Jacob ran out the front screen door, exclaiming, “Christmas wreath!” in his two-year-old toddlerese. It was early December in Hawaii and the wreath I had picked up at the local Target was our lone Christmas decoration. With a deployed husband, two small children, and an upcoming holiday trip to my parents’ house on the mainland, I felt justified in skipping all the trimmings.
He couldn’t believe his luck – not only had I brought home a wreath, but also wrapping supplies. “CHRISTMAS BOWS!” he squealed, and immediately insisted we add one to the wreath. Why not. So I picked him up and steadied him as he added a huge, shiny red bow.
“Yay! I did it!” he grinned ear to ear and as soon as I set him back on his feet, he began to do his signature celebratory dance.
I was distracted for a few minutes, chatting with Monica, our nanny, as she updated me on the day’s events and prepared to go home. I didn’t see the moment when the splinter got lodged in the tender skin of Jacob’s foot.
At first, he didn’t want to let us see. He ran around the house, favoring the foot, insisting he was okay.
We were finally able to corral him, and when we saw the splinter’s size, we knew we needed to act quickly. Monica saw the horror on my face (how do I even do this?) and graciously offered to stay and help.
As I carried my screaming child to the well-lit bathroom, tweezers in hand, I couldn’t help but think of my thirteen-year-old self, spinning around barefoot on the hardwood floor of my parents’ kitchen, ending up with a splinter the size of a toothpick. I finished that day in the Emergency Room. The nurses rolled their eyes at me until they caught a look at how big it was and realized someone needed to cut it out.
Like mother like son. Please God, don’t let it be that bad. Not when Tim isn’t here. He’d know what to do.
Monica said she had experience removing splinters from thrashing toddlers, so we decided she’d take the tweezers and I’d hold him steady.
“NO THANK YOU, MAMA!” He sobbed the words I had taught him to say when he doesn’t want someone touching him, when he needs his space. “I hear you, baby. I know you are saying ‘No thank you,’ but Mama and Monica have to do this to make you feel better. I am so sorry.” He screamed, and it was heartbreaking, shattering, to hear my child crying from the depths of fear and distress, pleading with me to stop the pain I was allowing.
Tethered so firmly to the present moment, he was too young to understand sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. How could I convince him to trust me?
His tears brought tears to my eyes as I held him tightly, clutched to my chest, holding down his kicking legs and flailing arms. Monica was the essence of calm. She spoke quietly, reassuring him, doing her best to efficiently remove the splinter.
When it was done, we smiled at Jacob. “You did it!” I squeezed him. “I am so proud of you.” He drew a big, shuddering breath and said, “Thank you, Mama.”
It’s no secret that in recent years I’ve been working through some anger with God. This all-knowing, all-loving, ever present Father has allowed so much heartache and pain in my life, the lives of my loved ones, the lives of people all over the world. I’m over it. It hurts so much and he allows it to get worse. So I kick and I scream and I buck and I cry. I’m like a toddler who can’t be consoled, who doesn’t want to listen to assurances that God knows what he’s doing and that ultimately there is a greater plan.
A few months ago, not long before Tim deployed, I was in church and the pastor asked us to imagine being in the presence of God – what would be like if we were standing face to face? I suddenly had this image of me pummeling God’s chest. Just hitting and hitting and yelling and screaming and crying. And he held me. As I hit him and kicked him and said “NO MORE!” He just held me. He didn’t chastise me. He didn’t tell me to buck up. He didn’t tell me I knew what I was signing up for when I became an Army wife. He didn’t tell me to stop being a baby. He didn’t let go of me and say “I don’t deserve this from you,” or “Have you forgotten all I’ve given you?” He just held me with love and confidence and grace. He let me struggle, but never without assuring me with his strong arms and tender gaze.
How do we teach children to trust? It’s a tricky thing. Jacob and I have talked about it quite a bit since the splinter incident, and while I realize it’s going to be a while before he completely understands, I think the basic idea is starting to settle in.
I try to explain to him that I would never hurt him on purpose, that I am here to protect him, to keep him safe, to help him be healthy. That if I ever allow him pain, it is because I know it will be better on the other side. And that in the midst of the pain, he can always turn to me for comfort. Always.
Deep down I know that God is like that, too, because I’ve experienced him to be that way. In the middle of pain, and even in the middle of anger, I still know the God I am wrestling with is a God of love and patience and goodness. I have experienced his overwhelming peace at the strangest times, as nonsensical as it may seem.
He’s teaching me, in these anxious days, how to trust him again. He’s bringing me closer to the light, examining all the splinters I’ve lodged in my heart: the fear, pride, and self-pity he knows will fester if we don’t work together to dig them out. He reminds me, tenderly, that sometimes things have to be more painful before we can heal.
I don’t have a scar from the toothpick-sized splinter; in fact, I can’t even remember which foot endured the pain. But I do remember the path to healing was a long, embarrassing one. I showed up to middle school on crutches and had to explain why I couldn’t walk (I uh…got a huge splinter? When I was, uh…dancing around in my kitchen?). Later that week a lymph node swelled so badly I thought I was seriously ill. The doctor assured me it was just my body’s way of fighting an infection that must have begun before the splinter was removed. He gave me some antibiotics, and that was that.
It was done. But it took surgery and drugs and a week on crutches before the pain began to abate. The ER doctor’s scalpel was just the beginning.
When it comes to healing, there are no quick fixes, and that’s true of our hearts just as much as our earthly frames. It’s one thing for me to turn to God and acknowledge that I’m angry and hurt. It’s another thing entirely for me to hand over my heart and let him get to work. Just like Jacob, I’d much rather run away and self protect. And even when I do ask for help, God doesn’t magically make the splinters disappear; he removes them one by one with the precision and care of a surgeon. He takes his time, and he makes no promises that it won’t hurt.
It’s up to me then, whether I want to keep screaming and thrashing. He’s going to hold me regardless. I have to believe that as he holds me, my tears bring tears to his eyes, and with whatever progress we make, he is proud.
I am still learning how to say thank you.
What of the dancing? I’m happy to tell you I still dance around barefoot in the kitchen; to be honest I’d rather have the joy of dancing than live my life on the lookout for loose wood. As for Jacob, until we refinish the porch I try to make sure he wears shoes in the front of the house.
But I don’t catch him every time. I won’t, because he is full of life and curiosity and he’s just going to keep running and dancing. It is inevitable he will find pain along the way. But I will be there to hold him when he cries, just like my Abba holds me.