Patches of Life

Dear Joy,

“No... no... NO. Don't change him there.”

I hear the words from behind me: a mom, sitting in a booth with her two children at Chic-fil-A, dressed in snappy workout clothes, hair pulled back. She's staring through the giant glass window into the restaurant's tiny play area, packed with screaming, sweaty kids on a Friday afternoon. Another mom, obviously pregnant, is sitting on a bench inside the play area, just on the other side of the glass from us. Her two-year-old is lying on the padded bench next to her, and, yep, it definitely looks like Pregnant Mom is about to change her son's diaper right on the bench, in the middle of the play place chaos. Sure enough, out come the wipes, a diaper, and hand sanitizer. Off comes the diaper.

A sigh from behind me, then a groan. Workout Mom is obviously distressed. Her kids munch their waffle fries, oblivious. (Speaking of oblivious, my 3-year-old is sitting on the bench next to me, watching YouTube on my phone, because he was just trampled inside the aforementioned play place, somewhere up in the tube maze. Charlie is still inside the hot, sweaty room, miraculously holding his own, graciously apologizing to all the kids he bumps into, which equates to a quick “I'm sorry!” every six seconds.)

Earlier, when Workout Mom sat down behind us with her kids and two trays of food, I hear this quick conversation:

Workout Mom (to her four-year-old son): “Hey... remember on Thanksgiving, when you poured that hot wax down Auntie Judy's toilet?”

Four-year-old boy (absentmindedly munching on a nugget): “Mmmhmmm...”

Workout Mom: “Well, that was a really expensive fix. We're not going to do that ever again, ok?”

Four-year-old boy: “Mmmhmmm...”

Later, a sweet Chic-Fil-A employee tries to take our tray for the second time, but I ask for a few more minutes, because I didn't know whether or not Charlie will come out of the play place begging for his waffle fry crumbs. Mr. Chic-Fil-A (wedding ring on his finger, kind expression on his face) says, “I see you're getting ready to have another one... Any day now, hmm? Due any day?”

(Why, why, why?)

“Actually,” I respond, “I'm due in two months,” (his smile cracks, just the tiniest bit) “and wearesoexcitedandyesit'sagirlandWHEW, I think we're done with this tray now!” He congratulates me, and off goes our tray. I silently resolve to wear ponchos for the rest of this pregnancy.

We leave when Charlie gets sandwiched at the bottom of the slide between two smaller boys (one, at the front of the line, who is particularly determined that NONE SHALL PASS). As we make our exit, I notice the businessmen, quietly lining the far corners of the restaurant, eating their chicken patties and scrolling on their phones, earbuds in place.

We're driving away, and I watch as two cars pull into the parking lot. The first, a minivan, is nearly rear-ended by a slick sedan, because Minivan Lady (with a vehicle full of kids) is driving slower than Sedan Lady (alone, in a suit, hands thrown up in obvious frustration) would have preferred.

This strikes me, because when I was twenty-one, I used to drive around in my flashy Mustang on my own lunch break. I had exactly one hour to get all my very important things done, and sometimes there were multiple errands to run, places to stop, before hurrying back to the office. I'd tap my high-heeled-shoe on the brake pedal whenever I found myself stuck behind a minivan, rolling my eyes at the “soccer moms” who meandered along at a snail's pace. My little zippy car would push the speed limit, and I'd leave those minivans in the dust, because I was a Very Important Lady with Things To Do. (Sedan Lady. Minivan Lady. I relate to you both.)

Back to present time: Later that night, my kids are gone, whisked away by my inlaws for the evening while we host a neighborhood Christmas party. I'm wearing a much larger, more forgiving, less “any day now” shirt, and talking with two sweet ladies next to a table full of cakes and hors d'oeuvres. The topic has turned to kids, and someone mentions that she'd love to have children someday, but her husband isn't sold on the idea. Another mentions the fact that, because she's single and childless, her entire family assumes that she has all the time in the world. She says, “My family asks me, 'Honestly, what do you DO with all the time you have?'” Her exasperation is obvious, written all over her face, as she lists job, house, caring for elderly friends, hosting guests, a life full of giving, going, working hard. “I wish I had a night to sit on the couch and just relax,” she finishes simply. We laugh a bit, and the conversation moves elsewhere, but her words stay with me for awhile.

Joy, you said this so well in your last letter: Aren't we all sharing this life together, to some extent? Aren't we all working hard at what we're doing, connected by (if nothing else) the oxygen we breathe in and the grace we do (or don't) breathe out? My single neighbor wants one night to sit quietly on her couch with her feet up, just like I do. She's doing good, important things, just like people with kids are. There's Pregnant Mom, changing a diaper in the middle of everything (yes, gross), but quite possibly because she's (1) desperate, (2) sleep-deprived, or (3) both. We all like to think that our own stuff is at the center of the universe. Maybe Mr. Chic-fil-A is dying for kids of his own, and isn't thinking about the social appropriateness of commenting on my large pregnant self. And my husband (a plumber) is probably out right now, fixing Workout Mom's Auntie Judy's wax-clogged toilet.

I think that there's another aspect of this concept of a grace-filled, shared life that I'm wriggling toward. I mentioned earlier that we all like to think we're at the center of the universe. We've written about extending grace, and making space for each other (which, as you so beautifully put, makes life bigger and richer and better). I think this includes our responsibility to acknowledge that every life matters; every person has a purpose. Susan Schaeffer Macaulay writes about this in an excellent chapter on community (from her book, For the Family's Sake):

Every “little” life counts; each day, each hour has its place. In God's sight, there is no “little” life; each person is significant. Together we should add up to a powerful whole – a body where each part is important. One person here and another there, each doing well enough in his own little “patch of life,” will add up to permeate society as a whole, as salt flavors a lump of dough. The influence can be for good or evil, for truth or lies.

I have glimpses into little “patches of life” all around me: Workout Mom, Pregnant Mom, Minivan Lady, Sedan Lady, Mr. Chic-fil-A, my neighbor down the block – all fighting their own battles, living out lives that I only know a few seconds of. Macaulay goes on to say, “Although we have just one short life to live, that doesn't make it easy – 'nothing in this life is simple.' As we are flawed ourselves and live in a flawed reality, things go wrong. We were never perfect or well-rounded in the first place – all of us have needs. That is when we help each other. It is a terrible thing when we are isolated from a working-together community.”

It took a really chaotic lunch at a chicken sandwich place and a quiet conversation at a Christmas party to help me realize, all over again, the importance of all of this. Am I just restating what we've been talking about all along? Probably. But forgive me. It's a topic I've been living with, breathing in, working through, ever since it came up a few weeks ago. This idea of living out grace, and extending understanding and compassion, even when it seems undeserved, has been remaking me, changing me.

I might (might!) think twice the next time I sit down on a restaurant's play place bench. Actually, I hope I do. It'll remind me that (1) everyone's fighting their own tough battles, and (2) moms are usually right. (A long time ago, my mom told me to forget the 5-second-rule: in a restaurant, I should never eat the french fries that fell onto the seat next to me. Hello. Really. You were right, Mom. You were totally right.)