October 16 was James’ 2nd birthday. Following an Arnold family tradition, he had a “family only” party this year. (He'd been blessed with a huge one for his first.) Because Katherine and Amie’s birthdays were less than two weeks apart, we'd instituted an “every-other-year” party schedule during their childhoods. The Mom couldn’t handle two cake-smearing scream-fests in such close proximity.
Katherine decided that this was a good model to follow.
Unfortunately, the day didn’t turn out exactly as planned, because Katherine had an unexpected doctor’s appointment at the time when she wanted to have the party. Instead, we just had cupcakes and presents after a nice dinner that James’ daddy prepared at the apartment in LA. James’ aunties Amie and Grace were the only guests. James was delighted with the Elmo arrangement I’d assembled on the table, but wasn’t sure about the rest of the deal. He burst into tears when we all got in his face to sing “Happy Birthday.”
Following that, he immediately began acting his chronological age.
After supper, Katherine tried to get him to sit on the sofa with her to watch his new birthday movie. He clung to me like his life depended on it. When she pulled him closer to her, he struck out at her. That’s when I noticed the scratch on her neck. "He's very angry at me," Katherine said when I asked her about it.
Although it broke my heart to hear those words coming out of her mouth, in some ways it was a relief to finally get it all out on the table…acknowledge the elephant in the room. “He just doesn’t understand,” I told her.
The next morning, I checked my email. A timely devotional from Joni* had arrived:
My Birthday Tree
Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. (Gen. 28:18)
What a beautiful month this is! I remember the trees back on our family farm in Maryland rustling their colorful skirts, ablaze in wild reds and crazy yellows. Of all the oaks, maples, and pines on our farm, one particular tree was my favorite. It was an old, spreading maple growing by the spring house. In October its leaves were resplendent in red, tinged with purple edges. And I know that on my birthday, October 15, this maple would reach its peak of color as it did every year. For this reason, I called it my birthday tree.
Each year my tree marked how far I'd come or what I had or hadn't done. It was my "stone of remembrance." Jacob had a stone of remembrance. He heaped together a pillar of stones to mark the spot where God had pledged in a dream to watch over Jacob and to bless his descendants. The pillar of stones was a visible, concrete reminder that God had touched his life.
That's what birthdays are, too--our private marks in time, our stones of remembrance. I want my birthday, like that maple tree, to be a mark of change in my life. Something to show progress and growth…
October 15 is the day of my father’s death. October 16 is the day of James’ birth. Brooks and I just returned from his dad's 85th birthday party in Palm Beach...one of the two living greatgrandfathers (named James) for whom our own little James Thompson Wolf is named. It’s strange how many of my closest friends have October birthdays.
The night we celebrated James’ birthday, Katherine happened to introduce that topic into our conversation. James' birthday was somewhat sobering for her. A reminder of all she’s missed.
On the morning of April 21, 2008, James was a well-loved, 6-month-old, breastfed baby. His mommy was a beautiful, vivacious, active, hands-on parent. She had a lovely voice that constantly crooned comforting words to her little one.
A sweet moment is crystallized in my mind: We are sitting on the sofa in the Malibu apartment. Katherine picks her baby up and holds him high over her head. She smiles into his face and sing-songs, “Jamesie Boy, my little love nugget!” He bursts into giggles and drools down into her face. She laughs, too.
Katherine couldn’t stand to be away from that baby. I’ve never seen a mother so dizzily besotted. James was enveloped in a cozy cocoon of warm, happy love.
But then she went away.
James has had many “mothers” since then. A village, in fact. Katherine’s close friends Anna and Andy took him into their home and treated him as their own in the early weeks of ICU. Anna was pregnant with their first child at the time. Jay’s sister Sarah came back from Africa to care for him for several months after that. James’ two grandmothers have been the primary care-takers since then, greatly assisted by Jay’s aunt Judy, Katherine’s cousins Michelle and Elizabeth, Jay’s sister Mary Austin and cousin Natalie, and many wonderful friends like Miss Liz, Miss Cindy, and Miss Lacey. James is a lucky little boy to have so much love. His grandmothers are blessed to be able to have such uniquely close bonds with a grandchild. He adores Honey and Mimi, and, of course, we absolutely adore him back.
Neither of us is his mommy.
He just doesn’t really realize that right now.
Frequently, I feel guilty about my relationship with James. It seems as if I’m stealing something from my own child, taking candy away from my own baby. It’s her sugar I’m getting. Her affection I’m borrowing, her kisses I’m stealing.
In LA, I'm sometimes mistaken for James’ mother. Celebs have set an example for late-life child-raising, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility. But as flattering as the mistake may be, I make sure that I work the distinction into the conversation as soon as possible. “No, I’m his grandmother,” I emphasize.
As a child, I was in love with both of my grandmothers. Sometimes they were more fun than my poor mother, who had the thankless job of being my primary disciplinarian. But, still, my mama was my mama. It was she to whom I turned first with a boo-boo or a broken heart.
So, a couple of weeks ago, I started singing a little song to James:
"Honey is your GRANDmama, And Mimi is your GRANDmama, But Mommy is your REAL mama!"
I have no idea if he has a clue what any of that means.
It makes me feel sad and angry.
Katherine has been outrageously robbed. Pestilential locusts have come in like the Mongolian Horde and raped, pillaged, and destroyed much that is beautiful and sacred. They have invaded the sweet sanctuary of a mother’s intimacy with her first-born child and knocked over the altar, spilled the wine, and broken the stained glass windows. They have eaten away precious moments that can never be regained, gorged themselves on memories never made.
I think that James’ second birthday had the unfortunate side effect of materializing Katherine’s realization of these thefts and losses. In some ways, it served as a milestone reminding her of missed opportunities, adventures, and intimacies. I can imagine her subconscious screaming, “Where has the time gone? Where have I been? How much did I sleep through? Can we please replay that part with the 9-month-old little boy? The 1-year-old?? Can I watch him learn to crawl…to drink from a cup…say his first word? How is it possible that I missed all that? I didn’t get to do the things I wanted to do for him!”
"I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten-the great locust and the young locust,the other locusts and the locust swarm…You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,and you will praise the name of the LORD your God,who has worked wonders for you…” (Joel 2:25-26)
God’s got to repay Katherine, Jay, and James for a lot of locust damage.
It’s a good thing they have the assurance policy.
James is very confused right now. He does seem angry with his mother. I wonder what’s going on in his subconscious as well. Does he think his mother abandoned him? Does he fully understand that The Before and The After are even the same person? Is he mad at her for changing? For not turning out to be who he thought she was?
It’s normal for kids to hate their parents, occasionally. We may give them good reason. Sometimes we’re not capable of giving them what they need at the time they need it. It might be because they don’t understand our motives…can’t see our hearts. Don’t realize that we’re just flawed human beings doing the best we can. Or perhaps it may be misdirected anger…self-hatred or frustration that can’t be realized. Or simple thwarted self-will. A child may interpret discipline as cruelty.
We have to love our children enough to let them hate us on occasion. We may have to allow them to think we’ve abandoned them when we haven’t.
Sometimes we may feel as if our heavenly Daddy has abandoned us, as well.
But He hasn’t. It’s just that we can’t always see His heart.
We have to try to focus on the Big Picture. In the end, all will be well. Everything will be resolved. We will understand fully, even as we're fully understood. Until then, we struggle through this mortal existence with partial clarity, doing the best we can with the cards we’ve been dealt. We fall, and rise back up; we’re broken, and then mended.
And, hopefully, we give each other grace. Much, much grace.
I believe there will be healing, restoration, and forgiveness. Where there is dismantling, there will be rebuilding; where there is unraveling, there will be reknitting; where there is separation, there will be rebonding.
Because I believe this, I have to trust that all will be well with my daughter and her son one day. I go back to the memorial stone I received on the airplane ride mentioned in “Hope against Hope.” (Archives, 12-14-08) I remember what 'God’s messenger’ told me then. His sister, the mother of a young child, had a very severe stroke, resulting in a coma. The doctors were completely without hope. But there was a miracle. Although the young mother missed much critical time with that child, he grew to be closer to her than any of her others. And the most well-adjusted.
A couple of days after his birthday, James decided that he’d really test out this "Terrible Two" thing. He morphed into Sid Vicious. He was awful to Katherine, hitting her, scratching at her, and pushing her away. "James, please don’t be so mean to Mama. It hurts my feelings.” Katherine said to him. When I came over to the sofa to intervene, he ran off. “I’m sorry, BooBoo,” I tried to comfort her. “He’s just acting out. It’ll get better.”
“I know it will, Mom. I can wait,” she assured me.
("But how long’s it gonna take?” I wondered.)
Sunday morning, James came up to me and sweetly begged, “Hode ju, Mimi, hode ju!” Although I was putting makeup on at the time, I picked him up and hugged him tight. We looked at ourselves hugging in the mirror. His arms clenched around my neck, he sang, “Mimi is my GRANDmama.”
When I took James in to see his mother, he didn’t fight me or try to run away. I handed him to her in bed. Putting his arms around her neck, he said, “Good munnin', Mama.”
“Do you love me, James?” Katherine asked.
“I wuz you, Mama,” James answered.
Then he smeared a little wet nose matter on her face.
One day, everything’s gonna be alright.
“This is what the Lord says: At just the right time, I will respond to you. On the day of salvation I will help you…
Sing for joy, O heavens! Rejoice, O earth! Burst into song, O mountains! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on them in their suffering…
Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands…
Soon your descendants will come back, and all who are trying to destroy you will go away. Look around you and see, for all your children will come back to you. “As surely as I live,” says the Lord “they will be like jewels or bridal ornaments for you to display…
This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “See, I will give a signal to the godless nations. They will carry your little sons back to you in their arms; they will bring your daughters on their shoulders…”
(Promises of Restoration, excerpted from Isaiah 49)
*Joni Eareckson Tada, firstname.lastname@example.org