The t-shirt is bright red, the midsection a boxy shape too big for its intended contents. It is a gift from my sister. Holding up her matching one, mom shares that my sister bought these for the family. Of course she did. My sister’s gifts often veer to the absurd. Whether I think they’re funny or not seems beside the point.
My eyes still don’t focus all that well but I make out the words “THE FLOOR IS LAVA! ALL-TIME CHAMPION” through a blur of reds and oranges. No matter that her grown-up child has a brain injury and needs full-time care, my mom is giggling.
“Your sister said it’s supposed to remind you of when you were kids.”
That’s my mom. She copes with life’s ups and downs in three ways – she cries, she sees humor in oddball places, or she gets working.
While memories from that time are never detailed or complete, I am certain of two things, one, that I thought the t-shirt was garish (sorry, sis!) and two, that there was a joke that I didn’t get. I can only assume that I followed my mom’s cues and giggled along.
I’m sitting on a stone railing maybe a foot and a half wide, its few feet of height an insignificant barrier for the ground three stories below. I lean back against the warm brick and stare at the long stretch of daylight before me – I’m here because I hope that sunshine will somehow stem the sadness welling within. Noticing the paleness of my legs, I touch the jiggly skin of what had been my calf. I want to escape this body that I barely recognize, a body that fought me and only through medical interventions called a truce that I hope is lasting.
The tears come as I think about how hard and sad and frustrating it is to be half-healed, half-not. As I cry, I realize I’m wearing the red t-shirt. Twisting and pulling the front out to the side, I see a sloth with little finger-hands grasped around a light fixture dangling above a living room repose complete with couch, chairs, and lamps. And to keep the surreal motif going, lava floods across the floor. And I start to make the tenuous connection my sister must have made between our childhood and this shirt.
As kids, we played a game called “alligator” whenever we stayed in a hotel – two siblings jump from bed to bed while the “alligator” lies flat on the floor, eyes closed, legs and arms flailing trying to tag the others. Get touched mid-air and your turn to be the alligator. Like all of our games, there is both danger and fun. The thrill is timing your jump to miss the alligator but a split second off and you might find your face hitting the corner of the night side table. It’s a game of survival, of staying off the floor.
With that childhood memory, I decide I can do this. I can stay off the floor today. I text my mom,
“Sitting on balcony Wearing that awful Red tshirt to cheer me up”
“Hey let’s have a party”
There’s my mom and brother in their matching “alligator” shirts and inexplicably wearing colored animal masks. Even though I’m still crying, I’m laughing too.
As it turns out, the red t-shirt was just the gift I needed. It cloaks me in the grace of a loving family and reminds me that I can choose to stay off the floor, to not be a victim of the “alligator” today. Another reminder of God’s grace in my life just when I needed it most.