Shadow Puppets

I leave the door open because I know it is only a matter of seconds before I’ll hear the pitter patter of his tiny feet on the tile.

“Mama!” Henry calls out. He rounds the corner, spots me, and exclaims, “Oh! Poop!” he claps his hands, overjoyed to witness the magic of the toilet, which his brother has mastered but to him remains a mystery.

We’re in the tiny water closet off our laundry room and as he squeezes past my legs I wonder what he’s after. Did he spot a plunger? Is there a toy someone forgot to put away? His face sets in determination.

He slaps the wall, right against the shadow my trucker hat has cast, the same trucker hat he tried to pry off my third-day hair this morning as he giggled uncontrollably. The light bulb is out in the water closet–I make a mental note to change the bulb–and the sunlight that filters in through the laundry room windows make gray shapes dance behind us.

“No,” he whispers, his blue eyes widening, looking up into my face. “No. Biiiig rawr.”

Dinosaurs are his favorite, so I’m not sure if it is good or bad he sees a Tyrannosaurus Rex on the wall. But then he throws his arms around my legs and I know he is frightened.

When I pick him up, he wraps his arms around my neck and kneels on my lap, burying his face into my shoulder. His white blond curls brush my cheek.

“You are safe,” I whisper into his hair. “You are safe. Mama is right here. It’s just a shadow.”

I try to make him laugh with the silly shadow puppets that always drove out his brother’s fear, but Henry wants none of it.

“No rawr,” he says. “No.”

So I hold him even closer, smelling his sweet toddler scent, rocking him back and forth, back and forth, as I’ve done since he was new.

“It’s all right, I’m here. You don’t need to be afraid.”

I am pooping and I am rocking my son and there is nothing I can do but sit here in the stench and shadow and tell him I am here.

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Growing Hope

The afternoon before Jacob is born, I trudge up the stairs to my bedroom to lay myself down. September sun filters through the window, casting shadows from the orange leaves of the tree onto my bed.

As I crawl under the covers, I think, this is what hope feels like, and I exhale. I’ve been holding my breath for a long time.

I pull the comforter up to my chin, but not before hefting a body pillow between my legs. The comforter is soft and white and provides just the right amount of weight for a day like today, when I am all nerves and energy, waiting.

The shadows from the orange leaves dance across my body.

Something in me shifts—and it is good and it is holy—much like it did the night my therapist first said “it was rape” and my body filled with fire and rage and finally, acceptance.

I knew in my bones something was changing then. In my belly, new life was forming—new life given by God, and by my husband, who sat on the therapist’s couch next to me, and who only hours before had shown me his love in that way that only true love can.

A similar sensation burns in me now—not only am I growing a human but I am growing hope, too—an ember, but it is there and it is glowing. All that came before—all the confusion, the pain, the anger—will be redeemed in a new story. This body of mine that was once so ravaged is now bursting with the joy of new life.

My Creator, my Father, who designed me to carry this boy, has designed me to carry these stories as well. This is good, and I am not alone.

My belly is taut, but my heart is soft. I know in an instant, because hope does not disappoint: my son will be here soon.

Cosmopolitan

This is a poem I wrote years ago and recently found in one of the many boxes of paperwork I’ve lugged around from house to house in various moves. There was a dive bar near my college called the Tropicana, and as I drove past, I often wondered what the people were like inside. (Incidentally, senior year, my girlfriends and I dared to go in and were roped into a karaoke contest, but that is another story entirely.) I began to imagine what a 40-year-old mother would feel like, passing by a bar like this, and out came these words. Aside from the bacon grease and Barry (I can’t stop laughing about Barry), I’m pretty struck by the insight of 22-year-old me.

Cosmopolitan
Hobart Park, 2004

It was 11 when I passed the Tropicana,
the grocery-crowded trunk rattling, clunking
(on my way home to bed so I could rise and fry the bacon, pack the brown paper sacks that lined the counter)
when I hit that bump going 40. Something broke,
shattered, something glass.
So I pulled around – it was one of those pavement-hugging, tire squealing turns,
the kind that you would see in a movie and wonder
how anyone could need a drink so badly.

I wanted something pink,
something that kicked, something with life
like the time I told Barry I wanted a child
and we left the sandy beach, tequila on our lips,
to make life in the bungalow.
My skin was smooth then, tan, taut;
if Brynn had been there (she wouldn’t have–
she was our life, our love in the bungalow),
if she had tugged upon the skin of my hands,
to watch it slowly melt back over the shape of my skeleton,
she would have been disappointed.
I had elasticity then.

But you tell me there is nothing like there here,
in this peanut shell smelling musty bar
where cowboys, rednecks leave ass marks on the stools,
George Strait, Kenny Chesney on loop in the speakers.
I’m sipping light gold bile from a bottle,
but beer has no memory for me,
not like vodka, not like rum,
not like tongue-tied cherry stems and displaced paper umbrellas
that we girls would toss gaily across the table, laughing.
I had a thin-stemmed dream, then,
perching lightly in my fingers.

IMG_1574

Splinter

jakeandmamabw

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.

 

Friendship For All Seasons

girl-690614_960_720I walked through the chilly evening dark and got into the car without a diaper bag. I turned on music that I like – which at this point is anything that’s not songs from Sesame Street – and I headed out to visit a friend and watch The Bachelor. As the pregnant mom of a toddler, this felt like the ultimate luxury.

The night was glorious—we sampled chunks of orange-infused dark chocolate and snuggled in cozy blankets on her soft brown leather couch and giggled at the ridiculousness of the show. During commercial breaks we chatted about life.

She updated me on her job and life in her new house. I updated her on pregnancy and toddlerhood. Our lives, each busy and all-consuming, are in such different seasons right now, and for that I am grateful. To me, her perspective is as refreshing as the cool quiet of the night, as welcome as the absence of Cheerios stuck to the couch.

The funny thing is, this friend and I only recently connected for the first time over coffee a couple of weeks back. We’ve seen each other at church, we have mutual friends, and we’ve always talked about getting together, but as often happens, life has gotten in the way.

When she learned we are moving away in just a matter of months (can it really be less than half a year?), she told me she didn’t care; she wanted to get to know me anyway and it was about time we got coffee.

What a gift. It’s a radical, beautiful, irrational thing, to invest in a person right before you part ways.

It’s easy for me to start to fear the move, to begin to grieve for the friendships I’ll be losing before they’re even lost to me (I hate to say the word “lost,” because in this age of Facebook and Facetime people aren’t really lost, but it still takes a lot of time and understanding to keep friendships afloat once you no longer live close by).

It’s easy for me to start distancing myself from those I care about, those I’ve invested in and who have invested in me, thinking Why does it even matter? We’re moving soon anyway. It’s easy to instead reach out to friends who don’t live here, to remind myself that, as difficult as it can be, time and distance don’t have to end friendships. And perhaps to convince myself that if the friendships I have made here don’t stand the test of time (many will), at least I have others in my corner, however far away they may be.

So then why does it also feel easy to let someone else in, even this late in the game?

I’ve been thinking about Jesus, how he was often a stranger in a strange land. He didn’t settle down and build a community around himself and build relationships that were tied to a particular place. He had a purpose and a mission and he lived it out in the places he was called. Along the way, he made deep, meaningful connections with others by simply seeing them, hearing them, and loving them in a way that showed how much he valued each one.

“Love your neighbor,” he said. And when your neighborhood is constantly changing, it becomes especially clear that the word “neighbor” means whoever is currently nearby.

In this way, my new friend has loved me like Jesus. It may not seem that profound, but it is, kind of. She sought me out; she made me feel loved and welcomed me into her home. We haven’t solved any of the world’s problems (yet) but we have started to share a little of our hearts (and our opinions about over-produced reality television). We’ve shared laughter (and chocolate). It’s such a simple thing, really, to reach out to someone and make them feel seen. Perhaps not an easy thing—in fact, it’s quite brave—but a simple thing, nonetheless. I want to be that kind of friend to others, no matter where I live and no matter how long my stay.

Because in the end, it’s in the experience of this kind of love, and this kind of community, that God reminds us of who he is: a God who sees, a God who values, a God who longs for relationship. Made in his image, it’s no wonder we crave the things he offers so generously.

So tonight, as my new friend and I meet once more and giggle together—this time on my Cheerio-covered couch—I will remember who sent her and who he is calling me to be, no matter the season.

Originally appeared on All In

I Want to Forgive

The sonographer sat my chair upright and told me we were finished. The doctor would be right in to discuss the pictures she had just taken during the twenty-week anatomy scan of our second child, another baby boy. As she turned to leave, she paused. “Wait.”

She studied the scans she held in her hands and seemed to change her mind. She looked at me blankly. “Actually, I need you to remove your clothes. I couldn’t get a good read of your cervix. I need to get a better look.”

Remove my clothes. Look at my cervix. She had to do an internal exam.

My throat went dry, my eyes wide. I looked to my husband, panicked, wanting him to help me, to pull me out of the spiral of anxiety into which I had suddenly plummeted. The room was silent. “You have to do an internal exam?” I asked. I needed her to confirm that’s what she meant.

Her response was annoyed, harried. “Yes, of course. You’re okay with that, right?”

No. No, I was not okay with that. She wanted to shove a probe inside me and she was acting like it was no big deal. Have some respect, woman.

I told her no, I’d rather she didn’t and then asked if I had a choice.  No, she said, not really.

Well, then.

She didn’t understand. In the dim light she didn’t see the blood rush out of my cheeks. She didn’t see the hairs rising on my neck or the goosebumps on my arms. She didn’t hear the quickened thrum of my heart in my chest.

She didn’t understand.

How could she? How could she know that the mere suggestion of an internal exam felt like a violation? How could she know that my body went on high alert as though it were about to be used without consent?

She couldn’t. She couldn’t know that my mind went to a different place, a dark place, where I believe the lie that I don’t have a say over the protection of my own body. How can you, if you’ve never been there?

I left that day full of grief and anger and frustration—a day that was supposed to be one of celebration and joy. Why had she been so cold? Could she not sense even a hint of my anxiety? Where was her compassion?

She was just doing her job. Maybe she was having an off day. You can’t blame her for being oblivious.

These are the thoughts I used to comfort myself as I tried to calm down and focus on the good news: the baby growing inside my belly was healthy and strong.

But the joy that would quietly bubble up was stifled by the heavy darkness that hung around me. Maybe a better woman would be able to let something like this slide, but I’m about as pensive as they come. I kept thinking: Another boy. Boys, who take advantage and ruin your self-image and put you in a place just like this, so you’re left dissociating from a normal medical examination because the memories are a nightmare.

The anger within me had been sparked by the sonographer but this all-consuming fire had nothing to do with her. I was angry at the men who had assaulted me. I was angry with men—all men.

Why would God make me the mother of two boys?

An illogical train of thought, perhaps, but a powerful one.

My husband held me as I cried.

Later that afternoon, I went to my son when he woke from his nap. Sleepy and snuggly, he rubbed his eyes and smiled. “Mama!” I held him close and smelled his sweet baby skin. My son. My boy. My sweet firstborn who loves his mama unconditionally, who is innocent and untouched by the world.

How can I hold such bitterness in my heart when these warm brown eyes are so full of love and expectation? How can I hang on to such hatred when his daddy has proved time and time again to be true and tender and kind?

I leaned into their love for the rest of the day.

The intensity of emotion I succumbed to that afternoon could not be trusted. I’m learning that slowly, again and again. I know that I must learn to identify triggers for what they are—triggers, not actual threats to my safety. I want learn how to dive into my emotions and then let them pass over me like a wave.

And I want to forgive.

I want to forgive the hands that betrayed my trust.

I want to forgive those who use careless words that trigger me.

I want to forgive myself for carrying these hurts for so long.

I want to forgive for the sake of my sons.

And I will try. Day after day I will practice gratitude for where I am and what I have and lean into the love around me. I will continue ask God to give me the strength to leave the past behind. Because walking in freedom is the only way I want to live.

Originally appeared on the Good Mother Project