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Friday, October 18, 2002

On Remembering

I like being a father. The other day I was holding Eli, and with his soft little fingers he was stroking my ear. I turned to give him a kiss and saw why he was being so attentive; he was simply trying to hold the ear in place while he endeavored to steer his wide-open mouth -- with its two sharp teeth -- onto it. So much for boys and gentle.

Caleb is starting to exercise the child logic which when coupled with an expanding vocabulary is amusing. A couple of days ago my wife tells him she's "a little frustrated" with his behavior.

"You're not a little frustrated, Mommy, you're a big frustrated. I'm a little frustrated."

He likes to watch a videotape we have of his sister. He calls it "The Caroline Video." Occasionally he asks, "where is Caroline?"

"In Heaven," we tell him.

Tomorrow evening will mark the third year since she went there.

The funny thing about some kinds of memories is that they respond to our desire to avoid pain by making themselves scarce. I don't know how the brain works, but I think sometimes this isn't healthy; they store up like water under pressure, and sooner or later they find a way out. What makes the whole process difficult to manage is that when you try to let them out at a safe rate, to "work through things" as therapists and soap opera characters like to say, they all try to come out at once, which only increases our urge to shut them in.

But we can't, and eventually we have to get comfortable living with the memory of what we've already lived through. It's taken me about two and a half years to figure this out, though I suppose it's common knowledge for some.

I think my remembrances are subtly changing. Where before I would turn the worst parts over and over in my mind, letting the sharp edges gouge new holes, now my mind is drawn increasingly to the moments of grace amidst them.

For example, last night I lay awake thinking of that night she died, and my thoughts settled at first on how tired we were in those last weeks. In my dresser I keep a little notebook where we tracked her medications during that time. It's written in columns, one for each primary medication, but I read it in linear time. One of the worst days reads: Benadryl (2:35 AM), Morphine (6:40 AM), Morphine (7:40 AM), Decadron (9:15 AM), Zantac (9:25 AM), Morphine (9:50 AM), Morphine (10:45 AM), Morphine (11:00 AM), Morphine (12:15 PM), Benadryl (12:55 PM), Morphine (1:35 PM), Morphine (2:20 PM), Morphine (2:55 PM), Morphine (4:20 PM), Morphine (5:35 PM), Morphine (6:35 PM), Decadron (7:50 PM); and then eat and shower and sleep until she needed Benadryl at 4:45 AM the next morning.

I don't know why I kept the notebook at first, but now I keep it because it reminds me of the time we lived Philippians 4:13. Eventually her strength failed, and our borrowed strength left us. On that night, after she died, we gave her a sponge bath. We didn't have to be so terribly careful because of the pain; we could just wash her like any other little girl, though for the last time. We brushed what little hair she had left, and dressed her in warm clothes. Then I went downstairs and called our pastor, and then the doctor's phone service.

"What doctor please?"


"Patient's name?"


"Your relationship to the patient?"

"I'm her father."

"And what's the problem?"

"She just passed away."

The women on the other end gasped, and then whispered, "Oh. Thank you."

Back upstairs we sat on our bed holding Caroline while all over town calls were being made, and friends who had long waited to do something sprang into action. Our pastor arrived first. I heard him walk slowly up the steps, and then he was standing in our doorway with a Bible in his hand. He didn't open it, though, he just came to the edge of the bed and took all three of us into his big arms. I never loved him more than at that moment. Then he read something from Revelation, I think ("no more tears nor crying, for all the old things have passed away..."), or maybe a Psalm, and then went downstairs to wait.

Soon after, the home care nurse came to verify that Caroline was dead, though I already knew for sure because I had a stethoscope. We showed her pictures; she hadn't seen what Caroline really looked like, before. I realized it had been months since we last heard those words which we used to take for granted: "You have a beautiful daughter." I don't think she used the past tense, or at least I didn't hear it that way.

Friends gathered in the living room, and soon the mortician was with them, and we knew we had to take her down. I carried her the way I had not in months, cradled like a baby, because the paralysis along her left side was gone now, leaving her limp. I heard some of the women start to softly cry when I appeared at the top of the steps, but all I saw was the gurney waiting by the door.

After some time I put her on its thick blankets. Underneath them was the black body bag.

"Could you wait until you're outside to zip that up?"

"We won't zip it up at all. She'll stay just like that."

The women cared for us for a while, with many "I'm sorry's" and tears. At some point we moved onto the couch in our den, where all the strength that had been propelling me for months disappeared. I heard myself sobbing "my baby, my baby, my baby," and all the women from church, now in the kitchen, grew quiet. I think it's a startling thing to hear a man cry, probably because we don't do it that often, and when we do we tend to do so badly. Suddenly I felt like vomiting, and I was shivering with cold, and my head hurt so bad I could barely see. I heard my pastor, who is also an Eagle Scout, whisper to someone that I was in shock. Eagle Scouts are good at spotting that sort of thing. Someone covered me in a blanket.

Later I called a lot of our family members, who all kept it together on the phone. In a day they would start to arrive in Wichita, and our friends would take care of them, too. Lyle Lovett wrote a song titled, "Since the Last Time," and it's about what a good thing funerals can be for the living, and hers was. The strength returned long enough for me to give the eulogy, and it felt so strange to look down from that pulpit at family spread out in front of her little white casket; I remember thinking I'd never seen them all sit next to each other before. Spread out behind and beside them was our church family, our beautiful family.

A friend videotaped the funeral for us. We asked him to; I wonder if that was tacky. I've never watched it, but I did fast-forward through it once, when I was putting together every bit of her life we captured on tape. In the sanctuary on the wall hung a woven banner, and I realized that our friend had zoomed in on it during part of the service. It reads: "O Death, where is thy victory? O Death, where is thy sting?"

Indeed. The sting lingers with the living, but it fades, and hope shines through. That's a lesson two years and 364 days in the learning.

I think we can hear some things and believe them, but not really know them without experience. So now Paul's words make more sense than they once did: "...but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts..."

We brought Caroline's ashes and flat gravestone with us out of Kansas. Tomorrow I'll dig a place for the stone in the very back corner of our lot under the willow tree, and landscape it with flowers, and we'll put a bench back there. I think that will make October 19th a good day, which it hasn't been for a long time.

posted by Woodlief | link | (46) comments

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Parenting and Discipline

My friend Cis sent me this disturbing story about a father in Texas who used a stun gun to discipline his 8 year-old son. Apparently he kept it on a setting equivalent to a "very bad bee sting," and used it because he found it to be "the only effective method of discipline with the boy."

First, I'm sure the boy is unruly and unpleasant to be around. I'm equally sure that such behavior is the direct result, except in extremely rare cases involving chemical imbalances, of poor parenting. Finally, I'm certain that this case will become one more anecdote in the arsenal of activists seeking to criminalize corporal punishment of children.

I'm humbled because Cis asked my opinion based on her belief that I am a good father. I have two confessions to make. First, I'm not nearly the father I would like to be. Second, the fact that my children are well-behaved is more a product of my wife's work than my own. But I've learned a thing or two from her and other good parents, which I'd like to share with you. I can't speak about this in other than spiritual terms, because to me this is an essential part of our covenant with God. I think much of what I will say can be useful to those of you outside the covenant, however.

Recall that a literal reading of the book of Proverbs yields the following admonition: "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him." Read that again, notice the word "hate." It is no coincidence that modern Americans have transmogrified this passage into "spare the rod, spoil the child." Spoiling children, after all, is something cute that grandparents are supposed to do. The Judeo-Christian scriptures are clear, however, that in the eyes of God, to forego discipline is to hate your child.

This is what I've found to be true both in action and consequence. The parent who does not provide steady discipline for his child is unwilling to endure the pain and hardship required to do so. It is far easier to let poor behavior slide, to give the little darling what he wants, to make him happy today, if only so he'll smile and shut his yap and let us watch the football game. The fact that this happiness is fleeting, and that one purchases it at the cost of future selfishness, is easily overlooked. It is only the parent who truly loves his child and has a vision for the child's future who foregoes short-term pleasure today in order to stem bad behavior. The selfish parent who chooses immediate satisfaction for his child (and, let's not forget, in so doing chooses immediate satisfaction for himself), creates an adult who will be perpetually unsatisfied, incapable of giving sustained effort toward achievement, and profoundly unhappy.

In short, he who spares the rod behaves, in the long run, no differently than someone who hates his child.

Of course there is that question of what one means by "the rod." The problem with corporal punishment is that, like having children, any idiot can do it. Large numbers do it incorrectly, giving the whole enterprise a bad name. Many parents provide inconsistent discipline, and spank out of frustration and anger. Their children simply learn that consequences for their behavior are undependable, sometimes yielding a payoff (i.e., the parent yields, in order to achieve peace), occasionally yielding a beating. They learn that violence is the proper response when one is angry. They learn that the representatives to them of God and law, their parents, are unpredictable and fickle. They do not learn what a good parent should teach them, which is that sin has negative consequences.

The purpose of corporal punishment is not to physically hurt the child. It is to teach him that punishment follows sin. This is, to the Christian, to people of other faiths, and to many secularists, a reality of the universe that must be imparted to the child for his own well-being. It need not really hurt or be very frequent if done properly and begun at an early enough age. Many well-meaning parents make their first mistake by waiting until their child is two years or older before beginning to discipline. Hence the "terrible twos." Many parents -- and the child development experts who abet them -- are highly skilled at dreaming up excuses for the poor behavior of their children. (A word of warning to new parents: someone who warns you that your child will suddenly become more difficult to manage when he is [insert age at which their own parenting fell apart], as if poor behavior were a physiologically determined event, is a poor parent whose advice is useless.)

If you wait until your child is two years old to begin holding him to expectations, you will have trained him to whine, wheedle, cry, scream, lie, and deliberately disobey you to get what he wants. A fool reading this is now saying to himself, "my God, this monster expects us to beat a one year-old." Of course not. Discipline can begin as soon as a child is capable of connecting consequence to action, which means it need not be painful. For example, experienced mothers will tell you that a simple method of keeping a six month-old from biting the nipple when breastfeeding is to gently thump him on the forehead. It won't hurt, but it is irritating. Soon enough he'll learn not to bite. A gentle thump on the hand of a seven month-old when he tries to grab your eyeglasses, along with a stern "No" in a deep (but not raised) voice will teach him not to do so. These practices are easily extended to other areas. By the time your child is one year old, he should understand what "no touch" in a stern voice means, and obey, even though he doesn't understand the literal meaning of these words.

This kind of discipline takes effort. Children are little high-powered observational learning machines, and any lapse in consistency sets you back ten-fold. It is hard, but it is worthwhile, because your job as a parent is not to earn $20,000 for every year in your age, it is not to have a new car every two years, it is not to have a fulfilling career, it is to train up your child in the way he should go. If you do not do this, then you are a failure. No matter what else you achieve, no matter how great is your acclaim among men, you will leave behind on this earth an unhappy and poorly equipped human being, and that is a sorry legacy. Remember that the next time you read about captains of industry and entertainment whose children are utter beasts.

That is not to say that God doesn't love you, or that he won't forgive you, but we should take very seriously this warning: "whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea."

But we started with a question: what to think of the man in Texas who uses a stun gun on his son? He is, of course, a failure as a father, because that kind of violence should never be what is required to gain obedience from a child. He is certainly innovative, however, which should serve him well in prison.

I think perhaps the reason so many people are quick to condemn someone like him, however, is because we need such parental villains to assuage our own guilt over raising children who are spiritually directionless, amoral, and unhappy. We fail to give them the gift of self-discipline, we hand them over to strangers in their early childhood years and to state bureaucrats in their later years, all so we can pursue our own fulfillment, and then we are shocked when neither they nor their own children are truly, deeply, happy.

And that leads to a good question to ask yourself, during what I call the 3 a.m. moment, when you are lying awake, completely stripped of the ability to deceive yourself. Are your children joyful? If you remove them for a day from their toys and their television and their supervised group activities, would they rejoice in simply being alive on God's earth? Do you even know what joy looks like? If so, God bless you and them. If not, God help you.

Finally, because no lecture is complete without a reading list, a few recommendations. The first two are small books written by Michael and Debi Pearl, entitled To Train Up A Child and No Greater Joy. They can be ordered, along with lots of other great parenting materials, at the site linked here. Another great resource is Ted Tripp's Shepherding A Child's Heart, which you can order here. Whether you are a successful parent, or a struggling parent, don't give up hope. This is one of the highest callings someone can have, and God gave you your children for a reason. Don't let them down.

posted by Woodlief | link | (27) comments

Monday, October 14, 2002

Weekend Warrior

As most of you know, we traded our lovely three-story 1912 home in Wichita for a suburban box in Northern Virginia that costs three times as much. Most of the unpacking is done, and my very good friend Lyndal is coming out next weekend to help (let's be honest, to supervise my very unskilled labor) frame and drywall the basement and install a bathroom. So the wife and I decided this weekend would be a good time to plant some trees in our empty yard.

Off to Lowe's we went. After spending well over an hour, at least twenty percent of which involved tracking down the one employee entrusted by the corporation with sensitive information like how much it costs to rent their truck, we had settled on a ten-foot willow, two redbuds, a cherry tree, some other assorted flowering tree-like things, and a dozen azaleas (an opening salvo -- trust me, we'll be back).

Wife: "Don't you think we should just pay the $20 to rent their truck?"

Me: "Nah, we'll just have to lay all these trees down anyway. I can make them fit in the minivan."

Wife: "Are you sure?"

Me: "Oh yeah. No problem."

I asked the cashier for twenty or so large plastic bags, some of which I used to enclose each tree's base, others of which I tied together as rope to rein in the willow's branches. We slowly rolled our cargo to the minivan.

Wife (as I open the back): "Oh I forgot, I have the old paint cans back there."

Me: "Well then. This gigantic Hummer-brand stroller you bought at the yard sale takes up a bit of space too, doesn't it?"

Wife: "Here, let's put the paint up in front of the kids' seats." (translation: honey, lift these enormously heavy boxes of paint cans and cram them into these two really small spaces).

After much fitting and refitting we were on our way. The inside of our minivan was much like I imagine the rainforest, teeming with green things and echoing with the squawks of pygmy natives in the background. Poor Caleb had his legs bunched up to his chest, squeezed from their normal resting place by the Bradley Fighting Vehicle my wife had mistaken for a stroller. He periodically swatted at the willow branch invading his head space, fussing each time, "No, willow, get away. Stop that."

Eli had no quarrel with the redbud branch hanging over his carrier, as we discovered minutes later when we stopped at the Food Lion for baby wipes.

Wife (exiting her seat and opening the side door): "I'll be right back, I just need to get (sound of side door opening, followed by a bang and a splat). . . Oh my God."

Me: "What?"

Wife: "I just got paint everywhere."

I rounded the minivan to find a large growing puddle of white paint on the asphalt, inside the well underneath the floorboard (where the side door's rolling mechanism resides), and along the inside of the side door. The wife ran (so she says) in to buy water and paper towels, leaving me to battle the paint with five old Wendy's napkins. In the midst of my pitiful cleaning effort I looked up to see Eli eating an entire redbud leaf. His eyes met mine, and he gave me a large conspiratorial grin.

"Give me that." He gurgled. "Do you have some in your mouth? Oh, you little stinkpot..." I dug around and extracted a piece of leaf the size of a quarter. "Is there any more in there?" I circled his mouth with my little finger, which he gratefully gnawed with his two teeth.

"Ouch." I pulled back my finger, and he smiled as he grabbed another leaf with great zest. I immediately confiscated it. "Stop that. Stop it." I adjusted the branches, evoking protest from Caleb on the other side of the new greenspace.

"Quit it willow. Quit touching me."

I stooped down to continue cleaning, only to be distracted seconds later by a horrid belching sound from Eli. He had, of course, yakked up the rest of the leaf. He smiled.

"Look at you, covered in your own vomit. Have you no self-respect, man?"

"Da da da da da." Burp. "Da da da."

Eventually the wife realized that I would not in fact be able to clean the minivan with five Wendy's napkins, and so she emerged from the store with a three-gallon jug of water and a roll of paper towels. We proceeded to dilute and mop and wipe, while Caleb griped at the willow and Eli increasingly asserted his wish to be liberated from the baby carrier. We finally hopped into our somewhat cleaner minivan and sped off, leaving a paint can stuffed with wet paper towels on the cement parking lot island.

But I did save $20 by not renting that truck.

posted by Woodlief | link | (9) comments