He was in grey and white, I was in red and gold. He was on the stage, I was sitting in the audience. He was calm but predictably tinged with goofiness while I was upright in my seat and crumbling inside.
A small part of me anticipated that the day might be hard. The rest of me worried mostly about what he would wear and what I would wear and how he, his dad and I could look fabulous together on this day of celebration. And while we did look fabulous, and while it was a day of celebration, I felt pieces of me falling and cracking against each other as I watched this big, beautiful child of mine cross the stage and receive a graduation certificate from his teacher.
It is such a terribly tired cliché, but I could swear just yesterday he was in kindergarten. He made his mark there the first day by tackling his best friend, a tiny little girl who was used to his antics. His teacher, however, did not know their connection and swooped in to correct this behaviour, which promptly sent my goofy son into tears of shame and remorse.
I thought of the teacher at the ceremony, and I thought of the little girl. The teacher still teaches at the school and we greet each other with smiles and inquiries after each other's well being. The little girl, on the other hand, was not there. She died of cancer nearly three years ago.
I couldn't stop thinking about her through the rest of the ceremony: Wondering what she would have looked like as she stretched and grew into adolescent beauty along with the others girls graduating that day; wondering which award she would have received, not whether she would have received one; wondering, as I have wondered ever since it happened, why in God's name she had to die.
There was a celebration of food and dance for the students in the gym after the party. When I got ready to leave school with my other kids, I went into the gym trying as inconspicuously as I could to check on my son. When I arrived I found most of the graduates sitting in groups looking at their phones, while out on the dance floor were several girls and just two boys. One of them was my son, hands raised above his head, body jumping and leaping in time to the music blaring from the gym's speakers. It wasn't until he left the floor to try and get others to dance that I was able to ask him if he wanted to leave. He didn't. He stayed and danced until the end.
There is such joy, tinged with such sweet, barely bearable pain in watching your children grow up. Having had four, I've almost always enjoyed the consolation of having one, two, or three more kids yet to reach the same milestone as the one reaching it now. It helps a little. My daughter has two more years until she begins kindergarten, while my third son finishes kindergarten today. Knowing the milestones will be repeated steadies the joy and lightens the pain.
This third son keeps asking if they're going to have a graduation for him and the rest of his kindergarten class. Preschool set him up for pomp and circumstance with every year's end, so I always disappoint him when I answer "no." But, I always add, "One day you'll get a big graduation like your brother is getting now."
If the present is any indicator, that day will come before I am ready. Other milestones will be achieved, increasing in familiarity and intensifying in rapidity. This thing called time, to use another cliché, does pass in the blink of an eye. This life we are so privileged to live moves too quickly to catch or clutch as it passes by.
Thank God it is a beautiful life. Thank God we have it, for as long or as little as that may be.
A blessing for you, and for me:
May God strengthen us for this season,
However sweet or sorrowful it may be;
That our eyes may see and know what is good,
And our hearts be consoled through what aches and breaks them.
One day you are moving on, ready to close the door on childbearing and child-losing and open a new one that places far fewer demands on your body and soul.
You give away your crib. You give away your boxes of baby clothes. You give away your baby toys and your baby bedding, your bibs, your teething rings, your rattles.
It all gets packed up and dropped off at a local thrift store, hopefully blessing some other family who wants to enter the season you so badly want to leave.
And you move to a new house, and you set up rooms for a family of five. You plan a trip abroad. You look forward to a less complicated future than the past you are leaving behind.
And then one night, you get ready to order sushi and, because your period is just a few days late, take a pregnancy test just to be sure.
And it comes back positive. Unbelievably positive.
And you stand in the bathroom and cry and cry because the door you shut has been re-opened; the loss you hoped so badly to avoid remains an awful possibility.
But then your husband--your good-natured, steady, immoveable husband--comes in and gives you a hug and smiles and tells you it will be okay.
And you try believe him. At the very least, you stop crying.
Thirty-five weeks later, you give birth to a perfectly perfect, light-haired, big-eyed baby girl. A girl you can't bear to put down, a girl from whom you never sleep apart for the first 17 months of her life. A girl who goes to bed at night cradled in your arms. A girl who loves her daddy and her big brothers but who saves her biggest smiles for you.
A girl without whom you can't imagine life. A girl who transmits sunshine and steadiness from the palms of her tiny hands.
And one day, your baby girl isn't a baby anymore. She is a golden-haired, delicate toddler whose courage and tenacity surprise those who judge her by her fragile frame. A girl who misses nothing: not the subtle changes of your mood or the drama-ridden conflicts of her siblings. A girl who by 18 months old can identify every article of clothing in the house and to whom they belong. A girl who comforts herself by climbing up into your arms and lap and fingering the tiny folds of skin on your neck.
She still transmits sunshine and steadiness, but she bundles them up in words--lots and lots of words, clearly communicated, easily understood. She hears and comprehends; she speaks and you understand. You know what frustrates her and what gives her joy. You know what she wants and why she wants it. You see how attentively she follows the conversations and quarrels of her brothers because she uses their vocabulary to press her own case against them, and you.
She still goes to sleep in your arms. She allowed her daddy to put her to bed for a few months, but when he went away on a trip she staked you out as her permanent night-time companion. And you mind...but you also don't mind, because you have medically closed the door on childbearing and child-losing, and she is--and always will be--your baby.
And people tell you that it will be difficult someday, that girls have more attitude and drama than boys and you will have to worry more about her than her brothers. And you know, already, that the world is less safe for her than for them, that in many ways her thoughts, her perspective, her very life are measured as of less worth than these three brothers who came before her. And this strikes you as the most foolish of all follies, because how on earth could such a beautiful, remarkable person be less valued than any other?
And you determine, each and every day, to let her know how precious she is. How loved she is. How carefully you pay attention to what she says and what she does; how seriously you mind what she wants and what she doesn't want. How much her voice, her thoughts, her feelings and her perspective matter to you and to the rest of her family, and how this will be true whether she is a toddler or a teenager, married or single, gay or straight.
And you think back to that moment in the bathroom, when you wept over what her impending life meant for yours. And you thank God that your fears weren't in any way realized; that rather than losing her, she lived; and that her life, far from impeding or disrupting your own, has made it utterly, gloriously complete.
"When the great, sweet Rabbi Zusia of Hanipol was on his deathbed, his students gathered all around him. The Teacher said to them:
When I get to the Next World, I am not afraid if God will ask me, 'Zusia, why weren't you Moses...?' I can answer, 'I did not have the leadership abilities of Moses.'
And if God asks, 'Zusia, why weren't you Isaiah...?' I can answer, 'I did not have the eloquence of Isaiah, the Great Master of powerful and dazzling speech.'
And if God should ask, 'Zusia, why weren't you Maimonides...?' I can answer, 'I did not have the vast intellectual skills of Maimonides.'
No, my students, I am not afraid of those questions. What I fear is this: What if God asks me, 'Zusia, why weren't you Zusia?'
Then what will I say?"
-A Hasidic tale; this version is adapted from Danny Siegel's rendition.
Since I was a very little girl, I have enthusiastically engaged in hero worship of one kind or another: finding and fixating on people whose lives inspire mine, whose courage or wisdom compel me to live more courageously and wisely. A few of these people I have found in real life, but most of them have come out of books (books which, naturally, carve and curate the lives of their subjects in such a way as to make me feel my own life will never measure up).
For the most part I've been okay with that. Having another moral mountain to climb or a new character flaw to conquer--these just seemed part of being human, and even more part of being Christian. In his letters to the ancient church, St. Paul was always setting up ideals towards which to aspire, extolling virtues that were already present in communities while listing what they had yet to perfect: love, harmony, peacemaking, truth-telling. In other words, Spirit-life in all of its beautiful, exhausting breadth and depth. When Paul talked about individual believers, it was much the same: good job, but there's more to be done! And then he went on about us running our races, throwing off whatever entangles, pressing on towards the goal.
In the Bible there are many heroes to choose from, but for Christians there is only One who rises above the rest and demands our worship: Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. Christ who forgave his enemies, Christ who re-established the law of love, Christ who was obedient to the point of death, even death on an awful old cross.
As I have long understood it, Christ is our Hero-with-a-capital-H. And we are to worship Him, to emulate Him, to BE like Him, even if it kills us.
A few months ago my therapist, after hearing me justify some awful (i.e. destructive) experiences I had put up with as a pastor and public Christian, finally quieted me with a wave of her hand and these words: "You have over-identified with Jesus."
I stopped talking and stared at her. Over-identified with Jesus? How can a Christian over-identify with Jesus? How is that even possible?
Before and since then she has elaborated on this statement with what I as a Christian feminist believe to be true but apparently forgot to apply to myself: "Jesus died so you wouldn't have to."
I have to believe--I must believe--that Jesus does not need me to spend my life killing myself in order to be like Him. I have to believe that, while Jesus is my Hero-with-a-capital-H, I am ultimately not called to be Jesus. I am only called to be ME. Thus when I, like Zusia, am called from this life and made to stand before the celestial throne, I will not have to explain why I wasn't Jesus or Mary or Deborah or some other of my endless line of heroes--because I am not them--but rather whether or not I was me in the best way I know how to be.
Beloved reader, we will not some day have to explain why we were not _________ (fill in the blank with the hero/family member/colleague/deity you aspire to be or beat yourself up for not being).
We will simply have to answer if we lived our lives as ourselves--our beautiful, imperfect, unique, confounding and contradictory selves.
Nearly nine months into this season of my life, I am accepting this to be true. Jesus is my Hero, but He is not me (and I most certainly am not Him). And with that truth accepted, so much that is good (and a fair bit that is not good) is settling into its proper place.
Not that I am learning a bunch of new stuff; most of what I am "discovering" I probably always knew to be true about me. But as I learn, I am trying, with God's help, to shape my life by what gives me life. I am embracing what is real and true in and around me, not just what I want to be true or my ego needs to be true.
And what gives me life? While I will always be learning and relearning that answer, I know it has to do with putting words on a paper or a screen; with having heart-to-hearts conversations with my children and helping them navigate their own beautiful, chaotic, unique lives. I know my life is real and given to me through adoring and connecting with and fighting with my husband; through seeing my family and talking with my friends; through feeding the people around me and myself with good food. I know my life has to do with prayer and connecting with God in the ways that He allows me to (and I will probably write on that again and again); at some point it may again have to do with helping others connect to God as He allows them to.
I know my life has to do with being careful with my words and considering others' feelings, including my own. I know it has to do with recognizing injustice and doing my part to correct it. I know my life has to do with soaking in the words of a well-written book, and learning how to speak with others in a language different from my own. I know my life has to do with sinking my feet into soil or sand and feeling the sun, the wind, or the rain on my face. I know that for me to be well I need some quiet and solitude, and that I have to literally pay to get either of those things with four kids in the house (and if I don't pay in one way, I--and they--will pay in others).
I intend to keep finding out what gives me life, and who I am in light of who God has made me to be. Sorrows, hurts, disappointment and loss will come, as they have never ceased to come all the days of my life: I just won't go running after them now.
My dear Jesus, I think You--the One who came that we might have life, and life to the full--are perfectly okay with that.
A blessing for you, and for me:
May I be me
And you be you
And we be us
With God's help,
and with an abundance
of love, peace, joy and strength,
for His Name's sake.