When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important one?
What is the right thing to do?
A few years ago, my sister gifted me an old, retold story: The Three Questions by John J. Muth. Based on a tale by Leo Tolstoy, rewritten especially for little ones and featuring a cast of animals and a small boy – the story seeks to answer the three important questions of when, who, and what. Muth’s watercolor illustrations are misty-poignant and magical, with sensitive lines and shadows. The light and the color break softly but meaningfully on every page.
At the time my sister sent it to me, I was working on my own retelling of an old story, West of Moonlight, East of Dawn. I was skipping meals, sleep, phone calls and celebrations, trying to find the right words. I felt a burden then to do foster care. But I begged God to wait till I was finished with my story.
The story is out this month. And last night before bed, my husband read The Three Questions aloud to a five year old little girl. She was found scared and cold on a winter day – like the baby panda in the story (she paid extra close attention at that part). She has red hair, and loves to sing: we call her ‘Gumdrop’, the ‘Strawberry Princess’ and the ‘Little Red Tornado’. Her name begins with a ‘G’.
This afternoon, my husband officiated at her “wedding” to our large stuffed dog, and later we hid under her blanket and told stories.
I told her a story I used to tell my little sister. The heroine’s name, of course, began with a ‘G’. She had to be captured by a dragon and rescued by a handsome prince, of the same name as our large stuffed dog. But the dragon was very inept, and could only offer everyone ice cream.
Then I told her a very abbreviated version of West of Moonlight – in which the heroine’s name also began with a ‘G’. (And the great white bear had the same name as our large stuffed dog.) And then I told her that in real life, Jesus is the handsome prince and even if we have to be brave and things get scary, He will always rescue us; and someday we really will live happily ever after.
Then she told me a story about two princesses, named after ourselves, and two princes, named after our large stuffed dog, and Jesus. And another prince, named after my husband. And they all lived happily ever after. At which point she was overcome with fullness of heart and buried herself further under the blanket. And then, we sang through the alphabet Songs for Saplings, being sure to belt the one for ‘G’ about eight times at the top of our lungs. “Every good gift, every good gift, is from above, is from above.”
After the stories, she told me, “I need a friend like you.” I’ll store that up against the screamed outrage when something stirs a helpless storm in her heart. The other day when I was buckling her into her car seat, I said cheerily that it was just for a little while, not forever. Her little voice was half a sob. “But I want forever.”
She’s only five. But her soul is already wise and wonderful. And the pain inside her is already 100 years old.
My days are suddenly about helping this little person open the blinds and feed the birds in the morning, cutting up her sandwiches, cooking vegetables she doesn’t like to eat, teaching her how to play ‘memory’, and making pipes for marbles out of old paper towel tubes. They are about sitting with her when she’s mad, being still beside her every time she needs to go to sleep, playing with her in her bath, getting up many times every night to reassure her in her nightmares, and navigating her trauma around certain aspects of her routines and relationships.
Except for the last, my days are just like those of any other person pouring endless cups of cold water for another soul. Exhausting. Trying every moment to stretch and condense my grown up body, mind, and emotions into a windbreaker around a little one. Cramming all my capacity for speed and all my learned patience into every moment from 5:30 am to far past midnight, when she screams for help. But my husband and I want forever too. We want a night off, and we want forever. You don’t wrap your life around a little person without wanting forever – only she isn’t ours. The first goal of foster care is to heal another family.
And all of this, all of it, dredges up thoughts for which I have no articulations.
I know that this open-ended promise my days must keep now is underneath everything I have tried to say. All my efforts after stories and poems were in some way a part of it, but none of them were enough. I don’t know how to shape these words.
And poignantly, someone else knew how to trace over them. How to shape them into an old, retold story. This beautiful story my sister sent years ago, when I begged God to just give me a little more time. I was cleaning up bathtub toys the other night, and heard them from the other room:
‘Remember that there is only one time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.
‘This is why we are here.’
NOTE: Isabel’s West Of Moonlight is available Oct 1 from Propertius Press.