Three excerpts from Seasons of Change
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Anna Sam Lenhart
“God loves us equally, but he loves missionaries just a little extra,” the sealer winked as he congratulated the bride and groom, who had both recently returned from missions.
Across the room, my mom’s eyebrows shot up and the light caught her eye as she laughed. My husband of just four months threw his arms around me, and out of the corner of my eye, my mother-in-law and aunt winced. I had the distinct feeling that we’d all been relegated to some sort of awkward club for high school misfits while the rest of the cool kids got to go to the party.
Ben’s hug lasted, protecting me from what we’d just heard. And in it, there was shock — shock that anyone could think that God loves girls who serve missions more than girls who don’t, even more shock that anyone would say so out loud.
I explained to him after the ceremony that this was not the first time someone had told me God loved me less because I didn’t serve a mission. I was used to hearing it, from friends who served, from boys I’d dated, from parent after parent and even some bishops. I had learned to have confidence in and gratitude for God’s plan for me, but it still hurt my feelings when I was treated like a second-class disciple because that plan hadn’t involved 18 months in a calf-length skirt and a nametag. But surrounded by three of the women I admire most, all of whom also hadn’t felt the call to serve as full-time missionaries, the suggestion no longer seemed hurtful or judgmental; it was simply hilarious.
Especially hilarious, because if I had believed it, nothing could have been more damaging to my self-esteem. Ever since I was 11, I had planned to serve a mission. I’d grown up surrounded by three brothers – the knights to rescue me when we played castle and the lost boys at my side when we’d swashbuckled our way through Neverland. They were my best friends, my heros, and I knew, for as long as I could remember, that each of them would one day go on a real rescue mission. Each would spend two years of his life thousands of miles away from me, sharing the joy of the gospel with people who spoke different languages and lived different lives. And I knew, as surely as I’ve ever known anything, that I would not stand back and leave such a noble sacrifice to them alone.
So when I knelt at 19 for a confirmation of my decision to put my papers in in two years’ time, I didn’t understand the emptiness that washed over me. I must have prayed wrong, I reasoned. Or perhaps I had simply tried too early. I would try again in a year or two, when the mission would truly be on the horizon.
In the meantime, I wrote my brother serving in Houston. I baked him a terrible batch of lemon bars (no lemon zest) that I never sent. I made up for the bad lemon bars with scads of cookies. In my novels of letters, sometimes ten pages or more, he got more information about my high school life than any of my friends, or my journal. I thought of myself as the homefront, too young to go out now, but running support 24/7.
Dex came home to balloons, welcome banners, chalk art all the way up the driveway, death-grip-tight hugs, and enough star-shaped rice krispie treats to feed a small whale. All the time, I checked in when I prayed on the question of my own mission. Radio silence.
I began to feel like a three-year-old nagging at a parent from the backseat. Many of my prayers were answered, but to the question of a mission, I received nothing but silence. Stupor upon stupor continued, until the spring before I turned 21, when I got direct instruction to start working on the paperwork – for a study abroad to northern Germany.
I went. Maybe the language immersion would prepare me to serve a German-speaking mission, I reasoned. I already spoke French fluently, but hey – maybe the Lord needed me in Germany or Austria instead. I’d partially given up the idea of a mission after years of prayer, but I still wondered if this program might be my preparation.
And then I met my Wendy. She was a student in the international studies section of the study abroad, a few years older than me and much taller. As we became friends walking the flat fjord of Kiel and ordering streuseled rhubarb tarts at bakeries, strangers would ask if we were sisters. Neither of us, funnily enough, had any sisters at all. I was immensely grateful for Wendy; for the first time in my life, I was the only Mormon I knew, and I was desperately lonely. Each Sunday, I took the hour-long bus ride to the ward by myself. Every day, I rode back alone. Rampant loneliness and some spiritual nudging forced me to the front of the chapel to bear my testimony just three days into the program. I was jet-lagged, sobbing, and stuttering through long German words, but I was grateful for the Spirit – the one friend that had come with me to this tiny city on the sea.
But Wendy was my second, and by the fourth week, I was dying to bring her to church with me (and also to have someone to sit with on the bus). I casually told her which bus I’d be on, then suddenly, the next day – there she was, hopping on the 52 at 8:44 a.m., wearing a skirt and coming to church for the first time in ten years. Six months later, she hadn’t missed a week of church, came to Institute with me twice a week, had been through the temple, and had received a call to serve in Latvia.
So this was our adventure – there was no nametag and no tracting, but Wendy came home. And though I learned a great deal in Germany, I often think that I might have been sent there solely to find Wendy. My unplanned missionary effort taught me that God does indeed love every soul and count every sparrow, and sometimes he will send us halfway across the world to find them.
I never got a mission call. Not when President Monson announced that young women could now serve at 19, nor in the wake of mission applications many of my friends gleefully rushed to fill out their paperwork. Not after I prayed, and double-checked, and triple-checked, and probably risked Martin Harris-esque desperation. I wrote my friends, I watched them come home, and then I’ve stood up to needling and speculation – why didn’t I serve? Was I unworthy? Was I scared? Most likely I was selfish. The more I dated, the more aware I was of my status – cute, good, but not great. Not valiant. When I started dating my husband, my mother-in-law was bombarded with similar comments: “She seems lovely. But she didn’t serve a mission.” “If only she’d served a mission, she’d be just about perfect for him.”
How little we know of each other’s missions on this earth. How few people knew Christ’s mission; He shared its full extent with only a few before he went to Gethsemane.
When I met Ben, I was serving as the first LDS editor-in-chief of the University of Utah’s notoriously liberal Daily Utah Chronicle in memory. Thirty years earlier, my dad had written Op-Eds to The Chrony, defending the church to repeated libelous articles published in the paper. Into the late hours of the night while we were waiting to go to press, I’d bend over the proofing pages and explain to page designers that no, Mormons do not hate gays, bishops do not stalk inactive members when they move, and of course – that full-time missions are not required.
Why didn’t I go on a mission? I don’t believe God turned me down because I wasn’t good enough for His field. Now I know: I didn’t serve a full-time mission because God knows me, and loves me, and He had another plan and other needs for me. His plan was complicated: It involved dragging a crew of hungover sophomores through Oslo and reminding them that life is beautiful without vodka or beer, teaching a dear friend with same-sex attraction that he was still very worth the love of a friend, assigning and laying out the school newspaper’s coverage of General Conference, training to be a loving wife and mother from angelic women surrounding me, and more glorious twists and turns than I could ever count.
So that day when the sealer speculated about how God divides His love amongst His children, I smiled, knowing the deeper truth: First, that God loves us equally, entirely, and more intricately than our mortal minds can process. His love comes regardless of who we are or how we live our lives. It doesn’t matter what we look like, or think like. But secondly – if we are after His kingdom, and seeking His will, we shouldn’t measure our lives by whether or not we served a mission, but by whether or not we served His mission. This is not something on a checklist – we cannot complete it in 18 months or two years, or even on repeat service as a couple. It’s an ongoing task, from morning to morning, now through our whole life, and if we’re up to it, it will be far grander than anything we ever would have planned for ourselves.
A girl puts her head on a boy’s shoulder; they are driving west.
— Galway Kinnell
The cool tangerine sky.
Outside Wells, Nevada, a belt blows.
They have their whole lives ahead of them.
At the garage, the mechanic listens to classical music.
5 hours to kill in the killing heat.
She will have a bout with breast cancer at 58.
They walk around town, game for adventure.
Storage units, Check-n-Loan, acupuncture.
One of their children will break their hearts.
He could get a tattoo while she gets her nails done.
A boy throwing a rubber ball against the parking-lot barrier.
Dog pens in the trailer park.
Hardware store: drawer-pulls and doorbells. Beef jerky, car air fresheners.
He tries on cowboy hats.
At 72, he will begin his slide into Alzheimer’s. She will brush his teeth.
Somewhere, someone is practicing a clarinet.
The mechanic offers them tomatoes from his garden.
They pull out at dusk, her hand out the window, arcing and diving.
The stars, the sage. They could be anywhere.
Their carpet will turn powdery and dank. There will be grandbabies.
The cool of the earth, tangerine
How to Kill a Cocktail Party
Tresa Brown Edmunds
Whenever I’m at a gathering with moms there is always a moment. We’re sitting around with wine glasses and Coke cans, nibbling on cheese and things covered in chocolate, and I find a moment where I have to ask myself, “Do I participate in this conversation and drag down the room? Or do I pretend I don’t exist?” I sit there with my mouth full and what I hope to be a warm smile on my face while I nod at the stories of sassy mouthed children, the troubles with getting into the “good” school, funny stories of potty training or picky eating or driving all over town to practices.
I have those stories too, only no matter how I tell them people react to them as tragedies. My son doesn’t go to practices, so I drive him all over town to get to physical therapists and neurosurgeons and county specialists. There was really only one school option for him – a class that focuses on the “orthopedically impaired,” but I did have to fight to get him appropriate educational access. My son might never leave diapers, which means, no matter how ridiculous the poop story, it will always carry a subtext of fear. And he is certainly sassy, but the stories involve so much context – the television shows he quotes, the body language he uses, how he uses his disability to manipulate people around him – that they don’t make great cocktail party anecdotes.
I want to draw connections between our experiences. I want to feel not so desperately alone. I want to do my part as a disability advocate to insist that people with disabilities are always a part of the conversation. But without fail, every time I do, I watch as the eyes widen, the smiles turn to grimaces, stammered out “Oh, really? Good for you!” takes the place of actual conversation, and another potential friendship wanders away to see if there are any more cream puffs.
Speaking about your disabled child in a room full of acquaintances triggers every conversational minefield. All social niceties of not bringing up religion or politics or personal information get completely ignored as people frantically search for something to fill the empty air.
“God never gives us more than we can handle.”
“Isn’t it a shame our politicians don’t make ‘this’ more of a priority?”
“People with disabilities are such special spirits. God sent them to teach us.”
“Obamacare must be terrifying for you.”
“I know just how you feel, I have a cousin in a wheelchair.”
“How did it happen? Was it something you did while you were pregnant?”
“It’s so hard. I have gout in my left foot and what I’ve had to go through to get that treated…”
They throw out all manners and common sense because their brain is busy trying to hide the terror. They fear saying the wrong thing – which they will – but the dread goes deeper than that. It’s that primitive terror that tragedy is catching, that the world is uncontrollable, and that misfortune awaits around every corner. Their illusion of safety is shattered because you are a living breathing example of the boogeyman under their bed. They arrived, unsuspecting, thinking they’re going out for a much needed breather in their own struggles with parenthood, and just when their guard was down here you come: proof that no amount of five point harnesses and good schools can shield a child from the hardships in life.
I took all my prenatal vitamins and drank orange juice like it was mother’s milk. I read all the books and said all the prayers and monitored my weight and exercised enough but not too much. I made my own organic baby food. And my son has cerebral palsy.
I came by my hyper-vigilance honestly. It took us eight years of surgeries and medication and fasting and prayers and invasive procedures to treat our infertility and add our son to our family. During all those years of doctor’s appointments and longing I’d have those same conversations with parent friends, only I was an outsider still because I wasn’t a mom. But there was no terror in that, just condescension. My conversational partners would wave off any differences with a “someday” or “but you know what it’s like to love kids” or “all women are mothers.” It was unsatisfying and alienating, but not conversation killing in the same way that talking about Atticus is. I didn’t provoke any deepest fears when I was just a childless infertile. Back then I longed for the day I would be able to fully participate. I dreamed of cracking up a roomful of friends with hilarious misadventures and feeling like I was part of a tribe. I never imagined I could be any more left out, any more misunderstood or invisible. I was wrong. The price of belonging in this circle of women balancing plates of hors devours on their palms is to betray my child and pretend he’s just like most other mothers’ children.
Before motherhood I had nameless potential. I could be lumped in as a token, a reminder of more carefree days, included as part of the village raising children. After becoming a mom to an adorable and brilliant little boy – who uses a wheelchair and doesn’t talk like other kids and doesn’t play their kind of games – I’m fears realized. People see us and they have to remember that chaos exists, that accidents happen, that bad luck is not offset by wealth or righteousness: a burden to live with. It’s much easier to pretend it’s not there.
We were lucky in that we discovered Atti’s disability early – too early. He was born at 28 weeks and spent three months connected to tubes and wires that provided him what my body couldn’t. Born that early and that fragile, he was given frequent brain scans to check for damage, and in Atti’s case, some showed up.
One night we came to the hospital for our regular visit and we noticed a tension in the nurses. “Has the doctor talked to you yet?” said with forced brightness, “I know the doctor wanted to make sure she spoke with you.” She brought us into the private room where short timers got to sleep over and sat us down on the hospital cot. She showed us a picture of the tiniest little skull and the unmistakable dark spot in his brain. I know she spent a lot of time telling us what that meant, but her words are lost in my memory. All I remember is the image of that brain scan and the sensation of my dreams crashing so violently it was tangible.
The way Cerebral Palsy works is that you won’t know there’s a problem until there’s a problem. Each kid develops so differently, the results of injuries so myriad, there’s no looking at a baby and saying, “They won’t walk, and they probably will only speak in rote phrases.” Maybe they will be a quadriplegic, maybe they’ll just end up with one leg shorter than the other. You don’t know what these kids will do or not until they do it. Or not.
This has been a cauldron of worry and fear, lying awake at night wondering if he’ll ever live independently, if he’ll ever walk, if he’ll even be able to communicate. Hearing family members speculate if he’ll ever marry or even understand what they’re talking about. And sorrow as one by one all the things that were once so important to me became impossible. For three months I laid in bed watching Tyra Banks yell at wannabe models while I was strapped to a breast pump. I felt so strongly about breastfeeding and was so committed to success that I pumped for 20 minutes of every hour, all day and night. Only to watch as my milk supply decreased every day I was away from my baby. By the time he was finally healthy enough to try to nurse, it was more work for him than the calories I could provide.
Once I accepted the fact that Atti had special needs, once I accepted that his growth was never going to match up with a neat little pediatrician’s chart, I realized that the regular mommy judgments don’t apply to me because we have a big asterisk on us over here.
How could I carry guilt for not breastfeeding when it was because Atti was in the hospital? How could I beat myself up about not using cloth diapers when it was because they didn’t work with multiple caregivers? How could I feel bad for not holding him more, letting him watch television, exposing him to plastic, blah blah blah, when it was all because he had special needs?
What I’ve learned is that every child has their own set of needs. And the grief and guilt and shame we feel as parents always comes in when those needs, coupled with our needs, don’t meet our expectations. From the early days of apologizing for bringing a processed playgroup snack, to fights over what career path our children choose, it is always the friction of expectations rubbing up against reality that causes the pain.
What I wish I could tell those moms, in the moments of the record scratch, in those milliseconds of realization that my child is different, as the fear soars in to crowd out anything else I might say, is that I know things now. When they feel guilt or shame in the middle of the mommy wars, I wish I could give them my answers. Answers that were learned in the hardest ways: watching your child wake up from surgery, confused and in pain; watching your child singled out as different or ignored; having to let go of every dream you had for yourself to relish in what is real. When other moms are overcome with fear about the future of their child, I wish I could show them that your fears coming true aren’t the end of the world. And someday, when their child is a teenager and they’re fighting over their expectations and the freedom their children long for, I wish they’d find me.
Here’s what I know: The trick to joyful parenting is to take a rag, stuff it in a liquor bottle, light it on fire, and toss it into an open window of the building that holds all your expectations.
“Letting go” isn’t enough. Destroy it. Dance in the embers. Send out invitations and celebrate the anniversary of the day you stopped worrying. List that as one of your best qualities. Measure that everyday instead of your weight. Gnash it with your teeth and rend it with your fingernails and stomp it into the dust. This is something you will do every day. Every minute of every day. You will have to retrain your thoughts and the people in your life to stop grasping for the usual and celebrate what is.
What I didn’t see trailing along behind all that worry was a secret benefit. Knowing how many obstacles were in Atti’s way also meant that every accomplishment is cherished and celebrated. Week after week I would put him on a quilt for tummy time, as I sat on the couch and cried and sat on my hands. Week after week, month after month, I forced myself to not pick up my baby as he struggled. Until one day, as I watched, biting my lip afraid to breathe in case I spooked him, he pulled himself like an army commando to get to his favorite toy. That was all it took to make my sacrifices worth it as I hoisted him up like Simba the Lion King and danced around the room. The day he legibly wrote his name was filled with such joy that I refuse to believe his wedding day would be any better. Even when he smarts off, by closing his eyes and refusing to look in my direction, pretending he doesn’t understand me, or playing up his disability to make his babysitter put his toys away for him, I can’t help but marvel at his creativity.
Expectations bury joy. They suck the sweetness out of discovery. Every accomplishment is burdened with the knowledge that someone did it better or first. Competition reigns instead of wonder. Instead of rejoicing in a child developing language, we panic about how many words their peers can say. Instead of communing with other parents, we worry that they’re judging us – and maybe they are because they have unfair expectations of the parents they associate with. We hold ourselves up to a standard that has never existed in fiction or history and hate ourselves for not meeting that expectation.
Imagine what your parenting might look like if you allowed yourself the freedom to discover. If you celebrated your own milestones unburdened by what it looked like to anyone other than your child. If you brought the same wonder and victory to your own growth that you do to the marvels of a child’s development. Because parents develop in just the same way. A parent is born on a child’s birthday, confused and crying, learning about the new world they’ve been thrust into, only they think they know all the milestones and heartaches and good choices that await them. But that’s an illusion. Because whether your child gets married, goes to college, finds a fulfilling career, practices the religion they were raised with, or even lives to adulthood, is all to be determined. You don’t know what they’ll do until they do it. Or don’t.
But in the meantime, there are so many victories to be celebrated. And cocktail parties to dominate with the power of your secret wisdom.