Published August 29, 2009 when Baker was 13 years old.
Over and over again that week at divinity school, I was asked how my summer had been. I was seeing folk I'd not seen since last semester and the question was more of a greeting than an inquiry. I knew that, but I stumbled every time to say something that could sum up the last three months. It was a hard summer in many ways, and it felt almost deceptive to dismiss the greeting with “Fine, thanks. You?”
Eventually, I settled on a response sort of like this: “Actually, it was hard: I experienced a lot of losses this summer. Most of them were minor, some were a little more unsettling, and one was nearly overwhelming. And yet, this summer I witnessed the goodness of God in remarkable ways.”
It’s true. The summer was hard, but there were some amazing, almost miraculous moments. I was able to see those moments, in part, because of a conversation I had with my son towards the end of July. It went something like this.
“Hey Mom I think I thought of something pretty profound.”
“Oh yeah, Baker, what was that?”
“Well I was looking at fireflies, ya know?”
“See, it’s like they are all around us in the dark, and we don't realize it. Then they light up and suddenly we know they've been there all along.”
“And I think that’s kind of like Jesus is. Sometimes, we can't really see Jesus because of what’s going on in our life.”
“Right. And then something happens to remind us that Jesus has been there the whole time.”
“Yeah.” Baker, hands on hips, grinned. “That’s pretty profound don’t you think?”
"I do indeed, Baker-boy, I do indeed."
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
John 1:1-5 NRSV
Published originally back in 2009 when Margaret was about to start middle school, this post reflects on her preschool days.
“Baker!” Three-year-old Margaret clutched her chest, staring at her five-year-old brother who himself was in the grips of laughter. They’d been playing hide-and-seek: Baker stone-still in a hidey hole just big enough to hold him, his little sister frantically seeking him out. Margaret, unbeknownst to me, had become increasingly convinced that Baker was lost forever.
“Baker!” She cried out when at last his giggles revealed him. “You scared my heart.”
Baker stopped laughing with admirable speed and reached for her, apologizing. She sunk into his arms, offering forgiveness. Then, eyes still shiny from tears unshed, she looked up at her big brother and said, “Now I’ll hide and you count, okay?”
As she ran off, Baker, charmed, came quickly over to me whispering, not for the first time, “Isn’t she just the cutest thing, Mommy?”
Cute. That’s our Margaret. Well, cute and not a little bit sassy.
Margaret’s sassy side made rules frustrating for her when she was in preschool. In her four-year-old class the teacher kept student names clipped to a color-coded continuum. Good behavior moved names up; misbehavior inched them down. Far too frequently, Margaret’s name found its way to the lower spectrum. I tried a variety of rehabilitation methods, with minimal success. Realizing how much Margaret loved her teacher, I tried a new tactic.
“Margaret, do you know what it means when your name is moved down?”
Margaret’s blue eyes gazed at me, waiting.
“It means you’ve made Mrs. Lynn very sad.”
Margaret’s face fell. She looked away for a minute, seeming to think the whole thing through a bit. Then, a smile taking over her countenance, she shook her blond curls from side to side. “No Mommy. That’s not what it means. It just means I was screaming!” She nodded, satisfied, and went on to tell me about her day.
The next year, Margaret went to Kindergarten. And she must have taken care of the whole rebellion thing back in pre-k, because she seldom broke a rule the whole time she was in elementary school (at least so far as you or I know). Her teachers said she was delightful, imaginative, an independent learner (nobody ever mentioned excessive screaming).
So I guess that means she’s ready for her next frontier: middle school. Still, as she grows out of childhood into the young woman she will become, I hope she keeps her spunky side: that part that says, “Wait a minute, let me think about this before I accept your opinion as truth.” And I hope she guards her heart. But when the day comes that she allows some boy other than her brother to scare her heart, may that luckiest of fellows be as gentle with this treasure of a girl as her big brother has been right from the start.
Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray. Proverbs 22:6 (NRSV)
Sometimes I pull older posts back up and promote them to new readers. I was about to do that with this four-year-old post, so I thought I would add a picture. I googled "Trailways bus, Georgia, Country roads." In seconds (amazing!) I had pages of photos that matched or almost matched my search criteria. Though I hadn't put the date in the search string, the pictures were mostly illustrating events from the forties, fifties, or sixties. Perfect! Except not really. The top ten or fifteen returns did include buses on country roads; the problem was, each depicted some form of violence: buses burning, riots, people being beaten. Hideous.
And from the midst of all that comes this story about my daddy, on a back road in Georgia, riding a Trailways™ bus.
It wasn’t something a boy got to do every day you know: taking the Trailways™ bus from his home to his grandparents' place 20 miles away--especially by himself, seeing as he had half a dozen siblings who would have loved to have joined him. But that’s just what my daddy did one Georgia day some decades ago.
“Was it 1947 or 1948?” Daddy asked himself, folding his napkin in half, then into fourths, then eighths before unfolding it only to repeat the process, this time on the diagonal. “Well let’s see. I know I’d been baptized.”
Daddy seemed to wander back through his memories arriving at the little Baptist church over the railroad track and down the road from his family home. “I was nine when I made my profession of faith.” (We all knew that. Daddy loved telling that story.) “But it took more than a year for the preacher to get around to my baptism.” Baptisms only happened in the summer when the creek was warm enough, but why Daddy didn’t receive the sacrament the summer after he walked the aisle is a mystery. “I reckon it was 47 or maybe it was 48,” Daddy declared this time with conviction. “Whichever it was, it was after I’d been baptized,” Daddy said, certain. “‘Cause I know I’d been baptized.”
So back in 1947 (or 1948) Daddy, soaped up and shiny for his special trip, boarded the bus. The bus was nearly full. Back then, segregation was law, and down in the Deep South Jim Crow ruled the buses with at least as much authority as he had in the classrooms. Daddy, belongings in hand, worked his way from the front toward the back of the bus looking for a seat, finally finding an empty one just inside the Whites Only section. He plopped his things down and took his seat. The bus started up again, chugging on toward Daddy’s adventure.
In those days, at least in rural Georgia, bus drivers would pull over occasionally to pick up riders. You see, folks needing a ride would wait along the side of the road, and then they’d pay a pro-rated fare for their truncated trip. Daddy looked out the windows, watching the Georgia terrain ease past. In the distance, Daddy could see a woman waiting. A child was with her: a very young child. The woman’s arms full of bundles, she still managed to keep hold of the child’s hand. The bus inched closer. Daddy’s view sharpened. The woman was black.
Daddy glanced over his shoulder. The section behind him, the seats designated for this mother and child, were all taken. The bus bumped to a stop. The woman, shifting her load to access her fare while still holding tight to her little one, climbed aboard.
“I remember deliberating on that thing, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I.’” Meanwhile, the woman got closer. “I’d been taught to respect our elders; she was an adult and I was just a kid. But mostly,” Daddy’s voice caught. He cleared his throat and gazed above our heads, “Well, I had the Holy Spirit. Because of that, I was guided, prompted. I knew what was right.”
As the woman got to his row, Daddy met her eyes. Picking up his things, he slid over to the window seat, leaving the aisle seat free. Her expression hardly changed as she placed her things on the floor, lifted her child into her lap, and took her seat: a seat in the White’s Only section of the bus, a seat given her by my daddy who was just an 11 year old boy (or maybe 12).
And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us . . . Acts 15:8 NRSV
“It'll get better,” the stranger said, punctuating his insightful comment with that know-it-all belly laugh that indicated he knew exactly zilch, “in about 18 years!” His laugh crescendoed, then faded into the distance as he walked away shaking his head, still snickering at his own joke.
I looked into the two-week old face of my daughter Trellace sheltered as she was by a tiny pink bonnet and a dainty lace shawl. Her chocolate brown eyes looked back at me, fluttering curly lashes three sizes too big. Better than this? Impossible.
He was confused, that stranger. Maybe he thought I resented rather than relished the neediness of my newborn. He might have thought I had postpartum depression, not the postpartum elation that really kept me up at night gazing into the bassinet, awed by the gift of this child.
Yet in a way—a sort of accidental way—my cackling advisor was right. Parenthood has gotten better. Because every day, the blessing has gotten more amazing; and every day I am more humbled by the beauty of it.
It got better the first time Trellace smiled at me and the first time she laughed. Actually, all the firsts grew the gift: the first hug, the first time she said “Ma-Ma,” the first steps, the first conversation. The newness of those moments have made parenting fresh again and better—surprisingly, impossibly, better.
Now Trellace is 15, has her driver’s permit, and receives mail from potential colleges every week. She never wears a pink bonnet (though she does wear her tennis visor well), and now those chocolate brownies look at me incredulously far more often than adoringly.
And yet, it is better. Different, sure. But better, too. Better because I know Trellace better now than I did in those first moments of her life. Better because I know me better and hopefully have gotten a little more skilled at this parenting gig over the years. Better because as Trellace has grown past toddlerhood and preschool, past the elementary days and the middle school years, our relationship has grown as well.
Now, we like the same movies. Now, we have inside jokes; we laugh together. Now, Trellace knows things I don't, so I learn from her. Now, we can be quiet together and that’s okay.
All of this has caught me totally by surprise, because I loved the baby days—cooing, crawling, cuddling. And the preschool years—oh how sweet the preschool years were, punctuated daily by gargantuan delights in infinitesimal joys. Then of course the elementary school days—loved those: field trips, classroom parties, special new friends. With Trellace, even middle school was fun, because she really came into herself then. In fact, at every stage, I've thought, Better than this? Impossible!
So now when I see a new mom cradling an infant, I can look into her eyes and say, “You know what? It will get better. Really! As wonderful as this minute is? It gets even better.”
“I think I’m going to write a blog about smoking,” I told my son. Soggy and sandy from our day at the beach, the two of us were alone in our van.
“Hmmm,” my 13-year-old son replied, hardly vibrating his vocal cords and barely nodding his head in acknowledgement of my having spoken.
“You see,” I went on, “I actually think folk have the right to smoke if they want. I have my own share of unhealthy habits.”
At this my son perked up. (He does so love a chance to disagree with me.) “Yeah, but Mom, do your unhealthy habits make other people unhealthy?”
In truth, my unhealthy habits could cause my family members pain in the future. If I do not choose to eat right and to exercise, I could suffer the physical effects of such bad behaviors. Some forms of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other diseases are caused by unhealthy habits. If I were to contract one of these diseases, my family, my loved ones would suffer unnecessarily because of my negligence.
But that was not what my son meant and I knew it. He had asthma as a young child but had outpaced it as he grew up. Still, he remembered the times he had to duck through doorways and rush through parking lots to avoid errant fumes. Yet this time, he was not referring to his own struggles. This time, we were both frustrated by the limitations forced upon his sister by the unhealthy habit of others.
“What I mean, Baker, is that I am not prepared to say people don’t have the right to smoke. It’s a choice they should be allowed to make. The problem is that this choice puts my child at risk.”
“Right. Because they chose to smoke a cigarette on the beach Margaret could have an asthma attack. She could wind up in the hospital.”
Our frustration was at a high point because we’d been unable to find a place to park our umbrella that was not downwind from smokers. They were everywhere. Margaret had to stay in the water or at least in the surf to avoid the fumes.
And it was not just the beach. Later we went out to eat, to a non-smoking restaurant of course.
“Mommy, smokers,” Margaret whispered to me when we were 50 feet from the entrance. Yep. Cloaking the entrance with a cloud of wheeze-inducing funk, were several folks tugging the last puffs from their smokes. They had every right; it’s a free country. Yet there was no getting in the place without walking through their haze of freedom: a haze that placed significant bonds on my child.
Lest you think I’m an over reactive mom, know that once last summer we were in a restaurant whose (ahem) smoking section was on the opposite side of the room from their non-smoking (or what we would call their Not-Quite-As-Dense-But-Still-Really-Smoky) area. We opted to stay. The kids were hungry; it was late; and Margaret had been breathing effortlessly (something, I can’t not mention, that the rest of us do without note). Fifteen minutes later, we paid what we owed and left—with a wheezing daughter who wound up on breathing treatments for the three days following the dining debacle.
Life experience. I try to learn from it.
But back to our week at the beach. It seems to have set the tone for the summer. Everywhere we have gone, we’ve had to dodge smokers. Admittedly, Margaret has had a hard time with her asthma this summer, and I am hyper aware, but geez. Smokers greet you at the mall, the drug store, the convenience mart and the grocery. They stroll over the grounds at Biltmore Estate and cheer in the stands of ball games. And hear me here: I think smokers have a right to smoke, I do. But what is my kid supposed to do to be able to breathe?
I tell Margaret life’s not fair and that we all have to deal with stuff. I remind her that considering what others have to deal with, this isn’t that bad. I tell her we could get her a filter mask thingy to wear. (She says she’d rather wheeze.)
I tell her those things. I do. And I believe smokers have rights. I do. But first, I’m Margaret’s mommy and when she’s fighting to breathe because secondhand smoke has triggered an asthma attack, I forget all those things. Because when it comes to balancing her right to breathe and the right of others to smoke—I don’t care squat about fairness. ‘Cuz I’m a mother, that’s why. And it’s my right to play favorites.
“Similarly, the spirit also helps us out in our weakness. For example, we don’t know beans about praying, but the Spirit himself speaks up for our unexpressed concerns. And he who x-rays our hearts understands the Spirit’s approach, since the Spirit represents Christians before God.” Romans 8:26-27 The Cotton Patch Version
Clarence Jordan (translator of The Cotton Patch Version) is right. I don't know beans about praying. Prayer absolutely blows my mind: God, the creator of the universe, wants to be in communication with me? I really can't grasp that.
But I pray anyway. I pray to music. I pray Scripture. And I pray for loved ones. I pray for Barbara and her two boys—their husband and father died suddenly this past January. A friend who has pitiful insurance and horrific health problems. Cathy whose younger brother died way too young leaving a wife and children. Teachers whose salaries have been cut or who have lost their jobs—particularly those among them who are single parents. A loved one in a new job. My nephew-in-love who goes off to college next year and his dad who has Parkinson’s disease. Niece Rachel who is about to start her senior year. My mother-in-law with MD. And then there’s this: my friend Kim who beat breast cancer last year just before her son, now 11, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer—the same Kim who has just been diagnosed with colon cancer. This week, her son, who was just denied access because of his age to clinical trials that might save his life, will be going to NIH in Maryland to explore further treatment options with his dad (Kim’s husband) while Kim faces her own cancer surgery back in Oklahoma.
Yeah, I gotta tell ya. I don't know beans about praying.
But thanks be to God, knowing is not necessary. Romans 8:26-27 (NRSV) says “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (emphasis mine)
And when I read that I sigh: a sigh of relief. I sigh because suddenly I remember, I’m not alone. I sigh, I breathe, remembering that Barbara is not alone, and Cathy isn't and neither is my nephew.The Spirit is sighing with me, magnifying those sighs, translating them into words that I can't seem to find, building them into bridges from the hearts of the hurting to the very heart of God. I sigh knowing my Rachel has a bridge and my mother-in-law can cross it too cause this bridge is seriously wheelchair accessible. And I sigh so deep within my spirit, beyond the flood of tears that chokes my heart for a little boy who just wants to play baseball with his brothers and for his mother who wants to watch him. I sigh with relief because as I do, I find that the Spirit is already there. The bridge is already built. The words don’t have to be found. “And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes” for me.
Even though I don’t know beans about praying.
15 May 2009 Here’s a conversation Margaret and I had on the way home from school one day last week. I thought you might enjoy eavesdropping. (I’ve changed names and identifying details of all other kids mentioned—well, except for Charlie who is indeed a kid in his own mind . . . and I suppose in ours too. . . .)
“Hey, Mommy! Hey, Charlie! Come sit with me, buddy. That’s a good boy.” Margaret buckled up as our beagle stepped into her lap.
“Hey Margaret, how was your day at school?”
Margaret shook her head. “Not so good: there was a tornado warning.”
“Yeah, I heard about that.”
“It was awful because I needed to go to the restroom, but we had to sit in the hall with our heads down and we were in the downstairs hall with the kindergartners and first and second graders and it was really crowded and hot and boring.”
“You had to go to the restroom?”
“Yeah but at first I didn’t have to go that bad so I told Mrs. Seals I could wait but then after like 20 minutes or something I told her that I really did have to go and so I went but it was so embarrassing because there were girls sitting in the bathroom—because see the hall was so crowded that some girls had to sit in there the whole time—and so all those girls knew I was going to the bathroom. . .”
“I bet that was embarrassing.”
“Yeah, it sure was. Oh, but Mommy, some kids were really scared about the tornado and some were even crying. I’m talking about kids who don’t ever cry, they were crying. Like Natalie she never cries but she started crying because she has family in Black Mountain and somebody said the tornado was headed out to Black Mountain, you know, and so she started crying and Brandon he started crying—you know Brandon he is that big tough boy—and he never cries, you know, he never cries, ever, and he cried, because he was worried about his grandparents, because they don’t watch TV or listen to the radio, so he was scared they would be caught in the tornado because they hadn’t heard about it, and how would they hear about it if they didn’t listen to the news, you know? and then of course Taylor cried because her family lives in a mobile home and, I don’t know if you knew this Mommy, but—did you know this?—it is really, really, super dangerous to be in a mobile home when there is a tornado, and her whole house could have just blown away, so of course she was crying—I mean, who could blame her?”
“Yeah that was really scary for her. A lot of kids were crying . . .”
“Were you scared?"
“Not at all? Come on.”
“Well, I was a little worried about Charlie.” Hearing his name, Charlie turned to face her, expectant. “Yeah, I was worried about my little buddy,” Margaret told him, scratching his ears as he leaned into her.
“Yeah, Charlie pretty much freaked out,” I told her, “You know how he gets in a storm.”
“Was he shaking?” She asked, knowing. She wrapped her arms around him, pulling him close.
I chuckled. “More like quaking.”
“Poor Charlie,” Margaret said shaking her head, “I knew it; I just knew it.”
“So that was all you were worried about, really?”
“Yep,” she said, repositioning Charlie so his white-tipped tail could swing free.
“Good for you, Margaret. I’m glad you were not fearful.”
“Well,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and stroking her beagle’s back, “I figured if there was anything to be worried about, Daddy would take care of it.”
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Matthew 5:26-27
It was like any other day.
Daddy said we would have a big surprise later
And I thought maybe we would go get ice cream,
Or go to the Five & Dime to buy paper dolls,
Or maybe company was coming.
I colored pictures and I played in the kitchen center.
I listened to music and watched the record going round and round on the player.
I heard the office phone ring.
It rang the same way it did on any other day.
“Aileen, Dawn! Your Daddy is on the phone, come quick.”
And we did.
I reached for the phone, black and heavy, its top half snaking across the desk.
Tippy toed, I pressed the receiver to my ear.
“Hey, Girlbaby!” (Daddy always called me Girlbaby.) “Guess what?”
“You have a baby brother!”
I was a big sister now.
But really, it was a day just like any other day.
It was the day my brother was born.
Becoming a big sister.
I stood on tippy toes to reach the phone, still corded. Daddy gave me the news: “It’s a boy!”
Learning to read.
The letters were right there in colored chalk. “C-A-T means this.” My sister stood beside her chalkboard, pointing to a picture she had drawn of a cat. And in that moment, I got it.
Losing a pet.
I tried to get Pickles, our Cocker Spaniel, to come back; she kept running after the car. Straddling the banana seat on my bike, I called and called to her. But Pickles never came. “Do dogs go to heaven, Mama?” and “Will I ever stop missing her?”
Falling in love.
In the end, she didn’t know any of us. No matter: loving Grandmama for better or worse gave me sweet joy and made me a better me.
Becoming Aunt Aileen.
Nothing. Nothing prepared me (has prepared me yet) for the joy of it.
Believing beyond Meredith’s birth.
When Meredith was born twinless, my faith quivered at its core. This one was to be two, this tiny singleton sans sister who fought for her life in NICU. Praying through the questions, working through the doubt, set new roots to my faith. (Meredith—one of my 12—is all grown up now. Thanks be to God.)
He was only 3 years and 7 months old when he died on April 6 2008. I still wish the truth were a lie--I wish that Paxten still lived on, growing bigger, getting stronger. I do not want it to be true that he's gone. Yet while losing him hurt like nothing I'd experienced before, it was loving him that changed me: Love fast, Live now, Laugh anyway, Linger a little longer. I loved loving Paxten. I love him still.
Originally posted 4-6-09
Originally posted on April 2, 2009
On April 6, 2008, Paxten Andrew Mitchell slipped from his parents embrace into the gates of heaven. This time last year, no one was talking about Paxten getting well. He was home, with his family, with hospice. I miss him.
When Paxten was still well enough to be in the hospital, I visited him about once a week. I’d come bringing fresh Playdoh® or new dinosaur stickers. (I still catch myself looking for stickers or checking for a bargain on Playdoh® before I realize my reason for buying those things is no more.) Paxten and I would stick the stickers all over ourselves and anything else we could find; we’d sculpt new creatures with the Playdoh®. Actually I would sculpt, or Amy would, as Paxten directed our efforts. We made funny faces. We wrestled—careful not to disconnect IV cords as we played. And we laughed. We laughed a lot, Paxten & I. Eventually though, I’d have to go home to my children, often leaving Amy by herself with her boy.
In the hospital bed (it seemed huge when Paxten was in it alone), Amy slept with her boy curled into her. No doubt she did all night what she did all day—checked his temperature with her mommy hands and diagnostic kisses, glanced up at the monitors to see if everything was normal (that is, as normal as it ever got for Paxten), and readjusted his tubing so he was not lying on it. . . When Paxten stirred during those long nights, I bet he had the same conversation with his mother that he had several times every hour during the day.
“I Wub You.”
“I love you too, Paxten.”