The first lie I ever told was probably not the one I’m remembering right now. I’m sure there were other smaller, simpler ones along the way leading like stepping stones across my life to this tale. I’m sure I said I’d brushed my teeth when I hadn’t. I’m sure I said I’d played nice with others at school when I, for sure, circled them up like penitents at recess and subjected them to my will. How many little lies do we tell in a day, a week, a childhood? But this one, on this particular night at the age of eight, I consider my first to cause fallout.
We’d had chili for dinner than night—basic beans and meat and cheesy fair. That’s what I recall the most, that everything about the night had been basic. Snacked after school, did homework, ate dinner, etc. As the youngest of two with a twelve-year gap between my brother and me, I was used to the steady flow of solitary days at home. He was off in college tooling around in my grandpa’s old pick up and becoming a real adult. My father (a doctor) worked a lot of on-call shifts. Independence grew in me like the meat of a nut. It was a natural thing and easy.
Night came and bedtime on its heels. And here’s where the timeline shifts from what should have been to what did. Had my mom and I fought that night? I’ve dug around in the dirt of my memories to find out, but haven’t found anything solid. Maybe I hadn’t wanted that chili for dinner. Maybe I hadn’t wanted to go to bed yet. Maybe I’d had an early hormonal surge and was testing out pre-teen tantrums. Whatever the case, here’s how it played out before I turned to walk up the peach-carpeted stairs.
Me: “I don’t want you to tuck me in.”
Mom: “Okay, but what about your prayers?”
Me: “I don’t want you to say my prayers with me.”
Mom: A beat. “Okay.”
And so I went. I didn’t stomp. I didn’t slam the door. I didn’t call my best friend and list all the things wrong with my life. I was only eight. I didn’t know what I was doing. So, I crawled into my daybed with the eyelet comforter and I stared at the flowered border trailing my ceiling. I followed the vines with my eyes until I lost a thread and had to start over again. I tried to pick out the faces in the newel posts of my white rod-iron bed, the ones that always looked like they were winking or laughing at me. I did whatever I could to pass the time, certain in my knowledge that my mother would come. Because she always had. She’d walk those step with me and tuck the sheets up to my chin, but not too tight, and smooth the hair away from my face and we’d put our hands together and pray. The prayers weren’t complicated. A creature of habit, I always said the exact same thing every time:
“Dear Lord, please don’t let any robbers get in. Please don’t let a fire catch on our house. And please keep everyone safe. Amen.”
Apparently, I catastrophized even then. But the words wouldn’t come out that night. A tightness in the center of me spread until my fingers tingled. The tension from trying to listen for footsteps was too much. So, I got up and, tucking my nightgown around my knees, crouched at the door to hear better. Maybe mom was rinsing out the chili pot, a slow job, or talking to dad, or changing into her robe? But after a while, five minutes or an hour (who knows as a kid?), I heard only the muffled sounds of a football game on tv. No one was coming for me.
I crawled back into bed that night and fell asleep. The next morning, I went to school like always. Mom wasn’t any different. Neither was I. The cheerios and banana didn’t taste worse after the first night I spent on my own. Mom didn’t abandon me. It wasn’t a full stop after that of tucking in and prayer time. It was simply more erratic. She would ask me from then on, each night, if I wanted her to come up. And every night I would have to decide. It was a lot for a little person, not yet in her double digits, to think about.
The truth is, I always wanted her to come up. I always wanted her to tuck the covers just how she knew to do it. I wanted my hair brushed from my face and I wanted my prayers overseen by her and with her stamp of approval. I wanted them noted, notarized, and made official. But already I knew I could not take us back to that assumption of her presence.
Now that I’m a mother, I look to my own kids and wonder, what do I do when you start to break away from me, peeling off like bark from a tree? Do I trust you to know your moment? Do I trust myself to know it? That first lie bought me an independence more weighty than freeing. I broke too early. There is a time to let them navigate their relationship with God on their own, but when it will be for each of them, I do not know. Along with all my prayers of theft and fire prevention, I am adding one of prescience, so I catch the right moment just as it comes. I don’t want to hold on too long and accrue all the angst that comes from steamrolling their road to faith, but I also don’t want my little people with ears to their door holding their breaths and wishing for me.