if you want to
In like a breeze after school they come, swift and rattling the edges of things, scattering papers and shoes and the crumpled wrappers from their lunches. Riley’s cheeks bloom pink with the exhilaration of arrival, as though they’ve been far away and flying and have only just landed home, in from some place now only lightly sketched. As usual, I feel unprepared.
“Mom Jones,” she says—she always says, because she lives life with humor, and her favorite joke is to intentionally change a name. “Noelle is still sliding down the ribbon on the stairs, and Tinsel is still standing on the chair, watching her.”
“Oh, yea?” I try for casual, in the kitchen pressing a coffee filter into the basket from the coffee maker. But the truth stings. Our elf-on-the-shelf hasn’t moved from that ribbon in three days, and Riley checks her whereabouts every morning when she gets up and every afternoon when she gets home. She anticipates Noelle’s December 1st arrival (and Tinsel the reindeer’s now, too)–which I marked this time with We’re back spelled out in caramel bits on the kitchen island–for the entire week preceding. That elf is one of her favorite things about Christmas.
“Yea, she’s still sliding down the ribbon,” Riley says with a giggle, moving away to stow her bookbag in the closet. Despite the sting I feel, the pang of Christmas-mom failure, I hear no accusation in Riley’s voice, not even the shadow of disappointment. I’m harder on myself than she is one me. She’s not upset; it’s just a fact. It’s as though the presence of the elf, one arm looped into a length of gold organza, brings joy enough.
This has been our game for years now, and at sixteen, she still enjoys the flight of imagination. She knows that I move the elf. We have discussed it. But Riley is so good at playing the game that even Zoe wonders sometimes if Riley really believes that Noelle is real. “You know Mom’s moving her, right?” Zoe will say, tilting her head, looking for signs of understanding.
“Yea, I know,” Riley says, “I know Mom moves her.” She says it lightly, but every word, so there’s no question. And then, with a blink, she retrieves the pretense, as though it’s a robe she slips easily over her shoulders. When Kevin comes home, she’ll say, “Guess what Noelle did today?” Only right now I know it’s nothing.
Mom guilt moves me to offer a plausable game-worthy explanation for Noelle’s static position. “You know, she might be afraid to move. Maybe you should tell her it’s okay.” I say this while filling the water reservoir for the coffee, while the tap rushes cold, lapping against the sides of the container in my hands. I can see only the top of Riley’s head from where I stand, the soft gold curls that still spring up at the crown, unbound by the braid that wanders down her back. She kneels next to her bookbag. I see a snatch of zipper, wildly unhinged, a glimpse of white paper. I can hear her moving things, sorting, maybe searching. Suddenly I remember Riley as she was at three, those curls covering her head, spiraling down her velvety cheeks. Back then, she spent every ounce of her energy lining things up–anything she found chaotic or confusing–tools, toys, even people. We could not sit together in a large group without Riley tugging at our arms, leading us by the fingers to another position, wordlessly rearranging us into groupings only she understood. When professionals diagnosed her with Autism that year, they gestured to the long, cumbersome line of chunky plastic dinosaurs she’d assembled on the carpet in front of us, pointing out that my daughter showed no imagination, only a desperate, compulsive desire for structure.
Riley doesn’t look up from her rifling. “Noelle, you can move if you want to,” she says. “If you want to.” Her tone is weightless.
And that’s when I realize that it would be enough for Riley just to acknowledge, every day from now till Christmas, that our crazy Noelle is still hanging from that ribbon, still trying–without success–to slide down. If only I could be so content just acknowledging God’s presence—in all your ways acknowledge me, if only that were enough to establish my joy. Sure, sometimes my more creative arrangements make Riley laugh right out loud, but the lack of discernable movement in our story can neither diminish her joy over imagining nor take away her appreciation for situational predictability. Of course, today I’ll move the elf; I’ll want to, and for Riley, that too will be joy.
The light blinks on the coffee maker, throbbing. Steam curls around the edges of the pot, and it makes me smile, how little I want to wait. Even my coffee must drip quickly, and then there are those changes I long to see, the ones I pray over nearly every day, the ones punctuated carefully with the word again. God moves in His own time, and sometimes that’s a time far wiser and more removed than I imagine. In fact, when for days and days and days He doesn’t move, or so it seems to my limited view–just a snatch of this, a glimpse of that, just a blur or something else–my heavy voice turns to pleading. I can lose track of contentment when I’m drowning in longing. Is it just me, or do you also suddenly realize you’ve forgotten for a while just to give thanks, that you’ve swallowed your joy right with the bile of your own desperate wishing?
Right now, I can’t even see what Riley’s doing with her bookbag, and yet somehow I believe I should be able to interpret the vast, time-shattering, space-filling movement of God on the basis of what I can see. And sometimes the truth is that as time draws on, I lose my imagination for what could be, for what still remains unseen to me.
When Riley was three, I could not see—could never have even imagined—that we would play such a game; that she would anticipate and giggle over anything; that she would speak to me at all—not to observe, not to share, not to delight. The idea that she would actually play with a toy—ever—seemed entirely impossible. I asked God to move but could not really fathom that He would, and so many of our steps from there to here seemed too small to count toward progress. Yet, here we are. All that time, God accomplished what He promised, which is so much more than I could imagine. What I wished for in a day, He chose to bring about in years, and I write about it now because I know somewhere there’s another mama pleading, feeling like she’s hardly moving, like the hurt of now will be all there is to the story.
It’s an elf-on-the-shelf, I know, and hardly on par with some of the heart-stopping, broken things I ask. But God makes an example of the smallest seed. Over these years, He has born contentment in my restless child, this child once too frustrated to sleep, until she doesn’t even believe it’s a sacrifice to wait on the things she anticipates. Her contentment stands, a tower for joy.
I pour the coffee, deep and piping, into three mugs, watching the steam curl slowly above them. “You can move, if you want to.” Her words sound so much to me like “let it be with me just as you say” (Luke 1:38), or “not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39);”so strong, so worthy, and I know that I’ll carry them past today, a weightless prayer, whispered.