Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Love is the Bridge Between Us


As a public health nurse, I often work with refugees, dragging my nursing bag into their humble low-income housing. Years ago, I had a final visit with a family that I had worked with for many months and that experience was one that I will never forget. 

I remember shaking the snow off of my nursing clogs as I entered the very warm apartment. This family had come from a very warm country and had not yet acclimated to cold Iowa winters and they kept their apartment as a warm oasis from the winter’s cold bite. I felt the tension the moment that I walked in the door and noticed the sadness in the eyes of each of the family members who greeted the interpreter(there to bridge the communication divide) and I at the door. Emotions were high on this final visit, as the family had become very attached to me (and I to them). There is a bitter sweetness to final visits and we were all feeling that-- the joy of the family no longer needing a nurse and the sadness that our journey together had come to an end. We went through the familiar motions of our visit; weighing the baby and scheduling doctors’ visits and talking through any needed education so that the family can live their best life. And, too soon, the visit was over and our time together had come to an end.

As I stood to leave, the mother motioned for me to be silent. She said, through the interpreter, that she would like me to not say goodbye this time-- it was far too emotional for her and she would like to think that we would meet again. In fact, she was certain that we would be together again in the after life.

She motioned for me to come over and stand by her and then motioned for her children to encircle us. I could tell by the children’s immediate move into position and the confident smiles on their faces that this had been practiced before my visit. The children were so excited that they were teeming with energy, bounding on the balls of their feet as their mother chided them with a smile, asking them to stand still.

She took my hand in hers, her dark skin contrasting completely with my blindingly white skin, and told me that we were sisters now. She said that, in her former country, when someone helps your child that you are bonded to that person for life, that life could never separate you. At this point, she began to cry and, even though I was willing myself not to cry, I could feel the wetness on my cheeks that let me know that I was failing. She stepped away from me for a moment, attempting to wipe her cheeks surreptitiously, and came back with an intricate incense burner, which was reminiscent of the one that had been used in my childhood church.

Her children began to sing a song together-- the words in a language unknown to me, but somehow known to my heart. She smiled her gratitude to her children and brought her focus back to me. She began to swing the incense around me, enveloping me in a cloud of pungent sweetness. She began speaking quickly over me, the interpreter struggling to keep up with her words.

May you live a life of peace.
May your children and your children’s children live a life of peace.

May you live a healthy life.
May your children and your children’s children live a life of health.

May you live a life of abundance.
May your children and your children’s children live a life of abundance.

The words were spoken over and over again. Incense rising. Children’s voices singing sweetly. My client, the interpreter and I were wiping our leaking tears and smiling through them. I could feel the invisible strings that connected us all together in that precious moment. 

I felt the intention of each word spoken over me and felt the words fall around me, as heavy and comforting as a thick blanket on a cold night. I believed with every atom of my being that she wished so very much for these blessings to be true that they would be.  She had no way of making sure that these intentions which she spoke over me would come to fruition and, yet, the words were bursting with the power of dynamic, heartfelt yearning.

When she was done, I looked around the tiny, shabby apartment filled to the brim with children. It was so full of love that I wondered how it could be contained by these cracked walls. I knew in my heart that I had done many things for this family in the past year, much more than was in my job description. I knew solidly that they were in a much better place than when I met them. I also knew that they had taught me much more than I could have ever reciprocated.

I gathered my nursing bag and headed for the door, quietly putting my shoes on while continuing to wipe away tears. I would not say goodbye. I was certain that she was right and our paths would cross again, even if it was just in the memories passing through are minds. Goodbye was not a word that would suffice the end of the visit.

Instead I gathered every bit of intention within me and I said, as I was crossing the doorway echoed by the interpreter behind me-

May you live a life of peace.
May your children and your children’s children live a life of peace.

May you live a healthy life.
May your children and your children’s children live a life of health.

May you live a life of abundance.

May your children and your children’s children live a life of abundance.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Out of the Darkness, a Christmas Blessing

On a hot and humid August night, just days before I was set to start fourth grade, our home burned to the ground. It wasn't a dream home or a rambling white Iowa farmhouse that I always dreamt of living in. It was, instead, a small trailer on a tiny lot inside a small square full of other trailers in a trailer park bordered by cornfields outside of the small town of Bondurant, Iowa. It was not a dream home but it was our home, a home full of love and we had lived there for years, surrounded by friends and neighbors.

That night, the night when we lost all of our Earthly belongings, was a terrible night. It also was a night full of miracles and the miracles would not end when that awful night was over.

My Mom was gone that evening at a concert at the Iowa State Fair. It was incredibly rare for my Mom to go out without the family, both because money was tight and because our family was always my parents' priority. But, she was gone that evening and my Dad, in an unusual gesture, asked if all three of the kids wanted to sleep in his bedroom and have a slumber party of sorts. We happily agreed and my little brother cozied up in the big bed with Dad and my sister and I snuggled into blankets on the floor at the foot of the bed. We watched the tiny television in the bedroom until we all fell asleep, the television still streaming light into the dark bedroom which was all the way at the back end of the trailer.

A short time later, I was awoken by my Dad screaming. He was frantic, physically pulling us up onto our feet, holding my brother in his arms and we raced, still sleepy and confused, down the tiny hallway of the trailer that ran alongside the bedrooms. The smoke was thick and the crackle of the fire deafening. I remember my heart racing as I saw the bedroom that my sister and I shared was completely engulfed in flames.

We raced to the neighbors house and my Dad frantically pounded on the door until finally the neighbor opened the door and, still in his underwear, joined my dad in dragging out their garden hoses and focusing the water both on our trailer and his in an effort to both stop our fire and prevent it from spreading from one trailer to the next as only a tiny dried bit of grass separated the two structures.

We stood warily out in the street watching as the fire department, full of half-asleep volunteers, arrived and tried to put out the flames. Our neighbors and friends surrounded us and wrapped us in blankets as we stood shivering, even though the Iowa summer air was sweltering. We were in shock as the gaping hole in the side of the trailer became wider and wider, a sick gaping smile in what was once our family home, being licked ever wider by orange flames. I cried for my Pamela doll and my copy of Alice in Wonderland that were surely lost inside the flames. My brother and sister cried silently beside me, each of us lost in our minds thinking of what was lost as my Dad raced around, watching the fire fighters and talking to police officers.

Nearly every earthly possession we had was now gone. We mourned our favorite things. As the shock wore off, however, we were realizing that we were all together, alive and unharmed. I remember hearing my dad talking to a police officer and saying over and over again in a daze that my sister and I could have been dead. I'd never seem him so discombobulated and confused, repeating things over and over again.  In my vivid imagination, I remembered just hours before seeing our bedroom aflame. I realized, with a start, that had my mother not been at that concert and we had not been invited for a sleepover in my parents bedroom, that we would have been snuggled into our shared bed in that bedroom in a bed that bordered the wall shared with the water heater that exploded and started the fire that night. We would not have survived. 

As a child, I had never before thought of the possibility of my own death before. That night I realized that the simple act of my sister and I breathing in and out, unharmed and with our life before us, was a miracle. We were alive.

Other miracles would follow. The box of photographs that would lay untouched and completely unharmed by fire, smoke or water damage in a closet-- I remember my mother crying over that box of photos.  The kindness of strangers and friends and family, alike as we were showered with donations and love.

In the months to come there would be many struggles for my parents trying to make a new life for us on a pittance of an insurance check. There would be a new school and a new apartment that smelled faintly of the chain-smoker that lived there before us. We received new clothing and toys, but only in meager amounts as money was very tight. As a painfully shy and awkward girl, I struggled to acclimate to all of the newness.

The fall was a trying time and as we came into the Christmas season, I was weary and tired and a large part of me wanted our old life back. I cannot now, as an adult, imagine how much more challenging these times had to have been on my parents, but they did not often show the strain. I warily looked forward to Christmas as a bright spot among the weariness of the constant change.

On Christmas Eve we had a gathering at my dad's family home as always. On our way home, we kept our eyes focused out of the car windows and on the sky to try to spot Santa's sleigh, as always. It was our family tradition to open presents on Christmas Eve and Santa somehow always had our presents waiting for us when we came home from the party. I had not believed in Santa for years but happily searched the sky for bright stars that I could point out to my siblings as "Rudolph's nose". We arrived home to our meager apartment and I expected the handful of presents that we usually received. I dreamt of packages of books and, just maybe- a Pamela doll like the one I'd had before(that we had not been able to find in stores since). What we walked into was so much more than our usual Christmas, however.

In the living room was our modest Christmas tree, lit up in multicolored lights that shined across the darkened room. And, on the floor- across the ENTIRE floor- were presents. Presents stretched and stacked everywhere the eye could see. It was a child's dream. At our parent's blessing, we ripped into the presents and discovered toys and books and clothing and shoes- all of the things that we had lost and more.

After, we sat blissfully surrounded by presents and torn paper, our faces lit by the lights and by the joy we carried. My siblings played with their new toys and I stacked up my new books in my lap. My brother and sister believed that this miracle was the work of Santa, but I knew differently. My parents, out of love and sacrifice, had made this miracle happen and that was even more of a miracle and a blessing than a strange man climbing down our chimney.

Just months before, I had taken many things for granted; a cozy home, my family and even my own life. I now knew what a real miracle was. That night four months before, we lost so many things. However, my sister and I had very nearly been spared the loss of our own lives and our family was nearly broken. We were saved, in so many ways.

We had lost so much that year. My family had always been the five of us against the world and that Christmas night I was grateful for the presents around our tree but was ever so sure that the true blessing was the five of us together, in a room that held so much love that I didn't know how the walls managed to contain it. 

The unusual truth about awful happenings is that it is often in the wake of tragedy that beautiful truths can come to the light, truths that we should've known all along but had forgotten. In the midst of the darkness, there can shine a light so determined that it overcomes the darkest of nights. Out of our darkness came a series of miracles that culminated in the most glorious Christmas that our family had ever known or would ever know again. I will be forever grateful to carry those memories with me for always.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Safe Spaces

I have the privilege of being able to volunteer at my daughter's elementary school on Friday mornings. I have done so for most of the years that my three children have attended Centennial Elementary in Altoona, Iowa(my older two children are now in middle school and high school).

I often find that as I enter the building, a palpable sense of calm washes over me. I can feel my heart rate slowing and my stress dissipating as I sign in to the office and am so kindly greeted by staff as I walk down to the second grade classroom where I will work with students and make copies and whatever is needed for the morning. 

I have long thought that the reason that I love Friday mornings so much is that I get to work with children. I am a mother and a pediatric nurse so you may have already realized my love for children. However, I have been realizing lately that my love for Friday mornings and this school goes so much deeper than just the privilege of getting to work with a know a classroom of children. I love Friday mornings because Centennial Elementary is a safe space for all who enter the walls of this institution that is far more than just a place of education. It is a place of safety and love for all who enter. I feel insulated from the volatile outside world the minute that I walk inside these doors.

There has been much talk of safe spaces lately. With a divisive political culture, an election that nearly brought many of us to our knees and hate crimes on the rise, many of us have been searching for safe spaces-- family and friends who understand us, the comfort of home, building communities of likeminded people. Some are mocked and deemed weak when they talk of such a need for a place of safety, a place to be themselves without repercussions.

On Friday mornings when I walk inside the brick walls of the elementary school that I once attended myself, I see the beauty of places where children(and adults) are free to be themselves. The staff here, all of them from the principal to the janitor, have made a concerted effort to make this space a place where students can come and learn and be loved on, a place to be uniquely themselves.

As I work with students, I often notice the few in torn and dirty clothing and the few with eyes that always hold sadness. As a public health nurse in this community, I know that not all of these children will have a safe place at home. However, when they are here they are safe and loved.

Over the course of the each school year I get to witness little miracles in these hallowed walls. I've watched perpetually quiet children become animated and full of spoken thoughts. I've watched as the school organized clothing and gifts each year for every student whose family cannot afford to provide a comfortable Christmas for their family(and do so without fanfare, without asking for thanks). I've watched children that moved from another school come to Centennial very behind on educational benchmarks and, with the help of staff, learn so much in one year that the next year they easily keep up with their peers. There are many seen and unseen miracles in this school each year(and in schools around the world).

I know that this school isn't perfect. No school is. However, I've seen with my own eyes the beauty of what can happen when people come together in love and create a space where people can blossom. I've seen the beauty of what could've been a cold, educational institution instead becoming a haven for all. It is a beautiful thing. 

I will never be able to verbalize my gratitude for the staff that made this haven for my children and the other students here. I cannot imagine the work that this takes each and every day. I witness a tiny bit of that effort on my Friday mornings and it takes my breath away.

There is so much hate in the world right now, but there is so much light too. Centennial Elementary is a light in my world and in the world of many. I will forever be grateful.

Now, if only we could somehow expand the walls of this small, suburban school to somehow include us all. What a lovely world that would be. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

When Christmas Hurts

For many of us, Christmastime is a time of great joy. A time of sparkling lights, sweet treats, joining together with family and friends, caroling and gifts. A time for forgetting our worries and coming together to celebrate. I have many friends that wait with baited breath all year for Thanksgiving to be over and the Christmas season to officially begin so that they can sink into the joy of the season.

However, for many others, this time of year simply amplifies the holes that are in their hearts and lives.

When I was a hospice nurse, I realized for the first time in my life just how hard this time of year is for those who are mourning. Christmas traditions and celebrations, especially for those celebrating the first holiday season without a loved one, can feel bittersweet or empty without those that they once celebrated with.

My grandmother passed away on Thanksgiving a few years ago and now that holiday has a melancholy edge to it which I imagine will remain forever. Those who have lost spouses or children this time of year will not only have a melancholy edge to those holidays, but instead a gaping hole that may never feel filled.

As a public health nurse who works with those living in poverty, I now know that those struggling financially live in worry for this entire season. They worry not only about how to put presents under the tree, but also how to heat their homes and put food on their tables. They are often working multiple jobs and have no time to sink into the joy of the season. The strain of this time of year on these families often causes increased fighting, domestic violence and tension in the households.

Those of us that struggle with depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses often feel that the cheer around us seems false when the darkness inside us is blooming. There have been years where I hunkered down inside away from the cheer outside and avoided Christmas parties like the plague. I just simply couldn't rustle up enough Christmas cheer to join in the festivities.

I also struggle with the commercialization of Christmas. It all just seems so fake and greedy at times. I find myself channeling Cindy Lou Who and wondering where Christmas is underneath all of the fakery.

There are many reasons to celebrate Christmas and also many reasons that this season exaggerates the pain that we feel all year round.

I must admit that Christmas is, indeed, my favorite time of year. However, there are many years that I struggle and struggle deeply. For the cheer around us does little to eradicate the darkness within. Some days I just want to turn off the Christmas tunes and the Christmas tree and hunker down into the sadness a bit. And, I honor you if you need to do so, as well.

False cheer is not cheerful at all and it, in fact, always seems to intensify my sadness to pretend. If you are struggling this season, be kind to yourself and know that you are not alone. 

If the darkness seems like too much, please reach out. You can always speak to someone online or by phone here. The world needs you, Love. This too shall pass.