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.