Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A long night ends in contentment

Psalm 146:5 (NIV)

Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
   whose hope is in the Lord their God.
“You don’t think I’m overreacting, do you?”

That was the question Kristie asked me as she carried our nearly two-year-old son to the van around 12:30 a.m. today, bound for the nearest emergency room. I’m no doctor, but the sound of my own son struggling to breathe is unmistakable. I reassured her we’d made the right choice, then came back inside to wait for some form of communication.

Owing to some other family news, my mind had already been active — perhaps not racing, but certainly not placid — when I heard Charlie making noise over the monitor in our room. Kristie had just nodded off, so I elbowed her to get her attention. In a matter of seconds, she said, “That doesn’t sound right” and sprang into action. Charlie was crying and wheezing, struggling for every breath. He could barely cough to clear up the congestion. He didn’t want water. He was miserable. The choice was obvious.

Jack and Max slept quietly, oblivious to the ongoing drama. I got caught up on some reading on my computer. Then I tried getting caught up on TV. Eventually, struggling to stay awake, I took my charging cell phone upstairs, plugged it in near the bed and turned on the TV. This was most definitely a “minutes feel like hours” scenario.

At 1:42 a.m. I got a text message: “Croup. steroid, zofran bc he was vomiting, breathing treatment. Now cool mist through a mask.” We traded notes, and by 1:50 I knew all there was to know. Twenty minutes later I jolted awake as my phone buzzed again. Apparently it gets pretty boring being in a patient room with no TV or windows when you have to hold a nebulizer to a pale, wheezing toddler’s face for 60 minutes. Not to mention the unpleasantness of not being able to change your clothes after your kid gets sick on you.

The communications continued throughout the night, as did the treatments. A text Kristie sent at 4:25 a.m. revealed just how nervous she’d gotten on the way to the hospital via confessions of some abused traffic rules. It wasn’t until this afternoon she told me she’d heard Charlie’s breathing get progressively worse on the way and dialed up 911, ready to press the send button if he stopped trying to inhale.

When she finally carried Charlie into our bedroom sometime after 5 a.m., with him wearing a toddler-sized gown and wrapped in clean, warm, bright white hospital blankets, I pulled him close and stared deep into his eyes, gently stroking his hair as we both drifted quickly back to sleep. I can’t recall any specific emotions from the moment. I knew a long day was in store since I’d have to get up to get Jack off to school, and Max would be on his regular schedule as well. Sure enough, when 7:30 hit all three boys were ready for action.

Croup generally subsides during the day, which was the case for Charlie. Aside from an earlier-than-usual nap and being whinier than normal around dinner time, everything was normal. I followed doctor’s orders to purchase a cool mist humidifier. As I write, he’s asleep in his toddler bed with the vapors blowing directly at his head. I can hear him cough every so often and am hoping it doesn’t escalate to another midnight run to the hospital. It’s historically warm for late January in the Chicago suburbs, and you can’t beat midnight traffic, but really, I’ve grown to prefer nights at home to nights at the emergency room.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I prayed about the situation last night, at least not with any clear focus. This morning I drove Jack to the bus stop, with Charlie in tow, eliminating my normal time to walk and reflect. Also Jack forgot to put on his glasses, so as soon as I got home I tossed Max in the car and we drove the spectacles over to school. I certainly thought of God and tried to pray, but no real words came to mind other than “God, help” and “Thank you.” Still, I think that was enough to convey my feelings to the one who knows me better than I know myself.

This is exactly the sort of thing you sign up for when you choose to become a parent. Thinking of stories of my mother and grandmothers, I realize it’s also a lifetime commitment. No matter how old your children are, there is always a chance they’ll need your help. It may not be in the middle of the night, but it doesn’t matter what the clock says when your kid needs you. We thought we were in for a normal night of sleep, just like the hundreds beforehand, ever since he learned to sleep through the night. But we quickly learned otherwise, and then instinct took over.

In times like these, I am reminded just how important it is to have chosen the perfect (for me) partner in marriage and parenthood. Our ability to communicate effectively is never more important than when the stakes are high and time is brief. The flexibility our current lifestyle affords enables us to put our children and family above all other Earthly needs, and I hope it’s serving the boys well. I’m not interested in making the kids feel we’ve sacrificed for their benefit, but I do hope they grow to appreciate how much we value them and how seriously we take our responsibility to nurture.

Nights like these should be, eventually, blips on the radar, mere dots in the big picture of raising a child from birth to the brink of adulthood. They will be stories to share with other parents as we seek sympathy and solace, but scarcely worth considering compared to the larger challenges ahead.

But for the moment, the experience remains raw and real. I’d like to not repeat it ever, though I suppose we did learn a few things to be better prepared if there is a next time. Every day provides a chance for new experiences and different ways to learn about the many ways I can show my love for my family, some are just more outwardly positive than others. But so long as we’re all experiencing this life together, there’s joy to be found around every corner.

A prayer for January 29:

Lord, I have so many things for which to be thankful it’s difficult to know where to start. Some days it seems all I do is thank you for my family, but that’s because nothing else ranks so high in my life. It often feels like I have been given this family — the one I was born into, the one I married into and the one I am raising — so I could come close to understanding your love for all creation. I know I’ll never fully comprehend the mysteries of your love and grace, but you have given me more than enough to appreciate every day on this planet. May we continue to build our family on the foundation of your love. Thank you so very much. Amen.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Pinewood Derby

Isaiah 48:7 (NIV)

They are created now, and not long ago;
   you have not heard of them before today.
So you cannot say,
   ‘Yes, I knew of them.’
It was our first Pinewood Derby. It hopefully will not be our last. But after our car’s performance, I could forgive Jack for not wanting to try again. On the other hand, there’s nowhere to go but up.

First, the raw details. The track has six lanes, and each Scout’s car gets one run down each of the lanes. For Jack’s age group that meant there were 12 total races. Max and I sat along the track near the finish line, Jack stood behind the trophies with a full view of the track and, most importantly, the timer that showed the speed of each car as it crossed the finish line.

Our first Pinewood Derby car. Hopefully not our last.
There were 87 cars in the Pack 627 Derby. Jack’s car finished 79th overall and dead last among Bear Scouts. As he so eloquently put it, with a scowl upon his face, “I got sixth place six times in a row!” Our car’s average time was 3.9574 seconds — the only consolation being the eight kids who couldn’t break the four-second barrier. Jack’s average speed was 163.7 mph. This is pretty impressive until you look at the top times — 199 mph for the Bear winner and 202.3 mph for the overall champion.

Jack also did not win the coolest car award, as voted on by fellow Scouts, or the design award, as decided by race organizers. He mostly kept his composure despite the frustration, though I could not ignore the disparity between the beaming, trophy-holding Bear Scouts posing with Jack’s Den leader while he started to pout just off camera.

I knew before we got there it would not go well. I’d never built a Pinewood Derby car, but I knew sawing off two corners to make it pointy (“Like an arrow”) and covering it with red spray paint was not the path to domination. I also knew it was not the best idea to start the project the day before the race, but I was not looking forward to the eventual blowup we had Saturday afternoon. Perhaps that’s a classic example of self-fulfilling prophecy, but I prefer to consider it the practical response to knowing one’s child as well as he knows himself.

If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes.
I will proudly say our car looked the most like the authentic handiwork of an actual eight-year-old. Jack had no idea what kinds of things you can do to turn a block of wood into a sleek, elite racing machine that’s just as cool to look at sitting still as it is racing down an aluminum ramp. Certainly we could have spent some time online looking at pictures and videos of other Scouts’ cars, but I did not want to inflate his expectations.

One of the other kids in his Den followed that path. I overheard him at our last Den meeting talking excitedly about his car and his plans to win all the races everywhere, but I knew his wouldn’t be the fastest at our race, let alone worthy of a grander stage. And I was right — it looked nice and was a half-second faster than Jack’s. But it was only good for sixth place amongst the 12 Bears. I’m not trying to run the kid down, but his mom has to deal with a different kind of disappointment than I do.

As for Jack? His initial reaction was anger. He wanted to destroy his car, perhaps taking a chainsaw to it. Where he’d get a chainsaw, I have no idea, but he was still committed to that outcome. I saved the car and hid it from him, if only for my own sentimentality. But while we were still in the cafeteria, he asked to be signed up for the upcoming Blue and Gold Banquet because he wanted to have a positive Scouting experience. During our short ride home, he was mentioning plans for next year’s car (much skinnier), which to me was a remarkable turnaround from the sullen display of just a few minutes earlier.

Next year we will plan ahead. We’ll do a little research and probably involve a friend who is handier with tools than me. In addition to building the car earlier, we’ll also have to manage Jack’s expectations better. If he works really hard and still loses every heat, he may become inconsolable. I suppose these are the kind of lessons a Pinewood Derby teaches you beyond how to build a car — to manage your time, to study, to win and lose with grace and so on.

Ultimately, I’m proud of my kid. Things didn’t go his way, but he managed his frustrations. He had no problem revealing them to me, but that’s what I’m here for — to allow him to be honest and open without fear of rejection. I need to be a safe place for him, even if it’s a burden to bear the full brunt of his third-grade rage. I also get to see him at his absolute best, so it’s not as if I spend my entire life as a whipping boy. It’s all part of being a dad.

Plus, we’re Cubs fans. “Wait ‘til next year” is a pretty familiar concept. Losing teaches important lessons, and we’ve started to learn them already. It wasn’t bunches of fun, but it was a good day.

A prayer for January 28:

Lord, thank you for the chance to spend time with my sons, guiding them through their childhoods. Thank also you for the lessons my father taught me, and especially for your instruction in so many different ways. Help me set a good example for my boys, remembering the example you set for us. Sometimes it can be so difficult to deal with disappointment, but never let me forget how your love never lets me down and that you promise ultimate victory. Your grace sustains me, and for that I am blessed. Amen.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Empathy at the airport

Psalm 27:7-8, 13-14 (NIV)

Hear my voice when I call, Lord;
   be merciful to me and answer me.
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
   Your face, Lord, I will seek.

I remain confident of this:
   I will see the goodness of the Lord
   in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
   be strong and take heart
   and wait for the Lord.
First things first, the flight took off as scheduled today. It was a little weird, after not having flown since July, to go through the exact same airport routine two consecutive mornings. All of the scenery was exactly the same, but all the players were different. There’s two guys seated right near us who say they were booked on yesterday’s canceled flight, but otherwise it looks to be full of people blissfully unaware of our struggles from Wednesday.

Among the new characters was a family we encountered on the train from the remote parking lot to the terminals. It was a mother traveling with her three young daughters. The mom looked to be a few years older than me, though her oldest daughter was easily a few years younger than Jack. The youngest was in a stroller but perhaps older than Charlie. Regardless, any time I see a parent herding around three children in my kids’ peer group, I’m immediately sympathetic.

As the train approached terminal two, the mother reminded her charges to stay close to her at all times, especially in the security line. As the doors opened, she struggled a bit with her rolling back and the youngest girl’s umbrella stroller. She ended up pushing the stroller with one hand — much harder than it looks with that model — and toting the bag with the other. I wondered why she didn’t put the oldest girl in charge of one or the other, then quickly considered if my kids could have been entrusted to do the same.

We were headed to terminal one, so as much as I felt pulled to help this woman get where she was going, I stayed on the train. I don’t know what happened when they got to the narrow escalators, but I have seen what happens with my kids on wide escalators during slow hours at a shopping mall, and it’s less than ideal. And we didn’t have a wheeled bag or a stroller.

Nor do I know how they managed while sending each child through the metal detector or body scanner, how the girls behaved while waiting at the gate, if they sat quietly on the plane. It’s likely she’d bought seats for just the older girls so all four of them were in the same row with the youngest taking up residence on someone’s lap. Envisioning myself sitting between Jack and Max (to keep the slapping and poking to a minimum) while also wrangling Charlie led me to the conclusion this family I observed was most likely flying out of extreme necessity and not casual desire.

I know millions of people fly every day, including thousands of children. The mother I observed clearly knew her way around an airport and had steeled herself with the resolve needed to soldier ahead, guarding her girls and getting to Point B as smoothly as possible. She did not appear in need of empathy, from me or anyone else. But still I found myself wanting to offer some sort of olive branch, even a simple sign of courtesy. When I’m traveling without my family, there is no “knowing glance” that conveys the message “I have three kids about their age and I’m hoping your day goes well. By the way, is there anything I can do for you in the four minutes we’re breathing the same air in this little train car?”

And would she have wanted to hear the message? I’ve gotten more than my share of grocery store glances that scream, “Boy, do you have your hands full!” — and that’s just form the kind souls who don’t have the audacity to come right out and say so. They almost always have a friendly tone (even if to cover their inner voice screaming: “Three children? Are you crazy?”), but I wonder how my boys might feel if they realize they are the subjects of the inquiry?

This is a scenario where Jack’s tendency to be oblivious to his surroundings is beneficial. Max, however, who soaks up absolutely every external stimulus he encounters, might not be too far away from asking, “Dad, why did that lady ask you if your hands are full? You’re not carrying anything.” I can answer him honestly, and I can think of several questions I’m much less like him to ask based on grocery store observances. But still I’d prefer my kids not get the message that strangers perceive them to be a burden.

I read the Psalm excerpts last night as I prepared to write on the plane, and I have the same question then as I do now: what does it mean to seek the Lord’s face? I can answer in the larger sense, but on a day-to-day level, how does that pursuit manifest itself in my personality and approach to life? When I’m going through the motion of getting on an airplane, is there something I can or should be doing to be actively seeking God in that moment?

I did not pray for that family on the train at the time we were together, though I think I will now. I tried my best to be polite and courteous to those I encountered this morning, though any human is capable of having good manners and does not need to have a deep and abiding faith at the root of those outward appearances. And really, I don’t feel entirely comfortable forcing matters of faith into every possible situation. I could have said “God bless you” to the lady who made my tea at Starbucks, but that borders on trite. A polite “thank you” serves the same essential purpose.

So while I’ve not explored fully at this moment, I’ve given myself something to consider going forward: how and when can I seek God, and how do I teach my children to do the same? We can have confidence in God, can wait patiently to see God’s goodness come to the land of the living. And we can find opportunities to pursue God’s will for us in every setting. It won’t happen by accident, but neither is there an obvious map to lead the way.

A prayer for January 24:

Lord, thank you for hearing my voice. Thank you for your mercies, your love and your grace. As I explore all the ways I seek to be closer to you, it is comforting to know I am not chasing you but simply tying to meet you where you are. I am in pursuit, but you never change, always caring, always loving, always ready to hear a prayer. Your goodness never fades, your blessings continue despite my sins. Thank you for your forgiveness. Amen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A change of plans

Ephesians 5:8-14 (NIV)

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible — and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,
   rise from the dead,
   and Christ will shine on you.”
I was supposed to be writing today from 30,000 feet in the sky, but I did not get to board a plane this morning. Long story short, the flight was canceled and we’ll try again Thursday. The upside was I decided to take off the rest of the afternoon from work so I could pick up Max and then Jack from school, and my unexpected presence let Kristie go to a school meeting tonight while I stayed home with the boys. Max knew I’d be getting him after school, but Jack had no clue. It was pretty neat to watch his facial reactions to seeing me standing in the gym. Some surprises he can handle just fine.

We got the automated phone call about the flight cancellation seconds before putting our items on the security scanner belt. We cleared the checkpoint, put our shoes back on, and in mere seconds were standing at the end of an overcrowded, understaffed customer service line. This is what happens when 37 rows of passengers need immediate answers on their new itineraries.

As soon as I got the phone call, my mood darkened. No one appreciates getting such unexpected news anyway, and a pending TSA screening isn’t exactly like waiting to ride Space Mountain. But I made the choice to try to deal with the frustration with as positive an attitude as I could muster. First I considered my advantages — only a short ride home from the airport, flexible plans at our destination, no checked bags to track down and so on. It did not take much chatting (or eavesdropping) to realize how few of our fellow passengers had such freedoms.

Then I took the next step and considered the plight of the airline agents. Even more so than newspaper editors who field angry phone calls and open “cancel my subscription” letters, airline customer relations employees almost never get to deal with happy customers. The best they can do is offer appeasement since it is beyond their power to offer the only thing people want: to get on the plane they paid for and arrive at their destination on time. How miserable it must be to clock in and get chewed out for issues far beyond your control for eight hours, then punch out only to do the exact same thing the next day and the day after that.

Maybe my facial expressions or body language weren’t the best. But I tried to be courteous in my interaction with the airline employee. I avoided joining in the idle threats, spoken to no one in particular, to never again fly this airline. I held back (I think!) from passing silent judgment on other passengers who were less composed and unafraid to use profanities while addressing people just trying to do their jobs.

In short, I worked hard at responding to unpleasantness with grace. I was attempting, as the cited passage suggests, to live as a child of the light. Allowing anger to creep in would have been poisonous, so I struggled to keep it at bay. This is not to brag, because I’m positive I left significant room for improvement, but to serve as a reminder to myself that I am capable of putting into practice the ideals I claim to seek. At least in part, and not without concerted effort, but still I feel validated.

On balance, I’d rather have just gotten on the plane. But at least I am far more at ease this evening than I was last night. Seeing as I didn’t really want to be away, I felt blessed to get a bonus afternoon with my boys. Hopefully tomorrow’s travel plans go smoothly, but I should remember I don’t need brazen adversity to be light in the Lord and to strive for what pleases God. Those opportunities are abundant as the breaths I draw in and the seconds that tick off the clock. Shine on me.

A prayer for January 23:

Lord, thank you for your guiding presence in the midst of strife. Please help me to remember your willingness to stand by me in every situation. No matter how positive or negative I might be feeling, I know you are always with me, ready to delight in my joys and comfort my sorrows. Help me do by best to be your light in this world. Never let me forget without you I am in the darkness, and that only you can illuminate the path of true righteousness. Guide me always. Amen.