One Bright Red Bird
The Ache of Hope
by Leigh McLeroy, excerpted from The Beautiful Ache
February 21, 2007
Hope is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
That sings the tune without the words— And never stops—at all—
"Don't make me hope," I've said to God more than once. "It hurts too much." But hoping is fertile ground, and having hope is much more reasonable than not having it. Especially with a God like ours, whose specialty is nothing less than the impossible.
I always wanted four. For as long as I can remember, I hoped to have four children: two daughters and two sons, spaced evenly through my prime childbearing years like brightly colored dividers in a clean, new notebook. Then a funny thing happened to me on the way to motherhood. I didn't marry young. Somewhere around twenty-seven or so, I began mentally moving the dividers closer to each other. I didn't even marry at thirty. Maybe three would be a fine number after all, I reasoned. Now I've smiled grudgingly at another decade, haven't married yet, and would settle for just one of my long-imagined offspring. The family I used to believe was a certainty is looking more and more like a miscast master plan.
I was just a year away from college when my mother was the same age I am now; my sister's two precious daughters are both teenagers now. Even so, dreams are stubborn things—and although science, logic, and pride might concede that it's time to let them go, the heart does not relent. It holds tight to the very things you coax it to release. I've struggled hard with letting my longed-for children go, because to me they were never only vapor or vain imaginings. These were my babies. They were so real to me that I could almost feel their sweet, smooth skin, smell their wispy hair, and brush their tiny fingers and their toes. I've tried out names for them and scratched my favorites down on tablets: Rebecca and Emily. Emma Lynn. Abigail. Rory and John. Mark, Will, Bryant, and Andrew.
Because no one has shared their name with me, I have not handed out these names I've long imagined. Because no one has called me wife or mother, I've instead become Aunt Leigh. To my nieces, Katharine and Victoria, I'm a sort of "Mom Light," a cross between Glinda the Good Witch and their fairy-godmother-in-the-wings. They are my two favorite girls on the planet, and I love them desperately—but they are not mine. They are my sister's daughters, although she has shared them with me from the day they each were born—a mighty gift, and one I don't belittle. I am grateful beyond words to have watched them grow. Friends too have honored me as "aunt," and so to Katie, Robert, Caitlin, Nathan, Jack, and Abbigayle, I'm an "aunt" by kind appointment, a treasured title generously bestowed with each new little one's arrival.
I wish I could say it's been enough. I wish I could say the longing is gone or that I'm fine with the possibility of permanent childlessness. But that would be a lie. My head turns involuntarily in the direction of strollers the way a man's might when a tall, attractive blonde walks past, and a trip to Baby Gap to buy a shower gift can render me frog-throated and misty-eyed in minutes. I'm held fast in this embarrassing longing, and I don't know if I'll be released—or when. I've managed to keep my options open when the easiest thing would have been to give in and give up, and I do believe it could still happen. But according to the experts, it probably won't be in the "usual" way.
Leave it to the news magazines to offer a dream an editorially assisted suicide. Some people's hopes are derailed in a hospital room or a boardroom or a courtroom; mine have been assaulted more than once in the checkout line at the grocery store. It was there I learned I was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than married after forty (news that came, thankfully, before I reached that milestone), and now I am hit with another blow: "Babies vs. Career: The Harsh Facts about Fertility." It seems, according to Time magazine, that only 0.1 percent of babies in the United States are born to women forty-five or older, and that at forty-two, 90 percent of a woman's eggs are abnormal and she has only a 7.8 percent chance of giving birth without serious scientific intervention. And what about those "Hollywood moms" who are having beautifully perfect babies well into their forties? Donor eggs, Time tactlessly reveals.2
It seems that twenty-seven is the age at which a woman's chance of getting pregnant begins to decline. (Did my body send my heart a coded message when I adjusted my expectations at just that age?) And nature randomly self-selects when we don't police our bodies on our own: at twenty, the risk of miscarriage is about 9 percent; it doubles by thirty-five and then doubles again by the time a woman reaches forty.
Believe me, I've done the math. Should God in his goodness bring me a husband tomorrow, and should I beat the odds and conceive almost immediately—even then I'd be on the wrong side of the rough in nine months' time. Hope is getting harder and harder to come by.
I've noticed that my family and friends don't speak of children as a given for me anymore. Hardly anyone says casually in conversation, "You'll see when you have kids of your own." A family of my own has become not only my personal, against-the-odds longing but also my intensely private one.
Even so, I am frequently caught in the crossfire of the inevitable kid conversations that spring up among women my age. If they do happen to realize I'm the odd one out, they usually offer uncomfortable platitudes, which sound polite but which in my heart I imagine must be accompanied by either smug superiority or quiet pity—or both.
"But you've got so much free time," they say. Or, "At least your living room is not ankle-deep in toys." These things are mostly true too—but I've never seen them as the enviable consolation prizes of childlessness. I'm not even sure that I should.
As strange as it may sound, in my completely unwilling failure to reproduce, I don't feel less womanly. Every year that passes finds me feeling more feminine, more nurturing, deeper, wiser, fuller, and more free. Here's an unexpected little paradox: While the likelihood that I will give birth dwindles, the hope that I will give life does not. It grows stronger by the day.
I realize I'm not the only one whose dreams have been seriously delayed. I understand there are things far more threatening and frightening and sad than being without a husband and children. But this has long been my desire, and so it is the place from which I can truthfully speak. I know others who have had the very things I long for, then seen them wrenched away by tragedy or selfishness or simple neglect. I know that some pray for cancer to be gone, or for still limbs to stretch and move, or for the hardened heart of another to melt, or to hear that they're finally forgiven. My heart goes out to them. I want them to keep on hoping too. I do.
It would be easier to let hope quietly die, but I don't. I choose to keep the faith because, in a way I can't completely fathom, I know that faith is the truest substructure of the things for which we hope—the real, actual foundation and substance of the heart's fiercest longing. It's the required "deposit" that must precede any future blessing. But even though I accept that an unbreakable connection exists between believing and receiving, it's easier for me to believe for another's hope than for my own.
A special place in the heart of the hills has become a refuge for me, and I go there with the expectation that God himself will greet me. He has not failed me yet.
The foreman's home sits across a cattle guard, down a gravel road, into a canyon that the wind whispers through, and beyond a rock riverbed. Each time I arrive, he bundles my bags and drives me to my final stop.
The Quiet House is small and sparely furnished. There is a sitting room with a soot-marked stone fireplace rising up to a beamed ceiling where a tiny loft is tucked. The kitchen is basic, with one small table, four chairs, and a cushioned window seat. A double bed with a chenille coverlet joins the two rooms, and the tiny bathroom off a tight hallway leads out to a porch swing and a neatly stacked woodpile.
The house's furnishings are comfortable and calming, but they are not fine. Two gently worn armchairs and an ottoman face the fireplace, and an antique Bible lies open on the side table under a window. A small desk and chair stand nearby, and the second right-hand drawer of the desk stores a stack of spiral-bound stenographer's pads. The house's previous guests have journaled their thoughts in these notebooks, and my entries blend with theirs in a kind of real-life Pilgrim's Progress that I read each time I come.
In a closet off the sitting room a hammock lies folded, ready to string between the two tallest cedars out front, and a big bin of corn waits to offer to the only other guests I'll see while I am there: the deer, javelinas, skunks, raccoons, turkeys, possums, and squirrels who steal up in the yard at night and forage for the food they've come to expect. The birds gather too and feast above the heads of the other animals if the squirrels have not arrived first and hung upside down to steal the seed from the feeders.
Here is a special kind of bliss: passing a silent night with a crackling fire in the fireplace, the rooms lit with oil lamps, and me alone in the kitchen with a steaming cup of tea, watching the parade of wildlife in front of the big bay window. No phone, no radio, no television. Just me and the curious kingdom-dwellers beyond the window glass, peacefully coexisting in plain sight of one another.
On a recent trip there, I wrote these words in my own journal and did not leave them behind:
How is it possible to long for something so deeply and so desperately and never see it? Haven't I trusted in You, God, or have I only not trusted in me? Is the desire of my heart from You? And if so—haven't You promised to give it when I delight myself in You? And haven't I done that? Then what? When? How? I have waited on You alone. I want You, and no one else, to give me my desire of a husband and a family.
Did Sarah ever remind You of her age? This Saturday, Lord God, is my birthday. Another year and my desire is the same as it has ever been. All my distractions and old al-legiances are gone. Killed. Severed. I am no one's now but Yours.
I need You to give me the desires of my heart. I cannot get them for myself, by myself. Help me to look expectantly to the future You are forging for me, even now. To believe Your good loving-kindness exists for me and not just for others. Help me to count on You, to hope in You with confident assurance. Please. It's midnight, and I'm here: begging for my bread before the only one who can give it. Prepare a banquet for me, just because You are good. Please God, would You do that for me?
The next morning, just after sunrise, I sat at the table again, looking out at the empty yard, stark and bare in late December. The trees had long since shed their leaves, and the scene played in a decidedly monochromatic tone: everything as far as I could see was gray, or brown, or umber—flat and faded like an old photograph. The view was utterly colorless . . . until one bright red bird fluttered in and perched on a distant limb.
In this context, he was more than obvious—he was outrageous. Even his beak was red. He stood out with no effort on his part; he couldn't help himself. My eyes were riveted to him, willing him to stay and not fly off with the only glimpse of vibrant color for miles. And he did stay. As I watched him, I thought of the little girl in the red coat who wandered through a throng of black-and-white-hued adults in Schindler's List. His appearance was that vivid, that strange.
My feathered friend was a glimpse of pure hope on a cold winter scrim. My dreams were still out of sight, but this one bright red bird looked for all the world like a deposit of brilliant faith in a bland sky, and I could hardly write for looking at him. His bold color seemed almost as ridiculous as the hope of a forty-year-old woman for a family of her own. But he was there—and he flew! The God who made him and slipped him into my sight line at that moment was and is the very One to whom my hope should fly: my strength, my song, my salvation, and the giver of every good thing.
My lingering longing for a husband and children has caused me to wonder: Does a husband make a woman into a wife? Does the birth of a child make her a mother? What lies sleeping inside a daughter of Eve that waits to be called out by one or the other or both? Is it hidden there all along, or does it only compose itself when a specific beloved calls it forth? What about those married women who close their hearts to their husbands and refuse to love because they do not feel well loved? What about the parents who abandon their children outright or withhold their affection unless they consistently see demonstrated the kind of behavior their rigid standards require?
Could a mother's love also lurk inside the heart of a woman who nurtures a stubborn garden, or a book, or a classroom of other people's children? Is it mother-love to cheer the efforts of an awkward teenager's attempt to serve a volleyball, or to set a perfect table and prepare a favorite meal (whether it's hot dogs or homemade pasta) for a dear friend's birthday? To craft a poem or tell a story that will delight a small handful of people, or even just one? Couldn't that be a kind of mother-love too?
Does a wife's heart beat in the woman who believes resolutely in someone else's dream when the rest of the world says "get serious"? Who listens for the meaning behind the words "I'm tired" or "I'd rather not talk about it, that's all"? Is it wife-love to overlook an unthinking slight or to remember that someone else likes chewy cookies best, instead of the crispy ones that you prefer? To stay still and let the silence speak when words can't say enough?
Maybe the same kind of love is there for the spending whether it's focused on one man, or four children, or a roomful of old friends, or a stranger. Maybe it's not lost in the spending, either, but strengthened and sharpened and multiplied.
I do wish I had someone who had promised to stay with me until death parts us. I wish I tucked our children into bed at night. I wish we could grow older in full view of one another and laugh at secrets no one else would know. But if I had all those longed-for things, would I be fully given over to them?
Can I reasonably expect to keep my heart all to myself, then hand it over in an instant at a candlelit altar or in a brightly lit delivery room? Probably not. More likely the work will have to start before then. And shouldn't it start now, today, believing in faith that a wife's heart can love before it sees her husband and that a mother's heart can nurture before it holds her child? "Choose hope," a good friend of mine once said. "It's entirely reasonable." She knows Jesus. She may be right.
Should I continue to hope that God will bring me to a man who adores God and adores me too? To hope that this same man might be sure enough of us both that he is unafraid to choose a single road instead of two? To think that our love might both glorify our heavenly Father and deeply satisfy us? To trust that there could still be room for the children I can't stop dreaming of, however they might come? Why not? O God, why not? "He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?" (Rom. 8:32).
Was the cardinal embarrassed by the blatant audacity of his bloodred feathers? No, he was not—not in the least. So why do I dress my longing down, ashamed to hold fast to it as another year goes by? Why do I pretend it doesn't matter anymore? Why shouldn't I hope outrageously in my good God, with or without a bright red bird in sight? His loving-kindness is everlasting, and so in faith I do believe. May he help my unbelief and—until that day—make me strong enough to embrace the ache I am still too hopeful and hungry to quietly put away.
Excerpted from The Beautiful Ache by Leigh McLeroy. Used by permission of Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2007. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group. www.BakerPublishingGroup.com.
Copyright © 2007 ChristianityToday.com