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January 18, 2021 / paperkids

No distance.

“What we are recommending for Emma at this time is residential placement and that will most likely be out of state….” I know there were many other words that the special education director said that day, but these fell on me like an avalanche which swept away any semblance of control or composure that I had maintained to this point in the meeting. I can only remember the almost immediate sound of my own sobs as they burst forth from some deep, gutteral place inside. I have been to a lot of meetings over the years and I always managed to keep a determined yet cheerful composure. But I sat there completely broken in pieces, and I could not get myself back together.

The table was completely jammed with chairs and faces of teachers, therapists, district liaisons…all who were looking at me in silence and sympathy. They all seemed in that moment to have a deep and heartfelt understanding. Most knew Emma well and they had all shared at some point in the desperation of wanting to help her. This felt like the summation of all of our failures to make it work. To keep Emma in school. To keep her from injuring herself and others, never mind educate her. More than anything in that moment, it was my failure. My tears seemed to spill on in a never ending stream that couldn’t be contained as if I were making up for lost tears from years past. I felt the weight of their stares as my red face contorted uncontrollably. I don’t know how long I sat there crying as tissues were passed, the hand of my mom gently rubbing my back. I was very thankful she was there. When I finally got myself together enough to glance up, the woman from the district who had spoken had a deep look of compassion. I had fought hard in other meetings with steadfast optimism, but this one was different. Emma had injured staff. She had injured students. The pain this had also caused her was weighing on my heart heavily and I blamed myself for trying so hard to keep her there.

This meeting was held to decide what the next step was for Emma at school. After the incident when she injured staff, she was put on home study indefinitely. All day at home, I kept her busy with schedules, timers, walks, and tried to give her everything she needed and tried to get her out as much as possible. But that was very rare due to her aggressive episodes. I sometimes took her to Starbucks or the grocery store nearby, but that was rare. Even with her entire day scheduled out in ten minutes increments of time, she was still having about 8-10 rages a day where we got her on the couch and rode it out with her, keeping her and everyone else safe. We had it down to a kind of science at this point, but we were always on high alert. I felt as though I was operating on a super natural fortitude that God had given me to keep me well and energized. But it all felt fragile. I rested in that beautiful truth that God had told me after Emma’s first hospitalization : “She belongs to me.”

We prayed over her every day and many others joined us in praying continually for a breakthrough. Emma was still strong in her faith and kept the best attitude possible. But I sensed a depression and weariness coming over her as her world grew smaller and behavior intensified. I wondered how long we could maintain this crisis. I can’t really put into words how hard each day was and how sweet God was. Even through Emma’s screams, all the broken things, sleepless nights, exhaustion, aggression, and OCD’s, each day we fed on the daily bread that He gave us. His manna was enough for each day. Even with our life hanging in a very delicate balance, I was glad to commit every hour to my beloved Emma. Even in the hardest moments when we were at a breaking point, there was nothing I would have rather done than care for her.

We were so desperate to help Emma that we even admitted her for a second time in the UCLA Adolescent Psychiatric Unit for another grueling two weeks, which ultimately failed. That stay was just hard and sad. She was already on the meds they gave her the first time and there was little they could do. So when that second hospitalization failed to stabilize Emma’s behavior, residential placement was the next step for the school district. And I didn’t really realize that until this moment in the meeting.

So there we were. My heart shattered in pieces and a very serious choice that lay before us. Of course, the obvious choice to residential placement out of state was “NO. WAY.

I went home that day with a migraine from crying and a great determination to find another way. There had to be another way and the school’s recommendation was not on the table at all. Jared was appalled at the idea of sending Emma out of state and fully agreed with me and so I swept it clean off and out of the realm of possibilities. Instead, I got busy at work to find other options as a new sense of optimism arose. One thing was certain, Emma needed structure and she needed something more than just being at home all day. Even with my schedule, she needed more support. Therapists were coming over, but even that had become hard because of her episodes of rage. I didn’t want her to attack or hurt anyone else. She didn’t want that either. Respite could no longer handle her and so it was almost impossible to have anyone else but us with her.

Many ideas came and went and circled around in my mind. I even looked at a private school that might be able to support her, but it was just too far. Emma could barely ride five minutes from home due to her unpredictable episodes. My mind went into overdrive thinking over options and all seemed to hit a dead end. I didn’t say anything to Emma about what the district had said. We would go on our afternoon walks together in the neighborhood on the same exact path every day and I was thankful we still had that. We would just keep on walking down this path and hope for brighter days around the corner.

One day, the district sent me an email : “Great news! We’ve found a school placement for Emma …. ” I looked at the email and my stomach dropped. I wanted to just delete it right away and push it out of my mind. The school was in Kansas. Clearly, the school doesn’t understand that I am NOT sending Emma out of state. Why are they even still looking!? I felt upset and irritated and devastated at even the thought, which was completely off the table as far as I was concerned. Not even an option.

One day, I met a dear friend out for breakfast. She’s a woman of great faith and strength and someone I greatly admire who had been through great loss in her life. I almost had forgotten that she had experience with out of state residential schools with her own child. When I told her about the meeting and that I was trying to come up with a different option, her response floored me…

“Why don’t you want to do Kansas?” she said it in such a direct, matter of fact way that it left me speechless. I wanted to cry actually. There was something that I didn’t tell her about what she said to me that day; I knew it was God speaking to me.

After that conversation, I prayed more earnestly to God that He would lead me in this decision. After all, I only saw such a short distance down this path ahead of me, but God saw it all. In every area of my life for the past six years, I had committed my way to Him. He had taught me so much about faith and letting go. He had delivered me from depression and anxiety and had given me the strength and energy to keep on caring for my children. He gave me such such joy in the midst of adversity. I knew that Emma belonged to Him, but how could I let her go like that..… this was another level of letting go and I couldn’t even fathom it. No, I could not.

I finally decided to tell Emma about this option to see what she would say. Maybe she would want to go and maybe she would have some input that could ease this decision looming over us. I began to throw the idea out there and bring it up when we chatted and she typed very quickly and seriously. Emma was firmly and decidedly against it. This made the idea even more upsetting to me. There’s no way that I could do this to her. Who would she even type with and who would care for her like me? The thought sent a shiver through my soul.

Time went on and we were no closer to a solution for school. Emma’s rages continued relentlessly. Each day we hung on to faith, hope and love. I could not, however, stop thinking about Kansas. God had put the idea in my mind like a small seed. I looked up the school and read some favorable and unfavorable reviews. There was a picturesque barn on campus and I kept seeing it in my mind. One day, I decided that the only way to put this to rest was to go there and see it for myself. So my friend, Gloria and I made the three hour flight and one hour drive through the green, rolling hills of Kansas to the school, which was located in rural country town. We were fortunate to meet with the head psychiatrist and therapist and everyone was very warm and gave us a great tour of the campus. There was never a point where it felt right. I wanted there to be a sign that made me feel sure. But I only felt sadness and anxiety. I only felt Emma slipping away and my grip on her tightening.

Gloria and I went into a local coffee shop afterwards which was in an old historic hotel in the charming downtown square. Gloria seemed very positive about the school. But I couldn’t really talk about that. As we walked around the shop to look at the decor, I noticed a red Bible laying right there on the coffee table by the fireplace. “Look, Gloria! You’d never see this in L.A.” She agreed and we both beamed at the sight. We left and headed back to the airport. I didn’t have much to say, but much to ponder.

One day Jared went on our daily walk with Emma and I. Out of nowhere this little bird came fluttering down and hovered right in front of Emma’s face for several seconds. We all stood there astonished, watching it as it hovered a few inches from her face and then watched it flutter down and fall in the middle of the road. I ran to it, bent down and cupped my hand over it on the road. I thought of my childhood and how I had rescued this little bird that was injured. I thought of how that little bird died. I uncovered it and discovered one eye was sealed shut. I had a moment of wanting to take this little disabled bird home and care for him. But I felt that wouldn’t be right. The little injured bird flitted into a nearby bush. It seemed impossible that he should survive. Suddenly, I felt God speak to my heart : “I feed the birds of the air”. It was a reference to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:26. My heart soared with these words. I stored it in my heart. I knew He was reminding me. He was preparing me.

“I think this might be a really good thing, Emma” I could barely believe my own words as I said them, but I kept them as upbeat as possible. As hopeful as possible. Emma eventually began to come around to the idea of something new in her life. She began to warm up to the idea of change and considering how hard and small her life had become, I didn’t blame her. Even so, she was scared and I was, too.

We all were unsure and could barely believe we were choosing this option, once so removed from possibility. But that’s what God often does. He asks the impossible. And then He does the impossible.

There were loads and loads of paperwork and steps to be taken. Friends visited us to say their goodbyes to Emma and bring her gifts. My friend, Renee took beautiful photos that almost didn’t happen because things were so hard with Emma. Im so thankful that she insisted and captured such beautiful family photos that I treasure deeply.

An agency came to assess Emma for how she would be transported to Kansas. There were many options, but only one that was appropriate for Emma and her behavioral needs. She would fly on a private medic jet with a team of specialists. And she would fly without me.

Even though I was anxious for this to go forward and at the possibility of it helping Emma, I felt such a sense of grief and overwhelming uncertainty. I was giving my precious daughter to strangers for possibly the next three years. She would never come home in those years. I would have to fly halfway across the country to see her and chat (type) with her and kiss her face. I would let others care for her – shower her, dress her, make sure her covers were just right, comb her hair, handle her episodes of rage, and encourage her. My heart melted into an ocean of both fear and sorrow. How could I do this?

One early morning, the motion detector went off and that meant that Emma had come down stairs. The detector was a a life saver because Emma often came down in the middle of the night and it was dangerous to leave her unsupervised. It was around 4am and I came downstairs to where she had plopped on the couch as she always did. I laid down on the other couch and somehow we both fell back asleep.

God gave me a dream. In my dream, I was standing in front of that coffee shop in Kansas. The same charming old cafe Gloria and I had gone to. I walked up the steps of the porch and walked inside. I walked over to the coffee table and looked down at the red Bible resting there. In that moment I felt God speak to me in my dream.

He said : “I am here.”

Immediately, my eyes opened on the couch and I felt this thick presence – a blanket of peace – cover my whole body like a hand pressing down gently on me. It was the warm hand of God over my entire being.

Those words have lingered over my spirit ever since. He had given me the words that I so desperately needed and that I would cling to in days to come. I Am here. He would be there with her just as He was here now with me. We would always be together. There was no distance in Him.

“It’s ok to cry now. Just let it out, baby.” I remember those words because I’m not sure I had ever heard mom say them to me before. This woman. This woman who had lost a child was comforting me sweetly as we stood in the quiet living room. She pulled me into a loving embrace and I let myself fall into those loving arms. 

The house was too still and empty now and the couch where Emma lounged most of the time rested vacant. Just moments before this room had bustled with a whole medic team who wheeled a gurney right in through the front door and helped fasten Emma in snug to prepare her for the big trip. We smothered her with kisses, gave her a pair of sunglasses and her soft stuffed lamb that she had on her bed. I watched them as they gently lifted her into the ambulance. Jared and I stood in the street, smiling and waving and blowing kisses. The pit in my stomach deepened as they closed the doors and drove away. They rounded the corner, out of sight. She was gone. 
In my mind, I pictured the ambulance driving through our neighborhood, then inching through LA traffic. How would she be? I pictured her boarding the small private medic jet surrounded by a team of kind strangers. Was the nurse really equipped to handle her? And even though we had prepped and chatted about this move for the past month, I wondered how she was feeling inside. Was she scared? Was she ready for this? Was I ready? I pictured her landing half way across the country in a small airport in Kansas and finally pulling up to her new home and school. And then I pictured that Bible on the coffee table which I’ve seen on every visit to see Emma for the past year and a half. And I heard again the words that He spoke to me that early morning right before He awakened me. Those words that covered me and carried me through all of these painful months apart.

“I Am here”. 

He is there. He is here. With us. Forever. 

The front of the coffee shop on our first trip as a family to see Emma in Kansas.
Emma and her grandma at a rental house in Kansas.


Leave a Comment
  1. Dalia Ruiz-Davi / Jan 19 2021 10:10 pm

    Oh Sabra. I love how beautiful this is and how clearly and easy to read it was. Proud of you, Emma, Jared and the whole family! An inspiring journey!

  2. Lois peters / Jan 19 2021 11:25 pm

    Oh my dear friend , I love you and your whole family so much ! I am so blessed to call you part of my Cali family , I miss her so much! – love Lois

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