Once upon a time.. when I was a young girl.. a very young girl.. a tree fell in our woods. Ha.. it doesn’t sound very interesting at first.. but that tree is burned in my memory with great detail.
I grew up in the woods. Our yard was full of trees. There were trees across our dirt road. There were trees behind our house. Our neighbors owned the acreage behind us.. YUP.. also trees. I basically grew up in the trees. As you may guess.. a lot of trees fell in those woods.
But this tree was special. It fell with ALL of its leaves still on its branches.
Now I don’t know why it fell.. That is the funny thing about memories.. It filters out the insignificant facts. And the fact was.. A tree fell. A beautiful tree full of branches and branches of leaves. When my sister and I inspected it with our friends? We saw that it would make the perfect fort. When this tree fell, it fell against another tree. Its branches catching as it fell, so that there was plenty of head room. Plenty of space to move around. The leaves were so thick that we couldn’t see through them once inside. My sister and I thought it was PERFECT!
So perfect that we decided to run away!
Now I don’t remember if we had a reason that we wanted to run away. If we had one, I certainly don’t remember it. I remember pulling a little red wagon half way around the lake to help our friends pack their 2 brown paper bags full of clothes. I remember finding rugs and blankets.. and even pretty pictures to hang on the walls. I remember planning out our life of independence. But I don’t remember a reason for wanting to run away.
When our Mom heard of our plans to run away.. our plans to strike out on our own? (After all.. I think I was 8 years old.. which made my sister 11? High time we were on our own.. right?!?) Well you can probably guess.. when my Mom heard the words “running” and “away” in the same sentence? YUP she freaked.. sent us to our room to unpack .. and sit on our beds. My sister remembers our Mom’s reaction being to the distance we walked that day .. with the little red wagon. But either way.. our friends were sent home.. and our plans were off.
Now that I am a Mother myself, I understand my Mom’s reaction a little better. But I have thought about this memory a lot in my life.. and as a teenager I thought.. Why didn’t she just let us spend the night out there?
This beautiful tree fell in FULL view of our house. (Which was one of the reasons we were so bold in the first place.) We could see the house through a small opening in the limbs from inside the fort… But it was also in a small clearing.. easily spotted from our house. You will remember that this tree is also surrounded by other trees. Trees that creak and leaves that blow in the wind. We would have been sleeping on the ground.. which is hard.. and even in the summer would have been cool.
If my Mom had given us a hug and wished us well?
We would have been back inside within an hour of darkness.
The first time we heard an owl above us.. the first time the leaves of our fort rustled in the wind.. the first time a tree creaked and groaned around us.. the first time a bug crawled out from the darkness onto our blanket.. the first time something fell on us from the wind blowing? We would have been screaming.
And how the wind does blow in Michigan.
Not to mention that my sister and I had 3 brothers who would have LOVED to try to scare us.
You may be thinking.. OH but the wild animals.. raccoons, deer, skunks, rabbits… bears..? And I will say this.. Have you ever heard 4 girls scream? I have.. it’s enough to make ME want to run away.. those animals wouldn’t have come within a mile.
Whenever I tell this story to a friend or to a group of kids? I always say that my Mom should have just wished us luck and enjoyed 2 hours of peace and quiet. And when we snuck back inside after dark.. quietly so that we didn’t have to let anyone know we had failed? My mom could have smiled softly and went back to sleep.
I think God has a sense of humor. You see every time I expressed a strong opinion about something as a teenager? YUP.. I had to go through that as a parent.. “My kids will NEVER act like THAT in a store!” I said.. I was the Mom with the 3 year old screaming for sardines..in aisle 7. “I will NEVER raise my voice to MY child..” said I…. Ha.. I had to train myself to whisper when I was frustrated with my strong willed child. “My daughter will never go in public with hair that messy..” I would mutter.. Bahahaha.. My daughter’s hair was blond, curly and thick.. oh so thick.. and she wouldn’t let me style it. We would never have gone into public.. And my most fervent, “If my child wants to run away, I will let them.. they will come back..”
YES.. you should be careful what you declare as a teenager.. God has a great sense of humor.
My daughter first uttered the words “run away” at the ripe old age of 3. I was so floored that NOT ONLY did she know those words.. but she knew what they meant.. at THREE! I was so surprised in fact.. I sent her to her room. When she was 4? She was still using them. I would try to explain why she had to follow our rules.. but to no avail.. she still yelled on about the injustices in the world. So I would send her to her room.
Then just after my daughter turned 5, I heard a panicked cry from the room down the hall. I rushed down the hall, to find my little child hanging outside from her window sill.. hanging over a 10 foot drop to the pavement below. She had decided to run away by going out the window.. however she had panicked when the screen dropped and reached for it.. reached and fallen out. As I hugged my daughter to me.. so happy she was safe.. because I knew exactly what would have happened had she NOT been able to grab the window sill.. I made a decision..
I decided that the next time my daughter threatened to leave.. I needed to let her go. In fact.. I would help her pack. (I borrowed the idea from Dr. James Dobson and his book the Strong-Willed Child.) When my daughter was in bed.. I explained my plan to my husband. He agreed to help.. but I knew that he doubted its wisdom at first.
And threaten she did..
“I don’t want to live here, I want to go live with someone nicer.”
Taking a deep breath, I prepared for battle. “Where will you go?” I asked sadly and patiently.
Her surprise at my calm question only lasted a second, before it hardened back into defiance. “To Grandma Pauline’s!”
I nodded and stood up, “I will help you pack then.”
Her look was shocked then, “Pack?”
“Yes.. you will need to pack. Daddy would you get her suitcase please?” I asked quietly.. continuing in my sad and resigned tone.
As Daddy retrieved the suitcase, we went to her room and started folding the clothes she would need to take. A sweater because the night was cool.. and who knew when she would get to Grandma’s. A few outfits.. her fancy shoes (her choice).. 7 pairs of undies because who knew when she would be able to wash her clothes again.. A blanket and pillow… Her toothbrush.. a hairbrush.. and her stuffed dog.
As her Dad and I carefully put everything in her suitcase, we took turns suggesting things. “Maybe you should sleep on Jill’s swing tonight.. You could travel during the daylight tomorrow that way.. remember to only cross at crosswalks.. make sure cars see you..” On and on we went.. sadly.. quietly… and resigned.
Just before we zipped her suitcase .. the tears started. Turns out.. she never wanted to leave.. She blurted out that she just gets so mad.. “I’m sorry,” she blubbers through her sobs, “please let me stay.”
And I smiled, (through my tears of course).. and I explained that her Dad and I loved her. We always would. And because we love her, we want her to be happy. When her sobs had quieted.. and my throat wasn’t choked up.. I explained to her that if she CHOOSES to live with us, then she chooses to follow our rules. The rules that will help her grow into an amazing young lady. I told her that if she is unhappy with those rules, she can tell us she is unhappy… (And then the bomb..) “If you choose to stay? Then this is it.. No more running away. Ok?” With a tear filled nod, she hugs me again.. and we unpack.
We have had many discontented arguments in my daughter’s life.. about many things.. I almost expected it whenever the wind changed direction.. or just blew.. and how the wind did blow in Missouri. But with all those arguments.. Not ONCE did my daughter again threatened to run away.
Shortly after this, I heard (again) the story of the Prodigal son in a Sunday school class. I remember thinking to myself… Why would he be so excited and rejoice to have his son back? Doesn’t the father know that he is just rewarding the wayward behavior? And KILL a fatted calf? I helped the children learn the story.. but I couldn’t really understand the excitement the father felt.
Now I don’t just have one child.. I have two.
My strong willed, very verbal daughter and then my silent, observant son.
After my daughter stopped threatening to run away.. we were at my parent’s house for a visit. I took my son outside to play. My cousin was also visiting that day .. he was discussing some decisions he had to make.. and while I was listening I was watching my son play.
Now my son may be silent.. and he may have special needs.. but he is also smart… and has an amazing memory for directions.
With a smile, my son ran behind the house, so I walked the other way.. kind of a peek a boo game .. When he saw me, he smiled.. and ran back the other way.. So I walked the opposite way around the house.. and again when he saw me he smiled.. Back and forth we went.. and all the while? I was talking to my cousin..
And then he was gone…
Thinking he was hiding at the end of the house, I casually walked in that direction.. but he was not there.. he was just gone…
My son had disappeared before my very eyes..
I called and called.. My cousin checked in the house.. and I went around the block.. the wooded block.. the wooded dirt road that divides our trees from the woods behind… I followed the path that I knew my brothers took him on.. My cousin caught up and we searched the woods.. all the while calling…
But he was gone..
As quickly as we could.. and still being efficient.. we followed the road and circled back around to my parents’ house .. and found my son hadn’t returned. My neighbor was there then.. my childhood friend… asking to help.. among others…
And I was starting to get scared.
The rational part of me knew my son had followed the path my little brothers took him on. The rational part of me knew my brothers would know if something had caught his interest. They would know if there was a side track that I didn’t know about. So while others searched the woods again.. calling for my son.. calling for a boy who could not answer…
While they were calling? I waited for the bus.. waited for my brothers to get home.
But the non-rational part of me? YUP.. it was starting to panic..
Minutes later.. as my brothers got off the bus.. I explained to them my theory.. That my son had followed the route they had walked with him.. and that he had perhaps stopped at something along the way. Both of my little brothers looked at each other and dropped their bags.. “I’ll take the long way,” said one.. “I’ll check the puddle,” said the other.. and they ran.
It was all I could do just to breathe. Breathe and stay on my feet. There were people there .. but I have no idea who they were. I have no idea what they were doing.. All I could see was my brothers running.. and all I could do was breathe. Because it felt like my heart was being ripped from my chest.. my throat burned with the emotions I could not release.. my chest felt like a great weight pressed against it.. keeping my breath from coming without a great struggle.. And my normally rational brain.. it was mush…
And then there was a horn.. a car.. or truck was laying on their horn… and my heart stopped. Someone pointed to the side road in the distance where an SUV was stopping in the middle of the road. Someone pointed out that my brother was almost to the same spot..
And my world stopped..
I couldn’t even breathe..
I couldn’t see..
I couldn’t hear anything..
Except that horn…
And then my brother was there in front of me.. He was there with my son.. My brother was handing over my young wet son.. and I was holding him.. Holding my son so tight that it was probably hard for him to breathe…
In that moment… all of the emotions I had held inside released.. and I cried.. cried like I have never cried before.. I know people hugged me.. I know people tried to comfort me.. I heard my brother explain about the giant puddle they had found the day before. I heard him explain that the SUV had barely seen my submerged son playing in the puddle.. I heard someone joke “thank the Good Lord for that dark hair!” I heard everything go on around me.. And the whole time, I held my young son tightly for fear he would disappear again. Held him and cried.. great big sobs of relief and thankfulness. Thankfulness that my brothers had known where to go.. Thankful that it was God’s plan for us to find him in time.
It was that moment.. the moment the joy crept into my tears.. that I understood the father in the story of the Prodigal son..
“But the father said to his servants, “Bring out the best robe and put it on him and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it and let us eat and be merry.” Luke 15:22-23
In that moment, I understood the joy at receiving the disobedient child back safely. At holding the son in your arms.. the one you worried about endlessly.. The joy that fills your whole body at their being safe..
Now.. I do realize that the Parable Jesus told isn’t about an earthly family… That parable actually refers to God as the father.. and the sons are us.. All of us! Some of us are the son who stays loyal.. stay and work tirelessly in the fields of God’s work. We are the ones who receive love and safe keeping from God everyday. But the son who leaves God’s protection? The son who takes his inheritance and spends it on worldly sins and then returns to God later.. humbled by his disobedience. I understand why God would want to celebrate.. Why heaven would ring with music and dancing..
Because in those moments.. the moments that air returned to my lungs.. that hope returned to my heart.. Those moments when I crushed my son’s small body against mine? I think I heard heaven rejoicing with me..
So now when I tell the story of my sister and I running away from home.. When I tell my daughter of my bold convictions of how my Mother SHOULD have handled it? I also tell her of her adventures and my son’s.. and I tell her of God’s sense of humor…
My daughter? She laughs … and says she will never disagree with me..
Even though she probably will…
And me? When I hear something shocking.. a kid walked off while his mother napped.. an overwhelmed mom yelling at her 3 year old.. in aisle 7..?? I try not to judge the parents.. I try not to think what I would have done differently.. I just pray…
It gets me in a lot less trouble…