We wander a block from my in-law’s house to their neighborhood pool, the kids who didn’t choose to slip on some footwear dancing lightly across the hot street, making for the grass. The sky is a melting blue-gray and the air is a wool blanket. The kids run ahead and us parents and grandparents come slowly behind, carrying all the things. It is a summer day just west of Charlotte.
Two kids argue over who gets to use the key fob to unlock the gate, and once inside it’s a flurry of splashes and shouts. I sink into the warm water and spend the next hour being a shark or an underwater diver or the thing Leo tries to swim to. Time moves slower in the summer, in the pool, in the heat.
Later we walk back and eat supper. The youngest kids go to bed early and fall into a dead sleep within moments, exhausted, their hair still wet from the pool. We play a game, watch a movie, go to bed late and sleep in. I write all day.
And, at four o’clock, we head to the pool again.
* * * * *
It has become a much-anticipated summer tradition, our time with family in North Carolina. The long, hot days. The Cookout milkshakes. The quick trips to Books-a-Million where we make extravagant book purchases.
It reminds me of the traditions we used to have when I was a kid: the trips to Florida in the summer when our vacation neighborhood was empty and we’d race the streets on bikes, walk to the candy store, and spend hours at the beach. Or the old Christmas tradition, when grandpa and the uncles would play Monopoly and grandma and the aunts would play Scrabble and I’d fall asleep on the couch, wishing someone would let me in on one of the games.
It’s hard to imagine that someday this tradition will be a memory. It’s too sad a thought, so we go on pretending it will never end, that we’ll keep coming here forever.
* * * * *
I go downstairs, taking a break from writing. Poppy comes running over.
“Daddy, will you be my horsey?”
Of course, and I get down on my hands and knees and give her a ride back-and-forth, back-and-forth, from here to there.
She is so light on my back. Light as summer days. Light as memory.
Though he couldn’t possibly remember it, this first son of ours who turns 16 this week was born in a kind of faerie land, on a property called Rocketer. It was a warm June morning in Wendover, England, and his mother paced the tiny kitchen while I timed her contractions. The cottage was at the bottom of the hill on a large, 100-acre estate, made up of mostly trees, and our hedge-lined garden welcomed Maile as she took her laboring outside. At the top of the hill was a path worn three feet deep in the earth, a path taken by pilgrims for hundreds of years on their way to Canterbury. Or so the legend went.
But on that day in June, 2003, Maile made many laps around the garden, breathing methodically, pausing when the contractions came down. The sheep, with their mid-summer lambs, looked on, chewing the grass, bleating, wandering along the fence row. We were young in 2003. I was 26. Maile was 24. We were babies.
We could never have imagined who that about-to-be-born-boy would become. Some things are outside the realm of our imagination.
Eventually, we drove our Mini along narrow, English roads to the hospital ten minutes away. Maile’s mom braided her hair from the back seat. Maile’s breathing was intense but in control. When we arrived, the midwife examined her, smiled gently, and said she wasn’t dilated yet, that we should come back later, when the contractions were closer together.
* * * * *
How often I think I’m ready for the next phase! Ready to bring into existence something new! Bring it! I’m good to go! I’ve got everything figured out! And then God taps me on the head and smiles gently and says, in the kindest way possible, “Keep doing what you were doing, son. Keep breathing. Keep laboring. It’s not quite time yet.”
* * * * *
A few hours later, the trip to the hospital looked a little bit different. Maile’s feet were braced on the dashboard, and she shout-moaned through each contraction. She could barely walk when we got out of the car. She labored hard and long and, finally, late that night, after shifting over onto her side, our first son came into the world.
So small that he fit easily into my arms. I was terrified. A son? How was I supposed to raise a son? I had grown up with all sisters.
Now he is inches taller than me, broader in the shoulder, looking for a job. He has read almost all of my favorite books, and they are his favorites. Now he walks a mile through the city to school during the year and navigates issues I never even had to think about. He is finding his own way. Soon, too soon, he will leave us.
We will tell him not to look back.
* * * * *
While I was writing Light from Distant Stars, this book that’s coming out July 16th, I kept a daily journal that I would write in prior to working on the novel. In it, I talked about the difficulties I was facing as a writer, what I was trying to write, and just sort of my general process. If you preorder the novel now (preordering a book is one of the most helpful things you can do for a writer), I’ll email you the 51-page journal. Find out how to get it HERE.
Maile calls for Poppy, summons her from some other place within the house, and she doesn’t have good news.
“Poppy!” Maile says, trying to keep her voice light. “It’s time to brush your hair!”
Poppy is nearly three, with long, light-brown locks, and she doesn’t like keeping it up, so it’s almost always a snarly mess. Brushing it brings tears rushing to the surface. But recently, when Maile calls for Poppy to come have her hair brushed, Poppy has a new response.
“I want Daddy to brush it,” she says, pouting, her big brown eyes full as two moons.
And there is a reason for this. It’s not that I am able to brush her hair without inflicting pain, and it’s not that I’m particularly good at the brushing (though I did have three sisters to practice on). The reason Poppy calls for me is because, recently, I’ve started telling her stories while I brush.
* * * * *
“Where did you find the dragon this time?” I ask Poppy, taking a rope’s width of hair and running the brush through it.
“At Mimi and Papa’s,” she says, referring to her grandparents’ house.
“Oh, interesting,” I say, moving the brush through the tangles, taking another handful. “And where exactly did you see it at their house? Was it under the deck again?”
“Yes,” she says, and there is mischief in her voice, and curiosity.
“And was the dragon hungry, or did it already have food?”
“It was hungry,” she says, lifting her shoulder to ward off the brush when it sticks in a knot. But I pull it back and start in a different spot.
“What kind of food did you decide to give it?” We are halfway.
“Ice cream,” she says, and I can hear the grin in her voice.
“Oh, that’s yummy. Did the dragon share with Leo or keep it all to himself?”
“He shared,” she says, matter-of-fact, and now I’m brushing the area right behind her ears, where it always seems to hurt the most.
“After the dragon ate the ice cream, he came out, and he was feeling so much happier, because you shared with him, and then he shared with Leo. Isn’t that amazing? So he took you both on a flight around the neighborhood, and dropped you back at Mimi and Papa’s, and then he flew away.”
She turns to look at me, her eyes sparkling.
“All finished,” I say, holding up the brush, as if it was magic, and I had nothing to do with it.
* * * * *
I recently read an article about Neil Gaiman’s 96-year-old cousin who, during the Holocaust, hid a copy of Gone With the Wind behind a brick. She would stay up late every night reading it, and then the next morning she’d tell her friends what had happened. This way, the days passed, and they got through one of the most difficult times in history.
Neil Gamain went on to say, “Helen’s story – this story – made me realise that what I do is not trivial. If you make up stuff for a living, which is basically what I do, you can feel kind of trivial sometimes but this made me realise that fiction is not just escapism, it can actually be escape, and it’s worth dying for.”
Stories are good for us, for so many reasons. Sometimes they help us see the world differently. Sometimes they give us something to live for. And sometimes, every so often, they even help to make the hair-brushing a little less painful.
It’s late on a Friday night. Our two older kids are in the basement, watching a movie with a friend. Our two middle kids are in the living room, playing video games. Friday night is the one time of the week where we kind of back off the screen patrol and let everyone unwind. It works for us. You do you.
Meanwhile, I’m in the gliding rocker in the babies’ room, enjoying the peace and quiet and basking in the glow of my computer screen. I say babies, but Leo turns five this summer and Poppy will be three right behind him. In my honest moments, I have to face the fact that we don’t have babies anymore. This is a strange thing. Soon, Poppy will be potty-trained, and we’ll have put 15 years of on-again, off-again diaper-changing behind us. That’s a strange thought. Our first baby is almost a sophomore in high school. An even stranger thought.
When Maile is away, the sleeping life of our older three kids doesn’t change much. They go to bed in their own rooms, at bed time, and the world keeps spinning. But, when Maile is away, I end up sleeping on the floor in the babies’ room. So does Sam. So there are four of us in the smallest bedroom in the house, two of us on the floor (sometimes three if Leo crawls out of bed and decides to join us). But I love it. It’s warm in their room, and dark, and we keep a fan going. It’s a huge conglomeration of blankets and pillows and little bodies and sometimes I wake up with some little person’s stinky-sweet breath right in my face. Or a foot. Or a hand.
Someday, this house will be empty of everyone except Maile and me. Right now, it’s very full. I’ll take it.
It’s been strange, Maile away, on the road, getting ready to speak at a women’s conference in Orlando. I’m usually the one on the road. I’m the one who leaves, who comes home. This has been a good thing for our family. Maybe not for Poppy, who keeps asking, incessantly, “Where’s my Mama?” But for me, I get to see why Maile can’t always take my calls when I’m the one who’s away (laundry, kid-taxi, making food, changing diapers, baths, trying to find time to write, etc etc etc), or why she seems distracted when she does. I understand better why she is simultaneously excited for and annoyed with me when I do go away. I hope she gets to do this a lot. She’s done so much for all of us, so much for me, in the last twenty years. It’s long past her turn, and she has a lot to offer the rest of the world.
In about three months, my next book releases, Light from Distant Stars (do yourself and me both a favor and preorder it now). I can’t wait for you to read it. But to be honest, I haven’t been thinking about it too much, because I’m already deep, deep into writing the next one. Writing novels is a strange thing–I’m watching my writing evolve in front of my own eyes. Each one is a deep dive into something new, some alternate universe, and it changes me. Each novel sets the stage for the one that will come after it, in some tangible way. What a journey.
Well, I was going to work on that novel, but now I’m tired, and the fan is droning on and on, and Leo is asleep. I think I’ll just slide down onto the floor, vanish under a pile of blankets and pillows, and get some sleep. These kids are wearing me out.
Enjoy your weekend. Don’t forget, in the midst of this crazy life, to do something you love to do.
Leo looks at me nervously while I move to change his bandage.
“Wait, Dad, let me tell you something!” he exclaims, so I relent, and I listen (again) to some small thing he is using to delay the inevitable. Except the changing of the bandages doesn’t hurt anymore. But he’s still nervous about it, so he stalls. It is the memory of pain that scares him now, and it is as intense for him as the real thing.
When he’s finally ready to let me do what I have to do, he slumps his shoulders, worried. I move to change the dressings, and he says quietly, as if to himself, “Gently, gently.” This makes me smile. He grins, too, as the bandages come off, realizing (or remembering) that it doesn’t hurt anymore. It really doesn’t. That particular pain is behind us.
He looks up at me, smiling. “I really love you, Dad.” That gets me every time.
* * * * *
Since Leo’s surgery, I’ve been thinking a lot about pain, how being in its proximity (whether in proximity to our pain or someone else’s) will always change us, often at a very deep level.
The pain Leo experienced after his minor surgery, the emotional pain Maile and I went through in trying to help him heal, these are things that will not leave us for a long time, maybe never. Our relationship with him is fundamentally different because of the journey we’ve traveled over the last week. I’m not sure if “better” or “worse” are helpful words when describing how things change when pain is involved. I think I feel things deeper now, especially when it comes to my children.
I also have a different view of healing, the long arc we are all on when it comes to getting better, whether from disease or emotional pain or old hurts that linger. I have a lot of questions about the relationship between pain and healing. I need to think about it a bit more.
* * * * *
Maile is away this weekend, speaking at a women’s conference in Orlando, Florida, and I am so, so proud of her. If you’ve followed along in this space, you know our family has been trying to adapt to some changes (which I wrote about in my most-read post of all time, “In Which We are Beginning to Find Our Way”), trying to rediscover a new way forward. Like any birthing process, it has its own discomfort, pain, and a sense of disorientation.
Early yesterday morning, before the house had woken up, Maile kissed my face and said good-bye. She was off on her adventure. She said some other things to me, but I was too tired to really hear her. The door sensor rang three times when she walked out, and I went back to sleep.
* * * * *
The sun is out this afternoon, and spring is here. There’s no denying it. The trees are blossoming, daffodils are peeking up through the ground, and kids’ eyes are getting itchy. Every season, something new.
We’re entering a new season of life, and I’m not talking about spring. Maile is growing towards a new light, my writing is evolving, the kids are getting older. Our family is changing, but it’s a good thing, a necessary thing. I know there will be more pain, but for the pain there is always healing in some form or other. This is the hope I hold on to.
Nearly two weeks ago, we went to a funeral for our friend’s father. We took Leo and Poppy along because the other kids were at school and no one was available to watch them. They are four years old and two years old. We sat in the very back row, and during the service they mostly colored and played with some toys we brought and asked how much longer it would be.
Although I was not directly related to the man who had died, the church was filled with my people–first and second cousins, aunts and uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles, close friends. Even though there were a few hundred people there, it would not have taken long to figure out how I was connected to nearly every person.
Maile leaned over and whispered into my ear, “There’s something really special about this community.” And she’s right. My ancestors have lived in this area for thirteen generations. I show up at gatherings and meet distant cousins I hadn’t met before. I feel connected to this place, this dirt, these fields and trees and churches and cemeteries.
In this community of Lancaster, death brings us together. Yes, we weep for those who have left us. Sometimes desperately. The sense of what has been lost can feel overwhelming. But when we come together to remember the person who has gone, and we sit there among so many generations, so many families, so many stories, there is a kind of healing that takes place. It is hard to explain, this aching wholeness.
The family whose father had died, they were a singing family, and at one point we all sang together.
I’ll fly away, oh glory I’ll fly away in the morning When I die, Hallelujah by and by I’ll fly away
* * * * *
Later that night, I was putting Leo to bed, and he asked me if I was going to die.
“Probably not today. But we all die someday,” I told him quietly. It is hard to look at a four-year-old and imagine that this is true.
“But what happens when we die?” he asked, his voice tremulous, afraid to explore this new ground but helpless to turn away from his own curiosity.
“The Bible says that when we die, we go to be with God. We won’t be here anymore. We won’t be in pain. We’ll be with God.”
He sat there for a moment, very still, and then he looked at me with mournful eyes. “I don’t want to die. I like it here, with you. I like our house. I don’t want to leave.”
“You don’t have to worry about that today,” I said, but he wasn’t convinced. He pushed his face against my chest and said it again, this time in a whisper.
“I don’t want to die. I like it here.”
* * * * *
About a week after the funeral, Leo needed to have a minor surgery for which he would have to be put under with anesthesia. The night before the surgery I took him up to bed once again. I was feeling emotionally fragile in the face of our little boy going under the knife. I sang him his normal songs, and then he asked for his favorite.
“Dad, can you sing about the river?”
There is a river we must cross over,
When life’s sun goes to sleep in the west;
There’ll be a light for me at the crossing,
Guiding me to that home of sweet rest.
I could barely get the words out. I tucked my face in tight against his tiny shoulder and sang, the words catching in my throat. It is a beautiful thing, the ways that we comfort each other.
* * * * *
Fast forward two days after his surgery.
There is something that tears inside of you when your child is screaming in pain and you’re holding them down so that you can change the dressing on their wound. There is something unnatural about inflicting pain on your own child, even when you know it must be done, that it’s for their good.
Later, after we had all cried, after we sat in the new quiet still sweating from the distress, after the dressing had been changed and he was lying comfortably on the sofa hiccuping sobs, tiny bird sounds, Leo looked up at me.
“You had to put the bandage right at the top of my pain,” he said quietly. It was not an accusation. It was simply a statement of fact.
“I’m so sorry, buddy,” I said. “I don’t like doing that.”
“It’s okay. I’m sorry I kicked mama. I’m sorry I screamed at you.”
* * * * *
Now, it’s Sunday morning, and a low gray sky has pushed away yesterday’s blue. Maile’s mom is in town, always a pleasure, and she is on the front porch with the kids, all of them drinking coffee, watching the cars go by on James Street. I am alone in the dining room. Soon, we will get ready for church.
There is something about the last two weeks that seems crucial, something about funerals and not wanting to die, surgeries and dressings over painful wounds that must nevertheless be changed, and trying to sing songs that catch in our throats. There is something about pain and life and lullabies that I’m beginning to grasp.
I feel it now in new ways, the connection between pain and healing, singing and dying. We are, all of us, trying not to die, trying to be okay with dying. We are, all of us, trying to heal, trying to avoid the pain of healing. I think we need to have more grace for each other. I think we need to try to remember that all of us carry our wounds with us into the world.