My brother turns 50 this next week. That’s hard for me to write, much less believe. In my mind’s eye, we are still kids running loose in the front yard on Lakeshire, embroiled in a bitter neighborhood match up. Tackle football at its finest. I’m hanging by the sidelines just hoping to get the call. I’ve run that post route a thousand times, judging the velocity and grasping at that tight spiral as it hit my chest with a thud. I know I can catch it. With my blue Ole Miss jersey and my buster brown haircut, I’m watching my quarterback brother for the nod. There’s a five year difference between us, and the team is a hodgepodge of school-aged friends. Mostly older. Mostly boys. But I want in, and our endless practice sessions have filled me with a wild confidence. Finally, I hear him call, “Jen, it’s your turn.” I trot into the huddle, surrounded by skeptics. I watch him draw the play up on the palm of his hand. This will never work, they all think. She’s a girl. She’s too little. We’re going to lose. “Down. Set. Hut. Hut.” I’m off. Streaking down the sideline, I give a quick head fake and turn for the end zone. The ball is already in the air, anticipating my arrival. I reach out into open space and muscle memory kicks in. The ball lands perfectly and safely in my arms. I stand, hands in the air, smugly surveying the fallen defenders. We are the winners. Just like I knew we would be.
That wouldn’t be the last time I stood on the sidelines watching him play quarterback. No, I spent the majority of my elementary and middle school years at Robins Field on a Friday night. And when his career led him to college, most every Saturday at the Liberty Bowl or some other grand stage in the South. Great stadiums where modern gladiators waged war. I learned quickly that no matter how the team was doing, my brother was going to be held responsible. If they were losing, he turned the ball over too much. If they were winning, he was throwing strikes. The quarterback has to have big shoulders, because he carries both high praise and blistering criticism. I’m not saying it is fair. I’m just saying it is. Nevertheless, Andy was an astute field general, maintaining a calm and a presence in highly charged environments. He ran one of the most effective two minute offenses I can remember, leading his team to more last minute victories than I can count. His performances oftentimes inspired heart failure from his family, but he never folded under pressure. Underperformed occasionally? Yes. Gave up? Never.
The same qualities that saved him on the football field have served him equally well in life. His broad shoulders are older but nonetheless strong. In fact, they have carried me on more than one occasion. Because of our birth order, I was always afforded flights of fancy, emotional swings, and high drama. Andy, not so much. I may have been the entertainment. Andy has always been the substance. He is without question the one man in my life who has displayed an unwavering devotion to his faith in any and all circumstances. And when I say all circumstances, I mean that. Life has not always been kind to him, but he has always found a way to trust even in the middle of the storm. In my life, no other man has led by example over such a long period of time in that way. Ever.
Andy, I hope you find a football field this Friday. I hope you line up, drop back and throw a bomb. I know you’ve still got it. You’re a winner. Just like I knew you always would be.
Dear God, make me an oak. I’ve written that before. And this last few days, I’ve meant it.
Two nights ago, we had an accident in our home with our new puppy, Boo Radley. After some additional complications, Boo didn’t make it. The images I have from that moment will stay with me for a long time, suspended in my memory . . . especially those of my son, who had finally found his “puppy brother.”
My husband and I found out about Boo’s death before Luca, and so we carried that knowledge around with us yesterday at work, dragging it like a cumbersome millstone. I went through the motions, all the while knowing that I was going to sit down later and rob more of his withering innocence. Indeed, the afternoon Luca would look very different from the one I had kissed on the head that morning. I played with the wording, the syntax, the semantics all day, urging my sense of articulation to find a way to soften this blow. However, when I saw his face running to the car, eagerly bursting with excitement over any news of Boo’s improvement, it simply spilled out of me, right there in the parking lot.
I watched his face twist in agony, and I heard the simultaneous wail, something akin to an injured animal. I opened the door just in time for him to melt into my arms. I rocked him, just like I used to do, and in the powerful rush of emotion, I traveled in my mind to the seashore, feeling the intensity of each wave strike my legs as I struggled to stand.
In a moment it happened. Clarity. As I breathed deeply and slowed my heart rate, I said to myself, “Be the center. Be his center.” I knew instantly that I was his buoy in a raging sea. Tethered by those moorings, Luca needs me to be okay even though he is not. The security I provide him as a parent isn’t an insulation from the pain. It’s the panacea. All day I had been trying to protect him, shelter him, shield him. As strange as this sounds, that’s not really my primary job. My principal occupation is to assure him that even when (not if) the tornadic winds shake our home, the foundation is sound. We can always rebuild. Rooted in strength, he has to be certain that the infrastructure is stable, that pain, although searing isn’t lethal, and that in the days ahead, he will feel hope spring again in his heart.
Parenting. It will undo you. It will shake you to your core and test your mettle. And there are no merit badges, although there should be. There are just scars. Wonderfully redemptive scars that instantly bring to mind where you have been and what you have already conquered. Each jagged line a reminder that you are stronger than you ever knew.
This is going to be short and sweet.
It finally happened. I’ve been waiting, anticipating, planning, articulating my beautiful three point sermon with a tiny, but life changing poem in my head. And then, boom.
“Momma, I think it’s weird that you and Daddy didn’t have any real kids.” Luca said, nonchalantly last night as I tucked him into bed.
“But, Luca,” I said. “You are our real kid.”
“Oh, I know, Momma. You really do feel like my momma and Daddy really does feel like my daddy, but I have other parents, you know.”
You see, up until that very moment, Paul, Luca and I have largely lived our adoption story inside the pages of a sweet, preferably Christian, storybook. An angel with feathery wings, hovers above a beautiful, chubby-cheeked boy, whispering words of affirmation in his ear, singing to his soul the truth of providential appointments and God’s divine order. Page turn. Adoptive mother serenely strokes adopted child on the cheek, singing the prayers of her heart and the appreciation she feels for his birth mom. Page turn. New family runs together, hand in hand, in a field of daffodils, while creation watches in wonder. The End. I know that book. I have that book. It’s on the shelf in Luca’s room in seven varieties. And that book is good. Except when it’s not.
I opened my mouth to say all the things I am supposed to say in that moment. God brought us to you. The judge declared to all the land that you are our boy. We loved you before we knew you. All the things. Yet, the whole time I was thinking to myself. This wouldn’t have been enough for me. At 8, these words would not have been enough. If I were him, I would want to know why I wasn’t with her. Why she cast me aside. None of this. No, nothing would make any sense until I had answered that question.
And, let me get this part straight. I am not offended by his line of questioning. I KNOW I’m his mother. I have bandaged wounds. I have cleaned ungodly messes. I have wiped . . . it all. I have paced the floor over a crazy high fever, more than once. I have prayed, cried, and celebrated. I have held him to me in the moments of his deepest, wildest desperation. I have disciplined. I have stood as sentinel over a table filled with homework. And the pancakes. Good grief, the number of pancakes I have made. Nobody has worked harder to earn the right to be called his mother, but me. Nobody.
What I am is hurt. I am hurt that this is his cross to bear. I am hurt that this question will linger. That this will be his fight, and there is nothing I can do to change it. And as I was considering the depth of my hurt over his hurt, I got my moment of clarity. I am always trying to make Luca’s pain about me. But this one. This isn’t about me. It’s not about infertility or inadequacy or inability. This is about him. This is about his story. This is about his destiny. He doesn’t need my pity. He needs my strength. That way, he will know that he will be okay when the storm of pain subsides.
So I got in my car this morning on my way to work, and I asked God to make me an oak. To cut out my heart. To make me as strong as the tallest tree in the forest so that he never feels like he can’t tell me that he sometimes misses her. And then I cried a little.
Real life is not a storybook. It’s tougher, but it has such a better plot.
“I didn’t marry you because you were perfect. I didn’t even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise. That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage. And when our children were growing up, it wasn’t a house that protected them; and it wasn’t our love that protected them – it was that promise.” -Thornton Wilder
We don’t care much for keeping promises in this day and age. Promises require time and precision and waiting and diligence and commitment and long suffering and patience. All the things a 21st century citizen hopes to avoid. Comfort and convenience are more our style. That’s why we like the drive-thru rather than the dining room, texting rather than talking, the microwave over the oven. We have a tendency to shy away from situations that are going to require more emotional energy than we feel we can spare.
We live in an age that has at its disposal more tools for efficiency than ever before. More apps designed to assist us, to help us be smarter, slicker, more savvy. Yet we are the most busy culture on the planet. Covered up with chaos. Stifled by inconsistency. We replace substance for shiny. We sing the praises of upstarts. We put their faces on the covers of magazines. We put longevity in the nursing home and feed it apple sauce. Like a child, we change the rules as we go along, especially when we don’t like the way the game is being played or when it stops advancing our singular agendas.
Doesn’t it stand to reason that with all of this intellectual development, technological support and evolutionary growth, we would be the culture who got it right? When those who would come after us opened up our yearbook, they would find we were voted Most Zen? Instead, we need an inordinate amount of counselors to console, pills to find peace, substances to soothe. We sacrifice our sons and daughters on the altar of technology every single day believing that somehow broadband will heal brokenness. We are the smartest fools that have ever lived.
Today, I’ve been married 14 years. A drop in the bucket compared to the many successful marriages I know and respect. But on this day, I made a promise. One that I, in my flawed humanity, was not capable of keeping. I cannot see a diet through to the end, much less a lifetime of monogamy. My husband, in turn, promised me what he could not deliver on his own. The kind of promise that is a reflection of a permanence fit only for worship. God deals in promises. They are His currency. He created the spiritual muscles that are strengthened while we wait. We don’t need the latest technological device. We need courage and accountability. We need resilience and persistence. We need faith and hope. Turns out, we have never needed an app for that.
I’ve always been interested in the idea of the sister wife. No, I’m not a Mormon. No, I’m not advocating polygamy. No, I’m not needing a psychiatric evaluation. I am just simply pondering the idea of having an extra set of eyes and an extra set of hands to help accomplish the daily mundane tasks of life. The mundane that can quickly pile up and paralyze.
We apple sauce-stained, sleep-deprived, zombie-like females are some of the most over worked, under appreciated humans on the planet. We command a vast battalion of men and women, some under four foot tall with minds and wills of their own, on a daily basis. We make beds, and we make lunches. We clean dirty bodies, and we clean dirty houses. We work mind numbing hours at actual work, and then come home to an entirely different sort of to do list. We bandage knees. We mend broken hearts. We remove unidentifiable stains in hard to reach places. We birth actual human beings like a scene from an alien movie. And then we forget about it like it was a bad case of the flu. We are the central command center for all the parts of this life that make it worth living. Yes, we are that important.
Now, with all of that on our plates and more, every one of us could use a helping hand. And that’s where the sister wife idea comes into focus. We all have a good friend. A best friend even. One you can call at 4:30 in the morning with your worst news. But your BFF never says to you, “Call me with your worst news anytime day or night, AND I’ll come over and mop your floors while I listen.” No mere friend would agree to that arrangement. Oh, sure, those best friends we have, they have some long suffering ears, and boy, am I grateful, but sometimes I just need a friend who likes to sweep under refrigerators, preferably mine. Where is the line for that type of friend?? Exactly, they don’t exist.
Now I’m not ignoring the fact that having a sister wife would make things super awkward and strangely complicated at home, but I am saying that binding someone to your family in a semi-legal, semi-religious sort of way would commit said sister wife to the menial tasks that you hate the most, especially since she came second. She couldn’t opt out of laundry duty just because she felt like it or because friends don’t do that kind of thing. Instead, you would be able to divide up all the household chores with her based on your least favorite tasks:
1. A home-cooked meal after a long day of work? Sister wife.
2. Ironing clothes? Sister wife.
3. Spring cleaning? Sister wife.
4. Toilets in a house full of boys? Yes, definitely toilets. Sorry, sister wife.
5. Can’t finish grading that last set of research papers? No worries. Sister wife has a degree in English.
Now, I’ve thought long and hard about this. A sister wife could diffuse those tense stand-offs that happen from time to time in marriage. Imagine this. Wife loves Double Stuf Oreos. Husband does too, usually as a late night snack. Sense her frustration level when wife finds the stay fresh seal only partially closed overnight, leaving her chocolate therapy hard and stale. A small marital spat erupts. This time, sister wife steps in with a calm, matronly tone while producing a new package of Double Stuf Oreos she picked up while doing the weekly grocery run. And what about when your child has inexplicably said your name 420 times in the past five minutes, and you can feel Space Shuttle Crazy Eyes is a go for launch, but just in the nick of time, sister wife enters with an even tone, “Yes, child. I can help you. Now, leave your mother alone for a little while. She needs to finish her spa treatment and bubble bath in peace.” Can you see it?
When you strip away all the negative cultural ideas about this practice, we women all know somewhere down deep inside that we would be better at being us with the help of a sister wife. We may have even conjured her in our minds. Mine is an older, sweet grandmotherly type. She possesses qualities that are a cross between the common sense of Alice on Brady Bunch and the street smarts of Mrs. Garret from Facts of Life. Sprinkle in a touch of Aunt Bee’s culinary skills and a dash of her Southern charm minus the busybody. There she is, ladies. Can you see her? Her name is Rhonda. And she comes complete with her own room off the garage.
If I close my eyes especially tight, I can still see my grandmother, housecoat covering a Sunday dress, leaning into the refrigerator’s light to pull out my favorite holiday dish, 5 Cup Salad. A simple concoction of mandarin oranges, pineapple chunks, maraschino cherries, and marshmallows, held together by a sweet mixture of sour cream and sugar, my mouth salivates at the sight. Sliding over the linoleum, she deposits the Corning Ware Cornflower baking dish in the middle of the holiday fare all boiled, baked and broiled with a master’s hand. I can still hear her drawl, a South Mississippi native, apologetically lamenting that the turkey was unbearably dry this year. I never ate more delicious unbearably dry turkey. Standing close by with plate in hand, I only have one goal: to extract all of the maraschino cherries from my favorite dish before my brother gets through the line. He loves maraschino cherries, but I love them more. I heap a generous helping on half my plate with only a small surface area left for something more healthy, turn to my brother to gloat over my sweet, red spoils, take my seat at the children’s table in the breakfast area, and cheerfully dig in while the warmth of that small, cozy home on Ruffwood fills me faster than my food; softening the edges on those memories so connected to the sights, smells and tastes of the holidays.
Life is not as sweet as 5 Cup Salad. Distance and time make those memories wane in the chill of winter. My grandmother’s perfectly coiled blue hair, done weekly, at a local beauty parlor set off her sparkly eyes and her sense of wit. If you were lucky, after dinner and dishes, she would sit at the piano and practice her hymns. With the bulletin from St. Luke’s Methodist in front of her, she would rehearse the selections for the weekend with a sweeping musicality. My love for music, in part, was born in those hours I would sit beside her on the piano bench watching her hands cross over as she extended the melody line beyond her five fingers. She was a masterful accompanist. Her hands would soften on the chorus of In the Garden, as her once beautiful voice, hardened by years and use, would softly sing along. After rehearsal ended, all subtlety was gone as she attacked the accelerating waltz, Blue Danube, using the whole keyboard in grand synchronicity. My childish wiggles would cease as I sat there motionless, entranced by her ability, listening for the harmonies and wishing my small fingers could move that way.
This afternoon, I took out the ingredients for 5 cup salad and placed them on my counter. I gently emptied and drained each fruit for an hour (the secret to a good salad), and I carefully combined the sour cream and the sugar, generously pouring the marshmallows in my Corning Ware dish . . . more than my grandmother would have approved of, I’m sure. Sitting in my refrigerator now, the temperature will bring each ingredient to the height of its flavor when it’s time for our Thanksgiving feast tomorrow. On that day, families will gather around all across this country gorging on their holiday favorites. The sweetness and the warmth of the holiday table warding off the pain and the grief that we often wear like a winter coat. Whatever worries and anxieties we carry pale in the bright light of those precious times. Through the dysfunction and the inevitable disagreements that emerge in these settings, we are taught loyalty and the power of forgiveness. We learn when to speak and when to stay silent. We learn that we are not always right, and we practice how to say, “I’m sorry.” We cut our teeth on adversity and take the best courses in conflict resolution. Most importantly, we learn the sweet refrain of redemption, and if we are fortunate, it fills our soul. Family teaches us strength. Family teaches us how to survive. Family endures. No, life is not as sweet as 5 Cup Salad. But memories are. Make some with those you love this Thanksgiving.