Just a Day

Today was just a day. I didn’t do anything special. I had no meetings, no pressing appointments, no deadlines, nothing screaming for my attention. I didn’t have to dress up or drive somewhere far away. No one called me on the phone or sent me an urgent email. I didn’t even feel compelled to check Facebook every hour or so to see if anything had happened that I might have missed.

It was just a day.

I took my son to the park. We climbed up ladders and slid down slides. He asked to ride on my shoulders and chase geese, which we did. He wanted me to push him high into the air on the baby swing and not so high on the big boy swing. I put the windows down in my car and we drove through the tree-lined roads listening to the cicadas scream at the heat. He asked me at least 30 times why the “cay-das” were so loud. I told him it was to scare birds.

Just a day at the park.

We both needed haircuts, so I took him to his usual barber, and on our way to the door, he reached up and held my hand. I didn’t ask him to; he just did it. And when we got inside and there was no one waiting, he didn’t fuss or scream. He simply walked over to the chair he liked best, climbed up, and quietly got his hair cut. When the barber was finished, he looked at me and said, “I look like you!” The barber laughed, and then Jon asked me sweetly if he could play with the toys in the corner. I told him yes. We had nowhere else to be. No schedule to keep. No one in need of our presence.

It was just a day.

After I got my haircut, we went to the grocery store, then came home and had lunch. After lunch, he wanted to play tackle, so we spent the better part of an hour with me flipping him up and around and again, tossing him onto the couch or pretending like his tiny punches were as powerful as Superman’s. When it was time to settle down, we sat on the couch together and watched a cartoon; his head drifting closer to my elbow with each passing minute. Soon enough it was nap time and three solid rocks had the boy completely asleep.

Now, I’m sitting here, typing a post that most people won’t read or, if they do read, may wonder about the point. That’s easy: there’s not one. I managed to live today without feeling the need to accomplish something, or make a difference, or any of the other things we often convince ourselves must be done every waking minute of every waking day. Sometimes we push so hard to make life fulfilling that we stop remembering to be fulfilled; we neglect to just stop and live life for a while.

So today was just a day. I’ve not had one in a long time so I felt like I needed to remind myself what it was like. Just me and my son, the sky and our imaginations.

Just a day.

It was wonderful.

Thorn in the Flesh

I went to a conference two weeks ago with the Senior Pastor and Associate Pastor of my church. It was a work thing, a bonding experience between us, and we enjoyed a couple days fellowship as we listened to some preaching at First Baptist Atlanta.

Now, if you’ve never been to a Bible conference (and honestly, how many of you who aren’t vocational ministers would?), don’t fret; if you’ve been to any kind of professional conference, you know what it was like. There were vendors, booths, giveaways, breakout sessions, main sessions, heavy hitters and up and comers. It was, I must say, a fun time for me.

But the Friday of this conference was particularly interesting, because two different men stood and spoke on the exact same Scripture passage and the exact same theme. Identical. The second preacher joked that he was facing the “worst nightmare of any preacher” but plunged ahead with his message. I’m glad he did, because I needed to hear both sermons.

The passage they spoke from was 2 Corinthians 12:6-10, on the proverbial thorn in the flesh of the Apostle Paul. I won’t take you through a rehash of the exegesis, but suffice it to say, both men who spoke that day were supremely convinced that Paul had a real affliction in his life that challenged his very sanity; that pushed him to the limits of his considerable intelligence and faith. And both preachers were completely convinced that it was the design of God for Paul to be afflicted.

Now, I know I’ve lost some people by now – talking about my faith on this blog tends to drive people away. But if you’ve stuck with me this far, I hope that you’ll hang with me to the end.

I have to confess that I have a thorn in my flesh, one that drives me insane, and produces a mixture of helplessness and rage unlike nothing else I know. I’ve begged God to take it away (as Paul begged God to do for him; see 2 Cor. 12:8) and nothing happens. It remains, to the consternation of both myself and Rachel.

The difference for Paul and I, is that my thorn isn’t in my flesh. It’s in my daughter’s lungs.

We’ve spent the majority of the weekend trying to stave off Ella’s asthma. It’s hasn’t worked. Even right now, Rachel is with E at the doctor’s office, getting yet another examination to tell us what we already know: she has a sinus infection that’s led to an ear infection that’s led to congestion in her lungs that’s triggered her asthma and made the poor child miserable. It’s the same freaking thing every fall, winter and spring, and it’s why we spent a large sum of money this summer to have Ella’s adenoids removed. We want this phase of our daughter’s life to be over with. We want the asthma gone.

But it persists. Much like dumb political strategy in Washington D.C., Ella’s chronic sinus and ear infections continue unabated, meaning we have to spend many days and nights giving her steriods, albuterol, ibuprofen, and whatever else we can think of to keep her semi-well. And whenever this happens, my anxiety – and really my anger and fear – go through the roof.

I’ve lost one daughter. I don’t want to lose another. And while I don’t honestly believe that Ella will die young, I didn’t honestly believe that Ruthanne would never draw breath either.

So I get scared.

I like to think I’ve made my peace with God over Ruthanne’s death. I’m okay with His Sovereignty. I understand that He decides the time and span of each person’s life. I get it, I believe it, and in many ways, I’ve no issue with it.

But when it comes to my daughter…man, it’s my weakness. It’s where I’m vulnerable. It’s the chink in my armor, the lapse in my faith, and it’s something that comes to the fore like clockwork every year for the past four years. Even now, as I’m typing this, I’ve just gotten a message from Rachel:

Ella is getting X-rayed for pneumonia. She has freaking pneumonia.

Part of me wants to cry. Part of me wants to toss my Bible across the room and scream, “There is no God!” Part of me wants to curl up in a ball and just cry, because we’re so tired of our little girl not getting to live a normal life.

And I know there are others who have it far worse than we do: childhood leukemia, cancer, HIV/AIDS, SIDS…I know there are people for whom “normal” will never be an option, and I feel for them.

But part of what makes Ella’s case so maddening is that she gets to be normal some of the time; she gets to be a regular kid for a few weeks or months, before the weather and seasons change and she suddenly morphs into this sickly child for three months. You can see it in her eyes: the defeat, the tiredness, the sadness. And as a parent, it makes you want to eat barbed wire or take a hostage. You feel like grabbing the doctor and threatening bodily harm unless someone can cure your kid.

You feel like falling to your knees and begging God for a miracle, but you don’t because you don’t feel like you deserve it and you’re not sure you’d get it even if you did.

This is my thorn. This is the battleground for my soul. I can feel the helpless anger rising in me as I type. I’m trying to ask God for help, begging Him to just make it all better, and I keep coming back to those messages and that passage of Scripture. It’s on a loop in my head and it won’t stop:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

This is my weakness. Having lost one child, I’m terrified of losing another, and despite my faith, despite what I know in my head and my heart, it is a fear that has staggering power over me. And that fear is compounded by the financial strain of having to pay for what insurance doesn’t cover – and friends, much like lingerie, insurance doesn’t cover a whole heck of a lot. All of this combines to push me towards bitterness and anger and rage and hate. And it’s so much easier to give in to it, to just let all of that wash over me instead of taking it to God in prayer. And even when I choose to pray, there’s this voice screaming in my ear: “It won’t matter! He doesn’t care! He doesn’t even exist!”

What started out as a typical Monday has transformed into yet another low-tide in my soul. I’m choosing, by sheer will and nothing else, to trust that God will provide. That God will hear and answer prayer. That God will, in some way, deliver.

There is no other alternative. At least, none that will accomplish anything more.

Pray for me, for my daughter, and for the wisdom of God to be made clear. And that His power will indeed be made perfect in this.

Today, I Give Up

Life sort of feels like this today...

My son had open house for his Pre-K class today.

Rachel, Jon and I went and had lunch with Ella at her school.

My grandfather is slowly disappearing before my eyes.

Meanwhile, the grass needs to be cut, there’s weeds running rampant in our flower beds, the inside of the house looks like the after-effects of a Kindergarten fraternity party, and the air conditioner is almost out of Freon.

I know there are other people out there with far worse going on in their lives. I know there are people who face the loss of their house, or their job, or their marriage, on top of a list similar to mine. It’s the nature, I suppose, of being human.

But in the midst of all of this, the one thing that keeps coming back to me day after day is this:

What if you didn’t have your faith?

I don’t have the energy to proselytize, so don’t think you’re gonna get a sermon. I’m just trying to tell you how it is for me. And how it is is that if I didn’t believe in the existence of a transcendent God, I would be crazy about right now because sometimes life seems very much out of control. It’s like grabbing at sand – you think you have it, but watch it all slip away despite it all.

So there is great relief to be found in the existence of someone Greater than me who sees it all in perspective and tells me to relax, because I can’t see that far ahead and I certainly can’t give myself permission to relax. I’m relieved to be relieved of being in control; it’s indescribably wonderful to be able to lean back in my chair and say, “Know what? Screw it. I’m gonna go to bed and trust God to work it out.”

That’s ugly and borderline blasphemous, but it’s how I feel right now. The world is changing so fast around me that I’m tired of trying to keep up. I’m going to lean back in my chair and let God be God, and let me be me.

And tomorrow I’m going to cut grass.

Hello Kitty: The Last Day of Childhood

The Destructor has been chosen...this freaking anime cat will take away my daughter's chldhood tomorrow morning.

Tomorrow morning, I will wake up earlier than usual. I will most likely have to rouse my daughter from her bed and usher her into the kitchen, where we’ll begin our normal morning routine. Only it won’t be normal anymore. There will be changes.

She won’t have the option of starting her day with her usual televised friends. She won’t be able to lay about in her nightclothes, playing with her dolls or ponies, until her mother or I insist on her getting dressed. Chances are she won’t even have time to bug her little brother. Ella will get dressed, get fed, put her hair into a bow, and together we’ll walk up the street to her bus stop.

Tomorrow, my daughter, bedecked in Hello Kitty, will say goodbye to the only life she’s known.

Over a single night, all that my family has known will change. And it will be a significant shift, one that will not correct, one that will not return to us except in brief stints known as winter, spring and summer break.

I was doing okay with that reality for the past few days, but much like the evening before major surgery, or your wedding, or any other life-altering day, I’m starting to feel a little less confident and a little more wistful. Almost panicked, even.

Do all people experience these kinds of shifts in the same way? Is it the singular feature of parenthood to feel more acutely those changes in your child’s life that signify maturation? I looked at the faces of other parents this morning at church and couldn’t detect any anxiety on their parts. But I could feel my heart beating wildly with each minute slipping by. I watched Ella play with her friends after the luncheon at our church and all I could think about was that at this same time next year she would be a completely different Ella. She wouldn’t be a precocious pre-K girl anymore; she would be something other, something undefined, something unpredictable.

Something foreign.

Of course that’s only true if I neglect to undergo this metamorphosis with her, and there is a real part of me that wants to scream, “No, this can’t be happening!” I feel as if somehow some giant, faceless force is attempting to wrench my little girl from my hands and take her somewhere I cannot go.

But the truth is, if I do not follow her on this new path, it will not be because I was forbidden; it will be because I chose to stay behind, cradling the past as fiercely as I once held her. This scares me because I can see the temptation of it and feel the pull towards that choice, but I know if I pull back and hold onto my memories of Ella’s early childhood as the basis for how I see and interact with her, I will lose her twice. Once, because she will move on and grow up and become herself as she is meant to be. Twice, because my memories will fade and, having made no new ones, I will be left with a dissolving image even more foreign and frightening than I could imagine.

So I will wake up tomorrow and get her out of bed. I will hold her longer than I normally would because I know that it will be the last time I can pull her into my embrace with the guarantee that nothing will happen to her unless I let it. I will crave that sense of protection that has safeguarded us both, even while we both knew it was a facade. I will let her go, my heart ripping to pieces and rebuilding itself only to rip into pieces again, and I will fix her a Pop Tart. Or a bowl of Cocoa Krispies. Or a bag of Frosted Flakes. Or maybe even a stack of pancakes, though I doubt that because she’s not really been into pancakes recently (just one more sign of the advancing of time). I will hurry her through her breakfast because, for the first time in her life, she will have a schedule that she must keep, a schedule that is enforced by a new entity that is greater than mom and dad and must be obeyed. She will have to dress and get medicine and brush her teeth and check her backpack and put on her shoes and clean her room and trek the Green Mile to the bus stop where her life, her young and frail life, will be forever changed by the opening of those big yellow doors and her first steps onto the Cheese Wagon.

In short, tomorrow morning I release my second-born, first-surviving child into the maws of the masochistic rat race that consumes us all with the same ferocity, while simultaneously losing my own divine illusion of control.

Two innocences for the price of one.

I can hear her singing now, a random yelp to herself and her friends “the Stuffies” that means nothing more to me than the very essence of her purity of soul. I hear it, and I tear up at the thought that some bruiser of a fifth grader may make fun of her tomorrow in the hallway. I hear it and I fill with rage at the very notion that someday some clumsy oaf will make an advance against her will and quite possibly she might feel helpless to resist.

Some people see the first day of Kindergarten as a bittersweet memory that signifies their child is growing up and will soon embark on new adventures.

I see the first day of Kindergarten as quite possibly the first steps to Hell. Or at the very least my own descent into madness.

It’s so bizarre, really, just how much of how I see the world is revealed through Ella’s venturing out into it. How contrary my internal thoughts are to the way I’ve presented the world to her. I’ve raised her to believe in herself, to believe in the powers of goodness and honesty, to trust her own innate creativity and intelligence and to resist the corrosion of conformity for as long as she can.

And all the while, I’ve harbored this festering hatred for the world I’ve painted with such caring detail. In essence, I’ve either lied to my child or to myself, and perhaps both; I’ve spent too long, it seems, dancing between two worlds instead of just inhabiting one.

Tomorrow, then, is my day of reckoning.

Will I choose to follow my daughter into her new world and do my best to reinforce those values and beliefs that I have instilled in her in order to help her become the very best person she can? Or will I hide, like a coward, in a hell of my own making, succumbing to the worst of all possible fates: being a wretched little man, afraid of the world and its unpredictability, who loses his beloved daughter because of his own weakness?

For better or worse, I must choose. As much for Ella’s sake as my own. And the choice will make my world radically different, for the good or the bad.

Who knew a day filled with excitement and potential and squeaky new Hello Kitty accessories could be so metaphysical?

Ella Goes to Kindergarten Camp, Dad Goes to Pieces…

Ella, the Kindergarten slayer.

My brain is normally a jumble of thoughts, some connected, others disjointed and meandering around like a bored relative at a party. But today is especially tough for me – while I’m working on my fall calendar, teaching plan for the year, and just in general trying to have a peaceful mental breakdown, I’m constantly distracted by one monstrous question that threatens to consume for the rest of my natural life:

How’s Ella doing?

This morning, Rachel and I (along with Jon) escorted Ella to her first day of Kindergarten Camp. That’s right – they now have practice runs for Kindergarteners. Brilliant move. I don’t remember if I had such a thing at my disposal when I was a kid; it’s certainly possible, but somehow I doubt it. I can only vaguely recall the emotional horror of being escorted to the bus stop by mom and placed inside the foul-smelling yellow beast’s belly. The feeling of insignificance as older, larger, aggressive kids swarmed in anarchy around me as I clung tightly to my lunchbox and stared at my brilliant white new sneakers. The sense of fear that enveloped me as I moved with the teeming masses into the cavernous opening of the school and navigated the absolute bedlam of the hallways. Thinking long and hard on this, my best impressions are fear, smallness, lostness, worry, anxiety.

It’s a very cinematic memory. I think it has a Michael Giacchino score.

In fact, the emotional core of the memory is so strong that even as I walked into Ella’s school today, I felt those same stirrings in me, only amplified because I was considering my child’s future. I looked at Ella’s thin little body, walking tip-toe across the great waxed floor, her tiny pink shorts and shirt shrinking against the massive white block walls, and all I could think about was: Heck no. She ain’t coming here.

The hallways were ridiculously long, the walls barren and bereft of color or style. The color scheme (mute whites and greys) combined with the fluorescent lighting made me feel as if I was dropping of my gifted and rare child at some secretive government lab where they specialize in stripping the unique and beautiful people of their souls (which, come to think of it, is the official mission and vision statement of Gwinnett County Public Schools…ba-dum-cha! Thank you, I’ll be here all week!). It felt wrong, taking my daughter into some weird amalgamation of an Aldous Huxley/George Orwell novel.

And public school architectural theory has changed quite a bit since I was in school. The colors used to be warmer and more inviting, for one thing, and the office, cafeteria and the library were all closer together. At Ella’s school the office is an intimidating bank of curtained windows to your far left once you walk through the front door, the kind of darkened, curtained windows you would imagine Drs. Mengele and Frankenstein collaborating behind. The entryway, instead of being small and cozy, is a massive swath of tile burnished to a high sheen (a sign of exceptional custodial work, may I say), the vast majority of which is white so as to give the entryway an even larger sense of space. And the library, despite its welcoming exterior and warm interior, seems to be only a mirage far across the expanse of whiteness.

It’s like Dr. Zhivago.

The rest of the school is laid out on a simple grid, like New York City or DC, though when you don’t know the grid it seems anything but simple. All in all, it’s a cold, empty tomb. And here I was, walking my daughter into the heart of it with only a Hello Kitty lunchbox at her side. I suddenly thought of Ella, suspended by her feet from a ceiling of ice, kind of like Luke Skywalker in the lair of the Wampa in The Empire Strikes Back. I was overwhelmed by the image; I mean the least I could’ve done was give Ella a good blaster. Or a lightsaber.

We got Ella to her class without me sharing any of my thoughts with her or Rachel, and once we got to the actual room, a magnificent burst of color and texture and shapes and warmth burst into sight. But despite the homeyness of the surroundings, there was still the second greatest fear of all school-aged kids: the teacher. She turned out to be the daughter-in-law of one of our neighbors, a young woman with a nice smile and gently burning auburn hair. She let Ella choose her own seat (at the green table) and offered her some paper to draw on. Ella sat down without hesitation and happily scribbled away, as if she had no fear. Me, I would have been terrified; if the teacher is the second greatest fear, then the first should be obvious – classmates. Those walking, talking abstractions we call fellow students, the ones you don’t know, aren’t sure how to get to know, and secretly worry will not like you in the slightest.

As a kid, I would have recurring nightmares in which I was the sole focus of my classmates’ collective rage and hatred, and I would be surrounded by them in their pitiless fury, their faces gone, replaced by smooth, featureless skin that made them all the more inhuman and unknown. I hated the first day of school, the great mystery of whether or not I would have an ally already in class, the torturous tension of having to learn an all-new set of people and their accompanying foibles. But my daughter, thank God, seems not to have inherited this part of my personality. In fact, she didn’t seem to care in the slightest about the horrible unanswered question before her: who’s in my class? She just colored. And sang.

I ended up having to take Jonathan out of the room because he was threatening to completely disassemble it, and so I didn’t see how Ella reacted when Rachel finally left her alone. I imagined her, so small and innocent, sitting at the slightly too-large table coloring in a daze and then suddenly snapping to and realizing: I’m alone. What would she do? Would she panic? Would she call out for me to come to her rescue and wonder why I didn’t respond? Would she suddenly come face-to-face with the greatest horror of human existence, that despite the presence of family and friends who love and guide us, in the end our lives come down to our ability to live them on our own?

I almost hyperventilated. Metaphysically speaking.

Rachel found Jonathan and I wandering the halls and we talked about the school, its size, the relative blandness of the color palette. Suddenly Rachel looked at me.

“I forgot to tell the teacher about Ella’s allergies and asthma!”

She darted down the hall, and Jon and I slowly followed after her. I wondered how Ella would respond to Rachel’s reappearance. Would she want to go home with her? Would she cry out for the comfort and safety of her mother’s embrace? The minute passed like decade. Finally Rachel came around the corner.

“I told the teacher about Ella. She’s thinks it’ll be okay.”

“How was Ella?” I asked.

Rachel smiled. “She looked at me, pointed to the door, and mouthed, ‘Go away, Mommy!’ Guess she won’t have any problem coming to school.”

For the first time that morning, I felt a natural smile break out. My daughter is not me, not full of my random worries and thoughts, not paralyzed by my innate shyness. She is her own brilliant little person, and I know – despite her innocence, despite her curiosity, despite all of my personal fears – that she will be just fine with school and beyond.

A father couldn’t ask for more.