Found in Translation

“That can’t be a boat,” I told him, my back bent over the bath and the weariness brought on by a full day settling into my bones. “It has holes in it. It won’t float. A boat has to float.”

The Kid narrowed his eyes, stared at the piece of plastic, and finally stopped arguing. Stopped asking questions–the question-asking being a skill he has artfully mastered. He got it, and placed the erstwhile “boat” back in the water.

I, on the other hand, keep staring at it. And thinking. About all the things, all the people, I’ve tried to turn into boats. Into something other than what they were made to be. Which, I’m coming to understand, is the culprit behind every frustration, every harsh word, every rolled eye and sigh and expletive-laden tirade: this need for everything/one to follow my orders.

I am being broken of it, beautifully. Painfully, and beautifully.

My memory has no time for details, so I remember in sepia-toned Instagram posts now, forty years stretched out in snapshots. And I remember being on the mat at a New York Sports Club one weekday morning during my five-year tenure in the city when Tim Keller drifted through my headphones. The title of the sermon was “The Advocate,” and it changed me. The idea that Someone powerful would be on my side was so intoxicating as to be almost unbelievable. The promise that I had a defender, someone who argued my case and settled in all at once? Freeing. It made the loneliness ebb, and my world looked different. God did too.

Little did I know that I was heading toward that title myself, straight into the hurricane of grace’s primary tool for beautifully and painfully breaking me: parenthood. Specifically, parenting my first child, the one I was convinced was a boat. I kept trying to make him a boat. But neither of us could float on the ocean that life handed to us, so we held hands and sank together.

I’d like to think this part is the resurrection. The beginning of it, at least.

It takes being around him for awhile to understand him, and I’m watching that happen. I’m translating less. With strangers, I still echo him, in a voice that articulates the sounds with which he still struggles. But around the people who are knowing us here, I’m getting less sideways glances, less questioning stares, and more grins. Better, he’s getting more responses, more conversations, more back-and-forth. To know him, it turns out, is not just to love him, but to get him.

And he feels it, the understanding. His confidence is soaring. There was a dads’ breakfast at his school the other day and he marched right up to all of them, showing off his latest toy. “I want to show that guy my car,” he declared with a boldness I never had, and those who know him exclaim over a toy the likes of which they’ve seen a hundred times, and I love them for it. Being understood, having people in his corner and on his side, it’s changing him. He’s trying new things and getting, as he calls it, cheeky, following Little Brother aboard the comedy train. The other night he tried using chopsticks, for God’s sake, as I fumbled with mine, and these are the tiny, constant celebrations that are huge, and we get to have them all because he’s not a boat.

“I wish I had taken a video,” his school therapist said to me the other day, describing TK’s weekly delivery of his “news,” at which he excels now, proudly standing before his class to speak and answer questions. Won’t be long now before he’s telling his own story, before he is his own advocate. Until then, I’ve still got translating to do and asses to kick, because I’ll be damned if he walks through life being dismissed by those who are too impatient to try to understand. And for now, I’ve still got a few stories to tell him, like the one we fixated on this weekend: of another boy with a scar, a boy who was different and didn’t find the place where he fit in until he was eleven, and then discovered what he was made for. What his mother’s love did for him, left upon him, protected him from. The boy who lived, and became a wizard.

The aspirations around here are, for the time being, less lofty. LB says he wants to be a monster for Halloween–fitting. And TK, for his part, answers, “Car.” Fitting also. Neither of them were, I suspect, made to be plain old boats.

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