Of Plans and Pandemics

I sit here admiring the frosted trees, the still beauty whispering something majestic and true. A September snow blew through to hopefully temper wildfires and delight Coloradans with the dramatic weather shift. It’s funny how we live our lives with an awareness that things rarely go as planned, and yet we’re still surprised when an out-of-season snowstorm rolls in.

I remember about 5 years ago daydreaming with my husband about adding a third child to our family. That’s all we knew: we could daydream it, plan it, and it would happen. It’s sweet and sad to me now how simple that seemed to be. I knew life did not promise to unfold so seamlessly. But dreaming is what people do. We can’t sit around expecting disappointment or dreams would never be pursued.

So, we pursued the dream of adding a biological child to our family. And, as you know if you know me at all, the dream was dashed twice with miscarriage. I think of those babies, Avery and Everett, buried in tiny caskets on my parents’ property. They were all the potential of life, of a little sister or brother for Sylvia and Valerie, of another lively voice filling this house. They weren’t dreams, and they weren’t mistakes. They were my children. They ARE my children. Avery would be four years old now. What a wonder that would be, a precious little her. I wish I knew her.

The dream swelled bigger than ever before during my pregnancy with Elliot. After the agony of burying two babies, no words express the ache inside me to keep Elliot safe. My body betrayed me, however, and tried to miscarry him nearly every week. Every miracle that kept him alive though the nightmare of that pregnancy gave me a fiercer determination. He would come home. He would live. Sylvia and Valerie would not endure the loss of another potential sibling. Dustin and I would not endure the loss of another child. Our little boy would grow up! Through nearly two months of laying in a hospital on bedrest trying to ensure his best chance at life, hours of listening to the music of his heartbeat on the monitor, nothing but his kicks in my belly to keep me company, I believed the dream would absolutely come true.

And if you know anything about me at all, you know that did not happen. My precious son was born, lived, and died unexpectedly when he was five days old. Did you know still, over three years after he died, I often wake up with aching arms? Did you know that’s what it’s like to lose a child? To feel the heavy disbelief of him not being here assault me anywhere, anytime? Child loss is not an acute pain that passes. It is chronic, ongoing, with good days and bad days. It is a new normal.

So, it was within this new, painful normal we somehow found the strength to dream again. We became foster parents, not really knowing where that adventure would lead. Our precious, priceless experience briefly fostering confirmed two things. One, that even after the unimaginable loss and trauma of losing Elliot, we still had room in our hearts to love another child and that child did not need to be born from my body. Two, we were not ready as a family to foster long-term and endure more loss upon loss. Our little girls had endured too much trauma and loss already. The death of their little brother Elliot has become interwoven into their life stories, and I will do what I can to protect their precious hearts from enduring too much, too soon.

International adoption had been a dream in my heart since young adulthood, though back then I had some naïve perceptions of it. After saying goodbye to our foster son, everything pointed toward international adoption as our next step. So, we made big changes. We sold our house and bought a bigger one. We researched and prayed and decided on Colombia as the country. We picked an adoption agency. We applied and paid them boatloads of money. We got started about a year ago, wondering and dreaming who the child would be and when he or she would come home to us. I remember wondering, hoping, “Will it be maybe by next summer?”

And a heavy whisper of my new normal cautioned me away from too much optimism. Life does not promise to go smoothly. Dreams sometimes are realized, sometimes they are delayed, and sometimes completely dashed.

Now, a discussion of where God is in all this is necessary as I recount this journey. I daily resolve to absolve God of wrongdoing in Elliot’s death. That may sound proud or unnecessary, but for me it is completely necessary. When Elliot died, and I still lived under a cloud of God’s “sovereignty” or “will” or “plan” as absolutes regarding all life events, I could not align this God with my reality. The reality was that my beautiful son was dead, that I’d held his lifeless body for 20 hours and then had to relinquish him to a hospital social worker. The reality was that I kissed him for the last time on the day of his funeral, and my adored child who’d grown in my body was now cold and about to be buried in the ground. And for many months after, I blamed God. If he was “sovereign” over this event, if he “planned” it, then to me he was a monster. He was no better than Zeus who tormented mortals on a whim. When a friend gave me Is God to Blame? by Greg Boyd, I read it voraciously. It gave me a new way, a better way to understand God and suffering. I wept with relief that I didn’t have to believe the prior narrative anymore.

And ever since, my grief journey has been entwined with a journey to rediscover God in a new light. It’s been beautiful sometimes, and painful and ugly other times. It’s a journey that is far from over. Most of what I thought I knew has been decimated, but I know one thing much more clearly. I know God is love. I picture the questions and confusion and unanswered questions regarding a million aspects of God, the Bible, and Christianity swirling around me like a swarm of angry bees. But in the center of that chaos, I sit quietly, untouched and unhurried, safely encapsulated in his love. It is all I know for sure and all I need to know ever, really. And when something about reality seems incongruent with God’s love, then I do not try to reconcile it. I do not try to explain it away with a religious cliché. All I do is try to become more still in the love and presence of Christ, usually in the practice of contemplative prayer. It’s all I can do.

And that is all I can do with this…this…what do we call a global pandemic? A nightmare, maybe? Not that beauty has not emerged from Covid; it has. In my job as a home study writer, I get to interview the most interesting people and hear their life stories, past and present. A theme I’ve been hearing lately is how, alongside the difficulties and tragedies Covid has produced, many people have found a quiet place. They’ve had more time at home, more time with family, more time to focus on the blessings right in front of them. They’ve grown closer to their spouses and children, sometimes through plenty of conflict and irritable days. Maybe like 9/11 did almost 20 years ago, Covid has shaken us from our stupor and awakened us to see what a precious gift each healthy, happy day of life is.

But where I want to count blessings, I also want to acknowledge pain. I don’t think it’s right to elevate one at the expense of the other. Covid has caused a lot of pain in so many aspects for so many people; I couldn’t list them all. I believe God, in his love for us, can be with us through the pain and eventually bring something beautiful in any human story. Yet I also believe he weeps with us for what we lose in this life. Whether we lose a loved one, a dream, time we should’ve had together, or hope, Christ sits alongside the suffering.
In November 2019, our agency posted the picture of a little boy, “Baby Joe”. There is just no overstating his cuteness. The same day, a dear friend also saw his picture on a different forum and immediately shared it with me. When I researched his needs, I was overwhelmed but not deterred. I requested his file. I’ll never forget reading it in my bedroom that night, overcome with emotion. I cried so much for that little boy, for the tragic story of his birth mom, and for the fact that I knew we were so early in the process, I wouldn’t be able to get to him for months. I didn’t even know if my husband would be on board with pursuing him or if a different family might put in a letter of intent for him first. I didn’t know. All I knew was I felt intimately connected to his story, and that night 10 months ago, I would’ve gladly hopped on a plane to get him.

And the months passed. Each month I’d daydream about when the next step would finish and what that would mean for the step after and the step after. But each step took so much longer than I’d hoped. I remember daydreaming around Christmas about how amazing it would be to get to Colombia to get Joe before he turned 2 in March. But our home study wasn’t even completed and submitted until mid-March. Finally, finally, I thought! This is really where things can start moving! After we submit our home study, we just have to jump through a few more hoops before we can submit our dossier, receive a referral, and get a date scheduled to travel! I even let myself imagine it could still happen in the summer.

A week after we submitted our home study for review and approval by the U.S. government, of course you know what happened, because it happened to you, too. Your kids were suddenly at home “remote learning” while you were trying work from home. You tried not to freak out about the lack of toilet paper, but you couldn’t help snatch up a spare roll when you saw it. You longingly looked at playgrounds with caution tape surrounding the equipment and wished your kids could play. Maybe you were furloughed or laid off. I know it didn’t affect just me. But at the same time those things were happening to you and your family, internationally adopting families felt their worlds come to a screeching halt. Some families got trapped in foreign countries. Some were so close to flying to pick up their children, then flights stopped. Some people, like us, were in process of a step that shut down because all the relevant government offices shut down.

All that hope that was building in me for the next step of the adoption process seemed to melt through my fingers, and a familiar disappointment took its place. The submitting of our home study to the U.S. government, some fancy fingerprints that went along with that, and an approval letter—this process should have take 6-8 weeks. And now, thanks to Covid, this process is going on 6 months. I check my mailbox obsessively for the final authentication of that approval letter to come in the mail so I can send it to my agency and finally submit our dossier to Colombia. This should have happened months ago.

This is life in a world such a mix of beauty of pain, of light and dark, of hope and disappointment. People hope to have a baby, but experience infertility or miscarriage or the death of a child. People hope to have a career they love but feel trapped in a job they hate. People hope for a lifetime of happy married years but struggle each day to even like their spouse. We excitedly and nervously hoped for a timeline to bring a child into our family from across the world, then the world abruptly changed. These disappointments are real, and these disappointments are hard.

And still, in this uncertainty, there are such displays of Christ’s love and light, I know he cannot be far off. Around the time of Elliot’s birthday an anniversary of his death in May & June, I kept thinking of “Baby Joe,” whom we now refer to as Little J, every time I wept for Elliot. In my moments of quiet contemplation with Jesus, when my mama’s heart was breaking again for my Elliot-bird, for my son whose birthday we’d celebrate but who wouldn’t be with us, I kept seeing Little J’s face. It felt as if Elliot was there in those quiet moments, bringing Little J’s face to mind, gently encouraging me to be brave. To lay out my mama’s heart again, in hope for the future, and move forward.

My husband, who’d been hesitant about Little J’s medical needs, felt something shift in him around the same time. Dustin said one night after we watched TV, “I think we should put in a letter for him.” So, in mid-June, 7 months after we’d first seen Little J’s file, we submitted a letter of intent to Colombia. Our agency caseworker said it could take a week or two to hear if they’d approved it. But the very next day, she called to tell me it was already approved. This did nothing to speed up all the shutdowns and the suspended animation of our adoption process, but it meant we were now the family reserved for Little J.

Just a few days after we knew our letter of intent was approved, we held a fundraiser garage sale for our adoption. It still humbles my heart to remember the friends near and far who came by to love and support us and pay way too much for lemonade and baked goods. Strangers, too, when they heard we were raising money for adoption, refused to take change for their items. That weekend was like a hug from heaven, all you wonderful people who supported us and keep supporting us, reminding me that God does not cause disappointment and disease and dashed-dreams. But he is always, always, always with us in the midst of those difficulties.

It’s been nearly three months since we put in our letter of intent for Little J. We have inched along in the process as offices have slowly opened, backlogged though they are. Covid has affected our adoption timeline, and I think this is sad. I’ve had people tell me God is teaching me patience through this, and all is happening in God’s timing. Though I trust God will be with us and our child, and I believe he can do beautiful things with this, I reject the assertion that this is his “timing.” God doesn’t cause worldwide pandemics and keep children from their forever families for months or years longer than necessary. Little J could have already been here, getting to know us and us getting to know him. How I wish he was.

All this waiting is challenging, but I fully expect the challenges to come will dwarf what I’m experiencing now. And that’s why I want to get started. I struggle every day to have patience with my daughters, to homeschool them without wanting to hide in a closet for half the day, to keep my cool when they give me one of “those” looks. And of course, snuggles, giggles, and genuine joy punctuate even the hardest days. This is real relationship.

Every day that passes without Little J is a painful trigger of what it’s like to live without Elliot. Elliot is perfect, but he shouldn’t be. He should be a whiny 3-year-old who fights with his sisters and gets hangry. He should need me constantly and wear me out. But instead, he’s a cherished memory and a set of pictures around my house. So, when I see our year-old pictures of Little J, and that’s all I have, it’s like I have two sons who are just 2-dimensional pieces of paper. Another little boy who I want to wrap my arms around but can’t. A little boy who is “perfect” in my mind but shouldn’t be. I want him here with all the challenges another child in our family will bring. I want the mess, the mix of laughter and lullabies, tantrums and tattletales.

So I guess I keep dreaming. I keep planning. I keep hoping. But there is a caution in this hope. It almost didn’t surprise me that something ridiculous like a pandemic happened the year we decided to adopt internationally. We all live in this tension daily, a dichotomy between perfect and pain, and even the weather doesn’t submit to our plans. We’re not living yet in the realm where dreams never die. So, if more dreams die, if more heartache comes, and when more joy fills this house, whatever comes, it will be God’s love I find myself in.

This doesn’t mean life will be perfect or go as planned; it simply means I will never be alone.

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