One at the NICU and One at Home

On September 25, 2010, in Julia's Journey, Personal, by Chris

Big day yesterday for the Cook family. My wife came home – here’s a pic of her feeling the sun on her face for the first time in four days. She had her incision staples (yes, staples) removed early Friday morning. There was a little apprehension on both our parts, thinking that it would be more painful removing metal than it would silk sutures. But in less than two minutes, they were gone and she was ready for Steri-strips. In the meantime, I was looking for the red “That Was Easy” button (pun totally intended).

We went down to see Julia after her overnight Blue Light treatment, and she looked like a different kid. Her color was much better, she was more alert and active and (okay, guys – breastfeeding talk ahead) she latched! I sent a text message of the good news to women of our families and you would have thought I had announced an 80% off shoe department clearance sale at Nordstrom. I have to resort to humor just because I’m a little awed by the whole thing. I really do appreciate – but have the self-awareness to say that I will never totally understand – the kinship that binds all women together when it comes to childbearing and breastfeeding. Kind of like the male camaraderie surrounding the Superbowl…

No. That’s not it.

Give me an uninterrupted year or two under a tree and I might come up with something. All I can say now is that it truly is beautiful and indescribable. And all the sistas say, “Amen.”

We were thinking that we might be able to stay one more night on what is called “Maternal Stay-over” where we would have had access to the hospital room to crash in between feedings. But we found out that if the room was needed, we would have been asked to leave immediately – even if it was 3am. In the end, we decided it was best to sleep in our own bed. And leave our kid where she needed to stay.

That created a lot of really complicated feelings in both Mom and Dad. It was a very, very weird feeling leaving a part of you behind in the hospital. We had known going in that Julia was going to stay behind and had each prepared in our own way for the reality of it. My sister, Lauren, told me that she needed actual physical support from her husband to leave her son in the hospital after giving birth. But now the inevitable was right up in our faces.

So we did the best we could. The flurry of activity before discharge – especially procuring the hospital grade breast pump – got us focused on the tasks instead of the emotions behind them. I asked an especially intimate circle of men to pray for me as I made myself available to whatever my wife needed from me. One texted back to me with what he heard:

Be encouraged, this is good for the two of you.

No truer words could be spoken – even though the thought of it hurts. We’re going to be leaving our little girl many, many times in her life; and she will eventually leave us. It didn’t make the keen pain of the moment recede, but it did give it a little context. Some company and assistance from good friends that night – along with Buddy’s pizza, a chick flick and two milk runs to the hospital (11pm and 4:30am) by Dad while Mom got some shut-eye kept us occupied and the “My Baby’s in the NICU” blues somewhat at bay. Along with complete exhaustion!

The morning brought a new rhythm (Pump – Drive – Nurse – Repeat) but also some much appreciated reinforcements to this beleaguered little outpost. Jocelyn’s sister Jen drove up from Dayton to bring some much needed support in the form of lovingly prepared food, a womanly perspective that I simply cannot give, and the fun of having my sister-in-law around. She is the consummate child-raising pro and helped Jocelyn out as we got Julia accustomed to breastfeeding. Baby is doing well – we were able to do a full feeding from Mom today. We still use the bottle sometimes, but only when we don’t want to waste the good stuff that Mom is producing.

Jen will be leaving us tomorrow, but there will be other reinforcements that you will be meeting as we go, and great support from our community. As I am writing this in the dim half-light of the nightshift NICU, I am humbly watching my sister-in-law quietly dozing after a day of giving it her all. The late night milk runs, the breast feeding frustrations, and the messy house is all worth it when I watch my little girl sleeping peacefully, and it makes the pain of our time apart a little less keen.

Jocelyn has produced enough breast milk tonight to get Julia through the night time feedings, so Dad will not have to jump in the car for a milk run tonight. Thanks sweetie! We have the first truly restful night in front of us!

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She Picked Me!

On September 19, 2010, in Life, Personal, by Chris

Two years ago, right around this time of night, I was sitting in my living-room with my Best Man enjoying my last glass of wine as a bachelor. The next day would be my wedding day and so begin one of the greatest adventures of my life. Earlier in the day, we had had some of the lads together for a bachelor party of Lipuma’s hot dogs and several laps at Race Rochester’s unlimited Kart track. We showed up at the wedding rehearsal smelling of gasoline and exhaust, but had a great time.

Later on that night, after the out-of-towners’ party, David came by to help clean up so the girls could go off to their bridesmaids’ nest at a friend’s house. Once all the dishes and platters were put away, we sat down and popped the cork on a vintage cabernet and took in the glow of how truly good life can be.

I still remember our glasses of wine in our bachelor days after a good meal, over which we would ponder everything from practical theology for regular dudes to our careers and (especially) what good women God had planned for us. Despite our moving into and through our thirties, we continued to hold out hope (for each other, at least) that they were out there – even if we hadn’t met them yet.

David found and married his in 2006, and I watched them grow together and face some real challenges – not the least of which was the premature birth of their son, Christian David. At every turn, through every challenge, David and Dana have been the picture of strength, yet remained vulnerable to God and his purposes.

And I still walked in solitude. But fortunately, that would not be forever. Nearly two years after I stood as a groomsman in David’s wedding, he stood up in mine.

As you might have read before, I had almost given up (I’ll spend some time unpacking that later). But I am so glad that I remained open. I’m so glad that God brought this woman into my life. She’s carrying our child now – a thing that couldn’t have crossed our mind on that great day – and the adventure begins anew.

The Cook household has been in preparation for our baby for months, now made more challenging with Jocelyn’s doctor-prescribed modified bed rest. Half of my energy of late is spent getting the cooking and laundry done and the other half is spent keeping my normally activist wifey from doing too much. I’m honestly beginning to wonder if the new spiritual discipline that God is calling her into is the very act of being served instead of serving.

Another day of baby preparation and normal house operations are done; and to tell the truth, I haven’t felt this tired or this satisfied in a long, long time. The cat is still slinking around in the darkness of the kitchen, quietly reminding me that my day is not done until I give her the customary nighttime treat.

I’m hearing the Vivaldi that Jocelyn plays for our little girl, still in her womb, as she prepares for bed. I am reminded that this is a woman of rare strength and quality. And I still marvel at the reality that, two years minus one day ago, she picked me.

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Scare & Selah

On September 14, 2010, in Life, Personal, by Chris

Okay – Important Safety Tip: Make sure you are buckled in when you tell God, “Bring it”. It’s more than likely you are going on a heck of a ride.

Let me tell you about the last 36 hours. Monday AM was looking good as the members of the Prayer Task Force for the EACH Initiative came together at Landmark Church in Hazel Park. We got a lot done and I jetted off in full blown “production mode” to the next meeting, cell phone smoking along as I drove (ed. note: always use hands-free mode and don’t dial out when you’re driving kiddies!). The beginning of the ministry season is most often like this, with lots of communication to make sure programs and initiatives are launched for maximum impact.

So I was burning along from meeting to meeting, building momentum from one to another; and only dimly recognizing that the day had me in its grip. I was about to meet with a couple going through a difficult situation and my phone rang.

It was Jocelyn.

She had gone to the OB for a routine exam and they were concerned about her blood pressure – 150/100…

…and the baby didn’t seem to be moving very well.

They told her to go immediately to the hospital for extended monitoring.

Ten minutes later I’m in the car wondering what we were in for when she got there; and in my moments of panic, whether my kid was going to survive the night.

The triage team assessed the situation, gave Julia a clean diagnosis (my kid is scaring me to death and she’s not even a teenager yet!), but admitted Jocelyn to the ante-partum ward for monitoring over 24 hours. “Rest here, and let’s see if that blood pressure will come down,” they said.

I got Jocelyn settled in and put the list together of what she will need for the overnight stay. I got to the house (totally breaking the no cell phone rule) and find three shingles from my roof sitting in the driveway. I went down to the basement to switch the laundry and the dryer is malfunctioning and making funny blue sparks. Great.

And in the end, the most confounding thing was that there was no one I could reasonably get mad at. I hate that.

But now, 24 hours later, my girl is home – relegated to a modified bed-rest regimen for the rest of the pregnancy. Her blood pressure slowly crept into a more healthy range through the hours of uncertainty; and the baby still in her womb, according to the docs, “is doing beautifully.” There were even moments of lightness and fun as we spent the time together between visits from the medical assistant to get another reading. And tonight, as she sleeps next to me again, I have time for a little reflection.

There’s an old piece of Hebrew poetry that calls out across some three thousand years right into my crazy 36 hours. They were the words that Jocelyn rested upon yesterday as she stepped into the doctor’s office:

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone;
my hope comes from him.

He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.

My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.

Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.

Selah

And there it is – Selah. It’s exact meaning is lost in antiquity, but as near as the scholars can figure, it was a word that meant “pause here”. My theory is that the words were so heavy and meaning-full that took the human brain time to apprehend their weight; so the psalmist gave folks a little interlude to think them through.

As the computer keys give way to the weight of my fingers, right this moment, I have an opportunity to once more wrestle with those words. To read them again and then just sit with the scandalous promise of a God who never changes – even when everything else seems to.

Find rest – not in a favorable blood pressure reading, but – in God alone.

I will not be shaken – even though my stuff and the house that contains it might be once in a while.

Pour out your hearts to him – if you dare – for God is our refuge.

God didn’t change – I did. In the face of circumstance and misfortune, I let myself get a little faked out. Coming back to him and sitting in those promises is a chance re-attach (or perhaps more fully attach) to the larger reality at work redeeming, reshaping, re-forming and reconciling this seriously warped situation and billions of others far weightier than mine.

Selah – yeah. Feels good.

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Bring It.

On September 12, 2010, in Life, Personal, by Chris

I launched this site some five months ago and have had an itch in my head ever since. I had always promised myself, having been an avid peruser of writings by authors far smarter and more articulate, that I would not add to the noise – in print or online – unless I had something truly unique to say.

Fact of the matter is, I’m still waiting. I’ve always been something of a perfectionist, never wanting to do anything unless it measured up to my narcissistic standard of “world class”. But sometimes, you just have to start and cut yourself a little slack as you push ahead.

There was a bigger reason for my delay in beginning this blog, however: I didn’t want to begin while my world felt like it was imploding. Let me give you a little of the backstory.

Almost two years ago (722 days, to be exact), I married a woman that I was convinced did not exist. Jocelyn was the wife that God had planned for me, and I still marvel at the fact that she chose me! Only a year before our wedding, we had not met and I was in the process of making peace with the possibility that, at forty-one years old, God’s plan for me was a life of singleness.

Jocelyn and I spent the next eighteen months in relative wedded bliss, even beating the prevailing attitude that the first year of marriage is the toughest. We were so well matched on so many different levels that our worst disagreement wouldn’t have made it out of the bottom tenth percentile of many couples. We were even navigating through the first trimester of her pregnancy and the attendant waves of nausea that were more often the rule than the exception in Jocelyn’s case.

And then there was the day that it all went sideways. March 24th of this year, we went in for a routine ultrasound meant to eliminate the possibility of a problem with the pregnancy. We came away with something that we frankly hadn’t signed up for. There was an anomaly in the thickness of the Nuchal Fold (called a “soft marker”) that points to a statistically higher possibility of Down Syndrome. The doctors suggested more testing to confirm or refute the results; and after a lot of prayer and soul searching, we agreed to an amniocentesis a few weeks later.

The word from the medical community quickly went from “there is an elevated possibility of a problem” to “we’re pretty darned sure there’s a problem”. During the ultrasound for the amnio, the imaging specialist found a heart defect and the genetic test results eventually confirmed Trisome 21 – a third DNA strand attached to the more typical 21st pair of 23 chromosomes.

I have had only a few screaming matches in my walk with God. They are done in solitude and usually leave my vocal cords pretty raw, but I figure that God wants it all – the good, the bad and the very, very ugly. My only pointed question to him that sunny spring day when we got the preliminary (and normally pretty darned accurate) results was:

What.          Are.          You.          Doing?

I got no (audible) answer that day, but my mind has since been wrestling with the brief words I’ve caught in my moments of reflection and from those prophetic oracles that come from my tribe of trusted friends and confidants. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

For over five years, I’ve overseen the Care initiatives at a church of over ten thousand people. I sit on the board of an organization in India that reaches out to the poorest of the poor and currently feeds, houses and educates over two hundred kids who would otherwise have to survive a life of petty crime and prostitution. I’ve seen my share of sad stories. My message to people in pain is hopefully not overly simplistic, and hopefully delivered humbly:

The world needs you.

We need you to move into this challenge and experience the full spectrum of emotion that God has for you in it. We need you to approach this season with the attitude of a student and not a victim. We need you to surround yourself with a trusted community who can encourage and sustain you through the discomfort that will undoubtedly come. This season may be a short one or may last a lifetime; but we will need you to plumb the depths of it, find beauty even in the midst of the struggle and add your stories to the narrative of the One who redeems the world’s brokenness. And in so doing, speak with a credibility that can only be had through suffering a broken world well, knowing that this is only the beginning of a much greater adventure.

That, or something very much like it, is what I tell people in crisis. I wonder if God is leading Jocelyn and I into this wanting me to start putting my money where my mouth is.

So here I sit in the rocking chair of my daughter Julia’s room as my wife takes a much needed nap from the fatigue of the ninth month of pregnancy. We are only a few weeks away from truly knowing the results of God’s craftsmanship. Even now, we still sit in the tension between knowing that God could re-knit our daughter right down to her DNA, or he could choose to do something even greater in us (and in the world) through a little girl with Down Syndrome. In the end, my deepest conviction is that this kid is going to have a massive impact for good.

Worries of the “ninth-month-of-pregnancy” roller coaster and the financial, medical and emotional implications of Julia’s heart defect still catch me by surprise sometimes. But here in the cool of this September afternoon, I can be thankful that Ultimate Good has captured my heart and continues to change the questions I ask of eternity. Today, with still a little fear, but with growing confidence in the God who pursues me, I say:

Bring it.

And I thank you for joining our little family on the new adventure that God has for us.

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