“Mom, what’s he doing here?” my son Nathan asked.
It was a cold, blustery Sunday, and we were hurrying into church—running late, as usual. I followed his finger to a police officer clad in a bulletproof vest, gun at his hip, stationed outside the door. I stopped short for a moment.
That’s new, I thought. My husband and I exchanged a glance. We know why he’s here, but how do we explain his presence to our seven-year-old?
“That’s a police officer, buddy. You’ve seen them before,” I answered, tugging Nathan’s hand toward the door and the warmth inside.
“I know, Mom. But … what’s he doing at church?”
He’s here to keep you safe, is what I wanted to say. It’s one of the heaviest burdens of parenthood, this knowledge that we live in a world where the first thing I do in a movie theater is locate and map a route to the nearest exit, that my son has a designated hiding spot in his classroom when they practice intruder drills, and our Sunday morning worship is apparently now conducted under the watchful eye of an armed lawman.
But I did not answer honestly; on this morning, I opted for evasion instead.
“He’s just here doing his job, bud. C’mon, let’s get inside where it’s warm.” I opened the door, and Nathan obediently walked inside. In the split second before I followed him through, my eyes met those of the officer.
I’m sorry you have to be here, I wanted to say. I wish it didn’t have to be this way.
He offered me a brief nod, which I returned. But suddenly I found my words stuck in my throat, and, ducking my head, I hurried in out of the cold.
There are many aspects of motherhood I find difficult to balance, but perhaps none I struggle more with than the constant battle of how to keep my children safe in a world that seems determined to hurt them.
This drive to protect them has been with me as long as they have. While pregnant, I avoided lunch meat, soft cheeses, sushi, and too much caffeine. I took a daily prenatal vitamin and had regular checkups. I counted kicks and monitored for movement. When they were born, I checked and re-checked the car seat installation, then I took it to a police station to have their expert triple-check it. I put covers on outlets and latches on cabinets and never missed a vaccination. As they’ve gotten older, I watch them like hawks around water and at the playground. Before a playdate, I ask if there are guns in the house and how they are stored. My son knows how to call 911 and that an adult should never ask him to keep a secret from his parents. We have a house fire plan and, living in the South’s version of Tornado Alley, a tornado plan.
For the past seven years, my entire existence has been oriented around one thing: keeping my children safe. I’ve read, researched, and lost sleep over the best ways to fulfill what has felt like my life’s mission. But as they grow older, I’m realizing there’s a fatal flaw in my plan.
I’m not enough.
They’re rapidly outgrowing the shelter of my wings. School, travel, spending the night at a friend’s house … the most ordinary activities loom, threatening and unsafe. Suddenly, the need for protection has to be weighed against other things: their need for an education, for independence, for friendship, for autonomy.
Safety doesn’t always win against these things; it can’t, not if they’re to live a full life.
Safety doesn’t win against life. Might even stifle it.
My head knows this to be true. But my heart is in my throat watching them venture from the haven I so carefully and lovingly built.
The first tulips of spring are starting to unfurl in my yard. I love the brightness of their color and the promise their appearance portends—that winter’s grip will soon be loosened. They look so delicate and fragile though; mornings this time of year can still carry a hint of frost, and I worry the tulips won’t be able to survive a cold snap. Invariably, I will clip what blooms appear and place them in a vase on our kitchen table. They’ll seem to thrive for a few days, but if you watch them closely, you’ll see that they lean toward the sunlight streaming in the window, nearly straining against their confinement. It’s like they don’t know what the cold, wind, and rain of early spring will do to a delicate flower.
Of course, my intervention can’t stay the inevitable anyway. They started dying the second I cut them. Plucked from their roots and sheltered indoors, the tulips never last more than a handful of days before they wilt, drop their petals, and wither.
In church that morning, the first morning with a policeman standing guard, our pastor posed a question I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
If we know the war has already been won, he asked, how does that affect what battles we wage?
It’s a deeply personal question, and I’m still wrestling with it. I think the crux of it, though, is this—I cannot live as if I don’t know which side will win. As if I never read the words, “It is finished.” As if I never witnessed all that finishing firsthand. Yes, there is evil around us every day. There is bloodshed and heartache and sorrow. Watching it all unfold, it feels like the darkness is spreading, threatening everything we love. It’s tempting to panic and draw in our ranks, and before I know it, I’m preparing for battle as if I don’t know that evil is going to lose. That it has—in fact—already lost. It is finished.
Perhaps we’re not really adversaries. We just have a world full of people who don’t know they can stop fighting. How does it change things if, instead of preparing every day to do battle and defend and protect, I open my hands instead and whisper, Lay down your weapons. We don’t have to fight anymore.
Did you know there’s more than one type of tulip? The version we’re most familiar with, the kind I watch die in the safety of my kitchen, is the hybrid tulip. But on the rocky, windswept mountainsides of the Middle East, you’ll find a flower called the species tulip. Unprotected from the elements and left to grow wild, these tulips bloom and thrive in an otherwise desolate and barren location.
Most gardeners will tell you it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to grow hybrid tulips as perennials; they almost always have to be replanted year after year. The wild tulips, given free rein in conditions that seem incompatible with life, find a way to bloom in perpetuity.
I am choosing to trust the tulips, their ability to withstand. I am trusting the God who made them wild. The Gardener promised the war has already been won.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.