Friday, March 29, 2013

When That Old Robe Just Doesn't Fit Anymore

Last year I spent half of Good Friday alone in the emergency room.  For the most part, I was too numb to realize I already expected the worst.

The lady in the waiting room who kept asking to borrow my phone smelled so strongly of cigarettes, I felt a wave of nausea every time she approached.  I was sure it was a good sign that I was still feeling sick.

The ER doctor spoke in a calm, reassuring voice.  How far along was I?  And when was my last ultrasound?

The radiologist wheeled my entire bed to another room for the ultrasound.  I wrapped the thin hospital blanket around my legs to keep from revealing anything in that flimsy hospital gown.  He kept the screen turned away from me for the entire ultrasound, apologizing softly that he couldn't tell me anything until the doctor looked over the scans.  Afterwards, he wheeled me back to my room and brought me my phone so I wouldn't jostle the IV in my hand trying to fish it out of my purse. 

The nurse came in and took out the IV.

The doctor came in and asked me the same questions she'd already asked me at the beginning of my visit.  How far along did I say I was?  When was the last ultrasound?

And then she just shook her head for a long moment and said, "I'm sorry.  Your baby is gone."

I will tell you that I cried like some actress in a horror movie.  It just came out of me, and I remember thinking, "Is that me?  That doesn't even sound real."

I was pregnant, but I wasn't.  All of the symptoms and none of the pay-off.  I left the ER with directions to call my doctor on Monday to talk about my options.  I left with no explanation, no answers, no instructions on how to break the news to my husband or how I was supposed to pass the more than three thousand minutes until the doctor's office opened on Monday.

And so I spent last Easter feeling like a tomb myself, carrying what remained of the baby that stopped growing probably just a few days after we had seen its heartbeat flashing on a black and white screen.  For almost a month I had been battling nausea and growing out of my clothes and planning the nursery, never knowing that the rhythm of that microscopic heart had gone silent inside me.  My own body seemed a traitorous accomplice in this, too stubborn to let go of what was gone, too dedicated to give up the charade.

I look back and think there was nothing good about my last Good Friday.  This is not the kind of anniversary I like to mark.  And honestly, it wasn't until this Easter came barreling at me that I stopped to think about why it bothered me so much that it happened when it did.

See, I am a prodigal daughter.  I cut my teeth on the hymnal.  I was washed in the blood, dipped in the water, soaked in scripture.  When I walked away from the church as a young adult, I wasn't just skipping out on a Sunday morning habit.  I was walking away from everything I had ever known.

For a decade, I nursed a solitary faith I did not believe I would ever be able to share with others because I feared the bit of faith I had left was too fragile to be exposed to the harsh rigidity I had seen in churches. I was afraid that it would shatter like glass, that it could not withstand one final blow of hypocrisy or one sudden burst of hatred couched in Jesus speak. Someone asked me during that period if I had a faith practice, and I didn't know how to answer.  I didn't have a practice.  What I had, it seemed, was the inability to let go of a faith that I didn't really know what to make of anymore. 

But somehow, slowly, one terrified step at a time, I came back.  I am a prodigal daughter, see, and I guess I thought that meant that God was waiting for me with arms wide open.

I guess I thought that meant he was going to give me his robe and slaughter a fatted calf and host a celebration in my honor.  I thought being a prodigal would mean that the homecoming would actually feel like coming home instead of like being a stranger tiptoeing into a place you remember from another lifetime.  What I did not think it meant was that I would find myself sitting through Easter morning alone, feeling like a tomb and carrying death, wondering where His voice was or what His plan could be.  What I did not think that meant was that even years after coming back, I would feel at times like this faith would never be hardy enough to withstand the lashing it would take out in the world.

Last year on Good Friday, after the doctor broke the news to me, she told me to get dressed and wait for the nurse to bring in my discharge papers.  But I took one look at my maternity clothes, loosely folded on a chair in the corner of the room, and I couldn't imagine how I could put them back on, knowing what I knew then.  They were the same clothes I had worn in, and suddenly they looked completely foreign to me.

I wonder if that's how the prodigal son felt, too, putting on his father's robe after so long.  Once, surely, he would have worn it without hesitation.  But now that he had returned, now that everything was so different, did the very weight of it remind him how much a stranger he had become?

Last year on Good Friday, I learned of the loss of the life inside me.  And I guess that symbolism cut too close to home for someone like me, someone who wandered for many years and feels she has only just come home.  Someone who wondered many times if her little flame of faith had gone out.  Someone who can't quite get used to the weight of this old robe and is still waiting for this coming home to be easier. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

We'll Be Waving Our Palm Branches When He Comes

I don't know how it's possible, but I swear his hands are still as soft as they were in the days when he would lay in my lap and catch my index finger in his tiny fist.  Even now, when he takes my hand, I sigh at how soft his little palms are against mine.

Last night after his bath, while I was trying to finish the last few pages of a book, he climbed in my lap, nudged the book away, and put his impossibly soft hands on my face.  "Mama-mama, I want ca-ay."

For the longest time he called me Maw, but now it's Mama-mama, as if the moment he learned to say the full version, he liked it so much he had to do it twice.

He knows I cannot help but kiss him when he climbs in my lap, but he will gladly pay in kisses for the chance to beg for cake.  I stole my kiss and made him try to pronounce his request correctly, emphasizing the end of the word, "I want cake.  Kuh, kuh.  Cake."

"Cay," he repeated.  I made him try again.  "Cay-kuh," he said at last, drawing the word into two syllables.

"Good," I said, "Now put it all together.  I want cake."

"I want cay."  He pointed toward the kitchen, nodding happily.

Sighing, I agreed.  "Okay, little man, you can have some cake."

He cried, "Yaaaaay!" and slid off my lap, shouting the news to his brother, "Neeto, ca-ay! Come on, ca-ay! Yeah, ca-ay!"

~

At our church, Palm Sunday means the preschool children will be dressed in their almost-Easter finest and led into the sanctuary waving palm branches.  They will be arranged on the steps of the stage, and they will mostly not sing the songs they have been preparing for months.  They will squirm and become fascinated with their palm branches and wave to their parents out in the audience.  About half of them will deign to perform the hand motions, and a few will loudly belt the songs while the rest sit down or start to cry or try to wander up on stage to join the praise team.

Five years ago, at our first Palm Sunday, we were surprised by the sudden, small-town-church style interruption of the normally glossy services.  The kids just seemed to arrive onstage, and we spent the first few minutes scanning their faces to see if Nico's class had been included in the show.  When we confirmed that our oldest was not in the group, I commenced the ritual I have kept up during the Palm Sunday performance every year since then:  I smiled so hard I started crying. 

I know, it doesn't make sense.  But that first year, Lincoln was only about six months old, and I still kept him with me during the service because I wasn't ready to share him with the nursery just yet.  In those days, we were still reeling a bit from the Down syndrome diagnosis, and we just didn't know what Lincoln would be able to do or when he would get around to it.

It was such a bizarre feeling, especially in those early days, to be excited about watching our oldest son accomplish something while simultaneously wondering when, if ever, our youngest son would reach that milestone.  On that first Palm Sunday, as I held baby Lincoln in my arms, I felt both the anticipation of watching Nico on that stage the next year and the aching worry of whether Lincoln would ever be able to join the chorus himself.

~

This year, I was crying before the doors even opened to reveal their sweet little faces.  I could hear the impatient shuffling outside the sanctuary door, the army of teachers handing out palm branches and loud-whispering to those who tried to break ranks and let the line dissolve.  I could hear the high-pitched voices murmuring in excitement.  And this year, I knew, Lincoln was in that line, a palm frond in his sweet, impossibly soft hands, his own husky voice pitched in with that of his classmates.


And when he tried to join the praise team up on stage, Sam and I just laughed and remembered that was exactly what his older brother had done.  And when he refused to sing, we noticed that so did half the kids around him.  And yes, he refused to do the hand motions, but he waved his palm branch and smiled and stood in line and said Mama-mama at me while I crouched on the front row, getting it all down on video.

~

Yesterday evening, after having chocolate cake residue scrubbed off his hands, Lincoln curled up beside me on the couch to watch the video of his morning performance.  This time, he did the hand motions, standing up on the couch to do the part about riding in on a donkey.  When the video finished, he asked for more, one of the few words he still signs as he speaks.

"You want more? Yes, I do, too."  And we watched it again and again, his little hands working the motions, grabbing for the phone to watch the video closer, pointing to himself on the screen. 

These days, the tension is still there, the questions of how much he can do and when.  The fear of whether he will be excluded.  The worry that people will give me one of those looks and bolt out of the conversation when they ask his age and my answer is clearly not what they expected.

But I remembered something yesterday morning as he stood on stage, waving his palm branch and smiling and not singing the songs about Jesus.  I remembered that the reason we have celebrated Palm Sunday with fanfare year after year for two thousand years now is because today, as then, we are so weary from the yoke of this world's unfairness and pain and fear.  In awe, I watched my son waving in the arrival of the One who has come to rip apart the inequality, the cruelty, the injustice that has long plagued this world.  I watched this boy, who many would call the least of these, raise his hands in joyful expectation.

And don't you know, my hands were raised right along with him.