barn-raising

It takes a village to help when your friends' child gets very sick


Anne Lamott
October 8, 1996 6:18PM (UTC)

on an otherwise ordinary night at the end of September, some friends
came over to watch the lunar eclipse, friends whose two-year-old daughter was
diagnosed nine months ago with cystic fibrosis. Their six-year-old daughter
is Sam's oldest friend: they've been playing together for so long that I
think of her as Sam's fiancee. Now out of the blue, the family has been
plunged into an alternative world, a world where everyone's kid has a
life-threatening illness. I know that sometimes these friends feel that they
have been expelled from the ordinary world they lived in before, that they
are now citizens of the Land of the Fucked. It amazes me that the
mother -- forty-ish, small-boned, highly accomplished -- can still even dress
herself.

Anyway.

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Some of our neighbors were making little cameo appearances on our
street, coming outside periodically to check on the moon's progress, as if it
were a patient: "How's his condition now?" But we watched almost the whole
time. It was so mysterious, waiting for the shadow to come, and then waiting
for the light; the earth's shadow crossing over the moon, red and black and
silvery, like a veil, and then receding, like the tide.

There were a few days this year at the very end of summer when
everything was going wrong and it felt like the world was broken. I was far
away from home and Sam wasn't with me and most of the people I was with were
drinking a lot and there was an aggressive level of banter. I kept
remembering Charles Bukowsi's line about being at a cocktail party and
feeling like he was being pelted with tiny ping-pong balls. Finally I
started to feel like a tired little kid at a birthday party, who has had way
too much sugar, who is in all ways on total overload, and on top of it all,
finds herself blindfolded for a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey; not only
blindfolded, but spun in circles before being pointed more or less in the
direction of the wall with the donkey on it. But I was so turned around, so
lost and overwhelmed and stressed that I couldn't even remember where the
wall with the donkey was -- or even in what direction it might be found. So I
couldn't take one step forward without there being a chance that I was
actually walking farther away from it. It took me a whole day of confusion
to remember that for me, the wall with the donkey on it is Jesus.

A few days later I got to go home. The first night back I lay in bed
next to Sam and read him to sleep; heaven. There was an ordinary full moon
in the sky; I studied Sam by its light and felt entirely pointed in the right
direction. But our friends whose child has cystic fibrosis had left a
message on our machine, letting us know that their little girl had been
really sick again, but starting to bounce back. And that they were all okay.

Watching Sam sleep I kept wondering, how could you possibly find the wall
with the donkey on it, when your child is catastrophically sick?
I don't know. I look up at God and, thinking about this girl -- how badly
scarred her lungs are already -- I say to Him, "What on earth are you
THINKING?"

The eclipse had moved in such peculiar time. Maybe it's that I'm so
used to blips and soundbites, instant deadlines, e-mail. The shadow of the
earth moved slowly across the moon. It moved in celestial time, both very
slowly and fleeting at the same astronomical moment. It seemed like the moon
was being consumed, and it looked as if all the moons that ever were, were
being consumed all at once. As if, in its last moments, you got to see the
moon's whole life pass before your very eyes.

I suddenly remembered how we had spent New Year's Day out at Stinson
Beach with this family. It was one of those perfect Northern California days
when children and dogs are running on the beach and pelicans are flying
overhead, and the mountain and the green ridges rise up behind you, and it's
so golden and balmy that you inevitably commit great acts of hubris. The
little girl seemed fine, happy, blonde, tireless. When she got colds, she
got such terrible coughs that she sounded like a huge fat alcoholic smoker,
but she was not sick on New Year's Day. Then two days later the doctor called
with the girl's lab results. Now it's both hard to remember when she wasn't
sick, and harder to believe she is.

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She laughs at all my jokes. The night of the eclipse, I kept pointing
to our dog and saying, with great concern, "Isn't that the ugliest cat you've
ever seen?" and she would just lose her mind laughing. I love that in a
kid.

At first, after the diagnosis, everyone was either stunned or cried a
lot. These people have a tribe of really good friends and everyone wanted to
help, but mostly for awhile people were immobilized by either shock or grief.

One day, though, I had a vision of the disaster being a gigantic canvas on
which had been painted this exqusitely beautiful, heartbreaking picture, and
we all wanted to take up a corner or stand side by side and lift it together
so that the parents didn't have to carry the whole thing themselves. I saw
that the parents did in fact have to carry almost the whole picture by
themselves, but I also suddenly envisioned an Amish barn-raising. I saw
that the people who loved them could, by showing up, build a marvelous barn
of sorts around the family.

So we did. We raised a gigantic amount of money; tragedies so often
require money, too. We showed up and sometimes we cleaned, we listened, some
of us gave massages, some of us took care of the children, and we walked
their dog and we cried and then made them laugh; we gave them a lot of
privacy and we showed up and listened and let them cry and cry and cry, and
then took them for hikes. We took the kids to the park. We took the mother
to the movies. I took the father out for dinner one night right after the
diagnosis. He was a mess. The first time the waiter came over, the father
was wracked with sobs, and the second time the waiter came over, the father
was laughing hysterically. "He's a little erratic, isn't he?" I smiled to
the waiter, and he nodded gravely.

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We all kept cooking, and walking the dog, and even when things got really
bad and scary, we still showed up. And that is how we built our Amish barn.
Now, eight months later, things are sometimes pretty terrible for them
in a lot of ways, but at the same time, they got a miracle. It wasn't the
kind that comes in on a Macy's Thanksgiving Day float. And it wasn't the one
they wanted, where God would reach down from the sky and touch the baby with
His magic wand and restore her to perfect health. Maybe that will still
happen, who knows? I wouldn't put anything past Him, because he is one
crafty mo-fo. Still, they did get a miracle, one of those dusty little red
wagon miracles, and they know it.

The mother was in a wonderful mood on the night of the eclipse. We
were in a state of awe. We stared up into the sky for a long long time,
like millions and millions of people everywhere were doing, so you got to
feel united, underneath the strange beams of light. You could tell you were
in the presence of the extraordinary, peering up at the radiance beneath the
veil of shadow, the intensity of that rim of light when it is struggling
through its own darkness. The little girl who is sick kept clapping her hands
against the sides of her face in wonder, as if she was about to exclaim,
"Caramba!" Or "Oy!" When the moon was bright and gold again, she ran up
the stairs after her sister and Sam, who were cold and had gone inside to
play.

The mother watched them go, very calm, very focused, and I could see
that these days her daughters were the wall with the donkey on it. We stood
outside for awhile longer, talking about this last flare-up, how frightened
she felt, how tired. And I didn't know what to say at first, watching the
girl go chasing after the big kids, coughing; except that we, their friends,
all know the rains and the wind will come, and they will be cold, oh God will
they be cold. But then we will come too, I said; and there will be shelter.

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Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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