Humanity, At Sea

I lost my voice this past week to a nasty case of strep. But if I’m being honest with myself—and with you—I’ve been struggling to get any words out for a couple of months now. Call it writer’s block or an occupational hazard of being asked to constantly generate content. Either way it’s a privileged crisis, brought on by a lack of confidence, lapse in practice and unwillingness to face the demons attached to blank pages and rough drafts.

I’ve bemoaned my creative struggle to close friends and family, who know how tightly I cling to this part of my identity. They have listened patiently, sent books filled with prompts and promised that the dry spell and anxiety would pass. Still, nothing stirred me. Then, last Wednesday, the lifeless body of a 2-year-old boy washed up on a Turkish beach. And I cannot unsee him.

Illustration by Necmettin Asma

Illustration by Necmettin Asma

On the same day that Aylan Kurdi’s red shirt, blue pants and tiny shoes showed up on my computer screen, a former editor of mine messaged this piece of writing advice to me: “I always try to find my anger when I lose my voice.” So, here I am—angry and heartbroken and desperate to convey how the greatest refugee crisis since World War II did not begin and certainly won’t end with Aylan’s horrific journey.

As a former school specialist for the International Rescue Committee, I met hundreds of families—just like Aylan’s—who were driven from their homes by war and persecution and stripped of any sense of security or freedom. Some struggled to survive in extremely stressful and chaotic refugee camps for years, waiting to hear if they would ever have the opportunity to rebuild their lives in a country like the United States. Many were separated from partners, parents, siblings and children during the process. All believed that whatever challenges they would face following resettlement (and there are many) paled greatly in comparison to the atrocities they experienced in the places they once called home.

IRC

Although the IRC provides newly arrived refugees with access to housing, food, employment, medical attention and language classes during their first months in the U.S., my specific job was to help families enroll their children in the local education system. When I saw a picture of Aylan with his older brother, Galip, I couldn’t help but imagine the pair playing in the IRC office, as their mother and father eagerly asked when the two might be able to start preschool and kindergarten—to learn and laugh and explore the world alongside other children their age, without fear of being decimated inside a school building. Instead, they were buried in Kobani, Syria, this week—a war-torn city they desperately tried to flee.

One of the most humbling moments I ever had with a client was when he told me why he was so excited about his daughter having the opportunity to attend school for the first time. I had grown somewhat accustomed to hearing “She will finally learn English” or “She will finally learn how to read” but this father said, “She will finally be able to sleep at night.”

Dana, 5, is one of the many children that make the journey to Greece with their families. They stay in Kara Tepe transit camp, where they wait to eventually be registered and receive their papers to continue their journey into Europe. Photo: Tyler Jump/IRC

Dana, 5, is one of the many children that make the journey to Greece with their families. They stay in Kara Tepe transit camp, where they wait to eventually be registered and receive their papers to continue their journey into Europe.              Photo: Tyler Jump/IRC

I can only surmise that this was one of many hopes that Abdullah Kurdi had for his own children before boarding that small, overcrowded boat headed for the Greek island of Kos. Policies that restrict safe and legal access to Europe forced him to trust smugglers with the lives of his family. Two accounts of the events that followed—from Abdullah and the photographer who captured the harrowing end to this Syrian family’s journey—will forever echo in my memory, as they both describe the screaming:

“We tried to cling to the boat, but it was deflating. It was dark and everyone was screaming,” Abdullah said. “… That’s why I wasn’t able to make myself heard to my children, my wife.”

“There was nothing to do except taking his photograph,” said Nilufer Demir, the journalist who shot the photo of Aylan on the beach. “I thought this is the only way I can express the scream of his silent body.”

In the book We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, author Philip Gourevitch shares how, in the hills of Rwanda, a cry for help serves as a conventional distress signal that carries an obligation. A Rwandan man explained the concept to him like this: “The people are living separately together. So there is responsibility. I cry, you cry. You cry, I cry. We all come running, and the one that stays quiet, the one that stays home, must explain. Is he in league with the criminals? Is he a coward? And what would he expect when he cries? This is simple. This is normal. This is community.

In the days since Aylan’s photograph surfaced on social media, there has been public outcry over the international community’s lack of response to the tragic plight of refugees. Although my shaky voice might only seem repetitive at this point, I would much rather it find strength in a chorus of cries for humanity than never be heard trying to speak up for the world’s most vulnerable people.

The need is overwhelming and the solution isn’t simple, but we cannot ignore confronting this crisis because it’s complicated or because our own touristy beaches haven’t come face-to-face with the human cost of political indifference or indecision… yet. No, we cannot do everything but we can do more. We must come running. How?

  1. Donate. Locally, the IRC in Atlanta will resettle more than 250 refugees in September—nearly four times the average number that is welcomed in a month. If you are able, please consider making a financial contribution at this secure online site to help this organization provide crucial support to families rebuilding their lives. Or, consider donating clothes, household items and even your time to help welcome refugees as they arrive here in the United States and begin navigating a new culture and community. In addition to Atlanta, the IRC is at work in 21 other U.S. cities and 40 countries.
  2. Sign this petition to make all #RefugeesWelcome and urge the world’s governments to offer a safe haven and a new start to Syrian families and other refugees fleeing war and persecution.
  3. Get informed and continue the conversation. I’d suggest starting here. And here.

When I was a senior in high school, I will never forget studying a poem by William Heyen titled “Riddle.” It explores the idea of who should be considered at fault for The Holocaust by repeatedly asking the question, “Who killed the Jews?” Although one is tempted to dismiss the inquiry at first, when there are obvious individuals to blame, Heyen forces the reader to consider the roles of those who did not directly participate—right down to the folks who “just heard the news.” By the end, it’s clear that the answer to the riddle lies in asking the exact opposite question: “Who didn’t kill the Jews?”

Riddle

As leaders across the globe either twiddle their thumbs or point fingers in response to the refugee crisis in Europe, my hope is that the rest of us will join hands to turn this collective failure into a joint responsibility. This isn’t simple, but it should be normal. This is community.

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Dear Olivia

Olivia

You will only be 7 days old on Wednesday but you’d be surprised to learn of the change that a heartbeat alone can reverberate in that time span. Some say God made the world in a week (including a day of rest), so who are any of us to second-guess what’s been accomplished through the pure love and light that you’ve been radiating since your arrival?

On this end, though it might seem small, you’ve inspired your aunt to write again. Unfortunately, adults often convince themselves that they need REASONS to act while children smile, laugh, dance, cry and create just because they can. Yes, you’ve given me a reason to find the right words for a most perfect occasion, but more importantly, you’ve reminded me that ABILITY is reason enough to move and love and learn and make mistakes while I can.

Although you were born much sooner than any of us expected, our family has been waiting for a gift like you to come to your parents for longer than our hearts and theirs felt was bearable at times. The coexistence of such opposing time frames might sound odd, but you’ll learn as we continue to ourselves, that it’s the dualities that stretch and define us.

Photo courtesy of Grandpa Bob

Photo courtesy of Grandpa Bob

Even as a newborn, you are already more traveled than most. But well before your Mom and Dad were diplomats, you were the product of a very global journey. While your parents had the good fortune of forging a friendship at a college in Alabama, your Dad was on the other side of the world in India before he had the good sense to write a love letter we’re all so happy he mustered the courage to send. Even then, however, much of the beginning of your parents’ relationship was spent apart for a couple of years, as each had pursuits they needed to see through for themselves. Sometimes it takes traveling the whole world over—literally or figuratively—not only to notice what has always been right in front of us but to be ready for it as well.

Trust me when I say your Mom and Dad are fantastic tour guides, as Tara bought my first plane ticket, Zeb forced me to get my first passport, and together, they purchased my first “Lonely Planet.” Fun and atypically useful fact from your Aunt MoMo: That travel guide company name comes from a misheard line in a song from the 1970s called “Space Captain.” The actual words are “lovely planet,” but co-founder Tony Wheeler heard “lonely planet” and liked it. As you journey across the globe, my little Nairobi princess, I hope you remember that it can be both lonely and lovely for all of us, so live and act accordingly as best you can.

Finally, as you are my namesake, it’s only natural for me to wish for you brighter, fuller, friendlier experiences than even the ones I’ve been fortunate to have. I don’t want you to know skinned knees, bad haircuts, mean girls and boys, awkward middle school years, cramps, high school drama, panic attacks, nausea from public speaking, rejection, illness, fear, self-doubt, loss, heartache or regret. As much as it pains me, I don’t have the power to spare you from things that are difficult and ugly. I can’t baby-proof and bubble-wrap the sharp edges of the world but I CAN promise you this: These are the challenges that will enable you to connect.

Olivia Anne Simpson, we are just a few short chapters into the beautiful story that is you and it’s already a gift. Never forget you were hoped for and always remember you are loved.

Saving Grace

This is not my attempt to be different or distance my story from the thousands that will be told in remembrance today. Instead, it is my acknowledgement that I am not unique in what I experienced as a result of Sept. 11. Like you—with you—I was changed.

I remember a lot of things about that day—watching how the news anchors struggled to maintain their composure, waiting in line to donate blood as the president addressed the nation, and willing the peace that accompanies “It Is Well” to wash over me as a packed campus chapel was certain of only one thing as we listened to the hymn on the piano—we didn’t want to be alone.

And yet, as strong as those memories are, whenever this date arrives each year my first thought is of a baby girl named Grace who I never had the opportunity to meet but who stays with me every time I sit down to write a story. Her birthday was Sept. 11, 2001 and her parents—dear family friends—were kind enough to trust me with an intimate account of the days surrounding her life and loss.

I was still a student of journalism at the time, staying up all hours of the night to write leads to stories only my parents and roommates read in the student newspaper. I vowed I would never work as a reporter but knew I wanted—needed—to write in some capacity I hadn’t yet discovered. I took a Journalism as Literature class and asked Jack and Christina for the opportunity to try to do justice to their story. The piece that follows is not without its mistakes. At moments, I cringe at reading the voice I know is still maturing as a writer. But, I am also humbled by the reminder that writing that is work is also writing that can be healing. I am reminded of the power of shared story.

No matter your beliefs, I hope that you—like me—are at least able to connect with the idea of taking paralyzing circumstances and learning how to put one foot in front of the other again. Witnessing the strength of the human spirit through people like Jack and Christina has certainly been my saving grace on dark days like Sept. 11. Here is their story:

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.

Some windows are lighted, but mostly they’re darked.

-Oh the Places You’ll Go-

I. As Jack made his way to the mailbox at the end of the driveway, he already knew what to expect. Just as every day before, cards and letters would be overflowing from its edges, sending love, sending sympathy and sending prayers – Have faith, Christina and Jack, have faith.

While he could detach himself from reality by going to work, these parcels that spoke of hope, perseverance and courage served as constant reminders of the long journey that lay ahead for him and his wife. Have faith, Christina and Jack, have faith.

The message, though familiar to the couple whose very occupations were devoted to ministry, was beginning to hold a new meaning.

Thirty-four weeks into Christina’s pregnancy and nearly three months since finding out the harsh diagnosis of their child-to-be, Jack and Christina knew God was not going to heal Grace. They had faith, but not in the way most people would expect.

When the doctor called Christina after that fateful ultrasound and told the story of Abraham and Sarah having a child when human logic deemed it impossible, it shared a different meaning for Christina. She knew it was not impossible for God to heal Grace, but it was not His intention either. At that time, the miracle she and Jack needed was strength to make it through the pregnancy, a feat that only managed to get harder with each passing day.

Once a social butterfly, Christina didn’t like to leave the house anymore. Being pregnant was like being examined under a candy-coated microscope. People were not looking for flaws, but they constantly wanted to know details. Inevitably, she would run into someone who wanted to know when the baby was due, if it was a boy or girl, what would she name the child, was she excited? Then, aside from those who cluelessly assailed her with questions, there were those who knew exactly what was going on. They would look pitifully upon her stomach and offer what words of hope they could manage to muster. Either way, the greetings and questions were constant reminders of the inevitable.

With time drawing near to her expected arrival and having finally come to terms with what would happen to Grace, Christina just wanted to see her – the child whose kicks and movements, though different than those of a “normal” pregnancy, served to remind Christina that she was indeed carrying life.

Heeding their special circumstances, the doctor had told Christina and Jack from the beginning that they could come in for an ultrasound at any hour, anytime they ever desired to see Grace. They had chosen not to take him up on the offer until that early September day.

Upon entering the office, the couple couldn’t help but be reminded of June 14, 2001, just a few months earlier when they had come ready with a videotape to record the first pictures of their first child. Being only days before Father’s Day, Jack’s first Father’s Day, they had decided to find out if the baby was a boy or a girl.

Jack could remember the excitement of that moment when the ultrasound technician showed them where the baby’s arms, legs and heart were in relation to the blurred images on the screen. After five years of marriage, everything seemed as if it was falling perfectly into place. They were finally going to be able to start a family, and the miracle was moving right before their eyes.

Christina could remember how they spoke excitedly of plans for the baby and what they would name it as the tech left the room to show the doctor the pictures. Looking back, those were the last few moments of naïve bliss that the couple would be able to share before hearing news that would forever alter their lives. Even now, the conversation that followed rang fresh in their minds.

“Is anybody in your family extremely short?” the doctor had asked, a question so out of place and unsettling that it left the couple wondering, Where is he going with this? He continued. “Your baby has a condition where its bones are not going to grow to keep up with the rest of the body. At birth, because of the small chest cavity size, the baby will not be able to breathe and will suffocate within minutes.”

Condition…not going to grow…suffocate within minutes…each spoken word was like having a thousand arrows shot directly at the center of their hearts. Christina cried. Jack fumbled. The doctor continued. “You have three options, really. Terminate, carry the baby to term and let nature take its course, or get a second opinion.” Each choice came as a jolt of sobriety, leaving the couple feeling as if they really had no options at all. Though hearing their child would die upon delivery cast a weight of hopelessness beyond definition on Christina and Jack, they knew terminating was out of the question. To them this child was a gift, no matter what the outcome.

After a moment of silence, the doctor interjected. “Would you like to know the sex of your baby?” And with a nod, the couple finally received the only words they had come in to hear, “You’re having a baby girl.”

Once outside the doctor’s office and in their car, Jack and Christina held each other tightly and sobbed. They didn’t know where to drive. They didn’t know who to call. They didn’t know what to think. Was it their fault? Could this have been prevented? The questions invaded their thoughts in hordes. The only thing the couple felt they could do was pray, and they wanted to pray for their child by name. It was no longer family names or suggestions from books and friends that were being tossed back and forth in deliberation. Only one name seemed appropriate to both of them and in the quiet of their car, the couple came to a decision. As a gift from God, this baby girl was going to be called Grace.

In the days that followed for Jack and Christina, the air seemed cooler and the weight of their steps heavier. Jack’s oldest brother was getting married, so the couple had decided to keep the news of Grace’s condition to themselves in an effort to preserve the happiness of the occasion. Silence proved hard among a curious public, and the couple ended up sharing the somber diagnosis with their parents and a few close members of the family.

At church, Jack told their Sunday School class about Grace while Christina stayed home. The ultrasound and wedding had drained her emotionally and physically, so she just needed to be alone. That week, Christina and Jack went to get a second opinion from a maternal fetal medicine specialist. He confirmed what the previous doctor had already told the couple, but went into more detail about the condition.

Grace had thanatophoric dysplasia, a severe inherited skeletal disorder that affects nearly one in 60,000 births. The condition is characterized by short limbs and folds of extra skin on the arms and legs, as well as a narrow chest, small ribs, underdeveloped lungs and an enlarged head. Commonly referred to as “death bearing,” infants diagnosed with the disorder are usually stillborn or die shortly after birth from respiratory failure. If any survive, they are put on life support and suffer from severe cognitive disability. The condition, which is caused by a mutation of the FGFR3 gene, cannot be prevented, but parents who have one child with the disorder are not likely to have another child diagnosed with the same condition.

The specialist then placed his card in Jack’s hand and told the couple to call at any hour they needed to see Grace or have any questions answered.

Nearly three months later, September 6, 2001, they took him up onthe offer. This time, the visit was more out of a desire to see Grace than to hear any real updates. But as the doctor began to disclose some of his concerns with regard to Christina’s health, the couple braced themselves to hear even more heartbreaking news. Christina had more amniotic fluid in her stomach than any patient he had seen before. To prolong labor would pose a health risk for Christina. Instead of waiting for Grace to come naturally, they were going to have to schedule a C-section.

For any other parents, this would have been just another routine procedure, but for Jack and Christina, it felt like being told to schedule the day their child would die. Now, all the scientific questions regarding Grace’s condition were answered, and it was the questions that could not be reduced to a science that the couple grappled with. How do you bury your first baby? How do you smile? How do you learn to laugh again? How do you ever go on?

Yet again, the couple left the doctor’s office feeling stripped of any hope they hadmanaged to salvage over these eight long months. Throughout the weekend, they cried for the loss they were already feeling and prayed for direction as to when their last day with Grace should be.

That Monday afternoon, the doctor called Christina to schedule the C-section. The only dates available were Wednesday, Sept. 12, and Monday, Sept. 17. Jack’s father was scheduled for surgery on the 12th, and his mother’s birthday was the 17th. The couple mourned to think they would have to put their family through such an ordeal, but Jack’s mother assured them she would be honored to share her birthday with Grace. So, Christina set up the appointment for the following Monday.

Throughout the day, Jack and Christina felt as if the weight of the world was resting on their hearts. Time with their baby girl had suddenly been shortened by a lifetime. In one week, they would be seeing and holding her for the first and final time. In one last plea, they prayed: God, if there’s any way we don’t have to do this, let it happen. Let Grace come in Your timing, not our own.

That night, as Jack drifted off to sleep, Christina lay restless. She hadn’t slept soundly in quite a while because of her size and increasing health problems, but tonight was different. She realized her time with Grace was coming to a rapid close. As the hours passed and she became increasingly uncomfortable, her water broke.

Christina yelled from the bathroom for Jack to wake up and they called the hospital with the news that she was in labor. The doctor on the line urged them to come in as soon as possible, and they rushed to the car. The time was 5:30 a.m.

Upon arriving, Christina urged the doctors to hold off on the C-section until her parents were closer to the hospital. She knew that once Grace was delivered, there would not be much time for them to see their first grandchild alive. But the doctor performing the operation insisted the surgery be done immediately. Grace was coming out breech and there was no time to wait.

While the procedure was going on, a crowd of Jack and Christina’s family, friends and co-workers gathered in the waiting area of the hospital. As they anxiously awaited an update on Christina, breaking news of a terrorist attack in New York City came on the television. A Boeing 767 carrying 81 passengers, two pilots and nine flight attendants was hijacked and flown into the North Tower at the World Trade Center. Images of the explosive impact flashed repeatedly on the screen, as the city appeared to have erupted in a state of chaos amid a whirlwind of debris. The time was 8:46 a.m.

Meanwhile, Jack watched nervously in the operating room as the doctor and a team of nurses continued to operate on Christina. In just moments, he was going to see his little girl. Before now, nights spent reading, Oh the Places You’ll Go, were as close as he could get to Grace. He would place his hand on Christina’s raised belly as she fell asleep each night and read the Dr. Seuss story out loud, trying to maintain as much a sense of normalcy as he could during the pregnancy. After today, life was going to be anything but normal.

At 9:03 a.m., television viewers witnessed the unimaginable. A second Boeing 767 crashed into the South Tower at the World Trade Center. People on the streets below screamed in horror, and people watching the disaster at home dialed furiously to get in touch with loved ones residing in the shell-shocked city.  Jack, oblivious to it all, continued to wait.

At 9:06 a.m., the moment Christina and Jack had been waiting for more than eight months finally came. Grace was born. As “Unchained Melody” played in the background and an anxious father hung in the balance, no cry was heard. Finally, a small cough echoed through the room and a tiny baby with a head full of raven black hair was held up in the light. To Jack’s surprise and comfort, she looked normal, almost like a porcelain doll. He and Christina had not known what to expect after hearing the grim reports of the doctors these past few months.

Weighing 5 lbs. 11 oz. and measuring 19 inches long, she was a perfect bundle of joy to the couple. Christina, weak from surgery, gazed at her beautiful baby, as Jack was able to hold her for the first time. Nurses, prepared for bereavement in the neonatal ICU, snapped pictures of the proud parents holding her, and then left the three to be alone in the operating room. Once afraid to hold babies, Jack now held Grace tightly, not wanting to let go. The couple cherished each second with her, aware of the limited time at hand.

Still in pain and groggy from surgery, Christina needed to rest and be cleaned up. The doctor suggested that Jack take Grace back to their hospital room for his parents and a few of the visitors to see. Having been in the operating room the entire morning, Jack had missed the news of the hijacked jetliners and World Trade Center crashes. When he emerged with Grace in his arms, he found the hospital abuzz with news that transportation into New York City had been shut down. Still, he focused on Grace, who peacefully slumbered in his arms.

When he entered the hospital room that had been designated for Christina, Jack found his mom and dad, as well as their pastor and Christina’s former boss. He felt a range of emotions, both pride and sadness, as he presented his parents with their first grandchild, knowing her fate was not far away.

Moments later, Christina was wheeled into the room. The pastor took Grace in his arms, as he did all the newborns of their church, and prayed a special prayer of thanksgiving, protection and dedication over her. A neonatologist in the hospital periodically came in the room to check her heartbeat.

As more visitors frequented the room, news in New York continued to worsen. At 9:45 a.m., stations reported that the Pentagon had been hit by a third hijacked jetliner carrying 58 passengers, two pilots and four flight attendants. Fear and frenzy began sweeping the nation, as Americans wondered which U.S. building or city would be hit next. Almost one hour after Grace’s arrival, the South Tower at the World Trade Center collapsed, tragically claiming the lives of hundreds of unsuspecting workers, bystanders, firemen, paramedics and police officers. Like a scene from an apocalypse thriller, the prominent New York structure came crumbling down in seconds, sending smoke, dirt, glass, cement and other debris in a rolling whirlwind down the streets of the city.  People were literally running for their lives in search of cover. Some individuals in the neighboring tower began leaping out of windows, realizing that to wait inside would only prolong certain death. Throngs of horrified New Yorkers were shown scurrying across the Brooklyn Bridge, as a cloud of black smoke billowed in the background. At 10:28 a.m., the North Tower came crashing down. The world seemed like it was coming to an end.

During this time, Jack was able to give Grace her first bath and tried desperately to file the image of his baby girl, the smell of the soap and texture of the blanket away for keeping. He and Christina could feel their time with Grace slipping quickly. As Jack gently rocked her, the doctor came to check her status once again. After listening for a heartbeat, he placed Grace back in Jack’s arms and reluctantly uttered the words the room had been both anticipating and dreading – “I’m sorry for your loss.” It was minutes after 11 a.m. Grace had lived nearly two hours.

Later that evening, long after Christina’s parents had finally arrived, impressions of Grace’s hands and feet had been made and visitors had come by to give their hugs and condolences, Jack and Christina were left alone with their baby girl for one last time. They wept to think they would never be able to hold her again, but knew it was time to let go. With one last hug and kiss, Jack finally called for a nurse to come and take Grace. Letting her go was like having a piece of their hearts slowly carved away.

Though exhausted both emotionally and physically from the day’s events, neither Jack nor Christina could sleep. With nothing but horrific images of the World Trade Center and Pentagon crashes being played repeatedly on the television screen, it was impossible for them to escape reality. Just as feelings of vulnerability, hopelessness and fear sat heavily on the hearts and minds of citizens across the United States, Christina and Jack felt their world had literally come undone. In just one day’s time, they had experienced the spectrum of life and suffered a loss unparalleled by any disappointment ever felt before.

 You’ll be on your way up! You’ll be seeing great sights!

You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights!

-Oh the Places You’ll Go-

II.  One day at a time, Christina thought to herself. Just take it one day at a time. Tears streamed from her face as she listened to a friend sing “Remember Me” to a packed and sniffling sanctuary of people six days after Grace’s passing.

Remember me when the color of the sunset fills the sky…when you pray and tears of joy fall from your eyes…Remember me when children leave their Sunday school with smiles…Remember me…Remember me.

The song had been playing on the radio the day she had first been informed of Grace’s condition. She had run to her car to escape the onslaught of questions from people at the church park wondering how the ultrasound had gone. Even then, she remembers breaking into tears and praying for God to help her take things one day at a time.

She stared at the tiny casket sitting at the front of the somber room. The only other time she had seen it was in late August when she and Jack had gone to make funeral arrangements for Grace. They had only been given two choices for caskets, and it felt so strange to be making such a morbid decision when Grace was still kicking inside her, oblivious to the fact no one expected her to survive. Christina missed those kicks. She missed Grace. Though they had been trying to ready themselves for this day for months, there was nothing more impossible to prepare for than the burial of their first child.

Later that night, Jack returned to Grace’s grave. He just wanted to be alone with her. He hadn’t remembered feeling such silence since the night he and Christina let go of Grace for the last time. The cars had left. The crowds of people were gone. No one else was to be found in the cemetery. It was just him and his baby girl. Flowers framed the inscription he never imagined having to write: Grace Elisabeth Cleland, September 11, 2001, Our perfect gift from God.

The chilling reality of this final goodbye was more than Jack could bear. There, on his knees, he wept and prayed that God would make some sense out of Grace’s death. Lord, please use it. Please use it.

I’m afraid that sometimes you’ll play lonely games too.

Games you can’t win ‘cause you’ll play against you.

-Oh the Places You’ll Go

III. The months that followed Grace’s death were lonely for Jack and Christina. The doctors had told them they would have to wait at least a year before trying to have a baby again. But with the state of the world and the state of their own hearts, Christina wondered if they should even bother. Was it worth opening themselves up to the possibility of experiencing such pain and loss again?

Everything reminded her of Grace. At Christmas, she had gone to run some errands when she came across a stocking that matched the pattern of the bumper pad she had ordered for Grace while she was pregnant. She had to leave the store.

All the minute tasks of the day seemed so trivial without Grace there. Christina had become so accustomed to carrying her and talking to her that the house seemed emptier with her gone. She seemed emptier.

Jack continued to work at Crossover Ministries, serving as an administrator for junior high and high school age camps and conferences across the country. But with each passing day, he couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. After talking with Christina and a few close friends and ministers, he finally decided that seminary was the next logical step for him in his career. If ministry was truly going to be his occupation for the rest of his life, then he wanted to get his Masters in Theological Studies. After some research, he set up a time to visit New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

He visited the seminary in January and took Christina to see the school a few months later, but neither of them felt a peace about the decision. Although Jack still felt like something was missing in his career, he did not want to rearrange his and Christina’s life around a plan that did not excite them. With that in mind, he and Christina discussed what his options would be if he left Crossover. Before joining the ministry, he had been a teacher. Education was a fairly secure job. He knew he could teach science and he might as well use the degree he had worked four years for at Clemson University. In August, he resigned at Crossover and began teaching 9th grade at Dorman High School.

Without even realizing it, Grace’s first birthday came upon them. It was hard for them to believe that one year had already passed. They could still picture that head full of black hair and those tiny toes and fingers. They could still remember the smell of the soap from her first bath and the heat of the sanctuary on the day of her funeral. Though the pain was fresh, it was comforting for them to know that they wouldn’t be the only ones pausing to honor Grace’s memory that day. No one could forget Sept. 11, and no one who was at the hospital or funeral that week could forget Grace.

While they knew that she would never be able to be replaced, they were finally feeling ready to try for children again. Almost 13 months after that fateful day, Christina found out she was pregnant. She told Jack, but both of them feared sharing the news with anyone else until they were certain that everything was OK with the child.

About five weeks into her pregnancy, Christina scheduled an appointment for an ultrasound. As she lay on the table, her heart almost sunk as the nurse paused and stared more closely at the screen. Expecting to hear more bad news, the nurse pointed to the image and exclaimed, “Oh look, there’s another critter!” Christina couldn’t believe her ears. She and Jack had prayed for twins, but she never expected their wish to become a reality.

She hesitated to become too excited because she knew that carrying twins was considered another high-risk pregnancy. She had seen and heard too many sad stories since Grace that she had begun to wonder if anything ever went right in a pregnancy. Though she was excited about the unexpected news of twins, she was more scared than anything.

Jack, too, felt mixed emotions upon hearing Christina was going to have twins. The announcement, along with the recent remembrance of Grace’s birthday, had caused his mind to dwell on an idea he had tried with all his might to keep from surfacing. Ever since their time in the neonatal intensive care unit with Grace, he had quietly pondered what it would be like to work in that area of the hospital as a doctor. Watching the doctors and nurses talk with parents whose babies’ lives hung in the balance or help an infant battle what some believed to be an insurmountable disease, was literally watching ministry take on hands and feet. At Crossover, he started the Call 2 Ministry Conference for people to hear the message that you don’t have to be in an occupation of ministry to minister to the world. But, it wasn’t until now that he was finally beginning to understand the message himself.

He hadn’t been in school for more than ten years now, and with a high school teacher’s salary, the cost of medical school itself seemed out of the question. He knew that many would be skeptical of the idea, perhaps even make fun of his varied career path that had already jumped indecisively from teaching to ministry, then back to teaching, but he couldn’t let that stop him. He was not even sure if it would be possible for him to become a doctor, but he was no longer going to attempt to explain his dream away. The thought of being a doctor ignited a fire in him not felt when he imagined teaching for the rest of his life. He couldn’t picture the long hours spent grading, disciplining students, and locking and unlocking doors. It was just a security blanket, not a passion. If in fact becoming a doctor was his purpose in life, as he believed it to be, then God would take care of the details. He just needed to be obedient.

At first, Christina didn’t really take Jack seriously. She figured she would let him pursue the whim wholeheartedly, until he finally realized it didn’t make sense. After sharing the idea with his friends who had already been through medical school, the couple set up an appointment for Jack to shadow a neonatologist. Jack had already met the doctor before, through Grace’s case, but this meeting would be under entirely different circumstances. Usually, the shadowing experience was just for college students, but the hospital made an exception for Jack.

When he arrived at Regional that February day, he received word that the doctor would be unable to make it and was then assigned to follow a different neonatologist. The doctor mainly spoke of the types of cases he received on a day-to-day basis. In this unit, you had to think small because you were dealing with some of the most fragile human beings in the world. Some parents of the babies would basically live in the hospital for months on end, while others would detach themselves completely so as not to get hurt. Jack found himself able to identify with both types, remembering what it was like for him when Christina was pregnant with Grace. He saw a father sitting next to one of the isolettes, gazing at his sick child within. He saw a nurse feeding one of the infants with a container as small and thin as a Tabasco bottle. The babies were so tiny, some as small as a pound. When he came home that night, he told Christina he was certain this line of work was something he wanted to pursue. When she asked him the name of the doctor he shadowed, her eyes widened to hear his reply. Without realizing it, Jack had spent the entire day shadowing the same neonatologist who had pronounced Grace dead more than a year ago. The surrealness of this knowledge, coupled with the images and stories he had seen and heard throughout the day, only served to further confirm his desire to begin pursuing medical school. He already had a passion for science, and after losing Grace, he knew he could use his personal experience to identify with the parents and family members on that fragile floor. All that was holding him back was the Medical College Admissions Test.

Christina was less than excited about the idea. She had just been placed on partial bed rest with the twins and knew they didn’t have the money or time for Jack to take the test. The MCAT was only offered in April and August, and the babies were due in June. It was too late in the game for Jack to take classes in time to prepare him for the April test and once the twins came that summer, it would be impossible for him to find time to study before August. Not only that, but he still had a job teaching. The cons outweighed the pros, and he would just have to give up on his dream.

But Jack just couldn’t let go. He knew the obstacles seemed insurmountable, but he couldn’t bear the idea of looking back at this time in his life and realizing he made a mistake by giving up. On the way home from school that week, he called a test prep center that offered a comprehensive, summer preparatory course for the MCAT.

“I know this is going to sound like a plot straight out of a movie, but my wife is pregnant with twins and we can’t afford to pay the $1,500 necessary for me to enroll in this MCAT class. I need to take this course to even have a slight chance of passing the test in August. Is there anything you can do?” The employee on the line said she would call him back.

Jack told himself that if nothing could be done, he would let go of the idea and move on. But with the ring of the telephone, he found the door swing wide open. Kaplan agreed to let him take the class for half the price if he would receive training to become a Kaplan SAT administrator. The job was part-time and would help cover the remaining cost of the MCAT course. Jack knew that he was being given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so he agreed and told Christina the exciting news. Though she would not say it aloud, Christina still wasn’t taking the idea seriously. She knew that once the twins were born in June and he had to juggle the class at the same time, he would rule the idea out. Jack would go on teaching.

The start of summer proved to be an eventful time for the Clelands. Jack began teaching summer school and would then drive 30 minutes to Kaplan Center for his MCAT course. The first day of his class, they had to take a sample version of half the MCAT to assess which areas they needed to focus most on. Knowing nothing about the test and having been out of school for more than a decade, Jack felt lost. He left one section of the exam completely blank. That night, he came home feeling as if his dreams had been shattered.

With tears in his eyes, he told Christina how he bombed the test. There was no way he was going to be able to learn all the information he needed to learn before August. He might as well give up. “If I quit now, I can get the money back,” he said, but Christina refused to let him. “You need to finish this, Jack. You need to see this through. If you don’t, you will regret it.”

He started breaking the information down piece-by-piece and studying at any free moment. Mornings and afternoons were spent teaching summer school, while evenings were spent at the testing center. The class met two to three days a week for three hours at a time, so he usually ended up getting home sometime after 9 p.m.

In the middle of this hectic schedule, a force that surged even more life into his efforts came in the form of twin boys. On June 7, 2003, Jackson and Wilson Cleland, Grace’s little brothers, were born. Jackson weighed 6 lbs. 6 oz. and measured 21 inches long, while Wilson weighed 6 lbs. 4 oz. and measured 21.25 inches long. They were two healthy handfuls from day one, the joys and duties associated with a newborn now being multiplied by two.

With new additions to the household and a shift in priorities, Jack’s schedule became even tighter. At 3 a.m. feedings, he would pop in organic chemistry tapes, learning the basics of science as he learned the basics of fatherhood. Though the balancing act was strenuous, he never wanted Christina or the boys to think the MCAT had become more important.

August and the MCAT came in a flash. So much had happened in the two years leading up to this moment where Jack’s dreams would be thrust into forward motion or stopped in an instant. He knew he had done everything he possibly could to prepare for the test, even cramming in last bits of information as he babysat Jackson and Wilson the night before.

At 31, Jack was a minority among the test-takers. The majority of the examinees were either fresh out of college or just finishing up. While most had spent their college career focusing on this very day, he had spent his twenties pursuing an altogether different vocation.  But in spite of the odds stacked against him, Jack knew that today was no mistake. 214 questions, two essays and six exhausting hours later, all he had left to do was wait.

You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race

Down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace

And grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,

Headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…

-Oh the Places You’ll Go- 

IV. The MCAT is divided into four sections: Verbal Reasoning, Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences and the Writing Sample. The Writing Sample section is scored alphabetically on a scale ranging from J to T, while the other sections receive a score between 1 and 15, with 15 being the highest. While admission to medical school is based on your GPA, MCAT and interview, a score of at least 10 is needed on each of the three MCAT sections to even be considered among the competition.

Of the 32, 648 examinees that took the August 2003 MCAT, 14,708 were male and only 1, 321 were over 31 years in age. 15,459 test-takers were between the ages of 21 and 22 years old.

At the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, the only school Jack applied to, 400 of the 1000+ applicants are granted interviews and only 135 are accepted into the program each year. Most of them boast a GPA of at least 3.5 and an average score of 9.3 on each of the three MCAT sections.

Jack, who had a 2.98 GPA from his undergraduate studies at Clemson, needed a MCAT score of at least 27 to even be considered for an interview. His results came in, and he scored a 26.

Though some universities grant interviews to applicants outside the average academic standards, Jack decided it was best for him to start settling into his career as a teacher. With all the statistics stacked against him, he was certain his journey towards med school had come to an end and his chances of becoming a doctor were long gone. He was wrong.

When he called MUSC in December to check on his status, he was surprised to find out his application had been lost. By the next day, the Admissions Office found his application and scheduled him for one of the 400 coveted interviews in January. His journey was far from over. By the third week of January, the MCAT was taken, his application was in, and the interview was over. Jack was told he would know within a week if he was accepted, but in his mind he already knew the outcome. When he came home to find Christina looking at real estate magazines for Charleston, he told her not to get her hopes up. No one gets accepted into medical school with a 2.98 GPA.

Due to snow, the mail didn’t run the entire week that Jack was supposed to receive notification. By Saturday, he was a basket case and had gone to the backyard with a chainsaw in hand to start cutting down limbs and work out his nervous energy. It was getting close to dinnertime, so he finally gave up on waiting and went inside to clean himself up. Just as he was about to get in the shower, Christina yelled from the living room that the mail had finally come. She ran outside to check the mailbox and came back to the door with an envelope in hand.

“Jack, it’s thick,” she said, handing him the letter he felt he’d waited a lifetime to see. She watched as he pulled out the contents and studied his face to see if she could read his reaction. Unsuccessful, she begged him to share the news.

“Well,” Jack said, maintaining his composure so well it nearly drove Christina crazy, “Looks like we’re moving to Charleston.” 

You’re off to Great Places!

Today is your day!

Your mountain is waiting.

So…get on your way!

-Oh the Places You’ll Go- 

V. As Jack sat sipping his coffee and watching Christina read magazines in the bookstore, he laughed to himself remembering all the weekends throughout the years that he had sat here reading MCAT test prep books, merely fantasizing about what it would be like to be a doctor. Now, in just six months time, he would be entering his first year of med school, embarking on a journey he never dreamed of taking before Grace came into his life. Though his baby girl lived only two short hours, God used her to change his life in unimaginable ways. Just as he had prayed at her graveside more than two years ago, her death had not been in vain.

While the road ahead was sure to be challenging, Jack knew he, Christina, Jackson and Wilson would not be traveling it alone. As with every mountain he had come to before, all that remained was to pray. And so, to the same God who had carried him thus far, he wrote:

Lord,

As my personality requires, I want everything to be “perfect.” I’ve prayed, asked, begged you for direction. I hope I’ve done exactly what you’ve required. Lord, as I have asked, doors have opened and shut. I’ve prayed you bless me and enlarge my mind. Never did I think it would be in such a way that I would lose so much.

I’ve spent days writing confirmations, concerns, fears…everything. Lord, you deserve my best. As I prayed at the altar on Sunday (and nights alone at First Baptist), I’ll do whatever. I say again, God I will do whatever. I belong to you. Christina, Grace, Jackson and Wilson are your gifts to me…As for me and my house, we will serve you Lord.

I want to be a vessel. You deserve my best. With all my fears and concerns, Lord I place them at your feet. Never to pick up again. I see the areas you have shaped me and the doors you have so tremendously opened. I stand at the River Jordan, on the edge of the flooding river, knowing what’s on the other side and knowing that it will be a battle to get there, but Lord if you require this of me, I will go.

 Lord, is there any reason why I should not step? I’ve prayed that you would shut the door. I begged you to shut the door, Lord, if I was making a mistake. But Lord, to date, that has not happened. The time has come for me to be obedient.

So Lord, with excitement and peace in my heart, I’ll step into this River you have asked me to cross. Lord, I will accept humbly and gratefully this gift you have given me. Praise God for your faithfulness and patience. I am so excited, God, of what you are doing. Thank you for allowing me to be a part. I am so unworthy of this task and realize that without you, I will fail. I know your presence is here, just as it was in the Jordan River. Wow! I love you Lord! Use me, bless me, enlarge my ministry and give me wisdom.

I pray all of this in the precious and holy name of Jesus Christ.

Your eternal servant,

Jack W. Cleland

 

 

Dear Brody

A few years ago, I wrote your big brother a letter for his birthday because I’ll NEVER be the aunt who gives *good* presents.

I will always attempt to know what is cool and fail, so all I can ultimately offer you right now — ever — is presence. I am here for you. I will be here for you. Always. This truth will mean different things to you throughout both of our lives. Regardless, it is yours to have and to hold and use whenever and however you deem necessary. (Read: I can be your one phone call, but let’s hope that never happens.)

Just as I wanted Brayden to know the love I felt for him and the lessons I learned from him in the days leading up to his birthday, I want to do the same for you now. Although there will be many moments in life when the world—and sometimes even yourself—convinces you that you’re somehow lacking or “second best,” I want you to hear from me the VALUE of the number that you carry in your family line.

Nearly one year ago—while driving the same route I will take to watch you face dive into your first piece of cake on Saturday—I passed a sign on the way to the hospital that read: “The heart is happiest when it beats for others.” Although the message was fitting then, as my heart was beating double-time at the news of your arrival, it is even more fitting for how much I believe it represents you as a person now.

Brody, both you and your father carry the title of “second child” and, as such, immediately entered the world with the task of sharing attention and space. However, just like you both possess those beautiful dark eyes that ironically light up a room, you have this selflessness in common that is nothing short of magic to witness.

Instead of screaming or scratching when your big brother takes over a new toy to “show” you how it works, your smile somehow becomes bigger. You take pleasure in seeing HIS joy. You giggle so much your nose scrunches and your belly shakes. It’s completely infectious. I look forward to seeing how that quality in you continues to grow and transform those who are lucky enough to be in your presence. “The heart is happiest when it beats for others” and, Brody, your heart is so very happy.

Another beautiful quality about the number you carry is the power that it packs when it is partnered with “chances.” Not long after your birthday, Grammy and Poppy (my parents) will celebrate their 37th wedding anniversary. You will hear a lot of stories from both of them in time, but the one I don’t want you to miss is what happened when they first met.

As you know, Poppy likes to talk but Grammy thought he talked a little too much on their first date. When he called her to go out a second time, she only agreed because she thought he was a different fella. Lucky for him—and for you and me technically—he just needed that second chance to win her over. The rest is history. First loves, first kisses and first wins are indeed a beautiful thing, but I promise you there is nothing compared to the wisdom and pure charge that is found in second chances. They humble you in the best of ways. They make you work harder. You learn to love better. Take hold of them when they are offered and return the favor when you can.

Finally, remember that second is not just a place in line but the most basic and important unit of time. Seconds are currency. They are the difference between life and death, win or lose, here or there. Seconds shape people. They change people… like the second I met you. Happy 1st birthday, little man.

A Love Story

Between birthday candles, tight-fisted coin tosses and hushed prayers spoken on freethrow lines, it’s safe to say I’ve made more wishes than I can count—much less remember—in my life.

The ones that have been spoken for me, however, and made by those who likely knew what I needed most—those are the wishes that have stayed with me… particularly this one: “I hope you have a great love story.”

Although the topic was one I could rarely dodge while working as a reporter on an island of retirees in need of playing matchmaker, this particular conversation had been a welcome one with a dear friend and her parents. I had wanted to know how her father and mother met, so they graciously regaled me with the story and spared no details of the highs and lows in spite of this being our first meeting.

Before leaving the dinner, the mother thanked me through watery eyes for asking questions that prompted answers she hadn’t thought about in a long time and the father threw me the unforgettable penny: “I hope you have a great love story.”

Me too, I remember thinking with an ache in my chest.  Me too. I’m tired of holding this pen and paper.

At the time—perhaps because of my age, perhaps because of my occupation—I think I took the words as a wish for things to come that would have a distinct beginning, middle and end, instead of acknowledging that it was a story already taking place.

Now, as a teacher to teenagers who talk of nothing but love and an aunt to a nephew who is beginning to ask “Where’s your friend, Momo?” I’ve started to think much more about what actually makes for a great love story and how to answer the inevitable question that pops up during Romeo and Juliet lessons or on any Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday: Teacher, do you believe there’s such a thing as “the one”?

To be clear, I don’t intend for this to be some single girl’s manifesto for you to choke on along with those chalk-flavored candy hearts today. I don’t think anyone should ever pretend to know more or less than what he or she has experienced. But when those little hopeful romantics ask me about my love story and if I believe there’s someone for them in the midst of all this chaos, I have decided that this is my answer:

Yes, I do believe in “the one.”

In life, there will be the one who breaks your heart and the one whose heart you break.

The one who you’re not ready for and the one who is not ready for you.

The one to whom you never work up the nerve to speak one word and the one to whom you end up saying too much.

The one who pulls you on the dance floor and the one who never considers it a bad idea to order more than one dessert.

The one who teaches you that it matters to laugh together and the one who makes you cry.

The one who makes you want to be more and the one who tells you that you are enough.

Then ultimately—hopefully—there will be the one you choose to spend a lifetime loving in spite of, because of, and through all of the above.

If you’re lucky, only a few people will play more than one of these roles in your life. But if you’re smart, you’ll recognize that none of it matters outside of loving yourself first. The most important and defining relationship is the one you have with yourself, because that’s the one that affects how you treat others.

It is not a story to be written. It is one that is in progress. And I hope it’s one that you love.

Scream of Consciousness

Sometimes, teaching English to international students feels like playing an endless game of Taboo or Catch Phrase… only I don’t have the advantage of liquid courage to get me through the lesson and none of us get to snack on that delicious cheese dip with the meat in it that you often find at parties. The GOOD parties.

In spite of these minor drawbacks, it’s been fascinating to find what teaching a language has brought to light for me about words I thought I knew so well… until I had to explain them.

As the Occupy movement continues to gain momentum and media coverage, so does the curiosity of my students about what it all means. Interestingly enough, a word they have seen and heard much of in stories and wanted to know more about this week was “radical.”

When I set out to explain what it meant, visions of the word danced through my head. I thought of a friend who spoke of her days as one of the Radicatz, a group of activists in New York that used high kicks, home grown moves and clever chants to express anti-capitalistic and anti-war sentiments, as well as address labor, gender and environmental issues at protests. I thought of the NOH8 campaign. I thought of the DREAM Act. In short, I thought of all the current movements that fit the first meaning listed for “radical” in the online dictionary: “extreme; very new and different from what is traditional and ordinary.”

Then I read this second definition, which is used less but I believe represents the core of the radical speeches, marches, sit-ins, songs and acts of civil disobedience that make the minority in power so nervous: “very basic and important.”

How ironic and infuriating that those in charge and those blockading change use tear-gas to safeguard what they have deemed traditional and stamp out a call for something radical. Not something crazy, but radical—a better society built on social and global consciousness. Hell, consciousness. Something very basic. Something important.

Lost in translation

This is not a story about how I shared an awkward kiss with Bill Murray on a crowded street in Tokyo. And no, I am not Scarlett Johansson. People say I’ve reminded them of everything from anime to Tina Fey, but that is not what brought you here. You’re bored. I can’t sleep. Welcome to 99.9% of blogdom.

I recently started a job that had me help 40 Chinese students fresh off the plane navigate a Georgia Walmart for sheets and toilet bowl cleaner. As my superpower is magnetism for the truly random, it was not the experience itself that made me do a double take on my own nametag but the realization that I am now professionally advising others to take risks with a foreign language. The irony of this cannot fully be appreciated without taking you back to my first class as an undergraduate in college.

In spite of a deep love for French that was instilled in me at an early age by Madame Murphy through Julia Child impersonations and cooking demonstrations, as well as games of Twister en français, my first language class as a college freshman was traumatizing. The room was small and my claustrophobia was only heightened by the fact that it was filled with conversation among six seniors and a professor who I was certain I would have caught talking about this hopeless(ly) American deer in highlights if I could have understood a single word they were saying.

Seconds after the class ended and I prayed for a contact high from the philosophy students I passed on my way to the Office of Academic Assistance, I traded in one semester of advanced French for two mandatory years of Latin. A dead language, I presumed, would not be able to fight me.

Sh’yeah.

Within the week, my classics professor started calling me her “Little Latin Trap” because I would always give the wrong answer to her trickier questions and she liked to use my mistakes as examples for the rest of the class. Eventually, I just chose silence but the nickname stuck. It’s even printed on an unofficial certificate my peers awarded me at the end of my time in foreign language purgatory. Et tu, Jackasses? 😉

I was reminded of this personally challenging time because I caught myself encouraging my students to speak up this week in spite of the fear I knew they felt about messing up. I wish I had given myself that same grace… and not just as a freshman or in foreign language classes.

Ironically, I ended up reading this passage before bed about how we’ve all set our own little Latin trap through a shoddy translation and interpretation of the word “perfection.”

Kathleen Norris writes, “The good news about the word ‘perfect’ is that it is not a scary word, so much as a scary translation. The word that has been translated as ‘perfect’ does not mean to set forth an impossible goal, or the perfectionism that would have me strive for it at any cost. It is taken from a Latin word meaning complete, entire, full-grown. To those who originally heard it, the word would convey ‘mature’ rather than what we mean today by ‘perfect.’ To be perfect is to make room for growth, for the changes that bring us to maturity, to ripeness. To mature is to lose adolescent self-consciousness so as to be able to make a gift of oneself, as a parent, as teacher, friend, spouse.”

Now we’re talking.