To ride on his own

bike ride

And on this splendid summer day, a boy learned to ride his bike.

He zoomed down the alley while Dad jogged behind him and Mom stood with the baby, holding up her camera. The boy couldn’t quite understand the funny look on Mom’s face — was she smiling or crying? Maybe both?

“Wonderful, wonderful,” she kept saying. And it was wonderful to push through the wobbles and ride strong and steady, to feel the slight breeze on his face, to gain speed, to move through the city all by himself. What kind of adventures awaited him this summer? Where would he go? Who would he become?

Head held high, he raced into the night.

Newborn standard time

These are the days of
his small head nestled
against my chest
skin — velvet smooth, unmarred by time —
to
skin — a soft place
to
dream,
drink,
rest,
grow (some days,
I swear, I can see
him thickening
in the shelter of my arms)
and some days blur into nights
cradling him close
feeding
and being fed
by his warmth
our two hearts
beating in sync
his slate blue eyes
searching for mine,
which of course, are bloodshot
and glad (some nights, I swear, holding him
feels like heaven on earth)
some nights
I feel suffocated
by all he needs
and these are the nights that blend into days
when golden light lingers
at the edge of the crib
each day becoming a little longer
as if to say,
“Take heart,
change is coming,
so be sure to
treasure these days.”

A prayer for my son after his fifth birthday

Dear Jack,

The morning you turned five, you rocketed out of your bed first thing and crawled into ours. I held you close and wished you a happy birthday. I asked, “Are you excited to be five?” You squealed “Yes!” and woke up your father.

The night before I’d baked you a chocolate birthday cake with blue buttercream frosting and a Superman cake topper, just like you requested. You love blue, and Superman is your favorite hero. At bedtime, you always ask for “a little superhero story” featuring him, you and our dog, “Super Gussy.”

I’m not sure how or when you decided Superman was your favorite hero. All I know is after you were born, your grandmother gave me a stuffed bear dressed in a Superman shirt and cape. I think she meant it to represent me, though I felt anything but heroic. Nothing about your birthday had gone according to plan — and I love a good plan —  resulting in an emergency c-section for me and your stay in the NICU. Honestly, I thought I’d failed you. 

Yet five years later, I can see the strength in both of us. You bravely scale trees and the heights of playgrounds. You’re sounding out phonics so well and on the verge of reading. You love science experiments and going to swim lessons. I’m proud of the super boy you’ve become, with your kind heart, generous spirit and boundless imagination. I’m grateful for all I’ve learned by mothering you.

My prayer for you at five is that, when faced with conflict, you’ll make a heroic choice. That you’ll voice your values and strive for peaceful resolution. 

I pray you keep noticing the beauty of creation and urging me to join you. 

I pray you continue loving and learning from stories — from your children’s Bible, favorite shows and books that inspire you. I trust you’ll glean empathy and wisdom from grappling with difficult stories.

I pray you see yourself and everyone you meet as a beloved child of God, including those who think, pray or look differently than you.

Most of all, I pray you know how deeply Dad and I love you and how deeply your Creator loves you. That you keep sharing that love with your neighbors near and far.

Love,
Mom

Because one day . . .

Lately my desire to document the days has felt stronger than usual.

Maybe it’s because my due date is rapidly approaching. And that our firstborn turns five at the end of January, which means kindergarten’s on the horizon for him.

The days of big belly kicks and no diapers will be ending soon, and I want to remember what life looked like before our family expands.

Because one day Jack won’t fit in my lap when it’s “time for watching.”

One day he won’t dash into our bed upon waking and shimmy next to me under the warm covers.

One day he won’t scatter Hot Wheels like breadcrumbs near the baseboards, in the bookshelves or across the coffee table.

One day he won’t subsist on Cheez-Its, hot dogs and small gulps of air.

One day he won’t want to wear “cozy pants” with his favorite Superman shirt, worn soft from overuse.

One day he won’t say, “Wanna hear some rock-n-roll?” and plink the keys on his tiny piano. (Actually, I’m fine losing the tiny piano.)

One day he won’t race around the yard in circles, breathless at the sight of stars.

One day he won’t craft jewelry out of pipe cleaners and beads and present it to me proudly.

One day he won’t ask his dad to build him a race car from a giant cardboard box.

One day he won’t make snow angels and sand angels and leaf angels with glee.

One day he won’t cup my face in his hands and kiss my lips before he falls asleep.

One day his habits will change and his whole perspective will widen.

Because one day soon he’ll be a big brother. What a gift to see him grow.

// Inspired by Joy Becker’s “Because one day you won’t” series.

The gifts of waiting (newsletter sneak peek)

The following meditation comes from my December 2021 issue of Nourish, which went out to subscribers earlier this month:

Dear reader,

Here we are in Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s a season when Christians anticipate celebrating Jesus’ birth and the promise he will come again. It’s also a time when people of varied beliefs practice waiting. But what does it mean to wait? Here are three gifts I’ve gleaned from this spiritual discipline.


Waiting for wonder

We’re standing in line for “It’s a Small World.” Wiggly kids, sullen teenagers and tired parents crowd the enclosures surrounding us. Every few minutes, our group inches closer to the ride. After a morning of walking, my feet feel leaden.

“I don’t want to go on this ride!” my son says, yanking his hand from mine and pointing his torso toward the exit. He looks like he may bolt. “I want a hot dog.”

I sigh. I want to collapse on this cement floor or abandon Disneyworld altogether and float in the pool at the house we’re renting, ideally with a cocktail. (Too bad I’m pregnant.)

Instead, I catch Jack in my arms and hoist him onto my hip. “A hot dog does sound good. You can have one after we get off this ride,” I say, rubbing his back. “It’s hard to wait, isn’t it?”

Jack agrees, snuggling his head into my neck. The weight of his 38-pound frame combined with the babe in my belly presses down on me. The ride at the end of this queue promises wonder. Meanwhile, this posture is so uncomfortable. My husband Jay sees a look of pain cross my face and steps in to carry Jack. We move forward together.


Waiting for a child

According to my pregnancy app, my baby’s now the size of a cantaloupe. But tonight, all I can think of is his foot (or elbow?) jutting into my left rib cage. I shift from sitting upright on the bed to leaning on my husband to lying on each side, attempting to dislodge it.

“Home Alone” plays on the screen ahead of us. The last time I watched this movie must have been in the 90s, after it came out. Jay and I can’t help but see the character Kevin, with his bright blonde hair and playful eyes, as a preview of our son at eight. We agree that this movie hits differently now that we’re parents. My eyes well when Kevin finally reunites with his mother, and when the rest of his big family bursts in the door.

Soon our little family will grow from three to four. Our miracle, due this February, has been a prayer of mine for several years. At times, my longing for another child resembled an ache no medicine could soothe. Now, anticipating this gift brings a smile to my lips. Only a couple more months to go, I think, unless baby boy surprises us. Just then he turns over in my womb, offering relief and the reminder that change is coming – and change is happening.


Waiting for an answer

A book update: My coauthor and I are waiting for some news about our proposal. This wait over all the other ways writers are called to wait — for pitch replies, for revisions, for payment, for an agent — has been the hardest of my career. I’ve questioned my vocation more times that I’d like to admit. I’ve heard feedback that’s brought about despair. So I’ve recommitted to the work of writing. To trusting that, whatever happens with this proposal, I’ll keep writing.

Writing nourishes my soul like nothing else. Writing is my gift to others. Writing is worship. Being faithful to this call, rather than fearful of failure, is the stance I’ve adopted. I wait for an answer with open hands. I wait, committed to serving.


The gifts of Advent

Waiting for wonder, waiting for a child, waiting for an answer – it all sounds a bit like Advent, doesn’t it?

Waiting for wonder teaches that, however uncomfortable waiting can feel, we rarely wait alone. We experience the season of Advent with others, and this community is a gift to cherish. We can lean on each other for support and hope as we do the hard work of waiting.

Waiting for a child reminds of the duality of Advent: our days can be both painful and joyful, and their potency demands we pay attention to the present. Of Advent Henri Nouwen writes, “Waiting, then, is not passive. It involves nurturing the moment, as a mother nurtures the child that is growing in her.”

Finally, waiting for an answer allows us to loosen our grip on our perceived control. During Advent, we’re beckoned to shift trust from ourselves to a higher power, in my case, God, though for some it could be love or Christmas generosity. We adopt a posture of surrender while maintaining hope.

I don’t know what you’re waiting for this Advent. Maybe it’s for another season to begin. Maybe it’s test results. Faith. A new home. The feeling you’ve arrived. Whatever the case, know this: in the waiting, you are growing.

Keep awake. Stay attuned to all that Advent allows you to see, feel and experience. Know that waiting eventually ends, making room for peace, love and wonder.

If you enjoyed what you read, will you sign up to receive my monthly newsletter in your inbox? To learn more and subscribe, click here.

Diary of another day

as part of the #onedayhh challenge led by Laura Tremaine, I captured a handful of moments from November 9, 2021:

begin

7 a.m. // When I get back from a long, hot shower, I find my boys waiting for me in bed. I’d hoped to sneak in some writing, but our schedule’s off due to daylight saving time. Wrapped in my bathrobe, I climb into bed and snuggle my son and our dog. “You know what day it is, Jack?” I ask. My son shakes his head side to side. “It’s Gus’ sixth birthday!” I reply. We sing happy birthday and give Gus some extra pets before starting our day.

8 a.m. // I finally sit down to breakfast after feeding both boys, taking the dog out and getting dressed. It’s day two of what will be a 10-day solo-parenting stint while my husband travels for work. I’m already tired. Jack, still in his Star Wars pajamas, peruses a catalogue filled with holiday gifts for kids. “Mommy, look at all the toys!” he squeals. “Which is your favorite?” “Which is yours?” I counter. “All of them!” he replies. I chuckle and take a sip of my coffee. “Remember to pick your very favorite things as ideas for Santa. You won’t get everything you want.”

9 a.m. // I’m home after dropping Jack at preschool with a kiss and the words, “I love you, buddy. Be kind today.” As he entered his classroom, I sheepishly handed his teacher an extra sock. (He’d refused to wear both socks this morning and I didn’t feel like arguing.) Leaves confetti the streets of my neighborhood with color. The sight causes me to release an exhale I didn’t know I was holding. Before entering my home to begin my workday, I pause and give thanks for the beauty of this day.

10:30 a.m. // Pen in hand, I line edit a story about a Midwestern ministry. Two things are top of mind for me as I work: How does the writing reflect the dignity of each person in this story? What needs to change, if anything, to engage the reader in this narrative? Mid-way through the piece, I realize I have more questions for its writers related to structure, so I shoot off an email requesting a call.

work + play

12:30 p.m. // Gus paws at my leg, letting me know it’s time for his mid-day walk. I finish my lunch and root around for my walking shoes and his harness. Once we’re ready, I burst out the door, inhale the fresh fall air and jog down our stoop. Steps into our walk, I greet a friend and neighbor who’s just brought her little one back from music class. Later, I pop in ear buds and listen to the newest episode of the Coffee + Crumbs podcast featuring one of my favorite writers, Shauna Niequist. During the episode, she says something I know I’ll need to copy in my journal: “The more we invest in our health and healing, the more we have to offer the people in our homes. Most of us get that math backward.”

2:30 p.m. // Time to face the blank page. I’ve just hopped off a call with the freelance writers whose work I edited this morning. Now I need to finish my assignment. I’m covering the work of an agency that’s helping resettle Afghan neighbors in the U.S. As I run through my interview notes, this quote unsettles me: “the trauma these families and children are facing is massive.” I close my laptop. With folded hands, I offer silent prayer for peace and wholeness.

4:30 p.m. // “Welcome to my castle!” my son cries, surveying the playground next to his preschool. We’re catching the last drops of daylight before nighttime descends on our city. My little prince beckons me inside to show me around, then abandons his throne at first sight of the tire swing. A sliver of crescent moon brightens the quickly darkening sky. Cool air wraps around my body. I push Jack’s swing, and watch him spin. He smiles back at me, eyes shining. Dinner beckons, but we linger, drinking in this sacred, mundane moment on a cool night in November.

rest

6:15 p.m. // Jack turned up his nose at my original dinner plan — bean tacos — so we’re eating leftovers. I’ve heated up a bowl of African Peanut Soup for me and a hot dog in a whole wheat bun plus carrots and peas for him. We both munch crisp red grapes on the side. Between bites, Jack asks *me* about my day. I share that I especially enjoyed our visit to the playground, then volley the question to him. “I’m so excited to make a treat for Gussy’s birthday!” he exclaims. After dinner, we’ll make a “pupcake” for Gus’ birthday using a recipe I Googled.

7:15 p.m. // Gus gobbles up his pupcake. Jack tries a few bites of the extra one we baked, declaring it “dis-GUST-ing!” I giggle, rubbing our dog’s coat. “I think Gussy loved it.”

8:15 p.m. // While I read Dream Animals by Emily Winfield Martin, Jack leans back against my already-too-big pregnant belly. His brother jabs my rib cage, asserting his presence. I close the book and Jack crawls into bed without much protest. I sing him “Goodnight My Someone,” a favorite lullaby. Before prayers and a final hug, Jack’s already snoring.

9:15 p.m. // I let Gus out for the last time, make a cup of Nutty Almond Cream tea and cozy up in bed for some me-time. First things first: finish writing this post. Then I hope to dive into my latest read, Regina Porter’s The Travelers, which explores racism, aging and the search for meaning. A yawn overtakes me, then another. I don’t have long before I’ll fall asleep myself.

I must confess, I almost didn’t participate in this challenge because I was afraid. This morning a voice from within asked gently, Self, who told you to be afraid of taking up space? I’m still pondering this question, however, asking it emboldened me to act.

Something miraculous and mysterious happens when we voice our stories — we give others permission to claim theirs too. I hope we keep telling the truth about our lives. I hope we make extra room for those whose stories have been traditionally ignored. I hope we hear and amplify the voices of others, especially those unlike us. May we practice the holy work of showing, telling and listening again and again.

He is four

at four

He is brightness and joy,
the glow of the warm sun
rupturing cloud cover.

He is the boom-boom-pop of fireworks,
the roar of the mighty lion,
laughter rising from my belly.

He is crisp apple slices
and ooey gooey cheese pizza,
chocolate chip cookies fresh outta the oven.

He is “Follow me!”
“Come to me, Mommy!”
and “Just one more story?”

He is Hot Wheels races,
Magna-Tiles with Daddy,
our brave superhero.

He is not what they say boys are: hard.
He is sweet and strong,
wild and tender.

He is the leap of faith,
the spark of curiosity,
“Who is God?” and “Where is Jesus?”

He is scaling a sand dune,
chasing the tide,
pointing me to beauty.

He is the bubble bath, the fuzzy robe,
the last kiss before lights out.

He is not the seeker nor the one who hides but
the feeling of being found.

He is a prayer
and its answer.

// Celebrating my son, who turned 4 at the end of January.

Heroes and villains

All I can think of is the news — the violence at our nation’s Capitol, the security breaches, the deaths, the racism on display. Worry lodges itself in my stomach while I scroll, scroll, scroll, searching for answers. The question I keep coming back to: Who have we become?

My son only wants to talk about superheroes. He suggests he could use his “powers” to help. He says it sounds like people are really angry. We often talk about how, when we’re angry, it’s easier for us to hurt others.

“They are,” I answer. “And it’s not our job to fix this, the Justice Department will do it.” I pause. I am not sure I believe my own words. I go on, “Everyone who made bad choices that day will be held accountable; some will need a long time out.”

My son is in preschool, and we are trying to teach him about the difference between right and wrong. We want him to know that God created this world and everyone in it and called it good. We want him to know there are no bad people, only good and bad choices.

This is what I’m thinking about at bedtime, while we read from his book of 5-Minute Marvel Stories. Captain America must block MODAK, an alien bent on taking over the universe with the aid of mind-controlled creatures. Once the hero breaks communication between the villain and his minions, the minions are freed. “I’m glad they’re okay, Mommy,” my son says, and I give him a squeeze. He has a tender heart, just like his mama.

As I kiss his head and wish him goodnight, I wonder what it would take for us to free ourselves from seeing our neighbors as villains. I know it’s easy to cast myself in the role of hero, rather than admit my faults. I know the story we read is missing repentance and reconciliation, true justice and mercy, grace and healing. It’s missing a hero who modeled the way of love. What will it take for us to write a new story? What will it take for us to create a just society?

We need to use our powers. We need to pursue the path of love. We need to speak out against hate. But we can’t do it alone.

“Hey buddy,” I ask, curling up in bed alongside my son. “Can we pray?”

The alchemy of delight

“…the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.”
—Ross Gay

It’s raining again. Gray drenches the sky and crimson leaves confetti slick sidewalks. I sit in my orange writing chair finishing an assignment when my preschooler pretzels his body over mine, presses his face in close and demands, “Dance with me! Dance with me!”

“Not now buddy,” I sigh, patting his back. “I’m working.” I have five more minutes to myself before I begin my *regular* workday.

“Just a little bitty bit?” Jack says, his voice rising. He’s tugging at my hands so I might spin him ’round the living room, serenaded by the soundtrack of Frozen.

“I’m. Working.”

“A teensny bit?”

“I’m sorry honey; I can’t right now,” I say, giving him a half hug. “You know I’d love to, but I have to work. Daddy’s watching you today. Ask Daddy.” Jack scampers off while I turn my attention back to the screen. Damn. Already 9 a.m. I snap my Macbook shut and retrieve my work-issued Surface.

Recently, I scrolled across an Instagram comic called, “A portrait of the artist as a mother with a day job.” With each square the artist at work is interrupted by competing duties the call of “Mom!,” the ding of a text message, a Zoom meeting invitation until she is drowning in word bubbles. Her person and her art aren’t visible in the final picture.

I felt SEEN.

The artist is certainly privileged to have a day job that allows her to work at home, but with her kid in the mix, her time is punctuated by interruptions. All those competing demands for her attention literally bury her joy.

Fingers to keyboard, I rifle through work emails for a bit and then Jack is back, snuggling himself under the blanket that covers my shoulders.

“Jack?” I say in my stern-but-kind teacher voice. “What are you doing over here?”

“Tickle me! Tickle me!” He’s splayed himself out over my lap now, eyes wild.

Raising the Surface up and away from his body, I say, “Not now honey.” My inbox shows I have some magazine galleys to edit. I wiggle my free fingers under Jack’s armpits, half-shouting, “WHERE is your father?” Jack erupts in a fit of laughter; my terse mouth gives way to a smile.

//

At lunchtime, Jack and his father stand in the kitchen, sparring over the menu. As of late, Jack’s “best food ever” is Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup, a one-time purchase for a sick tummy that became an oft-requested grocery item. Jack wants soup today. Jay wants him to eat something substantial. Finally, they settle on Lipton with a hot dog.

Now that the kitchen is tranquil, I slip in to refill my empty water bottle. I’m rubbing my tired eyelids when Jay cocks his head to the side and asks, “How are you doing?”

I take a swig of water before answering. “I got my period this morning,” I say. (I don’t say: Again. After months of us trying for baby.) “You know how I’m doing.”

His lips form a frown and I wave off further discussion. I announce I am going to take a shower.

“That sounds like a good idea,” he says, offering a sad smile. I’m turning toward the stairs when he adds, “These hot dogs are going to go bad tomorrow. What do you wanna do with them?”

In the bathroom, I turn the shower knob up to the hottest setting and step into a steaming stream. Hot water pelts my face, and I think of all the times in 2020 I’ve shared a cry with this shower.

Ross Gay writes in his The Book of Delights about the human need to hold joy alongside hardship. I like that I can claim two emotions side by side and allow one to enhance the other. Like a good cry in a hot shower.

//

Afternoon sun drifts into the kitchen while I slice halved hot dogs down the middle. I nestle thick dominoes of cheddar inside then wrap the affair with a triangle of Pillsbury crescent dough.

“Mom, what are you doing?” Jack’s back in the kitchen.

“Hey bud. I’m making something special for my lunch,” I answer, rolling a dog in dough. “We had some extra hot dogs we needed to use up. Want to help?”

Jack locates his step stool and sidles up beside me to observe the slicing and stuffing. I suggest he help wrap, but he’s already distracted, digging around in his old play drawer in our kitchen. When Jack was a toddler, we filled up this drawer with cooking nicknacks just for him at the urging of his first daycare teacher. The items inside were perfect for busying little hands while we were cooking. Now Jack’s going on 4 and Jay keeps saying we should clean out this drawer and fill it with “useful things,” but I don’t have the heart to change it. Part of me hopes we could use that drawer with another baby.

By the time the cheesy crescent dogs are in the oven, I notice some placemats on the hardwood floor just outside our kitchen.

“Jack-Jack,” I chirp, pointing to the placemats, “what’s that?”

“I’m making a picnic,” he replies, grinning.

“Well, that is just the sweetest thing!” I praise, watching him place tiny wooden appetizer plates onto each placemat. All items from the play drawer.

“Here are extra spoons,” he adds, laying some plastic baby spoons down and pointing to his setup.

“That is very thoughtful, Jack,” I say, turning to slice some Gala apples and cucumbers. “The food should be done in 10 minutes and then we can have our picnic!”

Seated on the dusty hardwood and holding a wooden appetizer plate topped with Gala slices, cucumber and a cheesy crescent dog, I’m grinning. Each doughy, salty morsel transports me back to childhood. I tell Jack that my mom used to make these for me when I was little.

“Well, when I was a little kid… ” he starts, snuggled in the lap of his father, launching into an elaborate, made-up tale about ancient Ooo-gypt (Egypt).

I lock eyes with Jay and we share a chuckle at our little storyteller. He’s shifted the tone of an otherwise dreary day in the time of coronavirus. There are dozens of moments like this one, if we look closely.

Gay in his book of essays goes on to say that “witnessing delight, of being in and with one’s delight, daily … requires vigilance.” Life lately feels like being buried in obligations, but ticking back through today prompts me to wonder, are all those little heartaches actually signposts of blessings?

Perhaps digging for delight is an act of faith.

“It’s the little things,” Jay remarks, holding my gaze while Jack chomps his cheesy crescent dog.

“It’s the little things,” I repeat, thinking maybe I will write about this. Then I take another bite of joy.

This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in this series “Unexpected Joy.”

Joy at the water

“I just feel… trapped.” 

I sigh this into my phone for what must be the 200th time in 2020. My therapist’s on the other line, likely sighing alongside me. She asks what’s trapping me.

It isn’t one thing, rather, it’s everything, I say, listing off the usual suspects — coronavirus, global warming, our lack of childcare, nonstop deadlines, mounds of dishes. I know we’re lucky. I should be grateful. Right now, I’m not.

She hmms and ahhhs, nudging me on. Searching deeper, I confess a greater truth: I’m worried about my husband.

A cancer survivor, Jay’s been wrestling with health concerns during this pandemic. What’s more, his small business was adversely affected by it, and contract work is sparse. He’s not as happy as he once was. Then again, neither am I. With so many uncertainties ahead, Anxiety’s ensnared us and stalled any hope of forward motion.

I miss my pre-pandemic husband.

I miss my pre-pandemic self.

Later, my therapist asks a pivotal question: “If you were free, where would you go?”

I inhale sharply. Free to go anywhere? The thought feels too sinful to entertain. I imagine one glorious night alone in a hotel room where I read and write for hours, take a long, hot shower and sleep without fear of my preschooler rousing me. This isn’t a dream I can realize without abandoning Jay, so I dream bigger — I dream for us.

It all comes rushing out in a breath: All the Chicago beaches are closed, but two hours away there’s this little beach town called South Haven where a favorite author spends her summers, and through her words I’ve learned so much about it, and it seems like a nice place to vacation. Maybe we’d rent a house there. We could watch our son Jack play in the sand for hours.

“Why don’t you?” My therapist’s voice is playful, almost teasing. For years she’s been my confidante and my lifeline, offering simple yet revelatory suggestions such as “Be gentle with yourself” and “Try taking a daily walk and see what happens.” Her advice has never failed me.

My dream takes root. It will be weeks before I decide to act.

***

What you need to understand about cancer is that it can’t be fully understood. 

Cells in our bodies are dividing every day – skin, hair, nails and so on. Occasionally they go rogue and divide like wildfire, creating tumors, some benign, others malignant. Those malignant tumors are cancer. Scientists have determined that genetics and environment influence those imperfect divisions, but much is still unknown. 

For example: How does a perfectly healthy 32-year-old who weight lifts, eats his oatmeal and generally has a stress-free outlook get cancer?

Cancer is a thief in the night who steals the one possession that always grounded you — the good health you took for granted. I write knowing that that story is Jay’s, not mine, to tell.

Yet ever since Jay had cancer in 2018, it’s colored my outlook. Life is short and cancer is a constant reminder of its brevity. There is always one more test, one more scan for recurrence lurking around the corner, determining our future. 

Jay’s evaded death before, so COVID-19 scares us more than your average Americans. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe not.

Cancer is a thief.  

***

One Sunday night in August, I flip open my laptop, determined to book us that beach house. While Jack sleeps and Jay plays video games in the basement, I meticulously search VRBO for rentals in South Haven, eventually settling on one with a pretty blue kitchen, three beds and two bathrooms, a cozy couch and elegant, arched doorways. It’s open the weekend after Labor Day, a time when the beach won’t be crowded. I consult no one and press “Book Now,” grinning at my secret.

Etching the dates for our long weekend into my otherwise empty planner, I pause, trying to recall when Jay’s next CT scan happens. I don’t believe I’ve created a schedule conflict, but I’ll need to check with him. I finish the entry, planting a seed of hope. 

The next morning, I share the news with Jay. To my surprise, he OKs the trip, which lands just after his scan but right before he’ll receive test results. My stomach in knots, I ask if he wants to reschedule. He waves me off. 

We invite Jay’s parents to join us. We decide that we’ll all quarantine the week leading up to the trip so everyone feels safe and comfortable. 

A month later, I stuff beach towels and sunscreen in my suitcase, flanked by Jack, who bounces back and forth pleading, “Is it vacation? Is it vacation? I want to see Nana and Papa!” He hasn’t seen Jay’s parents since Christmas. I smile wearily and say, “Soon, buddy, soon!” 

Vacation cannot come soon enough. 

***

The house is just like its pictures, with the blue kitchen, cozy couch and arched doorways. 

Seeing my mother-in-law Jane reunited with Jack, I blink back tears. “Nana!” he cries again and again, beaming and running to her. Jay and his father bend their heads toward each other, deep in conversation. I order pizza and treat the adults to a serving of my homemade sangria. That night, I go to bed full and happy. I don’t think of cancer at all. 

The next day, we flock to the beach after breakfast. It’s breezier than I’d hoped, but the sun soars high and clear in the cloud-speckled sky, warming our shoulders. 

Once our feet hit the sand, Jack rockets toward the water. 

Jane and I keep watch, scanning the blue-gray waves as they roll in and out, sweeping the sand smooth repeatedly. As Jack frolics, I remark to Jane, “There’s something healing about the water.” She nods vigorously. To our right, Jay lounges on a beach towel, soaking up sunshine. I feel the tightness in my chest loosen, and wonder if he feels the same.

After lunch, we trek to a beach called Pilgrim’s Haven. Stones of all shapes and sizes blanket the shore and I realize we’ve unwittingly hit a home run with Jack — he’s currently obsessed with rocks and gemstones. Jack scampers off, picking through them one by one. 

Jay and his father stand at the water’s edge, skipping stones. I imagine them tossing our worries into Lake Michigan, waves swallowing them whole. Jay sets up a treasure hunt for Jack, burying in the sand a small wooden chest filled with toy gemstones I bought for this occasion. I snap photos as they laugh and dig and think this is the happiest I’ve seen Jay all summer.

The treasure found, I settle into our camp chair near the water’s edge. I set my eyes on the horizon, where sky blurs into lake, and listen to the lapping tide. Rain clouds gather in the distance, but for the moment, all is calm. 

***

On our last full day in South Haven, I sleep in until 9:30 a.m. I wake with a start, realizing the whole family’s risen before me, likely minding not to wake me. I read The Book of Longings alone at the table while munching granola and sipping coffee. The morning stretches out, still and quiet. I’ve been handed the precious gift for which I’d been longing.

Plotting out our day, I see the forecast calls for steady showers, but it looks like there’s an opening from now until lunchtime. If we want to enjoy the beach, we must act quickly, so we grab towels and speed to another spot my father-in-law’s discovered. 

Under a gray sky, Jack scales sand dunes topped with prairie grass and ubiquitous yellow flowers that attract a smattering of Monarch butterflies. He weaves up and down the shoreline, avoiding other beach-goers. He’s edging closer and closer to the South Haven lighthouse and farther from where Jay and his parents have congregated. I sprint after Jack in my trusty powder blue Nikes, amazed at his fleetness. 

Running on the beach, I am struck by how fast it’s gone, this vacation, this year, and though Anxiety lingers like the approaching storm, I want to seize this rising Joy and let it carry me to Chicago.

From the middle of a sand dune, Jack turns to me and asks, “Where’s Daddy?” I point toward the other end of the beach and he’s gone again, zipping toward his father. I bound toward them, shoes barely touching sand. 

What answers wait for us on the other side of vacation? Will they ever find a cure? What questions will remain unanswered?

Seagulls circle overhead and a spritz of tide baptizes my ankles. If the rain comes now, I’ll run right through it. Life is brief and storms are to be expected. It’s also undeniably dazzling, this joyous race toward home.

Sand and water extend for miles out ahead of us. I think, in all of 2020, I’ve never felt so free.

My sweet son living his best life in South Haven.