On Living Life in Spite of Fear When Fear Still Holds My Hand

My friend, Abigail Rine, wrote a piece today on her blog, Mama Unabridged. It’s titled The Mother Wound, and it’s beautiful and gut-wrenching. Like parenting. In it, she reflects on her reaction following the explosions at the Boston marathon. What it’s like to be a mama when you realize your super protection powers have limitations. What that means about God. What it means about love. I nodded in agreement through the entire post — oh, how I’ve been there, mama — but it was her question at the end that cut me to the core.

I am only four months in. My son, who hasn’t quite mastered rolling over yet (so close!), is probably safer now than he will ever be. But already I’m wondering: how can I live like this, under the threat of such incomprehensible pain, without it swallowing me whole?

Sometimes in the depth of night, Julian stirs, begins to cry himself awake, and I put my hand on his chest to calm him back into sleep. My hand easily covers his torso, and I can feel his tiny heart against my palm, fluttering like a hummingbird. Not so long ago, this heart was beating inside me; our twin organs shared both body and blood. Now I swear I can feel both hearts there, beneath his matchstick ribs. Mine echoes in the beats between his, a desperate murmur, a plea: don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop…

Yes. Oh, yes. How can I live like this? And I’m already consumed.

My oldest baby was 3 years old on September 11, 2001. I sat in our tiny apartment on our sage green, overstuffed, microfiber couch, and I watched the second tower fall while I readied Abby for preschool and questioned whether I should take her at all. I wept for the people killed and the people left behind. I wept for the horror and the loss. But I secretly wept hardest of all for the idea that I might someday lose my own baby and for my impotence to stop that from happening.

I was 13 the first time I lost someone very close to me. Gary died in a plane crash in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, where my family lived at the time. He was a pilot like my father, doing Christian humanitarian aid work in some of the most remote jungles on the planet, and, when I was at boarding school, he and his wife Kathy took me in for weekends and holidays and marathon cookie-dough-eating sessions. They made me laugh and feel welcome, which was a piece of home.

On May 25, 1987, we received word via radio that Gary’s plane had gone down, and we began to pray. The thing is, I knew he would be okay. I mean, I knew with perfect peace that Gary wouldn’t die. My faith was pure and sure, but while I was busy praying, Gary was busy being dead, and it shattered a piece of my soul. I no longer trusted intercessory prayer or the magic wand of God to fix things.

Thus began what I like to call my Death Issues. Which are really Trust Issues and Anger Issues and God, YOU SUCK Issues. Which are really Hurt Issues and Fear Issues and I’m Not Sure I Can Stand Life’s Pain Issues. Which are really, you know, Being Human Issues.

When I became a mother, though…

oh dear God, when I became a mother…

when I became a mother, I learned about fear. And I was paralyzed that Abby would die.

And then it got worse.

Every tragedy was a reminder that God was not trustworthy. That people die without asking me for prior approval.

My cousin, AJ. Alaska airlines flight 261. 9/11. GloriaJoey. More.

Each one was a reminder that I’m one step away from losing the people who are my breath and my life.

With every death, a nod of agreement. Yep. Confirmation that God’s crap. Not for causing their deaths — I’ve never believed that, not ever, not ever, which is perhaps the only consistent bright spot in my theology — but for allowing to happen on God’s watch things I’d never tolerate on mine.

When Neil died, I nodded again. Yep. This is crap. Neil, a Christian aid worker and pilot in Irian Jaya, Indonesia… the same place Gary died… the same place Neil and I grew up… Neil died and left behind his wife, toddler daughter and infant son when his helicopter went down.

I attended Neil’s memorial service in Pennsylvania months later, and late one night, I sat with Neil’s wife, my former high school dormmate, to talk. Candidly. Openly. To talk with my friend who found herself alone, with two small kids to raise, and, in my mind, though I was careful not to say so, betrayed by God. I asked, offhand, knowing that people say strange things in the midst of tragedy, “Sandy? What’s one thing people keep saying that you could do without EVER hearing again?”

And she said the most amazing thing.

Sandy said, “I wish people would stop saying that God took Neil too soon, as though God broke some kind of promise when Neil died. It’s a lie we tell ourselves, that all people live to grow old. Some do. Some don’t. That’s not God’s promise, to ensure that we live long lives. God’s promise is to be with us no matter what happens. No more, no less. God is faithful to me.”

I was transported to that conversation at the end of Abigail’s post when she asked, perhaps rhetorically but echoing my own mama heart, “How can I live like this, under the threat of such incomprehensible pain, without it swallowing me whole?” 

How can I live like this? Knowing my worst nightmare is a possibility? How can I even breathe?

I know you know these questions. I know you know because you told me so. Christy wrote, “Truly, the question is, how do you keep from being all consumed by the fear?” And Kathryn wrote, “My ‘postpartum depression’ with my first really wasn’t chemical at all. It was wrestling with this question. To love someone so indescribably, and know that you really could lose them or watch them suffer, it’s a hard, hard thing.” And Jennifer wrote, “After I had my first child I asked my mom in complete honesty ‘when do you stop worrying?’ and she just smiled and said ‘you never do.’ It was a great moment and terrible realization all at the same time.”

And I agreed with every single one of you. I live with grief and fear and the agony of the unknown. Every day. Every minute. I cry for what might be. And I wonder, if the worst happens, whether I’ll survive it.

But I will tell you what Sandy taught me that day. What opened up inside me. What gave me hope to hold hands with my fear.

It’s the knowledge that Love goes with me.

Or God. You can call Love God if you like. That’s okay. I often do. But I call God Love, too, on the days when God is too much — too much history, too much baggage, too much misappropriation by too many people over too much time, too many politics, too much yelling — Love brings me back to the core. Back to the heart. Back to the whole point. And here’s the truth of what I believe. The entire thing in a nutshell:

Love never fails. Never ever.

How can I live like this, under the threat of such incomprehensible pain, without it swallowing me whole?

I can live like this, with hope and faith and, yes, with fear, because Love goes with me. Into the abyss. Even into the abyss of right now which holds all of the unknown. Love goes with me. Love goes with my kids. No matter what happens. Love is faithful. And Love never fails.

This is the light in the darkness. This unfailing Love. Not that we don’t know that the dark’s all around. But that we turn our faces to light and warm ourselves at the fire.

 

……….

How about you? How can you live like this? Tell me what you think. What gets you through tragedies or the possibility of them? What allows you to breathe in spite of the fear?

And P.S. I love this post by my friend, Karen, who lost her son just a few years ago. It’s about Joey and Jesus and protecting our children and hope and Heaven and victory. It makes me cry, and it helps me remember that Love is bigger and better and bolder than I can imagine. Thanks, Karen.

……….

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
24 comments
  1. […] drinking or drugs. The culture of the event was tame by all accounts, and I suspect since I grew up among the tribespeople in the highlands of Papua, who wore only grass skirts or phallic gourds and took the body and its parts as a mundane matter […]

  2. What a touching post, such wise and thoughtful words. I’m so happy I found your blog when I did (some months ago), because I really, really enjoy your writing – both when it’s light and happy and full of your warm humor and when it’s more serious and thought provoking.

    As for the main topic: I – CAN – NOT – THINK – ABOUT – IT. My mother was visiting my family for a week or so (and actually just left to travel 600 miles back home two hours ago) and a couple of days ago she was telling me about one of the worst situations she ever had at work during her over 30 years as a physician… and in the middle of the story I burst into tears and told her not to tell me any more about the case because I simply couldn’t handle it. I can not deal with children dying. I CAN NOT. It took me the whole evening to get over it.

    Truly – you don’t know what fear is until you become a parent. You have NO IDEA what fear is until you have a child of your own. And if I let myself think about something happening to one of my children… if I thought about it for longer than a very brief, passing moment, the fear would really swallow me whole. So I don’t think about it. I refuse to think about it.

    And now I shall go and kiss and hug my kids goodnight one more time, despite telling them fifteen minutes ago that I wouldn’t come into their room anymore tonight because IT IS TIME TO SLEEP 🙂

    1. Yeah. I’m with you there. I don’t think about the bad things if I have any choice at all in the matter. I’m not a fan of dramas or tragic tales or even true stories of heroic courage in the midst of devastation, because HELLO, devastation! So I know all about shutting down the story… “I can’t listen to this.” But I’m bad at turning off my brain. I wish I could do that. Because, truly, at the end of the day if the worst happens, I want to have been happy while I could.

      xoxo,
      B

  3. I’ve got this quote from The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder memorized:
    “But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

  4. I’m at work. Dammit.
    This is maybe the best thing I’ve ever read. Because I always feel like I’m WAY “less than” when it comes to even the remote thought of the possibility of handling something so devastating. I always admire with compassion those who are called to do that handling. It’s good to know that I’m part of a bigger group of LOVE’S people with the same emotions.
    But God is good, all the time.

  5. Wanted to pass along this lovely woman’s letter about her 4 year old son that had brain cancer. http://reknew.org/2012/12/precious-henry/
    Jessica Kelley writes so beautifully and I’ve found a lot of strength thru her story. Her blog is here: jessicakelley.com
    And I loved your friend’s response, about how our lives here are not just about living as long as we possibly can. Thanks for sharing

  6. I got really tearful as I read down your post. It is so true that as parents we have no real power over what happens to our kids – or anybody else in our lives, as you pointed out.

    Powerlessness is powerful though. It’s so darn hard to let go of other people’s destinies, decisions and life choices sometimes. For me, I know my own kid is the hardest. I was actually shocked that even as babies and young toddlers, they have such minds of their own and they have their own path to walk down – I can only guide and watch.

    Letting my baby find his own way, make his own mistakes and, horror of horrors, maybe come to harm’s way, is the hardest learning curve yet in this thing called life.

    It takes a heck of a lot of courage for parents to truly own their powerlessness, I think. Thanks for a great post.

    1. I love your words about the courage to own our powerlessness, Johanna. What an awesome way to capture this Fear + Love life.

  7. YOWZA! That was really well said and really well spoken/written, Beth.
    I think you’ve got this “writing” gig down girlie.
    Thanks for that!

  8. I am drawn to you because you blend honesty, humor, and hope. Thank you for including the redemptive and hopeful in the midst of much dark sadness. A little light chases away much darkness. And Yes. God promises to be with us–a faithful and constant companion. No more. No less. It is enough.

  9. I grew up in a country where bombs and terrorists were par for the course. We did bomb drills, terrorist drills and fire drills at school. That was our reality. Fast forward to adulthood, and I worked for several years as an ER nurse (in the US). And I loved it and it became my reality. I forgot about all of the life that went on daily outside of those walls, that didn’t end in injury or death. I forgot that for every person I cared for, who had been hurt or became ill during a given everyday activity, there were millions more engaging in that activity, and going home to their loved ones, untouched. I was a cynic who became certain of that cynicism. I no longer work emerg (phew!, and boy-do-I-miss-it), and I’ve gained more perspective, but I still instinctively search for the worst scenario in every activity and plan accordingly (my kid doesn’t jump on the first or fourth trampoline at gym ’cause damn if one isn’t placed a head width from the wall – hello broken neck, and the other has exposed metal bars at one end – broken neck, facial bone fractures, etc…and so on). We only drive a car that has 5 star crash test safety ratings; we’ve spent a small fortune on car seats; we don’t drive places on high-traffic-fatality long weekends, our daughter is never out of our sight in public places, etc.

    Being a mom has made me so much more aware of potential for loss, and so much more aware of the incredible, euphoric, fullness of living loudly and with joy. So I think, for me, the answer to your question is that I see the injury/tragedy/illness in every single thing we do….and I have to do it anyway because this one life is for living…I just try to do it as safely as I possibly can. Just a wee sense of control in an out of control senseless world. Bombs, random shootings, violence – these things scare me to death because there’s no precaution, it’s luck-of-the-draw. But if we don’t choose to live (safely as we can), but fully live, then what is the point of the whole thing anyway? A long life lived without moving beyond the front door, is as much a waste of life as an early, untimely death.

    1. This was beautiful, Kate:

      “Being a mom has made me so much more aware of potential for loss, and so much more aware of the incredible, euphoric, fullness of living loudly and with joy. So I think, for me, the answer to your question is that I see the injury/tragedy/illness in every single thing we do….and I have to do it anyway because this one life is for living.”

      Thank you.

  10. Yes…it was quite a shock for me…all the worry that comes with being a new mother. Somehow I thought that all the worry and anxiety I carried with me would go away after my boy was safely delivered. Once I didn’t have worry about loosing him or still birth or birth defects that it would all be okay. I’m sure you’re laughing hysterically. But I really truly thought that. Of course it didn’t go away…just morphed into a NEW set of worries. But it’s okay. My boy is here and life is not certain. And there’s great comfort to know that he will not be alone. Whether I’m with him or not…someone Greater is, someone who loves him MORE than me…as impossible as that may seem.

  11. Honestly, I try to ignore those scary thoughts, because they could swallow me whole. After crying in the days after the Sandy Hook tragedy, my husband gently encouraged me to do what those parents could not, and that is enjoy my son in the moment. On Monday night, I read/watched the news, but I also sat in at bath and bedtime (a routine my husband always does). Sometimes we make it hard on ourselves to live in the moment, which is actually a really easy thing to do.

  12. I had to share this on Facebook because I posted yesterday that I may never leave the house again. Late at night I let my mind wander where it shouldn’t and when I think about the possibility of being in the news ourselves because of some tragedy – I break into a sweat even imagining my baby being hurt. Maybe we’ll start a compound and never walk outside the walls. Walk in bubble wrap if we walk at all. But this leaves no room for faith in my life, and I have to take heart that Love goes before us because if I don’t the weight will crush me.

  13. Such profound words Beth. Thank you.

  14. I remember when Kent was in hospice, and we were at the end. Waiting for the angels to come and pick him up, and still praying that somehow, miraculously, they wouldn’t. A close friend wrote to the email loop we used to share information on Kent’s condition that she felt betrayed by God and that he was letting us down, and how could he? And I – in all of my infinite wisdom wrote back… Please remember that God did not promise us a miracle. Yes, we asked for one, and yes He heard our prayers. But he has no obligation to give us what we want because we ask for it, beg for it, or demand it. He has promised to heal all of us, but He has not said when or where. You have to trust the Word. He says that He works all things together for the good of those who love the Lord. We have to trust Him to do what he says. If we can’t trust him now, if we are going to backpedal and start doubting now, then all the years of “faith” leading up to this were a lie. Jesus said all we need is faith the size of a mustard seed and He will do the rest. I trust Him to fulfill this promise. God may work a miracle out of this yet, and then we will all rejoice. But if He doesn’t, if that isn’t His plan, we should rejoice anyway. God has been here with us all along. He has provided for us financially, physically and emotionally. He has provided people to hold us up when we felt we couldn’t stand. He has provided more than we know what to do with in most areas. How can you see this as God letting us down? If Kent dies here he will simultaneously be born in heaven and will get to spend eternity from that point on in the presence of the Father. How can this make you angry? Kent asked for a testimony, and God provided it. His situation has touched more people than we could ever have imagined! How can this be a disappointment? Yes, we will miss him, and yes we will be sad for a little while. But guys, it’s not forever, and we’ll get to be with him again, it’s just a separation for now, it’s not “the end”.
    But then… Kent died. And for a while I doubted – seriously, doubted – my faith, the very existence of my God. It was a really scary time and 3 months that were harder to get through than the 18 months of Kent’s illness. I did get through, but it still haunts me sometimes. And yes, it haunts me with my baby. I believe I worry a ridiculous amount about things happening to her – everything from her being stolen from her bedroom in the middle of the night, to me dying in my sleep and leaving her in her teen years with no one to love her like I do. And all things in between. And I pray… “Please God… Don’t take her from me… Don’t ever take her from me. I know she’s yours. I know you can have her whenever you want. I know I will always be yours and you’ll never leave me even if you take her… I trust you to do what’s best for her. And for me. But please God… Don’t ever take her from me…” It’s so all consuming – this need I have to keep her with me – that when she went through a depression in middle school, and did scary things like cut herself, I begged her not to do it – not to die – because I would die too. How do I live with this? The answer is I don’t know. But the days keep coming and going… I’m still alive… I think it might just be that God sustains me daily.

    1. The reason I knew exactly what I said to my friend above is because I have it saved in my journal. I’ve only ever consistently kept a journal from the time Kent was diagnosed until about a year after he died. So after I sent the above, I read part of my journal and I found it. I found how we survive. This is from the day the dr. told us he wouldn’t survive. It was less than 2 weeks before he died…
      For the last 3½ years, I’ve been preparing for this moment, although I didn’t know it as I was doing it. But on September 11, 2001, as our country came under attack, I started to feel desperation, and I started to realize that I needed to have God in my life. I made changes in my life to accommodate that need, I started attending church, I became a member of a small group. Then just last year I started learning that I’m really NOT self-sufficient. I NEED God, not just as a part of my life, but my very life depends on His willingness to allow me to breathe, the sustenance of my body depends on His granting me the ability to earn wages with which to buy food. I can’t do anything without Him giving me the ability, and conversely, I can do ANYTHING He asks of me – even the hard stuff, even stuff I know I can’t do, because He makes me able. And so I am not depressed now, nor am I scared, although I am sad. I didn’t want to be the mother of yet another fatherless child, and we’re not there yet. God, in His infinite power, can turn this around yet. But if that’s the road He takes me down, I can do it, and I can do it with confidence and joy, because God makes me able.

    2. Maira – THANK YOU for sharing your story. So beautiful, so true, to share your faith and your doubt and the way they ebb and flow. I appreciate your words so very much, and YOU for opening yourself here.

  15. Love, life is all about loving and letting go.

  16. My oldest was only two months old on 9/11. We were home alone while my husband was at work. I had no idea what to do, and was so young, I wasn’t really sure how to feel. All I knew was that I needed to protect this little baby who depended on me, but I felt uncertain about how to go about that. Fast forward 11 years, and after suffering the loss of several people close to me, including my Dad, and I again dealt with the question of how to go on. I think I may have finally found the answer. We go on because the alternative is not to. We look ahead with hope, because the alternative is not to. We must choose to be happy, because that is what those who are no long with us would want, and we cannot disappoint them. They did it for us. Sorry so long and hope it makes sense!

    1. I love this, Elisa. Thank you.

      “We go on because the alternative is not to. We look ahead with hope, because the alternative is not to. We must choose to be happy, because that is what those who are no long with us would want.”

  17. I know those fears, Beth, and as you know, the pain of seeing a child suffer as their own child suffers. But your friend Sandy is so right. I’m reminded of the time when I was expecting my first child and a friend asked me, “Aren’t you afraid to bring a child into the world at a time like this?” And I thought of my parents getting married during WWII and saying to each other, “I hope the world doesn’t end before we have a chance to have children and enjoy them.” Which made me realize that every generation has the same God promising to never leave them, to always be with them and with their children.

  18. Thank you for your wonderful, thoughtful words, Beth. I think my feeling process is like yours in the face of potential tragedy: that love will not fail. Even if the worst thing possible happens to one of my boys, love will step into that void, not filling it, but making that void something I can live through (just barely, but still). I’ve used that thinking process ever since I was a child, worried that one of my parents would die. And like I said, it helps–but just barely. Tragedies like Boston’s–or to be honest, even more, the girl killed in playing in her yard this week, and the one killed last week playing in her yard–cut me to the core, nonetheless.

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