Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Big Girl

Big Girl

“There is absolutely nothing feminine about me!”
I hurl it like an accusation at my mother who sits across from me placidly folding laundry.
“I’m a big girl,” I say, in despair.  “I’m so tall, and I’ve got bigger hands and feet than any other girl I know.”
My mother looks at me like she doesn’t quite know what to say.  Unusual for her, especially since I am her third teenage daughter and nothing much rattles her at this point.  She nods.  She knows what I mean.  We live in Korea, and next to the Korean girls my age, I do indeed look gigantic. 
My mother puts down the laundry, takes my hand, and examines it thoughtfully.
“They look like strong, capable hands to me, Phebe,” she says. 
I roll my eyes.  Small comfort at sixteen.
My patient is only sixteen.  She looks small and scared in the big delivery bed.  I try my best to appear calm and confident, but the truth is that I am a very new labor nurse and not much older than she is. 
“It’s going to be okay,” I tell her, but inside I am praying dear God, please help us both come out of this alive.
When she is in so much pain that neither of us knows what to do anymore, she decides to get an epidural.  I hold her steady while the anesthesiologist inserts the long needle, and she leans on me and sobs and sweats into my scrub top.  I brace my legs and hold her with all my strength.  I stroke her head and talk softly to her, like she’s my baby sister.  And she makes it through.  We both do.  I am as surprised and excited as she is when a beautiful baby girl is born screaming and very much alive.  We are all alive, and life is good.
Later the young mama brings me some flowers at the nurse’s station. 
“These are for you.  Thank you for getting me through the pain.”
The card on the flowers says “congratulations on your baby girl”.  She gave me what she had.
I give her a hug and it hurts because my arms still ache from holding her.  It’s then that I decide I love being a labor nurse.
“How can you do that?” my patient asks, tears streaming down her face.   
I look down at the preterm baby cradled in the palm of my big hand. The baby is perfect, but too tiny to live.  Her skin is translucent, and she lies motionless except for the occasional gasp.
This is not the first time I’ve met death on the labor ward.  I’ve been a labor nurse for a few years now.  People often tell me that I have a happy job.  They forget that sometimes babies die and mamas have their hearts wrenched out right before my eyes.
And what can I possibly do about it?
Be there.  That is all.  Be there with my hands and my heart and my physical presence.  Be with the mama through her pain.
I dress the baby carefully, and the grieving mama holds her, and I hold them both.  The mama clings to my hand, and I don’t mind that she sees the tears on my cheeks.  I lost a baby too once, and I know a little of her pain.
A baby’s heart rate drops suddenly.  An emergency cesarean section is called and we are all running.  Somehow before I know it, I am about to assist the doctor because there is no one else to do the job.  I scrub quickly in the sink outside the operating room and walk in with my sterile hands held carefully in front of me. 
“What size gloves, Phebe?” the circulating nurse asks me.
“Dang, girl!  Even the doc’s hands aren’t that big!”
I blush, but don’t have time to think about it.  Before I know it, those size eight hands are holding retractors, pulling apart muscle, sopping up blood…and bulb suctioning a nine pound screaming baby boy.
Another labor, another mama.  She’s progressing slowly.  I examine her and find a head wedged forward, with too much room behind.  A slight concave under her navel and severe back pain mean that the baby is probably turned face up instead of face down.  Together we work through positions to turn the baby—hands and knees, modified lunges.  She is getting tired.  She settles on a birth ball, leaning forward into the bed, while I press my fist into her lower back to relieve the pain.  My arms ache as I lean over her and push her hip bones together again and again as she moans through contractions. 
And now she’s crouching in the bed, the top of a curly black head bulging through her stretching vagina as she bears down.  Suddenly she arches back and screams.
“I can’t!  I can’t!”
I cup my hands around her face.
“You can.  You will.  You are.”
She’s at that moment.  We all get there at some point.
I put my hands on her shoulders and speak calm and low.
“Mama, look at me.  Look at my eyes.  Breathe with me.  You are a strong, beautiful mama.  You can do it.  Push.”
And somehow she summons the strength, and the baby is born in a gush of amniotic fluid and blood.  She sinks back, crying, sweating, shaking, and I place the screaming infant on her naked chest. 
She looks up at me, triumph in her eyes.  The warrior returned from battle, victorious.
“I did it,” she says.
Later the new mama calls me to come help her get up to the bathroom.
“If you start to fall, fall on me,” I say, gently helping her to her feet.  “I’m a big girl.  I’ll catch you.”
She smiles.  A trail of blood runs down her leg and she looks at me, concerned. 
“No worries.  We’ll get you cleaned up as soon as we make it to the bathroom.”
I walk behind her, one leg placed strategically to catch her if she falls.  I help her settle onto the toilet, and begin explaining about how to take care of herself and prevent infection after birth.  She looks at me, her face sweaty and exhausted, and I realize she needs a minute.  Satisfied that she isn’t going to faint, I start the shower and get some towels.  While she showers, I clean up the room—mop blood off the floor, change soaked linens.  It’s a messy business, having a baby.  A few minutes later, I help the new mama back into a fresh bed, give her some Motrin, instruct her to drink up the juice I give her, and leave her breastfeeding her pink newborn. 
I rinse the delivery instruments and start the first disinfectant soak.  Then I pour another cup of coffee and sink into my chair at the nurse’s station.

Aching arms.
Size eight hands.
Hundreds of mamas.  Hundreds of times.
“I’m a big girl.  I’ll catch you."

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Unimportant Details--A Poem

Unimportant Details

There are some who say that life is...
A synonym for prose and practically.
And it is.
But nonsense puts color into existence and the poetry into prose.
A blooming cherry tree is not just prunus avium; 
It is the winter queen arrayed in her snowy summer costume.
The sun is not a ball of burning gases;
It is a warm friend who streams through my window every morning to dance a jig upon the floor.
And a baby is not a fetus;
It is a tiny miracle and a vast overture of life.

There are some who say that life is...
A scientific fact--the earth is round.
That is so.
But may my years sail on,
Not in dull circles, but in harrowing adventure until at last I plunge in ecstasy from Terra's rim
To the next world.

There are some who say that life is...
A mathematical equation--one plus one equals two.
It is true.
But to me, numbers create rhythm for beauty and were made to herald the beginning of a music staff. 
In my imagination, I see One waltzing to the strains of a solitary violin;
Then another One bows eloquently and they dance a duet as the viola begins it's harmony.

There are some who say...
"Poetry is very nice, but life is not that way."
What is life then?
A ceaseless, uphill trudge among thorns and stones? A soundless concert?
Look again, through a child's eyes,
And perhaps you will recollect that red is not a blot of paint, but the color of autumn leaves and apples.
Look again, in an hour of sadness,
And you will remember that tears are diamonds, sorrow is myrrh, and death is only a door.
Look again, and never cease to look for the silly unimportant particulars,
Because they are what matter most.
They change the thorns to roses, the stones to gold.

Never forget the important truths of life:
That there is a silver path across the water, leading to the moon.
That castles in the clouds are an everyday necessity.
That you can learn to fly.
That romance is a reality.
And it is.
That is so.
It is true.


Monday, December 21, 2009

The Incarnation--God With An Umbilical Cord

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How many kings, stepped down from their thrones?
How many lords have abandoned their homes?
How many greats have become the least for me?
How many Gods have poured out their hearts
To romance a world that has torn all apart?
How many fathers gave up their sons for me?
Only one did that for me

--Lyrics from "How Many Kings" by Downhere

I've been hearing this song on the radio this week. It always brings tears to my eyes. It makes me see...Jesus, taking off His royal robes, allowing Himself to become an embryo, growing inside a young girl. Jesus, limiting Himself for us. Can we ever know what that was like? Not completely. But if we can, for a moment, forget the herald angels singing, forget warm visions of friendly animals in a spotless barn, forget the unusualness of Christ's birth...then perhaps we can really see. A little anyway. See how human Christ became--how He humbled Himself.

Luke says it so delicately: "While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son." (Luke 2:6-7)

We are tempted to think sterile thoughts--Christ wrapped in snow-white blankets and in a cozy manger. Our minds recoil from the truth--that the King of Glory was born in a gush of blood and amniotic fluid to an groaning, exhausted, terrified teenager. In a barn. Over straw and manure. We don't want to remember that He did that, went that far for us. Isn't that a bit too much, Lord?

But we must remember. We must not tidy up Jesus' birth. We must always remember His sacrifice--the shadow of the cross over the manger.

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:5-8)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Six Random Things About Me--For Carrie

So, Carrie tagged me to write six random things about me. Mmmm... Where to begin? I'm sort of random and absent-minded, so this shouldn't be too hard. It's just so much easier to lurk on other people's blogs and read their randomness than to write my own.

1. I share Carrie's love of Korean rice and Korean food in general. Maybe that's not so random since...uh, she's my sister. The random thing is that I CRAVE Korean food when I'm pregnant. Just go back to my roots, I guess. That, and I can't get enough shaved ice, spinach, and steak. Yeah, I know you're thinking ANEMIC! ...You're probably right.

Oh, and I make some awesome bulgogi! Just thought I'd throw that in there.

2. I LOVE Masterpiece Theatre! I've seen just about all of their productions--except the creepy ones, cuz I'm a wuss like that. Anything Jane Austenish is right up my alley. In fact, I'm getting old and set in my ways, so I hardly watch anything else anymore--maybe that also has something to do with the fact that I have three little kids, too... Mark is kind enough to suffer through romantic comedies with me, but when it comes to "19th century soap operas", as he says, then I'm on my own!

3. I'm afraid of heights--really high heights, that is. I hide my eyes when we go on some of those awful dirt roads in the mountains with sheer drop-offs and no guard rails. Mark gets a kick out of this, and teases me mercilessly about it.

4. I'm not so good at math, but I'm good with finances. I know, that's supposed to be an oxymoron. I cannot do more than 2-digit sums in my head (sometimes not even that!), but I understand about dividends and mutual funds and compounding interest. Well, I'm getting there, anyway. Please, if you are a financial genius, don't leave comments! Financial stuff is just very interesting to me. I'm afraid that makes me a nerd.

5. Lists, schedules, and pretty new notebooks make me happy! Now, I'm SURE that makes me a nerd. Writing up a new routine, or writing in a new notebook makes me feel like all is right in my world--very therapeutic. Strangely enough, I hardly ever stick to routines (not very precisely, anyway), and my house is not very organized--and that doesn't bother me until it gets to the I-don't-know-where-anything-is point.

6. I will never, ever remember your phone number, but I will remember your name, and the names of your children, and your entire life history.

I often wonder about the life stories of the people sitting in the car next to me at the stoplight.

If you talk to me while I'm driving, I will follow my "salmon trail" as Jess says--and we will most likely end up at church, home, Target, piano lessons, Ultimate Buffet, or Jill's house. Which means I would probably do better to not think so much about the people in the car next to me.

I'm not so good at thinking before I speak.

I think my husband is the hottest guy ever, even after 10 years of marriage.

I'm cheating (on this list, that is--not on my hot husband). That's WAY more than six things. Maybe this wasn't so hard after all...

Thanks for the tag, Carrie. That was fun!

**Edited to add: Sorry, that was supposed to be "Ten Little-Known Things About Me". Not so sure the above stuff is particularily "little-known"--especially the part about me not thinking before I speak! :) Anyway, remember how I said that I'm absent-minded? Well, there you have it, folks!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Another Love Story

Confession time. I have a love affair with children's literature. Whew! Got that one off my chest! Seriously, though, I am a helpless fanatic. I can breeze right through the toy section at Walmart without a single heart-string twinge; but get me into Borders and my kids know I am a sucker! Come on, even as I walk in the door, I almost swoon over the smell of coffee and books. I love books. I love reading. I love teaching reading. I love to read aloud. I love to listen to my kids read. I love to stack up all the children's books from the book shelf around me and sigh with pleasure. Yes, I'm weird. Now, math? That's another story--we won't go there.

A few things I've learned over the years--and am still learning!--about reading literature to children (a broad category, I know):

* First be excited about the book yourself. I was blessed with a mother who was a reading fanatic and, as you can see, she passed that on to me. Pick books that you loved as a child, or books that sound interesting to you. Every once in a while, I select a book to read aloud that I later find to be a real drag either to myself or to my kids. I've learned that it's perfectly okay to lay a book aside without finishing it and pick out something else.

* Stick to classic children's literature. Let me clarify that I have nothing morally against popular "movie turned into story" books, Barbie series, or Babysitter-Club-type popular fiction (Christian or otherwise). We have quite of few of those, in fact. However, I've found that my children don't really enjoy them. They are the books that get read once and then forgotten; or read halfway through and then found to be boring. They don't have much substance. Classic literature is enduring for a reason--children love it! Look for Newberry Award Winners, or books that have just plain been around for a long time. If children love it so much that it's been printed and reprinted over and over, then it's probably a great book.

* Don't be afraid to read slightly above your child's reading level. When I first started reading chapter books aloud to my oldest daughter, I used to change words that I thought she would not understand, or stop to explain a lot of things. One day she said, "Mom, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but can you please stop doing that? It kind of messes up the story. I'll let you know if I don't understand something."
I've found that, as usual, my kids "get" far more than I give them credit for! Recently, I read Heidi by Joanna Spyri aloud. Even the three-year-old enjoyed it and understood the general storyline. Side note: It helps (my children anyway) to listen better if they play with blocks or draw or do something quiet while I read. Don't insist that they sit still unless you're reading a very short picture book.

*For the homeschool teacher: Don't kill a book by insisting on book reports or narration. I know, I know, we want so much to have something to "show" for what our children read, but did those activities ever make you want to read more? There are plenty of ways to get your child to write or comprehend besides doing book reports or awkward narration. Try asking your child to write a story about when she spent a day with Laura in Little House on the Prairie. Or how about writing a different ending for her favorite adventure story? Maybe she could make a diorama of a scene from The Cabin Faced West. How about just asking your child what she's been reading and showing genuine interest instead of asking for a tedious narration? Try to keep reading pleasurable as much as possible.

The payoff:

Tonight, Cassie told me she had just finished Treasures of the Snow, by Patricia St. John. "It's time to pick a new book!" she said, excitement in her voice.

We went downstairs to the living room bookshelves. She browsed the titles, asking me my opinions of different ones. She finally had a stack of ten or so to choose from. She looked at them and arranged them into different piles, and skimmed the first few paragraphs, and looked at the pictures. "Oh, Mom, how can I decide!" she said.

I told her she would have to decide soon because it was well past her bedtime. She finally selected A Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden, and hurried upstairs to read the first chapter before falling asleep. I marveled that she had already fallen in love with reading.

Now, anyone want to volunteer to teach her to fall in love with math?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Rice Chronicles: Christmas in July

**The Rice Chronicles continues with another snapshot of my crazy childhood! Please follow me around the world to Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa, where I spent the summer of 1995. I was 16 years. I was in a war-torn country. The only other white person that I knew of had left a week after I arrived. There was no electricity most of the time and there were huge roaches (eewww!). I was far from everything familiar--except rice. It was the staple diet, of course! The Rice Chronicles, take two...

Christmas in July

I climbed the steps of the mission guest house wearily that night. I set the kerosene lantern on the table and groped around for something to eat. After weighing the possibilities--leftover potato leaf plassass with palm oil congealing around the edges of the plate, or a gigantic mango--I settled down to cutting up the mango and watching termites fly suicidal missions into the flickering light of my lantern.

I heaved a heavy sigh. I was so tired...of everything really. The initial excitement of the lush tropical landscape and a new culture to conquer had slowly worn off in the face of stark realities. Just that day we had visited a home overflowing with refugees fleeing the rebel terrorists. One pregnant woman was very ill, and the little witnessing team I was with had stopped to pray for her.

"'E de got de cholera," one of her relatives told me. Then, indicating a bright-eyed boy and girl curled up on a ragged blanket, "An' de pikin den. De de got 'em too."

What could I do? Nothing.

A few days ago... A woman writhing in the red mud next to her dilapidated shack--screaming as if her heart was being ripped apart. Her husband had just died.

What could I do? Nothing.

Children clogged the streets. Begging, crying, bloated stomachs, skinny legs. Homeless. No one called them their own.

What could I do? Nothing.

Amputees. Handless. You saw them everywhere--the butcher in the market, the lady on the bus, the child playing in the dust. Evidence of a senseless war. Cruelty beyond imagination.

What could I do? Nothing. Nothing. NOTHING!!

Lord, why am I here? I'm only sixteen. What in the world can I do? What difference am I really going to make? I'm lonely and overwhelmed and I want to go home.

I heard my house mate, Kadi, at the door. I hurried to wipe away my tears; I was not in a mood to bear my soul. Not to her, anyway. Kadi was a sweet Christian girl, but very quiet and usually kept to herself. Tonight, as usual, she greeted me politely and hurried upstairs to her room. I sighed and blew out the kerosene flame.

Inky, velvet darkness enveloped me. I had never quite got used to the complete darkness of Africa at night with no electricity. No streetlights, no headlights, no glowing windows. Dotted here and there were flickers from native oil lamps, capturing brief silouettes of passers-by. In between the small circles of light they cast were vast frontiers of blackness--inpenetrable, invincible darkness...


I jumped.

"Sorry to startle you," Kadi whispered from the stairs.

"No, not at all," I said, "Come sit down. Should I light the lantern?"

"No, no. I'm used to the dark."

She held up something that glittered every so slightly in the velvet blackness.

"Did I ever tell you I play the flute?"

"No, I don't think you ever did," I replied, only slightly interested.

"Well, I don't play much. Only Christmas songs, actually."

Her voice sounded a little bashful at this admission.

"Can you play one for me?" I asked, wanting to make her feel better.

The first few notes trilled out loudly in the stillness. She was playing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", and she played it very well. It made me think of carolling and of home, and when she was through, I asked her to play another.

And she did. That quiet, mousy girl must have known every Christmas song ever written--"Hark the Hearld Angels Sing", "Away in a Manger", "Silent Night", "O Come All Ye Faithful", "Good King Wencelas"... On and on she played, each soft note striking a blow against the palpable night.

I sat across from her on the cold tile floor, whispering the words to each well-known tune--verse after verse, song after song--tears slipping soundlessly down my cheeks.

"...O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by..."

Dark, quiet streets like those outside the window. Mary gazing at the face of her new baby Son in the glow of a native lamp... Her Son born into a terrifying, sinful, dark world like this one.

"...Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die..."

Oh, Lord, how much we need your light and life and healing here. Oh, Jesus, come be born in Africa!

"...O come, O come Immanuel! And ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear..."

I am here, Phebe. Shining out through you--a small circle of light in the acres of darkness. Shining out through every heart that is open to My light. I have many people in this city...

And I could see those lights--small but bright--dotted through the streets and mountainsides of Freetown. God's light and life and healing. Never going out. Pushing back the darkness. Hope for all of our wretched sinfulness. Hope for me.

My comforted heart overflowed with thankfulness to a God who cared enough about a homesick teenager to visit the dark backstreets of sad Freetown. With Christmas music. In July. A God who cared enough for all of us to come into our sad world as a crying, helpless newborn baby on Christmas. And bring light.

"...Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight..."

By Phebe Sistoso
June 7, 2009

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Home schooling. There are days when I wonder why I ever did this. That mostly happens on rotten weather days when we all have cabin fever. But really, why WOULD you want to home school? If I'm honest, I'd have to say that, yes, the expert teachers probably teach better than me. The children would've had more chance to explore subjects like Spanish and computers if they were at school. Sometimes I have trouble staying on top of things like what library books I need to reserve for next week's unit study, what field trips I need to coordinate, and what supplies I've forgotten to buy for which crafts. I'm no expert.

But I have a conviction that this is the right thing to do. It grows with every week that passes. It's hard to explain. In fact, I don't understand it completely myself. I can't resent people that don't understand our decision to home school, because I don't understand it either. The best way I can describe what's in my heart is: "Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart".

This IS my desire. And I sure am delighting in it! Oh, not when Joy doesn't understand her math, or when Anne throws a fit when I'm trying to read aloud. It isn't even the educational games, the books we read, or the crafts we do that matter most. It's those brief glimpses of a beautiful childhood that reassure my heart that we're in the right place.

It's Belle walking across the backyard with the ducklings trailing behind. It's the children making snow angels in the front yard when everyone else is in school. It's Joy teaching her younger sister to play a song on the piano. It's the girls running and leaping in a windy meadow on a nature walk. It's Belle "fixing" the car with Dad on his day off. It's glimpses--beautiful, rare glimpses. Each one is a gift. It's not what they learn that matters most. It's who they are and who they are becoming. It's their childhood and it only happens once.

Glimpses... Beautiful, rare, treasured glimpses. I don't want to miss even one...