Sharing the Story: Pitt Med Magazine

Sharing the Story: Pitt Med Magazine

This summer I reached out to an old friend of mine, the editor of the University of Pittsburgh’s acclaimed Medical School magazine, Pitt Med. We worked together at the University back when we were both young and childless, and did things like play ultimate frisbee on the Cathedral lawn over our lunch break and run the Pittsburgh Marathon Relay with a team of co-workers. {Erica even drove me around the city for my unofficial bachelorette.} Suffice it to say, we go back. Way back.

Erica has since moved to California; she has one son; I have two daughters and a son. She has been at the helm of Pitt Med since its inception, and I’ve been a freelance writer since my kids were born. I’ve done some fact-checking and proofing for her here and there, so it wasn’t a total shock when I emailed her this past summer to tell her what’s been going on with Julianne.

Could this be used in some way for the magazine? I asked.  I’m not sure if our personal experiences would be of interest to you? 

I went on to talk about our kind, soft-spoken doctor. At the very least, I thought, perhaps I could drum up some publicity for him;  the medical school connection was there — Dr. K being the fellowship program director for Children’s pediatric rheumatology program (and, thus, a med school professor).

Dr. Kietz is an excellent doctor, but what makes him truly special is his personality — his kindness, his whimsy, his genuine concern and care, I wrote. If he can impart even a bit of his unique patient care approach to his fellows, he will be doing the next generation of pediatric rheumatologists a huge favor.Erica wrote back to let me know she wanted to pursue the piece as a personal experience essay. I wrote it over the summer, took photos at our inpatient visit in August, and, as it goes with all things magazine — after revisions, approvals, layout and design, fact-checking, and proofreading {or, four months later} — it was published.

I’d be honored if you stopped over at Pitt Med to read “A Doctor With ‘High Touch.’ “


Husk Wrappings

Husk Wrappings

In October we drive to Ohio under smudged skies. Though I look for scarlet and amber in the rolling hills, instead I see disaster along the roadside — a cross with faded flowers, its birth and death dates far too close; vultures circling over a field; the crash site of an ill-fated 1925 zeppelin.

But we arrive safe — exchange hugs with Mimi and Pa-Pa and unload bags, while each child searches for their favorite farm cat. After lunch, we check out new things — a freshly dug pond bed rich with clay-mud, the pumpkin patch with orange globes still veined green.

green pumpkins

Before long, we find the Indian corn, Pa-Pa’s humble patch, down by the Cave-woods, quiet and damp.

By now, the stalks lean down and splay to the side — homely, dark-flaxen things, spotted with mold. Giant pokeberries lace among them, glossy black-purple berries dangling from hot-purple stems, lovely but poisonous.


And, we begin peeling husks down.

White pearls, studded with amethyst-purple.
Burnished-brown knobs, shot through with cream.
Rich-red pomegranate seeds.
Translucent yellow kernels that look glazed with melted butter.


purple kernels

Varnished, pearlized, speckled, streaked — each ear holds a fresh surprise. We heap them, gem-like, in the bed of the Ranger.

When it comes time to go home, we pile three bag-fuls in the van. I wonder what I will do with them all, already having the first installment of Indian corn at home, gracefully mounded on tables inside and tucked round pumpkins outside.

What do we do with this bounty?


One week later, just as I tell my husband he should call his parents to check on his dad — one day home from the hospital after a major surgery — the phone rings. I watch, helpless, as my stricken husband runs out the door for the two-minute drive to his parents’.

And, I am left alone with two distressed daughters, who I pull close. We huddle around the worn chenille family room couch and pray for a miracle. A phone call five minutes later lands with startling finality on my heart, flat and hard as stone.

The girls’ eyes, brimming blue and brown, seek mine and they know, though I have to deliver the news regardless.

I don’t know what to do, in the hours that remain, while the police come and the empty ambulance goes.

So, we clean. I take the remnants of my life as it was before — suddenly so false, so flimsy, so naive, and tuck them away. The tiny hand-felted pumpkin I was working on. The bowl of shelled corn kernels from the farm I was soaking to string for Thanksgiving necklaces. I pack away the jewel-toned wool skeins, the needles and foam. I drain the kernels and wash the bowl and set the corn to dry on a paper towel in the basement.

I clear away toys and wash dishes; make the bed in big room for Nunny, who I already know will be sleeping with us. We work silently, me and my girls. I finally tuck them all in with little man around 10 p.m., on Caroline’s bedroom floor, in a huge nest of blankets and pillows and special stuffties.

I take the dog out back in the dense velvet night while I wait and hear no less than three separate owl calls, all within the space of a minute. The tremulous, quavering whistle of the tiny screech owl, the classic hoots of male and female great horned owls.

They do little to distract me from the question at hand. What do we do with this loss? So much bounty we have had — but, now, this scarcity, this lack, this loss — it mows us down.

We get through the next week in a daze of condolences and visitations and the funeral day.

She comes up to me at the funeral home, her whitish fuzz of new hair just sprouting. She gestures to her head and says: It’s been a tough year. And we talk about the son-in-law lost suddenly to a heart attack while out of town, her home burned down, the cancer. She and her husband are living with her newly widowed daughter and her grandkids now. She knows loss.

And then they come, the couple — also from our church — who just lost their 33-year-old son in the summer after a brave but brutal fight with cancer. We mourned with them a couple short months ago, and now it is us?


Now, it is us.

We find our fridge bursting with food, but we are out of Motrin and coffee and tissues.

I take the few flowers we bring home and haul out an army of vases. Because I can’t stomach the stiff pyramid arrangements, I pull the flowers out, stem by stem. I cut and tuck and make something new. I give a ribbon-tied bunch of larkspur to a friend, gather peach carnations and purple stock into a violet jug for Julianne, make a clear vase of red rose, white snapdragon and blue delphinium for Caroline.

I work on writing assignments in the dining room the week after the funeral, filled with clean tupperware containers, photo boards, the lockbox of important documents, and my father-in-law, sitting on the chair in front of me.

I have to turn the portrait around, though it seems cruel. But looking at his smile, I can’t help but be convinced he’s just on my front porch having a smoke in his red flannel shirt. I can hear the scrape of the tin on our kitchen counter as he reaches in to give Jasper a treat. I can still conjure the timbre of voice, recall his expressions — remember I probably owed him a hemmed pair of jeans.

And, now, at home, we set a place more and a place less each night. My mother-in-law is here and he is not. And, I struggle to understand. I wish I could say I have wrangled with words to describe what we are feeling over the past month, but I have not even had words.

The stories written weeks and weeks ago about my daughter’s health struggles and just now published (at The High Calling and Pitt Med Magazine) may make it seems as if I am blissfully batting about metaphor and meaning, but I am not.

All I can think of is the dried cornstalks, their lush green living exchanged for the harvest bounty of fully ripened corn. Their death yielding burnished beauty. Their bodies, dried husks serving as a temporary wrapping for the glory within.

But the life-from-death metaphor that works so neatly for seasons and harvest, how can we accept it for the loss of those we love? What beauty can come from such pain?

I do not have the answer.


One morning of the numb week that follows the sudden loss of my father-in-law, we sit in the Pretty Room with Pastor — the three who have lost their husband and father, and me.

We are planning the funeral service.

It comes time to talk hymns and scripture passages and, before I know it, I’ve jumped up, grabbed car keys and am making the short drive to my in-law’s to find his bible. What was he reading most recently, we wondered?

red bible

Pastor takes the red bible, his spot marked with a flier for a campground in the Pennsylvania mountains he so loved, and smiles.

Listen to this, she says:

If the earthly tent that we live in is torn down, we know that we have one from God, not made by human hands but lasting forever in heaven. … So while we are in this tent, we sigh, feeling distressed for this reason — that we do not wish to put off this dwelling, but that we wish to put on the other and have life swallow up our death. It is God who has prepared us for this and who has given us His Spirit as a guarantee. And so we always feel confident. We know that as long as we are living in this body we are living away from the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5: 1-6

Beauty in the Breaking

We roll our bags down the entry hallway of Children’s Hospital, past a colorful abstract butterfly mural. We’re here for a scheduled overnight—no rushed admission, no immediate accident or illness, no heart-thumping clutch of fear. We deal in the long and slow, in measured stretches of medication carefully calibrated—dripped in by IV monthly, spooned in by dropper-full twice daily, cut in half and swallowed in applesauce Monday through Thursday, and injected on Friday.

We’re not the family in the waiting room rocking a wailing baby, pacing, talking on the phone in tears. We’re not the stoic mom holding the tiny four-year-old boy with half a shaved head.

We’re the ones with the kid who looks just fine. Julianne sits in the waiting room with headphones on, reading her book serenely. While stress ebbs and flows around her, she appears untouched.

We’re the ones with the girl who’s proud she can pronounce the ten-syllable mouthful Ju-ven-ile Der-ma-to-my-o-si-tis (JDM) correctly when she’s first diagnosed two years ago at 7 1/2. We’re the ones with the statistical anomaly: one of only two to three kids per million get JDM, an inflammatory disease of the skin, muscle, and blood vessels. (And we wonder why we can’t beat these odds when it comes time for school raffles or radio-show call-ins or even a lotto ticket.)

Join me today for the rest of the story at The High Calling?

Rocks for Steps and Roots for Handles

Rocks for Steps and Roots for Handles

Our GPS takes us a strange way into McConnell’s Mill State Park, and we park at the dead-end by a closed-down, rusty old bridge. We see none of those official brown park signs to let us know we’ve arrived; there are no informational kiosks, no painted parking lines … just a gravely spot off the end of the road, hedged in by weeds and a few late wildflowers.

It’s colder than we could have imagined. After weeks of unseasonably warm 70s weather, we find ourselves quickly heading back to the truck for more layers, grateful we thought to bring them.

As we walk, we see a few small signs here and there alerting us to the danger inherent in this beauty; there are precipitous drops nearby. We hold our breath — and snag our four-year-old by his hood — as we approach ledges camouflaged by tall grass that will lead you straight down a cliff if you’re not careful.

forest floor

The risky views reward us with slices of glade-green goodness — ravines fringed with ferns, creek and waterfall framed by rock and upward-stretching tree trunks, and the leaf-littered forest floor far below.

After our mountain-goat Caroline satisfies herself by finding a way to scramble all the way down to the creek bed, we retreat to our vehicle to scarf down egg-salad sandwiches, the closed space quickly redolent with dill pickle and mayonnaise.

We drive off in search of the main park, and find it, all red covered bridge, foamy dammed creek, dark-wood mill. We roam the mill, which once harnessed the power of the water below, turning huge wheels to grind wheat, corn, buckwheat. We peer out wavy glass windows and get weighed as a family by the park ranger on the huge in-floor scale {where we find our young family already 460 pounds of humanity strong}.

bridge and mill

foamy creek

mill inside

mill windowBut, it’s not until we step into the chill wind and spitting rain, turning onto the trail along the stream, that we settle into the cold and let the day take us.

I give Jules my iPhone; I’ve brought my real camera along. We let Bob, Caroline, and Adam range ahead as we shutter-step. Every few steps, we stop to click away. A fern here, a leaf there. An expanse of roots. A winsome stretch of creek. We become enchanted with the views we capture. Julianne finds she excels at nature close-ups; I take a bit of everything, laughing at myself as I crouch low to get the right angle and slip, falling ungracefully onto my behind.

jules leaf


The path twists ahead of us, thick with sinewy roots, slick with fallen leaves, studded with chunks of rock. And, I muse, as far as paths go, this one’s not so good — especially if you like them straight, smooth, level.

But, today, we are here to see and savor, not make good time. We are here to scramble on boulders and trip over roots, able to imbibe the wildness around us precisely because we must go slow.

When Julianne and I catch up to the rest of the family, Adam tells us proudly: I found rocks for steps and roots for handles.

root on rockAnd, it strikes me profound.

You see, these fall days have run long and exhausting, whirling from one activity to commitment to project to another. I find myself turning down a getaway weekend with my husband because I am simply too tired to contemplate travel. I fantasize a night without any activities that take us out of the house. I realize the time has come when there is simply more than I can do.

On weeks when my husband is in town, or where we aren’t double-booked halfway to January, life feels blessed and beautiful. {And, so it is always — if we can only recall to measure our favor in sacred terms, rather than bowing down to unholy proliferation.}

But, too often,

I become hospital-weary and impatient for healing.
I become bleary-eyed calendar compiling.
I become frantic trying to keep pace with the world and falling out of step with the One.

Too often, you and I, we look at the roots and the rocks and say: This way is too hard. Doing this job, keeping this schedule, loving this God, caring for this family. Impossible. I need a smoother passage.

But, what if we could see instead the glorious adventure that commences where the path skews upward?
What if we saw opportunity and worship rich where the trail turns to tall grass?
What if we learned to see rocks as steps and roots as handles?

family walking