Bemused and puzzled, Jake observed his tearful mother with a tinge of amusement. He knew I was upset, but Jake just couldn’t relate to my sorrow.
Caleb responded far differently. He reached over and took my hand and said, “It’s okay, Mom. I’m here.”
Micah, hearing his mother all choked up and unable to speak, entered our Happy Blue School room – our Jubilant Academy – and draped his arms around my neck.
“I know what you guys are reading about,” Micah sympathized.
Yes, he did.
Jake and Caleb have been reading Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. (Spoiler Alert!) This tearjerker, but beloved classic tells the story of an Ozark Mountain boy named Billy who raised two, small, red-bone coon hounds named Old Dan and Little Ann to become the finest, strongest coon-hunting team in the region. You probably will remember, like Micah Man, what happened at the story’s end that may have brought this mama to tears.
Caleb understood my sadness, because, he too, was upset.
For Jake, though, the story isn’t real. Why be upset about something that isn’t happening in his life? Where the Red Fern Grows may be based on true events surrounding Wilson Rawls‘ childhood, but it wasn’t Jake’s childhood – or even his brothers’ childhoods – that we were reading about.
“You don’t need to cry, Mom,” Jake offered.
Actually though, the part of the story that stuck in this mama’s throat related to something within me that was real. My heart-sore spirit didn’t quell from what ultimately happened to Billy’s fiercely-loyal hounds and Billy’s broken heart. It’s this story interaction between mother and son that touched me most. This is interesting to me. I’ve read this book for the umpteenth time. I’ve read this book for myself, as a teacher, with my students, with Micah, and now with Jake and Caleb – but today, the story impacted me in a far different way than in previous readings:
Mama must have heard me get up. She came in and put her arms around me. “Billy,” she said, in a quavering voice, “you’ll just have to stop this. You’re going to make yourself sick and I don’t think I can stand any more of it.”
“I can’t, Mama,” I said. “It hurts so much. I just can’t. I don’t want you to feel bad just because I do.”
“I can’t help it, Billy,” she said….
After Mama had tucked me into bed, she sat down on the bed for a while. As if she were talking to the darkness, I heard her say, “If only there were some way I could help – something I could do….”
Yes, I’ve cried buckets of tears when Old Dan and then Little Ann died.
Yes, I’ve sobbed when Billy buried a huge chunk of his heart at the foot of a tall, red oak tree.
Today, I cried with Billy’s mom.
That was a first.
I empathized with her helplessness – and that she just couldn’t stand it. That place in a mama’s heart when all you want to do is scoop your little child up in your arms and kiss away the hurt and hug away the tears and the fears.
Mama couldn’t fix this situation, though.
Billy’s dogs were gone.
Mama couldn’t change the outcome.
Mama couldn’t turn back time.
Mama couldn’t snap her fingers and miraculously resuscitate Old Dan and Little Ann to life.
Mama couldn’t bring them back.
There was nothing that this mama could do to amend the tragic loss, or kiss and hug away the heart pain of her child.
I could relate to Billy’s mom.
I’ve been a mother for almost twenty years now. There have been many times when I have felt just as helpless when life dealt a cruel, unfeeling hand to my children. The discriminatory and dishonest behavior of people, the unfairness and inequity of systems, and the harsh, suddenness of death have wounded and scarred my children.
And there was nothing I could do to prevent it.
I couldn’t make people like my kids.
I couldn’t take their physical, social and emotional challenges away that were associated with two of my children’s autism.
I couldn’t protect my children from the teasing, the taunting, and the rejection they would experience in a different culture.
I couldn’t defend my children from the harsh, verbal, and emotional abuse they endured from adults who should have cared and nurtured them.
I couldn’t take away the pain of their grandfather’s death and the fact that our family was a continent and ocean away when he passed away.
I couldn’t anticipate the betrayal and dishonesty that one of my children would experience.
I couldn’t persuade people to pay attention to my children’s needs and consider them as capable – especially when these adults judged my children as ‘less-than’ and incapable.
Nor could I make anyone count my children as worthy of their love.
And I couldn’t take away the sting of regret and failure when my children made mistakes – either self-inflicted or accidental. They had to deal with the consequences of those lapses in judgment, careless missteps, or goof-ball decisions that made them look long and hard at themselves and their character.
What could I do for my kids after each of those times?
What could Mama do for Billy after his dogs had died so sacrificially and so tragically?
And what did they need of me, then?
Sometimes the most meaningful thing we mamas can do is sit, be present, and listen for as long as it takes.
There were times I had to act, of course. My children needed an advocate in some situations in which they were endangered. I’m sorry to write that. However, this mission life we have lived hasn’t been a walk in the park for our children. For us, either. Hard things have happened that slayed this mama’s heart – especially because I never, ever, ever anticipated it happening. Yet, no life is spelled out from A to Z – in perfect, alphabetical order. It wasn’t for me, and it wasn’t for our kids.
Yet, in the midst of it all, even in the midst of the misfortune, the failure, the adversity, and the trial and the sorrow, and the lack of order, our children could count on John’s and my love, support, cheer and our hope.
Billy could do the same for his mama. She loved him – hard and fast.
So, yes. I cried with Billy’s mama as she prayed and pleaded hard for her son. Because that’s what we mamas do – we pray and plead for our kids – whether they are infants, children, teenagers, young adults, or middle-aged men and women.
Don’t expect us to stop praying either.
And we’re true.
We love our kids.
No matter what happens in their lives.
We love our kids.
And we are for them. Even in our helplessness. We are for there to encourage them onward – to hope.
Just like Billy’s mama.