After ten years and four children, my husband and I pulled up our city roots and headed for the cornfields. It wasn’t until we were packed to the gills in our two-bedroom bungalow that desperation set in and the need became obvious to confront our urban addiction by quitting cold turkey. The vandalism, graffiti, and alley rats were growing passé and our children too adventurous for sequestration.
Our hunt for home began in bustling suburbia, where strip malls defy nature by growing out of cement with the aggressiveness of ivy devouring an iron gate. “Now this one is just lovely, don’t you think?” With a practiced eye and convincing smile, our realtor tried her best to bring life to our deadpan faces. But at the end of each forgettable showing, it was clear that the impetus for a decision would be based on which cloned tri-level we hated the least. We were saved in the end by a visit to friends living quite contentedly in a small town just north of where we were searching. It took all of ninety minutes to secure a conversion. Troy and I were hooked on this Midwest Mayberry with its tree lined streets, historic downtown, and European Market offering produce, cheese, bread, and flowers every Saturday.
We met our house on-line and the attraction was instantaneous. The century-old Victorian lured us with its hard wood floors, exposed brick, and open floor plan. It was obvious at our first face-to-face a glamour shot had been submitted but the damage was done, we had mentally unpacked our belongings. We loved this home, creaks and all, adopting the semi-permanent catchphrase of “work in progress” for describing our purchase. Most projects would be tackled with our own sweat and tears as time and money allowed. Staining our floors, however, was too big a gamble for us to bet our skills on. For that job, we would call in professionals.
My parents, who had recently moved to the area as well, invited us to stay with them throughout the five-day process of sanding, staining, and sealing. Their four-bedroom, Zen-like, haven of organization would provide a nice respite from the headache of emptying and breaking down boxes. After setting up the pack-n-play and putting our suitcases in the guest room closet, I allowed myself to exhale the breath I had been holding for the last three months. The papers were signed and the key to our happiness dangled reassuringly from the chain in my wallet.
The street out front of mom and dad’s was quiet and unthreatening. Cars turned corners gingerly, anticipating the possibility of big wheels, scooters, or a kick ball game. I clicked together the straps of a sports helmet under Elijah’s lifted chin and sent him pedaling around the block. My seven-year-old, feeling his first brush with independence, bended down on his bike like a striking tiger and leaped with adolescent ferociousness towards an imaginary finish line. Earlier that morning, the kids and I had stocked up at K-Mart on sidewalk chalk, bubbles, and water guns. Priscilla and Benjamin, in their chlorine scented uniforms of swimsuits and flip-flops, pulled out our stash of summertime staples and lined them up with “oohs” and “ahhs” on the sun baked driveway. I dared trouble to find us in this small town oasis.
Death, illness, and motherhood are three common extractors of dormant thoughts and hidden beliefs. The flow of milk warming my breast and perfectly quenching the thirst of one child after another was, quite frankly, too bizarre for me to make light of. The process of birth ignited my simmering faith to a boiling point. I was now doomed to wrestle with life rather than ride the waves of random happenstance. Divine convictions can warm or cool depending on the season. In a period like this, of tranquil stability, light-hearted ponderings on paint colors, blow-up swimming pools, and rose bushes took precedence over weighty issues of the heart. My prayers had become requests for affirmation of what I already knew to be true. God was my teammate, spotting my back flips and cheering me on. I had lost my sense of place and possibility.
Three days into my first week of being a Hoosier, I was descending the stairs with Mary on my hip when a scream from Priscilla pierced the silence, putting my existence on hold. “Mommy! Benji fell out the window!” From the second story office my father, white and fumbling, confirmed this dreaded statement by leaping past me and rushing with purpose out the sliding back door. My husband also bolted into action while I stood frozen and wept. Elijah’s pitiful pleading for someone to call 9-1-1 prompted my movement and I braced myself for the image I was about to see: three-year-old Benjamin lying flat on his back with each arm bent at a 90 degree angle, like an infant sleeping peacefully in its crib. The window 15 feet above my head, now bare except for its hanging mangled screen, looked almost as apologetic as a child holding the handle of a broken teapot staring remorsefully at the shards of porcelain below. There was a second of not knowing which way the tide would turn. Normalcy halted, eternity opened, and trivial preoccupations, so heavy with their significance just moments before, flittered away in the wind. Outside the limits of time, logic, and reason, I closed my eyes and begged the Lord for mercy.
Troy enveloped Benji with his own lanky figure. A whimper from their combined form brought tentative relief. Sitting up, appropriately dazed and flustered, my son met my eyes and announced softly, “I don’t want to do that again.” We checked him repeatedly for a concussion, lacerations or broken bones. There was no possible way of escaping that plunge undamaged but Benjamin, feeling hungry, walked upright and fully conscious to the patio table and proceeded to eat a taco. Troy, dad, and I, still reeling from panic and choking back tears, regarded him with the same confusion as I imagine Mary and Martha did upon seeing their brother Lazarus anxiously quenching his thirst, still wrapped in burial rags and smelling of rotting flesh. His unscathed presence, like manna from heaven or an icon weeping, was a miracle refusing to pass through our lives unacknowledged.
I had nearly lost and then regained a child through no intervention of my own. Nothing unnerves a mother like coming to terms with her limitations. Carefully and methodically, I had constructed an environment for unencumbered success and even here mortality followed. “Why did God let that happen to Ben?” Elijah later asked, still agitated by possible scenarios too terrible for his trusting mind to comprehend. Without pretense or patronization, I answered as honestly as I could. “To remind us of guardian angels, sweetheart.”
“No that’s not it,” he mumbled, walking out into the hallway. “I think Benjamin is just clumsy.”
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