“It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said ‘do the best you can with these, they will have to do’. And mostly, against all odds, they do.” -Anne Lamott
Between December of 2013 and April of 2014, my husband and I method-acted our way through parenting. As we waited for what we hoped would be life-changing surgery for our eight-year-old daughter, Sammi, we knew that no good could come of either her or her eleven-year-old sister knowing what was ahead. We told our adult friends and our adult family members, but we let nothing slip through the age barriers we’d set.
For our children, those five months passed with an innocence we protected only slightly harder than we coveted it.
One job of parenting is shielding one’s children from information that could take away from their trust in the world. In order to believe in the wisdom of adults, in the safety of their lives, children need to remain, to a certain degree, uninformed about the world around them. This is why I shudder when I realize what African-American parents in this country are forced to tell their children about how to behave around the police, or how the parents in war-torn countries must teach their children about how to run and hide from bombs or soldiers. In fact, before I even had children, I was forever haunted by the movie Life is Beautiful, in which a father held captive in a World War II concentration camp is able, through many months of captivity and backbreaking work, to hide his young son in the bunk house of men. That father convinces his son that the entire experience is a game that, if they win, will give them a chance to ride on a real tank. Through the horrors of all of it, the father’s drive to protect his son from fear is stronger than anything else he has to face.
Our months of keeping this surgery a secret from our children was nothing near as terrifying as that, and yet I often thought about that father’s strength as we planned for the events to come. There is no training for so many parts of parenting. Each child comes with a new set of requirements, a unique journey that — even if we are willing to investigate, discuss, and compare notes with other parents — is one which we cannot plan. Our own proclivities, gifts, and deficits make up part of the path. I could no more ask my own mother what to do about this impending surgery than she could have asked hers how to handle my bullying dramas through the years. We were different mothers raising different children with different needs.
We were flying blind, largely. And so, we improvised tools for the journey that were as rusty and bent as they were, in the end, perfect:
We spent a tremendous amount of time with friends and their children — environments that forced some measure of distraction for my husband and I and that our children did not find fishy.
We told anyone we knew was the praying type to add Sammi to their lists. We had the Catholic mother of one of our best friends praying on one coast while our secular Jewish friend in Israel put aside her atheism for a moment to cram a prayer into the great temple’s Western Wall in Jerusalem. We hung a paper envelope labeled “worries” from a metal sculpture on our porch, trying to keep our bad dreams at bay.
We forced ourselves to go through the motions of daily life as we always had; no changes to homework even though we knew there was a chance that Sammi would miss the ends of these lessons, no cancellation of our anniversary trip though I would have rather spent the time with our daughters, and no additional indulgences though I longed to keep our girls home from school as often as possible to drink them in, just in case.
We held each other at night and cried.
We fixed the tangible things in our life that were broken just to prove that it could be done; phones were upgraded, furniture legs tightened, good coffee purchased.
We lived through those five months. Anne Lamott was right; the “rusty, bent tools” are the ones that do the job when they must. They are rusty and bent from use because they are the ones we pull out the most often. We pull them out because, “against all odds,” these are the tools that truly work.