Blowin’ In the Wind

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
…Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?
*

I don’t remember much about Mother’s Day when I was a little girl. Surely, there were handmade cards and bouquets of dandelions in tiny vases. Maybe we went out to eat on occasion? Dad was a preacher so I can imagine we did find a restaurant on that particular day of the year, in contrast to mom’s normal Sunday crock-pot roast or other “prepare in advance” meals. Mom and Dad loved buffets so I would guess we splurged for Ponderosa or Golden Corral on occasion.

Once I became a mom, Harold and I learned quickly that we didn’t enjoy the restaurant option with toddlers, waiting for a table on the busiest day of the year. So, Harold often grilled for us that day, leaving me to play with the kids. As they got older, they tried a couple of times to surprise me with an early breakfast, but I was so often the first one up, they had a hard time catching me in bed with their pancakes and bacon. When I started working at the church, Mother’s Day was one of my favorite Sunday afternoons. After working all morning, I could go home to whatever lunch Harold and the kids cooked while I read books, napped, and took a walk before getting ice cream in the afternoon.

One of my favorite Mother’s Day memories was in 2016, the year I graduated from seminary. We lived in East Tennessee and our kids were in Chicago and Milwaukee, while my parents lived in northeast Indiana. That year all six of them made the trip to our home in Johnson City (the only time they all got to visit our house in the Tree Streets.) What a great time we had eating together, playing games, and reading stories to an almost-2-year-old Sawyer.

The graduation was on Saturday and afterwards we made s’mores out back on our flagstone patio with firepit. My mom had her very first s’more that weekend, at age 78. On Sunday we made a quick visit to the seminary campus party while Sawyer napped, then we all went to the park to play. We also fit in a semi-professional photo shoot which included some great scenes of our people (and that house we loved so much).

Mother’s Day 2020 was different in so many ways. After a moratorium on hospital visits since March due to COVID, and extreme caution with Isla’s lowered immunity, we asked the kids if we could come for a visit that weekend. It was one of Isla’s treasured holidays at home that year, between long weeks of treatment in the hospital. (Isla was able to be home for her last birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, AND Mother’s Day). Liz and Ian had recently moved to Milwaukee to help with the kids, and we were all together for three days.

That May we still expected that an upcoming transplant would bring Isla back to full health. Like a rescued perennial that got new life in the backyard, or the flowers beginning to bloom around their house, we were believing that “hope springs eternal.” I tried to focus on each present moment, searing them into my memory for days like today. Even so, for every smile, every photo, every dance in the living room, my heart twinged a bit wondering “what if this is our last holiday together?”

That Saturday, we took the kids to a nearby park for their first kite-flying adventure. My own lack of experience was not a problem; Daddy, Uncle Ian, and Pops all took turns making sure the tail was positioned and the string was taut. It was cool, but gloriously sunny, and with just enough wind to keep the kite in the air. I loved watching both Sawyer and Isla run up and downhill, stare into the clouds, laugh at their daddy, and gasp when the kite caught in a tree.

Keeping a kite aloft is tenuous endeavor. Some things can be controlled, like noticing the wind’s direction and its pull on the string, attaching the kite’s string for stability, and letting the line out in perfect proportions. Other parts of the process are completely outside your control, like the unpredictability of the wind itself.  So many contrasting emotions. The pure joy in a child’s eyes when the kite take flight. The tears and finality of the moment when a kite breaks off in the trees. The intense concentration when they learn when to hold on, and when to let go.

Not unlike the unpredictable winds of life itself, where I’ve found I have far less control than I once imagined.

the answer is blowin’ in the wind…

* Songwriter: Bob Dylan; Blowin` In the Wind © Special Rider Music, Universal Tunes

**One precursor to our modern “Mother’s Day” came from the abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe. In 1870 Howe wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” a call to action that asked mothers to unite in promoting world peace. I think she would have liked Dylan’s protest lyrics.

the last two weeks…

April 11th marks 8 months since Isla died.

Every reminder of Isla’s sweet face and contagious laughter sends me back to that last couple of weeks we shared. (I spent some time scrolling her mama’s Instagram page this week.) Many words may yet be written about the last few days of Isla’s short life. When I face the blank page, it’s almost as if I believe if I don’t write it, I can pretend it never happened.

I suppose there was a gift hidden in the fact that we knew it WAS her last few days. Once she came home from the hospital in July, and especially after the family’s quick trip to the ocean, we all knew what was coming. Every single interaction carried this weight of finality, our desire to remember our girl – each grin, every hug, every song and dance. I found myself paying better attention. I made a list of things she said and took lots of pictures.

We traveled to Milwaukee on Friday, July 24th and checked into an AirBnB so we’d be available as needed. When we got to the kids’ house, we were immediately entertained with a magic show created and performed by Sawyer and Isla. She hid me behind a blanket, tapped it with her magic wand and declared, “AS YOU CAN SEE, Nana has disappeared!” Sawyer would remind her how to pronounce the magic word (I’m pretty sure it was alohomora from Harry Potter) and the audience would cheer as I appeared again by lowering the blanket. She did not tire of that game, playing it on repeat till dinner arrived. So many sweet hugs and giggles in between each “disappearance.” We loved having a photo shoot with the family on Saturday, and afterward, Isla and I shared my silly “Shall We Dance?” song, which I made up when her daddy was little.

Our last dance…

We didn’t know at the time, or exactly how, but that weekend was our last two days of “normal” with her.

One of the most difficult challenges of those last two weeks was that in response to one of her meds (and/or the frustration of not understanding what was going on in her little body), Isla became very insistent that only one person at a time (sometimes for an entire day) was “her person.” There were six adults to choose from, and 3 or 4 of us were usually in the house at the same time. But Isla called the shots on who would be her partner for the day, and it was so hard for those not chosen. Imagine traveling across three states to see her and having her push you away. Imagine her mama and daddy pouring their life and soul into her for 3.5 years and seeing her push THEM away. It was excruciating.

The Lord is close to the broken hearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.
Psalm 34:18
Oh, how we longed for that rescue.

“My day” was Friday, August 1st. It started out with Daddy as caregiver while I was cleaning the kitchen. But mid-morning, Michael asked me to take a shift, so Isla and I started playing video games. Thank goodness for her skill – it took me forever to figure out! We helped SpongeBob make pancakes and serve them in his restaurant. We popped bubbles with Daniel Tiger and chose party decorations for “Neighbor Day.” (One of those decorations was an off-season Christmas tree and Isla announced, “I get to put the star on top!” She had, in fact, had that responsibility the previous December, after all.)

Later, Miss Laura (music therapist from Children’s Hospital) came by to play. Not to be content with merely singing and playing instruments, Isla took the hand drum, turned it sideways as a shield and said, “Let’s play good guys and bad guys. Me and Nana are the good guys, and you [Laura] are the bad guy.” She hid us both behind the drum and whispered conspiratorially to me “I’ll protect you, Nana!” We did, eventually, get around to singing a few choruses of “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” “Old MacDonald,” and playing “Match the Beats” with the drum. After copying Miss Laura’s rhythm a few times, Isla flipped the script with “Follow my lead!” and enthusiastically dove in to calling the shots.

That was our Isla.

After her nap, she was ready for stories. Reading aloud is a joy of mine, and always, especially with Isla. One we used to share at the hospital was The Hello, Goodbye Window, a story with a girl just about her age. Isla had the whole book memorized and often finished my sentences or corrected anything I missed. We also made a recordable story book for her and instead of saying “Granddaughter” I recorded “Isla – you make the whole world grand!” Evidently she remembered that, since mama later caught a random video of her saying, with tremendous delight, “I make the whole world grand!!!” And she most certainly did.

On this particular day, she was so cuddly and affectionate. “Can I lean against you, Nana? I love you, Nana.” I obliged, of course, as we read about Curious George and Daniel Tiger. One story included a picnic at the park that was threatened by bees, which led to an impromptu game of pretend. She would pinch her finger and thumb together, buzz it around in front of her and then “sting” me. Then she would give it a kiss to make it feel better and ask me to do the same to her.

Later that evening the family had friends join us for dinner and we were playing outside with the kids. Isla was in the swing and started to act a little sleepy. I was pushing the swing, but she seemed to intuit that we were getting ready to head back to our place for the night.

“Are you still behind me, Nana?”

Yes, sweet girl, I’m still behind you.

“Can I give you a kiss on the cheek?”

Of course, you can.
(I came around to the front of the swing and crouched down to oblige)

“Now you give me one.”

You bet.
(I loved how Isla could direct a scene with clarity and authority!)

“I love you, Nana. I don’t want you to leave.”

I love you too, Isla.
(I don’t want you to leave either.)

Our last words.
Our special day.
One special day in the last two weeks of a terribly long year.