Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On December 25, 2010, in Life, Personal, by Chris


It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road, and the house is at rest after a busy day of visits, celebration meals, and a lot of calls on Skype to our loved ones as far flung as the U.K.

We also had the annual stream of neighbors – some of whom you’ve been introduced to in years past – bearing the Christmas gifts that will put us in a sugar coma for weeks. But this year, I detected that their motivations were somehow different. It was as if they came bearing these gifts as the cover charge to visit with my three-month-old daughter. I guess I have to face it: the process has begun transforming my wife and I from “Chris and Jocelyn” to “Julia’s parents.”

Nonetheless, I love our time here on the farm. It’s a quiet, simple reminder amid frenetic pace of normal life that the things that really matter are family, friends, … oh yeah, and peanut brittle.

In the afternoon calm between visits, I took a walk down the eastern lane that borders the property. The snow has covered the fields, allowing only a bit of corn stubble to peek through the blanket of white.

There’s a special quality to the air in midwinter, especially when it’s moist and calm like this afternoon. It has almost a dampening effect that covers the land in silence. All I could hear was the snow under my footfalls. As the land dipped, the barns and the rooftops slipped from view; and for that moment, all I saw around me were fields and fencerows, frozen marsh and the russet gray of the trees.

I quietly topped the crest of a hill in the waning light of the afternoon and stopped to see deer striding cautiously out from the woodlot to dig for the shoots of the tilling radishes planted in the fallow of Grandma’s Field. A buck and four doe had braved the cold (and the hunters) to tenaciously hunt for the life that they instinctively knew lay beneath the veneer of cold. I watched, almost hypnotized, as they moved through their cycle of survival – dig, feed, pause, watch for danger – until the cold forced me to turn back for the warmth of the house.

It has long been a tradition for me to sit in the dark of the farmhouse, look back on the year and offer some personal perspective. Well, the year has forced me to exercise some emotional muscles that have never been tapped before. With our daughter Julia’s birth and scary diagnoses of Down Syndrome and a heart defect, Jocelyn and I have seen extremes of excitement, despair, and utter terror that have left us pretty exhausted.

Our family will soon gather to mourn the loss of my Uncle Jim, who died suddenly this Tuesday. I prayed with a friend in the U.K. who has watched his father languish in hospital for three months, only now seeing a glimmer of vitality that brings small hope for recovery. The danger and sadness of this world – in all of its fragility – is real.

But as I sit here with my laptop open and the entire house sleeping, I honestly can’t get those silly deer out of my mind. Despite the danger and any visible sign of anything life-giving, it is their desperation for life that coaxes them to take the risk, step out of the safety of the trees and scratch at the cold ground in search of it.

Death and decay and suffering try to crush anything beautiful and redeeming from this world; but life and the Love that spoke it into being stubbornly push back, awaiting discovery by those who are looking for it.

Somehow (and for reasons that still leave me dumbfounded), God pushed past all of our profound shortcomings, our icy veneer of deceit and self-protection, and found something beautiful and valuable – something worth rescuing. A risk was taken and an Envoy was dispatched to begin and seal the rescue that we – I – so desperately needed. Those whose lives have been transformed by that beauty are called to do the same. Take the risk. Find the Life amid life’s pain.

I find it every day in the beauty of my wife comforting my daughter through her heart-wrenching bouts of colic and steels her heart for the coming surgery. I find it in how our family is drawn together in the sadness of loss to celebrate the life that was well lived. I am humbled as I see friends work tirelessly to leverage their talents for the good of others – from giving Indian orphans a meal and an education to those brave souls still searching out a way forward for the disenfranchised in Detroit.

Whether or not you believe in this whole Jesus thing, rest well in the love that abounds this season – whether or not you see it at first glance. Let that love invade and change your heart, and out of an overflow of that changed heart, represent it well to others.

I give God thanks for all that you do, and wish you all the best for Christmas.

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Dare to Ask

On December 21, 2010, in Julia's Journey, Personal, by Chris

If you’ve been following our story over the past couple of weeks, you’ll know that we’ve been dealing with kind of a roller-coaster regarding her weight gain. It had come to the point last week that were resigning ourselves to the idea that her heart condition was making her progressively more tired and unable to feed well. As a result, we wouldn’t be seeing significant weight gain until after her surgery.

Interesting how things continue to change. In the last couple of days, we saw her come alive again and show much more interest in eating. It was still not where we needed to be according to what the specialists in the NICU were suggesting (120-140 kcal/kg-day – the math is convoluted, but you get the hang of it quickly), but certainly an encouragement.

We have promised ourselves that we would try not to let our spirits rise and fall over the number a scale was telling us about our daughter. But it’s really, really hard not to do that when your singular focus is feeding volume and weight gain. I guess it’s just human nature to want some kind of feedback on your kid’s progress and our reductionistic minds simply tend to boil it down to one or two metrics.

Despite those promises, Jocelyn got a number in her head last night as we prepared for bed and for this morning’s cardiologist’s consult. “We need to pray that she makes it to three pounds over her birth weight tomorrow.” I did the math and it seemed like a tall order, considering the paltry weight gain over the past couple of weeks. In fact, in the cold light of day, I could see no practical reason that our hopes could be fulfilled.

But before we fell asleep at the end of the day, we asked God for the four ounces anyway. I’ll not get into the theological conundrums of whether this whole thing is pre-scripted or whether God actually listens to our prayers and integrates them into the story. Suffice it to say, we dared to ask and Providence… provided. And with a whole half ounce to spare.

So we have two big milestones to celebrate today! Our Julia is three months old and is now a full three pounds over her birth weight! We also shared with Dr. Weinhouse the story of our Ebenezer stone and celebrated the reality that even now, God continues to help us.

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Thankful

On November 25, 2010, in Life, Personal, by Chris

The heavy rains of the day have subsided and I’m curled up by the fireplace in a rented house up on Cass Lake for the holiday. Epic sessions of Yatzee and Mexican Dominoes are in progress among the generations. Jocelyn’s entire family has gathered here from as far away as Texas to be together for Thanksgiving – and also to meet Julia. There was no way we could fit them all in our 900 square feet in Birmingham; so instead of holing up in hotels, we decided it made more sense to rent something we could all be together in.

I’m one belt hole bigger after a dinner, masterfully prepared by Deirdre, my sister-in-law. She has an uncommon passion for food, having brought many of the ingredients for the stuffing up from Ft. Worth in her luggage. If you get invited along on a restaurant crawl with her, clear your schedule!

The carbs and tryptophan are starting to take their toll, but I couldn’t let the moment go by without sharing a few of the things I’m thankful for – just in the past week:

It had been a tough week of feeding for our girl. Very often, the routine has been (1) Feed (2) Burp (3) Cough (4) Hurl. And far too often, we saw all of our care and feeding come splashing on the floor, followed closely by a frustrated howl from Julia. The pediatrician has diagnosed her with acid reflux (pretty common with kids this age) and has put her on yet another medicine to make her more comfortable.

Despite the challenges, Julia still gained four ounces and is on a fantastic growth curve. The meds continue to work as intended; and Dr. Weinhouse, the specialist overseeing her heart condition, is very pleased. We gathered in his office after the consult to pray together in thanksgiving for Julia’s progress.

We got a bulletin from a church we have never heard of in the mail. There was a note written on it from a friend of a friend that they had heard about Julia and put her on the church’s prayer list. We often hear about people praying for Julia, but the note brought into focus the kind of love and concern that folks can have for someone they have never met. By my last count, I know of people gathering to pray for Julia in the U.S., Mexico, Greece, the U.K., and India. Humbling.

We have received countless casseroles and pot pies from well wishers that have allowed us to not think that much about preparing meals over the past two months. It has laid waste to my weight loss regimen, but it has taken so much stress off of Jocelyn and I as we focus on preparing Julia for the upcoming surgery.

And as a confirmation of the richness of the community that God has blessed us with, in the time it has taken me to write this post, I’ve received three text messages from friends wishing us a happy Thanksgiving.

A wise friend of mine has suggested that the first step toward a life well lived is to take an intentional step toward gratitude – be thankful for what you have and not angry about what you do not have. Today, we all have the chance to do that (before the carnage of Black Friday) and step more fully into the stream of beauty that awaits. Sometimes in the pursuit of happiness, we just need to stop and be happy.

Thanks everyone from the Cook family!

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An Early Thanksgiving

On November 17, 2010, in Julia's Journey, Personal, by Chris

We dared not believe it, but a moment of thanksgiving came a week early! I remember the prayer that Jocelyn and I offered up only 24 hours ago as we prepared for bed. We dared to pray for a weight gain of six ounces at today’s appointment with Dr. Weinhouse. After the modest weight gain last week, we decided to let our dreams go a little wild and ask for double. We figured she had been feeding well, but even so, we gave each other a knowing glance as we prayed – we knew it was a crazy ask.

Julia went through the standard measurements of blood pressure and pulse oxygen saturation – both were good. Better than just good. But the real surprise came at the weigh-in.

Bottom line, the numbers on the scale just didn’t stop anywhere close to where we had thought. Julia’s weight gain for the week was almost seven ounces – far exceeding our hopes for the week. What makes this so encouraging is that the average weekly weight gain for children without heart issues is 5-7 ounces.

It’s amazing how our hearts just… flew… as we got the news. Our daughter is holding up her end of the deal! The feeding and love is working – and the celebration continued as we met with Dr. Weinhouse in his office. He prayed a psalm of thanksgiving over Julia – one that Jocelyn had memorized in Sunday School when she was young. But it really sounds cool when you hear it in Hebrew!

Psalm 100
A psalm. For giving grateful praise.

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

The Cook family thanks you for your continued prayers. That tall order I had asked for on last week’s post is one step closer to reality!

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Thus Far…

On October 20, 2010, in Julia's Journey, Personal, by Chris

The weather has given way to wind and rain tonight, and I’m listening to Jocelyn singing “You Are My Sunshine” to Julia up in the nursery. The house is quiet after the flurry of activity that comes with trash night and a run to Target and I’m thinking back to where I was a month ago.

Right around this time, I was peering through the plastic of an oxygen tent at my newborn daughter – the NICU staff working quietly around me as I stared in disbelief. My wife was recovering from an emergency caesarean a floor above. And I wondered in awe as I watched her sleep, what surprises lay in the days ahead.

There have been surprises and challenges in the last month, but tonight we celebrate a month that Julia Paige Cook has drawn breath on this earth. And we thank God and our community and family for it all.

So why is the picture of the stone? I see it as the intersection of ancient reminders of God’s presence and an interesting happenstance while we were on vacation in Greece this summer.

My sister, Lauren, is not much of a deep water swimmer, preferring to chum along the shore with her snorkel and mask looking for interesting stones to add to her collection. I have seen her come out of the water laden down with more than she can carry. So, ever the pragmatist, she most often tucks them into her bathing suit as she swims to take full advantage of the time in the water. A gifted artist, she has gone to great lengths to incorporate her finds into the tile work of their villa.

Jocelyn and I had been on the island for a couple of days; and the care and stress of Julia’s diagnosis was beginning to melt away a little. During an evening swim at a secluded beach, Lauren popped up between us and showed us some of her finds. Jocelyn’s eyes fell upon a green stone with a stripe of marble running through it, and without missing a beat, said, “That’s Julia’s heart!”

Interesting. It had the distinctive shape, and the marble stripe ran right where the wall separating the left and right chambers of the heart might have been. It was a strong line, and a reminder of what to pray for regarding Julia’s heart, which by then we had been told had complications.

Before our vacation, we had spent an evening at a friend’s home with the British evangelist J.John, who is a firm believer that God can move in the present day just as he did in the Bible. His challenge to us that night was to pray for Julia’s wholeness, despite everything that medical science was telling us. And when Julia was born, we would have more clarity on what specifically to pray for. So for the rest of the summer, we used my sister’s gracious gift as the focus of our prayers: “Please, God. Make our child whole. Repair the breach in her heart and let her live.”

It turns out that Julia still has a heart defect; and the stone still sits on the sill of our kitchen window. But instead of a reminder of promises unmet, its meaning has changed and deepened as our experience has formed us.

Its roots take Jocelyn and I back to a time long past with a nation doing its best to follow a Deliverer God with a name no one dared speak out loud. They gathered and asked their priest, Samuel, to intercede with God on their behalf. Enemies learned of the gathering and raised an army bent on genocide, and God swept them aside with heaven-sent thunder. And as the old Hebrew story goes,

“…Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far has the LORD helped us.'”

Ebenezer – a stone of God-sent help. When God did something memorable in Israel, they would often raise a stone of remembrance, so that in the darker days of the future there would always be a reminder that God would be there – even when it didn’t feel like it.

The good news from the Cook family is that Julia is responding well to the medications and her breathing is more comfortable. She is gaining weight, even with the fluid loss caused by the medication. We have our first consult with the surgical team at Children’s Hospital tomorrow, and we may even set a tentative date for the procedure. Complications notwithstanding, the countdown begins tomorrow.

There are times as we consider Julia’s condition that it feels like we have been forsaken and the fears of going it alone overtake us. But the marble striped stone stays on our window sill as a reminder that thus far, the LORD has helped us. We celebrate that tonight on our daughter’s one-month birthday.

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