My eldest son, Joshua (Age 6), is in kindergarten this year. Because of some of his learning disabilities and speech difficulties, he can find himself drowning in social atmospheres that demand quick responses and smooth communication.
His brain was scarred--as best the doctors can tell--in utero and the areas most effected were the places where all-things-verbal are processed. We could see that something was up even when we visited him for the first time in Ethiopia and watched him interact at the orphanage...or shall I say, not interact. He was to himself, emotionless for the most part, relationally distant...but the thing that caught us by surprise and was even something that stumped his caretakers at the orphanage was that he didn't talk. He didn't even speak his own language. He was, for the most part, quiet. There were times when he would grunt something or make a sound to let you know he wanted a balloon, but for the most part, he was taciturn and reclusive.
So we knew from talking to the staff there that he had some challenges, but from the little we knew of his story, we figured it could easily be the wounds of growing up as the son of a prostitute who would drug him with this certain plant and make him stay in rooms all by himself for hours on end. As we became aware of some of the obstacles he faced as a little boy in his first couple years of life that led to him being dropped off at the orphanage in the first place, we deduced that maybe the lack of interaction and affection and physical touch and connection caused some of these traits we witnessed. We wondered if an injection of some of these things that are deeply needed in early childhood development would reverse the affects/effects and bring him back to life as it were. I remember Heidi and I going back to our hotel after meeting Joshua for the first time and crying together. We ached for him and since there was little known about his past and he was unable to express himself to give us any read on his internal condition, we were left with best guesses and fearful wonderments.
But I remember this...we knew something was off and had a hunch that it was something that would take more than loving care to restore.
So upon arriving home it didn't take long to get him into the children's hospital for a brain scan. The diagnosis of scarring on his brain was almost a relief. Our greatest fear was that something would be wrong but we would never have an answer so we would be stabbing at it like a straw man for the rest of our lives, his life. At first we thought the brain damage might have been the result of domestic violence and our minds raced with worst case scenarios. But knowing that the scarring happened in utero, it soothed us to know that--to our knowledge--he wasn't hit as a little boy. His struggle was real, but it didn't stem from human violence. I don't know why, but this calmed our hearts for the kind of pilgrimage we had ahead of us. It wouldn't be easy, for sure, but at least it wouldn't be as scary. I hope that makes sense.
Fast forward to this past week. He was in his kindergarten class and the teacher was asking the children what they wanted to be when they grew up. You know, the quintessential question of childhood. Kids were throwing up their hands and barking out their most recent life-long ambitions. "A Fireman." "A Policeman." "A Teacher." "A Superhero." You know, the top ten things 6-year olds would want to be based on their current perception of reality. But then it came time for Josh to speak. (He can speak now...not easily, but he can articulate his mind if given time) The teacher called on him.
"Yes, Josh. What do you want to be?"
"I want to be a dad."
As Heidi was telling me about it yesterday, Josh was right there and she said to him, "Tell dad what you wanted to be when you grew up."
I told him how awesome it was that he wanted to be a dad. I encouraged him that he even thought of being something as cool as a dad when everyone else was wanting to be others things. I was so proud of him in that moment. He can't say a lot all at once, but there are times he blows us away with what his mind is processing. He is so much deeper than his verbal skills evidence currently. He is mulling over deep things and understands life more than he can say.
I honestly believe he means it when he says that he wants to be a dad more than anything else when he gets older. There are different reasons I think this is on his mind.
1. I think it started way back when. I think it started with just wanting a dad when he was little.
2. I think he likes what a dad looks like. A guy who runs a chainsaw and drives a tractor. A guy who can start fires and do dangerous things. He says stuff like: "When I'm older I will get to do that."
3. I think he likes what a dad makes him feel when I do it right. When I lay next to him in bed and tell him how strong he is and how much I love him, his smile tells me that he is firing on all cylinders in that moment. I think he wants to be whatever I am to him in that exact frame of time.
4. I think he wants to be a bigger version of himself. That's what he thinks a dad is...a guy who can lift bigger things and stand taller and see more from 'up there'. To him a dad is "bigger" and "stronger".
5. I think he loves me. I can tell that he wants my attention and affirmation and approval more than anything. I say this to my shame to some degree. I am very busy and distracted at times, and I know that whenever I take time to focus on him and make much of him...he drinks it in like a person dying of thirst. He is so thirsty and hungry for my love, and when I love him well, I see him come alive so remarkably that it's almost scary.
6. I think he is like most boys...their dad is their hero at that age. Josh will even rub my beard at night and say, "Someday I will have one of those." He wants me to flex my muscles and then he yells over to Caleb, "Caleb, come feel dad's muscles. They're so big." And here's the deal...they're not. I'm pretty scrawny. But to him, I'm huge...larger than life. He wants to be that.
7. I think he wants to 'be' a dad because he wants to 'have' a dad. Worse than bad. You want to be what you most long to have. What is the the best idea you can come up with as a kid? What are your favorite feelings, your favorite moments, your favorite dreams, your favorite sights and sounds? I would contend that for Joshua, his desire is to be what he most deeply longs for. I don't know that, but I wonder that.
So Joshua wants to "be a dad" when he grows up. It was a tell into his heart. I heard what he was saying and wanting in the same moment. It reminds me of the time when I was putting the boys to bed and I said to Caleb, "You're my boy." Out of nowhere Caleb responded, "I'm your son." I corrected myself in that moment and said, "Yep, you're my son. You're more than just my boy, you're my son."
I was called out. There is something different between a boy and a son. And I would submit there is something different between a man and a dad. Help me to hear what you are saying through my sons, God.