Summer Reading

One of the greatest challenges for me, during this stage of life in which I have a good number of fairly small children, is in balancing all of my primary roles and responsibilities. Being a wife and a mom can, even on a good day, threaten to overwhelm all else. Yet I know that it is crucial for me to have time to think, to pray, to reflect, and to be a person in my own right.

Something I’ve always enjoyed is reading books. I love both non-fiction and fiction, the former offering countless opportunities for learning and the latter providing a glimpse into the minds and hearts of other people and thereby helping to expand my own. And while I’ve never entirely stopped reading, it’s been something that has ebbed and flowed, generally in inverse proportion to the demands of my children.

I really started making reading a priority again this past spring. Before we went to Omaha for FangFang’s surgery, I’d solicited book recommendations from friends on Facebook and received quite a few and downloaded several into my Kindle app. That was fortunate, since she spent much of her time in the hospital sitting on my lap, often sleeping, and I could do little besides read.

I’ve discovered in the last few months that I really do retain non-fiction better if I read it in actual book form, so I’ve been sticking to that, but I’ve been borrowing fiction books from the library through Overdrive to read on my Kindle app (and occasionally purchasing books from Amazon, as well). I’ve actually put the Kindle app on my phone, and I’ve read so many books that way over the last couple months. It’s not really my preference, but I always have my phone with me, so I’m able to pull it out and read for a few minutes while waiting for water to boil when I’m cooking or sit and read while waiting in the bathroom with a potty-training toddler. And a side benefit is that I’m less tempted to look at Facebook 50 times a day when I have something else interesting I can pull up on my phone instead!

As far as serious non-fiction, I greatly enjoyed reading Hannah Anderson’s Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul, and I even got to go to a book discussion evening with some other ladies to talk about it. I’ve been wanting to grow in humility, and this book was a great encouragement to me. I’ve also been reading Raising a Sensory Smart Child, by Lindsey Biel and Nancy Peske. It has given me some good information as I’ve been learning more about sensory processing and about ways in which our body’s sensory-seeking or sensory-avoiding tendencies can affect our lives and how we can use that information to make good choices for ourselves and our children. After finishing Humble Roots, I started reading Mike Wilkerson’s Redemption: Freed by Jesus from the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry and am looking forward to digging into it more as I prepare for some upcoming ministry opportunities with our church. Next up after that is going to be David Powlison’s new book, How Does Sanctification Work?. David Powlison is my favorite Christian writer and speaker, and I’m really looking forward to reading what he has written. I’m hoping also to get into Praying Together, by Megan Hill, which a lot of the people from our church are reading this summer.

Matt and I have been consistent in our reading together – since our dating days, we’ve always read books together, sometimes both of us reading the same book separately and then discussing it, more often reading out loud to each other. In recent years we’ve been going through sagas – we read almost all of Madeleine L’Engle’s fiction, then read through Harry Potter, and we just finished The Lord of the Rings. The other day we started Dirk Gentley’s Holistic Detective Agency, my first Douglas Adams book, which, so far, is odd – I’m looking forward to seeing what I think of it after we get into it a bit more, since so many good friends have such a love for Douglas Adams!

I’ve really enjoyed being able to venture beyond our reading together into copious amounts of fiction reading on my own, though, sprinkling in some heavier reads among a lot of lighter, happier books. I read two excellent World War II era books: The Nightingale, which crushed me; and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, which at first I thought I wouldn’t like, due to its form of story-telling via letters between various characters, but which I ended up loving. I also loved Wonder, an adolescent fiction novel, which is beautiful and definitely a tear-jerker. My children will be reading all of those books as they reach ages at which they’d be appropriate!

I read some Nelson DeMille books, which were generally good stories, but most of his main characters just annoyed me, so I couldn’t truly enjoy immersing myself in them. But the only book I actually stopped reading before I finished was The Handmaid’s Tale. I may come back to it someday, but I found myself far too creeped out by its dystopian world. I was having weird dreams about it at night and having a hard time jumping back and forth between its world (while I cooked dinner) and my own (as children invariably came into the kitchen to make one request or another). While they’re lighter and probably less respectable as literature, I’ve enjoyed much more the thoughtful, engaging novels of Sara Donati and Christa Parrish. At another time, I might have pushed through the Handmaid’s Tale, because I feel like it’s a book I should be able to say I’ve read, but I’m learning that, just as I parent each child according to what they need at any particular moment, it’s a good idea to pay attention to what I need and want at various times. Right now I don’t need the harsh creepiness but am very encouraged by good, thoughtful stories, and I’m okay with that!

I’m so thankful to be able to grab even a few minutes here and there to do some more reading these days. I’d love any book recommendations you readers may have, as I’m always looking for more good books to read!

Post-Heart Attack Life

Life happens in layers, I think, each action and each event having far-reaching implications, many of which are not known until months or years later. We spent the months after Matt’s heart attack (if you haven’t read the story, see here for parts one, two, three, four, and the aftermath) focusing on making the necessary changes to our lives. Matt is on medication and sees his cardiologist regularly, and he began exercising, first every other day, and then every day, and we completely transformed our diet. We’re always tweaking things, and Matt is continuing to try to lose weight, but, for the most part, things have been pretty stable.

But one night in May, I came home from an evening of hanging out with other women as part of our church’s women’s retreat, and Matt told me he felt off. As I asked more questions, he said he wasn’t sure what it was, but he’d been outside that day and gotten sunburnt, and he’d used some different exercise equipment at the gym, and he was sure that’s all it was, but his chest had felt a little weird. Just to be safe, though, since he was home alone with all four of our kids, he’d taken some meds. Alarm bells immediately went off in my mind. He was sure it was nothing – but he hadn’t really thought that the chest pain he’d experienced in the couple days prior to his heart attack warranted more attention than an aspirin.

By this time it was getting late, but I’d just been chatting with a nurse friend at the women’s event, so I was sure she’d be awake, and I called and got her opinion – which was that if this was anyone else, she’d say it was probably no big deal, but with Matt’s history, we needed to check in with his doctor. We are so blessed to have, as Matt’s primary care doctor, a friend from church. I texted him and asked him to call me if he was awake, because we had a question about Matt’s health, and he called within five minutes. After talking with Matt, he advised him to head to the ER – that it was probably nothing, but better safe than sorry. Matt said he didn’t want to turn it into a big deal by having someone else come here and watch our kids or having someone come and get him, so he drove himself in, while I stayed at home with our kids.

And honestly, it was an emotional night. I was relieved when, by 2:00 a.m., he texted me to say that bloodwork was showing that his troponin levels were normal and an EKG showed nothing out of the ordinary. He stayed for another round of bloodwork 4 hours later and then, when all looked okay, came home to get a few hours of rest and then to hang out with our kiddos, so that I could go in to speak at day two of our women’s retreat. Interestingly enough, for a portion of my talk I was using as examples some of our experiences after Matt’s heart attack, so my mind and my heart were already steeped in some of the counsel I’d received then.

Most poignant among all of it was and continues to be, “Enjoy your time together, it is a gift. Use this time to draw close to God and Matt.”

After Matt’s heart attack, I hadn’t realized that I was afraid to draw nearer to him in our relationship until my friend spoke those words to me. Even knowing that our time together might have a hard stop years before we’d dreamed it could, we were and are called to this marriage relationship together, and I realized then and I know now that I cannot take him to have and to hold, to love and to cherish – as I stood in front of our family and friends 14 years ago and promised to do – if I’m holding him at a distance. And so I push fear away and draw near to him.

I’ve been thinking about Philippians 4:4-8 lately – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

These are hard verses in that they do not promise what I wish that they promised. They don’t say, “Don’t be anxious, because if you pray, God will give you what you want.” They tell us not to be anxious, and they tell us to pray, but what is promised is not the desired result but peace. What I’d like is a guarantee of long life and love, but try as I might, I’ve found that nowhere.

But I contemplate a God who is true, a God who is honorable, a God who is just, a God who is pure, a God who is lovely, a God who is commendable, a God who is excellent, a God who is worthy of praise. I trust that He is sovereign and that He is good and that this life that He has given to me and is giving to me is the one He laid out for me to have, and He will walk with me through it.

I don’t always feel peace. Matt and I are watching through the first season of This is Us right now. We just watched the Christmas episode, in which Toby collapses, and I felt my breath catch in my throat and my heart pound in my chest. I know that panic, and I know those hospital beeps. I know that there’s no guarantee they will stay at bay for years or even days to come.

And yet there is an undercurrent of peace throughout our lives. I choose to trust myself to the God of the universe and throw myself into this life He’s given to me. I expect there will be more ER trips in the future. That’s something that, 15 months ago, it didn’t occur to me to anticipate as part of this new reality, but I know now to expect it. If you experience cardiac arrest at age 39, chest pain earns you a trip to the ER to be checked out, and it’s going to happen, though I hope it’ll be infrequent.

But as long as we’re here together on this earth, living this life, we’ll press on and try to use the days that we have well.

Surgery Tomorrow Morning

Tomorrow morning we take an important step in this journey of living life with osteogenesis imperfecta (OI). FangFang is scheduled for bilateral femur rodding surgery. For those of you who would enjoy a detailed explanation, feel free to check out this link from the OI Foundation. The short version is that right now, her bone density is very low, and her right femur has significant bowing (curving). That means that if she were to try to pull to a stand (something she has been starting to attempt recently), chances are high that her femur would snap. Try to imagine for a moment the pain that would be involved in a significant break of this largest bone in your body, and you’ll understand why we’d like to avoid that scenario. Her left femur fractured about 10 months ago in China, and she had a rod placed in that leg at that time, but it will be replaced during this surgery, and her right femur will be rodded for the first time. These rods will act as internal splints, straightening the bones, giving them added strength and stability, and lessening the severity of any fractures that do occur in the future.

FangFang’s orthopedic surgeon recommended this course of action when we saw him in January, and it is the consensus of the other parents with whom we’ve spoken that it is absolutely the best choice for her. And so, instead of spring break on the beach or exploring a fun area nearby or just enjoying some quality family time at home, we have spring break: bilateral femur rodding edition.

My mom and FangFang and I made the 5 hour drive to Omaha this afternoon and got settled into our hotel room, where we hope to get some sleep before an early hospital check-in tomorrow morning.

Would you please pray for us this week as we tackle surgery and these first few days of recovery? In particular, these are some things for which we’d very much appreciate prayer –

  • that the surgery itself goes well. The surgeons performing her surgery are some of the very best surgeons in the world who specialize in caring for children with OI, and they have done this exact same operation innumerable times, and we have full confidence in them, but no surgery is ever routine when it’s for your child.
  • that we are able to manage her pain – both physical and potentially emotional – well over the next few days. Physical pain after this particular surgery is intense, and we, as well as the nurses involved in her care, will need to stay ahead of her pain with the best medications for her. Additionally, we’ve done all we can to explain what’s going to happen and read books and show her pictures, and I’m as confident as I can be for a 3-year-old who has been exposed to English for just over 3 months that she’s well-prepared, but it’s hard to know how much she understands. She’s going to wake up after surgery with an epidural and double leg splints. She’s such a happy kiddo, and I’m hoping she won’t be too distraught by her situation this week.

  • that my mom and I are able to comfort and entertain her well this week. She’s going to be in pain, and she’s going to have very limited mobility. We’re going to need to be creative and hands on in our parenting (and grandparenting) to care for her well, and while I’m hoping for some bits of down time, I don’t really know what to expect, and I know I need to be prepared for some long days and nights.
  • that Matt and our other 3 kids can have fun together during this week at home. Honestly, I think he has the harder parenting job this week, caring for 3 kids by himself 24/7 (except for brief breaks offered by a friend, for which I am SO thankful – having a couple hours to himself to run to the gym is going to make his job so much easier!).

  • that we can head home early. I’ve been told that if everything goes well, we can hope for discharge on Thursday or Friday, then they’d like us to spend another night in town, and we’d be able to head home the next day. I’d really like to be able to head home ASAP. I don’t enjoy being away from Matt and the rest of our kids, and I think FangFang will be much happier at home with her brother and sisters than stuck in a hospital room. Even tonight, as she was falling asleep in her hotel pack ‘n’ play, she repeated several times, “Night night, Atta.”
  • that we’re able, as a family, to care for FangFang well even as we return home. I really don’t know what these next few weeks will look like, and I want to be flexible with our daily routines and with school and with my expectations of what things will look like, and I hope we can all be selfless in our care for her during her recovery.
  • that the rods do their job well. FangFang very much wants to be able to stand, and we believe (and all the medical professionals with whom we interact believe) that having rods in her femurs will help her to do so safely, and we hope that is the case.

I’ll keep you informed as I’m able. Thanks so much for joining us in prayer as we take this step forward with our baby girl!

a week of anniversaries

In a way that I’d never have predicted, the middle week of February has become one of great significance in our family’s story.

This Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of the shocking death of Matt’s older sister, Denya. Her daughters, in a gesture of which she would have been proud, chose to celebrate her life this week by asking Facebook friends to share their happy memories of her. It was fun to read of her love and laughter as experienced by other friends and family, too, but we definitely miss her. I miss her always encouraging Facebook and blog comments, her support for every new venture we pursued, her wise parenting advise, and, of course, the times spent hanging out together in her kitchen, enjoying and chatting about life together.

Yesterday was actually the one-year anniversary of our receiving pre-approval (PA) to adopt FangFang. We didn’t post about it far and wide on Facebook or anywhere else at that time – largely because we were en route to New York for Denya’s funeral, and we hadn’t yet told all of our close friends and family about our pursuit of adopting her. But still, as we drove on, snow-covered roads bringing us ever closer to the reality of the loss of our sister and friend, we celebrated the news that a new life would be joining our family, a precious girl we knew primarily through these pictures.

Our next milestone is today – the one year anniversary of Matt’s heart attack. One year ago today, after attending the calling hours for Denya, we were all resting in our hotel room when Matt suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. With our children looking on, I called 9-1-1, and our reality quickly transitioned from this

to this.

Matt’s heart attack has been a defining moment in our lives, one that, like having our first child, divides all of time into “before” and “after.”

Post heart-attack life is different than pre-heart-attack life. We have a radically different diet, eating almost exclusively low-sodium, plant-centered, pescetarian foods. Exercise is no longer viewed as a luxury to be pursued “once things settle down” but as a necessity, essential to sustaining life. We’ve become convinced that we cannot allow others’ desires to govern our lives – saying “no” has life-giving power. And beyond the practical changes we have made, we see life differently. Our default assumption is no longer that we are virtually guaranteed to have long, healthy lives together. The statistics for survival after cardiac arrest are sobering. My hope and prayer is that Matt and I will have many more years together – and I dream of what our future may look like – but we can no longer pretend that death is a far away specter of which we need only think once we are retired empty-nesters. Matt shared some of his thoughts on this day and that reality here. And the truth is that it is a source of some anxiety for me. We’re doing all we can to live healthily, though – and that’s all we can do. Beyond that, the calls for us are the same as those for anyone else – we seek to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. We fumble toward one another, seeking to love and care for each other well, to honor our marriage vows. We pursue growth as parents and do what we can to encourage and pray for our kiddos to grow into thoughtful adults who will pursue God, be thoughtful and understanding, and fight for what’s right in the world around them. We look for ways to engage with the community and the world around us.

Life this week, while in many ways haunted by these anniversaries, has, for the most part, been simply normal. We’ve read books, learned about math, coached kids through resolvoing squabbles, played outside, eaten meals, done laundry and dishes, and relaxed with an episode of the West Wing or a game of Yahtzee after the kids have gone to bed.

And we look forward to the last of this week’s anniversaries. Tomorrow 4 years will have passed since the day Madeleine CaiQun joined our family.

This sweet girl has brought so much joy to our family – so many snuggles, so many good conversations, so much laughter. And so tomorrow we will eat Chinese food – noodles and dumplings, in honor of her province and the foods she loves so much – and celebrate.

This week is such a strange mix of reminders of life and death, of mourning and celebrations. We press on and pray that we can act honorably in the midst of it all.

Moving Toward Normal

Matt went back to work last week, so while we’re still settling into life and working toward our new “normal,” this was a big step toward that normal. It was an intimidating one! When we came home with FangFang, going from being home with 3 kids by myself a lot of the time to having both Matt and me home with 4 kids felt pretty manageable; I was not sure that transitioning to a lot of time of me being home with 4 kids by myself was going to be the same!

Honestly, overall, it has gone better than I expected!

The hardest part has been the toddler naps (or lack thereof). Matt had been putting the littles down for their naps, and they’d gotten used to that, apparently to the extent that my presence is now a significantly distracting novelty. Last Monday neither little one napped. Tuesday only one napped. But Wednesday and Thursday both napped, and it was glorious! I could work! There was a break for me in the middle of the day. It was so nice. No naps on Friday. Monday of this week both littles napped (but only after a combined 2 hours or so of effort from me), and Tuesday neither napped. That has been incredibly frustrating – not only do I not get to work or get any calm, quiet time during the afternoon, but I spend 60-90 minutes trying to get the littles to do something they’re not going to do, and that’s time I don’t get to spend doing anything else productive, and they don’t nap anyway. Then we’re all grumpy for the rest of the afternoon. I’m really not ready for them to give up naps – but whether I’m ready for it or not, I’m not sure they’ll keep napping regularly for very long. I need to come up with a different strategy for getting in my work hours, and I think I may need a different nap-encouragement strategy, as well. I’ve gotten some advice, and I’m working on it. In the meantime, this is an area in which we could use prayers – for patience, gentleness, and sleep.

We’ve been able to do school every day, which has been really encouraging to me. We’re figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Being intentional about getting out some good toys for the littles makes a huge difference. Often times, trying to do everything in the morning does not work; but neither does saving the most intense stuff for the afternoon. We need to start with math right away and get through it before we move on to anything else. And while the bigs are doing math, I can often read to the littles and get in a little bit of quality time with them before I need to devote my focus to the bigs again. Once math is wrapped up, I give all the kids a little bit of time to play. Then we do Language Arts and “reading school” – Bible, history, geography, and the girls reading out loud. If everyone’s stamina is holding up, we can sometimes get in science, too, but it often works better to leave that for after the littles’ naps. We’re making our way through the curriculum at a pretty good pace, and while I would have loved to have gotten more done before we went to China, I’m generally pretty happy with where we’re at right now and how we’re able to move through it even with everyone home.

science experiment time!
science experiment time!

I’m working on the balancing act of my own household responsibilities and investing in the kiddos beyond school time. Miranda really enjoys games like Backgammon and “the dice game,” a simplified version of Yahtzee that she’d been playing with my dad. Madeleine CaiQun loves reading and snuggling. Both littles are very into almost anything I’ll do with them – building towers and toppling them and snuggling and reading together. Everyone loves it when we pretend they are airplanes and I fly them around. I’m trying to make time for those things.

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At the same time, though, I need to pay bills and keep up with dishes and laundry. Friends from church had been bringing dinners for us a few times a week through last week, which was so helpful, but I’m now back to planning and preparing all of our food. I’m incredibly thankful for all of the meals I prepared and froze last summer and fall – those are going to sustain us through much of this semester, I expect. Matt has also been helping out with all of the necessary household stuff in the evenings.

And in the midst of it all, we’re tackling appointments and evaluations. In the space of 11 days, we’ve had or will have 11 different appointments, procedures, or evaluations – not all for FangFang but many of them for her.

The big girls are convinced that while we're waiting for PT to start, they should be helping FangFang learn to crawl.
The big girls are convinced that while we’re waiting for PT to start, they should be helping FangFang learn to crawl.

I’ve also spent hours filling out paperwork and talking with intake coordinators for various programs and checking items off of our running to-do list with the nurse at our pediatrician’s office. Friends have been kind enough to help out with our kiddos, which I so appreciate, so that I’m not dragging 4 kids with me to every single appointment or procedure. A pretty quick x-ray appointment? We all go. It’s just part of life. However, today’s CT scan for which sedation is required and I need to be able to focus on a 3-year-old who derives major comfort from food and is not allowed to eat for hours before the procedure and whose sedation recovery I’ve never experienced before? I’d like to tackle that one without another 3 kids in tow, thankyouverymuch!

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with all 4 kiddos in the x-ray waiting room

I did leave the house by myself with all 4 kids multiple times last week, an accomplishment of which I was immensely proud! It requires a little bit of planning, but it feels pretty manageable, so I’m thankful for that.

I don’t feel like we’re in any sort of normal rhythm yet. I think we’re tackling everything we need to do in order to move toward that, though, and I have hope that we’ll get there. Of course, we may get there just in time for the end of Matt’s semester, which changes everything again, or for a femur rodding surgery, which will change everything, too, or – please, no! – a femur fracture, which would also change everything, but we’ll work through all of that as it happens. We just keep moving forward, taking one step at a time, and moving toward the goals we hope to reach.