Book Review: Even in Our Darkness

Book Review: Even in Our Darkness

2F62573B-A74C-4D92-8754-90EC0BE9BF12

From the moment that I started reading this book, I couldn’t put it down. I read the first half last night, until sleep finally overtook me. I read the second half this morning when I woke up. I informed my husband “I will just read one chapter, then I will have breakfast.” My husband however knew me well enough not to expect me downstairs until the book was finished. As soon as I’d finished the book and had breakfast, I went at the housework like the Duracell Bunny, trying to make up for lost time!

I had read a review of this book a few months ago here. The fact that’s it’s recommended by Ann Voskamp, Matt Chandler, Dr John Townsend and R. T. Kendall along with Sam Storms’ very positive review convinced me that I needed to place this book on pre-order with Amazon, as it had not yet been published in the UK at that time.

Even in Our Darkness ~ A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life  is essentially the life story of Jack Deere. Jack grew up in Texas in a very dysfunctional family, the oldest of four children. His mum was volatile and at times beats him mercilessly. His dad was his childhood hero, but died by suicide in the family home when Jack was twelve years old. Jack then became a “wild child”.

At the age of seventeen, Jack became a Christian and his life changed dramatically. On the outside he lived an exemplary Christian life and was a role model for other young people. In private he continued to battle his besetting sins.

Jack has a brilliant mind and is a gifted communicator and within a few years he secured a prestigious teaching post at Dallas Theological Seminary, while also pastoring a church. He married a woman that he loved deeply and they had three children.

Jack subsequently was asked to leave Dallas Theological Seminary due to his association with  John Wimber and the Vineyard Movement. Jack wrote several popular books and thousands came to hear him speak. Jack and his wife ministered side by side and witnessed miraculous healings. Sadly, their younger son Scott was a troubled young man, who died by suicide in the family home Christmas 2000.

All Jack’s wife ever wanted out of life was to be a wife and mother, her son’s death pushed her over the edge. She went into a downward spiral of addiction and substance abuse. She interpreted Jack’s attempts to help her as him trying to “control” her. She accused him of being abusive towards her and left.

To find out how the story ends you will have to read the book. There are so many threads running through this story that I found it riveting on many different levels. There are currently 97 reviews for this book on Amazon.com and 83 of these are five star reviews. I haven’t read all the reviews, but from what I’ve read it seems that each reader interprets this book through the lens of what is relevant to them personally.

Naturally I read the book through my lens of being a bereaved parent. These are a few of the thoughts that came to me while reading this book: It is possible to experience trauma in life and subsequently become a Christian and believe “Everything is okay now, all that stuff that happened in the past doesn’t affect me anymore.” Everything does indeed appear to be okay until tragedy strikes, then you find yourself teetering on the edge of sanity and wondering if the version of Christianity that you’ve known up until now really is sufficient for such a time as this.

Hopefully however, as you walk through your own personal valley of the shadow of death, you will discover the theology of suffering and feel the nearness of the God who sticks closer than a brother, just as Jack Deere and many others have done. I will conclude with a quote from the penultimate chapter of the book:

The people who recover from the wreckage of their trauma are the people who can write a new story for their lives where their pain betters them. ~ Jack Deere 

989E6B9C-3D88-4686-92D2-67E988CF1C60

Chocolate Bird’s Nests

Chocolate Bird’s Nests

img_20170216_084432

I know it’s not the Easter Holidays yet, but it is Mid-Term, so my youngest and I thought it would be fun to create another illustrated recipe blog post. Our previous recipe blog post was published over eighteen months ago and it continues to be very popular, with over 800 page views to date.

These ‘no bake’ recipes are simple to make, delicious to eat and they can be a great way of spending quality time with your children.

Ingredients we used:

img_20170215_201450

Nestlé Shredded Wheat – we used three of the inner packets, each containing two biscuits – six biscuits in total.

Cooking chocolate – we used a 300g packet

Cadbury Mini Eggs – 200g (These are quite hard and could present a choking hazard to children under 4 years or to older children with swallowing difficulties).

Method:

Ensure that everyone washes their hands thoroughly before starting.

Firstly, spread out some bun cases on a clean, dry tray.

Then let the children use their hands to crumble the shredded wheat finely into a bowl.

img_20170215_202350

Next let them break the cooking chocolate up into squares in a ceramic (not a plastic) bowl.

img_20170215_201942

The chocolate can be melted by an adult, by placing the bowl over a saucepan of boiling water, or by placing the bowl in the microwave and stirring thoroughly every 60 seconds until melted.

img_20170215_202828

Add the crumbled shredded wheat to the melted chocolate and stir until thoroughly mixed.

Place spoonfuls of the mixture in each bun case.

img_20170215_204227

Flatten the centre into a nest shape and place the chocolate eggs firmly on top.

img_20170215_204813

Leave until set, which takes approximately an hour.

Eat and enjoy.

Ensure everyone’s teeth are well brushed before going to bed.

You could expand on the theme of these ‘bird’s nests’ by talking with your children about Spring, Easter and the promise of new life. You could also talk about what this time of year means to you personally – in a way that is appropriate to their age and level of understanding, of course.

wordswag_1487371020072
What Easter means to me.
Love in a Box

Love in a Box

When I became a parent I was very keen that our children would understand that Christmas is for giving and not just for getting. I wanted our children to understand that many children throughout the world do not have the material goods with which we are blessed here in the UK and Ireland and to care about this fact.

Around that time I heard about Operation Christmas Child. Operation Christmas Child is a very simple concept: you find an empty shoebox, gift wrap it, then fill it with love in the form of toys, sweets, pencils, notebooks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap and a flannel, a scarf, gloves and hat and send it to a child in a country that is much less well off than we are here. On the outside of the box you indicate whether the box is for a boy or a girl and the general age group (2-4, 5-9 or 10-14) that it’s suitable for. You also make a donation of £3.00 per box to cover shipping costs.

Our children used to each pack a shoebox for a child of the same age as themselves. The hardest part used to be covering the shoebox with the wrapping paper. Thankfully when our children were small, my two older nieces from London used to visit us over mid-term and they helped with this, which I very much appreciated. Nowadays you can buy pre-printed shoe boxes  specifically for this purpose. If your group buys them in bulk, they work out about 50p each.

Each year in October a Sunday afternoon would be set aside when I would sit down with the children to wrap and pack the shoeboxes. In recent years, after the boxes were filled, Leah took on the responsibility of checking each one to ensure that nothing had been forgotten. One year (while still in Primary School) Leah went to the local collection centre in Limavady to help check all the boxes that had been collected before they were sent on to their destination.

Our children used to also enclose a Christmas card in their shoebox that they had written to the child who would receive their box. One year, to Leah’s absolute joy, the child who received her shoe box wrote back and even sent a little picture of herself. Her name was Bojana, she lived in Montenegro and she was the same age as Leah. Leah was so excited to hear from this young girl.

Every year, when we shopped the January sales, Leah was quick to spot items that could be used later that year to pack our shoeboxes. Before we left for Bristol Children’s Hospital  in July 2013 Leah and I had already gathered up much of what would be needed to pack our shoeboxes when we returned in a couple of months. However, things did not go the way we expected them to and it was mid – November before we returned home. Shoebox Sunday at our church had been and gone and to be truthful, packing shoeboxes was not uppermost in our thoughts.

After Leah died in January 2014, participating in Operation Christmas Child joined a long list of family activities that now felt so painful that I couldn’t imagine myself ever being able to take part in them again. Each autumn as the Operation Christmas Child leaflets were given out at church, the promotional video was shown and each family came to church on Shoebox Sunday with their contribution, my heart silently broke and my tears flowed freely. To be honest, I have always cried watching the Operation Christmas Child videos, seeing the suffering of those families living in abject poverty and how grateful they are for so little, but now I had other reasons to cry as well.

However, this year when they started giving out the leaflets I said to my youngest “I wonder could we manage it this year?” I knew there was no way that I could tackle wrapping the boxes, so I bought four of the ready to use flat-packed shoeboxes a few weeks ago. However, after looking at them sitting in a corner of the Living Room for a week, I concluded that I couldn’t go through with it and I stored them away in a cupboard. I reasoned that they would keep until next year.

I knew that the last weekend in October was the final occasion before Shoebox Sunday in early November that I would have any reasonable amount of free time to spend filling these shoeboxes, but I just couldn’t do it. However all week afterwards it floated around in the back of my mind; this ‘family tradition’ that was so important to Leah and was once so important to me too.

So that is how, on a very busy Friday at the start of November, with a to-do list as long as my arm, I carved out time for my youngest and I to fill four shoeboxes: one from each child – four boxes filled with love. Today we brought them with us to church and we added them to the ‘wall’ of over two hundred shoeboxes that have been collected.

Of all the promotional videos created in support of Operation Christmas Child, my absolute favourite is the one with the backing track Love in a Box by Melisa Bester. One of Australia’s youngest artists, Melisa Bester, recorded this song for Operation Christmas Child in 2006 – when she was only eight years old. Please watch the video and listen to the beautiful words. Also, do take a few moments to tell me about your experiences of packing love in a box and sending it off to a child in another country to let them know that they are loved.

The 2014 Calendar

The 2014 Calendar

In October 2013 when Leah and I were packing to leave Bristol, one of the families that we had become close to gifted us a 2014 calendar containing beautiful colour pictures of Bristol. During our fourteen weeks there, I had fallen in love with Bristol – well, as much of it as I had seen anyway. I really appreciated this thoughtful gift, as well as their friendship.

Bristol Calendar

A place of honour was found on the walls of our new home for this picturesque calendar. However, January 2014, the first month in that calendar, sadly brought with it the death of our beautiful daughter Leah.

Leah in a hat 2012

We never discovered what beautiful scenes of Bristol were displayed alongside the other months, because to this day that calendar remains open on January 2014, still hanging on our wall, frozen in time.

January 2014

To my knowledge this was not a conscious decision on anybody’s part, nor do I recall us ever discussing this as a family. It just is. Other calendars get turned over monthly and removed at the end of the year. When the time is right this calendar will come down too, just not yet.

Next month I will fly to Bristol with the one who hasn’t returned there since donating his bone marrow in the hope of saving his sister’s life.

Leahs study area
Leah’s study area

We are going there for the University  Open Day as he has expressed an interest in studying there next year. I’m quite familiar with the university quarter of Bristol: Sam’s House where Leah and I stayed when she wasn’t in hospital is adjacent to some of the university buildings. While Leah was busy studying for her GCSE’s at the study area that she had set up in our bedroom, I used to occupy myself with going for walks around the local area.

Although my children are grieving, their lives are going on and moving forward and that is just how it should be. Leah would never have wanted it any other way. Our eldest moved to live and work in England last week. We miss her but I’m just so proud of her. The day that she left N. Ireland I received lots of supportive messages from friends, which I really appreciated. One of the most encouraging messages that I received was this one:

Well done that, in spite of all your family have been through, you have raised a girl with an adventurous, independent spirit which you are nurturing. There will always be a part of her that will never leave home. Bon voyage.

IMG_4538

Our Day Trip to Rathlin Island

Our Day Trip to Rathlin Island

image

People say that Ireland is a beautiful country and if you could rely on the weather you would never holiday anywhere else. I agree entirely.

Our eldest has been trying to get us on a family trip to Rathlin Island  for the last couple of years, but any time that we planned to go the weather forecast dissuaded us. Rathlin Island lies just six miles north of the seaside town of Ballycastle in Co Antrim. It is also only fourteen miles from the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland.

Finally this past weekend we agreed on a date, checked and rechecked the forecast, packed the obligatory picnic and off we headed. We phoned that morning to book places on the ferry and to check the parking arrangements in Ballycastle. We were assured that there was plenty of free parking nearby, although finding an actual parking space when we got there proved a little challenging.

image

The ferry that took us over was quite comfortable and provided shelter from the elements. We enjoyed sitting together out on deck and admiring the panoramic views across the Sea of Moyle.

image

Although I was raised in Cork City, which is at the opposite end of Ireland, I’m familiar with some of the folklore associated with this area, especially the sad tale of the Children of Lir. Indeed I can still recite part of Thomas Moore’s Song for Fionnuala  which I learned at school:

Silent, oh Moyle, be the roar of thy water,


Break not, ye breezes, your chain of repose,


While, murmuring mournfully, Lir’s lonely daughter
,

Tells to the night-star her tale of woes.


When shall the swan, her death-note singing,


Sleep, with wings in darkness furl’d?


When will heav’n, its sweet bell ringing,


Call my spirit from this stormy world?

On our arrival at this beautiful Island, I was surprised to see how many people use cars to get about. Lots of people were using bicycles too, these are available for hire on the Island. There is a bus service on the Island also. This is the only inhabited island off the north coast of Ireland. It is an unusually shaped isle – eight miles long and less than a mile wide. The resident population of the Island averages approximately 140 and growing. We had already decided that we were going to walk – at a leisurely pace – for our sightseeing visit.

image

Our first stop was the beach – the blend of white and grey stones is very eye catching. Ireland is normally referred to as having ‘forty shades of green’ but this was more like ‘forty shades of white’. This is apparently due to a mixture of limestone and basalt.

image

Our son amused himself intermittently by using the Pokémon Go app on his phone. He was amazed at how many PokeStops there are on this tiny island.

image

Our youngest daughter is very interested in photography. There was much that caught her eye and inspired her to capture it on camera, as we walked around the island.

image

After our picnic lunch at Mill Bay we headed on the Rathlin Trail round past the lakes to the Rue lighthouse. It warmed my heart to see our children enjoying each other’s company, away from the stresses and strains of everyday life.

Siblings.JPG

We stopped periodically to appreciate the amazing views.

image

Eventually all the walking became too much for the youngest member of our family and she staged a sit down protest. She had to have a little rest before she was able for more trekking.

image

For me the highlight of our trip was when we arrived at Ushet Port and saw dozens of seals basking on the rocks. They seemed to really enjoy having an audience. We were careful not to go too close though, so as not to disturb them.

image

It was only a short walk from there to the Rue Lighthouse, one of three lighthouses on the Island. This instantly brought to mind the lyrics of one of Leah’s favourite songs, My Lighthouse by Rend Collective:

In my wrestling and in my doubts


In my failures You won’t walk out


Your great love will lead me through


You are the peace in my troubled sea,

oh oh
 You are the peace in my troubled sea

In the silence, You won’t let go


In the questions, Your truth will hold


Your great love will lead me through


You are the peace in my troubled sea,

oh oh
You are the peace in my troubled sea

My Lighthouse, my lighthouse


Shining in the darkness, I will follow You


My Lighthouse, my lighthouse (oh oh)


I will trust the promise,
You will carry me safe to shore

(Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh)
Safe to shore (Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh)


Safe to shore (Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh)
Safe to shore

image

We strolled back at a leisurely pace, stopping regularly to enjoy the beautiful scenery. We also called into the Boathouse Visitor Information Centre, where we received a very warm welcome.

image

One of the many things that I reflected upon as we walked along were the Katie Morag Stories by Mairi Hedderwick, which I spent many hours reading to the children when they were young. Rathlin Island is quite like how I imagined the fictional island of Struay to be from reading these beautiful books to the children.

image

The ferry that took us back to Ballycastle was a slower and more basic version of the boat that we had travelled across in earlier. This ride was definitely bumpier and we were very glad of our hooded jackets as they provided us with some protection from the salty waves that periodically crashed over the side!

image

Getting a full nights sleep on a regular basis has proved challenging since Leah died, but that night after our family day trip to Rathlin Island I got eight hours of restful unbroken sleep and I awoke the next morning feeling very refreshed.

Tears of joy and tears of sorrow

Tears of joy and tears of sorrow

Today I read the blog post of a good friend and fellow blogger and my eyes were drawn to this photo. She didn’t say which hospital in N. Ireland that the photo had been taken in but my heart was already pounding in my chest and my eyes were filled with tears, before my mind had even formed the words Belfast City Hospital.

Endoscopy Waiting Area BCH

The ICU where Leah was treated for 2.5 weeks before she died had no Relatives Room within the Unit and worse still – from my perspective – no Visitors/Relatives Toilet. Every time (day or night) that I needed to use the toilet, I had to leave the ICU and make my way through the long convoluted corridors of the hospital, to the public toilets in the main Foyer, via the double doors in this picture. These toilets were very busy and in constant use, therefore the hardworking hospital cleaning staff were unable to maintain them in pristine condition, although they were cleaned regularly. I detested using them as I was terrified of carrying an infection back to my immunocompromised and critically ill daughter.

Each time on my return to the ICU I had to ring the bell first at the outer door and again at the inner door, then wait to be granted permission to ‘visit’ my desperately ill daughter, who disliked me leaving her. This was the hardest part, knowing that Leah was waiting on me to return, but not knowing if I would be allowed in, or if I would be asked to wait in the corridor.

I quickly learned that the best thing to do was to restrict my food and fluid intake so that I NEVER voluntarily left ICU – the only occasions that I left were when requested to do so. Unfortunately, due to the policies and procedures of ICU these occasions happened regularly throughout the day. I then sat on a hard plastic chair in the corridor outside ICU, waiting anxiously for that precious moment when I would be allowed back into Leah’s cubicle.

I found that having a cup of hot cinnamon milk for breakfast filled me up and didn’t make me run to the toilet. At lunch hour I often had a plain bun and a soft drink, like 7up. On one occasion during doctor’s rounds, an ICU consultant lectured me on the importance of looking after my health so that I could take care of Leah. A few days later when I was sitting  in the corridor outside ICU, this same consultant came along and noticed me eating a bun. He called over to me “Look at you eating junk food. That’s exactly what I was talking about.” I flinched with embarrassment and the indignity of it all, but I managed to hold back the tears until he was out of sight. I don’t honestly think that he meant to be cruel or unkind, I just don’t think that he had any idea of what it’s like to be the mother of a dying child and to feel as if all of your dignity and privacy has been stripped away, along with so much else.

Eventually, a few family members started to bring me in home cooked food some evenings, which I really appreciated. In order to get some measure of privacy,  I ate it while sitting on these softer seats in the Endoscopy Waiting Area, instead of in the corridor outside ICU. Any time that I needed a private space to talk to visitors or to my Support Worker from the NICFC  we also came and sat in this Endoscopy Waiting Area adjacent to the hospital foyer. This is where I sat on Monday 13th January 2014 as we discussed Leah’s end of life care and I shared my distress and frustration at having been told that we had ‘no options – I had been told that Leah was going to die in ICU there in Belfast City Hospital even though we had said that we wanted to take her home or to the Children’s Hospice.

Some weeks after Leah died I approached the management of Critical Care in the Belfast Trust  regarding various issues that I wanted addressed. I assured them that I had no issue whatsoever with the medical care that Leah had received as I knew that everything possible had been done to try and save her life. I referred to the kindness and compassion shown by so many of the staff who had cared for my daughter.  I deliberately did not address issues pertaining to the fabric of the building, lack of facilities etc. as I knew that their likely response would be ‘lack of funding‘. I assured them that most of the changes that I wished to discuss wouldn’t cost any money to implement. One of these changes was that I wanted for parents/carers of teenagers and young adults being cared for in Critical Care to be allowed to come and go freely. I said that it was an absolute disgrace that there had been some days when I felt that I had spent more time sitting in a hard plastic chair in a hospital corridor than at the bedside of my dying child.

In December 2015 I received an email from a senior member of staff that contained the following sentence: when we had a 16–year old in the (Intensive Care) unit a few weeks ago, her parents came and went freely without an eyebrow being raised – it was just accepted as the right thing to do.

I cried when I read this – tears of sadness for what we didn’t have when Leah was dying – but also tears of enormous joy and relief, knowing that no other families will endure the enforced separations that I experienced.

 

An Unexpected Treat

An Unexpected Treat

We weren’t expecting to be able to avail of a therapeutic short break for bereaved families at Daisy Lodge this Summer. We had the privilege of being there for Mother’s Day earlier this year. We also had the opportunity of a short break there the past two summers. We felt that now that it’s been over two years since Leah died, that maybe it was time for us to step back and let other more newly bereaved families benefit from this amazing facility.

Then last Wednesday, out of the blue, we got a call to say that there had been a cancellation and they were offering us the option of going there at the weekend, if we were available.

My heart leapt with excitement. I quickly scanned both my work calendar and my personal calendar. Thankfully any commitments we had were ones that could easily be rescheduled. Simon unfortunately was unable to accompany us and Rachel couldn’t stay the entire Friday until Tuesday, due to her work commitments. Other than that we were good to go.

I couldn’t stop smiling for the remainder of the week, eagerly anticipating this most unexpected treat. When we first went to Daisy Lodge in 2014 I found it a very emotional experience. I probably cried for most of our first stay. Just being there was such a stark reminder of the journey that we were now on, one that I definitely didn’t want to be on.

However I now primarily look on Daisy Lodge as a place of healing for me and my family. A place where each of us is helped to relax and to heal, a place where we are encouraged to have fun interacting with each other, to feel like a family again, after the trauma of witnessing Leah endure such gruesome treatments and then eventually die. Daisy Lodge is a place where we feel supported, both by the compassionate staff who are on duty 24/7 and by our interactions with the other families who all walk a similar road. A place where no explanations are ever necessary.

Daisy Lodge.jpgI know from talking to other bereaved parents on private forums, that the devastation of child loss often results in the fragmentation of family relationships. A therapeutic short stay at Daisy Lodge goes a long way towards the healing and rebuilding of these fragmented relationships.

Food.jpg

On one of the days during our stay this past weekend, we went into Newcastle to the Pleasure Lands Amusement Park (Rachel’s boyfriend Matt also joined us that day). Horace’s face was a study as he and the ‘kids’ spun wildly on the Waltzers. It was his turn to laugh at my facial expressions when I went on the Roller Coaster with Rachel and Matt.

Amusements

Despite all the spinning around, our stomachs were settled enough to indulge in some award winning Maud’s ice cream while we were in Newcastle.

ice cream

That night there was a “Photo Booth” back at Daisy Lodge, where Horace and I were ‘swallowed by a big fish’!

Swallowed by a Fish.JPG

On Monday morning Horace and I enjoyed a trip to the nearby Burrendale Hotel swimming pool and spa. I tried to compensate for all the wonderful food I’d been eating all weekend by swimming 22 lengths of the pool, but before you start thinking that’s really impressive I need to tell you that it’s quite a small pool, not an Olympic sized one!

Monday afternoon saw Horace and I engaging in archery – the last time I recall shooting with a bow and arrow was while staying with my cousins in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, when I was about ten years old. We used to make our own bows and arrows in those days, then climb trees and shoot. The ones at Daisy Lodge weren’t homemade of course. I was so engrossed in competing against my husband during the archery session that I forgot to take any photographs, but he beat me anyway!

Monday evening the four of us participated in a craft activity and worked together to produce these:

Craft Activity

Tuesday morning it was time for the four of us to say a fond goodbye to the staff and the other families. We were by now well rested, well fed, refreshed and ready to face the world again. Thank you to the Cancer Fund for Children for once again refuelling us on this most difficult of journeys.

God on Mute