The Days I Spent with Sarah

I’ve known Josh since I was a little kid. My mom worked for the diocese, and Josh was a regular volunteer leader at youth and young adult conferences. And he’s my kind of nerd. After knowing him casually for many years, my first solid memory of my friendship with Josh was on the walk back from the Capitol building in Olympia. I was probably 14 at the time. We were in town for a conference just down the street and the whole group had walked over to sing in the rotunda and hear the echoes bounce off the walls. On the way back I was standing next to Josh, walking in silence. Then, without prompting, he turned to me and asked, “So what’s your opinion on the virgin birth of Anakin Skywalker?”

My high school years with Josh are dotted with long conversations about scifi, music, and pop culture. We once spontaneously sung the entire “I’ll Never Tell” duet from the Buffy musical episode while busing our lunch table at a conference.

But then Josh felt the call to ministry, and soon he, his wife Kristi, and their daughter Sarah were on the other side of the country while he made his way through seminary. I watched Sarah grow up via Josh’s Facebook, always interested to hear about the newest dilemma Josh and Kristi were having as they tried to raise a little girl in a world that doesn’t often do right by little girls. I was very excited to meet the young lady she was turning into, and even more excited to see Josh and Kristi after so many years.

I met Josh in the parking lot of his apartment after getting off a red-eye flight from Seattle and picking my car up at the local VW dealership. After a few long overdue hugs and a tour of the apartment he looked at me and said, “Do you need to take a nap?”

The thought had not occurred to me, but once he said it I knew it was a great idea. I have officially become too old and too tall to comfortably sleep on an airplane, and I had barely managed a handful of 30-60 minute naps on the flight back to Baltimore. I was exhausted, and fell into a deep and wonderful sleep on their couch while Josh quietly got some work done. When I woke up we went to the school to meet Kristi at her office, and the three of us grabbed lunch at the refectory.

After lunch Kristi needed to get back to work. We had a few hours before Sarah would need to be picked up from her summer program, so Josh took me on a quick tour around Alexandria. It’s a cute little town with a lot of history. We grabbed drinks at a cafe once frequented by George Washington, and sat at his pew in Christ Church. The volunteer guide at the church pointed to the placards on the wall of the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. “Those have not been altered since the 18th Century,” she said with conviction. “You’re looking at the same words George Washington saw when he went to church on Sunday.”

Josh and SarahOn our way to pick up Sarah, Josh lamented about putting her in this particular summer program. Apparently there wasn’t much in it that appealed to her interests, but it was their only real option for child care this time of year. When we arrived and walked into the gym space, an adult sitting at a makeshift desk looked up at Josh and smiled. Without a word to us she turned around and called out, “Sarah!” The room was filled with noise and movement. The kids represented a large age range. Some were playing basketball while others colored. Some were in heated discussions while others were just running around. And then there was seven-year-old Sarah, blonde and blue-eyed, sitting on the floor against the wall with her nose in a book like some Disney heroine. When she heard her name she jumped up and ran to the door. I introduced myself, as this was the first time I had seen her since she was a baby. She seemed generally pleased with my presence and we drove home.

While her folks made dinner, Sarah gave me a tour of the apartment and her room. Young kids always give the most interesting tours. While she has a room full of books and toys, only a few were mentioned on the tour. There’s no telling why certain fairies are prized above others, or why some books are worth pointing out while others are not. But I suppose all homes are full of objects with vastly different levels of importance. Kids just lack the tack to pretend they like all their possessions equally.

Washingtons' TombI spent most of the next day at Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington. I was there for several hours before realizing that I had actually been there before. I went as a teenager while I was on an east coast tour with my school. Who knows how I forgot about it so completely. But the memories flooded back during the house tour as the guide pointed to the bedroom. He told us that the bed we were looking at was the one Washington died in. Now that’s a fact that will stay with you, and it had. I remembered our tour guide saying the same thing ten years ago.

Back at home Sarah asked if I wanted to watch one of her favorite movies, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It’s a fantastic Japanese animated film from 1984 by the man who made Spirited Away. However we had to stop midway into the movie. That evening there was a welcome eucharist for new students at the seminary. I happened to be in town right when the latest seminarians were arriving, and I got to experience my first Episcopal service in two months. For her part, Sarah sat silently, reading a book through the entire service. Josh and Kristi have a difficult time getting her to stop reading, and at times it becomes something of a parental challenge. Is it okay for her to read all through church? At what point do they insist she pay attention? How can you know when a kid is paying attention anyway? Can you really tell a little girl that she needs to stop reading so much?

Josh took the next day off of work and told Sarah she didn’t have to go to the summer program. This was her eighth birthday and she got to decide how she wanted to spend it. I was lucky enough to be invited along.

First order of business was to watch the rest of Nausicaa from the night before. Next, she wanted to go on the American Girl Tour at the American History Museum. Sarah got dressed in one of her favorite dresses, but when she began doing cartwheels Josh insisted that she needed to put some shorts on underneath if she was going to be doing gymnastics in a dress. It was a reasonable request, but Sarah ended up in a full meltdown over the shorts requirement. There was much whining, much crying, and eventually a timeout. Josh managed to keep his calm throughout, and after getting some time to cool down, Sarah put on the shorts and was ready to go. Within minutes all signs of the tantrum were gone, and neither the episode nor the shorts were mentioned again.

After a long saga involving parking, We found a spot for the car and got on the D.C. Metro. This was also a birthday request. Sarah really likes to ride the Metro. Unfortunately the walk from the station to the museum is a lengthy one, and Sarah seemed to be on her last legs by the time we got there. She wasn’t complaining much, but she was certainly dragging. This all changed once we stopped at the cafeteria for a much needed lunch, and we were on our way to the museum.

American Girl TourAt the front desk we picked up the American Girl Guide. It’s a sort of scavenger hunt, with short biographies on several of the girls and an object in the museum relating to the time and place in which each girl lived. Molly lived in Illinois in 1944, so we found a “How to Bake by the Ration Book” in an exhibit called “A House on the Home Front.” Addy was an escaped slave living in 1864 Philadelphia, and we found a Medal honoring colorer troops in the civil war area. There were seven girls in all, and the three of us managed to track down every item. However the real treat came when we we found the exhibit on early pumps, generators, and electrical inventions.

Sarah loves inventions. She showed me the book she keeps of her own ideas for inventions. When we turned the corner into the invention room her eyes lit up and she began running from one artifact to the next. “What’s this one?” she’d ask. “How does it work?” Josh and I would barely be able to get a few words out before another fabulous bit of technology caught her eye and she took off in the other direction. We had already been at the museum for some time and it was getting late. Josh assured her they would go back to the exhibit soon so she could take her time looking at everything. I’ve never seen an eight-year-old so excited about direct current.

When Kristi got home, her and Josh set up the laptop for a Skype call to the grandparents. Both sets of grandparents had sent presents for Sarah’s birthday, and Sarah had waited to open them until they could watch. Both calls went through the same timeline: The family would say hello to the grandparents. Sarah would open her presents and be very happy. Josh and Kristi would continue to talk while Sarah immediately opened one of the new books she had received and start to read. Josh and Kristi would nudge her, explaining that she should wait until the call was over to read. Sarah would look up at the screen for the next sentence or two of conversation, then back down at her book. Near the end Josh would call me over for a quick introduction and some well-wishing with regards to my travels. Sarah would get up and read somewhere else so as not to be disturbed. End of call.

It was delightful.

Sarah with the Engine

This may come as a surprise, especially to readers of this blog who see me as a literal or figurative daughter, but my time in Alexandria made it clear how much I don’t want kids. This is not to say anything bad about Sarah as a child, or Josh and Kristi as parents. Quite the opposite. If I started a family I’m pretty sure that is exactly how I’d want it to be. Josh and Kristi are both active and loving parents who have their own careers but still spend plenty of time with their child. They are just as concerned about Sarah eating her vegetables as they are about her developing a positive relationship with her body. And Sarah herself is fantastic. She is smart and capable. She gets along well with both kids and adults. She loves to read and ask questions. She is interested in science and inventions and comic books and does cartwheels in a dress. And for her birthday all she wanted to do was ride public transportation and visit the history museum. I love Sarah. And if I had a kid I think I’d want it to be just like her.

And that’s the thing. When I was with the three of them, I had a terrific time. But I never jealously pictured myself on the other half of the story. I was very happy with the half I was already occupying. I love being around children and talking to them and learning with them. I teach Sunday School and I volunteer to give tours of Pike Place Market to elementary school students. And each week after class or after a tour, I send them on their way. They go back to their parents and I never think, “I wish I could keep being a part of their story.” No. I like the part I’m playing already. And that’s how I felt in Alexandria. I don’t want to be Sarah’s mom. I want to be her friend.

I am aware of the arguments. I am told that I will change my mind or that I will regret not having kids when I’m older. And that may be true. I may look back on this post in ten years and laugh, unable to imagine how I could have lived a life without my darling little children. Or I may look back with regret that I never had them. But that is the way of life. Sometimes I laugh about the things I used to write in my journals. Sometimes I regret not pursuing a career in science. And for all I know my feelings towards having kids will be the same way. But for now, I can safely say that I have seen the best example I can imagine for exactly how I’d want to raise a child, and it’s still not right for me. And it’s not right for a lot of people. It’s hard to explain of course, because it comes off as a little arrogant and insulting. After all it’s the choice your parents made, are you too good for the life they chose? Are you better than the family path? Or do you just hate it because it’s the most common route? So the questions go. Or perhaps rather than questions you just get a condescending laugh and the insistence that you’ll change your mind. You clearly don’t know what you want in life.

Well, no one does. Except maybe Sarah. Sarah wants to read.