Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Tale of Three Dresses

A note to the reader: This was written on 8/1/13. 

"My heart is beating so fast," she says as she slits open the box. I--and only I--have been invited up to her room to share this moment. She puts her hand on her chest and her lovely face pales, making the freckles that Jared loves stand out clearly. Angel kisses. I sit on the edge of her unmade bed, forcing myself to ignore the piles of clothes strewn about the room, and sink into this moment.

The box pops open, revealing a froth of white. She gasps-oh!- and carefully, almost reverently, lifts out the contents. Yards of white chiffon spill onto the floor, topped by a beaded bodice and frothy sleeves. "This," she says dramatically, "is the dress I will wear when I marry Jared."

Quickly, she sheds her work uniform, anxious to have the miracle of the dress against her skin. Shirt and pants are kicked aside and she steps into the pool of chiffon, carefully pulling it up and slipping her arms into the sleeves.

Perfect. Despite two panicky phone calls necessitated by her inaccurate measurements--done while I was away on business and she too eager to wait--the dress fits her perfectly. "Try on the sandals," I suggest, and she kicks off her clogs and slides her feet into the white rose-trimmed flip flops she will wear because, "I hate dressing up."

But here she is, busily fussing with her hair and describing what she wants:just a simple flower and maybe some netting on the right side. I agree that her hair should be up and loose, the way Jared likes it, the way that makes her look twenty-one instead of thirty-four, the way that makes one forget she has seen more than her share of pain.

"What do you think?" she asks and spins.

I clap my hands together. "Beautiful," I say. "It is just exactly right." She grins and turns back to the mirror.

Just exactly right. And it is, both the dress and the man. Jared has never given me a moment's worry, and I cannot say that about others she has dated. Deeply moral and old-fashioned, Jared puts God before all other things in his life, but Bonnie runs a close second. He will not only spend his life loving my daughter, he will honor her as well.

We begin to talk of practical things. The hem needs to come up and inch or two so she will not trip her way down the aisle, and the bodice is a bit lose and needs a few small tucks. "I have nothing up here," she says regretfully. "Wait until you have kids," I say. She smiles. She possibility of children is once more in her life.

Reluctantly, she peels the dress from her shoulders and we tuck it neatly back into its bag. There is a span of eleven months between now and the wedding day. "I will become Mrs. Jared Widger in this dress," she says and even though she is an independent woman, a strong woman, a woman of the 21st century, there is an old fashioned sentiment to her words. She wants to be a Mrs.

Her room--my once and future office--is woefully short on closet space. The small closet was made into a bookcase for my many volumes on literacy and reading. The books have been relocated to a corner of the dining room--my current office space--and her yarn collection and uniforms fill the shelves. "I'll hang it in the back of my closet," I say. She nods and gives the dress a farewell pat. "Soon," she says to it.

Carefully, I carry the wonderful dress into my own bedroom and shove open my closet doors. I make a space in the book and hang up the dress that will take her into her new life. I will get my office back. I know that this move back home is only temporary. She and Jared want to pay for the wedding themselves and save towards a house. She is here, she points out, with an exit plan. For now, I am blessed to share these moments with her. They will not last.

There are two other wedding dresses hanging in my closet. One is mine, a heavy sateen with long sleeves and an empire waist worn for an October wedding more than thirty years ago. It is "old-fashioned", she has declared, and something she would never wear. But I keep it anyway. My marriage to her father has not been easy. Even now, a variety of maladies keeps him from enjoying his family. From time to time, I expend some energy on trying to move him along, but the effort is mostly wasted. I pray a lot. Right now I pray that he will be strong enough and well enough to walk his daughter down the aisle.

She shrugs and says that she has two brothers to pinch hit, but I know that it is really her Daddy that she wants, the daddy she remembers coaching her softball team and digging sand castles at the beach.

There is yet another wedding dress in this closet, much fancier than the one that just arrived. This one was crafted--there is no other word--from embroidered lace and netting and brushed jersey, trimmed with lavender ribbons and pouf-ed out by many layers of petticoats. It was a combination of three patterns she liked, and sewn together on my mother's old machine. It, too, will never be worn again. I think sometimes of cutting it up into something useful or giving it away, but it is hard to part with something into which my daughter and I infused so much of ourselves. We spent hours and hours on the dress, and it held her hopes for her first marriage. The dress is now stowed away in a plastic box. Up until a year ago, it seemed that she had stowed her dreams there as well.

I brush my hand over the new wedding dress before I shut the door. He dreams have been transferred. After five years of sadness, of declaring she would never marry again, of keeping herself in a very small and safe existence, she is envisioning a future with a husband and a home and a family.

"Ten years ago," she says, and I realize she has followed me into my bedroom, "I married Bill. I am wiser and stronger now. I will wear that dress, and I will marry Jared, and this is the marriage that will last forever." She gives me a hug. "Thank you," she says.

I am not entirely sure what she is thanking me for. Hanging her dress? Providing her with a home? Listening to her plans? All of the above?

"You are always welcome," I say. I think of the three wedding dresses sharing space in the back of my closet. Each has been a journey, often leading onto unexpected roads. Each has led to this angel-kissed daughter.

"Let's get some ice cream," I say. And, arm in arm, we leave the dresses for another day, for June 28 when she will begin a new life.

In a perfect dress.

Monday, June 16, 2014

To my daughter: How to be incredible

It is one of our last days driving home from the city together; in less than two weeks, Bonnie will marry Jared and begin her own commute from his apartment in Springfield. She is chattering on about the wedding, and her students, and things she is worried about. I am half-listening because sometimes it is just best to let her spin instead of trying to make sense of it all. I am still trying to reach the MICU nursing station at Hahnemann, where my husband is receiving ketamine infusion treatments. But then my daughter says something that makes me put my cell phone away.

"I don't think I can do it," she says. I am on high alert now. Do what? What part of the dialogue
 have I missed? What can't she do? Marry Jared? Teach special needs students? Finish her degree?

Casually, I try to pick up the thread. "You never know until you try," I say.

She shakes her head, her ponytail moving from side to side. Her freckles stand out from her pale face. "I just don't think I can do what you have done. What you do."

I want to laugh with relief. "Not everyone needs to get a doctorate, " I say. "Or teach college."

"Not that," she says. "What you do with Dad. How you take care of him and all of us. How you have for years. Frankly," and she shakes the ponytail again, "I don't know how you do it. You are the strongest woman I know, but I don't think I could ever be that strong."

It is hard to know how to respond. Certainly, in the last fourteen years, much has been required of me. It is not easy--and never has been--to take care of Ron's physical needs, work to support us all, and provide for the kids as well. I work too many hours and have too little rest, but I somehow manage to be there for each of my family members. I am pleased that my daughter recognizes what I have done. But have I set the bar impossibly high?

"I didn't know I could do it," I remind her quietly. "When Dad was first injured, when everything first fell onto me, I was certain I would crack in two. But God gave me strength I didn't know I had."

I hear the tears in her voice. "I love Jared so much," she says, "that I do not think I could stand to see him injured or in pain."

Immediately, I am transported back to March 1, 2000, and the recovery room at Crozer Hospital where Ron lay after the surgery, so still and gray he might have been carved from marble. I reached out to touch him, but there were tubes and monitors everywhere. My knees buckled and Pastor Lou grabbed my arm. "You can do this," he said. And I did. I found a spot by my husband's left shoulder and touched it lightly, then bent and kissed his dry lips. We were told that Ron would be hospitalized for several weeks, but would likely make a full recovery.

Fourteen years and twenty-six surgeries later, and I am still leaning on Lou's words: You can do this.

I clear my throat. "I don't do it alone," I say. "God gives me what I need."

She looks at me for a moment, then turns her eyes back to the road. "See," she says, "you and I look alike and talk alike. But I think I'm more like Dad in some ways. I don't know that I could trust God to get me through what you've had to do. I think I would crumble."

"I thought I would, too," I say. "I still do, sometimes. And I am not saying it is easy, Bonnie. I am saying that with God all things are possible." I try to remind her of her own strength that has seen her through heartache and loss, of the love she shares with Jared that will strengthen them both. But she remains unconvinced. Our conversation moves onto other things and eventually we are home and she is heading off to meet her fiance. She kisses me first. "I love you so much," she says. "You are an incredible woman."

I watch her drive away, a wave of emotions hitting me with scenes and sounds from the last few years. As I walk into the house, I become convinced of this: she will be strong enough for whatever life brings her way. She herself needs to know this.

So, this is for her, my beautiful daughter, light of my life. I may be the strongest woman she knows, but she is the strongest one I know.

Dearest Bonnie,

Your strength does not come from your freckles or your blue eyes or your wonderful laugh. These are things that attracted Jared to you, but what he fell in love with was much, much deeper. It is your faith and your trust that makes you the woman that you are, the woman he wants as his wife. He, with a disabled father, knows as well as anyone that life has no guarantees. The only thing we can count on is God and our love for each other.

I pray that you never need to experience the ongoing illness of your husband. I pray that he will continue to be strong and healthy, but I cannot promise you that it will be that way. We live in a world in which accidents--such as red pickup trucks running red lights--happen. People we love get hurt.

I have no doubt at all that God will equip you with whatever you need, whenever you need it. I believe it because I have seen it. I have seen you take over as Allen's mother when Dad was first injured, making sure that he had supper and did his homework. I have had you by my side throughout many of Dad's surgeries. I have seen you share your deep faith in God with those who came to inspect our knitting and crocheting as we sat in many waiting rooms. I have seen you through the heartache of loss of a dream and a home and a job. I have seen you turn to God to help you rebuild your life and allow yourself to love again.

I know you better than anyone else does. I knew you before you took your first breath. And I know, without any doubt at all, that you are strong and capable. I know that your love for both God and Jared will allow you to do things you do not think you can do. I know that you will face the unknown future holding tightly to your husband and your faith.

I wish--oh, how I wish!--that I could promise you light and roses and all good things. I wish I could protect your from the evils of the world. I wish I could wrap you in a hand-knitted cocoon of the softest yarn and keep you always safe. But one does not grow in a cocoon and one does not get to experience all the joy that God has for us. 

And here is the secret to being strong, dear daughter. Even in the midst of chaos and tragedy, even as I struggle to help your father with yet another hospitalization, yet another recovery, I have joy in my heart because I do what is right, because I honor my marriage vows, because I continue to trust and believe in God. When we give ourselves in marriage, it is for better and for worse, in sickness and in health. It is a promise that is difficult to keep. While I am sometimes physically exhausted by all that is expected of me, it is always well with my soul.

It will be well with yours as well.

Always and forever, to the moon and back,