Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
And now she is 21. A good time to rerun this piece about our Joy Bringer.
Margaret, my youngest child (born earlier this week), turned 18 today (2/13/16) In honor of her birthday, I thought I’d share 18 reasons why we Lawrimores call her our Joy Bringer.
We named our third child Margaret because, though she was beloved, she was not exactly planned. “Margaret” means “pearl.” Some of her earliest conversations included, “My name is Mawgwet, cuz I a tweasure of gwaaaaate pwice!” She is indeed. She is our Joy Bringer.
During the last 3-4 years, my mother has had more knee replacements than anyone ought to have in a lifetime. It's a long complicated story, but suffice to say you do NOT want to get an infection when you get a knee replacement. Curing that infection is not a matter of proper rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and a prescription for a Z-pack. It's an ordeal that requires not one, but two additional surgeries, along with in-home IV antibiotics and so much more. And all that was just for the first knee. Getting the second one done was yet to come--overcompensating as it was for the pain and infection in knee-number-one. It's been ridiculously frustrating and also rather frightening for Mother and therefore for all of us who love her.
You can imagine, then, my alarm when my sister called last night, beginning the conversation with, "Mama's fine. She's fine, really. She's in the Emergency Room, but she's fine." Naturally, I assumed that she was not fine in the least. Worst case scenarios raced through my psyche at a heartwrenching pace. Thankfully, Mother really is fine. It is not a blood clot as first thought; instead it is a common and treatable (though painful) condition that is (somewhat) easily corrected. Last night, the emergency personnel conducted the appropriate tests, applied the necessary treatment, and released her. As a matter of fact, she called me first thing this morning, sounding just like herself, getting ready to head to church. So she's fine. (Allow me to remind myself of this one more time, if you will; it's been our experience that where Mother's knees are concerned, everything is serious. She's okay though. Really.)
But that's not the whole story. Not even close.
My parents, though they are 79 and 81, are business owners who lead full, complex lives. (If something happened to either of them, our whole family would feel as if they'd been struck down in their youth.) Back in 2001, Mother and Daddy purchased Together Forever Wedding Chapel in North Myrtle Beach, SC; in 2008, my brother and his family moved to North Myrtle Beach to join our parents in operating Together Forever. So when Mother's knee gave out on her Saturday, my sister-in-law was nearby; Hal and Daddy were there too, completing one wedding and preparing to begin the next one. Mother wasn't in such dire straits that she wanted the business to come to a standstill to attend to her needs, so when she decided she should go to the ER, she asked her daughter-in-law to take her. After confirming the plan with Daddy and Hal, Mother and Kim took off, sans husbands.
Now, I have never taken for granted--I don't think--the gift of my sister-in-law's love for my parents. Even before she married my brother, Kim has been committed to our parents. She doesn't think her devotion to them is anything that remarkable; it's just who she is. But I recognize her unselfish commitment as extraordinary. You see last night, as my sister Dawn and I talked on the phone, trying to suppress our urges to drive straight to North Myrtle Beach, we would remind each other in turn, "Kim is there. Everything will be okay." We knew that Kim would not allow our mother (who--let's be honest--is a force to be reckoned with in her own right) to be ignored or overlooked. We knew that together they would ask the right questions. "Kim would tell us if we should go down." We could sit still, trusting Mother to speak for herself and Kim to back her up. "Don't worry. Kim's with her." And because she was there, we could breathe in and breathe out while we held our phones in our hands, waiting for an update. "Kim will tell us if she knows anything at all." We never doubted it.
That's power: the power of a sister who joined our family through marriage and instantly committed to be there for all of us, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
It was the second time in a week I had experienced the power of a sister.
My own beloved mother-in-law has been seriously ill for most of the summer. She was admitted to the hospital (for the umpteenth time this summer) on Friday, July 28, 2017. At the time, I was actually in North Myrtle Beach for my family's annual gathering there. When he heard the news about his mother, my husband Jay, who had not yet left Asheville, went immediately to his parents' home that Friday night. He spent most of Saturday in the hospital with his mother and was about to go over on Sunday morning when his dad called him from his cell phone.
"Jay, come to the hospital now. Overnight, your mother's health took a dangerous turn. Come now." He quickly explained to Jay that his mother had been moved to the Intensive Care Unit and was having a procedure done that required anesthesia. Now, my mother-in-law has had muscular dystrophy for 50 years or more and her lungs and heart don't always play nicely together any more. Adding anesthesia into that cocktail of concerns could end badly. Not doing the procedure would definitely end badly though, so they made plans to proceed.
As Jay got into the car, he called his sister with the urgent message; simultaneously, I happened to call my father-in-law. When he answered, he was distraught, beside himself with fear and anxiety. I'd never--in 30 years of marriage plus 2 and 1/2 years of dating--heard him sound that way. It was heartbreaking. I awakened my daughters to go with me to the hospital which, under the best conditions, was a ninety minute drive. Next, I called my son's fiance; my son was about to lead in worship at his church so I was hesitant to call him directly. I knew Addison would handle it and that together they would figure something out. (They were more than two and a half hours away, but arrived at the hospital as soon as possible.)
Oh wait. Did I mention that I had just had bilateral carpal tunnel surgery? Yeah, so that was about a week and a half old at that point. Pain was still pretty pronounced and function still limited to the slightest tasks. The surgeon's post-op directions had said to avoid using my hands for lifting anything over two pounds, or pushing, pulling, or twisting. (You might be surprised at how many activities those restrictions eliminate.)
"Get food, don't lift anything heavy, get caffeine, what else do I need, where are the girls, don't hurt your hands, is there anyone else to call, maybe there's a shortcut, is Jay at the hospital yet . . . " My brain was grabbing at whatever it could find so that it didn't have to process the possibility of losing my mother-in-law. It didn't work. "What if she dies what if she dies what if she dies what if she dies what if she dies . . . " it was the cadence of the cacophony in my mind.
"I'm going with you." My sister, laden with a knitting project or two and her sling bag, wasn't asking me. She was ready to go when we walked out the door.
"I don't want to take you away from everyone," I looked from Dawn to Mother and around at the rest of the family.
"It's what we do," Mother said. "This is what we do."
We arrived at the hospital, emotion running high. The procedure was to take 15 minutes and when we arrived it had already been 45.
Dawn took a seat across the waiting room, present yet not intrusive. "I'll just be over here if you need me," she said, taking out her knitting.
I did need her. I needed her, for example, to run errands--it turns out that even in a crisis, people need to eat and dogs need potty breaks. But I also needed her to share the experience with Jay and me and the rest of the family. I needed her to be there in the flesh. My first best friend and playmate, my teacher and mentor, my friend and confidante. My sister's presence helped me to be my best self. That's a powerful presence right there.
Incidentally, all 12 of my mother-in-law's immediate family members made it to see her when she came out of anesthesia. She's still recovering, but for now the urgency has subsided. She welcomes your prayers for her continued improvement, as do we all.
So there you have it. Two mothers plus two sisters, at least in my life in the last week, equals the circumstances surrounding one emergency room visit plus one critical ICU patient, raised--that is, lifted--from untethered desperation to grounded hope by the power of two loving sisters.
Also, one more thing. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that when Hal learned what was happening, his response was, "I'm so glad Dawn could go. If she hadn't been able to go, I would have gone with Aileen."
It's what we do. It's just what we do.
Another of my earlier posts from back in 2008, written about my trip to the Holy Land.
I've said over and over today: Ooooh! I wish my sister could see this. Or, "I wish my sister were here to translate that." You see, my sister Dawn is a Latin teacher extraordinaire and there are few things she likes better than Roman ruins and a good line of Latin text. So when I was standing in the hippodrome in Caesaerea where chariot races entertained 11,000 onlookers, I couldn't help but think about how much my sister would love to see it all. This hippodrome (which bordered the Mediterranean Sea--so blue today that you wouldn't believe me if I could describe it) is only one of the well preserved ruins of this Roman town mentioned in the book of Acts. In Acts, Peter goes there on account of the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10). But more importantly, Paul is there, defending himself and his faith. (You'll find this story in Acts 25:23-26:32.) Today, we stood in the theater where Paul probably pleaded his case. We saw the box seat (there is only one in this theater) where his accusers set. We listened as our professor spoke from the theater floor, his voice carried up to us on the winds of the Mediterranean. And I thought, I wish my sister could be here to see this.
We drove just down the rode to a Roman aqueduct. Now if you've not heard of such a thing, open another window and do a quick wikipedia search. Basically, Romans created a massive plumbing system that would enable them to build cities in little remote places like, I dunno, Israel. The aqueduct that we saw stretched more than seven miles. I climbed atop it and walked in the trough where the water would have flowed. I sat under the arches and smiled pretty for a picture. I walked in the Mediterranean and looked back at it thinking, my goodness, I surely wish my sister could see this.
After that, we went to a chapel near a shepherd's field--a field like the one where shepherd's would have been abiding their flocks by night. . .The chapel is tiny, and is domed. The dome creates beautiful acoustics. One of our group, Dr. Cal Robertson who was one of my profs last semester, is a gifted and talented tenor. While we were in the chapel, he sang O Holy Night. Around the dome of the chapel were the words from Luke 2:14--in Latin. This would have been a great day to share with my sister.
Because she was a big-girl, she didn't need Mommy to walk her into the classroom. She preferred, instead, to ride in Daddy's car with her older brother and sister. Moments after they pulled away, I wrote this piece about the angst of parenting: letting go. I thought a re-run was appropriate on this her 17th birthday.
The last few weeks, everything has been about Margaret: the new clothes, the new shoes, the perfect lunchbox and backpack. I’ve smiled and encouraged. I’ve been positive and reassuring. Yep, kindergarten is a good thing and I am truly excited for Margaret.
So today is the day. She has climbed into the back seat with her two older siblings, thrilled to be riding to school with Daddy and the big kids.
“No more pictures Mommy! I’m ready to go!”
And she is ready.
“Have a great day!” I shout as I wave goodbye to the car that has already started down the road.
My voice breaks and I turn to go inside. I move in slow motion, distracted by a physical pain I can’t place. I stop, trying to find the source of the sting. Awareness dawns. It’s this moment. It’s this moment when white knuckles unclench and heart strings snap. Dull and pulsing, sharp and piercing: it’s surreal. I make my way inside to the familiar.
The moments before this one have been wonderful. I loved having babies. I loved the late night feedings. I loved the terrible twos. (I called them the terrific twos.) I loved preschool. I loved the cute things my children said in their innocence, like Margaret insisting she would “stay her shoes on.” I loved that. I loved the way my little ones laughed—at anything. I loved the spontaneous hugs. I loved the dependence.
In the infant days, people often said with a note of annoyance, “Margaret is such a Mommy’s girl. She won’t go to anyone else.” I’d smile and say, contentedly, “Yeah. . .I know. . .” I loved that. The preschool years have been delightful. I don’t want them to end.
Before today, I tried to think of a way to slow things down. I could delay her going to kindergarten a year. I could homeschool. But, in the end, I realized that no matter what I did, these years would still be over; she would still be five years old; she would still be growing up.
So here I am alone, in a quiet, empty house, trying to put words to this ache. But maybe I can’t. Perhaps when the heart takes over the brain, the feeling just won’t be expressed. “This,” the heart says, “this you must feel. You cannot write it or say it, touch it or mold it. You must be here, inside this broken place to understand it.”
Oh puh-lease. Already I challenge myself. Aren’t you over-sentimentalizing again? Maybe. I don’t know. I just know that my words, always so faithful to me, fail me now. And I know that my heart hurts so much that surely it must be broken in there.
I wonder how the healing will take place. Will the skin of one area of my life bridge the gap and connect with the skin of another? And will this healing leave some evidence of itself? I hope so. I want something from this rich, precious time of my life to remain visible. I want a scar.
So I gather photos and artwork, mementoes that once I had little ones. These who are now so independent, were once not so much so. I did the right thing! I remind myself. They are independent; they are confident. Still, I want my heart to show that it isn’t easy to do the right thing. I want the scar.
I met my soulmate the day I was born. Well, maybe not the exact day, but soon. The only thing I know for sure is that as soon as I was aware of my surroundings, I was aware of my sister.
She came into being 26 whole months before I did and thus had the necessary wisdom and knowledge to show me the ways of the world. She was my teacher, my mentor, my roommate, and my friend. It was always that way, though our roles shifted slightly as we got older. See I got married before she did and had two children before she got pregnant the first time. So sometimes it felt a little like I was the older sibling, the one with the advice. Long-distance advice--I lived in North Carolina and she in Maryland--but still.
Anyway, when she began to experience pregnancy itching, I knew just what she should do. “Lanolin,” I told her. “Or cocoa butter. Both are great for itchy skin.” But I was wrong; and it wasn’t itchy skin. (How we would later wish for something so easy to fix as pregnancy-related dermatitis!) Not even the doctors knew what the problem was, but they eventually settled on a diagnosis of an allergy to the amniotic fluid.*
Whatever it was, it was maddening. My sister itched from the inside out. And oh what a tease that itch was. My sister could never resolve it: not by lotions or medications and certainly not by scratching. She itched nearly everywhere. “Sometimes,” she told me, “I try to think about my teeth. I concentrate on that one part of my body that doesn’t itch.”
But the itch always won. It snuck in along her gum line and around her lips, up to her scalp and down in her ears. It was merciless, unrelenting, and just plain mean. She begged her doctors for some relief from the madness. They only had one thing to offer.
“Once the baby is here,” they told her, “the itching will be greatly reduced if not gone altogether.” Childbirth: my sister’s only hope for pain relief.
Finally, early one morning I got the call: she was in labor. It was wonderful, and terrifying, news. The doctors knew so little about what was going on with her. All we really knew was that things could easily go tragically wrong.
That day was February 3, 1997, one of the longest days of my life, and the day my niece, Emma Mitchell Weiss was born. A week later, I wrapped my arms around my sister, Emma snuggled in her mama’s arms between us.
That moment that I held them both . . . it is one of the High Holy Moments of my life. In the midst of that multigenerational embrace, God’s love overwhelmed me. I felt such divine mercy and grace, such unfathomable love . . . well, it felt like the Kingdom of God right here on earth. Thanks be to God.
“Happy 18th Birthday Beloved Emma. Your birth gave me a beautiful image of the love of God. Your life is one of God’s greatest gifts to me. So go be miraculous My Emma. Be you.”
*When my sister’s symptoms returned during her second pregnancy, she discovered (thanks to a brand new computer application called Google™ which led her to knowledgeable doctors across the world and right in her own town) what she really had was a disease called obstetric cholestasis. This rare disorder causes liver malfunction during pregnancy and a resulting incessant itchiness.
Interestingly enough, it turned out that even with the wrong diagnosis, the doctors gave my sister the right prognosis. Indeed, delivery brought the beginning of the end of her symptoms. Today, my sister and her two children Emma and Mitch are healthy and strong, showing no signs that liver disease threatened their well-being. To God be the glory.
Back story. My sister isn’t exactly brainless. A Fulbright recipient back in the day, Dawn is a Latin teacher who has studied with the Vatican’s premier Latinist. She reads and speaks this not-at-all-dead-to-her language fluently (no, really, she does). My sister is what you’d call fond of words. Ya know, like a kitten is of yarn.
So here’s the story.
One Saturday morning, I called my sister Dawn frustrated by my lengthy to-do list. She encouraged me, saying all the right things to motivate me to action. By the time we touched base that afternoon, we had both accomplished a lot; we applauded ourselves for our productivity. Sunday night, though, I received a text from her. The conversation went like this.
Dawn: And now the nadir of my week belies the euphoria bordering on confidence that I displayed Saturday morning. Sigh.
Me: Hate it when that happens.
(Few moments pass with no response.)
Me: So, Jay and I are trying to figure out: is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Dawn: The confusion it elicited is part of the point. Sunday night: it's a paradox.
(So, bad thing. Right?)
She was just an “only.”
I made her “oldest.”
She loved me before I was born.
We wore matching Easter dresses and carried matching purses that Mama stitched up on her Singer™.
Brunette? That’s her. The blond one—that’s me.
We spoke our own language. No one else understood.
She loved me before I was born.
Old Maid, Monopoly, Careers.
Chrissy and Velvet. (Hair-growing dolls.)
Roller skates, not blades, and bicycles with banana seats and long handlebars that had windmills on them that spun wildly when we raced down the hill.
She just loved me—before I was even born.
She was always the teacher. I was always the student.
Except since we've grown up and life's grown up: now we take turns being the teacher, being the student.
White Lake. Yates’ Pond. And hotel pools.
She saved my life when I fell in.
That’s how much she loved me--ever since before I was born.
She had the top bunk; I had the bottom.
We fought our way through the teen years and clung to each other when college pulled us apart.
We held each other’s flowers through the “I do’s,”
Each other’s hearts through each nine months.
We loved each other’s. Before they were born.
When I need her,
When she needs me,
We are already there.
Because she loved me before I was born. And I’ve loved her right back.
*Knock, Knock, Knock: an action done by knocking three times on the headboard of either the top or bottom bunk that prompts the hearer to knock three times on a headboard in response. Most common meaning is "I love you/I love you too," but can also mean, "You awake?" with the response or lack thereof answering the question. During thunderstorms or troublesome times, could also mean, "Don't be scared/I won't if you won't."
“And on March 9th, we’ll have a lab experience,” my professor said, “to practice baptism by immersion.”
Practice baptism? Shoot, I’ve been doing that all my life. No, I’m not an ordained pastor. In fact, I’ve only been in a baptismal pool once, for my own baptism 38 years ago. But, I’m a Baptist preacher’s kid and I’ve been baptizing folk ever since I started swimming, maybe even before then.
“I get to be the preacher first!” My sister, the oldest, raced me into the water. Whether we were vacationing at White Lake, NC, or playing in the local swimming pool, we spent much of our summers immersed. We could get pretty creative with water games and since our lives revolved around the church, it was to be expected that our experiences there would be reproduced in playtime. (Some kids play cowboys, firefighters, cops and robbers. We played Baptist.)
“Fine,” I told her, “But you only get to baptize me once. Then it’s my turn.”
Assuming a solemn expression and a preacher voice (which my Daddy never had but we’d heard our share) my sister placed one hand on my back and raised the other skyward. “Aileen? Why have you come?”
“Because I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior and I want to be baptized.” My voice sounded funny. I was holding my nose prematurely as my sister had been known to dunk me before it was time.
“Then,” she said, pitching her own voice down to sound more like Daddy’s, “Upon your profession in him, I baptize you my [giggle, giggle] little sister, in the name of the father, the son and in . . . the hole you go!” Before she got the last word out, I was under.
“Okay! My turn!” I said, wiping my dripping hair out of my face and taking my place behind her.
Now that I think about it, I suppose our little game was a bit disrespectful, maybe even borderline sacrilegious. (I won’t even tell you about our Eucharist tea parties.) But mainly, looking back at those days, I’m grateful. I’m grateful that my faith traditions were so familiar to me that they became a very literal part of my everyday life. As a child, that meant I baptized playmates. As an adult, it means that I continue to follow Christ. And I’m not even playing.
I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Mark 1:8 NRSV