Tested by Fire
“Gold is tested by fire, people by God.” (a Chinese proverb)
panic attack: an episode of intense fear that may occur as a reaction to a stressful event; specifically: one that is accompanied by four or more bodily or cognitive symptoms.
I didn’t realize what was happening at the time. My entire body was quaking. My face burned. I couldn’t catch my breath. I sucked a lungful of air. Forced it out of pursed lips. And the Jensons had not even arrived.
Peter tore his eyes from the door and looked at me. “Are you ok?”
His mum patted my knee. “You’ll be fine,” she said.
I nodded. How could they be so calm? I sat on my hands and concentrated on the breathing. In through my nose. Out through my mouth.
The trio of us—Peter, his mum, and I—were huddled in a corner of a Panera Bread Company. It was an icy December Wednesday in 2004. Bitter air rushed in every time a customer opened the door.
We were awaiting a meeting that none of us had foreseen a week before.
We were having dinner with Debbie.
infertile: incapable of or unsuccessful in achieving pregnancy over a considerable period of time.
For almost two years—since Peter’s dad had gotten sick—Peter and I had been attempting to have a baby. The extensive battery of tests had only revealed that my FSH level was high. This was a red flag.
“But,” Doctor Johns, our infertility specialist, had boasted from behind his oversized mahogany desk, “I’ve helped many women with high FSH get pregnant. This packet will explain the various treatment options we have. But you will be happy to know that seventy-five percent of my patients have had successful pregnancies.”
Infertility rate among American couples: 12%
Pregnancy rate for women using Clomid for three months: 40%
Pregnancy rate per in vitro fertilization transfer for women under age 35: 41%.
In May 2004 and again in June, we tried Clomid, tiny pills that I swallowed for several days. Then, on just the right day each month, I sped to the clinic with a plastic cup tucked under my coat. Both months—failure.
At our follow-up visit, Doctor Johns suggested we skip over a second level of treatment and jump right to In Vitro Fertilization—the ultimate in assisted reproductive technology. So for several mornings in August and again in October, I stood at the kitchen counter with vials, alcohol pads, syringes, and the nurse’s detailed instructions spread before me. Step by step, I mixed a potion in a syringe. I pinched a bit of fat near my bellybutton and shot the drugs into my stomach. Those same afternoons, I raced to the clinic on my lunch break for a blood draw and an ultrasound. And each evening I held a bag of frozen broccoli on my hip while my needle-phobic husband composed himself enough to insert a three-incher and inject yet another drug.
Both months, well into this routine, Doctor Johns called it off. “You aren’t responding well enough for us to go to retrieval,” the nurse explained on the phone at the end of the second IVF attempt. “But the doctor’s willing to try once more with an even stronger dose. Do you want me to make an appointment?”
Peter wasn’t home yet. I was curled in a lump on the couch. Tired of shots. Tired of frenzied trips to the clinic. Tired of the obsession. Tired of a body that wouldn’t cooperate, even with a whole lot of extra help, and wouldn’t do what most other women’s bodies do—often by accident.
“After I talk to Peter about it,” I told her, “I’ll call you back.”
I knew I never would.
pain: a. A particular kind of sensation, conveyed by specialized nerve fibers and recognizable by the patient as that kind of sensation whether he likes it or not. b. any experience, whether physical or mental, which the patient dislikes.
In his oft revered theological treatise on the subject, The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis writes that “Pain in the b. sense is synonymous with ‘suffering,’ ‘anguish,’ ‘tribulation,’ ‘adversity,’ or ‘trouble,’ and it is about IT that the Problem of Pain arises. For the rest of this book Pain will be used in the b. sense and will include all types of suffering: with the a. sense we have no further concern.”
Peter is a bit of a theologian himself. He studied theology at graduate school and graduated with honors. I did, too, actually. But with this month after month encounter with Pain, Peter’s theology was sticking; mine seemed to be slipping away.
He arrived home that night with a target on his back.
“We failed again,” I told him as he took off his coat.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“The nurse called. We can’t go to retrieval,” I said, venom in my voice.
He came and sat by me on the couch.
“I’m sorry,” he reached for me and I pulled away.
“No, you’re not,” I said.
“I am too, Kelli, but I have to trust that God—.” My vicious grunt shut him up. “Ok, fine,” he said and left the room.
It was a conversation we had had many times over the past couple of years—after I’d gotten my period, after a negative pregnancy test, after friends announced their pregnancies or had their babies, after a sermon at church on God’s faithfulness. They always ended the same way.
Me shouting: “How can God keep doing this to me? Why does He hate me so very much?”
Theologians articulate the Problem of Pain something like this:
If God is all good and all loving, and we believe that He is…
And if God is all powerful and sovereign, and we believe that He is…
Then why—why—is there so much Pain?
On the evening of Saturday, December 4, I had gone to the basement to run on the treadmill. After our October IVF defeat, I decided on a different tactic. I tried acupuncture, which promised to make me feel better—and help me get pregnant. I changed my diet—almonds and yams were supposed to be good for fertility. I drank fertility tea and eye-droppers full of potent fertility herbs. And I was trying to lose my infertility weight.
I immerged from my run to find Peter’s mum, eating leftovers at the dining room table. She was visiting us from England for five weeks through the holidays.
“Is the turkey still all right?” I asked.
My always-positive mother-in-law looked up at me with big, sober eyes. She simply nodded and said nothing. I knew something was up.
I passed into the living room to find Peter still at the computer where I had left him. He was putting the finishing touches on a sermon he’d been asked to preach in the morning on Malachi chapter three. We were a part of a small church plant team at the time, and they made use of Peter’s preaching skills whenever the pastor needed a break. Before I had gone for my run, we had talked briefly about the passage, about verse five—in particular—about God’s promise of judgment for those who oppress the fatherless.
“How’s the sermon coming?” I asked.
He looked at me with the same sober eyes I had seen on his mum, stood up, took my hand, and led me to the couch.
“Everything’s fine,” he said—clearly nervous, “but I need you to sit down so I can tell you something.”
He faced me on the couch and began, “I had a phone call from Joy Stoger.”
“She met a woman at the library—a friend of a friend named Laura Jenson—who happened to share that her eighteen-year-old daughter, Debbie, is pregnant and is making a plan for adoption. They are still looking for a family to adopt the baby.”
“Ok?” I said.
“Joy thought of us and took the Jenson’s phone number. Joy just gave me the number. But the thing is, Kelli, the baby is due on Christmas Eve.”
“What? That’s three weeks away.”
“I know. What do you think?”
“I don’t know what to think.” This wasn’t my plan. Sure, we had talked about the adoption option. But I wasn’t ready yet.
But then Peter said, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m preaching tomorrow from Malachi chapter three.”
According to David Baker, Malachi means “my messenger.” And his is a book of prophecy, written to a discouraged Jewish population. There was a drought and the crops were bad. They had expected a golden age of prosperity, but it had not dawned. Did God not care? they wondered.
Malachi answered these doubts. God was still on his throne, Malachi promised. He will deal with sin, refining his people like gold and silver, making quick judgment against all of the following: “the sorcerers, the adulterers, those who swear falsely, those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan” (3:5).
But obey God, Malachi continues, and see how He will bless.
The next morning Peter preached his sermon. And God, I suppose, used it to poke at me. “All right,” I told Peter that afternoon, “maybe this Jensen baby is what God has for us. Maybe this is what these past two years have been leading to. Maybe He can turn all of the pain into something good.”
So on Sunday night Peter called the Jensons. He talked to Laura, Debbie’s mom. He told her a bit of our story. He told her that we were both teachers. That he was from England; I was from Minnesota. That we had been married for five years and had been ready to start a family for two. And based on that information, Laura asked if we could meet. She suggested Wednesday night at Panera.
What Panera claims: We are bakers of bread. We are fresh from the oven. We are a symbol of warmth and welcome. We are a simple pleasure, honest and genuine. We are a life story told over dinner. We are a long lunch with an old friend. We are your weekday morning ritual. We are the kindest gesture of neighbors. We are home. We are family. We are friends.
“That can’t be them,” Mum whispered each time a new customer would blow through the door.
“I think we should pay for dinner,” I said. “From what I’ve read, it’s expected.”
“Ok,” Peter nodded.
Then I asked, “Do we even know what we’re looking for?”
“A big bump, of course.” Mum did a wiggle dance in her seat. Of course, she was hoping that that bump might be her first grandchild. “That’s all we have to go on, isn’t it, Pete?” she asked. He shrugged.
Then we spotted them—a middle-aged couple and a young woman who had to be Debbie. We rose to greet them.
“You seem to be looking for someone.” Laura smiled as she extended her hand to Peter. She introduced her husband, Bill, and Debbie, and Peter introduced Mum and me.
Then he announced, “We’d like to treat you to dinner.” I smiled in gracious agreement although I was already disappointed. I knew I should have come into this meeting with no expectations. Peter had drilled this into me. But since Sunday I had begun to Hope again. It was a horrible thing, that Hope. But in my Hopeful mind, the Jensons were more…something. More friendly? More charismatic? Could I be so unbelievably shallow? Even more attractive? But mostly, in my Hopeful mind, we had an instant chemistry, an instant connection. And I knew this was meant to be.
As we lined up to place our orders, I tried for small talk with Debbie. I said the potato soup was nice on a cold night, but Debbie only looked sideways at me with raised eyebrows and gave a little nod. Her blatant indifference and her bulging belly seemed to mock me. I focused again on breathing and on pulling one napkin at a time from the dispenser and piling them neatly on my tray. At the other end of the counter, though, Peter and Mum were chatting about the weather with Laura and Bill until—soup and sandwiches in hand—we all followed Laura as she bustled over to a high table and stools.
“Here we go,” she said. “Jensons on one side, Worralls on the other. How’s that?”
“Fine.” I forced a smile. “Sure has been cold this week,” I added, as Laura helped Debbie hoist herself onto a stool.
There was a painful, pregnant pause as everyone took a first bite.
“Does anyone need a napkin?” I tried again. “I grabbed a bunch.”
Then Peter took over. He always has something to say—a quality I never envied more than on that night. “We were so surprised to get that initial phone call on Saturday night,” he began. “We haven’t actually been in a position to pursue adoption yet. So it’s a bit of a shock—especially since Debbie has only three weeks to go.”
“I can imagine.” Laura had set her spoon down to focus on Peter’s monologue.
“But when we heard how you just happened to meet Joy at the library and how she just happened to think of us, we had to believe that God is doing something special here. And we are willing to do whatever we have to do to make this happen. I’m sure you have a lot of questions for us, Debbie.” Peter paused for a deep breath. “So feel free to ask anything.”
Debbie started easy. She asked where we lived, what we did for a living, and how close we were to extended family. For the most part, Peter answered. Peter—always ready with an answer, always articulate, always confident.
I just sat there.
There was a break in her interrogation when Debbie told her story of depression, alcohol, and drugs. I don’t remember a lot of the details because I was studying her features—light blue eyes above a turned up nose in a sweet, round face. I thought about looking into a face like that for the rest of my life. Such a strange thought. Could I love that face? Of course, I could. Debbie told about dropping out of high school and admitting herself for treatment. And she finished by explaining her pregnancy from a one-night fling with a blond, Norwegian guy who was just a friend and had disappeared.
When she finished her story, her questioning took a more particular turn. What were our hobbies? Did we like sports? Did we have pets? Pets were very important to Debbie. She had grown up with dogs and cats and even a horse. Unfortunately, we had none of these. But I had not seen our lack of household animals as a fatal flaw until that moment. In that moment, I was embarrassed and saddened that we did not even have a fish.
Percentage of Americans who own a fish: 2%
Percentage of Americans who own a dog: 44%.
Percentage of Americans who own a pet of any kind: 63%.
Finally, Debbie asked me directly, “Would you stay at home with the baby?”
I put my sandwich down and sat on my hands. The shaking returned full force. I couldn’t look Debbie in the eye and I stammered, “I can’t quit my teaching job in the middle of the school year…but I will quit in May…that’s the plan right now…so I will be home then. But my mother-in-law has agreed to help us in the meantime. That’s why we thought it was important for you to meet her tonight too…”
At that, Mum jumped in. She told Bonnie about her recent experience caring for her friend Brenda’s baby back home, how fresh it all was for her. How providential was that! They compared Brenda’s difficult pregnancy with Debbie’s easy one, while on my left Peter launched into a conversation with Laura and Bill about education—Peter’s favorite topic.
And there I sat—trembling and mute—in the middle.
For a few moments, I tried to smile and listen as Debbie talked about preparing for her immanent delivery. Mum responded by sharing some details from when Peter was born. I had nothing to add there.
So I turned toward Peter, Laura, and Bill. The Jensons were finishing their meal as Peter explained our interest in sending our children to a private, Christian school for the elementary years and then to the public school after that.
I tried to suppress my frantic self-obsessions. Can they see that I can’t stop shaking? Do those people at the other tables, enjoying their hunks of fresh-out-of-the-oven bread, realize the importance of this dinner in their midst? A baby’s whole life is being decided here. And does anyone care that I am probably failing my first audition for motherhood?
Finally, three hours after we met the Jensons, the Panera employees began wiping tables. “Is there anything else you want to know about us?” Peter asked Debbie.
“Not that I can think of.” She forced a smile. Her eyes looked tired and glazed. “I guess I would just ask you: Is there anything else you want me to know?”
Anything else I want you to know? I felt she knew nothing. I wanted her to know how badly I wanted to be a mother. I wanted her to know that my past year had been as hellish as hers. But I wanted her to know that I would love my children. I would do my best by them. That I might even buy them pets. But no words came. No words seemed adequate to convince an eighteen-year-old girl to choose us to parent her baby.
I forced a smile of my own and said, “Nothing comes to mind.”
“Pain,” C.S. Lewis has famously said, “insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
From my vantage point, in December 2004, the problem with Pain and God and that megaphone of His was not volume. It was intelligibility.
I could hear Him. Loud. But not so clear.
The following Sunday morning, I took yet another pregnancy test since I was a day late. And I watched as the single pink line appeared yet again in the little oval window. Peter and Mum went to church; I stayed home. I hated church just then—all those pregnant women and babies and happy people and God. I shut myself in our sunroom and watched Home and Garden TV.
It was evening when Peter knocked on the door. “Kelli, you need to get out of here. Do you want to go for a walk?”
We roamed the streets—mostly in silence. We were walking by the drug store when Peter’s cell phone rang. He looked at the number, then he looked at me. “It’s the Jensons.”
I held my breath. The quaking returned. In the moment that it took Peter to press “ACCEPT,” my mind raced from Hope to Fear and back again. Perhaps they had actually chosen us—perhaps God had come through with a miracle. I decorated the nursery instantaneously in my head and imagined baby toys under the Christmas tree. Perhaps. But then again, I was afraid of God. Afraid of the Pain I felt He caused. Afraid to Hope. The more I Hoped, the more I Hurt. I had learned that lesson all too well.
Peter put the phone to his ear. “Hello?”
He stared at the cars driving by as he listened. Finally, I heard him say, “No, we understand. Thank you for meeting with us. We wish you and Debbie and the baby all the best.”
Peter hung up and pulled me in tight. “So that’s it?” I shouted, not caring which neighbors were privy to the display. “WHAT…WAS…THAT?”
How to Use a Megaphone
Step One: Hold the megaphone several inches from your mouth with the small end toward you and the large end away from you.
Step Two: Point the large end of the megaphone toward the people you wish to exhort.
Step Three: Speak clearly into the small end.
Step Four: Wait for the audience’s response, then repeat Step Three as necessary.
Warning: Do not point the large end of the megaphone directly at the ears of anyone close to you. Permanent hearing loss can occur.
What was that? Sadism? On the part of God? At the time I thought it must be. What else could explain the cruel joke? What else could explain kicking your own supposedly beloved daughter yet again when she was already down? So far down.
Or was it the wrenching of one little, white-knuckled finger at a time from my own tidy vision for my life? Preparing me for an even grander one?
I might have suggested a gentler method.
On Tuesday, December 21, the first information packet appeared in our mailbox—a large envelope from Bethany Family Services. On Wednesday came two more—America World and World Links—and by Christmas Eve we had received all six of the adoption applications we had requested.
I tentatively opened each folder and flipped through each brochure of available children from Guatemala, Vietnam, Russia, and South Korea. I studied the picture of Anila from the Ukraine. Then Xiu-Yu Mei from China caught my eye. Had her year been hellish too? I bet it had. I imagined looking into her face, loving her for the rest of my life.
Someday. One little, white-knuckled finger at a time.
I labeled a manila folder “Adoption,” slid the six packets inside, and filed it in our drawer.