Thursday, February 27, 2014

Positive Platitudes

I like to think that I am an optimist.  I always want to believe the best in people and situations.  I believe in the Truth:  "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)

However, I become cynical when positive platitudes are thrown about too freely:

"The night is always darkest before the dawn."

"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

"God won't give you more than you can handle."

While the speakers of these phrases mean the best, the words become so trite that they can seem mocking or even hurtful.  Why?  Because they downplay the real pain that people are going through.  Sure, there comes a time in every circumstance when it's proper to look for the silver lining.  But the silver lining doesn't seem so beautiful if you haven't experienced the abject suffering of having the blackest, heaviest cloud suffocate you for what seems like an eternity.

There is suffering in life.  It's unavoidable.  

A dear friend of ours is suffering right now.  His father passed away yesterday as the result of a freak accident.  There is no way I would consider walking up to this friend and spouting off a platitude.  I will go to the visitation and cry with his family.  I have already cried.  I can feel the heaviness of their loss in my own heart.  I simply cannot say or do anything to make the situation better.  So I will simply walk with them and help them to carry the burden of their grief.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


I won't blame you if you're getting sick of reading about grief.  I'm getting sick of going through it.

I can't write about Al's grief.  I don't understand it. 

All I know is my own grief.  I touched on it in my last post.  But it's becoming more intense now, so I'm trying to process it more fully.

It may seem odd to some people that there is still grieving to be done three years after the stroke.  Some of it is new grief.  Some of it is continuing grief.

Within the past few months, I've had an incredible new inspiration to write.  I started writing a book in January.  I am very much convinced that it is inspired by God.  I believe that He has given me a talent and unique insight to be able to write effectively.

But what I also discovered was, that the more I wrote, the more I got lost in my writing.  This has been a classic defense mechanism for me all my life:  escapism.

Let me clarify here:  Writing is not a bad thing.  It is especially therapeutic for me.  In fact, my dear friend who is a social worker tells me regularly that journaling for 15 minutes is equivalent to one half hour of therapy.  However, when I choose to live in my fantasy world, then it becomes a problem.

If I wasn't escaping into my writing, I would be escaping into YouTube videos or funny Vines or even senseless sitcoms on TV.  I sometimes escape by sleeping.

When I have any presence of mind to face what is really bothering me, I sometimes turn to self-pity instead of actual, healthy grief.

This past week, I had a wonderfully cathartic conversation with one of my closest friends.  I told her that I was escaping too much, indulging in self-pity, and giving in to jealousy about everyone else's seemingly perfect lives.

All I wanted to do was to fix my sin and move on.  I didn't want to get to the root of it. 

But, God in His mercy, finally revealed this to me:  I have to face all my hurt and walk through it with Him.  I have to grieve, and now is the time to start a new season of grief. 

So, what is it that causes me so much grief, you may wonder?  Al's alive, our kids are excelling in school, we're continually provided for, financially, spiritually, materially.

But it still hurts when this realization sinks in:  Al will never, ever, ever be the same as he was before the stroke.  Barring a miracle, Al will never go sledding with us again.  He may come to the beach, but he won't swim.  Our favorite vacation spot ever is the Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City.  We could go back, but it won't be nearly as much fun for Al if he can only wade in the kiddie pool.  We might go to the mall together, but we won't walk very far. (This was one of our regular "date" activities, to go out to eat, and then just wander the mall, window shopping.)

Al's brain is being challenged to recover and work on problem-solving in his job.  This is a very good thing, and I think it will provide a lot of therapy in its own right.  But his short-term memory has been compromised.  I don't think it will ever be the same.  I'm slowly figuring out how to be a team with someone who forgets much of what I tell him. 

Our relationship is quite different than it used to be.  Granted, most married couples will say their marriages change over seventeen years, so some of it is due simply to the passage of time.  But some of it is obviously stroke-related, since Al's realm of emotions was compromised by the damage to his brain.  Some physical things were also impacted, aside from his arm and leg.  There are serious repercussions on our husband-wife relationship.  That. Really. Stinks.

In the last post, I said it would be hard for me to write about the things that were too personal.  This is the tip of the iceberg.  I'm starting somewhere, and I don't intend to share every ugly, painful detail here.  But besides the fact that I have to take God at His word when He says He is near to the brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18), I also think the Lord wants me to share some of my struggle openly so that others can take heart when they suffer a loss.

I want to convey the message, "You're not alone.  You can get through this with God's help."

I am longing for the day when I can look back and write a book about all the wisdom I've gleaned during these challenging years.

But for now, I have to be content with facing the issues and stumbling through them, no matter how ungraceful I am or how humbling it is for me.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine's Day 1996

Today is the 18th anniversary of the day my husband won my heart. You may have read this story on my other blog, but it's a first over here.

I met Al Yarrington in 1990.  We met at a University Christian Outreach meeting at Michigan State University.  Legend has it that I caught his eye from the very beginning.  I didn't catch on until several years later.

Al was that friendly, non-intimidating guy with whom all of the girls felt comfortable.  He was a constant fixture in UCO, serving behind the scenes with set up, clean up and all those practical logistics that most people don't like to do.  He was the guy you'd call if your car didn't start.  Or the one who threw uninvited guests with their keg of beer out of the party in your apartment!

We became good friends.  I'm sure I started to figure out, at some point, that he was interested in being more than friends.  But I didn't see him that way.  He came with me to the Upper Peninsula to visit my family (along with some other UCO friends), and my family figured out right away that Al was after me.  He drove me to Milwaukee for a long weekend, to surprise my mom on Mother's Day as my parents were visiting my aunt.  When I was gone for 16 months of missionary work in the Philippines, guess who wrote to me all the time?  You guessed it.  Al.

When I returned from the Philippines in spring of 1994, he asked me out.  I told him, "I'm not interested in you that way."

In 1995, he assisted me with buying my first car.  We spent hours together going to dealerships, test driving cars, etc.  We became closer, and then started dating for a few months.  But I still had my hesitation, so I eventually told Al, "I don't think you're the one for me."

Obviously, that kind of break up does some damage to a relationship.  We drifted apart, but around Christmas of 1995, I was having second thoughts.  Al and I happened to go out with a group of friends, and we reconnected.  When we walked out to our cars at the end of the evening, Al told me that he was flying out to California the next day to visit his parents for Christmas.  I hugged him, but something in me wanted more than that.

That surprised me a little bit.

When I visited my family for Christmas, another surprising thing happened.  As we sat in the warmly lit church on Christmas Eve, I had a vision in my mind of Al walking up the aisle and sitting down with my family.

By this time, I was thinking that maybe Al was the one, and that maybe I had made a big mistake.  And the ball was in my court.  I wasn't ready to re-ignite a relationship just yet, however, because I couldn't stand the thought of hurting him again.  So, I prayed and consulted some close friends who also prayed with me.  I decided that I would take time during Lent of 1996 to really pray and discern how God was leading me.

It wasn't very far into Lent when Valentine's Day came around.  God had been working on my heart, slowly helping me to realize all the ways that Al was so good for me. He was always taking care of me, serving me and loving me in practical ways.  On that particular Valentine's Day, he took my car to get an oil change and then he got the interior cleaned as well.  I didn't think much of it because that's the kind of service Al was always doing for others.

I was at my job as a preschool teacher. Al came to get my car while I was working, and when he returned the car, he gave me my keys and just said, "see you later."  We were both planning to go out with a group of friends for ice cream later that evening.

I had to close that night. I said good-bye to the last children and I tidied up the Childcare Center a bit before locking up. It was a beautiful winter night. Snow was falling quietly in soft, huge flakes. The sky was lit up by the snow, so it was a relatively bright walk out to my car. When I got to my car, there was a snow covered carnation tucked into the windshield wiper. This was nothing new, and it wasn't even a huge gift, since the dealership gave out free carnations with every oil change! But that simple little gesture, along with a small note from Al, asking me if he could treat me to ice cream, was all it took for him to finally win my heart. I took the flower and the note and sat in my car and cried for joy. I knew Al loved me, and I had been falling in love without even knowing it!

I didn't even wait until the end of Lent to tell Al I was ready to pursue a "more-than-friends" relationship with him, to which his response was, "YESSSSSS!"

Four months later we were engaged, and five months after that, we were married.

I'm so glad that God - and my husband - kept after me until I realized how good Al would be for me!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Past the Three-Year Mark

It's astounding to think that Al's stroke was over three years ago.  In many ways, our life has been all about the stroke - who my husband became after the stroke, how our kids handled the stress and the small victories, and who I became because of the stroke.  The effects are still rippling through our family, and it still surprises me on almost a daily basis. 

I mentioned in my last post (far too long ago) that Al had started a job.  He works 12 hours a week at Lansing Community College, doing some programming for the academics department.  Subsequently, he enrolled in a class at LCC to help him to learn the programming language.  He was an IT guy before, so this is a bit out of his realm of expertise.  His brain was also compromised in a major way by the stroke.  As I mentioned in my last post, it took about two years too long for him to get back to work, so that is a frustrating factor, but God's timing is still the best.

We still strive to get Al's leg to the point where it's "useable."  He had been wearing an AFO that was too big for him for far too long.  It had been cast when he still had huge hockey-player calf muscles, but then his muscles atrophied.  He has really strong foot-rolling, so his ankle was always pressing against the outer side of the brace and making him walk on the outside of his foot.  But no one - PT's and doctors alike - mentioned that it was a problem until late last year.  Our physiatrist finally said, "That brace just isn't working."  My response was, "Ya think?!"  So he prescribed a double-metal upright brace with a shoe built into it.  (That was another issue - the old AFO was so huge that we had to buy a size 13 shoe for his left foot and his normal size 9 for his right foot.  I used to call him Franken-foot.)  The double-metal upright does the trick, but a) it squeaks with every step, b) it doesn't control his ankle enough so that now his knee snaps back violently when he takes a step, and c) it's a shoe, not a boot, and we've had several feet of snow this winter.

It is a serious frustration to be three years out from the stroke and to still not have a well-functioning AFO.

For me, personally, I think I reached a point just before the holidays that I really processed and accepted Al's hemiparesis, thinking of it from his perspective.  I cried a lot and felt kind of sick about it, how much it must stink for him to haul around a half-working body all the time.  To think his arm will continue to seize up unless he's religious about exercising and electrocuting himself with electrostim.  It was the realization that my husband will always suffer that initiated a new wave of grief in me.

And since the holidays, my grief has been more about the fact that my husband and our relationship will never be the same as it was.  There are some losses that he suffered that will never be recovered, ones that affect our relationship deeply.  I've been through a lot of pondering and deep prayer to figure out what love is supposed to look like when your spouse changes so drastically.  I know that my love for him should be a service love, a committed love, a selfless love, an unconditional love.

Man, do I fail at loving my husband if those are the standards!

In many ways, life has become our "new" normal.  We are beginning to know how much each other has to give and take in both of our limited capacities.  We know how finances have to work to stretch out to the end of each month.  We are once again trying to be actual parents to our kids and not just warm bodies in the house.

I'm writing a book.  It is a fictional story about a girl who falls in love with a disabled guy.  I use a lot of parallels to my life with Al.  But it will probably be a long time before I can write about our real experiences because I'm still learning from them, and sometimes they are still too fresh and painful.