My youngest had a birthday a few days ago. It was a big one (not that every birthday isn't a big one to a child). I swear she looked and seemed older when I woke her up that morning.
A few months ago, I started a ritual with the two younger children which has quickly become my favorite part of mornings when they wake up at my house. In the quiet and dark before dawn, I sit next to them in their beds, gently coax them out of their dreams, and then we pray together in the liminal state between eyes opening and feet hitting the floor. Okay, mostly I pray while they fight to wake up, but every once in awhile they will chime in with some concern for a friend or loved one.
It started because bedtimes are chaotic and haphazard around here. When I was a stay-at-home mom, you could set the clock by bedtime and our consistent routine: dinner, quiet playtime, bath, book(s), bed. It was the same thing at the same time every night, and there were days when I counted down until the moment I could start the march toward bedroom doors shutting between me and the small children in my life. But as a working, single mother? Ha! Hahahahaha!! Routine and consistency? What are those?!
Now bedtime happens in between helping with homework, doing dishes or dealing with laundry, answering emails, maybe a little writing or editing photos, and getting things ready for the next day. I give kisses and hugs and tell the little darlings goodnight, but I don't approach the process of going to bed with anything close to the same intention and focus as before. Bedtime prayers fell by the wayside along with many other things I used to love about the close of the day; most of the time we muscle through evenings on autopilot and eventually fumble our way into sleep.
Mornings are a different story, though. I wake up crazy early (before 5:00 a.m. most days), start the coffee pot, and spend a few minutes reading, thinking, and praying in the quiet before rousing the rest of the household. By some overnight magic, I discover the previous evening's resignation transformed into a new day's resolve, and mornings feel full of promise and opportunity. It seems natural to plant my prayers for and with my children in such fertile ground.
In those sleepy, snuggly moments, I give thanks for their lives, for the unique qualities that make them who they are. I ask God to guide them and give them extra measures of kindness and understanding as they go about their days. I pray for their safety and well-being, for their continued physical, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth; I pray for their friends and loved ones and for the teachers and caregivers with whom they spend so much of their time. And every morning, as I cradle them in my arms, I say the words, "Thank you, God, for the gift of this child. I love them so much, and I am so lucky to be their mama."
The morning of my daughter's birthday started with those prayers, but as she curled closer to my side and started to drift back to sleep, I added a few more. I recalled the days when I used to sob my way through traffic during my morning commute because I wanted another baby so much. I felt in my body the way my empty arms would ache and how my heart felt hollow and numb, like it would never be completely whole. I remembered the stern lectures--all of which was reminiscent of the time when I lost pregnancy after pregnancy after pregnancy before my son was born--about being grateful for what I did have and not allowing what I didn't have to define my life. I thought of how I hoped and gave up; hoped and gave up; then really gave up...until hope caught me by surprise and everything changed.
Not everyone gets a miracle. Many good people continue to suffer in the lonely, painful space between what they want and what life sends their way. I look over my life and see miracles at every stage, and I know I didn't deserve a single one of them. But they happened whether I deserved them or not, just like the tragedies that happened whether I deserved them or not, and the only faithful response I can figure out is to never take a single thing for granted.
I don't know why things come together for some people and why they don't for others. I know timing matters, as does the internal preparation that can happen in the lonely, painful spaces. But as much as I want to believe it will all make sense someday, I have to admit I'm not so sure it ever will.
The only thing I can say for certain is that in the last few minutes before getting out of bed on her birthday, the answer to so many desperate prayers reached up to put her hand on my face and said, "Mama, I love you."
It took a few minutes before I could whisper back, "Baby, I love you, too."
The Heart of the Matter
I spent most of the weekend in the hospital. My heart decided to stage a revolt during a community service event Saturday morning, so I drove myself to the ER to get it checked out.
You read that correctly--I drove myself 25 minutes to the ER while in the midst of cardiac distress. Why, you might ask?
Hell if I know. I just did because that's what I do.
I also really didn't let anyone know what was going on until the ER doctor decided to admit me, and I only sounded the alarm at that point because my friend was expecting me to come over to spend the night. If I had been discharged, I would have shown up at her door with leftover birthday cake and a bottle of wine and said, "Guess what happened to ME this afternoon!"
As soon as she could, she and her daughter got in the car and rushed up to the hospital. After being alone with my thoughts (and my almost-dead cell phone) for hours on end, her face coming through the door was such a gift. I could feel something inside myself unclench and settle back into place, and even though my heart continued to misbehave, it didn't seem so scary with her there beside me.
Here's where I admit that I'm kind of a moron (and there are a few people reading this who must be gloating that I admitted that in writing--enjoy it, guys). I don't ask for help when I know there are people who would be happy to give it to me. I have a pathological aversion to being the center of attention, so I keep the highs and lows of life to myself most of the time, often not sharing much of anything with people who genuinely care about what happens to me. I am stubborn and reckless with myself, and Lord help you if you offer to do something for me that I can do on my own...except I think I can do everything for myself, so there's no reason to hand over the reins, ever.
At the Ash Wednesday service I attended with my youngest daughter, the priest told a story about watching a man try to pay for dinner for himself and his two children. The restaurant's cash-only policy surprised him, and he didn't have enough money to cover their bill. A woman behind him tried to offer him $10--which clearly would not be too great a burden for her--and he shrugged off her offer instead of graciously accepting the help. His refusal to be vulnerable shut down what could have been a moment of intimacy between strangers; it showed his kids a higher priority on self-sufficiency than the interconnectedness of community--"I've got it," rather than "We're all in this together."
It made me think of another time I went to the Emergency Room. We had just moved to Connecticut so that my ex-husband could start a new job, and my middle brother was dying in Texas. I was in a constant state of stress and grief, and one day, I thought my right eye was going to explode after a particularly hard cry. The pain, sensitivity to light, and redness got worse until I knew I needed medical attention, but I hadn't been there long enough to find a doctor. That time at least I knew I shouldn't try to drive (but only because I couldn't see), so I loaded up the kids in the double jogging stroller and walked to the closest ER about a mile away.
After an initial examination, I needed to go from the ER to a doctor's office in another building, but the kids were both hungry and thirsty. I knew they would never make it through another set of waiting and examination rooms without a pit stop. So we found the hospital cafeteria, and I grabbed some stuff for them to share. I had to keep my sunglasses on even though we were indoors because of my eye, and I was in pretty rough shape all the way around.
The line took forever, but when I got up to the register, I couldn't find my credit card. I used it last to get gas and stuck it in my back pocket while waiting for the tank to fill rather than returning it to my wallet. I hadn't needed it in the ER, so I didn't notice it was missing until that moment at the cash register. I looked at the kids, my two-year-old's frantic reach for his juice, and couldn't put two thoughts together in any one direction.
The lady behind me in line stepped forward and said, "I've got it."
I started to demur, and she put her hand on my arm and said, "Hon, I've got it."
I started to cry and thanked her profusely and made an enormous scene. I wheeled the giant stroller through the doors and out to the sidewalk, where I knelt and uncapped the juice for my son and the water for my daughter and opened the package of crackers they had to split. I cried all the way to the doctor's office, and I still get choked up thinking about it.
I don't find it difficult to be vulnerable with my thoughts and emotions, but where there's a practical or physical need? I will run away as far and as fast as I can to discourage anyone who tries to lighten my load, even people I love and trust. The foreman at the construction site where I've been volunteering teases me because the first time I went out there, he tried to help me put away some (really heavy!) buckets of nails, and I told him in no uncertain terms to back off. He jokes, "She won't let you carry a box of Kleenex for her!" and he's right. But that's not how I want to live.
My heart needs to learn to rest. It needs to slow down instead of speed up when people try to make things easier for me. Even in the checkout line at the hospital in Connecticut, it was easier to say yes to a stranger than it would have been to say yes to help from a friend. Someone I would have to see again. A friend who might (God forbid!) remember a moment when I was vulnerable and needed help. A friend who might see me a little more clearly for the needy creature I am than the strong, capable face I present most of the time.
The doctors never did figure out why my heart won't behave. They sent me home with some medication that's marginally helpful and instructions to follow up with a cardiologist, all of which pretty much amounts to a shrug of their shoulders. It's okay, though. I think I know what I really need to work on.
From the Top of the Hill Before Going Over
I turned 39. I don't have any qualms about getting older--I feel like 50 is when I will really hit my stride--but approaching the end of a decade feels significant. Especially this decade: thirty-something Emily resembles nothing so much as the steel ball in a pinball machine. Sure, I hit a lot of targets and accumulate lots of points through life smacking me in the face and sending me spinning back into play, but I suspect it will feel great to finally make it past the flippers and into the next ten years.
Even so, this decade taught me so much about joy, grief, love, pain, when to fight to the death, when to surrender, and (sometimes) how to know which situations call for which approach. I'm grateful for all those lessons, much as I resisted many of them. I've always been an overachiever, though, so my goal is to squeeze as much life and learning as I can into the next 365 days and slide into 40 thinking, "Damn, I did that right."
Therefore I present the following list of 40 things I want to do before I turn 40:
(in spite of the numbers, there's really no particular order to this--I just needed to be able to keep track of how many things were on the list)
1. Learn to dance (in public) again
2. See a stand-up comedian or improv show
3. See three plays from different genres
4. Pick a local venue and watch at least four bands perform there
5. Make a list of six all-time favorite books and six new books; read one each month, alternating old and new
6. Take an in-person photography class or participate in a workshop that requires printed work and face-to-face feedback from the instructor
7. Shoot at least one roll of film on manual settings
8. Learn to develop film in a darkroom
9. Do a daily photo challenge and actually keep up with it
10. Visit photography exhibits in at least three different museums
11. Pick a theme and develop a monthly photo series around it
12. Take a photo walk in at least four different neighborhoods
13. Go to one of these: http://poisonpenreadingseries.com/blog2/
14. Take a writing class or participate in a workshop
15. Write a short story and actually let someone read it
16. Write something in a journal every day, even if it's only a sentence
17. Make phone calls as often as possible instead of sending texts or emails
18. Send at least one handwritten letter or card every week
19. Spend a day at the beach (I dislike the beach; this would be way out of my comfort zone)
20. Go hiking
21. Go fishing
22. Sleep under the stars at least once
23. Tell ghost stories around a campfire
24. Go to a haunted house
25. Take a cooking class
26. Take an overnight road trip somewhere completely new
27. Take two day trips to new places
28. Go to a professional soccer game or some other unfamiliar sporting event
29. Use public transportation or walk everywhere for one entire day (this will be a major challenge in Texas)
30. Learn to parallel park with confidence
31. Find a new favorite place to get breakfast tacos
32. Play pub trivia (and try not to become obnoxiously competitive about it)
33. Send someone flowers out of the blue
34. Go to celebrations from at least two different cultures, starting with this one: http://lunarnewyearhouston.com/2016-year-of-the-red-fire-monkey/
35. Go to the rodeo
36. Ride a rollercoaster that goes upside down
37. Go tubing on the Frio or Guadalupe
38. Go sailing
39. Take at least one overnight trip with friends
40. Plan a really fun way to celebrate my 40th birthday
And since any series of adventures needs a theme song:
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.