Unnamed River

“When was your last period?”

The back of her lab coat is a canvas. I paint the word picture I think she wants to hear.

“Last month-ish,” I respond.

When was my last period? I can’t remember. I don’t know. I’m sure it was sometime around the holidays.

I sit still, trying not to crinkle the white paper strip that keeps the exam table sterile. Trying not to think too hard about the fact that I really shouldn’t count that pathetic spotting as a “period.” I haven’t purchased feminine products in months —maybe a year.

This routine physical will provide one more piece of paper to add to a bulging green folder with “Adoption Paperwork” inked on the tab. One more piece of the puzzle that is our dossier (pronounced dos-ee-ey) “a collection or file of documents on the same subject, especially a complete file containing detailed information about a person or topic.” Yeah, I looked that up on Dictionary.com. Never heard the term before “The Boys” entered our world.

Those boys, dropped on Honey and me like two teenage time bombs. Boys on the cusp of manhood yet trapped in the emotional stages of their earliest trauma. Boys who didn’t ask to have addiction rip their families apart at tender ages or for institutions to rear them and release them into the world as adults when they are really only children with man-sized feet. Boys who begged us with their eyes to let them join our family as we hugged them goodbye after a fun-filled summer. The ones who tried our last nerve and turned our orderly grown-up world, topsy-turvy. The very ones who taught us to love two strangers who didn’t even speak our language or know our Jesus. Those boys.

Just as I emerged from last winter’s fog of denial about the true age of my uterus and began to grieve the death of my dream to birth a baby, we got that phone call about summer orphan hosting. Prayers I hadn’t yet prayed were answered as Honey and I navigated life as surrogate summer parents. I didn’t expect to choose love. I thought we were doing a favor for a friend. I thought hello and goodbye would just be words we would say at the beginning and end of a two month time period. I never knew they would birth emotions that would steal my breath and fill my heart so full of joy and pain and hope and fear and all the things a mother must feel when she realizes a young life depends upon her to make an eternal difference in his world.

So now my mama dream is nearly reality. In a few weeks Honey and I will board a Ukraine plane and go to court in a foreign country. Overnight we will become a family of four without ever needing diapers, bottles or car seats. We will bypass the “terrible twos,” and the preschool blues. No first day of kindergarten, tooth fairy nights or middle school fights. We will enter parenthood at the age many of our peers celebrate grandkids. No onramp. Our kids will enter our world with their palms out for the car keys and their eyes on some cute girl across the aisle. Our lives will never be the same. Ever. And that’s okay.

I should be thrilled. And I am.

(You know there’s a “but” coming, right?) Yeah…It’s a “but” I’ve been thinking about lately. A “but” I’ve been trying to put into words for the past three weeks as I’ve tried and failed to finish this post. For a writer who loves to find the perfect words, I’m at a loss. Some unnamed rivers run deeper than mere words can convey.

Something happened today to help me name my river. I held a young mama as she burst at the seams and burst into tears. Her body cradles a baby boy about to be born and her heart grieves the baby girl she buried just one month and one day ago. Her amber eyes bore both joy and pain as she spoke her children’s names. I felt her anguish filling my car as we drove to the place she calls home. Life and death are the cocktail mix she’s been forced to sip for the past few weeks.

Words again eluded me as she whispered the details of her story. I listened. Fumbled for something, anything to say to take the edge off her pain. I prayed. I walked her to her door and hugged her goodbye. Then I wept on my way home.

How, God, do we live in this world where the joys and sorrows are simultaneous? Where the absolute agony of one person’s loss sits sandwiched between two Facebook memes and we scroll right past in search of a post we can “like” or “share? How do we hold our heads up when our hearts are bowed down with unnamed grief? And how do we celebrate the lives we have when our souls ache for the lives we’ve lost? Or the lives our wombs cannot form and cannot hold?

I pondered my prayer, remembering my friend whose father’s death day came on her own February birthday, and the one who quietly mourned her second miscarriage last week. And the lady I prayed with yesterday, whose face, half-eaten with cancer, is so marred I can barely recognize her smile beneath the remains of her nose and oozing eye socket.

No funerals are held for the death of dreams. No sympathy cards or flowers sent. No stones to mark the site where we lay that grief to rest. We quietly breathe in and exhale the pain of those dark days when hope is our only light.

Our river may be the sister whose addiction keeps her from being “auntie” to our babies, the father who cannot stay sober long enough to truly celebrate his daughter’s wedding, or the brother doing time for hanging out with the wrong crowd. We think of the new mother who discovers her husband’s pornography addiction and the momma who labors hard only to have her babies placed up for adoption because she chooses a “better life” for them. We love deeply and walk in compassion for those who hurt alongside us in this world, though they may never know that inner ache we carry.

There is Someone, though, who knows my unnamed river. And yours. One who walks through the searing fire with us. One who is never a spectator to our pain, but a participant in our suffering.

I love The Living Bible’s version of Isaiah 63:9:

“In all their affliction he was afflicted, and he personally saved them. In his love and pity he redeemed them and lifted them up and carried them through all the years.”

Place your name where the pronouns are. Personalize these words and say them aloud. Make it present tense. Make it real. “In all _______________________’s affliction, God is afflicted, and He personally saves me. In His love and pity, he redeems ________________________________ and will carry _________________________through all the years.”

This is how our Jesus loves us. He feels everything we feel. He is walking through this with us, carrying us when the river gets too deep. I can tell Him how my heart grieves the death of my dream even as I accept His gift of two beautiful sons who will redeem those dreams I thought were lost. His healing love will flow through me to my boys and to my husband and I will move forward in faith toward the life God has planned for me.

Will you do the same with your river of pain?

I’d love to hear from you, dear reader. Please comment below, or email me at info@julietvanheerden.com. Something tells me this post will resonate with some of you. Let’s connect. Pray. Celebrate hope together.

Here’s a link to the lyrics of one of my favorite worship songs: I Am Not Alone

Kari Jobe ~ sharing this song Live.

5 thoughts on “Unnamed River

  1. Juliet, you challenge my reality. Thanks for the courage, honesty and beauty you used to paint a clear picture of yours and others conflicting experiences of deep pain mingled with simultaneous wondrous joy. I am thinking that we need to find concrete means to give honor to the death of intangible realities. Would a specific journal exercise fulfill the need for a permanent space of memory, release, and acceptance? Would a piece of art that graces our walls keep the truth of a wayward child, an ended dream, a loss of health or body function ~ all redeemable by God ~ before us? If so, what would that accomplish? It seems that coming to a place of adjustment to the loss of the intangible is a worthy goal. Searching for the best tangible representation may be an individual quest. One thing I am certain of is that we must do the grieving work in order to make any emotionally healthy headway. What I mean by grieving work is: identify, acknowledge the pain, feel the feelings of loss, (anger, sadness, guilt, pain, disconnected, etc.), embrace all of God’s gifts to heal those emotions, and trust the Spirit to guide your heart into the safe harbor of God’s peace and promises. I also know that the Spirit of Comfort is our best source of wisdom, guidance and assurance that these few years are only the prequel to eternity. Our losses here will be insignificant on the other side of the earth as we know it now. And as I write this last sentence, it is an example of living in the tension of the present age of suffering with the joyous hope of all things made new.

    • Karen dear… Your words are so wise. I appreciate your affirmation and your comments about the “grieving work.” It’s true. I have been doing this work with Jesus for the past few weeks. I am so grateful for the way you have laid it out for us ~ “Identify, acknowledge the pain, feel the feelings of loss, embrace all of God’s gifts to heal those emotions, and trust the Spirit to guide your heart into the safe harbor of God’s peace and promises.” Thank you for your expertise in this area. Thank you for your courage to share your story with me and to offer your shoulder and wisdom as I enter an arena you are familiar with. May God bless you!

  2. You wrote such powerful words in this post that resonate deep in my heart. It’s hard to let go of dreams we clinged tightly to for so long. No funerals for marriage ending in divorce or the pain of a child running rampant down a destructive path. But this is where the body of Christ should do what it was meant to do. To love others through their pain and walk with them one step at a time.

    • What a beautiful response, Lisa. It’s hard to press “publish” on such a personal post, but I always know there is someone out there whose heart will connect with mine when I share. And I know that Jesus connects us as we journey this journey of life on planet Earth together. That’s what He did when we met at She Speaks a couple of years ago. I’m so glad to consider you my friend. So glad your book will be published soon. So glad you were able to press forward through your own unnamed river and see God’s goodness in the land of the living.

Leave a Reply