Think you’re not disabled?
Think again . . .
We went away together, my husband and I. We left our problems, our concerns, our constant stress that never seems to let up for long. Because when one is caring for three kids, now 22, 20, and 15—all with a myriad of permanent cognitive disabilities stemming from prenatal exposure to alcohol—stress never seems to end.
Studies show that the divorce rate of couples raising a child with disabilities such as ours is nearly double the rate of couples raising a child with no disabilities. But we don’t have ONE child with disabilities. We have THREE. And we have often found our marriage hanging by a twig due to the strain.
We’ve been married for twenty years. We adopted our kids four years in, sixteen years ago. And our marriage has been an on-going flurry of appointments with specialists for testing and therapies and special educational programming ever since. When both husband and wife are each trying to keep their own noses above water, it’s easy for the marriage to sink and drown.
We have floundered in turbulent waters too often to count. I will confess. I have fantasized about hopping a plane, a train, a bus—anything—to get me out of here and start over somewhere, anywhere, without all this stress. What’s weird is that I love my husband. I love him dearly. Why would I want to leave? Sometimes life’s challenges take on an all-consuming life of its own, snuffing out even love, so it seems. When there is no energy left for individuals, how can there be any energy left for a spouse, for the children? But thankfully, God made us stubborn, my husband and me.
In a good way, a holy way, we’re stubborn loyalists. We made a vow and we took it seriously, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer.
We vowed we would never, ever give up, no matter what. And we’re getting the opportunity to prove we were serious.
My husband turns 60 this year and I turn 55. We’re tired and we want to retire, desperately. But there is no retiring when we remain primary caregivers of adult children who still need parents to survive—who will ALWAYS need caregivers to survive.
So how do we do it?
How do we beat the statistical odds stacked against us and survive as a couple, even thrive?
The themes of our wedding ceremony passage read twenty years ago sustain us. And we’ve learned a thing or two about faith and hope and love in the past two decades. Twenty years after becoming husband and wife, sixteen years after becoming parents, we now know . . .
Our faith is made stronger through weakness.
Our hope is made stronger through humility.
Our love is made stronger though pain.
These three—faith, hope, and love growing by way of weakness, humility, and pain, actually sustain and strengthen us as individuals, as a couple, and as a family. It’s that crazy, upside-down way of God, completely unlike the way of the world.
But it works.
So on Monday morning, we LEFT our kids to LOVE our kids—to catch our breath. Because if WE can’t breathe, we can’t breathe life into our kids.
Todd and I drove north two and a half hours to our favorite place. For three days we put ourselves in a resurrection-from-the-dead place.
Fish Creek in Door County, Wisconsin is our home away from home, especially in winter. The quaint town on the picturesque peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan on the east and Green Bay on the west is just the quiet we needed. We stayed right near the entrance to Peninsula State Park which is filled with groomed cross-country ski trails. And across the street from our hotel is our favorite pizza place, The Wild Tomato, serving hand-tossed pizza crusts with ingredients so fresh it’s hard to believe they weren’t picked from a miraculous summer garden tucked away somewhere in the frozen Wisconsin landscape. Just down the road is our favorite lunch spot, The Bayside Tavern, serving the best burgers in the world (so say I).
Our three-day-get-away was rich in nature and marital togetherness. Don’t worry. I’ll only give details about the former—nature. Cross-country skiing is one of our marital passions. And Door County is the place to indulge.
With our own gear strapped on, we began our first 5.7 mile loop. At first, the going was hard. Debris from a hemlock forest slowed our glide, sometimes threatening to topple us. We gained momentum from an even slide but suddenly found our groove stuck.
Isn’t this like life?
Just when we’re going along smoothly, something drops and slow or stops us in our tracks.
I felt myself brace. What was ahead? More debris? More risk of falling flat on my face from sudden, unexpected obstacles in my path? I slowed but told myself to relax.
I can slow and observe but I need not brace and tense.
Bracing and tensing cause rigidity which increases risk of falling. So I coached myself to stay relaxed. Soft knees, steady vision.
And I did not fall.
Next came a steep hill—an upward climb.
Put your skis out of the track. Do what FEELS unnatural!
Resist leaning back.
Muscles may burn. It’s alright. Pain has purpose. We’re going up, not down. We’re climbing, not sliding. One foot in front of the other. Concentrate. Don’t look at the top and become discouraged. Just—keep—planting—one foot in front of the other. Soon, you will reach the top.
And my dear husband said, “Don’t give up! DO NOT SLIDE BACK!” And I changed the order of his words in my brain. “DO NOT BACK SLIDE!”
Because backsliding is dangerous business.
Forward we must go!
And we did.
Huffing and puffing, we reached the top, feeling a grand sense of accomplishment. And I prayed thanks.
But it wasn’t the top.
We kept skiing. And then we saw a sign.
To the left of the the word was an arrow. It pointed to another trail, another upward trail.
Do we go?
Do we stay?
Do we accept?
Do we refuse?
We burned our triceps with our poles and we burned our quadriceps with our skis and we went all the way to the top, huffing and puffing, exhausted.
And what did we see?
We saw the gorgeous vista with frozen water and islands and trees. And we heard the largest of all songbirds in the world—the raven. We saw it flying overhead, crying.
But was it crying or praising?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, isn’t it?
Often I cry as I praise. Maybe it’s just me? But maybe the raven tells us that to cry is to praise. And we watched the raven soar on updrafts of warm air, wondering how it knows to find such bursts.
The raven doesn’t think it through. The raven just depends.
The raven depends . . .
And then the decent. When we think the sliding will be smooth, sometimes the speed scares.
We started down the way we came up and my skis, the newer ones, they kept gaining speed and I had to press my insteps, digging deep, grooving the snow so I wouldn’t slip and fall and hurt myself.
And at the bottom of the steep hill?
How often does life throw us a curve—an unexpected change of direction when we’re cruising along and we don’t know quite how to maneuver to keep us upright?
“Oh God, keep me upright!”
And He did.
I made it round the curve at scary speed.
And then I saw a branch. A branch was hanging by a twig of a branch. I pointed it out to Todd.
“This is common in the forest. We just don’t look and see.” He said it firm, knowing full well.
We all hang by twigs too often. And we don’t look and see . . .
Even so, we’re held.
How often do we give thanks—for being held—even if by but a twig?
And then I stop.
In my tracks, I stop.
A tree full of holes. Still alive, a tree full of holes.
And he says to me, “The holes stress the tree and still the sap runs.”
I see the sap.
I see the holes.
I feel the stress.
I know the holes.
And still, I run.
I run to my Father God who keeps me alive, despite my holes. And this is holiness—utter dependence on God to keep me living, despite my holes—to keep my life-sap flowing, despite my deep, dark holes.
This is grace.
This is mercy.
This is LOVE.
And in the silence of stopping, we hear a knocking.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The woodpecker knocks and it’s the only sound in the forest.
What muffles His sound in our hearts?
I think about how God has loved me enough to die for me and I think about how the only sufficient response to a love—like—this—is to die in love—for—another.
And I think of our kids.
One is completely ungrateful—unknowing, seemingly—of the great sacrifice we’ve made for her to live—to live WELL. And part of me burns with resentment. But another part of me melts with gratitude. What I have been given, I need to give. What mercies have been granted, I must grant.
How often do we walk with entitlement? How often do we expect blessing instead of curse we deserve?
Too often, I admit.
Too often I expect God to bless when what I deserve is curse. And yet, He blesses, knowing full well what I deserve. Because of Christ, He blesses.
And so, I choose to bless, not to retaliate, when those who don’t know hurt me—over and over and over. When the dis-abled show my dis-abled and I wonder why anyone, the Perfect One, would love me despite.
This. Is. LOVE.
When one looks past. When one chooses to love instead of hate. When one embraces instead of pushing away. When one accepts instead of rejects.
And I think of my dear husband—the one who repels me too often in—my—own—mind. He is not my enemy. There is another. A dark and death-filled other.
But I will not listen. I will not follow. I will not submit—to—the death-call.
I AM STUBBORN!
God grant me your power to resist and submit to your True Love. Let the ways of the world not entice me to follow any path that leads opposite of You!
For God’s sake! For my husband’s sake! For our children’s sake! For MY sake! Keep me on track! Keep me gliding, scary though it may be, burning through the uphill climb . . .
Keep me gliding, O God . . .
Closer and closer to You.
Realizing how weak I am strengthens my faith in You—in Your perfect strength.
Humbling myself gives me hope—because You hold the future.
Persevering through pain reminds me that Your love is greater—always greater—sustaining me . . .
Leading me on.
Lead me on, Lord.
Lead. Me. On.