02/07/2013 05:37 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

How a 59-Cent Electronic Tea Light Reminded Me What Really Matters

On Dec. 31 my neighborhood inaugurated a new tradition: decorating our front yards with luminarias, paper bag lanterns lit by candles, a sign of welcome to neighbors and friends. Always up for activities that foster beauty and community, my family opted in.

Because the email suggesting the luminarias had arrived within days of the massacre at Sandy Hook, when I bought our materials, I selected 26 candles: part memorial for the children and their caretakers who were murdered, part promise to stay mindful of the fragility of life as I welcomed the new year.

Because I tend toward safety (read: I stand three steps to the left of paranoid), instead of buying wax candles, I bought the electronic kind. Inarguably a lesser substitute for the glow of actual fire, these battery-operated "flames" would save me from anxiously peering out the window throughout the night to see if I'd inadvertently set the walnut tree ablaze.

On New Year's Eve, per usual, my wife Tracie and I severely underestimated how long it takes to get ready for a party, so 10 minutes before our guests were due to arrive, I hurried outside with the luminaria materials. Bare-armed in the icy twilight, I rushed to open the bags, roll down the sides and pour a scoop of sand in each. Halfway through setting them up, K-bird, my 6-year-old, joined me as "flipper of switches," turning the candles on, then distributing the luminarias along the walkway.

Ever the performer, one moment K-bird was a connoisseur of lighting, discussing his theories behind each placement, and the next he was a garbage truck, beeping as he stepped backward from one lantern to another. Then he was a rapper, punching his fist in the air, jumping to stay warm, "I do my fist pump-pump-pump-pump-pump-pump, then I jump-jump-jump-jump-jump-jump." Then he was a wood sprite, pointing to the evening's first star shining above the bare branches of our walnut tree, saying, "Look, Mommy! Make a wish!"

Watching him stilled me. "Oh, God," I thought, my mind returning to the families in Connecticut, "they have lost so much." Again, I vowed to appreciate every moment to the depth of my ability.

All evening, as I enjoyed the food and laughter and card games and multigenerational wrestling matches that characterize our parties, each time I passed by the front window, I noticed the flickering lanterns, took a deep breath in and sent thoughts of peace to the hurting hearts in Connecticut.

After the party, the kids in bed, Tracie finishing up the dishes, I slipped out into the frosty night to retrieve the lanterns. Grabbing up the bags, I brought them into the garage, took out each candle and switched it off, tossing the snuffed "flames" into a box for next year.

All but one. That candle's lever refused to click into the "off" position. Too cold and tired to fuss with it, I brought it into the house and set it at the center of the breakfast table, where it glowed all night.

And then it glowed all day.

And then it glowed all week.

And then for two weeks.

At first the candle reminded me to look for the beauty in every day.

Then the candle became a source of fascination: How long would it glow?

Then it became a toy my sons played with, showing up in odd places: under the couch, tangled in bed sheets, a centerpiece in their Lego village.

Then it became an in-joke between Tracie and me. "Is it just me," I whispered one morning, "or does the flame look like an uncircumsized baby penis?"

"It does," she hissed back. "I've been thinking that same thing this whole time, but I didn't want to say it."

"It's like an homage to baby boys everywhere," I said.

Joking like this felt wrong, in a way, like we were turning the sacred profane. But it also felt distinctly right, braiding together infancy memories, potty humor, laughter -- elements of the parenting we love. Wasn't that the point of the candle? To remind me to enjoy what I have today, knowing that I might not have it tomorrow?

That's what tragedies like Sandy Hook do. They reveal layers of meaning so often overlooked in daily life.

In the first days after that horrifying news hit, I did what I always do when I'm troubled hard: I wrote through the layers. I wrote about my heightened awareness of violence, about the illusion of safety, about the importance of raising children to be self-aware adults, about K-bird coining the phrase "peace helpers" and about how his phrase gave shape to a new way of understanding what the world needs from us.

Then, surprisingly quickly, the heat of the moment faded, as it can for people not directly connected to a tragedy.

Until last week, that is, when K-bird asked me to join him in the cardboard playhouse we'd built weeks earlier, the one I'd just suggested that we put away, because no one was playing with it anymore. "No, Mommy!" he said. "I want to snuggle in there with you right now!"

It was the end of a long day. Tracie was working late. I had my older son shouting at me from the bathtub, a hungry cat meowing at me, dishes to do, pajamas to set out, nighttime water bottles to fill, teeth to get brushed and a bedtime story to read. I was in "if-one-more-person-asks-me-for-one-more-thing-I'm-gonna-blow" mode.

Then I thought, "Someday he's not going to want to snuggle with me anymore."

So I set a timer. "Ten minutes," I said.

Into the house we crawled, pushing aside the toy cars and stuffed animals to make room. As K-bird pulled a blanket out from under a pile of books, something round and white rolled off the folds of fabric onto the carpet.

The candle. Nearly four weeks later. Still flickering.

"How long do you suppose that thing is going to burn?" I asked.

"Maybe forever," K-bird said.

"I hope so," I replied.

Then we snuggled under the blanket for 10 minutes. And then a few more.

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