Blessings Recounted

It was last year, in this month of April, that I got the phone call.

My mother, trying to sound only mildly concerned, called to tell me that they had taken my dad to the hospital and they were running tests.  The catch in her voice betrayed her calm.

While working his usual Saturday morning crossword puzzle his brain had gone a little fuzzy.  He couldn’t seem to get the words to travel the familiar path from his brain to his tongue.

Don’t worry, she said, don’t worry,  I’ll call you when I know more.  I heard the phone click as she hung up, and just like the click of a light switch, my world went dark.

In 52 years, I have never known of a world without my father.  And somewhere in the part of my mind that stores all things that are unbearably true, emerged something that I had been denying since I was a little girl – that someday my father was going to die.  And now dawn was breaking on that someday.

Over the course of the next week, we would learn that my dad had cancer.  It had started in his lungs and made it’s way to the brain, which was further complicated by a multitude of other existing issues.

My parents were referred to an oncologist who laid the cards plainly on the table.  Cancer was my dad’s new landlord and this heartless landlord was serving an eviction notice.

Together my parents decided that they would not do chemo, but they would do radiation to buy some time, but whatever time they had left, they wanted it to be free of the misery that medicine often brings.

My mother asked the doctor how long he thought they might have.  Doctors don’t like to answer that question, so she asked him another way:  Could they have the summer? she asked, as if for permission.  The doctor said yes, with radiation they would probably get to enjoy the summer. But after that all bets were off.

And so that’s what they set about to do – to enjoy the last of what would be nearly 60 summers together.

As tragic and sorrowful as this past year has been, it has also blessed me in countless and unexpected ways.

The stories that follow in the coming days and weeks (or however long it takes to get it all out) are those blessings recounted.

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Swings And Lane Cutters. When A Win Is Not A Win.

Have you ever been driving somewhere, and you see a sign in big flashing letters that unmistakably says MERGE RIGHT. LEFT LANE CLOSED AHEAD.

Being the good reader that you are, you take this to mean that the left lane is closed ahead.  You merge right because you know that no left lane will preclude driving in the left lane. You are astute like that.

Then you, along with the other good readers, spend the next 30 minutes painfully inching forward in the right lane for the next mile where the left lane actually ceases to exist.  And as you approach the point where the left lane ends you are united with those who did not merge right a mile back and now insist that you let them in.

And are you like me in that some days your tendency is to look straight ahead and pretend that you don’t see them? And maybe you keep the front end of your car so close to the back end of the car ahead that even a gnat couldn’t pass between?  Or maybe you are even brazen enough to look over at them and give them the “Ain’t no way buddy!” look.  You maybe even say to yourself, “That’s no fair!  Get in line and inch up like the rest of us!  Who do you think you are??”

Now that I’m older and have a slightly better grip on what is important in life, I’ll usually just wave one or two in front of me and go on my merry way, because the stress of teaching the world a lesson while behind the wheel of a car is just not worth it.  But sometimes, it’s just one of those days and I can’t stop myself, and I allow myself to falsely believe that they will change their me-first-lane-cutting ways and the world will be a better place for all concerned if I don’t let them get away with it.

But that never happens.

Those days when I just have to right the traffic wrongs, I never move along feeling better about myself.  I never feel like I made my little slice of the world a better place.  In fact just the opposite.  Sometimes a win is not really a win.

A while back, we had an exceptionally spring like day in the middle of the winter and Sean and I were hanging out at the park.  Sean was on the swing, not really swinging, but just kind of sitting and twisting in the sunshine.  A neighbor showed up with his little grandson who is about four and as is typical of four-year-olds, he wanted the swing Sean was on.  Being four, he did not say, “Pardon me sir, if you’re not going to swing, may I?”  No. Being four, he tugged at the chains and said something like, “I want to swing.”

To this, Sean responded by digging in his proverbial heels.  He gripped the chains tighter and sat as immovable as Mount Rushmore and gave the four-year-old the “Ain’t no way buddy!” look, which was painfully all too familiar.  He was going to teach that four-year-old a lesson – you can’t just cut in on the swing!

I really wanted Sean to voluntarily give up the swing for three reasons.  One, I want Sean to have a good heart, one that loves to give and serve.  Two, I want Sean to experience how good it feels when you respond with kindness where it is not necessarily warranted or likely to be reciprocated.  And three, and I am cringing as I write this in naked honesty, I wanted my neighbor to think I was an awesome parent.

But at the same time, I didn’t want to force Sean to give up the swing.  Embarrassment is never an effective teacher in my opinion.  As expected, Sean soon grew weary of the little boy tugging at the swing, so he got off and we headed home to sit on the front steps and watch the world go by.

I took that opportunity to try to tell him how sometimes when you win, you don’t really win, knowing that this is a lesson he will have to learn on his own over and over throughout his life.

“I know you probably don’t understand this just yet, but you could have given up the swing to that little boy and it wouldn’t have cost you a thing.  And you could have looked really big in the eyes of that little boy and his grandpa,” I said, “And bonus, when you do something like that, you get to feel good about yourself.”

He didn’t respond to that.  I could tell he was giving it skeptical consideration or trying to figure out how to get off the subject.

“What if you give up something that does cost you?” he asked.

Good question.  Crickets chirped as I tried to think of something I had given up lately that had cost me something and couldn’t come up with one thing.

“I guess then you get to look big in the eyes of God,” I said slowly, more to myself than to him, wondering what in the heck just happened here.  I thought I was supposed to be the teacher.

Sometimes, the teacher is the student and learning is more about the questions than the answers.

What I Learned As A Salad Girl

My dream for Sean has always been that he will be a worker.  I think God made us to work. I think work provides many things that we humanoids need for a meaningful existence – structure, purpose, satisfaction and if you are lucky, a paycheck.

But oddly enough, work is something that has to be learned.  It doesn’t always come naturally.

In the summer of 1974, when I was 14, I got a job at the Bonanza Steak House.  I was as blind as a bat and wore hideous thick wire-rimmed glasses and dreamed of getting  some of those new fancy soft contact lenses.  But at my house, there wasn’t money for anything like that, so if I wanted contact lenses, I was going to have to buy them myself.  And if I were going to buy them, I was going to have to get a job.

So that summer, before I started high school, I somehow managed to convince the people at Bonanza to hire me as a salad girl.  My job consisted of cleaning and chopping lettuce, cutting jello into sparkly little cubes and putting out slices of pre-made pie, and although it was not explicitly stated, when those things ran out, I was supposed to replenish them — as opposed to standing around twirling my hair — and that was a thought that would have never occurred to me.

I knew nothing about work. I thought I was there to look pretty and socialize.  After several days of what must have been exasperating training, Alma, the poor lady who not only had to stand on her feet most of the day but had to train me, flat out said, “Honey you are going to have to  learn to work or we’re going to have to let you go.”  Well my ears perked right up because if I were ever going to get those contact lenses, I was going to have get someone to pay me.  I quickly put two and two together.  Work = someone gives me money = I get stuff.  No work = I no get stuff.

After that conversation, I quickly figured out what work meant and went on to become one of the best salad girls in history.  It’s true. You can check the Salad Girls Almanac, my name is right there under Who’s Who Among Salad Girls.

Once I was set straight, it turned out that I liked work.  I liked how it felt, the sense of accomplishment one gets when salad, jello and pie don’t run out and I liked having spending money and not having to rely on anyone to provide for me. I could pay my own way. I could buy my own contact lenses and that gave me a sense of hope, that I had the power to change my circumstances.  The only sad part of the story is that it took me 14 years to figure that out.

Sean has been pretty good about learning to do things and doing them when I ask.  He’s been a teachable sous chef and reliable towel folder.  He puts away the silverware, carries in groceries and makes his bed when I ask. But what I want for him to learn is to take responsibility for what needs to be done — to see it and do it.  Oh, there are dishes in the sink?  I can put them in the dishwasher.  Oh, the trash is full?  I can take it out and put a new liner in the trash can.  Oh, the newspaper is lying in the driveway?  I can run out and pick it up.

But even beyond all that, I’d like for him to develop a heart that loves to serve, because I think if you have that, then you are more likely to see work as a joy and a privilege and not just a means of a paycheck.  They say if you have a job you love, you never work a day in your life.  I would add to that if you have a heart to serve, you probably love your job.

So the other day, AD and I had this discussion with Sean. We told him how we wanted him to identify some tasks around the house of which he could take ownership.  He half-heartedly mentioned a few things before he got to the big question, “How much will I get paid?”

“Paid?” said AD.  “How about you get free room and board here at the House of Antique?”

“And dental and medical too,” I chimed in looking at several thousand dollars worth of metal in his mouth,  “And we’ll even throw in paid vacation.”

He looked a little disappointed because his generation is all about the paycheck, the trophy, the snacks — the reward.

And I don’t know how to change that other than to let him grow up to become a salad girl.

In A Roundabout Way

The town in which we live was originally a small quaint farming community.  These days,  that small quaint farming community — which used to be 10 miles from its closest neighbor —  is “nestled” under the hairy armpits of the other once quaint farming communities.

And now, none of these communities are neither small nor particularly quaint.  We are more like a bunch of fat guys on an airplane – all squeezing over into our neighbor’s space and fighting over the elbow rest.

It is not a town without some charm though.  Within the space of a block you can find homes wherein high-paid athletes live behind big stone fences and other homes wherein disinterested Billy goats live behind chain link fences.  And we live somewhere in between.  We have neither a big stone fence nor a Billy goat.

goat2

As you might imagine, the expansion of so many people into an area that was intended for slow moving tractors and Billy goats has created traffic problems.  And the city’s response to this problem has been roundabouts.

Roundabouts are a Yankee thing, and well, it’s taking some getting used to for us slow moving southern dwellers.  We only know how to do the four-way stop, and even that, seems to be a challenge for some of us.

And it gets even more complicated when you have to negotiate the roundabout while it’s under construction.

So the other day, we approached the intersection that is near our house and discovered that it was being transformed into one of them fancy roundabouts.  There were barricades up and chunks of road had been torn out and traffic was being diverted and re-directed and nothing was where it used to be.  Drivers were entering the roundabout, not knowing exactly what to do — some stopping completely, some yielding and others just zippin’ through.  People were honking and throwing their hands up in the air.

From the back seat, Sean perfectly assesses the situation with his signature wit.  “Instead of a roundabout,” he said, “they should call it a Round of Doubt!”

And from henceforth, it shall be known…

Whining Is Not A Strategy

There is an old saying that we all know:  The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

In other words, those who complain the loudest and the longest and in the most annoying repetitious way possible —  get what they want.  Except from me, then no, they get nothing.

My policy is this:  I don’t negotiate with terrorists or toddlers. Or those who behave as such.

At the House of Antique, if you are whining, the answer is automatically NO.  If you continue whining, you will get the Antique Mommy fish eye, which has been known to stop a charging rhino in it’s tracks.  And if you still insist on whining, well let’s just hope you’ve got your salvation plan worked out.

It would seem that whining is built into children, as a survival mechanism, as all children try it out at one time or another.  Which, now that I analyze that, it would appear as though I am devoid of the instinct to see to the survival of my child.  Yet?  So far, so good.

Some people are gifted in their ability to tune out annoying noise, and those people become teachers.  I can’t think or have a conversation if the TV is blaring, and the leaf blower makes my eardrums ache.  But I would take 1000 leaf blowers over one 40-pound child whining PleasepleasepleasePLEEEEEaaaasssee-PUH-leeeze-Uh!

Sean is a super bright boy and he figured out early on that whining and saying “please” in various intonations four hundred times in a row was not going to work with me.  I think he tried it out once or twice, and after he fully recovered from the sting of the fish eye, he moved on in search of other more civilized candy-getting tactics.  Back in the day, when he was my grocery store boyfriend, we’d pass a kid who was whining and he’d just keep licking his Tootsie Pop and shake his head as if to say, “Whining – what an unsophisticated strategy.”

Last year, I was doing a project in Sean’s classroom and this one particularly energetic boy jumped out of his seat and ran up to me and started jumping up and down waving his hand in my face (which is a good way to lose a hand) and started in with the PickmePickmePleasePleasePleeeeeezPrettyPleasePickMe!  Sean came to my rescue (or maybe he came to the boy’s rescue) and nudged him and quietly said, “Dude.  She won’t respond to that.  If you’re whining the answer is automatically no.”

I gave the boy a my crazy lady half smile-half fish eye and he slunk back to his seat.

Boundaries

Boundaries have become the issue lately — geographic boundaries.

Some families in our neighborhood are of the free-range philosophy.  They have chosen to let their children roam unattended.  AD and I have decided that is not a good choice for Sean right now.  Some of the reasons behind our decision have to do with Sean and where he is in the process of proving himself as responsible, reliable and of good judgment.

Other reasons have to do with us; our perceived risks and rewards that come with allowing him to roam beyond the reach of my eyeballs.  And really, what more important thing do I have to do than to keep track of my kid?  I can’t think of anything.

Sidebar:  For those of you who will accuse me of hovering, I would like to point out that there is a huge difference between hovering and keeping track of your kid. I do not hover.  I do however spy.  I watch him make mistakes from a distance and only intervene if it means I might have to make a trip to the ER.

Nonetheless, when he sees a boy a full year younger riding his bike down the street, he bristles with injustice.  “Why does he get to ride his bike all over and I don’t?  He’s younger than me!  Everyone gets to ride their bikes by themselves except me! That’s not fair!”

And to this I say, “That is the choice his family has made for him.  Life is not fair.  We never make choices based on what other people are doing. Never.”

He sighs.  He huffs. But he accepts it because he knows he would have a better chance of moving the Great Wall of China than to budge me an inch on this issue.

The fact of the matter is, not everyone is doing it.  Some families let their kids roam unattended and out of sight, but many other families like ours, do not — and those are the boys that Sean hangs out with, boys from families who share our parenting philosophy and that makes it a little bit  easier when we can counter with, “Bryan doesn’t.  Nathan doesn’t.  Aaron doesn’t. Reagan doesn’t.  Clayton doesn’t….”

I know that at some point I will have to let him go off on his bike and out of my sight, but I think he has some proving to do.  I want to see him demonstrate good judgment over time.  I want to feel like if he found himself in a tight spot that he would have the physical and mental resources to get out of it.

It’s a different word than when I grew up in the 1960s.  My mother seldom knew where I was. I would roam on foot or bike for four or five miles away from the house by myself and be gone for hours.  One time I got so far way from home that a policeman brought me home in a police car. I was about nine.

Some might say that those experiences were good, that I learned how to manage in the world. That may be true, but I think more so than that, that God placed hedge around me to protect me from my own stupidity, one that covered me many times well into adulthood. The hedge may have protected me from stupidity, but unfortunately not from the lingering embarrassment from stupidity.

Does Sean have a hedge around him too?  Yes. For now, it’s me.

So, I’m curious — what is your policy on boundaries for your kids?  What factors in your world, your life, your experience influenced your decision?

A Good Friend

This morning, I watched two boys tumble out of the backseat of my car and scramble towards the school.  Their backpacks bounced wildly as they ran and playfully shoved each other off the sidewalk.  I couldn’t hear them, but I knew that they were giggling and calling each other out with mock indignation, “Duuude!?”

Since the day I knew I was pregnant, I have prayed for many things for my child, but my constant prayer has been that he would be blessed with a good friend.  As I watched the two boys disappear around the corner, I sensed that for this season at least, my prayer had been answered.

When I say “a good friend” I don’t mean someone who enjoys the same things he does or someone who will reciprocate play dates.  What I want for Sean is a friend who possesses the Biblical quality of goodness – a good friend.  Proverbs 17:17 says, “A good friend loves at all times” and a friend who loves at all times does not let his buddy do something that would make his mommy sad.

And in Bryan, Sean’s BFF for this season (or dare I even hope, for life?) I see a boy who has the fruit of goodness growing in him.

Not long ago, Bryan was over to play and Sean was being a real toot.  When I took Bryan home, I told him I was sorry that Sean had not been very nice to him and he said – and this blew me away – “That’s okay, he’s probably just tired.”

Grace and goodness – what more could you want in a friend?

Bryan’s mother tells me he has his days too (who doesn’t?) but on the whole, I see in him an innate desire to do what is good and right.  He is a boy who is cautious and doesn’t like getting in trouble and Sean needs someone like that to temper his sometimes dramatic free-spiritedness.

I know that with each passing year, the influence of the world will increase in his life and my influence will decrease.  I know that the company he keeps will influence the choices he makes.  I know that the stakes only get higher as his world gets bigger.  The people he chooses to partner with in friendships along the way will have a hand in writing the story of his life.

I know that the time is coming when I will have to lengthen the rope, to let him go with his friends (clear out of my sight!) and in letting him go, he will encounter choices to go left or right.   And I think the best I can hope for is that he will have at least one good  friend who will hold him accountable, who is willing to challenge a questionable choice or at least speak up and say, “Dude. Maybe you shouldn’t do that…”

At some point in life, one has (hopefully) developed some wisdom and discernment, and friends of all sorts is a good thing; I think we are called to that.  But for a nine-year-old who has yet to fully develop those traits —  right now he needs, and has, a good friend.

And that is an answered prayer.