Last winter I went on a silent retreat and spent a good hour or two pouring out an angry letter to God. The gist of it was this:
I grew up with the story that my dad cried the first time he held me because one day I was going to leave for college. Well, the apple doesn't fall far. Since the day Silas was born, I've wondered about, and at times dreaded, feared and grieved, the fact that these kids will leave. It's not just that I think I'll be sad, but it's that they'll go out there, where I, their protector, am not, and so many possibly-damaging things are. I'm a worst case scenario thinker; my brain flashes instant movies of Silas hitting his head on the diving board, or an intruder creeping up the steps at night, or any disaster overwhelming the people I love. It's always been so. So naturally, my gut is to protect from these assaults/accidents/injuries as best as I can.
This protection is what I was thinking about as I sat knotted in the corner of a couch pouring into my notebook. God promises a lot of things, but physical protection isn't one of them. The famous shepherd psalm says when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am with you, not if you walk in a dark valley or when I'm with you we'll bypass the dark valley, but when you're in that valley -- you are going to the valley! -- I am too.
The fact of the matter is I don't want my kids in a dark valley, much less a valley of the shadow of death. What seemed pretty clear as I sat there writing is that God wasn't going to pull his weight in protecting my kids from that valley's corners -- toxic friendships, undertows, sexual predators, low self-worth, pornography -- so I was going to have a hell of a job.
This is what I railed about as I wrote, furious that since He wasn't going to take care of protecting them, I had to, and frankly, it was too big a job to catch every pop fly and fend of every potential wolf -- what if I missed one, looked down for a minute, squinted in the brightness of the sun? More to the point, I continued, why would You bring these small, fresh people into the world, birth them into adorable round bodies to let them fall from the nest onto concrete over and over before their wings are strong (or prefrontal cortexes are fully developed)? What is the point of injuring the small ones?
I know this view is unbalanced. I knew it when I wrote it down, too. I wasn't thinking about the goodness, about all the silliness children splatter around a house, about their being adults one day who love, make striking art, ask good questions, feed hungry people. But that's what fear does; it bores something singular into us until that's all we see.
After the retreat was over, I articulated all of this to a couple of friends, who listened well and gave no answers, and then left my loaded notebook closed and the ache deep down.
Months passed. School ended. The kids grew inches between January and July. Maeve started talking. I wrestled God in other questions. I started to sit and be quiet in the mornings. The tomato plant grew taller than Ben and still gave only three rotten tomatoes. I read through The Artist's Way again. I started to play more. And yesterday, I realized something had shifted.
I'm not sure whether it's Silas's sudden height, his lanky body and the textured hair he pushes ("styles") every-which-way. Maybe it's how he blasts pop music around the house and sings every word now. But I think the shift started the spring night I sat on his bed in the semi-dark and talked about the f-word. Yeah, he knew it already. He'd seen it written on the mirror in the boys' bathroom, and a friend had told him what it meant (how did that conversation go??). I asked who had told him, and the moment the question left my mouth, I knew I had to retract it. He hesitated as I said, you don't have to tell me. Thanks, he said, and rolled toward the wall with a contented sigh. In that moment of separateness, I suddenly could see him as a teenage boy lying in his bed wrapped in his own thoughts. And for the first time, I didn't feel scared. Funny how we're prepared for things as they come rather than as we worry about them.
This week I started reading a heart-wrenching book called Rare Bird. It's the story of how a 12 year old boy died in a freak flash flood on a balmy September day. It's written by his mother. I'm only a quarter of the way into it, but after reading last night, I went and touched each child's face, climbed in bed with Eden and pulled her against me. We can't protect these people.
Anna, the mother and author, was as intentional as one can be about protecting her kids. And then one was gone. Somehow in the fierce horror, survival looks possible. As she articulates my most dreaded reality, there is beauty. And her God still loves.
I woke hours earlier than I wanted to this morning, body stiff and mind racing, and sat outside in the cool morning as it gathered humidity. The point of all of this -- of raising small people, living without armor, sending our kids into the world wearing only skin, living that way ourselves -- is not protection. It can't be. They have to go into the world and get knocked around -- it's the only way they'll have substance. And they have to walk in death's valley, because that's where they'll learn God actually is with them.
My job isn't to protect them -- it is right now, but protection's not the end goal; that's exhausting and terrifying work. My job, really, is to pack well for them before they go, to teach them to communicate, to love them, to apologize often, to be affectionate and honest. And then release them. That's my job.
I've known this always, but fear is loud; it tends to kick up a drumbeat that drowns out a lot of other voices. When you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, fear no evil, for I am with you. I didn't realize until right this minute that I'd left out the middle part of that line -- fearing evil. Evil is scary and none of us gets to live untouched by it. But it isn't the strongest, and we aren't traveling alone.