God’s Purposes

“What’s with the rocks?”

“Do you have a few minutes? Pick a rock and I’ll tell you a story.”

#4 green: Lessons in Trust (Sorry I posted #5 red out of order!)

“Your child has the strongest will to live of any infant I’ve ever known,” commented the veteran nurse at the children’s hospital in Chicago. She was showing me how to bathe six-week-old Karis without contaminating or dislodging the tube protruding from her nose or the central catheter coiled on her chest. A healing incision slashed her tiny abdomen both directions in a big cross, with a cherry-red stoma perched beside it.

Baby Karis smiled and gurgled, enjoying the attention and the bath. The nurse dressed her up in a pretty yellow dress, taped a matching bow to her bald head, settled her in a stroller, and took her and her IV pole around the unit with her, so Karis’s smiles could cheer up other patients.

This scene was predictive of multiple hospitalizations in years to come, when as soon as she felt well enough to get out of bed, Karis would explore whatever unit she was on to find out who else was there and how she could cheer them up. I would find her coloring pictures or reading stories or singing songs to other kids, chatting with nurses, spreading sunshine to everyone around her.

I’m an introvert, so when I’m sick I want peace and quiet. It took me a while to understand that whether she was home or in the hospital, extrovert Karis would get well faster with people around her. When she was an adolescent her hospital room was the party place, breaking all the visiting hours, indulged by the nurses whom she had already charmed. If a party didn’t come to her, Karis took her smiles and enthusiasm to others on the floor. The doctors knew she would start asking them as soon as she was strong enough after a given crisis to sit up by herself, “Can I go home today?”

I instinctively wanted to protect Karis. She instinctively wanted to push all the limits, ignore restrictions and live life. Our most frequent disagreements were over whether she was well enough to go to school on a given day: Karis—YES! Me—NO. Guess who usually won, unless she was actually too weak to get out of bed? Often on those days it was just a matter of time before the school called me to come pick her up because she was throwing up or had passed out from dehydration or was in too much pain even for her to ignore.

Karis saw no reason why she should consider not going to camp, or to a church youth retreat, or cross the city with a friend by bus to attend a concert, or stay out all night because the buses were no longer running (and, by the way, forgetting to notify her worried parents). In a city notorious for crime, my cute little blondie felt perfectly free to wander the streets, to sit outside on our front step early or late, to make friends with people wherever she went.

Trust seemed completely natural to Karis: trust in God and trust in other people. She left all the worrying to me, for whom trust was not easy. I argued and fought with God. I didn’t understand why God didn’t heal Karis and free her from the pain, the surgeries, the embarrassment of ileostomy messes, the too-frequent life and death crises. Karis had so much ambition, so many plans for her life, so much to offer . . . How did any of this make any sense? Like any mom, I would gladly have traded my good health for my daughter’s suffering. I knew God was all-powerful and could heal her with just a touch of his little finger. If he was a good Father, why didn’t he? Why didn’t he heal all the other patients for whom we prayed?

Yet he asked me to trust him.

And Karis asked me to trust him.

Karis said things like, “Mom, there’s a purpose in all this. A good purpose. It’s not about me, it’s about what God wants to do because I’m hanging out in hospitals and waiting rooms with people I wouldn’t otherwise meet.”

In later years in Pittsburgh, those people included Arabic-speakers from a variety of north African, middle-eastern and Asian countries. Not one of them, to my knowledge, ever told Karis she could not pray for them, or read Scriptures in Arabic to them, or refused an Arabic Bible as a gift. Several of them kept in touch with Karis even after they returned to their home countries. I am very curious to find out once I go to Heaven how many of Karis’s Arabic-speaking transplant friends are there with her.

I don’t have answers to a lot of my questions. God asks me to trust him anyway. Once in a while he gives me a little glimpse of his purposes, which are so much different and greater than my own. Meanwhile, he shows me in dozens of little ways that he cares, that he hears, and sees, and is involved. He’s not distant and uncaring. He is with us, and has been throughout our long journey with Karis.

Someday I’ll see with my own eyes what Karis already sees: our Lord’s loving face. One day I’ll understand whatever I am capable of understanding.

Meanwhile, I trust. Not well, but enough. And where my trust is weak and faltering and patchy, he graciously fills in the gaps. Because his good purposes will be fulfilled.

Monkeys and Dress-Up

“What’s with the rocks?”

“Do you have a few minutes? Pick one, and I’ll tell you a story.”

Rock #5 red: Humor

I’ve had a soft spot for simians ever since our four-year-old Danny, watching monkeys at a zoo groom each other, said, “Look, Mom! They’re cooperationing!”

Monkeys are as common in some parts of Brazil as squirrels and chipmunks are in Pittsburgh. One day our three-year-old Valerie was eating a banana in the back seat of the car when a monkey stuck its arm through the window and grabbed it! A similar thing happened when we were vacationing at our favorite mountainous national park, eating breakfast on the hotel’s veranda.

Monkeys were a delightful feature of the Pantanal, in central-west Brazil. The Pantanal is among the most biodiverse places on our planet, with over three hundred identified mammal species. Among them are several varieties of monkeys, from tiny tamarins, colorful little night monkeys and marmosets, to medium-sized capuchins and large spider and howler monkeys.

One peaceful morning Dave and I went for a walk, threading our way with some trepidation between sleeping alligators, and were startled by a huge raucous sound reverberating off the trees. It grew and grew into a rhythm like the beating of an enormous drum. It was terrifying, in part because we had no idea what we were listening to. Back at the hotel we learned that howler monkeys communicate in this manner across long distances.

The funniest experience we had with monkeys was in the Amazon. Our family rented a small boat and its crew for three days on the river, with occasional stops at points of interest. At one of these places was a collection of interesting jungle animals. We stroked sloths, viewed enormous anacondas, admired a family of capybaras, and laughed at the monkeys. One monkey leaped onto Karis’s shoulders, wrapping its hands around her eyes and its feet around her mouth. We tried everything we could think of to get that monkey off of her, but it held on tight. Finally, when Karis was getting somewhat desperate, our son Dan grabbed her, ran down to the shore of the river and held her body out over the water. That worked! The monkey apparently didn’t want to go swimming, so it let go, ran down her body and away into the forest. Too bad we were too preoccupied with the whole situation to think of taking pictures!

 

Playing Dress-Up

Like most little girls, Karis and her sisters loved to play dress-up. Our big box of dress-up clothes gleaned from resale shops and garage sales over the years was high on their priority list to include with our shipment when we moved to Brazil and rediscovered with glee when the shipment finally arrived months after we did. Neighborhood kids joined in the fun, even the boys. When we started a children’s club in our home, everyone wanted to have a part in the dramas Karis concocted and directed, with costumes patched together from that big box that gave wings to their imaginations.

We have photos of Karis dressed up for school plays, for ballet productions, and for dances she choreographed with her sisters for their father for Christmas.

And when she had to be in the hospital, Karis pretended that the hospital gowns were just one more dress-up party that she and the other children there had been invited to. For herself and for countless children over the years, her bright smile, imagination, and humor helped turn tragedy into comedy, leaving the worry where it belonged, with the grown-ups and with her Heavenly Father.

Trading Maxi for Mini

“What’s with the rocks?”

“Do you have a few minutes? Pick a rock and I’ll tell you a story.”

Gold #4: miracles

November-December, 2005

When she died in November, 2004, our dear friend Martha, three-time kidney recipient, bequeathed to Karis her seventeen-year-old little car, dubbed Maximilian. When I took Maxi for his annual check-up, I was told he was completely rusted out and unsafe to drive. Dismayed, I took him for a second opinion. This mechanic was more emphatic. “Lady, if you value your daughter’s life, you will not even drive her home from here. There is nothing holding this chassis together.”

Maxi became an organ donor. The used car place gave us $100 for him.

Three weeks later, our scattered family would be gathering in Pittsburgh for Christmas, and we had made plans to travel two hours to a friend’s “little house in the big woods” for a special family time that we badly needed. Karis was in liver failure and the doctors counted her life expectancy in weeks, not months. There were six of us with our suitcases, plus Karis’s wheelchair and medical paraphernalia, plus a Christmas tree, food for a week . . . What were we going to do?

I consulted my husband in Brazil, and he told me exactly what we could spend for a “new” car. I started calling and visiting used car lots. The salesmen were polite, but they made it clear I would not be able to find a reliable car for the money I had. I checked Craigslist, scoured newspaper ads, prayed, and prayed some more. The days ticked away, and I still had no idea how I would pick up my children and my husband as they arrived in Pittsburgh on their various flights and how we would drive to our vacation cabin.

Finally one day I saw a “Christmas special!” ad in the paper. I called the dealer on Neville Island. Before I borrowed a car to drive out there, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t wasting time or fuel. The salesman assured me that they had three vehicles matching what I was looking for. But he wouldn’t let me pin him down on a price. “I only have this much money,” I told him. “Not any more. I sure hope you’re not trying to lure me into a scam or pressure me to spend what I don’t have. I will not buy on credit.” He assured me that I should come out, and that it would be OK.

With misgivings, I called our friend Alan, owner of the little house in the big woods, and asked him to go with me. I had zero confidence that I would be able to judge whether a car was in good mechanical shape. The salesman showed me three mini-vans, and my heart sank as I saw the prices on their windshields. Perhaps they were good deals, but they were more than double the money I had to spend. And I began to feel angry when he said, “Which one do you like?”

“You know perfectly well I can’t afford any of the three,” I yelled, holding back tears. “Why are you doing this to me?” “Ma’am,” he said quietly. “Didn’t you see in that newspaper ad the words ‘Christmas special’? You pick any one of these three, and you can have it for exactly the money you have, not one dollar more. Merry Christmas.”

I chose the green one, in honor of our daughter Valerie’s favorite color. The next day I drove Mini to the airport to pick up my husband and children. She had space for the six of us, and our luggage and food and Christmas gifts and Karis’s wheelchair and all her medical paraphernalia. And a Christmas tree. We had a marvelous, healing time together as a family in the little house in the big woods.

January 10, Karis was called for her second transplant, this time a multivisceral—five organs. The doctors told us later that without that miracle, she would have lived perhaps three weeks.

Our Christmas special mini-van served our family’s needs for the next five years.

Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears our burdens (Ps 68:19).

Math

“What’s with the rocks?”

“Do you have a few minutes? Pick a rock and I’ll tell you a story…”

Rock #4 red–humor

“I disagree. The teacher’s wrong.”

I sighed. Karis and I were having our nth discussion about math. She was in fourth grade English math at PACA, our children’s school in São Paulo, Brazil. My parenting skills were challenged at times by this stubborn child. “I suppose the textbook is wrong too?”

“Yes. I want to do math my own way, but my teacher won’t let me. Can I home school, just for math?”

I made an appointment to talk with the elementary school principal and Karis’s math teacher. At one level we were all amused by Karis’s tenacious conviction that she knew better. The problem was that she was failing math. “Her way” did not yield the same answers as the teacher’s.

“What if we move her into the Brazilian math class?” The principal’s suggestion was one that had occurred to me as well, but I didn’t want to undercut Karis’s English math teacher. We decided to try it, on the condition that Karis would agree to cooperate with the Brazilian teacher.

That decision resulted in the dear Brazilian teacher spending long after-school sessions with Karis trying to explain to her logically why “her way” didn’t work. Having conducted those sessions myself, my sympathy was all with the teacher. After a week or two, I decided enough was enough and put my foot down. For the rest of the school year, Karis would have to submit, even if she still staunchly believed her way was correct and the rest of the world was wrong.

And Karis had to stop “contaminating” her little sister with her beliefs about math. Valerie, soon to enter kindergarten, adored Karis and tried to copy everything she did. I had no doubt that if it was my word against Karis’s, whatever Karis told Val would win.

From the time she was young, Karis loved coming up with her own way to do all kinds of things. She broke all kinds of rules, with no apparent remorse unless she discovered that what she had done actually hurt someone. Not all the time, of course, but when something mattered to her, she regarded rules and other boundaries as but suggestions to be considered. No one’s word on anything was to be automatically accepted without careful evaluation. Even then her creative mind often found a way around it.

Yes. She sometimes drove us crazy. But I have no doubt that her very stubbornness, and refusal to accept words like “there’s nothing more to be done medically to keep you alive,” were qualities God used to keep her with us as long as he did.

Dependence

“What’s with the rocks?”

“Do you have a few minutes? Pick a rock and I’ll tell you a story.”

Rock #3 green: Lessons in trust

“How do you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Deal with—all this—[a gesture indicating all the medical paraphernalia] and still have a smile on your face?”

“I don’t. I can’t. It’s too much for me.”

“I don’t understand. I mean, I get upset when I have a flat tire, or the flu.”

“What do you do with that frustration?”

“I don’t know. I guess I get mad. I complain. Why are you asking me that?”

“I don’t think there’s really that much difference between what you have to deal with and what I have to deal with. In both cases it’s too much for us. We’re not meant to deal with life by ourselves.”

“What do you mean? Aren’t we supposed to be strong and spiritual and independent?”

“Well, no. I don’t think so. I certainly can’t live that way.”

“So we’re back to my first question: How do you do it?”

“When I wake up in the morning—if I’ve been able to sleep—before I even open my eyes, I tell the Lord I just can’t do this. I can’t face another day. I’m just not strong enough. I tell the Lord my particular frustrations and worries about this particular day. I ask him again to take me Home. But since he doesn’t—at least so far—[big grin] I ask him to live this day for me. I am weak but he is strong. His strength is my joy. His joy becomes my strength. Tell me what you’re dealing with today.”

I heard some variation of this conversation many times. People would come to visit Karis supposedly to cheer her up (and they did), but the focus soon shifted from her to them, to their worries and concerns. And Karis would pray for them, and help them pray for themselves. And they would leave with Karis’s smile on their own faces.

I have to tell you that Karis didn’t learn this dependence on the Lord from me. I was trained from infancy to be tough, to be strong. In my childhood home, any expression of a need was considered griping or whining, and that was simply not allowed. I didn’t learn how to admit weakness or distress or sadness. I learned to swallow or deny all that; to shut up and do my work. To keep my focus on other people’s needs and how I could serve them, because my own needs weren’t real; they didn’t matter.

I lived like that pretty much all the way through the hard years with Karis. And then, a few months after she died, after the five extra people who lived with us gradually went their ways, I fell apart. Grief swamped me, not just the grief of Karis’s death, but hundreds, thousands of big and little griefs piled up inside me that had never been mourned. I couldn’t contain them any longer. They showed up in nightmares to the point I was afraid to go to sleep. They flooded me when I was awake, three-D flashbacks that could suddenly intrude at the grocery store, or when I was driving, or having a conversation. I had what I think is a mild version of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Not by my own choice, I had to face into my own pain and losses and disappointments and trauma. I had to let myself feel. I thought I would not survive this. I had to admit my own fragility and neediness. All my life, being a wimp had seemed like the ultimate failure. I finally had to start paying attention to those overheard Karis-conversations and confess my own inability to do life in my own strength.

It took a long time to work through all that stuff. It felt like forever. When I was in the middle of it time stood still. The only way out was through. I couldn’t do it by myself. I absolutely had to rely on other people. And on the Lord.

I don’t ever want to go back there. I have to take life in small bits; deal with stuff as it happens. Deal with it by admitting my weakness, my neediness. Acknowledge to the Lord my inability actually to deal with the realities of life, with the suffering all around me in this sad and broken world. And do you know that when I’m willing to admit I can’t do it, and leave my disappointment even in this with the Lord, that’s when I find his strength. It’s the opposite of how I’ve lived most of my life.

Do you know why we sometimes gripe and fuss and whine? Why we get anxious and worried, can’t sleep, eat too much or not enough, hook into screens or shopping or chemical escape or whatever? Well, of course there are lots of reasons. But one of them is that we think we have to do life by ourselves. That we have to be strong and independent. That admitting our true needs and weaknesses and feelings is failure. We focus on complaining about the small stuff so we don’t have to face the big stuff that is too much for us.

Listen carefully to these words, not as a Band-Aid, not as a proof text or a way of judging yourself and others, but as a lifeline for your soul:

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for what he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. (Phil 4:6-7)

Tell God what you need . . . That’s still hard for me. It’s much easier for me to tell God what I perceive to be someone else’s needs. Mine seem small and inconsequential; not worth taking up air time. Maybe you feel that way too. The problem is that small things not cared for pile up, until they’re big enough to be difficult to handle and I’m forced to pay attention.

So one of my big lessons in trust, that I expect to be learning the rest of my life, is to let God in on even the small stuff, admitting that even in that, I need his help. The more I practice being dependent on him in ordinary life, the more I’ll train myself to look to him for strength when tougher things come.