I feel that familiar stomach-heart drop, the drop that all parents know. Her little brother, who had also just entered the house, passes by me on the way to his bedroom. Alarmed, I ask him what's wrong with her.
"Oh, she's got wood in her foot," he answers, looking for his Nintendo DS.
"I've got a SPLINTER!!" my 10-year-old sobs. Severe distress.
I know I thing or two about splinters. I've been doing splinter surgery for the past 10 years on little people that live with me, and I must say I'm pretty good at it at this point. But lawdy, it's always so dramatic.
She has thankfully reached the point where she trusts me now when I wield a sterilized needle at her. It wasn't always that way. We've been through many battles together - me soothing, bribing, threatening, and her jerking her extremities away from me in utter fear.
I examine the offending foreign object, a gigantic splinter embedded in her heel. It had sliced through her sock while she was playing on a neighbor's hardwood floor.
"OK, sweetie," I tell her, trying the soothing tactic first. "We've been here lots of times before. You know I'm good at this. You know I can get this out. You gotta trust me, though. Nothing would make me happier than to get this thing out for you."
Her face is red and puffy, her nose running, tears rolling. But she puts her heel up in my lap. Willingly.
I begin the tedious procedure. Pick, pick, pick with the needle. Ever so gently. I can tell from experience that this is not one of those that is just going to pop right out. This is one of those that's going to take a lot of time. Like, for-EV-er. Pick, pick, pick. Prod, prod. Pick, Pick.
"Have you almost got it?" she asks after a while, leaning forward awkwardly to try to get a peek.
Not even close.
I tell her so. She doesn't seem to mind. She knows I've got a proven track record.
Finally, glory hallelujah, the tip of the splinter emerges from the tiny hole in her skin that I've made, and I yank that sucker out with tweezers. We both stare at the thing for a minute, the tiny piece of wood that was causing her so much pain, and then she wraps her arms around me.
"Thank you, Mommy! Thank you so much for getting my splinter out!"
She did some happy dancing and kept thanking me all evening, even when I tucked her in.
And I realized this - what happened in the bedroom with the splinter - that's a picture of my life right now.
I am facing a severe problem myself - one that I agonize over, lose sleep over, and cry over. One that, like the insidious splinter, reminds me of its presence constantly. I am all splintered up inside.
But I go to my Father, and He says the same things I was saying to my own little girl - I know this is hard for you, I know you are in dire straits. But I have a track record of faithfulness. You've got to trust me. This is one of those things that is going to take some time. A lot of time. Like your sterilized needle gently working over your daughter's heel. Pick, pick, pick. Prod, prod. Let me work.
We'll get there.
To clear my head. To restore some sense of normalcy. To reduce depression, maybe.
It had been a 4-month long struggle for me. Vertigo, dizziness, medical tests, specialists, no real answers. Just misery and medications and reactions to them that had sent me into a tailspin of more dizziness and fear and despair. A downward spiral that left me at my lowest point - hanging on to faith like a piece of driftwood in the ocean.
My Auburn Tigers were playing the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Comeback Kids versus the Reigning Kings of Everything. I was thinking about the tigers during my halftime walk in the yard that day. While they were in the locker room at Jordan-Hare Stadium, down however many points they were down at halftime, looking at a hill to climb, I was tromping around in circles in the November leaves, contemplating my own deficits, my own trials. I was lifting up mine eyes to the hills, and they looked way bigger than an Alabama lineman. I think I would have rather faced one of them on the gridiron than to feel like this.
Oh, don't be silly, I told myself. Don't compare your problem to football. To this game. Because if you do, then the other team may win and then you'll be even more discouraged not just because of the loss but because your analogy burned you. Alabama is supposed to win anyway. Everybody already knows.
But what if they don't?
What if underdog Auburn pulls this off somehow? What would that mean to the world? Or for that matter - to me? A toppled dynasty. A fulfilled destiny. Oh, how I needed inspiration - a visual picture of the status quo giving way to something new and beautiful. Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? Maybe. But it is in unlikelihood and impossibility that the greatest triumphs are forged.
The clock was ticking down in the 4th quarter. Overtime seemed an inevitability. Please, no. No overtime. At that moment, the collective stomach acid of everyone in the state of Alabama could power a nuclear plant.
And then it happened. The last second play that must be the greatest play ever in the history of all sports since the beginning of time. Alabama's field goal was short, and there was Auburn's Chris Davis, waiting for that ball in the end zone with open arms, running the length of the field, past all the big lunkers on the field who couldn't catch him, into the end zone for a glorious, unexpected, redemptive, inspiring, undeniable winning touchdown.
I screamed and yelled and cried a little bit. And I don't cry at sporting events.
Not just because my team won. But because they were the underdogs, the ones who had the bigger hill to climb, like me. The ones who had suffered many months the previous year of lost games and despair. The ones who faced a seemingly impenetrable wall and scaled it. The ones who believed.
Well, you see, that's me.
I am the girl who is going to catch that ball and run it back.
I am the girl who is not giving up the face of imposing opposition.
I am the girl who believes.
As the Auburn nation can now testify, that's no small thing.
"Hey," says Lane 3, seeking to alleviate the demands of accumulating shoppers ready to check out, "is Patience back there?"
Patience. An interesting name you don't hear much these days.
"I think so," the Lane 2 cashier answers, distractedly.
Lane 3 picks up the store-wide intercom and steadily intones in her most professional-sounding intercom voice, "Patience, come to the front, please. Patience, please come to the front."
I almost told my Lane 3 girl at that moment that I wanted to go home and write about what she just said, but I refrained. Too much profundity to explore in the time it would take to swipe my card and grab my groceries from the plastic-bag carousel.
If only I had an intercom to summon patience to the front, in the very literal sense, in those times when it eludes me.
When the kids are fighting and the baby is crying. When homework is tough and I can't find the words to explain it for the twentieth time. When I am ready to go out the door but nobody else is. When harsh words want to fly out of my lips. When a new life chapter needs to start but the page just won't turn.
Patience, please come to the front. Come to the front in me. Don't hang back when you're most needed, when the line of shopping carts in my life that hold all my stresses and responsibilities is backed up. Patience, come to the front so that you are clearly evident, so that the ones I love the most can recognize you in me - the ones who really, really notice when you're absent, more than anyone else. Come to the front on those evenings at 6:00 p.m. when everybody is tired, and everybody's blood sugar has dropped, and everybody is all prickly and cranky with each other. Come to the front when I burn dinner and have to start over. When I pick up shoes from the kitchen floor for the 5,000th time. And while you're at it, just go ahead and send Exasperation and Irritation to the BACK. The way-back. Out with the trash. They're fired.
Just get up here. Front and center.
And to the real Patience, who must have made her way to the front that day, who probably lives in my little town, and who may even see this post - I like your name.
The elevator doors opened and they walked in - a young couple with brand new baby in tow. She looked haggard, he looked flustered, and the baby in blue with thick black hair was ruling their world from his carrier in that moment, tiny fists flailing, tiny lungs working, powerful infant screams filling the enclosed area.
The gray-haired lady and I shifted to make room, watching them as they desperately glanced to make sure that "P" for parking level had already been pressed, anxious to escape the stares of strangers who could not help but stare under the circumstances.
"Awww," I said to the mother. Because that is what you say when you're standing right next to someone with a baby in a carrier. "How old?"
"One week," she answered, as the father gripped the carrier in one hand and awkwardly tried to shush baby with the other, glasses precariously sliding to the tip of his nose.
"He's precious," I said, the standard compliment bestowed upon new mothers.
She thanked me quietly, staring straight ahead. Because that is what you do in elevators.
"Your first?" I asked. She nodded.
I decided to go a step further. "I have a 9-weeker at home," I said. "Number three."
There. Connection made. I know. I understand. I've been there.
With the establishment of the connection, she was then free to break elevator protocol and turn to face me. Pale with pleading, bloodshot eyes, hair a complete mess, she posed a question that spoke volumes.
“Does it get better?”
Here is what she really meant -
Please, stranger. Tell me that I'm going to survive. Tell me that sleep deprivation won't kill me. Tell me that this screaming little general will morph into something I can handle, something I can cope with. Tell me that I'll enjoy it. I don't know you and you don't know me, but you've been where I am, and you're still standing, and I need to hear it from you. Will he ever stop crying? Will I get to hold him without wondering, what is WRONG with you and why aren't you happy? Is there a way out of this tunnel? Aren't I supposed to be in maternal bliss right now? Tell me I will find it one day. In the 10 seconds we have left before these doors open, tell me. I beg of you.
Nine years ago I went through colic-land and lived to tell about it. I was right where you were, toting an infant in a carrier to a pediatrician after many sleepless nights in a row, demanding to know why the child wouldn't stop crying, needing a remedy and finding none. I remember the tiny fists, the furious eyes in little narrowed slits like diamonds, the toes that never unclenched. I remember the fits of baby rage and the bleak feeling of helplessness. I remember trying the reflux meds, trying white noise, trying rides in the car, trying swinging and bouncing and flying her around, trying 80 million different kinds of pacifiers. I remember the futility of my husband saying, "This has GOT to stop."
And then one day, it did. The sun came out from behind the clouds on her face. She became a gurgling, cooing, pleasant little Gerber baby. A Gerber baby who turned into a toddler who turned into a preschooler who turned into a kindergartener who turned into a pre-tween. Oh, she still had her moments. But it got better.
In the 10 remaining seconds, all I could say was, "Yes. It gets better. You'll make it. You're in baby boot camp right now, but you'll make it through."
She exhaled loudly as the doors opened. "Good," she said, allowing a bit of relief to show on her face. And then the rambling wreck of new parenthood made its way off the elevator.
It gets better.
Not long ago I was on the receiving end of those words. A fellow pastor's wife spoke them to me on the heels of our move to a new town. She had been in my position many times before, and somehow, those words were a consolation to me. She kindly let me know that I wasn't the first person in the world to have the oh-my-gosh-I-am-leaving-everything-behind experience. And that it would not always feel so foreign. In fact, one day it would become home. Actually, she was right.
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God." 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
No life experiences are worthless. No matter how difficult, we hold them carefully in our portfolio of memory, knowing that if and when the moment is right, they can be taken out and shared for a purpose. God comforts us, we comfort others with the comfort we've gotten from Him. One day down the line, that frazzled new mother in the elevator is going to be telling another poor haggard soul that the crying will stop one day. And maybe by now, I'm equipped to talk to someone who has uprooted everything to start anew somewhere else.
Remember the power of It gets better – both the giving of it and the receiving. Those three words might just be the wind in the sails that we need.
So my third-grader was told by a peer in the lunchroom this week. I may have told her to tell the classmate that she happened to have an extra knuckle-sandwich in her Tinkerbell lunchbox that day, and would she like one?
That was me half-joking with my daughter, half-growling, hackles up.
Third grade. Tinkerbell has evidently fallen out of favor with that age group, unbeknownst to me. I suppose all the Disney princesses are on the outs now, too. Not cool enough, it seems. One would think that pretty dresses and fairy dust would be enough to ensure a spot in the in-crowd forever, but not so for poor Tink and her socially-scorned group of gorgeous girls whose dreams always come true. They've been traded in for the Disney channel and Taylor Swift, notoriously serial dater with broken dreams that she is “never ever ever getting back together” with her exes.
And then, back at school this week, came this comment from a classmate, upon my kid's disclosure of her 20-Cinderella-valentines-in-box-plus-a-sticker-tattoo planned course of action for V-Day: "No way are you gonna give ME a Cinderella valentine."
That interchange prompted a hasty switch to a much-safer "puppies and kittens" theme. Why puppies and kittens are more acceptable than big C, I still don't understand. But whatever.
I remember playing with dolls until age 11. Maybe that was late by today's standards, but I felt no shame and have no regrets. Then middle school happened, and with it came the force of change in tastes and interests that is expected and natural. But I sure don't remember anybody telling me in third grade that Barbie and the likes of her were not okay.
If I were in a situation where I needed a lunchbox every day, I would like to pack up a Disney princess one and carry it myself in full view of my daughter and the world, so she could see that at age 36, even I can like the Disney girls, and I don't care who knows it. I want her to be free to like what she wants to like in third grade, without having her tastes dictated to her by peers who are in an awful big hurry to grow up. Those little kids don't realize that once they get all grown, they can't go back. As I read on Jon Acuff's blog recently, you can always fast-forward childhood, but you can't rewind it. When she's ready to put away childish things, I will be there to pack them away, like the Toy Story mom. But I want it to be on her terms.
Someone commented to me the other day that adults are relentlessly plundering children's stories these days for their own purposes - Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, the new Wizard of Oz coming this summer, the Once Upon a Time series on TV, and others. We'd sure like to go back to childhood, but the only way we can go there is to go through a veneer that is still decidedly adult in nature. Because that is what we are.
Do you remember what it was like to be caught between wanting to be little and wanting to be big? It's a tightrope that children walk from the time they are toddlers until the time they graduate, and they have to walk it themselves. We can call out to them and talk to them while they're up there on it, offering whatever advice and encouragement we can from below, but they are the ones who are shakily making their way across - Tinkerbell at one end, adulthood at the other, and a whole bunch of land mines in between. They need sympathy and understanding. They need wise words in their ears. They need earnest prayers going up for them.
And they need extra knuckle-sandwiches in their lunchboxes. Pack them carefully.