milk and pencils

for what it's worth

Death almost took you


I’ve never been this close to death before
Not mine, but yours
Sweet Anna Belle

You choked on a brussel sprout
On my thirtieth birthday

I think it will pass
But you quickly pass
From choking to wide eyes
Those desperate, dilated, helpless eyes
Image etched in my mind

Helpless father
Help me, Father!
I cry with shaking voice
Oh God, no! God please, no!

Completely lost
In confusion of thought
Do I squeeze your abdomen
Or hit your back?
Will I lodge it deeper into your throat?

I don’t know
So I do both

I squeeze and hit
Like an abusive father
Harder and harder
But nothing works
Your face and lips turn beet purple

You go limp in my arms

Feeling your faltering life
Feeling burned into my skin
Turns my blood cold
And I pray my heart would stop
Instead of yours

I yell louder at your mother
To call nine-one-one
She fumbles for the iPhone
Dropping it to the floor

Your sister starts to scream

I don’t know what to do
You are fading, sweet child
You are fading, sweet Anna Belle

Instinct compels me to reach down your throat
To feel for that lodged brussel with my index finger

Something happens
I know not what
But something gives
And you sputter for air

Color returns to your face and lips
And we collapse on kitchen tile
Stunned and afraid

An eternity before you mumble
Brain in tact
Heart beating
Lungs breathing
Tiny hands reaching for glass of water

My mind running after
What could have happened?
Thirty more seconds
Would your brain work?
Another few minutes
Would you have died?

If you had
(ashamed of my thoughts)
I would have blamed myself
For not knowing how to save you
For not holding on tight enough
As you slipped into Death’s arms
I would have cried out
My God, my God
Why have you forsaken me?

When all my life, I’ve thought
If I were in Job’s place
Humble Job
(Humble Joseph)
I would say, as he did
The Lord gives
And the Lord takes away
Blessed be the name of the Lord

But now I know
I wouldn’t



There are only a few teachers that have left a deep impression on me.  There was Dr. Hsu, my piano professor.  Dr. Talbot, my Philosophy 101 professor (which was also the class I met Rachel in.)  And there was Jack.

He insisted that we call him Jack, but I couldn’t bring myself to it.  It seemed irreverent.  To me, it implied that we were old chums, yet he seemed so far above me.  He was a mathematical genius, and in his presence, I was mentally undone.  Like a child, tinkering with my abacus.

When he taught, the room was silent.  Attentive as an army rank before their Captain.  Even the most apathetic student sat bolt upright with pencil in hand and beads of sweat on his brow.

Jack treated all of us equally and gave none an unfair advantage.  He told us upfront, “You will have to work hard in this class.  If you at least show you’ve tried, I’ll give you a C.  That means you have to show up.  This is not a class you can skip.  If you skip, that shows me you don’t care.”  His words were firm, yet calm and even.  He’d pause, placing his left thumb, index, and middle fingers on his forehead.  Sometimes he’d pause so long you’d think he’d forgotten about us.  He’d look each one of us in the eye, and we’d shudder, or look away.  Then, just as calmly, he’d continue.  “And if you don’t care, I’ll fail your ass.”  And we knew he was serious.

As much as I respected him as a teacher, I could not understand his character.  Jack was Irish Catholic, and had been an orphan.  Once in awhile he’d tell us stories from his impoverished childhood.  And when he would get going, his stream of swear words would flow like milk in Spring.  Most people I knew at the time over-used or misused swear words.  But not Jack.  Each one seemed so appropriately placed, so tastefully used.  Adding to the effect of his story, rather than diminishing it.

* * * * *

Jack told us he was a Christian.  Occasionally he’d even end his lectures with, “A wise man once said…” and quote the words of Jesus.

This bothered me.  How can this man, who claims to be a Christian, use curse words like he does?  He is misrepresenting the faith!

It was my last semester.  My last course with Jack.  I was sad it would all be over soon.  He had stretched and challenged me.  But this one character flaw (or what I supposed to be one) still bothered me.

So, one afternoon, during his office hours (I had never gone before), I showed up with some questions about the homework.  (My cover-up for my real agenda.)  We went over the assignment, then I had a choice to leave or bring up my concerns.

I didn’t have the audacity to call him out directly over his use of language.  So I proceeded in a roundabout way, asking him about his faith, saying I was curious to know more.  How did it come about?  What led him to it as a child?

I don’t remember all the details of his story, but I do remember how humbled I was.  Here, I had been judging him for several years, and in the course of ten minutes I learned what a truly difficult childhood he had, and yet, how in spite of it all, God provided for him every step of the way.  He had always seemed so tough and hard in class.  But by the end of his story, he was crying, grateful for what Jesus had done for him.  More grateful than I had ever been for the same gift.

Three children born


Part twenty-five.


Five springs, five summers,
five falls, four winters.  
Three children born,
Under the shadow of poplars.
You and I,
in a covenant of love.
One merciful God
Giving grace from above.

* * * * *

The greatest of all our joys in our house under the trees was the birth of three more children, birthed in the comfort of our own bedroom.

February 8, 2011.  Rachel was already two weeks overdue, and we weren’t supposed to go beyond that date.  The midwife suggested a protocol of herbal extracts and using a  breast pump to initiate the contractions, which Rachel started at 8:30 in the morning.  It worked better than we were expecting.  The labor picked up quickly, and transitioned as the midwife arrived and set up her things.  Within two hours, our boy slid right out in the water sac, his hand up next to his head.  I caught him as the rest of his body emerged.  The water broke and our joy overflowed as we heard his first gasps for breath, and his vivacious cry.  “Oh, baby boy!  Oh, baby boy!” Rachel cried, again and again.  A little before noon Emeth Reid came, as sunshine streamed in through the bedroom windows.

* * * * *

July 27, 2012.  The contractions had started in the middle of the night, but Rachel didn’t tell me or the midwife until 6am that morning.  She didn’t seem to be in much pain, and I went through my usual morning routine, getting ready for work, in the event that the contractions stopped.  But they didn’t, and continued to intensify with no sign of relenting.  We had been in communication with my mom and the midwife, and they both were taking their time, thinking they had a few hours to go.  By 7:30 or so, the timing and intensity of the contractions really picked up.  We spread out our home-birth supplies in the bedroom, covered the floors, and kept texting the midwife.  I remember her saying something to the effect of, “I’m going to leave the house at eight.”  Okay, seems good enough to me, I thought, imagining we still had plenty of time.

Rachel paced back and forth in the house, groaning deep through her contractions.  Micaela and Emeth were awake at this point, and standing in their cribs, playing and laughing at one another.  Soon, Rachel went into our bedroom and leaned into the bedspread to muffle her groans, but the kids heard from across the hall and made a little game of echoing her.

Rachel: “Oooooh!”

M+E: “Aaaaah!”

R: “Oooooooh!”

M+E: “Aaaaah!”

At 7:53, Rachel’s water broke.  I texted the midwife.  Water broke.

Call me if you need to, was her reply.  I’m on the Ben Franklin Bridge.

My mom had not arrived yet, and thankfully the kids were still playing in their bedroom.  Then the reality of it hit me.  She isn’t going to make it!  Then, I remembered the midwife’s words to me, from the previous week.  She had said, If things are going well, all you have to do is catch.

I called the midwife and put her on speakerphone, just in time, for during the next set of contractions, Annie’s head popped out.  Miracle of miracles.  It was really happening, and we were alone in our bedroom!  I felt for the umbilical cord around her neck.  Check.  Not there.  I was zoned in, and ready to catch.  The midwife told her to push at the next contraction.  It didn’t take much (at least from my perspective) to have Anna Belle come sliding out.  I slipped my fingers under her arms, held her for a moment, then placed her on Rachel’s chest, where she wailed for a moment, then began nursing fervently.  Arriving prompt and hungry, at 8:00 on the nose.  I opened the kid’s door, “Annie’s here!”

At 8:05, my mom arrived.  I heard the door open and walked out of the bedroom with my hands held out in front of me, gloves on, as though I had been in surgery.  “What happened?!  Is everything alright?” She asked, with a nervous look on her face.

“Come and see,” I said.  Everything is just perfect, I thought, leading her in to meet her third grandchild.

* * * * *

When Rachel first found out she was pregnant with our fourth, she ran the idea by me of doing the delivery by ourselves, since we had delivered Annie alone.  No way, I said.

Over the course of the next few months, though, Rachel wouldn’t let go of the idea.   This scared me a little, but the more we talked, the more I softened to it.  We talked with the midwife about all the different scenarios and possible symptoms that would indicate that we needed to get Rachel (or baby) to the hospital.  We ordered extra homeopathics, herbs, and supplies just in case.

The day finally came.  April 15, 2015.  Again, labor started in the morning.  It was a warm, overcast, drizzly day.  The contractions didn’t seem to be relenting, so we called my mom, since she had agreed to come and help with the other three kids, and Rachel’s parents too.

The timing and intensity of the contractions slowed down just before noon, to every ten minutes or so.  We were discouraged, and hoped they wouldn’t stop altogether.

The midwife suggested a homeopathic remedy that we didn’t already have to help the contractions pick up.  So Grandma and Grandpa took the kids to pick it up at Whole Foods.  Rachel continued to labor slowly.

I had it on my mind to apply for some new jobs at the time.  What better time than now?  The kids weren’t around.  Rachel was laying on the couch.  I didn’t need to worry about making dinner since my mom had already started preparing it.  So I went online and continued to work on an application I had started.

Rachel got up and paced again, groaning louder during the next set of contractions.  “Are they picking up?” I wanted to know.  No answer.  After a minute, she asked if I could do a technique that the midwife taught us, called rebozo sifting.  Rachel was on all fours in the back room, and I held both ends of a towel, with the middle of it wrapped underneath her belly.  I lifted, and rocked her back and forth.  It was supposed to ease the pain of the contractions.

Wanting to take advantage of the downtime (between contractions) I walked to and from the computer, working on my application for a few minutes, then back with Rache and the towel.  Between one set of contractions, as I was typing away, Rachel said, “Jos! My water broke!”  The application can wait!

I ran back to the bedroom.  We had already put the birth supplies away earlier when her contractions were slowing down.  I spread out a shower curtain and some towels on the floor, and Rachel got down on her hands and knees.  Rachel’s parents and the kids returned from Whole Foods with the remedy we no longer needed.  They turned on some music out in the living room to help drown out any noises from the bedroom.

Things were progressing quickly now.  And I realized, There’s one question I forgot to ask.  How do I measure how dilated she is?  At that point, it didn’t matter though.  “Oh, Rache!  I see her head!  It’s so scrunched!” I cried.  Pretty dilated, I guess.  The next two sets of contractions were textbook.  First the head.  That beautiful, scrunched, oxygen deprived head, feeling the harsh atmosphere for the first time.  I checked for the cord.  Nothing.  Then, the next contraction.  I told Rachel to push.  Baby girl’s body started slipping and twisting out, and I slipped my fingers underneath her arms.  Our little Vitalia Joy.  (“Thank you, Jesus!  Thank you, Jesus!” was Rachel’s refrain this time.)  She was calm and alert, and barely whimpered.  Within moments, she opened her eyes, and stared at us, as though saying, Thank you.  I’m so glad to finally be here.  I gave her to Rachel.  She didn’t express any desire to eat, but rather, just kept looking at us.  Her whole face and body, full of peace.

Once Rachel was settled and tended to, I walked into the living room and asked,  “Did anyone hear a baby cry?”

“What? No!” said grandma.

In time, Vitalia nursed well.  We ate, put the kids to bed, and followed suit.  Needless to say, we were all exhausted.  Even Vitalia.  And in God’s kindness, we all slept through the night.

Part twenty-four.

The wisdom of Frodo


I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved.  But not for me.  It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger.  Someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.

– Frodo Baggins, from The Return of the King

Beav it up


Emeth, playing with dust pan and broom, imagining broom is a beaver.  Places ‘beaver’ at foot of kitchen table leg.

E: Daddy, I’m gonna put the beaver right here so that he can beav up the table.
D: Beav it?
E: Yeah.  He will beav it up and then the whole table will fall down!
[Then later, speaking to the beaver…]
E: Beaver, I wonder why you beav trees up.  Maybe ’cause you love to!

* * * * *

I need a quash-wash!

– Annie, requesting a wash-cloth after dinner

* * * * *

On a Saturday.

E: Daddy, it must be Sunday.
D: Why’s that?
E: Because there’s sun out!

* * * * *

This is my vacu-veen, and it’s bringing my water into my mouth.

– Emeth, comparing his straw to a vacuum

* * * * *

Annie and Micaela dressing their dolls, sitting on the kitchen floor next to the radiator.

A: I not wanna die in ner.
M: You won’t die in there.  It’s just a heater.  It’s just a little hot.
A: Oh.
[Emeth walks over]
E: Annie, wait!  That’s not your baby!
A: My baby!
E: That’s not your baby!
A: My baby!
M: Emeth, if you stop talking about it she’ll stop saying it’s her baby.


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