do not completely understand their pain. 

This morning I was blessed with a moment of empathy that opened my heart and mind.  I pondered how I would feel if the church's new policy affected me in a deeply personal way.  What if, hypothetically, the new policy was about in vitro fertilization, instead of gay marriage?  What if my opportunity to have a family was in direct conflict with my faith? It hit me hard that I would feel incredible sorrow. I would feel conflicted and maybe isolated.  I might feel wronged or misunderstood.  It would take time and prayer and love to work through the pain. I would hope that my faith would endure such a challenge and that I could keep an eternal perspective.  But even with perspective I would grieve what was lost.  

I know this is not a perfect comparison, and that I do not fully understand how those who are hurt by this policy feel.  But, I do know that I felt a return to love.  

I admire those who arrived with empathy quickly; those who did not waste time building a fortress. I admire the peacemakers on both sides of this issue that have acknowledged the others pain and offered love before explanation or accusation. I have heard touching stories of LDS families reaching out to their LGBT neighbors in gestures of genuine love and friendship.  I have read beautifully humble letters from the LGBT community seeking common ground and understanding.  These things have changed me.

I hope that next time my heart feels bruised I will stop the hard work of constructing an impenetrable wall.  Instead I hope I will seek to feel the love He has for all of His children.  I will pray to be given the gift of empathy. Then I will try to remember the words the Savior spoke at the Sermon on the Mount, 

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. 
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. 
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. 

Matthew 5: 3-9