Learning Responsibility

‘I have no idea’. My child says again to the laptop full of teenagers, each with their own background in Teams. My other homeschool child exclaims in the class he is in (with just as many children with similarly colorful backgrounds): “Oh, sir, do you mean….”

I’m sitting on the couch reading and smile. Suddenly I realize: both children begin to understand something. They finally get it: I should pay more attention, or: I need more explanation. Despite the failings of the past days, despite the extraordinary dullness of online lessons and the lack of opportunities to get out and about: learning is taking place here. Not a lot of school material, but something much more important: they learn to take responsibility. They learn that they have some influence when it comes to what they learn, what they do, what they leave behind.

The other day I heard my son saying: ‘Where did I leave my jacket?’ Internally I danced. Until recently this child always grumbled when he lost something and blamed everything and everyone except itself, but now he recognized its own role. He finally realized that he is responsible for where something is himself.

In my nearly eighteen years of motherhood, I have quietly  referred myself countless times to my basic task: help children grow up to become responsible adults who know themselves, their possibilities and limitations and in a certain way know how to participate in and contribute to society. This may sound a bit pompous, especially if you are raising a toddler at the moment. But it really helped. Just imagine what it means when the toddler who now always gets his or her way has grown up and is still pushing through. Then you suddenly find – at least that’s how it worked for me – the courage to deal with their behavior after all.

And now three teenagers in my home are very very bored. As I read somewhere: they do suffer from boring classes, demanding or overconfident teachers (apologies to those who teach my kids: really, I’m very grateful), but not the fun of jokes in between chat or frolic with your neighbors, moving from class to class and all the interaction that comes with that. Fortunately, many teachers recognize this (although useless chats during class are not appreciated, I heard at parents’ evening yesterday). They look for ways to keep the children in touch with each other and even ask parents for ideas.

Now that I was reading and heard my children making comments to the laptops, I suddenly understood something as well. Yes, they read a book during class (and then literally hear nothing), they play games (then they miss something less), constantly click their pens, hum and sometimes shout. But comments such as: ‘I have no idea’ and ‘Oh, sir, is that what you mean!’ prove that they are learning something after all.

Hearing them say: ‘I don’t understand’ instead of: ‘how stupid’ or: ‘he doesn’t explain it well’ indicates that they are learning a crucial skill needed to become balanced adults: they stop giving everything and everyone the blame when something goes wrong and they don’t give up. They take responsibility. I feel proud.

First published in Dutch on February 8, 2021

May the Force Be With You

As part of their cultural upbringing, I think my children at least should have seen The Sound of Music, Forrest Gump and Dead Poets Society. These films are not necessarily the favorite genre of my Love, so when he suggested that we should now also should watch Star Wars together, I couldn’t say ‘no’. This Corona time is ideal for long movie nights. At this moment, we have seen six episodes.

While my family members laugh at the strange creatures, I have to fight disgust while their laughter sounds like music to my ears. Yet I also find these films very interesting. This morning, while we were watching our online church service (I’d rather say participating in, but an online church service on the couch at home is really more labor-intensive for parents than letting them join peers in a regular service), I thought I now understand why our Star Wars fan pastor keeps saying: “I am not going to say: ‘may the force be with you’, but: ‘may the Spirit guide and keep you’” With this he always refers to Star Wars, giving me the impression that these movies might teach me something about the Holy Spirit.

Today it is Pentecost, the celebration of the Holy Spirit. I think you can better compare the Holy Spirit with Obi Wan Kenobi than with the force and that Yoda gives some deep insights into what faith is. Still, saying ‘may the Spirit be with you’ with a nod to the force from Star Wars is not that bad, because just like Anakin, Obi Wan Kenobi, Yoda and Luke fight with their lightsabers and pull out of the force, Christians thus come to know the Bible as the sword of the Spirit and we try to ‘live by the Spirit’, which means you learn to listen to the voice in your heart that shows you the way, in a way as Obi Wan Kenobi Luke at crucial moments provides the wisdom and ideas he needs in his fight against evil.

Obi Wan Kenobi assists, coaches and helps Luke to see and do the right things. I don’t believe it’s okay to summon ghosts. But in how this spirit of Obi Wan Kenobi is portrayed, I can see a parallel to how the Holy Spirit works in my faith. He guides, comforts, gives you ideas, warns, sometimes tells you something about the future. Very personal. Not as a force, a power, but as a person, very intimate.

While Obi Wan Kenobi and the force show something of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian, Yoda to me seems like a model Christian. There is a scene where Luke has to use the force to lift his spaceship out of the water. He believes it’s impossible, so it’s not happening. Yoda ends up paternally sighing and lovingly demonstrating how it should be done and, like the Bible, teaches that nothing is impossible for those who believe. I think it’s a confronting scene. Because it is true. When I pray without doubt and allow the Holy Spirit to guide me and then speak in faith, impossible things happen. I’ve seen fevers disappear, ears heal, people calm down and sleep peacefully, people who were fearing death, die in peace. Now that I think about it and try to sum it up, there is quite a lot that the Holy Spirit has done in my life.

But there are also many people who don’t heal, who die. There are things that go wrong. And in that light Yoda’s relaxed view of those ‘casualties’ was striking to me. He says that death is part of life and it is not always the most important thing to prevent someone from dying, but that it is more important that someone will find his ‘destiny’. I believe you will find it in following Jesus and being guided by the Holy Spirit. Yoda is vague about that and when he dies, he goes to sleep forever. That’s not how I see it. If I die, I will surely live.

Of course a movie is just a movie, but after seeing these Star Wars movies I am celebrating Pentecost with a fresh view today and I would like to say to you: May the Spirit be with you. I wish you peace, love, comfort, courage, faith and strength. Tonight we’ll watch Star Wars Part 7 I think.

First Published in Dutch on May 31, 2020

Final

This week it was time to choose a gravestone. We had postponed to do this for quite some time. And now that we started to search for one, this appears to be a process too. At this moment, there is a temporary wooden plank on the grave, lovingly and beautifully made by our eldest daughter. But wind and rain are affecting it, making it less readable. Something permanent needs to replace it. Something final. What a horrible word that is.

The last couple of days, before we went to the stonemason, I was restless. Busy, busy, busy, alternated with Netflix. As long as I did not have to dwell by what I was feeling. But in the meantime I was restless, petulant, not really myself. That does not add well to the atmosphere at home, but only that morning, the morning that we were about to go, I could finally sat myself down and quietly write and by that find out what is really going on.

It is the last thing we can do. It is the last thing that needs to be done for her. And maybe that is the reason why this weighs so heavy on me. I don’t want to do this.

I don’t want to do this.

I don’t want to do this. While I allow the feelings to come up. The feelings this awareness brings to the surface, again that feeling of huge resistance comes up. Resistance against that what is so obvious but what I apparently still cannot and do not want to accept. She is not here anymore and she will never come back. We buried her body knowing that we will see her again when Jesus returns or when we ourselves die. But here we will not see each other anymore and realizing this again hurts so much that I can barely breathe. This is breath taking in a very negative way and what can I do about it? I want to scream, kick, curse, punch, but I know of course that it won’t help in any way. It won’t solve, change or take away the pain.

We need to do this and again I speak firmly to myself, trying to bring my emotions and brains at the same level by writing, giving words, reasoning. It doesn’t really ease the pain. But by writing about it, it gets more clear and that what is unreachable comes more within reach so I can deal with it better.

Words are really essential in this process of accepting what has happened. When I give words to what I feel, unravel by describing it, I find out what’s really going on inside. And when I read it again, I can cry over it, I can begin to accept that this is a part of the big ball of grief that needs to be taken in. I can process, I can weave it into my life. Allowing others to read it, means I acknowledging that this exists and of course I also hope that others can benefit from it in their own journey through grief or supporting others in their journey.

I didn’t expect this choosing of a gravestone would be so challenging. That it would be this painful. But now that I think about it, it makes so much sense. Putting a stone on the grave is like putting a lid on something or like closing the book. It reminds me of putting a dot after a sentence or press send when you signed your email. It symbolizes closing, finishing off. You put a stone (something that can endure the weather and the wind) on a grave and you try to put words on it that describe who the person was to you to mark where she has been laid down to rest. And then you walk away. You’re shutting it down, make it final. The grave. The chapter. But not your heart. That would be too final.

First published in Dutch on February 1, 2018

Twenty-Four Hours of Light

Today it is ‘World Wide Candle Lighting Day’. From seven to eight tonight, when somewhere else in the world it is already eight o clock, in the townhall of my city (and in a lot of places elsewhere in my time zone) candles will be lit. And when it is eight o clock here, somewhere else in the world it is seven o’clock and there will be candle lightning there. And so, hour after hour, over the whole world there will be candles burning for twenty-four hours in a row in remembrance of our deceased children.

I was joining this event last year with my family and it was a very special moment. It was special to be together with other parents who lost a child. It was special to experience this with the six of us. And it was special because during the lighting of the candles, the names of the children we lost were called.

We plan to go again this evening. It is so nice to hear Amanda’s name spoken out loud. It is so weird to notice what that does to us. I think it is because when her name is called, her existence is acknowledged. And she is in my system, in my head, but speaking about her doesn’t come naturally. Because no one sees her and I can’t tell if she already starts to talk, that she has the same curly hair as her sister had and where I bought her little shoes.

And it is so good to do this with the six of us. I wrote somewhere earlier: mourning together is almost impossible and I still think it is true. When I don’t need to cry, someone else does. When I am having a hard time, someone else thinks: ‘please, not now!’ And this is okay and understandable, but it makes ‘mourning together’ something that just is not possible.

Mourning is something individual, while in the meantime we long for contact, also in our grief. That is why such a moment, going to the townhall together, write down her name, hear her name called and cry (or not), is an important and precious ritual to express the sorrow and the connection we all have, even though we are very different in how we process this.

Today it is World Wide Candle Lighting Day and I think this comes in a good time. Last week we celebrated ‘Sinterklaas’, a Dutch tradition where we give each other gifts wrapped in a craft with a poem. And actually more gifts are given. As I was preparing the gifts for my children, the pain of loss came up now and then. I do not have gifts for her. All the gifts I bought are for children above nine. And I wonder how she is doing. If God is spoiling her. And I realize that the love she receives now, is so much bigger than gifts can ever communicate.

And after World Wide Candle Lighting Day, quite soon comes Christmas, where everything revolves around a baby. God who became helpless to show us His love. The Almighty who became powerless to draw us close to His heart. In our family, everyone gets a book on December 25. A tradition we copied from the church we grew up in (In Holland it was not common to give gifts with Christmas, we do that on December 5 with Sinterklaas). We go for a long walk and we do a grill party at home. We visit our family. And again we will do this without her. Especially on these special days, the loss feels extra heavy.

Then we will celebrate New Year’s Eve. We think about what we can thank and pray for. We write everything down in two columns on a big piece of paper: ‘we thank for 2018 …’ and ‘we pray for 2019…’. And then there is again a lot where we are thankful for, there are prayers answered and we look forward for what is coming. And there are prayers unanswered, longings unfulfilled. The missing of Amanda has not diminished. Some problems are much more severe and persistent than we hoped. And we lay that down too at the One who oversees it all and knows what He is doing.

I like it that between all those special days, there is World Wide Lighting Candle Day. To lit a candle, to hear Amanda’s name called, to cry together or not. Because she indeed is always an invisible but tangible part of our family.

Published in Dutch on December 4, 2018

Baby Album

I was in the warehouse this morning and bought a photo album in exactly the same size and layout as the photo-albums I have for my other children. My husband and I were in the shopping center for Sinterklaas gifts[i] and there, in that warehouse, I got the feeling it was time to do this. It was time to choose a beautiful album for my fifth child. Tears ran down my cheeks. Also because I was moved and proud in some way. That I had the courage to this.

For my other children I started to make a photo album before they were born. I pasted in the postcards people send me with: ‘congrats on the pregnancy’, photos of the ultrasounds and of my growing belly. And I added parts I copied out of my journal wherein I dreamed or prayed for my unborn child. I wrote down the presents my little one had received from grandpa’s and grandma’s and uncles and aunts. After the baby was born, I added the baby pictures.

I had not begun an album yet for Amanda before she was born. Something was holding me back.

Right now, I keep the ultrasoundpictures in a plastic little map in front of my diary. I see them quite often. But the end of the year is coming, I need the diary for next year already more than the one of 2017 and I am almost sure I will not transfer the pictures to this new one.

We only took pictures of my big belly after we knew Amanda had passed away. And I had not yet chosen the quotes I wanted to copy out of my journal, though I wrote a lot while I was pregnant. The photos taken after her birth I put in a small map in her room, together with her birth and death certificate, our wedding booklet with the names of our five children, and the imprints of her little feet.

But now I have a real, big baby-photo album. In the coming days I want to start with pasting in the proofs of how welcome and loved she was, even before being born. I am very happy with it and at the same time my eyes are filled with tears if I think about what I am going to do. It will be hard.

In the albums of my other children, I wrote, before their birth: ‘album for my first (2nd/3rd/4th) child’.  And after they were born, I added their names in my most beautiful hand writing, together with the date and time of birth. It was a special moment for me to do that. It was a kind of confirmation of what was enriched in our family and how special this child was for me.

But now. ‘Album for my fifth child, Susan Amanda Marsman, born March 22, 2017 at 23:09’?  That doesn’t work. I can not do this for her. She will never look in it, as her brothers and sisters do in their albums, again and again. I can not write down memories for her.

Still I want to fill an album. As a memory of her short existence. A monument of my love for her. And an acknowledgement of who she was and is. Manu Keirse said in a television program[ii] about another mother: ‘although her two children have died, she continues to be always the mother of those two children.’ And so, this pink photo album will be a baby album ‘in loving memory of my fifth child, Susan Amanda Marsman’. Because that is who she always will be. Our fifth child.

First published in Dutch on November 27, 2017

[i] In Holland, a lot of people don’t give each other presents at Christmas, but on December 5, when we celebrate ‘Sinterklaas’.
[ii] De verwondering, On Dutch Television, NPO: November 27, 2017, you can watch it here: https://tvblik.nl/de-verwondering/manu-keirse

All Saints’ Day

We received an invitation in our mailbox last week. It was from the church in our neighborhood. They invited all neighbors to come and light a candle for a beloved one.

My eldest gave it to me without saying a word. Does she want to go there? I read the invitation and I feel I’m attracted to it. Again I am surprised about how much I am changed. In the past I never understood why someone would want to light a candle for someone who passed away. What is the point? You can’t get the person back by doing that. I didn’t like rituals and things like that. But now, I want to go there. And asking my husband, he feels the same.

Mourning together is an impossibility. I have given up on that some time ago. There is room for grief in our family. Who wants to talk about Amanda, or about death, or about a baby, is allowed to do that. But when one of us feels the need to bring his or her sorrow to the table, another one might just not want that at that moment. We’ve found that it is very hard to find a way to express this empty place we all do feel. I don’t want to ignore, but I also don’t want to push.

I find mourning on my own already quite hard. I just don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t feel much, don’t think much. In my head a line is resonating, a line I read in an article about the death of a child. ‘Are you able to deal with it somehow?’ Somebody asked. ‘No’, said the wife of the author, ‘He is still dead’.

She is still dead. That is what I realize too and the inevitability and inescapability is dawning more and more on me, but I can’t deal with it really. I wished I could just cry some more. Because it was a year ago yesterday that I held a positive pregnancy test in my hands, for example. But today it seems as if this happened in another life, to someone else. I am only thinking: ‘she is still dead’. Over and over again.

We all feel that. Each of us in a different way, but we all miss her and we all need to figure out how to live with that. I’ve found that I am grateful when I think about how she is doing well. That she’s been taking care of, that she, if she would have a choice, probably wouldn’t want to go back to us. But I also notice that there is a hole in my heart. There is love I can’t give away. I always lack a child.

With my other children I have ‘Mommy-…..’-time. Time wherein I do something with only the child whose name fills the dots. I realize I need to do the same with her. I need to make ‘Mommy-Amanda-time’. And although I can’t breastfeed her, put her in bath, or, as I do with my other children, when she is older: eating cake in the city center, making a walk and talk about something deep, or just making a jigsaw puzzle together, I can focus my attention on her alone for some time. Just focus on her.

So I think that is why we accept this invitation tonight. In order to remember her together. To mourn together, whatever that is.

First published in Dutch on November 2, 2017

Bless This Mess

This morning I was watching a Dutch television program called ‘Ik mis je’ (I miss you). Two people shared about their deceased loved ones. They told how grateful they were, how important their deceased loved one was to them and how they loved to talk about them. They also said it blessed them when someone wanted to hear stories about who they were.

I could relate to that. And I was surprised I did. Amanda only lived for six months and only inside of me. When she was born, she was already dead for several days. Yet she greatly impacted our lives. My life, our marriage, our family, lives of friends, our faith, our world. Life didn’t stay the same and it will not be the same again.

Yesterday I sang in front of the church like I used to do before Amanda was born. It was the first time since her arrival-and-passing away. I felt I had become stronger, more powerful, and more myself. Yet, I also felt more vulnerable. I knew I could easily burst in tears, but the one leading worship knew that too and we agreed he would step in if I couldn’t sing anymore.

The songs aren’t the same to me as well. All least, they don’t feel the same and mean the same as they did before Amanda. For instance, we sang Oceans: ‘Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders, let me walk upon the waters, wherever you would call me.’

Well, He did just that. I did walk on water, so to speak. I do need trust without borders to live and to keep faith and I find it quite hard to sing: wherever you would call me. Wherever You call me, whatever  circumstances life may bring. I will trust in You.

Yet, that is exactly what I did, tried to do and will keep on trying to do, also because of what’s said in one of the verses: ‘You’ve never failed and You won’t start now.’ I sang this yesterday with a loud voice and I say it to myself just like that when despair pops up, when I fear for the future or when I look back astonished about what has happened in our life. You never failed, and You won’t start now.

So I sing. Not because I have it all together and understand it all. But because I believe and I know that in this life I will never have it all together.

In the past years, my favourite prayer was: Lord, bless this mess. With all my children and a lot of problems in my life, keeping things under control became impossible. And because of that, I learned that that was exactly the point: I shouldn’t be in control anyway. I always was supposed to surrender control to God.

Now that my life became a mess even more because of losing our daughter, problems that continue to be problems, children who grow up having different distinguished characters, a body that keeps on giving me trouble, it is still my prayer that God will bless our mess. And I cling unto that sentence: You’ve never failed and You won’t start now. 

Some time after this blog, I wrote a song, related to Oceans, wherein I describe how I try to put my trust in God again. You can find it here.

First published in Dutch on October 2, 2017

I Miss You so Much

My child, I miss you so much
You would have been two months old yesterday
I would have fed you, allowed you to burp, cuddle you.
You would have laughed at me and your dad who would have tickled you.

You would have joined us to the party.
And I would have hold you when they took the picture.
Except you were not.

Your name wasn’t mentioned,
I had to pose for the picture with my incomplete family,
With that heartbreaking feeling that things will never be the same.
We will never be on a photograph together.
Not here.

I don’t know how to go on without you.
But I know I have to.
My child, I miss you so much.

First written in Dutch on September 9, 2017

Back to School

Elektrische-bakfiets-Classic-Long-Steps

The kids are back to school. They all went to a higher group or class than the year before. My, how they are groing! They grow up so fast and becoming individuals with more and more lives of their own. The way they are, each in their own way, exploring, discovering, grasping the world around them. It just touches me deeply.

I biked home alone after bringing them to school. A little bit later I waved goodbye to my older children. Alone. How different from how I imagined things would be this new school year. She would have come with me in the cargo bike when I bring her brother and sister to their primary school. She would have waved goodbye to her other brother and sister together with me. I certainly would not have all the time of the world, like I have now.

Oh how quiet this quietness and how empty this emptiness is right now.

‘Go to God with your empty arms and your grief’, someone told me. Why is that so hard for me? Is it because if I do that, I accept things are the way they are? Is it because I don’t want do that, I even stubbornly resist that sometimes?

I was copying some lyrics I found on loose pieces of paper to my ‘hookbook’ where I jot down usable lines for songs to write in the future. On one of them I found this little chorus:

Don’t want to go there
Don’t want to feel
Just want to run somewhere
But I know it’s time to heal.

This touched me. I don’t know any more what caused me to write it (I must have written it a long time before Amanda died), but it described perfectly where I am now. If I go to God, I can find healing, comfort for my soul. But it also means that I have to feel what I feel. That I acknowledge what is happening inside of me and cry the tears that are there to cry. And it means letting go, allow to exist what is there. If I give my grief to God, He can do something with it. And sometimes I just don’t want that. At least not yet. Sometimes I want to hold onto the longing of seeing Amanda in my living room at the spot I had in mind. Although I know it is never going to happen.

Don’t want to go there
Don’t want to feel
Just want to run somewhere
But I know it’s time to heal.

First written in Dutch on August 23, 2017