quarta-feira, 18 de dezembro de 2013

A Reflection on Safety, Futility, and Peace (and the Zombie Apocalypse)

My baby is not safe. No baby is really safe. As a new parent (baby boy is nearing nine months) this is a truth that I vaguely acknowledge when necessary and that I try to push from my conscious mind whenever possible. I'm fairly certain that I am not alone. Most parents invest a lot of time and effort in controlling the aspects of a child's environment that they perceive are controllable. Is baby secured in the car seat? Is the car seat correctly installed? Is the car seat of good quality? Are the plugs covered? Are heavy items out of reach? Is any of the furniture dangerous to baby? Are any carcinogenic toxins making their way into baby's food or water? Can baby access the knives? Etc.

However, while parents attempt to maximize safety, we all know that there are things that we cannot control. We cannot help but know. Each day we are inundated with images of sick babies, hurt babies, lost babies, and babies gone too soon--nightmares that are impossible to ignore (a truth made more poignant by having just passed the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting). We say prayers for these babies and their families. Our hearts break, and we numbly admit that we cannot imagine what they're going through. But, therein lies the lie. While we don't know what they're going through in reality, we do imagine it--ghosts of these scenarios haunt us. And so we parents kiss and snuggle our little ones, thanking God that in his grace these are pains that we have been spared.

But, spared for how long? There is no guarantee. Worry takes a foothold. If my neighbor can suffer this pain today, who is to say that I will be guarded against similar pain tomorrow? We search the Bible and pray for reassurances that our babies will be protected and safe, but there is no quick comfort to be found: King David's infant son dies of illness; Israelite women suffer the deaths of their infant sons at the hands of brutal monarchs twice; the psalmist cries for revenge on his captors via the murder of innocent babes; and, in the case of the one near-starving woman and her son who welcome in and feed Elijah during a famine, we must acknowledge the other starving women and their sons for whom no miracle arrived.

Our world is fallen, there is evil in it, and our children are not safe.

This revelation struck me hard last night. Usually, the ghost imagining are easy to keep at bay, but last night they rallied together for an assault. I was home alone (hubby was at a work party), and baby boy was snugly tucked into his crib, sound asleep. And so I did what I so often relish doing in my alone time, I waded into the entertainment haven that is my laptop, and, as a direct result of three unrelated films/programs that I 'enjoyed', I was a tossing and turning, worried Mama at the end of the evening.

(1) I watched the music video for Matthew West's "One Last Christmas". I was familiar with the song--a story about a dying boy whose family and then his wider community plan an early Christmas celebration so he can experience it one more time. I tear up each time I hear it on the radio (inwardly cursing the writers of sentimental songs), so I should have known better. However, a colleague of mine had mentioned that the video had brought him to tears, and my curiosity to see it outweighed my better judgement. The video prominently features photos and film footage of little Dax Locke whose short life inspired the song. It was beautiful and sweet and sad; I was a wreck. (Note--you should watch the video and/or consider making a contribution to the Dax Locke Foundation which partners with St. Jude's Research Hospital.)

(2) I'm currently watching Season 5 of the crime drama Castle. Last night, I watched episodes 15 - 16; a two-parter in which the protagonist's daughter is kidnapped and held captive. Usually a quirky and light-hearted (for a crime drama) show, these episodes had some very dark bits and posed some powerful questions about who you can/should become when your family members are threatened.

(3) I linked to the short zombie film Cargo via a post on facebook. I know, zombies? But, I was pulled in by the tagline--how could a zombie film break my heart? Well, this one stirred my heart and got me thinking--how can I protect my son? I probably won't ever need to defend him from a literal zombie apocalypse (no, I really don't believe in a zombie apocalypse--for real), but I will need to defend him from some pretty ghastly things. The world is full of dangers, and perhaps, as the short film suggests metaphorically, it could be me, the parent, who is the danger. After all, who isn't afraid of wounding their child irrevocably in some psychological way?

These three things: the true-story video of the dying child, the fictional program with the kidnapped child, and the fictional story of the father trying to save his child from his imminent zombie-self: put me in a vulnerable spot, face-to-face with reality that my baby is not safe.

So I did what I assume most other believers do when alone in the dark with their fears--I prayed. I prayed out of the solemness and the silliness of my fears. Maybe pleaded would be a better word. I begged God to favor my child above all the other suffering children in the world. I asked him to favor me and my husband above all other parents. Yes, Lord, put your hand on and protect the babies in Syria and in the refugee camps from real and present dangers, but first protect my baby from possible future dangers. Pathetic, yes. But to start my prayers from some other place would have been dishonest.

As I mentioned earlier, the Bible has no quick and easy promises for parents. Jesus Christ expresses a love and a welcome for children that is reassuring (Mark 10: 13 - 16), but there is no escape clause from the suffering of this world. But, as I prayed from the heart of my sinful fears, I felt the presence of God reminding me of God's character and of God's never-failing promises--promises that apply to me and to my baby boy. My child was created by a loving, present God; no matter how much I love my child, God in God's sovereignty and perfection loves him more. God's grace extends to include and cover my child. My child will never be alone, and, though my child may experience transitory suffering here on earth, God will offer him peace that can not be countered and eternal joy.

I know that to experience this peace as a parent that I need to release my desire to control my baby's future safety. Peace can't really come from baby-proofing the house and only giving the baby organic vegetables. After all, if a zombie apocalypse, a serious illness, or a violent act/accident does come into our story, those acts of check-list safety will all seem pretty futile. No, the peace that God offers to me as parent is only available if I surrender my son into God's own keeping. I must sacrifice the little idols of keeping him safe and guarding his future. I must build my hope on Christ alone and, as he grows, I must give my son space to do the same.

This is easy to say but much more difficult to do. Feel free to pray for me as I work on it.

sexta-feira, 28 de junho de 2013

RIS Graduation Address (delivered 27 June 2013)

"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity." Colossians 3: 12 - 14

As I’m sure most of you are aware, the streets of Brazil have been a bit crowded for the last couple of weeks; and, even if you’re a shut-in like me, the words and the revolutionary spirit that spun them are out—change Brazil.

Now I am not a political analyst nor am I an expert in Brazil’s current political sphere, but I can surely guarantee one thing—if the people in leadership don’t change, then nothing will ever get better. I am not saying that different people need to be in leadership (though that is an option—Brazil is a democracy), but I am saying that if the current leaders were to change—their focuses, their efforts, and  their outlooks on their constituents and their jobs—then policies would surely change as well.
Unfortunately, the failure of some revolutions is that the true heart issues are never addressed when what we should all be looking at are the character, integrity, and virtues of the people in authority and the people around us.

My husband and I were having a discussion the other day about things that were wrong in society. That sounds quite intellectual, but we were in the car and it was prompted by some rude and aggressive driving—if you’ve ever been in a car in Rio, you’ll know what I mean. Instead of ranting, he said something true. He said it was a shame that no one cared about virtue anymore: virtue as in the virtues. What a funny, archaic idea! And it really made me think. When was the last time I heard someone use virtuous as a compliment? When was the last time that a film or a book from contemporary culture celebrated a hero or heroine because they embodied many virtues? I’m afraid it’s rare. We prefer fallen men, broken heroes, approachable anti-heroes—usually they have one or two virtues that stand out and make them ‘heroic’ but they are far from any classical ideal of virtue.

According to Plato, the primary virtues are temperance, prudence, fortitude, and justice. Those are some pretty big words for students who’ve already started their vacations, so I’ll break them down a bit. Temperance—keeping all the natural appetites in balance (think self-control). Prudence—making wise decisions. Fortitude—following through with commitments in spite of difficulties. And Justice—making sure that each person receives their rights. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

In addition to those virtues, the Christian tradition includes faith, hope, and charity (sometimes translated as love) in the list. And during the Middle Ages, chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility were known as the heavenly virtues. And, more recently (if you consider the 18th century recent), early American Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin listed thirteen virtues in his personal writings, and he worked on perfecting them in himself by keeping daily account of his rights and wrong. He would literary use tally marks to keep track of lapses in virtuous behavior, trying to identify failings and irradicate them—unsuccessfully, I’m afraid.

Yet, now, in the 21st Century, we live in a culture which celebrates and romanticizes scandal instead of celebrating virtue. We live in a society wherein our personal failings are often glossed over with the words ‘Nobody’s perfect’ or ‘I’m only human’. And while those statements are true, we are only human and nobody is perfect, and while grace is so, so, so important—without grace no positive change can ever happen—most of us assume that we’re okay as we are and never attempt any truly difficult virtues because we accept defeat before we even begin.

I want to challenge you this evening to consider the virtues. Can you imagine a world in which more people were kind and charitable towards their neighbors? A world in which making wise choices and following through with commitments was an expectation for leaders? A world in which hard work and self-control weren’t regularly mocked on nightly sitcoms but rather were held in high esteem? Can you imagine such a place? I hope so.

After all, it’s my understanding that this is what has hundreds of thousands of Brazilians out marching through the roads in protest—the idea that government officials should be virtuous. They know that to change Brazil, they have to change something about the leadership.

Today marks your high school graduation. As you leave RIS and take your next steps towards becoming doctors and athletes and artists and scientists and global and business leaders, I want you to know that I have high expectations for you—I expect you to continue to grow and change. Finishing high school is a big deal, but it isn’t the biggest deal—life will go on. The world will keep changing, and so should you.

As a Christian, I believe that each of you was intentionally created by God with unique gifts and talents; I believe that God has a plan for each of your lives; and I have faith like the writer of Philippians that ‘He who began a good work in you will carry it on unto completion’. I believe that as sinners, none of us can hope to become virtuous on our own, but that it is God’s work in our lives that can make us more temperate, more prudent, and more charitable. The Bible says in James that if we come near to God then he will come near to us. If you choose to pursue a virtuous life, you will not be alone in the task.

My charge to you, Class of 2013, is to strive to be more tomorrow than you are today—strive to be virtuous and to lead a virtuous life. I want to encourage you to try every day to be the best versions of yourselves. And I suspect that you will both impact and inspire those around you in a significant and meaningful way.


Congratulations. Class of 2013. God bless you. 

sexta-feira, 17 de maio de 2013

Baby Story (Labor and Delivery)

Baby Boy is sleeping next to me on a sofa cushion specially modified for his comfort (blankie, soft toys, drool-catcher, etc.). It is very likely that he will awaken before I have time to write the whole story of his birth, but, if I wait for the perfect moment, the writing will never happen. I have only been a mother now for a little over a month, but I have learned that perfect moments--if they ever existed--are now truly a thing of the past. [It has been well over a week since I wrote this introductory paragraph--baby is now in his 8th week outside the womb--but the rest still applies.]

This 'Baby Story' starts with the question of maternity leave--specifically, when I would take it. My due date was set for April 9th. Until what day could I safely count on making it to work? As a teacher, I wanted to prepare my students and my substitute for the smoothest transition possible. My work is challenging, and I believed (and still do believe) that my students deserved my efforts to keep them learning and engaged even though a baby was expected at any time.  I did not just want to be calling my principal one morning to say that the baby was on its way, and I wouldn't be coming in for a couple of months. However, I also did not want to be using weeks of my maternity leave at home twiddling my thumbs with very little to do... 

I bet on two and 1/2 weeks. I scheduled my last day as March 22nd. My school found and hired a substitute teacher, I gave encouraging pep-talks to my students trying to prepare them for the change, and I hurriedly de-cluttered my work space and prepared one full weeks worth of plans and copies so the substitute would have everything she needed to step in easily. And those last minute research papers that didn't get graded? No worries--those were thrown into my backpack and carried home, postponed for my days sitting around the house twiddling my thumbs. After all, first babies were often late. 

March 23rd. My husband and I woke up early on a beautiful, blue-sky morning. We picked up two friends/colleagues of mine who live close to us and drove them to my school's annual Sports Day. Then, my husband and I drove to look at some houses that were under-construction nearby. We had every intention of returning to the Sports Day event after we'd seen some plans and talked with on-site realtors--we weren't planning on buying a house yet, but both of our nesting instincts were in overdrive. 

As we were leaving the construction site, as my husband was still chatting with the last realtor, and as I was slowly making my way towards the car with an 'I'm finished with this air', it happened. They tell you in the books and on the websites that it is unlikely that your water will break out of the blue like it does in the movies--in my case, they lie. There I was standing on the side of the road, damp and confused and trying to discreetly get my husband's attention. Was it time? Was it really going to happen? Suddenly, I felt decidedly unprepared--after all, I was going to have two and 1/2 weeks to finish getting ready, right? 

Wrong. When my husband finally understood my predicament, he was wonderful. We called my doctor; I told her that 'maybe' my water had broken. She told me to stop by the hospital as she was there and that she would check. We did not pass go; we did not collect $200; we went straight to Perinatal. If we knew then what we know now, we would have taken our time. We would at least have stopped by the house for the hospital bag, but you can't blame a woman who's just been surprised by a gush of amniotic fluid for not being overly rational. In that moment, I just felt slightly lost and wanted some reassurance.

We arrived at the hospital just after 11:00 am. At the hospital, we found out many things: YES, my water had indeed broken; NO, not all labors proceed the same way; NO, my contractions were not behaving normally; and NO, I couldn't leave the hospital at that point, even just to pop out quickly to pick up a suitcase.

I need to mention at this point that my doctor was fabulous. 90% of the births that occur at Perinatal in Barra da Tijuca are cesarean births, and I've been told that most doctors in Rio's private hospitals encourage their patients who have chosen the less popular 'parto normal' to opt for the cesarean at the first sign of complication. During the entire 28 hours of my labor and delivery experience, my doctor never once suggested cutting me open, and, though we did end up needing some interventions that I hadn't anticipated, my husband and I were thoroughly informed about and consulted during the entire process. 

After some time spent monitoring my irregular contractions and checking my cervix, the doctor concluded that the birth would likely take awhile. We were admitted and sent to a very beautiful hospital room with a view of some nearby mountains--we received an upgrade to a suite somehow--and I spent the next several hours anticipating that my contractions would be getting worse at any time (I could barely feel anything initially) and getting my blood pressure monitored by a series of nurses. I also had a saline lock put into my arm. 


My contractions finally started to pick up around bedtime--just when having them was the least convenient. But, while they increased in strength, they continued to be irregular--not getting consistently closer together. Around midnight, after they'd attached me to a monitor to test the strength and frequency of my contractions and after checking my cervix again (little to no change), the doctor told us that she would see us again in the morning, but that, unless there was a dramatic change, we would probably need to intervene at that point to speed things up. My husband and I agreed.

It was a rough night--I got very little sleep as the contractions continually woke me--and I prayed that my body would get it together and do things 'normally'. Yet, in the morning when my contractions were monitored again, it was clear that for me and this baby 'normal' was outside our parameters. (I should mention at this time that baby's heart rate and activity were perfect throughout the whole ordeal.) 

Just before 9 am, they put in a pitocin drip, and around 10 am they suited us up for business. I was brought to the delivery room on a gurney, and my husband was properly sterilized. The pitocin wasn't helping very much at first, and our medical team continued to increase the dosage at intervals throughout the remainder of the morning and into the afternoon. We'd planned originally to try to manage the pain of the contractions naturally, but, when the pitocin finally kicked in (seemingly in one instant and then without relenting), I opted for an epidural. 

It took the anesthesiologist several attempts to get the needle in. That was probably the most difficult few moments of the whole labor for me: being told to lie very still when the contractions were continuous--my lower back felt like it was on fire--and knowing the possible consequences of moving at such a moment. But finally, the epidural was in, and I was thankful for it. 

My doctor told me that my dosage should be just enough to eliminate the back pain, but that I should still feel the contractions in my abdomen so that I'd know when to push when the time came. Unfortunately, some time later (I had no concept of time during this part of my labor)  the quick hand of an eager anesthesiologist (a second one as the first one had finished her shift) made that impossible by administering another shot of whatever it is that they give you when I mentioned to my doctor that I had felt a contraction in my back. At that point, with the second shot of painkiller, I lost feeling in my left leg. I had to sit/lie down for the rest of the delivery. I also couldn't feel my contractions for the pushing. (The feeling in my leg did come back by the time they brought me upstairs after the delivery--I was worried that it wouldn't at the time.) 

Fortunately, we started the pushing soon after this. The birthing room was suddenly filled with people at this point, all dressed in blue scrubs: my doctor, her cooperating doctor, a pediatrician, the anesthesiologist, and a handful of nurses. I kept one hand on my abdomen between contractions so that I could feel when to push. My husband stood reassuringly at my side--I'm pretty sure that his eyes were on me the whole time.

After a several minutes of pushing and because it didn't seem like we were making much headway (I've suddenly realized the appropriateness of the term headway), the pediatrician was laying across my stomach and pushing on the top of my uterus to prevent baby from moving back up between contractions. This was completely unexpected and uncomfortable. However, by that point, I was tired out, and, as bizarre and uncomfortable as it seemed to me, I just wanted my son to be born.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, baby boy was born. He weighed 4.43 kilograms and was 53 centimeters long. The pediatrician congratulated me on giving birth to a one-month old. My obstetrician told me that my placenta was one of the largest, if not the largest, that she'd ever seen. All of that hardly mattered, when my son was put on my chest, and he looked at me through his sweet, confused eyes. 

My labor and delivery did not go as I'd imagined that they would (I didn't mention the episiotomy or the forceps--our uninvited party guests), and it all happened sooner than we were expecting (the very day after I stopped working and before the crib that we'd ordered had even arrived at our apartment). However, at the top of our birth plan we had stated that our primary goal was 'a safe and healthy delivery for baby and mother', and, in spite of the complications, that is what we received. 

terça-feira, 12 de fevereiro de 2013

Carnival--the Nesting Season?

It's that time of year when Rio takes a break from the mundane. It's Carnival, and, in addition to the elaborate samba parade/competition (held over several nights), that means that people get a few days off of work and any turn on any street could lead you right into the heart of a block party full of smiling people wearing light costumes and drinking beers or caipirinhas under the hot summer sun. 

For me, though, Carnival mostly means a few days off of work--caipirinhas are still off the menu for the near future unfortunately. Granted, I just returned to work from the Christmas holiday two weeks ago, but Lent and Easter are on the calendar a bit early this year--as my husband says, it's a lunar thing. 

Yesterday, my husband and I shared the day together doing things that we enjoy in the great outdoors with people who we enjoy. Today, he has abandoned me to do some rock climbing with friends (something that I cannot really join him in at 33 weeks pregnant). I have stayed at home to get some school work done, but the reality is that I've mostly been nesting.

It's not that I don't feel the urgency of getting all the units/lessons planned for the rest of the school year (maternity leave will start sometime towards the end of March if all goes according to plan). Rather, planning and preparing for baby just  feels more immediate, more necessary, and more enjoyable.

So far, I've mixed up a home recipe of cloth-diaper-safe detergent, prepped a large portion of our cloth diaper stash, and pre-washed all of the small baby clothes that we've received/purchased up to this point. (The benefit of the hot summer sun in Rio is that things dry pretty quickly which means I'm able to get more laundry done in one day. We don't have a dryer or even the space for one, so everything gets air-dried which again works out fine on sunny days. I do need more clothespins, however!) I will likely wash more of the baby things tomorrow--focusing on the cloth books and toys probably. 

I'm still in a bit of a pickle regarding baby stuff storage. We did just get some beautiful cupboards installed in two rooms this past weekend, but we need to decide which things are going where. And, until we actually get a crib set-up, the apartment definitely does not feel ready... The things that I washed today will all go back into a big plastic tub that we bought the other day until we decide where to put them. But, just having them ready will give me some peace of mind--a woman I work with just delivered her son this past weekend at 36/37 weeks (she hadn't even had her baby shower yet!), and that sort of thing makes me nervous, nervous.

My husband, though, is pretty relaxed about the whole thing. If/when you see him, you need to tell him to humor his wife and get a move on with all this baby prep stuff. Seven weeks seems like a long time until you realize that afterwards your life will never be the same again.

Beijos. Boas festas! Have a safe and relaxing Carnival.


quinta-feira, 10 de janeiro de 2013

Medical Care Done Differently

In the United States, if a doctor wants you to pee in a cup; (s)he has the nurse on duty give you a little cup and sends you to the closest bathroom. The nurse then labels the cup, puts it on a tray, and sends it off to the lab (either located elsewhere on the premises or at an off-site location). If the doctor wants blood tests done; the process is very similar except there are no small plastic cups and uncertain hands involved (unless it is the technician's first day on the job). 

Here in Brazil, the process is different. When the doctor wants to test your urine or your blood, (s)he writes you the equivalent of a prescription. You then take that prescription to the lab and schedule your own lab work. When the tests are done, you pick up the results and bring them/send them to your doctor. You pay the lab and the doctor separately--though, if you're lucky, both will take your insurance. 

At my last doctor's appointment, I was told that I needed to get a precautionary shot/vaccine because my blood type is Rh negative. The shot will protect my baby and any future babies from being attacked for positive Rh antibodies should they happen to take after their father who is Rh positive. I'm on-board with this concept--I certainly don't want my blood to hurt my baby. So, the doctor wrote me a prescription for the kind of shot that I need, and then she told me that it was currently very hard to find in Rio and that I might have to contact a lot of pharmacies to procure it. 

Yes, you read that correctly. Unlike my experiences with shots in the States in which the doctor sends in his/her helpful nurse with a vile (but convenient) vial and needle as thick as your arm, I will need to find the drug and have it administered by a trained professional off-site. And the fun part? I have a window of one-week in which this vaccine will be effective. 

So, for the past several days, my husband and I have been on a noble quest to find a shot that could potentially save my child from terrible complications/problems. How does the quest work? We contact area pharmacies--fortunately, Rio, has a least two small pharmacies on every street (no Wallgreens here, my friends). We have contacted over 20 by phone and walked into several to see if they have this shot... My doctor was right; it is a difficult vaccine to find at the moment. 

Finally, thankfully, today my husband called a pharmacy that has a vial of the generic vaccine (not that we were being particular about wanting the cheap stuff at this point) to sell us. This evening, the pharmacy will deliver the medicine to his parents house (they're much closer to this particular pharmacy than our apartment is) where we will be eagerly waiting to receive it. The delivery boy/girl, who will apparently be trained in the art of medicinal injection, will then administer the shot for an additional fee. I am thankful for this (even though my sister-in-law has promised me that they'll definitely administer it in the butt--I haven't had a shot administered there since early childhood, but whatever). 

What seems so crazy to me about this whole situation is that this is how medicine is done here in Brazil. Every step is specialized. Each part ix separate. All the bits are in the hands of the patient to juggle and coordinate correctly. That's crazy! But, I guess in another way, it's not crazy; it's just different than what I'm used to... Brazilians say that it is more cost efficient, that it saves time, money, and red tape; and, goodness knows, the US Medical System struggles with the burdens of time, money, and red tape...

Medical care here seems crazy, but, really, it's just foreign. And, with the help of my supportive husband, I'm learning how to work within the system step-by-step.