On the bar in the kitchen, I find a scrap of paper she has forgotten. The blocked letters and lines and paragraphs seem too serious for her, too stark. Name: _______________________________ Title/Description for yourself (something you would naturally say to introduce yourself): _______________________________. Her handwriting softens the lines, beautiful, plain, easy. Riley. Peace.
I lay my hand flat over the letters, pausing there in the quiet—the finally quiet—and smile. ”Truth,” I say quietly, only a simple acknowledgement whispered to God, who always uses my daughter to teach me.
The mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace (Romans 8: 8), He says to me, and I laugh out loud. And so she shows me, Lord.
When she calls me on the phone, she never says, “Hello.” She just starts talking, as though no space ever separates us, as though the time away just marks the air like an oddly placed comma. She’s more right, really, than the rest of us.
“Ummm, the PTA list says I only sold 3 things.” I can see her in my mind, standing there holding the phone, looking sideways, down, away instead of straight in front of her, trying to keep the tears from swelling and spilling over onto her lashes. She does that when she’s upset, like the tears offend her sense of order.
“What?” Suddenly I can’t breathe. The word tumbles out with my breath, more a shocked I can’t believe this than a real question, but of course Riley thinks I mean it literally.
“The PTA says I only sold 3 things except 13,” She says. I hear the cracks in her voice and I ache, wanting to wrap myself around and over her. She has waited for this party for weeks, carefully pressing her pencil into the calendar to mark the date. She has talked about it nearly every day, what day it will be, how she gets to go and eat pizza and play cash basketball because she sold 13 things for the school fundraiser. She has told me three times which of her friends are also going to the party, how she has asked them especially just to see if they will be there. I always hesitate about things like this and have to push down my protectiveness to let her go because I am concerned that someone will hurt her. She is a treasure worth protecting. But she loves people, loves to do things, and I know she needs her independence. Protecting cannot mean snuffing. The party is meant to be a celebration after school for everyone who participated in the fundraiser by selling at least 5 things. My mom bought 8 things herself, just to be sure Riley would get to go to the party.
I think of all of this, standing there holding the phone, and I fume. I look down at my hands and realize that I am shaking. Really, Lord?
“They won’t let you in the party?” I ask it and iron slices in at the bottom. The syllables hit the air hard. I want to grab my keys and drive to school and look someone in the eyes, this person that won’t, but it’s a full half hour after the party began already and I am on my way to pick up Adam and Zoe. I look at my watch. They will be waiting on me.
“No,” she says, and her voice breaks apart.
“Riley, is there an adult I can speak to?”
“Okay good. Get an adult and tell them I want to speak to them.”
I wait in silence, pacing the carpet behind the chair in my office, throwing my empty hand in the air in question.
After a few minutes, I hear them in the background, a woman asking Riley, “But what is the situation? I need to know the situation before I talk to your mom on the phone,” and Riley, “The situation is that the PTA list says I only sold 3 things,” and the woman, “Oh, I see.” Just get on the phone, I’m thinking. I will tell you the situation. When Riley gets upset she loses words. Desperation makes her sentence structure disintegrate. She doesn’t know what to explain or how. She leaves out the most important clauses, things like but I actually sold 13.
I imagine that she spent the first half hour after they told her she couldn’t have a ticket standing with her eyes wide and her cheeks reddening, the tears gathering in pools. Later she told me that she did say she’d sold 13 things, but I don’t know when or how those words managed to escape, nor how it happened that someone just tossed her explanantion away. I imagine them trying to talk to her, trying to look into her eyes, and my daughter staring at the ground in front of her, only nodding when they asked her if she’d like to call me.
One of the assistant principals introduces herself on the phone and explains that the kids had to sell at least 5 things to attend the party. ”But she actually sold 13,” I say carefully.
“So, you’re saying there’s an error with the PTA list?”
“Okay. Let me find someone from the PTA. We’ll straighten this out and then Riley will call you back.”
“I can’t believe this,” I say to the air, hanging up the phone, slipping on my shoes.
I drive to pick Zoe and Adam up from school, gripping the steering wheel too hard, harder and harder and harder as I think of Riley and how hard she works, how she presses on with joy, how she looks forward to things like this party. And someone has her sitting in a conference room while they check to see if she’s lying, and she doesn’t even understand why lying is something we do. I pull into a parking space thinking of Riley in the afternoon, trying to understand what slavery is and was, trying to grasp the concept of prejudice while we do her Social Studies homework, and she can’t get it because she can’t wrap her mind around why all the rest of us can so easily be selfish and mean. And I know that at that moment she waits without anger, without blame, without accusation. She waits sad because she doesn’t understand, sad because she wants to participate, but without the first defiant flash. I am her defiant flash.
When Zoe finishes safety patrol and climbs in the car after Adam, she overhears what I am saying to my friend about what has happened, about me waiting to hear from Riley, about Riley waiting in a conference room.
“What?” She says suddenly from the back seat, and I know she’s fuming now too, fidgety with wanting to go say what her sister will not. But just as I turn to reply, the phone rings.
“I’m all set,” Riley says as soon as I answer, and in her voice I hear a smile. I hear her freedom. The sun shines gold through the window, warm on my face, and for a moment, I relax.
“They’re going to let you go in now?”
“Yes, I can go in,” she says, and I look at my watch and see that it’s late. The party will be over in forty-five minutes.
“Well get on in there and enjoy it then,” I tell her. She has so few moments just for fun. Abruptly, she’s gone, without a “bye” or an “I’ll see you later.” She has no need to say what’s obvious to both of us. Another woman comes on the phone, her voice smashed too close to my ear, telling me without preamble how she’s very sorry but she thinks an error happened regarding Riley’s online orders but it’s all straight and Riley still has plenty of time. She runs the words together without breathing as though she’s used to feeling no grace extended, and at the moment, I search hard past my mother glare to offer some. But she doesn’t still have plenty of time, I’m thinking.
And it’s not the mistake that bothers me but the way they crammed Riley in a conference room like a criminal, the way they kept her there even after I told them about the mistake, the way they thought the worst of her first. Why would we try to cheat our way into a PTA party? But I know better than to unleash my tongue. My tongue betrays me when I most want to be hidden. So I hang up the phone and I stew, and I pray, and for a moment I turn my attention to other things, counting it a gift that Riley can enjoy at least some of the celebration.
And a little later, when I pick Riley up at school, she climbs in the car laughing and giddy, flushed with happy. She says nothing about the conference room or the phone call or the tears. She has no slander to offer, no frustration, no record of wrongs against her. As we drive away, she tells us about eating pizza and drinking water and dancing. ”I’m so happy I got to go to the party for 45 minutes,” she says to me. I grip the steering wheel, not so ready to be taught by her joy.
Zoe, too, has trouble letting go. ”But Riley, where were you before they let you go in the party? I mean, they should not have done that.”
“Yea, I was in the conference room. They made a mistake on the list. But I got to go in before it was over. And that’s good.”
My knuckles are white, bloodless.
I carry Riley’s tears with me through the afternoon and they bruise my palms, marking me. I wrap the whole sore collection around my neck and shoulders while I make dinner and guide children through homework, while Riley bends her shoulders over papers and reads to me from books. And it only makes me tired, the carrying. It presses my smile into a flat line that feels heavy on my face.
At supper, I tell Kevin what happened. I have to stop mid-sentence because my own tears clog my throat. Riley sits still, holding her fork in the air, watching me. I can see that she does not understand why I have not left it, and it’s this that makes me say, “But Riley, she’s okay. She was okay the minute they straightened out their confusion and let her into the party. And so–”
I look at Kevin and he finishes my sentence. ”And so we’re the only ones who are still upset about it.” We smile at each other, seeing that our daughter has offered us another gift. We leave our commentary behind and take up another thread just as she has—the good, the admirable, the excellent, the praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). So many people see her as simple-minded, but we have come to see that she is beautifully uncluttered by all the things that rob so many of the rest of us of our freedom.
I wish I had her gift for letting things go, that ability to open my hands and let my disappointment fly away. It protects her heart far better than I ever could with my fists clenched.
That night, I climb into bed weary and empty, and I have to ask God to help me lay this down so that I can sleep. I ask Him to hold it for me, to keep it from flattening my smile, to help me in the morning to advocate for my daughter and for better without failing to offer grace. I ask not to chain someone else. And I can ask for all this and want it truly because she has let it go already.
So in the morning, the first moment I can, I sit at the computer and write my email to the principal and the PTA president. Because of my great love, you are not consumed. My compassions are new every morning (Lamentations 3: 22,23), Spirit says deep over the clicking of the keys, and so He writes grace and gratitude into my letter. It is the Spirit who writes, “Mistakes happen. What troubles me more is the error in our thinking when we would first think the truth a lie or expect the worst motives of each other before the best.” It is the Spirit who extends the reminder to me too, the Spirit who answers my prayer with a gift only He can bestow: the ability to let it go and let God.
For the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.