I walked into my family’s Mother’s Day dinner and tried not to shatter the fragile calm I’d requested. “Please, let’s pretend some part of Mother’s Day is still okay,” I begged my husband to convey to everyone. Feigned smiles and furtive, syrupy cheerfulness abounded, and as I sank into my seat at the table, I could tell my throbbing emptiness had permeated the room and filled their hearts anyway.
It was over. Hours earlier, after five interminable years of secondary infertility and thirteen incredulous weeks of pregnancy, I’d left the hospital emergency room after hearing the words every mother dreads: “I’m sorry. There’s no heartbeat.”
Our baby—a daughter, Mara Shirin—was gone. On Mother’s Day.
At some point in the haze of the next few days, my mother told me that someone was arranging a schedule so we’d have meals provided for us for two weeks. I was flooded with appreciation, relief, and curiosity. What would these sweet friends bring? The quintessential joke about meals like this is that you’ll eat every incarnation of chicken casserole known to man.
For years, I’ve been mostly vegetarian. I wish I could say it had to do with the ethics of animal consumption or the health benefits of vegetarianism, but that wasn’t what prompted my dietary choices. I just didn’t like it as much as I liked other things. As I’ve gotten older and I’ve learned more about both animal treatment and health, my preference has only intensified. I still eat eggs and use chicken and beef bouillon in broth, and I have to be completely honest and say I eat cheese with Abandon. Yes, “Abandon” with a capital “A.” But aside from that, chicken, beef, pork, fish, and their neighbors comprise a very small portion of my diet.
My mother asked if I wanted her to convey any dietary restrictions, but I declined. I wasn’t very hungry to begin with and figured I could eat around any meat if I found myself in the mood for dinner. My husband and son like meat so I figured it would be quite a treat for them.
The meals started coming—quiche, chicken, and vegetables, spicy beef soup, chicken salad. It has been seven years since our loss and I still remember those meals. My servings were small, but with almost every dish I went back for seconds or leftovers. I couldn’t help myself. Something about the meat, the chicken, in particular, felt good in my belly and nourished my broken heart.
Several months later, I found myself craving a chicken pot pie, a dish I’ve made for years, but usually without the actual chicken. A veggie pot pie, I guess? But this time, it was all about the chicken. The recipe is a simple one, comprised of a pie crust topping over a bed of vegetables mixed with bites of chicken and a cream-based sauce. Ooey, gooey, and delicious.
I’d made great progress on the initial steps of the recipe until it was time for the frozen vegetables. They’d been hiding in my freezer for so long they looked more like an iceberg laced with peas, carrots, corn, and lima beans than they did individual, edible vegetables.
Have you ever tried to “declump” a brick of frozen vegetables? It’s…entertaining? I hoped they were frozen loosely enough that I could break them apart with my hands, but when that wasn’t happening, I tried microwaving them.
I’m sure I could have persisted in this method and eventually won the battle, but I was looking for instant gratification, not patient defrosting. Hence, I tried my next best (and possibly most therapeutic) option: beating. I beat that block of vegetables with nearly everything I could find – spatulas, wooden spoons, and whatever else I happened to have handy. A few individual peas insulted me by falling off the larger block, but it remained mostly intact.
Low on options but still high on a craving for chicken, I reached for the only other thing I could think of: my giant chef’s knife. With vigor, I plunged it into the solid block, fully expecting some ensuing chaos since my history with knives has involved occasional ER trips and stitches. However, I was surprised by a knife that slipped back and forth with ease, deftly separating the vegetables. The sharpest tool did the most efficient job.
Constantly reflective in this tender stage of grief, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between our heartache and that knife. I’d thought it would be easier to break, heat, or pound the vegetables apart, but I was wrong. Sometimes it’s gentler and easier to use a knife. Sometimes a sharp, clean cut yields faster and more preferable results.
Suddenly, a picture washed over me, an image of God as a gentle surgeon, skillfully using Mara’s loss as a tool to refashion my heart into one that beat more like his. Where I’d been mired in discouragement, he was pouring in oil of joy. Where I’d absorbed false beliefs about my unworthiness of grace and goodness, he was wringing me out. Where there’d been pain, God was opening a deep cavity for hope.
It was such a beautiful vision, all over a chicken pot pie.
In the seven years since then, my life has been transformed. Mara’s presence is marked on every fiber of my being—onto the persistence with which I fight to make joy a conscious lifestyle, onto the patience I have when my children (yes, I had two more babies after her loss) push my every button, onto the grace I’m learning to give myself when I fail.
Every single day of my life, I’d rather have her here in my arms than gone, but I’ve become unspeakably thankful that when she couldn’t stay, God used her to perform a complete renovation of my heart.