On kids and death

When my son Graham was two and a half, my aunt was the director of an exclusive preschool program run by an Episcopal church in Beverly Hills. She let us join their weekly toddler group where all of the mothers were a decade or two older than me. Most had older kids, as well—5- and 8- and even 10-year old kids—some who were already in therapy. No one seemed to be there for religious reasons, no one but the teachers, who I now know had likely prayed each morning before class for an opening in which to plant a seed of light or truth in a willing heart. One day I made the mistake of asking one of them, privately, on the sidelines of circle time, about Death. Specifically, how to talk to young children about Death.

“Well,” she said gently. “I suppose it depends on what you believe. For me, personally, I believe that when we die we go to Heaven to be with God and Jesus and all the Saints and angels. And that’s not hard to talk to kids about at all.”

How nice for you, I thought. Returning to the circle of sophisticated heathens, I realized I was angry in a new, unspoken, unspeakable way. I hated her for that answer. I resented her kindness and her confidence. Despised the possibility that she and others like her could have the last laugh about the most important thing I’d ever endeavored to do in my life. I placed Graham’s hands in mine as we circled them around like wheels on a bus and affirmed in my spasming heart that I would do anything to do right by him. Like a g-force drop in a cable-slackened elevator, the first seed gave root to an even more terrifying thought: was it possible, despite all my brilliant, enlightened ideas to the contrary, that the people—those people— who believe in God were actually the ones who had the edge when it came to raising kids?
–From Elijah & the SAT

Sweet Memories

A weekend of rain is all the winter it seems we’re going to get in Southern California this year. Still, the gray skies set my mind and spirit on homespun things. I signed up for a knitting class. I need something different—something more creative than technology can provide—to occupy my hands, mind, and nervous energy each night. And I’ve just spent the morning baking. For all our growing awareness of the evils of sugar, nothing transports memories through time like homemade sweets. On our close-knit cul-de-sac I’m always assigned desserts for parties. Tonight I’m bringing salted caramel tarts to an Oscar screening, and, as I set the dulce de leche in a roasting pan to thicken, I think of my cousin Chris and his wife Laurel. It was a recipe they introduced us all to one Thanksgiving, a new option to sit aside the pumpkin, apple, and pecan pies at my Aunt’s house. It was my aunt who taught me to bake when I was little. We would have sleepovers and she would take me through every recipe, step by step. I can still picture myself standing on a stool in their tiny kitchen in Van Nuys, she in her nightie, finessing a wooden spoon through the batter, turning the big white bowl in the crook of her bent arm. I have a bowl just like it, a Williams Sonoma standard that I’ve had for 20 years now.

But not everyone likes salted caramel tart. Some people, like my husband, like chocolate more than just about anything. So I flip through my old recipe book and find a yellowed entry for fudge pie with walnuts. I am delighted beyond words to discover I have all the ingredients on hand. At the bottom of the recipe there’s a note from his mom, who passed three years ago. “In my experience, it slices much better if you chill it first. But it’s a wonderful recipe to serve to very special friends.” It’s signed, T.D. for Terry Davis, with a smiley face, and I stop to imagine what scraps of my life’s work will be unearthed later by my kids, my grand kids— and what, out of the great swath of if, will be meaningful to them. To make the crustless fudge pie I use the hand mixer that the mother of my uncle (I’m never sure what that would make her–a great aunt, maybe?) gave me at my bridal shower, 29 years ago. Still works like a charm. Just like the simple joy of placing the large near empty bowl laced with streaks of thick, sweet fudge in front of Lon. A thousand memories of pies and cakes and parties come flooding back as I see him smile at the sound of those five magical words, “Want to lick the bowl?”

Have a sweet and Blessed Sunday. And even if the movie Nebraska doesn’t win best picture, remember, it should.

The story of Elijah begins here

Head Butler reviews Baptism by Fire, tees up Elijah & the SAT

Easter baskets, God, and Graham

Today I am dropping my son Graham off at the airport for a 12-day business trip— an amazing adventure and work opportunity rolled into one. I’m so happy for him. But I’m also keenly aware that this will be the first Easter in 23 years that we have not celebrated all together as a family. It marks a moment where from here on in, perhaps, things like the family being together are no longer in my control.

I’ve learned a lot about what is and isn’t in our control over the years. Now, as I near the final weeks of my MA Theology program, I smile to see the distance I have traveled in my faith since the early years with my children. To celebrate, I thought I’d revisit a passage from Baptism by Fire:

It was bedtime, just before Easter, just after my thwarted phone conversation with the man from the church who would not let me fake it —not this time—when I found myself making preparations. I reached for The Picture Bible on Graham’s shelf. It had been a baptismal gift and was as yet uncracked.

“You know, honey, maybe it’s time to learn a little bit about Easter.”

“I know all about Easter. The bunny brings a basket and hides it. Remember last year it was in the shower?”

“Yes, but it has other meanings. There are other parts of it,” I said as I fumbled with the book, thumbing blindly. Where exactly is the part about Easter? Why don’t they have this thing indexed by holiday?

“So what’s the other part?” Graham asked matter-of-factly.

“Well,” I said, looking up from the book and winging it, “you know about god and the angels?”

“They’re up in heaven, with Uncle Michael.”

“Yeah, that’s right. Well, the other thing is that what a lot of people believe is that god had a son named Jesus. And that, um, the story of Easter is that Jesus—” Jesus what? What’s the story of Easter? Oh, yeah, died on the cross, buried, ascended —shit, I can’t tell him that. “Let’s just say that Jesus was a really smart guy with a lot of ideas about god and how people were supposed to love each other and stuff, and some people didn’t like what he had to say, so they, well, they didn’t want him around anymore.”

“Why didn’t they like his ideas?”

“I don’t know.”

“What did they do to him?”

“Well, they killed him.”

“He’s dead?”

“No, actually, I mean … well, the big part of the story is that after he died, he came back—”

“He wasn’t really dead?”

I had just recently gotten him to understand that when people die they are dead; they don’t come back, not ever. “Well, it’s kind of complicated, but anyhow, people were really glad to see him again, and, I think we’ll save the rest for when you’re a little bit older.”

(from Baptism by Fire: The True Story of a Mother who finds Faith during her Daughter’s Darkest Hour, pp 35-36)

Wishing you all a blessed Holy Week. And my dear son Godspeed.

Sacred Tears

If you’ve never met me then you probably don’t know that I am the sort of person who tears up on a dime. Hallmark commercials, old hymns, the surreptitious squeeze of memory catching me off guard. People likely think that I’m depressed or unhinged, but the truth is I just feel things deeply and it shows. Most times I’d prefer it didn’t but we don’t get to choose how we’re “fearfully and wonderfully made.” I often weep when I read the prayers at church because really, how can you not, as you stand between heaven and earth and call out to the Living God to bless, to forgive, to heal, to save. If my tears make people feel those prayers more fully then I must believe that that’s a blessing, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me.

But weeping in church is one thing: weeping out in the world is quite another.

So there I was at Vons, picking up a few things before Thanksgiving. I was moving through the check-out line when I saw her one lane over, Sandy, a woman I had known from my many years as a little league mom. She was the aunt of one of my son’s teammates, a boy with the sweetest, most guileless face I’d ever seen. Jake was a good kid with the world stacked against him. His father came to games but always watched from the fence, as if he didn’t see himself as quite fit for the bleachers. There was no mother—at least not one that was seen or heard from. But every single game Aunt Sandy was there, and the boy’s grandpa, too. I remember thinking that maybe that would be enough to save him. That even one family member who loved you and showed up could do it; Jake had three.

The boys didn’t cross paths much at Venice High. My son, Graham, had been put on the Varsity. Jake played JV for a bit and then fell away from the game he had loved. I saw his dad one day near the high school and said hi. When he smiled shyly I could see that all his teeth were missing. Teeth, or the absence thereof, are a fairly clear dividing line in a city like L.A. Teeth, in my world, are not something you don’t replace when they all fall out. Naively, I imagined that he had just been in a bad bar fight, that he’d have new teeth the next time I saw him. He didn’t. Which only pushed him farther to the margins, made him less fit for any sort of community other than toothless folks and others who struggle on the streets of our hard urban life. But not Sandy. Sandy had the sort of sunny complexion and frosted, blonde ringlets that speak of California summers and indefatigable optimism.

“Sandy?” I called out across the check-out lines. She looked over, needing a prompt. “It’s Heather, from baseball.” By the time I could reach out my arms for a hug and tell her how glad I was to see her, my eyes had begun to well up. I tried to hold them wider so she wouldn’t notice, or maybe think I just had a little cold. She asked about my kids and I touched lightly on the good things that were happening for them. I touched just as lightly on what I had known was a long stretch of troubled years for her nephew since the last time we’d had weekly contact. “I know he struggled a bit after his friend died,” I said gently. His best friend had been shot out in front of a party one night for no good reason—at least not one that would ever make sense. Sandy kept the progress report honest, but upbeat.

No sooner had I wished her a Happy Thanksgiving and turned my cart away than the tears began to have their due. I wondered how I could ever explain why a casual reunion with a woman I’d known only in passing a decade before meant anything to me at all. But there it was, in that instant of connection, in our bond in the human family: every single emotion I’d ever felt about her or the grandpa or the dad or Jake. All there, on demand, and pressing down on my heart with the reminder that goodness and suffering are forever wed in this lifetime. I wept for the boy who never had it easy, and for all the ways the world had let him down. I wept for the dad’s broken life, and the grandpa’s efforts to somehow hold them all together. But mostly, I wept for the beautiful gift that an aunt gave to her nephew, of showing up, of believing in him, of taking him in, of forgiving him, and of saying with all the love a person could muster, “he’s had a few rough years, but I think he’s finally on a good path now.” Then, just as she had done so many times before, she smiled without a hint of weariness.

Sandy will never know how much I admire her, or how much her steadfastness inspires me. Or how grateful I am for that chance encounter, which has opened my heart for the spirit of Thanksgiving.

This is the blessing of sacred tears.

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