This year, as part of the jubilee year of mercy, I’m writing a series of posts to explore the challenge of living mercy in everyday life. I’ve created a landing page where all those posts will be archived in one location. I hope you’ll join me there for Mercy on a Monday.
I am trying to figure out how to open this post with something snappy that will make everyone click through, and I’m coming up blank. There are weeks when all you can do is put your head down and charge through. But I realize it’s pretty whiny to call what I experienced the past seven days “intense.” After all, the tests came back negative, and my book won a contest!
I knew last week was going to be bad going in. And by “bad,” I don’t mean “I hate my life,” I mean, “My life is so crammed with richness this week, I don’t have time to work, exercise, do dishes, or sleep.” Of course, it didn’t help that I started the week with the last two weeks’ worth of laundry to fold, plus a child home sick, and already four days behind from a trip to southern Illinois.
I launched into Tuesday still playing catchup, and tacked on eight more PT sessions for Julianna to the list of Places To Go And Things To Do in the coming weeks. But the day went as smoothly as it possibly could have, and that night I got to talk about writing for forty-five minutes to people who actually wanted to hear about it! (Gasp!)
I also begged for clemency from the teachers at school for one of the Thursday events, so by Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., when I was at last sitting at the kitchen counter in an empty house working on my new novel, I thought I was all done with “My Life is Madness” and had reached smoother waters.
And then the phone rang. It was the hospital. I thought, Huh. This must be about Julianna’s PT.
Until the friendly lady on the other line mentioned the cancer center. And I thought, Oh, right, I had a mammogram last week.
And then she said, “Do you have a minute to talk?”
And I thought,
Because we all know good news involves a breezy twelve-second script and a hasty hangup. Never, ever, ever “a minute to talk.”
As we discussed 3D mammography and ultrasounds and what to do with my preschooler while I had the followup screening the next morning (doctors in a hurry: also a scary sign), I shoved a rogue hairband around the floor with my toe and tried to emotionally dissociate. I carefully reminded myself of the controversy about whether it’s really even useful for women my age to have the test, because the false positive rate is so high. Keep it together, I told myself.
“Do you have any questions?” she said at length.
“Many,” I answered, “but I’m pretty sure you’re not the one I need to ask them of.”
I was pretty emotional for a while. I resisted the urge to go public, knowing it was likely nothing and would trade a few hours’ worth of lonely terror for a whole lot of messy, public cleanup on the back side if everything turned out fine.
Which it did, by the way. Turn out fine, I mean.
But as you might imagine, by the time Friday night rolled around, and I knew the announcement of the Rising Star winners was imminent, I was emotionally exhausted. And then, just when I thought it was too late at night to hope for good news, the Facebook messages started pouring in from my friends gathered in Albuquerque, and the contest coordinator called.
How does one react to such an honor? Amazed, honored, overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and support of my online community of writers…and a little too stunned by everything else to properly process it. (I still am.)
And how does one decompress after such a week?
When I think about my kids, I often have to chuckle at God’s sense of humor.
I always claimed that I would accept any child given to me, that health or disability wouldn’t matter. But I didn’t mean it. And I knew I didn’t mean it, although I never admitted it, even to myself. I started college pursuing a BM/c (bachelor of music with certification), which was more performance-heavy than a normal music ed degree, but still certified you to teach. It seemed smart, but in my sophomore year, when tendonitis & carpal tunnel threatened to end my chances of playing at all, I realized: I *hated education classes. I did NOT want to be a classroom teacher.
And then came That Class.
Special Education for Non-Special Educators.
It was a three-hour, once-a-week seminar on a Thursday afternoon, one of the few classes I had in college that fit the stereotype of a huge lecture hall and zero participation.
It was excruciating.
I found the subject matter repulsive. (Don’t judge. I’m coming clean here.)
And that was what convinced me that I had to take a leap of faith and remove the stressful, not-life-giving requirements from my college plan and focus on what I really wanted to do with my life.
In other words, I was so NOT open to children with special needs, I changed my major.
And then came Julianna.
Like I said, God has a sense of humor. No, that’s not right. God knows what we need, and facilitates our growth through experiences—and people—who challenge us to become more of what we were meant to be.
But none of that lessens the irony: that I, the woman who really wasn’t open to having *any kids with special needs, ended up with not one, but two children on IEPs.
Well, that was a tangent.
I’m thinking about this today because Michael started saying “L”s this week. He’s been capable of it for quite a while. When he turned three, he entered an early childhood special ed classroom devoted to language, including intensive speech therapy. At the end of that year he graduated with flying colors and transitioned to being a peer model in a different ECSE classroom—providing a model of appropriate behavior for kids with a number of different disabilities–but for a while they continued giving him speech therapy on site. His speech therapist there addressed the “L” right before she graduated him and he became, officially, IEP-free.
But although he *could, he *didn’t. It was still “I wuv you” and “I wike wowwipops.” In print it makes me want to roll my eyes. But oh, my heart, in real life, it was adorable. And he’s my last baby. So I didn’t push it.
And then, this week, out pops, “Mom, who are you giving the blog to?” Only it’s very self-aware, so it comes out as “Who are you giving the balog to?” and “I a-love you” and “I a-like a-lo-a-llipops!”
Not coincidentally, he’s also replaced his “f”s with “th.” So now he actually says “I think” instead of “I fink,” and “Thor” instead of “For.”
I am in mourning.
I’m glad he’s decided it’s time to talk like a big kid, but I didn’t need further proof that I’m passing out of the cuddle-snuggle-chew-kiss-raspberry stage. I’m enjoying the fact that my kids are older, that their schoolwork is no longer paralyzingly boring to supervise, that I can start to talk to them about the world and ask them to recognize patterns. I love that they (generally) sleep through the night now, and can even put themselves to bed, if things are too busy for me to get upstairs and tuck them in.
But I really love little ones. And you just can’t go around chewing on other people’s kids. Even if it was socially acceptable, it doesn’t feel right.
It’s a bittersweet milestone, the letter “L.”
Every superhero movie these days involves a mind-blowing escalation of the final battle. You know. The Avengers are fighting creepy mechanical creatures that fly around knocking New York City to pieces. You think it can’t get any worse, and then it does: there’s a lull in the action, a low-pitched roar, and my kids start singing, “The FISH thing! The FISH thing! The GIant GIant FISH thing!”
Sometimes life feels just like that.
Every two or three years, in the early fall we have an epic, extended Battle of the Ick. (In case you haven’t intuited it? We’re in one.) This year it got an early start with a dry, hacking cough around the 20th of August. I remember that because I saw my 90+ year old grandmother on the 26th and I was afraid to kiss her because I thought I was probably incubating the boys’ bug.
A month later, we’re all still coughing. And before anyone invokes the almighty doctor, we’ve been to urgent care twice and the regular doctor once, each for a different person. So far in the month of September, we have spent $200 on copays.
It’s not a bad illness, but it wears on you after a while. Nicholas is dramatic by nature, but when he gets sick, he’s even dramatic in his sleep. His coughing can keep the entire house awake, because he sounds like he’s choking. Mama Kate hasn’t been sleeping much the last month, and most of the time it’s not because of a full brain. It’s because I’m getting up and rolling over sixty-pound kids, smearing them with Vix, re-dosing them with Triaminic or Dimetapp, and the like.
In the past three days, I finally feel like we finally started getting a handle on it.
But now we’re staring down the barrel of one of Those Weeks: upcoming deadlines; catching up from a weekend trip to Illinois that set me back by five days; the need to grocery shop on a Monday because a bunch of the weekly staples are flat out gone; the lawn that is threatening to turn into a set for the Jungle Book (see: out of town over the weekend); an NFP class to teach; a massage for which I’ve been waiting for over a month, to fix the burning tendons in my feet; a flute lesson; a DS group plotting session…
And that’s just Monday!
And on the eve of That Week, we came upstairs at bedtime to discover…well, I’ll spare you the details.
So here’s the thing: there’s this little set of instructions for Christian living called the works of mercy. And one of them is “visit the sick.”
But in the past eleven years I’ve had ample opportunity to beat my head against the fact that nobody wants to visit the sick, because nobody wants to GET sick. In fact, as a mother I’ve often felt that the time I most need support is the time the support completely evaporates.
It got me to thinking that we take these works of mercy too literally. The thing is, when you have a sick kid, the rest of your life doesn’t stop. The deadlines are still there, the family still needs to eat, the lawn still has to be cut, and the other kids still have to do their homework. Some things can be rescheduled. Many can’t.
I realized this weekend that we need to rethink the meaning of “visit the sick”. There are ways to help a family overwhelmed by illness—even the petty kind that lasts a month and doesn’t threaten anyone’s life–without exposing yourself to the same illness. Mow their lawn. Rake their leaves. Bring the un-sick family members a meal, or just pick up a handful of groceries and drop them off. Help transport the un-sick kids. Supervise them outside, where carriers will be less likely to share their germs, so they don’t have to tag along while parents drive the sick kid all over creation to see doctors who have oh-so-thoughtfully decided to move their practice to the OPPOSITE END OF TOWN.
Do the things the parents can’t do, because they’re too darned busy taking care of the stuff that can’t be put off.
And when it’s all over at last, help them catch up with everything they had to let slide in the interim.
We’ve got to stop putting mercy in a box. Mercy wants out. Mercy means finding a way.
Note: this is not a thinly-disguised plea for help. God willing by the time this posts, I’ll have the lawn mostly mowed. I’m just realizing we’ve got to quit thinking two-dimensionally and give mercy a place in real life.
Sometimes life seems like a full-on sprint. I take a deep breath, as I did on Tuesday afternoon last week, and comfort myself that this is the worst a Tuesday is ever going to get, this school year. Or I have a Saturday like this past weekend, in which nothing was scheduled and consequently I made a list of things I wanted to accomplish that was so long, our whole family working together couldn’t have finished it all. Of course I was grumpy and torn. It was a perfect weather day and we had nothing we had to do. And yet I had myself so tied up, it didn’t even occur to me until I sat down to write a blog post 36 hours later:
Why the bleepety-bleep weren’t we all out on the Katy Trail renting bicycles?
A full-on sprint is supposed to be a brief thing. Bolt only had to hold that pace for nine seconds. I, on the other hand—and a ridiculous number of you who are reading these words—keep treating life like a sprint that hits the 26-mile mark and keeps on trucking.
A week ago, we took our kids to the drive-in theater. This theater is about two and a half miles by road—one mile as the crow flies—from the farm where I grew up. And yet I had never once been there, until last weekend.
We watched Pete’s Dragon, which I found underwhelming. But the moon was setting, a pale silver sliver sandwiched between a charcoal-gray cloud and the privacy fence. A fat yellow star (planet?) hung off its starboard bow. And there, sitting on a really uncomfortable surface of gravel with nothing but a flimsy blanket for padding, and nothing for back support except the dusty bumper of my van (if you’ve never spent any time in the country, you have no idea how dusty the back of a vehicle can get in one trip to town), I found myself entranced by the slow, steady shrinking of the distance between that sickle and the fence. First a stretch, then a brush, then a touch and at last a long, slow swallow, until only a silver tip was left. And the next time I looked, it was gone.
I thought of this again this past Saturday afternoon. I ran errands in the morning…seven stops, an hour and forty-five minutes. I came home with a truckload of cedar mulch. Ate lunch. Measured ingredients for three loaves of bread. Then spent two hours transplanting geraniums and lamium, weeding and mulching four flower beds, and mowing the front and sides of the house.
Then I went inside and started folding laundry while watching Netflix. But I could hear the wind blowing through the sycamore trees outside my window, and I thought, Girl! What are you doing? No one needs you right now, and for your slice of time to yourself you pick FOLDING LAUNDRY?
And so, grumpy with all I was leaving undone, I went outside and sat down in the Adirondack swing beneath the weeping willow, and watched the wind flirt with the treetops for a few minutes.
I love the way every tree has its own voice. Pines sigh, or roar when it’s gusty. Sycamore and oak and maple chatter—sycamore being the sound with the crispiest edges. But my adolescent weeping willow is a soft hiss, like velvet on the ear—and the soul. I turned off my mind and practiced my meditation/being-still-in-the-presence-of-God. I watched the crown of that willow tree fling its head in circles, and I had the oddest sensation that I was actually looking at something sentient. And of course, the sycamore trees danced above us.
And I flashed back to that slow moonset. The way the deliberateness of it, and the pace, so slow I couldn’t even see the movement, put the brakes on my heart, too. How it seemed to lift the pressure to do, do, do, and freed me to be, be, be.
The trees did the same thing.
I love the feeling of being.
It’s hard to achieve sometimes.
Um. Almost all the time.
We need more slow living. We were not meant to rush through this world, never recognizing the beauty all around us. We were meant to work and then rest. We don’t need to fill every moment with noise and distraction, blocking out the world. Sometimes we need to embrace that moment of discomfort, of emptiness, when we pull out the ear buds or turn off the smart phone or leave the piles of laundry. Sometimes we need to acknowledge the things we could be doing, and set them aside in order just to slow down, to stop, even, and just, for a few moments…be.
Julianna’s newest “Julianna-ism” is:
“But I like you!”
As in, “Julianna, it’s your turn to clear the table.”
“But I like you!”
“Julianna, time to get up.”
“But I like you!”
“Yes, I like you, too, but it’s still time to get out of bed.”
Alex took Benadryl for the first time this week—a desperate attempt to control some combination of allergies and cold. I warned him it would make his nose stop running but he would be really groggy, probably too groggy to do anything useful at all. He wandered around in a daze all afternoon. The next day I asked him about it. “Was your brain all fuzzy?” I asked.
“It was like I didn’t HAVE a brain,” he said. “I was like those proto humans who just went, ‘Want food. Want drink. Want book.'”
Yup, that sounds about right…
Michael’s son-of-a-singer earworm gene has kicked in. He sings all the time, even when he’s chewing. It’s like a compulsion; he can’t seem to stop himself. And it’s always the same playlist:
1) Star Wars opening (first two phrases only)
2) Imperial March (again, two phrases)
4) Joy To The World
I truly think I might go mad before he goes to kindergarten.
I could write a novel, but I’ll stick with this: What does it say about my third-born that this is his favorite song?
(Nothing good, I fear!)
At the sound of a crash on wood, Christian and I both turned around, gearing up for a Parental Scowl at the offending child. By the time we saw the toy tractor, which had been dropped into our pew by the non-Basi boy in the row behind, I realized it was far too sharp a sound to be a hymnal, which was the only thing our kids had access to. The mother mouthed, Sorry! and I leaned back and chuckle-whispered some insufficient comment about how it wasn’t our kids so we weren’t worried about it. And then realized that did not at all communicate the sentiment I was trying to convey. So at the sign of peace I made the effort to clarify.
What I was trying to say, and never quite got out of my mouth right, was this:
I’ve been a parent for eleven and (almost) a half years, which is more intense than it seems, because during that time I’ve been steadily adding to the number of kids under my care. As a parent, my first rule has been “make sure my children know they are loved.” But close behind it has been “Make sure they don’t bother other people, especially at church and concerts.”
And because I have four kids, three of whom are boys and the fourth of whom has no sense of boundaries, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been the mom mouthing “sorry” to people, who always and inevitably said, “Oh, it’s fine, your kids are so well behaved!”
I know other people have been browbeaten for their kids’ behavior, but it’s never happened to me. (Yet, anyway. I mean, until a month ago nobody had ever threatened to call DFS on me, either.)
Smiling at that woman in church yesterday morning, I realized my first reaction had been to scold my children for something that, now that it wasn’t my kid, I didn’t find the least bit problematic. Why would either of us feel compelled to scold our kids, when the kids clearly were hurting no one and nothing?
It was a rather jarring moment of clarity. We all know, deep down, that as parents we are way, way harder on ourselves than other people are on us—and often, though not always, harder than we are on other parents. But that doesn’t stop us. We set up impossible standards and then run ourselves down for not meeting them. And when a critique is leveled, we recoil inwardly and then set out to Fix It, even when there’s no way to fix it. Like, I swear my family must think we are sick all.the.time, because we have the worst luck with family gatherings. It seems like any time there’s a holiday or get-together, I’m going to have at least one family member who’s sick, and usually more. And the last couple of years it seems like we get the long-incubating, slow-moving, not-that-severe-but-man-they-just-won’t-go-away bugs that crawl through the family over the course of a month.
I’ve always taken a sort of c’est la vie attitude toward illness. I mean, reasonable precautions. If we have a playdate and someone in the house we’re supposed to go to has strep or lice, we stay home. But we have four kids in three schools. Three separate sets of germs to catch, and four candidates to do the catching. The odds (of catching) are ever in our favor.
And yet when the back side of an illness coincides with a family gathering, you can’t imagine the guilt I have about it. And when a kid comes down with a sore throat and fever in the middle of the weekend? Ugh! I feel terrible! Even though, if the illness was coming in from nieces and nephews, I’d be like, “Whatever, it’s not your fault. It is what it is, if we get it, we’ll deal with it.”
Now, why do I give myself permission to self-flagellate for things I can neither control nor would ever dream of holding against anyone else?
I said once before that mercy begins with me. Apparently it’s a lesson I haven’t yet internalized.