Category Archives: Ian

Life Around Our Table.

DSC_0146My family owns an old wooden table that once belonged to my great-Grandparents, and has been carefully passed down over the generations. Through the ingenious magic of extra leaves, it expands and contracts like an accordion, making room for up to fifteen smiling faces to gather around it. Twenty, if you don’t mind your elbows bumping.

Years ago, the old wooden table followed my family across an ocean to Kiev, Ukraine, into our first tiny apartment where my Mama could stand in the middle of the doll-sized kitchen and touch all four walls with her hands. I remember the very first dinner that we ate sitting around our table in that apartment—I was six years old, and Stephen and I were famished after refusing to eat anything but white dinner rolls on our trans-Atlantic flight. Armed with fifteen basic Russian phrases and an iron will, our Mother had hitch-hiked to the local market. She wandered wide-eyed amongst stalls where animal carcasses hung dripping above dirty meat counters, looking for all the world as though someone had mercilessly slaughtered half of Noah’s ark. The hard-won meal that she presented on the table that night was beef in some sort of unidentifiable gray sauce, and sleepy, hungry faces beamed and gushed how wonderful each bite tasted. Years later, Mom told us that was the moment she decided that she could live in Ukraine.

Our table has seen three different countries and more different houses, but wherever it was, we were home. It’s seen Christmas morning cinnamon rolls, Cookie Monster birthday cakes and two grinning little boys with curly blonde hair and spaghetti sauce all over their faces. It’s where we learned to pass food to the right, and to wait until Mama started eating to pick up our forks. It’s the table around which eyes scrunched tightly shut as we thanked Jesus for [most of] our food, and where we tattled on the other kids for opening their eyes during prayer. It’s where Ian gleefully discovered that he could burp the ABC’s, and while I’m sure my parents wanted to chastise him it was all so bizarrely impressive that they couldn’t help but egg him on. It’s the table that Kellan broke on the cool October night that he leaned across it to kiss me, and though Daddy laughed out loud and fixed it right up, Kellan never quite lived that down.

Our old wooden table is where we’ve told our stories, where we’ve learned who the people sitting beside and across from us are. It’s where we have celebrated wildly and loved fiercely, debated passionately and doubled over with belly-laughter. That table has been the heartbeat of our home for as long as I can remember, hosting grand Thanksgiving dinner parties and quiet peanut butter and jelly afternoons. My most savored memories are the ones we spent relaxing around empty plates for long, unhurried hours after the meal had ended, red wine still swirling in long-stemmed glasses and contented conversation echoing off the walls.

Part of the raw ache of grief is that you can never go back. There could be nothing more precious to me in the world than just one more night spent laughing around the old wooden table with my whole family, but Ian is gone. And nowhere do we miss him more than when we sit down to dinner and realize that we’ve forgotten again, and set six places instead of five.

The ache of missing Ian has created in me a homesick longing for soul-exhale of heaven. And somehow, I suspect that heaven will look just a little bit like what has happened around our old table for so many years.

Happy 23rd birthday tomorrow, baby brother. We miss you every single day.

While in college, Ian was interviewed about the a cappella group that he sang in. It’s unnerving just how often over the course of two minutes, he was distracted by a girl walking by…

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Filed under Family, Grief, Home, Ian

Our Father, Who Has Been in Hell.

My Daddy doesn’t cry.

Growing up, I never saw him cry even once. Oh, his voice faltered for one tenuous moment while speaking at my sweet Grandpa’s funeral in the old church on Hubbard Street, but no tears fell. This is, in no small part, why I find it violently disturbing whenever a man cries in my presence. It feels like the sky is falling.

As a little girl, my Mama used to tell me that one day, I’d see my Dad cry. She’d grin and lean in, as though she were about to share something precious, confiding in a whisper that every time the two of them watched Father of the Bride, Daddy teared up just a little bit until he’d finally ask her to turn it off. Your Father can’t even think about your wedding without tears springing to his eyes. Oh honey, that man is going to just cry on your wedding day, she’d tell me with a sort of prideful glee that I’ll bet only a Mama can understand. It was a promise that I savored, treasuring the idea that that my stoic Dad loved me so much that he’d actually cry when I got married. I used to recount that promise to friends, remarking how I’d need to wear waterproof everything on my wedding day because I was entirely certain that one look at my Father with tears in his eyes would send me careening straight over the edge.

Ian started chemo two impossible days after his diagnosis. Doctors wearing white coats and grim expressions were using words like aggressive, and as Ian’s abdomen continued to swell his shallow breathing was becoming increasingly labored. Every second mattered. Reeling from an incomprehensible diagnosis unceremoniously handed to a healthy twenty-one year old kid, we were sitting in a corner room at UNC Hospital, Dad, Ian, and I. Large windows overlooked Chapel Hill in October, and the Magnolia leaves had sparked into flame. We barely noticed, that day.

My tall, strapping brother looked so small laying in his white hospital bed. The chemo bag was hung, Ian was hooked up, and I remember being surprised that something as ominous as chemotherapy wasn’t more complex. As though there should have been more fanfare, more gravitas before poison was allowed to course through my little brother’s broken body. A smiling nurse quietly exited the room, and I sat on the edge of Ian’s bed as the chemo began to infuse, our Dad standing behind me.

So this was chemo.

Minutes later, Ian began to shake violently. The pale, curly-haired boy that had been cheerfully traipsing around his college campus just three days earlier was moaning and writhing on the bed in front of me, and as I lunged over him and held him I fought the panic in my voice as I screamed for someone to come help. I felt like I was drowning as I watched my little brother convulse on the bed in front of me, powerless to do anything but watch. Ian, I’m here, I’m right here. Daddy and I are right here. You’re going to be just fine. Just keep breathing. We’re right here. Nurses and doctors poured into the room, and I stayed trembling at the foot of Ian’s bed, my hands holding his feet. I’m here, Ian. I’m right here.

Fearfully, I glanced over my shoulder at my Daddy just in time to see one tear trickle down his face. It was the first time that I’d ever seen him cry.

I would later learn that Ian was experiencing Rigors, induced from too much of the toxic chemotherapy flowing into his battered body at once. His chemo drip was slowed, and eventually the horrifying convulsions came to a sputtering, faltering halt. I weakly made an excuse about needing to go get something, anything, and walked into the long hallway outside of his room with hot tears streaming uncontrollably down my face. I didn’t make it past the nurse’s station before gut-wrenching sobs threatened to send me to my knees. Sunlight poured into oversized lobby windows, and everything in my world felt dark and splintered. My twenty-one year old little brother’s body was rebelling, and there was nothing, nothing that I could do. I learned that morning what it’s like to feel helpless. To pray ragged, desperate, keening prayers, deeply guttural moans begging God the only way I could think to do it: please. Please. Please. Please. 

Ian would go into kidney failure later that day, and would be rushed downstairs into a dark ICU. I would sit there by his bed, holding his cold hand, begging God please. Please. Please. It was a scene that would be repeated time and time again over the next five months, by hospital beds and on 2:00 AM drives home from the ICU, always begging God please.

When I think about that day, and the many like it that would follow, when I think about holding tightly to Ian’s hand as he falteringly breathed in and out for the very last time, when I think about how God said no, I don’t understand. I believe that when our hearts are shattered, human instinct is to try and make sense of it all, as if a tidy answer will help us put the pieces back together again.

I don’t pretend to understand God. I cannot tell you why He said no to the one thing that I wanted most in the whole world. What I can tell you, is that before Ian’s first day of chemo, I thought about God as Our Father in Heaven. He is that, of course, but as I learn to stumble through life without my little brother I have learned to cling to Him as Our Father who has been in hell. Our Father who has been in hell, who watched the flesh be torn from his Boy’s body as He was chained to a post and violently whipped again and again. Until tattered skin hung loose and blood ran crimson and bone was laid raw and exposed. Our Father who has been in hell, who watched as thorns were pressed deep, as blood poured rivers down his Boy’s beaten face. Our Father who has been in hell, who watched smirking Roman guards stake his Boy to a couple slabs of wood. Our Father who has been in hell, who for hours watched his Boy slowly suffocate to death. Straining, gasping for air that his exhausted lungs could not find.

I’ll bet He cried, just like my Daddy did.

I do not follow a God that I understand. I do follow a God that understands me. Who understands wrenching pain and searing loss, who for the sake of Ian and you and me stood by while his precious Son bled out and suffocated. A God who is intimately familiar with the raw, howling, soul-wrenching bone-weary keen of grief. In the midst of it, I am grateful for the God that has been in hell. Who triumphantly walked through it and shattered the chains off the gates and declared it FINISHED so that death would not be the end of Ian’s story.

It does not have to be the end of your story, either.

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Filed under Family, God's faithfulness, Grief, Hope, Ian

Lean on Me.

I apologize for the impromptu blogging hiatus. I’m sure you’ve all been on the edge of your seats wondering how the nail-biter saga that is my birthday turned out. PATIENCE, PEONS! [I’m sorry. The birthday dictator keeps bubbling to the surface. So embarrassing.]

A week and a half ago, one of my very best friends came to visit. Jess was one of my roommates in college, and has enough dirt on me to squelch any aspirations that I’ve ever had of running for political office.

She also led the charge to save my wedding.

Once upon a time in another life, I didn’t ask for help while wedding planning. Oh, dear friends offered time and time again–but I was simply skeptical of the idea that people might actually WANT to spend their spare time tying navy bows and stamping endless piles of cream-colored envelopes. I smiled politely and deftly refused–wholeheartedly believing that I was saving them from themselves.

When Ian went into the ICU for the very last time, I remember sitting on the cold floor beside his hospital bed with my DSC_0135laptop open on a rainy afternoon. I had neither thought nor spoken of my impending wedding since he’d been admitted, fearful that he would hear and begin to panic. I desperately didn’t want him to understand how close my wedding day was, and consequently, how long he’d been sick. In a dark ICU, days and nights bleed together as monitors murmur and flicker, and the passing of time becomes marked only by changing shifts as doctors and heroic nurses quietly ebb in and out of winding hallways.

As I sat on the speckled floor, an email from my reception coordinator popped up in my inbox, defiantly glaring at me from the glowing screen. The steady rush of a ventilator breathed in and out and my heart stopped as the sheer impossibility of it all threatened to drown me. My brother can’t breathe on his own and I am supposed to get married in three weeks. Without so much as a second thought, I hastily responded:

DSC_0216I am in the midst of a family emergency. Copied on this email is Jessica Mann. She will be working with you from now on.

I didn’t even think to ASK Jess first. And the thing is, I didn’t need to. I knew that Jess would take over the remaining three weeks of wedding planning without so much as batting an eye, a suspicion quickly confirmed when she responded “Absolutely.” less than 7 minutes later. The next evening, she, Gretchen, Haley, Ashley, Danielle, Hartley and Michelle [every best-friend-bridesmaid that was in town] all piled into an ICU waiting room with a bottle of white wine and a flock of open laptops, quickly and decisively divvying up remaining tasks. From crafting a seating chart on antique window panes to picking the wine list to coordinating with the photographers and meeting with the reception planner, everything was taken care of. Each woman gathered in the waiting room that night treated my wedding like it was her own, insistently caring about sweet details when I no longer could. My wedding was far from ideal, but I am quite convinced that there has never been more love poured into a single day.

Jess was the tiny, formidable force driving the whole herculean effort. They tied navy bows and called the florist.DSC_0253 They painted signs and coordinated chocolate cupcake deliveries. They took time off of work and wrote checks out of their own bank accounts that I wouldn’t find out about until months later–and all, so that I could simply sit by Ian’s bed and hold his hand. They gave me the precious, irreplaceable gift of time with my little brother. I could not have been more grateful for anything under the sun.

Weeks later, when I walked away from room 17 in the ICU for the very last time, they were the phone calls that I made, one by one, as I sat in crushed disbelief on my bedroom floor. I had always believed that somehow, Ian would live, and they had stubbornly believed with me. I remember Gretchen dissolving into tears as I numbly relayed the news, unable to even begin to wrap my mind around the idea that my curly-haired little brother was not coming back.

These are my people. The people that ache with me and belly-laugh with me and know to keep calling if my phone goes unanswered. The people to whom I can say everything or nothing at all. The people who spent hours sitting alone in nearby hospital coffee shops, just in case. I think that God gave them to me as a tangible reminder that in the midst of a world throbbing and aching and blindly reeling with grief, I am never, never alone.

Neither are you, friend.

 

 

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Mama Always Said…

I’d like you to meet my Mama.

Her name is Cindy. She is feisty and sarcastic and ENTIRELY inappropriate. She makes a decadent chocolate cake that will change your whole entire life, and when I was little she religiously danced to Richard Simmons’ Sweatin’ to the Oldies work out video every. single. morning. [On account of the cake.] To this day, every time I hear “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to”, I have PTSD flashbacks of mint-green striped spandex and coordinating scrunchies.

My Mama also happens to be the director of women’s discipleship at The Summit Church, a minor miracle given the fact that she is probably the least-holy person that I know. She tells it like it is, and this talk that she gave is no exception. She’s my best friend and my first phone call should I ever need to dispose of a body with no questions asked, and if she died tomorrow I would inscribe one thing on her headstone:

God only gives good gifts.

It’s been her mantra since I was tiny. To be perfectly honest, for a long time I thought it was a cliche; something to be needlepointed onto tacky decorative pillows or slapped onto bumper stickers. That all changed the day that her little brother died. I was in the 8th grade, and in the face of incredible pain, Cindy Peterson still believed to her core that God was incapable of being anything but good to her. Spending my life watching her believe–really believe that–taught me to believe it, too.

If you have ever experienced grief or questioned the goodness of God, this video is worth your time.

And if you’d like to hear about the time that she and I belted “Gold Digger” to Ian until 3:00 in the morning in a dark ICU, well, that’s in there too.

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The Shadow.

JCP_1584 bwI was carrying a large pizza.

It was dark outside-after ten o’clock at night. I had been sitting at home waiting for news-any news about Ian all day long. Just that morning we had been told that he did not, in fact, have mono or an odd strain of the flu—he had cancer. Wait until we call you to come, my Mama had said. And so I sat alone in the brown chair and stared at my silent cell phone all day long, willing it to ring.

It only needed to ring once. We’re at UNC Hospital and Ian wants pizza. He’d listed off the toppings that he wanted, and shaking, I ran to my car to race to a local pizza joint on my way to the cancer center.

My voice trembled as I stammered the order. Pepperoni, sausage, bacon, mushrooms, green peppers. Please, please hurry. Black-aproned college students were wiping down tables and stacking chairs, so I stood outside waiting. A gray-haired manager noticed me, lip-quivering and wide-eyed, and walked out to the sidewalk to ask me if something was wrong.  It all came spilling out. He’s only 21 years old. Just diagnosed this morning. I don’t know anything except he wants a pizza. I think sometimes angels must be disguised as sweet gray-haired pizzeria managers, because the man gave me his card with a note scrawled on the back that said “Good for one free pizza at any time.” He wrote a note to Ian on the front of that pizza box—We’re rooting for you buddy! Fight hard.

I parked in a massive concrete parking garage and ran towards the hospital. Glass doors welcomed me to “UNC Cancer Center”, and whitewashed halls grew blurry as tears filled my disbelieving eyes. My heart could not understand where my legs were taking me. He can’t have cancer. How is this possible?

He was on the third floor, with our Mom and Dad. I wiped tears away and then burst through his door with a wide grin. YOU DRAMA QUEEN. You couldn’t just get the flu—you had to get CANCER.

Ian rolled his eyes and slowly grinned back, then reached for his pizza.

I would spend the next five months doing my very best to make him laugh. I refused to cry around my little brother, and I didn’t let anyone else do it either—going so far as to tell my own Mother to step out into the hall and get it together. The big sister in me desperately didn’t want Ian to be scared. I would tease him, goad him, demand that he stop being so lazy and let me ride in his wheelchair for once. But never did I let him see me cry.

When Ian was admitted into the ICU for the last time, I had the flu and was not allowed to see him. For days I sat a fifteen second walk away from him in the waiting room, asking my parents to remind him over and over again that I was there, just steps away, and I loved him. One bleak midnight I staunchly refused to leave and Kellan had to pull me, sobbing, towards his waiting car.

When I was finally allowed to see Ian, he had already been intubated. A ventilator breathed air into exhausted lungs that were too weak to do the job any longer. As I stepped into his room alone, the heavy door closed and clicked behind me and I stared at my pale little brother. Tubes masked his gaunt face. Cancer had left her calling card, and the kid lying on the hospital bed in front of me looked nothing like the one that just months before had picked me up and done curls with me in the kitchen. He looked so small.

My brave façade crumbled, and I grabbed his hand, laid my head down beside him and wept. Voice breaking, I told him for the umpteenth time that I loved him so much, and with tears streaming down my face whispered that if he needed to go, that was okay.

Sitting there beside my little brother, I begged God to let me take his place. If I could have crawled into that hospital bed and shoved the tube down my throat instead, I would have done it. Given the chance, I would have joyfully handed Ian every last second that I had left to live. Jesus, He’s too little! I can do it. Let it be me. Crushed, I begged, and as clearly as I have ever heard anything I heard Jesus say Ashley, I have already switched places with Ian.

This Thursday, Ian will have been gone for one year. His friends are doing all sorts of things to remember and honor him—from raising money to fight cancer to going dancing in his memory. And while those things are great, this big sister would just love it if today, you would remember that Jesus switched places with you too. Jesus took the full weight of death into His body so that you and I and Ian would only ever need to experience its shadow. If Ian could tell you one thing today, I know that He would look you straight in the eyes and promise you that there is nothing in this world more valuable than knowing Jesus. Our deepest need is not for a healthy body or a head of curly hair or Christmas with six instead of five, our deepest need is for Christ Himself. One year later as I stand amidst the wreckage and tearfully survey the damage, I, with Ian, am adamantly convinced of that too.

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Eleven.

Holding IanMy family carefully hung each of Ian’s ornaments, placing his treasured, tacky yellow Big Bird at the very top of the tree, right next to the angel. The ornament is an eyesore that I’ve always hated and hidden on the back of the tree when Ian wasn’t looking, but this year I allowed Big Bird a place of prominence. The absurd irreverence of Big Bird and an antique angel adorning the top of our tree together belied the heaviness that everybody felt.

Christmas hurt.

Unwrapping presents without Ian felt hollow—joy is elusive when the only thing in the whole world that you want is for a curly head to burst through the front door. He has been gone for eleven months today, and eleven months later I am still quite certain that at any moment, Ian will come back. Eleven months later, my heart still adamantly refuses to believe that he could really be gone. There are brief moments when understanding begins to dawn, and my heart starts to comprehend that there will be no more Christmas mornings with my brother. No more birthday candles, no more kitchen dances, no more songs. Not here. And suddenly, it is once again February 27th, and I am stumbling away from my little brother’s body all over again.

Grief feels like sprinting exhausted through a marathon, only to discover at the finish line with gasping lungs and screaming legs that somehow, you haven’t even started yet. Eleven months later, I find myself still at the very beginning of grief, wondering what to do.

Over Christmas, I found myself thinking a lot about Mary. Mary, who knew with absolute certainty that God had favored and chosen her. [After all, He’d sent an angel to tell her just that.] How must she have felt after arriving in Bethlehem at long last, only to discover that there wasn’t so much as a place for her to stay?

I’d always glossed over the stable, but this year was different. I pictured her. Shaking, too exhausted to stand. Filthy from her journey to Bethlehem. Emotionally spent from nine swollen months of a watching community disdainfully condemning her for a crime that she hadn’t committed.

God, after all of this, not so much as a place to stay? Really?

How must she have felt as labor wracked her body? God, this is YOUR child! And he’s being born into filth! Do you care? Do you see?

I wonder if she felt forgotten.

I wondered why God chose it that way. Why He sent His precious Son to be born into filth when it would have been such a small thing to give Mary a comfortable place to deliver. One break for the scared teen aged girl who had so carefully carried the God of the Universe inside of her all of those months.

I thought about Ian. I closed my eyes and pictured my Mama holding his swollen hand and cradling his bald head in the ICU. God, do you care? Do you see?

I wonder if maybe, God orchestrated his Son’s birth to be in a dirty barn as a gentle reminder that even when the world feels like it is spinning madly out of control, it isn’t. He sees. He’s present. He understands. There would be no sterile, safe place for His baby, just as there would be none for so many of our babies that followed. His Son would later be broken, just as so many of ours would. And 2,000 years later when a Mama cried in sterile white room over her broken son, His heart would bleed and crack and ache with hers because He would understand.

Of course He hadn’t forgotten Mary. He hasn’t forgotten us, either.

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The Family Tree.

My little brother Stephen graduates from college tomorrow morning, and so Kellan and I are hopping a Raleigh-bound flight and heading home for Christmas early! Stephen is only a year younger than I am, but already has approximately eleventy billion degrees, every single one of which I attribute to my graciously allowing him to complete my math homework for me when I had better things to do.

Like talk on the phone. Or eat Cheetos. Or really ANYTHING besides my math homework.

YOU’RE WELCOME, STEPHEN.

[Also, I expect a healthy cut of your salary for my efforts.]

My family has waited for Kellan and I to arrive to decorate their tree, and so I imagine that we’ll spend part of tomorrow unwrapping and carefully hanging boxes of ornaments. We’ve done the same thing for as long as I can remember—strains of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas lilt through the air and the lingering scent of molasses hangs heavy as Dad and the boys string cranberry beads and white lights. In keeping with tradition, the kids all fight over whose turn it is to hang which ornament. There’s the “house” ornament purchased the year that last minute plans allowed us to be unexpectedly, blissfully home for Christmas. There’s a polka dotted bunny rabbit snuck into my red stocking as a little girl, in honor of the stuffed bunny that I carried with me everywhere that I went. Ornaments are handmade and popsicle-sticked, shattered and mended back together after eager little hands dropped bulbs on hardwood floors and a patient Father sat and glued. Some are painfully ugly—treasures found by children and brought home to proudly hang on a tree while a Mama bit her tongue and smiled. Stephen and I have matching blue and pink angels that predate our two siblings, the two of which share custody of the single set of wings left between them. Truthfully, my pink angel hasn’t been great at sharing the wings over the past couple of years.

As Kellan and I decorated our tree the other night and unwrapped our little collection of red and silver ornaments one by one for the very first time, my mind wandered as I imagined our own children unwrapping those same ornaments one day. I’m a story-teller, and I will tell the stories over and over again—you see that gold Santa? That one’s from my Aunt Lynn. She gave us a whole box of ornaments right before our wedding. And the spinning ornament? We had those when I was a little girl! Your Grandpa always made sure that each one hung directly over a light. And that clay house ornament? Your Daddy and I got that the very first year that we were married. We barely had any Christmas decorations at all—we had to wrap bath towels around the base of our tree!

And then, carefully, we will unwrap one more.

Ornament

This was the last time that my brothers and sister and I got to decorate our tree all together. Your Uncle Ian would have just LOVED you.

And I will tell stories. Stories of fighting over ornaments and eating too many molasses cookies, stories of snow sledding in Ukraine and waking up at 3:00 AM on Christmas mornings. I’ll talk about curly hair and belting Broadway tunes while we washed dinner dishes, and I will roll my eyes as I tell them how the girls used to swoon over their Uncle. And every year, we will remember together that even in the face of death, we can still confidently, defiantly sing Joy to the World. We will remember that the world is broken and grief may threaten to overwhelm, but it never, never can because Jesus came and gave a weary world a reason to rejoice.

This year, and every year, I will miss my little brother.

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