Every noon and every night I lie down with Wonderboy to cuddle him while he falls asleep. I read him a story, turn out the light, and pretend to go to sleep myself. (Okay, most of the time I’m pretending…) My two-year-old son, naturally, is not immediately inclined to start snoring. He’d much rather play.
Because he cannot get up by himself, there’s no problem keeping him in bed. He simply wants to talk. He babbles away in both verbal speech and sign language, sometimes singing (with vigorous hand motions accompanied by rhythmic grunts), sometimes reliving the book we just read by running through all his favorite animal sounds, and finally, in a last-ditch effort to entice mommy into conversation, by applying heart-melting tactics: “Love Mommy! Love Mommy!” he’ll sign, over and over, throwing in a couple of his best spoken words—Hi! Hi! Hi!—for good measure.
I tell you what, this is mighty hard to resist. His head is snuggled against my arm; he doesn’t know I’m watching through slitted eyes, just dying to smother him with kisses. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life seen anything sweeter than a toddler signing “love.”
Finally he’ll drift off to sleep. I lie there, listening to his breathing, watching his hands twitch occasionally as he talks in his sleep. By this time, his unborn sister is usually wide awake, and I often wonder how he can sleep through the pummeling she gives his back. I suppose my belly diminishes the force of impact somewhat.
I think about him, and I think about this baby who will be joining us in the outside world before long. Eleven years ago, when I was pregnant with Jane and people would ask, “Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?” I’d reply with the standard, “I don’t care, as long as the baby is healthy.” This wasn’t exactly true: secretly I was hoping for a girl.
Both hopes came true. I delivered a healthy baby girl, and I was so happy, so grateful. This little girl didn’t remain healthy, though. By the time she was Wonderboy’s age, she was fighting for her life. The battle against leukemia was grueling and scary. When, nine months after her diagnosis, Scott and I learned we were expecting another child, I uttered that “I don’t care what it is, as long as it’s healthy” line with even greater fervency.
And then, two babies later (first our Rose, then bouncing Beanie), I gave birth to a little boy, and he wasn’t healthy. He was, to put it bluntly, rather a mess. Thus began the next chapter of the lesson that started during the long months of Jane’s illness. Being entrusted with the care of a child who is not physically perfect can be yes, painful and scary, but also one of the sweetest, most rewarding experiences a person can have. Do you know how much they teach us, these small, brave, persevering persons? I hadn’t begun to grasp the meaning of that whole “Count it all joy” business in the book of James until I met these children. Now I get it, or at least I get a glimpse of it. There is immeasurable joy not just in the overcoming of trial, but even—I know it sounds implausible, but it’s true—in the trial itself.
Patience, cheerfulness, courage, determination, persistence—these virtues which require such effort from me are a matter of course for this boy of mine. And so it was for his oldest sister, when she was in the thick of her ordeal. If we learn by example, then I have surely learned a great deal from my children.
What riches Wonderboy’s “imperfections” have brought to our lives! A new language, yes; I’ve written about that so often before. But more than that. Watch him work to achieve the magical “all fall down” at the end of Ring-around-the-rosy—see how intently he studies his sisters and with what careful perseverance he attempts to imitate them. He looks at his legs: hey, I can bend them now! Used to be they wouldn’t cooperate with his desires. Grinning, he crouches, he squats, he teeters—he plops onto his bottom! He’s done it! The cheers ring out; the girls’ delight is genuine and very loud. His face, oh his face—now I know what real joy is.
I have heard this truth beautifully articulated by others; this mother knows it, and this one. The book Expecting Adam is one giant love poem on the subject. These are not women who sugarcoat or downplay the challenges; but their writing overflows with quiet joy.
Yesterday at naptime, Wonderboy hung in a little longer before sleep overtook him. After running through all the usual mommy-wooing tactics, he apparently decided he’d have better luck petitioning God. Over his head I watched his hands flash through a litany of prayers: the Sign of the Cross, then the names of all the people we God-bless every night, starting with his daddy and running right on through every member of the family to “the poor, the sick, the needy,” and finally: the Pope. He just about got me then; the temptation to just eat him up (and therefore demolish any possibility of a nap) was overpowering.
Instead I lay there doing some praying of my own. The baby inside me kicked and kicked; I felt her foot against her brother’s back and realized how much my answer to that old question has changed over the years. Of course I hope, for her sake, that she will be a healthy child. No mother hopes for her children to have to walk a difficult road; it is our nature to want their paths to be as pleasant as possible. But no longer could I say and mean (even if I didn’t know the gender of the child): “I don’t care what it is as long as it’s healthy,” with its tacit suggestion that an unhealthy baby means only tragedy and sorrow. If that wish had come true last time, I wouldn’t have my Wonderboy. If this child—or any of my others, for that matter, for Jane is proof that being “born healthy” is no guarantee of perpetual good health—should encounter serious medical difficulties, I know now that no matter how hard the road may be, even if it leads through the depths of Moria, it will carry us through Lothlorien, too. And even in Moria there can be humor and camaraderie and courage and hope among the band of travelers—especially the smallest ones.