Most people make “to do” lists whether its digital….there’s an App for that… or mental, “Ugh gotta do that today” or ……like me where only good old fashioned paper and pen remedy and insure that my “to dos” get “to done”. I keep various lists …books I want to read, movies, I want to see…. where to get the best pizza in Midtown Manhattan…. These are my hope lists …filled with things that I may do… things I would like to do…The things I look forward to…The mere survey of these lists fills me with delight, the prospect of adventure… pure serendipity of a desired task completed. Then there are my other lists. The things I know I “should” do, things I ought to do, however in the tyranny of the urgent, these tasks never seem to rise to priority. They are the someday lists, the things I’ll do when I’m not making beds and making lunches and making small talk with other moms who are not interested in making small talk with me.
The lists that upon completion, will feed my inner approval junkie and fill me with a sense of great triumph as I ponder how “together” I really am.
One item on that list….sort, print and organize all my photos into books arranged by holiday, vacation, or season . I did this a bit a couple years back but still have boxes of physical pictures and hundreds of unbirthed photos taking up residence in my smartphone. Another item on that list is to transfer all the 8 mm videos and VHS home movies taken when the kids were little and develop into watchable form.
When I consider my early (pre-IPhone antics) I realized that I schlepped that monstrous over the shoulder camera mostly because I thought it was what I was supposed to do. Take videos of Kids in various stages of growth …check!!!
Somehow though I ended up sticking all those tapes and mini cd’s -unwatched- filed on the entertainment shelf somewhere between Barney and Caliou.
Even when the big purple dinosaur and the strange bald headed kid were replaced by Harry Potter and The Olsen Twins, the family tapes still remained unwatched, lonely and collecting dust. I didn’t have time to watch videos of my life, I was busy driving carpool making costumes for the talent show and breaking up fights. And then Ethan got his MBA and then I went to seminary…. I couldn’t watch life I was too busy rushing through it and wishing it away.
When all the VHS tapes journeyed to Goodwill replaced by shiny new DVDs and Blue Rays: Hannah Montana, Lord of the Rings The Chronicles of Narnia, I still brushed the tapes aside with a nonchalant “Oh wouldn’t it be nice to sit down and watch those…. Maybe we could have a movie night for the whole family and get a good laugh”
But with lax games, year round wrestling, work, and family obligations we seemed to never get around to it. Eventually digital advances made it impossible for me to watch them at all and the cameras were replaced by the Iphone …VHS machine to DVD player and then Netflix and DVR’d episodes of Modern Family, Survivor and Big Brother made the burgeoning DVD collection obsolete.
One day when I was in a mad cleaning frenzy I gathered the tapes, put them all together in a burlap bag with Woman of God written on the front from an event I had attended the weekend before. I didn’t feel very Godly as I crumpled the tapes into the bag. Clearly my guilt and lack of follow through was short lived though as I placed them in the attic where I threw all things which reminded me of how easily I could be recommended for an intervention on the TV show Hoarders.
And then Alex graduated high school and the next year Logan… who joined the marines and within a year was married. By then I had graduated seminary and had a small church I was pastoring and working as a Hospice Chaplain during the week. I spent too much time in people’s homes who where dying. More often than not…. a great deal of the family angst revolved around what to do with all the stuff…. So much unnecessary stuff, stuff that would not improve quality of life and stuff that was unnecessary in the keeping of life. I found that tragedy and grief are excellent curators of the necessary.
There was always so much stuff,
stuff that held great memory and meaning
yet not enough memory and meaning for the children of the dying to want to add to their own piles of stuff.
I grabbed the bag with Herculean resolve and decided I was going to get those tapes watchable and then sit down and watch them. I actually put them in the trunk of my car determined to fit it in with my weekly errand run…. And two years later, while running errands the Spirit moved and Tadaaaa… this Woman of God acted.
While walking through Costco, I saw they offered a video transfer service so I ran back to my car and rifled through my trunk under the bags of cleaning I was supposed to drop off for Alex, behind the Target return for Rebekah which included of one of every strapless bra they sold that might just fit under the dress we bought- but did not bring with us- for the Freshman dance the following day….
In the very bottom of the trunk….a Woman of God ….the bag of tapes. I picked them up delirious that I was actually going to be able to cross that chore off my list.
The photo kiosk asked for general information: name, address phone number… but then it asked to personalize the DVD’s with themes such as Holiday, Kids, Birthday etc…. They were asking if I to remembered what was on each tape. As I flipped through the various dusty and clumsy tapes, I realized that I really had no clue what they contained, what treasures they would yield.
They were made long before the Iphone became my right arm and keeper of all videos, contacts and appointments …recorded in ancient history when my face had less lines and the voices of my children still had the small lisps of beginning language. Chronicled when I purposely had to lug out a camera that somewhat resembled a sport’s film crew on the sideline of a big game.
What they held? I was at a loss …Something I felt was important at the time, something that would prove worthy of replay at some event in the future. That was all I knew and so I chose …”child” as the theme.
Unlike before when I nurtured procrastination like an Olympic sport with me taking all three medals, when I received the email that my tapes were done I got into my car and went straight to Costco for nothing else but those new tapes. AND, well…. since I’m bearing my soul, I must admit, I did grab one of those nuclear rotisserie chickens that are so good I don’t even want to know what they do to them for fear I will no longer be able to make it a weekly staple on my dinner table. A hundred dollars later, armed with dinner and my “Woman of God” bag filled with shiny new DVD tapes containing the story of my life, I headed home.
While driving it occurred to me that when I did watch those tapes from a lifetime ago, that it may be an invitation into grief… an excavation through seasons buried, a journey to a place I no longer lived with diapers, and preschool, and grade school parties. A story of someone I used to be….
who Ethan used to be
and who we now are…
with more wrinkles and wisdom and winsome longing for the littleness of our chicks.
When I finally sat down to watch them, I was no longer a pastor at First Baptist, no longer a hospice chaplain at a crossroad I was stepping into a new chapter of my life looking back at another. On a Sunday morning Ethan and I cuddled up with a fresh pot of coffee, my laptop and a stack of videos and journeyed into a morning of bittersweet rapture …a viewing of where we were then…The first thing that struck me was how young we looked, how bewildered, and cautious, and callow in our parenting attempts. And then there were those babies….Oh those beautiful sweet, messy, cranky babies!
God I missed those babies. I missed my 23, 27, 29 year old self…. what I wouldn’t give to be in that place again, to say …I know, I know…. I know things now that I wish I knew then. I wanted to say Just Stop! Just stop and look long and hard at those babies, hold them more, relish their laughter. Remind myself to be excited that “banana” was on the other side of that knock, knock door for the hundredth time that day and not orange …because then it would be over….
I wanted to tell that uncertain girl wanting to do well and be right, not to get so frustrated by the nine thousand Legos and copious amounts of Thomas the tank trains that always found their way under her feet that a clean living room is overrated and cold anyway…. Oh Ami…Why? Why were you in such a hurry to get them grown? To have them be independent and able to take care of themselves to have full day school and an empty bed …I wanted to let her know that those days would come sooner than she could ever imagine.
I was calling out to my younger self to turn the camera onto Rebekah as she recited the names of the animals on a zoo trip, not Urrrrgggh!!! Why was she taping the stupid animals when her baby was right there…talking and wanting to be heard? I scolded the younger me…. “Look at her, see her, and that sweet three year old voice”
Shocked to hear my own voice on the other side of the camera… Who was that uptight frantic person? Could that really be me? The unseen narrator barking orders, trying to get it right and have it be just so. Most of the video orders entailed “ Wait, wait don’t do that” “sit down” or “get over here” and a lot of “stop hitting your brother… we’re trying to make memories here”…. Why did she get so angry when they bickered and fought? Clearly now on the other side of 20 years that bickering was harmless at best and possibly even kind of adorable.
Doesn’t she know that one day she would kill or die to have… or to see a wrestling match down the long hallway where they would be as bear cubs spinning and rolling? Why didn’t she look up more, to not be so intent on keeping order and listen closer when Rebekah first learned her ABC’s and sang that song all day- every day…. To watch with awe her Wiggles dance: one foot up one foot down like a tippy toe march to Brown Girl in the Rain, Tra la la la la …..Oh how she loved to sing. She still does, but her songs now inform that she is on her way to fully- grown. Songs now sung from behind a closed door where she spends most of her time at home….love songs and pop songs I no longer recognize as my radio is now tuned to NPR or news.
It was easier when the songs were ABC’s. A time when safety meant everyone under one roof, fed, clean and in bed. When life’s choices consisted of whether to have mac and cheese or Corn Pops, to play cops and robbers or dress ups…. Life choices aren’t that easy anymore.
And then I found the tapes my dad made and gave to me to develop one year. I had totally forgotten about them… they were from Christmas 1995 twenty years before smoking took his breath and his life. He was just a little bit older than I was now…and I thought he seemed so old then. Funny how time seemed so expansive then but felt so elusive now, running away too fast before I am able to catch it or my breath.
My father amused the boys with his potty humor and silly jokes. He always loved Christmas …no matter what was happening in our lives financially he and my mother made Christmas magical. He made it that way for my boys also.
He took a video of them opening presents, my sister Maria only a few years older than them by their side. They were so happy, carefree and loved. Rebekah wouldn’t be born for another seven years. That Christmas Poppy spent hours setting up a train set for Logan….Logan loved anything with trains that year.
Oh Daddy…how you loved them….you knew then how time would rob me of those moments. You knew you had to chronicle them so I could remember. You knew that time would pass faster than I could keep up and one day I would want to remember, when I had space in my head for more than the “dailyiness” of living that often drove me to drink too much and sleep too little….
I wish I could hear his voice one more time….to have him meet Logan’s wife Liv, to see what a beautiful young woman Rebekah has grown into, to see how much Alex resembles him. To just tell him I often listen to his last voicemail so I wouldn’t forget what he sounded like that day…. “Boo, it’s Daddy, give me a call.” … He would be dead less than 8 hours after that message…..and I didn’t pick up the phone.
I wanted to let him know I still hear his words “Never force anything and Have charity in your heart ”… often as I try and micromanage this space of middle age, I realize how much my forcing is driven by fear and frustration. That fear which comes so naturally to me, is a cancer I must fight everyday to keep it from making residence in my heart. That charity is really what keeps me grounded and connected to what matters in my world. If only for one more moment, one time, a chance…. to pick up that phone and tell him, I am listening, I am here.
Three hours later, when the pain and the beauty of memory was more than we could both stand, I put the new right on top my desk a palpable reminder: To do NOW… what I know I will regret not doing NOW in the future. To spend time in the messy dailiness of what I have left on this parenting journey, to not get consumed with the lists and the demands but to get engaged in the life that I am so happily able to have. To turn my eyes and my heart towards them…. each one of them and to look and really see…. to be mystified by the temporal beauty every moment holds, right here, right now.
To become fully aware that it is not in my to do’s for tomorrow but in the knowing of what has already gone. To let that awareness keep me bound in the space of today, where I am, where I live and where I love…so much love.