And Then There Were Presents; But What if There Hadn’t Been?

 If you have read our book, Swaying in the Treetops, then you already know that Christmas for our family is a season of faith and trusting God for provision. This year was another interesting year.

After God’s incredible, even miraculous, provision that allowed us to travel and complete Scott’s cancer treatments in the spring, He suddenly seemed to go very quiet.

On June 26, 2016, after weeks of financial struggles, I started a journal. I wanted to keep track of my thoughts and my prayers — and of God’s answers. Answers that, from experience, I knew would come eventually.

On July 19, 2016, my journaled cry for help said simply, “God, where are you???” 

The following months were full of entries that included my cries for help and God’s answers to my prayers when He sent those. But many times, we waited days or weeks for desperate answers. I won’t go into all of those details, here, but we will probably share much about these months in our next book.

On Thanksgiving night, the children drew names as part of our annual Secret Sibling Gift Swap. They love this part of Christmas better than any other part. They spend the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas thinking about what their secret sibling would love to have, and then we sneak in moments here and there to shop online for just the perfect gifts. It’s such a fun part of the season for all of us as the house comes alive with the buzz of secrets and excitement and anticipation.

But there was no money to begin shopping for these gifts, and as we moved into December, we continued praying about Christmas for the children.

And God remained quiet.

Dear friends who run a local tree farm made sure we got a Christmas tree, just as they have done every year for the past decade. Oh, how we thanked God for that tree! And it was such a beautiful tree, and our home was filled with joy as we decorated it together, asking God to help us just be in that moment and leave tomorrow in His hands.

Christmas Tree Day #9
Christmas Tree Day #13Christmas Tree Day #13
Christmas Tree Day #14Christmas Tree Day #15
Christmas Tree Day #16Christmas Tree Day #17
But day after day passed, and the floor around this beautiful tree remained empty. I began to wonder if this might be the year God would ask us to experience a Christmas without gifts.
Christmas Tree Day #18

This wasn’t the first year we have wondered that, as we shared in our book. And each year that we are faced with this question, my heart longs to embrace it willingly if this is God’s plan.

But each year, my humanness trembles with fear at the thought, and I have to admit to myself that I want to be able to give my children presents. And this desire always leads me to the question, “Do you want to give your children presents more than you want to follow God’s plans?”

In the end, God provided gifts for all of us to give to each other. It started as a bit of a trickle as friends who knew nothing about our current situation sent money that made it possible for us to buy coats for the few kids who needed them this year. Then more friends from Alabama texted to say they had a financial gift for our family. Other friends from another state sent a financial gift, and little by little, we were able to begin shopping for the kids.

Financial gifts, some sent anonymously, continued to come from completely unexpected places until we were able to finish all of our shopping for everyone and cover some bills we hadn’t been able to pay. Gifts weren’t extravagant, and a number of them were bought used from eBay, but they were perfectly suited to each child’s special needs, level of development, and areas of interest.

And God didn’t stop. The trickle increased to the point of a full-blown shower of blessings.

  • Neighbors who, again didn’t know about our need when they approached us, pulled together resources from friends at work and from their family members and provided gloves and hats; craft items; needed items for our kitchen, like a toaster and a blender; a new huge grill for our deck; homemade blankets for the kids’ beds . . .
  • Someone secretly left bags of gifts on our front porch, and each child got one special gift that was incredibly matched to that child’s challenges and/or hobbies.
  • Other friends secretly ordered beautiful fleece throws embroidered with each person’s name. We all love using these on chilly family movie nights!
  • A steady stream of gift cards from Target, Walmart, Kroger, and Sears, as well as Visa gift cards, took care of covering the cost of special Christmas baking, wrapping supplies, and some other needs.
  • Other friends wrote to us and offered to handle the overwhelming cost and task of ordering color-coded towels for every person in our family and having them shipped directly to us.
Christmas Tree Day #4

New hats and gloves

Choosing blankets1

Roslyn choosing a new homemade blanket for her bed

Choosing Blankets2

Owen choosing a new homemade blanket for his bed

Grill Being Assembled

New grill being assembled in our family room

Gifts from Anonymous Person 12-16

Casacading gifts from an anonymous “Santa”

Ertl's Amazing Surprise

Embroidered fleece throws

Baking Cookies 12-16

Let the baking begin

Baking Christmas Pies 12-16

Sibling Gift Wrapping

Lilyan wrapping her Secret Sibling Gift

Towels from Brian and Sharon Horton

New towels for every family member

Where did all of these people come from? We firmly believe that God moved each person’s heart to be a part of our Christmas story this year. And we were deeply, deeply touched by the generosity of their hearts and their willingness to follow God’s prompting.

There is just no way that we will ever be able to say thank you for the amazing love that was showered on us during this past holiday season. But this blog post is my attempt to try to express how much each of you mean to us. How your generosity and love, your prayers and your gifts blessed us beyond anything we could’ve imagined at the beginning of this holiday season.

It’s our way of trying to remind you that God used you in such tangible ways to meet the needs of our family during a very difficult time. To hopefully enable you to see that you are a part of the incredible story God is writing through our unusual family.

It is our desire that you not underestimate what an important piece of our lives you each have been during a year when we sometimes needed reminders of God’s faithfulness and willingness to always hear our prayers. Thank you with all our hearts. And we pray that God will bless you abundantly in return.

But this post is also more than that.

It’s also an attempt to share/confess the fragility of our faith compared with God’s great faithfulness; to examine His huge benevolence as we grapple with learning what things are genuine needs and which are merely desires; and to focus on His loving sovereignty that chooses the very best path for each of us in every season of our lives.

So I ask myself — what if God had chosen not to send these material blessings? What if the floor around that tree had remained empty? 

Chatting with Santa1

Catching up with Santa since last year’s chat

Chatting with Santa3
Chatting with Santa3
Chatting with Santa2

Scott and I did a lot of talking and praying about what kind of an example we wanted to set for our children during those days and weeks of uncertainty. This quote expressed the desires our hearts:

“Men are apt to think of God by his worshippers, and by the people that profess themselves near and dear to Him; therefore it concerns us to walk so that our lives may honour Him. There is no way to honour God entirely and sincerely until we have learned both to know and to do His will. So you see what need we have to go to God, that He will give us grace that we may please Him and glorify His name.”
~ Thomas Manton (1620–1677)

There is no place where it’s more important than in our own homes — in front of our own children — to “walk so that our lives may honor Him.” So we prayed often that God would enable us to accept His will about what our family Christmas should look like and that we might “please Him and glorify His name.”

And more than once, we failed to do this in the ways we longed to do it.

On the days when we felt scared or sad, and not at all strong in our faith, we made sure to talk openly about this with our children. We knew they would sense it anyway, and we always believe that anything that hints of hypocrisy is one of the most damaging things we can bring into our children’s lives. They need honesty from us.

They were all surprisingly comforted by hearing that we experienced times of doubting and fear and sadness because they had been struggling with their own guilt over these same emotions.

There were beautiful moments in our family room, around that empty Christmas tree, when we all encouraged each other, prayed together, quoted Scripture, and reminded each other of God’s promises. And I believe we all grew a bit in our ability to trust through this past season, just as we all grew even closer to each other through these moments.

I also believe that, had God decided this was a year when He was not going to send gifts, His light and joy and presence would’ve filled our home and made it a beautiful Christmas, and that He would’ve given us grace and enabled us to praise Him and celebrate this wonderful season.

I know this because I know that we can trust Him to always decide what is best for us — what will best refine us and make us more like Him as He has promised to do.

I know this in my head, at least. There are times when my heart lags behind a bit. 

After the holidays were past, some of our children began experiencing unexpected medical problems again. Kathryn was one of these as her body suddenly developed significant issues with urinary retention. This is so painful for her. As she was going through her most recent bout with this and whimpering in pain, I was struck by her ability to trust us even when she is hurting. She sat with me on the couch and looked into my face just waiting for me to make things better for her. Innocently trusting that I could and would take away her pain and care for her.

And, once again, I longed for this kind of child-like trust in my Father. He knows what’s best. I want to face every day, even Christmas when it comes around again, trusting Him to do what’s best for us.

I pray, “Deepen my relationship with you God. Deepen it to a place where circumstances don’t affect my ability and willingness to follow wherever you lead; to accept, even embrace, whatever you deem to be good and right and beautiful.”

But I pray this while squeezing my eyes closed and maybe even flinching a bit. Because I do want to grow. I DO want to grow.

But, oh how painful growth can sometimes be.

Tree With Presents 12-16

Our tree, standing nobly over gifts for each family member

A Wasted Day Not Wasted

What if sometimes the most responsible thing to do is to be totally irresponsible? 

What’s your go-to escape? Whether you act on it or not, what is that your heart longs for when you are exhausted, burned-out, and when life is knocking you down over and over again?

A bubble bath? A night alone in a quiet hotel room? A day to stay in bed and read? Maybe you dream big, and it’s a trip to Hawaii?

When I reach this point in life, mine is almost always the same — hot tomato soup while vegging on the couch in front of old movies. All day.

Why tomato soup? I don’t really know. But this is a very important piece to me. It has to be tomato soup.

And . . . Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman . . . Oh, I love those old movies.

The longing for this is even greater if it’s also a rainy day.

Scott and I have functioned in a place of emotional, physical, and sometimes spiritual fatigue for most of the past year. His cancer diagnosis and treatments, followed by many months of significant side effects were difficult. But these things on top of never-ending medical problems for the kids in the midst of a life that already requires superhuman strength to pull off on a daily basis, kept us continually gasping for breath and longing for rest that sleep alone couldn’t seem to give us.

On Monday, Jaden had another spine surgery to repair a broken rod in his back and to also lengthen those titanium rods to keep up with his growth. Before we could leave the house that morning, though, Kathryn had to have an emergency catheterization because her bladder had suddenly stopped functioning, making it impossible for her to void on her own. This is a new problem that is happening more frequently, and it will probably lead to a major surgery. Once we got to the hospital, we stayed in touch with the kids throughout the day, and Kathryn seemed to remain fairly stable, although not completely normal.

Jaden’s surgery went well, but because of monitor malfunctions and a not-super-considerate nighttime staff, we only got one hour of sleep that night.

Jaden - Rod Lengthening 1-9-16

As we headed home Tuesday morning with Jaden, I called home to check on Kathryn again and learned that things were suddenly getting worse. It sounded like a possible UTI. So about a half-hour after walking in the door, getting Jaden’s pain under control, and catheterizing Kathryn again, I was on my way back to the hospital with a sterile urine specimen.

That night, as we tried to have a little homecoming celebration for Jaden, Kathryn’s pain increased, and we had to reach out to the urologist on call. Plans were made to get us through the night until we could get her to the urology clinic the next day and have a Foley placed. We did get through that night and even got a full night’s sleep.

Wednesday morning, as Scott and I were getting Kathryn ready to head to urology, Nathan had another seizure. A mild one this time, but still so worrisome as no one can figure out what’s causing these. We are trying to watch him closely until we see our neurologist again in a couple of weeks.

By the time Scott and I got back home with Kathryn that evening, a deep, consuming fatigue had settled over both of us. I felt tireder than I could remember feeling in months. I sat in the family room under my new soft, fleecy throw and looked around at my huge family. I could see the effects all of this was having on them, too. The older ones all looked so very tired. Our kids work so hard every day. And mostly they do this with joy and precision, and they are learning valuable skills that will serve them well in life. But the toll of the past year was showing on all of them, too.

Our little ones get the trickle-down effects of exhaustion from all of us who care for them, and this usually begins to manifest in them as a kind of sadness, emotional fragility, neediness, and sometimes naughtiness.

As I sat on the couch Wednesday night, I recognized that old longing for a tomato-soup-old-movies-on-the couch-all-alone day. For years, I’ve ignored that longing and just pushed on because . . . well  . . . 19 kids still at home.

Then suddenly, I thought to myself, “What if we all took a tomato soup day tomorrow? Together?”

I described my dream out loud and every face in the room lit up. Every child, from the oldest child to the youngest, looked as if the weight of the world had been lifted from their shoulders at the mere thought of such a ridiculous idea.

I mean, we really needed to get back to school; and Thursday is deep cleaning and sheet-washing day at our house; and there are always the necessary daily bowel and bladder regimens for multiple kids; and the younger kids all needed baths that day.

And just meal prep alone makes a “day off” impossible. Preparing three meals a day for 21 people is hard. Just really, really hard. And the clean-up after each of those meals is like cleaning up after a dinner party — over and over and over again.

On top of all of this, Scott and I were supposed to be eating on our Whole 30 plan (which doesn’t include creamy tomato soup!).

Then, when I said emphatically, “We’re going to do it! We are going to try to shut out the entire world and just stop everything and rest. We need a bit of a reset,” it was like beautiful, fresh air and sunlight poured into our room through the huge glowing smiles of excitement on the kids’ faces.

One of my rules for our Tomato Soup Day was no planning! Well, as little planning as possible, anyway.

Planning is maybe the most exhausting aspect of my life. I’m a natural planner/organizer, and this is a good thing if you just happen to grow up and become Mom to 22 children. Because everything about running a household this size takes constant planning.

But it can be a curse, too. My brain never, ever stops. Most of the time, it’s even still working in my sleep. This is proven by the fact that I even plan in my dreams. Pretty much 24 hours a day, I feel like that circus act. You know, the one with all those plates balanced on those long sticks, spinning, spinning, spinning?

Except that our daily schedule is an always-evolving thing because of so many “unexpected’s.” So I also have to constantly be shifting plates from here to there while continuing to balance and spin them.

I wanted to put all of those plates and sticks down and rest my arms for a little while. Just a little while.

So, Thursday morning we started our totally wasted day. It did require a little bit of planning, though, to get it started. The kids were a little lost with no schedule, and just stood around in the family room looking at me.

Ok. How do we do this? 

  • Forget the house cleaning today, but let’s go ahead and get the sheets washed. Everyone work together to get them back on the beds as they come out of the dryer throughout the day.
  • Forget the kids’ baths. They don’t smell that bad yet. We will have to keep up with the every-three-hour catheterizations and keep Kathryn’s Foley bag emptied and do all of the necessary bladder/bowel routines. But no baths. 
  • Punt school. One more missed day won’t change anybody’s futures. 
  • No cooking at all. Everyone needs a day off in the kitchen. 
  • We can’t watch only old movies, because they aren’t that entertaining for the younger kids, so we’ll also pull in some Hulu and Netflix. 

From the beginning, the kids were beaming, and Scott got into the spirit of things by introducing the kids to Matlock right away. We were off to a good start.

Three of the teens asked to bake cookies with the M&M’s a friend brought to our house the day before. This baking and clean-up represented fun to them; not work. So, in spite of the fact that we have cut way back on any kinds of sweets here, I said, “What the heck! Bake away!”

As the morning really got going, I decided to introduce them all to That Girl — my absolute favorite TV show when I was a kid. I mean, I loved Ann Marie and her boyfriend Donald Hollinger. For much of my childhood and pre-teen years, I wanted to be her!

We all got comfortable with our fleece throws and watched episode after episode, the little ones giggling their heads off on the floor, the teens sometimes rolling their eyes at Ann’s antics, and Kathryn snuggled in beside me on the couch looking up from time to time to just smile at me with joy and stroke my arm or face. She clearly felt that all was right in her little world.

Tomato Soup Day #2

And it rained outside, which made the whole day even more delightful! 

At lunch time, we ordered tons of tomato soup from Panera. Thanks to a recent surprise financial gift, this was the first pay period in many months we hadn’t run out of money before the end. It was pay day again the next day, and we still had money in the bank!

Tomato Soup Day #3

After lunch in front of more episodes of That Girl, everyone ate one cookie then quickly did a clean-up (which involved gathering everything up and throwing it into a garbage bag).

Tomato Soup Day #4

Then we settled in to watch the awesomely classic movie, Holiday, while the rain poured outside. Oh, Kate shines in that one! And the magic between her and Cary Grant! Love, love, love it! The little ones did puzzles on the floor and the older girls held their breath and hoped that Johnny and Linda would end up together. The older boys hung in there with us.

Tomato Soup Day #7

After this movie, we ordered Chinese noodles for dinner and spent the rest of the evening watching episodes of The Flash. 

Tomato Soup Day #8

Another garbage-bag clean up, and then we all went to bed feeling happy, peaceful, rested.

I was unsure about sharing this day with the outside world. Partly because it was so private; so personal; so special for just our family.

And partly because I know that many people will feel that we acted irresponsibly.

To throw a whole day of school away? 

To sit in front of a television all day!?  

To set an example for our children of such laziness and shirking of responsibilities?

And to be SO wasteful with money?! We had food in the house that we could’ve prepared for meals. And money is not something handled lightly around here. There’s almost never quite enough of it, and when there is a little extra, there are always places it needs to be used. So to throw it away on restaurant tomato soup and Chinese noodles?!? 

I have to be honest and admit that I did wrestle with some guilt as I tried to fall asleep the night before our planned wasted day. But before I finally closed my eyes, I decided a few things.

  • My head said this was irresponsible, but my heart said this was so very right. I chose to go with my heart. 
  • We try hard to make the right decisions about things like this, and we know that we will never please everyone out there who watches us live such a public life. And we know that we will never get it right all the time. But God knows the desire of our hearts, and He doesn’t expect perfection from us. If we truly examined this and felt it was the best thing for our family, but then someday discovered that we had been wrong, well, I knew that God’s mercy and love would always hold us close to His heart anyway. 
  • If we were going to do this, we were going all in. I wasn’t about to throw away this opportunity to waste a day and not get everything out of it that I could. 

So I threw off that guilt and embraced our plans for a mostly-no-plans day.

And now that it’s behind us, I have no doubts at all that we were right to do this.

It was so much NOT a wasted day!  

I lost count of the times the kids came to us just to tell us how much fun they were having.

I’ll never, ever forget the joy on their faces all through the day.

The peaceful, restful looks on the older kids faces alone confirmed that it was time for a rest. It was important that Scott and I acknowledged how hard they work by giving them a day to rest, and it was critical that they all catch their breath a bit.

And I know from 35 years of parenting that the memory of this day will live on with all of them forever. Somehow, this will be important. I can’t explain how I know this, but I’m sure of it. It will be something that they all look back on and draw strength and joy from throughout their lives.

They have all asked that we try to work Tomato Soup Days into our lives on a somewhat regular basis. And we have promised to try to make them happen at least a couple times a year from now on.

Maybe the whole world needs to take a Tomato Soup Day. Just stop everything for a day and reset.

I hope we are teaching our kids important lessons about balance. About stopping to breathe sometimes. About the things in life that are truly important — family, spending time together, laughter, rest . . .

Maybe we would all be much better off if we occasionally chose to waste an entire day here and there. And ate more tomato soup. And watched more That Girl and old movies.

Some Rain Must Fall

“Into each life some rain must fall.”
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Today was one of those days. It started with only about three hours of sleep last night. Sick kids; my dread of trying to juggle the kids’ school along with all of the appointments waiting for us this week and next week; and a sudden return of what our neurologist thinks are seizures for Nathan — all combined to keep my mind too abuzz for sleep.

I called the neurologist’s office when I got up and scheduled an appointment on January 26 for Nathan to see him again and discuss further testing. Then I hurried through school this morning with a dopey, achy head before heading out into the dreary, rainy weather for a blood draw for Kathryn and on downtown for urology testing on Roslyn and Kathryn, followed by an appointment with their urologist.

The girls’ test results weren’t good. The bladder surgery done in September on Roslyn seems to be failing. We are probably looking at another huge bladder surgery for her, but our doctor is going to try one other thing first. We should know within the next six weeks if this will work or not.

And Kathryn’s bladder seems to possibly be getting tired of fighting the incredibly strong muscle tightness in her pelvic floor, caused by her cerebral palsy. Indications are that it just might be, in our doctor’s words, giving out on her. Her recent bouts with infection and severe urinary retention support this possibility. He will first try increasing her medication, but there’s a pretty good chance that, at some point sooner or later, she will also be forced to undergo a major bladder surgery that will then make it necessary to add her to the list of our six kids already catheterizing every three hours.

All of this, combined with the wretched drive back home in pouring rain and ridiculously heavy traffic, just seemed to be more than I could deal with in a mature way after so little sleep last night.

Haven’t my babies been through enough?! All of them! Their lives have already been so very hard! Don’t they deserve a break?!

And where do Scott and I find the strength to add more really major and unexpected surgeries into our lives!?

Enough already! 

I stood out in the drizzle on our deck tonight and looked up into the dark sky. Searching for  peace.

“God, are you there?  It’s me again. I’m kinda mad at you right now.”

Some Rain Must Fall
As I stared at the raindrops and into the heavy darkness around me, I made myself look for those puddles of sunshine I’ve referred to before. Those whispers that God is still by my side as He has promised to be. And as I forced myself to rise above my dismal mood, I realized that I had actually stepped in a few of them throughout the day.
  • My neighbor was suddenly able to go and pick up my Click List order for me this morning when she didn’t think she would be able to. This greatly lessened the stress in our day. 
  • My awesome kids worked as a team to put a pot of spaghetti and a salad together for dinner. The table was set and dinner was ready when we finally got home.
  • And the seven kids who have been sick with colds this week already seem to be improving a bit.

It would be wrong of me to ignore these blessings.

But I’m tired. So very tired. Sometimes there are days and pieces of news that are just predominantly bad. That’s life here in this world. And I think it’s okay to acknowledge that.

Sometimes it’s okay to cry a little bit, maybe even throw a little temper tantrum, then go to bed early and pray for strength to carry on tomorrow.

The final stanza of this poem written by Longfellow (a man well-acquainted with grief and pain and bitter disappointment in this life), somehow seems to coat my weary sadness with something that’s kind of soothing.

I know that behind the clouds darkening my world tonight, our true Sun is shining brightly and still holding me close to His heart.

Tomorrow is a whole new day. A day that I’m not required to carry right now. So I choose not to.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.