When we moved from the big city of Chicago out to the rural wilds of middle Tennessee we needed new rules. I sat up one night on my computer listening to the sounds of the night, owls hooting, wind through trees, the occasional howling of a pack of dogs in the woods. I liked to think it was a pack of dogs roaming out there in the night but more likely it was coyotes.
The kids were little then, ranging between one and seven years old. We were isolated, seated in the middle 18 wooded acres and miles from a decent grocery store, a friendly Starbucks, a ready emergency room.
So I sat up in the night and typed that list of rules to print out and hang on the wall of our kitchen. The pool on the side of the house caused me a few sleepless nights so rule #1 was “never swim alone.”
I liked to think I made the rules and hung the sign as a means of empowerment. I could theorize that I did this to help them protect themselves out here in the “wild,” but really I think it’s because I didn’t want to be alone in my fear. I made these rules and drilled them into my children because of the fear, my fear.
I figured if they end up being wiser for it then so much the better because if I’m looking for another shoe to drop I know it will. A watched pot may not boil but a watched shoe is bound to drop, and then before you know it, we’d find a couple of copperhead snakes living in a retaining wall near the house.
Rule #2 – Never Touch a Snake.
Never touch a snake, never put your hand or foot anywhere you can’t see into. Never put your face into a hole in the ground, things like that.
Every day for what seemed like six months I would say this to them. And then one glorious day while basking in the cool breeze in back of our house, my five year old son said, “There is a snake living in here” as he pointed his skinny finger toward the crevice.
It took me a moment to process this information, but when I took a look, sure enough, there it was. Even in the dark of the crevice I could see the triangular shape of his head and the diamond pattern on his skin. In the spirit of planning ahead, I had done a little research on the snakes in that area and this was a copperhead, one of the few venomous.
Lucky us. Never touch a snake.
And so we made our way inside. We played there until the nice man from an animal control company came to claim the snake and the snake’s surprise friend. He asked my son about it. “What did you do when you saw him?” asked the snake man. “I told my mom. She always says, ‘Never touch a snake.’”
“There you go,” I thought, “consistency and rule making pays off.”
Over time I began to notice the pattern of life becoming consistent again after the unsettling move from the city life we had in Chicago. I found that I would look forward to the steady clicking of the clock, the predictable measure of a schedule.
I had always craved the schedule when things were up in the air, quickly changing, which was always. In our chaotic life of small children and homeschooling in the middle of nowhere and snakes in crevices there was some comfort in the schedule, the predictable, following the rules for living well hanging on the wall of my kitchen. Every morning the same, every afternoon ordered, and every evening filled with ritual and ordinary time and shoes waiting to drop.
Not long after our move to Tennessee, an old friend of mine lost her daughter, Allison, to cancer. She was 7 years old. I had followed Allison’s progress for most of her illness through email and phone calls and hospital “care pages” and occasional visits.
Sandy and I had met a few months earlier for dinner. Hearing her talk about the daily regimen of treatments, medications and tests made my head spin. There was an order to it, but each medication and each treatment was utterly dependent on how her body responded in any given moment. They seemed to be at the mercy of this illness, and then in the middle of her uncommon laundry list of “things to do” she said something amazing.
She told me she was coaching her son’s soccer team that spring. In the midst of the struggle she was coaching soccer. When I walked her to the car, I saw the mass of soccer balls in the backseat and how ordinary it seemed to me. Ordinary Time. Life continues to march on even in the midst of the unthinkable, the unpredictable, rule breaker events.
For Allison’s funeral I sent sunflowers because they reminded me of her. I imagined her face as she and Sandy sat across from me at The American Girl Place the day my daughter and I met them for lunch so early in her diagnosis and treatment. Our girls were close in age. They both brought their dolls, sipping water with pinkies extended, and giggling with their heads together. Allison was smiling broadly, missing a couple front teeth and most of her hair. She beamed with joy. Sunflower beaming.
Some things even my “rules” will not cover. Never get cancer. Never die young. So many things are out of my control that to be “consistent” seems an unearthly task. I suppose it is, in fact. I comfort myself late at night with the thought that only God is consistent, time is consistent, change is consistent. Words fail, bodies fail, people fail.
The truth is that I simply cannot adequately protect my children or myself with a list of rules. I cannot protect anyone it seems from the reality of life and death and illness on this broken planet. I can be as consistent as possible. I can make rules and give instruction. I can confront my fears and pray for release from them. I can do all these things but is it enough?
Rule #1 – Never Swim Alone.
There’s a reason I made the rule to never swim alone. The reason we never swim alone is that we might drown, and no one would know we were missing. No one would know we were in trouble. No one would be there to go for help, to add us to their prayer chain, to bring meals when we are too tired to cook, to offer to babysit for us when we’ve been at the hospital all day, to give a word of encouragement, to send sunflowers because they remind us of someone we’ve lost, to tell us we are not alone when we feel utterly helpless and no one there to pull us up when the water begins to cover our head.
So, no matter may come, we’ll cling to Rule #1: never swim alone.
NOTE: An earlier version of this piece appeared on the Burnside Review website and is reposted here on the Ruminate Blog with permissions.
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For the last six months I have been navigating this wall of hurt and pain and sadness and existential crisis. What matters? What really matters? Each thing that crops up in a day I weigh against all the other stresses. There is too much of it.
At moments, I feel I’m like the rain, drowning in ceaseless sadness. Other times, I feel as if I’m a cardboard figure moving in a cardboard world. Sometimes, I feel like the indignant ocean wanting to lash out at Joe for leaving me.