I rescued two lost things last week. One was my responsibility, and one was not. One I’d lost myself (though it would’ve been easy to blame the five year old), and one someone else had lost. One was a coat, a green child’s coat, possibly a hand-me down, but it would have been expensive to replace. One was a dog. One was lost on a beautiful, warmish, sunny afternoon, and the other was lost the following day which was sunny but bitterly cold and windy.
The coat was the most upsetting, because it was my fault (though it would have been easy to blame the five year old). When I drove Louise to kindergarten that morning it had been cold and rainy, so she and her toddler brother, Manny, wore raincoats over their winter coats. Afterwards Manny and I went to the library and it wasn’t raining anymore so I took off his raincoat and left it in the car. Later, while Manny was napping and I was reading Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, the sun broke forth from the clouds and the temperatures soared into the fifties, and I gratefully made plans to take the kids to the playground after school. That last hour and a half, after I pick up Louise from school, can be hard. She is tired from following the rules and doing what she was told all day at school, and resents any more instructions from me. She wants to talk and play, and needs me to be very interactive and follow the rules of the games she makes up, and she gets frustrated if I don’t pay complete attention. Manny is getting tired despite his nap, and though he has spent most of the day ignoring me and pretending to cook elaborate meals with his toy pots and pans, his sister’s presence makes him suddenly need my constant attention and to be constantly in my arms. It can be fun, if I can rally my energy. But it’s infinitely better if we can spend that time outside. Both kids like people-watching, the fresh air and sunshine put their nanny in a much better mood, and there are other kids to play with so I am not needed as intensely as when the three of us are home alone.
It was warm, so I let Louise take off her outer raincoat, but it was not warm enough for her to take off her other coat, so the several times she asked to I said no. The kids had a great time, and I absorbed the fresh air and sunshine as I chased after them, and waited till the last possible minute to say that it was time to head home. As we walked back to the car I looked back and saw that Louise had taken off her coat. She saw me notice her, grinned, and said, “Is it okay?”
“All right,” I said. “Put it in the stroller,” thus teaching her the truth of the expression that it’s easier to get forgiven than permission. When we got to the car I strapped them into their seats, folded up the stroller, and put it into the trunk. A few minutes later we pulled into their garage and I said to Louise sternly,
“You need to either wear your coat or carry it, Louise. I have to get all the other coats, the diaper bag, and Manny.”
“Okay,” she said. “Where is it?”
“It’s back there with you.”
“No it isn’t.”
With a sinking heart I realized I’d never taken it out of the stroller. I opened the trunk and unfolded the stroller but it wasn’t there.
“It must be back at the playground,” I said. She started crying.
“It’s okay!” I said. “Let’s go inside and drop you and Manny off with your mom, and I’ll drive back in my own car and get the coat. It must’ve fallen out when I put the stroller in the trunk, so it should be right there waiting for me.”
“But what if someone took it?” she wailed.
“No one would take it,” I said, hoping this was true. “People are generally good and want to help each other.”
I dropped them off and hopped into my car, driving back towards the playground and praying the following strange prayer:
“Lord, please let the coat still be there. I don’t want to be responsible for losing it. Also, take care of the refugees. And if you can only answer one prayer, then take care of the refugees.”
God only knows what God thinks of prayers like that. Covering our bases, hedging our bets. Hoping for God’s favor and help to save face for ourselves and a few dollars for our employer, while knowing that others are shivering on the cold ground, hungry, homeless, wondering where God is and where the generally good people wanting to help each other are. Did God laugh at my second, guilty prayer? Did God listen carefully and file the prayers in order of importance? Did God guide the hand of the person who walked by Louise’s coat in the street and hung it carefully up on the fence for me to find, gratefully, moments later? Is God guiding the hearts of those who have it in their power to help the refugees?
The next day the temperature dropped sharply and the wind blew fiercely. The kids’ dad needed the car, so he drove Louise to school but I had to take Manny in the stroller to pick her up. The walk to school and back was cold and hard, with the wind seeming to always blow against us. I struggled on the way there, but the way back with Louise was harder — uphill and I had the additional job of keeping Louise’s spirits up while we fought against the wind. She was struggling, and trying not to cry.
“Remember what Dory says in Finding Nemo?” I asked. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming. And then, just when they are too tired to go any further, a miracle happens and they find the warm gulf stream current which carries them safely to Nemo.” I’m pretty sure I had some of those details wrong, but Louise thought about it for a minute and then started repeating: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” We chanted it together, pausing each time the wind caught the cloth of the stroller like a sail (always in the other direction) and made walking momentarily impossible.
Suddenly a very small dog came towards us from a driveway, barking loudly. Louise screamed and I told her to move to the other side of me while I spoke gently to the dog.
“What’s wrong puppy? It’s okay, we’re friendly. What are you doing out here in the cold?”
The dog was shivering, and I realized that its barks weren’t coming from anger but from fear. I felt the calmness that comes over me when anxiety is replaced with knowing exactly what action to take. I don’t know how I knew. Was someone somewhere saying a prayer for lost things? Was someone praying for creatures who were cold and scared? Either way I knew for sure that the dog was stuck outside and needed help getting home. There were several houses there, but I turned toward the nearest one as the dog ran away back down the driveway. There was a set of steps going up to the front door, so I carefully parked the stroller at the bottom.
“No!” cried Louise. “I don’t want to go there! I want to go home!”
“When you see a creature that’s cold and scared, you have to help it. That’s the rule,” I answered, and, convinced either by compassion or canon, she followed me up the concrete stairs.
I rang the doorbell and we stood there shivering. I saw the blinds opened slightly and I waved and tried not to look like a salesman or an evangelist. A woman opened the door and asked us suspiciously,
“Yes? Can I help you?”
“There’s a small dog out here,” I said. “He seems scared.”
“Oh my God! Chico?” she asked, looking inside and realizing he wasn’t there with her. “How did he get out? Where did you see him?”
“He just ran back down there,” I said, pointing to the driveway.
She came out onto the porch, standing in the wind in bare feet, and called,
The dog ran up to her instantly, and they hurried back into the warm house together, the woman saying a quick and still surprised, “Thank you!”
Louise, Manny, and I continued up the hill, against the wind. A few weeks ago we had made the same trip after a snowstorm, and as we’d walked I’d told Louise the story of Good King Wenceslas, and how he and his servant had gone out in the bitter cold to bring food and firewood to a poor man they saw from the castle window.
“It was so cold and windy,” I’d told her, “And the servant grew so tired he couldn’t go on. But King Wenceslas told him to walk in his footprints, and when the servant stepped right where the King had stepped, he found the footprints were warm! So then he was warm enough and encouraged enough to go on.” I’d sung the last verse of the song to her, trying unsuccessfully, as always, not to cry:
In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.”
“We saved that dog!” I said, feeling as warm as if I were stepping in the Saint’s footprints. “And we’re almost home.”
“We’re almost home!” said Louise. “Just keep swimming.”
“Just keep swimming,” I said.