I took Annie to West Virginia. We drove through windy roads overshadowed by trees that must have seemed enormous through her two-year-old eyes.
“Momma! The jungle!” she squealed.
“Yeah baby! The jungle!”
You forget that a two-year-old resident of North Texas has rarely seen trees en masse. Why wouldn’t it be the jungle? Of course it was the jungle!
I didn’t have the heart to tell her they were just trees.
And it was just West Virginia.
My friend and I decided to road trip from Glorieta, New Mexico back home to Dallas, Texas. We decided to do so with my two-year-old. We are adventurous like that. Ok, some call it stupid. But we decided to call it an adventure. As we drove through the flat plains of the Texas panhandle Annie looked out over the dry, tree-less land and squealed,
“Momma! It’s Africa!”
“Yeah baby! Oh my goodness! It’s Africa!”
You forget that a two-year-old resident of a busy city can’t really distinguish one dry piece of earth from another. Why wouldn’t the outskirts of Amarillo or Tucumcari be the dusty ground that lions and giraffes and elephants roam?
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it was just an oil field.
And it was just the Panhandle.
Last year, when we were out on tour and living on a bus with Matt Maher and his band, Annie- who was then, one-and-half- had a phobia of Kemi. Kemi is a first generation African American and one of the coolest guys (not to mention one of the best bass players) that I’ve met. It was Annie’s first significant amount of time to be with somebody that had a different color skin than hers... and she was scared. The running joke became that I was raising a racist baby. Which could not be further from the truth! Still, Kemi walked in and Annie freaked out every time. So I started showing her Mr. Kemi’s ears and nose and eyes. I would point to my nose and then Mr. Kemi's nose. I would laugh and then I would have him laugh. I would ask Annie to find his toes and touch his nose. Pretty soon, she realized we were exactly the same and Kemi became her favorite person on the bus.
When we got home from tour she would often ask, “Momma, when is Mr. Kemi going to come back home?”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this little apartment was home.
Not a bus with 13 people who all woke up and gathered in our PJ’s in the front lounge to share coffee and dreams we had in our sleep and terribly unhealthy breakfast foods.
She missed her little family.
One day while we were snuggling on the couch, she looked up and squealed, “MOMMA!!! Mr. Kemi!!!” She jumped out of my arms, “Yay, yay, yay... Mr. Kemi!!!”
I had no idea what she was talking about. That is, until I followed her eyes to a framed album cover on our living room wall.
I didn't have the heart to tell her it wasn't Mr. Kemi.
Poor kid. She can’t quite distinguish between faces or places; reality or fiction; Africa or the dusty plains of Amarillo. Miles Davis or Kemi. The jungle or West Virginia.
She is caught somewhere between big dreams and concepts- trying to grasp reality, but so far from it.
Oh- how I wish I could keep her right here. God, please keep her here. Not quite ever knowing the full extent of reality. Living in the joyful, ignorant bliss of believing a clump of trees is the rainforest. Squealing with delight at the sight of a dusty field that is probably Africa. It must be Africa. It is Africa!
Yesterday we painted a pumpkin with glue. Annie carefully picked out eyeballs and stuck them all over the pumpkin's face. Then, with both tiny hands, she picked up a wide bottle of white, shimmery glitter and poured it all over the pumpkin.
Squealing with joy.
She collapsed next to the pumpkin.
“Now cover me, Momma.”
“Annie, I can’t put a blanket down right here. It will get covered in glitter. If you’re cold lets get some warmer clothes on.”
“No mom. Cover me up with glitter so I can be like the pumpkin!”
In a move that was hard for even a free-spirited, messy mom, I began to sing Christmas carols and poured glitter- an entire economy sized glitter bottle- all over her legs and arms and hair and we sang Jingle Bells at the top of our lungs.
She was beaming. “It’s raining sprinkles on us, Pumpkin! Look it’s raining sprinkles!”
I didn’t have the heart to make the sprinkle rain go away.
To tell her that the glitter falling on her, manufactured in some cheap factory in China, was probably full of toxins and was definitely going to aggravate her father and would be stuck in the carpet for years to come. The carpet didn’t seem to matter.
Yesterday we went to the hospital.
“Momma, this is so much fun!” Annie squealed as we walked through the children’s ward, stopping to play in their magic tree house and on their gigantic worm. Making our way to the carousel with the animals she would climb on and then to the cupcake shop where she would pick the cupcake with the most frosting and the carrot on top.
“Is this a field trip Momma?” she asked with so much joy that it made my pain hurt more deeply than I could imagine.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this is where people come when their bodies are sick.
This is where people are born... and this is where people die.
She pressed the buttons on the elevator and asked me, “Momma, am I going to get sick too? Can I someday come here too?”
Tears settled into my eyes and her little life played out in front of me so quickly I could hardly contain it. Kindergarten. School. Junior high. Puberty. Prom. College. Marriage. Babies. Grand babies. Career. Heartbreak. Love. And mixed in there, with all the possibilities, the possibility that yes- she might have to come here one day too. The true answer to her question.
Yes, baby, one day you might get sick too.
Of course we don’t live that way, in fear of broken-world realities. At least we try not to. But the truth is it lingers there, underneath the surface.
Am I going to get sick too, Daddy?
I feel like I ask God that question a little more often these days. Being in ministry- I see it everyday. I see it at every concert. I see it in the emails that come into my inbox on a daily basis... people get sick. Lots of people get sick. Young. Old. And in between.
Tragedy is not rare. What is rare are the people who have not yet had to face it.
So you prepare yourself for it. Not as one who lives with a fatalistic soul with no hope, but as one who is aware of the precious gift each day is.
But... some days I wish I could be in that in between place again. The place between reality and childhood ignorance and bliss. The place between Africa and Amarillo where rain showers drop sparkly glitter all over your body.
The kind of ignorant bliss that allows you to believe the trip to the hospital is a field trip.
My friend has cancer. The friend who traveled on the road with me for years- who loves history and the founding fathers with the same kind of dorky passion that I do- who loves the military because that’s all her daddy has ever known- who makes ghetto crafts and has no shame in it- who let me be in her beautiful hill country wedding- who told me, after the bus fire, “Jenny, your life IS insane. But you get to be a part of God’s story and that’s more important than whether your baby is on a schedule or not or whether you lose all you own in a fire or not." That friend who inspired me to write my new album, who loves hard, hurts deeply, and bares her soul to the world and makes it more beautiful-
she has cancer.
Monday- she didn’t have cancer. And she didn’t live on the 9th floor of the hospital. And she wasn’t sick.
But Tuesday it all changed.
And as Annie and I stepped off the hospital elevator and I told her that our friend was sick- but that she was with the best doctors and nurses in the world and they would work very, very hard to make her better as soon as possible- and that we were just there to give her hugs and kisses...
Annie said, “And I can give her a band-aide Momma!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that chemo was the only band-aide that would work.
I could only say, “A band-aide would be perfect Annie.”
There is no answer to the heart ache of suffering.
There is only hope.
There is only the chance, for those of us raising or influencing children, to protect these years where their souls soar, their hearts dream, and they know no difference between Africa and Amarillo.
And as the adult bearers of sadness and tragedy- we can only take moments to stop and let the rain shower us with sparkly glitter.
We can stop and allow ourselves to be wrapped up in beauty.
And we can stop and ask God to fill us with hope and fight and enough innocence that the 9th floor isn’t the end of living...
it is only the beginning of believing.