The Thing About Christmas

There’s this memory that sort of hovers over me every year. It floats in sometime after Thanksgiving, and grows increasingly strong until Christmas morning when it roars past me like a freight train.

Sometimes I wish I could catch the memory, maybe climb back into it, and wrap myself up in the warmth of that moment.

It was Christmas, and I was young. My brother and I burrowed beneath blankets upstairs as the winters winds of Wisconsin knocked at the window panes. It was the middle of the night, not even close to being a reasonable time to wake our parents. The clock by my bedside said 3:30. We decided to wait until 4:00 to go downstairs.

Because, obviously, 4:00 is more than reasonable. Ask my mom. She loved getting up that early.

Brett slept on the floor by my bed, and on this night (morning? No…definitely night), I was reading Ziggy to him by flashlight. I’d read the words, then show him the pictures, and we’d both snicker because, for whatever reason, we found Ziggy hilarious.

It’s very tactile, this memory of mine. I remember the darkness that wrapped around our house, the way the windows rattled now and then with the wind. I remember my toes being cold, and not really wanting to get out of bed, but so longing to see what treasures waited for us under the tree.

I remember being happy and excited. I remember feeling both cold and warm, or…maybe it’s just the memory that makes me feel warm?

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Mostly I remember feeling completely at peace.

The thing about Christmas is it tends to get under your skin. There’s something about the holiday season that wraps all tight around your heart, forcing you to recall short snippets of time, replaying them like movie reels in your mind.

I love that Christmas memory. I don’t remember the gifts we received that year. I just remember being happy in my bed, giggling with my brother, anticipating the day to come.

There’s another Christmas memory that has loped it’s way into the reel in recent years. This one, too, has been pressing down on me for the last few days, reminding me that I’m not a kid anymore, but that Christmas can still hold a particular brand of magic.

It was three years ago that I sent off our completed dossier to Russia. I’d had eleventy frillion documents tracked down, signed, notarized, and copied, and I sent the stack of paperwork as thick as my arm off with a thrill in my heart.

And the week before Christmas it all sort of unraveled. Whispers of a Russian ban on American adoptions made their way into my heart, and began to squeeze tight.

It was Christmas night, and I was up all alone. The children were in bed, the events of the day having pushed them into slumber swiftly and mercifully. Lee was asleep, too, and so I sat alone.

I curled up in front of the tree, all lit and glittery with memories old and new, and I sipped my hot tea. I thought of a little girl far away, alone and waiting for a family to choose her, and I prayed the prayer that only a mother can pray when she feels powerless to help her child. 

I’m not one to claim to have heard the voice of God often. I don’t toss that idea around lightly. But on this still night, I heard the word Wait.

In this memory that keeps flitting around my subconscious, I hear the voice audibly. I don’t believe it was quite so clear that particular night, but I do remember growing still in spirit as the message washed through me.

Wait.

Tonight, we brought home our Christmas tree, and while Michael Buble´ crooned Jingle Bells in the background, we pulled out the lights and ornaments, and we dressed the spruce in our living room.

“Put the breakable ornaments up a little higher so Annika can’t get them,” I told the big kids, and they did. And all the while, Annika stood in the middle of the carpet, her eyes dancing with delight at the wonder of it all.

Three years ago last week, I put our dossier in the mail to Russia. It’s been a long wait, but tonight I felt a warmth spread quick through my soul. It’s the same feeling I get when I think of that Christmas morning in my bed with a flashlight, and a Ziggy book.

Peace. Joy. Anticipation.

The thing about Christmas is there’s always room for one more memory – another snippet to add to the reel.

And it is magic.

The Girl in the Trees

I have this image of a younger version of myself – ten, maybe eleven – and she’s tramping through the field behind our Wisconsin home. Just beyond the line of tall grasses that liked to tickle my waist stood the forest, thick and green, and  begging for adventure.

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This little girl me loved to walk through those weeds, stepping high to avoid ant piles and other potentially hidden creatures. I loved to run my hands over the tops of the orange grasses, and step into the clearing of the woods where the cool air would nip at my skin.

There was a half built tree house there, a long ago abandoned project that was no more than a platform high in the trees with a few boards nailed into one of the trunks for a ladder. I’d scramble up to the platform and sit close to the edge, my feet dangling over the side, because I liked the feeling of emptiness beneath my swinging feet, and also because the boards in the middle of the platform were beginning to rot and I was never quite certain they would hold.

That girl had a lot of imagination. Great stories were acted out inside the canopy of those trees. And many days were spent up there with a notebook or journal and a pen, writing down all manner of thoughts and desires and dreams.

After watching The Secret Garden for the first time, I imagined that place in the woods to be my own secret garden. It wasn’t a well-kept secret given that it was the neighborhood hang out, but when I was there alone, I let my mind wander.

Sometimes I wonder what I would tell that girl if I could go back and visit her. Would I warn her of some of the bad decisions she would make and tell her to avoid them? Maybe, but probably not. Bad decisions are character building, after all.

Would I tell her to just enjoy every moment, because it all goes by so quick? Would I tell her not to take advantage of loved ones being near, because in a heartbeat life can change, and loved ones can leave your side? I might tell her these things, but it probably wouldn’t matter.

That girl was fanciful and imaginative. She was idealistic, and the innocence of youth followed her like a breeze. She would have heard me, but she wouldn’t have understood.

I don’t know what I’d want to tell that younger version of myself. Hold on to your dreams no matter how long it takes, because you never know what’s going to happen? 

I think that quality was knit into the fiber of her being – of my being.

Today is my birthday. Another year has passed, and what a year it’s been. This time last year, Lee and I were frantically making plans to visit his parents in Conway, to be there when his dad went in for his first chemo treatment. We got seven months and one day with him after the diagnosis.

Yesterday, I was cleaning out a book shelf and I found a recordable book that we had his dad read last year. It wasn’t working well, I’m hoping it’s just in need of new batteries, but when I opened it up and his voice rang out strong and clear, my heart skipped.

Sometimes I miss those days in the Wisconsin woods when all that complicated life was the requirement that I make my bed daily. But really, despite all that life has brought our way, it’s only sometimes that I miss those days.

Because the girl sitting high in that unfinished tree house with the rotten boards had no idea what was waiting for her. She couldn’t even dream it up. She didn’t know the love that waited in the wings, or the laughter. She didn’t know that dreams would come true, and that one day she’d grow up to have so much more than a Secret Garden.

She didn’t know that with the sting of death came the reality of heaven, and the sweetness of living with both of those realities was something almost indescribable.

I think I’d leave her alone up there in the trees. I’d give her the dreams and the dancing visions of fame and fortune. I give her the peace that she so loved sitting on that platform in the sky.

The girl in the trees is still here, all wrapped up in my memory. She’s still a little fanciful at times, and imaginative, and perhaps even a bit idealistic. There’s no more innocence of youth, but there’s the wisdom that comes with age.

I like how the two versions of myself have merged.

Annika Rachel: A Birth Story

It’s probably too early for me to attempt to put into writing the events of the day of Annika’s birth, but while it all still feels so fresh, I’m going to give it a try. Anni1

In some ways, I wish we had better documented the day, but a part of me is content to keep those moments a sacred memory. This birth was different in a lot of ways from my other children’s, and I’m glad. The fourth child deserves a unique story, doesn’t she?

My first three children were all born in the hospital. I’ve always chosen to give birth naturally, not because I’m strong or brave, but because I’m scared of needles and the epidural literally sends me into spasms of fear just thinking about it. I’m that annoying girl who gets dizzy every time she gets her blood drawn. Nurses love me.

I also have always had the benefit of having very, very quick labors. My longest labor before Annika was 5 hours. Apparently I was made to birth babies.

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This time around we decided to give birth at a birth center with the assistance of a midwife. Since moving to Florida, I haven’t found an OB that I like, and because I’d never needed much medical assistance anyway, this route just made sense to us.

It was such a unique experience to give birth in the birth center. Lee and I were really left alone for most of the labor, which allowed me space to work through the pain on my own time and in my own way. I liked this freedom, and the atmosphere was so quiet and peaceful and serene that I almost felt like we were in a fancy hotel room.

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And the fact that we got to go home just four hours after she was born was such a blessing. As we drove home that evening, Lee looked at me and said, “I’ve had rounds of golf that lasted longer than that!”

Around 1:00 am the night before she was born, my contractions started. They were manageable, and not really all that painful, but they were strong enough to keep me up. I also felt almost certain that my water had broken, so I spent much of that night preparing myself to welcome our baby soon. Because labor has gone so quickly for me in the past, I was given strict instructions not to wait too long before calling the birth center.

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No one wanted to see me deliver this kid on the side of the road.

Around 5:00, I decided that the contractions, though still not very painful, were regular enough to warrant a phone call. We were told to meet at the birth center at 7:00, so we called my mom, woke the kids, and told them that they’d have a baby sister by the end of the day.

That was so much fun. It was awesome to see their excitement as it only fueled our own.

Fast forward three hours, and we returned home from the birth center…without a baby. I was in tears, frustrated and embarrassed that after doing this three times before, my body seemed to be completely unresponsive to labor this time around. I wasn’t dilated, my contractions had slowed considerably, my water actually had not broken, and the baby was not laying in an optimal position, which was probably the cause of the hold up. Her head wasn’t centered, so she wasn’t moving down like she needed to.

This was so different from anything I’d ever experienced and it threw me off a little. So I went to bed and took a nap, still hoping that we could ramp things back up later.

When the kids got home from school they were naturally disappointed that I hadn’t had the baby, but while they played around me, I felt the contractions kick back up and, true to form, they started to come fast. This time I knew it was for real, and we rushed back to the birth center, arriving even before the on-call midwife.

I was 5 cm dilated at that point, and things happened very quick. Within two hours, it was go-time, and after only six minutes of intense pushing (because my labors happen so quickly, I often describe them as violent. I go from nothing to BABY in a flash, and the pain goes from a 4 on the pain scale to a 52 in seconds), Annika made her debut.

At 4:32, the midwife laid Annika Rachel on my chest I had the same intense feeling that I had with all my kids:

I knew her.

Her face was so familiar to me, and not just because she looks exactly like Tia did at birth, but because it’s as though she has always been here. I think God does that on purpose. He leaves this tiny impression of our children on our hearts long before giving them to us so that when we finally hold them, it just feels perfectly right.

I feel like I’ve known this little girl all my life.

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We are one week in, and things are going relatively smoothly. I forgot how much work newborns are, which has been an adjustment. But other than feeling like I can’t get anything done, things are moving right along. She could not be more loved or cherished by her brothers and sister. To be sure, she is a blessed little girl.

I will hold tight to the memories of September 22, 2014 for the rest of my life, filing them away in my heart next to the births of my other three children. What a privilege it is to be the mother of these four spectacular little humans. I am truly in awe of this calling placed before me.

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