Born into Heaven | Acknowledging the Ashes

There were many unthinkably difficult things we had to do after Titus passed away. Horrifying decisions we had to make, phone calls with insurance agents and mortuaries. And my husband, Kent, handled it all with such strength and grace. He wouldn’t let me make a single phone call (he still hasn’t to this day). But by far the most horrifying of them all was picking up Titus’ ashes from the mortuary.

The most important prayer for us in those first weeks and months after we lost Titus was against the attacks of the enemy. I remember being surprised by how many people either prayed protection over us or told us they were praying for it. Thank you to all of you. I had no idea how much we needed it. Those attacks were, and still are, incredibly powerful. And in those first few days, we definitely felt God’s presence shielding us, tucking us away, giving us time to rest and find our bearings.

About a month after Titus was born, an attack hit. Neither of us had returned to work yet. We’d decided to get out of the apartment for some fresh air, so we went to lunch. While we were at lunch, we got a text that our good friends had their baby boy. We looked at the picture they sent with smiles on our faces and tears in our eyes. We were filled with joy for our friends, and at the very same time, feeling the absence of our own baby boy stronger than ever.

Then Kent’s phone started to ring.

It was a gentleman from the mortuary, informing us that Titus’ ashes were ready to be picked up. Searing pain flooded our hearts. Life can be so incredibly cruel.

The timing of that phone call was not lost on us. It was clearly an attack, a flaming arrow of the enemy that blazed through every inch of our tired, wounded hearts. We walked home from lunch hand-in-hand, the air heavy with silence.

It took us over a month to gather the courage to pick up Titus’ ashes. I’ll never forget how terrified I was. We drove out, sat in the car in the parking lot, and just cried. Neither of us could manage to make our bodies move. We couldn’t get out of the car. I didn’t want to walk through those doors. I was afraid of what they would hand over to us. I didn’t want to face the reality that our baby was really gone, that death was inescapable. But the hard truth was that even if we never got out of the car, Titus would still be gone. And it was our responsibility, as his parents, to walk through those doors, and face death and ashes and sorrow.

Kent cried out to Jesus for both of us, begging for strength to do the impossible. We wiped away the tears, took a few deep breaths to calm the sobs building in our chests, and stepped out of the car, filled with a strength that was not our own. On the walk up to the building I clung to Kent’s hand as if it was the only thing keeping me above water, every step heavy, crushing, final. Once inside, they ushered us in hushed tones to a dim room with a large formal dining table in the center. We sat in clunky leather arm chairs and waited.

“It’s not him,” Kent whispered in an effort to encourage us. We both knew our little guy was alive and whole in heaven, and that these ashes are not the end, but I couldn’t help reply,

“But it is…those ashes are everything that grew inside me for 9 months.”

Kent nodded quietly in response.

We’d been told to lean into the pain. To not gloss over it, but feel it fully. To grab hold of the grief instead of pushing it away.

On that day, just a few weeks after losing our son, I didn’t know why it was so significant to lean into the reality of death. I just knew we had to in order to survive. Since then, God’s been teaching me a lot about acknowledging the ashes.

Acknowledging the ashes admits that there’s value in creation. I struggled for a while with the question, “God, why did you spend so much time designing every detail of Titus when you knew he wouldn’t live past birth?” The answer He’s given me, over time, is this:

1. Because it’s his very character. He is, by nature, creative. He delights in creating.

2. Because he knows that his creation will not be lost. He has a plan to redeem all of it. Our physical bodies are valuable because heaven is a physical place! Titus is in heaven, inhabiting a physical body – the body God designed for him. We don’t get to enjoy those details here on earth, but those details are ETERNAL.

So while Kent and I find ourselves collecting the ashes here on earth, all is not lost. God is enjoying the first fruits of his creation of Titus. He gets to marvel at the sweet features of his face, the chubby fingers, round tummy, and perfect little feet that he designed. And someday we will see, hold, and marvel at that sweet physical body once again, too.

I had the instinct to lean into the pain that morning at the mortuary because God created all the tiny details that made up my boy, knowing that they would last, knowing that they are hidden in heaven, with Him, forever.

This revelation that we must acknowledge the ashes isn’t to gloss over the pain – it’s to lean into it. When the Bible speaks of ashes, intense mourning always accompanies it. Ashes are cause for ripping of clothes, for weeping and groaning and gnashing of teeth. Ashes come with suffering. They are proof that something of value has been lost, that things aren’t right in the world.

But along with our mourning comes God’s promises. Promises that cause us to mourn with purpose, with hope.

Isaiah 61 says that God will come,

“to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.[c]

Today we have ashes, but he promises us the beauty of victory – a headdress of triumph. Today we mourn, but he promises gladness. And not just any gladness, but one that will seep into our skin, nourishing our cracked, dried out, tired bodies with lasting joy.  Today our spirits feel faint, but he promises that we will literally wrap our bodies in the soft garments of praise. And then, once he’s brightened our faces, nourished our bodies, and wrapped us up in his glorious praise, then he will establish us – firm and stable and unmoving like a mighty oak tree. Ashes are fleeting, blown away by the wind, but oaks…oaks are strong. Our lives will be planted in his unchanging spirit, his everlasting life. There is so much comfort in that kind of stability! How powerful are the promises of God!

That day, as Kent and I sat in the car and wept. As we dragged our tired bodies, sick with mourning, through the parking lot and into the building to pick up the ashes of our beautiful little boy – bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh. As we drove home with a tiny box placed gently behind my seat. As we walked up the stairs to our apartment, his ashes in hand, instead of his body in our arms…

A fire of hope burned deep within our souls.

When we feel like falling to our knees and ripping our clothes. When our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our very spirits groan with longing, our Creator calls gently, “Acknowledge the ashes. All is not lost.”

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Born Into Heaven | Hello, Baby Bear

Exactly one year ago today, on July 15th, 2016 we found out about our little Baby Bear.

I realized recently that I never got around to sharing how we found out we were pregnant. It’s not that I never tried. In fact, I wrote draft after draft while I was pregnant with him, but for some reason I never hit, “publish.”

So today, I’m sharing what I wrote while Titus was safe in my tummy, as a way to celebrate a good memory and remember the excitement and joy that surrounded every moment of my sweet Titus’ life.

Little boy, you were, and still are, so very wanted.

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Written in December 2016

I remember reading those definitive, life-changing letters sprawled accross the test screen – “Pregnant.” I remember my hand flying to my mouth, standing in the bathroom in complete silence, disbelief mixed with a prick of happy tears. I ran out into the living room with my hand still to my mouth. Harvey gave me a curious head tilt and I held back giggles of glee.

I remember running to my favorite boutique near our apartment, buying a baby gift, asking the nice ladies at the store (who squealed at the news) to gift wrap it with my test. 

I remember driving through Friday traffic to pick up Kent at work with the gift, wrapped in blue and pink, sitting in the passenger seat next to me. For the first time the strangest feeling of, “I’m not in this car alone, anymore,” filled my heart as I touched my belly.

I remember my heart pounding as he got in the car and I told him, “It’s for you.” His confusion, “For me?” How I had to point out the test sitting on blue tissue paper, and then his loudest shouts of joy, “What?!” and “Hannah!” and “Oh my gosh!” Tears streaming down both our faces as we hugged accross the center console in the car.

Then, just like that, we took off to an Angels game, smiling like goofballs the whole drive there, randomly bursting with excited thoughts and laughter. We sat through the game with friends, holding on to the best secret in the world. There was life growing inside me!

A perfectly, imperfect moment we’ll remember forever.

In so many ways, this season of life has been just that, perfectly imperfect.

In the past months I’ve definitely felt discouraged, overwhelmed, sick, unprepared, exhausted, nauseous, and emotional. For a season I felt extremely overwhelmed with all the “must nots” and “must dos” in pregnancy. There’s so much pressure to look perfect, do it all perfectly, feel it all perfectly. You’ve gotta get this test done, pay for that doctor’s visit, eat these exact foods, do these specific exercises, read this book, take that class.

But, God’s calling me to alter my definition of “perfect.” There are so many other little details that matter so much more.

Like the fact that baby now has all it’s vital organs and is starting to work on complex brain activity. Like the fact that baby has fingernails, can make facial expressions, is learning how to breath! We’re incredibly grateful for a healthy baby and pregnancy so far. And cherishing all the special moments – hearing the heartbeat for the first time, seeing our little bear on the ultrasound screen, Kent feeling one of the first kicks and smiling a big, proud smile (even as I write this, our little baby bear is jumping around, demanding my attention, making me smile).

I’m astounded at my Creator. In awe of his work in me and every little detail he’s fashioning specifically for our little one. Even with all the latest technology, most of this process is such a mystery! But God knows every, single, little detail about our baby bear and nothing is unknown to him. Every bit of mystery reminds us to be in awe of our Creator, to trust in Him first and foremost, and to lean into his plans above our own.

Next week, as we head into my 3rd trimester – the homestretch – my prayer is that we’d remember to focus on all the right little details. And that we’d cling to our Creator until the day we get to say, face to face, “Hello, little Baby Bear. We’ve been waiting for you.”

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When I read these words, written by my own hands, tears fill my eyes and a fresh aching fills my heart. It’s surreal to look back at what God was teaching me back then and how he was shaping and preparing my heart for what was to come.

Turns out that we’re still waiting and will be waiting for a little while longer to get the chance to know our Baby Bear. It’s a powerful and bittersweet longing.

But we’re so much more excited for that day. Because on that day we won’t just be meeting our boy, but our Creator, too.

And there is nothing, in this entire world, that we look forward to more.

 

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Born into Heaven | How My Son Saved My Life

They were wiping him off.

I’d just finished labor and with a couple deep breaths I let the shock of having a boy wear off and the exhaustion of labor set in. I looked down at my chest to find his feet right at my chin.

What a mess of legs! I thought. I have a tall little boy.

Then all at once: Wait, I want to see his cute little face! Why isn’t he facing me? They’re taking a long time to wipe him down… Why isn’t he crying yet? 

It was then I realized, they weren’t wiping him down, they were trying to stimulate him. He hadn’t taken his first breath yet. And just like that, in a matter of seconds, our highest high plummeted to our lowest low.

Panic set in on Kent’s face. They pulled Titus’ body off mine and laid him next to me on the bed to start compressions. I closed my eyes and prayed. Lord, help Kent be calm. Give him strength. And please give my baby breath. All around me voices pleaded, “Come on baby boy. Breathe baby. Breathe.” Kent and my sister Jaci prayed out loud, pleading with God, begging him to intervene.

Instantly, I knew we needed to pray for him by name, but no one knew his name yet.

Kent’s voice broke into my thoughts, “Should we tell them his name?”

“Yes, yes. Tell them!” I replied.

“His name is Titus. Titus Kent Hagen,” he said without taking his eyes off our son.

There was no time for reactions, for oohs and awwws. I think I remember exchanging a quick look with my sisters before we came back into the chaos of the room and the prayers continued.

My sister Tess held my hand. I heard her voice in my ear, “Lord, give him your breath. Lord, give him your breath.” Over and over she prayed. And a calm I can’t explain settled over me. I held Kent’s hand and reassured him, but our son was still not breathing.

“Call 911.”

And with that, my world shattered. The paramedics arrived. Stats were exchanged. Then all at once his umbilical chord was cut and Titus and I were separated for the first time in 9 months.

I was put on a stretcher and while they strapped me in, I begged someone to make sure to cover me up before wheeling me out of the room. I passed by my family and exchanged brief looks before entering the cold night air. This is not how I imagined leaving. Kent was told there wasn’t room for him in the back with us, so he sat up front. Into the ambulance I went, right next to Titus. There were two paramedics working on him still. I made sure they knew his name and we sped off towards the hospital. My body ached on the hard stretcher and suddenly I realized my legs were shaking. A paramedic asked me if I wanted a warm blanket. He didn’t wait for my response and reached over to grab one for me.

We arrived. The doors opened, “We have baby and mom…” one of the paramedics recited medical jargon to the hospital staff. They wheeled me inside, into the hallway of the ER. Titus was in a room to my right. I could hear them working on him. “Has it been 3 minutes? Push another epi.” Their urgent communication continued.

My body wouldn’t stop shaking. My muscles ached. Then suddenly Kent was by my side. He took my hand and I looked up at him, his eyes calmed my shaking for a minute. We stayed like that for a second, exchanging a look worth a thousand words.

“Go be with Titus.” I urged.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, yes! Go!” He squeezed my hand and rushed into the room, leaving me in the hallway.

I looked around and noticed, for the first time, all the nurses and paramedics standing around watching, hands to their mouths, concerned expressions etched across their faces. It was as if the whole ER came to a stand still to watch our story play out.

One of the paramedics asked how I was doing.

“I need water. Can I get some water?” I asked. My mouth was so dry. I heard chatter around me. We need to get her into a room. The paramedic came back with a dixie cup and a straw with a tiny sponge attached to it. He pressed the sponge to my lips. It tasted like menthol. “I’m sorry, this is all I could find.” I thanked him. Room 1 is open. Take her to room 1. I couldn’t wait to get off the stretcher. They wheeled me into the room next to Titus’. 1, 2, 3… They counted out and transferred me to the ER bed.

“Is that better?” a nurse asked while covering me in a warmed blanket.

“Yes.” I smiled at her, “Thank you.”

My muscles eased a bit, but my whole body hurt. I asked for pain meds.

“Is there anyone you’d like with you right now? A family member?” my nurse asked.

“Yes, please. My sisters! Jaci and Tess.” She left to go get them.

A couple nurses and a doctor stood at my feet. She hasn’t delivered her placenta yet. I heard them say. And suddenly I couldn’t handle the pain anymore. I begged for meds. They took my blood pressure, hooked me up to heart monitors, and worked on getting IVs in both my hands. Jaci and Tess rushed in, one of them on each side of my bed.

“I want pain meds.” I pleaded. “And water. I’m so thirsty.” My sisters went to work, making sure I got what I needed. The nurse brought me another dixie cup with a sponge straw, this time it was water. She told me I could only have a few sponge-fulls. They didn’t want to give me too much water, just in case. I knew what she meant – just in case I needed surgery. I wrote it off as a precaution.

“How’s Titus doing?” I asked my nurse. She said she would find out.

Then I felt it – all the pushing. The nurses and doctor at my feet were pressing down on my stomach to get my placenta out. I groaned in pain and shut my eyes tight. Jaci and Tess held my hands as they worked. The nurses pressed harder and harder and tears streamed down my face.

“I know, I’m sorry, honey. We’re almost done,” one of the nurses said.

Finally, it was over. They stopped pressing down. I could breathe a little easier, but my body still trembled with pain. I’m so tired, I thought as I laid there. I felt a heaviness to my very core. Tess put the tiny sponge of water to my lips. I gladly took it. They told me they were going to run some tests on my placenta to see if they could find any answers for us. I thanked them.

“How’s Titus?” I asked my nurse. She said she would check for me.

There was talk of transferring me to another hospital. I took another sponge full of water and looked up to see Kent standing with Jaci in the corner of my room by the door. She had her arm around him. He gave me a little smile and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. Why isn’t he with Titus?

A few minutes passed and finally the commotion around my bed subsided. Kent came over, held my left hand, and confirmed what hope hadn’t allowed me to believe.

“He didn’t make it.”

“What?…” I searched Kent’s face, confused. “No. No…”

Tears streamed down Kent’s face. I shook my head and cried without tears. I was in complete shock. It couldn’t be true. Titus wasn’t gone. He was in the NICU recovering. We prayed for a miracle! Didn’t God hear our prayers? And yet even as these thoughts rushed through my head, deep down I knew he was gone. I’d known since someone yelled, “Call 911” in the birthing room.

The hospital chaplain entered my room. A nice man with a kind face. He told us how sorry he was for our loss. I can’t remember anything else he said until, “Would you like to see him?”

I nodded emphatically, “Yes. Yes, please!”

He and Kent left the room to go get our sweet boy. It had been over an hour since Titus was born and I had yet to hold him, or even see his face.

The next 20 minutes were the most heart wrenching I’ll ever experience. I met my little one for the first time and said goodbye to him all in less than an hour. Kent brought him into the room. I’ll never forget how proud he was, holding our son – how tenderly and lovingly he looked at Titus. He walked to the side of my bed, placed him in my arms, and I came undone. A tiny version of my sweet Kent. How could I not fall instantly in love? Tears flooded my eyes as I traced his face with my fingers – his tiny forehead, his puffy eyelids, round little nose, and pursed lips. We spent time pointing out all the details – his tiny bubbly toes and chubby, dimply fingers.

“What color are his eyes?” I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t seen them yet.

“Blue.” Kent said with a small smile. He reached over and opened one for me to see. Deep, gorgeous blue. Pain filled my heart anew. Oh, what I would give to see those eyes open. We held his hands, stroked his full head of beautiful hair, and exchanged looks of longing. How could we feel such joy and sorrow at the same time?

“I know this is a weird request,” I said looking at Kent sheepishly. “But I want to see his butt.” Kent smiled back at me and started to unwrap Titus from his swaddle. I had to see it – the little baby bum that pushed against my ribs for all those months. The one I cupped with my hand and smiled thinking, I can’t wait to meet you baby bear. Kent held Titus up so I could take a good look. I know you, I thought and playfully cupped his little bum once again.

We introduced him to his aunties, his uncles, his grandma and grandpas. I told him how lucky he is to have each and every one of them. We swaddled him again and took pictures. I ran my fingers down his soft, silky baby skin and kissed his cheeks over and over. Oh, how we loved on him.

And just as quickly as it started, it was over. Paramedics arrived to transfer me to another hospital. I handed Titus over to Kent so they could unplug all my IVs and get me onto yet another gurney. The charge nurse at the ER reassured Kent and me that we could come back the next day. They’d set up a room for us and we could spend as much time as we wanted with Titus. We had no idea, at the time, how sick I was. I ended up spending three days in the hospital recovering, receiving treatment, consistent blood tests, and blood pressure monitoring and we never went back to spend time with Titus the way we thought we would. My heart fills with sorrow when I think about it. Why did I hand him over so easily? Why didn’t we have more time?

We’ll never know why things happened the way they did. And even though there’s no medical explanation for why Titus didn’t make it, I believe with every fiber of my being that God used my son to save my life. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have gone to the ER, they wouldn’t have discovered the severity of my sickness, and I might not have survived.

Because of Titus, I’m here to tell the story, to cling to Jesus, and try to make sense of these ruins. Because of Titus I feel my Saviors love more intimately than I ever thought possible. Because of Titus, I am changed.

And if the reaction you all have had, the response to his life that we’ve received, is any indication of the kind of heart our Ty has – I’m in awe. He would have sought reconciliation and healing. He would have loved deeply and intentionally. He would have pursued intimacy with Jesus. He would be known by his joy. He would run towards the hard things and in doing so imparted courage to those around him to do the same.

I wish he had a lifetime, here on earth, to show us his big brave heart. But in a way, we are still experiencing it. In a way, by inspiring us to do all these things, he is making such a profound impact on so many lives.

So maybe it’s not just his mommy’s life that he saved. Maybe, in a way, he’s saving your life too. I pray everyday that Jesus uses my sweet Ty to bring people to Him and show them His abundant love.

Yes, I am marked by loss, by pain, by grief. But I’m upheld by love – the love of Jesus and Kent and a little 9 pound bundle of love named, Titus.

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