This week big news is coming in the mail. Hayleigh gets her class placement for Kindergarten in the Fall. (If it were completely up to me I would still be pursuing securing a cabin in the remote woods and raising truant Hobbit children. But, alas, Peter has some say in how our children our raised and for some reason he insists on electricity, access to Wegmans within 5 minutes from our house, and children who are literate and law abiding students. Helicopter dad, much? Geez.)
I had this teacher for 2nd grade at the same school, 20 some-odd years ago. If I am trying to say this in the most mature and tactful way possible I would say she does not have the most friendly disposition with the children and can be a bit harsh. If I am saying it in the most honest way possible-or at least the way I remember feeling all those years ago and felt again meeting her at Hayleigh’s Kindergarten open house and again at her screening, I would say: She is a big meany who can’t stand children and gives sensitive children emotional scars (that may or may not last 20 some-odd years and be re-opened upon learning that said teacher may be with your child 7.5 hours per day 5 days a week) and she has no business teaching anymore; she should just retire. Yeah, I would say something like that in run-on sentence form.
After lots of prayer, seeking advice from people I respect, and giving myself some not-so-fun-but-oh-so-true doses of my parenting ideals I decided not to make the call. I decided to wait it out and see if the 80% chance Hayleigh had of not getting Mrs. Yell-a-lot would be in our favor. You see I want a number of things for my kids. Some of those things I want more than others. I want them to be happy. But more than happy I want them to be holy. Let me explain. I don’t expect my kids to be perfect. Clearly that is impossible. But I want them to become more and more like Jesus as they go through life. I want the same thing for myself. So, when it comes to choosing Hayleigh’s happiness verses her holiness, I am choosing (we-Peter and I are choosing) her holiness. The two aren’t always opposed. But I have experienced so much more growth through challenges and suffering in my life, than when things were easy and fun. I have learned more about myself, about others, and about God when things are difficult. I am a better person because of it. A huge part of my world-view involves being thankful for the Grace God gives us in suffering and challenge-how He uses suffering and challenge to give us what we don’t deserve: being near to Him and becoming more like Him. So, if I am truly grateful for those opportunities in my life, why would I keep my children from growing through challenge? Sometimes I really hate it when the “rubber” of my ideals meets the proverbial road.
So, I didn’t call and request Hayleigh not to have that teacher. Instead I have been faithfully (perhaps obsessively) praying a prayer that a wise friend shared with me after being in a similar situation. I am praying that God would give Hayleigh the teacher He knows will make her into the person He wants her to be. Sometimes it is hard to believe but God knows and loves Hayleigh more than I do. I like to think that I always know what is best for her. I pride myself in knowing the intricacies of my kids, what makes them tick. I get very comfortable calling her mine. But in reality she belongs to God. We all do. The truth of it all, the truth that really is more of a comfort than anything else, is that Hayleigh is not my girl. She is God’s girl on loan to me. The other magnificent truth is that God knows what is best for Hayleigh and not only that, but He has promised to bring it about.
Since I believe those things, I decided to put into practice those things. I decided to start of Hayleigh’s school career making it more about her holiness than her happiness (although I have also been praying plenty of “please, oh please, don’t let her teacher be Mrs. Big Meany Pants” prayers). I really want my kids to know that their parents care more about their hearts than anything else. I want them to know from the get-go that we expect them to do what’s right even when it is hard, that challenge is God’s best method for growing us, and God gives challenges to those He loves. I want them to know that while we are their biggest advocates that does not mean we will try to take those challenges away from them. In fact, being their biggest advocates means the opposite to us. It means we will welcome those challenges in their lives while they still live under our roof, and we are still able to help them sort it all out in a Biblical way. We will not fight against people who present challenges to our kids, but instead we will use it as an opportunity for growth-for us all. I want my kids to know that we are on their team, that we are a safe haven for them, and they were are there to coach them through the difficult things that come up in life. I want to equip them now to handle bigger challenges later in life, so that they don’t grow up, move out and be in for the surprise of their life when things aren’t handed to them. I don’t want them to be surprised by suffering. God tells us not to be surprised by it. He tells us to expect it. So, I figure my kids better know how to handle it.I know this might sound kind of harsh. And part of me really ( like really) wants to step in and give Hayleigh my choice of a teacher for her. (Or, find a cabin with electricity, have Wegmans groceries air-lifted in and hire a private tutor.) But, I know that would not be the most loving thing to do for Hayleigh. And while she is on loan to me, I want to love her right. I blow it every single day. I really am a big screw up in a lot of ways. Which is why I am thankful for Grace-the grace that comes in times of challenge and suffering, the grace that is bigger than all my sins and blind-spots, the grace that covers all God’s children-including my sweet Hayleigh Girl.
So, the letter comes this week. I am not sure what it will say. But God does. And it is right, even if I don’t like it. Here goes living based on those darn ideals.
The other day I held Hayleigh’s hand, counted to three (although she wanted to count to thirty-one) and we jumped together into my parent’s pool. It was her first time being brave enough to jump into the deep end. It was my first time being brave enough this season since the heater broke and the water was a “refreshing” (aka bone-chilling) temperature. I am a super spoiled swimmer. As a pre-teen I wouldn’t even go in the water until it was almost 80 degrees. When I came up trying to find my breath, and sunglasses, I looked over at her bobbing there in her swim vest, hair stuck to her face. I expected to see her smiling and cheering. But instead she was gasping, blinded by water and her untrimmed bangs. I tried to convince her to paddle on over to me, but she bobbed there, frozen in place, gasping and squinting. She was terrified and overwhelmed by the vastness of the water. She later told me even when her head was above the water it looked like the water was all around her in big walls by her shoulders, blocking her so she couldn’t see. Even though I was calling to her, from just a few feet away, she couldn’t see me. She was paralyzed to even follow the sound of my voice. Instead she bobbed there in fear and discomfort, certain she was helpless.
I looked at my sweet, terrified, water-logged daughter and I saw myself-as I so often do when I look at Hayleigh. How often in my life I am barely able to keep my head above water. I am bogged down by the things of life, my the stress, by the business, by anxiety, by Depression, by the suffering, by expectations, by my own sin. I try to paste a smile on my face. I can barely make out the shadows of people around me-the blinders keep me only looking in one cloudy direction. I wonder if anyone can tell. How many times I have just sat there bobbing, in water up to my chin, trying desperately to come up with an escape plan, but at the same time powerless to move. I could relate to her position, but now I could see it from the other perspective:the person trying to help.
I reached out to her. It all seemed so easy. “Just open your eyes. All you have to do if just kick over to me. I’m right here. Take my hand.”
It made me think that so many times in my life when I have felt like it was all closing in, that I was alone and being swallowed up by life, that I really wasn’t as alone as I had felt. Maybe if I had just opened my eyes a little, reached out my hand in the direction of the voice, mustered a few weak kicks. I have felt like God was no where to be found. Or why didn’t He just jump in a save me, bring me sputtering and gasping over the the side and give me CPR? I have blamed Him for my drowning, blamed others for not seeing that I was going under. But as treaded water there next to poor Hayleigh, I saw the other perspective. She wasn’t drowning. She didn’t need CPR. I wasn’t far off. I wasn’t on the side of the pool cheering her on and she struggled. I wasn’t dangling a life preserver just out of reach. I had already given her a swim vest. She was fine, if she would just trust in it. And I was right there in the pool, treading water along with her.
I wonder if God has ever looked at me that way. I wonder if He has ever seen me struggling there in what I am convinced is thousand foot water, with my head barely above water, not trusting in my life vest, certain I am all alone and perishing. Maybe he has looked at me with compassion and thought, “I am right here. You are not in any real danger. Use what I have given you. One little stroke at a time.”
So that is what I am trying to do these days-one stroke at a time. One little thing, followed by another little thing. Doing all I can, giving all I can muster. It might seem like the water is in walls around me, but I know a little perspective would change everything. I also know my Father would never let me drown. He has given me the swim vest. I have His Word, prayer, Hope and Truth. I just have to trust in it. So I am. I am making feeble attempts. At times I still feel like there is water filling my lungs and I can only paste a smile to my face and look like a deer in the headlights. There are times when all I feel like all I can do is just take the next breath. All my body can focus on is staying alive. It is those moments where I reach for my life-preserver. I breathe in grace. I breathe in truth. I breathe out praise. And I make a feeble stroke in the right direction. It might not feel like I am getting anywhere, but I am doing all I can. I am inching my way closer to my Father. I am giving what I have. Instead of hoarding and conserving my energy, just to stay in the same place, I am using what I have inside me, emptying myself out in order to move. And with each bit I use I feel Him filling me with new strength. The more that goes out, the more I have.
I might never be a confident swimmer. I will certainly never been the Olympic medalist of life. I am no Michael Phelps. I am okay with that. But I don’t want to be someone who is barely surviving. I am sick of exhausting myself to go nowhere. So, even if I can only see an inch in front of me, I will go forward. I will move towards the sound of the Voice. I know there is a hand reaching out for me. I trust the swim vest I have been given. Swimming can be hard, but that’s what the vest was designed for. It will hold me up, but it isn’t a motor boat. It isn’t self-propelled. Swimming can be exhausting. Life can be exhausting at times, but this is what I was made for. I trust the One who made me, who is calling me to step out in faith. He is closer than I have realized.
My dad’s Father’s Day gift this year was supposed to be an apple tree. We finally found a time when all of us (my parents, sisters and us) were free and we went to the tree farm to pick one up. Turns out apple trees need a buddy tree for cross-pollination and peach trees do not. (I am sure there is some life metaphor there for another day). Since my parents were hard-pressed to find a spot in their yard for just one tree, we knew two trees were not an option. The man helping us suggested a peach tree instead. It also turns out my dad would rather have a peach tree than an apple tree, so there we go. My dad now has a peach tree. He named it Duane-after the lead singer in his favorite band who apparently sang a song about peaches or peach trees or something like that. It is SO my dad to name a tree Duane… before said tree even gets taken out of the minivan. I love it. I think Duane will make a nice addition to the family. Although part of me doesn’t want him here at all.
The truth is we probably would never have bought my dad a tree if he wasn’t sick. My dad is not an agriculturalist. Like I said, my parents hardly have room for a tree in their yard anyway, because most of it is taken up with deck and pool and dog yard and a newfound interest in vegetable gardening. So, the thought of buying a tree would not have come to our minds if we weren’t faced with the bitter reality of my dad’s illness. The very existence of Duane in my parents’ yard, means things aren’t the way we had hoped they would be. Every inch and foot that Duane grows marks some increment of time with my dad gone. The irony of Duane growing and other things fading away is not lost on me. That’s the bitter part.
In many ways looking at Duane makes it seem all too real for me. Sometimes I still feel like I am telling, and re-telling and even living someone else’s life. But when I look at Duane I know this is real. It’s tangible. The bitterness of it all. And it has made its home with us.
I imagine sitting under Duane in the years to come. I imagine the sweet smell of peaches lingering in the air, wafting through my parents’ open bedroom window and greeting them in the morning. I imagine eating peaches on Father’s Day and peach cobbler on my dad’s birthday. I imagine the kids laughing as they call the tree Duane, but in the years to come Duane becoming just another part of the family. And although I don’t like that, at the same time, I do.
I like the idea of life growing amidst the natural decaying of life. I like the idea of sweetness amidst the pain, and abundance amidst the emptiness. I like that Duane will bring the sweetness and abundance of life to my parents’ home, now and in the years to come. Where there could be only bitterness, there is sweetness too.
The sweetness reminds me of my dad. It reminds me of his legacy. And in the years to come I will taste the sweetness of the fruit knowing I am only tasting a teeny, tiny fraction of the sweetness my dad is tasting in heaven. The same sweetness I will drink in, in abundance when I get to meet my Heavenly Father face to face. Oh, what a day that will be! Until then though, there is bitterness in every sweetness, and the opportunity to choose sweetness in every bitterness.
Yes, life is bittersweet. For a while now I have been trying to separate the two elements of that. But now I am learning to take them together, without struggling against it. They are fused together-the bitterness and the sweetness. There is no separating them. I see that in the situation with my dad. As sweet as an moment is, any laugh, any adventure-there is a bitterness there on the horizon. It might be hiding in the corner or looming in the shadows of our minds, but its there. There is no denying it and no use fighting against it. I don’t have much wisdom to offer myself when it comes to dealing with the bittersweet, but I have learned one thing. The bitterness makes the sweetness sweeter. It sounds silly, but it does. The bitterness on the horizon, the bitterness peeking at us from the shadows-it makes me savor the sweet tasting moments even more. It causes me to make more room for the sweet, to let them sit with me a little while, soak up the sweetness until I am almost saturated with it. Yes, the bitterness of life makes the sweetness of life that much sweeter. And one more thing I know, one more thing I cling to tighter than anything else-the bitterness on the horizon is not the end. Sweetness wins in the end. Alzheimer’s doesn’t win. Sickness and death do not win. Sadness and sin do not win. Satan does not win. Their fate is sure and our fate is secure. God wins. We win in the end. No bitterness there. Just the sweet, sweet victory we share with our Savior. And that hope leaves the sweetest taste of all.