Father Figure by Michelle Jones

My dad was not a nice man.  In fact, sometimes he could be a real jerk.  I don’t think he liked me much.  If he ever smiled at me, I didn’t know it.  This morning though, I was really grateful for him.  He showed up in one of those impish flashes of memory that dart from one corner of your mind to another.  It was an odd appearance at an odd moment, or so I thought.

I was working out for the first time in a very long while; my thighs muscling the rest of me nowhere fast on the elliptical.  Ten minutes in I felt a hundred years old. The iPod was pouring Justin Timberlake into my head, but I couldn’t hear JT over my labored breathing.  I gulped down another mouthful of water.  It seemed to evaporate as soon as it hit my throat.  Eyes closed, I tried to “see” the songs, but the pictures didn’t stay long before my body reminded me that I…AM…DYING!

The only thing I could think about without interruption was quitting.  My feet, legs, arms, lungs and heart, even my bladder (all of a sudden the water’s got something to say!), every part of me was whining now.  They were all saying the same thing:  “This is haaarrrrd!”

“IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE HARD!”

The voice in my head cut through everything I was thinking and feeling.  It was my own voice, but not the one I have now.

I was 8 years old, maybe 40 pounds if you put rocks in my pockets, wild haired and energetic, with a mouth as big as I was small.  My tiny balled up fists were perched on bony hips, and wide eyes filled up with angry tears too stubborn to fall.

I was yelling up at my father whose face was a strange mixture of annoyance and shock.  He was good at shutting me down with an insult.  It was the quickest way to get me to leave him alone.  That day I had asked for help with my math.  My father was very smart, but he had no patience.  Sometimes he seemed to me a wonderful, treasure-filled house that had no doors and no windows.  There was just no way in.

He tried explaining the work for a few minutes, and then gave up, but I kept asking questions because I hadn’t given up.  Finally, he did what he always did when he wanted me to go away.  He said something mean.

He told me the problem was not the math.  It was me.  The answers were there, he said, but I was too stupid to see them.  Being stupid was like being nothing to my dad.  His mind was the only thing he’d let you admire about him.  It was also his weapon of choice.

Stupid.

If my father had chosen to punch me in the gut with all his strength, I would have had more air left in me than I did in that moment.  I couldn’t breathe.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

Stupid.

He stood there, watching me the way you watch a building demolition.  First you hear the muffled sound of explosions from inside the structure.  Then you wait, because you know that the real beauty is in how it crumbles—without noise or a lot of drama, neatly and completely.  He was waiting.  We both were.

Stupid?

That word whirled around dangerously in my head, smashing into everything I knew about myself, until it crashed quite unexpectedly into something big and immovable.  My father’s words had collided with Truth.

I almost didn’t recognize it.  I was so used to believing the smartest man I knew.  I had never disagreed with him before.  But here was something so simple and right, that as soon as I saw it, I understood it and it became a part of me.  When I looked up at my dad, I was pissed.

“This is 5th grade math!  I’m in the 3rd grade!  IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE HARD!”

It was the only argument I remember having with him.  It was the last time I asked him for help.  It was the first time I knew I was smart.  And it was the first time I knew that it was okay for something to be hard.

I finished my workout today without quitting.  It occurred to me that I spend way too much time in this life trying to take the “work” out of my workouts. There is value in knowing something is hard and doing it anyway.  The fact that something is hard doesn’t mean you’re nothing.  It means you’re at the edge of yourself.  It’s an invitation to become something more.

Thanks Dad.

The Eyes Have It by Michelle Jones

Sometimes life interrupts life, without warning or apology, and our expectations take a bit of a hit. We adjust and we survive.  Then there are those times when our own decisions—no matter how right or well intended—shatter our insides and cause huge chunks of tomorrow to suddenly disappear.  There is no adjusting then, only falling, into the pile of ashes that used to be our dreams.

This is the rest stop on the way to Beautiful.

My appointment with Dr. Christine Lee was still consuming my thoughts as I watched Adam and Grace exchange their wedding vows.  Sitting alone amongst the other guests, pieces of Now flitted by me like parade confetti, barely noticed, unclaimed, and then gone forever.  It’s hard to pay attention and die at the same time.

“I think you’ve made the wise decision,” Dr. Lee had told me.  “We’ll take out your uterus but leave the ovaries.”  She was sympathetic and knowledgeable, the kind of doctor you want when you’re finding out that what you’ve always counted on can never be.

I will never have children.

I had done the right thing.  There was no question in me about that.  It was a responsible and courageous decision, the return on an investment of focused study, prayer, and good counsel.

I will never give birth to a daughter or son.

Adam and Grace, newly Mr. and Mrs., breezed past my pew.  They appeared blissful and confident, a couple looking forward to everything awaiting them.  I was glad for them, and for a moment, I seized a piece of their joy and made it my own.

Later, at the reception, my friend Terri spotted me and waved me over to her table.  I didn’t see her husband Kent and presumed he was off somewhere kiddie wrangling two of their three children.  Terri was holding onto their youngest, a pretty doll-baby named Taylor.  I approached them kicking myself inside.  What was I thinking?  A happy mommy bouncing a happy infant on her knee was the last thing I needed.

“Hey, girl, and hey pretty girl.”  Instinctively I reached out to touch the baby.  I was not ready when she responded by reaching up for me with both arms.

I hesitated for just a second, and then I took Taylor from her mother, scared to look at her, scared to like her, scared that one smile from her would bring Never crashing down on me for the hundredth time in the past 24 hours.  I was so scared that the tears filling up my eyes would fall and never stop. Terri’s other two children walked up and she was temporarily occupied, confident Taylor was all right with me.  I wasn’t so sure I was all right with her.

That fragile emotional landscape where we are both undone and unseeing is a terrifying stretch to navigate.  We are raw, weak, and vulnerable; walking wounds wearing fake smile bandages.  Here, safe places are scarce, because well meaning words can cut as deeply as thoughtless ones, and pity is more often salt than salve to the heart exposed.

Taylor was fidgety so I stood up and swayed with her in my arms.  I sang and spoke softly into her ear as we slow danced.  It relaxed us both and we settled into each other like old friends.

I will never hold one of my own like this.

It was a huge fist punching a hole through the floor of my heart and my despair was suddenly bottomless. The only thing holding me together was sorrow and the tiny person breathing on my cheek.  I held onto my friend a little tighter.  She laid her head on my shoulder and I inhaled her sweet baby smell like my life depended on it.

I’m not sure when or why, but I stopped singing and began to share my pain with her.  She didn’t understand a word I was saying, but she didn’t seem to mind the transition.  She didn’t complain when a few of my tears fell into her fine curly hair.  Then, something quite remarkable happened.  Some of my sadness began to leave me.

I noticed it right away.  Taylor must have noticed it too because she lifted her head from my shoulder and tried to look directly into my wet eyes.  I shifted her a bit so we could face each other properly.

She stared more than looked, right through me it seemed.  I didn’t hide anything from her.  If she had cried, it would have destroyed me.  I was that breakable.  She didn’t cry.  She just stared.  So I stared back.

Her eyes were round and clear, so clear that I saw myself in them, like I was looking into two little mirrors.  It wasn’t normal.  I could actually see my facial expression.  I smiled, and I could see my teeth.

We are never left with only one way to see anything.  Rain is bad for a hairdo, but good for the earth.  Losing everything also means you have nothing to lose, so go for it, whatever “it” is.  Fear can paralyze you or present an opportunity to be courageous.  The depth of misery is also proof of our capacity for love.

Seeing myself in Taylor’s eyes taught me one of the greatest lessons of my life.  Because I do not have any children, all children have me.  I am free to belong to every one that I encounter.  For a moment, an hour, or a season, I am theirs.  My attention is theirs.  My smile is theirs.  My joy is theirs.

Oh, and before you ask Well Meaning and Piteous, I have not ruled out adoption, and I am open to marrying a man with children.  But those are issues for tomorrow.  Today, I have no children.  Today, there is nothing where my womb used to be.  Today, I cried as I wrote this.

But…

TODAY IS BEAUTIFUL.  Today, my body is empty, but my heart is full.  Today, I am available and accessible.  Today and every day, I am grateful for YOUR children.  Can you say the same?  Today, I am free to love.

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