Last week, after I read my daughter two books, and gave her a bath, and buried my nose in that delicious clean-baby scent of her neck, and zipped her into pajamas with pink monkeys cavorting all over them, and sang her the twenty-third Psalm, and laid her in her crib and turned off the light, and stood in the sliver of light at her doorway, I told her, “I love you, baby. God loves you.” And that was when, for the very first time, I heard a word, murmured from the place where her cheek lay pressed up against the cotton sheet.
“Yeah,” she said softly.
I froze, tears in my eyes. Then I gulped hard and choked out, “Yeah. Yeah, I love you,” and shut the door.
Our pediatrician tells me my daughter is not hitting her verbal milestones. We’ve been working on it a lot lately, reading a lot of books, labeling everything she sees or touches. Her receptive language — that is, her understanding — is good. She follows commands. She points to the appropriate body part when I say, “Where’s your nose?” She can distinguish between a peacock and a polar bear. But when I ask her, pointing to a picture of her dad, “Who is this?” she hesitates, her mouth open, her tongue flopping around like a fish out of water. I’ll wait, counting to ten in my head, to give her space. But then she just freezes up. It’s as though, in the spark-flying space of her brain, a connection snapped between her mind and the muscles of her mouth. She cannot find a way to shape her thoughts into words.
Except this one: Yeah. Yes. An allowance and an affirmation. She opens her mouth, gulping in all I have to give her, all I have to say. In return, the only thing she can find in return is this: Yes. Acceptance. And then she goes to sleep.
This past year, the year my daughter struggled to find her voice, was the year that I stopped being able to find words to follow the “Dear Lord” part of prayer. Not that it was ever, to be frank, something that came naturally to me. But I did a decent amount of praying anyway, because I considered it a lot like flossing — something the experts recommend. Prayer is something I was taught to do with my eyes closed and my hands folded, at dinnertime and bedtime and church.
I’ve done a fair share of blessing-counting and mercy-begging. I’ve tried to return thanks for all this great stuff I’ve got slung around my life, because Mama raised me right. I’ve prayed in response to Post-it reminders stuck on my mirror; I’ve kept prayer journals. I’ve stood fidgeting in prayer circles, ignoring everyone else as I tried to construct something poetic to say when my turn came around. I’ve made lists of all the things I ought to be praying for, certain that God was up there in heaven ticking off a similar list. I’ve had answered prayers: for jobs and for places to live and for guidance and for help. And I’ve had unanswered prayers: for jobs and for places to live and for help and, a few times, for God to take my life away in the night, because the world seems just too big for me sometimes, with too much sadness in it to bear.
Last year was a hard year to be in the world. It was the year a dear friend of mine got horribly, horribly ill and was in and out of the hospital with seven surgeries and almost died, even though he’s only 25. It was the year someone shot up a theater full of midnight movie-goers and someone else shot up a classroom full of first-graders. It was the year police found the dismembered body of a kidnapped ten-year-old stuffed inside a trash bag in my own hometown. It was the year Assad bombed the shit out of his own people, and I heard a survivor confess they’d rather be dead, anyway, because now they have to watch their children starve. It was the year my friend John lost everything to rebel groups who came storming into Goma. In a quarter of a million pieces of English vocabulary, I can’t find words weighty enough.
It is difficult for me to make reasonable requests of God in a time like this. I know there are a lot of people raging at God around the world, and I’ve been there too at times, but right now I’m just too tired to rage. I feel old and sick and full of the disease that’s infested our world. I’m getting more fearful, locking my car doors while I drive to the store, eyeing passersby. I’m trying to drown panic in dumb television, streamed to my computer while everyone else sleeps. I’m waking up in the middle of the night screaming and screaming, stuffing the blankets into my mouth, because I never got whatever it is that’s supposed to inoculate your heart against the evening news. And I’m starting to forget things, like that there are honest and decent and wonderful people in the world, or that the Spirit is still at work here.
Times like this, I just don’t have much to say to God.
The Apostle Paul said that when we don’t know what to pray for, the Spirit leaps up, like volcanic fire in the moment of seismic shift, and prays for us. Groans for us — that’s the word Paul uses. This is the word that makes me think of my daughter, twenty-some odd pounds of desire and hurt and joy and reaching, reaching, reaching for something over her head, just out of her grasp. The wanting that erupts from her throat and echoes through the whole house. She has no sense for stuffing things down in public or in certain company. She hasn’t learned to flatter or whine or reason or barter with me yet. All she’s got is that cry, the one that’s impossible to ignore.
Truthfully, the only thing that helps me right now is being outdoors. There’s a lake across the street from my house, and my daughter and I go there and watch the geese strut on the grass and the squirrels dart around like they’ve had one too many espressos. Sometimes we go down to the county open space instead, where an ocean of cattails looks, right now, like the softest bed of cotton you can imagine. We pass horses and dogs and people who still smile and wish us good morning. Yesterday we went to the botanic gardens, and pink balls of fluff dripped off trees like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, and purple flowers felt better than silk between my fingers, and a wide-leaved plant looked as if it were actually hand-painted with a fern pattern. I walked and breathed and kept on breathing. Only one word came.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah.”