Back then I said I’d never be like him.
I slammed doors to punctuate the point and to make sure my dad knew it.
You can be tall and 15 and think you know a lot of things.
And you don’t think about growing old and looking squishy around the middle and telling teenagers to just turn out the lights.
You don’t think about how you can open your mouth and let the sharp side of your tongue tear the innards out of a soul —- and there’s no way you can stuff the whole bloody mess back.
I don’t know how it happened exactly.
Or maybe the truth rightly stated is — I really don’t want to remember.
How we were late, 35 minutes late, and when I got in the van they were all waiting, all seven of them, waiting and squashed close in a mini-van that’s far too mini for lanky Dutch teenagers and late summer heat and one late mother who can flare into this wide-eyed, wild agoraphobia when facing hours of finger food and paper plates and BBQ small talk with absolute strangers.
It got ugly.
A kid hadn’t ironed his shirt.
Over the course of a whole hour and ten minutes of hunting down socks and doing up hair and scouring for one battered Croc — and telling my jangled it’s-time-to-go-nerves a dozen times that all fear is fraud and nowhere on earth is beyond the reach of God — I had told the boy at least five times that he really did have to iron that shirt.
And then, 35 minutes late, he’s in the van looking like he’s rolled with a bunch of wombats to Timbuktu and back.
Maybe I should have shrugged the shoulders?
Maybe I should have said it didn’t matter, let’s just go? But I had asked him – five times. More like 5.8975 times and in this insistent, your-mama-she-means-business-voice.
So, to a van full of the waiting and the hot and the frustrated, I say no ma’am. No ma’am, we are not going like that. Back into the house and you have. to. iron. that. shirt.
And the kid starts wailing. At mock pitch levels. Like I’d just announced an imminent amputation of a necessary limb or the banning of birthdays.
And every nerve ending in this highly sensitive body is already feeling unraveled and gory and I don’t even want to go to this thing and I feel the iron weight of time and kids and expectations all pressing down on the lung and his howl is jet thunder in the frayed veins.
And I turn hard toward the bawling kid.
“Out.” I’m not proud that I can hiss.
Here’s where it’d be convenient to claim I wasn’t thinking straight, that some tightening screw had somewhere loosened and the side of the thing had fractured and fissured in the loud sound.
But it’s been said and I’ve laid up nights, thinking about it, and it’s true and I say it like this:
No matter the jarring, a jar of fresh water can’t spill filthy water.
When you’re upset, you upset what’s really in you.
I grab the boy’s arm and lean in close to his face. His wracking sobs are hot and hard in my face.
And I’m gnawing. Gnawing on the side of lip, pulling on my mouth like I’m trying to hold something back, like I’m trying to chew through to something better than this – better than him.
How can you have held the child that came from you as an ember of very heaven and then glare blind angry and stomp him right out? Who can look into a child and forget miracle?
Me — the amnesiac mother who forgets holy all the time.
I lean in and over, gnaw like a wild thing, and the kid pulls back and wracks it out like this haunt — like this high and holy haunt.
“When … you… do… that…” His shoulders heave, chocking back all this heart water right undammed. “When… you… chew… your lip like that?” He wipes his face with the back of his arm. “You … look… just… like… Grandpa Morton.”
And there’s no air in my lungs.
I’ve caved, in a moment everything’s caved.
It’s like a flashing supernova, the look in a child’s eyes and there’s a flaring mirror and you see you are everything you’d said you’d never become.
You can become everything that once undid you. I’m right tipped, upset and know who I really am and what really spills, and here is why I’ll never stop being a grace beggar, a wild Cross-clinger.
“Please… Don’t… Do… That…” He can’t stop the heaving of his shoulders, his heart.
I’m undone now — undammed.
How can grace get a hold of you when the past won’t let go of you? How do you leave a legacy different than the one you’ve been left? That’s what I’ve got to gnaw through to. How do mangle the ones you love most?
“Sor…ry… Mama… didn’t… mean… to make you… cry.” And he’s the one who can’t stop.
And I kneel down and let go of his arm. And I hold his face. That’s what I should have done, done right at the beginning. What would happen in a world where anger was your flag to reach out and cup a face?
He looks so scared and wrung and thin — every child’s a thin place. I see God.
And that’s what comes:
If you don’t fight for joy, it’s your children who lose.
What do I want my children to remember — my joy in clean floors, made beds and ironed shirts — or my joy of the Lord?
You will be most remembered — by what brought you most joy.
The joy of the Lord is your strength and the person of Christ is your unassailable joy – and the battle for joy is nothing less than fighting the good fight of faith.
His cheeks in my palms, they’re so white, so wet.
It’s his eyes — if you’ve put the fear of yourself into a child, how is there room for the joy of the Lord? Joy isn’t an optional feature to the Christian life — it’s the vital feature of the Christian life.
Battle for joy or lose your life. Or other’s lose theirs.
And I whisper sorry. I tell the boy I know nothing yet, nothing.
Every ungracious moment means someone doesn’t understand grace.
And the boy crumbles into me and I hold onto him and a forgiveness I’ll never deserve and there’s a grace that can hold us, that can mold us, the way joy can bend you soft at all the joints.
And I murmur it into the thick of his hair, that even now He can still make us like Him.
The boy touches my cheek like a flag waving yes.