As the wife of a surgeon and the mother of young children, I am well-practiced in answering every mom’s favorite question: When will Daddy be home? I am also well-practiced at getting on with life as we wait, with preparing meals and playing games that Dad may not be home in time to share with us, as much as we all hate that reality. For many of us, military or medical or small-business-owning spouses mean we often hold down the fort alone, keeping the darkness at bay and life functioning by sheer will and the grace of God. For us, on those dark winter evenings when supper is late, my husband is stuck in the OR, and my words are all gone, I reach for a book. Reading aloud to my kids is a lifeline for all of us, and has prevented many grumpy evenings.
One of the ones my daughter loves to reach for is Where is Papa Now?, a beautiful picture book by Celeste Conway. One of my own childhood favorites, it is rich with stunning cut-paper illustrations telling the story of a nineteenth-century girl who waits, over the course of a year, for her father to return from his merchant travels around the world.
“Where is Papa now?” she asks, as behind her spring flowers and kittens grow into ripe apples and a troop of full-grown cats. “Where is Papa now?” she asks, as her birthday passes, she begins school, and her mother gently keeps the household running about her. The answers from her mother come slowly, richly, with a hint of fantasy helped along by the illustrations. Papa is in China, buying tea and ginger; in India, on an elephant laden with spices and beautiful cloth; sailing home through a storm.
The daughter prays for her father through this journey, asking for her Papa to come home safely to her. “Steady,” she prays, asking for her father’s ship to come through the imagined storm. “Steady, and be safe.”
Wistful but not sad, rich with the repeated patterns that children love in story-telling, this beautiful picture book is the story of one girl, one mother, one father. But it is also so much more. It is the story of my children, my family, as I explain why Dad is gone tonight, what kingdom work he is doing for our community that makes him absent from our table today. It is the story of our longing for our loved ones to be near us, to share our experiences and daily joys. It is the story of time passing, of growth and change that we are and are not present for in the lives of those we hold dear. It is a story of waiting, and living while we wait.
As Christmas approaches, and so does her Papa, the questions come closer together. “Hurry, hour,” the girl prays, as she and her mother lay the table in preparation for his coming. He comes at last, long-anticipated, laden with beautiful gifts for his beloved wife and daughter, sweeping them into his arms at last.
I imagine my own children here, running to their beloved father, swept up with love. I also imagine our shared Heavenly and Holy Father, our long-anticipated and longed-for reunion one day. When all sad things are made untrue, when we, too, pray “Hurry, moment!” to run into His arms at last. And though on dark days and dismal nights it may seem like our questions of where is God now? where is our Father? go unanswered, or unheard, we too can rest assured that He is active, working, making things beautiful and gathering time together towards that moment of redemption. We work and wait, and prepare the table. Where is Papa now? He is coming home to us, beloved child.