Who Our Daughter Was Praying To

Requests had been made by the kids that someone go to bed with them, at least for a few minutes, so Maile got down on the floor where they sleep when we are at her parents’ house. It was a wide stretch of blankets and pillows and a few stuffed animals who had somehow made the trip.

Maile had almost fallen asleep when Lucy nudged her.

“Mom, look at Abra,” she whispered with a huge smile on her face.

Abra had risen to her knees and was swaying front and back, her little blond hair swinging back and forth slowly. Her mouth moved, releasing unintelligible words in a constant stream.

“Is she praying?” Lucy asked, her smile turning into something akin to awe.

Happiness surged in Maile’s heart (alongside a tinge of pride). We weren’t completely ruining our children. They would follow in the faith of their ancestors. Perhaps, based on this sign alone, Abra was destined to be some kind of religious prodigy who would lead the people in prayer and thanksgiving.

Abra opened her eyes and, seeing she had an audience, laughed and ducked under the covers.

“Abra, come here,” Maile said, touched by that special moment.

Abra swam through the blankets to Maile and Lucy.

“Abra, were you praying?” Maile asked.

Abra giggled and nodded. So it was true. But then Abra spoke.

“I was praying to Santa Claus.”

Sigh. ‘Tis the season.

The Night Sammy Broke Free

IMG_1045Rain taps against the window. It’s a cold night, a dark night.

I fold four large blankets in half on the floor, help each of the kids get settled in, then turn out the light. We all sleep in the same room when we go to Maile’s parents’ house for the holidays, and I have to admit that there’s something nice about all being there together, everyone accounted for. I often come in late, after everyone is asleep, gingerly walk among the sprawling bodies, then fall asleep listening to the hum of the fan and the quiet, gentle sound of their breathing.

“Daddy, what do you remember about me from when I was little?” Lucy asks. She is our family historian, our rememberer.

I have to think hard. She is eight, and so many thoughts have passed through my brain since she was tiny, so many memories and worries and years. They get caught in there, all of those things, like debris too large to fit through a fine sieve. I shake it around. I see what falls through.

“You used to like it when Cade crawled over you,” I say, suddenly remembering an image of two littles on the floor of a small house in England. Cade, only 16 months older than Lucy, wasn’t very careful around her, but she laughed and laughed, lying on her back as he bowled her over.

They giggle there on the floor as I tell them about it. I sit on the edge of the bed. It all seems not so long ago.

“What about me, Dad?” Sammy asks. “What about me when I was little?”

We all laugh, because we always tell the same story about Sam, how when he was little the rest of us were in the living room watching a movie. There was a crash, and we ran into his room, and he was standing there, outside of his crib, holding on to two bars that he had managed to break off. He quickly ran back and crawled in through the gap in the bars, then sat in his crib, looking up at us as if to say, What? What did I do?

I tell the story again, even though we all know it, and the kids giggle and Sammy is embarrassed, but he still smiles.

Behind my smile I’m remembering how difficult that time was, when we had first come back from Virginia to Pennsylvania, when I was trying to make my way as a writer. Those years when we had to decide at the end of the month which bills to pay and which to hold our breath about. Those years when, let’s be honest, I often felt like an irresponsible loser who didn’t know how to operate in this world, this culture.

Those were difficult years, but the kids want to remember them, so we do.

We pass the time that way, telling stories, the rain tapping on the glass, Thanksgiving only two days away.

* * * * *

There’s something powerful about remembering. Remembering where we’ve come from, where we’ve been. Sometimes, when we forget who we are, the most helpful thing we can do is remember the road we’ve already traveled. There’s much to be thankful for, and much to be bitter about, if we so choose. There were the days we thought that life couldn’t get much better, and the days when we honestly wouldn’t have complained if death came and took us early.

Such is life. And unless we take time to remember, we lose our perspective, like a boat lost at sea without any reference point. Like a man lost in the forest, unable to see the stars.

Their little voices echo in my mind.

Daddy, what do you remember?

* * * * *

Today, I’m over at Pilar Arsenec’s blog answering all kinds of questions about writing. You can check out that interview HERE.

The Nature of Breathing

The sound of her coughing comes at me through the fog of sleep. It is a hoarse, barking sound, all too familiar. I roll over and look at the clock. 12:41 am. I take a deep breath and move to a seated position at the edge of the bed.

“You okay, Abra?” I ask our five-year-old, rubbing my eyes, then staring in the direction of the blankets on the floor. “Can you breathe okay?”

All I hear is a long, wheezing inhale. The exhale is a series of whimpers and cries and more coughing, the dry kind that doesn’t sound like it’s moving anything.

“It’s okay, honey. I’m coming,” I say. I stand up and walk over and scoop her up, laying her across my arms. I carry her downstairs. She’s awake now and on the verge of panic.

“It’s okay,” I say over and over again, words that turn into a sort of lullaby.

“I can’t breathe,” she manages to say.

“We’ll get you outside. You’ll be able to breathe out there.”

I somehow open the door to the deck, even with my arms full of her, and I try not to bang her head on the frame as we go out. I pull the door closed behind us with my foot. It’s freezing cold, in the 30s, and the air shocks me awake. I prop her up against the house and run inside for the warmest blanket we have. I sit on the wooden deck and she sits on my lap and I wrap us in the blanket. We are in a cocoon of warmth, my breath escaping in cloudy bursts.

Her ratchety breathing smooths out. Soon she sleeps, her head against my chest. I only have sweatpants on, and my feet, sticking out at the end of the blanket are freezing, but every other part of me is warm. Two miles away, down by the river, I hear the train whistle, long and sad.

God seems close in that moment. Everything seems so present, pressed up to the front of reality by the cold air biting my face.

* * * * *

Her cough wakes me again. 2:40am. I sigh and find my sweatshirt on the floor.

“You okay, Abra?” I ask her. “Can you breathe okay?”

“No,” she manages to scratch out between coughs and long, slow draws of breath.

“It’s okay, honey,” I say. I stand up and walk over and scoop her up, lay her across my arms again, carry her downstairs again. I talk to her all the way down. This time we have the blanket when we go with us. I sit her down on the wooden boards, go find one of our patio chairs, and then sit there with her on my lap.

Her breathing calms. She falls back to sleep. I stare at her eyelashes resting on her cheek. I could fall asleep if I could get my arm comfortable, but that’s not going to happen. I consider going inside and finding the air mattress so we can sleep outside. I can’t remember how long it takes to inflate. This fact seems very important, the way trivial things can seem so crucial in dreams.

I hear the steps of a medium-sized animal walking through dry leaves on the ground just beyond the deck. Too small for a deer. Probably a possum. Or a raccoon. The animal pauses. The night is still and dark. I hear another train whistle.

I sit with her as long as I can, but my back starts to ache. I carry her back up to the bedroom floor and lay her down, wondering if that shot of cold air will be enough to get her through until morning.

* * * * *

It doesn’t. 4:52am. I carry her outside again and this time I have a pillow for my arm and we sit there in that glorious cold and I listen to the sound of her breathing slow down, turn into sleep once again. She melts up against me, pulling her feet away from the edge of the covers. We sit there in that freezing cold and there is something beautiful about a moment, just before sunrise, when everyone is breathing easy, when two jets of steaming breath get ready for the dawn.

There is something that makes me feel God-with-us. Maybe it’s because in that moment I’m thankful for something as simple as another breath. Maybe it’s what happens when I stop and listen, when I move away from everything else – shelter, food, warmth – and simply exist.

I’m not sure why God feels so close in that moment, but I fall asleep there, in the dark, breathing in that beautiful air, the kind of air that’s only ever available just before the sunrise.

Finding All of My 13,475 Days

IMG_0411Yesterday I took Lucy to the dentist. It’s the same dentist I went to when I was her age – eight years old – so it always feels like walking into some kind of time capsule when I take her there. The same dentist, the same receptionist, the same terrifying smell.

This is how things operate in our area, for the most part: they stay the same. Change comes slowly, if at all. Every so often a road is widened or a new development springs up in an unlikely valley, but Gap Diner is still at the corner of 30 and 41, there’s a town clock at the top of the hill, and everyone wonders how the owner of Pizza Box can make a living because the parking lot is almost always empty, as it has been for the last 30 years.

After Lucy’s cleaning I talked and laughed with the receptionist. She is my parents’ age. She shook her head and her eyes got watery when she told Lucy that I used to come walking through those doors, looking every bit as nervous as she did. I remember those visits: the frantic brushing of the teeth, the unfamiliar plucking of floss, the smell of bubble gum fluoride. The pulling of unnecessary molars. The tightening of braces. The haze of laughing gas.

No cavities, so I took Lucy to an ice cream place to celebrate. What is it about the official pronouncement of no cavities that leads me to reward my children with sweets? As she munched on M&Ms smothered in vanilla ice cream and whipped cream, we talked about when I was a kid.

“Did you know this is the town where I grew up?” I asked her.

She shook her head, no.

“Is that why you know all the old people here?” she asked.

I laughed.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

I stared through the large glass window at the traffic coming down the hill to the light. I remembered when that was the only light in town, when Pizza Box, the Gap Diner, and the Hungry Man Truck Stop were about all you had to choose from.

Our waitress kept calling Lucy “honey” and me simply “hon.” This annoyed me, although I’m not sure why. But Lucy just smiled when the waitress walked away.

“People who work in restaurants are so nice,” she whispered, laughing, showing off the space one of her teeth had recently vacated.

I almost mumbled, It’s just because of the tip, but then I decided not to say anything. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thinking that people are being nice simply because they’re nice. Even if they’re not. And who knows? Maybe she was just being nice. She probably was.

Lucy cleared her throat, took a drink of water, then looked at me with wide eyes.

“So you used to go to that dentist twenty years ago?” she asked, taking another bite of ice cream.

“Actually, more like thirty,” I said, staring back out the window, watching the traffic again. And for one bright instant I saw with clarity the many days of my life, lined up like note cards. All 13,475 of them.

Blank days too early for me to remember and blurry days that passed without me even noticing. Good days full of celebration: Florida vacations and my 16th birthday and the birth of our son. There were painful days, too, shredded around the edges, days where someone had tried to erase the writing but had instead worn through the paper.

What stood out to me the most about all of those days is that most had come and gone without anything extraordinary happening. And I thought, That’s what makes a life, this unpredictable concoction of a few poignant moments mixed in with an endless stream of normal days. I was reminded of Annie Dillard’s words, that “routines are nets for catching days.”

I looked back at Lucy. She had finished her ice cream, and she sat there quietly, drinking water through a clear, blue plastic straw. I paid the bill with a twenty.

“You ready to go?” I asked.

She nodded. So we walked out into that cold November day. When she holds my hand it makes me feel both old and new, tired and hopeful, small and yet responsible for oh so much.

All the days of my life swirled around me like snow.

How many days old are you? (You can calculate it HERE.) What do you have to say about that?

Crisco: Superman’s Weakness

Today I’m posting over at Deeper Church. The post is called “When Crisco is Kryptonite and Candles are Stars.” Here’s a taste:

The kitchen is an explosion of flour and sugar. Cade, Lucy, Abra and Sam sound like chattering monkeys. It is cookie-making day.

Mouths are streaked with chocolate from smuggled chocolate chips. Sam hides behind the sofa, eating cookie dough. Abra inexplicably has flour on the back of her head.

“Okay, Cade,” Maile says. “Pass me the Crisco.”

“Crisco,” Cade says, then adds authoritatively. “That was superman’s weakness.”

Click HERE to go read the rest.