It started with an email I received from a friend, dear E. We got to know each other through our blogs five years ago. And this weekend she wrote to me about her son and his diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes. I felt her pain and fear in the words she wrote, the camaraderie built of shared concern for our little ones. Then these words, about the cliff we walk every day, "I think of that fine line between safe and unsafe often. Sometimes living there, on that precipice is too much. The knowing exactly how close the other side is can make you crazy. But then I put up a wall and say this is how life is here, on the safe side, and it is fine."
It's a haunting image, one that is too exact in describing our life, to ignore.
Life on the safe side still has zoos, zoos with wonderful staff who meet you at the penguin exhibit because it's your first trip back after a very terrible day. Your daughter wears pink princess gloves and worries her fingers over yours as she watches the penguins eat at their morning roll call. The zoo employee gives your children stuffed penguins, one big and one small. Trinidad is the zoo employee's name. He makes small talk with your husband as you ask questions about the animals. The safe side has penguins who torpedo into the water, their sleek bodies a study in aerodynamics. After a time, Trinidad motions over to a wooden fence, opens a gate leading behind the penguin unit. He introduces your family to John, the penguin keeper. Everything smells like fish and your daughter asks you, "There aren't peanuts here, are there?"
You walk around the office, the kitchen, the small cavity behind the penguin habitat where nesting pairs of penguins sleep with their eggs (John says November, and you make a note to come back at that time). You find out that these penguins have names like Margarita and Mojito, Rocky and Carmelita. And there is a moment when you don't think about wiping a table down or whether or not someone has a granola bar hiding in their pocket. This is when the safe side gives you a rare gift: John the penguin keeper reaches into the exhibit and comes back with a little penguin creature named Cortez. Cortez is small, a juvenile penguin that John says is one of the gentlest he's ever come across. He invites your daughter to pet Cortez and feel his feathers. They are lighter than the softest spun cotton.
Our trip back to the zoo was scary. It was really hard for Alice. She was manic in her worry over what she might touch. But so it goes with life on the safe side. Sometimes you have to try to ignore the terrible danger outside of the door.
I can't say enough good things about the zoo. They were wonderful. A docent toured us through several exhibits. Alice even got to see her precious elephants. Trinidad gave us extra emergency numbers to keep on hand when we are there, should the unthinkable happen again. We were more lucky than I can ever say - there is only one engine company that knows the zoo so well to be able to navigate the ten gate entrances, the three different addresses, the numerous turns and secret hideaways. How lucky we were to happen to get that engine company. They arrived in seven minutes.
You see miracles like that on the safe side, when you are looking for them. Tender mercies that make your close calls evidence of a loving God.
You also feel kindness on the safe side. People from the outer darkness who show up at the door of your small shelter with baskets of their carefully crafted love. Names I want to just say here because without them I would have been so terribly alone: Alexa and Karen and Angela; women who jumped to our aid without a second thought. The nurse at Children's Hospital that climbed up next to Alice in bed and held her hand while I went outside to call Chip. The paramedic who came back to check on Alice a few hours after dropping her off. Trinidad at the zoo, who spent far more time with our small family than I'm sure he had space for. John the penguin keeper. I've never seen a penguin hug a human being before. He must be a very special person. I haven't known how to say thank you and have it mean as much as I need.
And there are all of you dear dear people - those that we've known for years and others for mere weeks. Those that we've never met. People who have reached out to our family to offer support and love. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You have reminded me that I still have something to say in this space called The Creamery.
Life on the safe side can be isolating. It can feel like you're hunkered down hiding beneath the table while a lifelong storm rages, threatening walls that are thin as tissue paper. But sometimes the storm subsides and the sunlight streams through those paper walls, making everything golden. Sometimes life on the safe side is more lovely because you know how precious it all is.
Here is a snapshot from the zoo last week, one I've carefully filed in my mind: Alice with her fingers tangled in Cortez's downy feathers. Her face a poem of joy and vibrancy. She's thrown back her head a little, mouth open, exclaiming to Chip, "I can't believe it! I can't believe it!"
Sometimes I can't believe it: life on the safe side, as hard as it is, is also life on the sweet side.