some FOUND outtakes, vol. 5

January, Epiphany

“The way of the monk and the path of the artist are teachers of slowness, of savoring, of seeing the world below surfaces.”

-Christine Valters Painter

I’m at the grocery store when I miss a call from August’s teacher. I get the voicemail as soon as I load all the groceries into the trunk of the car. He’s sick with a fever. I imagine his curled up body on the classroom couch and groan my regret. I noticed he was slow this morning, extra tired. But I didn’t even check his temperature. I didn’t even consider that he’d have a fever.

I drive to Destination Art and, sure enough, there is my little boy lying on the couch with his head in Teacher Julie’s lap: hot and tender and aching. I gather him against my seven months pregnant body. There is hardly room for him, but he curves to fit me. I think how this is always the case in relationships: we’re changing shapes and still shifting to hold on to one another. I fit him gently into his car seat and drive home.

On Thursdays, I can’t park in front of our new apartment building. The street cleaning truck arrives somewhere between 12 and 2 and August and I usually arrive at home around 1. There are big signs along the side of the road announcing this reality. And the whole side of the road eerily clears out at noon. It empties until the truck with its hard barrel brushes roars through the road, scrubbing asphalt with its thundering roll. I always think what a good monster they’d make, these “street cleaners.” They’re so mysterious. I never see any soap, no chemicals shooting out. Only angry spinning.

Parking cops are just as angry as the road-cleaning monsters. I’ve never met a smiling parking cop. I’m sure it’s because their job is miserable. They’re inundated with frustrated people running behind their little three-wheeled parking carts, screaming, “I was just about feed my meter!” They don’t care. They can’t care or they’d never get their work done.

I feel terrible for August, whose head is slumped against his carseat, sleepy but not quite capable of falling asleep. I can see the fuzzy feeling of fever in his eyes. His belly needs food. And Tylenol. He needs me to hold him and sing him to sleep.

I get to our building an hour earlier than usual. It is only just now 12 o’clock, just as the cars should be moved away from the building. I should be parking a block or two away, something I’m usually able to accomplish without too much interior whining, even if August is asleep. He is usually so exhausted after school that I’ve taken to letting him eat in the car, before he falls asleep empty-bellied. When I park two blocks away, I can usually walk the steep sidewalks home with his lumpy body against mine. It’s downhill. It’s hard but I usually pat myself on the back mentally, admiring my perseverance for combining child rearing and city living.

But today, the two-block walk will not do. I have five grocery bags in my trunk. And I need to at least set them down in the lobby of my building before I try to park the car and carry August the few blocks and two floors to his bed. Eventually I’ll return to the bags. Ugh. Why did I buy so many groceries today? I pull to the curb beside my building and throw the flashers on. Surely the parking attendant will see my “fragile state” and show a little mercy.

I begin the slow work of moving groceries. (All work at I do at this point is slow.) I waddle from trunk to the door, trunk to the door, trunk to door. Our building’s front is a series of a heavy metal gate, a tiny breezeway, and another door behind it. I unlock the gate first and hold it open with my hip. I move the bags from the sidewalk to the entry space, between the gate and the door.

That’s when I look up to see the parking cop pull up behind me. He’s yelling.

“You can’t park here!”

“I know,” I respond. “I’ll move it in a second.”

“No, you’re not hearing me,” he says, this time standing up from his seat in the golf cart and peering at me from over the hood of his tiny white vehicle.

I set the last bag inside the between-space. I push back out of the gate and listen to it clang behind me. I walk toward this man, who appears so angry he could plow me down with his golf cart. His face is what releases my venom. I cannot stand the fierce anger in his eyes.

“Sir, I’m putting my groceries away,” I say, just to let him know that I’m not taking his orders.

“I don’t care what you’re doing. You cannot park here.”

“Sir, I’m not parking here. I’m seven months pregnant and I have a sick child in the car. I’m putting my groceries away.” There’s heat in my veins, pulsing my arms. I don’t talk back often. That’s not my style. But if you’re asking me to do something ridiculous that involves my child, I just might laugh in your face. I want to dare him to have some manners.

I can’t help but mentally flash to the deep problem here: I’m not in Texas, where police walk old ladies across the street and hold open doors for expectant mothers. Where is the common decency? Where is the kindness?

I may be off-balance and carrying a near-full-term baby in my body, but I know two things: 1) I will not let my $100 worth of groceries go to waste in the trunk of the car, and 2) I cannot allow my sick two-year-old to walk two blocks while I carry those groceries. (Also, there’s no possible way my two-year-old is capable of walking two blocks with his fevered toddler legs.)

I stare at the man. I breathe out fire and suck in the cool mid-day January air.

“Sir,” I try again. “My son is sick in the car and needs to be carried. And you can see I’m pregnant so this is how it’s going to be. I’m going to move my bags into the lobby and then I’ll be moving my car.”

I don’t wait for his response. I take a glance at August still in his seat in the car, the window cracked so he gets the fifty degree, cloud covered breeze. He’s fallen asleep in his seat. I turn my back to the parking man. I unlock the gate and step over my groceries to unlock the front door. And one at a time, I move the grocery bags into the lobby beside the door. It takes two minutes.

By the time I turn back around, I’m breathing regular speed and the parking cop is gone. There is no ticket on my window. I unlock the car door, wiggle myself into the seat, and drive up the hill. As soon as I begin to move the car, I hear the street cleaning truck closing in behind me. “Just in time!” I sing to the parking man, wherever he is now. “We made it just in time!”

Also, just in case he’s listening on some other street, I add, as a little note of instruction, “And we would be have been even faster if you’d helped us!”

I don’t think he cares though.

I park two blocks away and carry my boy from down the steep grade toward our building at the bottom of the hill. I find myself praying, thanking God for the lack of a ticket, asking forgiveness for my unpleasant feelings about the parking man (even though I don’t apologize for standing up for myself), and feeling grateful for my sick son. I’m thankful for how he sleeps. I’m thankful for his warm breath on my cheek. Even his hot skin. I’m grateful for the intricate details of his small body: how his insides understand how to do what my consciousness cannot do for him. His body temperature rising on its own volition to fight the infection invading his body. It’s all so miraculous, I think. That he would exist at all. And then that he would exist with a body that, so far, does just what it is supposed to do.

He stirs as I fish for my house key, then open the heavy metal gate and let it clang shut behind me. I unlock and push through the second door, and there, just where I left them are my fresh eggs and the gallon of milk, the vegetables to last us a week. The chicken and the rice and the cereal boxes.

I step past them and across the lobby toward the staircase. It’s a two-story climb before I’m on the other side of the door, inside our two-bedroom apartment. August is moaning and I’m anxious. If he wakes up now, he probably won’t be able to go back to sleep.

“Shhhhhh,” I whisper. “Shhhhh, baby. It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m just getting you some medicine.” I hold him against my shoulder, while squatting in the bathroom to reach the drawer where we keep the thermometer.

“Mommy,” he whines.

“Shhhh,” I whisper. “It’s okay.” I hold the thermometer to his head. It beeps and reads 101, not the best but I’ll take it. Of course, the Tylenol is in the other bathroom. I stand back up, with his body still against mine and I walk to my bathroom. I measure out the pink liquid and whisper again. “Here it is, Aug. Here’s your yummy medicine.” He’s too tired to protest. He opens his mouth like a baby robin, letting me drop whatever I choose inside.

I move with him to his room. I lay him down and he starts crying. “No!” he screams. “Nooooo! I don't wanna go! I don’t wanna!” But he doesn’t know what he wants and doesn’t want. He just knows he needs something. He just knows that all is not right. I let him wiggle around. He sits up in his bed, then he stands up. I help him lie back down. He scoots off the side onto his feet but then falls back down on into a clump on the carpet.

“August, you need to get in your bed.” I pick him up. He screams. So I finally let him have his way. I hand him his blankie. He cries and hollers until he eventually curls himself around it on the floor, still enough to let his eyelids close. I hover close beside him, moving my fingers along the side of his hair, over and over, I move my hand along his head, singing.

How long has it been since I bought the groceries? I wonder. They’re still sitting in the lobby downstairs. I’m running through all there is to do, all that was supposed to be accomplished today. I was going to get work done this morning before I was called in early to pick August up. Tomorrow I have a deadline for my administrative work. I need to get the newsletter stuffed into envelopes and sent out. The house is a wreck. Now the food is going to ruin if August doesn’t fall back asleep pronto. And I’ve just about put myself to sleep on his floor, singing songs and playing with his hair. I’m so tired.

August has stopped moving. His breathing is regular. And his round features, that nose just like his dad’s, those thick eyebrows like mine, they’re all at ease. I stare at him.

That’s when I remember the monks. I remember St. Benedict imploring them: “Hurry to the work of God!” The work of God. I’ve thought of that phrase so many times in this past year. How the work of God is prayer, how that is the work of the monk, not necessarily what is made with the monk’s hands, not what is cleaned or put away. Not even what is given to the monastery or to the outside world. The Work of God is the quiet, unseen work, the work that cannot be calibrated, marked by the measurements of output. There is no accomplishment in the work of God. Does that mean prayer can’t be “accomplished”? Maybe prayer can’t be measured. Maybe it’s a coming back, over and over. Who has ever finished the task of knowing the heart of God, of drawing near to the holy?

I reach my hand out to the hot-red face of my sick child, who has rebelled against the comfort of his own bed and writhed on the ground until there was no where else for him to sleep but in this nest he made himself. And I do what God has done for me over and over, all these thirty-one years. I cover him. I arrange his favorite stuffed shark around him. I try to get a pillow under his head. I hope that he’ll roll close to one of them and feel comforted.

This is my “work of God.” This over and over, this never-done work of rocking and comforting, of carrying down hills, of opening doors and propping them open with my feet, of buying groceries and chopping them up, of wiping eyes and singing soft songs. Over and over and over I come back again. Over and over the bell chimes and here I am in this holy place. Yes, there is work to be done outside of this room. There is a life that is seen, a life that must be calibrated and ordered. There are tasks that must be checked off, bills that must be paid. But here, in the quiet of this room at 1 pm on a Thursday afternoon, I have sung my anxious two-year-old a song until he is sleeping now. I have helped this child get the rest that will fight his virus. And this is the work of God.

I think of all the monks who have chosen their life their work of hurrying to prayer. Never does Benedict say, Hurry into the rest of life! It is only this: to hurry toward God’s presence, to hurry toward the silence.

Yes, leave the groceries in the lobby and rush to your child’s room. That is where the real living is, in the smallest, unknown places. In the places where your child will not remember and where no one will ever cheer for you or make note of your sacrifice.

And here, in this moment, it is all clear. I am doing holy work. This ordinary life holds the secret value that I cannot calculate. Not because being a mother is “the greatest of work” or because God holds some special love for mothers. But  simply because being a mother demands a million tiny moments of the mundane. And God is always present, in the smallness.

I stand up and close the bedroom door behind me. I walk down the stairs to the bags of groceries and I throw as many straps over my shoulder as possible. And then I hike the steps to the kitchen. I do it again. And then I put each ordinary piece of food away. “All the vessels of the monastery,” I say out loud.  I open the milk and sniff it. It’s still good.

  Apparently https://www.paperovernight.com in this past year cbs chose to focus more on diversity and less on the gmat