Crossroads

The email in my inbox held an easy ask: “Would you be willing to be one of the moms interviewed in a video shoot for Willow Creek’s Mother’s Day services?” Sure. Yes, I can do that. Glad to help.

It was the P.S. that gave me pause: “One more thing: please send us a photo of your family.” The simple request put me at a crossroads. We have taken a family picture every Christmas for 29 years, so sourcing a photo wouldn’t be hard. The problem was choosing which photo to send: Do I send our most current picture—the first Christmas photo taken with our new granddaughter, Cadence, age three months?

Vaudrey Christmas 2012

Vaudrey Christmas 2012

Or do I send the family photo from five years ago—the last Christmas photo with our middle daughter Katie, who died six months later?

Vaudrey Christmas 2007

Vaudrey Christmas 2007

Katie’s premature death means we can never have a photo that holds both. Whom will I choose? Who wins?

Losing a child means forever facing little crossroads like this—choices of past vs. future, of what was vs. what is, and what is to come. If I choose this year’s photo, will people think I’ve just moved on? Will they not realize Katie forever holds her place in my heart?

I worry about this. But I worry more about becoming someone stuck in the glorified days of the past, following the siren song of self-pity, holing up in memories of the life I had loved when all my kids were alive. And by choosing a family photo that is five years old, I realized I would be making the statement to myself, “This is who our real family is—frozen in time, unchanging.”

Every time I face such crossroads, big or small, I try to be intentional about choosing “now”. Choosing to accept rather than deny. Choosing to let go rather than hold on. But at each crossroad, I first must fight a small inner battle. And every turn toward surrender requires some wrestling and then a moment of grief. It’s never easy to let go. I suspect it never will be.

Both photos sat open on my laptop. I clicked between them. In my gut, I knew what I must do.

I opened the Mother’s Day email, hit Reply, and attached the file that read, “Family Photo 2012.”

Send.

Wobble

Hey friends, this is more of a short-story memoir than a blog. A snapshot of my childhood and the fondest of times…It’s a good read-aloud story if your kids are old enough, though it’s a little more graphic than your average episode of Little House on the Prairie… :)

Dad was out of town on business, and Mom had driven my nine-year-old little brother into town for his Saturday-morning physical therapy—and then there would be errands to run. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a toddler, Greg’s left arm and leg were twisted, his gait unsteady, his mind slow. “Result of a birth injury,” was the pediatrician’s best guess, “A lack of oxygen to the brain during delivery.”

I was eleven and today it would be up to me to hold down the fort at our farm. These were pre-cell phone days, and save for our black lab, Shane, and the list of chores waiting on the counter, I was completely alone—and feeling proud of the responsibility Mom had entrusted to me.

The morning was bright and beautiful for late February. The valley was nestled under a tender blanket of Pacific Northwest fog, which habitually fingered its way along the Issaquah Creek until long after the sun had burned its way through the clouds. I looked over the list, grateful that Mom hadn’t saddled me with “girl jobs,” but had entrusted me with the barn chores.

“C’mon, Shane,” I said, slapping my leg. With a thick slab of toast in one hand and Shane’s warm muzzle at my other, we headed for the barn.

Our old dairy barn was my refuge. I spent countless hours there as a child, lying on sweet-smelling bales of hay in the hayloft, lulled by pigeons’ cooing in the rafters, or daydreaming about valiant ranch adventures, of which I was always the unassuming, horseback-riding hero. I slid open the barn door and a dozen horses’ noses peeked out from behind stall gates to greet me. Forty cattle stanchions had once lined these walls, securing the blocky heads of dairy cows as a gentle, leather-handed farmer milked them one-by-one, morning and night. When our family had moved to the farm six years ago, my dad had replaced the stanchions with horse stalls to accommodate our own three horses and those of people who would rent pasture and stall space from us.

main barn

The massive barn measured 40′ x 110′, with a soaring second-story hayloft.

A wide concrete aisle sprawled down the center of the barn. I’d learned to ride a bike on its smooth, cool surface, and for the past two years, my brother Greg has been wearing his training wheels thin on his small red bike. I loved watching him ride that bike. No limp, no wobble. Just breeze on his face, and speed. My mom’s mare whinnied at me, setting off a volley of nickers from the other horses. They were ready for breakfast.

I headed to the old milk shed where metal trash cans stored our grain, and measured each horse’s portion with a dented Folgers coffee-can scoop. Shane followed close behind, licking up the spilled kernels of corn or oats, his tongue leaving wet crescent-moon prints on the cold cement. I then topped off water buckets and tossed a pad of hay into each horse’s hay bin.

Next up, the cows. Shane and I ascended the steep stairs into the hayloft, breaking its morning stillness and setting off a flurry of pigeons. The hayloft was vast in both size and presence, with its massive beams and high-sheen hardwood floor, the color of fresh coffee. The floorboards, made of two-inch-thick clear fir, bore the sheen of decades of hay-bale polishings. The rough-hewn beams that supported the barn’s roof, easily two feet thick and hand-milled by the men who settled this valley, reminded me of the inside ribcage of a giant whale. I always felt a little Jonah-like when I stood in the middle of the floor and looked up. How tall had those trees been, which the settlers had felled to craft these beams? How tall would they be today? 

Two floor-length windows opened onto our main pasture, and from that vantage point, even in the fog I could make out the rooflines of the next farm down the valley—the Verschaeve’s place, with its farmhouse, yellow dairy barn, and milk shed. Hector Verschaeve’s herd of purebred black-and-white Holsteins was undoubtedly getting its morning milking inside the yellow barn. Hector was an old, weathered dairyman. His place was one of the last farms in the valley still milking twice a day and selling to Darigold. He was more of a phantom than a real person to us kids. We rarely caught sight of him, and he was none-too-friendly whenever he saw us exploring the creek line near his property. I’d only heard him speak once, when he’d stormed across the pasture a few years back, bellowing at my dad in his thick German accent. Seems our Hereford bull had gotten loose among Hector’s purebred Holsteins (strong fences weren’t my dad’s forte). The following spring, Hector had sold us a mixed-breed calf.

verschaeves

Hector and Florence Verschaeve’s dairy farm butted against our main pasture.

Our small herd of Hereford-Angus-Holstein mutts gathered like clockwork beneath the hayloft window, their sweet steamy breath rising above their fuzzy winter coats. Spotting me, they jostled for position. In a few weeks, we’d no longer need to hay the cows morning and night; spring would be in full throttle, the grass would shoot up fresh and green, and the cows would have plenty to eat from the pasture alone. But today the grass was still the dull gray-green of winter, and the herd needed a little extra boost.

Taking the hay hook from its spot near the window, I impaled a bale from the stack near the back of the loft. I wasn’t strong enough to carry the bale, so I drug it across the slick floor and popped it open. I grabbed the pitchfork—its ancient, grey wood warm and smooth in my hand—and began tossing giant pads of hay to the hungry masses below. This I repeated with two more bales, spreading out the pads evenly so each cow would have plenty and there would be no fighting.

After the last pitchfork-full was launched, Shane flopped down before the open window to survey the contented herd. I joined him, my skinny legs dangling a few feet above the cows’ backs as I took a head count. It was probably too early in the year to worry about calving, but there were other threats to the herd—coyotes or breached fences—so it was habit to number them morning and night, and make sure all 18 head were accounted for. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen… Seventeen head. I counted again. . .sixteen, seventeen. That couldn’t be right. I counted a third time. I was indeed one cow short. Who was missing?

To an outsider, these cows might all look alike, but to a rancher, each is an individual. I quickly realized it was Amy who was missing. Two springs earlier, I had watched Amy be born and she was a beauty, as cows go—a black white-face with large, gentle eyes. Mom had let me name her, and—having just finished Little Women—I’d chosen the prettiest March sister as her namesake.

I stood and scanned the pasture. In the distance, a dark mass, low to the ground, was barely visible through the fog. The mass wasn’t moving. I raced down the stairs, slipped through the pasture gate, and bolted into the fog, Shane at my heels. As I neared the far side of the pasture, I found Amy flat on her side, breathing heavily, and clearly in labor. I slowed to a walk and quietly approached.

A small pink muzzle and two tiny hooves were already sticking out of her hind side. Our cows usually calved quickly and with ease, but Amy was barely two, and this was her first calf. Her dark eyes lolled back in her head, and steam rose from her sweat-soaked hide. How long had she been laboring? A few hours? All night? Amy tossed her head toward me, and struggled nervously to her feet. Her eyes widened at Shane’s presence and she snorted a threat his direction. “Shane, go on!” I whispered and pointed. Obediently, Shane retreated about fifty feet and sat down facing us, his ears on high alert.

“Hey, Amy. . .” I crooned in my smoothest voice. “Hey, girl, it’s all right.” She looked horrible. And I was alone. I know enough about calving to recognize that this baby needed out—and quickly—or we might lose both the calf and its mother. I’d seen plenty of calves be born, but had never played midwife by myself before.

Amy groaned and contracted. Her back arched and she bore down, but the tiny hooves and muzzle didn’t budge. They showed no sign of life. The words of my brother’s pediatrician came to mind: “Likely the result of a birth injury. Lack of oxygen to the brain during delivery.” Again Amy contracted. Hesitantly, I grabbed the tiny hooves and pulled as she pushed. But the hooves were too slippery, and I couldn’t get a firm grip. Amy folded her front legs and down she went onto her side, breathing hard.

“It’s okay, girl,” I said. I needed help, and Mom wouldn’t be home for hours. Frantically, my mind raced.

The Verschaeves!

Hector Verschaeve knew everything about cows. I looked toward his barn. The doors were open and it looked pitch black inside, but Mr. Verschaeve was no doubt there, finishing up his morning milking. Except for a few covert explorations of his side of the creek, I had never set foot on his place, never spoken to him directly.

Amy groaned again, and flung her head my direction. She bore down, and when a stream of clear fluid squirted from her hind side, I ran for Verschaeves’ and didn’t stop running until I reached their fence line.

I pulled up short, and stared at that dark cavern of a doorway. My knees felt weak and my heart pounded, both from the running and from nerves. But I knew what I needed to do. I squeezed through the fence, crossed the barnyard, swallowed hard, and stepped into the cavern of Mr. Verschaeve’s barn.

My eyes struggled to adjust to the dark. Mr. Verschaeve’s silhouette, stark against the open door at the far end of the barn, was fast approaching, like a guard dog confronting an intruder. Before I could think what to say, he stood before me, eyebrows furrowed, a frown on his lips. Up close, I was struck by how short he was—barely a few inches taller than me. Yet his presence was striking. Deep-set eyes glared from above high, smooth cheekbones. His clean-shaven skin was tanned and oily. Deep creases cut across his forehead and down both cheeks. Thistled silver hair, cropped close, stood erect against the darkness. His arms hung from squared shoulders, their lean muscles outlined beneath his denim sleeves. His legs were thick, slightly-bowed tree trunks, solidly visible even through his loose overalls. He wore knee-high rubber boots caked in cow manure. But most remarkable were his hands, oversized in proportion to the rest of the man. Thick, leathery fingers curved from each calloused palm. Decades of milking cows morning and night read like a book in those hands.

“Good morning, Mr. Verschaeve,” I said. He stared stone-faced, unblinking. I swallowed hard and continued. “I’m Greg and Teda Voss’s daughter…from down the road. And …one of our cows is down.” A faint flicker of acknowledgment now fleeted across his face. I had his attention, but still he didn’t speak.

“My parents aren’t home, sir…” I swallowed again but my mouth was dry. Behind him, his cows grew restless. Milked and fed, they were ready for pasture. An impatient, “Maaah,” broke the silence. Why won’t he say something? Is he angry that I’ve penetrated the fortress of his barn? Is he still mad that Greg and I had sneaked across the fence line to explore his side of the creek last October?

The Issaquah Creek cut through our pasture and into Verschaeves’. On the day in question last fall, the salmon had been spawning. Greg and I loved tracking these battle-scarred beasts as they fought their way upstream each autumn to lay their eggs in the very spot where they themselves had been hatched years before. Our quest for the biggest salmon had led us down the creek to the fence that separated our property from Verschaeves’. Just the other side of the fence was a deep pool, dense with wild mint, watercress, and horsetail reeds—a perfect pit stop for the salmon on their quest upstream. A half-dozen large shadowy figures taunted us from the depths of that pool.

“Let’s cross over!” Greg had said.

“You know we’re not supposed to be on Verschaeve’s property,” I replied, ever the rule-follower.

“No one’s looking, and I can scare those guys with my sword and make them swim to our side.” Greg waved his flimsy maple-branch “sword” at the shadows in the pool.

“Fine,” I relented. “But let’s be quick.” I put my foot on a lower strand of barbed wire, and pulled up on the wire above it, inviting Greg to squeeze through. Even on a flat surface, his balance was precarious, so I held the back of his jacket to steady him with my free hand as he bent to slip through the fence.

“Let go, Sis! I can do it myself! I’m not a baby.”

“I was just holding on to you to keep my balance, Greg,” I lied. “It’s slippery, and I don’t want to fall.”After freeing his jacket from more than one barb, I pushed him through and quickly followed.

Greg made his way toward the pool, brandished his sword at the shadows below. He slapped the surface of the water with the branch, but the unimpressed salmon barely flinched.

Just then, I heard the deep rumble of a tractor. In the distance, Mr. Verschaeve’s old Ford was pulling his manure spreader out of the barn.

“It’s Mr. Verschaeve! Get down!” I said. We crouched among the reeds. The tractor ambled toward us, but Mr. Verschaeve’s focus was on the spreader, behind.

“C’mon!” I said. For once, Greg didn’t resist my orders. We retraced our steps in record time.

Only when we were safely on our side of the fence did I dare look back at Mr. Verschaeve. He was standing behind the wheel of his tractor, staring straight at us. Had he seen us trespassing in his pasture? Would he call Dad? Busted, we slinked home, Greg’s sword dragging behind him.

All this flashed through my mind as I stood before Mr. Verschaeve now. In the distance, Amy let out a mournful, unnatural bellow, jerking me back to the present. Mr. Verschaeve’s eyes broke their stare and reflexively sought the source of her cry.

“The calf won’t come,” I blurted out. “Mr. Verschaeve, could you…help? I need your help! Please…sir.”

He grunted and brushed past me toward the pasture. I scrambled behind, trotting to keep up with his brisk, short-legged strut. We crossed the barnyard, slipped through the fence, and in a moment we were at Amy’s side. She had not budged and this time she made no effort to stand as we approached. Shane paced anxiously at his post.

Mr. Verschaeve was transfigured in the presence of this struggling young cow. He began to speak soft German endearments to her. “Wie gehts, mein Mädchen? Ist schon gut. . . es ist gut, mein kleine Mädchen.” He held out a calloused hand to her, and she sniffed it cautiously. He stroked along her jowl, and scratched behind her ear. She relaxed visibly under his touch. He patted his way down her side, along her stiff hind quarters, until he was at her hind end. Running his fingers around the calf’s muzzle and hooves, he turned to me.

“Up!” He motioned with both arms, pointing at Amy. We had to get Amy to her feet. He rolled up his shirt sleeves.

“Come on, Amy! Up you go, girl!” I pushed at her chest, then pulled at her neck. She was unimpressed. I slapped wildly at her side. “Up you go, girl! C’mon!”

Nervously, Amy rose to her feet and took a few steps forward. Again she contracted and pushed. This time, Mr. Verschaeve plunged both hands inside her, grabbed the calf’s ankles, and pulled. The hooves eased forward until both ankles were visible. The calf’s muzzle came forward next, and then slowly, its forehead popped out, birth sac still covering its face. Eyes shut, there was no movement, no sign of life.

Amy bellowed. Mr. Verschaeve released the calf’s ankles and stepped back. He ran his wet hands over Amy’s haunches and felt under her tight belly. Glancing at me, he barked in thick, broken English, “Das. . .belt!” He pointed toward the leather belt that held up my Levis. I had bought it with my own money on an Indian reservation that summer, and it boasted genuine beadwork all the way around. I unbuckled the belt, slid it free, and handed it to Mr. Verschaeve. I hiked up my jeans and widened my stance to keep them from slipping down.

Masterfully, Mr. Verschaeve looped my belt around the calf’s ankles, wrapped the strap end around his wrist, braced his feet in the damp sod, and waited. When Amy contracted again, he pulled slow and steady with both hands, easing his full weight into the tension. This time, the calf’s shoulders and chest emerged. Its head flailed to one side.

It’s still alive!

Mr. Verschaeve pulled the birth sac from around the calf’s mouth and nose with one hand while maintaining slow pressure with the belt in the other. Fluid drained from the calf’s nostrils, and it tried to breathe, but with ribs still tightly squeezed, it couldn’t inhale. “Lack of oxygen to the brain during delivery.” My pulse quickened.

Mr. Verschaeve wiped sweat from his forehead with the forearm of his free hand and pointed at the calf. “Too big.” A sickening pit knotted in my stomach. A third contraction brought no results, despite Mr. Verschaeve’s impressive strength. Nor a fourth, nor fifth. The calf was stuck.

Amy stood exhausted, legs sprawled, head hanging. Less steam came from her nostrils now. She was dehydrated, spent.

Mr. Verschaeve stepped back, thinking. “’ee’s caught,” he said, “. . .here.” He patted at his hips. I began to understand that the calf’s hips were stuck against the inside of his mother’s hips. “Hip lock,” I’d heard my parents call it in previous troubled deliveries over the years. Not unheard of with a large calf and a first-time mama.

Mr. Verschaeve stared at the calf, then sized up my scrawny arms and legs. I felt small and useless. He grabbed my shoulder and nudged me toward the half-exposed calf. “Hold. Like this,” he said, demonstrating that I was to wrap my arms around the calf’s chest and hoist it upward. “Now,” he said quietly, “you. . .go up, I…go down.” He grabbed the belt to show he would pull at a downward angle while I lifted the calf upward. He wanted the two of us to ease the calf’s hips up and over its mother’s.

He took his position and jerked his head impatiently for me to take mine. I sidled along Amy’s sweat-dried flank and wrapped my arms around the protruding calf. The warm wetness soaked through my shirt, and I felt queazy. My knees grew weak, like Amy’s. I can barely lift a bale of hay. What if I’m not strong enough to hoist this big calf? What if I’m not tall enough to give Mr. Verschaeve the height he needs to help the calf clear Amy’s hips? But we had no option. I waited.

Amy’s muscles grew taut and she arched her back. My heart raced. “Here we go!” I said. The cow moaned pitifully and her contraction was weak, but it was all we had.

Now!” Mr. Verschaeve ordered. I locked my hands under the calf’s chest and began lifting as hard as I could. The calf wasn’t budging. Mr. Verschaeve pulled harder, the leather belt cutting into his wrists and the calf’s knobby ankles. Nothing.

In a final surge of strength, I thrust my left hip under the calf’s chest and pushed up with my legs as I lifted with my arms. Suddenly, as if a silent latch had released inside Amy, the calf began to slide forward. Mr. Verschaeve continued his steady, iron pull, and the calf slipped free, sliding headfirst in a wet heap upon the grass. My beaded Indian belt slackened, and Mr. Verschaeve tumbled onto his hind end.

“Aha!” he hollered, grinning broadly and clapping his wet, leathery hands. For a fleeting moment, the sternness washed from his face, and he was a joyful schoolboy. Shyly, he regained his stern façade and stood to his feet.

The calf right-sized its head, gasped a sweet lungful of morning air, and let out an indignant, ‘Maaaa!” Amy turned and was at its side in a flash, sniffing and licking, re-energized by her maternal drive.

Mr. Verschaeve released the dampened belt from the calf’s ankles and tossed it back to me. He gave Amy and the calf a methodical once-over. “Fine bull-calf,” he assessed, giving the calf’s blocky head a boyish rake.

Amy positioned herself protectively between us and her baby, her rough tongue licking vigorously to remove the remaining sac and clean her young charge, whose head wobbled comically under her tongue’s strong thrusts. Its new eyes blinked in the morning sun.

I stood engrossed, watching the two of them for several minutes before realizing that Mr. Verschaeve was gone. I looked up just in time to see his wiry figure slip back through the fence.

“Thank you, Mr. Verschaeve!” I shouted, jumping and waving both arms. Amy startled. The old dairyman looked up. Across that distance, our eyes met, and he gave me a firm nod. Then he turned and retreated into his barn.

The sun warmed the morning air, the fog lifted, and a beautiful day broke forth. For another hour or so, I sat quietly, watching our new bull-calf. He stood, wobbled toward his mama, and found a warm teat to suckle. Her colostrum—the first milk—would provide those crucial nutrients that propel every baby into a strong start in life. Amy stood, tired but content.

Strengthened by his meal and increasingly brave, the calf tottered tentatively toward me. His copper-colored neck rippled in the dewy sunlight and his facial markings were so white they cast a bluish hue. Large blue-grey eyes laced with long lashes winked at me. I froze as he ventured near, hoping he’d come close enough to touch. Bravely, purposefully, his neck strained toward my outstretched palm. His cold nose nudged my fingertips.

“Hey buddy,” I whisper. “How ya doin’?” His sandpaper-like tongue slobbered itself around my fingers. Instinctively, he suckled, his goopy, sandpapery tongue massaging the backside of my fingers. I raised my other hand to his shoulder, patted my way up his neck, and scratched behind his ear. For a minute or two, he tolerated my adorations, suckling my fingers and instinctively butting my hand for more. Then, becoming shy, he dropped my fingers and bolted for his mama. The picture of health, he scrambled to safety behind Amy’s bulk, thrusting his wet muzzle against her udder for security and suckling hard.

“Nice work, girl,” I said, patting Amy’s shoulder. By this afternoon, the proud mama and her robust little son would rejoin the herd, and life would move forward. I turned for the barn. Shane, still patiently waiting at his post, was on his feet in a flash. “Good boy, Shane,” I called, and slapped my leg. He bounded toward me, tail wagging, and I patted his head. Behind me, a sure-footed new calf trotted nimbly alongside its mother. A deep feeling of satisfaction swept over me. I had helped save a calf, kept something from going terribly wrong.

calves

The calf I helped deliver (right) was the first of several born that year.

Later that day, as I sat watching a Shirley Temple movie in the living room, the crunch of gravel announced my mother’s Oldsmobile pulling into the drive. Car doors slammed shut and through the kitchen window I watched my brother’s cockeyed, tippy-toed gait carry him toward the house. Left arm curled against his chest, he wobbled his way up the porch stairs and through the kitchen door, my mother at his heels.

“Hi, honey,” she said to me, helping Greg off with his jacket. “So, how’s everything here? Chores go okay?”

“Yep, everything’s done,” I said. “Amy had her calf.”

“You’re kidding! This early?”

“First thing this morning. A red whiteface. Bull-calf. Big.”

“Can I name him? Can I?” Greg interrupted. “It’s my turn!”

“Sure, Greggie,” my mother said, straightening his shirt collar as he ambled by. Then—to me—“Did Amy do alright? Is the calf alright?”

“Fine,” I said. “Everyone’s fine.”

Five Years Less

Five years ago today, I stood in the little hospital’s ambulance bay, hands trembling, trying to dial my mother on my cell, to tell her the worst possible news. Inside the brick building behind me, my 19-year-old daughter lay in a coma after a near-fatal accident. Unresponsive. Absent.

The sky above me was deep-spring blue with tufts of cottonwood drifting by on balmy breezes, stark against the towering oaks and maples of that historic Elgin neighborhood. In the distance a lawn mower hummed the soothing, monotonous tune of early summer. The serenity of that scene crashed against my awful reality.

I couldn’t think. I couldn’t remember my mom’s number. I couldn’t make my fingers to push the right keys. Rattled, numb, shocked. Is this happening? Is this real?

Then suddenly a hush swept over me, and I heard His whisper.

“I am good,” I sensed God say. “This circumstance doesn’t change my character. It doesn’t change who I am. I am good.”

Good?! Could this be true? What if—what if the worst of things happens?

The worst of things did happened: Katie didn’t pull through. A few hours later, she was pronounced brain-dead. Then we donated her organs. Then she died.

That was five years ago. I hadn’t known such agony could exist this side of hell. I could taste the pain—a sickening, metallic flavor, under my tongue each morning when I awoke. As the fog of sleep would fade, and throughout each day, and into my dreams, her death shocked me anew. If you have lost a child, you understand: Five years later, I am still shocked.

But I have survived. Slowly, slowly, as moments turned to days, then to weeks, then to months and years, the tsunami of pain receded, and the waves crashed less violently on the beach of my soul. And whenever an undertow of sorrow threatened to pull me under, I found the comfort and strength I needed—not enough for months or weeks at a time, but enough for each moment. God’s presence was like a miner’s lamp in an ink-black cave, showing just enough light for the next step, and no more. He showed up through the people who rallied around us—the meals they delivered, the cards they sent, the silent compassion they expressed, standing sentinel alongside our family as we grieved. We were carried in those days, truly.

His goodness showed up, too, in the private moments when I was alone in my agony, railing against our new reality. God’s unbending gentleness didn’t flinch. He didn’t recoil at my anger. He didn’t shame me for my despair. He simply was. Gentle, tender, present. I felt Him, always near, but never intrusive. The blanket of His embrace never slipped.

I had not been back to that little hospital in Elgin since those days—to that horrid brick building in the beautiful, victorian neighborhood where my daughter had died, to the place where God’s whisper had seemed baffling at the time—a cruel joke, yet somehow tempting, if it could be true. When I awoke this morning—five years to the day—I knew I needed to return to that place once again. I’d heard they shut down the hospital a year or so after Katie’s death. Did the building still exist? I googled it on my phone, plugged the old address into my GPS, and climbed in my car.

I retraced the route my husband and I had driven with frantic focus after receiving the hospital’s phone call five years ago. We had unknowingly passing our daughter’s freshly vacated accident site. This time, I slowed my car and acknowledged the spot with quiet reverence. As I approached Elgin, my “body memory” of the little town began to creep over me. The look of the streets was familiar. The turn-of-the-century homes, the ancient oak trees towering above, even the air smelled vaguely familiar. Its moist, flowering late-spring scent swirled through my open window and a tuft of cottonwood bumped softly against my windshield as I passed by.

I turned onto Central Street, and there it was, before me. Larger and more modern looking than I remembered—but on that day five years ago, I had not taken a good look. We had parked haphazardly by the ER entrance and ran up the ambulance bay into the ER, not knowing what awaited inside, not realizing I would not leave this building again until after. Until two days later, at 3 o’clock in the morning when the organ donation surgery was complete and Katie’s heart had beat its last. I would leave my daughter’s body behind in this building, for a mortician to come and collect.

I drove past the main entrance. A sign above the front door reads, “Greater Elgin Family Care Center.” They had repurposed at least part of the building. I rounded the corner, surveying, thinking, looking for the ER entrance, but the backside of the building had been torn down. No ER. No ambulance bay. Just a half-block patch of dirt scored with bulldozer tracks, oily puddles dotting the lifeless, grey soil. A chain-link construction fence surrounded the site to keep vandals out. To keep me from wandering the vacant, desolate lot above which a trauma room had once cocooned my daughter. I would not be revisiting that ambulance bay today after all.

Looking west from the hospital

Looking west from the hospital

I parked across the street and tried to get my bearings. Which direction had the ER once stood? I walked around the block, and the familiar oak trees and the direction of the sun brought it all back: I had stood just here, facing west, the sun warm against my left cheek as I had flipped open my cell phone. I had strained my eyes down that block, looking for our friend to arrive with our youngest two kids—quick—before their sister died. I had tried to dial my mom. And then came the whisper: “I am good.”

I leaned against the chain link fence and looked up. The sun once again shone down on me, as it had before—and as it has so faithfully over these past five years. I breathed deeply and exhaled.

They say I have experienced the deepest pain a human can experience—the death of a child—and yet the sun still shines. Slowly, as those first weeks had turned to months and then years, I had sensed a subtle shift inside. Small splashes of joy had begun bursting through the clouds of sorrow that hovered overhead—tentatively at first, but soon without apology. And eventually, life once again began to hold more joy than sorrow. My life was indeed still beautiful.

The whisper had been true. This circumstance had not changed God. His steadfast character had held firm. He had carried us through.

We will always feel the shock and the searing ache of Katie’s absence, but the “always” is actually an “until.” Until the someday arrives. Until the next reality. Until the other side. And as I stood there, my back resting against the chain link fence, it hit me: It has been five long years since my eyes have beheld my daughter—since she flitted out my kitchen door on her way to work, and I watched her drive away… And with each passing year that distance grows greater. But today I am five years closer to seeing her again on the other side. Perhaps this day marks not the fading distance behind me but the approaching reunion before me—five years’ less time until I step across that veil into the next reality and hold her in my arms once again.

Five years ago today, I had wondered, could it be true? Is God really good?

Yes. Yes, He is good. He is good, indeed.

Mr. Boozer’s Christmas Trees

Christmas 1998

Valleyford, Washington State

Christmas is a high water-mark time of year for families with young kids, and our family was no different. With five young kids at home, those weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas day were ripe with memories. For our family, Christmas always begins the day after Thanksgiving with a trip to a local tree farm to select and fell the perfect tree.

When we moved to the country in 1993, we bought a house with a 23-foot ceiling, which could accommodate a lot of tree, and my husband is of the mindset that bigger is better in the tree department. You can see where this is heading.

For the first four years of our life on the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse, we bought respectable, 12-foot trees from local tree farms—or “mere table-top trees,” as Scott called them. His eyes glistened every time we drove past a certain wheat farm a few miles from our house, where 25-foot-tall firs served as a wind break for a farmhouse up the hill.

By the time 1998 rolled around, Scott was done with tabletop trees. The day after Thanksgiving, we borrowed a friend’s pick-up and drove up the winding driveway of our neighbor with the towering firs. And that’s how we met Rex Boozer. No joke, his name was Mr. Boozer.

Mr. Boozer was a retired wheat farmer, but many years back, he had planted some Christmas trees to sell to nurseries. Most had sold, but he still had a line of trees too big for commercial use.

“Would you be willing to sell us one of your big firs?” Scott asked.

“Well, I do need to thin out my wind break,” he said, scratching his head. “So I recon I could sell you one. But I’m afraid I’ll have to charge you the same price as I charge everyone else…” Who else is crazy enough to buy a tree that size, I wondered. The White House?

“And how much is that?”

“Twenty-five dollars.”

“Sold.”

The kids tore down the hill to the line of firs and began assessing which tree was the best. I was more interested in which one didn’t have, say, a family of bald eagles nesting in it. All were well over 25 feet tall.

We chose the fullest tree that wouldn’t be dragged bald by being too long for the pick-up truck. We had brought a handsaw that might work for your average 12-foot tabletop tree, and Matt and Scott had already worked up a good sweat taking turns at the 10” trunk. Only Scott’s lower legs were showing from where he lay sawing, when Mr. Boozer appeared,  chainsaw in hand.

“This’ll do,” he said, firing it up. Matt helped Scott extricated himself from beneath the lower branches. Bethany (11) and Katie (9) helped me grab Sam (7) and Tember (5) out of harm’s way. Mr. Boozer’s chainsaw sliced through the trunk like butter, and the tree crashed to the ground. (No eagles flew out, which I took as a good sign.)

Our friend Garry loaned us his pick-up to haul the tree.

Our friend Garry loaned us his pick-up to haul the tree.

Somehow we got the tree loaded onto the pick-up. But the real trick was getting it into the house. Scott cut about 6 feet off the bottom of the tree, so it topped out at a mere 20 feet tall. But turns out even a 20-foot tree is still very wide at the bottom. Scott removed the front door from its hinges, then he and Matt and I pushed and pulled, until at last the lower branches gave way to allow passage—though new molding and spackle were necessary for post-production.

Then came the herculean task of raising the tree upright. Pulleys, ropes, and guide wires were involved. It took three trips to Shopko to secure adequate Christmas lights to cover the branches, and even our ample volume of ornaments looked sparse in its mass.

But oh, how we enjoyed that tree! The scent of all those fir boughs delighted our noses every time we came inside. For our annual family Christmas photo, the kids climbed up the extension ladder I’d used for decorating the top of the tree, posing oldest to youngest, with Matt in the enviable top position. And at our traditional overnight New Year’s Eve party a month later, many of our friends had slept around the tree.

Vaudrey Christmas Photo 1998--a week before the plague

Vaudrey Christmas Photo 1998–a week before the plague

But the most memorable image of our 1998 Christmas tree came the day after New Year, once our friends had gone home. That’s when I discovered Mr. Boozer’s trees–in addition to being beautiful and huge–were also pesticide-free: In the warmth of our woodstove-heated home that December, our towering tree had been fooled into thinking it was spring, and a plague of long-legged, black-winged bugs had hatched from the bark. Each branch was now enveloped with moving mounds of these crawling bugs. Cupfuls of them. Gallons of them.

While it had taken the better part of two days to get the tree into the house and decorated, it took a mere 30 minutes to get it stripped bald and out of the house. Scott grabbed his chain saw from the garage, the kids began ripping ornaments and lights from the tree, and Tember, just four at the time, helped me box the more delicate ornaments as quickly as possible.

The older kids, however, had the unsavory task of grabbing bug-invested branches and hauling them outside, then throwing them off the deck into the pasture. The boys were pretty brave, but the girls were totally disgusted. But, tears streaming, and plenty of complaining, they stuck to it, as we were all in a panic to get the tree out of the house before the bugs decided to take flight.

Soon, all that was left of our magnificent tree was the naked trunk, also covered in bugs. Scott sectioned the trunk with his chainsaw, but there was no shortcut to getting each section outside but to grab it with both hands—squishing the bugs that coated it.

The kids narrated through grimacing faces: “Ewwww! Dis-GUS-ting!” “Gross!” “I’m gonna gag!”

When the last section was finally out the door, all that remained was a pile of sawdust, an empty tree stand, piles of tangled lights—and a story we will never forget.

Next year, a tabletop tree.

But One

But One

A pile of heavy winter boots
Makes puddles by the kitchen door
And icy mittens, hats, and coats
Reflect the snowy day’s explore.
The day was rich and fast and fun
And all the beds are filled, but one.

Now suppertime has come and gone,
The table full, each belly fed.
The conversation lingered on
Till weary, we climbed into bed.
The sun has set, the day is done,
And all the heads are kissed, but one.

We lie alone, with grateful hearts
And memories that will not fade.
But slow and long, these years apart—
Oh, how I wish our girl had stayed.
Another Christmas come and gone,
And memories made with all but one.

But just beyond these lovely days,
Alongside streets of bronze and gold
Our daughter dances, laughs, and plays,
And paints in brushstrokes bright and bold,
Here, all the dreads of earth are gone
And Son shines brighter than the sun,
And death has lost its sting at last.
And beds are filled, and life begun.

—S.L.V., December 2013

Family Photo 2012

No More Perfect Moms

So I joined the launch team for the latest book by author Jill Savage, director of a terrific organization called Hearts at Home. I met Jill, a fellow mother of five, at the annual Hearts at Home conference last year , and I resonate with her down-to-earth, authentic style of parenting. I was thrilled to get my hands on an advance PDF of the book.

You can tell by the title that this book will strike a chord in the hearts of most every mom. After all, who among us doesn’t struggle with a little perfectionism when it comes to our roles as mothers? Most of us are well aware of our own shortcomings as parents, and how often those mistakes adversely affect our kids. I stand among the most flawed of mothers, and even though my kids are now mostly grown, I still make mistakes regularly in how I relate with them and encourage their young-adult steps into the world.

I challenge you fellow moms to plan on diving into this book. The content of its pages do not disappoint, and you’ll be encouraged and equipped through its wisdom and the real-life stories Jill relates. The book doesn’t hit the bookshelves of local stores until February 4, but Jill and Moody Publishing have created clever ways to encourage us moms before its release date, beginning today, January 1. Interested? Here’s how you can take early advantage of No More Perfect Moms:

First, begin 2013 with a free boost of encouragement, inspiration, and motivation from Jill and her team by signing up for the No More Perfect Moms 31-Day Email Challenge, which starts today. Subscribe here.

Second, get $100 worth of free electronic stuff by ordering your copy of No More Perfect Moms during the week of February 4-9.  The book becomes available February 4 and Moody Publishing and Jill are offering eBooks, audio workshops, and more to everyone who places their orders during the first week of its release, which could help it hit the New York Times Bestsellers List. Win-win. Sign up here for a reminder of the launch date–and to get your free stuff.

Third, consider giving No More Perfect Moms as a Valentine’s Day, Easter, or Mother’s Day gift for moms you know. If you order your copies early (between February 4-9), you can take advantage of the free bonuses. Read more about the book here, to see if it might be a good gift for moms you love.

May 2013 be a year where we strive to become better moms, deal gracefully with ourselves when we fall short, and remember that there are No More Perfect Moms!

No More Perfect Moms

Toolbox

So I did something today I’ve been putting off for four years: I opened my daughter’s art toolbox. Katie was an artist—had wanted to be an artist since she first put crayon to paper. She drew throughout her childhood, took all the art classes she could in high school, and was a studio art major in college when she died at 19 of a ruptured brain aneurism.

Her toolbox arrived in the mail a week after she died. Someone had boxed it up for us, and shipped it. And I wanted to explore it, examining her “artist world” and the brushes and tools she’d used to bring her final paintings to life. I was hell-bent, in those early days of shock and grief, on not turning away from a task or a step just because my heart was being torn in two. It’s not that I am especially courageous or that I like pain. I simply had greater fear of my potential for creating shrines to my daughter that would later leave me stuck in my grief. So I did the hard things: I visited the crash site (her aneurism ruptured while she was driving and there was a nasty crash). I went to the wrecking yard. I did her make-up and hair for her viewing. I attended the coroner’s inquest. Determined to have no regrets, I felt compelled to lean into the pain rather than withdraw from it, not out of bravery or masochism, but out of a deep conviction that “through” was the quickest way to survival.

But I couldn’t do her toolbox. When it first arrived, I had opened it and removed a few brushes. But as soon as I saw that familiar painter’s apron of hers—a green Starbucks apron from her barista job in high school, now splattered with fresh paint—it was too much. I bundled the apron, stuffed it inside, shut the lid, and stored the toolbox out of sight in the basement.

Until today. I have good reason to open it today: I am soon to become a grandmother, and my son and daughter-in-law in California have asked me to paint a mural in the nursery for their baby girl. And I know just the tools for the job.

Katie had planned to paint a mural in their first apartment, but it is one of the many things she didn’t get to complete in this life. I have a fraction of my daughter’s artistic talent, but this mural is within my skill set. I will use her brushes to create new memories, not to erase the old—never to erase the old—but to find a meaningful way to turn yet another page as life moves on.

So I find the toolbox in the basement and pull it off the shelf. I sit down on the cement floor, open the lid, and let myself explore.

In typical Katie fashion, her brushes need a good cleaning. Rinsing a brush is never as much fun as painting, after all. When Katie painted, her intensity and single-minded focus drove, and she didn’t notice the mess. I finally had to boycott gifting her any new brushes until she began to properly care for the ones she had—and she did make improvements. But, always, for her, the tools served the moment, rather than the artist serving the tools. So, yeah, I’ll wash her brushes, and it will not be a waste of warm water and bristle soap!

In the middle section of the toolbox, on top of her paints, pencils, ebony, palette knives, oil pastels, and such, I find a stack of individually designed invitations to the various senior exhibits of graduating art students. Katie must have been saving them as examples for the day, three years down the road, when she would design invitations for her own senior exhibit. I swallow hard.

Beneath the invitations and bearing thumb tack holes, I discover three notes from friends, encouraging words Katie must’ve tacked to the wall of her studio space. One, from her best friend, closes with, “The world is truly fortunate to get to know your heart. And I am so lucky to be your friend.” Katie would say she was the lucky one. Perhaps that was part of her secret.

And there it is, her green Starbucks apron, lying in a bundle, shoved in the bottom of her toolbox, just where I’d left it four years ago. I pull it out, give it a shake, and hold it up. I run my fingers over the dried paint. I draw it to my face and breathe deeply, taking in its oil-and-acrylic smells. The sturdy canvas fabric feels cool against my cheek. This time, I do not cry. Painting brought Katie too much joy, and right now her joy is trumping my sadness. She lived life full-on, with gusto and intensity and purpose, and she painted the way she lived. The apron—covered with smudges, splatters, smears where she had wiped her hands, and even individual fingerprints—this apron itself has become a canvas, a work of art that tells the story of a remarkable girl.

I pull the apron over my head and smooth out its wrinkles against my chest. I sit for a moment. If I put this apron back into the toolbox again, I risk making it a shrine. I will instead bring it to California and wear it while I paint my granddaughter’s mural. I’m not hoping to channel Katie’s artistic talents—nothing like that—but I won’t complain if I feel a bit of her joy as I paint, joy she would share with us—perhaps does share with us—in this pre-auntie, pre-grandma season which is short-lived and delicious. This is a good plan.

At the bottom of the toolbox, buried beneath giant tubes of oil paints, I find two Tazo tea bags—Wild Sweet Orange and Awake. Classic Katie! Of course she would store tea with her art supplies, engaging the savory senses as part of the “artist’s life”—or perhaps engaging a friend over tea as she painted. I finger the teabags and imagine conversations shared, the pungent aroma of the tea mingling with the smells of paint and turpentine. I imagine how she might have made herself a cup of tea late at night as she finished an art project, alone with her joy and her tools and God.

These teabags, too, I will bring to California. I will brew myself two cups of tea—yes, I realize the tea is four years old and has been sharing a home with turpentine and oil paints. But I will sip the tea and savor bittersweet memories of my daughter the artist, the lover of God and beauty and people, and I will toast the yet-to-come memories of my granddaughter, Cadence Ruth Vaudrey, whose fresh eyes will blink and look upon a mural painted with an artist’s joy—and with tools that carry great mojo.

And I will indulge myself with a quiet moment to celebrate both.