Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Climb on Every Rung

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay, forever young…

            My son graduated from high school this past Friday night. I was good-I only cried about three times during the hour-long ceremony. The funny thing about it is that he’s not actually going anywhere for at least a couple of years, but I know that it will not be the same. The boy has given way to the man, a man of whom I am extremely proud. A man who has Become. This was not an easy process, and, as I look back over the past eight years, I am astounded. This young man is a work of God.

            It is a tradition at our school for each graduate to have a memory table upon which can be displayed pictures, awards, mementos, etc.-the things that define each individual, his interests, his achievements. As I looked at my son’s table, at the 250 photos flashing by on the digital screen, I thought about how smart he is, how funny, how interesting. Many of the photos are from the performance of Tom Sawyer, in which he had the starring role. A lot of them are of Tony and his sisters clowning around, swimming at the beach, feeding the seagulls, opening presents on Christmas morning. There is one shot of the armadillos that live in our yard and an extreme close-up of our dog Miney’s face.

            We thought it was important to include Miney’s picture because she was instrumental in making Tony who he has Become. From his ability to connect with and trust this little dog, who still sleeps in his bed every night, grew Tony’s eventual connection with other human beings. His devotion to her also awakened in him a desire to help and heal all living things. In so many of the photos he is holding an animal-a bird, cupped gently in his hands, a tiny puppy, a guinea pig. There is one absolutely beautiful shot of him and his sister Raina, gazing up at the seagulls in wonder and delight. Tony’s heart is tender and fiercely protective of those he loves and of anyone or anything helpless or friendless. In the past two years he has taken under his wing several younger students who reminded him of himself in his younger years.

            He came to us when he was eleven, a strange little kid with ill-fitting clothes and a very bad haircut. His shoes were always untied and he never seemed to stop talking. He was loud and boastful and completely insecure. He lied far more than he told the truth, and as we peeled back the layers of pretense and got to the core of the raging hurt that controlled him, we began to see who he really was. He ran with an awkward gait and was obsessed with video games, obsessed to the point of addiction. In most of his foster homes he had been allowed to play as much as he wanted, because he was less annoying that way. His grades had always been poor and he had had one hundred sixty-seven disciplinary referrals in ONE school year! But we saw more. It was difficult, but we saw more. We saw a bright child who had a gift for becoming whoever he thought people wanted him to be. He was a con artist and a showoff, a kid who used the few big words that he knew in the hope that he would seem “smart”.  He claimed to have read many books, but we soon discovered that was all part of the façade, too. You see, we had actually read all of the books he claimed to have read, unlike any other foster family he had stayed with, so we caught him first in that lie, and then many others.

            The years that followed were not easy. We had to take away the video games completely for nearly two years. Once the adoption was finalized, we had to detox this child from the cocktail of medications that he had been prescribed to keep him under control. One of them, Abilify, turned out to be an antipsychotic drug that, to our horror, was not even supposed to be given to people under a certain age. The withdrawal from all of these “medications” was rather nightmarish but fortunately did not last long. And it was the beginning of being able to see, bit by bit, who Tony really was. It was a journey of discovery during which he learned that the truth is always better than a lie, that he really was smart and capable, and that he had many talents. The two video game-free years enabled him to develop his gifts and he became a much better student. His grades never quite measured up to his abilities, which, according to standardized testing, are far above the norm, but he graduated with a 3.5 GPA and a score of 25 on the ACT. He managed to pull off the A-B honor roll every year of high school despite his defensive struggle against math and his disorganization and his tendency towards procrastination.  He writes brilliant papers and amazing stories and incredible songs. He draws wonderful pictures and he plays the guitar and sings. He is, according to our principal, “probably the best actor to ever come through our school.” Indeed, his performance as Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as well as his lead role in Tom Sawyer were as good as anything I have ever seen. I can say this even though I am his mother, because I have not always been his mother. While not completely objective, I probably have a clearer picture than I would if I had had him since birth.

            I can be somewhat objective because only those who live in our house know the full extent of the battle that has been fought to bring this young man to where he is today. Only his father, his sisters, and God know what we went through. People who have known him since he first came have witnessed his transformation and been astounded. I myself feel as though I have been witness to a miracle. I have had to, at times, remove myself emotionally from the situation and do what needed to be done by giving him completely to God. This is the hardest thing a parent can do. I know that the enemy wanted my child. I know that it was a defeat for the enemy when Tony was snatched from the darkness and brought into a home where he would be exposed to the Light. Nor am I naïve enough to believe it is over, for Tony or for the girls. Tony is a fine young Christian man, recently knighted by the Armor Bearers group and commissioned to carry Truth into the world. He tries to do the right thing and stands in the gap for the needy and the weak. But every day for him will be fraught with hard choices and important decisions. I pray that as he builds his ladder to the stars, he will stand firm.

            It is not easy to live well and also remain true to oneself in this world. Tony is a unique, versatile person. His memory table held his awards for academic achievement, but also for the character traits of Respect and Gratitude. It held his old guitar, his Tom Sawyer hat, his fedora, his Beatles memorabilia, his sword, and a copy of a Ray Bradbury novel. As I looked at it and remembered where he had been and caught a glimpse of where he was going, I was proud and glad. Still, as bright as his future is, as thrilled as we are with the fact that he has chosen nursing as his career, we cannot ever stop praying that every choice will be God’s will, and that, if he does falter in his steps, he can still get back onto the next rung and continue his climb with purpose and determination, and above all, with Love.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
And may you stay forever young.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

No Place Like Home

“If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with.”
L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

                I watch The Wizard of Oz a lot more often than the average adult probably does. Its characters and images and dialogue are a part of my childhood, a part of who I am. I remember every year, when it came on television, the whole family gathered around the television to watch. My greatest fear was always for poor little Toto. I figured that Dorothy could take care of herself just fine, clever girl that she was, but Toto was tiny and helpless. And Dorothy was a foolish child, wanting to run away like that, worrying her folks and endangering herself as well as her pup and her newfound friends. I guess that, even when I was very small, I understood the importance of home and family. I recognized from a young age the necessity of roots, of belonging. Thus I was always relieved when Dorothy finally made it Home.

                I don’t dislike traveling, and I would love to someday tour the parts of the United States that I have never seen, visit Europe, experience firsthand all the places I’ve read about-the ones that actually exist, that is. But In the end, I would always want to return home. Growing up, I moved around a good bit, but we settled here in Alabama when I was nine and I just don’t really see any reason to live anywhere else. This is the place where I made friends for life, met my husband, graduated high school, got my first job, attended college, and lost my father. It is where I can be near the waters of the Gulf and the bay, without which I could not survive. My memories are here, my family is here, my life is here. Home.

                Last week my son went on his senior trip to Chicago. It was the longest he had ever been away from home- a whole week-and it was the longest week of my life. He had a great time, enjoyed seeing the sights, serving with the Jesus People, and spending time with his friends. He got to see a Cubs game and eat Chicago-style hot dogs and pizza, visit fantastic museums, and tour the city. It was a wonderful experience, but by Tuesday, his Facebook status read: “Having a great time, but really missing home right now.”  He told his dad on the phone, “Yeah, I could live here, I guess, but my family and my friends and my dog are at home.”   Home means so much to him because for the first eleven years of his life, he didn’t really have one. Even before my children went into foster care, they were moved from place to place, from person to person. Now, at nineteen, fifteen, and thirteen, they still really prefer home to anywhere else. They go to camp, to sleepovers with friends, to out of town events, and they have fun, but in the end, they are glad to be home.

                I remember when we told Tony that we were adopting him and his sisters. He asked, “Is it real?” Home had become an unfulfilled dream, a promise never kept, and he could not believe that it was actually going to happen. People aren’t exactly lined up to adopt three older children, one with a history of destructive and difficult behavior. For every Tony, Rai,and Ally, there are hundreds more older kids who never find that place called home. They never become integrated into a family, a school, a church, and a community. They never get cards from friends and relatives celebrating the milestones in their lives, like birthdays and graduations. Tony has been stunned at the cards and letters he has received on this occasion of his upcoming graduation. He does not realize, even now, how much he is loved.

                My kids do know, though, that they are home. They know it every Sunday when they walk into church and are greeted by the friendly faces of our church family. They know it on holidays when they visit grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. They know it when Mama Nell takes them shopping or Mamaw does cooking and sewing projects with them. They know it when they ride their bikes down the sidewalks of our little town and people they know wave and smile. They know it when we sit around the fire pit in the backyard and roast hot dogs and talk about God and the future and the wonders of the universe. They know it at night when they get into their beds, surrounded by their pets and books and familiar things. They have lives and roots here. They don’t want to go far. They all say that they want to stay close even when they are married, with children of their own. They don’t ever want to roam permanently away from the big yellow house on the hill.

                Our house is nothing grand. It is ninety years old and in need of repair. It is not dirty but is certainly cluttered with the paraphernalia of five people who each have interests and hobbies and commitments, and not much time to keep things particularly neat or organized. It is home to five McKenzies and a menagerie of pets-dogs and rabbits and rats and goldfish and guinea pigs and turtles.The yard doesn’t get mowed as often as it should and there are a couple of old cars that need to be towed away. A family of armadillos lives under the house and birds nest in the chimney every spring, and toads live in flowerpots on the patio and geckos manage to get in sometimes, along with the occasional snake. There is a wonderful rope swing hanging from a giant tree, and another tree, the one we call Samson’s Tree, stands as a memorial to the Grand Old Bunny who lived in a hutch beneath it for many years. There are beautiful flowers of all kinds and there is a tumbledown  barn full of old junk and an enormous shed that is home to toys and bicycles and worn-out furniture and, sometimes, a few stray cats. Golden orb weaver spiders build their webs everywhere and squirrels play on the roof.

                Before they came home, our kids dreamed of this. They wanted a family with animals and lots of books. The littlest one fantasized that the electronic voice of her toy dog was the voice of her father. They took the same toys for show and tell every week because they had no others, and on Teddy Bear Day they had no fuzzy friends to take to the picnic. Ally still, at thirteen, sleeps with a mountain of stuffed animals surrounding her. They all have names and personalities. Ally has always been fond of family groups; all the toy animals she got had to be arranged just so, with a mom, a dad, and kids, and if one looked different, it was because he was adopted. These family groups spoke to her of Home. For Tony, Home meant, “Can we do something today, Dad? We’re gonna build that Lego pirate ship today, Dad, just you and me, huh?”  Time together-playing Uno or Wii Wipeout, watching a movie, cooking a meal-that is Home to my children still. They still want to hang out with their parents, at least sometimes. And to them, Home is our big red truck, the Dawn Treader. We have had many adventures in that truck, some of them unplanned, all of them special. When we’re together, we’re Home.

                Some people believe that whatever relationships we have in this life are just necessary illusions, that Love is not real, that these illusions make things bearable. I do not believe that. There is nothing more real than Love, than Home. God brought the five of us together and made us a family.

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When [someone] loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

"Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand... once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

Yes. Our family is Real, our love is Real, and our Home is Real.  In recent weeks I have seen some families whose carefully manufactured facades of perfection are beginning to crack and crumble. We never had those facades in the first place. Our arguments, our failings, the wrongs we have done to each other, the stupid things we have said, have all been part of making us Real. There have been plenty of people who didn’t understand. There will always be people who don’t understand. Our lives are what they are, and our funny, messy old house is what it is, and I wouldn’t trade what I have for anything.

Not anything in the world.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Story in Her Hands

“Your mother is possibly the best friend you will ever have. She loves you when you love her back, she loves you when you don't. She loves you when you cry and when you laugh. She loves you when you are wrong and when you are right. She loves you because you are her child, forever and a day. If you want to catch a glimpse of what the love of God looks like, look at your mother.”
Ryan Crowe

                I love my mother’s hands.

                There is a story there, in her hands, a remarkable story that spans seventy-three years of vivid life. My mother has spent the greater part of those years caring for other people. As an only child, she was responsible for her parents. She worked in a hospital until two years before I was born, and then she stayed home for the next twenty, but she was never idle. She had to go back to work when I was eighteen, first working in daycare, then later teaching preschool, second grade, fourth grade, preschool again…my mother’s hands have blessed many people, especially children.

                I remember her hands flying over the piano keys. I thought she played the piano better than anyone else in the world. I remember her hands preparing thousands of meals, soothing sick children, wiping away tears, patching skinned knees and ripped blue jeans, feeding the animals she insisted she didn’t really like that much, and planting the flowers she loved so much. My mother’s hands were always busy doing something-something for her family, her friends, the church, the neighborhood. Our house was the favorite place for the gang of kids I grew up with to hang out. They loved her homemade cookies and the fact that she never cared if we made a mess as long as we cleaned it up, but mostly she was someone they could all talk to.

                I’m not sure if I have thanked her enough, or if I even could do so. My mother’s hands held mine through the worst of times, and she held them out to God as she went before Him in earnest prayer when it seemed that I was too far away to be reached. Like a warrior, she stood in the gap between her child and the forces of darkness. She never gave up and she never let go. She was with me when I went in for an emergency appendectomy, she and my dad holding my hands on either side until I was wheeled away into the operating room. She was there when I woke up in the recovery room, her fingers stroking my forehead.

                We held hands all through the long, sorrowful night after my father died, my mother and my sister and I, laughing and crying. I felt a strength in her and it flowed into me. I watched how she folded her hands in her lap as she quietly and calmly made the plans for his memorial service. I remember how her hands looked as she went through his clothes, smoothing the collars of his shirts. I know that much of the thin invisible steel that is part of my design I got from her. I want my hands to be like hers, even though mine are small, with stubby fingers that could never reach an octave.

                My mother’s hands are a bit knotted now from arthritis, and they are showing signs of age, but they are so lovely to me. I wonder how many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches those hands have made over the years, how many birthday cakes. I wonder how many songs they have coaxed from various pianos, how many smaller hands they have guided to form letters and words with crayons and pencils. My mother has never been a victim of her circumstances, but a victor over them. She has always found reasons instead of making excuses. Her hands aided five children of her own as well as countless others in becoming who God called them to be. My first explorations of the world were made at her side as I learned the names of things. My hand in hers, she led me to books and stories, to the wonders of nature, to the sounds of music, and ultimately to the love of Christ. Her hand was clasping mine the day I asked Jesus into my heart.  She helped me to understand who He is.

                I hope I am the kind of mother she was. I hope that my children will arise and call me blessed. As I write this, my son is on a bus headed for Chicago for his senior trip. He will be gone a week, but after only twelve hours I miss him terribly and feel as though my heart is indeed walking around outside of my body.  I know now, having lived through many trials over the last eight years with my children, how deep a mother’s love really is. But I don’t know that I could love them so much if my mother had not shown me such love- unconditional, powerful, extravagant love that has sustained me for forty-six years.

                I love my mother’s hands. I love my mother.

                Happy Mothers’ Day, Mom.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Run for the Roses

It’s high time you joined in the dance.”

            All of my life, for as long as I can remember, I have loved horses. Most little girls go through a horse-obsessed phase; mine never stopped. I was crazy for horses and dogs. My favorite thing to do when I could not have been more than three was to peruse the encyclopedia for horse and dog pictures, color plates preferred. I memorized the various horse and dog breeds and could name them on sight. When I was four,my dad bought two Shetland ponies. A couple of years later, we acquired an elderly palomino mare .These ponies were actually ridden very little, and we didn’t own a saddle so they were mostly ridden bareback. But we had them. Like our dogs and cats and other pets, they became intimate friends. I brushed them and petted them and fed them treats. I knew well the smell and feel of their manes and tails, the sweetness of their breath. I hugged their soft necks and kissed their velvety muzzles. When we had to give them away because we were moving, my heart broke, but I never gave up dreaming of horses.

            It is now many years later and I am in love with my daughter’s sorrel colt, Legend. I relish the feel of his lips lifting a carrot from my hand, the sight of him cavorting across the pasture. I watch my children play with Legend and his three pasture mates, Ghost, Gallant, and Comanche, and my heart is full. In the years between giving up Golde and Flicka and Baby Doll and the day I was able to give my girl her dream, a lot of things happened. During those years I amassed a huge collection of horse books and toy horses. I kept scrapbooks with horse pictures cut from magazines and newspapers (my friend Deb and I used to illicitly swipe them from our history teacher’s back issues of Sports Illustrated) and, along with Deb, I memorized the names of the Kentucky Derby winners all the way back to the beginning. We were “the horse girls”. We still are.

            Today is Derby Day. I always watch with my daughters now. For a long time I didn’t watch it at all, because it made me too sad. My dad and I always watched it together. He loved horses, too. In May of 1987, we watched Spend a Buck take the Derby. Three months later, Dad was gone, and for eighteen years I skipped Derby Day. But then when my daughters came, and one of the first things Raina told me was, “ I LOVE horses,” I knew Derby Day would once again become a special day for me. Last year, we started a new tradition of having Kentucky Hot Browns on that day, and we watch a horse movie or two before the Derby, and I find Dan Fogelberg’s “Run for the Roses” on YouTube and post it to my Facebook page in honor of the day. My dad informed me when the song first came out that it was not really about horses at all, but about life. About people.

“Born in the valley/And raised in the trees
Of Western Kentucky/On wobbly knees
With mama beside you/To help you along
You'll soon be a growing up strong.”

I got my kids relatively late in their lives. I missed those early years. I was not there to help them along when they were tiny, and they had to figure out a lot of things by themselves. Next week is my son’s last week of high school, and he listens patiently to my advice about how to handle college. Yesterday, though, he said, “Mom, you’re gonna have to let me do this on my own.” It’s true. He’ll still be living here, but it will be very different. I won’t be at school with him as I have been for the past seven years, checking on his homework, making sure he has everything he needs, getting his work from his teachers when he’s out sick. He’ll have to be responsible for those things himself, and I know he can. I have to let him go. He is strong and getting stronger all the time. He is a man now, a fine and honorable man. He’s not a yearling any longer.

“All the long, lazy mornings/In pastures of green
The sun on your withers/The wind in your mane
Could never prepare you/For what lies ahead
The run for the roses so red”

Do you remember? Can you still hear the way the birds sounded on a summer morning? I know I can. I can still hear and see and smell and taste and feel my childhood. It is with me every day of my life. Nothing could have prepared me for what lay ahead. I stayed lost in a dream of green grass and endless sky, innocent and free and unaware of how quickly the time was passing. It goes by so incredibly fast.

“And it's run for the roses/As fast as you can
Your fate is delivered/Your moment's at hand
It's the chance of a lifetime/In a lifetime of chance
And it's high time you joined in the dance
It's high time you joined in the dance –

When those three-year-old colts (and the occasional filly) burst out of the starting gate, it always takes my breath away. I get a thrill from head to toe. I always have a favorite-often it’s not the horse everyone else favors-but in my heart I’m rooting for all of them. They are running their hearts out, doing what they love. Doing what they were born to do. We were all born for something; we all have a purpose. We must dare to seek the adventure and the romance and the joy (and pain) that God has for us. We are called to join in the dance.

“From sire to sire it's born in the blood
The fire of a mare and the strength of a stud
It's breeding and it's training
And it's something unknown
That drives you and carries you home.”

Yes. Like those colts, we are the sum of our genetic makeup plus life lessons and experience plus Something. The Something is magic and mystical and beautiful. It is God. When I look back at my life, I can see clearly how He was there all the time, guiding and leading and using people and places and things to make me into who He wanted me to be. We are the clay in the hands of the Potter. He’s not finished with us yet.

“And it's run for the roses/As fast as you can
Your fate is delivered/Your moment's at hand
It's the chance of a lifetime/In a lifetime of chance
And it's high time you joined in the dance
It's high time you joined in the dance.”

What is your dance? Or, as John Keating pust it in Dead Poets’ Society, “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” 

Those colts will go on after today’s race to run other races. In life, you win some, you lose some. But you have to try. You have to do what you were called to do. If you never try, then you will never know what you could have done, who you might have been. The colts have to get into the starting gate and run the race with all they’ve got. In the end, win or lose, the race itself still counts. To own a colt that is even eligible to run in the Derby is something horse people dream of. They breed and raise and train them for that moment. So go on and live. Join in the dance and run the race that is set before you, that in the end the Father will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Amen and amen.