The month of September never fails to surprise me. I imagine a time of slowing down and reconnecting with what it means to be home.
And then I look around and notice that summer has left itself strewn about the yard in hopes that the kids were just joking about a school year beginning. ‘They must have meant season, just a school season,’ summer tells herself. She was certain that this year she could make the children stay with her forever.
Well, many aspects of summer won’t stick with the kids–their sunny glow will fade, their bright clothing will give way to the heavy colors of the rainy season, and requests for homemade popsicles will drift into pleas for a fire in the wood stove.
And it nearly worked last year–my kids didn’t start until early October, and even then, they still imagined themselves on vacation since school was only virtual.
What won’t peel away, it would seem, is the need to constantly test the limits of my imagination.
So when I had earned myself a quiet afternoon the first Sunday in September (meaning, I gave my highly impulsive son his Ritalin after lunch), I imagined that the effects would be immediate. I imagined that while I dozed off my postprandial sleepiness, the quiet play of my children in the distance accompanied some game whose brilliance matched the golden shafts of sunshine lighting upon them through the leafy trees.
Saturated in this dream, I lazily allowed my husband to respond to the sudden flurry of sound at the back door. I suppressed the urge to react when I heard, “What have you guys done?! I told you to stay out of that!” I imagined they’d once again made slime out of eggs and cornstarch. Or perhaps they were repeating the experiment I’d just shown them called, “Let’s create an “explosion” without baking soda and vinegar” (yeast, sugar, and water–yes, I had clearly lost all my senses).
Whatever it was, Mr. Man could handle it, and I would snicker at his naivete when he tried cleaning up raw eggs with hot water.
My imaginary comfort ended when he walked in and said, “You need to come see this for yourself. I can’t describe it.”
As I hustled toward the commotion, I heard the irritation in my husband’s voice as he set the scene for me.
“Remember that expanding foam I threw away this morning? Well guess who dug it out after I specifically told him not to?”
Oh, I knew exactly who.
I rushed to the utility sink and found my younger two kids furiously scrubbing at what looked like asphalt on their hands.
“What in the world is this? Wasn’t the foam yellow?” I gaped as I grabbed a scrub brush and joined in the futile fight.
“That,” Mr. Man responded, the annoyance dripping from his voice, “is what happens when the foam hits dirt before it dries.”
Despite his best efforts to avoid this calamity, his afternoon plans had just been derailed. My exasperation had melted away the moment I learned the foam had dried.
Entering nurse-in-the-trenches mode, I started barking out orders and questions.
“Guys, does it hurt? Is it on your faces? Are you breathing ok?No, don’t try rubbing alcohol.” Then to the other adult in the room, “Does the label have warnings or what to do in case of skin contact?”
I saw the light of understanding begin to dawn on his face. Out came the laptop and an intensive online search since the can no longer bore a visible label.
We quickly learned why our attempts at removal had proved ineffective. Once the foam had dried, which it had, no solvent could reach it. Only time and mechanical removal would make any difference.
So I sat out on the porch in the fading light of summer and peeled stubborn toad skin off my preschooler’s hands while his sister peeled what she could from her hands. The culprit, now fully in control of his impulses, plopped down next to me and told me the whole story. And no story ends well that begins with, “I just really wanted to see something explode.”
“But it wouldn’t have been so bad,” he concluded, “if it hadn’t looked exactly like a giant pile of whipped cream.” His hands reached toward the imaginary pile of fluff in front of him. Since this kid still plays with his food more than he eats it, I imagined his surprise when the fluff turned out to be made of stronger stuff.
“Thank you for telling me. Do you understand now why we warned you and kept this away from you?”
He decided that in the future, he would at least pay attention to the warnings and talk to us if he felt the need to explode something.
He began picking at his semi-permanent gloves, and while we compared “biggest piece” extractions, I dived into the metaphors.
I’ve thought more about our conversation since then. Yes, coming clean is a part of repentance when we’ve done wrong, but the effects of a wrong choice go beyond sullying our character in some way.
The kids went to bed with filthy hands.* We enjoyed Labor Day, and then the kids went to their first day of school with hands that looked like they’d made mud pies for breakfast.
Instead of going to school on Day 2, we went to the medical clinic for COVID tests because one of the kids had brought home a fever.
I sneaked into the schedule at the COVID testing site since, technically, an opening was two days away. I thanked the staff for their flexibility and then watched the nurse wrinkle her nose as my kids’ hands became visible during their nose swabs. I’d already grown used to their grody, toady skin, so I was surprised when the nurse instructed them to go wash their hands very well. Had they stuck their fingers up their noses?
“Oh, that!” I laughed. “It’s not dirt. Well, er, it is dirt. It’s just permanent dirt. I mean, it comes off eventually, but their skin is perfectly clean underneath.”
I trailed off, my logic now drooping lifelessly before me.
“We’ll just get our things and go now.”
I considered later how it must feel to not only go through an avoidable experience that marks you as impulsive, untrustworthy, weak, or “bad,” but then to have perfect strangers jump to conclusions about how you had come upon that ugly patch in your life. And how much worse it must hurt if those who love us most arrive at conclusions other than, “You are mine, and I love you.”
We all make mistakes. Some of them clean up nicely. Others grow worse because of secrecy and shame. I shudder to think what would have happened if that stuff had gotten into eyes, ears, nose, or mouth. I’m grateful my disappointment turned quickly to concern, or angry words may have added layers of pain that would prove exponentially more difficult to remove.
When we see a loved one make poor choices, it is tempting to get so distracted by grief for what we and they have lost that we forget there is a newer, healthier soul trying to emerge. Yours and theirs. Focusing on the power Jesus has to cleanse us of these distractions lets us rejoice in what it will feel like to be new again.
Keep going. He’s got you, and you’re closer to that new, whole self than you think.
* “Soul Meets Body” by Death Cab for Cutie made me cry every time I heard it 15 years ago because all I could think of was my cousin with terminal cancer, whose wife and young son would lose him, at least for a time, to silence.
Also, I don’t know who I wrote this post for, but I just kept feeling like someone out there needed it.