This Is Us, Traumaversaries, and the Long View

February is a tough month around here. We’re coming up on the second anniversary of an incredibly traumatic week in our family’s life.

That week began with an early Sunday morning phone call from Matt’s mom telling us that his sister Denya had passed away completely unexpectedly. After we got the call, we went to church. I don’t know why we went to church. Trauma responses are not rational.

And 3 short days later, I called 9-1-1 from an upstate New York hotel room as our kids and I witnessed Matt suffer cardiac arrest. We spent the next week in the hospital (here you can read parts two, three, four, and five if you hadn’t already), leaving our kids – with no advance preparation – in the care of grandparents and aunts and uncles for the week. After discharge we spent another week at Matt’s mom’s house before a friend flew out to help us drive home to Missouri, where we began our journey toward recovery and health.

As we have approached these anniversaries, I’ve been feeling it. It’s a true traumaversary for me – an anniversary of trauma that affects you so deeply that your body itself remembers it. I’m more emotional. I fought back tears as a woman at the grocery store accused me of taking her spot in line. I’m more on edge with my kids. I’m more easily irritated with Matt. The strain of other normal interpersonal interactions feels greater.

And into this context of our lives steps the tv show This Is Us. Featuring a white family that adopts a black child, it is quite popular among my adoptive mom friends, and Matt and I began watching it last year. It is, quite simply, phenomenal. Of course, it resonates with us in particular because of the nature of our family and its similarities to the tv show family. Matt and I have adopted two of our children trans-racially, and we have a number of children all close in age to one another. But it goes beyond that – the show explores family dynamics, personal choices, and how we all live in a way that resonates with viewers deeply.

The show hops between different time periods in the family’s life, and we’ve known since season one that Jack, the father in the family, was going to die while the children were in high school. Season two has focused on the lead up to his death and its effects on each of the children in their now-adult lives. And a week and a half ago, he died. In fact, he suffered a cardiac arrest (after inhaling too much smoke in a house fire). When told, his wife’s immediate response was to take a bite of the candy bar she was holding (trauma responses are not rational). And then she had to go and tell their children.

I sobbed.

I sobbed through the entire episode, and I sobbed through the next one, in which they plan and attend his funeral, scatter his ashes, and begin to figure out life without Jack.

It all hit pretty close to home. I’ve envisioned all of those scenarios. My brother-in-law and nieces lived them out two years ago – and are still living them out today. Things could have gone very differently for us on that night two years ago. And now we live on borrowed time. Matt’s health is generally good now, and we hope for many more years together. Of course, only God knows the number of days any of us have left, but we know that ours may be fewer than most, and we think about what that may mean for us.

And in This Is Us, we see what it means for every character. Their experience with trauma affects them forever. It colors their lives. It does not need to define their entire lives, but it never goes away.

I remember sharing with a friend, before we brought Madeleine CaiQun home from China, that we’d need to parent her differently than we might parent a biological child because of her experiences with trauma in the first few years of her life. This friend asked, “So how long will it take before she gets beyond that and you can just treat her like normal?”

The answer? Never.

And this is the long view. We never “get over” our experiences with trauma. We move through them. We learn to live with them. We learn how they affect us. We learn how we can manage their effects. We learn what truths speak to us when the effects of our trauma rear their ugly heads. We learn what sort of supports we need.

I am seeing that I need to dial back my expectations for myself, for Matt, and for our kids during this month. I need to watch for my desire for control and counteract it by working to hold all things loosely. I need to practice loving well, even when I feel like retreating.

And I need to take these insights and apply them to the ways in which I parent my kids. My first three kiddos share my traumaversary. My two kiddos from China have experienced a number of huge traumas in their lives. All of these experiences shape who they are, how they respond to stress, and how they live their lives. I can recognize that even I, as an adult, am not fully in control of my emotions and the ways in which I respond to the additional stress I feel at these sensitive times. How much more difficult it must be for them, as kids, to deal with hard stuff! I can choose to recognize that and parent out of compassion and kindness, rather than rigidity and selfishness.

Watching the Olympic figure skating competition last night and seeing Patrick Chan skate to “Hallelujah,” I was reminded of the truth and beauty in the words:

And love is not a victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

I needed that reminder heading into this week.

Post-Heart Attack Life

Life happens in layers, I think, each action and each event having far-reaching implications, many of which are not known until months or years later. We spent the months after Matt’s heart attack (if you haven’t read the story, see here for parts one, two, three, four, and the aftermath) focusing on making the necessary changes to our lives. Matt is on medication and sees his cardiologist regularly, and he began exercising, first every other day, and then every day, and we completely transformed our diet. We’re always tweaking things, and Matt is continuing to try to lose weight, but, for the most part, things have been pretty stable.

But one night in May, I came home from an evening of hanging out with other women as part of our church’s women’s retreat, and Matt told me he felt off. As I asked more questions, he said he wasn’t sure what it was, but he’d been outside that day and gotten sunburnt, and he’d used some different exercise equipment at the gym, and he was sure that’s all it was, but his chest had felt a little weird. Just to be safe, though, since he was home alone with all four of our kids, he’d taken some meds. Alarm bells immediately went off in my mind. He was sure it was nothing – but he hadn’t really thought that the chest pain he’d experienced in the couple days prior to his heart attack warranted more attention than an aspirin.

By this time it was getting late, but I’d just been chatting with a nurse friend at the women’s event, so I was sure she’d be awake, and I called and got her opinion – which was that if this was anyone else, she’d say it was probably no big deal, but with Matt’s history, we needed to check in with his doctor. We are so blessed to have, as Matt’s primary care doctor, a friend from church. I texted him and asked him to call me if he was awake, because we had a question about Matt’s health, and he called within five minutes. After talking with Matt, he advised him to head to the ER – that it was probably nothing, but better safe than sorry. Matt said he didn’t want to turn it into a big deal by having someone else come here and watch our kids or having someone come and get him, so he drove himself in, while I stayed at home with our kids.

And honestly, it was an emotional night. I was relieved when, by 2:00 a.m., he texted me to say that bloodwork was showing that his troponin levels were normal and an EKG showed nothing out of the ordinary. He stayed for another round of bloodwork 4 hours later and then, when all looked okay, came home to get a few hours of rest and then to hang out with our kiddos, so that I could go in to speak at day two of our women’s retreat. Interestingly enough, for a portion of my talk I was using as examples some of our experiences after Matt’s heart attack, so my mind and my heart were already steeped in some of the counsel I’d received then.

Most poignant among all of it was and continues to be, “Enjoy your time together, it is a gift. Use this time to draw close to God and Matt.”

After Matt’s heart attack, I hadn’t realized that I was afraid to draw nearer to him in our relationship until my friend spoke those words to me. Even knowing that our time together might have a hard stop years before we’d dreamed it could, we were and are called to this marriage relationship together, and I realized then and I know now that I cannot take him to have and to hold, to love and to cherish – as I stood in front of our family and friends 14 years ago and promised to do – if I’m holding him at a distance. And so I push fear away and draw near to him.

I’ve been thinking about Philippians 4:4-8 lately – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

These are hard verses in that they do not promise what I wish that they promised. They don’t say, “Don’t be anxious, because if you pray, God will give you what you want.” They tell us not to be anxious, and they tell us to pray, but what is promised is not the desired result but peace. What I’d like is a guarantee of long life and love, but try as I might, I’ve found that nowhere.

But I contemplate a God who is true, a God who is honorable, a God who is just, a God who is pure, a God who is lovely, a God who is commendable, a God who is excellent, a God who is worthy of praise. I trust that He is sovereign and that He is good and that this life that He has given to me and is giving to me is the one He laid out for me to have, and He will walk with me through it.

I don’t always feel peace. Matt and I are watching through the first season of This is Us right now. We just watched the Christmas episode, in which Toby collapses, and I felt my breath catch in my throat and my heart pound in my chest. I know that panic, and I know those hospital beeps. I know that there’s no guarantee they will stay at bay for years or even days to come.

And yet there is an undercurrent of peace throughout our lives. I choose to trust myself to the God of the universe and throw myself into this life He’s given to me. I expect there will be more ER trips in the future. That’s something that, 15 months ago, it didn’t occur to me to anticipate as part of this new reality, but I know now to expect it. If you experience cardiac arrest at age 39, chest pain earns you a trip to the ER to be checked out, and it’s going to happen, though I hope it’ll be infrequent.

But as long as we’re here together on this earth, living this life, we’ll press on and try to use the days that we have well.

a week of anniversaries

In a way that I’d never have predicted, the middle week of February has become one of great significance in our family’s story.

This Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of the shocking death of Matt’s older sister, Denya. Her daughters, in a gesture of which she would have been proud, chose to celebrate her life this week by asking Facebook friends to share their happy memories of her. It was fun to read of her love and laughter as experienced by other friends and family, too, but we definitely miss her. I miss her always encouraging Facebook and blog comments, her support for every new venture we pursued, her wise parenting advise, and, of course, the times spent hanging out together in her kitchen, enjoying and chatting about life together.

Yesterday was actually the one-year anniversary of our receiving pre-approval (PA) to adopt FangFang. We didn’t post about it far and wide on Facebook or anywhere else at that time – largely because we were en route to New York for Denya’s funeral, and we hadn’t yet told all of our close friends and family about our pursuit of adopting her. But still, as we drove on, snow-covered roads bringing us ever closer to the reality of the loss of our sister and friend, we celebrated the news that a new life would be joining our family, a precious girl we knew primarily through these pictures.

Our next milestone is today – the one year anniversary of Matt’s heart attack. One year ago today, after attending the calling hours for Denya, we were all resting in our hotel room when Matt suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. With our children looking on, I called 9-1-1, and our reality quickly transitioned from this

to this.

Matt’s heart attack has been a defining moment in our lives, one that, like having our first child, divides all of time into “before” and “after.”

Post heart-attack life is different than pre-heart-attack life. We have a radically different diet, eating almost exclusively low-sodium, plant-centered, pescetarian foods. Exercise is no longer viewed as a luxury to be pursued “once things settle down” but as a necessity, essential to sustaining life. We’ve become convinced that we cannot allow others’ desires to govern our lives – saying “no” has life-giving power. And beyond the practical changes we have made, we see life differently. Our default assumption is no longer that we are virtually guaranteed to have long, healthy lives together. The statistics for survival after cardiac arrest are sobering. My hope and prayer is that Matt and I will have many more years together – and I dream of what our future may look like – but we can no longer pretend that death is a far away specter of which we need only think once we are retired empty-nesters. Matt shared some of his thoughts on this day and that reality here. And the truth is that it is a source of some anxiety for me. We’re doing all we can to live healthily, though – and that’s all we can do. Beyond that, the calls for us are the same as those for anyone else – we seek to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. We fumble toward one another, seeking to love and care for each other well, to honor our marriage vows. We pursue growth as parents and do what we can to encourage and pray for our kiddos to grow into thoughtful adults who will pursue God, be thoughtful and understanding, and fight for what’s right in the world around them. We look for ways to engage with the community and the world around us.

Life this week, while in many ways haunted by these anniversaries, has, for the most part, been simply normal. We’ve read books, learned about math, coached kids through resolvoing squabbles, played outside, eaten meals, done laundry and dishes, and relaxed with an episode of the West Wing or a game of Yahtzee after the kids have gone to bed.

And we look forward to the last of this week’s anniversaries. Tomorrow 4 years will have passed since the day Madeleine CaiQun joined our family.

This sweet girl has brought so much joy to our family – so many snuggles, so many good conversations, so much laughter. And so tomorrow we will eat Chinese food – noodles and dumplings, in honor of her province and the foods she loves so much – and celebrate.

This week is such a strange mix of reminders of life and death, of mourning and celebrations. We press on and pray that we can act honorably in the midst of it all.

the light shines in the darkness – announcing our next big adventure

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

That verse has always been one of my favorites. I love the hope it proclaims, the certainty of the ongoing triumph of good in a world that seems full of evil and uncertainty. I trust in this hope and in the Person who provides it. And in the midst of this difficult time in our lives, we’ve seen God at work, shining many rays of hope through darkness.

While I sat in those hospital rooms, listening to the ventilator breathe for my husband, I wondered if he’d make it out of the hospital alive, and I wondered how many of our dreams might also be dying during those days – our dream of raising our kiddos together, sending them off to college, and seeing them grow into adults themselves; our dream of traveling the world together, returning to Italy and China, someday visiting more of Europe and Asia and exploring the southern hemisphere; our dream of continuing to study and learn together.

What I haven’t shared here yet is that there was one dream I was really pretty sure was dying. You see, Matt and I had been talking for quite a while about when the timing might be right to pursue our next adoption. We’d been setting aside money for over a year, and we were thinking we’d start the process at some point during 2016. Then on the evening of January 19, I showed Matt a blog post I’d read about a little girl who needed a family. This happens with relative frequency, but what doesn’t happen all that often is that he asks for more information, and that’s exactly what he did that night.

The agency working to place this little one sent us her file the next day, and we reviewed it closely and began researching and reaching out to others for counsel. We spoke with some close friends; we talked with the social worker with whom we’d worked for Madeleine CaiQun’s adoption, who knows us well; we had conversations with other parents whose children have the same special need as this little one; we sent her file to our pediatrician, to the local specialist he recommended, and to the national specialists recommended by other adoptive parents; and we were able to get some additional information about this little girl from another agency that has done some work with her orphanage. We prayed for God to bring a family for her and for wisdom for us to know whether that was us.

And ultimately we came to the conclusion that we believed we could be a good family for her, and we wanted to submit the necessary documents requesting that China approve us to pursue adopting her. On February 9 our agency submitted our Letter of Intent (LOI) to China, and on February 16, we received pre-approval (PA) from China to adopt this precious little girl!

But then, the next night, Matt had a heart attack. And so, as I sat there in those hospital rooms, I was fairly certain we would have to surrender our pre-approval and, instead of completing an adoption and becoming her family, we’d be advocating on her behalf and trying to find another family to adopt her.

As the days went on, though, and Matt’s cardiologists were saying that they expected him to have a full recovery, we asked them about adopting. They saw no reason why we shouldn’t continue. I talked with our agency, and they said we’d need a letter from a cardiologist saying they expected him to be healthy and they believed it would be alright for us to continue with the adoption, but assuming we could get that and our home study social worker was on board, they would see if we could continue. We talked with our home study social worker, and she agreed that if Matt’s cardiologist was willing to write a letter in support of our continuing the process, she believed we could still be good parents for this little one. Once we were home and set up with Matt’s new cardiologist, we discussed it with her, and she was very positive – she said Matt’s heart function looked great, and he needs to make lifestyle changes and take the medications they’ve prescribed for him, but she does not expect further issues for him, and she was very willing to write a letter in support of our continuing the adoption process. Our agency reviewed the cardiologist’s letter and said we should be able to proceed!

As full as these last weeks have been with trying new meals and going to cardio rehab, they’ve also been full of home study visits with our beloved social worker, collecting paperwork, and starting to pull together our dossier. As we’ve talked about how to re-structure our lives to be as heart healthy as possible, we’ve also dreamed about what life will look like with four children.

It might have been easier to back down, to walk away, to say that with Matt having had a heart attack, anything and everything could be too risky, too dangerous. But as we’ve wrestled with what we want our post-heart-attack lives to look like, we’ve concluded that we don’t want to live in fear. There’s a quote I’ve appreciated much over these past few weeks – “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” We’ve had to ask ourselves what we are built for – and we believe we are built for loving God and for loving those around us, for doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with Him. We believe that we are called to step out of comfort and safety and to reach toward those around us. And there is a little girl right now in China who needs a family – we believe we can be a good family for her, and we’re going to do all that we can to get there and become her family.

And for us, this is one way in which we get to bear witness to the light shining through into the darkness. What we thought was a dying dream is still alive. It looks like we will be able to adopt again. In Psalm 68:6 it says that “God sets the lonely in families,” and we believe He is at work in making a way for our baby girl to come into our family.

Friends, we share this news with you with excitement and humility, and we ask that you consider whether you might be able to be a part of this journey with us. We ask that you consider praying with us and for us through this process. And we ask that you consider helping us to cover the costs of her adoption – we’ve been doing extra work and setting money aside for a while now, and we’ve been able to cover all of the costs that have come up thus far, but we know we’re not going to be able to pull together all of the remaining necessary funds ourselves. We’d be honored if you’d consider purchasing an artwork from Matt’s etsy shop or contributing financially to our adoption fund.

And we ask that you pray for our little girl. She is 2 years old and has deep, soulful eyes and a smile that could light up a room 🙂 The agency with which we’re working is very conservative and asks that we not share any photos publicly until she is actually our daughter, but if you ask us in person or via a private message, we’d love to share a picture and prove to you how adorable she truly is! She has osteogenesis imperfecta (sometimes referred to as brittle bone disease) and is very tiny and rather delayed in terms of her gross motor skills, but we look forward to seeing her develop as she gets the medical care that will help her reach her full potential.

We’re excited to be embarking upon this new adventure and hope you’ll be excited with us and perhaps even be a part of the journey with us. We’ll have many more updates, I’m sure, in the days to come!

post-heart-attack – where are we now?

It seems like these last weeks have flown by, but now it’s been almost 7 weeks since Matt’s heart attack, and I’ve been reflecting on the changes and transitions contained within those weeks.

Perhaps the most obvious are the physical, tangible changes. Matt’s incorporation of regular exercise into his schedule prior to his heart attack was sporadic, at best. Sure, he got in his 10,000 steps a day, but he didn’t have time set aside purely for working out. He has now been going to cardiac rehabilitation 2-3 times per week to exercise, we try to take walks at least a couple times a week on his off days, and we’re committed to fitting exercise into his schedule regularly.

We’ve also completely changed our diet. A big part of that change has been Matt himself – I knew he didn’t make the best decisions with his lunch and snack purchases away from home, but even I wasn’t aware how bad his choices really had gotten (read: how much fast food he was eating). He’s had to stop that cold turkey and now generally takes food from home or gets salads when he’s out.

We’ve made some big changes as a family, too, though. We’ve gone from eating somewhat-but-not-entirely healthy, mostly chicken but fairly frequently also pork meals to eating almost entirely vegetarian and fish meals. We’re trying to center our eating around plant-based whole foods. That has changed virtually all the meals we eat and the way in which I grocery shop. I now need to shop closer to weekly (instead of being able to make it 2 weeks between big grocery shopping trips), I spend a lot more time in the health food section, I read the labels on practically everything, and we’ve added an additional grocery store to our regular rotation, bringing our current total to 3. Meal prep also takes longer.

These dietary changes have been something of a challenge. At first the logistics were overwhelming – I didn’t have any idea where to get good recipes, how to judge whether a meal was high or low in sodium, or any of that. Now that I’m finding my footing in those areas, I can start to address secondary logistical matters (like figuring out which meals would freeze well so I can get back to my time-saving, sanity-saving freezer meal cooking!), but I’ve also found that new emotions are surfacing. I can no longer use almost any of the recipes from what used to be my “go to” blogs for new meal ideas to try. We can’t go to just any restaurant and assume we’ll be able to order something healthy. Getting together for meals with friends is more complicated. It feels somewhat lonely – but it is absolutely worth it. Maybe if you’re 70 or 75 years old and you have a heart attack, you figure you’ve had a good run and you keep living life just as you were before? But with Matt having a heart attack at 39…we’ve really got to make some drastic changes, so that’s what we’re doing. We’d like to keep him around for another 30 or 40 – or more! – years.

I’ve had to face the reality that he really could have died there in that hotel room in New York. I’m thankful I didn’t know exactly what was happening at the time, and I’m thankful I didn’t know the statistics on cardiac arrest survival at the time. And the fact that it happened once means that it’s more likely to happen again – and that’s a scary thought.

I am scared.

But I have a choice. I can let fear control my life and my choices – or I can let love be the driving force behind all that I do. I can’t have it both ways. And thankfully, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). The more I love, the more I choose to operate out of love, the less my chest tightens in fear.

We are trying to be wise and prepared for any scenario. We’re doing what we can – we’re prioritizing exercise, we’re changing our diet, and Matt is taking all of the medications his doctor has prescribed and paying attention to his body. And I’m collecting information. I’ve found out what benefits I’d be able to retain through the university if Matt died. I’m aware of what life insurance he has – and am trying not to be bitter about the fact that we were in the middle of applying for additional life insurance when this happened, and his application was obviously rejected. We’ve talked with our kids’ pediatrician about measures we need to take to keep them as healthy as possible, now that 2 of them have a family history of early heart disease. But we’re still living life – in fact, check back later this week for some exciting news about one way in which we’re pursuing that 🙂 We still want to have adventures and be committed to pursuing God and going wherever He would lead in order to love those around us.

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It’s interesting, the faith journey that has been the undercurrent throughout these last 7 weeks. I haven’t always felt close to God, I haven’t always felt the truths I know to be true – but I still know them. I know that God is in control. I know that He loves me, and I know that He is good. Not once has it even entered my mind to doubt those truths.

If it did…I think I’d wonder if the object in which I’d placed my faith was truly the self-existent God of the universe or just some fictional genie of my own creation. Either God is good even when I don’t get what I want…or He’s not God – He’s simply a super-powered version of myself, desiring exactly as I desire, willing and able to give me exactly what I want. But that’s not who the true God is.

There’s a C.S. Lewis quote that I’ve always liked – “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” That quote has become more and more real to me over these last weeks. God is not put to the test by Matt’s heart attack; God exists outside of space and time, and God is good – and Matt had a heart attack – and I interpret the latter in light of the former, not the other way around.

And we have much, much for which to be grateful – and gratitude is the overwhelming emotion I feel when I think about these recent events. Matt did survive his heart attack. We have been blessed, oh, so very blessed, by so many friends and family over these last 7 weeks. We’ve been given time to make changes that will – we hope and pray – get him healthier, and we have the means and the motivation to make those drastic changes we need to make. The God we follow is loving and good. We are blessed, and I am thankful.