“He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions.” (Deuteronomy 32:10 & 11).
In one of my few memories from early childhood, I am standing in our yard, our big corner lot, out by the street. Second Avenue in Richfield, Minnesota. I am probably three.
I am alone. But I can see my dad and his cane at a distance. Slowly, precariously, he is wobbling down the road. He approaches each little cookie-cutter house and knocks on the door. He is trying to find me a playmate. My dad could do math problems in his head. He could have calculated the number of steps he would have to take or the ratio of kids to adults on our street. But this task requires two of the life skills he finds most difficult: walking and talking.
Then it happens. He is halfway down the block, and I see the familiar teeter. I watch him lose his delicate balance. The cane doesn’t catch him. And he hits the pavement. Hard. Knees first. Hip. Elbow. Shoulder. I look around for someone to help him. I am not allowed to leave the yard. So I can only watch as he struggles on his own, like a newborn foal, to rise.
A few years later, when I am almost six and it is the Fourth of July, I am riding in the backseat of Grandma Eve’s yellow Plymouth. On our way to celebrate at Uncle Bill’s. My mom and brother are beside me. Dad is in the front seat. And Grandma Eve loses control of the car.
We swerve violently. Then we roll once and land right-side-up in the ditch. The windows have shattered. And the Tupperware containing Mom’s cherry Jell-O has burst open. The red, sugary goop covers my head and torso. Physically, we are only bruised and cut. But Mom is hysterical. Understandably. She thinks I’m a bloody mess.
Passers-by stop to help. My dad is crumpled up on the floor under the dash, so a man checks him for injuries, then gently pulls him from the car. A woman yanks my mom’s door open, tries to calm her, and helps her out with my toddler brother who is also crying.
Another stranger comes to me. She takes my hand and guides me over the broken glass. Then she carries me over to her car, away from the scene and away from my family. She washes my face with a rag and removes my sticky shirt. As I hear the emergency vehicles racing to us, I cling—half-naked—to my Jell-O covered doll.
One February night I wake up to my mom’s shout. “Kelli! There’s a fire!” I am eight. My brother, then age five, has been sleeping alone in our big upstairs room. He has come down to find my parents and tell them that he is hot. My mom smells the smoke on him.
Do my parents tell me to investigate? Or do I decide to do so on my own? I don’t know. Whatever the case, while my mom calls the fire department and my dad gets my brother out of the house, I fill my lungs with clean air and run up the stairs. The entire space is full of smoke. I open a window and run back down the stairs to take a breath. I make another trip to find the source. Through the haze, I can just about make it out. In the center of my brother’s mattress is a big, black, smoldering spot. I grab the mattress and pull. It takes me several trips up and down. But by the time the fire engines arrive, I have pulled the mattress through the house and out to the street.
The local newspaper runs an article about the dangers of old electric blankets. They mention my parents by name and my little brother and even his stuffed dog, who suffered terrible burns. But they don’t mention me. The self-identified hero of the story. And I am miffed.
I have been thinking a lot about Safety recently. Craving it. Trying to create it. Bemoaning the lack thereof. And those images come to mind. They are some of the experiences that hammered away at my sense of safety as a child. You have yours.
While Secure Attachment is the Foundation of the child-parent relationship (“On Mom: Our Secure Foundation” ), Jasmin Lee Cori (The Emotionally Absent Mother) calls Safety and Security the first essential Building Block. “Security,” she says, “is feeling that the person you rely on is dependable.”
“Not feeling Safe,” she writes, “is the setup for anxiety to take hold. Anxiety…comes from feeling alone and unsupported in situations we can’t handle by ourselves.”
Ah, yes. Anxiety.
Anxiety and I are old friends. She makes my eye twitch. Churns in my stomach. Seizes my chest. Races around and around in my brain and wakes me up regularly at 3 a.m. I can find many reasons—real and imagined—to be anxious. When the LOML is late coming home and won’t answer his phone, I prowl around the house, looking out every window for his headlights, trying to decide how soon I can report him missing. When Daryl (age 5) rides his bike out ahead of me, I fight back the horrible images in my mind of a car swerving and knocking him to the ground. When Amelia (age 2) scales the playground stairs, I rush to stand where there is a gap in the railing, imagining her wee body flying through the air and landing. Hard.
Yes, I want to be Safe. Even more so, I want to provide Safety for those I love.
But Safety necessitates Control. And I never have as much of that as I would like.
Last Friday Amelia fell down the stairs. I was in her upstairs bedroom. Had just dressed her for breakfast. Was putting her room in order when she marched down the hall. She’d been doing well on the stairs for months, so I hadn’t locked the gate. And I heard the horrible thud, thud, thud. My heart stopped, and I ran. She was at the bottom. Dazed. A bruise already forming on her cheek. Of course—and thankfully—she started to cry. I scooped her up and took her to the rocker. I checked her little body. Looked in her eyes. Called her daddy and her doctor. “I’m so sorry, Baby,” I whispered over and over in her ear. “I’m so sorry.” I think I cried as much as she did because I failed to keep her Safe. For the first of what will be many, many times.
On one level, I need to accept it. This world isn’t Safe.
Fathers and children will fall. Cars will crash. The diagnosis will be scary. Governments will attack their own people. Terrorists will fly planes into buildings.
On September 11, 2001, I was riding the El train in Chicago, on my way to work. A beautiful fall morning. Then a man on the train received a phone call and announced to us, his fellow passengers, “A plane just hit the World Trade Center in New York City.”
When I got to work minutes later, televisions all over our campus were already on. For the next couple of hours, many of us were glued to the coverage. And when I saw people jumping from the top floors and falling to certain death, I couldn’t contain my tears.
We were sent home early that day. As I rode the El train back to our comfortable 1920s condo, I looked around at the other passengers. The train was eerily silent. We were all stone-faced. Shocked. For the rest of the afternoon and evening, I listened to the news reports on the TV, but I couldn’t just sit and watch. Truthfully, the images were too horrific for me. The audio was all I could handle. And that, barely. So I listened and painted gold stripes on our dining room walls. And with each stroke of the brush, the realizations began to soak in. The world had changed. Or at least, it seemed to for our generation. Suddenly, even here at home, we could no longer deny that we might not be Safe.
As a country, we suddenly clung to our monetary phrase, “In God We Trust.” But, as Elie Wiesel asks repeatedly in his play The Trial of God about the pogroms in Eastern Europe, “[Where is] God in all of this?”
Certainly He was here. He doesn’t promise Safety, of course. But He does promise his Presence.
And even He Himself isn’t Safe. As Mr. Beaver says of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” He promises to be Good. His definition of Good. Not ours.
And though it certainly doesn’t always feel like it, His Good Presence is enough.
With His Good Presence, we can face the dangers of this world. And in the face of danger, we can see heroes. In the face of danger, we can see what is truly important. We can find courage. We can depend. We can learn to trust. In the face of danger, we grow. In the face of danger, we realize that this is not our home. And we are called to something more.
Over Labor Day weekend, we went to a Family Camp in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I already had Safety very much on my mind. And then the worship leader chose “Called Me Higher” by All Sons and Daughters as one of our main songs. It was new to me. But as we sang it morning and night, it spoke to what has been stewing in my heart. Give it a listen: “Called Me Higher”.
On the final afternoon of Camp, our family and our good friends had the opportunity to spend some time on a sailboat on the lovely Lake Geneva. Both of our kids had their Life Preservers on, of course. And I held Amelia tight on my lap the entire ride. Thankfully, she fell asleep, making this much easier. But halfway through the trip, the “first mate” asked Daryl and his buddy Gideon if they wanted to climb out toward the bow.
“Why don’t you sit right here by me, Dar?” It came out of my mouth without my thinking. Protection is instinctive. I saw the thin rope and the slippery deck and all I could think was, “Keep him Safe.”
But I know I can’t always. And I shouldn’t. So I backed off and let him go. This time. And, well, just look at this face.