We All Fall Down (Project Posterity: The COVID Chronicles)

Friends, it is a cluster.

A legit, what-the-heck-nightmare-did-I just-wake-up-in cluster.

E-learning, I mean, for those of you who have no idea what the HELL ON EARTH I’m referring to.

E-learning in, Jamie out: today, in the face of 1st grade literature and 4th grade art, I lost it.

To my credit, it was the first time I’ve lost it during the entire course of the COVID affair. I’m kind of proud it took me this long.

For about 30 minutes this morning I was just flat out angry. Angry with the kids for fighting. Angry with the dogs for barking. Angry at Google for creating a terrible classroom program. Angry at the disease that led us to this place.

We started at 9am and by 9:57, I was in tears. Not that the kids noticed, but I was.

Teachers are trying their hardest. I believe administrators are as well. But this is new to everyone, and the learning curve is steep. Do we watch the videos first or look at the messages? Why am I still getting stuff on Dojo? What’s with the 404 error—I was just there 2 seconds ago!

And I’m an over-educated, tech savvy SAHM. I can’t imagine what this mess is like for non-English speakers; people working, whether from home or not; those doing school on cell phones in parking lots to use the wifi; disabled students; special education students; and the list goes on.

This is hard.

But we’re doing it. We’re all doing it. We’re going to get it right sometimes and wrong other times, and I think that’s okay. No, I know that’s okay. Really.

But I digress.

At some point in the mess of today everything kind of clicked. I grabbed onto that moment and hung on for dear life, rushing to write down the daily schedule that I hope will work for us over the course of this Corona School adventure. I beg you—please, please, please don’t breathe on it; if you do, it will fall apart. It’s only tied by a thread.

I’m 100% sure that this is easier than it seems. Truly. But the universal “we” are overloaded and can’t get the brain power together for just One More Thing. One more is too much. It pushes us over edges we didn’t know were there until it was too late to turn around. So, we fall.

Do you remember playing Ring Around the Rosie? It was supposedly written in a time of plague, but that actually isn’t true. It was simply a game.

Today, in our own time of plague, I can’t help but think of that song. Not as a representation of us all carrying posies to ward off disease or falling to our deaths, but instead as a representation of our common plight and the support we’re scrounging deep inside our own disheveledness to find for one another.

You know the part where it says, “we all fall DOWN!” and everyone collapses into a giggling heap, thrilled with themselves and maybe slightly dizzy from holding hands and spinning around? Well, that’s us right now. All of us across America. OK, maybe not holding actual hands because, you know, coronavirus, but nonetheless holding metaphorical hands through text chains, social media, Zoom, and FaceTime. Watching the whole world spin around us, knowing that any minute we will fall, but also knowing that’s okay, because we won’t fall down alone: we will all be in that dizzy heap together. And when we’re done laughing at our collective ridiculousness, we will lift each other up, finding our feet under us once again.

Today isn’t over yet and I don’t know what the remaining hours will bring. Whatever it is, however, I may forget. Because the COVID memory I will put to words today is one of a child’s game, a playground and friends standing close, laughing, singing a song of roses and ashes that ends not when the players fall, but rather when they help one another to rise.

Things Best Not Forgotten (Project Posterity: The COVID Chronicles)

Today we played badminton and cursed the wind, chasing the birdies through the year’s first grass before the dogs could get them.

Today is the last day before online lessons are given for a grade, but my fourth grader finds herself wanting to do the optional ones anyway, to do work she could choose not to do. But still she wears pajamas, fights me about brushing her hair. We are, after all, at home.

We counted the days of online school to come, clocked it at only 12 though it somehow feels an infinite number before us. In counting we assumed a return date that isn’t set in stone, but rather in each other and how well Americans manage to stay at home.

I call this Day 18.

Eighteen days of togetherness in which everything has changed: How we eat, sleep, shop, parent. How we read the news, communicate, say our prayers, and breathe.

I’ve yet to sew a face mask.

I have a machine, and cloth, and thread, but lack discernable sewing talent and so I doubt I’ll be posting pictures of colorful face coverings anytime soon. But a sincere thank you to those whom God has blessed with the gift of stitching us together, weaving half measures into whole.

I just found out our neighbor is an ER doctor. I didn’t know. But now a neighborhood email has been sent and read that tells me this is true. Tomorrow we will gather outside his home as he returns from his shift at a now empty hospital, the calm before the storm that is projected to hit our state in 16 days. Which is fewer than the infinite 18 in which we’ve lived fully into our homes.

I still see neighbors walking their dogs with one another. Kids riding bikes down the empty streets. I shake my head and close the curtains with a sigh.

When did we start judging people for how close they stand to one another as they amble in togetherness? And when will this judging stop? I wonder.

The day so far is beautiful, despite the wind. My three children are enjoying the sun together, dodging dogs and their messes, laughing as the wind carries a birdie ten feet away one minute, then backwards the next. My youngest has worn the same clothes five days now; he wants to set a record. I told him he already has, but he just laughed and kept them on: Florescent green shorts and a maroon Razorbacks shirt handed down from a cousin whose sister just cut his hair because all the salons are closed. I was impressed with how well she did.

My mom has a mask. One mask. She uses it for Kilz and sawdust and the other noxious fumes and particles of construction. “Should I ask Collin if he wants to wear it when he goes out for us?” she asked me this morning. Collin is in his 20s and likely the best suited of us to risk exposure.

“I don’t know,” I said. Because I don’t.

There’s so little I know these days, other than a schedule really helps, but so does pretending it’s not a schedule at all; else the kids might revolt. I’ve learned if the house isn’t tidy I can’t do this thing we’re all doing together separately. I’ve learned to hit refresh on Prime Now to snag a delivery spot as soon as one opens, and how to wipe down a box of cereal to make sure it doesn’t kill my mom. I’ve learned we’re all amazingly resilient, but I also wonder how that day will feel when it finally comes. The day the kids return to school. The husband to traveling for work. The house as empty as it ever is, which is to say it’s down to 2 adults and their barking dogs. That moment, when it comes, will be strange, I think. Happy but a little sad, a celebratory moment of peace, but also a moment of loss, as I send my kids away.

For now, I’m keeping them in check with prizes. They draw post-its from a once-red bowl, now orange from time and washing. These post-its hold their next task, whether fun or work, and they earn points upon the task’s completion. At the end of the day, or perhaps two, they are rewarded prizes for how well and nicely they performed their tasks. So far the rewards have been gifts purchased for birthday parties never held: the virus has halted even the earth’s movement around the sun.

Andy and I agreed last night that it will be a shame when we go back to how things were. Moments of rushing and shushing to get where we’re supposed to be. To hurried bedtimes that happen right after tired dinners that happen right after Andy gets home. To times when I can’t—or think I can’t—sit in the shade of a beautiful day, watching my three laugh over failed serves, fighting against the sun dots dancing before their eyes.

It is wonderful. And quiet. And joyful. It’s all the things parenting should be. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing this so early in the day when there are still so many hours left to come: This is a moment to hold on to, to reread in coming years. There is much to remember about these crazy days, but the sun and wind and laughter are the ones I hope to remember most.

badminton

Preventing Child Abuse in a Pandemic: Helpful Tips

Our current national landscape is one of physical isolation. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that 9 out of 10 Americans are staying home right now, either because of stay-at-home orders, or because they fear getting or spreading the novel coronavirus. That almost 300 million Americans are homebound and probably will be for an extended period of time is extraordinary and unprecedented in our lifetime. A portion of the homebound are continuing to earn a paycheck and while the stressors of COVID-19 for that group of people are very real, there is another portion of the homebound suffering much great repercussions from this pandemic.

The Department of Labor reported that last week alone, 3.28 million people applied for unemployment. This is more than four times the previously highest recorded number. For the 75% of Americans already facing the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, things just got considerably worse. Add to that the strain of fear and anxiety of a pandemic; the social isolation we must all endure; that children are home without the support (and break) given by schools or childcare; and the strain on already overburdened social services and you have a recipe for domestic disaster. And that list barely scratches the surface of the host of family-specific issues each household bears.

If history is any indicator, the result of domestic disaster will fall disproportionally on our most vulnerable; cases of child abuse and neglect (as well as domestic violence) will rise sharply while reports of the same will drop drastically: with schools and childcare centers closed, the sharpest eyes and ears of our child welfare reporting system—our teachers—are closed as well. And like so many things with this pandemic, one problem becomes compounded by another: Even as more children than ever are home 24/7 with their families, social workers are unable to conduct home visits with those already in the child welfare system due to abuse and neglect and are similarly unable to visit homes when new reports do occur.

Services previously provided to families—such as drug treatment and mental health services—are severely limited or non-existent due to social distancing requirements, and family visitations are often not occurring, potentially leading to a downward spiral of hopelessness and depression for parents and teens who may turn towards drugs, alcohol, or other damaging acts to ease the pain. All of this combined leads to a significantly increased risk of harm behind the closed doors of American homes. Sadly, there is little most of us can do to fix these problems: Children’s outdoor areas are emptier now than ever, and we simply are unable to keep a collective eye on children and suffering families the way we need to.

But that isn’t to say there is nothing we can do, and what we can do, we should.

Stress of all kinds is a significant contributing factor to abuse and neglect. Tempers are short, resources scarce to non-existent, and tools some are fortunate enough to have for comfort—Zoom calls with friends; virtual “playdates” for children; paying for online games, movies, and school substitutes to keep the children occupied—are not easily obtained by lower income families. And even the families who have the resources may find they aren’t enough.

But don’t give up! There are ways we can help families from all backgrounds, though I will admit that many of the ones I’ve listed below assume that the person helping has resources of their own to draw from (time, money, or energy). A few of these might help our most significantly at-risk families—those with serious addictions, long family histories of abuse, or the types of terrible things we read about in the media—but others wouldn’t. But again, what we can do, we should.

Abuse knows no economic, cultural, or societal bounds. From my years working with families already in the child welfare system, I can promise you that. I can also say that the simplest assistance, and perhaps the silliest sounding, might be all that’s needed to avert a catastrophe.

Consider a morning from my own life:

I, an obsessively tidy mother, sit in the middle of an increasingly cluttered home. My back and feet hurt, and the younger kids are arguing loudly while the oldest child tries to get some much needed sleep. Andy, a hard-working and busy father, already stressed from hiding in the walk-in closet to do Zoom calls where kids can’t find him, too loudly shushes the arguing kids. The kids begin to complain about the unfairness of it all and I try to intervene while stumbling over the puppy pulling on my socks and biting my toes. The other dog begins to bark at a person walking by, and both Andy and I begin to shush the dogs. The kids’ voices grow louder to be heard over the din of shushes and barks, and my mom, who lives with us, suddenly appears in the kitchen, asking why her dog is barking and saying she may need to go to the hospital for stomach pains but is scared to because of the virus so what do I think she should do and can I please contact her doctor for her? The gardeners begin mowing next door and within a minute we all hear a door slam from upstairs because the 24-year-old has frustratingly given up on getting any sleep.

Our situation eventually resolves as best it can: Andy takes one kid to do a puzzle and I take the other to bake some bread, but not before I hop on one of the four laptops in our home to email a doctor, free of charge and easily accessible, about my mom. Sad to say, the oldest is still tired and the dogs still bark, but few things in life are perfect.

In this scenario, the main fridge is stocked, as are the one fridge and two freezers in the garage. We always buy in bulk so our toilet paper situation is fine. The same pay the adults usually get is still coming in, and the grandmother who walked into the kitchen at an inopportune time lives in the home and can watch the children should that be needed. Oh, and I have plenty of time to spend with the children and enough education to help them with their e-learning during our school’s closure.

And still, this isn’t a pretty situation. Imagine if:

  • The fridge was bare
  • The parents had just lost their jobs
  • There was no adult in the home with available time for the kids
  • Any one—or all—of the four adults had a substance abuse problem or untreated mental health issue

This scene could have ended in a very different and explosive way.

And so:

Think about your own circle of people, as far as it can go. Who in that circle is most in need of a break right now? Do you know any single parents? Someone who struggles with addiction? A family with a small home but a large number of kids? Someone who lost a job? Who is sick? Who is prone to anxiety and depression? The list could go on, and it should. Make an actual, physical list of people in your life facing larger-than-average stressors. Do you have their phone number? Their email addresses? Do they live within driving distance? Write those things down as well, then:

  • Call them. Talk to them. Ask to speak to the children for a while. Maybe read the kids a book over the phone or on FaceTime if possible.
  • Text them. Ask how they are. Tell them how you are. Send a funny meme. Ask if they need anything. Or don’t ask, but just assume they need something and then …
  • if possible, get it to them. Mail them $20 or a grocery store gift card. Leave food or other necessities (or non-necessities!) on their steps. Shop for them if they’re in a high-risk group. No, money doesn’t solve everything, but it can certainly help at times like this.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have a bit of income to spare (and hey, we’re all going without our lattes these days), order something online to send to the kids to keep them distracted. Or send chocolates for the parents. Loan them an extra laptop by leaving it on their porch and letting them use it for Google Hangout or online school or even just mindless show watching. Again, these are money and material things, but if you can do it, please do. We may not like to admit it, but material things do often help.
  • Kids are still going outside, even if not to designated playgrounds. When they’re out, pay attention. Do they seem okay? Do the adults who are with them seem okay? What do you notice? Don’t turn into the nosy neighbor peeking out from behind the curtain—that’s just weird. You’re likely a savvy enough person to find a non-stalking way to do this. If you see signs of abuse or neglect report it, even if your state’s current isolation situation means a social worker can’t make it out for a while the risk still needs to be recorded. Then make it your daily commitment to help that family any way possible.
  • Offer to watch younger kids (but who old enough not to need hand holding or carrying) outside while their adults take a break. You don’t have to forgo social distancing rules to make this happen.
  • Have a six-foot-away playdate with your kids and theirs.
  • Take a social distance walk together. Or talk to one another from your own front doors.
  • Send them a card in the mail. A homemade one is fine, so you only have to pay for the stamp.
  • Offer to walk their dogs (seriously, don’t underestimate the power of this!)
  • Volunteer with or donate to groups that are helping those in the most financial need.
  • Donate not just food, money, and cleaning products, but board games, movies, electronics, coloring books—anything that can entertain children/teens or provide relief for parents. Do the same with any and all income groups if/when you think it might be helpful.
  • And, of course, pray for them.

Here are some other resources for how you can help at-risk families during this pandemic:

End Violence Against Children

The Alliance for Children in Humanitarian Action

Prevent Child Abuse

What you will find using these resources is a significant emphasis on stress reduction. Because that is what so much of this is truly about. Stress decreases our abilities to appropriately cope with even typical events such as arguing or crying children. And without appropriate coping abilities, typical situations can quickly turn to situations of abuse, even for families who otherwise would never find themselves taking such harmful actions.

Feel free to make your own list of stress reduction ideas for how we can assist those in need during this time. Act on those ideas and do it now. It’s never too soon to help a family in need, but it is often too late.

Laundry Before Laughter: Day 1 of Lent

I’ve been asked a few times what I’m giving up for Lent. When asked that during Ash Wednesday service, I answered with a full and complete answer, but only because I got to write it down, ball it up, then burn it away. Sometimes we want to hide what we’re foregoing, because foregoing it admits that we did the thing we want to stop to begin with.

For the other times I was asked today, I responded with an honest “I don’t know,” because there are the things you give up on a piece of paper soon to be burned, and things you give up that you can say aloud to others. It was the outloud one I’d yet to land on.

There is a tendency, I think, to forgo things like TV, meat, cell phones … the types of things that bind us to worldly ways and impinge upon the parts of life deemed sacred. Family. Friends. Church. Community. The earth.

These things can sound trite on the surface—Christ died on the cross and you’re giving up (insert first-world luxury here)?!?— yet hold deep spiritual meaning for our lives. Do they directly address our mortality? Our sinfulness? Bring us to repentance? For some, they may.

For others, Lent is a time of self-improvement. An opportunity to quit sugar, or caffeine, or cooking-based reality shows so that we may become the healthier, more perfect earthling we think we’re meant to be.

As tempted as I am to focus on improving myself over the next 40 days, I know instead my inward reflection, my Forty-Day Habit of a Highly Effective Person, must go from the inside out. Besides, I really don’t want to give up cooking shows.

Earlier today I posted an article on my church’s private Facebook page regarding the health benefits of friendship. And last Sunday at my church’s annual meeting, we were made aware of a church-wide desire for stronger community and increased fellowship. Not the drink-bad-coffee-together fellowship, but the no-need-to-knock-just-come-on-in type. And today, after a long talk with old friends, I’ve spent a good portion of the afternoon reflecting on friendship or, more specifically, the society-wide, self-imposed lack thereof.

What used to be a rare ascetic practice of withdrawing from society has now become a sought-after daily act, removed from religion and all things spiritual, as we go from car to garage to house, shop without leaving our homes, text instead of talk, work all hours instead of finding time for play. And as much as I like staying in my sweats and ponytail all day, I know that our chosen isolation is harming our neighborhoods, our churches, and even our marriages and kids.

To right this wrong, I may just have to suck it up and put on a pair of jeans.

So in addition to the hidden things I burned to ash today, I have decided to give up complacent community. Complacent friendships. Complacent isolation. What does that mean, you ask? Well, I would argue it means exactly what it sounds like.

I’ve lost friends and family to death and misunderstandings, to long distances and opposing views, and yes, to laissez-faire attitudes towards community and friends. And yet I still too often take for granted the people in my life who bring me joy and better health. To be blunt, I’ve put laundry before laughter for far too long. The time has come for me to own up to that and fix it before it’s too late.

But this isn’t just an issue of living life fully and appreciating what I’ve got before it’s gone. It’s a deeply spiritual matter as well. It is only in community that we can realize our calling and how to live it out. It is our community that affirms—or not—what we think that calling is.

Ministry cannot be realized or fulfilled in isolation.

Our friendships themselves are microcosms of ministry, one to the other, a quid pro quo of the best sort. As we belong to Christ, we belong also to one another. Worship was never intended to be done individually and life was not meant to be lived alone. Our increased physical well-being when living in community bears that out. And in that way, perhaps foregoing complacent community is in fact a habit of highly effective people. Perhaps it is a self-improvement method equivalent to cutting out sugar or screens. But unlike those types of items, the sacrifice of which improves primarily our own health, sacrificing our complacent aloneness might just help us and those around us live a longer, fuller, and happier life.

Intentional Adulting

Having been away from teaching Sunday School for a while due to health reasons, I am THRILLED to finally be back at it. And when I say thrilled, I mean bound-out-of-bed-happy-three-hours-before-church-even-starts kind of thrilled.

Anyone who knows me—virtually or otherwise—knows how much I love children. Put me in a room split into kids and adults and I will always find some reason why I should be in the kid group. I’m pretty sure part of the reason for this is because my own childhood ended too soon when I became a mom at fifteen. Or maybe it’s because I’ve lost a child and through that gained a different (and hopefully uncommon) perspective.

But rather than try to pinpoint it, I think it’s safe to assume it is the sum of various life experiences that has led me to discover and deeply understand the complexity, joy, and needs of childhood, as well as the honor it is to be an adult in a child’s life.

But let me be clear: children are not amazing because they are commodities. They aren’t amazing because they’re our future. They aren’t special because they may some day cure cancer or put a person on Mars or any of the other feats we all mention when looking into a child’s potential future. We make the mistake of defaulting to these ideas as well as descriptors such as  “innocent” and “joyful” because there are simply no words, or at least none I know, that can truly embody the essence of what makes children so special.

I stand in awe daily at the privilege it is to be in a child’s life, even if briefly. Every single interaction adults have with children is an opportunity to shape who they are, who they will become. How that child will parent, be called into God’s work, be a friend or a spouse or a random person passed on the street whose smile brightens a stranger’s day. Let that truth sit for a while until its enormity hits you.

That is huge and, frankly, overwhelming.

The collective “we” never know what might stick with a child forever and always, for good or for bad. We might never recognize that one off-hand comment that spirals their self-esteem, convinces them to be an astronaut, makes them feel they have failed everyone and everything, leads them to God.

That’s a lot of pressure. I don’t recommend thinking about it all the time; it’s too big a yoke to bear. But truthfully, it is our yoke. Not thinking about it all the time is one thing; never thinking about it is another. Perhaps adults should spend a few minutes each day reflecting on the fact that every word, action, or inaction that comes from our being shapes the children around us. Those mere few minutes should be more than enough to bring us to a place of intentionality in how we “adult,” at least most of the time.

I readily admit that I do get frustrated with my children. I’ve even met a couple of kids I didn’t like. And I am far from consistently intentional. That is my very human failure I attempt daily to rise above, but sadly too often fail. But my emphatic hope and prayer is that I live a life reflective of my privilege and responsibility as a shaper of human beings.

It is an awe-inspiring wonder that our system of human existence relies so heavily upon generational influence. That is no mistake, but rather the hand of the divine at play. My actions shape the small beings who live in my house or attend my Sunday School class or stand behind me in line at the store. Knowing that brings out the best in me which, in turn, brings out the best in others. Not always. Not perfectly. But some.

So take it seriously, folks. As frustrating and runny-nosed and loud and chaotic and time- and energy-sucking as they are, children deserve and need the best from us. And in the amazingly perfect symbiosis of our universe, when we give them our best, we too, get the best in return.

Every Child Matters. Every Child.

According to an audit done by the Office of Inspector General (OIG), in the summer of 2017 there was a significant increase in children who were separated from their families at the US/Mexico border. The Trump administration did not officially announce its family-separating zero tolerance policy until June of 2018.

The children detained after the policy’s official implementation have mostly been released to their families, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) maintains that the children detained prior to implementation have been similarly reunited.

So. No harm no foul?

I don’t think so.

There are a number of frightening things at play in this latest bit of breaking news, one of which is that while DHS and other government agencies can say these children have been released to their families or “sponsors,” the truth is, we simply don’t know. It appears that the government agencies responsible for these children can’t really know either, as the number of pre-policy detainees has been put in the vague range of “thousands” of children, and no adequate records of these children exist.

There are many (MANY!) jaw-dropping pieces of news floating around right now, but I implore you not to ignore this one. Even if the relevant agencies knew without doubt the exact number of children and had proof positive of reunification, the question remains: how did we, the American people, not know about this?

(DHS spokesperson Katie Waldman maintains that the practice of detention has been going on for decades, and so at this point it should be well known and old hat. What Waldman is referencing, however, is detention of unaccompanied minors, which is not what is at play here. I’ve worked with a few of those minors in the past and feel generally well informed about what goes on in those equally sad cases.)

There is no need to wax on about why this story should break your heart, make you so angry you could spit, or send you to the streets in protest. I assume you already feel all of those things and more.

But what feels even worse is what this all of this implies for the collective soul of our nation.

As someone who prays daily that we might all be able to fully realize one another’s humanity, it is this type of news that renders me breathless and overwhelmed. I cannot think of many clearer cases than this of failing so completely to see the face of God in others. When a parent of five knowingly and intentionally separates a child and parent, I can think of no other reason for it. Because if the humanity of “others” was realized, that person would know there is no difference in how “their” children versus “our” children feel when taken from their parents. No different heartbreak for a mother or father when his or her child has been taken to God-knows-where and is being cared for by God-knows-who. Have no doubt about it, memories of this moment in time will be reflected by history books, and we will not like what our grandchildren will read of it.

And then there’s the helplessness to stop it.

Because yes, while we, the American people, put so much pressure on the President that he signed an executive order meant to end the practice of separation, and the courts compelled reunification of the families, we didn’t even know about the thousands previously detained.

As a mere citizen, there are a large number of things I don’t know about what goes on in the world. I’m well aware of that, and I know that in most instances there is little I can do about it. So, I push those things aside and focus on what I can do now, and how I can learn to do more in the future.

But this. I didn’t know about this?

As a long-time child advocate, as someone whose primary concern in life is the care of children, this frustrates, saddens, and angers me beyond belief. It is something I feel in my gut. In the tips of my toes and in the pounding of my temple. It is one of those things that makes life unbearable, and yet makes me realize that with the one life I have, I better live it well and for not just myself, but for the well-being of others.

News stations don’t seem to be focusing much on this story, although every reporter I’ve listened to says the news is “huge.” Instead, the focus today is on the letter-writing pissing match between Speaker Pelosi and Mr. Trump. Today’s other, more important news is a much-needed reminder to focus on the things that truly matter. Not trips to Brussels, but children.

 

Cuddles’ So-called Life

I almost ignored it.

I was raking thatch out back, watching the kids pretend long, fallen branches left over from winter storms were light sabers, and our willow tree Darth Vader. Vader had won this battle and the kids were headed in, the youngest crying at his loss, when I saw something shimmery and black wiggle a little in the grass. I thought for a second it was a trick of the light, but then remembered the baby copperhead we found a couple of months ago and figured it was better to be safe than sorry.

Three steps later and I was staring at a mostly naked baby mouse, no mama mouse in sight.

I had no idea what to do. It was too young and cute for me to have the typical “mouse” reaction, and besides, it was barely breathing, let alone moving. What could it possibly do?

I dropped my rake and ran in, calling for the kids to come outside. Aaron resisted at first, still crying but now sitting at the kitchen island. “But Aaron,” I said. “It’s a baby mouse!”

If that mouse does nothing else in its entire life, it can always say it stopped a four-year-old’s tears.

The three of us went to look, the kids getting too close, while I went through the various scenarios in my head.

We couldn’t kill it. And we couldn’t keep it. And we couldn’t just dump it over the fence and make it someone else’s problem. Maybe drive it to a field and let it go? No. It was too little; it would die.

I decided to call Andy, who was still at work, but thankfully his office is in our basement so he didn’t have far to travel when I said, “Come to the backyard ASAP, please.”

He didn’t know what to do, either.

“If we leave it alone its mom might come back,” he said.

“No.” I’ve worked with neglected children long enough to see the signs, even in a 5-inch long rodent. “It’s been abandoned. It’s going to die.”

We took pictures. We hemmed and hawed. We told the kids not to get too close or to touch. We shushed all the pleadings to take on a new pet.

“I’m making an executive decision,” Andy said.

I immediately got nervous. I don’t do executive decision too well, unless I’m the executive.

“We’re leaving it alone to see if its mom comes back. I’ll check on it in a couple of hours.”

We agreed and went in the house, but went straight to the window overlooking the shiny, black, clearly dying lump of almost-hairlessness in our backyard.

I started dinner.

The kids and Andy played Uno.

The dog wanted out.

“Oh no. He might eat the mouse.”

“He wouldn’t eat a mouse.”

“He tried to eat the copperhead.”

“Yeah, but snakes are tasty.”

“Andy…”

“Well, Winston eating it might save the mouse from something worse.”

Rachel started screaming.

“I’m also worried about Winston bringing mouse-mouth into the house!”

“Oh, right.”

Rachel was still screaming.

“We aren’t going to let him eat the mouse, Rachel. Sit at the window to play cards. If Winston gets near the mouse tell me and I’ll get him.”

Winston didn’t eat the mouse. He didn’t even try to.

I kept cooking and they kept playing cards. Every 5 to 10 minutes, one of us would check on the mouse to see if it was still breathing. It always was.

As I cooked I thought, what are we doing? This is crazy. A month from now I’d try to kill that mouse if I saw it. We have mouse traps in our basement for crying out loud. And babies are always cute. Then they grow up and turn into adults and sometimes become completely unlikeable.

But still.

This was a baby. Its eyes were still closed. It wriggled and writhed in the grass, clearly rooting for its mama and her milk.

I called Petco.

“No, we don’t take wild animals. Sorry.”

I called our vet.

“No, we don’t take wild animals. Sorry.”

I started to say thank you and hang up.

“But let me give you a number,” I heard just in time. I wrote it down, but it was 4:55 on a Friday. What could be done?

I called the number anyway and got a woman’s voicemail telling me she was only accepting baby birds on a limited basis. She didn’t mention mice, I thought, so that must mean she’s taking them in droves. Score! I left a message.

We ate. We checked the mouse. We told the kids to eat. We checked the mouse. We finished dinner. We checked the mouse. We started to pick up. The phone rang.

It was the limited-number-of-birds lady.

“Sure. It won’t be the only mouse I’ve ever raised.”

She told me where to go – a town 30 minutes away. On a Friday. At rush hour. Right before the kids’ bedtime. And those kids also need baths.

But still.

She told me how to transport it safely. How to warm it if it were cold to the touch. How to cup it in my hands and rub life into it and give it sugar water in just the tiniest amounts because otherwise I could drown it.

I donned gloves. I filled a Tupperware with Kleenex. I grabbed a dipping bowl and medicine syringe and headed out back, the kids begging to do the work for me.

I noticed it had rained while we were eating. The mouse was now even slicker, shinier. Colder.

I scooped it into my hands.

“It’s a boy!” I said to the three people gaping at me through our open living room window.

I carried it inside. I laid it in its box. I let the kids touch it, ever so gently. I dribbled sugar water into its mouth.

“Was he cold when you touched it?” I asked the kids. They nodded.

Well crap.

I would now incubate a mouse.

And it worked. Slowly he started to wiggle more in my hands. His heartbeat became stronger. He twitched his little mouth and drank the sugar water. His ears – once flattened against his head – were somewhat softer. Perkier. After a few more minutes, he wriggled more. Became ever more alive. And I didn’t want to put him down. Feeling that life come into fuller being in the palm of my hand was … miraculous. Somewhat indescribable, although not entirely.

Eventually I put him in the Tupperware, leaving one corner open just like the limited-birds woman told me.

“Y’all better hurry. She said time was of the essence.”

But still I stood there, plastic box, tissue paper, and life grasped in my hand.

I told Rachel that she was the mouse keeper. She would have to be the one to keep him safe during the thirty-minute Hanauer Medi-Vac trip. Her smile was huge.

Aaron, however, sat at the table, sad.

“Should I take him?” Andy mouthed to me, gesturing slightly towards Aaron.

“Why not? It’s Friday. May as well.”

I said good-bye to Cuddles, placing him safely in the van, Rachel’s keen eye watching the whole time.

I turned to go in and saw a box against the garage. A delivery.

Well crap again. I knew already what was in it.

Inside, I grabbed the scissors, sliced open the box, and saw before me peppermint oil – mice don’t like it – and mouse traps. Ordered two days ago, BC: Before Cuddles. Before I became an incubator.

Earth Day is tomorrow. The next day is Sunday. I could hear the Sunday School lesson forming in my head as I stared at those traps, then realized I wasn’t teaching that week. What a shame. I’m sure there’s a lesson in this somewhere.

Just as I sat down to post this, the phone rang. I noticed the call was coming from the town 30 minutes away.

“Hello?”

“Do you have a cat?”

It’s the bird lady.

“No, just a dog.”

“Well, he’s a bunny.”

“My dog?”

“No, the mouse. He’s a bunny.”

Of course he is.