“Thank you Jesus! Thank you Jesus! Thank you Jesus!” My five-year-old niece, Ren shouted from the back of the van as we drove west across the city, just as the sun was about to set. It was Good Friday.
“Why did you say that three times?” my six-year-old daughter Eden asked.
“I saw three crosses.” Ren said.
“Where?” Eden asked.
“There!” Ren pointed to a church with three domes, each topped by a gold cross, which was just coming into view.
“Thank you Jesus! Thank you Jesus! Thank you Jesus!” Eden shouted too.
Eden didn’t question why her cousin thanked Jesus, just the number of times; she knows that’s what you do when you see a cross, at least that’s what our family has done since long before these two were born. I know that makes us sound like fundamentalists, the sort that run to long skirts with tennis shoes for the women and firearms for the men, but we’re not.
It began out of desperation on my part during the morning commute to my now thirteen-year-old son Christopher’s school. Christopher was born deaf and began attending school when he was two years and his younger sister, Lydia, was ten days old. When he was in Kindergarten we began to carpool with another family who had two little girls. Every morning Christopher, Lydia and I picked up Maggie and Brija and made the twenty-minute drive to school. You can’t imagine the cacophony of sound. We’re talking three little kids with limited hearing who were being taught to listen and to speak, all three of whom were terribly excited to be together and compensating for the noise of the car and other traffic. Everything had to be repeated several times and often I needed to jump in to translate. Loud shrieking from joy was the norm.
Add to that the extremely articulate Lydia, who was jealous of any attention I gave to the other girls and prone to say rude things to or about them. Since becoming a mother I had been consistently nervous and twitchy and every morning as the ring mistress of that auditory circus on wheels I edged ever closer to losing my grip. One can only say, “Calm down…quiet…what did you say? – Lydia No!” so many times before losing one’s will to live. I knew I needed to come up with something to quiet the deaf kids and to distract the hearing one. We tried singing, but it was hard to hit upon something that they all wanted (and were able) to sing.
Our route was from a little north of downtown to just south of it. Every morning we drove on the highway that snaked along the river and the city skyline. One day, as the usual racket built, my eyes began to dart madly back and forth. On my right I saw the clock tower, our local university had just erected.
“Who can see the clock? Clock! Clock!” I shouted and pointed. Four little heads looked around and for one blessed moment the car was quiet…until they detected the clock. “Clo- Clo-Ih Ah! Ih Ah” Christopher shouted. Clock. Clock. Tick tock. Tick tock.
I immediately began to site my next target. This was tricky as our collective language, as well as our hearing, was limited. On my left I saw the tall spire of one of the city’s many churches. A beautiful gold cross crowned it.
“Who can see the cross?” Again I yelled and pointed.
These are visual kids and Lydia was no slouch; they all spotted it within seconds.
It was probably a desire to keep them focused just a bit longer that prompted me to ask, “What do we say when we see a cross? Thank you Jesus!” I shouted my own answer.
“Thank you Jesus!” They all – in varying degrees of intelligibility – shouted too.
The next day we added more sights, but the clock tower and the crosses were the favorites. After just a couple days I didn’t even have to prompt them.
“Thane oo Je us!” One of them would cry and then we would all join in.
Lydia became a full time cross spotter. Many times, when it was just the two of us in the car, I would be startled by a cry from the back, “Thank you Jesus!” in her happy little voice.
When Eden and Ren came along we taught them too. The big kids are less prone to initiate it now, but they will gamely chime in when one of the little girls starts the chorus. It’s not something they do every time they see a cross, like Christopher and Lydia did when they were younger, days and weeks can go by and then out of the blue something will click like it did with Ren last Good Friday.
It had been a terrible day. To blame were the usual suspects: too many things to do, miscommunications, actual and figurative headaches, mishaps beyond our control, too much time in the car and not enough coffee. It was ugly.
We were ugly. There was shouting and crying and it all kept shifting between the victims and the perps. I probably asked for forgiveness a dozen times. Finally I told Paul “I’m just going to stop talking.” My head was throbbing and I didn’t feel capable of civility in any form.
“That’s a good idea!” Eden piped up from the back seat.
“That’s a little girl who’s been yelled at too many times today.” Paul said.
I reached back and held her little hand and kept my mouth shut.
That morning I woke with a grand ambition. We had many places to go, but I wanted to mark the day; it was Good Friday. I wanted to acknowledge Christ and his cross. I wanted to recognize his suffering and death, to talk about what that means to and for us. I brought two translations of the Bible with the plan to read a little over breakfast. I wasn’t going to read a lot, but I wanted what we did read to be clearly understood. Unfortunately the restaurant we chose had a blaring television and the booths were arranged so that the occupants didn’t face each other, but it. After breakfast we were swept into a maelstrom of shopping and none of us are good shoppers.
As we finally headed home, I settled for craning my head to look back and talk with the kids as Paul drove. We talked about the meaning of the day. I abandoned any reading and just reminded them of what happened. They filled in as they were able. We all agreed that we need Jesus.
That afternoon was filled with driving kids different places, picking them up again, driving across town several times, picking up the van, that had been dropped off but didn’t get worked on because the wrong part was ordered. This had arranged our entire nutty day! At 4 p.m. Paul and I split Christopher and Eden. Lydia was visiting a friend. The fellas headed home to a guy’s night of video games, a dog walk and a John Wayne movie, while Eden and I drove to my sister Torey’s to cover for Lydia who was going to babysit later.
At Torey’s I passed out on the couch for a few minutes while she got ready for her date. My baby niece Willa petted me and tried to feed me drool sodden crackers. Fortunately, she left me alone long enough to drift asleep for a couple minutes. My daylong headache finally broke and I got my second wind. I made a cup of coffee and was sipping it happily when Torey and my brother-in-law, David left for their date.
Eden and Ren rode their bikes up and down the sidewalk while Willa and I played fetch with a golf ball alternately throwing and retrieving. Soon it was time to pick up Lydia and we drove across town – yet again – singing B-I-N-G-O at the top of our voices and clapping like maniacs.
On the way back to Torey’s I saw something I only see on this particular drive. This past winter I have noticed several times, right before the sun sets, very near the intersection of two highways, flocks and flocks of birds swooping and scattering, gathering together again and again. I don’t know what it is exactly, if they’re spreading their wings one last time before nightfall, separating and mingling before settling down. The sky is almost black prematurely, but it keeps breaking up as they swoop and soar, turn and dive. I want to know who they are and what they’re doing. They might be Swallows. Obviously, they are very common birds and their practice is probably easily explained, but I never think about it until I see them again, and then I am mesmerized, trying to see all I can safely see until I have driven past and they are forgotten once more, until the next time I see them.
This reverie was interrupted by Ren’s shouting. She was seated with a better view of a church to the northwest. Soon we all saw the three golden crosses gleaming in the light of the lowering sun. And then to the south there was another church with two more cross topped spires. “Thank you Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!” All of us shouted.
In starting this I didn’t plan to inculcate my children to equate gratitude for Christ with the cross, but it did. It’s ironic that this occurred to me in the midst of a deep and dark depression that was conceived between the fear and shame that I was a terrible and inadequate mother. Meeting the varied, endless and sometimes opposing needs of my two small children seemed impossible.
I forgot the cross.
Despite being a Christian since I was a young child I knew nothing of grace; I thought everything was up to me and for the first time I knew I couldn’t do it.
The beauty of this runs so deeply. I was torn open in my failure to raise these children well enough, to love them, to lead them. Trying and failing, again and again and again led me to the end of myself. For so much of my life I have been stuck in shame that I am not enough.
I really thought I ought to be able to be enough and loathed myself for never.fully.measuring.up…to a lie.
“Who told you, you were naked?” God asked Adam and Eve in the Garden.
I think he would ask us: who told you needed to pretend to be clothed?
Mothering these children they teach me this: my resistance to grace is revealed in my failure to live sufficiently without it. As I have recognized this and my inherent shame, the shame itself has dissipated. I didn’t begin to sin less, but when the shame tried to kick I found it had no feet because grace cut it off at the knee.
How do you unravel this mystery? Where did the grace begin? Oh I know, with Christ. But where with me? With my children? With this despair in my resistance of it, that tore me open and poured over me, that cleansed my infectious belief in the lie that there was no grace? Grace came and filled, covered and redeemed…me. Who can fathom this?
Oh the cross!
So long, I have born shame for making my children into crosses that I have to, I have to, I have to – but I can’t – carry.
And yet they are crosses – beautiful, golden, shining, high and lifted up – symbols of grace.
My own trinity.
Thank you, Jesus.