Closing the door to his closet, I turn slowly as he nonchalantly says, “Mom, I don’t know why I call you mom. You are not my mother.” My pulse quickens as I face him, his lean body secured beneath the covers, like a well-wrapped burrito. He is not angry or mad. He is matter of fact. And nothing is out of the ordinary on this evening. This is our nightly routine.
Luca’s thoughts about his adoption seem to come out of thin air; random ruminations that don’t logically connect to the conversation we were having just a second prior. I imagine what he allows to escape his lips is the tip of an iceberg, the bulk of which drifts far beneath the surface, sometimes lost in a silent sea, but other times colliding with something artificial, exposing its rough edges and pushing it to the surface.
He has known his story since he was able to understand English. Paul and I have been intentional about explaining his providential path. I sang it to him, in fact, every night. A homemade lullaby about the power of God’s plan, and two crazy kids who boarded an airplane for a far away, mystical land. As he aged, we discussed the fact that he did not come from my stomach, but another’s. A woman who loved him enough to give him a chance at life. Surface, but truth. Every time we celebrated this fact, I watched for his reaction. Mostly silence. Not dumb silence, either. Thoughtful, pensive, inward. No questions. No anxiety. Just a resolute contentment. He was mostly quiet, in fact, until last year. Last year, he became un-quiet. And out of nowhere, like stray bullets, his thoughts penetrated the silence.
“You are not my birth mother. Someone else was. Did you ever meet her?”
“What does she look like?”
“Does she have a strange face?”
“What if she is not a good person?”
Believe me, I read the book. Or books . . . yes, all the books. Adoption books. I’ve written about them before, in fact. They are helpful, useful and important. The problem is that all the books in the world cannot account for each individual journey to this truth. Every soul has to come to terms with this familial arrangement in its own way. In its own time. And every stage of Luca’s life will bring a new revelation of his needs. Needs I might not know, until he is ready to tell me. Until that iceberg reveals itself inch by frozen inch. I’ve just got to have the patience to wait him out and more importantly, the grace to listen.
“Luca, I did not give birth to you. That is true. But let me ask you this. What is the definition of a mother? What does it mean to be a mother?”
He ponders for a moment, “Someone who takes care of you. All of you. All the time.”
“So by that definition?” I ask.
“You are my mother.”
I love you, Luca. Always and forever. No matter what. -Mom
Somebody I think a lot of is sick. Somebody I look up to. And not just a good somebody. One of the best somebodies. In my life, they most always are. Women, men and children living to the fullest. Strong testimonies of faith. Kids in the prime of their lives. Teachers sacrificing for their students. Good, honest people. And I’m angry about it.
Cancer is a scourge. If it had flesh and bone, I could utterly destroy it without conscience. It cuts to the quick and is a modern day monster in the closet. It takes people’s breath away. Punches in the gut. Strikes in the darkness. It is evil personified. A zombie stalking its prey.
And any one of us could be next. It does not discriminate.
I don’t like the sway it holds over our lives, and the panic, disruption and heartbreak it brings to those who are tapped to face it. Soldiers of all ages marching into battle, forced at some point in the journey to ask which is worse. The disease or the treatment. Unnecessary pain in a life already fraught with hardships. Insult to injury.
So, what are we to do with the reality of cancer and the pain that it stirs within? We who are groveling here on earth, somewhere between heaven and hell? John Milton, a renowned British poet, most famous for his epic Paradise Lost, went completely blind by the age of 43. In response to a critic who essentially said his blindness was a punishment for an immoral life, he wrote:
“It is not so wretched to be blind as it is not to be capable of enduring blindness. But why should I endure a misfortune which it behooves everyone to be prepared to endure if it should happen, and which has been known to happen to the most distinguished and virtuous persons in history.”
His response to his affliction? Why NOT me? Milton’s attitude humbles me, but it doesn’t quench my anger. Maybe most notably, it doesn’t quell my fear. Fear that bubbles up in the darkness. Fear that cultivates falsehood. Fear that the grand master of this universe doesn’t exist, doesn’t know, or worse still, doesn’t care. Cancer can make the idea of a loving, benevolent God an illusion, and in our most vulnerable moments, a vicious lie.
Cancer whispers a refrain as familiar as the memory of a distant Eden. “Didn’t God say,” the serpent’s sibilant voice speaks, penetrating Eve’s eternal hope with the possibility of an unfamiliar feeling . . . doubt. “Didn’t he say” . . . you were to be completely safe? Consistently prosperous? Persistently happy? Lavishly loved? Promises perverted. “Has God indeed said?” evil asks.
Cancer roars, “Your God is a liar. A fraud. A fake. I am more powerful. The brightest of your intellects cannot unlock my mysteries. I will not be undone.” And as we watch the best of our kind march bravely into harm’s way, heaven’s silence becomes deafening. Why, God? Why? And still no answers.
So, I can take that silence, grow my bitterness like a weed, and walk the road to destruction that cancer paves for us. I can march with all the dumb sheep to nihilism. Wrap up in my existential blanket and never find warmth. I could. And some do.
Or, I can slash cancer’s power at the root with the name of the One who has already conquered it. I can shut its mouth with belief. I can break its jaws with hope. I can stand with squared shoulders and fight its corrosive energy with faith. I can drop to my knees in solemn reverence for those I have already lost and pray for those who still endure. I can prepare for the possibility of a similar fate. I can shout into the void, “You might eviscerate our bodies, but you cannot have our souls.”
Cancer is a coward. A malevolent villain stalking our peace. Raiding our security. But it is not a victor. It is not the champion. It can’t be. And even if I close my eyes in finality one day and find out this whole thing indeed has been a myth, I will have chosen victory. And I will have vanquished my enemy, my skilled but mortal adversary. And I will have known what it is to live triumphantly.
“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” -1 Corinthians 13:12
Two things are true of humankind. We want to know and to be known. Whether you see this world framed by a divinity or not, these two pursuits, in large part, rule our lives from cradle to grave.
I started a brand new teaching job two years ago. Standing in the atrium during an in-service event, I scanned the sea of faces, all new to me. I felt thoroughly lost in that moment. I had moved from a school where I knew the history of every square inch, and the stories of everyone who worked there. I had moved from a school where I was known by a generation of students and their families. I had moved to a school where I was utterly unknown. My heart pounded in my chest.
As I was standing among a group of teachers, my head lost in a cloud of uncertainty, a softly hummed tune hit my left ear. I recognized it instantly . . . a familiar Ole Miss football chant. “Hotty Toddy” rang from my lips as I looked up at the tall but boyish figure standing beside me. “Ole Miss fan?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “You?”
“When I was a kid, for sure,” I responded. “I grew up about 40 minutes from Oxford. In Tupelo.”
“No way. Me too,” he answered.
Tupelo is still a relatively small place, but judging by the differences in our ages, I figured we had very few shared friends or acquaintances.
“My maiden name was Whitwell,” I offered, thinking the conversation would drift off quickly with a singular Mississippi hometown connection.
“Not Dr. Earl Whitwell?” he asked, his eyes widening. Immediately, I assumed he had broken something as a child, and Dad had patched him up.
“He was my father,” I said. What happened next bordered on the bizarre.
“Wait . . . wait,” he stuttered. “I live in your house.” I blinked, staring at him, incredulously. “No, I mean, my family bought your house. On Allyson Drive?”
My childhood family home. It’s located on a hill in a subdivision in north Tupelo. Sitting atop the highest elevation in town, I used to pretend it was Everest. My mom and dad built it in 1980. I moved there at the age of 9. It holds most of my childhood secrets and informed a lot of my adolescent ambitions. In my mind, it is still home. After my parent’s divorce, my dad would sell it a few years later. He would sell it to Ben’s family. The Gatlins. Ben was 12.
Both of us reeling from this ridiculous coincidence, we shouted and fell a few steps backward. Suddenly, he asked, “What room . . . what room was your bedroom?”
“Top left corner.”
I lost it. Our two childhood selves had shared the same room, in the same house, on the same street, in the same subdivision, in the same town, in the same state. Two decades apart.
I went from unknown to known in a two-minute conversation. And it wasn’t just being known that resonated for me. I felt home, one more time. Rolling in a pile of leaves in the front yard or swinging high off the tree swing my dad hung one sunny afternoon. Running barefoot on hard brick toward the smell of my mom’s sumptuous summer suppers. Rose bushes, honeysuckle, azaleas . . . freedom from responsibility and mostly shielded from pain. Home.
No matter what else we attempt to achieve on this planet, feeling known will be one of the most important to us. One of the most cherished. One of the most valued. We hold tightly those who know us and still love us. We long for that feeling to last and when it dissipates like a heavy fog in the sunlight (as it must always do), we begin the chase again in earnest. Our souls somehow understand there is a “known completely” and a “known forever.” We just know it. In this realm; however, we are forced to live in the tension of that unfulfilled desire. But there is a day coming. And in one instant and in one glance, our exhausting quest will be put to rest. And we will all finally be home.
Here’s an idea. Every young woman should be assigned an older, reproductive specialist as a mentor. A post menopausal female (or really, anyone who broke up with their ovaries before their ovaries broke up with them) willing to have an honest conversation when the “journey” towards projected procreation begins. A quick side note here. This person cannot be your mother. I repeat. Cannot be your mother. For those of you who think she can fill this role, just remember the talk you had about the birds and the bees. Awkward? Unpleasant? Short on necessary details? Contributed, in part, to that pesky counseling bill you pay each month? Need I say more? I didn’t think so. No, let’s leave the mothers out of this and let them continue to do the two things they do best: ask us how our day went in six different languages and also . . . worry.
No, what we all need is someone who can explain why, in an unforgettable moment in time, we are transformed from carefree little girls with shining faces into pubescent, raging Medusas. She can look us directly in the eyes and tell us that each month for a very long time, our bodies are going to be upset, mainly about all that work for nothing, and they are going to use every tool at their disposal to make us painfully aware of that fact. Shovels, pick-axes, backhoes. You know, whatever is handy. She can tell you that for an extended period (pun intended), your life will revolve around a steady regimen of anti-inflammatory drugs, heating pads, hot baths and a more than healthy investment in the Kleenex empire. It’s going to be a blast.
Then, one fine day (or not), your body will reap the reward of all that consistent struggle (or not) and you will feel that stir of life within your womb (or not) and for just a moment, the skies will clear and you will hear the blessed announcement that you are going to swell in places you didn’t know you had. In fact, that backhoe is going to be necessary in a completely different way during this season. And if your womb indeed activates (or not); either way, you are still going to be on the board of directors for the Kleenex empire. You could also potentially be a paid consultant for the anti-depressant industry. The possibilities are endless.
Then, our mentors could call an intermission before the final act. They really should, as little information exists outside of girlfriend chatter and the infrequent pep talks from our gynecologists. This time, she would need to look directly into our souls and tell us that for a relatively brief period, anywhere from 5 to 15 years (cause who really knows), we are going to be mentally deranged. Yep, that’s right. Lunatics. We are going to feel mostly unhinged . . . on our good days. We are going to wake up in a pool of perspiration at all hours of the night. We are going to be standing in a snowstorm with a thin line of sweat on our upper lip. We are going to keep the healthcare industry in business with all the fake diseases we discover during this time. That’s right, ladies. Everyday you are going to wake up with lupus. We are going to yell at our husbands and our children. And then we are going to cry and beg them to tell us we are not crazy. And inside, our reproductive system is taunting us, taking us for one final ride, the denouement, Thelma and Louise style.
Chin up, ladies. One fine day, we do eventually wake up with clear minds and bright eyes. Granted, we no longer fit into our pants due to expanded waist lines and hips that just won’t quit, but we valiantly grasp our estrogen IV poles and somehow learn to live again. And the reason why some of these strong survivors need to be designated as reproductive specialists for the younger generation? Because by that point, the majority of women look back at all those blissfully ignorant little girls, laugh and say, “Good luck with all that.” Then we book a cruise, call our girlfriends who understand and race out of town . . . indefinitely. And that, my friends, is what it means to be a woman. Now, I’ve got a plane to catch. You’re welcome.
I’m tired of you. Exasperated would be an even better word. And I know all of you that I address in this post don’t reside in Hollywood . . . or California, for that matter. Indeed, my exhaustion extends past the boundaries of the glittering Beverly Hills or Bel Air mansions. It exceeds the ritzy storefronts of a Rodeo Drive or a Melrose Avenue. Indeed, my real problem encompasses the whole of celebrity in this culture . . . stretching across a vast repertoire of talents: actor, musician, artist. I’m sick of you.
To be clear, I don’t want your money. It confuses things. I’m not a big fan of fame. I would rather go to Target in my sweatpants and stretch marks without someone taking my photo and plastering it all over a magazine. I can barely take a picture of myself with my own iPhone that doesn’t make me look like a whale. So, that would be a no to the paparazzi. When my life blows up, I prefer sharing that information with the people I trust the most. I can’t imagine watching my heartbreak analyzed by the talking heads or mocked by the trolls. So the public lives that many of you lead are not appealing on a personal level.
Furthermore, I respect your craft, and the talent that many of you bring to the screen (big and small), the stage (I think you are the best) and the recording studios all over this land. At the very least, your talents go a long way to entertain us, to momentarily blunt the harsher realities that the majority of Americans, nay, that even the citizens of the world, deal with on a daily basis. However, if we were going to rank those “harsh realities” on any kind of universal scale, I would dare say that America, as a whole, might not even rate (but that’s a whole other post). At the very most, your performances stand as witness, cataloguing our lives and times with a wide lens, inspiring us to think about the world more broadly while, at the same time, challenging us to inspect ourselves more closely. Granted, weighty stuff. I know I have walked out of a movie theater or put down my headphones on more than one occasion, challenged, exhilarated, galvanized. Even changed.
So, when what you do holds that kind of sway in the lives of your consumers, there is a certain responsibility that comes along with that. You don’t get to decide whether you have it or you don’t. Responsibility just is. Like it or not, that responsibility can feel like a burden, a restriction, and it requires large shoulders. You have influence. A lot of it. In fact, you have more than you deserve. Your blue checked social media accounts rule the minds and hearts of your followers. Your interviews on red carpets and inadvertent encounters with the media dominate the headlines. Even your acceptance speeches at awards shows can become more enduring than the art you won for.
So, forgive me if I find it funny when I see an actress who has compromised every fiber of morality and decency to cast her celluloid “art” tweet her disgust at the reprehensible character flaws of another. Even better, when actors who have filled their coffers with film projects that glorify all forms of graphic and gratuitous violence speak out with fiery passion about the use of guns in culture. Pardon me while I scoff at that rap artist, whose song lyrics denigrate all aspects of the female figure line by line, as he takes a valuable moment away from spitting his rhymes to comment on the harms of a misogynistic, rape culture. Oh, how it all smacks of duplicity. And you call us religious folk hypocrites!
See, if you are going to be an artist, then be an artist. Be a good one. But the second you step from behind that art into the spotlight as a human being to take up a cause you care about, you have to bring your actual character with you. Not the one you played in your most recent film . . . or the persona you created for your latest album. Your actual integrity. And, that, my friend, is when you find your mortality once again. You become one of us. You become accountable to things that your celebrity community is largely marked by: failed relationships (marriage . . . cough, cough), destructive, even deadly addictions, routine run-ins with the law (just google celebrity mug shots), entitlement and excess. And, in a world, where the insane run the asylum, we line up like sheep to listen to your golden words. And time and time again, your failing private lives speak so much louder. See, we have all been to Oz. We have seen behind the curtain. And, even though we feign adoration, in our hearts, we know it is all just smoke and mirrors.
Carrie Fisher once said, “Celebrity is just obscurity biding its time.” So, I get it. You have the tiger by the tail, and being insignificant would be the death of you. What a precarious perch to maintain. Many of you, in fact, have sold your souls to buy relevance and stave off finality. But death is a curious thing. And if there is anything 2016 has shown us, it is very simply this: death doesn’t discriminate.
I have always been fascinated by a good writer’s process. Do they wrangle words from thin air, piecing them together in an ideal symmetry. Or do they take a formless lump of confusion and simply clarify? Either way, a writer possesses the most formidable weapon on earth. Dynamic. Potent. Irrevocable. And not everyone should hold a pen.
As a child, I remember sitting in the backyard of Helen Keller’s Alabama home, Ivy Green. A Sunday school field trip took me to an afternoon performance of The Miracle Worker by William Gibson. I was transfixed. Anne Sullivan turned on the light in Helen’s darkness with language. And in an instant, the “no world” of Helen’s childhood vanished. One line from that play has stayed with me all these years: “Words, why, you can see five thousand years back in the light of words, everything we feel, think, know–and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.”
Language is the original institutional memory. Words simmer in our consciousness long after we have shared them. They wreck us with their virility. They can lift us to unattainable heights, yet they can also drive us deep within ourselves to discover why we care so much. They linger. And oftentimes we welcome their company, but sometimes they haunt us.
So as I scroll along culture’s newsfeed, I find something curious. We have never lived in a time that coupled such overt sensitivity with such a lack of regard for the impact of words. We pride ourselves with our right to freedom of speech on the one hand and on the other, feign gross insult at every turn. We are offended easily and often. Yet we can’t shut up. How manic is that?
This next week is a big one for our nation. The conclusion of one of the most contentious, exhausting seasons that I can remember. My prayer is more than just politically motivated. We must remember that how we characterize the outcome of this election will hold sway, not just for the day or the week, but forever. Some of you may have already seen relationships damaged or ended by disagreement over a person or a policy. Maybe your garden needed pruning, and you are ultimately better off with an emotional boundary in place. However, I know that we have all been handed an arsenal and every time we touch the keyboard, we pull the pin on a potential grenade. When we sit around the dinner table or talk on our phones, our children are listening. Most significantly, when those that follow us through the ages of time find themselves facing a challenge and look back for solace or wisdom, they will read how we handled ours. And what then will our words reveal about the content of our character?
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.
I still believe in the laughter of children. Bouncing through the neighborhood in the dull summer afternoon heat, a whisper of hope swells in the sun. Children live in a perpetual sense of expectancy. They remember what we have long forgotten. They move and breathe and play with promise cupped carefully in the palms of their hands. A single fire fly illuminating its five finger house at dusk.
I still believe in the kindness of strangers. The commonality of shared experience. Grace showing out in the face of the worst of the human condition. I still believe in those who stand in line for hours to donate blood. Those who comfort the broken. Rescue the injured. Share their sandwiches. Bandage wounds. I still believe in the surgeon’s skill and the policeman’s courage. Brilliant luminescence against a backdrop of terror.
I still believe in the future. That there is one. I still believe that our salvation is found on bended knee, emptied of vainglory and affectation. I still believe that life is best lived in search of something beyond ourselves, inscrutable and incomprehensible. I still believe in truth. Absolute and infinite. No work of man can sway its immutable judgment. For truth was never the work of man in the first place.
I still believe that change starts in the mirror. There will always be those who pontificate in perfect pitch, but our values best not be shaped in the wake of their words. I believe we must, more than ever, do more than listen to talking heads and political puppet masters. We must do more than share our opinions on social media, even this one. We must do more than press like or love. We must do. Often and always. I believe in baking pies, sharing dinners, glasses clinking together in goodwill. I believe in a real hand reaching out to another real hand in a gesture of honest friendship. I believe in eye contact and a trusted name. I still believe, that our voices, however puny, can repudiate evil and chase the darkness to the corners of our existence.
I still believe. Because I have to. Someone is counting on me . . . on us to get this done. They look into our faces of disbelief and horror as we watch the work of madness, and they search for sanctuary. They hear the panic in our voices as we talk about the lack of viable candidates, threats of imminent terror and spiraling debt, and they wonder what this all means. They are our children, happily running through sprinklers and drinking from the rivers of perpetual innocence. They don’t have much longer until they discover we have failed them. They have not deserved our indiscretions, but they are inheriting them. Now is the time. Today. Find your real voice. Rest in a real hope. Reach out to a real person. Pour yourself out. And remember to still believe.