Reflections on loving God, being Catholic, being a woman, being ill, loving life and anything else that comes to mind.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Mercy of Disappointment

Two or three weeks before Christmas each year when I was a child, I became ill, usually with strep. During the day, my foster mother had me rest in her bedroom where it was quiet and I was allowed to watch TV for short periods as a treat. (For us kids, watching TV was strictly limited to an hour on Saturday morning and a film after dinner on Sunday evenings.) And while she and the housekeeper dusted and vacuumed and scrubbed the rest of the house, I lay in her big bed with a book and the remote control and a glass of orange juice in the morning or ginger ale with crushed ice in the afternoon – a perfect picture of a little girl being very sick. And I was sick, very, very sick. But still, while they were downstairs cleaning, I explored my foster mother’s closets and drawers because I was curious and because it was Christmastime and I wanted to find the presents which she hid in her closets; I, along with my foster siblings – both the natural children and those born to other families – feared that we would not be remembered and somehow searching eased that anxiety.

Buying Christmas presents was a year-long adventure for my foster mother. She loved giving gifts and, with so many children in the house, shopping was a big job. She hid gifts bought earlier in the year in the cellar or the attic or at the top of the linen closet. But as Christmas approached, her closets were also pressed into service. Most years, we kids discovered everything except those hidden in her room, which was a sacrosanct place, only entered by us after her invitation and usually while she was present. So for me, being ill each year was the opportunity we all awaited – it was my job to memorize the gifts I found and report back when I was well enough to come down to the living room in the evenings.

The year that I was seven or eight I found a doll’s carriage and tea set which must be for me (at eleven, my next oldest foster sister had already announced she would not be playing with dolls any longer). I was very excited – these would be the first toys, since coming to live with this family, that would belong just to me. There was one problem – no doll. I did not own one and though my next oldest foster sister had given up such childish toys, she refused to give me her doll, would only allow me to play with it for brief periods under her watchful eye. How could I play with a stroller and tea seat if I had no doll?

I imagined approaching my foster mother and telling her that she had neglected to get me one. But if I did, she would know that I had rifled her closets. Finally, I found an advertisement in the newspaper that pictured two dolls, a toddler and a baby. “I really want a doll,” I said as I showed it to her. “Do you think this one would be alright? Is it too expensive?” She replied, “We’ll see.” A few days later, she called me to her room and showed me the toddler doll, “Is this the right one?” “Yes,” I said even though I had really wanted the baby doll which would have been far more suitable in the carriage. But I could not tell her and, taken unawares, I did not know how to ask for what I really wanted. That Christmas morning, I was terribly disappointed. I had seen all my gifts, had even chosen one of them. Though I had been remembered, there were no surprises.

We try to provide for ourselves and we fail – or we succeed, giving ourselves exactly what we wanted or at least near enough. And usually we are more or less disappointed. Something is not right, something is missing. Doing it for ourselves, doing it on our own is empty, hollow. Something inside us longs to receive from someone who sees us and knows us, a teacher, a parent, a spouse, a friend. We long for surprise – to have someone look inside us and see something that we do not know about ourselves, something that answers a need we do not even know we have, something we would enjoy, something that shows us that we can be more than we thought possible.

To live without being known and provided for, to live without surprise is agony, terrible loneliness, something greater than any heart can bear. And yet we cling to our attempts to be self providers and regard disappointment as a flaw in our psyches when in truth, it is a gift of mercy telling us that we are not enough for ourselves, that our hunger to be seen and provided for by another is our heart longing for the one who really knows us. Disappointment hurts, it reminds us that we are not in union with the one who really knows us, that we are not at home where we belong. But the mercy of disappointment is being reminded that my manipulation, my imaginings, my way are far too little. Disappointment demands that I seek more than I can give myself.

The gifts I receive these days are usually books, music or personal accessories – all of which I love. I no longer want dolls but I do long for trucks. Actually, I’ve grumbled and groaned because of a dearth of trucks. (I’ve never understood why being an adult means I must give up the innocent things that I still enjoy.) But the lack of toys, and trucks in particular, has continued. Until this Christmas when a friend, who had told me she had no money for gifts, handed me an interestingly shaped package that was obviously not a book, nor a CD and was probably too heavy to be a personal accessory. It was, in fact, a truck and I was very happy. But not only was it a truck, it was a Transformer, and only years of training in manners and proper deportment kept me from leaving the dinner party to rush home and play with it. And nothing could stop me sitting up with it into the wee hours. As I write, it sits about three feet away and each time I look at it, each time I play with it, each time a guest takes it up and transforms it from one iteration to another, I smile and my heart melts in gratitude a little bit more. It was more than I knew to ask for. It tells me that my friend sees me and loves me. It reminds me of the one who has always seen me and loved me and provided for me even in the midst of my misguided attempts to provide for myself.


Kate B. said...

How is it we've never met, and yet you know me so well?

I'm so glad you started a blog--I love reading it. I really appreciate how willing you are not only to distill life down into wisdom, but also to pass the cup around.

Thank you.

melanie b said...

Beautiful. Thank you so much for this.

The last paragraph, especially, made me smile. My little sister is the same way about trucks. She still mourns her Tonka truck that my mom gave away, thinking we'd all outgrown it.