Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Paper Ornaments of Love

It’s been well over a month since the familiar trill of a text message from my pastor masked a message both serious and heart troubling—a priceless friend of mine had been in an out-of-state car accident.  She had a punctured lung; the ball in her shoulder was shattered to where a full shoulder replacement would be necessary. 

Over the next few days, her condition grew more serious.  A blood clot developed in the injured lung, which kept her oxygen levels low.  I heard the news and felt that familiar cold well of fear, the kind accompanied by the draining wash of all feeling from my shoulders to my toes.  Would I lose one of my best friends?

A week later, I was privileged enough to be a part of a group of warriors who prayed this recovering friend the five hours of pothole-laden roads home.  I wanted nothing more than the chance to become Jesus’ hands and feet for her.

The first step was to line up church members and friends to bring hot meals to her and her husband.  Within 12 hours of my emailing a request, an entire month of dates was already spoken for. 

I did a double take as I scrolled down the long list on the screen before me, choking back emotions of gratitude to be a part of such a group as well as some awe at how far our church had come in learning to support the rest of the body.  This was not the same church who had brought my family a single meal over the course of a six weeks period when I was on full bed rest before the birth of my twins and then an eight-week recovery period after their emergency delivery.  This was a different church, one that exhibited God’s love in not merely word but also in deed.    

“Look,” I pointed to my husband as my voice broke.  Look how they love!

But how could I teach my children to love like this?  How to teach them gratitude and selflessness so that these attitudes would come more easily than greed and self-centeredness, especially now that we were so close to the season that tends to afflict even usually generous children with a sudden case of the galloping gimmes?

We visited, brought soup, picked pink chrysanthemums, and shared boiled peanuts from our farm's garden, but still, there wasn’t much tangible for the children to “do” to show Jesus’ love to her.

That’s when we learned there would be no Christmas tree this year in my friend’s home.  With her injuries, she wasn’t able to decorate, and besides, her family would be celebrating at others’ homes for the season.  There was no need. It was ok.

I recalled those few years husband and I hadn’t put up the tree to celebrate the season.  No, the decorations weren’t necessary.  Christmas was a joyful season no matter the tinsel, holly, or gifts present in our home.  All we needed was the true reason for our celebration—Jesus—and each other.  Still, though, I remember those years as being full of heart twinges when I relived vivid memories of happy Christmases past, those complete with all the family traditions. I remember already looking forward to the next year when I would bring out the traditional ornaments from my childhood and erect the snow village.

Secretly, the children and I planned to color some decorative paper ornaments with the different names of Jesus and use them to adorn the two foot tall tree we use to mark the days of advent as we march to the Savior's birth.  The tree wasn’t much, just a glimmer of too-broadly spaced red tinsel branches.  It was the kind of tree that reminded you of the pitiful specimen Charlie Brown once chose, but it was always beautiful, nonetheless, when decorated with the paper images reminding us of Christ as shown from Genesis to Revelation. 

This past Tuesday, my three children happily worked together on this project.  My two sons were even unusually careful as they chose colors and then slowly stayed in between the lines before affixing a John Hancock on the back of each ornament and passing it to me for the cutting, taping, and string part of the project.  This one was pink, because, well, my daughter thinks pink is perfect.  Then came the rainbow, the LSU themed purple and gold, and the blue snowflakes that looked like ice.  Didn't I like this one that looked like the scales on Rainbow Fish?
That’s when my daughter Amelia decided she wanted to let our sick friend borrow her personal tree, the tiny pink tinsel one she had been so proud to put up in her room this year for the very first time. 

Was she sure?  Our friend would love our red one just as well.  We would simply find a branch to put in a vase and hang the advent ornaments on that.  It would be fine.

She shook her head.  No, she was sure.  “I want to be kind,” she told me repeatedly.

I couldn't tell her no.  Wasn't this what I had been asking for?  What I had been trying to instill in those children of mine? 

She proudly held onto the top all the way to our friend's home.  "Don't worry, mommy.  It won't fall over," she assured me when I turned around to check.

My three children are noisy.  They don't always listen.  They speak when they should be silent.  They are too boisterous and impatient and grumpy and ungrateful...and flat out mean at times.  In short, they are five and seven.

But sometimes, when I look at them, I catch glimpses that don't look like my little ones.  Instead, they look like His hands and His feet.  And for that, I give thanks.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Marathon #2: Same Race, New Attitude

What looks like a tragic murder scene from CSI is merely last year's photo of my two boys at the end of a short half mile race down the gravel drive to the bluebird box beside Oma's garden and then back again to our carport.

Perhaps it was because my oldest insisted on running in his cowboy boots (!!!) instead of the more appropriate tennis shoes.  Or maybe it was because he and his siblings had only recently re-entered the world of the un-sick.  Whatever the case, Wyatt fell mock-panting at my feet, unable to stop his face from cracking a smile as he gasped out complaints of exhaustion.

A few steps behind him, younger brother watched the theatrics.  Even from that distance, I could see Emerson's face brighten with an instant grin that showed he loved the idea.  Sure enough, he stopped, dropped, and honed his acting skills as well.

If it isn't obvious, I live in a house full of drama queens....and kings. 

Last winter, our family ran in the Louisiana Kids' Marathon wherein we ran together the full 26.2 miles over a nine week period, the same race that the super men and women ran all at once in mid January.

What started as a way to encourage my children to begin (at the young ages of four and six) to enjoy exercise and make healthy choices ended up teaching this mother more life lessons than she thought possible.  It was difficult; it seemed impossible at times; and yet, it was also exhilarating.

A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh could have been speaking directly to me and my children when he said, "You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."

Those statements all proved true over the course of our 26.2 mile journey.

One year later, I still bear the physical scars from last year's final leg of the marathon.  I see those dark indentions each time I wash my knees. And yet, by June, I had signed our family up for the 2014 version of the same race.

The children have waited an entire year for this moment when we would once again start training for the big day, when we would run together with several hundred other children and their parents, when we would cross the finish line to the sounds of cheers from people we had never met and likely never would.  And of course, they have waited for another chance to earn a medal, a tangible reminder of the value of persistence and hard work.
Monday was our first day back into race day training.

Now at five and almost seven, my children are stronger.  After completing last year's marathon, we had not continued our running, but we had spent the past ten months walking and riding our bicycles up and down the gravel drive.  If there weren't a marked path before, there would surely be one now with all the miles and hours we've clocked along the way.

As soon as Wyatt leapt off the school bus, the air was full of too-loud conversations about socks, tennis shoes, and reminders of where the starting line and turn-around points were.  Last year's training began with a quarter mile run, then stayed at half a mile for a few weeks before moving up to three-quarters of a mile and finally the whole mile.  This time, though, I decided we would start out at the one mile mark.

Two days into this training, I have already noticed how all our attitudes have changed from this same time last year.

Before, I neither believed in their ability or in my own.  I feared we would not finish.  I feared I couldn't run the entire 1.2 miles without pausing to walk some of it.  This time, though, I came out of the starting box believing with my entire being that we could do this.  And we did.

Even on this second day when I expected whining about being sore, no one said anything to that effect.  Sure, there were the usual exclamations of "I'm tired!" because all three children were having to re-learn the art of pacing themselves versus running in fast "spurts" as children are wont to do.  But, there was no real complaining.  What's more, Amelia and I have already beat our individual best times from last year, and the boys are already close to their race day best times.

As Amelia rounded the final bend, she held up her hand to wave at us who were already back at the finish line, waiting on her.  Without even being told to do so, Wyatt began not taunting her for how slow she was (like he did last year) but, rather, yelling encouragement to her.  Those words elicited a bright grin, spurring her to sprint the final few yards.

All together again, we exchanged laughter and high fives.

Success.  We could do this.  Together.  As a family.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Loving Our Children Like We Do When They're Sick

There are no clammy brows, flushed cheeks, or glazed eyes in my house this week.  No nights spent listening for the sound of tears outside my bedroom door or for feet padding to the bathroom at alarming hours.  No nocturnal barking cough that only slows when suppressed in a codeine-induced sleep.  No sheets, blankets, and towels reeking with the noxious odor of last night's supper revisited, fumes that make me want to just burn everything rather than rinse it off outdoors before placing load upon load in my washer and dryer.

This week has been calm on the health front.

After two weeks of one virus after another, this road-weary mother is quite thankful to be hanging up her Florence Nightingale hat and returning to the regularly scheduled programming wherein she dons the usual hats of wife, mother, and teacher. 

There's something inexplicably wonderful about returning to the monotonous routine of daily life after an illness.  In those moments of calm after the storm, I always find that the repetition I chafed at days before (and will, again, I know) suddenly seems so sweet.  The cadence of rote hours, the fluid dance of a perfectly working household wherein I wind up the time piece at the rising of the sun and move through the automated routine until slowly pirouetting to a halt at day's end--it is all beautiful.

I have been perfectly content these past two days as I've sought to reestablish a sense of normalcy, to reclaim what ground was lost and move forward.  Progress.  My daughter, however, has sought to pull me back into the patterns we fall into during illness. 

"Can we watch another movie today?"

"Sorry.  We don't need a movie. You're well again and can play."

"Am I going to read to you tonight?"

"Sure.  You're well again.  Besides, I love it when you read to me."

"Are we having soup for lunch?"

"No.  We're having our usual peanut butter.  But would you like jelly instead of honey?"

All throughout the day, we repeat this dance with her asking to return to the lifestyle we led when she was sick and me drawing her back into the present, always, it seems, giving the answer she doesn't want and drawing her frown.

In late afternoon after big brother Wyatt and I finish up his homework, she comes to me again.

"Can you come lay down with me?"

She is remembering back to last week when she really needed a nap but wouldn't take one, as usual.   Instead of letting her fall asleep on the floor somewhere mid-play, I had turned on the white noise machine in her room, closed the door and curtains tight to block out the piercing daylight, and crawled beneath the covers with her.

Together, we had shared one pink pillow, our foreheads touching as she curled into me, her hand gently rubbing along my arm that wrapped around to draw her close.  Slowly, her body grew heavy with her breathing's deepening. There, we snuggled together until I unlaced myself from her embrace and crept quietly out the door.

Today, she was asking for that moment repeated more than she was admitting to being tired.

Supper was still a ways off.  Why not?

Amelia's smile spread to her eyes as I took her hand and walked up the stairs to her room.  Again in the mommy-created darkness, she drew up the covers beneath our chins and turned into my shoulder, repeating that moment of comfort and love I'd lavished upon her when she needed it most. 

All those questions throughout the day--all my daughter was really after was that extra bit of love I shower her with when she's ill.  Once well, she knew that "something extra" her mother pauses to give during times of crisis would vanish, and in her own way, she was begging for me to continue loving her like that, to continue loving her more.

What difference might it make in my children's lives if in the midst of training them up in the Lord, I kept pausing to say "yes" to their requests, to love them as much as I do when they are sick? To simply stop in the lessons, explanations, and detailed reasonings to just love?

A 15 minute non-nap snuggle between mother and daughter.  That's something I can still continue to give.

Even if we do all have a clean bill of health.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Running to Beat the Rain

The skies were already rolling deep folds of darkness nearer as I hurried four little legs beside me into Wal-mart.  My father had called earlier that morning to warn of the early afternoon storms to come, but here we were anyway, completing a weekly chore that should have been finished hours ago.

Into the limousine buggy went my youngest son with the sinus infection and his ever-mothering twin sister, both of whom knew to hold on tight as I rounded the first turn and flew down the straightaway to the back of the store.  Today wasn't one of those times when mommy could be persuaded to take a leisurely tour down Lego land Lane or Beautiful Princess Boulevard.  No, today was an "if-it's-not-on-the-list-then-don't-look-at-it" kind of shopping trip.

Marked-up competitors' sale ads in hand, this mother was on a mission to get in, get out, and get home, all before the rains hit.

Into the buggy dropped the cans of cat food, soap, and two week's supply of bite-sized apples.  Then came fifteen cans of Sunday afternoon snack soup for husband's winter stockpile, a half dozen cans of chili, and a cart-load of other items to price match.  Stocking up on the sale items was the purpose of the trip; the cashier was going to roll her eyes when she saw me, I was sure. 

By the time we entered the home stretch back down front, I glanced at my watch and sighed slightly in relief.  Not quite 11:30.  That's when I realized there were only two long lanes open other than the 20 or less lanes, which I was definitely not.  But these two lines weren't just "long."  They were Thanksgiving-Day crazy long, with my limo sticking so far back into the wide front aisle that everyone had to squeeze just to get between me and the rows of merchandise immediately at my back.

It quickly became evident that it was going to take as long to check out as it had to do all my shopping.

I know these are the times when we as Christians are supposed to have joy in our circumstances, but in all honesty, I. Did. Not.  Instead, my mind played reels of crying, soaked children and plastic bags bursting as their contents scattered and rolled across the parking lot, only stopping in the deepest of puddles.

Arms crossed, I let out an audible huff and glared directly overhead into the black void of the video camera globes as if the people working in security would somehow get my message to management that one of the dozens of persons stuffing the store full for Christmas needed to come help out with the currently-paying customers. 

Twenty minutes of idling in the slower of two lanes, and another lane did finally open up.  I maneuvered my nitro-powered limo into place, praised the cashier for her help, wished her a blessed day, and turned to go.

"Mommy?  I need to go to the bathroom?"

Now!?!?  It had taken forty-five minutes just to check out. I could almost hear the threatening winds warning of the coming rain.  Couldn't she wait just a little bit longer until we got home?   It was only a ten minute drive?

No.  Of course not. Dumb mommy.

Again, I waited.  Do you know how long it takes a five-year-old to wash her hands?  Sing the Alphabet song as you scrub your palms (not your fingers, palms only) with soap.  Forget what letter you're on.  Then, start over again.  Now forget your place a second time.  Yes.  That long

By some miracle, it wasn't yet raining as I pushed my heavy load down the slight hill to the van.  I whispered a thanks to God and asked for us to make it both home and inside with all my bags before the bad storms hit.  As if in response, a couple drops spattered on my face, reminding me that I really did need to hurry.

My buggy was almost empty when a truck pulled in next to me.

"Is that one of those buggies that kids can sit in?"

The question caught me off guard.  Wasn't it obvious? Why else would anyone drive this behemoth?

It was then that I looked past the dad to the kid hobbling down from the back seat of the truck.  I stopped still in my rush as I recognized the precious freckled face and bright red hair of a child from my oldest son's kindergarten class last year.

"Hey, Christopher.  You not feeling well today?  Remember Wyatt from kindergarten?  I'm his mom."

The panicked "how-does-she-know-my-name" look vanished, and he nodded, limping forward a few steps.  His father stopped and told me how the little boy had simply awakened one morning unable to walk, something with his hip that didn't show up on x-rays.

I pushed my buggy towards him and thought how this could be my own son.  Same age.  Same grade.  Same long, lanky frame.  Same easy, goofy smile.    

I joked with him about jumping out of trees and was rewarded with a shy smile, then added, "I hope you feel better, Christopher.  I will be praying for you."

And that was it. As he turned to leave, I heard him tell his dad, "That's Wyatt's mom."

Those words brought me to tears then and do again now as I remember how they triggered a realization.  Suddenly, I knew why I was late going to the store.I knew why I had to wait in line forty-five minutes just to check out.  I knew why Amelia had taken forever to wash her hands. 

It was never about me.  It was all about this little boy and his father.

All those delays in my day were so that I could bring that particular buggy to that particular place in the parking lot at that particular time for this seemingly clueless dad to lovingly care for his son.  All those delays in my day were so that I could be given an opportunity to plant a seed for God in that young boy's mind with the knowledge that some near-stranger was praying for him. 

Right there inside my van with the rain drops plopping more steadily around me each minute,  I dropped my head onto the steering wheel and prayed out loud for Christopher. 

That was a week ago, and I'm not sure if that little boy has been miraculously healed or if he continues to suffer.  But in this week when my own household has suffered from three separate viruses that have left me weary, somehow I can take comfort in not knowing why.

It's not always about us, about you and me.  God rarely reveals Himself like he did in that Wal-Mart parking lot.  Yet, I wonder just how often those things that cause us frustration, those delays that make us impatient, those interruptions we'd rather avoid--how often are they not really about us? But about someone else? 

And how often would it make a difference if we perceived those inconveniences, those interruptions, or those frustrations as for someone else versus against us?

Image: Awesome rain photo by Audrey Merwin.