Life is a funny thing. I clearly remember being just a toddler, perched on my knees on the sofa, my back to the room and my tummy pressed against the sofa; my small arms barely able to reach the top of the sofa; my hands holding on as tight as I could as I peered up over the top and out the window, waiting for my Daddy to come home. I remember joy and excitement because if he got home early enough, the three of us kids (my younger sister wasn’t born yet), clean from our nightly baths and dressed in our pajamas would pile in the car along with Mother and Daddy and he would drive through the dusk of the evening of the San Fernando valley in the 1950’s, past scattered housing tracts, past fields planted with produce; past olive groves, past small pockets of businesses closed for the day, towards the huge screen that filed the sky and into the line of red tail lights, all waiting their turn to pay the fee to gain entry into that world of light and sound and movement, a world of enchantment projected into the cool night air; the world of the drive-in theater.
I remember being nearly giddy with anticipation at both the idea of spending extra time with Daddy, who worked long, hard hours to take care of us and for whom the fee of a dollar or two at the drive-in was hard to come by as well as with the prospect of the thrill of a story and costumes and actors and scenes on a screen so huge I could hardly take it all in and which always left me enthralled and in wonder.
My excitement must have been transparent because as Mother passed behind me on her way through the living room of our small rental house, she said,
“You’d better not get your hopes up. He may not get home in time.”
Stubbornly I hugged that sofa and waited, staring out the window, willing Daddy to come, until finally my arms tired out, my knees were sore and Mother said,
“It’s time for bed.”
That was the day a large piece of hope died for me. The disappointment was so big I only knew one way to keep from being hurt again. I would not hope. Looking back, it seems amazing that such a tiny person could feel great feelings and sad that even though that small I was able to make the conscious decision that the best way to avoid pain was to avoid wanting anything.
Six decades later, as I think about the biggest struggles I’ve had, it’s intriguing that they all tie in, one way or another, to the death of hope. Why set a goal if there’s no hope of reaching it? Why take the risk in relationships if there’s no hope of someone responding? Why work to make a difference in the life around me if there’s no hope for something different? Why plant flowers if they’ll just bloom and die and then next year, that empty spot in the garden has to be replanted? Most of those struggles were probed and understood and mostly conquered and yet, life’s lesson just keep on coming.
This week I drug out the suitcase and today Mother and I went to her bedroom so that we could start packing what she would need on our trip next week to New Mexico to have Daddy’s remains interred in the plot next to the remains of many other Deans. We’ve been talking about packing for several days, me making suggestions of writing lists and getting organized and Mother pushing through the pain of her scoliosis and arthritic fingers to do the once simple tasks of fixing her breakfast, combing her hair, and putting ice and water in her insulated mug. She’s determined to make this trip while she’s still able but it’s the thought of getting ready that weighs her down and wears her out.
“How about if you decide what you want to take and I’ll do the packing?” I said as she made her way slowly to the closet, her cane steadying her.
“Let me show you how I want things folded.” She said as she pulled out a blouse, laid it on the bed, buttoned every other button, turned it over, folded the sides in and then brought the bottom half against the top half of the blouse.
“Exactly how it should be folded.” I said, not willing to give an inch on what she thinks she still has to tell me how to do more than forty years since I left home after high school. Ok, I’ll admit, while I would have folded it exactly the same, I hadn’t thought of buttoning every other button so that it folded easier. Seems she can still teach me if I’m not so obstinate that I close my eyes and ears.
By the time Mother had pulled out the slacks, blouses, underwear, pajamas and robe that she wanted to take and laid them on the bed and then turned back to help, I had the suitcase full.
“So all you need are cosmetics and hair stuff and you’ll be all set.”
“I’ll do all that the night before we leave.” She leaned heavily on her cane. “I’m exhausted.”
“We’re done.” I said. “Go sit down.”
The entire task had taken maybe ten minutes, Mother could stop worrying about it and I could go on to other things. I hummed a tune that was running through my brain and headed out to do errands and it was a couple of hours later, when I brought in the mail and put it on the table in front of her that Mother said,
“Thank you for helping me pack.”
“Sure.” I said. “It was easy, no big deal.”
But it was a big deal for her, her strength and stamina waning and her normal tendency towards pessimism not getting any better with old age. Funny, how the roles reverse. She was the one who now needed help and I was the one with who believed the task, whatever it was could be conquered with the right planning, resolve and strength. All you needed were belief and hope, right? And suddenly that scene of me as a toddler flooded over my brain and I was that little girl again.
Except this time it was like I was on the outside looking in; seeing that little girl full of hope and disappointment; seeing my frazzled and overworked, young Mother pushing through all the work of keeping house, washing the clothes, cooking the meals and herding three small kids into some sense of order; and waiting, all the while waiting for my busy Daddy who worked multiple jobs to keep us in hand me down clothes and sparse meals and who spent long hours after work helping to construct church buildings and who came in singing long after we were asleep. Mother said she would tell him,
“Hush! You’ll wake the kids.”
“They’ll sleep better knowing Daddy’s home.” He’s say.
I think that must be true, because I never remember being wakened but I do remember Daddy’s joy and verve for life and his singing; always his singing. And that same little girl determined to grow up singing; to grow up with Daddy’s optimism, not Mother’s fatigue or her pessimism.
Those dual determinations of avoiding pain through not hoping and being joyful and optimistic often clashed and battled within me, but I’m grateful that I found something bigger than imperfect parents and little girl damaged feelings. I found that God loves me. What could ever bring more hope and joy and verve for life than knowing the eternal creator of the universe? After all, what’s bigger than God? Nothing I can think of; no fear, no pain, no loss, no suffering, no ecstasy, no excitement, no possibility, no happiness, nothing; there is nothing that is bigger than God.