F lost her first tooth a few days ago. She’s almost six-and-a-half years old, and she was the only kid in her first grade class with all twenty baby teeth intact until a few weeks ago. Every six months she’d climb into the big dentist’s chair and he’d wiggle and tap and poke at them all and declare them snug as a bug. Sporadically in kindergarten, and then more regularly in first grade, she’d come home with exciting stories of the ousting of all teeth except her own. The class practiced their winter concert song for weeks – All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth – while she just wished hers away.
Then one night, as she was brushing her teeth, she yelled out. “Ow!” Sure enough, once the paste was spit out and the bubbles cleared, there it was. Her first loose tooth. Loose enough to tip forward to reveal the newer, larger version already cutting through the gum. The tooth dangled on for a week, and then another. She bit into apples and crackers and big, thick slices of bread hoping to dislodge it over dinner. Occasionally she’d take a tissue to bed so she could work on it in the dark, back and forth, back and forth, until it hung forward like a sad little balloon out of air. No one was allowed to come near it; the idea of losing it had lost its appeal, and now she was holding onto it with all her might – hoping for the ideal circumstances to show themselves before she lost it. And her ideal was constantly changing.
It came out, with little fanfare, in a Jimmy John’s sub sandwich in O’Fallon, Illinois. We’d spent the afternoon double wrapping all of our suitcases and wrapped packages and pillows in heavy duty plastic bags, loading them into the back of our pickup truck, and hooking a cable net over the top to keep them in place. It rained and rained all morning long, but the sun broke through the clouds just as we started to carry things out to the sidewalk, and then we were sweating, coatless in December, and starving. We dropped the last in-town gift off and headed east, looking for something quick to eat while we watched the storm system just ahead of us.
We backed the truck into a parking space at the front of the strip, and sat down at a table by the window to keep an eye on our luggage. We ate our sandwiches and drank our caffeinated sodas and fought the urge to take a nap. Then F held out her hand with a small sliver of white on it and announced that she had found this really hard piece of cheese on her sub sandwich. “I think that’s your tooth,” said M, and she vehemently denied it. “Smile,” he said, and she grimaced with a gap. We cheered and exclaimed over her luck at not swallowing it. She scowled and said she wasn’t ready to lose it. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. Arms crossed, and angry, but then I needed to go to the restroom and she followed. She stood on her toes and looked in the bottom of the mirror at the gap. A giggle surfaced, and then a full on belly laugh. “I lost my tooth in a Jimmy John’s sub sandwich and I thought it was a piece of hard cheese!” She repeated that again, and then again, pleased with her new narrative.
It was not the story that she had hoped for or planned for – and quite honestly, I’m not sure she even had another story in mind. I think she was actually nervous about having any story at all. Or maybe nervous about the unknown part of it. But we do not get to write our own story, despite the many times we are told that we are masters of our own pens.
I have struggled with this idea for a good part of 2015. Writing these stories is like second nature to me now, and I’ve grown accustomed to being able to take the small moments of any given day and weave them together into some sort of narrative about our lives. There is an inherent danger to this – it is easy to think that by merely writing something down we can make it so. Because sometimes it actually feels like that might work! When I look back at the last few years, there’s a part of me that is in awe of the goals we’ve set and carried through with. 2013 changed us in more ways than we initially thought it had. There is a real intentionality behind where we choose to spend our time and our resources; I’m much better at focusing, studying, and mastering a few things, and I’m also much better at letting go of other things that aren’t so important. I am stronger, tougher, more resolved. I have more confidence in my own abilities, less tolerance for intolerance in general.
Our girls are growing at lightning speed; they are far cooler kids than we deserve. I find myself pushing them – gently – not towards one certain path, but to the edges of a dozen routes, or more. I want them to be kind and respectful, but also weird and curious. They are delightful – even in those exasperating, exhausting moments, they fill me up to overflowing. When E was born, I promised her (written, signed, and dated) that I would not look at my girls as extensions of myself. I blurred that a bit in my writings here. Their stories often become mine; I weave their words in the ways that I see fit. It’s been an adjustment to let some of that go. I’m practicing on the older one so that I can rethink everything with the younger one. I fight the urge to delight you all with their tall tales – my efforts are needed elsewhere, in the hanging out and holding on for as long as I get.
In 2013 we got a swift lesson that very little in this life is really in our control. I use the word “lesson” here only because my writing and imagination rests at amateur status, not because anything about the loss of our niece was part of some overarching grand plan or teachable moment. The loss of her does not diminish in the passing of time; it is magnified by it. But other things are magnified as well, and when the hardest thing is getting out of bed in the morning, there can be a certain momentum found for lesser efforts. Determination can be a saviour; the only way to get through the work is to do the work. In 2014 I did the work. I fixed my feet, I rebuilt them, I pushed them further. I fixed my job, my attitude about work, and tackled some long-shelved goals.
At the start of 2015 we hit our groove as a family. We fell into a weekly rhythm that was equal parts gratifying and exhausting. M took on a much larger role at work and started traveling more, opting for less sleep over less family time. He often takes the first flight out and the last flight in on the same day so that he’s home as much as possible. I pick up the pick up routines more now, so often it feels like I’m cramming work into the smallest window possible. We work out regularly, I run whenever possible, we make dinner (sometimes weird dinners), we move children from point A to point B and back again, as you do in these years. We’ve gotten better at knowing what we’re better at, and we say ‘yes’ to others as much as possible. We say ‘no’ too, and that’s a revelation. I soak in the tub more, I have a glass of wine with dinner-making, I’m checking out books from the library again. My writing meanders and is longer than it should be. I still do not get enough sleep.
In January of this year I could picture December. I knew the arc of the story before it was written. It seemed like a good one, so I thought I’d bring you all along for the ride, in gripping weekly snippets, Serial podcast-style. And when I was unable to squeeze another minute of time out of our weeks to do something different and exciting, the disappointment was crippling. We are not in full control of our story, you might recall me saying earlier. I repeat it (only) for myself because my head is thicker to get through than most. This year did not reveal itself as an amateur version of a This Old House episode, despite my attempts to make it so, even with a carefully crafted outline and thesis statement. I wanted this year to be a big story year, but it just wasn’t. It was a year of small things, repetitive things, knit together in a fashion that will hopefully serve us well in the years to come. But that’s not newsworthy, and it certainly doesn’t provide much of a tidy ending. It felt good, but mundane, and that diminished it slightly. Autumn proved to be rocky, as the pendulum swung closer to the end of the year, unaccomplished. I lost the ability to write about the same thing over and over again. I wrote the year off; I readied myself for the holiday blur and the chance to start new in the next year. And yet…
In November, my sister had a little girl, a lovely surprise of a baby, perfect in every way. She entered the world, messing up everything in her wake as the birth of a new baby will. In December, my grandfather died, a lovely gem of a grandfather, perfect in every way to me. He left the world, messing up everything in his wake as the death of a grandfather will do. Here I had written off the year’s story before it even really started, before the stories of my grandfather were uttered and then woven into the stories of my newest niece. We draw together at the close of each year around the idea of a story – a faith story, a family story, a food story, a tradition story. We tell those stories in the way we greet one another, as we linger around the table, as we stay up into the late hours of the night. These stories are magnified by birth and death, and we’ve celebrated both in the midst of this season – what better season for it?
I did not have the time or energy to commit to my annual holiday card tradition – something that would have devastated me earlier in the year. My initial ideas can wait until another year. Instead, I rethought it all – the process, the product – and in the rethinking I had an idea. I may not control the way this next year will play out, but I can celebrate the potential of it. January, in its soggy, sodden state, is something of a gift. We get another go of it, and the thought of that is thrilling. I sketched out one possibility, stamped it in shiny gold foil, polished it to a shine, and put it out there. Let’s see where it takes us, shall we?
Happy New Year – thank you for being part of our story.