The Ugly Sweater

When what you’ve asked for doesn’t arrive as expected

It used to be that the morning after Thanksgiving, families across the country would get dressed up and go downtown to look at the store decorations. In the windows along the streets, works of art, mechanical and sometimes with real people or animals, the displays would draw thousands inside the store. There, the consumer would be wowed with an even bigger surprise. The purpose was for the store owners to express their gratitude for the support for the previous eleven months. Feeling appreciate, the consumers made even more purchases, the act an expression and receipt of gratitude.

This reciprocity between retailer and consumer was so successful, that the Friday after Thanksgiving became known as black Friday, because retail stores operated for eleven months of the year at a loss, or being “in the red,” then on one day, the store finally made a profit, or went into the black.

Sadly, this tradition of showing thanks has lessened, gratitude replaced with expectation, the expression and receipt of gratitude gone.

Theologian Thomas S. Monson said that “feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”

Ugly sweaters and gratitude

At times, it’s hard to feel gratitude if what we have sought through sincere prayer doesn’t match what the Lord has delivered. It’s like asking for a sweater you expect to be soft, beautiful and well-made. When the big day comes, the wrapping is wrinkled, the bow not tied properly, and within, is a sweater, yes, but it’s doesn’t fit, the material is coarse and doesn’t fit quiet right. It’s an ugly sweater.

Looking back on my life, I’ve had plenty of gifts I’ve hated, real or figurative, but it wasn’t until the last ten years or so that I started to look beyond the delivery method and my disappointment to focus on the positive aspects of what I’d received. Roger, my husband of nearly 21 years, has often coached me (scolded? demanded?) to be grateful for the gift, regardless of whether or not we like it. Easy in principle, harder in application.

In a recent example of this, I’ll refer to my family. Over the years, our strong personalities and life decisions were like a lake gone dry. Without the replenishment of understand, the land grew cracked, then scorched, many spots barren. My parents prayed for reconciliation, certainly without asking or expecting additional heartache for each child, but that’s what occurred. Within six months, challenging issues with a teenage or adult children arose of a severe nature. The package of the sweater was awful and the garment inside horrid.

But then the miracles occurred. Previously unresolvable issues with siblings and in-laws were set aside, pride and ego associate submerged as the parents came together and held a fast for these precious children. We were united in heartache and strengthened in faith, ultimately incredibly grateful for the hard circumstances that finally brought us together in the spirit of Christ. The Lord, in His wisdom, knew that these challenges brought us together when nothing else could.

We all learned that an ugly sweater can still keep you warm.

Over the years, I’ve found three principles are consistently associated with gratitude. The are trusting in the Lord, keeping perspective and practicing remembrance of our blessings.

Trust in the Lord

Dieter H Uchtorff said that: “True gratitude comes from acknowledging that we do not always understand the trials of life, but trusting that one day we will.”

Trust was required when not long after I was married, my husband decided he didn’t want children. He enjoyed the financial freedom we had, and didn’t want to be tethered to the home for any reason, including a pet. Years passed, and when I was thirty-two, I’d passed through periods of anger, hopeless, apathy, and then resignation. I loved him, and not having children wasn’t going to change that. One night, while I was praying, I recall turning it over to the Lord, asking him to fill the void I was feeling. I distinctly thought the words: “Thy will be done,” hoping to find contentment in my situation.

The nights were warm, and our home was without air conditioning. Rog was awake and working but I was tired and went to the basement where it was cooler, falling asleep quickly. I woke up to a figure at the end of my bed. Assuming it was Rog, I mumbled something, turned over and went back to sleep. Sometime later, I woke again, and this time, the person was very close, leaning over me, wearing all black. I sat straight up, tried to scream but was voiceless with fear. By the time I could yell, he was out the door. When the police sat with us, they said intruders hate lights and dogs. The very next day, we got a dog, my husband’s prior proclamation about no pets in the house long forgotten.

“Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things,” is a phrase often repeated.

All things means just that: good things, difficult things—not just some things.

While I was unspeakably grateful for my safety (and to finally get a dog), it took me a while to see that this event was the first step in many the Lord had to orchestrate in our lives. The second step was more gradual in nature, but far more devastating. At the time, I owned a business with a dozen employees that had been thriving for a decade. For some inexplicable reason, our projects were drying up, some naturally concluding while new ones were stalled or cancelled. Having never been through an economic down cycle, I didn’t realize we were on the leading edge of the 07/08 recession. My stress level rose as one employee after another was recruited by clients who could offer more long-term stability. One day, Rog looked at me with a bit of pity.

“You are trying to put out the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he began. Seeing I wasn’t getting the reference, he continued. “You’re the religious one, not me,” he pointed out. “But I don’t think God wants you to be in business anymore.” Rog then joked something to the effect of: “We haven’t killed the dog, and have to be home with her anyway, so maybe you should go to the doctor to get checked out.”

Could it possibly be that through the ugly sweater of first, the intruder and then the business winding down were to result in what I’d been wanting for…praying for seven years would happen? No, the sweater wasn’t pretty, but it certainly was warm.

Keep perspective

A Christian philosopher said: “The Lord’s hand in our lives is often clearest in hindsight.”

Within the year of Rog telling me to “get checked out,” I was in high risk pregnancy. Yet I still tried to conduct business with a few remaining clients I could handle myself. One day, the doctor told me I was “A zebra in the Serengeti, being chased by lions.” He said I was pushing my body to the limits, even by working from home. He warned that if I did not stop all activity, save going to the restroom, I would lose the baby.

Now, for those of you who know me, I’m not really the type to sit still, let alone lay bone straight, in bed, for months. Yet, in hindsight, the Lord knew I needed to have a long period of time alone and without distraction as a transitionary period to prepare me for the life-altering situation of motherhood, and to be grateful for the gift of staying at home.

Dieter Uchtdorf  said that: “Being grateful in times of distress does not mean that we are pleased with our circumstances. It does mean that through the eyes of faith we look beyond our present-day challenges.”

The rule of Threes

This was highlighted when I was nine months pregnant, and was finally allowed to drive. It was a clear, blue and happy day in Seattle, which is a rare and wonderful occasion. Although the recession was in full-swing, I felt all the gratitude that eight years of praying to have a child and receiving an answer could bring. In other words, I was now wearing the warm sweater, but was I wearing it with pride? No, not yet. In fact, I was going to get another ugly top.

Cruising along that sunny day, I received a call on my cell phone, and the first words my husband said to me was that he was out of a job.

At that moment, I purposefully lifted my foot from the gas pedal. It was not possible. The company he founded was profitable, employed many employees and growing. The board however, decided they wanted an older, more experienced person to take it to the next phase in its life. Rog was devastated and I was worried sick.

In an April 2014 talk on gratitude, Uchtorff counseled us “To be thankful in our circumstances…not to keep score by counting the number of things to be grateful FOR.” He was talking about the overall spirit of gratitude.

Practice remembrance

In an October 2007 talk, Henry B. Eyring said the key to gratitude is remembrance and specifically, the hand of God in our lives. He related a time in his life when he was discouraged. An associate counseled him to write a recall and write few lines for those things he was grateful for—every day. Eyring said he  specifically asked himself: “Have I seen the hand of God reaching out to touch us or our children or our family today?”

If we do this, “Gratitude will grow in your heart as it did in mine,” Erying promised.

In that moment of driving on the freeway, knowing neither of us had a source of income, telling myself to breath, I remembered the hard experiences that had brought us to that point, for what I counted must have been the fiftieth time.

The break-in of my home had led to a dog. My company had effectively shut down, but I became pregnant. Bad had been followed by good; what had occurred was orchestrated in the Lords way and in his timing. I had to purposefully set aside temporary fear, the journey, have gratitude for all we had and importantly, continue the faith. As Eyring has promised, remembrance of the blessings truly grew the gratitude grew in my heart.

Within a few months, Rog started a new business, allowing our family to grow and prosper. He also had a newfound empathy and compassion for others; that very hard trial evolved him from a good man to a great one.

Still waiting for the pretty sweater, and I got what…another ugly one that doesn’t fit!

If you’ve been following my summer journeys, you know I landed in the ER in Verona, Italy, tumors were discovered, an infection controlled and lots of pain was to be endured. Upon my return, I’ve spent the days seeing different specialists; the tumors have grown, I have a different (and yuckier) issue, the hysterectomy and tumors removed but the “yuckier” issue will be with me perhaps permanently for-the-rest-of-my-life. Really?? At times like this, denial is a good thing, but it’s temporary. As my 13-year-old daughter pointed out: “We were praying for change. Don’t you think this is the Lord’s way of answering our prayers?”

“Yes,” I replied, “I do.”

That’s where the faith and trust comes in to play. These two items create the cement of faith that dries, and I rely upon it every day as I put one foot in front of the other, trusting in the Lords plan . It’s what I lie upon when the tears come because I must decline being active with my family due to pain. Downtimes come, I acknowledge the emotions, take a break, then get right back up and get going. Time, health and money are not entitlements; they are a privilege. That too, is another mantra.

I am grateful for my challenges and wouldn’t take them back, because each one has led me and my family to a better place. And in truth, if the only way I can better understand the gospel of Jesus Christ and become more like Him is to get knocked around mentally, physically or financially, then this will likely continue.

My newsletter comes out once a month (when life is normal) and you can sign up at the main page on my website, and comment on my Facebook page at sarahgerdes_author on Instagram.

Feature image: the Italian Alps, which seems appropriate when talkin about the cliffs of life; you are either staring up, scaling them or falling off.

An unexpected hospital trip

One of my personal jokes has always involved the notion of being in a foreign land where I don’t speak the language and need to visit the doctor. Well, “We mock that which we don’t understand then we get to experience it ourselves,” as I wrote in my novel, In a Moment.  At the time, I was going through quite a bit of self-reflection, but in no way did I think I was going to have a chance to confirm this statement.

Unlike the ER waiting room, the diagnostics area was vacant. Rog prowled the hallways like a lion in the Serengeti looking for snacks at 3 a.m.
Ignoring the pain

My husband calls me stubborn, but I like to think of myself as the anti-whiner. In April, an older Mayan woman gave me a traditional healing massage while we were in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. As I was on my back, she pressed on my lower stomach and it hurt. Bad.

“You have stress,” she said in broken English. “No stress,” I assured her with a laugh. Yes, I felt the same knot she pressed, but it hadn’t hurt until she pushed, and I certainly didn’t buy in to the idea stress caused a temporary ball in my gut. Honestly, I just thought my growing tummy was “a woman thing” and I wasn’t going to waste my time or a doctor’s only to be told I needed to eat less cheese. I went home and ton with life, not giving it another thought unless it was for vanities sake. The waistband was a bit tighter, but it was the cheese, right?

Was to cheese or a bad case of indigestion? My brother suggested pregnancy but no.

So here we’ve been huffing it around Europe for two weeks, walking quite a bit. My midsection had gotten a bit bigger, but I chalked it up to eating, that is, until my husband pointed out that wasn’t really eating at all. I had to think about that, and it was true, I’d not been my normal, Sarah-self-of-culinary indulgence. In hindsight, it hurt to eat, so I just ate less. Around the time of this discussion, I realized I’d not been drinking much either, and since I’m a water girl, I’d been developing dehydration headaches. Nonetheless, my goal was to see as much as possible every day and not talk about my innards, which is never a fun family dinner conversation topic.

The crisis moment

The day we arrived in Verona, my body was angry at me. I hurt the entire drive, constantly switching positions in the car, declining food and water, hoping the increasing misery would go away. I assumed I’d been in the car too long, the twists and turns of the road from Bellagio pressing against my stomach the root cause of pain. I helped unload the car and walked up and down the three-story villa Rog had chosen, feeling worse by the hour. Shooting spikes traveled down both legs to my feet, cresting over my hip and down my butt cheeks, but even then, I thought I was tight from sitting. It wasn’t until I stood and my vision became blurred, I could barely walk that my husband called up our doctor back in the states. He listened to my symptoms, including my distended stomach and told me to get to the hospital immediately.

Alien twins never looked so good on a human, at least not at 4.5 months, right?

That was at four in the afternoon, yet we didn’t arrive at the hospital until 10. The intervening hours were filled with Rog boing back and forth with Blue Cross/Blue Shield back in the States. A process must be followed, we were told, the care providers in Italy linked to BC/BS or else we’d get the bill. When we were finally assured I’d be fully covered did we pack up the girls with items for a potential overnight and get on the road.

The waiting room and process, Italian style

Fortunately, Ospedal (Hospital) San Bonifacio was the closest and newest facility in the entire region.

The waiting room was interesting, because admissions had one, non-English speaking staff member. I ushered the girls to the only seats available as Rog waited in line. Through a double door he went, but not before another gentleman who wanted to cut in before Rog. As I watched the interaction, I thought about a universal truth: “No,” is understandable in pretty much any language.

After fifteen minutes, Rog called up Stefano to help translate. As I stood beside him, I nearly fainted. That was the signal for the attendant behind the plexiglass partition to do something more than keep repeating: “No English.” As I teetered into Rog, a male staff member appeared who asked about my condition in thick, but understandable English. Rog explained I might have an abdominal tear, and if the small intestine went through it, the effect could be sepsis. The man immediately requested another nurse to help me back through the doors. I’d made it in!

Slow but thorough

What I got was a gurney, which spared me from passing out. Left alone for thirty minutes, I contemplated how this was definitely going to end up in one of my books, assuming it turned out well. All sorts of plots occupied my mind, distracting me from the pain until the male nurse returned. He asked questions as he gradually pressed what we both thought were my intestines back into my gut. If you think that sounds gross to read, it was gross while he was doing it. Plus, it hurt like the devil, and I couldn’t stop the tears of absolute anguish as he massaged and pushed around my innards.

My stomach reduced in size about half-way, but I felt quesy.

“That feels better, doesn’t it?”

“Not really,” I grimaced, but at least my belly wasn’t sticking out like Kuwato alien from the original Total Recall movie.

Nearly an hour passed before until I was led in to another room staffed the senior ER doctor, and a visiting doctor who translated, along with the original two nurses. The room was set up for triage, but also had the makings of an office, because a doctor sat at his modern desk, typing on his computer, the printer behind him periodically spitting out documents.

Once I was laid on the gurney, he spoke, and another doctor beside me translated as the senior ER doctor typed. Rapid pace, we went back and forth. All the while, the two nurses went about their tasks, drawing blood from one arm, the blood pressure from the other, each having their role, moving quietly, efficiently and without a pause in the flow. When I asked the physician by my side where he was from, the handsome man only told me he was from Morocco and I got the hint: don’t make the small talk with the team, let us do our job.

Questions over, the silver-haired dr rose, coming bedside. He pushed my guts around, inflicting more pain than the nurse, but with purpose. When he’d finished, he was back at the computer typing. I was then informed I’d be going up to receive scans of my internals, which would be conducted by another physician.

That began a 90-minute wait, half on a gurney, the other half in a solitary area with my family. It was at that point I thought: “Arg! I need to be one of those crazy wanna-be documentarians, because I should have been taking pics along the way.” I took two pics on my iphone then put it phone away. From the discussions that had occurred, I had bigger things to worry about than the missed photo opp of the crammed waiting room.

Growths, eggs and pain

Once the female physician had me lie down, she said straight up she didn’t see a bulge. That was depressing. Was I that fat she couldn’t discern the alien bump protruding straight up and out of my belly button?

I wasn’t going to debate the bump or pain, and just told her what the previous doctors said. She whipped out the topical goo, spread it on my stomach and ten minutes later was on the phone with the supervising ER doc. She’d found two, egg-size tumors in my stomach, although she was quick to point out that it be unknown if they were benign or cancerous.

The next stop was back to the supervising doc, who personally escorted me, Rog and the girls three floors up to the gynecologist. This older man was very refined, and I wanted to compliment him on his choice or colored glasses and cool watch, but I was a good patient and kept my mouth shut. (Readers of my novels know this was hard for me because I have a thing for watches and glasses, sometimes calling them out too much).

He did the full-monty exam on me, politely inquiring why it had been three months since my last exam, then following up his question with dismay that in America, ultrasounds on females during annual exams aren’t required. Here they are. Had I had one, my tumors might have been caught when they were much smaller. Now major surgery might be required.

After he’d remeasured and reconfirmed what the prior Dr. had found, he went a step further, telling me all about the myomas (tumors), the percentage that were cancerous (1%), the “nasty infection,” I had because they have been seeping toxins in my body, and the reality I’d be in ongoing pain and wouldn’t be able to eat or drink much until the surgery occurred.

“What do I do about the pain?” I asked him.

He blinked. “Take ibuprofen.” When I started laughing, it was one of those bordering-on-hysterical sounds that break glass and kill relationships. “Maybe I can give you something stronger.” It wasn’t until I filled the prescriptions for both infection and pain that he’d prescribed a granulated mixture of Ibuprofin plus something extra, but since I don’t read Italian, I’ve got no clue. All I can tell you is the moment the liquid hit my tongue, it went number. I have a pack of 60, which I keep on me at all times.

The finish line

Back down we went to the ER doc. By this time, Rog had gotten him chatting about motorcycles, and I believe when the man realized us American’s weren’t going to stop trying to speak bad Italian, he started speaking pretty good English! I suppose in the first few hours, he suspected I might be in and out, therein using the other doctor to speed up the process. Now that I’d taken up the majority of his shift, we learned about his travels, his love for fast automobiles and what in the world I was going to do now.

I thought I was all done when the nurses reappeared on cue, and IV was set up and one told me it was pain medication drip, which would also help with the dehydration.

The ER doctor sat at his desk, which was actually located at the end of the patient’s room where most of this took place! Nothing like Italian efficiency. A printer was behind him, he did all the computer work himself, and at the end, while Rog kept chatting him up, he assembled the documents and scans from the ultrasound, stapled it and asked Roger how he’d like to pay.

Rog stopped cold, like the blood in my veins. Wha..wha…? Beyond the fact I’ve never seen a doctor do all the paperwork, a printer in a trauma unit and using a stapler, he was ready to take our money. Then we braced ourselves. Rog accepted the documents with the grace of a rat facing a viper, rather tentatively. He stared, I waited, the doctor was already working on his computer again.

“It’s 117.62 Euro,” Rog repeated, as if making sure it was correct. The doctor nodded without looking up. “Cash or credit?” was Rog’s next question.

And that, my readers, was the shock of the world. Not that I’ll need surgery and egg-size aliens making me look five months pregnant. Nope. It was the beauty of socialized medicine. Just the admittance alone in the states would have been @2K. Add on that all the doctors, the tests, the procedures, and we estimate the bill in the US (pre-deduction and insurance) would have easily been in the thousands.

Roger paid, and the man physician handed me the entire set of paperwork. Then, in the ultimate of wonderful gestures, he walked us to the emergency room and out the front doors. Where in the world does this happen at a medical institution where the commoner (us) doesn’t have the last name Bezos or Gates, and certainly hasn’t gifted the place a new wing. I’m not sure the $117.62 Euro was the reason; I believe this is standard Italian protocol; professional to the very end.

The best part was yet to come

You can imagine my relief and distress on the drive home. Forty-thirty in the morning, the family was wired and hungry. We stopped at an all-nighter restaurant and had pizza. Well, they had pizza. I watched. The next few weeks were going to be brutal if the doctors were to be believed. But going home ceased being an option when I realized I wasn’t at risk of immediate death; this was money spent and time allocated. No way was I going to ruin our vacation. I was just going to follow the gynecologist’s wisdom and essentially suck it up.

That night, I informed my mom and church leaders of my situation, asking for prayers, and that’s when the miracle happened. I woke, expecting the brutal pain, and had none. We weren’t able to fill the prescriptions for another day; each and every hour I braced myself, believing my body was going to revert back to its state of the prior day.

It never happened.

Rog didn’t believe it, nor did the doctor on a follow-up call, but I did. Mom and telegraphed my request to all the family members on both sides, aunts and uncles, children and down the line, the equivalent of the mayor calling the bat phone. The church leaders did the same. The prayers of many were felt by the one: me. It’s now day three. Instead of lying on my back, I’ve been able to walk. No, I can’t eat solids, because that causes immediate pain, but I can drink limited juice and sip light soups, which is a lot more than I could previously.

There was another thing. What we initially thought the time lag in getting to the hospital was a detriment was a blessing in disguise. The Moroccan doctor would not have been on staff, nor the senior ER physician or nurse who got me in so quickly, because they worked the 8-8 shift. Had we come earlier, who knows what we might have encountered? Further, the gynecologist said this was his single night of the week when he worked. His perfect English, and ability to conduct such a thorough exam and to equip me with knowledge and a path forward calmed my fears. 

Although I’ve been joking with Roger that this is my version of a European fat farm, (because I’ve been wanting to lose twenty pounds for the last four years), what I’m really thinking is that God knows I exist. He cares for me. He answers the prayers of his children. That I am loved.

So instead of asking ‘why did this happen to me?’ I thank God for the experience and the little blessings along the way which made a hard life moment a little easier. Most of all, I’m grateful for the affirming power of prayer and His ability to answer.

Kids and wigs: required reading

One of the considerations we had before heading to the wig shop was Porsche’s own self-esteem and sense of self. We always thought ourselves fortunate that she wasn’t sixteen and dealing with teen drama; instead, she was still an overall healthy, happy kid. It wasn’t until she started noticing all the stares her way, around 8, that she felt different.

Even then, we always emphasized that being different (no hair) was akin to being cool/unique. It wasn’t until people started asking about “our son,” or ask what our son’s name was that the flip with Porsche was switched. She had no issue being bald, but heaven forbid she be mistaken for a boy, when she clearly, and loudly, is a girl.

In the photos below, my daughter is smiling because as she told her daddy, “I feel like a girl again.” (Yes, I cried on the phone as I was watching this from home).

Wig shopping

She went wig shopping the day after Christmas because she’d wished for hair. We couldn’t give her that, but went for the next best thing; a wig. It was Roger who went with her for two reasons. The first is I had a toddler at home and we were told this was going to take several hours. Second, the wig shop specializes in leukemia patients, specifically children. Given my own fragile state of mind and the possibility that Porsche had a deeper medical issue, I wasn’t sure I could handle it.

Round one of trying on wigs. Keeping a positive thought, it’s one way to have her envision what a “big girl” will look like.
Wig selection: synthetic first. Too blond (upper left), too dark (upper left) then finding the right color but needs a cut. The back was trimmed to be more age appropriate and bangs

So off they went. As you can see from the smiles, the wig shop was a fun experience for Porsche. First, her head was measured. Second, the colorists started matching what they presumed/thought/ascertained to be her natural color. Because her hair was gone, Porsche pulled out pictures, and then they started pulling out colors. Up next was picking synthetic or natural.

Synthetic

Pros: It holds its shape no matter the circumstances, which is wonderful. Reasonably priced, between 300-$750 dollars.
Con: It can’t be washed, curled, or modified in any major way. The edges will start to fray so you need to trim occasionally. You must keep it on a Styrofoam head piece after washing and condition (with special products)

Natural

Pro: you can wash, style and even color it if you want
Con: you have to keep it on a Styrofoam head piece after washing and condition, but you can use normal hair products. High prices- $3,000-4,000.

After choosing the perfect color, the customer is shown how to put on the nylon cap required to keep the wig in place. Then on goes to the wig. Size is very important for children because their heads are still growing, thus the requirement for the cap, which holds the wig in place when it’s a little loose in the first year or two. The final year, which is about how long a wig, real or synthetic, will last, the cap is no longer required.

The wig is then cut in to the shape desired. In our case, Porsche chose to have a few bangs which could be pulled back or tucked under. She walked out with special shampoo for the wig, a Styrofoam head, and a special brush for the synthetic wig. We also ordered a real wig, which took about 3 months to receive. We learned wigs are produced typically in Europe, and the color requested is matched to order.

Also, another note on natural wigs. They are made from untouched, or “virgin” hair. For this reason, they can be colored if desired, (unlike synthetics which can’t be colored).

Once the hair is cut to her liking, the big (really big) step was to take her out in public. Rog decided to feed her and just hang out at a café for a while.
Pass it on when you are done

As I’d mentioned in the first piece on hair restoration and loss, we found a young girl, aged seven, suffering from her second round of leukemia. She was the recipient of both wigs. Learn more about the issues we encountered when approaching the local Children’s Hospital to understand why we were unable to go that route (they were rejected).

This is the natural wig. You can see how it’s not quite as fluffy and lays more naturally. The hairline is also very well done–so much so you can’t tell it’s a wig unless you are standing right above her and know what to look for.

Tip: If you are in need of a wig, my suggestion is to call the local wig company themselves. Usually, they are the first stop for children/adults in need, and we have found they are very kind and willing to help connect families who are in need and don’t have the funds to purchase a wig.