Hilary had a class on the other side of town today. And by town, I mean metropolitan area, so about forty minutes from home. We used to live in that area, though, so we decided to visit one of my favorite parks in our old stomping grounds. The sky and the sun screamed spring, but the biting, cold wind roared otherwise.
I remember this playground so very well from the summer of 2007. The kids were 11, 10 and 2. Lonna and Jared had swim team practice at the pool next to the playground on Monday through Friday for two and a half hours every evening. Just turned two year old Hilary and I spent hour upon hour waiting in the giant sandbox for the big kids.
I have so many memories from that summer. Probably because that was at the tail end of the “bad year”, as I refer to it. I had five heart surgeries in twelve months, I think, including open heart valve repair. Maybe it was six? I get them all mixed up. I was so stinking glad to be out of the house and sitting at that playground. The sun shone differently. The colors had more substance and more depth. I didn’t have to fight for some awareness that I myself was different after having my body so thoroughly and utterly broken. It was just so obvious.
This playground is such a great one, because it has so much for so many age groups. Just as much stuff for the little guys as the big kids. After a few weeks, Hilary tired of the baby area. I would catch her eyes wandering over to the big kid slide, the one with all the twists and turns so many feet up off the ground. There was no easy way to get to the top. To go down that slide, you had to earn it.
Hilary just couldn’t resist the challenge. The monotony of the days of endless swim practice was made better by watching her figure it all out ever so slowly. At first, she just walked around the perimeter on the ground, throwing back her head and peering through the grates at the kids climbing up. Then, she learned how to maneuver the first small group of steps. After that, came the next ones. And the next. Somewhere around the end of July, she was at the top of the slide. I stood at the bottom wondering if I had made a terrible, terrible mistake allowing this to reach this inevitable conclusion. But there she was, flying around the final turn with her baby fine hair all full of static and a gigantic grin on her face. I lifted her to the ground, and her diapered bottom swished quickly back to the steps to start again. That time, and the hundreds after it, the whole process was a piece of cake.
We got all kinds of stares that summer. The baby on the big slide. The mother who must not be paying enough attention. But they were only seeing the end result. They didn’t know the process. They didn’t know we were there every.single.day for hours practicing. I didn’t just park her at the top of the jungle gym, walk away, and tell her to find her own way down. She got to the top of that slide in gentle stages. Learning just a bit more each day. She earned it.
Watching Hilary again on that playground, nine years later, was all warm, fuzzy, and mildly unnerving, like any good moment of nostalgia. This was the same place, but we were such very different people. Hilary loomed over the tiny toys, and the big slide was just another blip and hardly a big event. So I asked myself, can you ever really go back again?
In Christ and the Church, you most definitely can. Every year, at this time, Lent comes. The place is the same. The rhythm and the structure are familiar and constant. The only thing that has changed is us. Lent happens every year for a reason. It’s a gentle lesson. A yearly polishing. At first we take it slow, pushing ourselves just a little bit. When we find that we can do that, we ask a bit more of ourselves. And a bit more. And a bit more. It doesn’t all happen in one day or one Lent. It’s a lifetime of yearly trips to the park, where the big kid slide seems so tall and so completely impossible until a little bit of prayer, a little bit of fasting, a little bit of practice gets us up the first small set of steps, and then another, and another, until we’re further along than we ever thought we could be. And the Church doesn’t abandon us up there on the edge. No, she guides us and shows us and encourages us to be thoroughly and utterly broken, so Christ, in His mercy, can put us back together. If we live Lent well, we’ll change. It won’t be a battle to see how much we’re different. It’ll just be so very obvious.
I’m thankful today for the memories. I’m thankful for this gift of Lent that has come again, right on time as always. I don’t know exactly where I’ll be at the end of this season, but I pray I’ll do the work. That I’ll earn it. God willing, it’s going to be a beautiful climb.