watch for god. [an interview with cynthya littell]

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On god, a near-death experience, and the last-minute decision to not give up her daughter for adoption. 

She’s absolutely mesmerizing, to say the least. Her story—her face-melting, heart-wrenching fucking story—is one thing. But as she speaks, I’m realizing it’s not just what she’s saying that’s so captivating, but how she’s saying it. The angle she holds her head at—nose slightly tipped up—almost like she’s expecting to catch something from above. The way she narrows her eyes throughout every sentence, the degree of each squint directly influenced by the intensity of her subject. She seems to lean into her words. Fall through them.

I’ve been reading her wholly raw expressions for hours. Long sense abandoned by our server, we haven’t seen a coffee refill since he gathered our tab—which, seeing how she hovers the sugar caddy over her mug at a direct, upside-down angle, for at least 14 solid seconds—might be for the best.

Alongside our pretty severe sugar high, we’re discussing god.

“You know, it was kind of a three-pronged progression,” Thya begins. “There was the peace of my grandparents. The fun that came with me being who god made me to be—as a teenager, with a bunch of fellow teens. And then there was god, sitting right there on that rock, overlooking a mama bear and her babies fishing in this stream, saying to me “I am all of this. This is what you can have, if you choose me.”

I jolt forward, coughing on my coffee. “Woah woah woaaaah. Eassssy babe, eassssssy. I’m sorry—grandparents are neat, and I like bears too, but… I’m gonna need more of a warm up here. Slow it down. Take me back. Let’s start at the beginning.”

She bursts out laughing. “Right. Okay. The beginning.” She closes her eyes momentarily. When she’s ready, she opens them and speaks.

“So, my mom never talked to me about god,” she starts, “and, my dad definitely never talked to me about god, but every year they would send me to my grandma’s for the summer.”

This annual, three-month-long scene switch from Spokane, WA to Bowman, North Dakota was where Thya’s concept of anything beyond herself commenced. She explains, “my grandma played the organ in the church, and sometimes I would go sit up in the balcony while she played. I would watch her feet move and her hands move, and sometimes I would sit on the pews next to my grandpa”—she erupts in cackles—“and he would fall asleep and snore, like, really loud.”

Her eyes narrow as she continues, “At this point, no one had ever sat me down and given me some kind of lecture or run-down on ‘who is god,’ and yet, there was something really grounding and truthful about this scene every Sunday. Something about my grandma was so peaceful. Something about the way my grandpa would hold his hymnal was so comforting.” Thya pauses. “I mean, this very solid man was holding this book about god, you know? A book filled with songs that were written by saints long ago. Of course, I didn’t’ know anything about the scriptures they were singing at that time—but I saw the peace and unwavering faith that just radiated from my grandparents, and knew that they ‘loved god,’ and that nothing could sway that.”

Summers with her grandparents continued, and with them, Thya’s attendance at Sunday services. While no one ever offered her a bit of background context to this ‘god’ they celebrated weekly songs with, her silent appreciation continued to grow alongside a subtle curiosity.

“I just felt like I was missing something, you know?” she shrugs. “At the time, I was dating this guy who told me about—and eventually took me to—Young Life. And, I mean really, that’s where I was finally given context and information and resources to this entire foundation of faith that had been slowly accumulating from within.” Thya laughs, “It was like someone had just switched a light on. Suddenly, I could start to explain the whys and hows to this entire lifetime of beliefs and sensations and values.”

Furthermore, Young Life showed Thya a more lighthearted side of god—one less often called out within the hymnals her grandfather so gingerly cradled. “You know, I learned that god could be fun. Who would have thought?” she asks.

“And this is when you saw the bears!” I exclaim. “This is it. Here! On the rock. With the stream and the babies and the fish and the universe and all of it—right here, together, for you! From god!”

“This is it!” Thya throws her head back, laughing.

“With the bears! For me. From god.”

We successfully snag a coffee refill from the newest server on-shift, before continuing.

As Thya swirls a steady stream of sugar into her now-steaming mug, she explains, “I was on a rock. Looking over a stream. Where a mama black bear was catching fish for her two baby bears.” She’s squinting so hard now, it’s as if her eyes are closed again. “You know, when you hear the phrase ‘mama bear,’ you know that that means ‘I will project my cubs until my own death.’ She was huge! And I should have been afraid, I was less than 20 feet from her, and she knew I was there. She had this air of protectiveness about her—meanwhile, her babies were just splashing around, having the times of their lives! So I sat there and watched them, and knew right then and there—if this is what god is like, this is the god I want to get to know.”

From here, Thya graduated high school, and opted out of college for an across-the-country nanny gig.

“I feel like it was divine intervention,” Thya peers over her sugar-saturated coffee. “You know, I went to New Jersey as a new nanny, away from home, a new Christian, not knowing anything. I was floundering. And then, here comes my best friend to this day: Tracy. We were connected through our nanny agency, and it just so happened that Tracy grew up with god. She was a Christian. She knew exactly how she wanted to live her life.” Thya reaches for the sugar caddy again.

“She knew when she was going to get married. How many kids she was going to have. She was the real deal! Wrapped in a little bow of what you think a ‘traditional Christian’ was like. You go to Christian college. You marry a Christian boy. You have five kids. You know—you raise them to love Jesus. She was this perfect package.” Thya bursts into laughter again, “And you know, I was the crazy, hyperactive, out-of-control, everything-is-awesome, let’s-try-everything-once opposite of that!”

After a fast friendship formed, Thya inevitably enrolled in a nearby Christian college, and—after finding a seat in her first official lecture—formed an instantaneous crush on the cutie who snagged a seat in front of her. “I’ll skip the several-week-long drama between myself, him, and a few other hormone-infused friends, and just say this,” Thya laughs, “we didn’t date. We just had sex. In the woods. On Thanksgiving. One time.”

“In the woods?” I ask?

“In the woods.”

“Nice one.”

“Thanks.”

A few months later, the party stopped. “I got really, really sick. So sick, that the family I was nannying for offered me free room and board, just until I was healthy again.” She continues, “I’ve never been this sick before. And, I mean—I was still having my period, everything was totally normal—I just assumed it was mono or something.” A close friend, realizing Thya wasn’t improving, finally made some moves. “He drove to my house, carried me to his car, and drove me to his mom’s place in Stillwater, MN, tucked me into his bed, and left a note for his nurse mom Ms. Ree to find in the morning that read: “My friend has been sick for months, and doesn’t have insurance. Can you take her to the doctor?”

The next morning, his mother did just that. “She wheel-chaired me into the hospital, and we spent the next hour doing scans, tests, everything.” Thya continues, “Then the doc leans back and asks, ‘could you be pregnant?’ My jaw just dropped.

I was like, ‘it’s not possible! Oh my god it’s totally possible.’”

At 22 years old, she was pregnant. Not only that, she was four months along. Thya explains, “I was in shock for days. Just in this total daze of ‘that is not what I was expecting.’ Ms. Ree, that incredible woman, was like ‘You can live with us and I’ll take care of you, you don’t have to pay rent—we’ll make this work.’ And so that’s what we did.”

“Were you scared? Excited? Was there a plan? What were you thinking during this time?” I fire questions across the sugar caddy.

“Honestly, all I was thinking was, ‘oh my god I’m pregnant.’ There was nothing past that—no plan, no ideas, nothing.” She continues, “When I started telling people, the first question was ‘are you going to keep the baby?’—across the board. All I said to that was ‘uhhh I’m pregnant.’ It took me a couple months for it to go from the inside to the outside.”

“What did baby’s daddy say when you told him?”

“He was apparently really excited,” Thya shrugs. “He was super happy. He told all of his friends. Everything was awesome. And then he never talked to me.”

I interject, “wait, I’m sorry. What?”

“He just kind of disappeared, just like everyone else. I mean, I lived in Stillwater, which was a good 20 minutes away from anything—so, for a bunch of twentysomethings with no cars and no money—it was just too far. But really, this solitude was good for me.”

“How so?”

“My relationship with god was really more internal at this point. And, even though I had no real ‘plan’ at the time—I was writing letters to my daughter every day. I was journaling and reading my bible every day. No one called me. No one came to see me.” She pauses, “you know I went from being this social butterfly to nobody. Normal person to ‘holy crap I’m pregnant.’ From conservative college where no one did anything wrong to ‘OOPS’” she cracks up, all smiles. “But the truth is, that time alone was really peaceful.”

“And, during that time, was any sort of ‘plan for the future’ formulating?”

“You know, yeah it was. At some point, while sitting alone with my thoughts and my journals, I realized I didn’t want my daughter to have a single parent. I grew up with a dad and a step-dad that were MIA. Two non-dads.” Thya pauses, “That’s when I decided to give my daughter up for adoption. Not because I didn’t think that I couldn’t take care of her, or that baby-daddy wouldn’t be a good father, but because I wanted two parents to care for her. And I thought that was the most selfless thing I could do. I wanted my daughter to have what I thought was best—and that was two parents.”

Shortly thereafter, a friend approached Thya with the ultimate proposition. “One night a buddy took me out and was like ‘look, my brother and his wife are looking to adopt.’ And we started the process from there. I knew his family—I had spoken to his brother on the phone. And, I would much rather give my child to someone that I knew, than someone that I didn’t know.”

“Were you exploring other options,” I ask?

“Oh yeah, I was calling adoption agencies. I was putting in the legwork for sure.” She adds, “meanwhile—and I still have them—I was receiving letter after letter from baby-daddy’s family, begging me not to move forward with the adoption.”

Sensing the need for yet another coffee refill, I steer the conversation onwards. “Okay so: you get pregnant. You decide to have an adoption. You keep on being pregnant—to this, Thya laughs—and then, hey! Look at that. It’s time to have a baby.”

“It’s time to have a baby!”

She explains, “At this point, baby-daddy had attended a birthing class with me—as per my request. So, when I went into the hospital for a routine check-up, and they found me already dilated, it didn’t take long for things to kind of just start happening.”

“So…what, you just spent the day at the hospital?” I inquire.

“Yeah, pretty much. They wouldn’t let me leave at that point. So, I made some probably-too-casual calls to folks, letting them know what was happening. They, of course, freaked out and headed to the hospital immediately. Then, doctors decided to break my water for me—which, I think was at 2:15 PM?” She smiles, “My daughter was born at 4:05 PM.”

“What!?” I sputter? “You were one of those assholes? In labor for less than two hours? Get out. Just go.”

Thya throws her head back laughing, “I know! I know. I pushed twice.”

“And then what?”

“Then they wrapped up this little baby girl and handed her to me and I was like ‘I don’t want this!!’ so they passed her to baby-daddy, and he started crying, whipped out Hemingway, and started reading to her.”

“Hemingway? Seriously?” I ask.

“Hemingway. Seriously.”

While this wasn’t the typical ‘happy-go-lucky’ birthing situation in the first place, there was definitely an element of joy to welcoming a little one into the world. It was the next day, while Thya changed her daughter’s diaper, that everything changed.

“That’s when all the crap hit the fan,” she states somberly.

“I noticed some white spots on her bottom. I called the nurse in, and I knew something was wrong, because she took her from me, and didn’t say anything except ‘I’ll be right back’ and ‘She’ll be okay.’” Thya stops for a moment to dump more sugar into her mug. “The doctor came in and said that my baby had contracted herpes during birth.”

“Wait, sorry. I’m confused. How? What? When?”

“Well, as the delivery date approached, and baby-daddy and I sort of reconnected for things like the birthing class, we hooked up once or twice,” she explains. “I mean, I was pregnant already! I figured what else could go wrong? What I didn’t realize was that he had been sleeping around. And had given me herpes.”

“So, you unknowingly had herpes, and during birth it was passed to your daughter?”

“Right,” she nods. “But when babies are born with it, there’s a 98% fatality rate. It’s essentially a death sentence.”

We each sip our coffees in silence.

“So.”

“So.”

More sugar.

She continues, “So they transferred her to the larger children’s hospital—a facility that could actually handle cases as severe as hers…” she trails off.

“And then what?” I prompt.

“And then we started to pray.”

For 13 days, Thya sat outside her daughter’s hospital room. Friends were there. Family was there. Her baby-daddy was there. The soon-to-be adoptive parents were there. She explains, “there was never less than 15 people in the waiting room for the entire two weeks we were there. The adoptive family was there around the clock—they were wonderful and supportive—they didn’t step on my toes.” Thya elaborates, “I hadn’t signed any papers yet, but this was their baby too.”

“Was god there?” I ask.

“Oh absolutely,” she squints. “You know, 30-40 of my friends were praying. Family was praying. Laying hands on her. Holding her. Covering her with this protective shield of prayer this entire time. And I was in a constant state of prayer, you know? God and I never once even stopped conversing.”

Thya scores a much-needed cream refill before continuing. “It was like everything I did was in conjunction…” she trails off again. Closes her eyes. Opens them again. “God was holding me as I was holding my baby. There wasn’t a separation there. And, you know, everyone was operating under the condition that this child would die. Doctors had made sure that everyone except for me understood this—which, in retrospect, was really smart. But yeah, she was going to die. And yet, we all prayed.”

“I have pictures of me holding my baby with an IV in her head. With IVs in her feet. She had to have her foot in a splint, so she could hold an IV there…you know, there were cords hanging out of her all of the time.”

On the 13th day, Thya was convinced to leave the hospital. She smiles, “Finally, I went home. I took a shower for the first time in over two weeks. I changed my clothes. A good guy friend—one who had been thoughtfully along the peripheral this entire process—came over. And, I mean we just hung out for an hour.” Thya leans forward, eyes narrowing, “We were normal, ya know? There wasn’t a baby hooked up to machines, about to die in front of us. We weren’t in a sterile hospital, surrounded by lights and beeping and strangers.”

“Just a sweet pocket of peace?” I ask.

“A sweet little pocket of peace.”

Thya parted ways with her friend, and steered her freshly showered self back towards the hospital. She merged onto the freeway—one she was all too familiar with—and felt a sudden sensation.

“You know, there is this part of the freeway that just barely goes up over this hill,” she explains, “and normally, just with how the lanes are and how I drive, normally I merge onto the freeway, and scoot over into the middle lane. And as I was driving, something said to me ‘DON’T CHANGE LANES.’”

I lean forward in my seat.

“It’s not like it was an audible voice,” Thya continues, “that you know, ordered me to stay in the lane I was already in, but there was definite and strange ‘I’m not going to do this right now’ split-second decision.

I lean forward further.

“So I go over the crest of the hill, and right at the crest, there was a car, stalled, in the middle lane. And you know, in the .02 seconds that I passed that car, I remember looking over—seeing the passenger panic, seeing the driver panic, and noticing the wheels of the car were angled to head off the freeway.”

She continues.

“So I go over the crest of this hill, notice all of that, and look in my rearview mirror—right as this huge truck that was hauling cows, that was behind me, but in the middle lane, hits this car.”

“That car shoots off the road, which is great—those two wound up living—but the truck starts swerving all over. Then, I see another car come over the hill, slam into the swerving cow truck, and everything explodes. Just… explodes.”

What!” I shriek. A server glances our way.

“Cows went flying. Fire was everywhere. Everyone had died. All of this happened in like 15 seconds. And, you know, this was before cell phones—so, I took the next exit, pull up to the first house I pass and scream at this guy working on his car to ‘CALL 911.’”

“And then you hauled it to the hospital?”

“I hauled it to the hospital.”

Her eyes appear closed, “Because my baby! And I don’t know! It didn’t have anything to DO with my baby! But the first day I leave her and I’m a witness to this huge explosion as I’m en route to go see her?” Her eyes are tearing up. Come to think of it, so are mine.

“The situations weren’t separate in my mind,” she continues. “My baby had exploded somehow in my head. Nothing made sense. I couldn’t separate any of those scenarios. So, I took off and drove shaking to the hospital. And I get there and get to the waiting room and the 15 people still there are all looking at me really seriously, so in my mind—they had just seen the explosion. You know…nothing made sense. I was in this fog. On this cloud. Watching everything happen from below. Nothing was real.”

“What did you do?”

“I ran through the waiting room, burst into a hallway, and I heard all of these machines going off. Beeping. I turned a corner and realized it was all happening in my daughter’s room. Every single doctor—every single nurse was in that room….” she blinks back tears.

“I flung the door open, and just charged in. I pushed everyone aside. I was like that mama bear! Right there. I was stronger than I have ever been in my entire life. And I see this tiny, tiny baby laying there, kicking. The reason all of this beeping was happening was because they had unplugged her from all of the machines.”

She leans forward and continues, “I just remember this nurse whispering to me, ‘it’s a miracle.’ And I didn’t even have time to let that register. I just grabbed my daughter and held her and we both just cried and rocked. You know? Something had just exploded on the freeway and everyone was really worried and then all of these machines were going off, and all I needed right then, at that very moment, was to make sure my baby was safe.”

She sits back in her seat.

“That’s when I knew this baby was mine. That I’d be doing the wrong thing if I didn’t keep her. That this was my baby and that I could have died. There’s no reason I wasn’t in the middle lane. Everyone in that truck and car died. Even the cows died!” she closes her eyes and pauses.

“Why didn’t I change lanes? You know? That could have been me that day. All I knew was everything was beeping and that maybe my daughter had died too. I was in this cloud and everything suddenly came together. The explosion and my baby—I just knew, that if I live, and she lives, then there’s a bigger purpose here. That god had a plan.”

She cracks a grin, “sure, sometimes there has to an explosion for me to hear god—but I wouldn’t trade any of this for the world.”

“So what happened next? I mean, how did things pan out from there?” I ask, wiping tears out of the corner of my eyes.

“She was discharged from the hospital the next day, and she went straight to foster care. The way the system works, a baby needs to go to foster care for two weeks—just to make sure everyone is okay with their decision. It’s set up really well, they do that for the child’s own good.” Thya adds, “It wouldn’t have been right for me to take my baby home that day. And, it wouldn’t have been right to let the adoptive parents take her home either.”

She continues, “so she was in foster care for two weeks. I visited her every day for the allotted hour. And they visited her everyday for their designated hour too.”

“And what happened when you finally told them of your decision?”

At this, she tilts her head back and sighs. “You know, one of the hardest things about this wasn’t going through the pregnancy, or the trauma of having the child—it was telling these amazing parents that I was going to keep my baby.”

“They were heartbroken. And they were mad. And they understood. And they were sad. But, you know I still get a Christmas card from them every year, and they have a family now. They told me once ‘because of you, we started the adoption process, and because of you, we now have three beautiful kids.’”

“What about you and your daughter?”

She laughs. “We moved in with a good friend and her family, just until we resumed a sense of normalcy again. She pauses, “don’t get me wrong, I did everything to make sure my daughter was okay. My mama instincts kicked in, and all that came naturally. But, I would go to church with two different shoes on. But really, it wasn’t until my daughter was five, that I realized ‘HOLY CRAP I’M A PARENT.’” She adds, “at that point I stepped back and was like, ‘okay have I done everything I can do here?’ I mean, I realized I couldn’t just ‘function’ anymore, I needed to preemptively think about things. So, my daughter turned five, and that’s when I decided not to date anymore. That’s when I decided to focus on making sure I was a whole person. That’s when I started going to counseling. That’s when I started sifting through this lifetime of traumas, and dealing with them.” I went back to school. I went to group therapy. You know, I started making a conscious effort.”

She leans forward, “That’s when I sort of stepped outside of myself and stepped into adulthood, ya know?”

I kill the last of my coffee. “Do you still write your daughter letters?”

Thya smiles, eyes narrowed, “I write her a letter every year. On her birthday.”

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