Courage Dear Heart

If you’ve been around the blog for a little while then this piece may look familiar to you. It’s been two years now since Piper’s diagnosis, and just about two years since I first wrote this piece and got my own “Courage Dear Heart” tattoo to remind me to be brave, right there where I can see it on my skin. I hope the revised version of this story meets you where you are today.

-Gracie


I was being strangled. Pulling out of the parking garage, I reluctantly left the hospital and turned my car towards home. It was only then that I noticed the sky. Are you kidding me? How could the sun shine on today of all days? My heart was hammering like a racehorse in my chest, the anger welling up like asphalt in my throat. Yet, I knew even in that moment that this reaction was far from dramatic or over the top; in fact, it felt like the only way to react. After all, I was pulling away from a room of the Children’s hospital, where only a few hours ago my best friend’s 18 month old daughter was diagnosed with cancer.

There’s been some mistake. I thought to myself. They mixed up the results. They brought back the wrong chart. They’ll realize it soon enough, that there’s been some mistake.

But I knew it wasn’t true, as much as I longed for it to be.

Piper had cancer. A deadly disease. Without terrible and painful interventions, she would die. Even with them, there was no guarantee.

WHY, GOD WHY??? Over and over I asked him, my heart leaden with despair. But there was no answer. 

When I arrived home I poured myself into things I could control. I organized people to meet the practical needs of my friends who would now be spending the next week in the hospital with their youngest child, while their older two stayed overnight with grandparents. I made chicken enchiladas. I bought food for their fridge. I helped another friend clean in preparation for their return. But the asphalt in my throat turned to cotton in my brain, and when I got all the groceries home from Costco, it took me a half hour of staring at the the pile on the kitchen table to figure out how to put it all away.

I kept putting on my strong face for my children. Or at least I tried. But at the sink you’d find me weeping into the dishes when I thought no one was looking. I was giving God the silent treatment. And somewhere in the back of my heart, the old me was playing stone mason, and desperately building a fortress around my heart. All of me felt like a harp string, tuned too tight, till the notes were sharp and sour. The slightest touch could snap me in half.

The tender me was prisoner in a back room somewhere, but I could hear her trying to scream through the walls of the ever growing fortress:

“God is still good. He makes beauty from ashes. Turns despair into laughter. You can trust him!”

Mostly I ignored her. I slept fitfully, and dreaded waking up each morning and realizing that this wasn’t just some horrifying dream. Then one evening, a few nights after Piper’s diagnosis, my husband began to draw me out. 

“You know what’s true” he said. “You need to talk to God.”

“I don’t want to.”

“But you need to.”

“I don’t even know what to say.”

“Just talk to him,” he said.

I don’t remember the words that came out of me, face down on the pillow. I’m sure there were mumblings and groanings and unintelligible words. I’m pretty sure I mostly talked about how mad I was at him. But towards the end I came to this:

 “God I know that I’m a toddler, throwing a giant tantrum, because I don’t know what you’re doing. But you’re doing something…even though I don’t understand it!”

Surrender made way for peace to come. Not in overwhelming waves, but in small chunks that began to knock down pieces of what the old me had been building in the back of my mind. Little pebbles of peace chipping away at that fortress, and a still small voice that kept chipping and tapping away at me; You don’t need this… You don’t need this… You don’t need this…

As the vines of hope began to grow again.


It’s been a little over a month of Fridays since Piper’s diagnosis. A week after the original results, we found that instead of just ALL, a childhood cancer that is relatively easy to treat, she has a rare genetic abnormality in her leukemia cells which made it significantly more aggressive and difficult to treat, and made it even more likely that if cured, she could have a relapse.

The first month was horrible. The medications obviously poison. The once spunky little girl turned into a zombie by steroids. Almost all her hair fell out in a matter of two weeks.

Then last week, they had another bone marrow aspiration that would tell them whether or not the treatment was working; if she would be in remission or if she would need to go on the bone marrow transplant list. When the results showed that she was in remission, cancer free for the moment at the very least, you would think I would have been thrilled. 

But you know what? It’s hard to hear the bugle of good news behind a fortress of stone.

That’s right. I’m still in there. Desperately trying to escape. The voice of the tender me, the soft me, the me that’s sensitive to what the Lord of hosts is doing; that me was getting louder and easier to hear through the holes that the hope vines were tearing. Through the holes that the peace was beginning to peck away.

But I realized on receiving this good news how afraid I am to hope. How desperately afraid I am to trust God. Because I feel like hope is a trap and a lie. And I was expecting more bad news. I had decided to expect it, as a way to try and protect myself from the painful surprises that life seems to keep throwing my direction like so many fast balls over the past six months.

I was trying to control it. And once again, this surprise, though good, had undermined my shallow attempt to pretend to be in charge of life. To pretend to be able to predict things, and by-proxy, to control them. The old me trying to take over; shouting at the tender me;

 “Get out of the way! YOU are going to get us KILLED! Your hope is foolish and the love you claim to believe in is a lie.” The reality is I cannot actually control or predict the future. I am not in charge. I am not the boss. 

There’s a toddler in my house; she’s three years old and three feet tall and she’s angry because I’ve given her a bowl and not a plate for her to eat her lunch. She’s raging mad. She’s screaming. Throwing herself down. Insane with the desire to control, and devastated at the perceived loss. She looks exactly like me.

Tender me in the tower is peeking out through the cracks; shouting till she’s hoarse, 

“He is good! He is good! Hope is not a lie! It’s freedom! All is grace! Everyday is gift! Every day is joy! Rejoice! Rejoice!”

I want to let her out now, but I’m afraid of the rawness; the gaping wound of a hole in a tower wall that I’ve built to keep me safe. The vines would wreck and break every last part of that self-protection until not one stone is left on another, and then I would be well and truly naked. Out in the open. Vulnerable.

Everyone could see the scars on my heart; the trust I’m afraid to hold on to; the faith that’s so thin, it seems like a paper cloak at times when I know it could be thick as velvet.

But the truth will set us free.

And the truth is that God loves my friends, and their daughter, more than I do. He’s the only one able to work for their good and his glory in all things. He is the only one who always does exactly what he says he will do. He is the only one who has the power to make all things as he sees fit.

He calls the stars out one by one…and because of the word of his power, not one of them is missing. (Isaiah 40:26) Then there’s the verse I first tattooed on my skin:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of these will fall apart from the will of your father. And even the very hairs of you head are all numbered. So do not be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:29-31

He knows every hair that has fallen from that sweet little girl’s head. He knew all the days of her life before there was yet one of them. And he knows mine.

He knows the days that I’ll build towers of fear because I’m choosing not to trust him—even though he’s never given me a reason not to. He knows the days I’ll come running back—a prodigal into her Daddy’s arms. Safe and held and deeply known. He loves me. Even me, in my faithless, wandering, orphan heart. He loves me. He loves me. He loves me.

And around each bend, and each corner I can hear his voice whisper; louder now than my fears or my demands to understand; “Courage….courage, dear heart.”(C.S. Lewis’ Aslan) 


Not too long after I originally wrote this post, I got my most recent tattoo. A picture of Aslan the lion from Narnia, with the above quote. It has served me often these past two years, which have continued to be full of various trials, to remember that God has, and will continue to bring me through whatever comes. He will carry me.

Kelsey Brown is my tattoo artist and she is located in Louisville, CO. You can find her on IG @kelseyknown.

Hail Storms, Peaches, Sabbath Rain and a Baby.

Back in May of this year, we planted a peach tree.

It felt a little like cheating, because we planted a tree that was already loaded with the tiny beginnings of peaches. But when you have a choice between peach trees covered in peaches, and peach trees that don’t have any… you’re probably going to pick the ones with peaches.

A tree by it’s fruit right?

We did what all good gardeners do; we lined the hole with compost and (goat) manure to give the tree a little jump start. We cut the root ball so the tree would start to set up and spread out in its new home. We back filled the hole. Tamped down the dirt. We watered until the ground was sodden a foot in each direction. Then we did what all good gardeners must also do; we waited for the fruit to grow.

Two days after we planted our peach tree, we got the earliest, and most devastating hail storm of the season. Torrents of water and ice pelted from the sky for the better part of an hour. I went out there, in jean shorts and mud boots, my great seven-months-pregnant-belly barely fitting under my  rain jacket, and tried to cover what I could of our garden’s seedlings with tarps. After struggling with those for the better part of twenty minutes, my shorts were so heavy with water they were weighing me down. My legs were welted from pellets of hail. There was a solid two inches of rain in each of my boots.

And then I looked at our peach tree…and knew there was nothing I could do. Covering it with tarp would have hurt it just as bad as letting it get pelted with marble sized balls of ice. I sat on the milking stand in the garage to dump the water out of my boots, and asked my four year old to grab me a towel. I tried not to worry about our newly planted tree.

In the after math of that hail storm, Fergie proved to be as hearty as the description card on the Reliant Peach proclaimed him to be. There were a bare handful of peaches left on its branches, but it was growing, and we were thankful. We hoped the next year would bring a greater harvest, but we would take what we got this first go around.

We went back to waiting. The children asked every day, “When will the peaches be ripe?”

“When will our baby come??”

The children asked it. My husband asked it. I asked it to the sky more that once, especially after July ended with a very convincing false labor. And I knew our baby could come anytime.

“August.” I said. To them. To myself.

“When the peaches are ripe, our baby will come.”

The long summer days found the kids and I in the baby pool, or hiding inside with our small front room air conditioner unit that kept the house a tolerable 80 degrees. We went to the park. To the farm. All that long summer we had waited for the peaches to ripen; and for our baby to come. And every time it rained, I had the strangest feeling of premonition… like that feeling you get when you see the sky turn sort of green and you know it might hail…that our baby would be born during a late summer rain.

The first week in August we picked the two final peaches that ripened on our tiny tree. We shared them for dessert that night. We picked chokecherries off our back neighbor’s bushes that droop their branches low over our fence, and we made jam. And hungry for more peaches, we went to our favorite farmer and bought an entire box of the juiciest sunset peaches from Palisade.

The second week I made freezer meals and learned how to can chicken stock with my pressure canner. We welcomed home a friend who had been deployed the past eight months of my pregnancy. I sat on the birthing ball. I complained about my pelvis. By the end of the second week we had finished our box of peaches.

The third week, I knew would probably be our last with only two children; my due date a mere handful of days away. I knew he had to come out sometime. I couldn’t actually stay pregnant forever. Yet its hard to wrap your mind around the glory of the harvest when you are still just in the middle of the field pulling weeds. I went to the doctors office. I called my Mom. I bought another box of peaches.

All that summer I felt like Fergie; the peach tree with only two peaches surviving to show for all his hard work. I felt burnt out, wrung out, strung out and weary. And all that summer long, as the birth of our third child approached, I was tentatively asking God for things. But also afraid to ask.

The birth of our second child had been so difficult; an excruciatingly painful 10 hour labor, followed by an unplanned cesarean section. I remember the feelings of despair, breathing shaky into the oxygen mask and looking into my worried husband’s eyes as our baby’s heart rate kept dropping with every contraction, and nothing seemed to help.

But I also know that God had so much good for me in that hardship. Boaz’s birth brought into acute awareness my desire to control outcomes, my anger when I could not, and the terrible pride I had in my previous birth experience, (as well as in my life in general) assuming that if I just “did everything right” things would turn out the way I wanted.

The good and glorious truth is that like any good father, God doesn’t always give us what we want. But he always, always gives us what we need.

I needed humbling, and God was gracious to humble me through that difficult experience in ways that have changed me forever, for the better.

But that wasn’t the story now.

Sometimes desire is the most frightening thing. And I had desires for this birth.

I wanted a VBAC. Despite the heightened “high risk” monitoring that came with said VBAC, I wanted for things to go as smoothly and peacefully as possible. I wanted a kind and gentle nurse. I wanted my friend Jess to be able to be there, for my Mom to be able to take care of the kids. I wanted to be able to hold and snuggle my still-two-year old son when all was said and done, without the fear of the pain of a recent surgical incision.

I was afraid to ask, yet still I kept hearing Him whisper, “Ask me. Just ask.”

The book of Isaiah became supremely precious to me during the months leading up to my son’s arrival. As I read and wrestled with my unspoken prayers, I heard the LORD whispering directly to me in such a personal and tender way; “Forget the former things. See I am doing a new thing…No more could you forget your nursing child, than I could forget you. I have called you by name you are Mine. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you by my righteous right hand.” 

And I realized that in the midst of my fears I was forgetting one other critically important truth about God. He loves to give good, lavish, undeserved gifts to his children

In my heart, I felt what I had needed more that summer than anything. Peace. Rest. A pause for my world-weary soul. But I also knew that Isaiah was made for God’s glory, and that because of this I could rest in whatever kind of birth God provided for us, trusting the LORD’s goodness and sovereignty over Isaiah’s birth, just as I would need to trust it every day of his life.

At 4:50 am August 18th, I knew it was going to be the day. The pains kept me from sleeping any longer, so I got up and ate the only thing that sounded good for breakfast. Looking into the dark out the window above the kitchen sink, I slurped the juice of two perfect peaches.

I worked through contractions. I sipped exactly two sips of tea. I put on my favorite dress and brushed my teeth. Willy put the bags in the car and made sure we had the phone chargers and the car seat.

By 7 am we were headed to the hospital. The sun was coming up, warming the cooler late summer morning. The sky was clear and hopeful; a beautiful birth-day for my baby boy. We prayed and we wept tears of gratitude, and we asked God for what we wanted, but we opened up our hands to give him the day. The day he had made. I heard him whispering, “Today, I am writing a new story,” and my heart swelled with hope.

My friend Jess met us at the hospital as we had planned. We took our time getting upstairs. The hospital felt calm and collected at that hour in the morning. They showed us to our delivery room; one with a tub, but no window since that was the choice I had to make.

Our nurse came in shortly after; and here was answer to unspoken prayer #1: our nurse was sweet Brittany, who we had met a few short weeks before when we thought I may have been leaking fluid, but thankfully wasn’t.

Tears sprang to my eyes as I leaned on the birthing ball. “It’s Brittany! It’s Brittany!” I said.

When Brittany finished examining me she announced, “8cm and 100% effaced. I’m going to go call the doctor so she can make her way over here. And I’m going to call the nurses to get everything ready for the baby. He’s going to be here pretty soon!” She smiled at me.

In between contractions and sobs I spoke the words; “I’m just so happy. We get to meet our baby today!” But the work wasn’t done yet.

I labored. The doctor said his head was transverse, so I laid with the peanut ball for awhile, first one side. Then the other. Willy told me that my Mom was taking the kids to the park for lunch. I labored. I got to ten, but didn’t feel ready to push yet. I labored.

Finally after my doctor broke my water, I began to feel the urge to push. And thus began the hardest 1 hour and 17 minutes of the whole 10 hour labor.

I was at the end of my rope. The end of my strength. But I kept remembering what Eve said when she had delivered Cain, “with the help of God, I have delivered a man.” I begged Jesus to help me. And in my final pushes, when I didn’t have the strength, He did. 

I did the really ugly cry then, my baby sticky and wailing in my arms at last. “THANK YOU JESUS!” I wept and kept saying, over and over again, “Thank you Jesus.”

When we were both a little more cleaned up and composed, they transferred me to the Women’s Care unit for recovery. And as Willy pushed me in a wheelchair by a wall of windows in the hospital hall, one of the nurses said casually, “Oh, it stopped raining.”

“IT WAS RAINING??” I said.

Of course. It was raining.

The name of our third child is Isaiah Selah; it means “YHWH is Salvation, pause and consider this.”

And in the one month we have spent loving him this side of the womb, his name could not be more apt. He is our pause. Our reminder to consider who it is that we worship. The great I Am, YHWH, is the God who gives good gifts. Sometimes they are the good gifts that come through trials and hardships. Those gifts feel hard to take, but they are part of what makes us who we are. They are the things that make us more like Jesus. They are the compost and manure that my soul needs to truly be fruitful. It is the cutting of my roots of self-reliance, so that I may grow better in the soil into which I have been planted.

But sometimes, He showers us with unexpected blessings. The blessings of prayers answered with a “yes…and even more abundantly than you can ask or imagine.”  Like a Sabbath rain in the late summer heat. Like two delicious peaches off my very own peach tree. Like the most humbling and beautiful birth, for my beautiful baby boy.

Isaiah Selah. My Sabbath baby.