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Friday, August 23, 2019

How I Came To Be Grateful

I just finished mowing the lawn. I feel so grateful.

If you have a child who has special needs, like our kiddos, you may understand what a gift mowing the lawn is. Not too long ago, mowing the lawn was impossible. I remember so many times having to stop that mower and answer an urgent scream, either from my children or my husband, about how they couldn’t handle what was happening in the house and I needed to come back in and help. Once in a while, that mower would sit out in the middle of the half-mowed lawn overnight, because I just couldn’t get back to it because the crisis our family was experiencing was just too intense. Sometimes Alex mowed, and I caught glimpses of him through the window, jealous of his break. I yearned for a break. I wanted to put Bono in my ears and have him croon away my life while I made the lawn perfect- something I could not do in the rest of my life. You know you’re desperate when you fantasize about mowing the lawn. 

I feel so grateful for today. Let me tell you where my gratitude started.

I was born in Cameroon, Africa. My parents were missionaries in the Central African Republic for 17 years, and I lived there until I was 13. Well, technically 12, because I turned 13 on our final trip back to America. We were traveling in Europe that day in October, and I celebrated my 13th birthday on a cruise on the Rhine River. Sometimes I can’t believe the path of my life. I can’t believe this is my story.

I like to joke that I grew up three blocks from the Equator. We lived not completely in the “bush,” like not in a mud hut, but it was the boonies. We had electricity from 6pm-10 pm every evening, run by a generator that the missionaries took turns turning on and off. Our little house was one level, with cement floors and a metal roof. During the six months of rainy season, the storms that battered the roof could get so deafening that you couldn’t hear yourself think. It was wild. I loved rainy season. It got down to the 70’s, Dad would build fires in the fireplace, and we would get to wear sweaters and jeans. It was so cozy. 

There were no stores in our village. No groceries. Nothing. There was one dirt road in and out of our village, that was called Baboua. Tall elephant grass grew up on either side of that dirt road, taller than a man. There were a couple missionary families on our mission and we all shared vehicles. Most of the Africans didn’t have cars. They were lucky if they had bikes. The women usually walked everywhere- sometimes miles for fresh water, and then miles home with a huge, heavy metal bowl perched on the top of their heads and a sleeping baby tied on their backs. In the dry season, everything was so crisp and parched, wild fires spread easily. I remember watching a fire come so close to our mission station that you could feel its blistering heat from right across the road. The Africans would dig a ditch around the mission to try and make a barrier the hungry fire couldn’t jump. Christmas falls in dry season, and instead of snow, long pieces of black ash would float down from the sky from all the fires. The dust from the Sahara would march its way across the dry plains and into our home, making Mom frustrated that she could clean, and an hour later there would be a thick film of desert dust coating the furniture again.

The jungle came right up to our back yard. Sometimes you could hear elephants way down in the thick carpet of trees. Monkeys snuck onto our back porch and stole our bananas that we stored in huge bunches the Africans carried to our door to sell to Mom. I have yet to witness anything as breathtaking as the lazy red sun setting over the jungle in the heart of Africa. In the jungle that was my back yard.
Mom and Dad wouldn’t let us walk on the station at night because of the ever-present possibility of a poisonous green mamba falling from a tree and biting us. We were not allowed to go barefoot either because of the risk of becoming infected with worms. We kept anti venom in clear viles in the door of our gas fridge, in case someone got bitten- either one of us or an African working in his field. There was constant danger. Medical help was at least 2 hours away in the neighboring country. The closest grocery store was a day’s drive away. There was nowhere to buy things like you buy in America-clothes, shoes, toys...

Mom homeschooled my brother and me for my preschool and first grade years. I remember the day it all changed. I remember the fear in the pit of my stomach that changed everything. Mom got sick. Really sick. It was dry season. I remember having to be very quiet so she could stay in bed, uninterrupted all day, every day. I remember she didn’t teach us anymore. Our house keeper had to boil everything Mom touched. We couldn’t spend very much time with her. Her thick, purple bedroom curtains had to be pulled closed against the boiling sun. I was scared.

One day, all the missionaries gathered in our living room and sent me out to ride my little red bike. I tried to bike as fast as my 7 year old legs would take me, trying to outrun the terror that I couldn’t escape. Something was happening. Something bad. I didn’t know what, but I knew it was the worst thing I’d ever experienced. 

When I was allowed back in the house, everyone had left. Dad told me that Mom had to go to America because she was so sick. We had to drive quickly to Cameroon, where a tiny medical plane would take Mom to America, so she could have doctors help her get well. Dad, my brother and I had to stay in Africa for a few more months. I would go to the American boarding school in Cameroon, while my little brother would stay with Dad while he finished his work. 

That sick fear sat like a ton of bricks in my belly, and made its home there for a very long time. 

If Mom hadn’t gone to America, she would have died. We almost lost her, although I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that my life completely changed in an instant. It was unrecognizable. I went from being with my close-knit family, leisurely walking through African days, to being alone with strangers at a small school in another country. Alone. I got to go home to Baboua every other weekend, and for holidays and summer vacation. Other than that, I didn’t see my family. I was seven years old. 

A lot of my missionary kid (MK) friends do not have the same feelings I do about our boarding school. I’ve talked to many of them, even my brother, and no one felt the level of abandonment and loss I felt when I was left there and my Daddy and brother drove away. I stood on the steps of our small dorm with the couple who were our “dorm parents” and tried to choke back the sobs that threatened to break me as the only people I loved in the world left me. 

I think that’s why I couldn’t remember it for 30 years without crying, while my MK friends talked about it freely, without tears. I finally realized that we all came to The Dorm, as we called it, under different circumstances. My entry into that world was sudden, unexpected, and filled with grief. My brother got to decide a few years after that whether he wanted to come to The Dorm, or have Mom (who miraculously recovered and came back to Africa with us) continue to teach him. He got to have the control, the power, of making a tough decision. That was not my path. 

Our boarding school had grades 1-8, with two teachers and between 10-15 kids at a time. I have incredible, hilarious, beautiful memories of my seven years at The Dorm. I made life-long friends who still feel like my brothers and sisters. Those years shaped me to be who I am, and I’m eternally grateful for that gift. But I lived with that palpable, heavy fear of loss for the next 30 years.

The last couple years, I’ve worked really hard to walk through my grief about what happened when I was 7. I decided I needed to heal that little girl inside of me, who cried herself to sleep more nights than I want to ever admit, who spent the next 3 decades panicked that loved ones would leave. And I can honestly say I’ve done it. Truly. The little girl in me who was so wounded by loneliness and grief has been hugged and comforted and told she is enough and everything is ok and that it’s ok to feel all the feelings. I no longer cry every time my boarding school years are mentioned. I can talk about the day Mom left without weeping. It’s so freeing to heal old wounds. I am so grateful for healing.

Even during the years when there was a gaping gash of loss in my heart, I was grateful. Somehow, I have always had the wisdom to know that my life wasn’t “normal,” and to cherish all the incredible things I got to experience. Who gets to grow up in Africa? Who gets to travel European countries as a kid? Who gets to call people from all around the world “friend?” I am lucky and blessed. I still feel Africa beating in my veins. She will always be a part of me, and I am so grateful for that. 

Africa was my teacher. I learned independence. I learned to love. I learned that friends can be family. I learned that family means everything. I learned that in every “hello,” there is a “goodbye.” I learned you can live through loss so huge that you feel like it will swallow you whole and you’ll never be able to catch your breath again. I learned that eventually, you will breathe again. I learned I am capable of healing any wound, no matter how old or how deep, and then recognize the blessings that even a wound can bring.

I have a friend who is a life coach, and he knows some of what our family has gone through- the kids’ special needs, our diagnoses, how challenging life has been. When I recently told him a little bit about my childhood, he said, “Wow, your soul really signed up for a lot of challenges!” I said, but that’s how I learned gratitude. 

I’ve always heard people say things like you don’t need a church building to worship, blah blah. Yeah right. You still get brownie points for showing up at church on Sunday mornings, right? Points with God. Points with other worshipers. Points that prove you have your life together enough to get your family somewhere on a weekend morning, dressed and with cowlicks slicked down, wearing shoes that match and staying quiet and angelic through a service. I used to think those points with other people were very important. I used to think God counted points.

I haven’t been able to get church points for 17 years. My family can’t fit that mold, as hard as I’ve tried. Going to church is too difficult for our family most weeks, because of sensory issues and anxiety issues and overwhelm issues and ADHD issues...we’re a hot mess. If we do somehow make it to a worship service, I’m armed with a load of noise-blocking headphones, quiet activity books, pencils, paper, quiet snacks, fidgets, drinks...like I said- hot mess.

No points for Carrie. She can’t even get her kids to church on Sunday. She’s a bad Lutheran. She’s a bad Pastor’s Kid and Missionary Kid.

That’s how I felt.

But change has been stirring in my soul. A change in what I believe about myself. 


My life coach friend told me I live in a constant state of worship and gratitude, so much so that I don’t even realize most humans do not function that way. I’ve never thought about that, because normally you don’t think about your thoughts. But I’ve been mulling that over for a long time, wondering what my friend meant.

Then I had an epiphany. I worship every day. I realized I was worshiping while I mowed today. My neighbors see a Mama who hasn’t showered, with no makeup on, in a baseball cap and scrubby clothes, pushing a loud, stinky mower around our yard for an hour. But here’s what’s happening in my mind: I think about how blessed I am that each of my children is in their school building today. Without any crises looming on the near horizon, threatening to upend our new school routine. No one had a rage this morning. My big boys are walking out the door, together, every day, WITHOUT FIGHTING. NO RAGES. They drive their new car to their school every day, without a problem. A couple years ago, I didn’t think they would ever be able to drive because they were so angry it would be dangerous to have them on the road. Not long ago, my big boys had a rage every. Single. Morning. The stress of facing the day was overwhelming and they couldn’t cope because their brains were so inflamed. My boys are in the process of APPLYING TO COLLEGES. I’m serious. MY boys. COLLEGES. A little while ago we were contemplating having them live in a residential care facility because we were having so much difficulty meeting their extreme needs, before they were accurately diagnosed with Lyme and PANDAS. Now they’re planning their futures will succeeding with the present. They’re almost unrecognizable. My heart is bursting with happiness and pride at how we’ve been able to uncover their True Selves, under all that illness that threatened to destroy them.

I marvel at the fact that I can find an hour to mow the lawn in the beautiful morning sunshine, because how many times was my hour interrupted over the years because of a rage? Because someone in the house was screaming at the top of his lungs, scaring the dogs, throwing things, swearing...because his brain was inflamed and we didn’t know. I am amazed because this morning, Ella didn’t say she was scared about school before she boarded her bus. She didn’t cling to me with anxiety. She just waved goodbye and got on the bus! I’m shocked because Aidan got on his bus by himself while I took the dogs for a walk. Just a minute ago, it seems, I was dragging him to the bus stop every morning while he had an excruciating panic attack, trying to force him on the bus without success. I love that Aidan feels comfortable at his therapeutic school. I am so grateful for my kids and the gains they’ve made.

I’m grateful that our family is fairly healthy; we’re not in a symptom flare from exposure to classmates’ germs yet. 

I glance in the window and see Aidan’s service dog watching me as I move up and down the yard, striping fresh grass. I’m so grateful that Aidan has the opportunity to have a new tool to try and combat his anxiety. I love sweet Bama’s crooked ears, cocked to the side as he listens to me mow. 

I have my earbuds in, and as music flows through me, it brings along memories of people and places that have touched my path. People that have impacted my life in ways they don’t even know. “Galileo” reminds me of Anne. “With or Without You” makes me think of Mari and Matt. “Grease” reminds me of Helle, and the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” brings Sonja to mind. I remember when Lynnie brought her tapes to The Dorm and I heard “Duke of Earl” for the first time...I roll these memories around in my brain and smile. I am so grateful for my family of childhood friends.

I think of Nekea. She would understand what joyous freedom I’m feeling right now, mowing, all by myself. She would understand that even though there’s no imminent crisis, I’m always on edge. Always waiting for a call with bad news. Years of trauma have left me a little shattered. I’m so grateful I have friends who truly know me and do not judge me.

Two white butterflies flutter away from the monster mower as I swing it around, and I think of Ella. She loves white butterflies because it reminds her of angels. I love that she loves angels. I’m grateful that my daughter knows she is loved and protected, in the physical world and beyond. 

As I climb the small slope in our yard, I’m so grateful to my nurse friend, Renae, from our Lyme doctor’s office. When I went in yesterday for an appointment, I told Renae I’d had a migraine for 3 days. She gave me a shot of an anti-inflammatory that helped, and an IV of fluids because I was dehydrated. Because of her kindness, I only feel my migraine today when I turn the corners of my striped lawn, wrestling with that heavy machine to stay in my perfect lines of new grass. The shot even lessened the all-over-sometimes-it’s-hard-to-even-move pain that my body has been weighed down with the past few weeks. I try not to let the pain and fatigue win, even on bad days, but it’s still a crazy huge gift to not have it be so intense while I live life the way I want to. I’m grateful that my body is able to handle the lawn mower today.

Then I laughed at myself. It’s sort of annoying to live in my head, accidentally being grateful for so many things. Like doesn’t it kind of make you want to puke? It sort of makes me want to puke, and I live with myself! It’s not something I’m trying to do, to find gratitude all day every day. It just comes to me. Living with the challenges I have had in my life has made me focus more intensely on living in the present moment, and finding gratitude in the mundane. Alex jokes that if I lived in a cardboard box on the side of the road, I’d still find something to be grateful for every day. He’s not wrong. 

I don’t know what crisis is heading our way next. I don’t know what loss or what grief or what crazy situation I’ll have to figure out next, but right in this moment I am so blessed and grateful. Things have been way worse than they are today, and I am overwhelmed by the ease of this morning: getting my kids ready and off to school. Mowing my lawn. Walking my dogs. Taking a shower. Writing. Feeling the soft breeze blow through the curtains. Getting ready for Ben’s IEP meeting, where I know he will be supported and encouraged for being perfectly himself. These are “normal” things that “normal” people do, but have historically been so hard for our family. I’m so grateful to experience a little Easy.

I take nothing for granted. Because life has been a lot, LOT worse at times. I know how blessed I am to have the life I have. 

And that is called worship. Giving thanks. Finding space to meditate on the little beauties, the small miracles in your life. And you really can do it anywhere you are; it doesn’t have to be in church. Recognizing and feeling grateful for all the people who have meandered through your life at various times, all the sunsets you have seen, all the things that have made you who you are right now, that is worship. Maybe I’m not a failure as a Missionary Pastor’s Kid after all. :)

Without the challenges I have faced, I wouldn’t know to recognize the grace and beauty that surround me. I would take for granted all the miracles happening with my children. I would not understand that I am married to my perfect partner in this circus of a life. Yes, challenges suck. They totally suck. But they are also tools for learning how to be a better human. Challenges are an opportunity to learn to be present in the moment, to trust that that moment will not last forever, and to revel in gratitude.