What I Hope You Will Know

 

 “And just as the darkness got very dark, he bumped into his big fur mother, and she took her little fur child home in her arms and gave him his supper.”  –from “Little Fur Family” by Margaret Wise Brown

Here is what I hope you will know: it is different.  Raising babies that I have birthed is not the same as raising children not born to me.  Do I love you, my children, differently?  I would like to think that love can rise above the unknown, and even that which is known but unthinkable.  I would like to think that love transcends all boundaries and fills the hollow spaces with what needs to be there.  The difference lies in circumstances, in history.  With my biological children, whom I have known since before you were born, the history is ours.  Together, we have been one.  For my children that came to me when the journey had already begun, for you that were matched to me by the stars and the forces beyond, at the expense of a different path and different players, the history is yours, mine, and others’.  Only eventually is it ours, too.

I hope you know that you are not fortunate or blessed to have me.  We have been given to one another in this life, and we have each other to stand alongside against our struggles.  There’s a place between wanting to cover up and hide away from all the bad things that happened, to pretend that they never were, and wishing I could share more than I even know, to help your actions and behavior make just a little more sense to others in a world of judgment.  I don’t want to make excuses, nor do I feel that I should hold your hand through all of the challenges and conflicts, which are almost daily, and which are often sporn from a place deep inside and from many yesterdays ago: a place from where the fallout never ceases.

I hope that some day, you can see yourself as I see you;  I hope that you will let others hear your laughter and let them see the real sparkle that dances in your eye.    I hope, too, that you know that when your day is guided by anger, grief, sadness, despair, and darkness, these hours will not define you, and you will not be alone.

I hope you will believe and understand that what “happened” is not for all to know.  I hope you understand and believe that you will be a strong adult for what you have overcome, but that you are still yet a child who is trying to find your place in a world that is not always gracious or forgiving.

When you fall, when you are shattered, I will do my very best to help pick up the pieces.  I know, though, that in the end it is up to you to forge the path to your future.  No matter where the path leads, you will always have a place here, at home.

I hope you hope, right along with me.

I hope you know, too, how very deeply you are loved, no matter how or when you arrived.  

 All of you.

“Sleep, sleep, our little fur child, out of the windiness, out of the wild.  Sleep warm in your fur all night long, in your little fur family.  This is a song.” –from “Little Fur Family” by Margaret Wise Brown

Frostbite 

I didn’t even want him.  I certainly didn’t expect to love him.  It wasn’t until he was at the mercy of another, in danger of demise, that I realized how deeply I loved him and how I would fight to save him.

Four new baby chicks will be coming to the farm this spring.  By the end of the summer, these new girls should be laying eggs alongside our other hens.  

Hens lay eggs.  Roosters don’t.

I was careful to repeat my request several times to the gentleman that was taking my order: “all females…two of each.”  This time, I chose a hatchery out of Ohio as the birthplace of my chickens.  It didn’t seem to be much of a factor at the time, but last year, when I picked up my “reserved pullets” from the local feed store, I also chose a few extra from the “I’m pretty sure those are females, too, bin.”  I guess that is where things went wrong, or at least took a bit of a detour.

We usually kept the door closed to the main bathroom at our old house in town.  This sometimes confused people, as there were several similar doors in a small corner of the house.  Each led somewhere, but we thought our guests would benefit from a telltale sign on the bathroom door,  so they could be sure.  I found a small vintage wooden sign with a raised image of a little child on a chamber pot.  It was perfect, and nobody ever asked where the bathroom was again.   

When we moved to the farm, I brought the little sign along and attached it to the guest bathroom door.  It looks as though it has been there forever, although it hasn’t.  

It had been a pretty good day until, at some point, something didn’t happen the right way.  There was warfare of the sort of whatever was in his reach being catapulted at whoever was in striking distance.  Thankfully, the afternoon’s biggest casualty was the relatively new Oscar the Grouch garbage can which now slumps slightly sideways and no longer closes properly.

Nobody would know that my little  sign had previously announced another bathroom in a different house, and that I had simply mounted it here using double sided tape.  Nobody knows where it’s first home was, and if there were many places between.  

People that I don’t know certainly remember the little sign from one place or another, but nobody knows it’s whole story.  In some ways, now, the story of the bathroom chamber pot sign starts here, with my family.  We cannot properly honor what we don’t know.  Still, though, we can know that there was something before, perhaps even a long, hard, road,  which cannot be separated from today.

Wendell has not been his usual self since he was attacked, innocently enough, by the dog.  He had always been a great protector of the hens, but he had also been inquisitive, guardedly social, and the first chicken running to check for leftover cat food when allowed to range free.  He let Aaron tote him around, and he only used his “power of intimidation” when he must have really felt at risk, as when someone ran at him while wearing red shoes.

Now, though, there is much more to his story.  Yes, he has a few black spots on his comb where the harsh winter left it’s mark.  But deeper and not visible to the eye, is that which cannot be seen but is very much there, and that which changes everything.  

I am on guard now as I gather eggs or throw feed, and the children must be aware of where Wendell is at all times.  Wendell moves to attention when I enter the coop, and he watches with a new hypervigilance my every move.  And I am just a bit scared of Wendell.  Several times, now, he has flown up to me in fight mode.  I feed him, I take care of him, I love him, and still, I am afraid.  

The black spots tell of frostbite.  Something happened.  But what about when we can’t tell, when the pain of past trauma is deep and, though it affects my child’s every step, nobody really knows.  There are no words or warnings, no tangible reasons, just emotions.  And there is a story, never to be told.  

This morning’s sky was as bold an azure blue as ever I had seen; it looked like some sort of surreal stage curtain draped behind the used-to-be white farmhouse on what might be the last unbearably cold day in this long winter.  Beauty could still be found in the bitterness.  We, along with the chickens, have made it through the worst part of this season.   The chickens have survived their first Midwest winter, but not without a little evidence of frostbite.  

The “chicken experts” advise carrying an aggressive rooster around to ease his combative behavior.  Likewise, we carry on, continuing to support our children through their own angst and battles, with reverence to the unknown, and while looking  forward to the new season which will, inevitably, bare its freshness when we need it most.

Fight


It’s going so fast now, and I can hardly hold on.

Sometimes, I really don’t know which way to look.  When Aaron was a baby, he had medical issues that affected everything he did.  We visited specialist after specialist, and each time I hoped we could find “answers,” as though there would be some sort of watershed.  That day never actually came, but I can look back now on his seven years and know that he has come far, that he has grown into a kind little boy who has all but overcome the chains of his early childhood. 

I kept vigil with this boy through the long nights, listening to the rhythm of his breath in case it should leave him.  This boy who struggled to keep down food and narrowly avoided a feeding tube now stands beside me as my ally as we both fight to help Ethan understand.

Sometimes, I am afraid.  We are afraid.

It’s a little overwhelming to think of looking into Ethan’s future.  What if  there is nothing there?  What if it doesn’t get better, if the fight never goes out?

I only hope that the tiny footsteps of every given day will lead somewhere, anywhere, that includes joy, fulfillment, and tiny celebrations that pepper the days to come.  

The assault and combat hurt now, as he hurls wooden trains designed for an entirely different purpose, narrowly missing his brother’s head in favor of adding yet another hole to the living room wall.  We should probably move the pictures again.

The constant banter, the incessant voices that plead for nothing tangible, these hurt too, perhaps even more, because there can be no defense.  My soul would open if I could will it that way.

Thoughts of my own mortality have moved into my head.  What will happen if the day should come when we can no longer care for our child, a beautiful boy who fights with the force of a squadron?  Who will meet his bus?  Who will butter his toast?  Who will love him?

There are days when the questions overwhelm me, and I am carried by the force of the waves, out of control. The tears wash away the thoughts, and we carry on for another day.

The brothers walk arm-in-arm, dressed in a combination of army suits, sunglasses, snow boots, and Star Wars gear, out to the barn to find their bikes.  As they drive through icy gravel patches and slide along in the mud of winter’s aftermath, I can hear them plotting and laughing.  The noise is great music.

They are little boys.  They are little boys that carry burdens too great to close into a knapsack.   

They are little boys that speak of one day living together at the Super 8 Hotel and buying as much pop as they could ever want to drink.  They cannot imagine life without the other. I cannot imagine life without either of them.  

One day, something will happen.  I will look behind me and know, even as I see the shadows of the brothers playing combat in the gravel pile,  that we have survived the long winter, that the storms are behind us.  Somewhere, all along, was a light to lead us home, home to where we did not even know we belonged.

Ice Milk


It may be gone as quickly as it came, but while it was there, it mattered, and it was meaningful.

I was a three year old ballerina.  My sister, at five, could steal any show.  She danced with confidence and grace.  I did not inherit that gene.  The home movies show me in a pink tulle tutu as a “boogie woogie piggy,” stiffly imitating (a few beats behind) the movements of my preschool classmates.  Though my tongue was sticking out, I smiled with pride, oblivious to my own awkwardness.

My mom took us to Virginia James Dance Studio in suburban St. Louis.  I remember sitting in a tiny wooden chair and coloring pictures  (outside the lines) of fancy ballerinas at the barre.  Virginia James expressed concern to my mom that I could not cut along the lines as the other children could.  I can only imagine what she thought of my dancing.

Once, my mom was in charge of bringing the snack.  My babyhood best friend was allergic to milk, so she was to get a special ice cream cup. The teacher called it “ice milk.”  I, too, wanted to be special enough to have “ice milk.”  My mom bought an extra cup just for me, and I felt special indeed.  

When Virginia James passed out the ice cream cups that day, I watched, eyes wide with anticipation.  I could feel my heart flutter as I looked at the cup, complete with a curious, tiny wooden spoon, that had been placed before me.   It was not the same as the prized snack that had been given to my friend.  I looked around, but no one else had the coveted “ice milk.”  For a little while, I had been special.

The sunrise was breathtaking that morning.  It was a momentary burst of glory so intense that it nearly hurt, and then it was gone, faded to a memory that could never be called forth with the same magnitude.  

It seemed to come from nowhere, but they were enmeshed, and the enemy fought Wendell, my brave rooster, with a will that could not be undone.  The aggressor was just a puppy; she only wanted to play.  Wendell, though, was fighting for his life.  For that tiny moment in time, Wendell was helpless, vulnerable, and a thing of pity, dragged by his tail feathers to the amusement of a dog.

I have met her just once, but her place grows like fire in my soul with each passing day.  We met at the airport; both of our families were waiting for our baby girls to arrive from the other side of the world.  Nervous conversation penetrated the air.  

Her emotions were something of a tangible nature.  They filled the room: swirls of what could only have been exuberance, relief, and untold joy, emanated from the veil of tears which shook the entire body of this young mother.  I could almost hear her gentle, beautiful tears.  Almost.

We exchanged addresses, and life got in the way.  We are, though, part of each other’s stories.  There is grace in social media when it reconnects two families that share the common bond of adoption, and that welcomed  babies who traveled together on a plane across oceans to their new countries some eighteen years ago.  

I can’t say precisely why I love her, but I know I do.  Some might argue that I barely know her.  The truth, though, is that she knows much about how I feel, and she understands. Across many miles and much of a lifetime, we are brought together by deep human emotion.  Though our physical togetherness was momentary, there is much, much more.

I couldn’t see past the stars in my eyes to understand that things would be different from what I had envisioned.  There was angst, tumult, blame, and fear.  In the blink of an eye,  even when the hours dragged on, we look out toward the last days of childhood, as the wings loom near, and we fall to our knees, weary but steadfast, hoping that we have given our best effort.  And I know that my friend knows.

Sometimes he’s here.  And then, though he may be brave and bold as a rooster, he is unable to fight against the demons deep within.  During that spell when he is here, though, we are blessed with enough to carry us through the pain.

As fast as it came, it’s waning.  Isn’t there more work to be done?  If I look away, the end will close me in.

There is a tiny sunrise; it tells of what is to come.  It represents hope for the brand new day.  It dissipates to memory, but that does not mean it was not there.  This parallels my children’s experiences with what has come before.  You remember the good, the beautiful, but not how cold your hands were as you stopped, spellbound, to stare at the beauty of nature before you.  

I don’t need an egg basket to gather eggs in winter.  It is a good day when I can collect two eggs.  It was early still, and one of my nest  boxes already boasted two eggs.  It might have been the day that I would gather at least half a dozen, just like a summer’s harvest.  Somewhere between the chicken coop and the refrigerator, one precious egg slipped from my hand.  Still, the hope had been there.

What I hope for, what has been given to me, and that which is to come…all give  reason for my being.  Maybe two families were brought together so long ago not for the children or the cultural connection, but for something which may be beyond our understanding, though certainly it was…and is…very much there.

The rooster that has fallen from grace, the cracked chicken egg, the parenting struggles, the magnificent transient sunrises, and even the lost ice milk offer lessons, but none as great as the road walked with another.

Teacher


The crack in my van’s windshield had gotten really big, big enough that it was debatable as to whether it obstructed my driving.  Dan took it for repair.   While it was in the shop,  it occurred to me that I had not cleaned the back seats in at least a couple of months.  I cringed at the thought of what was back there: fast food wrappers, Halloween candy rejects, stale donut parts, forgotten library books, long lost homework assignments, unmatched mittens and socks, Hot Wheels cars, and those dreaded discarded sippy cups containing a fermented gray substance that may have at one time been chocolate milk. Hopefully, the technician would not notice the pile of indeterminate things that had probably begun to compost in the space behind him.  Like many things, though, it was out of my hands.

As it turned out, they couldn’t fix the windshield that day. They did not have the right parts.

My friend came for a visit yesterday. We had not seen each other in about fifteen years. She was coming to town with some members of her family for an event at the university. She brought a box of donuts from my favorite donut shop, but she didn’t know it was the one I liked best. We sat across my kitchen table from one another, and for a short burst in time, we were in the basement of Grant Towers, eating dorm food in the cafeteria. When I moved onto her floor as a college freshman, starry eyed and nearly as innocent an eighteen-year-old could be, she already had a year of college life under her belt. She knew where to find the good things, and she willingly took me under her wing of experience.  I towered over her tiny frame, but she was determined to take my hand and to guide me through the days ahead, to watch over me as together with the other girls on the eighth floor we navigated the threshhold to adulthood. As the days wore on, something else that she showed me was the magic of true friendship.

We both studied education, and she, perhaps without even knowing, was my teacher. She woke me when I had overslept for my class. She sat on my bed late into the night and shared much of what she knew about boys, men, and growing older.  She even helped me face my fears when she pulled me into the bathroom with her to hold back her hair as she held her head over the toilet in the wake of a little too much Kahlua and cream.  I was learning.

She let me into her world in my state of wide-eyed simplicity.  She didn’t care if I didn’t understand the jokes, if I wore ribbons in my hair, if I went to the library instead of a Friday night party, or if my eyebrows were messy.  Still she offered her eyes of the brightest blue, even when they brimmed with tears as she shared her secrets.  She loved me, and I knew it.

The van went back to the shop on a different day.  Once again, I had neglected to tend to the growing, perhaps now smoldering pile, in the back seat.  Now, once again, that mess was out of my hands. I had planned to clean it.  I just didn’t.  This time, the repairman called in sick.  The van, still sporting a cracked windshield, returned to the farm.  I would have another chance to clean out the back seat.

I was dressed for church and nearly ready to go.  I didn’t have enough time to tidy the house from the weekend’s chaos , but I did make some peanut butter bars for company.

Then, the baby threw up.  We were no longer going to church, and I changed out of my dress and into clothes more suitable for sickness patrol.  I warned my friend, but, to my secret delight, she came anyway.  

Her eyes were just as blue as the memory I had held.  The visit was short; the family had an event to attend.  Her daughter reminded me of her younger version, and I didn’t want them to go.  There I was, in my bleached stained pants and favorite old sweater, with the house smelling of a combination of sardines (which I had not finished before they arrived) and incense.  I should know better than to think my friend would mind if there were clothes on the floor or  dishes in the sink, or even sardines on the counter, or if I was no longer dressed in my Sunday best.  She came to see me.  And, well, maybe the chickens.

Yesterday, Dan brought the van home with a new windshield.  Though I had the best intentions, I never had taken the time to excavate the back seat.  Still, the glass is new.  Despite the mounting garbage in the back seat, the technician did his job.  I guess there will still be another chance, though, because the steering needs repair.  

True friendship really is forever, perhaps like the stuff in the back of my car.  All of the busy things seem to try to get in the way of what is most meaningful.  I am glad that she came after all those years, with a new lesson, and I am glad she brought donuts.

Eggs in Winter


Sometimes, it’s just hard to keep up.  

This Christmas season, there has been so much good.  As I stare at the beautiful plate of sugary goodness: peppermint bark,  frosted cookies, candies sprinkled with red and green sugars, delivered by a longtime friend, I worry that in my own struggles to keep up with my daily tasks at hand, I may not truly take in all the sparkle that is around me.   I am afraid that I might have trouble keeping up with the kindness.  I fear that I will forget to count some of my blessings.

All of the little girls could jump rope.  All of them, except me.  Perhaps I would have been able, but I was afraid to try.  Dressed in  my Catholic school uniform of a red, white, and blue plaid jumper and crisp white Peter Pan collar shirt, I was content to hold the rope’s end, swinging it in rhythm as the other girls, whose outfits matched mine, lined up to jump Double Dutch in turn.    I was content to spend my twenty minutes of recess admiring the fancy footwork and shiny Mary Janes of my classmates.  I desperately wanted to be part of their game. 

“Patty, don’t you want a turn?” From time to time, another girl might invite me to try.  Though I may have secretly wished to jump, I never let go of my rope’s end.  I think I was afraid of what might happen if I did.

I am pulled somewhere from both sides, into a lonely space where I can find nobody else, nobody like me, and into all of the others, so I, too, can be one of them.  Each place may seem right at one time or another, but I wonder if either is where I am supposed to be.

His eyes are deep, dark chocolate.  Looking into them, I know he sees through me as easily as it is a struggle for me to see inside of him.  These eyes, decorated in eyelashes an inch long, can’t share the secrets.  He can’t tell anyone.  Not yet, anyway, for it’s not time.

How valuable those tiny moments are; the moments when you see a difference, and you know that there has been a shift.  Perhaps not astounding,  but the slightest step on the path.   How amazing to brave winter’s icy blast to find one perfect brown egg, still a little warm, in the nest box.  

My hens have been prolific egg layers through the summer and fall.  We had dozens of fresh, strong-shelled farm-to-table eggs every week.  As the hens began to lose feathers while molting, and as the season’s chill had settled in, I should have remembered from what I had read that during the wintertime, egg production will likely drop off.  I was still surprised when it happened.  My chickens, it seems, are having trouble keeping up.  I had to buy a dozen eggs for the first time in many months.

I may not have appeared lonely, but I must have been.  Now, there is loneliness in the fear, the fear of not being able to keep up with my son.
If we spend the whole night waiting for the morning, we wait all day for our chance to lie down and rest.  The chickens need sunlight to lay eggs, just as I need his bright spirit to tell me that this is not the end, but to carry on through the nearly barren winter, gathering an egg or two for a day if I am lucky.  Gather  the lonely harvest in anticipation of spring’s bounty, because that promise of hope, of a peaceful afternoon, of a basket brimming with fresh eggs, is all we have.  I will be sure to hold tightly to my end of the rope.

I don’t expect to gather half a dozen eggs anymore.  Maybe, though, if I go out one last time to check the nest boxes at dusk, when the sky shines pink and gold,  there will be just one more egg waiting for me as a reminder to count my every blessing.

Turtles, Chickens, and the Stuff In Between


I didn’t look back; I couldn’t, for fear of what I would see.  The sound was hollow, soul-shaking, and unforgettable.  It must have broken into a thousand pieces.  

The lagoon has always been one of my favorite spots.  I have been to breathtaking European gardens and tropical sandy beaches, but DeKalb’s East Lagoon is where I would choose to spend my days.  It was probably near dusk, and the weather was still and warm.  I don’t remember where we were headed or where we had been, but we were driving alongside the lagoon when we came upon the turtle.  

In true tortoise-and-hare fashion, this turtle was indeed keeping a steady pace of not much more than zero miles per hour.  Dan slowed the van and then came to a stop while we waited, waited, and waited some more until our path was clear.  

After what seemed like much more time than even a tortoise should take to cross the finish line, we were finally on our way, safely out of the animal’s path.   Within seconds, though, a car came from the other direction, and that was the end of the turtle.

We can work so hard, with such patience and devotion, hard enough to think that we have nearly made it to the other side.  Then something happens: a trigger of some sort, a reminder of something that used to be, unkind words, or a forgotten birthday.  A thousand pieces, or even more, that need to be put together again.  Sometimes, I’m just weary.

The snow had not yet begun to fall, but the early morning’s mist hinted that the storm was near.  Something came fast from the field to the south; it was darkish gray, maybe, and it rolled under my car so quickly that I could not avoid the impact.  I hoped it was a tin can or maybe a rock, but I feared it may have been a squirrel, a rat, or a field mouse.  I looked back and saw nothing, so I continued home.

The chickens seemed confused by the snow.  Our first snowfall this season happened to accumulate to nine inches, and it took a couple days and some melting before they ventured more than a few feet past the coop.  They were a bit braver with each passing day, and by now little chicken footprints could be seen all around the farm.  

The snow began falling with a fury in the afternoon.  By dusk, I knew that the flock would be in the coop for the night.  Aaron, my best chicken helper, was a few steps ahead of me as he bounded through the blanket of snow.   

“Six chickens!”  He called back to me with an air of urgency.  The chickens, led by Wendell, our rooster and their guardian, always convene as a flock before roosting for the night.  Now, nearly half the hens were missing, and Wendell was on high alert, clearly wondering, as we were, what had happened.

It’s a message from the school, a call from a concerned parent, an observation, or something I may have overheard that shatters the fragile shell that had taken so much to build.  Here we are, once again, in the place that we wish away.  Maybe it will never really go away.  Maybe it can’t.

I understood going into chicken keeping that chickens are not forever.  There could be sickness, extreme weather, an accident, a preying hawk, or another predator that could take one of my hens.  Even Wendell, I know, is not invincible.  But four?  To lose four chickens at once, during the daytime, was unfathomable.  

My tears flowed cold, and the wintry wind burned my cheeks. “We could order more chickens,” offered my sidekick.  We could, but I wanted these chickens, my chickens.

I thought of how carefully we had planned for the chickens, who came to us as tiny two-day-old babies, who we had nurtured and tended with the best that we had.  We brought them ice water and frozen fruit to help them keep cool during the summer’s heat.  We gathered each egg with great pride and wonder.  We put fresh handfuls of shredded pine bark onto the coop floor and tossed lavender and oregano into the nest boxes.  We held our chickens, and we loved them.

I often wonder if love is enough.

When I passed back along the path near where I had been earlier that morning, I noticed the remains of what was probably a squirrel at the edge of the road.  I wondered if this had been the gray flash that I had encountered some ten hours before.

Dan came out with the flashlight, and he and Aaron had not been gone more than a few minutes before I heard the cheer.  The four chickens were cold and afraid, but they were safe. 

Sometimes we make it out.  Sometimes, there’s just not enough of something.  And then there’s a whole lot of stuff in between.

There was an extra sweetness about those hens as we carried them, one by one, to the warmth of the coop.  The ten were reunited as a flock, and, in this moment, relief blanketed all God’s creatures.  The hens had been spared.  Their time had not yet come, not yet.

I love going to the lagoon.  My memory of the demise of the turtle is not enough to keep me away from a place so magical and dear.  My brush with the lost chickens makes me love them that much more.  When we stumble and fall as all humans do, as we struggle to our feet we see that the door is left open for another chance, perhaps another trial here on earth.

And for the doors, open, closed, and unexpected, we are grateful.