It’s true — I sang in a women’s trio in the 1980s. Very much restricted to our local church, but yes — I stood in front of the mic, in front of the congregation, and I belted out the low alto part whenever I got the chance.
My kids were elementary and middle school age, and I was trying to find my way to whatever might be next in my life — which, now that I think about it, seems to be a recurring theme for me. At that point in time, the search led to both women’s ministries and worship ministries, teaching and organizing events for younger moms, and assisting with musical production and worship planning.
I’d done the mommy thing for a long time by then — my eldest was an early teen — and I was itching to get out of the house, out of what sometimes felt like the constraining role of caring for children, running a home. Our mid-sized congregation had a wide swath of artists of all stripes – graphic designers, writers, actors, musicians — and it felt great to re-discover gifts I hadn’t used in a long while. It was intoxicating and exciting and fun.
This particular performance experience began on Friday, December 18th, our 16th wedding anniversary. I had a rehearsal at church that morning for a song and slide show to be offered the following Sunday. Our 9-year-old son had complained of a sore foot for several days — two nights before, he’d played his French horn in a school concert and limped as he walked off the stage.
“What’s with the foot, Eric?” I asked, a bit skeptically. We actually owned a pair of crutches from someone’s sprained ankle and I assumed this was more of the same — no big deal.
“I dunno, Mom. It just hurts to walk.”
He went to school the next day, but had trouble getting from classroom to playground. So on this Friday, the 3rd day of pain, I kept him home from school; we had an appointment with his pediatrician early that afternoon.
After my rehearsal, of course.
I brought him with me to the church and he used those crutches to climb up into the balcony. As I stood in the pulpit with my singing partners, I could see him there in the shadows — crawling and climbing, not walking. Finally, the rehearsal came together, and I gathered up my son and his crutches, took him out to lunch and headed to the doctor’s office.
Dr. Graves was a large, sturdy woman, wise, kind, and never alarmed by anything. My eldest had pneumonia when she was six, my middle girl some minor surgery when she was three — never a trace of concern with either of them. But this particular afternoon, I could feel her tension.
She took his temp, examined his legs and feet, and then she turned to me: “I don’t like the combination of the fever and the bone pain. I want him to see an orthopedist immediately.”
Suddenly, a big, black pit opened in front of me. This kid of mine, this rambunctious dreamer of a child, my easy-going companion, so kind, intelligent, sensitive — this kid was actually scaring his doctor. His un-scare-able doctor.
We saw the orthopod, who came in from an office Christmas party to examine Eric, and he immediately filled out the paperwork for admission to the hospital. And just like that, the big, black pit swallowed me right up.
Diagnosis? Osteomyelitis, an infection in the bone – the heel-bone, to be exact, caused by a good deed: he had helped his dad kick apart the metal jungle gym that stood in our backyard for a dozen years. Rusted and tottering, and outgrown by all our children, it needed to come down.
And now, we had a seriously ill boy. And it was our anniversary. And I had dragged this seriously ill boy to a rehearsal of mine, a rehearsal that was a part of my rediscovery process, my fledgling attempts to . . . what? Find myself? Get out of the house? Be noticed for something other than mothering my children?
Guilt came flooding in, and threatened to overwhelm me at times over the next few days. The admitting doctor guessed at the bacterial cause of this infection, choosing not to slice him open for a bone biopsy, and hung some powerful antibiotics intravenously. A scan showed a hole the size of a quarter in the bottom of his left foot, and we were told to expect three weeks in the hospital.
On the Sunday following that black Friday, I had a song to sing in worship. And I went, leaving my son and my husband to encourage one another in the hospital. We sang a lovely, madrigal type song, with lots of moving parts. And it was called, to the best of my memory, “Mary Was the First to Carry the Gospel.”* I got through the song and immediately drove back to my guys, weeping as I went.
I don’t think I’ve ever identified so strongly with Mary as I did that year. Watching a son suffer is beyond painful. It cuts to the marrow, makes you long to take the pain into our own body, forces you to look at yourself and what you hold most dear.
That year, I wondered if Mary ever second-guessed herself, if she wished she’d kept Jesus with her 24/7, if she worried that she didn’t pay enough attention to the signs, if she wondered maybe, just maybe, if she let herself get distracted from the best while in pursuit of the good.
Eric recovered well — they released him after just six days — and he came home with us on Christmas Eve. That song we sang on the Sunday before Christmas has drifted away from me now, but it’s impact has never disappeared, the questions it stirred are still being asked.
Am I paying attention to the signs? Am I distracted from the best while pursuing the good?
*I tried to find this song online, but the only one I found was very different, even though it has a similar title, written by the Gaithers, seventeen years after this event. Wish I could give you a link, but it seems to have disappeared. . .
BTW, that sick 9-year-0ld grew up to become a doctor himself.