I remember the first time I realized my children’s pain could be a mere annoyance for me. I don’t recall the details, I just know Lydia was crying and I was half-heartedly soothing her when I was struck by this deep awareness: I can’t feel her pain.
You know when you know something intellectually and then suddenly everything else falls away and you really.truly.get.it?
Despite being a loving and empathetic mother, my child’s physical pain was a figurative one in my neck. I just wanted her to be quiet. The gulf between her experience and my own was wide and I was so thankful to see it.
That was a game changer.
Since then I have made a conscious effort to let my children’s discomfort be what it is without stepping in to minimize or dismiss it because it’s an inconvenience.
My father’s death taught me the value of mourning and for years I had created space for my children to mourn their sorrows, but the day the Christmas Tree farm was closed I realized I had missed something.
As I told you before, after weeks and weeks of waiting to get our tree, even the dog was devastated to find we couldn’t go to our favorite place. It was a van full of sorrow which headed away from our Christmas paradise towards the farm where my friends cut their trees every year.
At first glance it didn’t look promising. A tired little ranch house with a pile of saws on the front porch seemed to be the extent of the operation. Paul knocked on the front door and talked to the kindly man who answered. Yes, we were in the right place. Just drive on back and cut down whatever tree we wanted. Pay on the way out.
As we drove as far back as the road went and followed the loop up again towards the house I didn’t know what to say. There wasn’t a tree under twelve feet tall and many were far over twenty and they were all at least eight feet across.
“Let’s get out and walk around,” I said.
Further investigation produced no tree even remotely suitable. Christopher set to making snowballs and chucking them at his sisters until Paul yelled at him to lay off. Jack was in a frenzy of pent up excitement. Somehow he had known where we were going and couldn’t understand where we were now. He barked and pulled.
Eden stomped around making insulting comments about this “farm” supplying air quotes to underline her indignation. Lydia stood silent, clearly stricken.
I had my camera at the ready to capture golden Christmas memories, but both girls begged me to put it away. Paul and I huddled together to make a new plan. An “experience” seemed out of the question and I shifted to the pragmatic. Lowes had marked their trees way down and I suggested we go there and then get dinner. Paul agreed.
Lydia let out a low moan, “Nooooo!”
“What!” Paul looked at her.
“That would be like adding insult to injury!”
Paul stiffened, “My family got our tree from a lot every single year when I was a boy and it was FINE.”
“I don’t think bringing up your childhood as a comparison is ever helpful,” I said smiling.
On paper that looks terrible, but I swear it was an attempt at levity. Paul has told many funny stories about his mother’s frugality and the suffering it caused him as a boy. I really wasn’t meaning to demean him or his family of origin, but I can see how it looks and that was certainly how Paul took it.
He turned to squarely face me, “Insulting my family isn’t going to help anything, Alison.”
For once, by God’s miraculous grace I didn’t jump into the fray. I did try to explain, “Honey, I’m sorry! I was making a joke. I really didn’t mean to be insulting!”
Paul just looked at me and shook his head.
“Look, let’s get out of here,” I said, “I’ll run Jack and meet you at the end of the lane. OK? Do any of you kids want to come with me?”
It was bitterly cold. They all declined and piled into the van.
As I walked I prayed simple prayers. “God help us. God save us. I know you are here with us, please help us see.” Jack marched beside me obediently but yelped in frustration and I had compassion on him. Here at least, was someone whose sorrow was within my control and easily relieved.
“Okay,” I said and he was off on a gallop with me running behind him. At first it was fun, even exhilarating, but soon I wasn’t so much running as bouncing along behind Jack who was in an all out sprint.
At 6’6″, Paul is a giant of a man and if there was ever a woman who has no business pounding down a frozen lane, it’s one who has given birth to the three enormous babies of such a one, but I remembered this too late.
“Jack! Jack!” I shouted. He slowed to a trot and eventually a walk, but the damage was already done.
I waddled to the van and flung open the side door to let Jack in and all heads turned, the tension still there. I was sheepish.
“Jackie ran so fast and the road was so frozen and hard….”
They all stared.
“I wet my pants!” I cried.
They all burst out laughing.
“Oh Mama!” Lydia said with compassion, trying to stop.
“Sweeeeetie!” Paul said.
“It’s horrible!” I said. But I was laughing too, “It’s too bad we don’t have a sled. I bet Jack would love to tow the kids.”
“I brought a sled,” Christopher piped up from the far backseat, “Three, actually.”
And just like that he had Jack harnessed up and towing Eden and Lydia. All three kids had several rides and even I had one before Jack finally tired out.
We found our tree at a family owned market which we pass on the way to “our” farm. One of the sons helped us in our protracted selection (Eden rejected several before compromising with the rest of us) and even tied it on the van while Paul paid.
Driving home I thought about how God revealed himself, how his grace was delivered to us (this time) through me and my weak bladder which was strained from giving birth to my own trinity. God became flesh and dwelt among us, Emmanuel indeed.
I heard a whooshing sound and looked back just in time to see the tree fly off the van and land in the middle of the road.
I’m not kidding.
I will remind you, Paul was not the one who first secured this, but he got his turn after hauling it out of the middle of the road. We made it home, set up the tree, decorated it and had a very merry Christmas and a wonderful visit with family.
After the holidays we got everything re-arranged and sorted out so our dining room no longer looked like something featured on “Hoarders.” We kept going with de-cluttering and remodeling up until the day before the arsonist slipped into our garage and set it on fire.
It’s not a neat wrap up and you can’t know how sorry I am about that, but it’s life, isn’t it?
This is how to teach children to mourn: you allow them to feel and express their disappointment and you help them to look for hope in the midst of their sorrow.