On cold New England mornings, my nine-year old son Omer enters my bedroom. He wraps his arms around his slender brown body in response to the chill in the air. After rubbing his eyes, Omer peeps behind his hands to see my face. Our sleepy eyes meet. Omer asks if he can join his little sister and me beneath the fluffy warmth of my blanket, an anticipated reprieve from the cold of our hardwood floors.
To add warmth to our home, Omer boils water for tea and stands close to the stove awaiting the kettle’s whistle. Over the past year, he has become somewhat of a tea connoisseur, experimenting with various blends. He meticulously tests the sweet of maple versus honey with rooiboos and yerba mate and always with a few splashes of almond milk.
Omer loves to make others laugh. He hasn’t yet captured the science behind the art of telling a good joke. I can hear him mining the archived funny moments of his private life for the meat of what stretches a smile across the face of another, causing an eruption of laughter. Sometimes he nails it and when he does, his whole body expands in a gesture of gratitude for being the source of someone’s giggles. When he doesn’t, those missed marks hold the possibility of something great given time and commitment – and he is committed. He’s discovered that if you can make people laugh, you can be liked, and trying to find his place in the hearts of those closest to him is a priority.
Omer and his friends hug each other when they greet – still. They sit close and sometimes lean on each other’s shoulders while watching the latest tricks on their Nintendo 3DS, the scent of sweat and chocolate lingering in the air around them.
Omer seeks connections and sometimes comes home baffled and angered by the ways of kids seemingly tougher than him. “They are so rude,“ he shouts. I am sometimes pained at the awkwardness and alienation that adolescence can bring when you feel different. I watch him hang his head in defeat and my insides cave in. But through it all, somehow, he never loses his tenderness. When I pick him up from school, a time when most kids begin avoiding hugs and kisses from their parents, I am showered with hugs from my leaping, long-legged little boy.
Five parents and I sat in a row behind and parallel to the one our sons were lined up in. the four boys ranging from nine to eleven years in age stood facing a wall of the gym. The sun ricocheted off of the wall’s yellow tiles and momentarily blinded us to the back of their heads.
The instructor, a tall man with big chiseled muscles and a furrowed brow to match a menacing and empty stare stood at the back of the class barking orders to the boys from across the gym. I shifted in my seat, leaned forward as if ready to lunge. I was startled by his voice echoing against the walls; sound crashing into our bodies. Rather than standing in front of his students, as most instructors I’ve known, he crouched on the sidelines cradling a long stick in his hands. In unison the boys began an almost flawless demonstration of what moves they knew, the instructor counting and hitting the stick into his hand.
Omer, who is new to karate, repeatedly made mistakes. Instead of standing, guiding and showing Omer why his moves were incorrect, the instructor repeatedly made Omer do pushups and to add salt to the wound, the instructor’s incessant verbal jabs hovered above my son as he lifted his small body from the floor.
“You’re not paying attention. You’re not doing it right…you don’t think…you have to learn to use your brain better.”
Was this man crazy? Had he forgotten the boy-child he once was and the way his guts gripped him under the menacing gaze of a man? Or had he banished that little boy inside him to the corner, the wall or another dark part of his psyche?
I could hear my heart and failed to find a steady rhythm to my breath. I wanted to interfere, grab Omer, run out of there. I wanted to be brave enough to stand up to this man, but I wasn’t. I sat there, fear and anger coursing through my veins and said nothing. Afraid for my own emotional safety and my son’s; thinking this man would verbally assault me as well, I silently suffered as I watched this man humiliate our boys, probably with the audacity to think that he was doing the right thing.
We slowly walked back to the car. I placed my hand on Omer’s back; his body was stiff beneath my palm. He jerked away, didn’t grab my hand as he usually does when we walk side by side. I blamed myself for the distance and his quiet defense.
Silently, we entered the car. Most days I can’t wait for him to stop talking. That day his silence had me aching for his rambles.
“What’s wrong, man?”
He rolls his eyes and then stretches them wide in an attempt to keep tears from falling. I paused then asked him again.
“Mommy, nothing’s wrong.”
Why should he tell me what’s wrong, I thought? I hadn’t had his back. Hadn’t opened my mouth for him. I decided to be open with him, hoping he'd do the same.
“Can I share something with you?”
He nods, eyes still on his lap.
“I didn’t like the way your instructor spoke you. He was wrong and doesn’t know what he talking about. What does he know about your mind?”
He looks at me for the first time since the class ended.
“You are an amazing human being. You are brilliant and loving. You don’t know how to use your mind? You use your mind in outstanding ways. You are one of the most brilliant people I know.”
Tears covered both our faces. I reached over the car seat and grabbed his arms and held him while we both cried.
“Thank you Mommy. I just don’t understand why he was talking to me like that. Not the other kids, me. It doesn’t help. He didn’t even show me what I was doing wrong.”
While Omer talked, I listened and watched him use his small hands to accent each of his words, trying to shape them, make them solid and round, stretch his arm and make them fly and touch something in the man who left him shattered on the gym floor.
We enter the gravel road leading to our friend’s farm. My friends have a son the same age as Omer. Like Omer, their son is sensitive, loving and connects with others easily. He too is a vibrant soul, and can be seen leaping in the air in their photographs. Our boys immediately connect and, for a moment, all feels well in the world. My son has found his soul twin.
In those moments I don’t feel the necessity for making my son tough in order to protect him and suppress the sensitivity that we’ve cultivated in him. The sensitivity that moves him to speak “truth to power” even if the “power” is me. There are those moments when a punch elicits tears or rejection floods him with a sadness that makes him strike out. I know that feeling. I know the fire in the belly, how the wind is knocked out of you and your mouth goes dry. I know what it’s like to strike out, and I know striking out, screaming and threatening or giving in won’t help. It might feel good for a little while, but eventually that fades and you wish you had done something else. Instead I’ve learned to pause, sometimes leave the room, breathe, and call out Omer’s name and wait. Make eye contact. Breathe. Call out his name. Wait. Grab his shoulders and eventually, once he’s breathing with me and a smile stretches across his face, we both become mirrors for each other and can access our love. Omer then opens his arms and presses his body against mine in an embrace.
I would like to say that nothing frightens me. But the truth is that, as brave as I am sometimes, I am terrified of what this world turns sweet, loving boys into and how in all our best efforts, we as parents, too, miss the mark and unconsciously recreate the suffering we promised we never would. I’ve seen the effect of young boys terrorized into constricting their breath into their small bodies more than I’ve ever wanted. Their defiant gazes threatening to awaken the wounded boys and girls who live inside these parents tasked with raising them, their unhealed pain and abuse spilling forth without question or restoration.
But always, always our children are looking to us to mirror the wholeness that lies beneath their confusion, the pain beneath the pounding fists, and the soft sweet beneath the cold and unwavering gaze. Still, they are awaiting the open arms and mouths that will say, “Yes son, you are amazing and I love you just the way you are.”
It is evening. Again, my son pours hot water from our teakettle. He has completed his ritual of whistle waiting, in spite of the possibility of getting burned. He slowly walks towards me cradling the mug of creamy tea in his hands. He sits beside me. Close.
“How is it mommy? Is it too sweet?”
“No baby, it’s just right.”