ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS

Sunday, February 14, 2016 (Alex 10, Ana 6)

Dear Ana,

Today we attended the birthday party of the twins you were buddies with in preschool.  You still miss your old friends, so you were excited to see several of them again.  The main entertainment was a magician who captivated the room with 6-year-old potty humor and frequent calls for assistants.  The same boys and girls raised their hands again and again, so sometimes he called on someone who hadn’t volunteered.  Some obliged.  Others refused.

A little later in his act, the magician announced, “I need a very pretty girl to assist me with the next trick.”  Every girl’s hand shot up.  Even the ones who had declined to help just minutes before eagerly waved their arms in the air.  Every single girl in the room believed she was beautiful without hesitation.

I thought about your bright and witty cousin whose confidence was unshakable as a young girl.  But as she entered her tween years, it began to fade.  In sixth grade, there was a boy in one of her classes who was being rude.  She explained to her mother how her attempts to stop him were futile because she wasn’t one of the pretty, popular girls.  It was heart breaking to watch the transformation.  She happened to be beautiful inside and out but no longer identified herself as pretty or worthy.  By the time she reached her teens, she was plagued with self-doubt that spiraled into crippling anxiety and depression.

In a world that narrowly defines beauty, value and success it is no small feat to feel enough.  It is no small thing to remember you are born worthy like all of God’s creation.  When this truth escapes you, you have to pause and still the messages that trick you into believing you aren’t enough.  You have to remind yourself to look inside and connect with your true worth while recognizing all the false places you may search for it–in your appearance, status and accomplishments.  It will take courage to not attach your value to things that are ever changing and live instead from the place of your eternal worthiness.  It will take even more courage to live from that place when others still measure you by another standard.

Standing there watching you and all those pretty girls with your hands and heads held high, I wished through some magic you would always trust your worth.  That each of you would tune out our world’s often warped messages and keep believing without a doubt in your inherent beauty and value.

DON’T YOU HATE MOM

Friday, September 27, 2013 (Alex 7, Ana 3)

Dear Alex,

I completely lost it with you yesterday.  It had been brewing since last weekend when Dad was traveling and I had to hustle you to soccer, a birthday party, and a fundraiser.  These were all activities you enjoy and wanted to attend but I had to coax, prod or drag you just to get you out the door.  It has always been this way—wherever you are is where you want to be and whatever you are doing is what you want to do.  You become easily engrossed in activities—reading, playing with Legos, shooting hoops—and beg for more time or just flatly ignore our requests for you to stop and get ready to go.  It usually devolves into Dad or I yelling to get your attention and threats that we will leave you behind which are vain since most of our activities these days center around your participation.

So yesterday, after asking you a hundred times to come downstairs and get your shoes on so we could head out for a school fundraiser at Chick-fil-A, I started yelling.  “Get! Your! Shoes! On!  NOOOWWW!”

You came to the door covering your ears and telling me to stop.

“I’m angry,” I told you.  “Because you’re not listening!”

I stepped into the bathroom to grab something and overheard you say to Ana, “Don’t you hate Mom when .  . .”

“What was that, Alex?” I asked through the door.

“Nothing.  I just said, ‘Don’t you want to get a shake?’”

“That’s not what you said.”

“Yes, it is,” you insisted.

Then Ana piped in,“He said, ‘Don’t you hate Mom’ . . .”

“No, no, no, Ana,” you said covering her mouth as I came out of the bathroom.

This made me incredibly sad but it came out as anger.  When we were in the car, I told you that I knew you said you hated me and that if you hated me then you better stop asking me for play dates and rides to birthday parties.  It was AWFUL.

I calmed down a little as we drove and attempted to undo the damage.  “I understand you hate it when I yell at you, but I hope you don’t hate me.”

You didn’t respond.

“I hate it when you don’t listen,” I continued.  “How do you think we can fix this?  So you listen more and I don’t yell as much?”

You were quiet for a few moments.  “Maybe you could squirt me with a water gun.  That would be better than yelling.”

Great.  This is what Aunt Liz does to keep her cats from jumping on the counter.  But you’re not a pet.  You’re a little boy who just has a hard time listening and following directions.

Sometimes I think you should be able to do better and get even more frustrated with you when I see other kids your age or younger who seem more capable.  But comparing is always a bad idea.  And more than you need to change, I do.  And that’s the real frustration.  I would have thought that by now I would do better.  I would expect to have more patience knowing that you’ve always struggled with moving from one thing to the next.  And then there are all those examples of parents who are more adept, who appear to have unlimited supplies of calm.  But as I said before comparisons don’t help and I realize we both need some grace in this area.

You seem to have already forgiven me and moved on.  So I vow to start again glad to have another chance to get it right even though I feel certain I’ve used them all up.  I guess that’s the whole point of grace and I’ve never needed it so much in my life than as a parent.

 

CATERPILLAR KISSES

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 (Alex 7, Ana 3)

Dear Ana,

You used the word dead recently.  It’s the first time I’ve heard you say it and it took me by surprise because I don’t know where you’ve heard it before and am sure you don’t know what it means.

Last week you found a dead moth hanging from a spider web.  Though I told you to leave it alone, you snuck it inside and put in one of your dresser drawers.  You started collecting grass and pine needles to feed your new pet, which you named Charley Chaney.  Then you seemed concerned when you went to check on him later.  “He’s not eating,” you told me puzzled.

“He doesn’t need food anymore,” I said.  I didn’t want to break it to you that he was dead.

You seemed to accept this and later Dad cleaned out your drawer and you barely noticed.  You seem too young to know about death and thankfully you wouldn’t really understand even if I tried to explain it.  Maybe better, more emotionally resourceful parents would know how to have these talks, but I’m determined to wait until I feel I have no other choice.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Dear Ana,

Your love for all creatures great and small continues.  You found a caterpillar last week and brought him into the house.  “I’m going to name him,” you announced excitedly.

Then you left him on the kitchen table and went back out on the porch only to find him missing when you returned.  For days, you told everyone you saw that you had lost your caterpillar and that you hoped to find him so you could give him a name.  Not long after, you found a dead caterpillar.

“He’s dead,” you said opening your hand to show me.  Then you started talking to him, “Can you move?”

I was somewhat relieved to know you haven’t grasped the permanence of death.

You were feeling sad that day about your lost and dead caterpillars (which may have been one and the same).  Then the very next morning we found the front porch covered in caterpillars.  I stopped counting at 70.  You were ecstatic and started collecting them in your plastic bug cage.  I eventually made you return them to the porch but every day we find one inside.  One evening you were sitting on the floor after dinner and looked up at me with wide eyes.  “I didn’t eat it.”

“You didn’t eat what?” I asked.

“I just tried to kiss my caler-pillar and he fell into my mouth.  But I didn’t eat him.  I spit him out.”

 

FUN MOM

Thursday, January 23, 2014 (Alex 8, Ana 4) 

Dear Ana, 

You continue to beg for play dates especially since it’s been so cold we can’t stay at the playground after school.  Alex goes over to his friend’s to play at least once a week and you cry and shriek that it isn’t fair.  This happened again today.

“I’ll play with you,” I said.

“But you’re not FUN. Only grandparents can be fun to play with.”

This makes me feel like such the lousy mom since I can’t deny that I am often not the fun mom I had hoped to be.  As a teen and young adult, I was a favorite sitter and mentor.  Children whispered in my ear they wished I was their mother.  But once I became a mother, I felt the weight of responsibility and am more serious than silly, more anxious than carefree.  I don’t play with you nearly as much as I would’ve imagined.  I helped you put two puzzles together earlier in the day but that had been the extent of it for the morning.

“I can be fun, too,” I said and started to chase you.

You hesitated but stripped your socks off and squealed as I ran after you through the downstairs rooms.  I get bored easily with your toys and my attention span for pretend play is not great either.  My favorite things to do with you and Alex are more physically oriented—chase, catch, and a variation of freeze tag which involves me running after the two of you while trying to nail you with one of your stuffed animals.  You stopped our game of chase abruptly and I had to think quickly of what might interest you and not put me to sleep.

“Do you want to paint?  How about Play-Doh?” I asked.

“Paint!” you exclaimed.

You usually water color but I pulled out the finger paints that we haven’t used in years along with some inkpads and stamps I found in the same bin.  I set it up but instead of finger painting with you, I watched as I cleaned up the kitchen.  You didn’t seem to notice but when you finished you asked me to stamp with you.  So I stood next to you and stamped the paper several times before going back to my work.  I thought for a second I should just sit down and stamp some more but it was close to dinnertime and I hadn’t even started cooking.  Thoughts of eating on time so I could get you to bed on time ran through my head.

This is the reason I am not a fun mom.  I am too caught up in getting things done and feel antsy while doing something as seemingly unproductive as stamping.  But what I sometimes forget is that it’s not about the stamping.  It’s about having an opportunity to connect with you.  I should know this after years of working with children and engaging them with puppets or drawings in order to reach them.  Even the teens opened up more over a game of cards.

So I’m going to try harder to remember that playing with you isn’t about keeping you entertained or about how quickly I bore of all the little pieces of plastic you love so much.  And it’s not even about being the fun mom.  It’s about connecting with you—the one thing I want most of all.

JACKPOT

Monday, May 20, 2013 (Alex 7, Ana 3)

Dear Alex,

A few weeks ago, you came down with walking pneumonia.  It was the week of Dad’s 40th birthday and we had plans to go to the beach that weekend.  We were going to cancel but after several days on the antibiotic you were acting like your normal self and by the morning we had planned to leave, you were begging to kick the soccer ball around the yard.  So we headed to Wrightsville Beach that afternoon.

The next day you sprinted down the shore while we walked to the far end of the island overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway.  There was a string of tidal pools and stretches of sand with no one in sight.  It felt like our own private sanctuary and you and Ana played and explored until Ana grew cold and tired.

Dad carried Ana as we headed back to where we had set up our blanket.  They got ahead of us because you were busy combing the beach for seashells—something I had always loved to do.  I told you about the first time I was on an island in South Carolina and found a handful of unbroken sand dollars.  “Finding them among all the broken shells was like hitting the jackpot,” I said.

So you started referring to sand dollars as jackpots and it became your quest that day to find a perfect, whole one.  As we walked along, I pointed out pieces and you quickly scooped them up and put them in your pail.  Later, when Ana fell asleep under the umbrella, you asked if we could go looking for jackpots.  Dad was happy to stay behind and read a book, so we set out in the opposite direction we’d been before, hoping to have better luck.

The tide had deposited a fresh band of shells as it began to recede and you walked along slowly hunting.  It was late afternoon—my favorite time of day to walk the beach.  The sun was less intense and fewer people dotted the shore.  It had been years since we’d been to the ocean and walking along its edge felt like walking beside an old and sorely missed friend.

I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan and seeing only sky and water, hearing the waves roll in and feeling the cool water rush over my feet brought me back to my childhood.  I don’t talk much about my youth to you other than telling funny stories that upon your request never involve me getting harmed or in trouble.  And though I have some happy memories as a child, the lasting feelings have been of hurt and loss and brokenness.  So I walked with the heaviness of these emotions surprised they caught up with me again on a beautiful afternoon at the beach and wondering if I would ever escape them for good—if I would ever feel whole.

You were lagging behind still intent in your search to find a complete sand dollar.  But all you could find were pieces.  You were picking them up one by one, your hands now full of bone-white shards.  You noticed that I had overlooked them as I walked on ahead.  “Mom you missed all these,” you called.

“I thought we were looking for the jackpot,” I answered.

“The broken ones are special too,” you said grabbing another.

So you kept gathering bits in our hunt for the jackpot, a whole and perfect sand dollar.  But we never did find one.  All we had at the end of our search was a large collection of fragments.  It was hard not to feel disappointed but as you looked them over, I could see you were content.  “These are great,” you marveled, holding up each one.  “I’m definitely keeping all of them.”

I thought of my brokenness again and how over the years I’ve been picking up the pieces while still searching for some perfect, complete me.  But I could never find it.  Watching your joy over your bounty, I could see the beauty in that pile of shards.  It left me wondering if maybe I’ve been so lost in my search for wholeness, I’ve failed to see it’s already there in the pieces.

BLESS THE MEAN GIRLS

Friday, February 28, 2014 (Alex 8, Ana 4)

Dear Ana,

You are 3/4 sweet little girl and 1/4 junkyard dog.  When you were a year old, I watched Alex make the mistake of snatching a toy from you and turning his back.  You barreled toward him, tackling him to the ground.  You finished by chomping his leg.  (Thankfully, the biting part only happened when you were actively teething).

It’s hard to know how to handle it at times because your attacks are always provoked and your targets are older and bigger than you.  Last year when one of Alex’s soccer teammates was injured by an opposing player, Dad proudly restrained you from running onto the field and charging the offender.

Recently while watching the animated movie Turbo together, you leaned across me.  “MOVE, Mommy!”

“What?”  I asked.

“I’m going to spit on him!” you said hissing at a character who was being cruel to the protagonist, Turbo.

So it really shouldn’t have surprised me when you announced that you wanted to kill two older girls who had teased, pushed and shoved you throughout a make-up gymnastics class you attended a few weeks ago.

“It’s wrong to kill people,” I told you.

You looked at me puzzled.  “But they are really mean, Mommy.  They are bad guys.”

“But that doesn’t make it okay for us to kill them.  Killing is bad.

“Well let’s at least put them in jail,” you said.

I tried to explain that even jail isn’t an option for garden-variety mean girl behavior, but you didn’t look convinced.

A week later, you stopped me during your bedtime prayer.  “Can we ask God and his angels NOT to watch out for the mean girls from gymnastics?”

“No, honey.  We can’t,” I said.

“Why?” you asked.

“Because God loves them just the same.”

You didn’t like that idea AT ALL.  But last night you stopped Dad during your prayer.  “Can you ask God to bless the girls from my make-up class?”

“Who?” Dad asked.

“I don’t know their names but you can just say, ‘Bless the mean girls from gymnastics.  One has blond hair.  One has brown.’  God will know.”

And so Dad did.

I’m not sure who gave you the idea to bless these girls.  It surely wasn’t me.  I was fine with stopping at not killing or putting them in jail.  I only bless my enemies . . . NEVER.  When I think about people who have mistreated me, I’m usually content to dwell on their offenses.  So it was humbling to watch your hurt and anger soften and transform into something much greater and more powerful.  GRACE.

MOTHERLESS

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 (Alex 7, Ana 3)

Dear Ana,

This summer, I returned to the car after pumping gas and found you in tears.  I asked what had happened and Alex explained, “I told Ana that someday she’s going to have to learn to pump gas.  She said, ‘But Mommy will do it for me.’  So I reminded her you will die eventually and so she’ll have to learn to do it herself.”

At this point you were bawling.  “I will miss you every yeeeeear of my whooooole life.”

The week before I’d been listening to Wild while driving.  I had wanted to read it since its release and another mom had recommended the audio version saying her kids had been good about letting her listen to it in the car.  They happened to have it at the library, so I thought I’d give it a try.  It went along fine at first but then we hit a passage with some choice words.  I quickly turned it off even though Alex said he wanted to hear more.  We tried it again but when we reached the part with the multiple f-bombs, I decided to call it quits even though I was enjoying it.

Thankfully, the cursing didn’t stick with you but the passages about her mother dying did.  It had never occurred to you until hearing about a mother dying that I could and will die.  You did not seem ready for this knowledge and I was equally unprepared.

“I don’t want you to be dead,” you said to me recently in tears as if I had already died.

“I’m not dying right now,” I answered.

“Are you going to die?” you asked.

“Hopefully not for a long, long time.”

This didn’t reassure you.  “But I don’t ever want to be away from you.”

I explained that even when we die, our spirits live on—only our bodies die.  This concerned you more.

“Then we won’t be able to poop and pee,” you said.

I didn’t have a response for that.

“Will we walk to heaven?” you wanted to know.

“I don’t know.  Maybe we’ll fly,” I said thinking of a passage from Proof of Heaven where the author enters a part of heaven flying on the wings of a butterfly.

“I don’t want you to leave before I get my shoes on,” you said.

“Okay.  I’ll wait for you,” I answered.

“Can you play in heaven?  Do they have restaurants?”

This reminded me of the kinds of questions Alex asked me years ago.  He was very concerned about whether or not heaven would have a Chik-fil-A.  I told him what he wanted to hear then and I did the same for you.  “Of course you can play in heaven.  And they have restaurants.  With ice cream.”

“Yes!” you exclaimed knowingly.  “They have lots of desserts.”

Later that day you asked, “So you’ll wait for me to get my shoes on?”

“When?” I asked wondering where you thought we were heading.

“When we go to heaven.”

“Of course,” I said biting my lip.  “I’ll wait for you to get your shoes on.”

You’ve never liked the thought of being left behind.  From a young age, you were always the first one to the door to get your shoes on when you noticed we were getting ready to leave.  Alex never has a sense of urgency about getting anywhere except for where he is.  Even the threat of being left behind doesn’t motivate him to move or put his shoes on quickly.  So you worry for him.  I’ll tell Alex that you and I are leaving and will step out the door to the garage and you’ll start screaming, “No!  Don’t leave him.  Don’t leave Alex.  Alex come!”

So it breaks my heart knowing that when I die, you will feel left behind and that this is the best I can hope for since it will mean I will die first.  I don’t like the thought of being apart from you and I can only hope that as we both grow older we’ll be more ready for that separation.

But I’ve lived long enough to know that life does not always unfold so neatly.  Loss does not always wait for us to be prepared.  I’ve known of too many mothers and children who have gone too soon, leaving their loved ones searching for a way to live with the biggest pieces of their hearts missing.

In the end, I hope I do go first and as such leave you behind.  And I hope your strong spirit and sense of place in this world will buoy you.  But you don’t need to hurry to get your shoes on because you can bet wherever I am, I’ll be waiting for you.