This is one of those notes that starts out as one thing, but becomes something else. I hope you're okay with that. I believe I am.
I've alluded lately to a big secret. Some of you know what it is, and now I'll share it with the rest of you: we're leaving Kansas. Practically all of my work is in Washington, D.C., and so we're packing up and heading east. The movers, in fact, have been here all week, and I write this from the carpeted floor of our basement, my family asleep around me, as we camp out one last night in our home.
And I can't sleep, as I dwell on the fact that today is the last day I will own my house. That's a cause of elation for many in my position, and I suppose there's some relief we feel at knowing that half the transition will soon be complete. But there is also sadness, because this house has been the setting of our most beautiful moments as parents, as well as the great tearing, scarring nightmare that was most of 1999, the last year our daughter lived and breathed on the Earth.
I wonder if this is normal, to live in the serenity of untouchable joyous memories one moment, and in the darkest sadness and regret the next. I'm sitting in the room where Caroline used to lay down beside me while I did sit-ups, and roll her little body side to side in an effort to imitate me. And I'm sitting in the room where I fussed at her more than once to let me work, not knowing that the time to play was coming to an end so very soon. It's the room where we made up silly dances, and the room where I studied in horror the likely course of her brainstem tumor.
Every room in this house affords the ability to squint one's eyes and almost see her, almost relive being the parent of a living little girl. There's the kitchen where she sang "Jesus Loves Me" while helping her mother put away silverware, and the porch where she waited on the swing for me to come home. I can see her face pressed against the back door glass while she danced with excitement at my arrival. I can hear her knock on our bedroom door at 5 a.m., three stuffed animals and a pillow clutched in her arms, waiting to be picked up and tucked into our bed. I can still feel her last breath on my face, expelled with a sigh from her broken body as she lay in her mother's arms.
We tend to think of remembrance as something done in the mind, but the most poignant memories are those the whole body feels, when you can smell and hear and almost but never quite see what it is you haven't learned how to stop looking for. And so even today, nearly three years after burying Caroline in cold earth, I still feel an occasional surge of panic -- a father's urge to get to a child who no longer needs him. Leaving this house feels -- not figuratively, but literally -- like I am leaving my daughter.
But faith, the conviction of things not seen, intercedes. I have often wondered, in my self-pity, why I couldn't have grown up in a home like those of the children in my church, secure at such an early age in the knowledge of God's love for them. But the advantage the Christian who comes to faith after years of disbelief has over the lifelong Christian (and over the atheist) is full knowledge of both states. Faith is ultimately in the unseen, but to live in faith, well, that is a tangible matter; it is indeed the assurance of things hoped for. I have known what it is like to want faith yet to be unable to manufacture it, and to shun faith yet have it loom ever closer, squeezing out every alternative mental state. I think most atheists and most Christians get it horribly wrong -- faith can no more be chosen than can the color of one's hair.
And so I have this faith that has impinged on my life, and it helps me breathe past the moments of panic, by setting my mind on what lies ahead, when each of us is finally brought to the dark valley Caroline traversed three years ago, where we learn whether we are to walk it alone, or by the hand of a Savior. This faith tells me that though my body cries out at leaving our house, I should not despair. For the Christian, every step leads not away but toward those who have gone before in faith.
Of course this is unreasoned, self-soothing prattle to those who wait for God to justify himself by reconciling with what they believe their precious sciences reveal. The great tragedy inherent to faith and man's condition is that it can be neither reasoned out nor conjured. Those of us who truly love God, and those of you who do not, are separated by a divide that cannot be traversed by the will of man. I cannot summon words to express my thankfulness for being on this side of that gap -- and, I see now, for having lived on the other side.
Part of the joy of being on this side of the divide, and thus a source of sadness as we contemplate leaving, is that, contrary to the "me and Jesus" delusion of modern Christianity, our faith brought with it a covenant community. These people cared for us, fed us, guided us, wept with us, still mourn with us. I will never forget the Sunday morning they gathered around us, more than a hundred strong, me with my weakening child in my arms, and poured out their prayers and tears in requests that would not be granted. Like us they grew angry at a God who seemed not to hear them, and with us they learned that the same hands that wound us can care for us tenderly, and that this is perhaps God's deepest mystery. They are our family, because there are ties stronger than blood.
There is much more to say, but not tonight. We are moving, and soon we'll be within driving distance of the beach, and the mountains, and real barbeque (if you haven't been to North Carolina, this won't make sense to you), and Cheerwine, and Carolina football. The grandparents will finally be able to squeeze their little darlings to their hearts' content, and we'll relearn what it's like to drive on roads that have curves in them. We'll live on the hallowed ground where Bobby Lee whipped some respect into blustering Yankee generals, and do our small part to retake the Capitol from people who have long ago forgotten the purpose of the U.S. Constitution.
Many good things lie ahead, and we are thankful for these, just as we are thankful for the things we leave behind. We live joyful sorrow, which is the blessing bestowed by hope, which is itself the child of faith. I have on my wall a picture of Caroline, standing next to a beautiful purple clematis flower on a vine intertwined through the latticework of our deck. This year all the vine's flowers were gone by late July, the consequence of living in heat and drought. But early this evening, as I walked out onto the deck, I saw my wife standing below, crying. On the vine amidst the hulls of flowers long since blown away, a single purple flower had emerged.
It is these little things that sustain many of us, like a gentle voice singing with quiet persistence through man's self-obsessed din. Thus in myriad ways are faith's roots grown, often out of sight, until its fruit springs forth and surprises its possessor most of all.
And so you can see, I began by writing about leaving our home, and ended by talking about faith. But for some reason I am convinced that all the words fit, just as I am convinced that there are enough here for now, except for these, which are not my own:
"Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us . . . let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross . . ."
I feel guilty when I see all those hits from my wonderful readers, and I remember that I haven't posted anything new in a few days. Then I remember that most of you don't pay me, while the people who do pay me have been demanding most of my waking hours.
Still, I want to share a couple of things with you today, kind readers. What's more, in the next couple of days I will fill you in on some Big News for the Sand in the Gears staff. Aren't you just tingling all over with anticipation? I have that effect on people, you know.
Back to the matters at hand, which aren't great matters of national security, mind you, but if you want that you can read one of 10,000 daily news issue blogs (and odds are once you've read the one, you've read the others anyway). My, that was catty, wasn't it?
The Scene: My family and I are walking through a park near our house. I have the baby jogger, but Caleb has decided he wants to run too, so he's a little bit ahead of us, head down, little arms pumping diligently, bobos slapping on the sidewalk. Across the park, about a quarter-mile away, a high school track team jogs along the edges of a field.
Me: "I know men and women are supposed to be equal and all, but did you ever notice that when a track team's boys and girls go running together, most of the girls clump up significantly behind the boys?"
Wife: "That's because they're all talking."
Me: "That's not very politically correct, you know."
Wife: "But look at them. You can see them talking."
Me: "It's not about what you can see, it's about what you're supposed to believe."
Wife: "I guess I'm a scientist at heart. Observe, baby."
Me: "You know this is going in the blog, right?"
Wife: "Speaking of which, I have a question. How come you never blog any of the dumb things you say?"
Proof that I am a bad parent: Caleb went to spend the day with some friends who live on a farm. This involved much frolicking and sweating, which was fine, because I like to hose him down in the back yard each day anyway. But check out the following exchange:
Woman: "Hey kids, let's go feed the chickens."
Caleb: "Yeah, let's go feed the chicken nuggets."
Just to highlight the distance between good and bad parenting, I'll share with you what the child of this friend then asked: