Long-reaching effects and what they’re worth

I’m overwhelmed. I’ll tell you right now that I don’t use that word lightly. In fact, I’m so overwhelmed that the first thing I could think to do in order to cope with it is to grab my laptop and write. I didn’t want to lose the thoughts whirling in my head by waiting any longer than I had to.

I spoke this morning at a women’s conference. My main job this weekend was to sing on Friday night and Saturday morning, but there was a teeny tiny part of Saturday that included a talk: I was asked to give my testimony. For those of you who are not familiar with Christian-speak, giving one’s testimony is akin to telling people how God has worked or is working in your life. Sometimes a person’s testimony involves telling about a turning point in his life, and sometimes it’s simply a recounting of how the day-to-day survival is going.

In my opinion, a person’s testimony should be a constantly changing thing, as alive and vibrant as the everyday changes in our lives. Yes, there are certain events that are pivotal—there may be a single incident, whether wonderful or catastrophic, that changes everything and turns us upside down—but to only ever focus on that one moment in time really does an injustice to the subsequent weeks, months, and years of growth and, perhaps, struggle.

Mine was a combination of both: talking about a past event (found in my previous post, “…and now, the rest of the story…”) and talking about my life now as a result of that past event.  I was not the main speaker at this conference—I’m just with the band, man—so it shouldn’t have been intimidating to get up there and talk for five or ten minutes. Right? Ha. Thankfully, these ladies were smiling and receptive and put me at ease immediately.

Five or ten minutes…I can do that standing on my head, and I can thank my Italian relatives for that gift we call “I make friends with strangers in public places.” In all honesty, I had the best intentions of speaking for about five minutes, but once I got going, well…let’s just say I didn’t suffer from a lack of things to talk about.

First, we showed the short God@Work video that discussed our family’s journey through the loss of one of our children. Then I told them what had been happening in our lives since the showing of that video at church. I’ve been amazed and thankful for every person who has approached me to tell me their personal stories…loss, struggle, depression, and hope. There is something to be said for knowing you’re not the only one who’s gone through difficult circumstances. Nobody wants to be in The Club, whether its members include widows, alcoholics, bipolars, parents who have lost a child, drug addicts, disabilities or those dealing with a family member’s suicide—but we are comforted to know that others in our particular Club understand completely where we’re coming from, and we feel safer with the numbers that show us we’re not abnormal.

What overwhelmed me this morning was not the recounting of my own event. The “oh my” moment came when I finished speaking. As I walked away from the podium, a woman stood up and announced that she’d been one of the Labor & Delivery nurses at the hospital when our son was born, fifteen years ago. Because his disorder was such a rare thing, the staff paid close attention to what was going on with him and how we, as his family, handled all of it. Unbeknownst to me or Tim, another nurse there was a regular attender at our church, and would regularly update the others, speaking of our family’s positive attitude and our unwavering faith. (Oh, if only she’d known how we struggled in those early days, simply trying to process what was happening while living at hospitals for the first two months of his life!) She also told the group that the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit during that period of time was a very dark place, and the doctor we’d spoken about in our video was someone who didn’t value the lives of the babies under her care as she should have. [We knew this firsthand, because that doctor was someone we actively avoided when she’d make her rounds—her first response upon seeing us each day was to tell us of ways she could relieve us of our burden, or to inform us that she’d probably only “work on him” half the time of a “normal” child if he were to have a cardiac or respiratory arrest. The NICU nurses would actually tell us when she was due to make her rounds so we could head down to the family lounge or the cafeteria. Someone you’d want taking care of your baby? Nope, and nope again.]

The wonderful gal today was happy to tell us all that the NICU is a much more positive place now, partly as a result of our family back then and how we saw each child as valuable and lovable, regardless of the statistics that told us not to get too attached. Our attitudes then affected today’s babies and their care.

Another friend spoke up then, after the first person sat back down. A mutual friend of ours was one of the private duty nurses in our home during the first year. We absolutely loved her, she loved our son, and we were sad to see her go when she got a different job. After losing a family member last year, she commented to our friend that she was struggling with the loss and wanted to be able to “grieve like the Dietzes.”

A third person approached me during the lunch break and told me she had worked at the funeral home when Tig was laid out there. I didn’t know this gal at the time, but she knew who we were and said she was glad she hadn’t had to work the day he came in, because it was difficult when the person who’d died was someone familiar, especially when it was a child. She did say, though, that she’d heard about our visiting hours and how boisterous (the polite word for “so loud”) our half of the funeral home was. There was, during that same week, another special-needs child who had died and whose visiting hours were the same day & time as ours. Many of the case workers had dealt with both families, and all those who came across the hall after visiting the family of the other child commented to us that the atmosphere was palpably different. They felt at ease with us, rather than awkward and uncomfortable.

I look back and wonder what we did that was so noteworthy. Was the time in the NICU that impressive? Was our grief process watched more closely than we’d realized? Do we throw a good funeral?

Even if you think nobody’s watching, there’s always someone who’s observing how you handle things, whether you walk your talk (to use an already-overused cliche), or whether you talk a good game until things fall apart. I say this not to create paranoia, but as a reminder—to myself, first and foremost—that my words mean nothing if my actions run the other way. You can’t fake that; I can’t, anyway.

If our attitudes and behavior helped even one family to have their child seen as a valuable person, it’s worth it. If our lifestyle caused even one person to want a closer relationship with the God I’ve come to know, love, and trust, it’s worth it. If what people saw in our grief inspired even one person to think a little deeper about why we trust a God who didn’t heal our child in the manner we wanted, then in the words of Jed Clampett, “Whoo, doggie!” Definitely worth it.

More often than not, we don’t know how our past actions have affected someone else’s future. I’ve had enough screw-up moments that I’ve wished nobody had seen. Today I had the wonderful privilege of hearing about some of the better ones, and the feeling was sweet.

Three amigos

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