The Birth of Micaela Jane

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Part eleven.

At four in the morning, May 7, 2009, we were both up on the dime.  I, to go to work, and Rachel, because she was in labor.  “It’s nothing,” we thought.  “They say these things progress slowly.  It could be a false alarm.”  She was pacing my parent’s family room, moaning through the contractions.  We still had not been able to move into the apartment.

“Call me if you need to.”  I kissed Rachel and drove off to work.

At seven o’clock, the classic rock was interrupted as I was breaking down boxes and stacking packages of meat in the open refrigerator.  “Telephone call for Mr Stix.”  (As skinny as I am, it didn’t take long to acquire that nickname.)  I picked up the receiver.

“Hello?”

“I’m not sure if I should go to the hospital,” she said timidly.  Then some moaning.

“What?”  It was hard to hear her over the music.  After some time I gathered that she was in significant pain.  “Can my mom take you?  I’ll meet you there.”

I attempted to tie up some loose ends at work, but I was told by my co-workers to move it.  They would take care of it.  I stepped out into the morning sun, squinted, and hopped into my Protegé.

* * * * *

We got to the hospital at the same time, and were quickly admitted.  Before I could say “Good morning,” Rachel was in a gown and lying back in a hospital recliner.  The nurse left.  We were alone.  Rachel groaned through a few sets of contractions, then, a different nurse casually strolled in, as though she was looking for something that she may have left behind.

“Well now, let’s have a look.”  Some sort of measurement was taking place under the gown.  The nurse’s movements quickened, as did my heart.  She jotted down some notes.  “She’s 8 cm dilated.  We have to get her into the birthing room.”  Why this particular room was not sufficient for the purposes of birthing, I did not know.  But I dutifully followed.

The next three and a half hours were somewhat of a blur.  All I remember is that Rachel and I were alone in a large room.  She, strapped to a machine measuring vitals, and me pacing nervously, reciting scripture verses to her through the pain.

One must understand that up until then I rarely heard Rachel raise her voice above the volume of a refrigerator hum.  So to hear her groan deep and loud was a very alarming experience.  I imagine, to the nurses outside our room, it probably sounded just the opposite.  I can still see them sitting in front of their computers saying, “Oh, she’s got time.”

It wasn’t long, though, before Rachel cried out, “Can someone come help me!  Where’s the doctor, Jos?  Can you get the doctor?”  This was more than I could bear, so I went out to plead for help on Rachel’s behalf.  They looked annoyed.

The next contraction or two, a nurse came.  Gown up.  Another look of alarm and quickening of movements.  The doctor was paged.  Another nurse came.  More moaning as the caverns of her body shifted and opened.  Contraction.  Broken water.  Instruments lined up on a side table.  Swaddling cloths laid out.  Contraction.  A scrunched head meeting the chill of the sterile room.  Another contraction.  A purple head popped out, face scrunched, eyes tight.  “She looks like a girl,” I thought, holding Rachel’s hand.  Contraction.  Body slips out into the hands of a doctor that I do not know.  “She’s here!” I cried.  Rachel’s body trembled while they cleaned and wrapped Micaela.

“Can… I… I… ho… ho… hold her?” Rachel stuttered.  Our Micaela Jane was laid on her breast.  Her whole body relaxed, and a joyful smile swept over her.

Moving out

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Part ten.

A week after Rachel’s sobering letter to me, we found out she was with child.  (We agreed before getting married that we wanted to have children early on, if possible.)  Our emotions were mixed, but we were predominately joyful.

I wish I could say that things changed for us immediately after that letter, but it remained challenging.  We at least knew it would be good to move out of my parent’s basement before the baby was born.  We called it “Pakpao” (which means “Kite” in Thai) before we knew the gender.

Through a co-worker I found out about a vacancy in an apartment in nearby Collingswood.  We had already looked at a few apartments, but finding the right combination of price, location, and space was challenging.  We knew we liked the area, and the price was reasonable compared to other one bedroom apartments, so we decided to take a look.

Rachel was seven months pregnant at the time.  We were getting a little desperate.  On top of that, we had never lived in our own place, so we didn’t know very well what we wanted, or what kind of questions to ask, or how to gauge what a prospective landlord would be like.

The apartment was situated on top of a two car garage, and was two stories tall.  We met Charles (name changed to protect the not-so-innocent) at his front door.  He looked frazzled and out of breath.  His dog barked restlessly at the door.  “Get back, Teddy!” he yelled, pushing him back with his foot.  We greeted one another and he led us around back of the garage.  It was a narrow passageway, and we soon found ourselves at an old, forest green door that looked like it could have been a bit more secure.  He wrestled with the lock.  A sweat stain grew on the front of his shirt.

The lock finally came loose and the door quickly flung open, only to bang into a ladder that had been propped up inside the door.  “Sorry about that.”  He gave a nervous laugh, and squeezed in through the opening.  He managed to move the ladder just enough to swing the door halfway.  We filed in and made the narrow ascent to the first floor.

“I’ve been meaning to take this down,” he said as he rubbed his hand against the fuzzy wallpaper in the entryway.  The pattern was a pale gold, raised up from a background that used to be white.  Rachel and I looked at each other with a smile.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.  “It’s kind of vintage.”  He led us into the living room.  It was strewn with dusty, old childhood toys, stacks of paint cans, boxes of knick-knacks, tools, and a broken air conditioner.

“I’m in the middle of remodeling,” he told us.  As he showed us around, his pits began to soak through his shirt.  He went on to explain all that he intended to do.  As he took us through the bathroom, kitchen, upstairs bedroom and bathroom we saw potential.  We knew we wanted it.

“How soon would we be able to move in?” I asked.  His eyes grew and he shifted his stance nervously.

“April 1st.”  Perfect.  At least a month to settle before the baby comes.

“Is there a deposit?” I asked.  His eyes raised to the ceiling as he prowled through a barrage of numbers and unpaid bills in his head.

“First, last, plus one month.”

Having lived in my parent’s basement, we had saved a few thousand dollars easily.  I didn’t even try to negotiate.  “We’ll take it!”

* * * * *

A week before the move-in-date, I called Charles to make sure he was expecting us.  He sounded surprised and said, “Can we push it back?  I didn’t get to paint.”  Some excuses were given.  So we pushed it back to the middle of April.

After two weeks, I called again.  He wanted to know if May 1st would work instead.  May 9th was the due date.  So I told him we had to be in before then.  He assured me that all would be completed and that I had nothing to worry about.  I remained optimistic.

We scheduled the truck, and asked friends to come and help with the move.  On May 1st we pulled into the driveway of our house in the trees.

* * * * *

When I knocked on his door his son answered.  “Dad, some people are at the door for you!”  Charles was watching TV.  When he came to the door and saw our small crowd, the cars lined against the street, and the moving truck in his driveway, he looked at us the way an old high school friend does when you stop him dead in his tracks and say his name, but he doesn’t remember for the life of him who you are.

After a moment his memory ignited.  The apartment?  Right.  He went and grabbed the key.  I was anxious to see the miracle he performed since I last saw the apartment, so I followed behind him as he unlocked the door and ascended the stairs.  To my surprise, the junk was gone.  But to my dismay, the walls were not painted, and painting supplies were shoved in the corner.

“It’s alright,” I re-assured him.  “We can just put all our stuff in the middle of each room and paint around it.”  So that’s what we did.

That night, with all of our worldly possessions locked up in our new apartment, covered in drop cloths, we slept in the guest room of my parent’s house.

Part nine.

Adam and Eve

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“Can we read Adam and Eve tonight?”  Micaela asks.

We’ve been reading through John, so I think for a moment.  A change could be nice.  “Sure,” I say.

“I like that story.  I already know what happens,” she says, then walks away, smiling.

Night one.  I read the first three days of creation.  “It’s like a miracle!” she says.

I continue reading.  “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate…”

“Daddy,” Emeth interrupts with his nasally voice, rubbing his eyes.  “What’s a-spanse?”

Day four.  Day five.  It’s getting late, so we stop.  “But where’s Adam and Eve?” Micaela wants to know.

“We’ll read about them tomorrow.”  Then we sing.  Pray.

* * * * *

Night two.  The bedtime routine has begun.  I’m finishing up the dishes.  Micaela walks up to me.  “Can we read Adam and Eve tonight?”  I re-assure her that Adam and Eve will make their appearance into the story tonight.  She smiles, then walks away to the bathroom to brush her teeth.

She sets up the salt lamp in the bedroom, gets my Bible and the hymnbook, and lays them neatly stacked next to the lamp.

Dishes are washed.  Teeth are brushed.  Waters are filled.  Blankets and animals are in their respective beds.  One last visit to the potty has been completed.  Into their bedroom and they lie down.

I read day six.  Then, the creation of man.

* * * * *

Micaela once asked me if all the people that we read about in the Bible really lived.  I pondered her question for a moment.  My thoughts raced.  The opinions are endless.  What is myth?  What is real?  Questions I have no concrete and definitive answers for.

These thoughts race through my mind again as we read the beginning.  Genesis.  Ancient, ancient history preserved for us in my Bible, neatly bound in soft, black leather, translated into my mother tongue.

I manage to make it through the end of chapter one, and through verse nine of chapter two.  “And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.  The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

“I think it was a pear,” Micaela says.  Already I can see that our modern day interpretations of this story have affected her imagination.  (The Jesus Story Bible we have depicts the fruit in a pear shape.)

We ask them what other kinds of fruit do they think were on the trees.  But they insist on knowing what the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil had on it.  “I think it was a grapefruit,” Emeth says.  I tell them I have no idea what kind of fruit it was.

I continue.  “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.'”

“Why would they die?” Micaela wants to know.  I ask her to let me finish the rest of the story, not wanting to attempt an answer yet.  They hold their questions and I finish the chapter.  “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”

“How did God take a rib out of his side and close it up again?” Emeth wants to know.

“I have no idea!” I tell him, in wonder myself.  “It was like a miracle.”

“Yeah!  A miracle!” they exclaim.

“Daddy?” Micaela quickly jumps into her question.  “What is ashamed?”

“This is getting complicated,” Rachel whispers.

Yes, very.  Nakedness.  Shame.  We talk a little about babies when they are born, how they don’t think about being naked.  About how we wouldn’t want to go outside without our clothes on.  We don’t really get into the definition of shame, though.

Soon, Micaela returns the conversation to the question long delayed, as though it had been weighing on her mind for much longer than five minutes.  “But why would they die if they ate the fruit on the tree?”

I have read the beginning of Genesis probably more than any other section of the Bible.  It’s one of those stories that I feel over familiar with.  A story I feel I “know” well.  Not just the story, but it’s theology.  I’ve heard countless sermons on it.  There is hardly a Christian book I’ve read that does not go back to Genesis to support its premise.  This knowledge swims around in a contained theological tank in my head, never touched by the questions of a child.

“Why would they die?” they want to know.  How accurate is this story?  Is this really how it happened?  Did they ever live?  Not knowing quite how to answer, instead, I say, “Let’s read it again.”

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  “Was the tree evil?” Micaela asks.  “Why would they eat the fruit if it would make them evil?”

“No, it wasn’t evil.  It was called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  I wonder if before they ate it, if all they knew was what was good?”

Many more questions are asked, back and forth.  As we ask, I feel that I am beginning to see with them, as though for the first time, that something significant happened here.  Whether creation actually occurred in six days, whether Adam and Eve are real, historical figures, whether it was a pear or a grapefruit – those things fade into the background.  And we talk about this moment.  We go back to their awareness of their nakedness, and their shame.  We try to imagine what it would be like to only know good, and to have no thought to do evil.

We don’t end up talking about why it would cause them to die.  I didn’t tell them all that I believe or think about the passage.  We are exploring together.  We are on a journey together.  They are becoming more and more curious about this Book, and the connections between the stories within, and our lives without.  It seems full of wonders to them, as we go on an adventure to mine these depths.

 

The Black Riders

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When Frodo wakes up in the House of Elrond, he sees Gandalf for the first time since the Shire.  Frodo desperately wants explanations of all that he has seen on his journey. Particularly of the Black Riders.  Gandalf says,

‘They tried to pierce your heart with a Morgul-Knife which remains in the wound.  If they had succeeded, you would have become like they are, only weaker and under their command.  You would have become a wraith under the dominion of the Dark Lord; and he would have tormented you for trying to keep his Ring… You were in gravest peril while you wore the Ring, for then you were half in the wraith-world yourself, and they might have seized you.  You could see them and they could see you.’

‘I know,’ said Frodo.  ‘They were terrible to behold!  But why could we all see their horses?’

‘Because they are real horses; just as the black robes are real robes that they wear to give shape to their nothingness when they have dealings with the living.’ (p. 216)

“You were in gravest peril while you wore the Ring.”  As Frodo wrestles with the temptation to put on the Ring at Weathertop, when the Black Riders were racing towards him, I, the reader in my comfortable seat on the train, say, “Frodo, don’t do it!  Don’t you know?  Haven’t you heard all the warnings of Gandalf?”  Temptation seems nothing more than saying no to someone trying to sell me drugs while I walk the four blocks to work.  But then I try to put myself in Frodo’s hairy hobbit feet.  What would it be like to actually see these black riders?  I go back and re-read page 191.

Terror overcame Pippin and Merry, and they threw themselves flat on the ground.  Sam shrank to Frodo’s side.  Frodo was hardly less terrified than his companions; he was quaking as if he was bitter cold, but his terror was swallowed up in a sudden temptation to put on the Ring.  The desire to do this laid hold of him, and he could think of nothing else.  He did not forget the Barrow, nor the message of Gandalf; but something seemed to be compelling him to disregard all warnings, and he longed to yield.  Not with the hope of escape, or of doing anything, either good or bad; he simply felt that he must take the Ring and put in on his finger.  He could not speak.  … He shut his eyes and struggled for a while; but resistance became unbearable, and at last he slowly drew out the chain, and slipped the Ring on the forefinger of his left hand.

Immediately, though everything else remained as before, dim and dark, the shapes became terribly clear.  He was able to see beneath their black wrappings… In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes… Their eyes fell on him and pierced him, as they rushed towards him…

I put the book down.  We are crossing the bridge, and I look out of the expanse of the Delaware River.  Tears are on the brink of my eye as I ponder the intensity of Frodo’s temptation and moment of yield.  How many times have I wanted to put the Ring on myself?  How often is it’s pull so strong, that I long to put it on, even with the warnings of Gandalf ringing in my ear?  I put it on, and for a moment I am satisfied, and no longer under the torment of unbearable longing.  But in that moment, I have sunk into another realm.  A realm where now the enemy can see me clearly.  He does not care that I am down.  He has no mercy.  Here he comes, riding toward me with fury in his shallow and empty white face, sword drawn and ready to thrust my heart through.  I have lost all capacity to think straight and to take the ring off.  He would kill me if he could.  Worse, he would make me one of his own.

The Dungeon

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Part nine.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1

 

In the months leading up to our wedding, my father and I transformed their basement into an apartment for Rachel and I.  It was maybe slightly bigger than our honeymoon Boathouse, with each room connected and open to the next – bedroom flowed into sitting room flowed into half-kitchen (minus the sink).  The laundry room we shared with my parents, as well as the downstairs bathroom.  There was no separate entrance.

Before we left for our honeymoon, I was working a ten dollar an hour internship in the finance department of the Port Authority Transit Corp.  It was scheduled to end almost simultaneously with our wedding.  Looking back, how I was thinking to support a family, I do not know.  I didn’t know what was ahead with my career, and honestly, I wasn’t thinking much about money at the time.  All I knew was that living in my parents basement was going to allow us to get married sooner than we otherwise would have been able to.

I remember expecting a job to come find me.  Besides, I was a College Graduate.  I studied Economics.  Couldn’t prospective employers tell how smart and hard working I was?  Couldn’t they smell me out?  Didn’t they sense that I could figure out how to do anything if given enough time and the proper training?

When we returned from our honeymoon, my employer graciously extended the internship for another few months if I wanted.  Why not?  I had no where else to go.  But eventually I got tired of the office bickering and backbiting, complaining about the “man,” the pale-purple carpet, paneled walls and no windows, and not enough work to keep an ant busy for more than a minute.  I wanted physical activity.  So one day after work, I applied to Trader Joe’s.  Before I knew it, I was waking up at 4 am for the early shift, breaking down pallets of dairy and grocery.  This was actually a decrease in pay, but at least it kept me busy.

I didn’t really want a job that paid anything close to a reasonable income.  Well, let me re-phrase: I wanted it, but I was afraid of it.  I was afraid of money.  Money seemed to corrupt, and I wanted to steer clear of its powerful grip.  (Whether or not it was true was another matter.)  I chose only to see the people, situations and circumstances where money did seem to go hand in hand with materialism, over-consumption, greed and selfishness.  I did not take the time to talk with older Christian men and women who had reaped the financial benefits of their investments, and who were also extremely generous toward others.

It wasn’t only fear, but laziness.  I didn’t want to have to think hard about how to use money.  I wanted to have only one talent, and I wanted to bury it deep into the ground.  More than that, I wanted to give it away.  Let someone else bear the burden.

I read the biography of Hudson Taylor sometime during our engagement, and I relayed many of the stories to Rachel.  Here was a man who gave up everything to follow Jesus into the mission field in China.  He was like the disciples who took “nothing for their journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money.”  He was free.  Or so it seemed.  “Why carry around such a burden if I can just give it all away and let the Lord carry it for me?”

In my head it all made sense.  “Trust God to provide and he will.”  But in reality, it was not so simple.  I felt trapped in a net that I had woven.  I had convinced myself (and Rachel) that to be godly was to not concern myself with money and material possessions.  The preacher, the Christian conference, the online sermon, the book on Christian living – they were all telling me to give up everything for Christ’s sake, and to take up my cross and bear it.

I was laying everything down, but was left with nothing of any substance to take up.  “What does all this mean?” I’d wonder.  The refrain I was hearing was, “Tell others about Jesus!”  “It’s the best news ever.  How could you keep it to yourself?”  “There’s only one thing you can’t do in heaven, and that’s evangelize.”  “Don’t waste your life.”  And these words of Spurgeon: “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies.  And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay.  If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.”  I didn’t know whether to feel embarrassed or emboldened.

Perhaps their intentions were good, but all I heard was evangelism, evangelism, evangelism.  It seemed that to occupy my time, money and thoughts with anything unrelated to this task was a waste of my life.

So I tried to make it my life.  I tried to live free from the burden of money, but instead became more enslaved, reducing generosity, evangelism and following Christ to a formula.  I tried to tell others about Jesus, only to find that the message I was sharing died on my lips.  And the harder I tried, the more dismal and joyless I became.

This philosophy had a profoundly negative impact on the early months of our marriage.  It was hard for us to stay grounded in our thoughts.  It seemed like every few days we’d be thinking about some new venture, a new potential “calling.”  We seriously considered becoming missionaries in China, just like Hudson.  We switched back and forth between so many options that it not only made our heads spin, but also all those around us that had to listen to our endless ideas.

When it came down to it, our struggle was this: we did not want to let ourselves enjoy life too much, for fear that it was at someone else’s expense.  It felt like every choice we made, particularly having to do with money, had some sort of eternal repercussion.  We felt guilty spending more on ourselves than we thought necessary.  Where we came up with the standard for what was “too much” I do not know.  It felt like it was all or nothing.  Give all, or risk not being called a radical follower of Jesus.

It was a dichotomy too heavy for us to bear.  Talking to others didn’t seem to help.  “What if they, too, are deceived,” I thought.  “What if we are surrounding ourselves with a ‘multitude of counselors’ who all think the same way?  What if they are all blinded by materialism?”

There was something else that compounded the difficulty in those early months.  Rachel had moved into my life.  My family.  My friends.  My church.  My town.  She did not work much outside the home at that time, except a few hours a week at the church office.  But besides that, she had no organic way of getting to know anyone in the area.  This was the complete opposite of her four years prior in college.  Now, she felt desperately alone, and in that soil of desperation, depression took root.  And grew.

It was exactly one month after our wedding day.  We kept a journal at the time, in which we would write back and forth to one another, in hopes of capturing some sweet and blissful moments of life together.  Instead, I felt that as I wrote (for I ended up doing most of the writing) I was grasping.  I was trying to capture something in that first month that was buried deep, and would take years to fully unearth.

It was a Tuesday.  We had a hard time falling asleep the night before.  Something seemed to be bothering Rachel but I couldn’t tell what.  I left for work early, as usual, to make the 5 am shift.  Rachel was still sleeping.  By 2 pm I was back.  “Hi mom.”  Down the stairs.

There she was, sitting at the foot of the bed.  I could tell she had been crying.  Despite my best efforts at questioning, she remained silent.  This I could not understand, so I pressed harder, thinking that if I only asked the right questions, it would be like a key opening the floodgate of her mind.  My questions were half-jokes, hoping to lighten the mood.  But it only darkened.

My questions exasperated both her and me, and I reluctantly gave up.  In my defiance (if you could call it that) I picked up Crime and Punishment in hopes of accomplishing something, getting somewhere in a book.  Raskolnikov was pacing feverishly in his apartment, subtlety plotting murder.  Rachel picked up the journal and wrote:

You asked me how I am.  And I hate that question when I am full of feelings that make me want to run until I die.  Do you ever feel that way?  But feelings are a mess.  I shouldn’t listen to them, but I don’t know how to fight them very well at all.  So I’ll tell you some of the things I’ve been wondering about in my head.  Stop if you think I shouldn’t.

One thing I wonder is why you don’t talk to me much anymore.  I guess I’m not much to talk to.  And why do you joke around so much of the time?  Your humor is one of those things I’ve always loved about you.  But now it seems to be so much of the time.  It seems you don’t care to be serious much.

And I still don’t understand that you love me.  I understand that you are willing to live with me and support me.  And that is a lot.  Thank you of that.  But I thought it was something more than that – a wanting to know one another, for one.  I thought that was something you wanted.  But I’m not very good at initiating that either, so I’m not blaming you.  But I say it because it just doesn’t make it easy for me to understand that you love me.

I don’t really like being married so far.  I thought our unity would grow significantly.  We are allowed to do things now that we couldn’t while we were dating and engaged.  But so far I think I enjoyed those times better.  I feel further from you than I can remember.

Maybe I’m thinking about this all wrong.  I’m sure that I am.  But I don’t know how I’m off, and how I should be thinking.  Do you feel the same way as I do?  I know we made a promise to each other that we can’t keep without the help of God.  Please God, help me.  But I thought I would share this with you.  I do love you.  I am committed to loving you.  I want that to grow.  I know that God wants our love to grow, and to be a reflection of his love.  Maybe it’s so hard for me because I still don’t understand his love.  That’s still so hard for me.  But I want to grow in that, too.  I don’t want all this that I say to hurt us, but I want to get it off my heart and let God change my heart.

He can do that, I hope.

“Do you feel the same way as I do?”  I did.  But I hadn’t the courage to say it.  I, too, was imagining it would be so much more than what we experienced in that brief month.  We desperately wanted it to work.  We had made a promise.  A promise we couldn’t keep without the help of God.  And now we really needed his help.  We were looking back on life before marriage, longing to go back in many ways because we felt closer then.  Life seemed simpler then.  Yet we pressed forward in the hope that what we longed for would somehow, someday, come to fruition.

Part eight.  Part ten.

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