Memory and Imagination

Whenever I hear Matt Redman’s “Blessed be Your Name” I am on I-84 headed east through the Columbia Gorge, past the giant windmills, towards our favorite eastern Oregon camping spot. Our kids are all small, all strapped to booster seats, all packed in with snacks and blankets and books. Though the drive is excruciatingly long, these are the best of times. 

That song is a soundtrack to a memory. 

Our youngest son wasn’t on those trips. Born almost four years after his nearest sibling, he missed out on some of the memory-making of those summers when we camped a lot. We try to be careful when we remember. Sensitive. 

None of us have memories specific to his first year and a half of life. He spent them in an orphanage in India, surrounded by other babies and rotating staff. A great deal of that time he also spent in the hospital with recurring bronchial infections and pneumonia. Our first sighting of him was on a DVD, narrated by a lovely woman who gave us the phrase, “Shashwat is feeling sleepy” in her heavily accented english, and who told us Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star was his favorite song. 

But he came with no birth story, minimal history, and no shared memories from 17 months of his life. 


Memories are so pliable. My husband and I both have stories from childhood that we remember a certain way, while those around us have a differing version. Grievances can seem larger and punishments more harsh than they were in reality—we've learned this from our own children's memories. Likewise, the joys of certain events can grow over time and repetition, making a small act of kindness or privilege seem like an extravagance in our minds. This is the power we have, in shaping memories.

Our solution has been to make memories for our son, using our own experiences of India and its culture, and threading in the emotions and trauma common to any young woman giving birth. We tell him how loved he was by his tummy mom, how hard it must have been to give birth at sixteen in a tiny hut in a tiny village, and how, for eight days, she and his grandma struggled to keep him alive. He was tiny and frail when he arrived at the orphanage. We tell him how so many people worked to sustain him and get him healthy. 

We tell him he was wanted, because there are ways to “do without” a pregnancy, and we pray for his tummy mom together on Mother’s Day and on random nights when questions arise. They are hard questions—ones we can’t answer without imagination—and we tell the best and truest version we can. 

Some might call this lying. I prefer to call it Imaginative Redemption, because remembering is redemption, and the past lives in the stories we tell about it. We can tell any kind of story, avoid all kinds of truth, or settle for answering all the questions with “I don’t know"—but a child needs to know. We’ve chosen to make the best memories we can imagine for our son. 

God commanded Israel to set up memorial stones and called them to imagine a day when their children would ask, “What do these stones mean to you?”—a day when they would be far removed from the crossing of the Jordan and they would help their children imagine all the ways God cares and will care for them, by remembering all the ways he’d done so in the past. He unites curiosity with remembering, giving us an open-door for telling a good story.

I don’t remember anyone ever warning us about the questions our son would have when we were in the cumbersome process of adopting. I’m sure it came up in our training classes or our home visits, in the reams of paperwork we read and videos we watched; but until you are in the thick of the moment, until you have context for something, you don’t fully grasp it. We tell his story and answer his questions with all the redemption we honestly can. We try to create the healthiest memories for each of our children by telling them the truth—bad things have happened, mistakes have been and will continue to be made. But here is the redemptive imagination that keeps us going: God slipped on skin and flesh to buy back your memories and do more than you could ever ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20). When circumstances are beyond any we can control, God asks Is anything too hard for the LORD? and then delights in blowing our minds. 

A "true story”—which is not always the one we tell ourselves—roots us in a past experience of God’s goodness, because he is always behind, and gives us an imagination of his future goodness, because he is always ahead. We live in the moment with these memories and this imagination, and for every pleasure remembered, every memory forgotten, every blank space in a life we know was full of goodness, there is a redemptive story to be told.  Our kids will develop their own soundtrack to their memories and they'll exaggerate the stories and miss some details, but we hope a redemptive imagination will help them with the lyrics. 

How Babies Make You Forget, and Remember

budding branch There was a time when I didn't think I wanted kids.  I had decided that other people could give birth and populate the earth, I was just-fine-thank-you and didn't really need to experience that whole labor thing.

I'd raise horses. Or dogs.

Of course, I was ten years old and had just witnessed the birth of my sister. I don't really know what  my mom was thinking and maybe she never hoped to have grandkids, but it was a bit much for me to grasp.

I still don't understand why people describe child-birth with words like 'beautiful' or 'exhilarating'. Messy, painful, shameless and loud seem more appropriate.

Yes, a new baby is amazing.

Yes, bringing life into the world is a God-honored gift.

Yes, most near death experiences draw us closer to God, but the whole thing was enough to make me relish the idea of a childless adulthood.

But like I said, I was ten.

Shortly after I turned twenty I was married, and a year or so later I was working at a child-care center. With the babies and toddlers.

And I can't tell you, probably don't need to tell you, what little-girls-named-Lauren who say "peach-es" and little-boys-named-Logan who wear Baby Gap, do to a young newlywed.

Can't even describe it.

Nevermind the contagious biting or the tantrum epidemic. Forget about the flying toys and flinging raviolis. I. was. smitten. And no amount of birth-related-horror-stories could dissuade me.

I had to have one. Then two. Then three in three years. My dad threatened to buy us a television.

baby Luke's feet


Shelby holding Luke

And they say that a mother forgets all the pain of labor as soon as she sees that newborn baby. I've forgotten a lot of things, but not the pain of childbirth.

But bringing home a newborn, being exempt from all other cares of the world, and being someone's mother, those are moments worth pain and tearing and breaking.

Those are heaven-filled moments, and I get it now.

I am a step-mom, an adoptive mom, a frazzled, short-tempered and scatter-brained mom. I am mom with four m's and six o's. With kids who now look down at her. Mom who reminds and who laughs and who messes up daily, in plain view of the ones she wants to be perfect for.

I pray warrior-prayers for my children.

And I am cynical about the pain and labor of child birth but Jesus, He bore us with the greatest of agony. With all the blood and tearing and heart-wrenching abandonment. Alone. And the pain of rejection from us whom He bore, all of us standing there mocking.

And we call that wonderful. Beautiful. Redemptive.

I was offended a couple of weeks ago by a picture of a cross made of guns. Offended, because my Savior was hanging on this crude cross made of gun metal and I thought that somehow that was irreverent. Less holy than a wooden cross. Yeah.

On so many levels, that picture means more to me now. I can  barely wrap words around it.

A cross is not beautiful, not fashionable jewelry even when it's made of precious metals. It's a method of death. Of ugly, torturous, agonizing, slow death. The beauty and the victory isn't in the method, it's in the Life that overpowered death and gave us life.

And so with child-birth. Every near death experience brings us closer to Life, one way or another. I'm steeping in this thought still and trying to word it just right, but the bottom line is this: the most beautiful things can come by terrible, horrible, ugly means.

Now I hold the baby born of that sister who I watched-into-the-world 27 years ago. And oh, the glow of motherhood looks good on her.

Linking up with Emily at Imperfect Prose, Tell Your Story, and Crystal at Thriving Thursdays






How to be Born Again and Again

 thatch roofed hut in India, international adoption, Indian home,

It was probably a grass and mud and thatched-roof hut.

She was only about 15 years old, surely scared and confused, and maybe she didn't really know all that was happening.  But she knew life was coming and she chose it for you.

She chose life for you.

And for eight days, she and her mother tried to keep tiny-you alive.  You were probably less than 4 pounds, less than a gallon of milk, and if you had been here you would have been in NICU.

But you started life in the dirt and the poverty of the India we love. It was two months before the terrible tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

Your dad spent six weeks there in the villages of southern India, giving rice, blankets, and Hope.  Weeping with grieving parents and listening to  horrific stories, wading through so much destruction and loss and heartache.

orphanage in India

You were born in our hearts then. We didn't know you yet, just like we didn't know your brothers and sisters when we started loving them.

You can love someone you've never seen, Ethan.

So your tummy mama gave you life again when she brought you to the orphanage, just eight days old and clinging.  And this is what we keep telling you, again and again.

Life has been chosen for you so many times, and hallelujah,  this year you chose Life for yourself! You chose the Savior who chose you before the foundation of the world. You chose to love Someone you've never seen, too.

And again, you were born.

Born in a hut.  Born in our hearts. Born into a Forever Kingdom.

beautiful smiling boy, fall leaves, international adoption

nature walk, international adoption, child enjoying nature

coaching football, boy with surprised look, international adoption

Ethan Shashwat. Your Indian name means everlasting and continuous. Ethan means steadfast.

You are wonderful, and you are steadfast, continuous, and everlasting.

You held on to life for 17 months before we were able to hold on to you.  Daddy held you that first night in the hotel as you screamed through your first tub-bath.  I held you through the Hong Kong airport as we raced for our flight and your rice and buffalo milk raced out of your little body.  I wore you and your vomit right over my heart, and the 36 hours home was certainly like labor.

That's your birth story, Ethan.  And it's not like anyone else's story except that it was painful and you were always loved.

And today you turn 8.  You can read books by yourself and make your own bed, you're an amazing artist and goofy little brother, you share your desserts, eat grasshoppers for shock value, run so hard I'm afraid you might fall, and you live an everlasting life.

We love you, Ethan Shashwat.  Happy birthday - no school and no chores for you today!

A Contemplation of Ethan the Ezrahite. I will sing of the mercies of the LORD forever; With my mouth will I make known Your faithfulness to all generations. For I have said, "Mercy shall be built up forever; Your faithfulness You shall establish in the very heavens." "I have made a covenant with My chosen, I have sworn to My servant David: 'Your seed I will establish forever, And build up your throne to all generations. ~ Psalm 89:1-4


Sharing this today at Imperfect Prose.