• Natalie Maxwell

Rearview Mirror

I glance in my rearview mirror and see her, sitting taller and looking older than my memory tells me should be possible, our baby who is not much of a baby any longer. She has always seemed in a hurry to grow up. I remember the first time we brought her to church; she couldn't have been more than a few weeks old and already she wanted to be lifted onto her tiny feet and looking around at the world. The couple who sat behind us commented after the service that "she just doesn't know she's supposed to be a baby does she!" She has been rushing through life ever since. She's not as interested in learning to write her letters as she is asking questions like "why didn't Hitler like the Jews?" (she has a brother who is a history buff) and "Why did God put the bad tree in the garden if He knew it's sin would break the world?" The other day I was losing my patience with Emma and I was telling her to stop yelling... okay I was yelling at my daughter to stop yelling (insert face palm emoji), when Vienna came over and said, "Mother, (what she calls me now, except it sounds like "Mudder") with a voice inflection that seemed to say when will you ever learn, she's just excited and she's doing her best." Instantly I felt the frustration leave me and conviction settle in. It is so important to Ryan and I that we raise our kids to defend the vulnerable, but often it is them who God uses to teach and convict us. Vienna and Emma have always been close, but as they are getting older their sisterly bond and ability to communicate nonverbally has grown so much. Watching them help one another get into their princess costumes and enjoy lengthy tea parties together makes me feel like I'm getting a glimpse of Heaven. I know God is shaping up this little 4 year old with her wise beyond her years mind and kind beyond this world heart to do great and mighty things and I can't believe I get the blessing of watching them unfold.

We pull into the parking spot that we call "ours" even though we have no rightful claim over it. I turn my rearview mirror until the front doors of the school are visible and in the process notice how tired I look. I've now been awake for 12 hours and it shows. I'm no longer waking in the wee hours of the night to a babies cries, but rather on purpose to satisfy the cries of my own soul. I believe it was Martin Luther who said something along the lines of the more busy his days the more time he must allot to prayer. That struck me when I read it because so often we tend to do the opposite, we justify our lack of prayer and time with the Lord by the craziness of our days... I know I have. I am in a very busy season of life (when have I not been and who isn't, right??) and I know that to do it well, in God's strength not my own, and not succumb to anxiety and overwhelm it is crucial that I'm waking before my world and being filled before I'm required to pour out even one deed or word.

I relax back into my seat and fix my eyes on the rearview mirror. It isn't long before a door opens and I spot Ivan's red backpack. His para pushes him and I meet them outside our van, sometimes we chat for a few minutes and other times it's a quick hand off of his wheelchair as we yell our "thank you's" and "see you tomorrow's" while the wind blows at our hood covered faces.

I ask Ivan about his day as I swing open our van door, and lift him up into his seat. This is partly because I want to know about his day and partly because I know that if he is talking and distracted he is less likely to tense up and contract his muscles, making it much easier for transfers and dressing. Every time I lift him I silently thank the Lord for the 12 passenger van that we will soon have enough saved up for and pray that He would provide the perfect one for our family. These days every extra penny has gone towards saving for this van. Ryan and I are both missing the rewarding work of diy projects around our house, but it seems everything has been put on hold until we get a new vehicle. We have long exceeded the point where a vehicle with a wheelchair lift is a need for our family and my body reminds me of just how great that need is every time I lift my 12 year old up into his carseat. It's been 3 years now since Ivan's last surgery, the one we had hoped would make it possible for him to walk someday. Although he has made so much progress, and I truly believe that surgery was the best thing we have ever done for him (apart from the decision to adopt him into our family of course), it became clear not long after that the likelihood of him walking was slim to none. Although we believe in miracles and with God all things are possible, we knew that God was asking us to accept the path we were on. I have come to believe that sometimes embracing and finding peace where you are takes more faith than is required for a mountain moving miracle. So these days our dreams and excitement lie in power chairs and wheelchair lifts and this life that we never would have chosen by our own will, but would now choose 1 million times over because it is the life that we get to spend with our boy. Whenever I hear people talk about what a thankless job motherhood is I think to myself, unless you parent a child like Ivan. "Thank you for picking me up from school today, mom. Thank you for getting me Veggie Straws today, mom." Now we're going to Landon's choir, lets not be stressed today, okay mom?" He is such a gift. He melted me the first time I saw his big brown eyes staring back at me from a picture on a computer screen and he melts me still. After getting him into the van and buckled, I then wheel his empty chair to the back of our van and lift it inside. I always feel the eyes of the other parents who are just sitting in their vehicles waiting for their children, but I quickly search for the right spot where Ivan's chair falls in just enough for me to close the door over it and then I hurry back into the safety and warmth of our minivan where I no longer feel the eyes of others, and where my eyes once again return to the rearview mirror.

It's only a matter of minutes before the door opens again and the same para appears holding Emarie's hand. I meet them in the parking lot and never tire of the excited "mooooom" I hear. The handoff is quick as Emma is anxious to get to the van and find her snack. I again sense the eyes of others. Sometimes I glance over and see their heads quickly shift and I know they must wonder our story, they must wonder how one family could have multiple children with disabilities, they must wonder the hows and the why's and I don't blame them; I would be curious too. I wish we had more opportunities to get to know the parents as well as we know the staff at this school, but except for a few of them, we only see each other in passing. I no longer feel the need to tell everyone our story, there is beauty and freedom in getting to the place where you can let the conversation rest at "yep, they're all my kids." I lift Emma up into the van. I ask her about her day and she tells me about it in her nonverbal way. I guess most people would consider it babbling, but I know there is purpose behind every sound she makes. Her excitement tells me she had a great day and I kiss her forehead before heading back to the driver's seat. I still have days where I feel sadness about her inability to talk, but those days are so few compared to the days where I just see the growth. I can honestly say I'm grateful for the valleys of despair I've walked through in motherhood because I believe, it was only through facing the grief, and walking through the disappointment that I found the healing and hope that has given me the ability to truly accept and love my daughter just as she is. It's ironic and wonderful how sometimes the breakthrough and growth you long for comes only after the letting go. The other day I was going through the motions of something I do multiple times a day, helping Emma get her winter gear on. As I pulled her hood up over her hat and sent her off to join her siblings who had beaten her outside and claimed the best sleds, she turned towards the door and took a few steps and then paused, ran back to me, kissed me on the cheek and just like that the gates that usually hold her words back, swung open and she said, so clearly, but so beautifully her, "luv ooo". It was one of those moments I will remember forever because, like Mary in Luke 2:19, I've hidden it away in my heart like a treasure that my mind can find whenever it wants to dwell on the goodness and faithfulness of God. Her face when it happened, I swear she was as shocked as I was. Our eyes, both wide as they have ever been locked on each others as a smile spread across both of our faces like a sunrise overcomes even the longest of nights.

After she's buckled, and settled in with her snack I return to the driver's seat, thankful for the few minutes I have to sit and read before the bell rings and kids begin pouring out the door. I feel like lately my love for reading has returned, It's not just reading though, I feel like I'm finally emerging out of a very long season of survival. I'm sure most every mama finds herself in these seasons at one point or another, the phases of life when if you're not careful, your exhaustion can morph into a numbing of your soul. The seasons where in the mundaneness of it all it's easy to become blind to the miracles and in the isolation it's tempting to stop seeking the one who never leaves our side. If you know our story, you know that God blessed us with our 5 precious kiddos in less than 5 years. It was a whirlwind of a journey with many summits, but oh so many valleys. I look back now and I wonder if I praised Him enough for the blessings and miracles. I wonder if I loved my children well enough in those days when I was just surviving. I am grateful that His grace covers all of our shortcomings and His power is made perfect in our weakness. I know I'm not the same person I was in that whirlwind, but also that I couldn't be who I am today without being her first. I think sometimes God allows us to lose ourselves so we can establish ourselves deeper in who we are in Him. Motherhood for me has been a continuous journey of losing and finding myself (or rather finding Jesus), and of surrender and renewal.

As I open my book I feel the pull towards anxiety, it's hard for me to focus on anything enjoyable when I know there is a long list of things I need to "do". For instance right now I've agreed to write 2 articles for Focus on the Family, I have 2 speaking engagements coming up, and someone just asked me to speak on their podcast, AND I have a few blog posts I've started, but haven't finished and don't quite know which one I'm supposed to focus on (if you’re reading this I guess I decided on one haha), I'm reminded that I should check my email and maybe I should take these few minutes to jot down some thoughts for that article and on and on my mind goes. I'm learning though that there is a time to "do" and a time where I just need to "be". The verse I'm claiming for this year is Psalm 46:10, "Be still and know that I am God." I've known that verse for what feels like my entire life, but there is something about this season of my life that has made the truths of that verse radically meaningful. It's why I wake so early just to sit in my chair with my coffee for hours and do absolutely nothing, but everything at the same time... resting, listening, abiding... it's the gateway to freedom and real impact I'm finding. That verse gives me the perspective to know that it's okay to put down my phone in this moment and pick up my book because I'm learning that relaxing for me is an act of trust. I have not always seen it as that, but there is freedom, peace, and new levels of productivity to be found when you stop striving and realize God works best when we're not getting in His way.

After only a few pages, I fold the corner of the page and return it to my bag and then fix my attention once again on the rearview mirror, children are starting to emerge from the doors and I love watching them, the sea of faces that my 4 loves swim amongst and grow alongside, I blanket them in prayer knowing God knows their life's details and their hearts cry's. My thoughts/prayers are interrupted when I spot Landon. His stature is always surprising when instead of standing next to his siblings he's side by side with children that don't share his last name. He carries me and Ryan's genes inside of him so I know I'm the one who is responsible for his short little legs. My dad always told me stories about how he was always the shortest one in his grade and never had a growth spurt until 9th grade, he may have been exaggerating, but I worry that someday Landon may share the same story with his children. Poor kid. I step out of the van so my smile and hand can help guide him across the parking lot.

Per the usual, he is telling me something before he even gets within ear shot. Ryan and I joke that although studies have shown that the average male uses 12,000 words a day and the average women 25,000, Landon somehow has a storehouse of at least 40,000. He processes life through words (I guess he gets that from me as well) and his curious and inquisitory nature means he is never at a loss for questions or excitement over his findings. These days he is maturing so much and Ryan and I can see his faith growing into something all his own. The other day as I was moving wet clothes into the dryer he joined me in the laundry room, "Mom, the Bible says that God is always with us, but what I'm just not understanding is sometimes bad things happen to us, like when I accidentally slammed Emma's finger in the door. So I just kind of feel like when good things happen, God is with us, but when bad things happen I just feel like God isn't with us." Before I turned to face him I sighed and shared a smile that I knew only God could see and understand. I knew I could talk to my son about how important it is that we don't just cling to our feelings, but rather allow our feelings to drive us to the promises of God. I knew I could talk to him about how bad things happen because we live in a fallen world. I knew I could tell him that's it's easy to follow Jesus and believe God's promises when life feels good, but the way our faith grows is through believing that no matter how we may feel or what may be happening in our life, God is always good... I knew I could tell him all of these things, which I did, but that wouldn't change the fact that this is just the beginning of a wrestling in his soul that he will likely fight his entire life. I think this is one of those things spoken of in 1 Cor 13 where it says "now I know in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known." Motherhood is funny like that isn't it, I find the older my children get and the deeper the questions become, the more I feel like the blind leading the blind, I know the truth is we are not blind, only seeing partly and understanding partly what someday we will know fully. As stressful as the baby stage was when they were all looking to me to meet their every need, I'm realizing there is a whole new level of fears and anxieties and stressors that tempt to overwhelm me now that they are not looking for needs met as much, but rather answers to their souls questions. All I can do is cling to Jesus realizing He is not just the author and perfecter of my faith, but my childrens as well and only He knows how their story needs to be written, no doubt I would write a boring one for them if it was up to me and more than I want them to be safe I want them to know Jesus.

Not far behind Landon is Gresham. I have come to expect the smile that comes across his face when he sees our van parked where it always is, a reminder to him that family is here for him and he is not alone in the world anymore. I know (because I've seen it happen) that with him even one day of being a little late or parking in a different spot could give fear the foothold we have worked so very hard to claim. But not today, today he smiles big and throws his arm up over his head in a wave that ripples joy through his whole body! As he draws near to me he excitedly tells me that he only had two breaks today. "Awesome job, Buddy!!" I give him a quick side hug as I remove his backpack. I look around for a second to make sure none of his teachers are making their way to talk to me. Earlier in the school year it seemed everyday I was receiving a phone call or having a teacher talk to me after school about his behavior. It was exhausting and hard and depressing and I felt lost as to how to discipline the child I received after school for the sins of the child that would overcome him at school. Although I know that child well, he rarely shows his face in our home anymore. We knew his issues were deeply rooted in the trauma of his past, in anxiety, and in the fact that the damage alcohol did to his brain before he was born still wreaks havoc. In our last effort before pulling him out of school and homeschooling him we decided to try medication. I will never forget sitting outside of the pharmacy as heavy tears streamed down my face without warning. How far have I fallen from the mother I thought I would be? I have always cared deeply about what goes into my families body and besides a period of Landon being on heart medication and Ivan being on muscle relaxant I had succeeded in my quest to be a medication free home, but this felt different, this was not a medication to purely treat symptoms of the body but the mind too and a part of me hated that. I knew God was working me further down my own stigmas about mental health, I knew that, but the knowing of the reason and purpose doesn't make the stripping and refining process any less painful. What I have found on this journey is that love is so much deeper than I ever could have imagined it to be. I used to have an idea of what a great mom was, and that is what I strove for, but little by little I have had to cast out that image, realizing it was nothing more than a good looking idol, and replace it with a God who cannot be seen or boxed in, a Savior by whom which I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28). With Him there is only the wild territory of faith, hope, and love and as wrong as it may have felt, I knew deep down that those things had led me here and all that I could do now is take the next step.

What a journey it has been. Gresham still has his occasional struggles, but the medication has helped him so much, so much so that my sadness over him taking it turned into sadness that my fear and pride held him back from experiencing this freedom sooner. My fear that the medication would cover or sedate a child who I had worked for years to uncover and awaken seemed like nonsense when I realized the medication only gave him the clarity and focus he needed to become even more, the beautiful, free, and whole person God created him to be. Like Landon, he is stepping into his faith and like Landon he is wrestling with how to reconcile the goodness of God and the pain of this world, but for him the questions run deep. It's in the longing to have a baby album and the memories that surface while he should be safe in slumber, but I see Jesus meeting him in those places. Like when Nathanael meets Jesus for the first time and he says "How do you know me?" and Jesus answers "I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you." Except for Gresham it's coming to know a Jesus who saw him under the covers, crying himself to sleep, before he was ever called a new name."

Before I adjust my rearview mirror back to it's normal position and hurry to get Landon to choir class on time, I take a minute to look at all 5 of them, the ones that can bring me higher and tear me lower than any others who walk this planet, and I'm just overwhelmed with gratitude. Gratitude for who they are today, gratitude for everything we've overcome and gratitude and excitement for everything that lies ahead of us.

I know one thing, it wont be boring.

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