A couple of years ago, I thought I’d finally got a handle on parenting. My kids looked presentable more days than not, Pinterest-perfect parties were a thing and I made it to most of my kids’ baseball games and cheer competitions on time, usually even wearing a shirt that proudly proclaimed just whose mama I was.

Then, life happened, whacking me upside the head with a humbling reminder I didn’t have a clue about life, least of all what mattered in it.

My previously healthy daughter fell ill, really ill. And suddenly, I found myself living within hospital walls while still trying to raise two boys. Life became a fight—literally. And I lost myself to it.

My boys were shuffled between friends and grandparents. On a good day, I remembered to pack them clean underwear. Suffice it to say matching outfits were out. But it was OK. They were clothed. People got it. They loved om my ragamuffins and gave me grace.

My house was a wreck. Which was strange since I wasn’t even there, but the laundry piled up and dust gathered all the same. Nobody said, “Um, you’ve dropped the ball here.” Instead, friends just picked it up, literally.

Again, grace abounds.

Pinterest parties? Those were a thing of the past. My son blew out birthday candles on a donut in a lounge at the hospital and he didn’t complain, because he “wanted to celebrate with sissy.” His party was two weeks late and cobbled together by friends and family. He had two cakes and a dozen donuts for food, streamers and balloons featuring characters from all his favorite shows because there wasn’t one planner or a theme. And you know what? He said it was the best birthday ever. Pinterest be damned, he had his mama, his friends . . . and a heart of grace.

I missed a lot of baseball games that summer and the first round of school conferences come fall.

When I realized the latter, I sent an e-mail to their teachers, insisting it wasn’t that I didn’t care about my children’s progress, more that I didn’t even know the day of the week it was anymore. And one teacher simply responded, “Your son’s doing just fine, and so are you.” Her grace dried my tears.

As a result of her illness, my daughter suffered a traumatic brain injury and when we took her home, life looked different.

Lights caused seizures and sounds overwhelmed her. There was no filter on her mouth and she had no volume or impulse control. Our hearts were thankful she was home, but reacclimating to our new normal challenged us all.

There was one day early into her recovery I recall as being especially rough. We were in Chipotle early to beat the dinner crowd, but the metal on the walls made the restaurant echo. There wasn’t guacamole for my daughter’s stuffed tiger, so she hid under the table with her hands on her ears rocking back and forth crying. I stopped picking the tomatoes that were “too red” from my son’s burrito bowl to try coax her out. At that time my boys, who I must remind myself are just kids, began blowing bubbles in their drinks until they spilled over on to the table. I asked one of them to go get napkins and they proceeded to fight over who that should be. I angrily said, “Just sit down!” and grabbed napkins myself.

As I was wiping the table and my tears, an employee approached us. I began to mumble a series of apologies about the chaos, but she wasn’t looking for them. She simply placed a Post-it note on the table that said, “From one mama to another you’re doing great”—and a pile of coupons for our next meal.

She didn’t see children who couldn’t behave; she saw a tired mama trying. And her grace changed me.

Perhaps I wasn’t in a place to see it before. Or maybe I wasn’t ready to accept it. But the grace given to me in so many circumstances is what pulled me through when every one of our worlds was rocked. And my children before—all 3 of them—deserved that grace, too.

And with that realization, our worlds changed.

I crawled on the floor beside my daughter in that restaurant and, rather than being frustrated with her, I said, “It’s loud in here, should we go outside?” She nodded. I looked at my boys and said, “In a restaurant, we can’t blow bubbles in our drinks. How about we sit outside where we can?” In 90-degree weather, we did—and what started as an awful experience transformed into a life-changing one.

I held on to that grace. Not perfectly, but tightly.

I began to look the other way when my son’s clothes were mismatched. Rather than be annoyed, I saw a child who was too preoccupied with living to care. Eventually, I stopped noticing at all, and as my criticism became less frequent, his hugs became more so. Those tiny arms around my neck became everything.

I couldn’t make all the kids’ games for sports and I didn’t try to. When I could get there, I cheered for them with all my heart. When I couldn’t, my boys understood. Grace took away the weight of expectation.

Pinterest parties never made a comeback, but celebrations continued. Rather than focusing on perfection, we focused on one another and the memories we created are richer.

Then, conversations started. Natural ones. Feelings were suddenly less guarded. When my son was sad, he said so. The first few times that happened, I fumbled for words. When he shared he was afraid his sister would die, I sent him outside to play. It’s not something I am proud of, but he knew I was feeling lost, too. In a calmer time, with his head on my chest and in a different way, he said it again and we sat in silence, together. His willingness to be vulnerable was a gift—and it was a gift of grace.

A few weeks later, the tension in our house was high. Nobody was listening and it would have been easy to lose my cool; instead, I broke out ice cream and root beer and we had floats in fine China with our dinner, picnic-style on a blanket on the floor while we watched TV. It was grace in action—and it saved all of us heartache.

Life with a chronically ill child is hard. It’s hard for the patient, the parents, and the siblings. The stress is plentiful and the breaks are few—and it wears everybody down. Grace doesn’t change that, but when it’s practiced, it takes the hurt from being human. I wish I’d discovered the magic of it sooner.

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Cara Arnold

I’m a mama to 3 whose learning to balance parenthood and chronic illness at the hands of autoimmune encephalitis. Some days I’m a soccer mom, carpooling like a boss; other days I’m a relentless advocate, taking on doctors and insurance companies alike. But, if you’re looking for consistency every day I’m a hot mess. My life is a puzzle that’s still not together. I used to think pieces were missing. But it's all finally fitting together. It’s not what I envisioned, and some days I mourn that; but it’s mine. And knowing how fast that can change I try to appreciate every moment of it.