Almost every time I go to Target, the grocery store, or (gasp) Walmart, I leave with a new saint candle. I have them tucked all over my house--living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom . . . and making this list reminds me I need a new one for the bathroom. I navigate my way around furniture through the still-dark rooms to light them in the morning while my coffee brews, and the smell of burning matches, lit wicks, softening wax, and a curl of smoke blends with the sound of coffee dripping into the pot and the occasional sleepy collision with the dog who stays an inch or two from my side at all times. It's a ritual I created for myself, and I find it a pleasant way to usher in the day. Ever the cheerleader, my circuit around the house feels a little like working the sidelines to coax a crowd into "the wave," cheering on the players on the field--the kids and me in this case. Luckily, I don't think the saints mind. In fact, I kind of think that's why they're there.
Yesterday Facebook reminded me that exactly one year had passed since we first rolled up in front of our rent house in Texas (documented in this post). I love that feature of Facebook since I tend to think in milestones anyway. Without any intention or focus, I somehow recall dates of things and the sequencing of certain events, and if you ask me how long it's been since X, or when did Y happen, I can usually tell you. A good portion of my head space seems to be taken up by markers documenting the progression from past to present to future.
When my children were babies and toddlers, checking off milestones in steady, consistent intervals offered reassurance for me as a nervous young mother, even as it reinforced how different children develop at different speeds. My oldest took her first steps before she reached nine months; my son walked toward the end of ten months; but my youngest didn't start walking until after she turned one. All three of them said their first words later than most of my friends' children, but each still fell within the normal range, so no one worried. They hit all the benchmarks for weight and height during their first years, and their social interactions--smiles and laughter when playing peek-a-boo, separation anxiety when I had to leave them briefly--came right on cue. I saw them grow before my eyes, watched as their personalities emerged and they added new skills to their repertoires every day, each at his or her own pace and in his or her own time. With kids, some years require different categories with charts and graphs and multiple entries in baby books to capture most of the growth, but other years just need a school photo and a sentence or two. The ebb and flow make sense when you watch the process in motion.
When I think about everything that happened in the year between July 17, 2015 and July 17, 2016, there's no question it was the charts-and-graphs kind of year. I debated writing a post attempting to track all the changes and developments for each of us, but the thought of capturing it all in too much linear detail resulted in the kind of productive procrastination that means I'd better come up with another idea.
(By "productive procrastination" I mean that before I sat down to write this post, I made a cup of tea, took a bunch of photos, dusted the bookcase, and then registered the youngest child for three weeks of day camp later this summer and signed her up for after-school care once school starts. Oh, and I filled out school forms for the middle child and took my oldest over to my friend's apartment to pet-sit her ferret.)
When I first countenanced the possibility that my marriage would fail, I spent hours staring at the ceiling on my side of the room agonizing over what it would cost the kids and me. There would be no way I could keep the house I loved or continue living in the place my kids considered home, no way I could afford to remain in the part of the world where I had grown into a woman I liked when I looked in the mirror; my kids--who were pretty much by my side 24/7 at that point--would have to split time between their father and me, and I would not control anything that happened while they weren't in my care; and after 20+ years of tackling life in tandem with someone else--with the person I had loved since I was 16 years old--I would be alone. For a long time, those specters had enough power to keep me where I was, but eventually, the Ghost of Christmas Future (where my kids celebrated with their dad and his family instead of me) became less threatening than the prospect of staying in a marriage that needed to end.
All of my predictions came to pass, some in the last year and some going a bit further back, in a series of grim milestones I would rather have skipped. We moved; the house sold at a vomit-worthy loss; my heart built up callouses in the places it's rubbed raw when the kids ride away in the car with their dad or run up the sidewalk into his apartment. I spent holidays away from them, and thank God I have family and friends who welcomed me into their celebrations instead of having to spend those days with the blankets pulled over my head, counting the minutes until it was my turn with the kids. We're through the worst of it, though. I'm pretty sure.
Through all those adjustments, the kids proved as resilient as any I've ever seen. They all finished another year of their educations: the second year of high school, the last year of elementary school, and the last year of full-time daycare (or PreK if you prefer) respectively. More milestones reached, more progress documented in report cards and encouraging comments from teachers.
The high schooler spends most of her year at boarding school and knew exactly one person when we moved here last summer, yet she was willing to step out of her comfort zone in pretty big ways to participate in a midyear retreat during her Winter Break and join in a service trip to Central America last month. I feel my patience extended by her courage when I find myself circling parking lots waiting for movies to end or sitting at Starbucks watching for a text letting me know she's ready to be picked up at the end of a shopping outing. She will be glad to go back to school in a few weeks, and I am glad for her, too, but it feels good to see her connecting with people here. Last summer she left almost immediately to go visit relatives elsewhere in Texas; this year she is choosing to stay here except for a week near the end of her break.
People who drive past our house can't help but see the school pride sign for the small private middle school my son will start in a few weeks, and anyone who comes to our door must walk past his baseball cleats left carelessly on the porch. His room looks like an explosion of bats, gloves, uniform pants and jerseys, hats, and stray balls dotted throughout the landscape formerly reserved almost exclusively for Legos and action figures. The front page of my phone still has the app I used all season as one of his Little League team's designated scorekeepers (working moms with cranky preschoolers sometimes miss meetings where those responsibilities are doled out). What he lacks in proficiency on the field, he more than makes up for in enthusiasm in the dugout. He's been on two overnight camp trips--his first experiences spending the night away from family--and started walking home on his own from school or practice a few times a week.
The little one learned to snap and swim without flotation devices, and now she just needs to learn to ride a bike, whistle, and tie her shoes before she has a legitimate claim to "big kid" status. She prefers to pack her own clothes for visits with her dad because she "likes fashion and being stylish," and evidently she finds my selection criteria of whatever is a) clean and b) near the top of the drawer insufficient. She graduated from preschool in an evening of smiles and spontaneous hugs and nervous energy about whether or not she would remember all the words to the songs. She is a lover who isn't afraid to also be a fighter when someone is "being annoying," and she says things that leave all of us speechless.
I started a new job only to realize it was a fundamental mismatch, and I made the decision to leave. Not long after making that decision, I spent hours in a hospital bed watching a heart monitor record physical evidence of my stress and fatigue. But as I was dressing to leave the hospital, I received an email arranging a phone interview for another job. Fast forward through that phone interview and a series of in-person interviews, and now I'm in a role that rewards me daily for being brave enough to admit the other thing wasn't working.
I made good choices, bad choices, and in-between choices this past year, but I can forgive myself for almost all of the iffy ones. I preached a sermon, helped lead retreats, supported and cared for people I love, ran out of gas while turning to park in front of my house and had a flat tire that held enough air for me to drive to the tire store and have it (and the other three) replaced. I renewed my lease, reconnected with old friends in the area, and made new ones. I unpacked the last moving box and passed on the ones in good enough condition to a recent college grad who was packing up to start a job as a youth minister. I made hard decisions about money and priorities for the kids and the future. I did not become bitter.
We have a year under our belts here: a year of zig-zag progress at varying speeds in areas that would require multiple charts and graphs to measure. The growth started slowly and picked up speed after a few setbacks, and we all proceed at our individual pace, but things feel healthy these days. Tomorrow morning in the glow of the saints candles, while they flicker "the wave" of encouragement, I will sip my coffee with an awareness of how far we've come, fresh gratitude for where we are, and hope--hope--for where we will be a year from now.
In Memoriam S.C.W., V.C.
8 September 1915
By Charles Sorley
There is no fitter end than this.
No need is now to yearn nor sigh.
We know the glory that is his,
A glory that can never die.
Surely we knew it long before,
Knew all along that he was made
For a swift radiant morning, for
A sacrificing swift night-shade.
You died ten years ago today. I heard the sound of the phone ringing downstairs at Daddy's house, so early in the morning that I knew what news had to be waiting on the other end of the line. I listened to Daddy's slow walk up the stairs and raised my head when he opened the door, leaned into the room, and nodded. I buried my face in my pillow and sobbed, trying not to wake up the two year old snuggled into my side. I had a vision then of a version of you: this different you floated past me, no longer bound by your wheelchair or gravity or time and space, your cheeks filled out and healthy around your inimitable smile. I thought to myself that the next time I see you, I might not recognize your restored, glorified form; that was the first moment I felt like I might understand heaven.
A lot has changed in the years you've been gone. I started graduate school a few months after your funeral. I sat in my seat the first night, opened a fresh notebook and scribbled a few strokes to get the ink flowing in my new pen, and realized I was holding my breath as I watched the professor walk to the podium and unpack his notes. I studied and thought and wrote with my whole self for the next few years, waking up at 2:00 a.m. sometimes to finish reading or write papers in the quiet while everyone else slept. I took some risks with my writing and opinions, and my professors encouraged me to take more. One day I realized I had stopped scanning rooms for the seats around the margins where I would attract as little attention as possible. Grad school rolled into a teaching job which rolled into other things, and I'm a lot more confident now.
The kids are so much bigger. The oldest, your first niece and godchild, can pack herself a week's worth of clothes, shoes, and toiletries into a small duffle bag and a medium-sized backpack that looked like miniatures alongside the mountain of luggage belonging to the rest of the group on her first mission trip. She can navigate domestic and international flights without blinking and write an application essay that would make you cry. She refuses to allow me to take her for so much as a slight trim for her hair because the last time she got a haircut (almost a year ago now), the lady cut it too short. I don't force the issue because that haircut provoked extended wailing and whimpering, lasting three hours in its initial outburst and threatening to repeat every time she walked past a mirror for weeks. None of us have time for that kind of angst. She has friends and secrets and routines I know nothing about because she goes to school on the other side of the country, but sometimes she lets me do her laundry when she comes home. The grandfather clock you left her sits idle in the corner of the living room, still not fully unpacked from the move. I know you would hate that, but I can't have it chiming multiple times a day reminding me that neither one of you are there to wind and care for it.
The boy who was the youngest when you died, your nephew and second godchild, went to camp for the first time this year. He happened to be there the same week as one of the Joni and Friends retreats, and I watched two golf carts pull trailers full of smiling people with disabilities and enthusiastic volunteers towards the pool while I waited in the line to leave after picking up campers. I remembered how you were the poster boy for those retreats. I tried to explain that to my camper when another wave of trailers passed us, but I could tell he wanted to talk about blobbing into the lake and how he entertained his cabin mates with various antics all week instead. He's looking forward to starting a new school and playing baseball again this fall. I pray for him to find friends who will be there for him like the four boys in Stand by Me--I think of him as Gordie LaChance, the grieving boy who tells the awesome story about the hot dog eating contest; I don't know which one of the characters he would say fits him best.
There's a third child in the mix now, born on Mom's birthday five years ago, though I'm convinced you somehow know all about that. Some people might think I'm crazy, but the two lines on the pregnancy test came not long after I poured out my heart to you about wanting another baby while I was washing a sink of dishes in a home for children with disabilities and chronic illnesses in Peru. There were some boys who sat in their wheelchairs the same way you always did, sneakers in mint condition and the same mix of mischief and sweetness in their eyes as they watched more mobile kids chase balls around the courtyard. I stood at that sink in a pool of light behind a thick pane of wavy blue glass, and you felt so close I might have been able to reach out and touch you if I'd had the presence of mind to try.
When I found out I was pregnant, the due date was the day we celebrated your birthday in non-Leap Years. However, a week before she was born, I told several people that I knew you would send her to me on Mom's birthday instead, and sure enough, she came that day, flouting plans for a scheduled C-section. I stared up at the ceiling, on my back on that operating table in the most literally and figuratively vulnerable position I've ever been in, and I felt you, Mimi, Pop, Rodney, Robin, Ramsey, and everyone I love on the other side of the veil holding me together and keeping me calm. Her cries broke into that thin space as she was born, and the corners of her eyes and the curls framing her face carry a trace of that mystery even now. You would love her, and she would love you right back.
Mom is visiting us this week, helping with the kids during the day while I go to work. I got divorced and moved back to Texas almost a year ago. I know you would have been disappointed FOR me, not IN me, but I'm grateful you didn't have to live through it. It's been hard on everyone. Tonight the younger kids were with their dad (the oldest is still on her mission trip), so Mom went with me to a writing class where I work. Before class, we had dinner and went in search of a Starbucks Mocha to drink a toast in your honor. We couldn't find a Starbucks in walking distance, though, so we went to a different coffee shop and got their version of your favorite drink. We both agreed you would have liked it.
Daddy comes down sometimes and helps me with the kids or by fixing things the landlord doesn't need to know about (errant baseballs and soccer balls take no prisoners). He still reads more than any human being I know. His Spanish is so much better than mine now, and he went back to Cuba and on other mission trips to Spanish-speaking countries as an interpreter. He went through a phase of giving me books on tape, careful selections that seemed useful or like something I would enjoy. I finally had to tell him I can't ever make it through audiobooks--my auditory attention span is too short. He forgave me in the gracious way he always does.
Our sisters are both finished with college. Our little brother is a teaching assistant at a public university. You wanted to take care of all of us, and I feel like we owe it to you to take care of each other. Life is hard, and we are all so fully human. We do the best we can.
Your James Avery cross ring never leaves the middle finger on my right hand where we put it that day we decided to trade, right after I promised to wear it every day for the rest of my life. I find myself reaching for it, twisting it back and forth or squeezing it between the thumb and fingers of my other hand when I need to think about something. The kids are kind of fascinated by my unwillingness to take it off. There are only a few things they ask that I absolutely refuse and removing your ring is one of them, no matter how much they beg.
I'm happy to say the fear of public speaking that started as a gurgle in my throat and a pinched feeling in my chest during my one semester of law school finally loosened its grip on my potential. Teaching several classes of high school students helped, but the most noticeable progress happened about two years ago when I gave a talk at a faculty retreat in the spring. After that, I gave another talk to the whole school community, and I'm not exaggerating when I say you could have heard a pin drop in that gym, even though it was a long talk near the end of the day on a Friday. Both times, I talked about you: I told stories about us growing up and how being your sister was the making of me as a human being, things I learned from you, how I love and miss you. Somehow telling other people your story led me to the truest, most genuine version of my own voice. You've been gone ten years, and you still teach me so much.
I think you would like the 2016 me, though you were always an indulgent audience where I was concerned. I feel you near me often, and I like to think of the great cloud of witnesses that always surrounds me with you as the head cheerleader. Please keep cheering me on, sweet brother. Please never stop cheering me on.
All my love,
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.