In the car at night and I can’t see her face, just the blur of headlights and the jostle of cars weaving in and out of lanes, just the green-lit signs labeling exits. From behind me, she speaks, and the tentative way she shapes her words tells me that she chooses this time for the cover of darkness and the fact that I can’t look into her eyes. This way, when she tells me she thinks I was wrong, she doesn’t have to watch my face.
“Mom, you know after everyone left my party, when we were talking about my friend, about her being disrespectful? You know?”
“Yes.” She’s measuring me, carefully testing my tone and the speed with which I speak. She’s listening for open, interested, hearing; and also cautiously for angry, resentful, defensive. So I wait, focusing on the traffic in front of me, the shoe-shaped silver car in my immediate view. The tailgate is covered with coastal stickers.
“Well, I didn’t like that. I mean, I don’t think…….Well, it felt like we were talking bad about someone else. You know, in that way we don’t want to do.”
“Okay…” I inhale, remembering the morning in question, the morning after the birthday slumber party. Kevin left early for a long workout, left me tangled in sheets and half hidden under my pillows for a rare extra hour of sleep—maybe, could it be possible?—before the kids woke and needed breakfast. I heard nothing until my mom woke me with her soft hand on my cheek, the silver hair slipping out of her ponytail. She and Dad had been with us that weekend, visiting for Zoe’s birthday.
“I’m sorry to have to wake you, but Adam just threw up. Apparently he had a problem with his pod last night. He has ketones, and we’ve been giving him water, but he just threw up. And the girls are all up. One of them had a nose bleed and the one helping her used all the tissues in the bathroom and still couldn’t get it to stop. We cleaned up the floor…It was all over her arms…and you know Zoe wanted us to make waffles for breakfast. I didn’t want to have to wake you, but when Adam threw up, I thought I’d better.”
I put my hands over my face. I remember that, turning my head up toward my mom, covering my eyes with my hands. It had been one of those weeks when everything converges at once—Adam’s first day of school coming and all the gathering of medical accessories, the binder I’d made him to structure blood sugar testing away from home, his Open House; Zoe’s birthday and all the special she should have in celebration, the gift shopping and decorating and inviting; the other-focused things we want for always, the lifting and encouraging and offering strength to those running short of it.
“Well, you know I don’t think any differently about your friend,” I say to the brake lights, the glint of silver in front of me, wishing I could stop and look at my daughter, already respecting her courage. “It was just a mistake. We all make mistakes.”
In my mind, I see the morning, how I went downstairs and Mom and I made waffles for the girls, because that had been Zoe’s request; how this particular friend showed up just as we were putting plates on the table, how much I instantly liked her. She has sparks in her eyes, this friend, and her smile turns in an unexpected way. From the beginning, she doesn’t mind talking to me. Meanwhile, Adam lays on pillows in the living room, looking gray. My dad gives him small sips of water from a cup with a straw every few minutes, and from the kitchen Mom and I listen for the sound of Adam’s voice, for signs that he’s better, while we juggle hungry questions.
Yes, this morning had indeed been ripe for misunderstanding.
“I didn’t mean to say that you shouldn’t be friends. You know that, right? I say, continuing, looking in the rear view mirror but only finding twin beams. “I was being honest about it, though. I do think she was disrespectful.”
“She was. I was upset about it too.” Zoe’s words come quickly, in a rush. “But Mom, she’s not normally that way. I don’t know why…I think she just wasn’t thinking, that she didn’t realize.”
It’s so bright, that grace, that compassion, that looking mercifully at a human heart, that Christ-seeing.
Zoe speaks from the Spirit, and Word floods my heart, first this: And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view (2 Corinthians 5:15,16); then this: Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (Romans 15:7); then this: A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out (Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20); and then this: Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses (Numbers 12: 8)? In just this way God presses His fingers right into me. The Spirit moves through me, a wind that leaves nothing the same in its wake, opening my ears to hear.
I see them, Zoe’s friends, gathered around our table, and it is an unusual mix—a few girls I’ve known so long that I speak to them as though they are mine too, and a few completely new to me. This new friend of Zoe’s with the sparks in her eyes bristles when I tell another of the girls now getting up from the table—one so familiar as to know how to take my mother-tone—not to tell me she’s hungry again thirty minutes after wasting half of a waffle at breakfast. This new friend lifts the hair off of her shoulders with her hands, gathering the long, spiraling lengths of it together behind her and murmurs, “I’m hungry ALL the time.” But this doesn’t settle with me until later, looking back. At the time, I barely register the clue to her discomfort.
Later, when Adam finally moves off the floor and starts spinning again, when the color at last returns to his pale cheeks and I know for sure we won’t be going to the hospital today, I ask this new friend of Zoe’s not to beat Zoe’s mylar dolphin-balloon into a wilt with her hands. Somehow I’ve finally processed Zoe’s fleeting glances at the balloon as it rises and falls in the air. I finally hear Zoe say, “Hey, can we play with something else?” And I finally realize that her friend ignores her, that she continues hitting the balloon, pulling it up and down, making it “swim.”
I feel as though I say it kindly—“Please don’t do that. It’ll make the balloon deflate a whole lot sooner.”
At first, Zoe’s friend ignores me too, until I reach for the balloon strings and gather them away.
“I had a round one like this and it didn’t deflate for like three months.”
“Right. Well, this one will not last that long if you keep hitting it like this. You girls find something else to do, okay?”
Her eyes flash, this friend who had been so lovely in the beginning.
“Can’t you just buy another one?”
“I could. But why would I want to waste this one?”
She slows her speech, enunciating the first word carefully, as though I am slow to understand. “Beecccauuusseee, we want to play with it?” Thus, her poor choice unfolds.
I admit it: wastefulness and disrespect kindle my anger quickly. I press my mouth into a line, and when I speak again, the words are iron. “Well, Zoe doesn’t want to play with it. Find something else to do.” I walk away, taking the balloon with me, and everything simmers. But when everyone leaves, when I hand the last tote bag and pillow through the door, I openly discuss my distaste for this friend’s behavior. And thus, my poor choice unfolds.
It’s astounding how quickly our conversations can deteriorate, how easily we move from discussing facts to making assumptions and judgments, often as we try to support and justify each other. It is a short conversation, but one that we would never have had had I managed not to offer a commentary to anyone except the One who knows hearts. And four days later, my daughter still relives our words, trying to figure out how to tell me that things took a bad turn on our end too.
“…We don’t know anything about her,” Zoe says, reassured by my listening, “and we shouldn’t decide what she’s like or why she said that stuff or how she is just based on that one mistake. We all make mistakes.“
I grip the steering wheel, because I still want to defend myself. I still want to talk about Zoe’s friend’s disrespect and how it shouldn’t have been instead of listening carefully to my own conviction. But the Spirit rushes through, writing Word all over me, and I see that my daughter is correct, that she has the heart I want her to have: the heart of grace, mercy, compassion, love, and forgiveness.
“You’re right,” I say to her. Just that. “You’re absolutely right. I should not have said anything more about it.”
Sometimes, I justify critical speeches as the honest rendering of my feelings, and I behave as though the mistakes of others are more unforgivable than my own. But the truth is that I’ve been shown immeasurable grace, and God has forgiven me far more than I could ever forgive anyone else. It’s the worldly point of view, the self-centered one, to see other people in light of how I perceive that they have mistreated me instead of seeing them as treasured souls for whom He also died. His love is impartial. Every other soul is just as cherished as my own. And I’m not to live for myself anymore but to live for Him, to be like Him. A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. Jesus never dismissed difficult people nor stopped loving them, even when they nailed Him to a cross. Oh how keenly I feel the plank in my own eye, and I want to remember that feeling. I want the clear and humble view of that plank now to stop my mouth from pointing out the tiny bits of sawdust in the eyes of another (Matthew 7:3). She loves much who has been forgiven much (Luke 7:47), and I have been forgiven so much.
I want to be a Christ-follower who loves enough to obey, who asks Him to change what I see, what I think, what I say. And in the dark of night as we drive home, I give thanks that my daughter is also my soul-sister, that she seeks to be like Him too, and that she has the courage to expect me to live what I teach her, what I believe. The greatest love is courageous unto accountability.
My, how she grows.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer (Psalm 19:14).
Oh set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips (Psalm 141:3).