As a parent, it is easy to get frustrated with repeated bad behavior and consequently see things through an uncalibrated lens; a lens that identifies everything as either “all good” or “all bad”. Few things are that simple but boy isn’t it tempting to gives labels and try to stuff things into one of those ill-suited categories?
Kacey and I had a one of those very bad school days that my homeschooling friends will best understand. There was so much whining and arguing and crying I thought I’d pull my hair out. And then everything that did get done was done painfully S…L….O…..W……L…….Y……..
Morning rear-ended afternoon which promptly had a head on collision with evening. Before I knew it, it was 5:30 and our session had ended. It was just Kacey and I in the car headed for home. The deal had been that the schoolwork had to get done or there’d be no girl time after the counseling. The school work wasn’t even half done, but there I was on 270 with a nagging feeling that I should lay down my I-have-to-be-consistent-and-never-go-back-on-what-I-have-said thinking just the same. Honestly as much as I wanted coffee, I wanted to not give in even more.
I caved. When it is Holy Spirit, just cave. (that one is free, friends *wink*)
As I got off the exit and pulled into Panera, I explained that grace means we sometimes get things we didn’t earn. I stressed that this was something she had not earned but that I wanted to spend time with her just the same. And then I stressed that she shouldn’t expect this to happen next Monday because, you know, grace comes so naturally to me. (wince)
She bounded out of the car, jacket over her head in the pelting rain. All she had been thinking about was bagels. The whole time I was talking she was just thinking about bagels.
I can be frustrated, I thought or I can eat a bagel and enjoy it.
So I followed her inside and we ordered bagels.
At the coffee station I struck up a conversation with an older woman who was waiting for the half and half. While I was working up the nerve to ask her if there was anything I could pray for, she began chatting with the young man who came with the the refilled pitcher of creamer. I sat down next to Kacey and wondered aloud if she had needed prayer. Kacey looked at me and her eyes lit up, “Mom let’s do it!” and then as the woman walked toward the other end of the restaurant “Mom! She’s getting away!” I laughed and thennervously looked around. (Generally five year olds haven’t mastered whispering.) I told Kacey she was just going up to get her food. “Well we have to watch her so she doesn’t get away!” Kacey’s eyes were glued to that elderly woman. She leaned so far in her chair to see her, at one point she nearly fell. The woman sat down at a table a a minute later, food in hand. I was feeling nervous, “Do you want to eat first or should we go now?” “RIGHT NOW, Mom!” So we finished chewing, took a drink, checked each other’s teeth and walked across the room to where the unsuspecting woman was seated.
It was peak dinner time and the room was full of conversations, so I had to repeat, “My daughter and I were wondering if we could pray for you?” a few times. “You want to PLAY what?” The poor woman looked very confused, though her smile remained. When she understood finally, she said yes but with notable trepidation. We learned her name and told ours. We asked if she needed prayer. “Hmm.. no I’m good”. We asked if we could pray for someone she loved who needed it. (We were a little caught off guard- doesn’t everyone need prayer for SOMETHING?) She told us about her best friend and a particular situation. So we prayed. I went first and Kacey followed up right after. I was impressed.
Our girl is getting brave.
It was a sweet moment. We smiled and went back to our super tall table and ate bagels. While continuing her hawklike gaze on our new friend, apparently Kacey was eavesdropping. “Mom! I heard them say ‘God’.” She pointed to the girls sitting at the super tall table beside ours. I listened for a second. They were talking about a mission trip. I explained what that was to Kacey. She looked at me expectantly until I asked “Yes..?” “Well we should talk to them.” So I swallowed the second bite of my everything bagel and took two steps to the next table. We admitted we had been listening to their conversation and asked about their trip. The college age girls smiled at Kacey, commented how cute her hair looked, and said they were going to Africa in the summer. Before we had sat down, Kacey asked “Can you take me to Africa?” There was a half second pause, ”Maybe in the summer?” I had to laugh. I chuckled and then I watched my daughter’s striking chocolate brown eyes dart around the room.
At that point I had to wonder if the grace I had been prompted to offer was for her or for me. Now that a few hours have passed, I am no longer pondering that question. I know who most needed an extra measure of that refreshing, replenishing “you didn’t earn it, but I’m giving it to you” grace. In case you aren’t following, it wasn’t the cutie with the pom pom pigtails.
Parenting sometimes feels like walking to grandma’s house in the dark. You know where you want to go, but everything is different in the moonlight. The shadows are longer, the quiet backdrop makes every sound that breaks through louder than expected, and you can’t see as far down the path as you’d imagined. In some ways I think I knew more about parenting before I had kids. My sister and I reminisced about that on the phone this evening. “Doesn’t it seem like it should be obvious?” I asked her rhetorically. She laughed and sighed a long, knowing sigh.
I also used to know more about parenting an adopted child before I had one (or three). It it comical to me now that six years ago I was teaching foster and adoptive parents. I read books, I wrote sessions, and taught classes every week. I asked my parents about their experiences and I drew from my own vast (ahem, ahem) experience as a sibling of adopted children. Teaching is a strength of mine and of all the jobs I have ever had it was, hands down, my favorite. I loved those foster and adoptive parents so much that I wonder if I should send out an apology letter. What I know now is that I didn’t know anything. Like a swimming instructor who has never dipped my toe in water attempting to teach entry level swimmers, I was the blind leading the not as blind.
If parenting is like walking to grandma’s in the dark, then parenting an older adopted child is like trekking to grandma’s except what is between your house and hers is a hundred acre wood. The shadows of the trees are muddled together and make the dark darker, the sounds are indistinguishable and innumerable, and if there is a path is unmarked at best. Oh and those pesky low level branches are either trip you up or smack you in the face.
When you birth a child and live with them day in and day out everyday, you have a lot of information. You have a good idea of their experiences. You know who they know. You share character traits- strengths and flaws alike. Adopting an infant means you still get at least 75% of that knowing. Adopting an older child means the percentage takes a nose dive.
In the past few months there have been many, many revelations to us about our daughters lives. Some things we had anticipated. Many more things hadn’t even occurred to us to consider. And even the things we thought we knew about, we have discovered we barely knew at all. There has been more to every single story. We have been behind the eight ball and I can’t tell you how much I have been feeling it.
Tonight after I tucked four out of the five kids into bed (three of them twice), I found myself retelling David the story about the woman in Panera. Kacey had told him, of course, but I couldn’t help but repeat it to highlight her bravery. Then David and Cohen went back to the laptop to set up Cohen’s first bank account. I came into the kitchen and started making tomorrow’s to do list. Then a word came to me:
My mind wandered. I remembered the story and retold it to myself silently. It is a much better story than the frustrating school story I would normally have been recounting to David after the kids were asleep.
Another instance came to mind. Nine months ago at the dinner table, when adoption wasn’t a thought on the horizon, we asked the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. If memory serves me right, that day Cohen wanted to be an attorney (It is likely I had told him he was a professional arguer at some point in the day. That was a joke for awhile, until it wasn’t a joke, if you know what I mean.) Kacey was quiet. Cohen piped up, “what do you want to be?”
With the most matter of fact tone, no eye contact and a mouthful of pasta, she said “I want to have a boyfriend.” Being the firstborn that he is, Cohen started to say that having a boyfriend was not a job, but I shot him a look. His eyebrows bowed and he mouthed ‘what?’ When I failed to answer he stuck another bite in his mouth and eyed me with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion but he was quiet.
That same little girl tonight told me that when she grows up, she is going to save up all her money- ALL, she emphasized- so she can give it to people in Africa to have food.
About a month ago, I tucked her into bed and when my hand touched the doorknob I heard an anxious whisper. “Mom!” I turned around, frustrated and ready to say again that the lights were out and the time for talking had passed. She spoke before I could. “Mom, what if I marry a man who won’t pray for me?” She was genuinely concerned. I said that, first of all, Daddy and I wouldn’t allow that. A big smile spread across her face as I described the kind of man she will marry and how he will pray for her at nighttime and any other time she might need it. “Okay. Goodnight Mom.” I kissed her forehead, turned the knob a second time, and paused in the dark hallway for a moment to let the unexpectedness of the question distill into a warm thankful spot in my gut.
After many months of terror and nightmares, I’m greeted most mornings first by these words “Mom, I had all good dreams last night!”
One Sunday I got her out of class and brought her to the sanctuary where someone had felt Holy Spirit say to pray for kids with night terrors. I was barely holding myself together as two people I didn’t know at all then, but am happily getting to know now, laid their hands on her and prayed. She was inwardly freaking out and her face revealed it. Afterward we sat right by the altar and looked at a painting of Jesus on a white horse, sword and all. I did my best to explain what had just happened and also that Jesus was coming back to kick all of the sad and bad things out of the earth. She liked that part.
When we got into the car, the first thing she said was “Cohen do you remember how I used to have bad dreams? I’m not going to anymore.”
“..used to have bad dreams…” Past tense.
Just a few months before that little girl vigilantly watched our every move. We weren’t trusted. But that day she trust us in an unfamiliar situation and she got right into agreement with an unfamiliar truth- AND she has not had a nightmare since!
Months ago she was a vault with a million awful secrets locked away. Today she skipped out of a room full of kids, happy as a clam to have been talking about those same secrets. The door may not be open, but it’s not locked.
We were talking about healing today. [My kids don't need to be 33 before they learn what I'm just now learning.] She interjected, “Remember the story about the woman who grabbed Jesus’ clothes? She was sick and He said “who touched me?” because He felt power go out of His body?”
I remembered but to hear it come out of her mouth was to hear it anew.
Some days there are tantrums that feel like they last forever. When you have a houseful of little ones, 5 hours almost is forever. She dislikes schoolwork as much as any other kid and, for better or worse, has Mom as her teacher. I’m still here after “school hours” which means there are no “after school hours” until things are completed. I love her with that crazy parental love and still that doesn’t make me “get” her any more easily. I see myself in the boys’ failings which makes it easier to be compassionate. She and I are very different. I’m learning a new language and that foreign tongue is called “Kacey”. I have fingernail polish in my house for the first time ever. I am reading Tinker Bell books aloud in the afternoon. I study youtube videos trying to master hairstyles she likes. I’m learning that numbers are scary and that when scary numbers are mishandled by Mom, nasty fits ensue. I’m learning that pretending to not be able to do something means she needs me to sit close for awhile. We are figuring it out together, but the road has many speed bumps.
If I’m not mindful, if I’m not cautious and intentional, a day came seem all bad in a hurry. One more wiry tree branch snaps back in my face and the camel’s back is broken. If I let it, the sting can push out all other thoughts. I can talk sting, sting, sting. I can be mad about the branches and the dark and the lack of a clear cut walkway. I can and lately I have.
I wonder how many crumbs of bread I’ve unknowingly stepped on in those moments? I wonder if some of the missteps I’ve taken could’ve been avoided? What if I had been more aware of the breadcrumbs along the way? What if I had heeded their directional signals?
There isn’t a road between here and there, not even a the loose stone or dirt kind. There isn’t a bike path. There isn’t an overgrown walkway or a path muddied by four wheelers. To think that parenting any child is that obvious…well, just have a kid and call me when they start talking and exercising their will! We will have a good laugh (and maybe a cry) at our former, naive notions. Thankfully what does exist is bird’s eye view of that hundred acres between you and grandma. And it just so happens that The One with the view is also The One who planted all those trees. Not only can He can see all of it at once and not only did He plant every tree on purpose, but He walked from each of our doors all the way to Grandma’s and left thoughtfully placed crumbs for us as He went.
If we are tuned in and look for those bits of bread, we will find them. And if we choose to focus on those breadcrumbs instead of the obstacles and startling sounds and the dark, the journey will be more anticipation and less frustration; we will be more treasure hunter and less aimless wanderer. Will we still trip over ourselves and will circumstances occasionally come out of nowhere and knock the wind out of us?
Recently Cohen wanted to tell Adler a story at bedtime,“Once a upon a time there was a boy named Adler…” He went on to describe Adler’s giant blueberry house and his friends and how the flowers grew to the sky and so on. When he finished, Adler wanted a turn. “Once there was a boy named Cohen.” He grinned. It was his first time telling a story. We paused. We kept paused longer. His grin faded. He didn’t know where to go from there. I prompted. “Then what happened?” He thought for a moment and then shrugged, made an “well that stinks” kind of expression and flatly stated, “Then he died.”
We have laughed about that since it happened but tonight it occurs to me that a lot of lives are lived like that:
So and so was born…(oh man, what happened? did anything happen? ) and then in an uninspired conclusion, so and so died.
That’s no laughing matter.
There are all kinds of stories. Underdeveloped stories have no middle, no meat. The ending is blah or textbook and either way, no one cares. Good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. And the middle is the juicy part. It climaxes with the character transforming into (although not yet revealed as) the hero/heroine right in the thickest thick of the challenge. Based on the caterpillar character introduced in the beginning, the resolution is anything but expected. It was not obvious the caterpillar was butterfly material.
So yes we will continue to trip over ourselves and occasionally circumstances will come out of nowhere and knock the wind out of us. The best stories have very real challenges.
Great stories have impossible challenges.
What challenge is more impossible than parenting?!?
As we parent, our words and actions pen the words of a tale bent toward and pregnant with greatness. While this is true, the storyline is also fraught with trouble and often unknown to us.
Thank God for those pieces of bread along the way. Without them, our stories collapse in the middle, leaving behind records of caterpillar births and deaths. Thank God for the One who sees the whole landscape and has walked where our feet must tread and who, with foresight and love, tore off and placed a bit of bread here and there to show us our next step.
There’s no other way to navigate the course.
There’s no other way to write a story of greatness.
There’s no other way for the caterpillar to emerge from the cocoon with wings and beauty.
So from one journeyer to another, let’s keep our eyes peeled for those little bits of bread. And let’s tell each other when we discover one. Every pilgrim needs encouragement.