what my mother taught me about miracles

 

When I was about 16, I found a $100 bill fluttering behind a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. It was being blown around mounds of almost-melted snow and the cracked, dusty white spots on the pavement where the salt and sand trucks have left their long footprints. I saw it, a flash of green, as I was crossing to the Italian sandwich and wine shop across the parking lot. I stooped to pick it up and unfolded it to see Ben Franklin’s face peeking back at me.

 

Standing in my kitchen thirty minutes later, my mother hummed out a tune that has become something of a hallmark for the memory – “I found a hundred dollars on the street, boom-BOOM-boom!” To this day, we only mention that parking lot and we both burst into song, usually accompanied by percussion on the back of chairs or pulling mugs from the cabinet. “What are the odds?” I remember asking her. She paused, and smiled, reaching for the cheddar cheese in the fridge. “God is watching out for us,” she replied.

At the time it didn’t quite seem like an answer to my question.

My mother sees the world saturated with the wondrous. I think it must be the scientist in her – for the kingfisher, the bald eagle, the mushroom spores, the deepening riverbed, the melting snow pulling back to the reveal a tired but faithful New England spring – these are the stories she tells me of her morning dog walks. These are the reminders she offers to me on Wednesday mornings when all I seem to offer back is worry or fretting, the impossibility of laundry and school and learning ASL and teaching it to Jack.

My mother tells me about the mushrooms and the nearby owl she couldn’t see but she heard, high up in a tree somewhere between the marsh and the upper field.

And my mother sees the most ordinary of stories infused with this same wonder. The God she taught me to love who made kingfisher and owl is the God whose miracles are often unrecognized. My mother taught me that it does not diminish the word miracle to acknowledge that the exact amount of money hiding in the cupholder of your car when you need to pay a toll is a kind. When someone you love shows up unannounced with a McDonald’s cheeseburger, just because. When, despite everything working against you, the train is delayed just 5 minutes at the North Beverly station and you make it.

Nearly two years ago, I thought I gave up believing God worked in miracle. The halogen hallways and the broom-closet-turned-conference room on the third floor of the under-construction wing of the main hospital in Temple must hold the ghosts of my old beliefs. I set my face towards what felt safer and more realistic. I said it was too late and I said that this is what we have to do and I signed consent forms and listened to people explain echocardiograms and g-tube placement procedures.

I was often a shadow on the walls at church. I darted up to Communion and back, afraid to confront Jesus and afraid to let him see me avoiding him. I prayed by counting the toes on my baby and feeling the weight of his tiny foot in my hands. I signed more consent forms, I learned new hallways at doctor’s offices.

And then our car needed repairs.

It is so completely ordinary, the kind of thing that my grandpa – my mom’s dad – would say, “Well, that just happens, Hillie” as he cracked open a can of pop from the garage refrigerator and reached his hand into a bag of Utz potato chips. I can see him, now, sitting on the back porch of the house where my mom grew up, smiling at the regularity of the things that happen in a life.

Our car needed repairs and money is tight. And we made a plan, we figured out what we could do when, we set our faces to the path ahead and put our hands to the plow, as my mother would say. I didn’t think about Jesus, or a miracle. I thought of the plan.

This is how the might of God comes. In a Mazda service station. In the regularity of car repairs. Preston told me a few days ago that some people on the internet, reading his piece in the Washington Post this week, had asked if they could help. And then he told me that they had banded together and the entire car repair had been paid for. All of it.

I want to say this is a miracle. The regular kind. The kind that come disguised in wintry parking lots or dog walks in New England or car repairs that people take care of for us.

The regular kind of miracle: women at the tomb bringing spices for burial. Me in that rented SUV in a Mazda service dealer and then in my kitchen pouring Cheerios into a tupperware. The feeling of water swirling through your sandals as you step out of the boat.

And from the miracles I sneak a glance at Jesus. We are in Easter season. Jesus looks back from his risen, glorious body bearing all the marks of his life. Still it is not ever too late for me. 

 

My mother told me ten years ago that the hundred dollar bill I found was connected to God watching out for us. The story itself is faded, except for the song we sang in the kitchen.

My mother taught me ten years ago – teaches me still – that in a world so saturated with the wondrous it should not be surprising that God is paying much attention to us, so much that it is not too late to ask to be shown again the kind of love he has: a love of generosity through his friends that make your car repairs possible or bring cheeseburgers, a love of tolls and late trains, of owls and kingfishers and winter that always gives way to spring.

I thought I gave up on miracles. I’m sure many days I still live as though they are too far for me to believe. But I keep calling my mother, listening to her tell me stories of this wondrous world and the God who made it. That is a miracle, too.

Love,
hilary

the size of faith

“The size of your faith is not measured by the things you ask for.”

I said this as I watched the spearmint wilt under the heat of the water. Preston and I have taken to steeping the leaves themselves in our teapot some nights; it makes us slow down, at least for the ten minutes we set our timers to. We let water do its mysterious work. We wait.

I found myself saying this to someone who was waiting with us for a second steeping of the leaves. We had been talking about big dreams that we all have, and the often insignificant size of the steps we take towards them every day. I am always quick with a sentence of empathy, support – but this one seemed to come from my mouth without me being the speaker. The size of your faith is not measured by what you ask for. 

We poured the tea, and we all went back to scribbling in notebooks the small next steps we might take towards realizing a big, beautiful dream. And I kept thinking about how it could be that I said something without having thought of it, read from my mind like so much ticker tape. The steam of the tea slowly settled as the cup grew colder in my hands. Long after we went to bed, I was still awake. Who was that speaking? Was that for me?

Some days I am a wistful believer, a sideways-glancer, a noticer of those who stretch arms wide in worship and those who get readily, consistently, obediently to their knees every day. I keep a kind of faith envy nestled somewhere near where my collarbone meets my neck. That’s where I feel it, a small lump when I see someone whose faith fairly sings, who is a small speck on the horizon of the water, running to Jesus. I screw up my eyes to try and glimpse what they’re doing – I imagine them, pants or shorts or dresses soaked, feet pulling deep water up to the surface with each step, eyes fixed on the man who looks like everyone and no one, his arms stretched wider than seems possible in these limited muscles and bones. I imagine that meeting triumphant, full of love. I imagine this in my wistfulness, and I turn back grumbling. I’ve been in and out of the same boat ten thousand times. I have made it maybe ten steps on the water. I keep thinking I will see Jesus and my eyes hurt from peering in sun and fog and rain and ocean spray and so I turn back again and again to the boat.

The size of your faith is not measured by what you ask for. 

Could that have been Jesus, sitting with us, watching water hiss and steam rise, waiting for that second cup of tea?

And if it was Jesus, how can he be the same Jesus who I squint to see greeting the wilder faith of others so far out on the water?

Jesus is the measurer, the keeper and maker and beholder of our faith. Jesus is as unafraid to get right up next to the boat as he is to stand back and call out.

The size of your faith is not measured by how far out you ask to go.

Sometimes, asking just to get one foot in the water is harder than asking to run ten miles on a surface that shouldn’t hold us up. Sometimes, asking just to gain the strength to go to the next service, to walk up to Communion, to be held by someone else’s prayer or someone else’s faith, is a bigger ask than asking to see before our eyes a miracle of feet help up on the open sea.

When I realized it was Jesus, I prepared myself for the reprimand. Envy is vice, clinging to my collarbone, keeping me grumbling in the bottom of the boat. I prepared myself with guilt and ashes and shame.

Jesus does not come with those. Jesus comes with the same impossibly wide arms and the same embrace. Jesus gets into the boat with me on the days I cannot get out of it, and in his quietness he touches the lump in my throat, the envy at my neck, the same quizzical look in his eyes. The size of your faith is not measured by how far out you asked to go. It is not measured by how far out anyone else goes. I can feel the envy slipping away, dissolving like steam in the air.

It is enough to ask for help getting out of the boat; it is enough to ask for help in asking.

Love,
hilary

grace, a year later (sharing at Christie Purifoy’s)

I get the chance to share a piece at one of my very favorite writers, Christie Purifoy. Her book wrapped me up in a new way to see the seasons, in the world, in my life, in this always-beginning relationship with God, anew. It has meant so much to me, and I’m honored to share at her space today. Join me?

Here is a little excerpt:

I was all grace-less worry the first six weeks of my son’s life. He was born into the bright steadying lights of the NICU. He was born into weeks of poking, prodding, scoped up and down. His first pictures besides our Instagram snapshots were the flickery black and white of heart and head and kidney ultrasounds.

Two by two, we would go into that ark, my husband and I. Two by two, and no more than that at a time. In the mornings the attending physicians and residents would form a crescent moon standing around his bassinet, and the real moon would take the night watch alongside us.

We are all born into motherhood. The labor is from us, and for us, and so I too was welcomed by bright lights and pulsing blue and red monitors. I too was born into an endless click, click of blood pressure cuffs and kinked IV needles and blanket forts to hide us while we slept.

Keep reading, over at Christie’s?

Love,
hilary

a story about skin to skin

I got to share some words over at Lisa-Jo Baker’s space yesterday– words about mothering, words about what I had expected from my first pregnancy and how everything and nothing changed when Jack made his grand entrance into the world. It’s a day late to be posting but of course, the real work of mothering involves convincing a 14-month-old that it really is raining outside (getting into coats and boots and going outside, then crying, then coming inside…).

It’s a story about the wondrous hard work of mothering. It’s a story that you have all helped me write, as you ponder with me this walk into being someone’s mom. It’s a story you’ve taught me to see, in all your comments and prayers and well wishes. I know it’s been quiet around these parts, but the semester is ending and there is new space carved into my week to write and reflect.

I can’t wait to walk through it with you.

I spent a year and 20 days grieving an empty five minutes. They were the first minutes of my son’s life, minutes of quick, quiet NICU intervention hidden from me where I lay, bleeding profusely onto the delivery room floor, the doctor remembering three stitches in that she hadn’t in fact given me an anesthetic before starting to sew me back together. They were the five minutes I had once imagined as the moments of transformation, the moments I thought I would become a mother, the moments when I would begin, if there is such a thing as beginning after nine months of pregnancy…

Keep reading over at Lisa-Jo’s?

love,
hilary

dear jack: one

Dear Jack,

Today you are one. You said “mama” to me yesterday, looking straight at me, babbling it over and over and over as you pivoted in your trademark style, tried to turn over the trash can, unplug a light and topple a bookcase. This morning we went outside – the air is finally cool and light against our skin – and you stood up on your own on the sidewalk and looked at me defiantly. You’ll take the step when you want to, and you want me to understand that clearly.

Before you were born, there was a lot we didn’t know. We didn’t know what it meant to have only one eye and ear. We didn’t know what cleft surgeries were like, the stiff smell of sanitizer in the room where we waited for you to come out of surgery. We didn’t know the particular beeps of oxygen saturation monitors, when they dip a little low, or too low.

But I talk about that a lot, don’t I? And today, on your birthday, I want you to hear what we did know. What we have always known.

 You belong.

We always knew that. We knew that in the first search for your heartbeat at 9 weeks, the first ultrasound at 12 and the second that become the next seven. We knew that when I was sweating through the fetal MRI, and when we drove back and forth to the hospital. We knew that through timid genetic counselors and surgeons and phone calls. We named you and we knew you. You belonged from the beginning, and we belong with you.

You know what else we knew, buddy? We knew that a different body doesn’t make it a broken one. We told you – did you hear us back then? – that you are the very fullness of the image of God and Jesus rises with his hands and feet and side split and opened and these are what the world calls broken but we call glorious. You have always been the fullness of that image.

We knew it then and we learn it from you every day. And we learn to keep electrical cords and breakable cups out of sight, that the trash can in the bathroom makes the best drum, that it’s better to ride in the big laundry basket and that our laughter is funny enough to laugh at.

All this ordinary glory.  One year doesn’t seem like enough time to contain it all. Time itself seems to have stretched to make room for all that you’ve given us.

One year ago, you took your first few breaths. John the respiratory therapist helped you, but you pulled your breathing tube out on your own when the nurses weren’t looking. And every day since, you’ve lived fully and unapologetically and determinedly, and you’ve pulled out trach and gtube and laughed at me while doing it, you’ve learned to sit up and stand and crawl and almost walk even though they said you were “disenfranchised” and you never look back unless to check that we’re keeping up. You pull us into the gift of your life. There won’t be enough words for it, maybe ever.

When you were born, you took all my old life away with all its old thoughts and fears, all its questions, and those first few breaths, you gave me back a life that’s bigger.

I’ve always loved you with my whole heart. One year in, Jack, I love you with the whole heart that you’ve made wider.

Love,
mom

when this is fifteen months of gratitude

I hear him sing to Jackson over the hum of the suction machine. He gives me the gift of a long shower – take the time, Hil – and he scoops up our growing wonder of a son and they are off, dancing into the nursery, one or two quick passes with the suction catheter and back out to the living room, to the record player, to the lights on the Christmas tree and the windows that look out on the world he insists is more beautiful than I reckon it.

I am thinking these days about my husband.

I am thinking about how they tell you marriage is teamwork and then you learn it walking hallways mid-disagreement, mid-misunderstanding, and you knock on the door to your son’s NICU area and you transform. You pause the conversation, pause the disagreement, and you walk the space of knowing your son. You walk the space of trach changes and whether or not to up his amount of milk per feed. You walk the space of who will hold him, who will suction him, who will prep and clean up after the small extra things we do to love on this growing wonder. You walk the work of language, how we will talk about Jack, how we will ask others to talk about him. You walk the silent wonder at how many more people understand than you ever thought would.

I am thinking about how they tell you marriage is a great unfolding, a mystery, how you don’t know who it is you married until you are already past the aisle, the vows, and into the world.

The first time I Skyped with my husband I fell in love with him. He was sitting in a bistro, headphone cord dangling, and drinking coffee. I was drinking iced tea from our grocery store terrified that I wouldn’t seem casual enough. I was wearing running shorts and an old T-shirt; he’ll think I’m very athletic, that’ll be good. I talked too fast and not fast enough. One hour became five, the bistro closed, he called me on his cell phone from his driveway.

I couldn’t have told you then we’d have a son named Jackson who would bring us to the NICU in Temple for forty days. I couldn’t have told you then that we would learn how to care for a tracheostomy, that we would number hours and weeks like stars. I couldn’t have told you, staring at my computer screen one hot July night, that I would sit in the kitchen the first Sunday of Advent crying because I’ve never known someone to love so unapologetically.

You don’t know who you married until you do. And even when you do know, looking at a senior boy from Baylor in your computer screen late on a July night, you learn it for the first time every time.

This is a post about gratitude.

He remembers what day the trash collection is. He remembers what is in the fridge and in what order the leftovers can be eaten and recreated. He knows how to make Jack smile as they dance to the record player, to the Christmas tree, to the windows. He knows that this world is more beautiful than I reckon it most days. He knows to tell me that.

It is the first Sunday of Advent. I’m sitting in the kitchen while it rains outside and Jack sleeps nearby.

You don’t know who you married until you do. And you learn them again and again. And they will take your breath away.

Love,
hilary

I sing him to sleep

This is the irrational season, where love blooms bright and wild.

That’s Madeleine L’Engle, about Christmas. We’re in November now. I’ve lived a lifetime in a hospital, a lifetime where the seasons changed, we bought jeans at Target because we hadn’t come prepared for fall. A lifetime where we learned to lean hard on each other – I’ll prep the suction, you hold his trach – a lifetime of doing this while kissing Jack’s head and telling him funny stories, making faces, laughing the dark away. A lifetime of backpacks and diaperbags we can’t quite tell apart, of writing philosophy in the dark, reading Til We Have Faces and For the Life of the World while our son sleeps, swaddled tight, a smile flickering across his face as he dreams.

This is the irrational season.

When my nephew was born two years ago, I went out to visit him around two months. While my sister took a shower and did some things around the house, I held him. He fussed, as babies do; I did the only thing I could think. I put on Norah Jones and I sang him while I swayed around their kitchen.

When I was a senior in college I swayed a baby around the hotel room singing “Winter Song” by Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson on repeat for 182 times, according to my computer. Her mom was speaking at the conference, and I was babysitting; she fell asleep after play 68, but I listened on. It was the first time I imagined my own someday dance – the living room, the late night, the baby that would belong to me, I to him or her.

And the Sundays after college when I was searching for myself, I returned to be with the littlest ones, scooping them up as I sang the old hymns, stepping between toys, between other children. I sang the words that were my ropes, my anchors on the water. I swayed and sang a year of Sundays.

When I was pregnant with Jack, there were days that I thought the world had left me behind. I used to say that something in me died, that my expectations died, those long 20 weeks after his diagnosis. What could be the same? I remembered singing Sara and Ingrid and I remembered singing Norah and I remembered the old hymns and I once walked a mile along the river weeping because it seemed I would never be the mother I imagined myself to be.

I was wrong. A fallow field has not died. It is only being emptied for the fullness that is coming. It is being made ready. And my heart is a field God laid fallow – for there was not enough room in me for my expectations and my son. There would not be enough room for the kind of love I prayed to give him.

In the irrational season, God makes the fields fallow. God widens the spaces where love must enter. I never stopped believing that God was good. But only now do I see my way to believing that God’s goodness extends to this work – to widen my heart for the wonder that is my son.

Jack loves when I sing Norah Jones. He looks up at me, grabs at my hair, falls asleep and nestles deep in my arms. I sing him the old hymns, “This is my Father’s World,” and “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus,” I sing him the stories, the songs of meeting his dad and driving through early mornings along route 97. I sing Sara and Ingrid. I sing, my voice catching in my throat. The joy sears along my vocal chords, stitching into me the words, the look on my son’s face, the singing.

I tell God that there is so much I wanted to give Jack that I can’t.

God smiles. Nothing was lost that Jack was always meant to have.

I tell God that there is so much I thought would be different than it is.

God smiles. Your heart is wide enough now.

I tell God this is the irrational season.

God smiles. Love is blooming, deep and wild.

If you are looking for me, I am singing my son to sleep.

Love,
hilary