Monday, August 26, 2013

The Summer of Two Fortune Cookies

No Chinese take-out meal is complete without the rustle of cellophane and distinctive snap of those almost tasteless, fold-over fortune cookies.  I've often wondered if some out-of-work English major found himself struggling to keep a straight face as he got paid to write those cryptic phrases.  Our family rarely waits until the end of the meal to crack our cookies open and giggle at those white slips of paper tucked inside.

In fact, I have never known anyone to take fortunes seriously.  Yet, one day this past Spring, my level-headed, always grounded husband texted me a picture of two such fortunes from his lunch along with the words, "I think God's trying to tell me something."
Had anyone else spoke those words, I would have laughed out loud.  But this came from a man who sees God in the concrete pages of Scripture, who has never said anything so illogical concerning God in his it made me pause a moment before rolling my eyes and deleting the text as mere wishful thinking.   

Surely God hadn't resorted to speaking through a silly slip of paper.  Even as I said these words, though, I thought of Balaam's donkey and doubted my own assurance of what God would and would not do.

A few months later, my friend mentioned in passing that a young college student from our church was looking around to see if she could rent an apartment for the summer.  As soon as the words left her mouth, my mind flashed bright an image of our spare bedroom with its adjoining bathroom and then an image of those two fortune cookies I had already forgotten.

Words cannot accurately describe the almost visual connect the dots God accomplished behind my eyes.  I have never experienced anything quite like it before and may never again, but it was completely clear in that instant that, yes, my husband had been right (even if he had sounded crazy).  We were supposed to open our home, our lives, our hearts to someone who needed us...although in a way we had not even once before considered.

God had done what He always does--answered one of my prayers in a most unexpected way.

That was almost four months ago.  Throughout May, June, July, and August, this teenage girl became a part of our family.  She saw us at our Sunday best and at our Monday worst.  She saw our struggles, our successes, and our failures.

We gave fully of ourselves.  And, as usually happens in God's economy, the more we gave, the more we received.  The more we sought to bless her, the more we were blessed in return.

Husband and I have been counting down the last few weeks, dreading the departure of her light, her lilting laughter, her joyous, youthful spontaneity that she brought with her.

As the mother of only young children, I have never quite grasped how anyone could suffer from empty nest syndrome.  Now?  I get it.  By the time they turn eighteen, they aren't little people with little minds you must guide (sometimes unwillingly) at every turn.  A college-aged child has transformed into one who can be your best friend, into a young adult who can hold interesting conversations, who can both listen and share with you...even if they do think you're crazy old at only thirty six.

This morning, the smell of scrambled eggs, oatmeal, or cinnamon rolls didn't perfume the air when I awoke.  There were no extra dishes in my sink or someone else's clothes spinning inside my washer.

Down the hall, the throw pillows were lined up neatly across the perfectly-made day bed, the door to the sun room flung wide open to reveal an emptiness I never knew was there before she filled it.

Day's end is when I miss her presence the most.  It's then that I text her to ask about her first day back at college.

Husband says she'll be back.  I smile tight and lean into his chest, both of us breathing the heavy void left in her leaving, both of us surprised at this protective love we never expected to blossom within our hearts in so short a time as one summer.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Long Goodbye

"It's ok, Mrs. S.  I promise--no big deal.  We'll find someone else.  And we still love you no matter what.  Just take care of yourself and your family."

I forced a smile as I spoke those words into the phone's receiver, remembering having read somewhere that you can hear a smile in a person's speech.  Despite my intentional smile and carefully controlled, lilting tone, my eyes unconsciously dropped to the floor.  

For the next minute, I inspected my fireball orange painted toenails, the wall's dusty baseboard, the kids' toys on the living room rug--all in a guilty, ridiculous attempt to hide the truth in my eyes, a truth she would have been able to clearly see...had not a dozen miles been separating us.  

When I hung up, I sat heavy on the sofa, my hand pressing against my forehead.  Nothing could mask the sinking feeling of sadness in my heart.

Nobody died, even though it feels like it some moments.  All that happened was that Mrs. S. finally decided to not cut hair anymore.  She had given up her business years ago, so I knew this decision was day.  Still, I had hoped it wouldn't happen so soon.

I met Mrs. the beginning of high school.  She was the mother of my best friend and soon became my hairdresser.  As crazy as it sounds to say it, that was almost twenty five years ago.  That's enough years to where I didn't have to say anything when I went in for an appointment.  She just knew what to do.  

But going for a hair cut was so much more than that.  It was a time to catch up with an old friend.  It was a sharing of ourselves.

How were my parents, my brother?  My, how fast my children were growing!  How were her son and daughter? Her grandchildren? How was she managing around the house?  Did she need any help?

I had grieved with her over the loss of her oldest son and husband in less than six months' time.  I remember waiting months and months, not knowing if I should call and interrupt her mourning to ask for a silly hair cut or just go somewhere else.  In the end, I just waited longer.

It wasn't just about me, though.  When my children came along, they, too, fell in love with Mrs. S. as she made them beautiful and handsome in just a few minutes time.  She was the one who, with a few snips of the scissors and swipes of the trimmer, transformed my babies into young girls and boys. 

All three of my babies left behind their infancy in mounds of curly ringlets on her tile floor.
As they grew, they loved going to her house to feed her dogs their biscuits, play in the tree house, swing on the back porch swing, look at the rustic water fountain falling from the tin roof in her country garden where something was always in bloom, or watch the train pass by on the rusty tracks that ran right beside her place.

Mrs. S. became more than a household name, more than a hairdresser.  My children grew to love her just as I did.  Going to see her felt a lot like going to see my own mother.  It was home.

Now?  I know how people are, how I without a reason to bring people together, we rarely find the time to do so...and if we do, it's never the same and never as often as it was before.  Our lives simply go in different directions--both good directions, just different.

Maybe my heart is most heavy because I know what's coming.  Eventually, she will be just another person, another vague memory in my children's early history.  Eventually, she will no longer hold this warm place in their hearts as she always will in mine.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

When a Mother Glimpses Her Own Reflection

My daughter and I stand together side by side, partners together at a little girl's tea party.  This day, she has chosen to wear her hair pulled not on top of her head like normal but to the back, with the bow behind. It seemed like such a small request, an almost unmentionable change in her appearance, but with a few strokes of the brush, she ages ten years right before me.

In profile, I suddenly see my nose, my chin only in a more diminutive form. 

Lately, I've been noticing Amelia becoming me, her mother.  Even her mannerisms are familiar--the pressed together lips, the hands tucked behind her back when she stands, the resistance to all things new, especially those skills not easily mastered.  Then, there is her shy, reserved smile that melts when she talks non-stop to even strangers as well as her natural mothering skills that she tries to use on her brothers--she mimics me, my arms' movements like hers, much like a reflection in a mirror.

With all those similarities, it's her eyes that stop me every time.

Those deep brown chocolate pools draw me in.  I can't look at her without feeling those eyes are so deep and so unusually large compared to the rest of her petite face.
Ever since we were a young couple in the first blush of giddy love, my husband has waxed poetic about that particular feature of mine.  I've always smiled and blown off his comments as the result of love's blessed, merciful blindness.  Who would prefer brown eyes over the clear blue of the ocean?  Yet, as my eyes meet hers, it makes me wonder if this is what he feels each time he looks at me.

In another photo of Amelia, all traces of me seem to vanish.   Maybe it's the tilt of her head, the sideways eyes, or the shy smile.  Or maybe it's the hat.  I'm not sure.  Still, the photo reminds me of Kate Middleton, England's princess.  It's fitting, one little princess looking like another.
This must be what it feels like to look at oneself in the mirror.  The only thing that separates Amelia and me is about thirty years.  As she grows, though, it is inevitable that she'll think I'm old, unable to understand who she is, even though that will be like saying I can't relate to my arm or my leg.

I cringed just the other day at a college sophomore calling me 'ma'am.'  She laughed and looked at me like I was crazy when I told her I don't feel like a ma'am.  I don't feel thirty six.  Not mentally, anyway.  Without the aches and responsibility, I feel much the same as I did when I was in my early twenties .  No part of me understands how this is what it feels like to be nearing forty.

How is it possible that next year is my twentieth high school reunion? It seems both like yesterday and like forever since high school graduation.

Some days, it feels like I'm still playing house as in the early days of being married; it's only that playing house has grown more tiring with more responsibilities, more to pick up off the floor, more piles of laundry to wash, more dust there is never time to wipe away.  Some days, it feels like I'm only playing at being a mother since I still don't know what I'm doing most of the time.  I look at my children and think how it's impossible for  them to be so tall.

She is me.  I am her.  I am my mother.  My mother is me.

There will come a day when she will realize this, that she has become me just as I have become my mother.  Then, she'll understand that the body ages but the mind is forever young.

It is in moments like these that I catch a glimpse of eternity, a realization of how time, itself, is God's creation, not who we are in our souls.  The body will grow old and turn to dust.  But whether I am forty or sixty, I will not feel that old in my mind, heart, and soul.  They were fashioned for eternity.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Difference Of One Year: From K to 1st

Last year’s first day of kindergarten was marked by a lightening storm that shook the yellow school bus as my son rode home to me.  Just as the bus came into view around the corner, the skies split open, a steady wind whipping the rain ever-sideways so that I was soaked to the skin despite the umbrella I fought with an invisible foe to keep over my head. 

I remember seeing his face first and knowing something was wrong.  Even through the liquid sheets of white, I could make out the crumpled eyes and down turned mouth.  Wyatt sobbed in fear as he descended the black rubber steps and crossed the asphalt towards me.  There, he collapsed at my feet on the wet ground and had to be lifted and almost dragged the last few feet into the van.

That day was wrought with heartache and tears.  As I held my still wet-headed Wyatt on the sofa, he blubbered that he never wanted to go back to school again.  Not ever.  This was it.

Obviously, he did return the next day and the next.  Still, it was a difficult Fall for our entire family, with us having to learn to accept this new season in our lives and to figure out how to make this new routine work.

In the end, we discovered life was smoother after my working the night shift if the twins and I slept through the bus.  Mornings became daddy and Wyatt time with daddy getting Wyatt ready and driving him to school each morning. 

By the Spring, Wyatt and I had started a tradition of me writing him a note each night to be read at breakfast the following morning.  He and I both were always excited to read what the other had written—an encouragement, an expression of love, a request for prayer, a reminder of something in God’s Word.

In that way, we ended the school year on a positive note and ran headlong into the joys of summer.

This past Friday, we started again, this time with Wyatt’s first grade year. 

What a difference one year can make.
There was no lightening storm, no torrential downpour, no invisible currents in the air.  I simply stood in the heat and waited for the sound of the bus shifting gears before it rounded the bend.

My now older boy leapt off the bus, squealed my name as he had done a few months before, and ran to me before stopping and almost passing me by on his way for a brownie inside Oma’s house.

“Woah!” I said, pausing.  “What about my daily hug?”

Bright eyes flickered up at me in surprise at his forgetting and a snaggle-toothed grin split his face.  Then, two slender arms grabbed me around the waist and squeezed tight as I ducked to kiss the top of his head.  

I smiled at his independence, a bittersweet knowing that when I went through his first grade papers at the end of this school year to pull out treasures, I would no longer find any pages with "I miss mommy" written in crayon.

Images: Wyatt playing Angry Birds as he rides to school with daddy.
             Wyatt enjoying himself at our Back to School fiesta.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Maybe Miracle

Sunday morning found me dressed up fancy for worship yet headed across a cypress mulched flowerbed still damp with heavy dew.  I tentatively tiptoed through the bark in my black heels and bent towards the hot pink pinta plant I had visited every day during the past week.

In the palm of my hand flapped our injured, Swallowtail butterfly, her feet barely grasping my fingers as her excited, mal-formed wings anticipated the sweet nectar she had come to expect each time I picked her up.

Unlike days before when I couldn't beg her to eat anything, this time, her tube-like proboscis began unfurling and drinking as soon as her sensitive feet "tasted" the first petal.  She quickly made her way around the head of miniature flowers, then rested as had become her routine.

That's where I left her, in the sun, as I did every day for a few hours, only this time, when I came back, she was gone.

I immediately began looking at the base of the plants.  Perhaps she had fallen and couldn't climb back up the stalk.  When that investigation turned up empty, I looked around for any evidence she had been there.


The obvious culprits--our kittens--were locked inside.  But maybe a bird saw her and swooped in for a morning snack?

I was immediately flooded with guilt.  What would the children say!?

Sure enough, it wasn't long before my oldest son asked where the butterfly was.  I pointed at the pinta and told him I put her there to eat.

Of course, when he looked, she wasn't there.  He, too, tromped through the bed, trying to find her, all to no avail.  Then came the obvious question.  What happened to her?

I stooped to pull a few weeds, my head bent to the earth, not really wanting to have this conversation.  I began with the "I don't know's" and proceeded to the "she could have crawled off" explanations.

"Or that could be her," said my son.

As I glanced up, a perfectly formed black Swallowtail swooped right by my head.  She hadn't been there five minutes ago.  In fact, I hadn't seen a Swallowtail at our house all weekend.  Yet, here one was, flitting around us and lighting on the various flowers before her wings sailed high again.

"It's a miracle," Wyatt continued.

I had to bite my ever-rational tongue.  My mind said a bird ate her.  But my heart skipped a beat with uncertainty.  I remembered my children praying for a miracle just a few days before.  I remembered my own prayers for her wings to miraculously take flight.  I couldn't tell my son for certain that he was wrong.

And since when did I serve a God of probability?  If anything, I served the God of all things IMpossible and IMprobable.  Why not?

Amelia and Emerson joined us outdoors and began asking the same questions, only this time, big brother Wyatt spoke the answers instead of me.

"WE DON'T KNOW, Amelia!  Maybe that is her.  Maybe not.  Maybe it was a miracle.  We just don't know."

It's funny how one butterfly's sudden disappearance has planted seeds of doubt in my rational explanations. Even tonight, I just don't know.  I could have witnessed a miracle this past weekend.

For me, it's enough to believe God might have said yes to our prayers...even if I'll never know for sure.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Caring for the Physically Disabled

A Tupperware container filled with roly poly, black and lime green striped caterpillars sat on my friend's porch.  Her mother had found them on the remaining nubs of several parsley plants and had chosen to give them to her bubbly daughter and science-loving grandchildren before dusting a cloud of death to prevent any more such hatchings.

Would I like one?  Or two?

I've been down this path before.  One summer in college, I had "raised" seventeen of this type Swallowtail butterfly.  Even then, I felt faint echos of an expectant mother's heartache, especially with those who came so close to their destination--flight.  Then there was those in the batch who decided to overwinter inside the chrysalis.  I imagined a long-term pregnancy once again.  Ugh.

"No!" was what I thought.   "Yes! We would love some!" is what came out of my mouth.  My children were delighted.

Nine o'clock that night after teaching ESL, the two of us giggled into the corner grocery store and raised at least one eyebrow of the young man behind the register with our purchases--one bunch of parsley each.  To feed our caterpillars, of course.

Two days later, one caterpillar made his final purge before entering a chrysalis....and died. What followed was a zillion questions and a day-long science lesson about life and death in the insect world. 

The second caterpillar successfully transformed overnight, wriggling within his bark-brown chrysalis to shimmy out of that last paper-thin skin until it lay shriveled on the ground.  Success.

My friend's caterpillars began hatching and pumping fluid into the hollow framework of their wet, newborn wings.  We waited anxiously on this one, reluctant to come out and meet the South Louisiana heat.

Thursday morning, she was born, breaking forth from her little womb with the sun's rising.  I felt that familiar rush of adrenaline and yelled inside for my pajama-clad children to come barefoot with me on the front porch.

There, we four huddled around the small cylindrical habitat with its drying clump of parsley on the floor and several angular oak limbs propped from one side to the other.  The children chattered excitedly.  It was then that I noticed a tell-tale brown streak down the far wall.

My heart sank.  I actually silently prayed on the spot that it wasn't what I thought, that God would work a miracle anyway.

Hours later, I had to break the bad news to my children.  The butterfly had likely not anchored herself well when she began to pump the wing-filling fluid through her abdomen.  When her six legs "slipped," she released the brown fluid outside her body, and there was no more left to pump her wings full.
The wings dried as they were when she was first born--crumpled, misshapen, and completely incapable of flight.  I explained how this was God's plan for controlling the number of insects on the planet.  Still, I was sad. 

My son Wyatt, on the other hand, was convinced God was going to work a miracle.  He prattled on and on about God and miracles, completely dismissing my statements that she would likely die.  I finally sent him to bed.

The next morning, I made her habitat a butterfly haven with a sugar water filled sponge, a bouquet of fresh-cut zinnias, and a peach, syrupy and sweet.  Yet, she refused to eat. No matter how many times I moved her to a food source, she simply climbed back to the top corner of the cage and hung in silence.

That night, I found a white ghost spider that had slipped in with the flowers.  Its leg was already on a damaged, black wing, just waiting for her to grow weak enough for the kill.  I smashed the spider with two fingers, then prayed for God to let her die while we slept.  Quicker would be better versus us watching her grow weaker each hour from dehydration, only to die anyway.

On Friday, I decided to try something different.  The sun was starting its downward arc when I lifted the butterfly from the habitat and moved her to a hot pink Pinta flower in my front bed.  I watched closely as she unfurled her tubular proboscis and inserted it into a single flower, then another.  It wasn't much, but I spoke words of hope over her for the first time.  My children weren't surprised in the least.

By this Saturday evening, her feet know the salty taste of my hand.  When her legs' sensors grasp my fingertips, she beats her wings in excitement, knowing I'm taking her out to eat, out into the sun and wind.

Unlike most butterflies who flutter from bush to bush, she stays on the single flower head with its dozens of individual blossoms, her black eyes disappearing and reappearing as she methodically goes from one to the other, taking her fill.  Sometimes, though, she forgets her injury and lets go, expecting the wind to take her airborne. I reach down familiar fingers and lift her back to the pointy blossoms where she dines again.

She could die tomorrow.  I know that well enough.  Yet, with this one butterfly, I am known as she knows me.  She comes to me when I unzip the habitat whereas the others fly away.

It's an odd sensation, this connection with a mere insect.  I can't help but think of the Scripture that reads, "My sheep recognize my voice; I know them, and they follow me" (Jn. 10:27).

How much more so is my connection with the Creator of all.