Last week, crammed into a house far to small for all of us, my (ever-expanding) family of origin gathered as a whole for the first time in two years. We relished the in-person hugs and the introductions of family members who hadn’t yet met. We caught up on the kind of news that gets forgotten or breezed over during Skype and Facetime chats. We laughed about the same old stories and made fools of ourselves playing ridiculous games. We sat around for hours over breakfasts, lunches, dinners. More than once, we wore pajamas well into the afternoon.
Since the last time we were together, we have added three members: two babies and a fiancée. We’ve changed for the better: degrees begun and completed; jobs changed; promotions earned; homes rented, purchased and sold; engagements announced; babies born. In all this change, there has been much to congratulate and celebrate.
But we are also the same as we were before, so there is still plenty to mourn. In this little family alone, hearts are heavy under aches that haven’t gone away, unmet desires that haven’t faded, strains that haven’t been eased, questions that haven’t been answered, and griefs that haven’t worn fully away. And we can still hurt one another in the same tired, old ways. And we can still be our most selfish, spiteful, ugly selves when we’re together.
When I was in fifth grade, in the weeks and months that led up to Christmas, two men in our church learned that they had brain tumors. One of the men was a man named Gary. The other was my dad.
Gary’s tumor had been discovered first, and as I recall, it came with a prognosis more grim. His tumor was cancerous, and something about it (either the location or the shape of the tumor or both) made surgery cuts especially complicated. My dad was cancer-free, and we were told that physicians removed tumors like his most commonly of all.
Still, each of the two men required a procedure that involved the work of sharp instruments in his head, so that Christmas was a stressful one for both our families. My parents found solace in a new friendship with Gary and his wife, and I think the feeling was mutual. Both couples were about the same age with a handful of kids, both worked hard to make ends meet, both were facing complicated decisions about doctors, hospitals, surgeries, and radiation, not to mention added financial strain and the all-too-real awareness that everything could change in an instant. They became close. That’s how my parents found out about The Comment.
Our girl was born two months into my husband’s six-and-a-half-month deployment to Afghanistan. It was late afternoon there when she made her arrival, and his company was out on a mission. There had been a firefight, on account of which he hadn’t slept much and he needed to write and submit some reports to higher headquarters urgently. He didn’t have much access to civilian emails during that time. And the (typically reliable, typically lightning-fast) Red Cross message that a hospital nurse supposedly dispatched to him on my behalf never made it to the Middle East. The result of all this was that Nathan didn’t know about his daughter’s birth until two afternoons later, almost 48 hours after the fact.
Two a.m. local time, he finally called me. “I just found out,” was how our first parental conversation started. There was an uncharacteristic jitter in his voice, and it laid bare some of his feelings about the new and uncharted waters we were in. I could hear it instantly: he was curious, tentative, apologetic, proud, thrilled. But three minutes after I had answered the phone, duty called again, and he had to hang up. He hadn’t even had the chance to hear a Cliff’s Notes version of our first child’s delivery. Initially I was tempted to be upset about this: Wasn’t he at least entitled to a quick overview?
Then again, the more I thought about it, I wasn’t sure if anyone—certainly not I—could have properly remembered the events that had happened two days earlier.
Our daughter is 19 months old, and today she spent half an hour in our kitchen, squeezing herself into and out of a box meant to hold clementine oranges. All four sides of the packaging around her were emblazoned with the clementine brand name: Cuties. Appropriate.
“Mama, howp,” came the request whenever her little feet became stuck in the corners.
She is enthralled by soapy bubbles in the kitchen sink, by the recycling truck’s weekly visits, and by the multicolored twinkle lights our neighbors strung along their front porch last night. Falling rain produces more excitement in her than any little body could contain. She gets agitated about the vacuum, keeping her distance and keeping aware. When her fingertips get wrinkly after a warm bath, it baffles her that she can’t lick the creases away.
Reading today’s portion from Luke 18, the first thought that came to mind was her look of sheer wonderment yesterday at bedtime, when together we peered over the half-curtain in her bedroom to see those Christmas lights.
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Luke 18:17
There was so much awe and thrill in her eyes. Her jaw was slack from one end to the other. Muted twinkles reflected off the curves of her cheeks.
She didn’t want to even acknowledge her crib. Not her PJ’s. Not the blinds as they closed in front of us. “Wites,” she kept saying, pointing back toward the window.
Colorado Springs, 1999. My first real job as a writer.
I was 17, and I had been chosen by the editors of a teen magazine to write a column every other month for a year. “Lisa’s Line,” they called it. They had flown me to Colorado by myself for a weekend photo shoot, to get the next January’s cover image and a few more pictures for accompanying my columns. The editor in charge of choosing me that year, Andrea, had flown in for the weekend as well. She and I were staying in the same hotel, and I was positively awed by her.
Andrea asked if I would meet her for breakfast at the hotel restaurant on the day of the shoot. So I found her at a table that morning, sat across from her, and tried to mirror her beautiful posture without being obvious about it. (Was it the way she held her shoulders? Were they forward or back? Or up?) I tried to say intelligent things and to not hold my fork awkwardly. I was embarrassed that my hair was still a little damp.
She told me why they had picked me: they liked my writing and it seemed I had solid faith. Since the magazine had a distinctly Christian focus, they were looking for a teenager who could be a distinctly Christian role model for their readership. That was ironic, considering what happened not moments later.
My friend Karen* has just had surgery, and her husband is away. (This is not uncommon for military folk like us.) We have spent three days holed up at my place—she as the patient, me the attempted nurse—so she can begin to heal. Now she’s ready to be back on her feet and at home, but her cupboards are bare. So we go grocery shopping on the way over to her place. She chooses the food, I push the cart and lift the heavy things.
We arrive at a seasonal display in the produce department. Bags of cherries are stacked up in piles: a couple rows of deep red, a couple rows of red-yellow, then a couple more of red. It is at this point when Karen reaches out nonchalantly and grabs a single Ranier.
“I always taste-test these to make sure they’re good first,” she explains, popping it into her mouth. Her official assessment is a slight pucker.
My internal response to this cherry-pick is instantly surprising to me, for two reasons.
My relationship with Marcie (not her real name) took several permanent steps backward when she called up my parents one day and told them she wanted to kill me. According to Marcie—who, up to that point had been a casual friend—the flash point for her murderous thoughts was a conversation from years earlier, which Marcie apparently had remembered selectively and fixated on.
That previous conversation was mildly memorable to me too, mostly because the question that prompted it had seemed to come wildly out of the blue.
Marcie: “Lisa, do you get A’s in school?”
Lisa: “Yeah, I get some A’s. But it’s not that important to get A’s in school, Marcie.”
She wanted to kill me, she was now saying, because of the A’s. According to a report given by authorities a couple days later, a bigger reason was that Marcie’s guardian had been ill, and as a result Marcie had stopped taking her meds.
On one hand, Marcie posed no plausible serious threat to me. It seemed reasonable to believe that with her medications back on schedule, her mind would sort out properly. Plus she was a tiny woman on a limited income who at that point lived 200 miles away from me and had no driver’s license.
Aside from concerns about my safety, though, there remained the issue of my sanity. That mental space had suddenly become complicated. How do you deal with someone who has shown such enormous deviation? How do you arrive at a scenario where you even want to deal with that person again? It agitated me, just thinking that Marcie and I might cross paths again someday. To distrust Dr. Jekyll for always, must you meet Mr. Hyde only once?
Which brings us, some would suggest, to the question of God’s character in a Bible passage like Ezekiel 5.