The Adventure

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“Does this work?” The three word text message that made my week. He’s back, alive and contactable! Graeme left for his Kilimanjaro climb to support deaf babies 8 days ago, and poor reception has meant no contact or feedback for over a week, but I reasoned that no news was good news. I don’t love early mornings, and since our girls are up before the sun on most days, Graeme usually deals with them, sorting honey-tea bottles and obliging the varied breakfast orders, so that I can savour a few more minutes of rest. This week without him has really helped me reflect on just how amazing he is!

His text message was followed by my excited, “Wooohooo! You’re alive! We’ve missed you!” and then a long stream of questions….

“Send me pics!” After a few shorter catch up messages confirming that we’d survived the week without him and that he had indeed summited and was well, I ask him to give loads of feedback and details before time blurred some of the most treasured moments and precious experiences.

“I’ll quickly send through some pics first.” This was followed by a flurry of ‘frozen moments’ capturing parts of the climb whilst sporting his orange HI HOPES fleece. The one above is at the summit signing “B. I love you.” My heart is warmed realizing how he specifically thought of me up there.

“Ok…here’s brief detail. Put your phone down, it may take a while…”he replied. With a childlike Christmas-morning-type excited anticipation, I eagerly stared at my phone’s screen and read each of the 20 plus lengthy text messages, intrigued more and more with each new unfolding of the adventure.

“So we started the first day – a 13km hike through rain forest. Uphill all the way. We camped at 3200m, I think. Second day 5 hours straight of uphill rocks – one of the toughest days,” he texted. It sounds like a tough start and considering that Graeme was so sick just two weeks before he left, I was wondering how his last few days had been.

“The nights were freezing, I was warm but the sloped thin beds made for poor sleep,” He continued. Mmm, with our restless girls, it sounds like neither of us had much sleep this week, but waking up for crying kids, hardly sounds as admirable, as braving the rocky slopes of Kili!

“The 3rd day was my worst,” he went on to explain, “we hiked up to 4800m in seriously windy conditions – barren land. It was dusty and cold, and I started to feel unwell. I had a bad headache and really struggled. It wasn’t supposed to be a difficult day, but it was my worst. My thoughts were simple, ‘If I don’t start feeling better, I’m not going to make it!’ ” I found it interesting that he has now already mentioned the “worst day” this early on in the climb. I thought the actual summiting or penultimate day would be harder. I’m intrigued to see why things obviously improved.

“The 4th day was beautiful and technically challenging. We climbed up a rock wall, then down a bit again and we could see the camp which seemed about 15 minutes away. We had underestimated the massive valley in between. I hurt my knee on the downhill and so found the uphill a real challenge. People gave me some meds for my knee and headache and that helped a bit. Didn’t sleep well that night though. The views were always beautiful.” I think that it’s amazing that in spite of being sore and exhausted, that he was still able to appreciate the views! But that’s how we survive life and the challenging terrain it offers us at times. If we are only focusing on the pain and don’t pause to admire how far we’ve come and drink in the bigger picture, we lose perspective. Enjoying how the reality of the climb is reflecting bigger truths, I read on.

“The rest of the journey to base camp was ‘poli poli’ (slowly slowly). We arrived at 14h00 and the plan was to wake at 23h00 to start the summit at midnight. I get teary thinking about summit night. My phone battery is flat so I hope it will last for the rest of the story,” he cautions.

“Oh, please last, battery!” I wish as I’m now completely engrossed and wondering why he feels so emotional reflecting back on summit night.

“We started the final climb,” he continued, “I thanked God for the instant oats that you packed because other people only had a few biscuits.” Smile. We’d had a debate before he left on whether my little day packs of extra food and calories were worth taking as they’d add extra weight to his back pack. I won the debate in the end and insisted he take them.

“Initially it was a straight 1200m up on loose shale. The weather was incredible and only got to about minus 6 degrees with a slight breeze. And although I’d hardly slept, I was feeling much better.”

“Wow, that’s amazing!” I reply, the first reply I’ve made through the conversation thus far, but thought I’d let him know that I was reading his reflections and was engaged in the conversation.

“I forgot to say…”he interjected, “that when I was having my doubts about my health and making it, the little message ‘never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God’ kept replaying over and over in my mind.” Before he left I made him a little present to take along with him. I got the idea off Pinterest, and thought it was quite cute. It suggested to fill a little week long pill box with little sweeties and notes to give a friend who was going through a tough time so they would have a tiny reminder that someone was thinking of them for every day of that week. I had found a colourful week-long pill box at the chemist and filled each day’s compartment with encouraging quotes and little photos of our girls. This would be a light-weight appropriate present for the climb, I had thought. The quote he was referring to was one that I had decided to place in one of the earlier day’s compartments. Thank you Pinterest!

“There were six of us on the ascent and three amazing guides,” he continued, “and many other lights above and below us. Let’s just say that during the decent we realize why they ascend at night. The magnitude of the climb would be too daunting and would make many turn around…better at night when you can’t see.” I’m stunned by this metaphor for our lives, and my phone slides onto my lap as I take some time to ponder the fullness of this similarity. I’m reminded of my trip to Johannesburg where I had Eden’s ABR test (objective hearing test) done. On the way there I felt really daunted by the physical journey to an unknown city, and concerned that I had not looked at a map ahead of time to chart my exact journey but rather relying on a GPS that would give me instructions just before I needed to make a turn or a change. I like being planned, I like knowing where I’m going and having everything sketched out with clear expectation. We ended up reaching our destination safely, albeit with a few ‘re-calculating’ prompts from my GPS after having misunderstood the instruction a couple of times. It was the first few hours after receiving Eden’s diagnosis that I had realized that this ‘GPS analogy’, which I now refer to it as, was quite profound. On this journey of mothering my 3 deaf daughters, I am not always going to be a able to see the route sketched out clearly, may need to redirect and re-route after some decisions that aren’t working out so well, and well, blindly follow my gut, my researched information and mostly, my God. And as Graeme has just experienced, when journeys are rough with intimidating slopes and unsteady paths, sometimes it’s best to just follow the lights ahead of you, and marvel at the magnitude of the climb only on the way down rather than be frozen in fear before even taking on the challenge.

“Wow, what a story,” I say under my breath, and read the text messages that have subsequently arrived while I was having my pensive moment and quickly reply, “Wow, that’s deep!”

“I kept looking up to the lights above me,” the next message read, “I decided that looking up was going to get me there. At about 500m into the climb, I started to struggle. I really was struggling! At 600m someone asked how far we had climbed. The reply of 600m broke my heart, as I felt that we had been going forever and was losing my strength. I prayed and remembered that note again. I had walking poles like everyone else and my arms were exhausted…I started dragging my poles.”

“Oh my dear ‘Bird’,“ I now exclaim to the four walls of my lonely bedroom, I was just starting to feel encouraged and in a positive self-reflective place after his last few messages, but seems things then got worse again. The next message tone sounded, and now desperate to see how things unfolded, I read on.

“I got rid of the poles. Within minutes energy started to enter me in a way that I can’t explain.” Oh, relief. This is amazing!

“I’m sure my oats had something to do with it,” I reply teasingly.

“Up until then I was the one getting encouraged,” he replied, ignoring my tease, “I had generally struggled with the hike up until then and now I was becoming the encourager to everyone else. I had not felt stronger the whole hike, some in our group could barely walk. As I encouraged them, I kept feeling stronger.”

“WOW!” I reply.

“The most incredible sunrise happened. We weren’t far from the top. I saw another guide with his arm under another large climber trying to help him up. He was never going to make it. Guide too small and tourist too big.” I chuckle at the very matter of fact way that he has reported this somewhat comical scene and then feel guilty at finding someone else’s hard time, amusing. His next message came through which eased my guilt as I associate Graeme and I as being one unit, “I went down and took his other arm and helped carry him up this very loose section. Our guides couldn’t believe it…others asked them if I was also a guide!” Now, I read this message, and can visualize my tall skinny husband propped under this large exhausted man’s other arm. He is amazing. I choke back the tears that are blurring my view of subsequent text messages.

“We still had about 150m still to go, and some of the other climbers were really struggling, but I felt as though I was walking along the beachfront.” This sounds boastful, but I know my husband, this message was simply an acknowledgement that his strength did not come from himself.

His next message read, “The way down was quite something as the magnitude of the climb became apparent. Some people were racing down but I couldn’t leave the sick climbers so stayed behind with them, especially since I was the only medical guy on the team. It was hectic, one climber collapsed twice and was briefly unconscious. The last stretch took us ages. We went as a team, I walked behind the guys who had been struggling, just talking to them both. Both made it and were okay in the end.”

“What an amazing story!” I reply.

“I think you can appreciate all the analogies to what has and is happening in our family…on our journey,” he messaged back, “it was like God was just reminding me in a big way that He is with us. Everything is going to be okay, and we must remember that when times feel really tough.”

“That’s so awesome,” I reply briefly, as the last message of the conversation reaches my cell phone.

“Battery dead now, must go, can’t wait to see you. Love you!” his last message read.

“Yes! Can’t wait to see you too! Girls missing Dada,” I quickly reply back, hoping that he’ll see it before he switches off his phone.

I slouch back against the pile of pillows resting against the head end of my bed, and give thanks. I’m grateful for his safe adventure, and for the incredible epiphanies that he had along the way, which have now encouraged us both. I’m grateful for a strong, courageous, compassionate and self-reflecting husband and I’m grateful for his ability to express his thoughts and emotions. I’m grateful for his being able to summit, as I wondered what we’d say to the generous donors that have pledged money, had he not made it – that would have been tricky. I’m so grateful that he’s on his way home, and that we’ll be five again soon. But mostly, I’m reminded that I need not fear for my future or that of my girls. Our lives are in big hands. Times have been and will be tough and sometimes painful. There’ll be people along our journey cheering us on, and at times, we’ll do the cheering and stand alongside others who may be struggling. There will always be beautiful views as long as we’re mindful to actually stop and admire them, and when it’s dark and the path ahead is uncertain, I’m encouraged to keep my gaze up, keep looking at the lights ahead and keep one foot in front of the other.

Thanks to everyone for their support, whether as financial pledges, messages, calls and prayers…the proverbial ‘flag’ was mounted on the highest point in Africa for deaf babies and their families. The support has been sincerely appreciated!

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Looking UP – day #365

A few short words, neatly recorded on the pale blue lines of a college exercise book, stare back at me as I glance over to my “September 2013” entries. These words represent the start of our intervention with my girls, and I’d carefully jot them down and add to the list, any changes or new words, every few days. These are our little ‘language record books’, there’s one for each of them- each a little different from the other. The 3rd soft-covered book had joined the pile a couple of months after the first two. As I’m typing this, I’m glancing back and forth to Tahlita’s first page, admiring my extremely neat hand writing. Every word that she was using was so precious to me, and the way that I’ve recorded them is evidence of that. I haven’t been as conscientious over the past few months as I was initially, in keeping track of all new words, phrases or signs, as simply, over the last 10 months now, the pace has been so rapid that I often lose track of the specifics and details.

This next week marks one year since the discovery that the twins are deaf. One year ago, I was probably analyzing the day’s events and having moments lower than words can describe as I recalled something that made me ‘see’ their hearing loss, and then holding onto moments when I had thought they had responded to sound, just to numb the sting of the fear and uncertainty which consumed my every thought at that time. I had our ABR/ASSRs booked, and felt the confusing combination of wanting to press the ‘pause’ and ‘fast forward’ buttons on my life simultaneously. I wanted to pause the ‘now’…prevent having to deal with the biggest challenge that I’d face thus far, and yet was absolutely desperate to know the state of my girls’ hearing, that every last day of waiting, was excruciating. One year ago today, I honestly did not expect Hadassah to be deaf, and the thought of Eden having hearing loss, hadn’t yet crossed my mind. Had someone mentioned the possibility of all 3 being deaf and the probability of it being a progressive process, I possibly would have needed some form of inpatient mental stabilization. This was only 12 months ago.

So much has happened since then, that in some ways it feels like a life time ago. Our home is completely different, our careers have done a 180 degree turn, 6 pink hearing aids have become part of my daily routine, I could find my way to our audiologist’s rooms blind folded, have consumed copious amounts of frozen yoghurt (as this is always the after therapy treat for all of us) and have new people in my life who I love and treasure – I hadn’t yet met them 12 months ago. Last July my little notes and reminders stuck up around the house, were of antiretroviral drugs and their resistance patterns, as I studied diligently for upcoming diploma exams. Now, I glance around my home and find most things (including the toilet) labeled with big letters on note cards…efforts at growing literacy in my girls – evidence of intervention. From a few lines of single words (mostly nouns) which started each of my little record books, I now have 3 happy, perfect and beautiful little girls who chat, sign, gesture and attempt to cue.  We’re currently exploring metamorphosis and looking at differences between animals like mammals and reptiles – quite a jump from a small group of simple nouns. We communicate, and that gift that I’ve received over the period of 12 months, is one that is truly priceless. Oh, things are not perfect! But there is significant change. I’m changed! From being terrified of the “d” word to viewing deafness as now something familiar… something almost comforting in its familiarity.

I look ahead at the journey that continues before me, it’s still a significant up hill, but the view so far is pleasant. I glance back and realize we’ve made some very real mileage. The gradient we’ve climbed has been steep – so steep at times that I’ve literally needed a hand to pull me up to the next step. Those hands have been God-given people along the way, messages of encouragement, words of life and hope, moments of celebration as we saw growth in each of our princesses and without doubt, the invaluable role of intervention. I am so grateful for the support, tolerance, patience, expertise, love and great ideas provided by our intervention team, and cannot imagine having ever gotten past, even the first few steps of this journey, without them. Consequently, Graeme and I desire to see other families in our country be offered the same intervention services and support. Co-incidentally, this week is also the week that Graeme climbs Mt Kilimanjaro for deaf babies…to raise awareness and also funds for HI HOPES, the intervention programme that has given us the tools we needed to make a positive, hopeful start in our journey. It’s not too late to support this climb… visit http://www.doit4charity.co.za/Graeme.Birdsey.

One year ago, we were a family with set goals and dreams who stared at the terrifying possibility of deafness ruining those dreams. Twelve months later, we are a deaf family with hearing members, lives coloured with hope, joy and communication, recognizing deafness as a friend, not a foe, and wanting to pass that hope onto others. I saw a cute quote the other day that said, “Sometimes you have to climb a mountain to get there.” The goal for the “mountain of greatness” as Kilimanjaro aptly means, is an obvious one. The “there”, however, in my journey of mothering my 3 deaf princesses, is more about the journey itself, a journey of lots of little goals, some bigger goals, figuring out what works and what doesn’t for each of them, growing closer relationally, getting better in communicating and seeing them have opportunities equal to that of their hearing peers and living the lives that they were created for. Whether ‘Kili’ or life challenges, let’s just put one foot in front of the other, keep our gaze Up and take one day at a time, whilst helping others do the same.