We’ve been here before: waiting for that callback from the on-call nurse, waiting to find out if we’re headed to the emergency room with this child.
But it never has been this child.
Her older brothers, yes. From staples in the scalp to midnight croup, from epi-pen jabs to that one nightmarish choking incident. We’ve called 911. We’ve opened the door for paramedics. We’ve carried little boys out to the car in the cold and dark of the night.
After thirteen years of parenting, we aren’t frightened by much. After nearly twenty years of marriage, we’ve reached a state of calm. It takes a lot to rattle us.
When Jonathan carried Elsa to the car on Labor Day and headed for the emergency room, I wasn’t afraid. When he called to say they were admitting her to the children’s hospital, I wasn’t afraid. When they told me the next day that she needed to stay for a second night, I wasn’t afraid. Asthma is our family inheritance, after all. From grandmother to mother to daughter and son. It is familiar to us.
When we brought Elsa home again, her virus-weakened lungs having been strengthened by inhalers, and fluids, and oxygen in a snaking tube, we remarked on how capable we had felt through the entire ordeal. Maybe after four children we had learned a thing or two? We know when to call the doctor’s office. We know how to trust (in doctors, in nurses, in God above).
We know how to stay calm.
We know how to move on.
A week has gone by, and it occurs to me there is something I don’t know. I don’t know how to stop seeing it. I don’t know how to forget.
When I lie in bed at night, my mind replays one moment over and over: Elsa, lying in our bed and working so very, very hard to breathe. The muscle at the base of her throat flutters with each quick and shallow breath.
It looks like a small butterfly trapped just beneath her skin.
On Monday, one week after she went into the hospital, we celebrated Elsa’s fourth birthday. She opened presents in the morning, and we ate pink birthday cake in the afternoon, but her favorite thing was the iridescent butterfly balloon.
She carried it around the house. She played with it outside in the yard. She lay down in the grass and held it over her head. All the better to see those butterfly colors against the deep blue of the September sky. All the better to carry on a laughing conversation with a soaring balloon.
The weather lately has fluctuated between just right and still too hot. We’ve spent a lot of time outside in it regardless. Elsa hunts for caterpillars in the herb garden that grows just outside the kitchen door. These particular green caterpillars seem very fond of Italian flat-leaf parsley.
I found one perfect, orange butterfly wing fluttering in the grass. I thought at first it was a butterfly, and I wondered why it didn’t fly away as I approached. Leaning down, I saw that it was only the one wing, caught on a blade of grass, moving back and forth in that day’s hot, dry wind.
Lord have mercy, I thought, this child I love is as fragile and vulnerable as a butterfly.
I am, too, I suppose, no matter how solid my own body feels when I plant my feet on the ground of my garden.
We are gossamer.
We are tissue-thin.
Liable to be whipped about in the slightest wind.
What is it Scripture says?
“The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16).
Those words have always made me feel sad. And afraid.
But I have learned how to be unafraid. I have learned that. There is sadness, yes, but there is beauty, too. We are like flowers. We are like butterflies. We are jewel-colored. We fly swiftly. We dance in the wind.
I want to forget, but these are precious things. God, I pray, make me strong enough to remember all of it.
The broken wing.
The brilliant orange.
The broken lungs, and the small, laughing voice.
Give my own weak lungs breath to sing the whole Psalm, all the way through:
“The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children …
Praise the Lord, you his angels …
Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, …
Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion.
Praise the Lord, my soul.”
It must have happened eight or nine years ago. One particular day about midway through the decade we spent in that southside Chicago neighborhood.
I know this because my firstborn will soon turn eleven, but that day her stout little legs just managed to reach the sidewalk. We were sitting with my husband and a friend on the front steps of our apartment building.
Our little girl hopped up and ran a short burst down the sidewalk, and I heard him. Our friend. He had his eyes on our daughter when he whispered to my husband,
She isn’t afraid of me.
And I heard his surprise and his pleasure.
Our friend was black, and I wish I could say that I didn’t understand his words. That it took me a moment to grasp what he had said. But I understood instantly, and instantly I was ashamed. Ashamed that what should have been a given, a starting point, was, instead, a gift.
It would be simpler if I could say that our friend did not deserve fear and end my story there. If I could outline in a few easy words the injustice of a culture that perpetuates the association between black men and danger. Because it is deeply unjust.
I could remind you that he was our friend. I could tell you that he wrote poetry and loved his children, and we could share the satisfaction of our outrage.
But the full story is more complicated.
Yes, he was our friend, but he was unemployed. He was sometimes homeless. He was a recovering drug addict, and he had only recently been released from prison.
And now when I tell you that he used to hang out with my husband in the living room while in the kitchen my daughter and I filled a bag with food for his children, you might wonder if we should have been afraid.
When I am feeling especially desperate I tend to pray this: Jesus, where are you?
I pray these words as if I don’t know the answer, but today I am remembering the answer he has already given. In Matthew 25 he tells us where to look.
If you are seeking Christ look for the one who is hungry. The one who is thirsty. Listen for the stranger knocking at your door. Watch for the criminal, the one who is or has been in prison.
In other words, searching for Christ is anything but safe.
Our king has aligned himself with the suffering, and suffering is messy. Wounded people can be explosive and ugly in their anger and in their pain.
They might say hurtful things.
They might even throw Molotov cocktails.
My Pennsylvania neighborhood is peaceful and green. I am sure Jesus meets with me here. I am convinced he makes a home with us even on ordinary, suburban streets.
But I am sensing an invitation to travel somewhere else. To a place where suffering is no longer polite and hidden but erupting in deeply messy ways. Perhaps it is only a figurative journey, a journey I will make in my thoughts and prayers and in my storytelling, yet I still hesitate.
I hear Jesus speaking the words he once spoke to Thomas. I hear him saying Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.
I always imagined it to be a straightforward request. Reach out. Touch. Now I see that in reaching out we might be carried farther than we ever intended. Our reaching might draw us right out of our circles of peaceful green and on toward wounded people in troubled places.
Not because we have solutions. Not because we know what to do. Or even what to say.
Only because we are following a wounded Lord. And we want to be where he is.
Two years ago, I wrote a few words for my son. They added up to something that wasn’t quite a story. I think they were a prayer. Also, a confession.
I meant them for all of my children, but it was this boy who drew them out of me.
The love we have for others – but especially for the weaker ones, like our children – is often laced with fear. That is our lot in this world: to love and to know that loving makes us vulnerable. Vulnerable to loss. To pain. To worry.
Some of our loves are laced with more fear than others. My love for this boy is like that.
However, in loving him, I have seen something strange but beautiful, something hard but good: the worst moments are the ones that wash my love clean of all the fear.
Somehow it takes having our worst fears realized, to know that our worst fears are not worth fearing. Because, ultimately, we are safe. We are loved. We are held.
Recently, my son began a new school year at a new school. He was nervous. I was nervous for him. Despite my prayers, despite my hopes, his first day went about as badly as a first day could go. Possibly, it was even worse than that. At the end of this terrible, no-good, very bad day, I remembered what I had shared two years ago. And I knew this: our worst days may be the answers to our best prayers.
(the following is edited from the archives and was originally titled The Only Thing I Pray My Children Grow Up to Know)
The second-born, my oldest boy, starts kindergarten in just a few weeks. Not only that, but he will ride the bus (which is, possibly, a bigger deal for both of us even than kindergarten itself).
I’ve been a mother long enough to know that the days are long but the years are short. These summer days drag (how to fill the time between dinner and bed?), but I will wake up tomorrow and watch my son graduate from high school. I know this, and it has prompted me to wonder: what do I want this boy to grow up to do? To know? To be?
Like most parents in these enlightened days, I say, “I only want him to be happy. Whatever makes him happy. If that means becoming a doctor, great. If it’s an auto mechanic, fine by me.” Unlike most parents, I suspect, I really do mean it.
I’ve spent enough time around highly-educated Ivy-leaguers to know that the things which spell success in our culture (straight A’s! a University of Chicago degree!) are not necessarily markers of either success or happiness.
Not only that, but I know that there is some kind of Murphy’s law of parenting: whatever I plan for my child, the opposite will happen. My father gave me only this bit of advice as I prepared for college: “Study anything you want, but be practical. Don’t major in English or History.” I was never a rebellious child, but Murphy’s law kicked in and, by the end of college, I was graduating with a double major in English and History.
What then do I want for my boy? For his big sister? His little brother?
Only this: to know deep down in their heart of hearts God loves them. Truly, that is all.
Unfortunately, there is such a big chasm between head knowledge and heart knowledge, between assenting to an idea or concept and feeling the truth of it deep inside. I tell them over and over: you are loved. By me. By others. But, most importantly, you are loved by the Love who created everything beautiful and that Love is vaster and more intimate than you may ever know.
I heard that too as a child. I sang these words in so many Sunday school classes: “Jesus loves me, this I know.” But I didn’t know. I nodded my head and agreed, but I didn’t really know.
Praying that my children know God’s love is sometimes difficult. It is as if I am praying that they suffer. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is some other way in which this knowledge can travel from head to heart, but the enormity of God’s personal love was only revealed to me in some very dark places.
Looked at another way, I am not praying they suffer. I am praying they be comforted.
And this is what I want for my babies? Yes, this is what I want for them: that, like Hagar, they will one day say, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
This is my prayer:
“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19).
I’m afraid that it will hurt, but I promise you: it is worth every tear.
“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” (Job 42: 5)
A week ago Friday, Maplehurst’s kitchen was the scene of a pizza party.
Rice flour crusts turned crisp in the oven while puffy dough rested on the counters. Oregano snipped from the pot on the steps turned tomatoes, garlic, and oil into more than the sum of their parts. We sliced fresh mozzarella on one board. We scattered dairy-free cheese substitute on another. We browned sausage from Axel, our local farmer, in the cast-iron skillet.
We baked and sliced and baked again as seven children held out their hands for more.
The pizzas were delicious, but that doesn’t explain the looks on the faces of two mothers who hovered near the table.
“He’s never shared pizza with a friend,” she whispered.
“Never,” I said.
The kitchen table.
It’s a symbol of hospitality. Of togetherness and community. Except, for us, it’s the place where fear draws up a seat. The table doesn’t bridge the divide. It reinforces it.
We say no to potlucks. We decline the invitation to someone else’s Thanksgiving dinner. If we say yes to the birthday party, I bake our own pizza and cupcakes ahead of time.
We don’t often say yes.
A young girl in California is given three injections with the epi-pen but dies anyway. Fear scores one more point.
Always there is another reason to be afraid.
In the daily sifting of life (this is good, this is bad), life-threatening food allergies are our constant Bad Thing.
The pizza party came during the week we hosted good friends, a mother with two daughters and a son. Our big girls were once babies together in Chicago. Their family left the city soon after that, but our lives have run on parallel tracks ever since. Epi pens and questions. Fear and hives. Uncertain blood tests and frighteningly close calls.
Most importantly, we share little boys. One has a grin slightly wider than the other, but they both carry medicines and their own packed food wherever they go.
This shared Bad Thing brought us together for a week, but it turns out Good and Bad can’t be sifted so neatly.
Our week together was perfect summer weather and long drives over green hills past storybook farms. Our week was three little girls laughing and noisy, nightly sleepovers. It was a week of good conversations. Of childish voices singing together during our own at-home Sunday morning service. We swam in the creek. We visited a new Amish farmstand every day.
And the food! Two ears of corn for each person at the table. Watermelon for breakfast, afternoon snack, and dessert. Garden squash even the children enjoyed (the secret? Julienne into matchsticks and cook it up in a pancake).
We ate Japanese fried chicken and ribs cooked on the grill. We dipped spring rolls fried in coconut oil into a no-sugar-needed apricot sauce. We licked our fingers over garlicky green beans, and we smiled over a rainbow of tomatoes dusted with salt and cracked pepper.
I don’t think a week like this would be possible if we handled our fears well. I don’t think it would happen if we tucked them neatly out of sight.
I think we arrived at this week because we felt the full weight of fear on our backs, but we kept on walking. We acknowledged our fear but asked, “Isn’t there more?”
It turns out there is more. Much more.
I’m no longer so confident about naming the good and the bad in my life. What do I know, really? I know that food allergies are terrifying but pizza shared with a friend is the most delicious pizza around, whether or not the cheese is real.
I think even a life lived in the valley of the shadow of death can be beautiful. I don’t fully understand this. I may never be able to explain it or account for it. But I am grateful.
“… the rising sun will come to us from heaven / to shine on those living in darkness / and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
When I turned 29, I ate coconut cupcakes.
They were baked by my mother, in my kitchen, with my daughter. They were brought to my maternity ward hospital room by my pastor and his wife. That day I ate coconut cupcakes and introduced you to my dearest friends.
Tomorrow, June 23, you and I will celebrate.
I made those same coconut cupcakes this week. I shared them with neighbors and sneaked more than a few myself after your bedtime, but, tomorrow, we won’t eat coconut cupcakes. We will share a dairy-free, wheat-free, nut-free birthday cake with Lego-shaped candles.
In the hospital, the day you were born, the nurse looked at the date on my admission bracelet and said, “Here is a son who will never forget his mother’s birthday.”
Tomorrow, I will probably remind you two or three times that it is also my birthday. But you are seven, and I do not mind all that much. Because you are the best birthday gift I have ever been given.
There is a story behind those words. A story to which I return every year on this day.
It is a story first of all about longing. I wanted a baby. I wanted a sibling for our daughter, but my body refused to cooperate. I had thought after our first experience, after the diagnosis and the referral to a good specialist, that the second time would be easy. We understood the problem, we would not wait to pursue the solution.
It was not easy.
It was so much harder. Because the drugs in which I had placed my faith did not work, it was also more hopeless.
Today, I am grateful for every month (months turning over into years) that I waited for you. Because of those months, the words of Job became my own: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Now when I imagine, like all the parents in this world, every horrible thing that might happen, I am not afraid. I know that God can meet us in the pain and there is nothing else like that encounter.
But our hearts are not so easily untangled from fear. After the miracle of your conception, fears I didn’t even know I had twisted my thoughts. I felt as if I owed so much to God, and I became convinced there would be some price to pay. I became convinced there was something wrong with you.
Until that day. That day, six months along, when a stranger placed her hand on my shoulder and prayed for me. That day a river was unleashed and when I came up for air the fear was gone. I heard God’s own voice whisper: “This boy is a gift. A good and perfect gift. There is no price to pay.”
You’d think I would have known. Your due date was close enough to my own birthday. Why didn’t I guess?
Somehow, I never dreamed I would meet you for the first time on my birthday. God’s stories are so much better than the ones we imagine for ourselves.
Yes, you were born on my birthday. You were a good and perfect gift, given the day I turned 29.
Since that day, I have had reason to be afraid. So have you. I have given you food with my own hand and seen the fear in your eyes as your throat begins to swell. I have called 911 on your behalf too many times to count. I have seen how tiny you seem lying there on an emergency-room bed.
And yet I have never questioned those whispered words.
There is nothing wrong with you. Not really. You are, indeed, perfectly made. The worst thing can happen, but the Love who made you will take care of you. I pray always that you will be healed, but I know my prayers have been answered before I ever prayed them.
We have journeyed from coconut cupcakes to blue marshmallow cakes to gluten-free bakery cakes with Lego-shaped candles, and now I know these three things:
God is good.
There is no need to be afraid.
And this: our lives are stories, and these stories are written by Love.