Did I ever tell you about our house in Wichita? It was a beautiful, three-story, 1912 box colonial, with hardwood floors and the kind of molding that our nation has forgotten how to produce. The den had a fireplace of painted brick, a tin ceiling, and wood-paneled walls (1920-style, not 1970) with an etched and painted chair rail that matched a pattern painted on the edges of the polished floor. The master bedroom had a sitting room and a bathroom big enough to significantly lower the odds of divorce.
And space? Oh, the space! Five bedrooms, and a full, finished basement. It was embarrassing, the space we had. The doors were the thick heavy kind, built back when we still knew how to manufacture a good solid tree in this country. The wiring was outrageous, the venting antiquated, the foundation stronger than a preacher's promise.
Our house had a detached garage in the back, and over that garage was a small apartment. The couple who bought it announced that they were going to put a handicapped relative back there. We took extra care making some needed repairs to its floor.
Fast-forward a year and a half. A young friend visited our old house, on the off-chance that the apartment might be available to rent. It turns out that it isn't available, but not because someone is living in it. "My husband made it into his playroom," the wife told her.
His playroom. They have one child and one big dog (which lives in the house with them, where it clatters across those beautiful floors). But the husband needs his own playroom.
I had dinner with three men Tuesday night, each of them wiser than I. The talk turned to leadership, and each of them had something wise to say about what he's learned in this area. Eventually one of them looked at me and asked, "So, Tony, what have you learned about leadership?"
I confessed that I've learned I'm not very good at it. I'm adequate at work, but I fail in the places that matter most -- in the world, in the church, most of all in my home. They nodded in commiseration. None of us is happy with his performance in these latter domains. The world cries out, I said, and so do our churches and our wives, for men who will lead, who will say "this is right, and that is wrong, and I will stand with what is right."
But instead we remain silent when good is pronounced evil, and evil, good. We pray silently in those moments, or worse, we signal agreement lest we offend anyone. We slouch in the back of our churches when volunteers are needed, and ask the women to be God's hands. Even in our own homes we expect our wives to raise the children and keep us on a good spiritual track.
The world cries out for leaders, and we build playrooms.
A passage of scripture that has always stuck with me is God's first conversation with Moses. God told Moses that he would use him to deliver the people of Israel from Pharaoh's rule. Moses replied by doubting God's choice of messenger. Next he asked what he was supposed to tell people who questioned his authority. Then he asked what to do if the Egyptians wouldn't listen. Then he tried to wiggle out of the task altogether by pointing out what a poor public speaker he was. Finally, Moses simply begged God to use somebody else: "Please, Lord, now send the message by whomever you will."
Anybody, that is, but me. Isn't that what we've grown accustomed to saying? Let somebody else lead. Let somebody else draw a line in the sand and declare to what is evil and destructive around us, "You will shall not pass."
I haven't written much about Caroline for the past year. I felt like I should just be done with this. So I put all my energy into other writing. But she is always there, lingering in the back of my mind. Sometimes she is an image, sometimes she is an invisible presence, but she is always there.
There's a book to be written about her, and us, and what I think we learned, though I'm still learning it. I know there's a book because I have the pieces scattered throughout notebooks and thoughts and memories, some sweet and some heartbreaking. I wrote another book instead, though now I'm not sure why.
Maybe I figured I was still learning, that the time had not yet come to lay it all out and make sense of it. But now I see that I'm getting to a place where I can no longer avoid the last things, which when distilled are my horror over what I saw in her final weeks, and my anger at an all-powerful God who sat in silence while it happened.
I suspect I will only get through those last things by writing about them. Counselors don't work, prayer doesn't work, and avoidance has only wrecked things. Of course the first two haven't really failed, because I haven't really tried them, not wholeheartedly, anyway. Instead I've focused most of my energy on the last strategy. And the wreckage is darn near total.
Many times since last March 7th I've thought one thing, which is that this was supposed to be the Indian Princess year. I remember learning about the Indian Princesses from a friend whose daughter was seven at the time. It's a club where dads and their little girls get together and sing and play games and do all the fun dress-up stuff that girls like, but with enough of a frontier flavor that dads don't feel like complete sissies.
I wanted Caroline to be an Indian Princess, but she was only three, and the minimum age was seven. I remember thinking that I didn't want to wait four more years. I didn't understand waiting the way I do now.
So last year was supposed to be the year I took my Indian Princess to play with her little friends, and the year I looked at her in amazement over the fact that she could sit for an hour and just read (homeschooled kids are smart that way, you know), and the year she helped me cook, and the year the beginnings of a mommy could be seen in her as she helped mind her brothers.
Instead it was another year of wondering if she's the same age in heaven or if they grow older there, and wondering if she misses us or even remembers us. It was another year of wondering if the way heaven works is that you look back over your shoulder and see the people you love passing through the veil behind you, so that separation is only a moment in God's time. It was another year of remembering her laid out on a gurney as they rolled her out my front door, and waking up in the middle of that first night terrified that maybe she wasn't really dead but lying awake in a cold room at the mortuary, crying for her mommy and daddy.
It was another year of knowing that I don't have an Indian Princess; I have a dead daughter, and God let it happen.
But I also have a loving wife and two sweet little boys, and in between the times that I worry I will lose them, too, I am thankful, I swear I am. But I can't figure it out. Why answer every prayer but that one? What purpose did it serve, not just that she died, but that she died like that?
I demanded a miracle and didn't get one, and I'm mad as hell about it. That's the nature of selfishness. It's so much easier to love God when he doesn't let us hurt. And now I'm supposed to trust him with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding, as the proverb goes.
You think when you lose your child that you'll dream about her all the time. I've only dreamt of Caroline a handful of times in the four years since she died. I dreamt about her this morning, on her birthday. We were at the end of her days again, the time when she couldn't move and even her mouth was clamped shut because of the tumor. The doctors wanted us to let her starve to death. Their children weren't hungry, so far as I know.
In those last weeks I would hold her in my lap, with a roll of paper towels and a couple of cans of vitamin drink on the bedside table, and I would slowly dribble the drink between her clenched teeth, and then wipe the spill from her face. It took about four or five hours a day to feed her, because only a few drops at a time would go in.
There I was in that place again, only something changed in the middle of it, and Caroline was gone, and it was me being fed through a mouth that refused to open. In my dream I knew it was God holding me and doing the feeding, though now I don't know how I knew this.
I've only recently begun to understand grace -- how a perfect and mysterious God can forgive transgressions like the ones I've committed. I understand it by looking at my own children. No matter what they do, I will always love them. Somehow, for some reason, God looks at his children that way. I can't fathom it, but I think that's how it works.
And yet somehow he lets us suffer. This is a mystery that I can't unlock, perhaps because it isn't mine to figure out, at least not here. I feel his grace around me, and I see his blessings, and yet I carry this wound that won't seem to heal. I'm not sure if that's because I won't let it, or because I've not yet cleaned it, for fear of what that entails.
Let it go or dig into it -- there's a dilemma for you doctors of the soul out there. Sometimes it seems like there are so many of you, writing books and drifting over the airwaves offering solace, and yet I don't want to hear from anyone who has all his children healthy and happy on this earth. Talk to me about God working all things together for good when you've put a child back into the ground.
There is no comfort in leaning on my own understanding, because it leads me back to that anger. Instead I try to live the 42nd Psalm. "Why are you in despair, O my soul?" When we ask this we ask it not of ourselves, but of the God who, as Bebo Norman wrote, sometimes can't be found. "I will say to God my rock, 'Why have you forgotten me?'" If David could ask it, perhaps I can too, and God will forgive me for forgetting that he surrounds me even when I cannot feel his presence.
I only meant for this to be a couple of lines about Caroline on her eighth birthday, and now look what I've done. There's more here -- a book, in fact, but not for this place, and not today. So enough for now.