It’s Thanksgiving eve, and the kids are writing entries for their Thankful boxes. “I’m thankful for Whistler.”
“I’m thankful for Grandma and Grandpa.”
If they were a tad more honest, their lists would reveal things like, “I’m thankful Mom never knew who stashed the ice cream sandwiches behind the couch.” Or, “I’m thankful for the invention of permanent markers.”
Recently, I came home to find a child’s etching on the family room wall.
“Who drew a fish on the wall?” I asked.
“That’s not a fish,” said Ryan. “That’s a shark with really big, sharp teeth.” Poor kid doesn’t know a thing about his fifth amendment rights. I lectured him soundly and told him he was never, ever to draw a shark on the wall again.
“Okay, Mommy,” he told me sadly. “Next time I promise I’ll draw a fish for you instead.”
There’s often a direct correlation between the things my children are grateful for and the things that make my life chaotic these days. In fact, it’s been a challenge for the whole family to keep afloat at all sometimes.
My brother-in-law, Richard, died of a rare brain disease in February 2005 leaving behind my sister and her two daughters, then 4 and 10 months. Three months later, Eric moved out of the house and filed for divorce the following January. Some things are unimaginable.
In journalism, you look for natural transitions–one thought that ties a preceding paragraph into the next. In life, there are no smooth transitions from death and divorce. You cry. You rage. You spend sleepless nights worrying about the scars your children will bear. And then you pray for resilience and grace to cover and heal the fractures in everyone’s lives.
My niece Lauren tells people her daddy lives at the cemetery. Katie spent weeks after Eric moved out insisting that Daddy was working outside in the yard when nighttime came, and he wasn’t there to tuck her into bed.
When we pulled out of the garage one day, Katie refused to buckle herself into her car seat. Ryan and Paige pleaded with her to buckle in.
“Mommy’s going to get a ticket, and the police will come and take her to jail,” Paige told Katie.
“Daddy’s gone now,” Ryan continued. “And if Mommy goes to jail, we don’t know how to call Lynn [our nanny] to come and take care of us.” Katie soberly buckled her seatbelt.
I’m not being profane when I use the word hell. Divorce is a living hell, and the wreckage spills over onto children and church families and friends and even onto the far limbs of the family tree. If we’re fortunate enough, the branches of friendships and family can help to break the fall.
If I were writing my own Thankful box, my parents would top the list. In their inimitable way, they have stood by us and kept us all going.
When Richard died, Dad flew to Portland to help Charlene with all the details surrounding his death. Richard served in the U.S. Air Force to pay back four years of medical school, so Char wanted a 21-gun salute at his memorial service. Dad was sent in to make the arrangements. Ever careful about expenditures, Dad was appalled to hear how much a 21-gun salute would cost.
“Do they have a better rate if we just had a 7-gun salute?” he asked.
During his visits to Seattle this year, Dad cooked roasts as he did on the weekends I returned home from college. He helped me service my cars, carried out my trash, and made runs to Costco to stuff the freezer with food for the kids.
On car rides, the children like to play “Who am I?” where they mimic people. Recently I listened to Paige play-acting in the car, “Who wants to eat? Who’s hungry?”
“You’re Papa!” Ryan correctly shouted.
Dad nourishes our bodies. Mom attempts to sustain our souls. She’s so accustomed to receiving tearful phone calls, she sometimes confuses the grief and the daughter she’s trying to console.
One morning on the phone, Mom spent several minutes empathizing: I just don’t understand this. I don’t know why he chose this route for his life. Maybe one day he’ll wake up, but for now, he can’t be enjoying any peace.” Then Mom realized she was talking to my widowed sister, not me.
That possibly explains why she walks around sighing to herself in Chinese these days. It’s safer to express yourself in another language: Mah say lock day han. Or maybe it was Rah, rah. Sis boom bah…
“What are you muttering about?” I once asked her.
“When the horse dies, you get up and walk,” she told me. I thought that was pretty good, so I asked her for another one.
“If man had a conscience, a dog wouldn’t eat his s–t,” she said.
I’ve never seen those on any fortune cookies I’ve ever opened, but I’m thinking I ought to start my own line of Chinese greeting cards. Maybe I’ll send those out next year, but then you’d miss the photo cards I usually send with the faces of my little ones for whom I’m also deeply thankful.
At 9, Megan is beautiful both inside and out. She’s sweet and thoughtful and sensitive to the plight of others. At the dog park this summer, it was Megan who shed embarrassed tears for our Whistler when he squatted to expel a plastic Target bag he had eaten the day before. Unfortunately for him, (and certainly for all of us trying to make a good impression with the canine crowd standing around) only the first four inches of the bag made it out on his first purge attempt. Unperturbed, Whistler gave up and ran around for the next 20 minutes with the plastic bag hanging partially out of his rear.
It’s hard to know what to do in those situations. Yank and hope not to hurt anything? Shrug and figure it’ll all come out okay in the end… literally? Wonder aloud to everyone around about whose dog that is? (Hint: On multiple choice exams, I always opted for ‘C’ when I wasn’t sure of the answer.)
If most of the genes for sweet and sensitive went to Megan, then feisty and fiery went to Paige and Katie. The 5-year-old twins were fighting ferociously one day when I heard Ryan plead, “Please, please stop arguing with me, Paige. Don’t talk to me anymore!”
“Okay,” Paige replied. There was silence for a moment and then she added, “But I’m very, very right, Ryan.”
Katie, 3, is also not to be crossed. I’m not sure if she’s been exposed to too many Revelation seminars put on at church, but she’s convinced that she wants to be a dragon when she grows up. “God will turn me into a dragon,” she tells everyone. “He will give me two heads so I can breathe more fire!”
Spare us all. She creates enough heat with the one head she’s got.
So amid the fire and days that feel like a living hell, there are also numerous ways to be grateful and glad. I believe God has provided in ways that I couldn’t have foreseen nor would have planned.
After years of being a stay-at-home dad, Eric got an engineering job in Redmond seven months after he moved out of our home. World Vision’s senior management and fellow colleagues were incredibly supportive to me throughout all of the transitions.
In January, I took on a new position as general manager over the radio program, the World Vision Report. I work with a fabulous, top-notch team of journalists across the country, and some of the best stringers from around the world file for the show. The half-hour weekly program is on a couple hundred Christian stations and is just starting to gain carriage on public radio. Incredibly, I also have the flexibility of working from home two days a week which is ideal for the kids and me right now.
I’m so grateful to those of you who have walked me through the awful times and dealt with all the poop from this year. You may think I’m being figurative, but I’m remembering a 5-mile hike around Point Defiance where my friend Kari, offered to carry Whistler’s waste bag until we came to the next trash can. If that isn’t the mark of true friendship, I don’t know what is!
I’d love to list you all–Kris, Peggy, Char and Heidi; the multiple Johns and Jons; my extended family and church friends…you’re in my box of people I’m thankful for. And I’m pretty certain you’re there in permanent ink.