April 5, 2022

The Caboose and the Lantern Rouge

I have always been the caboose, always at the end of the line putting all my people in front of me.  I was pushing a stroller, then a double stroller, then a stroller again.  Sometimes with a toddler beside me, but always still in front of me.  From the moment they were mobile, I have put myself behind them.  Always watching. I like it when I know for sure that we haven't left anyone behind - because I can see them in front of me with my own two eyes.

Now they are sixteen and almost-fifteen, bigger than me in every way.  They are each 5'11", by God's grace not a millimeter taller than one other, and they each find this devastating. Both that they are not yet "six feet," and that neither one is winning the race to the ceiling.

Tyler is vying for the caboose position.  He wants me in front of him.  Last week, when we were traveling through Denver International Airport, he said, "Pretty soon, I'll be the caboose."

"Good luck with that," I said.  He'll have to wrestle it out of my tight grip.  I'm the caboose.

Then I gave him this concession, "Maybe when you're a dad."

"Mom," he said, using his authoritative tone so I would understand that his word is final, "When I am an adult, I will be the caboose.  Someday, you will be in front of me."

When we got on the DIA train, the doors closed in front of me - on Tucker's backpack.  The caboose almost got separated from the train.

The doors sprang open as they are designed to do at any sign of obstruction, and I made it on.  But Tuck was a ball of anxiety over the near miss. "I thought I lost you," he said.

All of this prompted Peter to rehearse a plan, just in case I had gotten separated.
(The plan: Get off at the scheduled stop, wait for Mom, and whistle the family call until we locate each other.)

I used to be in charge, and now my men have shepherded me into the middle of the flock.  In the near closing of the doors, all the roles have shifted. And that's the story of how I lost my role as the caboose.

I teach on Sunday mornings at our church, and I shared this story - not as a point or an illustration, but merely as an aside. "Hey, this happened, and you're a place where I practice telling stories."

My friend Richard came up to me afterward. He leaned in, as men in their seventies do, and he said, "Don't let them take that caboose role from you. That's yours. It'll always be yours."

I smiled. "Right?  Thank you, Richard. I didn't really mind, actually. I really do honor the ways they are stepping into their roles as young men.  They're ready to lead, and I'm ready to let them."

"Then tell them to get out in front," he said

Richard told me about the Lantern Rouge, a cycling term that refers to the competitor in last place in the race. The term comes from the French phrase for Red Lantern, the light hung on the caboose of a passenger train.  The signalmen watch for the lantern rouge to confirm when the last car comes through, to make sure none of the cars have come disconnected. In a bike race, the lantern rouge is awarded to the final person to cross the finish line, to bring in the last. It's a leadership all its own.

I loved that so much.  I don't think it's an argument of feminism or egalitarianism or complementarianism or conversavitism or anything other isms.

I think Richard, in his wisdom, was giving a nod to one of the beautiful ways women lead well.  Empathy, compassion, sympathy are not soft skills that we can do without. When you have a woman on your team, we make sure nobody is left behind.

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