Brothers

When our Congolese son Ezra came to live with us—me, my husband, our twin daughters, and our older son Knox—he entered a family who welcomed him with open arms but were firmly established as a distinct entity. My husband and I had already been parents for almost 14 years at the time. We had traditions and memories. We had a secret language, a shorthand, created over years of spending time together as a family of 5.

 

Then, along came a sweet, precocious, complicated 5-year old boy. He came to America on a cool April Saturday, and by Sunday he was walking arm in arm with his new big brother, a boy six years his senior.

Now that we are more than a year into this adventure, Knox and Ezra are solidly devoted to their brotherhood. Always one to enjoy spending time with younger children, Knox took to his role quickly and easily. But this wasn’t an hour working in the church nursery or an evening helping his sister babysit. This was a 24/7/365 job and he approached it much the same way he approaches everything he cares about, with determination.

 

Their initial connection came through a shared love of sport. Though this love began on different continents, they both held an almost obsession with the game of soccer. In that first week Ezra lived in America, I made several videos of the two brothers in the backyard, kicking the soccer ball and diving to block goals. The videos were blurry. I took them through windows, standing at a distance not to disturb the beautiful scene unfolding before me.

 

Knox would be the first to tell you that being a big brother has not always been easy. Especially at the beginning, watching as Ezra copes with his fevered emotions, tangled and tripped up by his lack of language skills, has been painful for all of us. I’ve tried to give Knox breaks and strategies for slipping away. We’ve told him that he can tag out when he hits his “playing-with-a-little-kid” limit and we’ll tag in. But for the most part and in spite of those frustrating afternoons, Knox has been the best big brother Ezra could’ve asked for.

 

When I watch this almost 12-year old son of mine as he loves on and cares for his little brother, I think about what we expect of boys. I’m not talking about grades or sports or “manly” accomplishments. I’m thinking of the lesser discussed but far more important Fruits of the Spirit quotient. How high is the bar set when it comes to their evidence of Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control? Let’s stop excusing bad behavior from them because they’re “just being boys” and imagine a world where these boys are raised to honor and protect. A world where we expect them to be responsible and compassionate.

 

If we tell boys that we expect them to strive for these characteristics above their efforts to make straight A’s or make the All-Star Team, then those other things will fall in place or fall away but either way, we will be raising better fathers, husbands, friends, teammates, employees, bosses. Better brothers.

FREE

This morning, as I was walking around the back of the house after watering my flowers, I spied a lonely Cozy Coupe sitting forlornly by our shed, covered in cobwebs with a puddle of rainwater in the seat. For those of you unfamiliar with the Cozy Coupe, it’s a plastic ride-on toy designed to look like a car. Our version is reddish-orange with a yellow top. The front wheels spin 360 degrees (in case your child needs to spin out in some gravel for a quick getaway). It has a steering wheel with a (once functional) horn and a pretend key in the ignition to get the fun started.

 

I originally bought two of these from a yard sale for my daughters who are nearly 15, so I have no idea how old these cars actually are. My two younger sons have also had their turns with these toys. Where my daughters used the cars to take baby dolls on trips stopping to refill their gas tanks along the way, my sons would sit in the cars at the top of our sloping driveway and ask for a push to go careening down the hill.

 

This morning, seeing the tiny, pitiful car, I fully realized that we are done with the Cozy Coupes. All four of them are too big for these toys. Their legs are too long to sit comfortably inside. The plastic wheels aren’t designed for their weight. It’s time to move on.

 

I asked my youngest son Ezra to help me roll these cars, along with an old tricycle, out of the shed and up to the house where we could hose them off and wipe them down. I explained that we would make three signs that said: “FREE” and we would tape them on the toys and put them by the road.

 

Ezra liked the idea (especially the water hose part) and he started singing a little song: “Gimme money! Oooo! Gimme money! People gimme money for the cars…”

 

“Ezra,” I said, “We’re giving these away for free. That means they won’t give us any money.”

 

“No money?” he asked. “Oh. It’s okay.”

 

We got the cars and bike ready and we pulled them down to the grassy strip next to the sidewalk in front of our house. After the toys were situated, Ezra said, “Me sit here when people get the cars. Then I say, ‘Good luck’ and then people leave. It’s okay? You want chair too?”

 

I took a deep breath. I didn’t really want to sit by the side of the road all morning. Be a fun mom, I told myself. You can unload the dishwasher later. “Okay,” I answered, as we walked back down the driveway to the garage to get a couple of chairs.

 

Before we had returned to the road, there was a pickup truck pulled up next to the toys and a sedan in the driveway. It literally took 5 minutes for people to notice the FREE stuff we were giving away.

 

It’s been said that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” I know that this is mostly meant as a warning. It’s advice not to be taken in by scams that are just too good to be true. But there is actually free stuff out there.

 

There’s grace and love and sunshine. There’s free smiles and there’s free hugs. It is possible to get things for free with no strings attached. And somedays, if you’re really lucky, there’s a FREE Cozy Coupe by the road and a little boy wishing you “Good Luck!”

*Disclaimer: Not actual picture of a Cozy Coupe.

Ready or not

Before a recent soccer game, I overheard a conversation between two of my 6-year old son’s teammates.

 

“Where have you been?” a little boy asked his tardy teammate as she walked up to the group. “The game is starting.”

 

“I was eating some hard candy so I would be ready,” she answered.

 

Though I had a difficult time connecting the hard candy to any pregame regimen, her response was apparently satisfying for her friends so the game began.

 

I feel like the two words I say most frequently around my house (other than GOOD NIGHT and LOVE YOU and GREAT JOB, of course…I’m not a monster) are GET READY. There may be some nuances to the phrase like: “Why aren’t you ready?” and “Not until you’re all the way ready.” and “Is that enough time for you to get ready?”

 

So what am I getting them ready for, anyway?

 

As in any job, it’s helpful to take a moment and evaluate how I’m doing as a parent, and this end-of-the-schoolyear time seems like a perfect opportunity. As a part of my self-assessment, I’ll ask the question: Are they ready for what’s next?

 

My twin daughters just finished their freshman year in high school (which is weird because I pretty much just graduated from high school myself, right?). When I see what’s just around the corner—dating, college, jobs—I’m excited for them but also anxious to walk through it with them and tell them every step of the way where to set their feet next. I want to hold their hands like I did that first day of kindergarten, a daughter on either side, Barbie backpacks and monogrammed lunchboxes and new back-to-school clothes.

 

But I know that’s not reasonable or healthy or appropriate (or allowed by high school administrators). I know that at some point I have to let go and hope that they are prepared to make the right choices to be safe and sound. And I have to be okay with the fact that I can’t protect them from everything. (Yuck.) I pray that they are ready.

 

My nearly 7th grade son is teetering at the edge of his teen years. He’s been marching uphill to this next chapter where there’s more freedom and more responsibility. Less hovering by me and more expected of him. I worry about what he’s exposed to and who he spends time with. I pray that the values we have underlined over and over in our family play book will stand out to him when the time is right. I pray that he is ready.

 

My youngest, our baby from Congo, will go to kindergarten in August. He hasn’t been away from one of us, someone who lives in his house, for more than a few hours at a time, and I wonder if he’s ready to fly the coop. Is he ready to go to school 5 days a week for 10 months?

 

He still struggles with his English—his color words, letters, numbers. We’re trying to remind him how to ask for what he needs. He’s holding on to a handful of words from his birth language: bango means them, mingi means lots, biso means us. We tell him to pick another word. We tell him this will help others understand him. I pray that he is ready.

 

As parents we make so many deposits in our kid’s integrity account, hoping it will add up to an exceptional character with strong convictions and valuable common sense. But, regardless, we eventually have to let go. We have to adapt to the idea that there’s never enough time for preparation.

 

So after I’ve prayed that they are ready, my next prayer is for myself. I pray that I am ready to change my 2 most frequently used words from GET READY to GO TIME.

A good laugh

The following is a recent conversation with my 6-year old son, a newcomer to the English language:

 

Ezra (from the backseat): Mom, konk konk.

Me: Um…

Ezra (a little louder): Konk! Konk!

Me: Okay. (feeling defensive)

Ezra: No. You talk “what?”

Me: What?

Ezra: Hamburger.

Me: Hamburger.

Ezra: Hamburger stinky on a bus. Ha, ha, ha. Now, you turn.

Me: Oh! (just beginning to figure out what he’s talking about) Knock, knock.

Ezra: What?

Me: No. You say “who’s there?”

Ezra: Who there?

Me: Boo.

Ezra: Boo what?

Me: No. You say “boo who?”

Ezra: Boo who?

Me: Boo hoo? Hey, why are you crying?

Ezra: Me not crying. Me not laughing either. Boo Who not funny. Stinky Hamburger is funny.

 

I’ve never been all that great at remembering jokes. Usually, if someone puts me on the spot and asks me to tell a joke, I draw a blank. And anyway, who really laughs that hard at a knock-knock joke or a posing of the eternal question about the chicken who crossed the road? To me funniest material is anecdotal. True (and probably exaggerated) stories about people in familiar but absurd situations. Anecdotes just close enough to my own reality to be applicable delivered by a true storyteller are comedy gold.

 

I don’t mean to give the idea that my brand of humor is overly highbrow and intellectual. Years ago, my husband, sister, brother-in-law and I laughed like lunatics for half an hour just by blowing into our hands to make tooting noises in their living room. It was a magical recipe of exhaustion, late night, funny sounds, and adults acting like kids. We’ve never attempted to recreate the situation again.

 

A keyword search of “laugh” in the Bible reveals a mostly not-so-funny picture. Several references are from Abraham and Sarah’s exchange about the improbability of them becoming parents at such an old age. Then there are the “We’ll become laughingstocks” references in the Old Testament made by the Israelites questioning their obedience to God in all things. Surprisingly, the overall depressing book of Job has a sizable share of laugh verses along with Ecclesiastes’ “a time to weep and a time to laugh.”

 

All in all, it doesn’t reveal that God has a particular fondness for laughing. In other words, we may not have Open Mic Nights in Heaven for rising comedians. In spite of the lack of comedic evidence in the Bible, just knowing that we’re made in His image makes me believe that God loves a good chuckle. (Plus He makes us go through puberty. Surely He cracked up when He first invented that one.)

 

There’s nothing quite like a hearty, tear-producing laugh. One that makes you have to cross your legs so you don’t wet your pants. One that lasts longer due to your company of fellow laughers. One that makes your abs hurt like you’ve been doing 100 sit-ups. One that makes you sigh satisfactorily when you’re finished, wiping your eyes and rubbing your sore cheeks.

 

We may not find humor in all the same things, but I feel pretty confident in saying that all of us love a good laugh.

My favorite stand up comedian taking a bow.

Directions to connect

I’m not sure if I have a superpower, but I’m pretty certain among my superflaws—like Kryptonite to Superman—would be my abysmal lack of direction skills. I think the politically correct term is directionally-challenged.

 

Many a time has a friend given me directions containing the words: north, south, east, or west and received my signature blank stare and perfunctory nod. What do I look like, a compass? I want to say in response. Do I have to go and look at a tree now to find which side is growing moss so I’ll know which way is north? Give me information I can use, for Heaven’s sake! Left? Right? Drive towards the water tower? Anything!!

 

Please tell me this has happened to you before: You use the restroom in a restaurant. After you’ve finished and you’re doing that awkward dance to open the door with a paper towel then wedging your foot in the door while throwing away the paper towel in the trashcan, you then step out the door and walk towards the restaurant kitchen, the opposite direction from your table in the dining area.

 

Or how about this one: When we spend the night away from home, I can never remember which side of the bed is mine and which is my husband Brent’s. I have to pretend I’m back in our bedroom, closing my eyes and attempting to orient myself to the unfamiliar bed that is in a different position. Sad but true.

 

The parietal lobe of the brain, the part that handles spatial reasoning, just seems to take a nap when it’s time for me to drive somewhere out of my daily routine. My husband, a whiz when it comes to directions—Thank the Lord!—thinks of the world around him like a map connected by a variety of routes. He’s all about shortcuts and “Let’s see what’s down this street,” and other nonsense that never crosses my mind.

 

Conversely, I think of the world as a series of snapshots: Point A (my house), Point B (my church). There are numerous ways to get from Point A to Point B but I don’t think about those imaginary dotted lines highlighting possible routes. I start up the engine and drive the same way every time. Don’t confuse me with variety!

 

I so wish my parietal lobe was better at revealing the spatial connections around me but connections go beyond driving skills and not getting lost in restaurants.

 

If we can see the world as a connected space, history as a continual wave of time, and each person as a twig on the giant tree of humanity, we could more quickly make relationships and establish networks. Associations reveal context which creates empathy and discourages isolation and exclusion.

 

If given the chance and a willingness to put in the work necessary to find common ground, we can find a Point A (me) to every Point B (each person on God’s green earth).