Bye Little Toddler

Wednesday there will be placed a dormer window on our house, so we are clearing the attic as much as possible. Everything comes from behind the partitions. Things we haven’t seen for a while and forgot about. We both sigh when we realize what it all is: Playpen cloths, a sling, a belly carrier, sheets and blankets that belong to the crib, bicycle seats. And a toddler bed. It’s the bed all of our other kids have slept in and that was in the attic waiting for Amanda to grow up. We sigh again.

I take pictures of everything we come across that we don’t want or need to keep until our children eventually have children of their own and put them in the giveaway corner. Finally crying, how this hurts again. More and more it becomes evident that children will mainly leave this house – we waved goodbye to our oldest a week and a half ago for six months – but never will another baby enter it, although we had hoped for this for years. There only was a little girl who was with us for five days, but had already died when she came.

I need to write it down. This morning I read what someone wrote on Facebook about making room for grief. She asked: ‘How do you do that?’ Someone else responded: ‘I don’t do that, it just happens. Mourning will take the space it needs.’ When I read it this morning I didn’t want to do anything with it, but now I remember it and conclude that both is true.

Today grief invades me by a toddler bed that I’m saying goodbye to because we’re most likely not going to need it anymore. The sadness takes up space, although I can of course choose to push away the tears and take for granted the headache that usually causes. But I now know that giving space to mourning and sadness often works better. I give space to grief by writing about it and then turning it into a piece that I can share with you who read it. That way I give it a place, I give it space.

A long time ago I wrote that first you miss your baby, but later your toddler, preschooler, schoolchild, teenager and so on. The toddler bed will be picked up tomorrow, just like the beautiful shelf I once bought for the baby’s room, one that you will always be proud of, because it was really new and special for that room. The pink girl’s closet has already been picked up this afternoon and so we say goodbye again today and the coming days.

Goodbye, sweet little toddler who wasn’t here. We miss you.

First published in Dutch on January 23, 2021

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

Receiving Favor

It was the end of October when someone asked me to write a devotional for Advent. I liked the idea and asked what Bible verses she had in mind. It was Luke 1: 30-31: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. (NKJV)

Oh no, I thought. That is definitely not the easiest passage to ponder with an open mind when your youngest child died and no pregnancy followed, though longed for. It took me a quite some time before I had the courage to sit down and prayerfully consider what these verses really where about. In the end I wrote this. It is not Christmas soon, but I think this message is worth sharing still.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. (Luke 1: 30-31 NKJV)

Dear Mary,

Lively girl of about fifteen years old. You could have been my daughter. You were full expectation of what life would bring your way. Your future was clear, your perspectives hopeful. You were preparing your wedding with your carpenter who was building a house for the two of you. Probably you were busy making gear for your new household, preparing yourself to start a good Jewish family.

Then the angel came, turning your life upside down. ‘Do not be afraid, Mary’, he said, knowing what an impact he had on people. ‘No need to be scared.’ He acknowledged how you felt but right after that he came to the point: ‘Listen, God is happy with you, you will become pregnant and deliver a son into the world who you have to name Jesus.’ You knew the meaning of that name: ‘God saves’ and realized this would be a special child.

The words he spoke after that: ‘You have found favor with God’, they keep coming back to me and I look them up in different Bible translations. In the Amplified Bible I read a description of what these words mean: “you have found grace (free, spontaneous, absolute favor and loving-kindness) with God.”

How did that feel, Mary? I can imagine that you would love to have this kind of favor with God, but you must have known what road lay ahead of you. You would become pregnant, without being married, unplanned. That meant abandonment, scorn, gossip and humiliation.

You accepted it. You took this as Gods will for you and went the indistinct, uncertain, perhaps also intense lonely way, totally different from what you thought your life would be an hour ago. You said that God could do whatever He wanted to do in your life.

You became pregnant.

It brought you humiliating libel when people began to see it, heart warming grace when Joseph stood next to you, deep wonder when shepherds and wise men came, terrible hardships when you had to flee in the middle of the night and build up a new home in a foreign land, beaming pride when Jesus appeared worthy of his name: God saves! And it brought you deep, intense, heartbroken pain when the son for whom you laid down your life and went through all of this, died. Because that too was Gods will.

Dear Mary, you were so brave and you are such an example and inspiration for me. Thank you for your obedience. Every year I become more and more impressed by it.

Reflection: Receiving Gods favor and grace can mean something totally different than you thought and can bring apart from joy, also much suffering and sorrow. How are these words from Luke an encouragement for you?

Prayer: Dear Father in heaven, thank You that Mary’s story is in the Bible and that she is an example of how I can humbly go Your way, even if sorrow and pain is involved. I want to be willing Lord. Please confirm I am on the right way. If I have gone astray somewhere, will You show that to me and help me to go Your way again? Thank you for looking after me and having my life in Your hands and leading me. In Jesus’ name, amen.

This painting by Johanneke Folkers really touched me when I saw it (Mirjam van der Vegt posted this photo on Facebook).

First published in Dutch on December 20, 2020

Marjory

∞∞∞ How he sits there. Elbows on the table, shirt half open, head over his plate, spoon in left hand. Ready to taste her culinary experiment. He moved his spoon to the plate and she looked at the bite he was about to take. Hours ago, she suddenly made a decision. Thinking about dinner, she’d wondered how many times she had done this. Considering what to eat, looking for recipes, shopping, standing in the kitchen with little Sophie scratching around her, sometimes chatting pleasantly, sometimes whining and complaining. Again she had felt that sharp pain, and with a shock she’d realized that too is over. Death really means never again. She got up from her chair and stared outside. All of a sudden she noticed the purple flowers in their garden. When they first moved in here she had looked up what it was, Monkshood. Poisonous native plant. Lethal with two to three grams of the leaves or one or two grams of the stem.

Up came a plan. The flowers look a bit like violets, she thought, and they are eatable. She googled and found “Violet Rice with Mushrooms”. It sounded culinary, she thought. It has been ages since they ate mushrooms. She hadn’t prepared them since Sophie ate along. Children usually dislike mushrooms. Now it was possible again. Feeling wry she had cut the flowers with her sharpest knife. At that moment she already could imagine how Maurice would look. And now he sat there in front of her, indeed looking longingly at his plate. The taste is really bitter, she thought as she swallowed her mouthful and checked to see if he liked it. ∞∞∞

I study at a Dutch Writers Academy. I want to discover if I am able to write fiction. A children’s book, or just a beautiful story. For my first writing assignment I had to choose a random photo of someone and answer all kinds of questions about him or her. Then, based on all those answers, I had to write a table scene for a thriller or a romantic story. That’s how this story started. About Marjory, her husband Maurice and their deceased daughter Sophie.

I had no intention of writing about someone whose daughter passed away and I was very surprised that it did. Is this so anchored in my system that it comes out unconsciously? Even in my fantasy, if I just make something up? I quickly went working on my next writing assignment, only to find out I had to work again with this character. So I’m stuck with Marjory and her little Sophie for a while. I feel resistance.

So I went for a bike ride. I felt angry and sad and couldn’t figure out why exactly. While cycling I thought about how sneaky this is. Apparently the death of a child resides so deeply inside of you that it really becomes part of you. Whether you like it or not. I hate the Freudian thing about it, the unconsciousness of it, and the fact that I can’t do what some people say: leaving it behind, get over it. It has caught up with me again, even in my fantasy and so I have no choice but to accept that too. It’s part of who I am. Perhaps for me a character whose child has died has become a very normal character, just like anyone else.

I’m curious how things will develop with Marjory.

First published in Dutch on August 27, 2020

Punching Ball

‘Stupid mama’
‘You don’t understand!’
‘I can’t!’
‘Mind your own business!’

I tiptoe past talking laptops, hoping no one will ask me anything.
I hear sighs, grumbling, moaning and rumble and try to ignore it.
My consequent answer: ‘I’ll wait until you ask me something politely’
I hear coming out of my mouth far too often.
When emotions run high, politeness apparently is temporarily turned off.

Yesterday I felt like a bullied schoolchild when one of them started a tantrum for the umpteenth time.
It’s not personal,” I whisper to myself.
It is not aimed at me, but at the school work, at expectations that are not communicated unambiguously, structured and logically and in too many different ways.

I was forced to become a mentor, teacher and supervisor, but also remain the biggest fan, coach and caretaker.

But above all, I am a punching ball. Because where do you go when you’re a kid and there is something you don’t understand? Where do you go when you find something difficult? When you are angry? If you are disappointed? If you feel you’re treated unfair? When you are faced with your own failure? If you are scared?

Exactly.
To mom.

“Yes dear, I studied Dutch language and literature indeed. But no, I don’t understand those questions either.” I’m good at detecting ambiguity, and here it is, right here before me.
I understand you, my child.

“No, I don’t care the chemical composition, although I’m happy with your enthusiasm” and “no, I don’t know why this kahoot quiz doesn’t work either.”

“I think you should email that teacher for the seventh time.”

“Don’t you check the study guide?”
“Isn’t it on the Electronic Learning Program?”
“Have you already checked your mailbox?”
“Oh, you had to write a report on it!”
“Oh, you had to record it!”
“Oh dear. Yes, then you have to cycle 10 kilometers again. The gymnastics-teacher also wants proof you did the assignment.”

I want to have a punching bag myself. And I want to go back to my previous position. The one of a cup of tea and a biscuit. Of being a safe basis from where you can go into the world or you can start doing your homework. Of the living room for myself and playing the piano, guitar and flute for hours.

I need a vacation and so do my kids. And I’m not alone in feeling this way, because in near-desperation I wrote on Facebook: ‘I’m not a stupid mom. Maybe I’m just a stupid teacher.’ I turned out to be ‘not the only one feeling this way. Hence this blog and as we in our family use to say to each other here when we find something really stupid and annoying but also know that it is not the end of the world:
“I deserve the pity cup”.
That is, for being a punching ball.

Foto door Julia Larson op Pexels.com

First published in Dutch on April 21, 2020

Primal Cry

I like watching detectives because of the mystery and the psychology. What happened exactly and why do people act the way they do? In a film I saw the other day I saw an actor performing a mother who finally heard that her missing daughter was dead. Her screaming touched me deeply.

I hear a cry
Recognizable, penetrating
It’s just an actor
And yet
It chills to the bone
sounds as it is
this primal scream
Animal, childish
Pure
A part of her died
She lives on amputated
not yet knowing how

I hear a cry
Recognizable, penetrating
It’s just an actor
But she empathized
Expressed the cry of those who experienced it
Primal sound as a terrified, immensely sad little child
without learned inhibitions
This is how pure despair and inconsolability sound

I hear a primal cry
Recognizable, penetrating and sharp
It’s what Simeon said to Mary in the Christmas story:
‘A sword will pierce your heart’:
The moment Mary saw her son suffer and die
The moment I saw that my daughter was no longer moving
The moment he learned that his child had not won the battle

I hear a cry
Recognizable, penetrating
and remember the days such sound came from me
When it dawned death is irreversible
my child won’t come back
Sometimes one more cry escapes

But this cry
recognizable, piercing
doesn’t have the last word
The Jesus Mary saw dying promises He will turn mourning into dancing
One day
Sometimes I sense that when I think of her perfect state
at its closest to the source of its existence
I like it when I look at what she did
in me

Yet that raw uninhibited cry,
recognizable, penetrating,
is necessary
Don’t dare to stop it when she makes herself heard
for not only do you suppress the pain
the sadness
the despair
but also the call for justice and harmony
and the expression of love
which no longer has an address

This cry
recognizable, piercing
is heard through the ages
all creation express it’s sound (in Paul’s words)
I take part in that cry
and find myself in good company
(in reference to Romans 8: 18-30)

huilende vrouw
This painting is made by Christa Rosier. I first saw it on a post card someone send me after Amanda’s passing. I had it within reach for months and it helped me to acknowledge the despair and sorrow and to realize that God’s light was still on me.

First published in Dutch on January 9, 2020

Mother’s Heart

Today it is Mother’s Day. Last year I wrote a song to word what I’ve learned about love in my life as a mother. I am happy to share it here with you. For audio, click here.

This mother heart, created to cherish
To care and to comfort, those who are near her.
This mother heart, broken and fractured
In life’s circumstances, through loss and hurt

This mother love, strong as a lion
Fights like a tiger to shield what’s hers
This mother love, scattered, expanded
To lavish the ones that love her loved ones

Night and night, kneeling down
Bringing all before the Lord
Surrendering dreams and fears
Acknowledging He’s in control

This mother heart was never abandoned
But tender reflecting the love of God
This mother heart, damaged and injured
Pictures the hurt of God wanting us

This mother love, always renewing
Through all the serving deepened and sure
This mother love, painful and glorious
Mirrors the deepness of Gods love for us

Music & Lyrics by Ineke Marsman-Polhuijs ©2020

Final 2

Tomorrow the tombstone will be placed on the grave of our little girl. The time has finally come. At this moment nothing on her grave is readable anymore. Even the letters on the temporary stone can no longer be distinguished. We put off choosing a stone for a long time and then we was a delay in the process. In the end we had to sort out everything all over again. But now it is done. We selected a stone type and color, chose the way in which the soil has to be divided, a text, a font and finally a font color.

The message that the stone has been made and will be placed does a lot to me. I hate the idea that tough workers are going to pour concrete on my child’s grave. Because that has to be done first. Concrete is covering the place where she lies. Our precious girl.

It makes her even more inaccessible.

The lady who helped us choose everything concerning the gravestone asked if we would like to be there when the stone will be laid. I thought back to when we buried her and how I had to keep myself from doing irrational things, like wanting to climb back into the hole to get my child out and take her home with me. I fought that urge for weeks. I kept thinking: ‘How can I leave her alone in that cold?’

I don’t like to think about the fact that my daughter is laying there. So I decided to not be there when the stone is placed. Still, I have the feeling that I should be there. It’s like when my other kids go through something important or bad. In those times you pack yourself back together and just come along to assist your child in what it has to undergo, whether you can take it or not. You don’t leave your child alone.

But this child does not need this. She is safe in the arms of her Heavenly Father, as we wrote on her stone. She doesn’t need her mother to come over. She doesn’t need her mother to be there when her place is made beautiful. She doesn’t need anything from me.

A sob wells up. The craving for my little girl is still there. The desire to be there for her, to care for her, to stand up for her remains. Tomorrow the gravestone will be placed and she finally has a beautiful place with her name written on it legibly. With words that remind me and everyone who comes there that there are eternal arms around us.

It was the last thing we could do, I wrote almost two years ago. And now the time has come. Tomorrow the stone will be placed and the grave will be closed for good.

First published in Dutch on November 21, 2019

This is how it looked after the stone was placed. The text means: ‘From mommy’s belly straight into the arms of her heavenly Father.’ And then: ‘From old God is a hiding place. His arms carry you forever.’

Present in Absence

I want to write a book. To prepare for that I lend loads of books from the library about mourning and death. It is not a convivial topic and reading all this does a lot to me. It mainly makes me feel angry. But I am not sure yet what it is I am so angry at precisely. At death? At how people respond? At the fact that my kids have to live with this while I would rather take all sorrow away from them? About my empty arms and empty belly? At God?

It is all there I think. Reading these books brings out a lot. So why am I doing it? Well, I do not only get angry about it, I also find out what I want to talk about myself and I find recognition. It is very nice to read things that give words to what is dormant beneath the surface. Like the feeling that Amanda is there in her absence.

Marinus van de Berg uses the term ‘life cycle long’ in his book (here translated from Dutch): Sadness that doesn’t disappear[1]. He says: ‘By this I want to indicate that you carry the death of a child – or of children – with you for the rest of your life as an event not to be forgotten. Philip Freriks has written in his book Jantje about his brother who was shot at the end of the war. Those who, like he, have lost a brother very young, have more and more moments when they grow older when that brother could have been there, but is not there. He is there in the absence: lifelong. That affects your life more than you think.’

Inwardly I swore when I read this. This is what I see in my living children. Their sister’s death affect them more than I think and especially: than people around them think. In every stage of their development new thoughts, questions and emotions emerge and then they, in a way, have to learn to live with the loss again. They are not constantly aware of it or thinking about it, but it is part of their life and development. Sometimes that pops up and at those times I find it hard to see my child wrestling, especially now that it is something I cannot change at all.

One of the first thoughts I had when we found out our daughter had died, was: how do I tell my children? How can I help them live with this? I was furious. That I had to go through this, okay. But my children? No! You want to protect your children at all costs from suffering, sadness, misery. But I could not and there was no way back. Still I can’t change anything about it. They have to learn to live with their sister being there in absence.

So, I hope to learn how to do that, so I’m glad that books have been written about it, including this one. As my children get older, they realize more and more what they are missing. They wonder what it would have been like with her there and so Amanda is indeed there in her absence.

First published in Dutch on April 12, 2019


[1] Verdriet dat niet verdwijnt

Waves

Suddenly it is there again. Grotesque, importunate and incredibly painful. A silent scream inside of me wants to come out, but stays stuck somewhere. A sob that wants to be cried, but stays inside.

For some days I walked around feeling this way. I felt pressure behind my eyes and a grumpiness coming over me where no prayer seemed to help against. Until yesterday it finally became too much. I cried and couldn’t stop. Again and again, tears stream down. I realized that I miss her so much. It comes over me like a very big wave.

I miss little arms around me. Whimpering of another kid behind me this morning, awoke a longing for my whimpering Amanda, who never whimpered, because she didn’t live long enough to be able to whimper. I miss her face against my legs while talking to someone. That she runs towards me because she is happy to see me again. The dull pain of missing her is hard to grasp and at this moment also impossible to suppress.

It’s so weird. How can you miss what you did not have? How can I miss her as the toddler she would have been, while I only knew her as a tiny baby? Words my Love said resound in my head: ‘she just grows up together with our family. She just somehow grows up too’.

So, now I miss the toddler that makes noises and keeps me alert all the time. When I hear other mothers say that they are so glad that their children are a bit older now and don’t need 24/7 attention, I only think: I would give the world to have that right now. To be able to watch her and to not leave her alone for one second.

She seems to disappear. To be forgotten. She is no visible part of our family. From the outside our family seems complete. We are six people together. For many people that is already busy enough. But I lack a child and panic keeps coming back to me. I do not want to feel it. I do not want to admit that the missing is still there and that nothing seems to help to ease the pain. It should stop. We buried her a year and seven months ago. We experienced how terrible it is to leave your child behind.

We had to go on with our lives immediately an now I want to do that too. I manage quite well to do that. I take care, I sing, play music, try to be there for those around me. But meanwhile beneath it all it continues to gnaw. I understand a bit more why people say that ‘mourning is hard work’. It is in a way indeed work, working through, processing, let it sink in, continue to work with it. And there is progression and there is development.

I am translating my blogs into English and by doing that I am confronted with what I wrote a while back. I reread how I wrestled with God. How I tried to figure out how to live with this deep grief inside of me. And I’ve learned that I have more peace now, that I trust God a bit more and that I am indeed learning to weave the missing into my existence as someone described it. I even thought that the missing became less and more doable. Up till now.

Now it is very much in my face again and I feel the despair, the intense mourning, the very sharp pain all over again. And how and why that happens, I don’t know. I am not searching for it. I just live, work, do the things I should do. But apparently it is like they say about mourning: it comes in waves. And you need to keep space in your life to deal with that. So that you can cry when you need to. Or so that you have time and space to write, like I am doing right now. Because when you write, you give words, you acknowledge and give space to just let it be there.

I will keep missing her. She is my daughter and she should be here right now. Realizing that she isn’t, is like a wave coming over me, taking away my breath and smashing me off balance. I can only say, like I did many times before, that God is my anchor and the rock on which I stand. I try to remain standing and allow the waves to bash at me. And I wait until the sea calms and the waves stop bashing – for now.

First published in Dutch on October 28, 2018