“We’re in this together,” we said…
Of Doubt & Determination
Health crises suck. My relationship with Monique was burdened by disability the day we met. The one you know about if you’ve read our previous articles, I have my birth defect, Spina Bifida. Chronic pain accrued from 16-17 surgeries labor me. Bowel and bladder issues, sometimes humiliate me. A learning disability frustrates me. But I haven’t told you that my wife and I have been mostly infertile. We were pregnant once, in 2006. Boy were we challenged then. Our marriage survived, by the grace of God. We cracked some. Doubt plagued us. But we mended with effort, and practice.
We went through years of different tests, different ways of trying to become pregnant. My wife was stuck, poked, prodded…invaded basically. I had a small surgery that turned into an emergency event that had me in the hospital for seven days. Had we not communicated and stayed connected through all of this, we may have faded from each other. After years and years of emotional struggle, & grit, mixed with hope we were pregnant! She said, “It [pregnancy test] says I’m pregnant…”. My brain froze, and then joy burst the ice like a rush of warm water. Our souls leapt while we wept tears filled with happy…but our happy dried up on the floor where we stood.
But like all storms, some of them rage for a long time, and some only for a short time. But they come anyway, and we can’t stop them. Storms brew and loom. In some ways, we’re just a fragile flower hoping to be nourished by rain, and not destroyed by storms.
She died on the very night we began a weekend relationship growth intensive at church. Our hope died that night too. What had been our tears of joy drained into the metal container where our daughter lay, waiting to be discarded. Part of our soul went with her, lying in that sterile, steel pan.
We drove to International House of Pancakes (IHOP). IHOP had traditionally been “comfort food” for us. We felt no comfort, only silence of the soul. Stunned silence, and tasteless pancakes. We were unable to make rational decisions about anything. Stunned silence lay embedded onto a plate of pancakes. We flailed and doubted.
Of A House & A Home
Home seemed like our worst nightmare that day. We couldn’t conceive of how to be at a home where pure happiness had been buried into the foundation of that place only a day before. Could we clean up joy stained tears from our home? We struggled with definitions. For awhile, we simply lived in a house. “Home” fell into the crevasse of cracked will, and fractured hope.
We couldn’t return to the house just yet after leaving the hospital. We gorged in coffee and comfort food at IHOP while we searched between the chasm of doubt and home. We went to the house eventually. We found our home again…eventually. We found that we could flail and drown for so long before our natural will-to-live kicked in. We needed home, but that meant that we couldn’t run from the guttural emotions we endured either. We had to stay connected in blinding storms. We’d practiced this. We’ve never returned to IHOP.
We went to the house. But our heart wasn’t there. When we arrived, we hardly recognized our home. We turned on the radio, and when we did, Casting Crown’s song “Praise You in the Storm” played through. They sang about God, “I can barely hear you whisper through the rain, I’m with you…” We mourned so very hard. Eyes fell to the ground behind tears surged like floods. That day tears fell as ice to the carpet. I couldn’t see my way through the ice storm, but I could hear. It was as if God whispered the question, “What have you practiced?”
We felt disabled by disability, by Spina Bifida, and infertility. We could’ve stopped living emotionally and spiritually for each other. But we’d practiced life together. We practiced on that day twenty years ago that a drunk Rick went to his car and his bride Monique screamed out our trailer door, “Divorce is not an option!” (We think you’ll genuinely like that stirring, uplifting story! You can read it here.) We practiced on days we were broke, and on days when I was in the hospital. We practiced on the day where we built a river of grief in our living room, underneath the words of Casting Crowns, and inside the whisper of God. We practiced until the waters parted.
It’s like anything practiced, right? What happened the first day Yo Yo Ma, the world-class violinist, played a violin? What happened the first day LeBron James, a world-class basketball player, tried to dribble a basketball? What happened the first day I tried jumping on my pogo stick? We sucked. Yo Yo Ma might have screeched his violin so badly that he wanted earplugs. LeBron probably barely achieved a sputter out of his dribble. And me? Well, I lived with a sore bum for a while.
But we practiced. We practiced until we were the premier violinists in the world, the most celebrated basketball players in history, and an excellent pogo stick jumper (I hoped several hundred times in a single effort!). Monique and I practiced our relationship until we could see each other no matter how badly our storm raged. We practiced. We practiced the days after our deflating…disability-laden tragedy. We knew where the other was even though the cold tears flowed, and the wind chilled our eardrums to nearly deaf.
Like practicing the violin, basketball, or pogo stick jumps, we practice our emotional lives, too. Some people practice emotional degradation. Others practice loneliness, and some practice anger. Once a person learns an emotional skill, positive or negative, he or she tends to retain the skill. But a person can also choose to learn to produce good, positive, productive, and life and relationship giving emotion.
You can learn to understand anger, and control it. This is the stuff of emotional intelligence. A person must hone and grow emotional intelligence. Yet, even when you fall weary, or out of practice, take heart! You can use your emotional intelligence to retrieve your emotional ability. How does one restrain loneliness, or anger, or the deadening of emotions altogether?
At some point loneliness seems natural, and right. A disabled individual like me sometimes wants to be completely alone so he or she is never stared at, or made fun of again. They’d choose loneliness if it means they don’t ever have to endure another discouraging pregnancy test. I chose to pity myself when we lost our baby. I figured that my body was responsible for her death. Sometimes, like I did that day back then, one simply wants to stop feeling anything.
The Willing & The Wiley: Trying is Not Practice
I didn’t stay there in loneliness, though. My bride faced me, and coaxed me to see her. We began to mend each other’s fractures. She and I remembered to practice…if only the fundamentals. The fundamentals can get you through. A good counselor can help you with the foundational fundamentals too. Like practice did for us, practice strengthens emotion for your partner or loved ones as well. And practice strengthens your regard, fondness, desire, and love for them. Practice what does you good.
You have to be willing to practice to be great, and good. I encourage you to refrain from saying, “I tried.” Trying is not practice. We can be wiley rascals, like Mr. Wile E. Coyote. We have myriad ways to wile our way out of practice. We say, “Well I tried, and it didn’t work,” or, “Why try if I’m probably going to fail anyway?” We spend a lot of time augmenting our “tries” with quick fixes. But quick fixes don’t teach us about practice anymore than fast food teaches about how to cook well. Desire practice, and what you can truly accomplish will amaze you!
Determined To Be Disabled or Determined & Disabled?
When the walls close in, you can will yourself to choose to practice the best of things like patience, problem-solving, tenderness, nurturing, happiness, contentment, and determination. You’ll understand their worth in your relationships soon enough, when your best relationships desire, enjoy, delight in, adore, admire, and love to be with you. You don’t have to be a Yo-Yo Ma, LeBron James, or the schoolyard pogo stick king. Just be the great you.
“We’re in this together,” we said. I had chosen the “this” to be disability-centric, i.e. all about me, not us…and I was miserable. My friend Linda set me into a right mind recently when she told told me that when we hung out, she never hung out with her disabled friend, no. She simply hung out with her friend. My bride said the same thing about me. But I didn’t believe I had the stamina to practice something different.
Like a good hard workout, I feared the burn of long-term practice. Wasn’t sure I could succeed, or that I deserved the best end of practice. Until she joined her hand in mine and said, “Together or not at all.” My frame of mind settles somewhere south of “Good ol’ Rick” some days, even still. I have learned through time though, the importance of being a relational husband who cannot wait to do life every day with his bride.
Memories, Memorials, & Motion
Monique and I laid our baby to rest in her stainless steel coffin that day. Seemed so impersonal…so utterly cold and expressionless. These days we accept what it was. She was still ours. So we choose our heart for her in our memory. We laid her to rest, and we experienced her together, and together we let her go. We memorialized her together. We named her, created a plaque with her birth and death information on it that now hangs in our home. We lost our Reyana Breen. A stone sets quietly amongst the rocks and bushes in our front yard…a sort of living memorial to her, and to strength of who we were together then, and now, with the words,
“I am not gone, my soul lives on but in a better place,
surrounded by the light of God in all his glory and grace.”
but we gained the sense of knowing that our tears blended from two people, into one together-or-not-at-all heart.
Relationships are a life in motion. Those who practice being in motion together, want and desire to stay together. We are better together…
Here are 6 ways you can practice your relationships so that at the most crucial hours, you won’t weaken, you’ll actually gain strength. Some of these I need to work at harder too! I need practice!
1. Never use the word “You” when arguing with your spouse.
2. Always kiss “good morning.” Always kiss “good night.” Always kiss “goodbye,” EVEN WHEN YOU ARE ANGRY OR HURT…
3. Make a point of daily physical contact with your partner, and your family (e.g. holding hands, hugs, an arm around a shoulder, a peck on the cheek).
4. Have a dedicated “family” night every week, but AT LEAST once a month.
5. Take time to talk to your partner, really share about your day, for 10 minutes each day.
6. Make sure to practice spiritual learning and meditation and connect with people that share your spiritual foundation to lean on in times of pain and struggle.
It takes practice to be good at anything. Remember-trying is not practice. What will you practice? Let me suggest you start with unity. Be ‘better together.’ Practice may not make perfect, but it will make beautiful.