I'm at work on a Wednesday and it is bedtime.
These kids on this unit are babies. And these halls will officially close in a matter of months and around here we are in high gear ... trying to get these babies out of here and into real beds-- under real roofs.
Because on this hallway everyone is between the ages of 6 and 11 and the higher-up folks would prefer they move out of treatment centers and into families. I can't say that I blame them. Don't get me wrong-- we treat these little people like our own and what they have here is good. For some, it is the best they've known. But this isn’t the place for the long-term and they do need to be in homes-- where meal trays don't come on the hour, where life is larger than this hallway, where they can sprawl on the rug on a Saturday morning and just ... be.
Next door, the hall is filled with big kids twelve and up. And I'll be there permanently when these doors close, when we get these guys settled elsewhere. And over there they are too grown in so many ways, wise beyond their years and it is sad to see their true age in their eyes.
But here, it's just like my own house in a lot of ways. Behaviorally speaking, many of these kids stalled out around age three or four and so they throw tantrums (really good ones) and they throw objects and they kick and bite. And they scream when they hear “no” or “not now” and they are picky eaters and bedtime can be a full-on disaster.
We know that routine and consistency and patience and compassion go a long way-- allow for security and decreased anxiety-- and so we do our best to stick to these ideals. And at bedtime I have become the nurse who reads stories. The staff says it isn't in my job description … that I have important paperwork to complete, official people to call.
I think about my own little people at home, secure and sleeping sound. And this story-reading is a no-brainer, really.
I can offer this.
For thirteen weeks back home, I show up on Wednesday mornings at church. I walk through that open door to be with all-star women and learn about Esther. At noon, I pick up my babes from the nursery, then rush home to feed peanut butter and jelly before leaving again in scrubs.
And my shift starts at 3 and I am there for the bedtime disaster. The air literally changes as the anxiety creeps up the hall. And as the lights go low, little faces appear at doorways needing water and snacks and hugs and a little assurance. The staff and I, we feel like the crazed woman in that gopher game with the giant rubber hammer and just when one babe settles in another pops his or her head into the hall … “Can I have some milk?”
We talk and figure out how to lessen nighttime tension. We find they are simply being rushed. Their peace can’t keep up with our adult pace. They can’t transition well and when we rush them into bed the anxiety rushes in as well. They just need more time to let minds catch up withbodies. They needed tuck-ins. They need stories.
One boy loves Magic Tree House. This little wispy, whimsy guy can’t sit still for a million bucks but he can tell you about bats and sonar and lizards and dirt.
Another stuttering sweetheart loves Spider Man. For another, it is Junie B. Jones and it is worth every minute to watch her giggle at Junie’s antics.
And one little gal just loves the classic tales: Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Gingerbread Man. So when I ask her what we are reading I already know and I chuckle to myself before we start because it just doesn’t get old.
She is seven and a tiny tank of a girl with mini biceps and a belly and braids in rows with beads … and a mouth like a little sailor. She falls asleep with the radio too loud on a too grown station and I wait ‘til she snores to turn it down, or off. So many of them do this-- fall into sleep with loud music in ears, radio literally propped on pillow. And I wonder what they have trained themselves not to hear in the background.
When we read the Ginger Bread Man she changes it up a bit and we sing together every few pages ... after that deviant dough-man meets the farmer and the cow and the sly fox.
It sounds like this … more or less.
Run, run as fast as you can!
You can't catch me I'm the-
Wiggity- wiggity- what- what!?
You know’! I 'm the ginger bread man!
And we say it loud and we bounce a little with for-real rhythm, our hands in the air, fingers pointing and punctuating each wiggity-what.
But when I leave bible study the first Wednesday and head into work, I wonder if they know the story of a girl named Esther.
When bedtime descends, I ask this little darling if she would like to hear something new. I tell her it is, in fact, a classic. I pull a chair next to her desk and I tell her what I know from that morning back at home.
And she is hooked.
For the next three months I come in on Wednesdays and tell a little orphan girl about an orphan named Esther ...who lost her parents, was raised by an uncle, who was esteemed for being true to herself, who became queen, who saved her people. And this tough little cookie is taken by a girl.
And she waits for bedtime and she grabs my arm and she brushes teeth too fast and forgets to flush the toilet and dives into her bed on the first prompt.
She needs to know what happens next ... so long ago.
I tell her it can be her story too. Not the queen part … or saving her people per se ... but the part about being alone and brave and a little lost, wondering what will come of all this mixed up life.
Because even a seven year-old needs to know she has a purpose and a hope and a future.
A seven year-old needs someone to tell her to hang on for the good part … that she is worthy of a story with a good ending.
That the God who wrote that script is also writing hers.
That she has not been forgotten.
And long after the thirteen weeks are up, she is still retelling this tale to me. She knows this story-- Haman and Mordecai, the decree, the fasting, Xerxes and the scepter...
When we finally close up our doors in February, we have spent the last few weeks with just 3 or 4 children on the unit. It kind of feels like family and one by one, they are placed in new homes.
It is hard to say goodbye.
They are so small, this bunch, and it's impossible not to wonder ... what will become of them?
So when a co-worker feels a tug on the strings of her heart, she is brave. In an uncommon but heroic staff-act, she trades in her badge for this little Esther-girl and they walk out on that last day together.
I watch her leave with her little family and there is a little skip in her step and they are sort of simpatico.
And I smile and laugh out loud as it rings in the air here...
wiggity- wiggity- what- what...
I marvel at her story that is already written and I offer her up with the thanks.
Because with this job there is always the prayer.
And there is always the thanks.
For what higher privilege is there than to be a teeny side note on a page of a great and timeless tale...?
Thanks for grace, friends, as I post my Wednesday post on a Thursday...eek! Still learning how to do this little life and keep self-impoed deadlines too!