Monday, January 28, 2013

A Gumball Lasts A Day

Based on our true story

The phone rang just as I was moving a stack of folded laundry to the bottom of the stairs.  I plopped the pants and tshirts down and hurried to pick up the call before it went to voicemail.  Grandma was on the other end and I could hear Josh chattering in the background.  “Do you have any fish food?” she asked innocently.  Not connecting the dots that were about to be dropped in my lap, I said I was pretty sure that everything had gone to the trash after the death of our betta a few years prior.  “I’ll double check,” I offered as I pinched the handset between my shoulder and ear.  A quick rummage through the laundry room bins turned up nothing.  “No, just some aquarium salt and PH strips.  I threw most everything out when Flip died.  Didn’t figure I’d need it again anytime soon.  Why?”  

I then learned that we were the proud new owners of a goldfish.  Josh had stayed overnight with his grandparents and as a special treat, Grandma had taken him to the pet store with the shark tank. On their way out the door, Josh noticed a large gumball machine with a sign that read, “Get an orange gumball and win a free goldfish!”  After 2 tries and 2 yellows, the third quarter turned a charm and out came the magical orange orb. A squealing Josh trailed after the teenage cashier to a large tank in the back where a bright orange fish was scooped out of his world and into a plastic bubble.  Grandma was halfway to the parking lot when she realized that I might not be prepared to host a fish and so she was calling to see if we did indeed have any provisions to get us through the first day with our new pet.  

After hanging up, I decided it would be best to prepare Bob for the new arrival ahead of time.  It was one of those, “What can you do?” conversations and we agreed that another pet would just be another chapter in the saga of our family’s wacky animal life.  Thankfully, a fish wouldn’t cost as much as the diabetic cat.  Nor would it require as much attention as the  backyard flock of chickens we had added over the summer.  And certainly it wouldn’t be as needy as the neurotic aged dachshund who clung to us every waking moment.  Toss a few pellets in his tank each day and add some clean water once a week.  We could manage, I supposed.  And I reminded Bob that mercifully, goldfish weren’t notorious for living long lives.  


 A few hours later, the doorbell rang and the dachshund went beserk.  She never handles company well and is extra suspicious of anyone arriving who feels the need to ring first.  Bob opened the door and was immediately ordered to “Close your eyes, Dad!”    Surprises were promised and the giddy led the blind to a couch in the living room where everyone gathered ‘round to find out what Josh had squirreled away in the small cardboard box resting on his lap.  

“It’s a goldfish and I won him at the shark store because I put 3 quarters in the machine and got a yellow and a yellow and an orange and that means I was the winner of a free goldfish that I brought home after we went back and got food and Grandma poured him into this glass vase from the plastic bag because that could get a leak and now we’ll have to get a bigger tank with an air filter or else he’ll die from sasfucation because fish use their gills to breathe not their noses.  And I named him Fred.”  

Brother and sister oooohed and aaaaahed over the orange fish swimming round and round in the large glass vase.  It had been awhile since we last peered into a bowl of billowy fins but the fascination was quickly reignited.  After a thorough retelling of the story of the orange gumball, Lauren said thoughtfully, “You know, Josh.  Everyone names their pet Fred.  You should pick something more original.”  This challenge landed on fertile ground and soon Fred had been re-christened “Gumball.”  It actually seemed a perfect namesake and I acquiesced to making Gumball’s care a part of my daily routine.

The rest of the evening was spent prodding the quivering dog and reluctant cat to greet the fish, drawing pictures to plaster against the vase to provide some temporary scenery and feeding him a few pellets of food before bedtime.  I finally gave the last call and 3 sets of feet scampered up the stairs, their goodnights having been dished out to Grandma and Pop.  Awhile later, my in-laws made their way to the front door and we began the process of putting the house to bed as well.  During one last stop in the kitchen to set the dishwasher, I noticed that Gumball wasn’t very active.  All night long he had been swimming round and going through a series of rising and sinking motions, all the while glubbing his gills and mouth in steady rhythm.  Now, he seemed nearly still at the bottom of the vase, gills barely fluttering and mouth making weak attempts at gulping.  I felt a stab of panic, knowing that it was too big a change of behavior to be normal.  The last time I had watched a fish stop moving had been the last moments of Flip’s life.  Surely the end couldn’t come this quickly, I reasoned.  

I grabbed a coffee stir and swirled the water around, hoping to stimulate Gumball and supply fresh oxygen.  We were planning to get a proper tank the next day and I had checked online to make sure that goldfish could survive awhile without filtration.  He gave a little effort and wobbled his fins again.  Not enough.  I stirred some more and moved him away from the sink to the stovetop, thinking that perhaps the counter was too cold there near the window and being away from it might help the water temperature stay a little closer to comfortable.  He finally perked up and began swimming and glubbing at the surface.  His gills found their rhythm again and he seemed to quicken to his previous pace.  I put his vase in a cardboard box and turned the overhead switch on high so that he would have at least the comfort of light.  A final pellet of food and then I made my way to bed, expecting that he’d settle in and we’d get him properly housed by the next afternoon.


The next morning I woke up before everyone else as usual and went downstairs to gather the chicken’s feed for the morning.  While filling a gallon jug with water in the sink, I glanced into the vase on the stovetop, fully expecting to see Gumball busy about his morning, too.  Instead I saw a fish that was completely still, leaning on his side.  I grabbed the coffee stir and swirled the water around hoping to stimulate him once again.  Nothing.  I gently prodded him but he remained motionless.  I knew that he was gone.  

A short time later, after letting the hens out of the coop and making myself a cup of coffee, I went back upstairs to do my morning devotions.  I felt that it would be more comforting to talk with Josh about his fish in the folds of our familiar bed rather than at the hard wooden planks of the kitchen table.  I imagined he’d rush downstairs to see Gumball and then come to me with news of the terrible discovery.  We’d been down this road before, with a cat and a betta and even the childhood angst of a dead mouse that was found on the top step of the basement stairs.  It’s always best to hear bad news in a place where faces can easily be buried into open arms and so I waited there for the embrace that I knew would come.

About an hour later, I heard the boys’ room door open and Josh’s feet go through his familiar routine...the hurried thwacks of bare skin on bathroom linoleum followed by the quick sliding sounds as he went down the carpeted stairs.  He still walks down stairs like a little boy, both feet meeting on the step before moving down to the next one.  It’s one of the ways that I identify which child’s coming down in the morning. I strained to hear his voice from the kitchen below but only heard the return steps coming up the stairs. Josh climbed into bed next to me and asked in a quiet voice, “Mom, where is Gumball’s vase?  I can’t find it.”  I was surprised that he hadn’t noticed it on the stovetop but I also felt that his voice betrayed a hint of suspicion that a vase removed meant a life demised.          

I put down my book and coffee mug and turned toward him as he incurvated deeper into the space between Bob and me.  “I want to talk with you about Gumball,” I said in my gentlest voice possible.  Immediately Josh asked, “Is he dead?”  I paused, picking my words carefully and replied, “He’s no longer with us.  He passed away during the night.”  With commendable courage for a 7-year old, Josh listened as I explained about the listless fins and idle gills, the frantic stirs and imploring prods and the final resignation that Gumball was gone.  I looked down at his face just in time to catch a single tear sliding off his nose and onto my pillow.  

For a child not known for composure or aplomb, this quiet, dignified grief caught me off guard.  I am used to the fits of tears that accompany his disappointments, not the silent bearing of heartache, and my heart split a bit at the sight of his brave countenance.  My hands moved to smooth his hair and I pulled him a little closer so I could kiss the top of his head.  With this permission, the swell of tears rose above the levees of his lower eyelids and Josh cried openly, lamenting about bigger tanks and lacking food.    

A few minutes later, he decided to wake his siblings and let them know the news.  He ran down the hall and I followed behind, thinking of ways to explain the unpredictable lifespan of ichthyological pets.   

In the kitchen, I lifted the vase out of the box and closer to the edge of the stove for the children to see.  Gumball was clearly deceased, his body arched stiff and mouth hinged open.  Upon making this final confirmation, Josh ran back upstairs to our bed and pulled the covers over his head.  Lauren followed him with tears on her cheeks.  I decided it was best to wake Bob, who had somehow managed to sleep through the last hour’s drama, and tell him the news so that he would be sensitive toward the tender hearts clustered in our bed.   As I whispered in Bob’s ear, Josh cried out from under the covers, “Why did I have such bad luck to get a fish that died in a day?”  

Ah yes, the impossible, unreasonable interrogation had been launched.  Like trying to convince a child that lying on a bed of nails doesn’t hurt when their only experience with nails is connected to absolute pain, so, too, is trying to acceptably explain the substance of life and death a futile effort.  Truly these moments are when parents earns their pay.  My mind flipped through the rolodex of responses, looking for the right card to pull out and offer in response to a 7-year-old’s limited experience with loss.  

It dawned on me that taking the fish’s perspective on the last day of his life, instead of our own, might give me something to work with.  And so I asked Josh these questions.  

“Sweetheart, I know that it seems like bad luck, but do you think perhaps it might have been that you were favored instead?  We don’t know how old Gumball was.  He looked healthy but he could have been a very old fish.  Do you think it is possible that God knew Gumball had one day left in his life and He made sure that he was scooped out of the tank to be your free fish?”  I paused and waited to see if this might hook Josh’s reasoning.   There was no movement from beneath the comforter and I took that as a good sign.  “Do you think that perhaps God sent Gumball home with you for a single day so that he could experience all the wonders of the world that he never would have known if he had stayed in the tank and died there instead?”  

Josh emerged from the blankets, a far away look on his face.  I know that gaze, the one that announces, “Come back later.  I’m dreaming right now.”   So I pressed on.  “What things did Gumball experience yesterday that must have been amazing to him?  Can you tell me about his wonderful last day?”   

As so Josh started at the very beginning, right after he turned the crank on the gumball machine and handed in his orange winning ticket to the cashier.  

“Well, he got to go for a ride in a net when he was scooped out.  I guess that was exciting, but maybe a little scary since he couldn’t breathe for a few seconds...  And then he got to feel like he was in a bounce house as I carried him to the car in the plastic bag...  He probably felt carsick on the ride home because the car was really warm and I get that way when I feel too hot in the car...  He probably was amazed to see all the things outside his glass bowl in Grandma’s kitchen.  I spent a lot of time watching him swim.  He probably wondered what kind of creature was outside looking in!..  And then when we came home, he probably felt chilly air and saw darkness and heard strange noises that the car makes...  And when we got here, I showed him to the dog and cat and those would have been even stranger creatures to see through the glass...”  He trailed off, back to the dreaming of fish on Wonka-esque adventures.

“You’re right, Josh.  Gumball experienced all those things, amazing, unbelievable experiences because he was chosen to go home with you.  His last day was exciting and thrilling beyond anything his little fish brain could have imagined when he was swimming with the other fish in his tank.  You were chosen to be his tour guide through a magical world and his last day was unforgettable.”  

“If fish can remember things,” added Josh.  “Yes, if fish can remember,” I conceded.

Lauren was listening intently.  She whispered, “Do you think Gumball is in heaven now, Mom?”  Hmmm.  Another bed of nails.  I thought for a moment and gathered all the truth I could quickly recall about the promises of Heaven.  

“Well, the Bible tells us that humans are the only ones to need forgiveness of sins, so there’s no sin-problem that would separate pets from God.  And the Bible tells us that God is preparing a place for us in Heaven and it’s full of all His goodness and we know that animals are good.  God told us that in the first book of the Bible.  And we know that Heaven is going to be full of things that delight us and surely God knows how much our pets delight us.  And if God took time to include animals in His plans for Earth, then I don’t know why He wouldn’t also include them in his plans for heaven.  So I think it’s very reasonable to expect that we’ll see our pets and other animals in heaven one day.”    

I pulled the children close and held them while they tested these thoughts, gingerly pressing their hearts up against the nails of the grave, beginning to realize that the sting of death was truly swallowed up by Jesus on the cross as He secured the promise of imperishable life for us. 

Later that day, when emotions had calmed and the children had grown used to the idea of how to dispose of a departed fish, we gathered in the powder room for a few last words.  We gave thanks for the day we had with Gumball and we rejoiced that it was extraordinary.  As the toilet swirled and the last bit of orange fin disappeared from sight, I glanced over at Josh to see if he was struggling.  Not surprisingly, he had a faint smile on his face and that far-away look in his eyes.  I smiled in reply and joined him in dreaming of all the amazing things Gumball was seeing on his first day in heaven. And as I wandered along those quiet streams, I realized that like a goldfish, we, too, have experienced so little of the world that God has surrounded us with, understood so little of His plan for this life and the next, imagined so little of the unimaginable so-much-more that awaits us on the other side of our last day.    

As it is written, 
'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, 
no mind has conceived 
what God has prepared for those who love Him.'
1 Corinthians 2:9

Friday, January 4, 2013

For all those moms battling coughs, fevers and snot...

Came across this post from my old blog and thought it would be encouraging to share since so many families have been sick over the holidays, ours included.  I wrote this back in Feb. '09 when we were hit with a tidal wave of illness.  It's easy to laugh about now, but not so much back then!  

You Name It. That's what the past 2 weeks have brought us!
When I left for my grandfather's funeral, we were wrapping up 1 ear big deal. Since then, we've had 2 more infections, 2 bouts of pink eye, 1 case of pneumonia and a massive outbreak of hives (a reaction likely to the antibiotic prescribed for the ear infection.) And that's doesn't take into account Grandma's pneumonia and Mommy and Daddy's turn with the head/chest cold!

So how do we manage it? We laugh when possible (which usually puts us into a coughing fit), escape to the basement or garage and let the other parent deal with the chaos for awhile, ingest lots of tea and Airborne tablets and end the day with thanks and prayers. There are too many reasons to be joyful in the midst of these difficulties and remembering that keeps us sane.

Earaches at 2 AM? What a blessing to know I can get to the doctor first thing in the morning and have medicine at work by noon. Not possible for many other mothers around the world.

Goopy eyes that require stripping the linens daily? How thankful I am to have a washer and dryer right downstairs that I can run a hundred times this week, if needed.

Itchy skin and swollen joints? A few days of discomfort is manageable when I know my child isn't facing a lifetime of debilitating pain.

Lungs rattled with coughs and wheezes? I still recall the years when our house was empty of these noises and we were waiting and praying for the blessing of a child to care for.

If you try hard enough, you can find a way to turn any burden into a reason for thanksgiving.

Poor M....still managed a smile 
During one early morning visit to the kids' room for yet another dose of Tylenol, the 23rd Psalm ran through my head. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." And for a moment, I thought, but I do want! I just want us to have a full night's sleep! The next morning, I tweeked the words a bit and came up with this...

1 The LORD is our family's Great Physician. I shall not need for anything that He can't provide.
2 He makes me lie down in pools of slobber next to my fevered child; he leads me to the sink for drinks of cool water 20 times a night.
3 He restores my foggy mind in the morning with strong coffee. He guides me along the path to the doctor's office and pharmacy for the children's sake.
4 Even though I tiptoe through a dark room to help blow a stuffy nose, I will fear no snot, for you Lord are with me; the humidifier and Vicks Vapo Rub, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table of applesauce, ginger ale and half-eaten jelly sandwiches before me in the presence of my picky sicklings. You anoint my head with hot water, if I'm not too tired to stand, in a late-night shower; my cup of sleepy-time tea overflows onto my lap as I nod off.
6 Surely good health and abundant energy will soon follow me in the days of my life ahead, and I will eventually dwell in the house of the LORD (which is germ-free) forever.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Resolutions, No...Revelations, Yes

I really don’t like making New Year’s resolutions because, for the most part, they’re a reminder of things I’m not going to accomplish, rather than things that I’m going to get to check off a “to do” list.  I’m a notorious list maker and there was a time when I could manage my lists pretty well and expect to have them completed by the end of the week.  And then came the kids.  And a bigger house.  And volunteer opportunities at church.  And chickens.  (I’m amazed at how much time I spend online learning about poultry.)  And the lists slowly went from being helpful tools to becoming millstones around my neck.  I can’t remember the last time I finished a list, but I can show you the worry lines across my forehead that those lists have caused.  So I’m not making any resolutions this year, or for the foreseeable future. 

Now revelations, that’s another story.  I love revelations.  Whereas resolutions have the power to crush me, revelations have the power to lighten my load and unburden my mind.  They untangle me from the places where I’ve become bound to bad habits or futile thinking.  I had a revelation this summer as I was exiting a McDonald’s drive through.  Someone had painted a message on a stop sign and it changed my whole day.  Stop Trying.  I thought about that command for a minute and realized that trying was a big part of the reason I wasn’t accomplishing anything.  There’s a streak of carpe diem in my personality and I’m always wanting to experience as much as possible because as the old song says, “I will never pass this way again.”  That streak leads me to sample a whole lot of choices, but never lets me sit down to enjoy the meal.  Perhaps the sign should read, “Stop trying everything.”  Pick a few projects to tackle rather than a project of the week.  Choose the activities that are a natural match for the kids rather than a dozen different ones that I’ve heard other moms talking about.  Learn to cook a terrific roast beef instead of several new recipes each month.  It’s OK to decide to let some good, creative, lovely ideas go by the wayside.  This is one revelation about trying that I’m excited to see unfold in the New Year. 

The other bit of wisdom I discerned from the “stop trying” sign is about our design.  A quick look back at the Garden of Eden will show that we were never made to be furious creators and accomplishers.  The garden was completed while Adam was yet dust and it was already in operation before he was given the task of caring for it.  It wasn’t until the fall that man knew toil and sweat.  Time and again we see that effort and frustrated work is paired with a falling away from grace, from God’s providence.   Being raised in a heavy work-ethic culture doesn’t help us in understanding our natural design either.  But Scripture never said that God and man’s wisdom aligned; in fact, it urges us to grasp that the opposite is true.  That’s why Jesus commended Mary for resting while her sister anxiously played hostess.  And what of His great promise in Matthew 6, “Seek first the kingdom and (my) righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”?  We’ve lost our ability to understand how God brings the food to the table, clothes to the closets and peace to our hearts.  He knows about homework and birthday parties and vet appointments and He cares about them all.  But His flow of supply reaches us as we heed the stop sign and focus on a very few tasks instead. 

Seek the kingdom.  Hunger for the things of God…His peace and joy and righteousness.  Make that the first priority of our day.  And that means opening the Word and our hearts to conversations of prayer with Him.  Learn to do that first thing in the morning and see what an amazing difference it causes in how the day unfolds.  And what of righteousness?  Seeking that means learning to see that Jesus has given us his right-standing with the Father.  Any self-effort to please God on our parts is actually offensive to Him as it tries to supplant what His son accomplished at the cross.  Pastor Prince explains it in more depth here.  And I wrote a little about the worry we endure when we slip out of this mindset and back into our own strength and wisdom here.  As for my rabid list-making, I’m coming to see that it’s just another form of self-effort, a way of trying to control the aspects of life that I want to see provided into our home…a clean house, a neatly organized basement, a birthday party to remember.  But by the end of most weeks, my hopes are unrealized and I’ve sacrificed the blessings of peace, joy or comfortable lounging in my gifted robes of righteousness as I’ve sought after the wrong to-do list. 

I floated a little trial balloon in early December and decided to set aside my cleaning list for the month.  It was scary to think of going into the busiest season of the year without a clear picture of what I needed to accomplish each day.  I determined to tackle the most needy chores as I had time, but attach no accomplishment or guilt to their doing or undoing.  Yes, the toilets didn’t sparkle.  The carpets were covered in cat hair and sundry bits of lint.  The laundry piles leaned like Pisa throughout the bedrooms.  But without a list growling at me each morning, it didn’t bother me nearly as much as it had the month before.  I didn’t feel the crush of self-effort but I did feel a strange little flutter called peace.  Instead of guilt about slacking as a stay at home mom, my family saw Mom enjoying the mess of cookie baking.  And it was comforting to lean hard on Jesus when I did feel panicked about the clutter because I had been spending time focused on His perfect love instead of achieving my perfect house. 

So no resolutions this year.  They point me in the wrong direction.  But lots of seeking to expand on the revelation found at the corner of the McDonald’s parking lot.  Those two little words are all the compass I need.  If you’re looking for a shift in focus, too, here are some great verses to start with. 

Exodus 33:14
Matthew 11:28-30
Psalm 37:7
John 14:27
John 16:33
Phillipians 4:6-7
Hebrews 4:9-11
Psalm 23, especially the opening verses

Happiest New Year yet and all God’s abundant supply to you and your family for 2013!