Wednesday, April 25, 2018

I Can Only Imagine

This past week, Angela treated me to the movies, a first for just she and I to go together.  Giggling in line, we decided we ought to do this more often as we are the only two in the family who have similar taste in films, as Olesya tends to lean towards the more action oriented flicks that all the boys (and yes, Dominick too!) enjoy.  In our town we have an old fashioned theater with three screens including one above the two lower ones, called The Penthouse.  There, with our drinks and snacks in hand, we settled into our seats and quietly whispered to one another through the previews, noting upcoming films we might want to make certain to catch.

The main feature finally began, and there we sat, side by side, silently taking it in.  The film was the relatively new release, I Can Only Imagine, which tells the life story of Brett Millard, the young man who penned the lyrics to the MercyMe hit song of the same name, which went on to be the #1 best selling Christian song of all time. 

The powerful story of brokenness, child abuse, alcohol abuse, and ultimate forgiveness and redemption was one that for different reasons resonated deeply with both Angie and I.  Sadly, we have both had to deal with these issues in our lives in various ways, and yet it is also what binds us together, an unspoken tether tying our empathetic and perceptive hearts to one another.  It is this "knowing", I feel, that helped us to move beyond Angie's fear of letting go and trusting me as her mom.  Despite the turmoil and grief such experiences caused each of us, I am personally thankful that God allowed me to have intimate knowledge of addiction, neglect, and great loss, without which I might not have had the wisdom and understanding to allow a bridge to be built that each of us walked to the middle of to find one another.

Leaving the theater, we were quiet, and  gentle conversation came up on the way home, tears were shed, love was shared. 

I can't quite shake a different message from Brett Millard's story, however.  While his lyrics were about meeting Jesus in heaven for the first time, my mind moves in a very different direction when I think of the title.

I Can Only Imagine...what my childrens' lives might have been like had they been born into better circumstances.

I Can Only Imagine...what Dominick and I might be like today had we not stepped on that first flight to Kazakhstan that led us to the orphanage doorstep, where we found 11 month old Matt terribly malnourished, in isolation for days, and already trained by circumstance that crying out was a useless endeavor, for no one was coming. 

I Can Only Imagine...what futures might have held for some of our kids whose brains have been damaged, whose souls have been so carelessly disregarded, had they had a different beginning.

I Can Only Imagine...the grief...or lack thereof (for I never presume to know) of birth parents who either selflessly placed their children in orphanages, were confused and had no idea what to do, or who simply went on to casually live lives unhindered by the burden of caring for their child.

I Can Only Imagine...a world where all children are nurtured and lovingly cared for, even if living in poverty, for love matters most.

I Can Only Imagine...the fears that accompanied being adopted, for it is still leaving behind all that is familiar and relatively safe. 

I Can Only Imagine...what our own birth children would look like, and yet their visages never fully formed in my own mind, almost as if some part of me knew that was unnecessary for there would one day be five precious ones whose eyes I would stare deeply into, whose smiles would light up my life, and whose hearts would be wrapped up in my own.

I Can Only Imagine...the life ahead for each and every one of us, bound by love and commitment, gingerly moving forward toward new loves, and new lives, but always firmly rooted in Family.

We celebrated Angie's 20th birthday shortly afterward, and as I look at the photos I see resilience of the sort many would never guess at, and a joy reflected that has just a smidgen of sorrow beneath the surface that will likely always remain.  But, when one thinks about it, don't we all have that same little pocket of sorrow buried deep within, barely perceptible by others, emptied only in rare moments of private contemplation?  We all carry our secrets, our sacred sorrows shared only with the most trusted and intimate companions in our lives.

We are all broken, and if blessed, mended as well.  Some will walk around unhealed their entire lives, hardened, unwilling to trust or move away from harmful relationships, slowly sinking.  Some though, will remind us all that forgiveness changes us perhaps far more than the forgiven.  Some will remind us that even the most shattered lives can be made whole.  Some will model for us how we can be restored.

There once was a time, as we waited 5 long heartbreaking years to bring Angela and Olesya home, when I said to myself I Can Only Imagine...

That night this past week, sitting side by side in the car, looking into the eyes of one of my beautiful daughters who I longed for desperately, prayed for unceasingly, and worked to bring home endlessly, my heart heaved an enormous sigh of relief that I no longer had to imagine, but could reach out and comfort her, hold her, and wipe away her tears.

I Can Only Imagine...Angela 20 years from now...confident, caring, and kind.  In fact,  maybe I don't have to imagine it, because that version is already right before me.  She may eventually be more of all she is now, but she has all she needs and is indeed that model of how we all can be restored through faith, through love, through forgiveness of others.

I love you forever, I like you for always, 
as long as I'm living, 
my baby you'll be.    
Love, Mom

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Real Meaning

Finding meaning in our lives isn't always easy.  We all want to live meaningful lives, but it can be challenging to do so as we just go about the daily job of living in this world.  Like the song, "The Pretender" by Jackson Browne:

I'm going to rent myself a house
In the shade of the freeway
Gonna pack my lunch in the morning
And go to work each day
And when the evening rolls around
I'll go on home and lay my body down
And when the morning light comes streaming in
I'll get up and do it again
Say it again

These lyrics get to me every time, as it speaks to the reality of daily life for the overwhelming majority of us all.  The struggle to pay the bills, the yearning for love, the settling that so often overcomes us all because it is easier than fighting the supposed "good fight".

I don't know about you, but I have spent a good portion of my life considering what it means to live a life of purpose.  I pondered this even when I was very young, somehow recognizing that we only get one go round here, and not wanting to squander that opportunity.  As I matured into my teens, this began to matter even more as I grew up in an era of excess, a time when a much younger Michael Douglas declared from the big screen that, "Greed is Good."

The 80's and 90's were when I came of age in Southern California, and shallow seemed to be all around me, from McMansions to Valley Girls a few miles away to Televangelists proclaiming a God that would make me rich if only I sent them a few bucks every month. 

I kept searching for meaning, and eventually found it in volunteer opportunities, in my family, in the church.  Mostly, I found it in a quiet, subtle faith...not the evangelical proclamatory kind, but a hope in mankind that was always present because God thought we were worthy of caring about.  If God cares about me, as unworthy as I often feel I am, then God cares about everyone else too, therefore I ought to care about them. 

As Mark Zuckerberg testified the past few days, and the evils of Facebook were thoroughly dissected by a vulturous media with equal parts jealousy and desperation, I couldn't help but think of how strange it was that of all the places I have searched for meaning, Facebook is one that would be high on my list. Oh, I know the evils it presents with data sharing, oversharing, and message sharing. I understand how it can suck you in, chew you up, and spit you out, how it can lead to envy and dissatisfaction with our own lives. I am not immune to any of this either, and from time to time I have had to do a Facebook Reset, take a break, purge my newsfeed of unhealthy influences, and learn how to manage the input.

However, for all the negative that can be found if one doesn't manage their Facebook activity well, very few today talk about the positives of Facebook interactions.  As with anything in life, you get out of it what you put into it.
thoroughly dissected by a vulturous media with equal parts jealousy and desperation, I couldn't help but think of how strange it was that of all the places I have searched for meaning, Facebook is one that would be high on my list.  Oh, I know the evils it presents with data sharing, oversharing, and message sharing.  I understand how it can suck you in, chew you up, and spit you out, how it can lead to envy and dissatisfaction with our own lives.  I am not immune to any of this either, and from time to time I have had to do a Facebook Reset, take a break, purge my newsfeed of unhealthy influences, and learn how to manage the input.

On Facebook I have found referrals to resources for my kids...resources completely unavailable locally.  I have learned from others how to homeschool, and been directed to curriculum and remedial programs I never would have found otherwise.  I have had long term long distance friendships with people I have "raised my kids alongside" virtually, and who understood the unique challenges we have faced and cheered us on.  I have developed deeply meaningful connections, developed community, and shared joys and sorrows. 

You see, YOU have to be authentically who YOU are, if you want to have authentic relationship on Facebook.  It isn't about your latest and greatest vacation pics, your images shared of the spectacular meal you are being served at a fancy restaurant, or your "perfect life" with your "perfect kids".  It is about sharing as you would face to face with those who you trust to also be authentic, and believe it or not, others are out there just like you who also yearn for the surface sharing to be set aside, and the real relationship to develop. 

Today, I was moved so deeply and reminded so concretely that Facebook is merely a tool, and meaning is available to us anywhere if only we are willing to offer it.  As some of you know, I have created a group on Facebook called Blue Collar Homeschool, which is for families of kids who are headed toward trades or career training after high school rather than attend college.  Created in October, I felt I would be "successful" if we somehow managed to have 500 members by the one year mark.  More important than numbers, though, was if we had meaningful "real" conversation generated in this group.

I had no idea...none at all...

That there were mothers out there feeling lonely and who needed community badly.

I had no idea...

That there was a need for support for those whose kids really were not college material.  Wise parents who recognized this and didn't feel they ought to push that path were being made to feel like lousy educators and parents in other groups because they were being realistic.

I had no idea...

That, for many, there was no place else to go to talk about the things they most needed...resources that were not all college prep, ideas for job training, a community of like minded people who would not ridicule them if their child couldn't master Algebra.

I had no idea...

That there were kids who were as alone as their parents were, who despite having amazing non-academic skills, they still felt like failures because few value their unique gifts.

I had no idea...

That there were special needs parents like myself who are secretly terrified of the future for their beloved ones, and desperately needing a sounding board for brainstorming ideas for kids who don't fit the mold.

I just had no idea at all.  Or maybe I had a tiny idea, but not of the overwhelming need for a place to be who we are, a place to be valued and helped, a place where you could share your kids' accomplishments without feeling shame because we weren't talking about SAT scores, AP courses, and college admissions.

As of today we are at 2650 members, that represents 2650 families and easily over 10,000 kids (Probably far more, actually, as we homeschooling families live LARGE! Hahaha!).  Now, by Facebook group standards that is still a tiny gathering...many have millions of members.  But that isn't the past 30 days we have had almost 25,000 posts, comments and reactions.  Yes, 25,000.  Of our 2650 members, 2467 have been active in the past 30 days.

Incredible, it just blows my mind.

But what touches my heart and where the real meaning is found has absolutely nothing to do with statistics, and though a couple of my personal cheerleaders pay close attention to those numbers, I value something else far, far more.

The real meaning comes from the photos posted reflecting smiles on the faces of kids who have received a Certificate of Recognition that we send out for all kinds of unusual achievements.  It is in the comments we receive from parents who feel they have a safe place, a sacred place perhaps, to bring all of who they and their family are and not have to hide, be ashamed, or pretend.

Sample Certificate
The past 24 hours have brought me almost to tears, and I am blessed with a husband who understands how important this is, for these families are our own, too.  I have had 2x4 after 2x4 that the Spirit rapped me over the head with as I heard from families, listened to their stories, and realized how this is where I am absolutely supposed to be putting my heart, soul, and energy right now.

This afternoon I read stories about kids who are seldom "seen", but whose stories are literally heroic.  Requests for certificates came in from moms of children who have had cancer and are forever impaired, children who have been victims of shaken baby syndrome, children who struggle to achieve due to learning disabilities, and more.  There are young men who work hard in the family business but struggle mightily academically, kids with autism who are getting their first real job, and kids who are FINALLY mastering cursive after years of struggle due to Dysgraphia. You have no idea how many of these wonderful young people are struggling but also giving back...the ones above have donated hair for wigs for cancer patients, created businesses so they can help the homeless with the profits, and are helping their parents and others in their community selflessly.

Sometimes, when you struggle, you have blinders off and see the struggle of others more easily.

No, these Blue Collar kids may not grow up to be your doctors or lawyers.  They won't have bragable SAT scores to share, or big college announcement days to proclaim.  They will go on to be your neighbors, your hardworking servicemen and women, your mechanics, your carpenters, your electricians, and your health care workers.

They matter, they have just as much worth as those kids who are headed for the Ivy League.  Their parents care, they are doing their very best to educate them for careers that suit who they are and what they are capable of.  Like everyone else, they need a chance to shine, they need their achievements celebrated!

Finding meaning can happen anywhere, in any setting, as long as you are willing to put your own guard down, and to be present for others.  Connections can be just as powerful whether they be face to face, or virtual, as long as you have a desire to truly see others.

Unlike the unnamed character from Jackson Browne's classic song, I choose not to be a Pretender.  I want to live an uncommon life, even if it looks common from the outside.  I will always, always seek to be authentic, for meaning will never be found otherwise.

No, Facebook is not just for the Big Phonies, it is for all the rest of us, too.  

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Always, Always Hope

Dominick and I sit next to him, this lanky, bright 19 year old who is doing his very best to complete the jury summons information form he received today.  Kenny comes to us for help, and this is what it looks like:

He can't recall his full name.
He can't figure out what "mailing address" and "street address" are.
He begins in the middle of the form.
He can't figure out which boxes are supposed to contain what information.

A couple of weeks ago, at the Dr.'s office, I accompanied him and he had to complete all the forms, which I wanted him to try and do on his own.  This is what it looks like:

He can't recall his middle name.
He can't spell his middle name once I remind him of it.
He has to look up his own cell phone number on his cell phone.
He can't figure out how to read his insurance card.
He forgets to include that he has had many surgeries for cleft lip and palate.

Last week, I was away from the house, and right before I left I hesitated, and then thought better of it and said, "Hey Kenny, do me a favor and don't cook while I am gone, OK?"  I don't want you having an accident and no one is here to help.  I am not trying to baby you but..." and he interrupts me, sheepishly grinning.

"Mom, you aren't babying me, and you are right.  Just a few minutes ago I was going to cook a pizza and I forgot and almost put the cardboard in the oven with it.  It is almost done and I won't cook anything else unless someone is home." and then my sweet young man gives me a hug and thanks me for watching out for him.

As often happens with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), we are in a real downward spiral which is likely to last a few weeks.  Words are scrambled, the brain hiccups ALL the time and comprehension of instructions is pretty much lost much of the time.  In literature class this  morning reading a Jodi Picoult novel, things were seriously not clicking, and we had to stop and explain, stop and explain, stop and explain.  When it gets this bad, all we can do is ride it out, and better function eventually returns, but even then, it is never, ever "normal".

And lately, we have had not just one, but two struggling, as Olesya has been in an odd brain place as well, her FASD messing with her, too.  Jokes are being told that are simply disconnected and make little sense to the normal human being.  This afternoon, she was starting dinner for me as I drove Angela to volunteering, and I came home to a house that smelled wickedly (this has happened twice this week) of burned food.  She went to the bathroom and forgot she had food cooking on the stove and was trying to salvage it.

Oh forgive me, my frustration was heard in my voice, and I questioned her with a tone I wish I hadn't used.  I didn't yell, I didn't say anything rude, just enough of my irritation was evident to cause her to shrink the tiniest bit, and I self-corrected and said it wasn't a big deal, but she needed to watch more carefully next time, as we scraped burnt drippings off the stove, where she had overfilled the spoon rest and didn't notice.

Dominick comes in, and after trying to help Kenny with the form for jury duty, he asks me how my day was, and I can tell he can see something is off.  I explain, and he said, "So...not an easy one."  No, not easy, and yet as I quickly move to defend the kids I add, "But it isn't their attitude at ALL, we all get frustrated when things don't work right with their brains."

Day after day, our family deals with ups and downs that no one sees.  Honestly, I am so used to being the back up brain 24/7 that even I don't realize to the degree I do it, until I am overtired, and then I feel it.  The other day, as we headed to Grand Junction for Kenny's ministry working with our Pastor on leading a worship service for those wonderful folks with intellectual disabilities, I had to ask if he had shaved (he hadn't), I had to ask if he had taken his medication (he had, surprise!), I had to ask if he had used deodorant or brushed his teeth (one yes, one no).  While this isn't a daily occurrence, the truth is that I just don't ask every day because life gets busy and I try and catch what stands out for me.  With Olesya, it is a constant struggle to remind her to brush her hair and keep it neat.

None of this is their fault, and none of it is mine, but our entire family has to deal with it daily...hourly.  Memory loss, inability to organize, losing things ALL the time, losing WORDS all the time, and feeling I can never leave Kenny alone, and right now not certain about Olesya, either at times.  If there is an emergency, brains shut down completely and they (and likely two other of our children as well) freeze, unable to access the knowledge they have in their brains.  How do you explain this to others?  How can they possibly understand that these bright, amazing, tender-hearted, wonderful kids struggle this much??

They are in their late teens, graduation is in the next couple of years, and futures are absolutely in peril.  The fear is real, that they will never be functional enough to hold anything other than a minimum wage job, and for Kenny if he isn't working for Dominick (and there are many things there he simply can't do as the environment is too overwhelming) or we don't get creative, he literally can't hold a job at McDonald's...too many tasks he will forget, too fast paced an environment, too much distraction.  For Olesya, the lack of logic is what causes us to lose sleep, the inability to sometimes connect the dots, the math disability that keeps her at 4th grade level at 18 years old, the stuttering that comes on in social situations or when pressured...and sometimes "just because" with no explanation.

And yet the gifts there in each of do we work with what "is" and not struggle with what "isn't"?  Kenny is a true intellectual, which given all I have shared here seems impossible, but he is a real anomaly.  He reads Richard Dawkins, and Noam Chomsky, follows politics avidly, and knows Biblical history far better than many pastors.  From time to time his brain scrambles data he does know, but when he is "on", there are few better thinkers or folks who can connect seemingly unrelated dots.  Olesya is the most organized human being you will ever find, when it is all working well.  Her writing is proving to be quite good, and she has a heart bigger than most.

But weeks like these past couple are soooooo hard.  Sooooo frustrating. Soooooo discouraging for each of us. 

You know what though?  We are STILL happy in the middle of it all!  We are STILL grateful despite the challenges!  As exhausting as it is in reality, we are so much better together than we are apart.  Kenny and I had a long conversation on our drive home about how much more we understand their disabilities, how much better we are getting at dealing with it all, capitalizing on strengths, finding "work arounds" for weaknesses.  He was right, we are growing in knowledge, growing in faith that somehow it will all be OK, and growing in relationship.  That is far more than a lot of families have with all we deal with daily, and I am profoundly grateful for that.  There is a lot to work with, and terrific attitudes as well.

We spent a lot of time at church this past weekend as Holy Week had us preparing for Easter Breakfast being served by the kids, and a fascinating Maundy Thursday Seder Service where they participated in setting up and cleaning up.  They were part of a community, all five were embraced by folks who have grown to care about them over the past year we have been members.

However, it was the Easter sermon that spoke to my heart, as our Pastor reminded us about the "in between", something I have blogged about before over the years.  This was a little different take for me, and so applicable at this stage in my life.  I have always, always recognized that my greatest growth comes in the "in between" moments, in the awkwardness of not knowing what is next, in the patience that comes with waiting.  What I hadn't thought about was what was pointed out this weekend, and maybe it was just that I have never been in the frame of mind to hear it the way I did Sunday.

Our Hope grows in the "in between".  Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a time of grief, of doubt, and yet of heartfelt hope that this was not really the end, that something extraordinary was about to happen despite all logic that dictated otherwise.

Oh, how many times have we lived in suspended animation!  How often have we lived with questions hovering about medical conditions, about healing from traumatic experiences, about the ability to learn at all.  I have waited alone "in between" in hospitals far away as children were on operating room tables, I have waited for confirmation of learning and intellectual disabilities that I hoped and against hope I wouldn't get...and eventually wished I would have because not knowing was worse than knowing.  We have waited "in between" for five heartbreaking years for Angela and Olesya to come home, every photo we received reflecting ever older children with longer exposure to institutional neglect we didn't know if they'd ever recover from.

Our family has always been "The Family God Built", and right now, we are spending an extended period of time "in between"...years, to be exact.  We continue to work hard and do our part to educate and prepare, to learn and to practice skills. In due time God may surprise us all with how things turn out.  Surely, as usually happens if one listens to the Spirit and continues to say "yes" even when it makes no sense at all to others, there will be a beautiful and unexpected outcome, if only we dare to continue to hold true to being "The Family God Built".