Think What You Could Give Them

“One final question,” she added. “Why should we admit you to this program?”

I wrung my hands nervously and then replied, “You should admit me because I really want this.”

“Thank you for your time. We’ll be in touch,” she told me.

I left the room, took a deep breath, and hoped I had said enough. At that point, I had done all I could do. I let go of all of the tension I didn’t realize I had been holding and walked to my car. Then I waited for six weeks.

***

My journey toward pursuing a new career has been a roller coaster of emotions. In my interview, I meant the words I said in answer to the final question. The application process had been rigorous and competitive, and I was tired. When I opened my acceptance letter, I cried tears of relief and gratitude. But a million times since that interview day and even before then, I’ve asked myself, “Do I really want this?”

What I want for my life today is so different from what I desired ten years ago. Ten years ago (and even five), I would have told you that I wanted to always be a working mom. “My kids would drive me nuts at home. I would need a break,” I said to myself and others. Now that I actually have kids, they do drive me nuts! I do need a break, often! But, much to my own surprise, I love being home with them. Like, I really love it. If I could make a career out of raising children, I would totally do it. I can’t. So I work.

During my final year of teaching is when things really began to change for me. I had given birth to our youngest that August and returned from maternity leave in October. I cried every morning on my way to work. Interestingly, I adored my kids’ daycare and my job that year. There was just something about leaving two kids instead of one that undid me. I knew I needed to make a change, and dental hygiene seemed like a positive one.

I have spent the last three years slowly working on pre-requisite classes for the hygiene program and going through the interview and application process. Mostly, though, I’ve gotten to be home with my people (and other people’s people when we’ve fostered). Last year, I had a part-time Title I tutoring gig that challenged me without stressing me out and allowed me to only work the hours that my kids were at school. I hated to walk away from that. Tutoring, like raising children, is a job I love that is not a career.

Walking out the door on the last day of tutoring in May felt like the first of many sacrifices I’ll make for dental school, and I’ve felt myself struggling to have a good attitude about each sacrifice as it arises. It is so much easier for me to see the things I am giving up in the next two years than it is to see the things I will gain. Isn’t life usually that way?

***

Three weeks ago, I sat in a room full of the other aspiring dental hygienists at my school as we drank from a fire hydrant of information at our summer orientation. It is very rare that I walk into a room and feel old, but at 31, I felt old that day. Most of the girls (and one guy) are 20. Few are married. Even fewer have children. All were geeked out about dental hygiene. As the day wore on, I couldn’t help but think that literally every person in the room was more excited about the program than me.

***

I half-heartedly flipped through magazine pages in the doctor’s office last week, waiting to get shots and blood work completed as part of my entrance requirements. I’ve been going through the motions of getting ready for the program to start, but my heart really didn’t want to be at the doctor’s office that day. A new doctor finally came in, and as he looked through my required immunizations paperwork with the OU College of Dentistry letterhead at the top, he asked me the question I’ve come so accustomed to hearing, “So, are you excited for school?”

mom studying

Normally, I mumble something about not really being excited for school but very much excited for the end result. There was no mumbling or beating around the bush this time. I’m completely overwhelmed. “No,” I said, “I’m really not.”

He looked at me and then chuckled kindly. “You know,” he began, “I started med school when I was about your age. I had two young kids at home. There were a lot of late nights. Lots of studying. I missed a lot at home. It was hard.”

Then I asked him the question I’ve been dying to hear someone who has walked this road before answer, “Are you glad you did it?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely,” he said.

The doctor went on to tell me how much he can give his family now that he is a doctor. They are comfortable and happy, and he’s happy, too. He loves his job, and it’s pretty flexible. The sacrifices paid off.

He probably thought I was crazy, but I cried. That conversation was God’s kindness to me that day.

***

I can’t say that I’ve gotten any more pumped about school since my doctor visit. But keeping the long view in mind has helped me dread it less. I may not be as excited as most of my classmates, but the years of life have given me something they may have less of: perspective. We’ll need each other to make it through these next couple of years which, the doctor convinced me, will fly by.

Possessions aren’t everything. Comfort isn’t everything. I know this, and I’m not going into dental hygiene solely because it pays well. There are a ton of well-paying jobs that I would never consider. But on the days when I’m feeling down about being away from my family so much as I complete my program, I try to focus my mind ten years down the road and think about what I can give them when this is over. Private school (maybe). College. Transportation. Trips. Weddings. Heck, we could even add another kid to our family and give him or her those things, too. People don’t talk about it, but those are not things that many Oklahoma teachers can give their families. (It’s a shame, really.)

My dad did this for my brother and me, and I’m forever grateful. I remember all of his late nights studying and going to class. And then I remember him graduating. And all of the things he gave us because he did. College. Trips. Weddings. He had a couple of terrible jobs, but mostly he enjoyed his work, and he was very good at it. The ten(!) years that it took him to finish school? Worth it.

I want my dad’s story to be mine, too. I might not be thrilled about the difficulty of the next two years, but I can’t wait for my kids to watch me walk across the stage on graduation day, when I can look at them and say, “I did this for me, but mostly I did it for you.”

beach-children-family-39691.jpg

Photo by energepic.com from Pexels

Would you still love me if...?

Almost 11 years ago, I was told that I had HIV.

***

As an unemployed, broke college student looking for an easy way to make cash, I thought that donating plasma would be just the thing to put a little change in my pockets.  So, I headed off to the plasma donation center.  The process went smoothly, and I left thinking that perhaps I could become a regular plasma donor in lieu of finding a "real" job.  The girl at the front desk did remind me that the center would call me after completing some testing to ensure that I was a worthy candidate for continued donations.  At that point, though, I was already deciding what to do with the extra 80 bucks per week. 

I took my exams and then went home for my first Christmas break as a college student.  About halfway through the month-long break, I received a phone call from the plasma center.

Receptionist: "Hi, is this Mary?"
Me: "Yes, this is she."
Receptionist: "I am calling about your results from the tests we did at the plasma center."
Me: "Yes ma'am..."
Receptionist: "It appears that you have an abnormality in your results."
Me:  "Which is..."
Receptionist:  "I'm sorry, I cannot disclose that information to you over the phone.  You'll have to make an appointment to come in and talk with one of the nurses."

I still had about two weeks remaining of Christmas break, and I would not be returning to Norman from my home in the Dallas area before then.  I told my mom what the receptionist had said, and we concluded that I was probably anemic.  I still worried somewhat about my test results, but mostly I enjoyed the rest of my holiday and didn't give much thought to the impending doom.

A new semester began, and I made my appointment to speak with the nurse at the plasma center.  She firmly planted me in a chair in a private room and jumped straight to Question #1.

Nurse:  "I'm going to need you to tell me everything about your sexual history.  How many partners have you had?"
Me:  "..."
Nurse: "Uh, ma'am...?"
Me: "Zero?"  

That woman didn't know me from Adam, but she definitely thought that I was lying.  She reminded me that "now is not the time to hide information" and asked me the same question about my sexual history (or lack thereof) in at least four different ways.  She also presented several other questions before announcing, in a most exasperated tone,

"The reason I'm asking you all of these questions is because your tests came back positive for HIV."

"Contact your doctor, good luck, and have a nice day."

It was not a nice day. 

I couldn't get out of that place fast enough.  I ran to my car and sobbed, unable to comprehend how this had happened.  I thought through all of the possible, and even the impossible, scenarios in my head.  Could I have gotten HIV from kissing someone?  Did a doctor once use a dirty needle on me?  I was responsible for the personal care of many adults at camp.  Did I get some bodily fluid into a cut one time?  Did I ever forget to wear gloves when changing someone? 

unconditional love

There were no other explanations.

I made an appointment with a family practice doctor in Norman, and I waited for what seemed like ages to get in as a new patient.  Then I waited for more test results.  Every hour of waiting was agony.

As it turns out, I do not have HIV. 

I don't think that the family practice doctor believed me about being a virgin any more than the nurse at the plasma center had, but he did explain that about one in every 10,000+ tests for HIV will come back with a false positive.  I was the one in 10,000.  I would not be allowed to donate blood or plasma again, but by then, an extra $80 per week was so not worth it to me.  I breathed a big sigh of relief and moved on with my life as normal.  Now, almost eleven years later, I can think about that story without being absolutely horrified.      

***

I haven't told the amazing part of all of this, although it is pretty amazing that I don't have HIV. 

When I was informed that I had a communicable disease, I had recently started dating Andrew.  We had known each other for about five months and had been dating for two, maybe.  After sitting down with the nurse that day in the plasma center, I debated whether or not I should break the bad news to Andrew.  For some reason, I decided that I should.  I remember sitting in his bedroom and crying for hours (literally) before I could get the words out.  When I finally did say something, it probably sounded like this: 

"IthinkIhaveHIV, IhavenoideahowbutIdon'tblameyouifyoudon'twanttobewithmeanymore."

Silence

For a long time. 

I felt sure that he was thinking of the kindest way to break up with me.

I don't remember exactly what he eventually said, but he wrapped his arms around me, told me that all would be well, and reassured me that he still wanted me.  He knew that staying with me meant that everything about our future would change if I did have HIV.  And it didn't matter.

unconditional love

***

We've been filling out stacks of papers for foster care, and tucked into the middle of one of those stacks are five pages of check boxes.

Will you accept a child whose parent did _____?

Would you accept a child with ________?  What about ______?  What if he/she has _____?

Essentially, all of these check boxes are asking the same thing:

Would you still love a child if ... ?

There are legitimate reasons for checking certain boxes and leaving others blank.  By no means are we checking every box.  However, my heart breaks for all of the times that one of the children in the system has asked the question (verbally or otherwise), "Would you still love me if ... ?" and someone has answered, "No.  I will love you, but only with strings attached."

There will be a host of tough things about foster care, but I can't wait to look into a child's eyes and say, "You're loveable because I love you" or "I love you for no other reason, except that you're (insert name here.)"  

I want to do this because this is how I have been loved.  My husband loves me this way daily, but ultimately, he is a mere reflection of the vast, unconditional love that Jesus has for me.

Maybe a foster child has heard words of reassurance before, but likely she hasn't.  So whether she's hearing, "A thousand times, YES!" for the first time or the 51st, I hope those three little letters take root, and I hope that, deep down, she believes them.

School In This Season: Managing College with a Family and a Life

Cut me a break, please.  It was the 90s.

Cut me a break, please.  It was the 90s.

(Originally published on Blogger in December 2016)

When I was six years old, my dad graduated from college.  

He was 41.

I clearly remember Dad's graduation ceremony, partly because my little brother was complaining of a stomachache the entire time, partly because the ceremony itself was dreadfully long and boring for a first grader, and partly because I thought my dad was just so cool to be walking across the stage in a black hat and "dress".  

For years, I never knew that graduating as a 41-year-old was not exactly "normal".  I always just knew that Daddy worked tirelessly for our family.  He was, and is still, the only one of his four siblings to graduate from college, just as my granddad was one of a select few in his generation to do the same.

I went to college because my granddad started a college fund for both my brother and me when we were infants, and this savings account grew until I was 18 so that my parents paid relatively little to help me attend the University of Oklahoma.

I never took out student loans.  I realize that, in today's world, that is nothing short of a miracle.

I also went to college because of the legacy that my granddad left, even after his passing, and the example that my dad gave me as he completed his degree.  I honestly didn't realize that there were other options after high school, and I'm not sure that I would have considered them anyway.  

College as an 18-year-old certainly required some effort on my part, but much of my time at OU was spent playing ultimate frisbee until 2:00 a.m. and doing lunch dates in the Union.  I graduated with an excellent GPA and did not kill myself trying to do so.  My social life was rich.

Today, I'm back in school, ten years after graduation, and I am only now comprehending the many sacrifices that my dad made for our family when I was little.  He worked full-time, went to school in the evenings, and still found time to be with Tim and me.  I remember him being gone at night, but he was never absent from our lives. 

Several years ago, I started working on my master's degree at OU.  The longer I was in school, the less I felt the calling to become a reading specialist.  My original motive to pursue a higher degree was based out of a love for learning and a desire to recreate my undergrad experience. Selfishly, I wanted to boost my ego and knew that a master's degree would make me look better on paper.  In the end, those were not good enough reasons to continue.

This time around is different than when I was fresh out of high school, and it is also different than when I was working on a higher level degree.  

This time, school is for my family.

I haven't loved coming home from lab at 10:00 p.m. with studying left to do, and there are so many days when it feels impossible to hold a part-time job and make everyone stop screaming and fold the laundry and do all the things.  (I truly have no idea how single parents make that happen.)  

College isn't exactly fun this time around.

It's also expensive, and I frequently find myself questioning if all of this is worth it.  But, I keep coming back to the same answer that it is, or at least it will be.

It will be worth it when I can help my girls pay for their own college and their weddings.  

It will be worth it to have a job which allows my people to get my best instead of getting my leftovers because I gave everyone else's people my best all day.  

It will be worth it when I can say, "Yes, I will read you that book for the 47th time today because I can because it's a Tuesday and I only work three days a week."

Right now, all of those "worth its" seem forever away.  They are at least six more semesters away, to be exact.  They are coming, though, and that thought has pushed me through many a night when I would rather be home with my family than listening to another lecture about electrons and other topics which have virtually no relevance in my everyday life.  

I finished my first semester back in college with As, but my perfectionist self surprisingly would have been okay if I hadn't.  I don't need to be perfect to do well or to get accepted into the dental hygiene program (I hope!).  Sometimes, everyone's best interest is found in closing the textbook and running around in the backyard with the little people, who aren't going to be little for much longer.

 
As somewhat of a related side note, God has continued to show me grace when I've most needed it throughout the school year.  I randomly had the sweetest lab partner who became a good friend as the weeks passed.  She works, is married, has two little girls the same ages as mine, and tries to balance it all, too.  We struggled through tests together, ruined labs together, and laughed a whole lot.  This is Amanda, and she made chemistry not only bearable, but kind of fun sometimes.

As somewhat of a related side note, God has continued to show me grace when I've most needed it throughout the school year.  I randomly had the sweetest lab partner who became a good friend as the weeks passed.  She works, is married, has two little girls the same ages as mine, and tries to balance it all, too.  We struggled through tests together, ruined labs together, and laughed a whole lot.  This is Amanda, and she made chemistry not only bearable, but kind of fun sometimes.