Last week was the first snow of the season here and the kids were beyond excited. It was pretty enough that I think even most of us grown up folks were excited, too. . .there's nothing like that first snow clinging to the trees and making everything sparkle to brighten a dreary winter. The boys couldn't WAIT to go sledding! But school days and early darkness meant that the days of the week passed by and we still hadn't loaded everyone up in the car to make it to the big hill.
"Mommy, can you please, please take us sledding after school on Thursday?" Philip and Daniel begged me. "We are big enough now you don't even have to worry about us. You can just watch Noah and we'll take care of the rest. Pleeeaasseee??!!!!"
The thought of taking all four of them sledding by myself was about to give me a panic attack, but one look at their hopeful little faces and I knew I had to say, "Yes."
"Oh, Mommy, YES!! This is going to be awesome. Pick us up from school. We'll be car riders! Can you come get us early? How about right after PE. We don't want to miss PE."
"Nice try, kids, but I don't think they are going to let me take my kids out of school and miss the NWEA test to go sledding. HOWEVER, Noah and Josh and I will come get you right after school and go straight there, OK??!!"
And for the next day they planned and giggled and decided who was going to be on what sled and what kind of cool tricks they could do and all "Can we take the snowboard?" and "Don't forget to pack my warm gloves!" I looked at the weather forecast and it was supposed to warm up on Thursday, but the temperature looked like it was going to at least start cold and steadily increase during the day. Eternally optimistic, I decided there was enough snow that even if it got warmer and started to melt, there'd still be enough left after school for at least a little bit of sledding. It would be even warm enough we wouldn't even have to bundle too much! Although I have a science degree and a little more than the basic awareness about the temperature at which phase changes occur, I'm not so easily constrained by things like reality in my daily living.
So, all day I prepped for our plan. Noah and I went to Target to buy a 4th sled. We even went to the sledding hill to test it out. The snow was melting but there was still enough left on parts of the hill that we had some good runs. We made snowballs and laughed and enjoyed our wintry fun. But by the end of our time there we had to shed our coats. It was getting downright warm, enough to send Frosty the Snowman into panic mode. I looked at the sun beating down on the hill and listened to the sound of dripping water everywhere, did a little more math as to how much of this was going to melt before 4 pm and thought, "Oh, dear, this might not be good."
But, STILL ETERNALLY OPTIMISTIC, I went through all of the motions. . .packed the bags with the snow gear, loaded the four sleds in the back of my van, tossed bananas and fruit snacks into my bag, buckled in the little brothers and headed off to school to pick the boys up. The sun was smiling (a little cruelly, I might add) upon us as my van sloshed through melted puddles of snow all the way to school.
I found the boys chattering with one of their sweet former teachers. "We're going sledding!!!!"
She looked at me quizzically. "Here?" she said, "Or. . .are you driving someplace. . .far away!?!????"
"Um, here." I said, now a little embarrassed that my lack of connection with reality was on display for all to see. "We're just going to check it out and see what we can see!"
"Oh, well, have fun!" she smiled at me and gave me a worried look. I gave her a confident thumbs up and headed out into the lovely 50 degree sunshine-y day to go sledding.
As the boys herded to the van they were still chattering away. "You know," said Phil. "The top of the sledding hill is at a higher altitude. It might even be colder up there so there's more snow!"
I giggled, enjoying his optimism, too.
"Hey, there's snow between those trees!" Daniel exclaimed, pointing at a hill covered with large trees, snow still filling their tangled roots. "Although, we probably couldn't sled there. That'd be kind of painful."
"We could sled on the grass, right, Mommy? I mean, that would be fun??" said Josh.
"SLEEEDDDIIINNNGGGG!???!!!" Noah squealed as we turned the corner that headed towards the hill, his memories of just a few hours before getting him psyched for the adventure ahead.
"Guys, we're just going to check it out. We'll give it our best shot, OK?" but at this point I was getting more than a little worried.
I turned into the drive and in front of us was a bare sledding hill. The gate was closed and locked shut to block the parking lot, I am sure to deter optimistic/crazy folks like us from coming to sled on the soggy remains of snow.
In the back seat, Phil instantly burst into tears. "We were car riders for THIS!!!?????!"
Daniel and Josh looked forlorn. Noah, ever cheerful, started pointing out other patches of snow in neighboring yards, "We sled dere? Nook, dere's some snow!"
I pulled out of the lot and out onto the main road. I didn't really have a Plan B but it was time to come up with one on the fly. "That's OK, kids, off to our next adventure!" And I steered the van towards a nearby park. There was no sledding hill (or any large hill there, for that matter) but I remembered from when I used to take the boys there in their toddler days there was some shade and also lots of little hills. Maybe there would be a scrap of snow left and a little bit of fun to be had. As I navigated into the muddy parking lot, Phil's cries in the backseat got more desperate, "HERE!!!?? This is NOT what I had planned!!!" Daniel told him to cut it out, and Phil reached across the seats between them and punched him in the chest. A knock-down-drag-out-fight was about to take place in the 3rd row. It was time to get out of the van- AND QUICK!!
"Guys, let's just see what we can see."
Noah was out of the van in a hot second, off to explore the playground with Josh right behind him. Daniel looked at the (still crying) brother next to him, his two other brothers playing happily on the playground and said, "Hey, Mommy. I think I'll take those snow pants now."
This left Phil and I in the van alone. As we watched his brothers play, tears continued to streak down his face. "Phil?" I asked him gently. He crossed his arms, turned his head and made a tearful grunting sound.
I was at a critical crossroads here. There was a large part of me that wanted to be angry with him and tell him to get over himself, as the tears of an eight-year-old throwing what was by all appearances an epic temper tantrum are not my favorite sound. But as I felt that agitated and frustrated feeling welling up inside of me, I decided to just pause and take a deep breath. As I let him cry, I thought about the lesson that this might be trying to teach me. How often do I cling to my own plans, and grumble and drag my feet when my day or my week (or my life) doesn't go the way I imagined it would? It's certainly OK to be disappointed. When things don't meet my expectations, how hard is it for me, even as an adult with YEARS of experience with things not going my way, to shift my mind into forward mode and release the vision I had in exchange for the reality of what is happening the present moment? I needed to give Phil some grace, as there are many times I so desperately need it myself.
"Honey, have you ever hear of Plan A?"
"That's not even a word. Have you HEARD OF PLAN A???"
"Again, a yes or no would work."
"And if I said, 'Life is all about Plan B, what do you think that would mean?"
"I don't know," Phil said, avoiding my eyes.
"It means, sometimes things don't go the way we planned. But then we have to try and find a new plan. . .plan B!"
"OK, have you ever heard the phrase, 'Wherever you go there you are?"
"Again, merp is not a word. So let me enlighten you. It means you can't change the past, all you have is the present moment. Where are you right now?"
"Riiiiggghhhhhhtt. The sledding hill is closed, we're at the playground. We can't go back and make the snow un-melt. This is where we are."
"Alright, I've got another one for you. Have you ever heard, "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade?"
"So, when things don't go your way, you just have to make the bet of it, sweetie. I know, I'm disappointed, too. I've been planning for this all day. This is something I struggle with, too. We just have to choose our attitude and make the most of it."
Later when I recounted the story to Paul he asked me if I could have possibly worked any more cliches into that conversation. Maybe, maybe not. But, I think it worked. I shut off the van and left the door and trunk open, then I headed over to where Noah was playing. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Phil sneak out of the van. He had pulled his boots on and was in the middle of the snow in the adjacent field making a snowball.
It wasn't long before he made his way over to the playground.
In a few more minutes, he was back to the van for his hat and warm gloves.
And a few minutes later, returning for his snow pants.
And after about 10 minutes, he asked for a sled.
And before I knew it, all four sleds were out of the van and four little boys were gleefully sledding down the tiniest hill imaginable, having the time of their lives.
In the van on the way home, Josh was overwhelmed with how things turned out. "Mommy, I didn't think that was going to be fun but that was AWESOME!!"
"I agree, buddy!
I am realizing that there is so much beauty to be found in the "melting snows" of life. The moments that don't go the way I planned can have a divine loveliness all their own. . .but the only way I am going to have eyes to see that beauty is if I release the vision in my head of what I thought it was going to be. Once I let that picture go, I am free to live in the present moment. "It is what it is" my Dad always says. "Live in the now, man." in my best Garth Algar voice. "Today is a gift- that's why it's called the present." (I had to work in JUST A FEW more cliches in case Paul reads this.)
It wasn't what we had planned.
But it was fun.
And it was beautiful.
An hour of sweet childhood, savored in the melting snow.
When I was a first-year high school science teacher, I spent a LOT of time at school, as all first-year teachers do. Everything was new and overwhelming and I had no depth of previous experience to draw from, so I usually spent each evening pulling together my lessons for the next day while feebly trying to recover from the ones I had just taught. Although in later years I would still often work late, there is nothing in the world quite like the particular exhaustion of the first-year teacher. Around 6 pm I would still be slumped over the keyboard of my Mac, three hours past the end of my "day", high heels discarded beside me, the sides of my hands covered in Vis-a-Vis marker, the sleeve of my denim jacket dusted with chalk. A human eraser, if you will. My desk would typically be littered with a half-eaten bag of M&M's, a lukewarm Coke, piles of papers, broken pencils and random things I had confiscated from my students during the day, love notes. . .gum. . .those little skateboards you skate with your fingers. My heart would be full but my mind would be vacant as I tried to pull my act together.
And this is where Bruce would find me. Bruce was our evening custodian, in charge of cleaning my room in the science wing as a part of his rounds. If you are a first-year teacher, my prayer is that you will have a Bruce in your life. Just when I felt like I couldn't go on, there was no way I could get together the energy to make it to the copy room and run that lab I had just created let alone set it up, Bruce would pop in with his big smile, his white hair, and his hearty laugh. That little bit of friendship and human contact would be just enough to bring me back to the land of the living, and he'd send me off to the copy room with a smile on my face.
Our conversations were usually nothing profound, he'd tease me about being a "rookie" and how late I was working (again) and we'd catch up about family and weather and the like. At Christmastime, he noticed I was stringing up a few lights around my room and offered to bring me some trees from his house to decorate. Of course, I couldn't turn him down so we trimmed my room together, giving it that little touch of cheer that was even more special because it came from a friend. We chatted so often about so many of the same things that I can't remember, but one conversation in particular has stayed in my heart all these years.
It was a spring evening and the sun was just slanting in when we ran into each other in the hallway, I on my way to the copy room and Bruce pushing his trash can towards the Physics end of the building. We stopped to chat as usual, but when I asked how he was I noticed tears starting to form in his eyes. It wasn't long before tears started to spill out of mine, too. Cancer. He had cancer. They found spots on his brain. I can't even remember the details because my mind was swirling, "How could this happen to my friend?" Of course, in typical Bruce fashion, he was trying to be positive as he explained everything to me, but I could feel the undercurrent of hurt and uncertainty in his wavering voice. Time froze there in the hallway, the moment etched in my mind. Then he said the thing I will never forget.
"I just didn't know. They never told us. They never told us smoking was bad for you! If I just would have known, maybe. . ."
As his voice trailed off, the look on his face, the confusion and pain in his voice, they were enough to break my heart. Although he could have easily been my grandfather, he looked at me pleadingly as a small child would.
"How could he have known?" I thought to myself. And if he had known, would it have changed anything? There are no guarantees in life, no magic formula one can follow for a perfect one free of pain. The one thing I did know, even at the ripe old age of 23, was that there was no use in him beating himself up about tobacco or anything else for that matter. Forward is the only way time goes.
"Bruce," I said, trying to comfort him. "There is no way you could have known. It's OK. It's OK, Bruce. It's not your fault." And I made sure I caught his eye so he could see how much I meant it.
"It's not your fault."
He bit his lip and nodded.
I hugged him.
I believed that with my whole heart.
I still do.
I think of Bruce often, especially any time I feel myself getting hung up or worried about the choices I make for myself or my family. Sometimes we just don't know. I believe we're all just trying to do the best we can with the physical, financial, and emotional resources we have available to us. So any time I get hung up on a decision and researching and thinking and weighing options, I tell myself, "You know, Jen, sometimes you just aren't going to know. Just do the best you can." And what kinds of choices are the things that are the most essential about us, really? What remains when we are gone? The answer, from my friend Bruce, is simple.
The most important choice is how we treat people.
What remains is kindness.
What remains is love.
Bruce and I cried a little bit more together that evening before we parted ways. The next few years brought many changes in our lives. My classroom was moved and I had a new evening custodian, Bruce was on and off work, I became a much more efficient teacher (spending less evenings slumped over my computer in exhaustion and more actually living an adult life) and eventually left for my first maternity leave. Shortly after my son was born, I learned that Bruce had passed away. I wept for my friend, but mostly for myself. I would never see his tall white-haired frame rounding the corner to greet me with a smile, we would never share a laugh or a story or a lukewarm Coke again.
I rejoiced that he was free from pain.
But cried because he didn't know.
He didn't know the impact he made on my life, the little golden thread of friendship woven into the tapestry of my being. I had been blessed just from being a beneficiary of his kindness and warmth at a time when I was a little bit lonely and more than a little bit tired.
And he'd never know because he thought he was just being himself. . .emptying the trash, doing his job, sharing a smile on the way. Never imagining that there was anything special or "golden" about it.
I am also imagining that there are some things you just don't know, too.
There are people out there whose lives you are touching today that will remember you for years to come.
You are weaving yourself into the tapestry of the world by your mere presence in it.
Just you. . .showing up at work or yoga or preschool, just you. . .going to the grocery store, going to church or the gym or the library. Just you. . .working on your latest project, taking that conference call, picking up the mail or the dry cleaning, posting on Facebook, reading stories to your kids, taking your car for an oil change.
Yet even below our awareness, through the simple living of our daily life, we can be making a difference in someone else's.
Who knows what stranger or friend our kind smiles are touching today? Who really needed a laugh and we gave it to them? Who was lonely and our "hello" made them feel less alone? Who saw our Facebook post and it gave them encouragement?
Were you the answer to someone's prayer today? Was that kind word you said going to be a golden thread in someone's tapestry, the way Bruce was in mine?
It's awe-inspiring to imagine the impact you are making in everyday ways.
So, just keep being you, little golden thread.
You're being woven into so many people's lives, and all you have to do is be yourself.
We all have a lot of choices to make today, and sometimes we just aren't going to know.
But the most important choice is how we treat people.
What remains is kindness.
What remains is love.
Hope and faith will both come to an end when we die. But love will remain. Love is eternal. Love comes from God and returns to God. When we die, we will lose everything that life gave us except love. The love with which we lived our lives is the life of God within us. It is the divine, indestructible core of our being. This love not only will remain, but will also bear fruit from generation to generation.
I started out parenting with the notion that somehow the goal of my parenting should be teaching my kids how to become functioning adults. That task seems a little daunting since I barely consider myself adept at "adulting". Changing your oil, balancing your checkbook, remembering to renew your license plates, buying life insurance, scheduling your dental visit. . .adulting is so boring. Who wants to prepare for that?
And then there are my kids. Hardly anything is boring to them. A bug! A funny cloud! A red bird! A piece of candy! Going to the Library!! Little Caesars Pizza! Watching The Lego Movie for the millionth time! Pancakes! Minecraft! The joy meter is high for whatever. Paul and I took them to downtown Indy a few years ago to see the lights and they were literally RUNNING down the street- "LOOK! A parking meter! LOOK!!! A man playing a saxophone!!" All of the things that our adult eyes gloss over were the most wondrous things ever, we hardly even needed lights to make it magic. They were making such a spectacle Paul and I agreed that perhaps we should get out more. (Is the grocery store "getting out"? If so, I'm nailing it.)
A lady stopped me in Meijer yesterday and pulled it all into focus for me. Meijer is full of blessings these days. I used to kind of dread going to Meijer before I had kids. . .it's huge, so many choices, pushing around a big heavy cart, trying to remember everything on my list. . .meh. Add tiny kids to that mix. . .eeeek! One time. . .true story. . .I actually almost blacked out in the frozen food section with a Baby Bjorn full of Daniel on my chest. The combination of trying to grocery shop for my family and some majorly messed up postpartum thyroid levels left me crumpled on the floor next to the chicken nuggets at east side Meijer. People sort of side stepped past me like I was just another crazy person. And maybe I was. (Seven years ago was a hard time.) But now that I have Noah, Meijer is an outing that I truly look forward to. I tell him we are going to Meijer and he squeals with glee. He skip-runs into Meijer, his feet light with joy. We stop and greet the greeter and catch up on his life. Noah thinks his name is Penny because he always gives him a coin to ride Sandy, and he always walks away shouting, "Bye, Penny!! See you later!!" We then visit the lobsters, the fish, the toys, swing through the home goods and hit up the seasonal decorations. We stop and make friends with employees and customers and take our sweet time, since mostly I'm just stocking up on beer, whiskey and random things like molasses and tahini you just can't find at Aldi. Yesterday, as Noah was gleefully looking at the fish and shouting out all kinds of exciting things about the ones in each tank, this friendly customer rolled up and stopped by us. She smiled as she watched Noah running back and forth in front of the fish tank.
"Wow, we should all be like that, shouldn't we?"
"I know," I said. "Don't you just love the excitement?"
"Yes. If we were all a little more like that the world would be a better place," she paused for another moment before pushing her cart down the dog food aisle, leaving me behind with a smile and new eyes for Noah.
She is so right! What a wonderful world it would be. And what a privilege it is to be a parent, to be in the presence of these tiny teachers. Because of them, it's possible to get excited about trains and fire trucks and inflatable Christmas decorations and maybe even Little Caesars pizza. Through children, we get to experience the magic and the wonder of childhood again, and isn't it just what we needed? The world today seems so. . .overwhelming. Crime and assault rifles and hateful rhetoric and abuse and corruption and war and refugees in crisis fill the news. Despair tempts every time we click an article in our facebook feed or turn on the TV. Yet as Henri Nouwen says, "When I have no eyes for the small signs of God's presence - the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends - I will always remain tempted to despair."
God's presence is all around us if we only have eyes to see.
There's the despairing and weary world.
And then there is Hope.
It's no coincidence that Hope arrived as a tiny baby in Bethlehem, and is born to us again each day in the spirits of children.
Daniel, my seven year old, is teetering on that that transition from little kid to big kid. Things that didn't embarrass him before now make him blush, he loves Pokemon and Star Wars and anything potty humor, and friends are now cooler than Mommy. I'll do anything I can to capture his little kid moments one more time, as I feel his babyhood slipping through my fingers with more than a tinge of regret. On our way home from choir practice this week, I heard his sweet little raspy voice from the backseat.
"Mommy, I know you are probably going to say no, but can we please, please, please go see the Christmas lights tonight?"
I sighed a little bit thinking about how it was going to be out of my way and I was going to have to make a left turn in crazy traffic to get to the light display at the local farm equipment dealer, and I would also have to figure out how to turn off my headlights which I had never even attempted, and we'd be getting home later. . .man I sounded like an adult in my head. Adult-y Jen started to say "Maybe another time."
Then I caught a glimpse of his face in the rear view mirror. Those chubby cheeks get thinner with each passing year, but behind the little boy gap-toothed grin I saw his baby face looking back at me, all hopeful, pleading eyes and sweetness.
"Sure, honey. Just promise that we'll go back again with Daddy, OK??"
"OK!!! I will! I promise!!"
And two little boys squealed with glee. I turned the car and took them to the lights. They were glued to the windows of the car as we made our way through the display, oohing and aaahhhing and remembering all of their favorite things.
"Thank you, Mommy," Daniel said. "This is awesome."
I am so glad I didn't get so busy adulting that I missed the lights sparkling in his eyes, the pure, unfiltered joy and wonder.
And as I navigated my van through the winding path, my eyes couldn't help but sparkle, too.
Help me see with new eyes, Lord.
Help me be tender and hopeful like Daniel.
Help me wonder and dream like Philip.
Help me imagine and giggle like Joshua.
Help me love and rejoice like Noah.
Help me see through their eyes, which are so much like Yours.
I just watched an online video training women about safety and I had a flashback to my early twenties when my roommate, Winnie, and I were just out of college and enjoying the freedom of our first "real" apartment.
We had so much fun in our apartment together. I would pick up my grandma and she would come over and cook with us, we'd have friends over to watch the first season of American Idol, Winnie would practice her cheerleading moves in the large mirror in her bathroom and I would spend hours modeling outfits from my huge walk-in closet. We weren't home much because we both worked a lot (she as an engineer/dancer and I as a first-year teacher) and we had boyfriends that we spent a lot of time with, so often we were just home to sleep. But, at least it was a pretty place to sleep!
And this wasn't a dirty college apartment like the one we subleased during summer classes at Purdue, but a beautiful brand-new apartment with tray ceilings and real furniture and a huge, open kitchen. It was located in a central area close to the interstate and shopping and even though it was on a main road, felt very secluded and quiet because it was in the back of the apartment complex. We had selected a first floor apartment because we liked the floor plan and architectural details, and we loved the convenience of no stairs or doors between us and the parking lot. We never gave the "open" model of our apartment complex any thought, we just felt it was easier to not have to buzz people in and open and close and unlock extra doors when unloading groceries.
Then, on an early spring night I was jarred awake shortly after midnight by the sound of my roommate screaming "JENNIFER!!!!!!", accompanied by the loudest banging I had ever heard. I jumped out of bed and ran down the little hall to find Winnie, phone in hand, frantically dialing 911 (while meanwhile screaming "I'm calling 911!" at the top of her lungs) as the door to our apartment shook on its hinges. I didn't think, I just started screaming and threw myself against the door with Winnie to hold it shut as the two men on the other side were gearing up and charging towards it. After the third attempt our door was hanging off of the hinges at the top but still standing by the force of our tiny bodies pushing against it with all of our might. The predators must have determined that the screaming and banging at this point was too loud and ran off. By the time the police arrived, we had piled up furniture against our door to hold it shut, and we were shaking and crying as we huddled on our love seat together, still terrified they would return.
Winnie recounted the story of how the events unfolded, and it was clear how her wise actions saved us from something awful. Close to midnight, someone knocked on the door to our apartment. I was already asleep, but Winnie was still awake working and heard the knocking. She went to the door and peeked through the peephole to see two men standing there in our hallway, wearing seasonally inappropriate clothing. "That's funny," she thought. It was a warm and breezy spring night, and they were wearing winter hats and large, dark coats. At this point, Win thought that maybe they were just at the wrong house, so she ignored it and went back to her room.
Then they knocked again.
She didn't answer.
She stayed still.
Winnie was getting nervous. This seemed more intentional than "wrong apartment" , but she wasn't going to take the bait. She didn't wake me up, but she huddled on her bed awake and alert. Then, she heard a knocking on her window. Now she was really terrified, too terrified to move. In her memory, she feels like this all lasted about 15 minutes as heard the two men going around the outside of our apartment, as she lay there in her bed shaking. They tried her window and the patio door that led into the courtyard before they finally returned to the main door in the hallway. Winnie pressed herself against the door to listen, and heard one say to the other, "If we go at it together, we should be able to get in." That was last thing she heard before the first terrible bang shook our door and I woke up to the sound of her screaming.
We were so, so lucky.
Later that night (a night in which we obviously didn't sleep), long after the police had left and we were still desperately trying to contact the maintenance guy, Zach, to come fix our door, I went into my room and noticed that I had my window open just a crack. It was so pretty that night, I went to sleep with it just like that to enjoy the breeze. What if they had seen that crack of a window behind the bushes in front of it?? I shuddered and slammed it shut. There were so many "what if's". Thank God we were OK.
The next day after work, we went to every apartment in our building to explain to them what had happened. Our neighbors across the hall said, "Oh, yeah. We heard that. We didn't know what was going on." (???!!!!?????!!!!) Our neighbor upstairs whom we had never met, gave us his phone number. "You call me if ANYONE bothers you," he said. "I'll be down in a heartbeat." We felt comforted, but of course not comforted enough to still live there. In the light of what had almost happened all of the mistakes we had made when selecting our apartment were glaring. We broke our lease and left intact with many lessons which I hope someone else can benefit from.
1. Choose apartment location wisely. All of the things we loved about our apartment were also the things that made it easy for predators to target us. That easy interstate access and lots of traffic around it makes it easy for strangers to watch you without raising a single red flag. The location: First floor, secluded at back of the apartment complex, backed up to an office park (the predators didn't even have to drive into our complex to get to our apartment, they likely parked in the office complex adjacent and walked right through the thin line of bushes to get to our building) and having no doors where you need to buzz in visitors. . .all of these things were stacked against us. Even in the same complex, if we had selected a higher level apartment in a more central and prominent area, we would not have been such easy targets.
2. Know your neighbors. Not everyone in an apartment complex is friendly, but pay attention to who lives in your building. We did not really do that, it didn't feel important to get to know them if they didn't want to say more than "hi.". But if the young family across the hall knew us and cared about us, they might have done something when they heard people trying to break down our door. (Again- ???!!!!?????) It never hurts to put yourself out there and say more than "hi" to your neighbors! Lesson learned.
3. Be aware of your surroundings. The police said that it is likely that these men followed one of us home from an event to find out where we lived. Situational awareness helps. We were pretty oblivious most times coming home, just focused on getting in the door with whatever we had brought with us.
4. Listen to your mom. I am pretty sure my mom warned me about ALL of these things and I dismissed it as being overprotective. Moms are smart, they aren't just worrying for no reason. They love you and have imagined every possible scenario to protect you. I know because now I do the same thing!
They never caught those men, which scares me as to which women they might have targeted next. My roommate and I were so, so fortunate. Although there are surely things we could have done differently or better in that situation, we survived by the grace of God. I hope that in sharing the lessons we learned, it can help another woman to be safe and enjoy her freedom and independence.
After a particularly rough time at mass, one that involved Noah PHYSICALLY EXITING the church at one point on his way to the parking lot (would that he had the keys), I came home just a little bit more weathered and worn. I gave Joshy a marshmallow and sent him to his room to enjoy it and looked over at my sweet little Noah (so rotten just a few minutes before). He looked angelic there in the kitchen, and even though the time was already behind us I felt the behavior was at least worth mentioning. So, I tried to put it in my best two-year-old words as I knelt down in front of him.
"Hey, buddy, I'm kind of sad about Noah at church."
He stared at me oh-so-innocently.
"I really need you to stay with mommy, OK?"
He looked at me thoughtfully. Then, he said in a sweet voice and with a tone wayyyyy beyond his two years. . .
"It's OK, Mommy. Don't Worry. It's over."
I had to try hard not to giggle as he toddled off to his toy train. Leave it to Noah to drop the truth. Noah always says, "Don't Worry." any time I look sad. He's my little living, breathing Gospel. And he has a point, why worry? Oh, wait, I'm a mom! That's what I do! I have a gift of finding something to worry about in any situation. Maybe you share that, too. But outside of my little mama worries like if my kids are getting enough sleep and enough protein and what's with that cough and let me go in and make sure that they are still breathing, I wrestle with that nagging worry that I am somehow not the best mom for my kids. Like, if Phil had a different mom maybe she would have found out a solution for his eczema by now, or if Daniel had a different mom maybe he wouldn't have been so overlooked as the perfect toddler and preschooler he was, or if they all had a different mom maybe they would be more athletic, or have better opportunities in life or WHATEVER. The list of my perceived failings loves to knock, and it's a constant battle to keep them all outside my door.
I did hear Father say, however, just before Noah disappeared down the aisle and excused himself to the narthex to play with the angel tree toys, something really profound. God chose Mary to be Jesus' mother before Mary was even CONCEIVED. God wasn't like, "Oh, that teenager Mary looks like a good one. Maybe I'll pick her." He CREATED Mary to be Jesus' mom. And that same level of intention goes for each of us.
Boom. . .drop the mic.
How humbling and how empowering it is to think that God chose Philip, Daniel, Joshua and Noah for me- not just before they were born, but before I was born!? As if my whole life and the whole universe was leading up to this moment?? And yours, too?
Out in the narthex in the shade of the angel tree, I met another mama with a toddler doing the same thing as mine. She was clearly my new soul sista because she was wearing an Evy's Tree hoodie (obsessed!) so we smiled at each other and laughed about toddlers at church and how somehow we thought this was going to be easier than bringing all of our kids after school without our husbands. Is there really ever a convenient time to bring a 2-year-old to mass? Probably not. I laughed and told her that I figured Mary understood. She's our girl. I mean, Mary had a two-year-old once, too! And I am sure that even though Jesus was without sin, he was still T-W-O! Because when you think about it, it's not like Noah is sinning when he is misbehaving in church. He doesn't even know how to sin! He just wants to explore his world and pursue his personal agenda, very little of which involves sitting in a pew, no matter how engaging the music and the sermon. And when you think about it, how lovely that he feels comfortable enough in church to trot right up the aisle and find the angel tree all by himself, and is so familiar with its layout that he can navigate solo to the side exit to the parking lot? Sure, I'll go with that.
And, you know, some people gave me some grumpy looks, I'm not going to lie. I have a standard apologetic look that I give people when my kids are wiggleworms at church, which is met with a face that expresses either:
A. Sympathy (Oh, I'm so glad that's not me!)
B. Empathy (Oh, sweetie, I've been there!)
C. Apathy (Must. avoid. eye. contact.)
D. Antipathy (I will give this mom the grumpiest face I have so that she never wants to sit near me again and she knows what an epic failure she is).
I will say that choice D. keeps me humble. Because, you know what, as much as I would love my kids to behave like angels so I don't look like an idiot, I've been around long enough to know that kids have a mind of their own and I might just end up looking like a fool because of their behavior. It has happened MANY TIMES BEFORE. It will happen again. But I've also emptied myself enough to know how much I need Jesus, so I am going to get myself at His table whatever it takes. I don't need to worry too much about the shifting opinions of the world if I'm right in my heart with Him. And if I just stare at the floor or over people's heads while exiting the sanctuary, it's like I don't even know if the people have chosen A, B, C or D! You kind of feel the D's burning into you, but just walk faster, right???
Plus, I am so confident that our girl Mary understands. Although it was never written down in the records, the evidence of the years of care she gave in raising Jesus show. And despite the crazy today, I am now more aware than ever that our children were chosen for us so long ago and with a Love so big that we can't even wrap our minds around it, the same way Mary was chosen for Jesus. That perspective makes it easier to dismiss those voices of worry when they pop into my head, and compels me to live my life today with more intention. Before I know it, it's going to be over, just like Noah said. I'll be the person in the pew choosing A. B. C. or D. as the younger mama wrestles with a crazy toddler in the pew. For the record, I am planning on giving her "Look B". And if I see her afterwards, I'll be sure to tell her she's doing a great job, too.
Don't worry, mom.
You're doing just right.
And Mary's got your back.
And when the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me Shine until tomorrow, let it be I wake up to the sound of music, Mother Mary comes to me Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
This morning as I stuck the last yogurt in a lunch and peeled the last banana, I realized that I had once again failed to plan enough food to last until my next trip to Aldi. Silly Jen, trying to buy groceries on Saturday to last until Wednesday!! So, since Noah and I are super European like that, we headed to Aldi after preschool dropoff to pick up some essentials to get us through the day. . .bananas, milk, apples, frozen broccoli, yogurt, and marshmallows. ESSENTIALS.
If you have shopped at Aldi before, you're familiar with the cozy shopping experience. If you see someone while you are getting your shopping carts, it's pretty much guaranteed you will cross paths with them again at least five more times before you leave the store. I never say goodbye to a friend I run into in Aldi until I am pulling out of the parking lot, otherwise it is awkward when you run into them four more times. How many times can one say goodbye, really?? There are just no goodbyes at Aldi!! Today as I was getting my cart, there was a sweet older gentleman right next to me. I would later find out as we stopped to chat next to the jelly that he is turning NINETY next Monday, but we'll get to that in a second. It all started with a smile somewhere around where the potato chips transition to corn chips in Aisle 1. I smiled at him, he smiled at us. Smiles are magic bridges. Noah said "Hi" as our new friend leaned over the cart and asked him if he was excited for Christmas. Since the only thing I had to do was postponed today and we got nothin' but time, I started to tell him about the boys' excitement this morning for December and how they were going to have a hard time waiting 24 more days for Santa. We laughed together thinking about little kids and Christmas.
"I'm still like that a little bit," he said.
"Well, you're going to have to wait 24 more days, too!" I teased him.
"I know." His face got just a little bit sad and I could tell he was thinking. "Well, maybe not as excited as I used to be." He paused for a little bit before he brightened. "But I have grandkids and even great-grandkids now!"
"Oh!!" I replied. I love it when people tell me they have grandkids, because then you know they are going to have a lot to tell you! Plus, I have the magic question to ask. I say, "Do your grandkids live close by?" I don't know when it popped into my head to start asking this question at the grocery store, but it really feels like the key that unlocks some great conversations with people. I probably ask it at least five times a week and it never fails me.
Today was no exception.
Time froze as we stopped there by the condiments and he started to answer. He told me about his grandkids, and his grandson's wife who has breast cancer. She's only 32. They have a four year old and a one year old. She's fighting it and she's almost done with chemo, but she's got a mastectomy and a hysterectomy coming up. My heart started to break thinking of this mama. "THIRTY TWO??" I asked, with tears forming in my eyes.
"Thirty two," he replied. "With those two little ones at home. I wish I could go see them, but I can't travel anymore. My wife is in a nursing home and I don't want to leave her."
Ouch. My heart started to break a little bit more.
"Ohhhhh." I said, and I must have looked sad because he changed the subject.
"How long have you been married?" he asked.
"Twelve years!" I said proudly. "We just had our anniversary on Sunday! How about you?"
"My wife and I have been married for sixty nine years!"
"SIXTY NINE!! Wow!! That is really special."
"I go see her every day at her nursing home."
"Is it close by?" (I don't know why geography is my favorite question, but whatever.)
"It's in Greenfield. I go see her every day but it makes me so sad because there are people there who never have visitors, they go for months without someone coming to see them. They just sit there. . .all alone."
At this point I'm really starting to tear up, imagining all of the people at that nursing home with no one to come and see them. Meanwhile I am mentally trying to calculate how I could find out who they are and how fast I could get to them and maybe I don't even need groceries if I just run to Greenfield right now???
"Oh, that makes me so sad, too," was all I could say.
We stood there in silence for a moment.
"Loneliness really IS the greatest poverty isn't it?" I said, the words of Mother Teresa spinning in my mind.
"You're telling me. I go home to an empty house after this. It's just. . .lonely."
I felt like there was nothing more and a million things more I could say to that.
We started to walk, not really saying goodbye (Aldi rule) and we shopped our way through the rest of the store. Noah stopped to play with the toys, I talked to a lady about fruitcake, laughed with a couple who were arguing over whether the husband needed Star Wars figurines and got all of our groceries (for today). Eventually my new friend and I ended up past the checkout at the bagging table together.
"I hope you have a Merry Christmas!" he said, as he pushed his cart past me toward the sliding door.
I patted him on the back. "You, too," I said. "Merry Christmas." How much feeling could I put into those words to let him know how sorry I was to hear about the loneliness and his wife and his 32-year-old granddaughter-in-law with cancer? Merry Christmas could barely touch it. As I watched him shuffle his cart outside I wished I had gotten his name.
His name!! Maybe I could still get it. I scanned the parking lot for him as I left, maybe it wasn't too late? Maybe I could still find out who he was?? I thought he would be loading his groceries by me, or I might see him at the cart return, but. . . no. I stood by my van for a moment and watched the vehicles of the other customers we had been shopping with pull out of their respective spaces. Still he was nowhere to be seen. I reluctantly turned away. As I pulled out of the parking lot and headed off on the short drive home, I turned over our conversation with tears in my eyes.
Will Paul and I get to share that many years of marriage?
There's no way to know.
But today it feels even more important to love and appreciate my husband now, even in the midst of our thick and messy days of parenting young kids where it feels like everything- our time and money and patience- can get stretched so very thin.
Will I be alone in a nursing home someday?
There's no way to know.
But right now it feels even more important to hold space in my heart for the lonely people, to go seek them out, to bring a smile and some comfort and human connection wherever they are found.
Could I get cancer like that young mom?
There's no way to know.
But just thinking about it makes it feel even more important to live gently and tenderly in the time I have, appreciating the health I have and holding tight the people I have.
Will I live to be 90?
There's no way to know.
But today it feels even more important to remember that life is long (if we are lucky) and will be full of all sorts of times. Busy times and crazy times and times full of little children on our laps, these times where we spend all day being needed and only dream of going somewhere alone. The days where we can barely buy enough food to feed them all will transition to the days where we are pushing the cart through the grocery store just picking up a little milk, a pack of cookies, a few eggs for just ourselves.
There will be all kinds of times to be sure, and this wild and crazy and full and stretched one isn't forever.
Will I ever see my new friend again?
There's no way to know.
But there is no doubt in my mind that I was meant to run out of milk and bananas, so I could be there this morning, so I could meet this kind and brave man and learn from him.
But maybe I'll start going to Aldi on Tuesdays now. Just in case.