Monday, April 25, 2016

Allistaire: When Stars Burn Bright

My friend Jai, she is amazing. The full confidence she has in Jesus is a testament that when things fall to crap, we can still worship. She was the one I was counting on to write a tribute for Ava if the time came to say goodbye to my sweet girl. How many did Jai have to write for Allistaire's friends that have died over the years? One too many...just so very many. And, now, I am here struggling through my words to honor precious Allistaire. Because it is impossible to encapsulate the very bright life of this child in mere earthly words. 

I met my friend for the first time in November 2014. We had settled down into our Ronald McDonald room in the basement of the building. All the donated toys and books were put into the cabinets by the bed. The groceries were stored in the mini fridge and cupboard assigned to each family in the public kitchen. We had picked up all of Ava's meds which meant that our small table was filled with drugs that we were to parcel off into exact measurements for morning, noon, and evening doses. Then the counting down of days before transplant began.

One night, as I laid awake agitated by the unknowns, I perused Facebook and stumbled upon Jai's blog. I was captivated by her words: all the imagery, the smart explanations of all the treatments, her whole hearted worship to the Lord. I felt an instant connection to this mom I had never met. "She would understand this vagabond life, this wretched reality," I thought. I wrote to her that night and told her what an encouragement her words had been. Within weeks, she made time to meet with me. That is when I first met Allistaire.

We met at the Starbucks in the River Entrance at Seattle Children's Hospital. We had come to know that entrance very well. By then we had gone in and out of those automatic doors countless times and had mastered the maze-like path to the Owl elevators that could take us to the 7th floor, the cancer/transplant unit. I was really nervous that morning as I awaited, in anticipation, a friendship that I so desperately longed for. Little did I know that there would be nothing to fear, that this sister would be as comforting and welcoming as coming home.

In walked a mom holding the hand of a petite little girl with a fuzzy bald head. It was astounding how this blonde haired, blue eyed beauty looked so much like my Ava. Their chubby cheeks, their shiny bald heads, their infectious smile...Allistaire put on her headphones and cuddled into the leather seats to have some iPad time while her mama and I talked. And, boy, did we talk. We discussed our stories, our girls, our diagnoses, our homes, our fears, our faith. Allistaire patiently sat through hours of conversation totally satiated with her games and the comfort of her mama right next to her. We promised to meet again as we parted. 

It was only a few weeks later that we met in-patient at the hospital: Allistaire in one wing of unit seven and Ava in another. As soon as I knew she was on the floor, I flew over to her room to say "hello." I sanitized, gowned up, and slid open the glass door that kept out all kinds of unwanted germs. There she was on her bed, cute as a button, diapered up, coloring away. Now that I think of it, most of my interactions with Jai and Allistaire happened in a sterile field. Gloves, gowns, doors, and masks stood between us and them, always careful not to spread our germs or to bring anything back to the girls.

Our whole friendship, the girls never actually got to play. What an odd childhood, where you might meet and greet a child your age from three careful feet apart, wave hello, and then never be allowed to play with one another. How enticing it must have been for them to want to interact given that they were so similar: the same bald head, the same Hickman line, the same precautions to take. Perhaps a game or two of make-believe would have been all it took to cement their camaraderie.

Then another time we waved hello from opposite sides of the glass doors of our room as Allistaire sailed past on her pole. She sat on a wooden platform that fit right over the bottom of the pole so that she could be near all the flashing machines that represented life and, at the same time, bondage with all the wires that wove from the machine back into her body. Many hellos and goodbyes were exchanged as one child came in-patient and another was discharged. They could have been great friends, I thought on so many occasions. If there might only have been a day when they were healthy enough to play with each other. 

But it did not matter that we did not know Allistaire as a playmate because my girls knew her in prayer. Not a night would go by, without our family praying for Allistaire. "Please help Allistaire," they would pray over and over and over again. Somehow the bond that is formed in war, in the bloody spiritual warfare that we encounter on our knees, is a strong one. Though I have no earthly sister, I have many spiritual ones and I count Jai as one of my dearest. She has heard words of utter defeat and such wretched despair come from my lips. She has heard of the tippy tip highs of Ava's remission, to the very deep slopes of relapse. We have exchanged texts and messages and phone calls in disbelief at what cancer has done to our girls and in praise for what God continues to do through it all. She has spoken words of truth and light into such darkness in my life. We have clung together to the hope that we might see our daughters go on to live abundantly: two bright stars burning bright for His glory.

Now, here we are. Allistaire is home on hospice after four long and, yet, such short years of battling Acute Myeloid Leukemia. This is the valley low. This is where we recite Psalm 23, envisioning it clearly, asking for mercy, mercy, mercy.  

"The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honor me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings. Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever." 

There was a day in March, when all was said and done with Ava's chemo. She sat in-patient for a separate infection threatening to beat her down. The doctors came in and examined her. They saw the unmistakable bulging mass in her cheek. "It looks like a partial response," they said with sad eyes turned down toward the floor. Partial response meant that the road was slowly coming to an end for Ava. A partial response meant a no-go for second transplant. It meant that her cancer was likely terminal.

I went down to the chapel, the very same place where Jai and I once had prayed with tears, pleading with God for our daughters. It was quiet in there and I sat in the peace of that sanctuary. Then the tears began to fall and soon my body was wracked with sobs arising from a deeper part of my being. I felt the urgent need to talk to someone, to anyone about this visceral pain.

Next door was the chaplain's office and I tentatively knocked. An elderly chaplain opened the door and invited me in. With tissues in hand I shared about Ava and the dire situation she faced. "She may die," I said. "And I do not know how to do this." He listened with such softness and grace. Then he told me an analogy that I would never ever forget.

"It is like childbirth," he explained. Oh, that one sentence sent me hurtling back to Ava's birth. There I was in the hospital room, 12 hours after my water had broken. The doctor was so mad. "Your water broke and you waited too long," he scolded me. It was true, my water had broken at midnight the night before but it was my first birth and I didn't realize it. By the time I called the doctor in the morning, too many hours had passed without the bag of waters protecting my child. I was immediately hooked up to Pitocin to start contractions. The first hour or so I breathed through them eager to stomach the pain. I was offered an epidural but I though I could wait a while longer. By hour three I was desperate for something. The Pitocin caused the contractions to layer one on top of another so that there was no break. I began to shake and vomit from the shock of labor. I begged for the epidural. "It's too late. You're almost fully dilated," the nurse told me. The next hour was filled with unspeakable pain, too sharp and shattering for words. 

Then, it happened. I pushed three times and, as I screamed through the ring of fire, out came a being so extraordinary that our lives were forever changed. The pain had produced such beauty that we were left speechless, mouths formed in an O, tears in our eyes. We celebrated that life, that child, that miracle for seven years now. When I asked Mike what the birthing process looked like he told me it was a war zone. "I wish I could have seen it," I said. He turned to me and said, "Believe me, Esther. It was bloody and was nothing you'd want to see." 

The process defies the end product. You could never predict that the pain coursing through your body could produce the most awe-inspiring splendor as God salvages the destruction of sin.

That is how it is when guiding your child through death, I imagine. It is an agony that is best conveyed by shuddering and a groaning of the spirit that can not be quenched by anything in this world. It is vomiting and shaking from the shock of what is to come. It is the weight of grief so heavy as you long for time to freeze so you might never let go of the soft bundle that is your child. It is the depths of sorrow so bottomless as you wake to the reality that this world will not know her. It is the process and pain of labor so intense that your insides twist and turn and your breath catches as the contractions grow. As your child inches toward heaven, your whole being throbs with the cut of a thousand knives. And then it is finished and your child is born-again into the heavenly realms. The angels rejoice and the Lord, himself, will scoop her up and show her a vast kingdom where her soul can rest. And, at last, all the suffering of this lifetime will be redeemed forever.

We don't know what heaven looks like but I have been gathering up the best places on earth in order to envision the place where our sorrows will be no more. Will this place, where we may send our babies before us, truly be better than our embrace? Will it be beautiful? Will it truly hold no more tears? 

I see mountains with snow capped peaks and endless green pastures. I see exquisite flowers of every color bursting from the soil. I see a river running through the meadow, trickling over sparkling blue-green stones. In the distance, I see a city blazing from every color ever created and a path of gold leading to and from. I see a grand tree firmly planted by the clear stream, branches heavy laden with delectable fruit. I hear children laughing and playing, throwing all caution to the wind. And I see Jesus in the middle of it all, taking each child by the hand so that they would never fear again.

Allistaire Kieron Anderson

You may run through those grassy fields and take up in your arms a bundle of flowers for mama. You can run forever without the faintest whisper of pain. Dip your toes in the cool stream and delight in it. Lay your head in the soft emerald pastures and listen to the angels sing. Play and play to your heart's content. Let your giggles and your laughter be heard as you sit at Jesus' feet and He calls you by name. "Sapphire, come," He may say for He knows our deepest desires and our most sacred secrets. Then, after a few moments, when you have drunken in all the glory of heaven, just as you search for her you will turn and see your mama there to take you in her arms again. 

You have been like a star, created for His glory. You are a light to point us in the way we ought to go, a beacon that sends us barreling toward home. When stars burn bright, it is so breathtaking, so beautiful. 

You are so breathtaking. You are so beautiful. 

While some may have 90 years, you only had six. But every year of it was written down in His book, celebrated in the heavens, and treasured by those who knew you on earth. 

Precious child, sweet Allistaire, your life has made a mighty sound.

You may read more of my sister's story and pray with me that her faith would not falter even in a time such as this.


SmileyGirl said...

Simply beautiful.

MEL said...

“ ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” - Revelation 21:4