Sunsets and Storms

“How long do you think I’ll last? I mean, when do you think I am going to die?”

Ethan’s questions still sometimes catch me a bit off guard. I am not sure I ever give him answers that satisfy or even make sense to him.

I had to come up with something. “Well, Grampa is eighty. You could live a very long time.”

“Grampa eats fruits. If you eat a lot of fruits and healthy stuff, then you can live a long time. I don’t eat that many fruits.” He went back to what he had been doing before. The conversation was enough for him, though to me, rather unsettling and incomplete.

There are times when nothing makes sense…to anyone…at all.

I had hoped to hide from my embattled reality for at least three minutes. Just as I turned the lock to the bathroom door, I heard the skip that is unmistakably Aaron, embodied, bounding upstairs.

“Mom? Are you up here?”

He knew where I was; there was no hiding, no refuge to be sought. I was glad that he spoke first, before my annoyed retort for befallen peace sent him away, certainly without skipping this time.

“Mom? It’s a beautiful sunset. You should come see.”

That’s why he had come upstairs. That’s what he wanted to tell me: that the sunset was beautiful. He wanted me to see.

My little son knew that tonight’s fleeting gift of God’s creation would be worth more to me than a little time alone in the bathroom.

My birthday is coming up again. I am keenly aware that I am at the brink of the manifestation of the sunset of my life. While the future had once been something to envision from a great distance, that tide has now caught up to me, and my steps are not defined as I had expected that they might be. They melt; they disappear into a million grains of sand, indiscernible from the tracks of those who have gone before.

I wonder how my son, my child who views the world through a black and white lens, would make sense of the loss of a child. I wonder how anyone would.

The behavior specialist from Ethan’s school called last week. After analyzing the data from the past year, she was pleased to report that though the incidences of physical holds had increased, the overall challenges with his behavior had decreased to the point where he would be dismissed from her caseload. This, for us, is a type of victory.

Are the days that follow the second half of what has already happened, or is it a new start? Is it the end of the beginning, or will there be an entirely new purpose?

Olive Chickens (thanks, Elliott, for the middle name) does not appear to know where she is going in a given moment. Her feathers hide her eyes, and one wonders how well she can even see. Somehow, though, she finds her way home, or close to it, at night. Once, though, she almost didn’t.

I had taken Ethan to the specialist out of town. The driving rain made travel hard, and it was well after dark when we finally returned to the farm. Dan and Aaron had locked the other chickens down for the night, but Olive, who had been with us for just a handful of days, was nowhere to be found. She was certainly scared, cold, wet, and tired, if she had even been spared. After what seemed an eternity in the darkness of the still-stormy evening, I heard her unmistakable peep. I was a child on Christmas morning: Olive Chickens had wedged herself in a less-than-two-inch wide space between the coop and the run. She was trying to get home. She was scared, but she was okay. With the help of a rake and some urgent prayers, she was soon safely perched with her coop mates.

The boys were waiting for me when I finally made it inside. Ethan was first to approach. “Mom, you really care about that weird chicken.”

If only he knew.

So when the storms are inside, coming from a now medium-sized boy, and they overtake an hour or a day, I remember that we have come far. I remember that the beautiful sunsets had been further between. I only hope that we won’t run out of time before we make it home.

When I am gone, when my days are done, I hope that someone will be glad that he is alive, that someone will search for him when he is lost in the storm.

Here’s to eating lots of fruits, always finding our chickens amid the thunder and lightning, and never, ever missing out on a beautiful sunset.

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Mirrors and Empty Containers

Maybe he didn’t intend to leave it here, but I’m happy that he did. The whole kitchen fills with the smell of good coffee, because it’s whole bean, and I have to use the grinder, which makes me appreciate the roast even more, when I already feel like I am getting away with something by using what may have been accidentally left behind.

There was a little caddy with a handle, one that held the toothbrush, deodorant, and, among other things, the particular lotion with the patchouli-lime scent that my younger son wore every day. I could tell when he had been in the room; it was undeniable. Now, though, the scent has faded, and the little caddy has nothing inside.

There were some other boxes and baskets, also empty. He no longer needed them. He left them behind when he moved away.

I could fill them with something else.

Strip me down, bring me to the hands of my Maker, when I am empty, when there is nothing left inside. For I was full from my love, from my experiences, and from those that have shared my life. Without these things, I am merely an empty container, for it is the collective sadness and joy that has created me, filled me up, and left me in the wake of what has been, what remains, and what is yet to come, with its own containers waiting for their fill.

A daily rhythm is of such importance to our young children. We can read volumes on the importance of consistency, of predictability, of bedtime routines….I would argue, too, that my own days are ordered with a sameness that helps me to move forward. The sun rises, the rooster crows (well, my rooster actually crows at all hours), and I let the chickens out, turn on the coffee pot, pack the lunches, and prepare for the day’s offerings.

The rosy cheeks of a feverish child, the harrowing evidence of a predator’s attack, the unexpected visitor that bears news: good or bad; the return of a grown child, if just for a short visit, and the stark absence of another at the Thanksgiving table…the rhythm breaks, and we are left, hands outstretched, for strength to carry us in this moment.

Chickens are very much like people. Teenage chickens are very much like teenage people. I have had several sets of teenage chickens (and similar numbers of teenage children), so the rhythm and characteristics of these unique breeds has been observed over the course of time.

Chicken teenagers like to hang out in the chicken run even past dusk, well after the rooster and the laying hens have retired to the coop for the evening. Teenage children like to hang out on the front porch or on one of the couches well into the morning hours, when parents have long since gone to bed.

When the big kids are home, even though I may not see much of them, still they are here, and the familiar circle of wholeness is tighter and safer.

Teenage chickens also love looking in the mirror; one hangs in their chicken run. They cannot seem to walk past their dirt-splattered reflections without stopping for a mouth-gaping stare. I have also known many teenagers like that.

My sister visited the farm this week. She stayed a bit longer than usual, and we had time to sit together, which is just what I believe we needed. On the morning that she left, I heard a song on the radio. It had been the hit song by a band that my sister and I had seen together just after our sophomore and senior years of high school. My sister and her two friends took me and my first boyfriend to see Asia, and at some point we had picked up a hitch-hiker. This terrified me. I remember trying to catch my breath, pushing my teenage self as far as I could into the car door, hoping I would not fall out, yet fearing the alternative fate.

I am not sure what I was afraid of. I was with my big sister, and I knew she would take care of me. She always did.

And when I heard that song on the heels of her visit to the farm, it reminded me of the passage of time, but also how fleeting our time here must be, and how deeply we must love while we can.

I see my own image in the mirror, at the same time a woman of half a century and a girl of seventeen. Some thoughts are the same, but there is now a realization that what’s next is really just in front of me, and if I carry on, in a passing glance, it will, inevitably, be revealed.

Maybe we spend our days trying to fill our containers, looking in all the mirrors, rehearsing our lines, trying to figure out who or what we are supposed to be…until our days are done.

When the curtain closes for the final time, if I am not yet sure what I am supposed to be, I will hope that it has all been enough. When I have been emptied out onto this earth, may I keep rhythm with the sun and moon, to become part of where I have lived and loved.

I would like to think that my son left the coffee behind on purpose, because he somehow knew what I needed to fill me up.

If ever I meet up with that hitch-hiker again, I hope I will have more to offer than fear: at the very least, a cup of good coffee.

True Story: A Crack in the Egg

The sun was just beginning to set as I finally made my way out into the evening, leaving the confining walls of the hospital, alone, as I had done more times than I might like to recall. Hoping, beckoning, begging, crying out that this will be the end, the catharsis, the transcendence, the awakening…the time where the past is swallowed into the promise of the future. Nothing about this sunset was remarkable or beautiful; maybe they are never much to behold from this part of the city. I, though, have seen the other side. I know the glistening orange and candy pink, the fairy tale mystique that shows itself when I need it most and that assures me there is something beyond.

Fried Chicken had been sitting on her eggs for 21 days. I know I annoy her when I lift her wing several times each day to check the eggs in her nest, but this day was different. She pecked my hand hard in a protective gesture for the tiny blackish brown downy chick that she kept warm beneath her. There was new life, and Fried is a good mama.

Chicken keeping presents a good bit of anxiety; there is much to learn. If I can step back, though, and watch nature’s mysteries without trying to carry them, the chickens…and the children…will teach me what I need to know.

Another chick, this one black with a splash of yellow atop its head, emerged from a sandy brown egg at some point in the wee hours of day 22. Later that day, both baby chicks had made their way out of the coop and were learning, under Fried’s constant surveillance, to drink from the waterer and to forage for food.

If something is not fully mine, only entrusted to me for a tiny space of time, is it up to me to intervene, to try to make it whole, or is it best to carry the hope, knowing that there is a much bigger breath behind this, a breath stronger even than the fiercest wind?

The sun was warm; it seemed the arduous hold of winter’s aftermath had finally given in to the renewal of spring. This, I thought, would be a good day to prune my elderberry bushes.

I didn’t think Fried Chicken would go back to her nest, as she was busy keeping track of two lively, miniature chicks. If she were to leave the babies alone, they would be easy prey for barn cats or turkey vultures. I wondered about the five eggs that had been left behind. When I checked the box, I noticed a crack in one of the green eggs. This was at once fantastically magical and utterly terrifying. I could not just leave the egg to perish.

I took the advice of my chicken keeping friend, and I put the egg in my shirt.

The bushes were not nearly finished when I heard the peeping. My first thought was that one of the babies had somehow gotten separated from Fried. Then, I remembered the egg. It had opened further, and there was blood. The peeping had stopped, and my heart sunk.

What would I do with this egg, which surely had been alive, working it’s way to this world, just a short time ago.

The tears were for what I had done, for what I couldn’t fix, for loving so hard to be distracted from what is before me, and for the lost souls, chickens and children, for which the world seems to hold no mercy.

I didn’t know what to do, so I set the cracked egg in a nest of pine shavings under a heat table that is used to keep baby chicks warm in the brooder. I knew it couldn’t survive. I decided to wait until morning, though, just in case…of something.

Before my little son, my best chicken helper, left for school the next morning, he visited our baby chicks. He also checked on “the egg.” I never know if he is telling a straight story when he gets the sideways sparkle in his eye.

“It’s bigger. The crack is bigger. And it’s moving.”

And it was. All night long, that little chicken had struggled, working its way out of the compromised egg.

I met my friend at the park. I told her about the chicken, and we traded difficult stories about our children. I felt better having been with her, and I returned home to find a grayish black bundle staggering on the pine shavings.

I had been close to giving up, to burying her. Then, Hope was born.

I don’t know how long this is going to take. I am not going to be the one to say it’s over, to say it’s good enough.

I put the four remaining nest eggs in the makeshift brooder along with our Hope, because truly, this is not up to us.

My children struggle, but my chickens show me the way. They stop along the way to peck at some grass or to chase after a worm, so the path is anything but predictable.

At the end of the day, I took Hope to the outside coop, “returning her home”, as so often happens in our world of fostering. I did my part, and now I hope, for Hope, and for all the others, with feathered wings or angel wings.

The next morning, my chicken helper again came to announce that a new chicken was laying in the nest, out of his egg. This time, I believed him right away.

The sun warmed my soul early this afternoon as I cut away overgrown lavender wood. The mint was just beginning to green up, and its aroma was stirring. I heard a chorus of tiny peeps and looked up to see Fried with her original babies along with Hope, who she had taken under wing without a second thought.

I hoped I had done my part, but I know it was just another step along the way.

Am I Good?

There’s true magic to outshine the first bloom of an orchid when, through self-study, patience, crossed fingers, and a bit of fish emulsion, buds emerge on nearly-two-years-barren stalks, only to show themselves in quiet succession with breathtaking beauty, sugar plums in shades of violet and pink, worthy of the most compelling dance of the Nutcracker Suite.

I think I could hear music coming from the little pot on the windowsill; I think I could see the blooms dancing, until my eyes were opened.

“You’re the worst parent.”

Springtime, though not without the graceful unfolding of ordered beauty and renewal, holds its share of struggles. As the snowdrops and crocuses burst forth to herald a new season, also awakened is the force of hurt and anger which has little mercy for those standing in the way.

Just three feet tall and a spritely vision of wild happiness (until he turns tempest), my smallest boy puts his boots on all by himself. He has had plenty of practice this long winter. They are nearly always on the wrong feet, and he likes it that way.

“I don’t need any help, especially not from you.”

My longtime friend loves chickens nearly as much as I do. He has been incubating eggs and hatching them. Just a few days ago, and perhaps against the advice of most chicken experts, he assisted in the hatch of a few of his newborn chicks. He had been worried that the shells were too thick and that the babies could not get out on their own. I wondered about those little chicks through the night, and I know my friend wondered, too, if he had done the right thing.

“All made it and are good.” That’s the message that came through from my chicken friend. He was brave and did what he thought was best. And now, three tiny Marans have made it to their brooder.

Through the uncomfortable blanket of fear and insecurity, we make the choices as they are handed (sometimes not very nicely) to us. We step up, we stumble, and we rise to our weary feet once more.

That’s the message I hope to one day hear: all made it and are good.

Do I help him switch his boots to the right feet? “I’m good,” says his three-year-old self. Yes, my boy, you are.

There are eight blooms on my glorious orchid; a ninth is poised to open. The blooms were very long in coming but as rich in beauty as ever a flower, or anyone, could be.

The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

I always think of my college roommate on Valentine’s Day.  Today, she must have thought of me, because she sent me a little message about heart-shaped pizza.  We shared a heart-shaped pizza at a restaurant on Greek Row as college freshman on what, to many, is a day of great romance and candlelight.

Underneath the candles, I have found the real light.

Lynne and I were seated at a cozy table with love-struck couples at every angle.  The pizza was perfect; the company, somehow, even better.  The stars aligned to deliver me the perfect roommate (with whom over the years, I indulged in many more pizzas) when I was an innocent and vulnerable just-turned-eighteen-year-old.   My perfect roommate had come to the university just days after suffering an unthinkable loss, one that made her among the most courageous people I have ever met.  I am pretty sure that in my selfish oblivion, I had no idea the depth of her grief, and how she would comfort me over the years as she carried around her heavy suitcase, one that nobody could actually see.  Those were such formative years for me; great blessings, indeed.

I want to fly, away from the part that hurts, but still into what I am now, never changing or passing with time.

Dan and I moved our young family back to DeKalb in 2000.

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From my journal, dated 1-22-01: “As I was walking past the river on an afternoon…, I again realized that DeKalb is the most  beautiful place on earth.  The Kish(waukee River), yet to be frozen, was running northerly, broken up in some spots by very white balls of smooth, snowy ice. All was still, and the university very, very quiet.  Never, ever will there…be any regret for choosing this place.  This is our home.  The smallest reasons are the strongest confirmations.”

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I have always loved cookies.  Lynne and I shared our passion for antiques: we would visit the dusty back rooms of whatever doors were open, it seemed, in search of Fiesta ware and vintage cookie jars.

I had ordered a plate of decorated cookies from the student catering building.  On Valentine’s Day, 2008, I ventured onto campus for the first time in perhaps over a year.  With my three-month-old foster baby in tow, I collected the sparkly heart-shaped gems and stopped at Record Revolution to share some with an old friend.  The baby was safely in his seat (I think he was actually sleeping, which did not happen often in those early days) as I crossed the alley at the back of the parking lot which edges the campus.  I was taken aback by a student running, cell phone in hand, from the direction of the theater building and Cole Hall.  As a wild animal runs to escape its hunter, so perhaps a dozen frantic-looking students followed suit of the first. Curious, I thought, as I pulled through the alley and drove down the street to get a coffee before picking up the elementary school set.   Was this some sort of scavenger race?  Maybe an acting class?  It was, after all, near the Stevens Building.

As I left the drive-through, latte in hand, my ears were flooded with sirens.  First one police car, then many.  Rescue vehicles and frenzy filled my usually peaceful university.  Reports were coming across the radio by now.  I just needed to pick up my kids.

It wasn’t until I was safely home that I realized how close I had been to the horrific, the absolutely unthinkable.  Innocent people were breathing their last breaths as I passed by, as I was enjoying what may have been the most decadent butter cookie imaginable.

We are these people.

Clear the thoughts…rub your eyes…it’s almost time to fly, fly.

Today, I am eternally grateful for my rich and deep blessings: my dear husband, my beloved children; my extended family; my deep and sustained friendships; my spirituality; my precious kitty, Juliet; my cookie jars; and, of course, pizza, heart-shaped or not.

Sparkles and Fear

She didn’t say a word, and neither did I.

It may have seemed like just a piece of paper, but to me it represented much more. For nearly eighteen years, I had held on to it and kept it safe. And just as I handed it to her, she let it slip away.

Wendell was our first rooster at the farm. He was aggressive and would flap up at us randomly. We loved him, but we were all a bit fearful of him, because he sometimes hurt us. Wendell died suddenly last September; he had not been with us even two years. A few unsettling weeks passed for our vulnerable hens before we got Ben, our new rooster, from a farm in Wisconsin. He fit right in with the flock. He has been as gentle as Wendell was ornery. Not once has he approached any humans with aggressive tendencies. I can fill the feeder with Ben standing right beside me, patiently awaiting the fresh crumble. Still, though, whenever I make my way to the chicken coop, as the flock follows me from behind, my guard is up. I turn around every few steps to make sure Ben is not getting too close or coming at me. I guess I am so programmed from my angry rooster, that I can’t quite let go of the thought.

I think this is a tiny window into the minds of our kids who are hyper vigilant every moment as a function of a traumatic past. The fear, the worry never quite goes away.

Ben is the sweetest, kindest rooster. He stands near the door of the chicken house, eyeing the pie tin filled with warm oatmeal and buckwheat groats, likely wishing that the hens will leave just a bite for him, just this once. He dares not even try to join the others. His first priority is to make sure he guards his flock. But it’s not about Ben. It’s about what we remember, about what happened before. It’s about the fear that is still so raw, that becomes part of who we are.

I know she can do it. She just wants to forget what she can’t remember, but she must remember that she will never forget. She is strong enough, but her eyes must open so she can see.

I love the new fallen snow. It sparkles like glitter across the acres. As I trod over the property to open the coop in the nearly knee deep blanket, the ornamental grasses that surround a nostalgic metal tractor…garden art, in summer…bend slightly under the weight of winter’s latest gift. The colors are bold and definitive, showcasing nature’s artwork, marking the seasons in a new, unexpected way.

My son sent a miniature orchid for my first Mother’s Day at the farm. It was delicate and profuse in its blooms of lilac and pink, striking beauty for my kitchen windowsill. As spring turned to summer, the last blooms had gone. I read about orchids. I fed my plant with fish emulsion. I watered it regularly and saved its place in the window. I gave it a bigger pot. All the while, I wondered if it would ever bloom again. Nearly two years later, almost overnight and to my utter surprise, seven buds have appeared on a single stalk that looked, until days ago, just like the shoots that have come and gone without flowering.

I’m different than I was a couple decades, even a decade ago. There’s fear in having experienced more, in knowing more and less at the same time, but there’s also complacency in knowing that the hope will find me, that there will be something, no matter how small, to let me know that I am still on the trail…even when I have to turn around every so often to make sure the rooster hasn’t turned on me.

I can hear my little boy laughing from the other room. For him, it has taken much more than two years. It has taken twenty-eight medications and most of his young life to find a few moments of stillness, sparkling as they are, in this space of time. I don’t know where this will take him, or what this even means. I know, though, that it’s a better place than anywhere he has been in a very long time. It doesn’t mean we don’t look back, wondering if a torrent is coming from behind. I think we always will.

We had to get a new paper, a new declaration, to replace the one that had slipped away. There’s a painful lot, though, that we can’t replace.

When the snow begins to melt into a messy slush, I look, but I can no longer find the sparkles . That doesn’t mean, though, that they were never there.