Tuesday, May 9, 2017

we are not as strong as we think we are...

*****Spoiler alert -- this one's a little heavy.  If you're looking for cute pictures of children and the awesomeness that innocence and untainted joy can bring to life, also a staple here on this blog, come back tomorrow.  No judgment whatsoever. ******

At times, our family's life seems like it can be reflected by our music and what is speaking to our hearts.

Three years ago, when the tidal wave that was Jael's arrival swept over us, we clung to the album Morning Rises by Aaron Shust, with the artist's story so much like our own in unexpectedly welcoming a medically complex child into the world and tracks like God of Brilliant Lights , which reminded us that the waves were not just of pain, anxiousness, and uncertainty, but also of mercy, hope and love:

Let the sound of the saints
Everywhere be heard
Praise the God who has come
To cure every broken heart

He is lord over all
His reign will never end
Through the fire and the flood
He draws His children in
He's the light of the world
Brighter than the brightest star

The God of brilliant lights
Is shining down over us
Breaking through the darkness
Covering all the earth
Oooh, His love is like an ocean
Oooh, forever overflowing
The God of brilliant lights is shining over us


When the days were so overwhelming that we would collapse our emotionally raw sprits and exhausted bodies down onto the couch at night after getting all the children (temporarily, at least) to bed, sometimes we would just lay there and listen to the embedded truth in The One, an anthem to the faithfulness of God in the places unseen and unfelt.  It didn't always feel like much, but it was always enough-- just enough to pull ourselves up for one more morning and face the next dreary day:

The day is dark and I can't see
The path I'm on or what's in front of me
But I will stand on this I know
You will never let me go


For the one who holds tomorrow
Holds me in His hand
And I will not fear the future
I'll trust the Great I Am
Who has been and always will be
Reigning on His throne
For the One who holds me in His hand
Is the One who holds it all

Though the world shall fade away
And the sky may even fall
You are strong enough to save
You're the one who holds
Every heart that is afraid
You hear our desperate call
You are strong enough to save
You're the One who holds it all...


Two years ago, as life mellowed, Rend Collective and their reminders of life lived in community permeated us as we were blessed deeply by friends willing to invest in us with no promise of return--friends who gave generously of their time and energy and came alongside as we slowly recovered from the tumult that had been the first year of Jael's life.  Daily we saw our dreams that we had left at the foot of the cross years ago reanimated and given back, and we were even able to share Jael's story on Easter Sunday 2016, which was an amazing reminder to myself, at least, that the pain and anguish we had left at Jesus' feet might be healing to others.  The lyrics to You Will Never Run captured our story at that time:

Love stronger than the grave
Love rolled the stone away
Rising with endless majesty
Love takes us by the hand
Love is the wildest dance
You are the joy and fight in me
You are the joy and fight in me


It is tempting to think that we had something to do with the fact that, slowly, healing was happening and we were overcoming the circumstances dealt us.  In fact, it had nothing to do with us, made pitifully clear by our latest round of what the apostle Paul would call 'light and momentary troubles,' but seem far weightier when viewed from a front-row seat.  (**whining alert!***)  Over the past couple of months, we have walked through the death of a dear father (in-law) and grandfather, which has uprooted our routine and school schedule, suffered through multiple rounds of the stomach bug in Rachel's absence (I am the world's worst parent with illness -- those poor kids!), had a freak back injury leave me sidelined from work for going on 5 weeks now, with the side issue of documentation holding up any extended absence payments from disability insurance and the added benefit of Eeyore (that's yours truly) spreading 'cheer' at home at all times, since I don't really have anywhere else to go and probably couldn't walk there even if I did, while having to worry if I will recover in time to be able to do side work through the summer, which is the primary way we make it financially on a year-to-year basis.  Oh, and we've found multiple instances of drug paraphernalia in or around our yard, and this Sunday finally culminated with not one, but two instances in the afternoon of the police handcuffing and leading off resident(s) across the street for possession  (all the while we are trying to keep the kids from running outside to help out with the ambulance and say hi to the police officers).

In short, we've had better weeks and months. To quote Rich Mullins, 'we are not as strong as we think we are... we are frail -- we are fearfully and wonderfully made -- forged in the fire of human passions -- choking on the fumes of selfish rage...' 

But what we aren't is alone.  We are struck down, but not destroyed.  I am disabled, hopefully merely as a temporary reminder of this earthly body's impermanent tenure, but not separated from the love of God. We firmly expect and believe that, though we don't know how, God will stay with us moment by moment, day by day, providing for us both physically and emotionally, bringing comfort to Rachel, stability to our home and children, and renew a sense of purpose and (new?) direction for myself.  We may need to lament (deeply) the dreams that once again we need to lay down, never knowing if they will be burned as impurities in the Refiner's fire or shown to be gold that will be returned when we least expect it. Whatever the days ahead may bring, I will steal the poetic refrain from Rich Mullins one more time:

Surrender don't come natural to me
I'd rather fight you for something
I don't really want
Than to take what you give that I need
And I've beat my head against so many walls
Now I'm falling down, I'm falling on my knees
And the Salvation Army band is playing this hymn
And Your grace rings out so deep
It makes my resistance seem so thin
So hold me Jesus,
Cause I'm shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won't You be my Prince of Peace

Sometimes to be remade in glory, we need to be torn down first.  I'll keep you posted -- in the meantime, some vacation stories and photos (try going on vacation in the mountains when you can't walk sometime) of beautiful children in Eden-like creation tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

In memoriam

After a truly overwhelming response to my wife recent post about our family's heartbreaking, overwhelming, and adventurous April, I wanted to give a little more depth to why her father will be so sorely grieved and deeply missed, and not merely by our small family.

The following is the lightly edited text from the eulogy (there were five, and even that seemed scant) that I delivered on behalf of the family at the memorial for Rachel's father.  In preparing and drafting the  eulogy, I was amazed to see that after marrying his daughter and knowing him for fifteen years, I didn't know the half of what he had done over the course of his time among us.

Wes' adult life included an M.D., an MBA, 40 years of both marriage and a medical practice in which a conservative count had him treating upwards of 40,000 patients, as well as serving as an adjunct professor of medical standards at a University. He also spent time on the boards of the local crisis pregnancy center as well as the high school all three of his daughters attended.  (Not going to lie-- after reading that, I do wonder if he ever slept!)  And yet, none of those numbers can truly bring to light Wes' true legacy he left behind...

   



"Legacy"

It isn't easy putting into words all the wonderful ripples of a life well lived. It's even more difficult when that person is family.  It's especially difficult when that person is Wes Clayton, as the ripples of generosity seem to have turned into tidal waves of hope.  When I first met Wes, I saw him as somewhat of a larger-than-life figure, a lion among men. This may have come from the very first time I met him when I was 19 and had come to meet Rachel's parents for the first time.  He bounded over to meet me and smiled and said, "Hi! I'm Wes Clayton, Rachel's father."  What his eyes added was: "and if you mistreat her, I'm also a surgeon."

All joking aside, I'm beginning to think that my initial estimations as larger-than-life weren't too far off.  (After all, no one but an organizational superhero would respond to my request for a screwdriver when one of the Clayton's door hinges was loose with, "Well.... I've got about fifty screwdrivers.  They're all in different drawers by size and type, so I'll need a little more info first.")

Now, here at the conclusion of his life, I find that when I reflect on the legacy he left Maggie, his daughters Sarah, Rachel and Laura, and by adoption the remainder of our motley crew of husbands and grandchildren,  I am moved to gratitude.  It only seems natural to say "thank you" when we will be inheriting the fruit of the legacy he has passed down from generation to generation.  And so, though he's no longer here to receive his thanks, I wanted to say it anyway.

First, I wanted to say thank you for loving your wife above all else save his God. Wes and Maggie's nearly forty-one years of marriage was a testament to the faithfulness of God, it is true; it is also a testimony to hard work.  At the time they were married, there were no role models of a healthy (or even intact) marriage in either extended family.  My own eleven years of married bliss has taught me, if nothing else, that relationships are difficult enough with godly role models and helpful counsel to guide us along. Wes and Maggie had to start without some of those advantages.  But much as the nation of Israel marked with memorial stones the record of God's faithfulness when they crossed the River Jordan into the Promised Land, so Wes and Maggie's marriage vows and subsequent living of the vows they took stand as a memorial of a real and dynamic marriage for their children and grandchildren to emulate.  It wasn't perfect -- ask any of his daughters about how they saw their dad retrieving a toy shopping cart from the roof once after a stressful discussion-- but it was committed.  When I asked Wes the secret of his marriage success, he said, "I promised I'd never leave -- and I stuck to it. No matter how upset we got, we promised to stick around and hash it out." Thank you for sticking to it.

 
                                                                                          Wes praying for our marriage at our wedding

Second, I want to thank you for making your family a priority.  One of his favorite stories to tell embodied the delight he took in his family. It was at the very beginning of their marriage, as he had applied to medical school but had not received word as to whether he was accepted at the time of their wedding.  As the acceptance may have requires a move, it was stressful going on a honeymoon not knowing what would happen next.  They decided to go on their honeymoon anyway, and when the returned, voila! the acceptance letter was waiting in the mail. "I always thought that was a pretty clear sign that my family would come before my work," he would say, and then add with a smirk, "and Maggie only had to remind me a few times!"  While the working hours of an on-call surgeon may not seem ideal for convenient family time, your daughters always knew that they were a priority by the fact that any free time was spent with them.  Better than being a priority, they knew that they were loved-- unconditionally loved, Thank you for making them a priority.
 

 
Third, thank you for being a fantastic grandparent.  Personally, I want to thank you for making the grandchildren possible by not holding the first two years you knew me against me for the next thirteen. When we did finally start blessing you with grandchildren, I am grateful for how you supported us in our marriage and parenting, even though you couldn't have possibly agreed with everything we did as we blundered our way through learning how to skillfully parent. And though there is a learning curve to grandparenting, too -- one of my very favorite memories of Wes is Christmas 2010, where he followed behind one-year-old Elijah picking up every toy that Elijah flung to and fro in real time... eventually an uneasy truce where Elijah was confined to the basememt resulted -- and even though we live six hours away, our kids have always known how much their "Pa" loved them and looked forward to kayaking with him on week-long trips to the beach. They anticipated with delight the Christmas audiobooks that he and Maggie would make as he narrated their favorite stories.  These books, now one of the last treasured memories of his voice that he have left, will be saved for sharing the memories of Wes with the youngest children.  Even during his final illness, the prayers that they offered daily for him were not rote prayers stolen from us, but earnest prayers for a friend.  Thank you for making that relationship rich.
 
  
  

   



Finally, thank you for leaving a legacy worthy of a namesake.  Like many families, we give our children names with imbued meaning or name them after heroes or people of significance.  Our second son is Judah Clayton,  named after Wes.  He is already proud to be named after his grandfather, and year after year we will tell him more of the story of Wes -- of his perseverance in putting himself through medical school, of his hard work at his job, where he saved so many lives, of his musical talent, of his friends, but most importantly, of his faith in Jesus as his Rock. I think that Nicole Nordeman summed up my thoughts perfectly in her song "Legacy":

In the end I'd like to hang my hat
On more than the temporary trappings of this world
I want to leave a legacy 
How will they remember me?
Did I choose to love?
Did I point to you
enough to make a mark on things?
I want to leave an offering
A child of mercy and grace
Who blessed your name unapologetically
I want to leave a legacy...

Wes, if you were here I'd say, "Look at your legacy -- and be proud," for we gathered here are your legacy... and we will profoundly miss you.




Sunday, April 30, 2017

Farewell to my Dad

 The past month has been an unprecedented ride for our family. Things both great and small have been difficult at a level not felt since the birth of Jael. But like Jael's birth, we find the hand of the Almighty in the most unexpected of places. Below, my beautiful wife details the story of her father's unexpectedly short final days and the grace afforded her through the most difficult of times. 

There are always a few events in life that forever change you-- events that are both challenging and life altering, often leaving scars but also allowing God's sustaining hand to be seen. Jael's birth, when first I nearly died from the anesthesia and then subsequently learned about her arthrogryposis diagnosis and began a new way of living life with my sweet, medically complex little lady, was one of those events.

My dad's death is another.



While this is a hard story to write, it's an important story to remember.

It started (just!) five weeks ago, on March 22nd 2017, when my younger sister Laura called to tell me that my mom had called and was concerned about dad. Over the previous couple of weeks he'd become physically exhausted and had fallen twice for no apparent reason. He was being taken off surgical duty until they could figure out what was going on.

I carried on with life the next day, convincing myself I was not going to worry before the results came back. In my absolute worst case scenario, perhaps there was a brain tumor that they would have to remove and he'd maybe have to have chemo/radiation, and we'd maybe only have a year or so with him.  Hopefully, it would simply be forty years of round-the-clock service to his patients having ground him to a halt, and some rest and relaxation would make him hale and hearty again.

Unfortunately, my 'worst case' wasn't nearly that.

When Laura called the next day with the MRI results, I was putting Ari down for nap and couldn't grab the phone. When the phone immediately rang a second time, I knew it was bad. Two calls in a row is our code that it's an emergency. She told me the results straight forward: She didn't have good news. Dad's MRI had revealed 5 brain tumors, and the doctor who read them had told him to admit himself immediately to the local emergency room as complications were imminent. Within 24 hours, they had done a thorough workup and started to form a treatment plan. With no cancer showing up in a CT scan and his initial bloodwork being clear, he decided to have a brain biopsy done over the weekend to determine what kind of cancer it was and if it was treatable.

Still reeling, I packed up Aryel and myself and boarded a plane to Delaware leaving Micah with the larger marauders for a three-day trip to see my dad and give him a hug.

We joined my mom and both sisters at the hospital and spent some time hugging and crying and laughing together Friday afternoon. Saturday morning, good friends graciously watched Ari all day long so us 'Claytons' could be together at the hospital while dad underwent his brain biopsy.

 In the waiting room
(Every time I look at this picture taken in the hospital elevator all I can think is 'strong women')

Saturday afternoon, after a successful biopsy, Dad asked for a CT scan because he felt something was wrong (being a surgeon he knew exactly what was happening and all the implications) and indeed, the tumor swelling was significant. While the doctors continued doing everything they could to control it, by Sunday morning, the swelling had not improved. Emergency surgery would be required to save my dad's life. At the same time, my window of visitation was up -- it was time for me to fly back to MA to take care of my own family, so I did one of the hardest things I've ever done; I said my goodbye to my dad fully expecting to never see him alive again, and boarded a plane home.  

 (Ari showing off his medical skills in the ICU -- we smuggled him in as his unbounded joy at seeing his 'Pa' was just what the doctor ordered)

Amazingly, my dad pulled through the second surgery as well, fighting an amazing fight as he tried to recover his strength and hold on to see what the results of the biopsy would show. Personally, I struggled greatly with where I should be. While my family needed me in MA, I couldn't help but feel the immense heartbreak that I might be missing the last time I would ever have to spend with my dad.

It was during that week back in Beverly that God, in His mercy, gave me a clear vision of my dad. I saw my dad in his hospital bed in the neuro ICU with Laura in a chair by his side, and my mom resting at the foot of his bed. In the vision, stretching over all three was God's mighty wing, hovering over the whole room and protecting all who gathered there. Truly, what can be more comforting than your heavenly Father showing you beyond doubt's shadow that your earthly father is, as he has always been, under His care and protection.

The biopsy results came back on Thursday March 30th, a week from the initial MRI. The diagnosis: glioblastoma, an incurable type of brain cancer. Because of the nature of the diagnosis and because of how advanced the tumors were, my dad decided to enter hospice care to spend the time he had left with us.

As he got settled into his new room, I talked with Micah, and began working on a plan to visit again. He would watch the kids over a long weekend, and I would set up babysitting for the days that I would be gone.  The support our friends, family and church community provided (then and now, as they continue to bless us with meals, date nights, and unexpected gifts even after his passing) was overwhelming.  By the time I left on April 6th, we had all the help needed with meals and children.

 So it was that after creating a flow chart full of information (I can't help it -- I'm a planner!)  on who was providing daily childcare, updated schedules for each child, and help with meals, I left my family in MA and flew out to spend some time with my family in DE -- the last time that we would all be together this side of heaven.  

And what a sweet time we had- dad and his girls! As I watched him face down his mortality, I was struck by the fact that you may never  know the full measure of a man's life until you watch him face its end. My dad did so with grace, and humor, and love. We had a weekend together that was filled with memories we'll never forget. The nurses were wonderful taking care of him; friends and family helped both in DE and MA taking care of us (all of us!) so that we daughters and mom could just be together with my dad in the hospital. And so many colleagues, nurses, patients, friends, and family wrote beautiful messages to dad.  We would read the new letters to him daily as we sat with him so that he knew how loved he was.  The vigil was long and surprisingly emotionally exhausting, but precious beyond all words.  

One last selfie with dad!


I returned to MA on Monday and when I finally got into the car at the airport I had one child puking in the back seat, one child screaming "mama", a little lady happier to see me than she could put into words, one child with more than enough words to cover everyone's happiness,  and a husband who would never again underestimate just how draining five solo days with tiny dictators could be. All I could think was, "They need me!" and a little bit of peace was again restored to my heart.

Laura and dad

On April 20th, 2017,  exactly four weeks after his brain MRI, my dad, surrounded in his room by his family, was ushered by the angels through the gates of Paradise.  We don't know what he saw as he traded his mortal body for an immortal one, nor would we have words to describe it, but we can say with surety what he heard: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant... Come and share your
master's happiness!"


And until we meet again, Dad, at the marriage-supper of the Lamb, in the great and glorious feast of the ages -- we're going to miss you!