Bouncy prayers, anxiety, and choosing to believe

“Don’t get suspicious,” our 8-year-old daughter said as she casually disclosed her jaw pain. She was prepared for my anxiety. We’ve already buried one daughter and this one had a two-year span of chronic health issues that left me teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. After a mostly problem-free summer, she started with new symptoms weekly for the past few months.

I don’t know how to suppress fear that tastes metallic and releases chemical pheromones through my arm pits that make me smell like a fetid mammal, but I know every time our daughter starts having chronic symptoms, that fear pounces like the demon it is.

I’ve had occasional generalized anxiety, but all my centering and grounding and Scripture-reciting escape me when this kind of fear clutches my chest. I try to hide it from my children, but they can sense the change in my voice and demeanor. It’s as if they watch my body turn to jelly.

Then I feel guilty, because I’m a Believer and I’m supposed to pray prayers of faith, to trust in God’s goodness. But here’s the thing, I don’t trust God to answer my prayers anymore. Not always, anyway. And not the way I want Him too. I only trust that He is with me in whatever lies ahead.

I learned God wasn’t a Wish-King when my 6-year-old self begged Him to bring my Daddy home, but he never came. Or when I begged Him to let my daughter live and she died anyway.

I learned God sometimes answers prayers when my teenaged brother was riding his bicycle and was hit by a car, causing traumatic brain injury and coma. Doctors said if he survived, he would be in a vegetative state his entire life, but instead he’s a college graduate and has a wonderful family and career. I learned God sometimes answers prayer the following year on that same brother’s birthday. Mom was on her bicycle and was hit by a car. She received life-saving pints of her own blood she’d recently donated.

I’m not privy to the naïveté of saying, “It will all work out, we just have to trust God’s best for us,” when my idea of best and His seem vastly different. But I have known His nearness in suffering and His presence in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I pray the prayer of the father in the Gospel of Mark when he asked Jesus if it be possible to heal his son. Jesus said, if it’s possible? All things are possible if you believe. And the father cried, “I believe, Lord help my unbelief.”

Faith doesn’t come natural to me anymore, at least not in the sense of answered prayers. I have to choose to believe. And I can believe, because I know that ultimately I am held. And though I suffer various trials, my faith is being refined into something far more precious than gold. Though I do not always see or feel Him, I love Him.

We sit again in the pediatrician’s office, and the doctor says we might want to run some labs. I hold my little girl as they draw six tubes of blood from her skinny arm. She goes limp. Loses her color. Gets sick. I tell her she’s going to be okay while fear screams suffering and death in my head. I can’t stop the racing thoughts. It’s the same day my Daddy, who came back into my life as a young adult, gets an “aggressive lymphoma” diagnosis. Only two weeks after my 24-year-old cousin died.

I ask others to pray for us because my prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling. I hope for my daughter and weep for my daddy and battle fear that holds me captive. I fight guilt that tells me if I really believed, I wouldn’t be so scared. I am weary. I am tired. I am worn.

When the pediatrician’s phone number shows on my caller ID, I mumble hello around the cotton that seems to fill my mouth.

“How are you,” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say breathlessly, “tell me how I am.”

“You’re good,” she replies. “We’re still waiting on some results, but most of the big scary things have been ruled out.”

There’s evidence of inflammation, but the remaining results we get next week might help guide us to answers. We’ll keep digging. My body feels like jelly again, this time from relief.

Like sinking into my favorite yellow arm chair, I fall into the lap of Perfect Love that casts out fear. This, this is a sensation I want to last. And in the moment, I’m thankful for a faith I can feel.

Double Vision

We’ve had the blessing of healthy children this year. Agents and publishers interested in multiple of my works. I’ve stepped away from my nonprofit and ministry work to homeschool our children. We’re reveling in the delight of longer snuggled mornings, less rigid schedules, and discovering how all elements of life and education are interwoven.

Autumn is kissing the Blue Ridge with a kaleidoscope of oranges, reds, yellows, and browns. We’re loving sweater weather, s’mores, spiced coffee, hot cocoa, cousin sleepovers, fire pits, and friends. Joys and highs and blessings untold.

This year has also come with death, five significant people in my life since May, spanning from aged to young. Two vernal loved ones are being treated for ugly heartrending diagnoses and another young-to-me is being tested for words I can’t make myself utter. Beyond my immediate circle of family and friends, there’s even more suffering, parents scream-praying for children to live, children reeling without parents. End of treatment. No more clinical trials. Hopelessness that prompts unthinkable actions. Familial, social, political, and spiritual unrest.

My anxiety resurfaced, forcing recognition in the form of physical symptoms, more medical tests, and eventually, treatment for the root cause. Grief, sorrows, and depths of despair.

Driving home from church the other night, I turned on my Rich Mullins playlist, hoping his folksy voice and thought-provoking lyrics would quicken my heart for things eternal. First to play was, “Here in America,” where Mullins describes God’s creativity in natural beauty around the world. Tucked in the chorus are the words, there’s so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see, But everywhere I go I’m looking…”

That’s what I need, I thought, more eyes to see more beauty.

But if I had extra eyes to see more beauty, wouldn’t I also witness that much more suffering?

Living with our hearts and eyes wide open means truly seeing the beautiful and the ugly, indescribable joy and unimaginable sorrow.

I can’t carry it all, I cried. I never intended you to, I heard.

 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 NASB.

I settle into the truth of these words and pray for grace to release my grasp on all I cannot hold. I wrestle with the paradox of being a believer in Absolute Truth who lives with questions. One who hopes against hope to avoid suffering, while knowing the presence and peace of God in the midst of it.

God uses the words of Ann Voskamp to remind me that “Those who long to see miracles, see everyday miracles everywhere.”

“Live like God is a genie in a bottle, and we become like angry drunks.

Live like God is king on a throne, and we become intoxicated with awe,” Voskamp writes.

Again, Rich Mullins sings prayers I cannot speak. “…hold me Jesus cause I’m shaking like a leaf. You have been King of my glory. Won’t You be my Prince of Peace.”

Whether beholding beauty I cannot describe or suffering I cannot utter, a warm blanket of Grace is there to envelop. Abiding Peace that IN all things, God never leaves, never forsakes, never abandons. And if my arms are raised, praising or questioning, my head bowed in reverence or sorrow, my body shaking in joy or rage, I’m held in His Everlasting Arms.

Be THOU my vision, oh Lord of my heart.

Grief: misunderstanding to compassion

When I first witnessed her grief, I felt pity. In my youth and naivety, I somehow thought I could pray her grief away. How pious. How wrong. How antipathetic.

Several times a day she paced back and forth on the concrete basketball court beating her chest, raising her arms, rocking back and forth, wailing for her child.

She didn’t speak English, and her family shared with me that ever since her child died and they had come to the United States, it was if she had locked herself inside. She anguished daily for her child she left behind.

When I first witnessed her grief, I felt pity. In my youth and naivety, I somehow thought I could pray her grief away. How pious. How wrong. How antipathetic.

Today, on the eleventh birthday of my own deceased daughter, I anguished in a fetal position on our front porch couch, unaware and uncaring of witnessing neighbors or passers-by. My new normal has slowly evolved around this pint-sized hole in my heart and while my life is filled with tremendous joy, the ache of her absence is ever-present. Among the many things I’ve learned over the years, is that grief is lonely, even when surrounded by an entire community of love and support.

I weary of explaining to the “young mes” out there, that the Eternal Hope that carries me doesn’t mean I don’t miss her. I pray to not be deeply hurt when the “former Reginas” mistake my life-long loving and missing her as being ungrateful for our other children. I feel judgement from the “pious Reginas” when I succumb to anxiety regarding the health and well-being of our surviving children, especially given our family’s past year’s health situations. And today, I sit on our porch, tears falling like the summer rain dripping off our rooftops, and I remember the bereaved mother to whom I could not relate those many years ago.

If I could go back to this sweet grieving mama, I wouldn’t feel as though we needed to speak the same language verbally, I would wrap my arms around her grief-weary shoulders and cry with her. I would understand that I couldn’t fix it for her, but that I could walk alongside her without my ridiculous ideologies of what it means to parent a deceased child. Instead of trying to pray her grief away, I would pray that she would somehow sense God’s comfort and presence in her grief. Instead of coming to her with tired cliches and empty platitudes, I would tell her that I didn’t know what to say, then I would sit with her in weeping and wailing, in anger, in silence, in laughter, and without judgement.

I’m so grateful for the compassionate people who do the same for me, of which there are many.

P.S. Writing this out helped me gather myself together on this day of remembering. As I hammered out the words on my mobile blogging app, our 6-year-old daughter, whose own health has kept my heart anxious, came out from the screen door with a coffee mug and said, “Mama, I made you some lemonade. I thought you could use something to make you happy.” She wrapped her skinny little arms around my neck and held me as I feel apart. Again.

They Know Their Sister

They know their sister by tear-stained photographs

By a worn-out guestbook from her funeral service

They know her by playing in a cemetery

Around a cold hard tombstone

They know their sister by our “Sadie Rose” friends

By support meetings and remembrance ceremonies

They know their sister by the faraway look in mommy’s eyes

By the silences, the tears, the whispers of her name

They know her by the scent of a flower

By a butterfly’s soft-winged flight

They know their sister by the cloud’s silver lining

And by the stars that light the night

How I wish they could play with her, hold her hand, kiss her goodnight

But they are content knowing her in this way

Always looking for reminders of her presence

And, as only children can, they accept that this is how they know her

And they love her, just as they know her

Just Think!

My mom, with her sister/brother quartet, used to sing this poem in slow doleful harmony. A young girl on her lap, I would shiver at the very thought of Robert’s words as mom softly crooned in her low alto. I hum this to myself often, especially when death arrives yet again as it has so suddenly in our tight-knit community this week. It’s a sobering thought.

Just Think!

BY ROBERT W. SERVICE

Just think! some night the stars will gleam

Upon a cold, grey stone,

And trace a name with silver beam,

And lo! ’twill be your own.

That night is speeding on to greet

Your epitaphic rhyme.

Your life is but a little beat

Within the heart of Time.

A little gain, a little pain,

A laugh, lest you may moan;

A little blame, a little fame,

A star-gleam on a stone.

May the God of all comfort be with those who are facing this reality tonight.

Living Hope in Death

Every time I attend funeral services for an Old Order Mennonite family member or friend, I wish those “outside” could experience their death rituals, rich with culture, community, and faith. The horse-drawn hearse and the four-part-harmony singing make me cry every time.

This week I attended the funeral for my great Aunt Mary. Later that evening, I wrote this poem about the graveside portion of the service.

Stoic Hope

Regina Cyzick Harlow

2/27/2018

From Aunt Mary Beery’s funeral

Shovels scratch

Dirt onto the coffin

Filling the grave

Formed from dust

To dust returning

Mourners

Black hats

Black shawls

Sturdy shoes

Singing

Shoveling

Discretely wiping tears

Faint florals blend

With horses

Leather

Farm

And moth balls

Wafting on the breeze

Sunshine

Blue sky

Breathing deep

Crisp air

Inhaling the promise

Of Living Hope

For those unfamiliar with Old Order Mennonites, they are often confused with Amish because they drive horse and buggy, dress plainly, and live simple agrarian lives. My family and I were raised in the Old Order Mennonite faith, and while I had my reasons for leaving as a young adult, I hold many things and people dear from their community.

My friend, Ava, wrote an in-depth article about their death rituals here. She captures the essence of what happens at the time of death through the funeral in vivid beautiful detail.

Here is a link to a photography essay of an Old Order Mennonite Family by a friend of mine, of life-long family friends/neighbors.

Fear and Truth

Its tendons tighten ‘round her throat

Fear’s icy fingers grip

A lullaby in minor chord 

Echoes from fear’s lips 

Why isn’t she better? The words bounce ‘round

Why is it taking so long?

Did we do the right thing?

Did we make the right choice?

Is there something else going on?
She tries to hush fear’s haunting voice

Pry loose fear’s tightening grasp

But memories of another time

Clench fear’s fingers fast

The weight of a tiny cold dark form

Wrapped in blankets tight 

A final breath escapes her lips 

She slips into the Light
The scent of death and dirt and clay 

As they lay her down to rest

Still fills her senses to this day

And leaves her a broken mess

Trust in God, the faithful quip

He’ll never let us go

And the pious mourners leave her grave

Unscathed by the treacherous woe
Repeat, replay, those memories ore

Her mind cannot turn off

As another daughter suffers long

With pain, and rash, and cough

The surgery was supposed to help

Her healing to be quick

But the progress vacillates and slows

Because she was so sick 
Fear growls in guttural tones aloud 
“she’s mine, she’s mine, she’s mine”

And pins her to the chair, afraid

Immobilized, confined

“She’s not,” the Shepherd’s voice commands 

With authority all Its own 

“She was never yours, she will never be

So away with you, be gone” 
Fear and Truth declare a war

For heart and soul and mind 

And somewhere in her deepest self

Truth’s Hope begins to shine

A knowing that when all she loved

Was ripped from arms and chest

The only thing that held steadfast

Was Truth that never left
Truth cannot lie and will not leave

Her heart to fear’s demise

Truth shrouds her grieving vulnerable soul

With Love from Heaven’s skies 

Truth lifts her trembling doubting head

And turns her face with awe

Plants deep within a greater peace

The Truth, she sees, is God