This brings SO many thoughts and feelings to my mind.
For a long time now, my youngest sons – twins, Caleb and Aaron – and I have been talking about getting coordinating tattoos. We discussed getting matching tatts, but decided it would be more meaningful to each spend some time praying about what our own personal version of that would look like. Ironically, Caleb was the first to decide – this is almost never the case. He is definitely my child. Almost every time we eat out, the rest of the group is waiting for Caleb and me to choose from the menu. We are just not quick to make decisions when faced with more than a few choices. When you add the permanency of a tattoo to the equation, I am just about dead in my tracks. Making a decision about the placement, size and design of a tattoo on my body simply overwhelms me. So, a couple of weeks ago, when Caleb said, “Let’s go get our tattoos SOON,” I was overwhelmed with all of the decisions this was demanding from me. I did some research and began putting together what I wanted mine to look like. Caleb and Aaron decided that they wanted “timshel” in Hebrew. Caleb wanted his on his knuckles and Aaron wanted a larger font of the same on the side of his forearm. I have recently discovered I have a love for trees, and I’ve always known I have a passion for words, so I decided to combine the two and to my delight, I remembered that several of the original book covers had a tree on them. Caleb’s color has always been blue and Aaron’s green, which is why I have the colored hearts/leaves on my tree.
At this point you may be wondering what in the heck “timshel” even means, and moreso, why in the world would we all want permanent tattoos declaring this?!
I’d love to share the story with you because it is one of the ribbons in my life that I can trace back to my teen years in Byron, Michigan, where a teacher took the time to get to know me and recommended a novel that would have a great effect on my entire life. Andrea Broaddus was not everyone’s favorite teacher. She had a big personality and she called it like she saw it. She often called me out, but because I knew she was speaking truth and wanted the best for me, I did my best, as a teenage girl with my own big personality, to take in her advice and make healthy changes. I had just finished Sinclair Lewis’ Babbit and whined about how boring I thought it was and was just starting (and being a bit traumatized by) Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle when Mrs. B. suggested I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. She told me that there were many references to biblical characters and the story of Cain and Abel, which only dissuaded me from reading it. I had very little biblical knowledge at that point in my life and was in no way considering becoming familiar with the Bible anytime soon. But, as I said, I trusted her to see things in me and for me, so the next novel I read that year was East of Eden.
I was a bit of a drama queen back then. I typically liked to play the victim and give up when it concerned me. I would willingly fight for the people I loved, but my knee-jerk for myself was to make excuses and give up, often blaming others so that I didn’t have to admit I quit when things got too challenging. I was more a Cain than an Abel… or so I thought.
I was completely enamored with this novel. I couldn’t put it down and then I wept big mournful tears when I finished it. I prayed I would have a college professor who would assign it, just so I could read it again and discuss it with more people.
It never happened…
In my early-20’s I bought a copy and read it for the third time. I also located a copy of the original movie version with James Dean, as well as the modern version with Jane Seymour. After initiating my husband, I told him I would like to name our son, if we ever had one, Caleb Aaron. He agreed.
A few years later, I was pregnant and we agreed that if this baby was a boy, we would name him Caleb Aaron. And then Hannah Elizabeth was born, much to our absolute delight! We each had sons from our first marriages and now we had a daughter. We felt like our family was complete. We scheduled the vasectomy when Hannah was just 2 months old and a week later my dear friend lost her 4 month old baby girl on the night of her husband’s vasectomy from a botched prescription. The baby passed away in the daddy’s arms. I was a hormonal wreck after having Hannah, so I immediately canceled my husband’s appointment. In my emotional state, I was sure something awful would happen to our family if we followed through.
A few short months later, I began to feel awful – as if my previous morning sickness from my other pregnancies all returned in triplicate, and after doing 2 home tests that showed a pink line faster than ever before, I confirmed what I was afraid to believe because I had recently started teaching at my oldest son’s school – where I taught East of Eden, btw – and things seemed just lovely just as they were. I had been baptized while I was pregnant with Hannah and I decided to pray for patience, much to my believing friends’ dismay. They advised me to pray for wisdom instead, but it was too late… I soon found out that I had “two buns in the oven,” as my OBGYN told us at our first appointment where she had a feeling and did an immediate ultrasound.
My pregnancy was fraught with trauma. My dear grandma passed away in October just after she asked me which twin I was going to give her. She meant this as a tease because she had all girls and she knew I was overwhelmed with having 2 older boys, a one-year-old and twin boys on the way, but I was sure that God was preparing me to lose one of my babies. A week after her passing, my OBGYN discovered I had complete placenta previa and I was placed on home bedrest for a little over a month before I began to hemorrhage late one night and had to go to the hospital for the remainder of my pregnancy. I was in that same room for 3 months, solid. I was not even allowed to be wheeled down the hallway or stand at my window. It was terrible because I felt fine. It was also the most wonderful time in my life because I had SO much alone time with Jesus. I was so confident of His leading in every step of that journey. When I began hemorrhaging and they told me they were going to do an emergency c-section that morning, I knew He had us in His hands. I truly believed I may lose one of my babies, and believed it would be Caleb, but I trusted Him completely and was as prepared as any mama could be to walk through this time to bring Him glory. I don’t think I’ve ever had that much faith since that morning…
As they rushed me down the hospital hallways, the people on all three of our teams (Caleb, Aaron and I each had a team of medical staff for the delivery) introduced themselves to me. As we talked, we began to realize that they were all connected to me in one way or another. Some of them were aunts or uncles of students of mine, some were related to people we went to church with, or knew other family members of ours, and all of them it seemed, were Jesus-followers. So, when we arrived in the delivery room, there were prayers going up all over the place for my babies. Bob was sent to get washed up and change into his scrubs just after they gave me that horrible shot in my back (UGH!). I laid back and remember feeling incredibly dizzy. I was bleeding uncontrollably and for just a minute, they lost me. When I came to, I had NO idea what was happening. My husband wasn’t in the room yet because they had kept him out during my little crash. I looked around and said, “I feel kind of awful. Can you let my husband in here? I just know I’d feel so much better if he was with me.”
Everyone chuckled. We were both still clueless. Then they let my Honey come in the room and I immediately felt better. He gave me a play-by-play, minus the blood and gore, of what was happening with our babies and my body. Both of our sweeties were struggling some and had to be incubated immediately. Aaron was biting at the umbilical cord and Caleb was struggling to thrive. After they took them down, my big, strong husband passed out cold into a chair I yelled for them to bring when I saw the look on his face. That’s when the remaining staff told me how I had flat-lined for a minute because I had lost so much blood.
Disclaimer: I admit I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t have an incredible near-death experience with Jesus talking directly to me. But I’m alive, so I’m good!
They wheeled me down to my room and would not allow me to see my babies until I could walk on my own. Therefore they found me on my cold hospital floor 3 times before my husband insisted on a wheelchair to take me down the next morning. They were the cutest little frog/chickens you’ve ever seen! Caleb’s incubator had a little card on it that said, “I’m the oldest” and Aaron’s said, “I’m the biggest.”
We spent the next 8 days gavage feeding them my breast milk and trying to get Caleb to thrive. Bob and I would sing, “Jesus Loves (Me) You” over and over in order to keep them awake to eat the 1-2 ounces they desperately needed to survive. Aaron seemed much more healthy until they came to tell us that we could take Caleb home, but Aaron had a brain-bleed that they had to keep a constant eye on. I remember running my thermometer under hot water to fake a temp so that they would let us all stay there together. It melted and broke open. So, I had to go home on the coldest day of that year with my teeny baby and leave the other one at the hospital. It was torture…
The following day they told us we could bring Aaron home. They said that since we had so much experience, he could go home for the weekend, but we had to bring him back on Monday to recheck and maybe be readmitted. Our church family prayed over him and on Monday his bleed was gone. The doctor did the test twice because he couldn’t believe his eyes.
One of my favorite memories of that time happened the day after we brought Aaron home. Hannah looked at me with her hands up on each side and said, “Where’s the more babies, Mommy?” She thought we were just going to bring a new one home every night, I guess!
We decided to name the boys, Caleb Robert and Aaron Patrick. I was teased for naming them symbolic names for Cain and Abel many times, but I named them because timshel, thou mayest. Caleb means faithful, devotion, whole-hearted, bold, brave and Aaron means lofty, exalted one, high mountain. Caleb was one of only two people over the age of 20 to make it into the Promise Land. Aaron was Moses’ brother, the first of the high-priests of the Israelites.
What I love about Steinbeck is that he doesn’t leave his characters one-dimensional or simply good or bad. He shows us how God made us all with every possibility, if only we step into our freewill. We don’t have to be victims. We aren’t good guys or bad guys until we use our “timshel” to choose what to do and who we will be. When I was embarking on adulthood, East of Eden was the beginning of my journey out of self-sabotage and it helped me parent just a bit better than I would’ve without it.
When my children were teenagers, I gave them each a copy of this novel. I warned them that much of the story was harsh and even lewd, at times. They’ve known since always that the twins’ names came from my love for this story and the effect it had on my life. I never discussed the content of the story with them until their late teens or even recently because I wanted them to be who God made them and not be influenced by the characters in this novel. The interesting and often disturbing thing has been how similar our Caleb and Aaron have been during various seasons of their lives to their character counterparts. Sometimes this was so unnerving that I’d read it all over again so that the end of the story would comfort me and remind me how to encourage my children to develop all the facets of their personalities. The beauty in all of it is that through this powerful work and the influence of God’s unconditional love throughout their lives, my little miracles have grown into confident, loving and Jesus-following men who make my heart sing (most of the time). Of course they have struggles, as we all do. I’m not claiming perfection, in any way, but they’ve embraced their freewill. They are stepping into their own timshel and I am at peace knowing that because they are on this journey with Our Father, they will do amazing things in His name and for His glory. I’ve always known He miraculously allowed me to raise them, and didn’t take them almost 23 years ago, because He has a great plan for them and my joy comes from watching them walk in His will.
SO… it was time. We’ve been talking about getting “timshel” tatts for years, but I think we’re all finally embracing His unconditional love and trusting that we can walk in the freewill He’s graced us all with and take responsibility for our choices and our lives.