Walk with God

A Bitter Gift

FootprintsOn December 22, 2014, I gave birth to a little girl. She died before she made it into my arms.

She was due today.

One of the things I hate about having a personal blog (or any social media) is having to share moments like these. Part of me wants to skip over it, but that seems crass. I don’t want to give readers the impression that my baby’s birth didn’t affect me profoundly, or that I’m exactly the same person I was before. I’d like to go on from the present as though everyone already knows the context.

But pretending won’t work here. I also can’t bring myself retell my story by writing a separate post. That might have worked a couple of weeks ago, but now I’ve healed enough that I don’t really want to open that wound again. So I’m just transcribing a few excerpts from my handwritten journal. It’s personal, unpolished, sad, and it doesn’t begin to capture what all happened, so if you aren’t up for that, feel free to skip this post and come back in a few days when I have something a little less tearful to say.

Miriam Grace Jacoby 

Excerpt from 12/23/2014

She had a full head of dark brown hair. The most perfect little nose. Some newborns aren’t as cute as others, but this one was beautiful.

It was just over three weeks until my due date. On Saturday evening, right before we went to the airport to pick up our holiday guests, I realized I hadn’t felt the baby kick in hours. So I drank a big glass of ice water, poked my belly a few times, and waited. Nothing. Still no movement after dinner that night.

Jess, the friend who’d be staying with us for the next week and a half, grinned as she looked at me and my huge pregnant belly.

“Does it kick?” she asked.

I hesitated. “Yes, it usually does.”

Manny and I talked about going to the hospital, but it was late and I told him I was probably just being paranoid. We decided to wait until the next day. Surely I would have felt those familiar wiggles and punches by then.

I slept restlessly that night–lots of incoherent dreams. I remember dreaming that there was an earthquake, and everything felt like that–shaky and uncontrollable on a bigger-than-life scale. I woke up over and over again to struggle to get comfortable, hands on my belly, waiting for the baby to move.

We drove to the hospital rather than church the next morning, still sure we were being paranoid but not so sure that we didn’t want to hear our baby’s heartbeat and have someone assure us that everything was okay.

It wasn’t okay. I knew as soon as the nurse put the doppler on my belly near the baby’s back and all we heard was static.

That was the longest day, but somehow the hours passed quickly. They induced labor. The doctor broke my water at 1 a.m. In a normal labor, I thought, I would have told them no. Do not strip my membranes. Do not break my water.

I wanted to tell the doctor to stop, to let things progress normally and unhurriedly. But now my baby’s life wasn’t at stake, and I wanted it to end so I could go home.

After they broke my water, contractions sped up drastically, the pain set up shop in my lower back, and I stopped handling life well. I got in the shower, told Manny to leave me alone, let water as hot as I could stand it course down my back, and resisted the urge to beat on the walls with my fists.

So this is back labor. I wonder if the baby is posterior.

This is worse than that abscessed tooth I had two years ago.

So this is my punishment for looking down my nose at women who choose epidurals without even trying. 

If I could have managed a grim laugh, I would have.

In some ways, the pain seemed appropriate. Not because I seriously thought I was being punished for anything. It seemed appropriate that my baby’s death, which I hadn’t even been aware of until that morning, shouldn’t be an easy thing.

I remember talking to myself and praying in the shower.

Oh, God, please help me. I know you are in control. My world is shaking. Please help. 

I remember staggering out of the shower during one of the too-short moments between contractions and telling Manny I wanted an epidural. I had told him a few hours before not to let me get one if I asked for it. He convinced me to try other painkillers first.

I remember holding on to him, clenching the quilt he’d brought from home, hearing him ask me to trust him, digging my fingernails into his back, crying as I realized that every movement and every breath seemed to make the pain worse. And I remember asking for narcotics and then feeling dizzy, almost catatonic in between contractions, and thinking that the meds were doing absolutely nothing for the pain.

Apparently about four hours passed like this–me almost in a trance, alternately demanding counter-pressure, then telling Manny not to touch me, then apologizing for snapping at everyone, and then falling asleep for a few seconds, not knowing who I was talking to and not really caring what they said.

She came out in just four or five pushes. A nurse put her on my chest immediately, and I’ll never forget how that felt. She was warm, and slippery, and limp, and beautiful. All that hair. I cried from relief–the pain stopped immediately–and I cried because suddenly having a child of my own had become real–and I cried because she was so very, very still.

I ran my finger down her nose and couldn’t believe how soft her skin was. I put my hand on her head and all the heartbreak and pain melted into numbness–or just exhaustion and drowsiness from the meds.

The nurses cleaned her up, weighed her, measured her, swaddled and dressed her, and brought her back in–5 pounds, 10 ounces, a too-still newborn. Manny held her, too. I asked them to leave her in the bassinet beside the bed, though my mind told me it didn’t make any sense to do so, and I slept. I didn’t care about a shower. I didn’t care that I was mostly undressed. I didn’t care that the nurses were trying to get four more vials of blood from my arm. All I wanted in the world was to rest.

Before I fell asleep, I heard Manny tell one of the nurses our daughter’s name: Miriam Grace. We had discussed both names, but neither seemed appropriate before; I especially hadn’t liked the name “Miriam” because it meant “bitterness.”

A couple of hours later, I woke up, climbed out of the hospital bed, dressed myself a bit more, and crawled onto the fold-out bed beside Manny.

“The niño is gone,” he said, lying his hand on my empty belly. I snuggled close to him.

“You chose a good name.”

He nodded. “Miriam because–bitterness. Grace, because she is a gift from God. Jacoby, because she is mine.”

There were more tears. We slept together on the uncomfortable hospital sofa bed, wrapped in surreal peace and pain.

It hadn’t seemed real to be pregnant, even at 36 weeks. It didn’t seem real to be in labor, or to hold my dead daughter afterward. When we came home later that day, I just felt empty, both belly and arms. We slept for hours. When I woke up, I could still see Miriam’s face, could still feel her slippery, wet body on mine.

I can’t believe she was born yesterday. I miss her and I never got to know her. “Miriam” also means “longed-for child,” which seems more appropriate now because now I’m longing for her more than I did before. Now she’s truly longed for, and now she is just what Manny named her: a bitter gift, but a gift nonetheless.

I want another child as soon as the Lord allows–not to replace Miriam, but because now I have an inkling of how precious and beautiful a child is. Because I’m craving a child that will squirm and demand things and nurse at my breast. Because I want to see Manny be a father. Because Miriam didn’t demand enough, and I didn’t get to love her enough.

A (love) story to tell

I used to swear I’d never get married.

I changed my mind.

When we first started dating, Manny and I agreed that–if it worked out–we’d one day have quite the story to tell.

He was in the Air Force, stationed in Guam; I was at a small Christian university in South Carolina. Our paths crossed on the island of Saipan at a tiny international school in the western Pacific. We’d both ended up there, through circuitous paths of our own, teaching ESL classes.

I didn’t think it would ever work out.

I blogged about the Saipan trip, both the beauties and challenges of it. What I didn’t mention–what I didn’t know at the time–was that I’d meet the guy I’d be spending the rest of my life with while I was out there.

8/11/12: FB chat with a dear friend.

Riss: You’re up late.

Me: Yeah. Chatting with a friend who’s a mile down the road at a coffee shop. And I have too much on my mind to sleep.

Riss: Really? What’s up?

Me: There’s this guy. I’ve spent the last few days with him and with a couple of missionary kids… I like him. He seems to want to talk.

Riss: I knew it.

Me: I can’t figure this guy out!!! It’s bugging me!

Riss: Dude. Listen to yourself.

On the way back to the states at the end of the summer, I stopped in Guam to spend a few days with the guy (at that point, strictly just a friend) and his sister. The night before I left, I wrote a post about the frustrating futility of making friends on the other side of the world, because I was convinced I’d never see the guy–or his sister–or any of those new friends again.

We started talking seriously when I got back to SC.

Getting thoughts from a trusted mentor, 11/25/12:

Maybe the Lord had you both out there watering camels (reference to the Isaiah-Rebekah story). God’s plans don’t always fit into tradition. As long as there are no red flags, prayerfully go on.

Riss:

Go for it.

Flash forward a few months: several thousand Facebook chats, phone calls, and Skype convos later, I was at the Greenville, SC airport, waiting for his plane to touch down. I’ve never been so nervous in my life.

Days after that, I’m skipping school to travel up to Pennsylvania to meet his family. My future family.

Journal entry, 2/2/13

Pretty sure I agreed to marry him before he asked me.

I remember a moment in the woods behind the family home on Tuesday. Manny and I were walking around the property–he pointed out memories as we followed the cleared-out pathways around the land…he stopped and put his hands on my shoulders, turning me towards him. “Steffani, do you want to become part of my family?”

I said “yes.”

Sparkly

Journal entry, 2/18/13

Message on Isaiah 40 this morning. Since the beginning of last summer, those verses have been on my mind.

During my mission trip to Mexico in the early summer, I was meditating on the bigness of God as my mission team van drove through the Sierra Madres. Everyone else in the van seemed some degree of carsick. I was enjoying the roller-coaster-y mountain roads and thinking of Isaiah 40.

Those verses speak of…sheer bigness. Something beyond the scope of human understanding. A faithfulness I can’t wrap my mind around.

Standing on Mt. Tapochau on Saipan for the first time, I remember thinking of those words. Something unspokenly beautiful about the massive, all-encompassing goodness and faithfulness of the God I serve.

” Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing.” Isaih 40:15.

It seemed too beautiful to be real. Yet that beauty is just a fragmentary picture of the God who created it.

Standing on a covered bridge beside Messiah College in PA, my cold hands wrapped up in Manny’s, I said “yes” and the implications of that one word seemed bigger than all the mountains and islands that testify to the awesome love of God. The bigness surrounded me in that moment.

The partnership I’d agreed to build with that man would outlast any other human partnership; the concept was staggering. It was the start of a relationship that has the potential to testify of a bigger kind of love.

Our covenant can communicate more clearly than the desert mountains and Pacific islands the kind of love that Christ has for His bride, the church. By God’s grace, it will.

Married life could be the biggest adventure yet.

Visions and revisions

Sunrise at the Monahans Sandhills State Park

Sunrise at the Monahans Sandhills State Park

This year, I decided to be different and tell the last night of the old year good-bye. Which is why I was up too early, buying a cup of truck stop coffee and heading out to chase one last 2012 sunrise.

I felt a little ridiculous as I stumbled up a few dunes at the Monahans Sandhills State Park. This is not the kind of thing it ever occurred to me to do when I still lived in West Texas. When I was a kid, I cartwheeled down the hills and aspired to extreme sandsurfing greatness before it was cool.

Then I grew up a bit, stopped looking at the desert, and started looking for reasons to move away. Sometimes you have to leave a place to really see it.

The moonlight played tricks on the panorama. I listened to coyotes and morning (mourning?) doves sing to the stars. The stars are so. bright. in the desert night.

I plotted my options in case of a rabid coyote attack. The granola bars in the bottom of my pack probably would probably not make a tempting enough distraction to give me a head-start on the run back to the car. Available ammunition? A pocket Bible, cell phone, and a copy of The Two Towers. None would be worth sacrificing in case of coyote or jackrabbit attack. I’d take my chances.

When it was finally light enough to almost see, I dug my Bible out of my backpack and read aloud.

By the time the sun made its underwhelming appearance behind a thick bank of clouds, I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes. Not enough clothes. Not… enough… socks. Not enough coffee.

But there was an understatedly beautiful older-than-time testimony written across the sky.

God’s glory is on tour in the skies,

God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.

Madame Day holds classes every morning,

Professor Night lectures each evening.

 

Their words aren’t heard,

their voices aren’t recorded,

But their silence fills the earth:

unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.

 

That’s how God’s Word vaults across the skies

from sunrise to sunset,

Melting ice, scorching deserts,

Warming hearts to faith.

 

Psalm 19:1-6, The Message

Eating God’s Word

Words spoken or written to us under the metaphor of eating, words to be freely taken in, tasted, chewed, savored, swallowed, and digested, have a very different effect on us.”

Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book 

My last night in Guam, I didn’t sleep. I curled up on a sofa, ate ice cream out of a carton, and dove into a Christian sci-fi novel (they do exist!). Then I took a 30-minute nap and headed to the airport. It was a lovely way to spend a night.

There are moments when life’s greatest pleasures are in between the lines of a book. In those moments, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world, except maybe on the next page.

Words have power. There’s theology and linguistics behind that assertion, but I don’t think I have to defend it. It just is. It’s why we still hear or see on the screen of our mind the words of those who have hurt us the most.

It’s why we’re willing to stay up until 4 a.m. to devour a novel.

When was the last time I stayed up until 4 a.m. to devour the Bible?

If I’m staking my life, death, and eternity on the one book that I’ll defend to the death as the inspired Word of God, why am I not reading it like it’s something I love? Like it’s something I love.

Ah, so now, along with valuing the Word of God, honoring it, basing my life on it, memorizing it, and picking pieces of it to post around me for fixes of instant comfort, I also have to delight in the Bible?

Yet another item to add to the list of things I must be doing. Or is it?

This isn’t the kind of thing that fits on an itemized list. This is more like a slo-mo epiphany. When did believers forget that the Bible is a story? Doesn’t it make sense that, if God presented His plan of redemption for mankind as a story, we should all read it that way?

Why, instead, do we drag ourselves through three chapters a day and then cherry-pick the psalms we want to anesthetize ourselves against our own discomfort?

True stories.

I’m not usually into films. I much prefer reading stories told with well-chosen words than watching some stranger’s subjective interpretation. I’ll take my own subjective interpretation, thank you.

But I stayed up late to watch some movies last night, and I really liked “The End of the Spear.”

Maybe it’s because it’s almost biographical, making a true story seem tangibly real. It tells the story of the four men who were martyred while trying to make contact with the notoriously violent Waodani tribe in Ecuador.

That movie made me remember stuff. Like… I really, really used to adore my dad. And how conspicuously absent he was for so many years. Of all the things I could have taken from the story, a missing father seems like an unlikely choice. Why not be inspired to forgiveness, personal sacrifice, or abandon-it-all service to the Lord? Any of those would make more sense.

But the part that made me cry and left me completely without words was the part where grown-up Steve went back to Ecuador and found the bright yellow model airplane his dad had helped him to build as a child. When he stood on the sandbar where his dad was killed. When he remembered.

That scene made me cry. Movies don’t make me cry. Ever. But that scene made me cry.

Part of me says that I deserve way more sympathy than that kid. At least his father left–died–to serve the Lord. The only reason he didn’t come back was because he was killed. Short of death, nothing could have kept Nick Saint from his family.

Plenty of things could have kept my father from me. And they did.

I’ll never forget hearing my grandmother saying that, though divorce is sad, at least none of us had cancer. At least no one was killed in a car wreck by a drunk driver. We were all still alive. Her theory? That alive and shattered is preferable to dead.

That’s a thought I’ll never be able to come to terms with.

6 hours of church.

Three sermons, a kids’ club, puppets, Bible stories, songs. Mexican church services can be long.

View from the window of the house-turned-church in Mexico City

Six hours of church kept us occupied on our last Sunday. I attended Sunday School (a sermon in itself), then took a few opportunities to visit with the hermanas in the church during the break before the next service. Singing hymns in Spanish–familiar yet foreign, because I don’t know the lyrics–never gets old.

I think of our team, with Chile, Ukraine, Finland, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the U.S. represented, and of the people here in Mexico, living in a very real place so different than my own version of familiar. I think of the authors of the words of the hymns and composers of the melodies, and the whole six-degrees-of-separation thing takes on a whole new meaning in light of the family of God.

Conversations with the missionaries are really helping me iron out my own point of view on ministry, missions, and education. Basic educational theory: teacher’s aren’t in front of the classroom to teach facts, but to teach you to ask questions. I guess it goes back to the writing maxim I learned in many professional writing classes: Curiosity is a muscle. Flex it.

Maybe curiosity isn’t just an aspect of some people’s personalities, but a necessity to live fearless, out-there kind of life God mandated. Interesting, that He didn’t say, “Go, and tell the whole world the good news, unless you’re an inherently introverted person, in which case you can go and serve Me in whatever way you’re comfortable.”

He also didn’t send us to the safest places of the world. He sent us to all of them.

The Dispatches from the Front video we watched tonight reminded us that Christian life, and all of Christian ministry, is war. And that war is hell. Wrestling against principalities and powers isn’t a walk in the park.

Get out there. Read the newspapers. Know current events and enough history for the current events to make sense. Talk to people outside your circle circles, your denomination, your country. Know what they believe and tell them the most beautiful story they’ll ever hear. Be interested. Be curious. Whether it’s in your own town or in Burma, get out there and live like your Savior is watching.

–Excerpt from journal entry 6/20/12

Oh, look. A church.

I still can’t get past the hugeness of Mexico City. You can go to the top of a hill in the center of town and see glittery lights stretching in every direction as far as you can see. Or you can just close your eyes and smell it. Exhaust, spices, incense, and typical huge-city smell speaks as much as a panoramic view stretching for miles.

The team took a “pilgrimage” to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Watched pilgrims and devotees praying through their rosaries, climbing dozens of stairsteps on their knees, sprinkling themselves with water flowing beneath the feet of a fading statue of the Virgin.

Somehow this basilica was different than any of the dozens I visited in Europe. In Rome, Assissi, Pisa, Venice, Lucca, France, and London, the vast majority of the people in each place of worship wasn’t there to worship, but to take photos, buy entrance to the cupola for a view of the city, and maybe pray a haphazard prayer for some sick loved one.

But the people in Mexico City are for real. There are few tourists, but tons of worshipers. They wait in real confession lines and murmur their prayers in the chapels and sacred spaces. Hoping to have their sins pardoned, their time in purgatory reduced, extra blessings to counteract their own sins. What a mission field.

At one point when we were visiting, I had to turn away from the mobs of the faithful, feeling sick to my stomach at the hopelessness of these millions of people. Shutting out the only real hope of salvation–faith and trust in Jesus Christ–in favor of a whole lot of works that they’re still not sure will save them. In disgust, I walked away and bought a liter-sized styrofoam sup of horchata for 18 pesos.

I found myself humming “Rock of Ages” as I walked away from the church, a place that can never provide any kind of security. How blessed I am to know the truth.

Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to the cross I cling; Naked, come to thee for dress; Helpless, look to thee for grace; Foul, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die. –Augustus M. Toplady