David: A Letter For My Friend


I finally met your family on Saturday, and it was the way I always feared I’d meet them – at your memorial service. I could tell in a moment that whatever shitty cards life dealt you God made up for with the hearts of those He placed around you. Your parents are warm and genuine; your brothers show exceptional, quiet strength. I loved them all with a single hug, and could feel how much you are a part of them. Your presence emanating from them was such a comfort. You will not fade from their hearts and minds, and it made me wish I knew them better.

David What I always understood but didn’t fully appreciate until Saturday was that I only knew you for one tiny fraction of your life – the very last part of it. It was strange and wonderful for me to sit and listen as your loved ones talked about you at hockey games and Hooters. They reminisced about you bowling and working and eating and trash talking other football teams. (Wait, that one I did experience…)  Through their stories, you came alive for me in a different way than you had been when you were alive. And for a few minutes, I was jealous of them. I was envious that they’d had real conversations with you, that they’d seen you standing, walking, talking. I was jealous that they’d heard how your jokes sound in your own voice, not through the halting robotic drone of an electronic communication board.

Then I realized how lucky I’d been to witness the pinnacle of your presence here on earth, when you displayed not regular ol’ muscular strength but the immense inner strength of your being. I knew you when you were fragile yet amazingly unbreakable, when you were feeble yet fierce. And I learned so much from witnessing that strength.

When your uncle spoke to the crowd of us gathered, he talked about how tough you were, how you never complained a single time about the insurmountable challenges you faced.
“He took it like a man,” he said of you, and I thought about how often I’d silently lamented how cruel and unfair it was that you’d never get to experience so many of life’s treasured moments, the usual privileges of being a man in this world. Driving a car. Falling in love. Having kids. Building a life.

In my misguided lamentations, I overlooked how much of a man you already were. I feel like I should apologize to you for that.

David-and-MeOurs was a friendship that was as quiet as it was powerful, and I loved the quiet as much as the power. So I didn’t get to go bowling with you, or to a hockey game. We never shared a meal or a car ride or a trip to a sporting event. But I think I’m lucky. I saw the best in you while you endured the worst. I saw courage and strength and resilience; you let me witness and touch the human condition in a way that changed me, I hope for the better.

I miss you, David. I miss the way you’d start laughing at a funny part in a movie a full 15 seconds before the funny part happened. I miss the intimacy of feeding you those ice cream Magic Cups (which I found out Saturday was actually against the rules. Thank goodness Nurse Amy bent the rules for me). I miss the anticipation of waiting to see what you would push next on your communication board, what gem you wanted to tell me. (And how it was often the random yet pointed “Steelers suck.”)

I miss the tenderness of holding your hand.

We released butterflies at the end of your memorial service.  They were folded in little opaque envelopes with your name on them, their wings pressed together, immobile, until the envelopes were spread open. It took a few moments for mine to be coaxed out of its flat paper cage.

butterflies envelopeWatching so many butterflies dipping and fluttering around us in the parking lot didn’t do much to comfort me, but the poem the pastor offered beforehand did.

A butterfly lights beside us like a sunbeam
And for a brief moment its glory
and beauty belong to our world.
But then it flies again
And though we wish it could have stayed,
we feel lucky to have seen it.

I am so lucky to have known you, David. And when the sadness of my loss creeps up, I am comforted knowing you are happy, whole and free of pain, somewhere unreachable yet just around the corner from my existence. I imagine you hanging out with your mom and your beloved Dale Earnhardt, your mischievous grin attracting all who happen by.

I believe we will meet again. You’ll be standing, and your frame will be full and healthy, a smile of gleaming white teeth spread across your face, and if I don’t recognize you at first because of all that then I will when you open your arms for a hug in that way you always did. (Also, for what it’s worth, let me remind you that I wore a Redskins shirt to your funeral, both because your parents requested it and because I knew it would make your smile light up heaven. So when we meet again you should probably be sporting a Bills jersey. It’s only fair.)

Until then, our friendship will live with me, a gem in my heart I’ll carry the rest of my days.

I love you.

From David’s Memorial Service card:

God saw you getting tired
When a cure was not to be.
So He wrapped His arms around you,
And whispered, “Come unto me.”

In tears we saw you sinking,
We watched you fade away;
Our hearts were almost broken,
You fought so hard to stay.

But when we saw you sleeping,
So peaceful and free from pain;
We could not wish you back
To suffer so again.

So keep Your arms around him, Lord,
And give him special care;
Make up for all the suffering,
And all that seemed unfair.

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Haunted by History: When A Priest Betrays Our Ultimate Trust

For the past week or so I’ve been obsessively thinking about junior high. I’ve never before had an urge to return to those days — that dawn of knowing my carefully feathered bangs and name brand clothes bought at discount stores were no match for the stylish perms and preppy outfits worn by the popular girls with the cute bubble handwriting. I always knew I was shy but in junior high it was made official, at least in my head:  I was a wallflower in every sense of the word. Stand back away from the action; smile; try to blend. I wasn’t an outcast, but I wasn’t in the “in” crowd either. I was background, not foreground, and I was happy about that. 

I remember being terribly uncomfortable with myself, as I’m sure most junior high school kids are, and because of that the one passing interest from a boy I received was squashed on the false assertion that I wasn’t interested. There was never a word spoken between us, just a note passed through friends, a sweet note really, telling me I was a good person and seemed really nice and would I like to go to the dance with him.

I wish I could remember the exact wording of that note, but I ripped it up in a fit of embarrassment when my sister found it in my bedroom. I so wish I hadn’t done that. It only punished me. 

Truth is I’d had a crush on that boy for a long time, which made the next day’s act of telling my friend to tell her friend to tell him that I wasn’t interested especially privately painful. I was simply too afraid to say yes. 

I’ve thought about that many times over the years. I’ve thought about how terrible it felt to rip up the nicest thing anyone outside my family had ever given me, and how powerless I felt to the embarrassment that made me do it. I’ve thought about saying “no” when I wanted so badly to say “yes,” and I’ve tried to use that disappointment in myself as a springboard to more confident decisions in later years.

I’ve thought about that brief moment in my life only as it pertained to me, not thinking much about how the boy felt by my rejection, not spending any time considering how he’d carefully chosen his words to me. It was not a romantic note, even by junior high standards. It was more like “You seem kind and good. Can I be with you?” I even learned that this boy had asked my friend who he should ask out, me or another girl he knew was also nice. She’d picked me, so he had too.

Some time ago I learned that he, this crush from my youth, was terribly, repeatedly abused by our town’s Catholic priest. The abuse started at about the time we entered junior high. He told no one for years.

I am not so drenched in self-importance that I think if I’d said yes to his note he would have confided in me. I’m quite sure he wouldn’t have said a word, he probably didn’t even understand or couldn’t yet register the hell that was happening to him. But the thought that he might have needed a friend, despite all the ones he already had, haunts me. I want to turn back the clock. I want to snatch the note back from my sister and not rip it up. I want to say yes, on the off chance. 

In my fantasy we go to the dance together, we become friends. He trusts me. He tells me. I help him. 

In reality, I can do nothing but send encouraging text messages and emails as he waits for a verdict in the trial just ending that hopefully will convict this demon who demolished his youth and the lives of so many others. It has been a great test of my faith to pray for not only my friend, but for this broken man, this lost soul who forced boys to close their eyes and pray while he betrayed them and God.

To seek justice in the courts seems too shallow for this crime. I rest easier knowing God is just, and mighty, and this criminal will be made accountable for his sins. But shaking my fists feels empty; I hate what he did to my friend, who I love. I am filled with sorrow that anyone, any child, endures such agony. I know other victims of sexual abuse, and I know it never goes away. For my friend, there is no embrace warm enough today to erase the cold and bitter history of junior high. 

Unfortunately, that’s all I have to give him, that and my prayers — for peace, that he might find it, and closure, that he might reach it. Mostly, though, I pray that he still has faith. That he didn’t completely lose sight of God when surely God seemed hidden, or cruel, or simply nonexistent. 

My friend today is a man of integrity. He is beautiful and intelligent and funny and kind and loving. What happened to him may cause some to question God’s existence. But I say his life, the very man he has become, is proof of it.

[This post was published with my friend’s blessing, and at his urging. The priest was convicted today of all four charges against him. He is facing possible life in prison.]

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And the angel said unto them, "Fear not, because the sheep are contained by tiki torches and your wings are probably not flammable."

When the call for volunteers went up at our church in November for the first-ever live nativity hayride being planned, I hesitated. I can’t act; I can’t build sets; I can’t sew. But this was going to be a pretty big production:  Two wagons would carry community members through an adjacent field, stopping at several stations to watch amateur actors re-create the scenes leading up to Jesus’s birth. To do all that, it sounded like they really needed help.

So I shuffled up to the Big Events director after church one Sunday and let her write my name down on her pad of paper under “Actors.”

“Can you do a speaking part?” she asked.

Absolutely not, I thought.

“Sure, if that’s what you need,” I said, trying to sound helpful and nonchalant but feeling regret wash over me. I don’t like speaking in public. Heck I don’t even like being in public.

But two weeks later I picked up the master script of this live nativity hayride play and my part was highlighted in orange: I was an angel. Not just any old angel, either, but the angel who brings the shepherds good news of great joy.

For a moment I smirked at the idea of officially being called an angel. “I’m an angel,” I practiced saying with authority. Then I realized I couldn’t just stand there and look angelic, I had to say 57 words. (I counted.) Luckily they were words I’d read and heard pastors and singers and actors say countless times over the years. I knew these words by heart. Except when I tried to say them without looking at the script I realized I didn’t know them by heart, and every time I opened my mouth to practice all I could hear was Linus in my head saying “Lights please” while holding his trusty blanket and telling everyone “what Christmas is all about.”

I was about to toss aside the script and worry about it on rehearsal day when I noticed a directional note above my lines:

[Angel: Up on the top of the hill, lifted up in the air on the “teeter/totter” above the grasses, light shining on angel]

Why was “teeter/totter” in quotes, I wondered. Was it just going to be some plank of wood balanced on a boulder? I had visions of being accidentally catapulted onto the wagon, my cardboard wings mangling innocent children. The whole thing made me laugh out loud and I couldn’t wait to hear what in blazes they were rigging up to get this old angel to “fly.”

But at the first rehearsal a couple weeks later, learning my lines and teetering on a totter suddenly became the least of my concerns. It was there that I got the full scope of what my scene entailed:  Two 12-year-old shepherds and a couple of live sheep.

Sweet baby Jesus, I was going to spend three hours in a frigid field in the dark of night with two fidgety pre-teens with huge wooden staffs, and somebody’s borrowed livestock. Oh, and I was assured that there would be a big barrel of fire at each station to help keep us warm between performances. (Or to more easily burn the grumpy angel’s cardboard wings when the shepherds got bored, I just knew it.)

The boys weren’t too keen on remembering their lines (I know, hypocrite), but what they seemed to lack in short-term memory they more than made up for in acting ability, as every time we rehearsed me appearing before them, they fell to the floor and literally convulsed in fear. This made it impossible to keep a straight face, and it’s really hard to sell the sheer magnitude of the line “Today in the city of David a Saviour has been born” when you’re giggling.

So they were advised to tone down the fear and play up their lines, and I was advised to dress warmly and everything would be fine. I had faith that it would, and that faith played out the night of the dress rehearsal, not because of the shepherds’ performance in front of the director, but because of their performance in front of us while we were waiting around to do our scene. In the hour and a half we were outside that night, the boys entertained me and my fellow Heavenly Hosts with 20 minutes of Monty Python, delivered flawlessly; three sheep-related knock knock jokes; three other jokes of questionable taste for a church-related event; two riddles I still can’t make sense of; and at least 5 minutes of a Jeff Dunham stand-up comedy routine with Achmed the dead terrorist. Between the two of them they had one sentence to memorize for our play. I stood there in stunned silence wondering why I ever was concerned that they might not remember those piddly 18 words about going to Bethlehem to “see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

And indeed, they didn’t disappoint; they nailed that line every time.

On the night of the first performance the church buzzed with activity. People I’d only seen sitting stoically in the same pews Sunday after Sunday were now wearing long robes and talking in character. I quickly found my appointed classroom-turned-dressing room marked “Angels and Shepherds,” where everyone seemed extra-concerned about being cold. The temperature was hovering somewhere around 38 degrees and dropping, and we knew we’d be outside for at least three and a half hours. So halos were perched atop white winter hats. White robes were squeezed over winter coats. Cardboard wings were worn over three or four layers of clothing.

We angels were looking more like an army of Stay Puft Marshmallow Men than Heavenly Hosts. But still, we were cheery, if not cherubic, and eager to earn the wings we were wearing.

When everyone was dressed and assembled we piled into a haywagon and made the bumpy ride over to our stations, wishing each other luck. The Wise Men, whose original costumes didn’t fit over their coats, were wearing royal blue Snuggies. The “Pregnant Mary” clearly had a lumpy pillow strapped to her waist, and Joseph was wearing a Penn State parka over his robe. (He assured me he took off the coat each time a wagon came by.) Still, we were there. Over 60 volunteers, all of us with busy holiday responsibilities and families at home, giving up a little time and a lot of body heat to bring the magic of that holy night to a field in Cumberland County, PA.

Call it cheesy or homespun or just plain hokey, but I found it inspiring.

When the two shepherds, three other angels and I were dropped off at our station as the sun set, we met our costars, the sheep.

“I think we should name them,” I said of the friendly ram and skittish ewe that were, thank the good Lord, confined in a small round pen surrounded by lit tiki torches. “We’re going to be hanging out with them all night.”

“I already did,” one shepherd said. “The boy sheep is Baaaaaab.”

I laughed, and instantly really liked these kids.

Someone named the ewe Mabel and everyone made their acquaintance. I thanked them for my wool mittens and sweater before we turned our attention to our “set,” which was essentially a set of risers hidden behind a camouflauge hunting screen, behind which we angels were supposed to appear. The plan was to crouch down on the ground behind the screen when we saw a wagon approaching, then stand and walk up the risers to effectively hover over the shepherds (and Baaaab and Mabel) to deliver the good news.

Crouching on the frozen ground while trying to keep four sets of huge cardboard wings from getting tangled was a trick, but we managed. When the first wagon load of people finally came, everyone delivered their lines flawlessly. After the wagon had bumped on down the field toward the manger, we all stood up from our crouched positions and cheered. For the sheep, of course.

“Great job guys!” one angel exclaimed to Baaaab and Mabel, who seemed unfazed.

“You didn’t show up to a single rehearsal, and still you nailed it!” I said, impressed.

The shepherds were supposed to walk to the manger after their line and join the actors there in song. But by the fourth wagon they’d had enough of high-tailing it a half-mile back and forth, opting instead, like good shepherds I suppose, to stay with their sheep. “I sang enough,” grumbled one as he lay down his staff and fiddled with the headband over his headdress.

The fire barrel was a nice touch to keep us warm between performances, though you can’t get too close to a sparky fire when you’re wearing flammable cardboard wings. We spent most of the evening dissuading one eager shepherd from adding yet another log to the fire, lest we angels had to fear actual flames jumping up out of the barrel, not just sparks.

And so the night passed with us telling jokes and family stories, petting sheep and looking for constellations. We wondered aloud how the rest of the scenes were going and whether everyone else was having a good time. Eventually clouds rolled in and talk turned to the fact that coyotes were known to roam around these fields at night. One angel told a story of a coyote taking out a dog right at a children’s bus stop nearby. Suddenly I was excessively thankful for the tiki torches, as if they served as any real deterrent from a pack of wild animals deciding to have us all for a late-night snack.

Every 25 minutes or so our conversations would be cut off by a shepherd who, pulling lookout duty, would yell “A wagon’s coming!” I’d crouch on the ground in silence, my breath puffing in a cloud, then rise up and stare through a blinding spotlight at two kids as I told them, again and again, about the greatest promise ever kept.

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the city of David a Saviour has been born, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you. You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Nine times I said it, and each time it got more real.

“Do not be afraid!”

“A Saviour has been born!”

“You will find a baby.”

The last wagon came through a little after 8 p.m. and afterward everyone in my scene high-tailed it toward the church to warm up. Someone had to stay with the sheep until they were picked up, so I volunteered. I wasn’t all that cold or all that antsy to get inside. When they’d gone I stood heating my mittens over the dwindling fire, then pressing them to my cheeks to warm my face. I watched the sheep circle their pen, and I thought about coyotes.

But mostly I thought about my lines, and about the baby in a stable. After the first few times I hadn’t heard Linus in my head anymore, only me. And after the next few times I hadn’t heard my own voice anymore, but imagined an actual angel, the real deal, telling ordinary people about the most extraordinary thing.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel said to the shepherds, and that command echoes today for us all. Do not be afraid of the cold, or the dark, or the unknown. Do not be afraid of fire, or coyotes, or even sheep that suddenly begin to move frantically around and around in their pen when you’re left alone with them. (Although for the record that really can be scary.)

Do not be afraid of having to crouch down, or speak loudly, or feel silly. Do not be afraid. Because this good news, this great joy, isn’t the climax of a play, it’s history. We lived it. We are living proof of it. And it is indeed for all people.

Amen and Merry Christmas.

I can’t stress enough how itchy that halo was, a sure sign I’m not ready for it. Yet.

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The Art of Falling: It’s All in the Direction – Face Down, or Face Up?

Falling is one of those things that can go either way. Falling in love? Good. (Soooo good.)

Falling down a flight of stairs? Bad. (Soooo bad.)

Falling is something we all do, and not just once a year when we “fall back” by an hour. No, we pretty much fall all over ourselves every day. We fall asleep. We fall behind. We fall apart. Often we fall short of our own expectations, desires and potential.

Sometimes we even fall flat on our faces.

Yep. We unconsciously, accidentally fall a lot. It takes virtually no effort at all, it seems. Nobody sets out to fall from grace or fall apart at the seams. Yet as scary and uncomfortable (and sometimes downright painful) as falling is, it always leads to life’s better moments. Like being in love. Pushing oneself to do better. Picking up the pieces. Standing back up.

Or just looking up.

I like to think I’m a laid-back person, but in recent years I’ve come to grips with the harsh reality that I’m sort of a perfectionist. That’s not to say I think I’m perfect, or that any facet of my life is perfect. But in my mind, I’ve mostly equated falling with failing. A C may as well be an F. A bad run meant I was a bad runner. A story that didn’t get praise from my editor meant it probably totally sucked. Having legs that don’t look like a model’s meant I couldn’t wear shorts, ever, even in August in South Carolina, lest somebody see them. (Man those Southern summers are killers!)

Thankfully, being a parent has reinforced the lesson I learned way back in Sunday school, the lesson that is only now taking hold in my brain’s darkest corners, where imperfection and uncertainty fester: That lesson is that falling is not failing. Falling is merely a stumble, a momentary loss of balance that skins the knee to remind me to be more careful next time with my actions, words and thoughts. There is always (*knock on wood*) another day, another opportunity to say “I’m OK,” keep my cool, make a memory, choose laughter, forgive myself, move on.

I fell yesterday, flat on my parenting face. And when parents fall, we’re not the only ones who get hurt.

It was just one of those days. Kostyn got up super-early and refused to take a nap, so he was cranky right out of the gate and it just got worse. Plus he was testing limits left and right, and my limits were getting shorter and more rigid as the day wore on. I have a patience “fuse,” as they say, that I have carefully, painstakingly stretched and strengthened through trial and error, frustrations and setbacks and tears and prayers, over these last three-plus years. But when that fuse reaches a certain point, the spark that ignites can be fast and fiery. I do not hit or spank, I do not resort to name-calling, but I do yell. My face shows anger. My movements are harsh.

His Pull-Up was not carefully unfastened at the waist, like usual; it got yanked down to his ankles. His shoes were not taken off with care while he smiled and helped; they were pulled off and thrown against the wall in frustration by me as I carried him, screaming, to his bed.

Those examples are a decent snapshot of our day. I’m ashamed to include them, but context is necessary here. I know there are parents who react in worse ways and in better ways. But this is not about them.

I knew it had been a rough day but I didn’t realize how much of my anger had seeped into Kostyn’s psyche until the middle of the night, when I heard him whimpering “Mommy” from his bed. I stumbled to his room as quickly as I could but instead of being met with outstretched arms and “Mommy can I hold you?” like usual, his eyes showed a mix of fear and anger when he saw me. “No!” he shouted, crying. “Get! Out! I don’t want you!”

In that moment I felt the full force of the pain from my earlier fall, and it knocked the wind out of me. “Are you all right?” I asked in my gentlest voice. “You were calling for me….”

He cut me off.  “No, Mommy!” he yelled, kicking at the air in my direction. “Go away!”

I had no choice but to leave, reassuring him that I was here if he needed me, which I’m sure sounded like an empty promise. As I settled back down in my own bed I heard him whimper “Mommy” again and I realized he was not calling for me, he was lamenting my disappearance from earlier in the day. His usual soft cradle of safety had turned to jagged rocks of anger, and he felt betrayed. My little boy would rather sit in the dark, alone and confused, than risk the false comfort of my arms.

I barely slept the rest of the night.

Before dawn I was wide awake, lying there thinking about how I’d failed myself and my son the day before. I was just about to get up when I heard him creak out of his bed, his tiny footsteps headed toward me. So I lay very still and pretended to sleep while watching him out of the corner of my eye and praying he’d approach me. He hesitated for a second but then walked up to me. I opened my eyes and he smiled. “Hi!” he said without a hint of apprehension. I asked if he wanted to snuggle, and he climbed in next to me.

I kissed his forehead and asked how he slept. “Good,” he said. I whispered that I was sorry that yesterday wasn’t such a fun day, and he said, “Aww, I’m sorry too.”

“What are you sorry for?” I asked.

“Because I didn’t take a bath,” he said. Which was ironic because by the end of the day I was just trying to make him happy and keep the peace, knowing he was overtired and overstressed from the day. So when he’d balked at having to take a bath, I’d immediately shifted gears and told him he didn’t have to, and there had been no argument about it at all.

I assured him again, as we lay there, that it didn’t matter about the bath, it was OK if he doesn’t want to take a bath every day. I said I was sorry that I scared him with my mad face, and I promised him we would have a happy day today.

“Yeah,” he said.

And because I had a full night’s worth of remorse built up in my head, I kept going. “I love you so much, Kostyn,” I said. “I never want to make you sad, and sometimes I do and I’m so sorry. But I promise to try even harder. Because I love you so, so, so much.”

“Like the doves,” he said.

“The what?” I asked, unsure if I’d heard correctly.

“The doves,” he said. “When you pull the curtains, there are doves.” He pointed to the closed curtains behind us. He was talking 3-year-old jibberish. It could have been a reference to a book he read last month, a “Sesame Street” episode he saw last year, or something he was making up on the fly. But in that moment it made perfect sense to me, because the image that immediately came to mind was of Noah and the ark, of him releasing a dove after drifting so long on the water, and watching that dove return with an olive leaf in its mouth — a sign that God had kept His promise. That there was hope. A new day. A second chance.

I have no idea what made Kostyn mention doves but the message felt divine. Especially when, in the next breath, he placed his small hand over my mouth and pressed just lightly, saying, “The doves are here.”

I looked at him, this child of God, and I said a silent prayer of thankfulness, for him and for me. That he would place his hand over my mouth, on a face that contorted with negativity in his direction barely 12 hours before, and invoke a symbol of peace astounded me. Suddenly instead of falling flat on my face I was falling backward, freely and faithfully and with great relief, into the arms and promise of the first and greatest parent of us all.

And with that fall, the lesson was reinforced once again:  Falling isn’t failing. It is not without pain, but it can actually be quite cathartic when done correctly, like a calling back to God — a reminder that we stumble far less when we hold His hand.

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On broken nests and babies

I’ve learned in the last couple weeks that babies are incredibly fragile. They’re also remarkably resilient.

Recently my niece Z fell off an ottoman onto the floor. The fall was less than 2 feet but her head struck the leg of a desk chair, and something about that impact jarred her little brain and sent a wave of panic and prayers rippling across our family. She had a seizure, started throwing up, then eventually went totally limp, her eyes open and fixed — catatonic.

It pains me to imagine the scene at my sister’s house as they frantically tried to revive her, as they choked out an address to 911 operators, as they cried and shouted and waited an eternity for help to arrive. My sister flew in a medivac helicopter with her baby girl to a nearby hospital, praying, crying, bargaining with God.

Within an hour of arriving, Z was better. She could focus on her parents and move her limbs. She eventually nursed to sleep and was discharged the following afternoon after round-the-clock tests and doctor consultations and many, many more prayers.

In the hour between my younger sister’s call to tell me about the accident, and my older sister’s call to tell me “She’s going to be OK,” I didn’t do much except pray. I tried not to imagine the worst, but that’s difficult to do in such a moment of uncertainty.

My mind kept drifting to a former colleague of Chris’s who lost his infant son a couple months ago. The tragedy had caused Chris and I to talk about such a grievous loss, and how — or if — we’d be able to go on living.

During that discussion I told Chris that I try hard to remind myself every day that Kostyn and Evan are not fully our kids, that God has merely placed them in our care until the time He calls them home. Every night I thank God for having been blessed with one more day with “my” boys.

I think when we lose a child we grieve for ourselves, for all the dreams we had and all the beauty of this world we wanted to show them. But the beauty of heaven is, without a doubt, infinitely more amazing than this place we call home. As a parent, our most basic prayers are for our kids to be happy and safe, free of pain and darkness and struggles. In that regard, a parent couldn’t ask for anything more than for her child to be cradled in the hand of God.

And still we grieve, because Oh My God the pain, the loss, the broken dreams and unfulfilled potential.  At the time I said that the challenge, for all of us, is that we have to love God more … more than we love ourselves, even more than we love our children. If we love God more than we love our children (which isn’t as hard as it seems, when we realize they are of and from Him) then we are better prepared to “let go and let God.” And in the meantime, all we can do is cherish every second we have with them, not just go through the motions but really soak in their presence. Because they are only on loan to us. Their heavenly Father is their parent for eternity — and actually, we would have it no other way.

So went the discussion when it was all hypothetical. But when Z’s actual fate was hanging in the balance … it was a lot harder to “let go and let God.”

A day after Z’s ordeal, a nest of baby birds came crashing down from its perch on our chimney onto our fireplace floor. We knew that a couple of Chimney Swifts had taken up residence in our chimney awhile ago, so when we heard one suddenly fluttering around near the fireplace floor we assumed he had fallen and needed to find his way back up to the nest.

Sure enough, by morning we didn’t hear him or see him anymore, so we figured once dawn broke the bird could see the chimney’s opening and made his way toward the light.

But just before noon, I opened the fireplace doors to see if there was any sign of the little fella, and that’s when I saw them — three tiny nestlings, no bigger than my thumb, lying on the fireplace floor. Their nest lay in two pieces, and one baby bird’s neck was caught in the branches. Another was lying face-down in the soot, barely moving. A third one was trapped under the broken nest. An uncracked egg had rolled a few inches away.

It was a horrible scene and I instantly felt terrible for not having peeked into the fireplace sooner. All morning the boys and I had walked by, not noticing the struggle for life happening behind the small glass doors.

I spent the next hour frantically calling around trying to find someone who could tell me what to do. I didn’t know if I should touch them, move them, try to feed them? Where would I put them? What would I give them to eat? I finally got a wildlife rehabilitator on the phone who said she’d take them and “do her best” but that I needed to get them to her, in Hershey, about 45 minutes away. I told her how long they’d likely been there, struggling, and she said, “Come as soon as you can.”

So I got a small jewelry box (she told me to put them in the smallest box I could find) and lined it with tissues before gingerly scooping up the tiny birds and lying them next to one another. One gave a small chirp; another tried to lift its head but couldn’t manage it. The third barely moved. I placed the egg, about the size of my thumb nail, in the box as well.

I told Kostyn about our rescue plan and he wanted to see the little creatures we were saving. He was astounded at their size and so earnest in his desire to help. We sped off to Hershey, me and the boys and three baby birds, and I kept looking down at the box, its top slightly turned to allow fresh air to reach them. Every once in awhile I heard the faintest chirp and I’d smile outwardly and grimace inwardly, wondering if I was too late, if it had been too long. If the fall had been too far. If they were too young to make it without their mother.

I thought about my sister in the helicopter, unable to do anything but hold her baby girl’s hand as she was strapped down for the ride.

We made it there in record time but one of the birds was no longer moving, and I was sure the fragile egg would never open. I handed them over and asked if I could call in a few days to check on them. But my messages have gone unanswered, and I’m left to wonder about their fate.

I think part of me doesn’t want to know.

The hardest part of the ordeal was returning home and hearing the flutter of wings high up in the fireplace, as the mother undoubtedly returned for her babies. I know she couldn’t have saved them without our help, but still my heart breaks a little because I cannot tell her where they are. I can’t reassure her that they’re getting help, that this was their only chance. That I’m so, so sorry.

But she’s a bird, which means she exists more on instinct than emotion. Perhaps she feels the power of Life and God course through her wings in a way that gets muddled in humans by the voices in our heads and the distractions in our minds. Perhaps she doesn’t need my explanation at all.

So these are my recent lessons about the fragility and resiliency of life. Nests fall; babies fall. Lives change forever in ordinary moments. If we’re lucky, the very next moment includes a watchful eye. A caring hand. A helicopter. A prayer. Always, a prayer. Because these are not our babies, and these are not our birds. His hand is the unbreakable nest, the eternal cradle. Our goal is to get there one day, all of us. Just not yet.

Not yet.


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