empty nest

Posted on October 10th, 2008 by Abby.
Categories: Meditations on Scripture, Our Journey, Our Journey (chronological).

Exactly one month after James died, John’s 33-year-old best man, Xiao Li, joined him in heaven. The fact that they are together is a considerable comfort for us as well as Nathan, Xiao’s six-year-old son. I heard him repeat the fact to several people during the week I spent in Houston with the Li family.

It was therapeutic to serve them by cleaning, babysitting Anna (2 yrs), and sorting Xiao’s things. I miss serving James in the intense, exhausting fashion he required, and for a while helping the Lis filled that vacuum. John also came to Houston for a weekend and got to do a Home Depot project with Nathan.

Although her loss is very different from ours, it was good to grieve alongside Michelle. We would talk about James and Xiao after the kids went to bed. The Lis seem to be coping very well, if you were wondering. She says the evenings are the hardest–no Xiao to come home from work, play with the kids, re-energize the end of her day, and talk with her in the quiet night.

Every day I feel the pulls, forward and back. I still cry every day for James, just missing him. I try not to cry for a long time, though. And then I go through periods of a few hours at a time without thinking about him at all, and I remember him with a start. John used to keep thinking he heard him crying in another room. Once I dreamed he was alive and in my arms again (in the dream I accepted this very quickly). Sometimes other people tell me they dream about James and Dora, too.

A big pull forward is the fact that I got a teaching job a couple weeks ago. I will be finishing the year for a teacher going on maternity leave at Lyman HS, teaching 5 classes of English IV (seniors) and 1 class of English II Honors (pre-AP sophomores). I have never taught standard-level senior English before (I usually teach English III and AP), but I think I will enjoy the challenge of a new curriculum. I taught honors sophomores for a year a while ago. I don’t start teaching until around Thanksgiving, which is nice, so I have some time to plan. Lyman is about 20 minutes away, and James’s cemetery is on the route, so I can stop and visit if I want to.

About three weeks after James died, a friend treated me to a whirlwind trip to the New York Met (the art museum). We flew there and back in one day. We attended several different talks and tours, but I noticed myself being drawn to artists’ representations of children. I noted that Rubens’ family portrait showed his wife holding his son on a leash, and the guide responded that the boy was also wearing a “bumper” helmet to guard his head against falls. It sounded like a good product for modern toddlers.

There was also an ancient Hellenistic bronze statue of Cupid fallen asleep on a ledge that reminded me of James.

The very popular Madonna and Child theme seemed much more interesting to me than it ever was before. Every artist re-shaped Mary and Jesus’ features to reflect his own people’s, making it easier for his viewer to identify with the Holy Family. Italian Mary looked very different from Dutch Mary. Here is a nice French Mary (by Boucher) with a John the Baptist who looks a little like James:

In one medieval portrait, baby Jesus brushes aside Mary’s head covering to gently touch her face; in another, He appears to be yanking her head covering (or hair) and kicking her. I guess it was tough for those proto-Renaissance artists to know where exactly to draw the line between “adding movement” and “keeping it holy.”

I, too, now identify with Mary as a parent who was in way over her head and also who eventually lost her son, at least temporarily. I keep reminding myself that even if James were living, a sword would still “pierce my own soul too” in terms of suffering over his ongoing pain, disappointments, or struggles (Luke 2:35).

It’s strange, watching life start to close back up over the hole someone has left. Our house now looks like it did in the years before James was born, except with pictures of him everywhere. We decided it would be best for the grandmothers to help me take apart the nursery soon after he died. If we ever have another child, we will re-decorate it for him or her.

We set aside some things to keep or give away that were so closely identified with James that we didn’t want to use them with another baby. I made a memory box with a little blanket from the NICU, his 100-day star, his favorite stuffed monkey that goes “boing,” our favorite onesie, his tiny “sweetbabyjames.info” Walk for the Cure team shirt, a pump belt, a hearing aid visor, lots of photos, and his heart-shaped medication box which now contains a string of gold beads, his therapy brush, Mister Lion, and of course, his first buddy, Mister Bee.

I donated his non-pump diabetes supplies to a three-year-old boy named Caleb who was diagnosed with Wolfram syndrome (please join his mom in praying that the docs are wrong). I sent his pump and supplies to Ipump.org, a charity run by a Christian mother of special needs and diabetic kids. She assured me that James’s pump would be given to another diabetic child. The feeding supplies were divided up amongst the good folks in the SpecialChildExchange yahoo group. My friend Susan’s daughters enjoyed getting some sparkly necklaces “from James.”

Some friends have asked us whether it is difficult for us to see other children now. Sometimes it is, but that is really something left over from our sadness about James’s limitations and disabilities. Usually we see children and think, we have children too, and they are very happy and healthy and love the Lord (and if you think your honors student has skills, well, ours can fly!). It is much much easier to be around children now than it was when we were infertile. We have had a child, just not for a long time, and we enjoyed him so much.

I read recently that the Hebrew word meaning to love, desire, delight is first used in the Bible when God tells Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and…sacrifice him” (Gen. 22:2). Isaac was a child of promise, a dear hope which God rekindled after human wisdom had despaired, and Abraham and Sarah probably centered their lives on the boy (I bet he was a little spoiled). Abraham was obedient to the unthinkable, in faith following God despite the wild protests of his own heart. God was teaching Abraham (again) to submit his emotions and his human understanding to the (sometimes mysterious) plans of a good, faithful, loving God. In the end, God spared Isaac, and Abraham responded with worship, summing up his lesson as “The Lord Will Provide.” The outcome of this story points Abraham and us to God’s good, loving, yet terrifying plan to sacrifice His only Son, in whom He delights, on our behalf so that we could be united with God, and those who delight in Him, forever.

I have to keep reminding myself that God understands our grief for the one we delighted in, and that, in His good plan, James’s life has a very happy result, not a sad one, like it seems to sometimes from my emotions or limited understanding.

Here is a video we rediscovered after James died, showing John delighting in his only son, whom he loved.

15 Responses to “empty nest”

  1. Jessica on October 10, 2008 3:33 pm

    I just wanted to say what a special couple the two of you are. James was as lucky to have you as you were to have him.

  2. Erin L. on October 10, 2008 7:37 pm

    Im so sorry to hear about Xiao.

    Your gift for words has ensured that both James and Xiao will be remembered. They have touched so many people.

    My heart goes out to you and the Lis.

  3. Karen S. on October 10, 2008 10:59 pm

    I have been reading your journey for several months now. I initially heard of your family from Cake Wrecks. This is my first time to comment on a blog of any kind as I tend to be a wall flower, but I felt compelled to communicate with you in some small way. Your family tends to pop into my head every day and when it does, I pray for God’s peace to wash over you.

    First, I want tell you how truly sorry I am for your losses this year. As a fellow infertility sufferer, that road alone is hard enough to bear, much less having to experience multiple losses that leave such tender places.

    Second, I wanted you to know how honored I feel
    to even be reading your thoughts, actions, and feelings in the weeks and months after James’ death. I have had the privilege of praying for other babies that I have heard about and keep updated on via blogs. Several have passed away and you never hear any updates again. I don’t want to sound like they owe it to readers to continue writing. Frankly, I don’t know if I even could if I were in that situation. All of this is to say – Thank you for continuing to let me know how God is working in your life; especially in the hard times. You have such a gift for expressing yourself through words and applying scripture. I know that the next time I hear of parents going through the loss of a child or dealing with a special needs child, I can send them here as you show hope to us all through your faith in Christ.

    You both have deepened my roots.

  4. evie on October 12, 2008 9:01 pm

    Abby, that was such a beautiful post! Thank you for sharing. You and John are in my prayers daily.

  5. Jen on October 13, 2008 1:50 pm

    These posts matter so much to so many, Abby. My grief over losing James is only a tiny shadow compared to your own, but I am grieving and crying still with you. Thank you for continuing to remind me of both James and God’s ultimate goodness.

  6. Rebecca on October 14, 2008 11:19 am

    In the midst of such searing grief, it is a gift indeed to be able to sympathize with the heart of God. You have tasted His pain and felt His hand in a very special way. I pray that as He draws you deeply into Himself that you would come to know Him more intimately than most and that this would become just an earthly foretaste of your coming rewards for loving Him diligently.

  7. Susan Forster on October 22, 2008 10:14 am

    Abby, I know now why I was drawn to this blog. My own precious granddaughter, Emerson, has been in Winnie Palmer NICU since her birth on September 27. She, too, has a rare condition caused by her Down Syndrome diagnosis. Her lymphatic system had a tear that leaked fluid into the space around her lungs, lowering her oxygen saturations. She also has several heart defects that will require surgery at 6-7 months. But, praise God, the medication is working; she is on feeds that are increasing and we see light at the end of this first tunnel. She will continue to be in the NICU (Pod 6) for a few more weeks until she is weaned ONTO breast milk (Lauren has freezers full) and weaned off the meds. The chaplain told Lauren that she and Travis reminded her of another couple that had been in the NICU in 2007; it was you! Lauren told her that she grew up in the same neighborhood as you. Your parents have been so sweet to me as fellow grandparents of a special needs child. I’m thrilled that you have a new job at Lyman. Enjoy this last month at home. You have inspired me through your faithfulness and strength through the One who carries us through everything!

  8. Michelle on October 22, 2008 4:25 pm

    I stumbled across your website from Cakewrecks the other day. I went back to the beginning and read it all in one sitting. I laughed and I cried. James brought so much to this world in such a short time. I have been praying for your family since. I think you showed amazing faith and strength through it all, and it was such a testimony about your faith. Thank you for sharing your life with others.

  9. Kim on October 22, 2008 9:12 pm

    I also came across your website through Cake Wrecks. I have a sweet baby James of my own who was born about six months after yours. I am reminded every day to be thankful to spend time with him. We have had lots of the minor first year medical issues: some breathing problems, a minor heart defect, pneumonia and lots of ear infections. After about the fourth ear infection someone said more me and poor James to have so many problems. I responded no way, we are the lucky ones. I know there are so many more mommies and babies out there that are facing so much greater challenges than we are. Please just know that despite the thousands of miles you are from Alaska, that when I tuck my sweet baby James in tonight, I will be thinking about you and yours.

  10. Tonya on October 25, 2008 7:38 pm

    I was thinking about you and John and James this morning–random thoughts trying to organize themselves into a parable are harder for me. Wish I had Lisa Rod’s gift. 🙂 Thought I’d check the blog to see if you were still posting. It was good to “see” James again. I know you both delighted in him greatly. Although it’s not the same, I miss him, too. With prayers of comfort and peace for you both…

  11. Jan on October 26, 2008 9:06 am

    When I think of what you have gone through, I can’t help but share a poem read at my best friends funeral several years ago. It brought me much comfort and I hope it does the same for you. Perhaps they are not stars in the sky, but rather openings where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy.

    “We commit thy body to the earth.
    We cover thee with the garments of nature and tuck thee snugly in.
    We spread over thee the beautiful green of summer, the spotless white of winter.
    Thy memory to us is as fragrant as the rose, and as everlasting as the evergreen.”

    Author Unknown

  12. Laura Ricketts on October 31, 2008 2:05 pm

    I feel better for still crying about him, too. Thank you so much, Abby, for your transparency.

    That area of Genesis you used to describe the use of the Hebrew “love,” is also the first time the word “worship” is used in the Bible. Paraphrased, something like, “the boy and I will go worship on the mountain.” Powerful.

    Waiting for the sock yarn to make John some “tarheels.” Thank you for your note as well. I’ll be praying for you both.

    (ALSO, I was at the Met October 14th!! That’s crazy.

  13. Anil and Taheera on August 16, 2009 11:53 am

    James’ story is inspiring. Angels like James and Simra do make us have a different outlook in life and realize that God works in mysterious ways. We pray for our angel James. Please take a moment to view the website for our angel Simra: http://www.angelsimra.org. We had a similar journey.

  14. P Somers on November 4, 2009 5:44 am

    P Somers…

    I think you have a great thing going with this blog. I found your post Snow storm Good Samaritans, Wednesday while searching for hearing aid supplies. Lots of great advice….

  15. An Epic Odyssey (in the Odyssey) - House of Gjertsen on December 2, 2016 11:17 pm

    […] college, Michelle, who went on to marry John’s best friend. He later died of brain cancer about a month after we lost James. We have remained close to Michelle and their two kids, vacationing together […]

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