Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Doubling Down On Love

I am doubling down on love.
That might sound like a safe bet. But when life experiences teach you that where there is love there can be hurt, you may not be willing to take the risk.
Recently as I looked into the smiling eyes of my son Reade, who I’m pretty sure is the cutest baby in the history of all humankind, I reflected on the new roots of love for him that have grown out of my heart, roots that have grown right next to the love I have for Jessica, a love I never thought I’d see. And having lost great love five years ago today (12/23), I didn’t think I’d ever want to see love again.
Too risky.
But, now, I am doubling down.
I have a son and a wife whom I am loving with abandon, without fear of losing that love. There is only one way that’s possible.
It’s not simply belief in God, but His merciful reminders that He is near. Reminders that we’ve come to call God stamps.
In a recent post I referenced the rainbow story that launched the whole “God stamp” phenomena and journey. I tried to link that reference to the post that first described the rainbow story. I then realized that I had never actually written about the rainbow, but had always linked to a local newspaper article about the rainbow, an article that was no longer available.
So, in the vein of encouragement through the “word of testimony” I’d like to share a story: a story that kept me upright in the anxious days of the cancer fight, that kept me out of the fetal position in the heavy days of grief, a story that makes it possible for me to double down on love. It’s not a story about me, it’s a story about God and it seems to be the appropriate story to share at the five-year mark.
And it goes like this.
The month that Dana was diagnosed with her recurrence of breast cancer (August, 2006), our longstanding Tuesday night Bible study group, the Group Formerly Known as Zelos (TGFKAZ), with Zelos being our beloved college-age ministry, was in the middle of a “march through the Old Testament” Bible study. On the Tuesday night before our first chemo appointment in the recurrence battle, we happened to be studying Noah. We ended the study time focusing on the rainbow. I pointed out that I’ve always loved how God described the rainbow reminder in Genesis 9:16,
Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant…
Whenever we see a rainbow we can take assurance in the fact that God sees that same rainbow. It’s like we’re having a moment with God with the rainbow serving as a wonderful bridge between the physical world and the eternal.
I asked the group to share their rainbow stories, suspecting that everyone would have at least one, which they did.
At the close of the evening our dear friend Sue, noting that the next day was chemo day, said, “Tomorrow I’m going to look for a rainbow.” That sounded like a good idea.
However, the next day, chemo day, was a cloudless, blue-sky, “severe clear” day. No chance for a rainbow. I did still take a peek out the window of the doctor’s office, because, well, you never know.
The next day, however, was a rainy, stormy day. That afternoon my cousin Carl had stopped by the house. As we were talking at the dining room table, I noticed out of the dining room window that the sun was peaking through the clouds while it was still raining. Perfect rainbow conditions. I had never been a rainbow chaser or a sign seeker, but I said to Carl, in mid-sentence, “Hold that thought,” and stepped onto the front porch and looked to the sky where I saw the biggest, boldest rainbow I had ever seen. I called Dana out. I called Carl out. We stood in awe, and then stood in tears. Soon our phone was ringing off the hook…Bible study folks calling to tell us they were looking at the biggest, boldest rainbow they’d ever seen.
While Dana fielded the phone calls Carl and I kept staring at the rainbow, attempting to interpret its ordained timing. I remember saying to Carl:
“I am definitely taking this as a sign. But, you can take it a couple ways. Either, A.) Everything is going to be okay; or B.) God is with us no matter what.” I was hoping for “A.”
At that moment, good friend Chuck said to Dana on the phone, “Where I am it’s a double rainbow.”
We looked a little closer, and sure enough, a double rainbow. This led Carl to say, “So, it’s both! A and B!”
That sounded good to me.
In the ensuing months, rainbow reminders came fast and furious. And they always came at divinely appointed times: when we’d just received bad news, on days when both of us were down, or times when our fears were gaining momentum. That’s what made them such powerful rainbow reminders; they came in almost immediate response to hard turns in the journey. I even started keeping a journal of rainbow sightings. Entries were anything from phone calls from friends and family as they were seeing a rainbow (my mom driving home from our house with a rainbow in her rear-view mirror the whole way home; Dana’s uncle Jon calling to say he was looking at four rainbows at the moment) to divinely-timed coincidences such as being handed a notebook in the oncology office with a set of colored pencils in ROY G BIV order, to staring at the computer screen, momentarily paralyzed at all we were processing, only to notice the rainbow-esque nature of the Google logo. I was able to start tapping on the keyboard. All of this was uncanny enough for the city newspaper to pick up on the phenomenon and write up a story.
A couple weeks after that first rainbow sighting, after having already collected enough reminders to think that something special was going on, we experienced something that gave the rainbow the official stamp of “God Stamp” status. Our neighbor, Star, from a couple doors down was at our front door on a Sunday afternoon. She was standing there with some pictures in her hand, saying: “Did you guys see that rainbow the other day? I took some pictures of it and I thought you might like to see them since they include your house. ” I responded by crying. I shared the significance of that rainbow: the recurrence, the Tuesday night Bible study, the looking for the rainbow, to which Star replied: “Wow. That explains something. I have never felt more compelled to do something when I thought about giving you these pictures. I just felt that I HAD to bring these to you. I’ve never felt that way before.”
Let the God Stamp journey begin.
As a side note, it was during the final hospice months that a series of divinely-timed, weirdly-coincidental events occurred that caused Dana’s mom, whom I affectionately call “Mama Sue,” to say, “It is so evident that God’s stamp is all over this.” This gave us our personally coined phrase of “God stamps.” They started with the rainbow.
That rainbow, in September 2006, was eight years ago. Dana passed away three years and three months after that rainbow. And now, here we are, five years since Dana passed. With five years of perspective, I can see that Carl was right with regard to the double rainbow: it was, and is, both A and B, but not in the way you might think.
During the cancer fight I obviously had my own thoughts on how to define “everything is going to be okay.” In total candor, my definition did not involve heaven. My definition involved complete physical healing. Heaven was not yet needed. Obviously, as we all now know, complete physical healing did not happen.
From the perspective of today, enjoying a great deep love as a husband and a great deep love as a father, I might be tempted to say, “So that’s what God meant by ‘everything would be okay.’” But I don’t think that’s what God meant. Everything being okay had nothing to do with how the rest of my life would turn out. It has everything to do with the end of my life, or, more specifically, heaven.
Throughout the Bible you can pick up on a theme of “hang in there, there is great payoff in the end.”  Some verses say it outright, like Galatians 6: 8-9, …whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Jesus alluded to this theme in John 16 with these words: In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
You also see this theme in the big picture of the book of Revelation, as paraphrased by our good friend Chuck, “It’s going to suck, but it'll be okay.” Chuck, who's leading our Revelation study, speaks with authority in that he and his wife Sue lost their beautiful 10-year old daughter Natalie to an unfair brain disease, just over a year after Dana passed.
What I’ve come to learn, and slowly embrace, is that God’s definition that “everything is going to be okay” is all about heaven. Here’s why: heaven is that good.
This was reinforced through my “conversation” with Dana about six months after her passing (you can see it here). To this day that experience has been one of the most profound moments in the journey. I’d love for you to check out that post, but here’s the gist: As I imagined Dana comforting me from her perch in heaven, I was assured (either by her words, or God’s words, or something supernatural, including the uncanny confirmation along the trail I was hiking) that the Place where all this is headed is so mind-blowing that it is worth all the pain and hurt and suffering that we have to endure to get There. That’s how everything can be okay. God has such a confidence that heaven is so freaky good that He can say to us, when we are facing our most horrific fears, that everything is going to be okay.
But the “okay” comes in the end, not, necessarily in the way we want it in the now.
Admittedly, this is not a fun concept to grasp. It’s the ultimate delayed gratification—literally. You can’t get more delayed than “the end.” This doesn’t seem helpful in our moments of fear. And in true confession, I never found much comfort in “eternal reward” and “ultimate healing” while navigating the tortuous days of chemo and scans. The promise of heaven could not penetrate the prospect of loss.
What I’ve since had to press through is that to embrace this definition that “everything will be okay” in the end, we have to endure the now. Curiously, this is one of the most prominent concepts in the New Testament. It’s like God knew what we would be facing. Hmmmm….
Which brings us to Part B of the double rainbow: God is with us no matter what. This is real. And it matters.
He’s told us this all through Scripture. It’s the biggest guarantee in Scripture. It’s even a favorite Christmas title of Jesus: Immanuel, God with us.
God was merciful with me in His relentless reminders of His presence. He didn’t have to do that. Rainbows. Deer. And then a heart cloud. This is why I can double down on love, to not only put myself over a barrel of possible hurt in loving a wife, but now to add a second barrel of possible hurt in loving a child (said child is on my lap as I type…hmmm…can drool short-circuit a keyboard?) because I know that God is with us, all of us, no matter what.
By nature I have tended to protect myself from hurt—we all do this to a certain extent, some of us more than others. As Jessica and I moved through the early days of relationship at warp speed, I never felt one pause of “But what if…” Any thoughts along these lines were fleeting and met with, “But God is with us no matter what.”
I feel that I am a walking testimony of 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love.” I wonder if one of the biggest miracles in this journey is simply the fact that I have been able to love again. This, I believe, is the evidence of God’s presence.
I would hope that this story might be an encouragement to your story, that you might be less inclined to take the safe, protective path and more inclined to take the path that counts on God’s presence no matter what.
I even feel that God has doubled down on love Himself. First, He has lovingly prepared this mind-blowing, heart-dancing Place for us. Secondly, He has promised to be with us until we get There. Someday I may explore why we throw tantrums when He doesn’t fix things the way we want before we get There. I’m pretty sure that when we see ourselves from the perch of heaven we will be embarrassed.
To that end, let’s love without fear, dance without embarrassment, sing without shame, create without limits, laugh till our fillings show, cry till we’re ugly.
I invite you to, with me, double down on love. Why? Because everything is going to be okay. And, God is with us no matter what.
Thank you.
P.S. I leave you with three pictures. The first two, pictures that Star brought to our front door of that first rainbow. The second? Giving us a stamp upon a stamp, the night that Jessica and I invited Chuck and Sue to our house to ask them about being God parents to Reade, this picture happened. The rainbow is nearly in the exact same spot. You can’t make this stuff up.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Two Turns in the Journey

For the life of me I can’t find the connection between a first-born child and open-heart surgery.

But I experienced both within 10 days just a couple months ago.

Which brings me to a bit of an announcement. On June 8, 2014 Jessica and I welcomed Reade Edwin into the world—five weeks early, beating us to the punch on picking a pediatrician and a name.

We learned of both baby and leaky heart valve last fall. The valve news came in September by way of a routine screening that I had asked for. The baby news came in November by way of a stick. Actually two sticks. We couldn’t believe our eyes.

Jessica and I had casually talked about family and had intended to have a “serious” conversation on the subject. Well, we never had that conversation, and now we don’t have to. At our first official OB/GYN visit last December a due date of July 15 was set.

With regard to the leaky valve, I had asked, as part of my 50,000 mile check up, and on advice from bro-in-law Rick, for a baseline stress echocardiogram (“echo”). I’ve had no symptoms and truly was expecting to establish nothing but a heart function baseline. I now have a new question I will never forget, posed to me by the cardiologist who was called into the room by the tech in mid screening: “You know you have this leaky valve, right?” Uhh, no. I do now. The doctor indicated that the leak would simply be something to be monitored, assuring me that only 10 percent of leaky valves need treatment. And of course, at my first official cardiologist appointment a few weeks later we learned that I was in the 10 percent. It was measuring as a “severe” leak and treatment was a matter of “when,” not “if,” sooner rather than later (with “treatment” being open-heart surgery). Our knee-jerk thinking was to wait until after our delivery date in that the leak wasn’t an emergency. But a couple second opinions and an opening at the clinic at the University of Michigan (where my cardiologist wanted to send me; and btw, if you are in need of cardiology in the Middletown area, I would highly recommend Gary Brown, MD, and his great team) pointed to a date before Reade’s due date. We scheduled the surgery for May 30, a date that would accommodate a 30-day recovery with a two-week buffer before the July 15 due date.

So I spent about six weeks contemplating my life as a younger-than-usual heart patient and an older-than-usual new dad. When people joked with me about being an older dad they would unknowingly assure me with something like, “Well, at least you’re healthy.” To which I would have to say, “Well, let me share something with you.”

Thankfully, after successful valve repair surgery, and thanks to the world class skills of surgeon Stephen Bolling and his world class team, led by his amazing nurse Marguerite, I am healthy.

And not a moment too soon.

Within minutes of being discharged from the University of Michigan Medical Center, while working on my prescriptions list in our hospital hotel room, Jessica began experiencing some alarming pre-labor symptoms. Her OB/GYN in Ohio said, “Well, I know the University of Michigan has a great labor and delivery department. I’ve seen it. Go ahead and have them check you out.”

My mom and dad, the blessed Bonnie and Miles, phoned my sister and her husband, the blessed Beck and Rick, who had just left the facility to head home. They made a U-turn. We called our newest best friend, my nurse Marguerite, who had championed me through my entire surgery process. Rick came back to our room to pick up Jessica in a wheelchair. Marguerite met them in the hotel lobby to wheel Jessica to labor and delivery.
I laid on my bed in the hotel room like a slug. It was my only way to help. (Bonus points to you if you get that reference.)
After the labor/delivery folks monitored Jessica for several hours, we learned that she was having contractions, was dilated one centimeter and had a possible placental abruption. So, they admitted her.

My thought, as I lay in the hotel room like a slug: This can’t be happening.

But it was.

It was a harrowing thought to realize that if our baby was born at that time that I would not be able to do one thing to help or support. If he would happen to be over 10 pounds (though unlikely), I wouldn’t even be able to lift him for 30 days.

Jessica, after having been admitted on Monday (June 2) was discharged on Wednesday, giving us two days of great care in yet another of the University of Michigan’s great health centers. She made best friends out of all her docs which included Dr. Breed (I know! Great OB/GYN name) who looked like a 12-year old kid (but a very gifted OB), and Dr. Berman who came to U of M on a gymnastics scholarship, attended medical school there and stayed and who constantly asked Jessica “Who ARE you?” as she learned more about Jessica’s career and accomplishments. We were asking the same question of her as we learned of her career and accomplishments. The two-day stay also included a visit from Marguerite and Dr. Bolling, my healthcare team.

We left the University of Michigan on Thursday, and Reade, probably in a move to hold out until we crossed the Ohio line, was born on Sunday.

With me still unable to drive, we had our dear friends and neighbors, David and Angie Miller, drive us to the hospital after Jessica’s contractions began. David is a urologist and Angie is a nurse. We were in good hands. We left for the hospital around 9:30 p.m.  Reade entered this world at 11:46 p.m. Yep, that quick. And he weighed five pounds, six ounces, thoughtfully coming in a good four pounds under my lift limit.

Arriving five weeks early, Reade was soon taken to the neo-natal intensive care unit (NICU) where, because of his prematurity, he could be monitored for any complications. Thankfully, these were few, probably because of the great care (and two steroid shots to Jessica to help Reade’s lungs) at the University of Michigan.

While the NICU stay did mean that we were now spending extra days at the hospital, it also meant getting exposed to some of the kindest, wisest, gentlest, best-all-around-est people on the planet: NICU nurses.

But you know, as I ponder the connection between these two watershed life events, open-heart surgery and a newborn, here’s what I got so far (admittedly, it’s pretty simple): it’s the strengthening of our receiving and giving muscles by deepening our connections with people. The NICU nurses were actually the lead band in a parade of the kindest, wisest, gentlest, best-all-around-est people on the planet. Jessica and I had a curbside seat. We saw kindness and wisdom and gentleness we would not have otherwise seen, and we saw it from a position of flat on our backs. All of us sometimes find ourselves in that position, times when we can do nothing but lay there like a slug. We have to depend. To rely upon. To, and this is the kicker, lose control. This causes us to engage emotional and spiritual muscles that we seldom use. I’m convinced that the more we exercise our receiving muscles, the more we fire up our giving muscles. Then as we become more upright, we can’t wait to give. And it’s a deeper, better give.

Throughout this stretch I have said several times to myself, sometimes out loud: “I can’t believe how giving people are.” We’ve had: Neighbors mowing our lawn, friends organizing meals, guy friends throwing me a “diaper” shower at a local pub (we have a wall full of diapers and a shelf full of “toys your kids liked when you were a new dad”, girl friends throwing bi-coastal showers for Jessica and setting us for life in baby gear, our families stepping up in countless ways (like my mom and sister taking the night shift several nights a week!), friends bringing food to us in the baby hospital, friends making the trip to Michigan to visit us in the heart hospital, lactation nurses inspiring us with new levels of persistence, labor and post-partum nurses in the Dayton hospital making sure I’m doing okay, heart surgery nurses in the Michigan hospital making sure that Jessica is doing okay, my heart surgeon and nurse visiting Jessica in the labor department, Reade’s neonatologist and nurses making sure I was getting rest (and watching my coffee intake). We even made an unexpected friend out of my hospital roommate (both of us had asked about the availability of private rooms).

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been pondering what God might be trying to teach us—if anything (everything doesn’t have to be a lesson)—through these concurrent life events. Then this happened. A few days ago, the day I started writing this post, I took my first “normal” bike ride—no babying of the heart and pushing as hard as I wanted. While on the final leg, a near-professional bike rider, all decked out in the latest gear with more logos than a NASCAR car, went zooming past. As he passed he said, “Did you see those deer back there?” To which I said, “No! How did I miss that?!” I mean really, how could I miss that? I quickly turned, and there in the edge of the woods, two doe. And two fawns.

Then, as if to put a giant exclamation point on the whole deal, as if to leave no doubt that God is up to something in all this, later that evening Jessica and I saw one of the biggest, boldest rainbows we’ve seen in a long time. I haven’t had a deer/rainbow combo since June 2011, the week Jessica and I met.

If you are new to this blog, this deer story post [click here] will help bring you up to speed on why these sightings of a deer and rainbow are significant. (Strangely, I don’t think I ever wrote a post about the rainbow story, but just directed folks to the newspaper story, which is no longer active. So, rainbow post coming soon. Meanwhile, if you search "rainbow" on this blog you will get some good background.) Simply put, I am in a blessed position (whether flat on my back or upright) to experience new life and a repaired heart, a heart that was broken in more ways than one.

Thankfully, more than one kind of healing has happened, too. Bring on new life. There is much to experience, much to receive, and much to give.

Thank you for journeying along.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

First Comes Love...

You know the familiar adage:

First comes love…
Then comes marriage…
Then comes Jessica and Barry pushing a baby carriage.

Or actually a Chicco Cortina KeyFit 30 Travel System.

Yes, we are with child. As in Jessica is pregnant. As in due mid-July. As in Abraham is my new Bible hero. As in: I’m learning they don’t make strollers like they used to. Thank goodness.

And yes, it is a bit of a surprise. Though it is not an oops, nor complete surprise.

Being that we were theoretical potential parents, we had planned to have “the conversation” last May on the subject of family. That month, however, was crazy on many levels, so crazy that even Jessica, who was leaning more toward family at the moment than I, had said, “We can’t even think about that right now.”

We never had that conversation.

And now we don’t have to.

This is, what I like to say, historic.

Parenthood is something that neither Jessica nor I, in our pre “Jessica and Barry” era, thought we would experience. With a career spiraling upward and no husband on the horizon, Jessica had not only dismissed parenthood, but also marriage. And because chemo and cancer had taken its toll on Dana, I had plowed through the emotion of not being a dad. And I was fine with that.

And now, if you run the numbers, I will be a 70-year old dad at his kid’s high school graduation.

Rock on. I am fine with that, too. (Even though I might joke that I’m not; a man’s got to get some mileage out of life situations.)

We learned this past November, by way of a stick (and confirmed by a second stick the next day) that we were pregnant. It was a few weeks later when we first heard the words from an OB/GYN nurse, by way of a urine sample, “Yep, you’re pregnant,” that it sank in a little deeper. Actually “freaked us out a bit” might be more descriptive. We’ve come to understand the reason for a nine-month gestation period. It’s not only for the baby. It’s also for the parents-elect. But as we look toward a July 15 due date we feel we are way ahead of the curve in progressing from a bit freaked out to full-on embracing.

We rolled the news out to our close friends and families over the Christmas season.  My parents broke out in the most spontaneous tears I’ve ever seen. Jessica’s family, which has welcomed several babies to the fold over the past few years, is equally as elatedlots of tears and hugs. Over the past few weeks we have begun our public rollout.

Aside from a couple of performance engagements just after the due date that Jessica has had to step away from, we plan for her singing to keep right on clicking along. In fact, she will be singing Micaela in Bizet’s Carmen with the Cincinnati Opera in June. Thankfully we have great examples and role models for blending parenthood with a fulfilling operatic career.

They say a baby changes everything and I feel I’ve caught a few glimpses of that, even in simple things like working the word “trimester” into everyday speak. As we’ve begun to think about baby paraphernalia I took my first solo foray into baby retail land at Target a few days ago. I found myself wondering the most basic questions, like: So is baby gear in the same section as “maternity”? I think just the act of posing the question in my mind slightly panicked me in that, I asked for help from the first person I saw with a badge, who happened to be a staff person from the hospital hitting Target on her way home from work. I think she registered my panic, and was very helpful.

When I finally did step into the baby gear section (which wasn’t in the “maternity” section) I had what can only be described as an out of body experience. This can’t be me!

But it is me. And it’s us. And it’s a blessing.

And it’s a boy.