The Child’s Cry Out of a Nightmare

The Child’s Cry Out of a Nightmare October 3, 2014

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Last night I wanted to read the Psalms before bed, but when my Bible fell open in Jeremiah, I started reading. I don’t know why I did that; I knew better. My subconscious must have absorbed the way I’ve been reading the news for the past few days and programmed itself to follow the pattern: find the most sensational and frightening thing to read, then despair.

Behold, I am against you, O proud 
     says the LORD God of hosts;
for your day has come,
     the time when I will punish you.
The proud one shall stumble and fall,
     with no one to raise him up,
and I will kindle a fire in his cities,
     and it will devour all that is round
           about him."

(Jeremiah 50:31-32)

Jeremiah is as dependable as Drudge. I flipped back to the Psalms, hoping for some kind of balm against the terrifying God of the Old Testament. But all the assurances of the Lord’s steadfast love and mercy couldn’t wash Jeremiah’s words from my mind.

I slept badly and woke early, when it was dark and the house was still. I heard the baby cry once, but he turned and settled in the time it took  me to walk across the house.  I checked on all the kids anyway, in the same habitual way I started checking on Sienna when she was a newborn — standing silently next to their beds, listening to their breathing, watching their chests rise and fall,  sweeping my fingers light across their foreheads before whispering a prayer and tiptoeing out.

Charlotte was laying awake in her bed, staring at the slats of the bunk above her. Her lips were moving soundlessly in a prayer to her guardian angel, and she had one hand extended, fingertips pressing against the mattress above her. I taught her that trick, to press on her sister’s bed when she’s awake and afraid at night, so she could feel Sienna’s weight and know she’s not alone. She’s often awake at night…like me as a child, she sleeps lightly and is afraid of things in the darkness. She longs for the comfort and security of sleeping next to someone — preferably me or the Ogre, but she’ll make do with a sibling in a pinch. She wakes me up most nights, but our bed isn’t big enough for three to sleep comfortably. After a half-hour of cuddling, I’ll pull out her makeshift pallet from under the foot of our bed, arrange her animals around her, sing her lullaby to her, and kiss her goodnight.

This morning I scooped her out of bed and carried her back to ours. She settled in between the Ogre and me, and I wrapped my arms around her, resting my cheek against her forehead, and listened as her breathing slowed and deepened.

There was an hour left for sleeping before the sun rose, but I couldn’t close my eyes. I told myself that I was allowed one hour — this one hour of darkness — to bring every terrible thing I feared to life in my imagination.

It was a terrible hour, facing down known and unknown and outlandish fears in the solitude of my mind. Hot tears slid down my cheeks for a while, running into my daughter’s hair. But at the end of the hour, when the sky was pink behind the curtains and Charlotte stirred and opened her eyes, I smiled and whispered, “good morning, little one.”

It was a good morning. I made the kids eggs and let them have chocolate milk to drink, and we prayed the morning office while they ate breakfast. I read the meditation once, then slowed down and read it again.

The Cry to God as ‘Father’
in the New Testament
is not a calm acknowledgement
of a universal truth about
God’s abstract fatherhood.
It is the Child’s cry
out of a nightmare.

It is the cry of outrage,
fear, shrinking away,
when faced with the horror
of the ‘world’
– yet not simply or exclusively
protest, but trust as well.

‘Abba Father’
all things are possible
to Thee …
Rowan Williams

(from the Northumbria Community)

I lingered over the blessing at the end, as if asking God in slow motion to protect my children through the storm would make Him listen, take me seriously, and acquiesce. Surely the many mothers in Liberia have been begging for the same thing, with a thousand times more desperation. I brushed and braided the girls’ hair, sent Sienna off on her bike, and drove Charlotte to school with her favorite song blasting and the two of us dancing and singing along.

I checked the news when I got home and freaked out again, even though nothing had changed. I couldn’t get a grip, so I put on tennis shoes and took the boys and the dog for a run. It was late morning and hot, and it felt good to have my heart pounding from exertion and not from fear.

When we got home I did some laundry, fed them lunch, cleaned the bathrooms, and sat down at the computer. I started to click on Drudge and then I didn’t. Even though it was barely noon, I read tonight’s compline instead.

I am placing my soul and my body
in Thy safe keeping this night, O God,
in Thy safe keeping, O Jesus Christ,
in Thy safe keeping, O Spirit of perfect truth.
The Three who would defend my cause
be keeping me this night from harm.

(from the Boisil Compline)

Getting down from the tree is an act of deliberate insanity. It’s not that I need to find the way down; there is no way down. I am afraid because there is cause, and because I am helpless to protect my children. But this is always the way for mothers, fathers, for humans. There is always so much to fear.

Ebola might sweep our country. I might watch my family bleed and die. They might watch me bleed and die. Or it might not, and in six months I might read this post and laugh at myself for being so terrified, the way I was terrified of swine flu five years ago. The only thing to do is trust God, even if I have to stop every hour and pray for the grace to do so. If these are the last of our days, I want them to be days of laughter and peace and faith, not days of fear. And if our days still stretch out before us, I want them to be days of laughter and peace and faith as well.

Abba, catch me.



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