Sometimes wishing for something else, something better, something other, nearly spoils the planting. In our hands, we carry seed to sow, seed gritty in our fingers and sweaty in the palm. But standing in the middle of I don’t want to, we scarely imagine the blooms that will come once we reluctantly leave those hard, dead bits buried and find the courage to watch and wait.
After dinner, our son likes to disappear, as though the meal has stuffed him full—maybe not of food, because he always seems so growling hungry–but full of our warm company, of light reflected off of glazed plates, of sister-chatter, of fork-clinks, of thought too, because we force him to talk to us. He always asks politely to be excused, to put on his pajamas, to go upstairs.
Sometimes Kevin calls Adam back when he’s half way across the living room and on his way; when I’m noticing the angle of shoulder, the jut of blade, the way our son’s pants hang low, always a little too big for his waist. I have to buy for length.
“Aw, come on,” Adam will say, losing both patience and politeness in one moment. He’ll lift a long, thin arm with man-sized hands—I’ll sigh, thinking “Where did he get those hands?”—and point significantly toward the staircase. “UPstairs. May I go upstairs, please?”
“No, I’m not finished talking to you. Come here.”
Down go the shoulders in definite slump. Adam tries to bend his tall frame into the most visible display of dismay he can manage. His sigh is audible, but he makes it while walking back toward Kevin at the table.
So tonight, when we tell him he has to stay to play UNO, he looks defeated, and we are not surprised. “Not Uno. Uno is finished. SOR-ry.” Sorry comes out sing-song and insincere. I’m sorry, but not really. He never really wants to play.
“Yes. We’re playing Uno. Sit down.”
“Aw, come on. Uno until…” He taps his watch with one finger, tilting his ear toward me as if to say, I’m listening. How much of this do I have to tolerate?
“Say how long, Adam. How long will we play Uno.” I say this patiently, watching his face, wondering how long it will be before I don’t have to remind him of this particular sentence.
“How long will we play Uno,” he says, but resignedly, because whatever the answer, he knows he won’t like it. I know and he knows that what he really means to say is more like, I don’t want to play Uno. But there’s no real purpose in coaching him through that one because, well, he’s playing.
“30 minutes. Uno until 8:30, and then you can go upstairs.”
“Yes,” he says, sliding into the chair next to me. But we deal the cards and he leans over to me and says, confidentially, “I want to go upstairs, please.”
“I know,” I say softly, smiling. “Uno until 8:30, and then you can go upstairs.”
“No Uno until 8:30,” He says a little louder, irritated, jerking back against the chair. His hair is rumpled, smooth in places and in others standing up, as though he’s been running hands through, though I’ve never seen him do that.
“Okay, fine. No Uno until 8:30. Uno until 9:00.” I pick up my cards and arrange them by color in my hand. Adam leaves his in a messy pile in front of him. He sees no need to look at them in advance, no need to arrange anything, no need to consider. This is not fun. This is endurance. He knows that if he has a wild card, he will use it when he needs it but will not change the color. He will match color ahead of number, because he is always, always, always reluctant to disrupt his routine or any established pattern. And although he loves to celebrate a winner–because he loves shared joy, it isn’t important to him to be the winner. Games exist as an unfortunate social exercise, a series of tolerable steps. For us, they are a tottering, deceptively simple bridge we force our son to cross in order to find his way closer to the rest of us. Sometimes that is the most significant purpose in our have to: it brings us closer.
“Uno until 8:30,” he says quickly, picking up on my addition, turning toward me, even his eyes.
“Okay, but only if you stop complaining,” I tell him, returning his gaze. He is so extremely intelligent, so resourceful, so quick. He has taught me not to underestimate.
And so we begin taking our turns, and Kevin and Zoe exchange quips over skips and color changes and draw four‘s. Adam dutifully plays and draws and waits. And waits. And watches the time. He claps for Riley when she wins, but when we begin shuffling the cards a second time, he turns to me, lifting a finger in front of his face. “One more Uno.”
I shift my eyes to the clock. We have time for two more games, maybe three. “Uno until 8:30,” I say calmly.
“One more Uno,” He says, gently, showing me his long finger, the one in front of his nose.
He glances again at the clock, then sits back again in his chair, accepting. And so we begin again, taking our turns, Riley laughing when she needs to draw cards, when someone skips her. Adam takes turns without fanfare, simply waiting for the numbers on the clock to change. He moves his eyes from watch to clock to cards, watch to clock to cards. And then somewhere along the way, I lean into Adam and say something deliberately offbeat and silly, trying to get him to participate in our fun. This is not something we want him simply to endure, but something we want him to enjoy. “Hey Adam, do cows lay eggs?”
“Yes,” he says, barely listening, barely considering the question.
“NOoo,” I say, reaching for him, playfully squeezing his arm, touching his face. And it as though the random humor of it thaws his reserve, his distance, as the words finally reach him. He squeals, catching me with bright eyes, dissolving into a giggle, and Riley with him. And that is best of all, because he loves her joy. He reaches for her, flicking one of her ears with his fingers.
We flick our thumbs with the cards, slapping our discards against the table. Every time Riley puts a card on the pile, she feels compelled to stop and carefully line up the stack. Order is important to her. Adam plays a wild card on top of a green “3,” and I ask him, “What color?” even though I know he’ll never change it. I offer him all four choices—Adam, yellow, green, blue, or red?–to be sure he knows he can choose any, but he insists with now temporary seriousness. Green. The color stays the same.
As play passes from me and moves to Kevin, Adam leans over close to me. “Horses lay eggs,” he says quietly, but the words crescendo as he speaks, rolling out with his laughter.
“NOoo,” I say, reaching for him again, and Riley dissolves.
“TrACTors”—he can hardly say the word, it shatters into laughter the middle—lay eggs, ahhhh…” Adam says, leaning next to me and then falling away, giddy. His grin stretches wide and he snickers and snorts and convulses as though I’m tickling him. By some gift of grace, I have tickled his soul, and I am suddenly lost because I can’t quite contain the wealth of it.
“NOoo, tractors don’t lay eggs,” I retort, mocking incredulity.
Riley’s laughter makes her cheeks pink, and Adam reaches for her. He so loves her joy. It almost seems that he seeks her happiness ahead of his own, that this is what thrills him—to see her delighted. Kevin says “Uno,” then Zoe, and Riley smiles and bites her bottom lip. Adam leans into me again. “DA—he is gasping with the humor of it—DadDY lays eggs!”
At this, Kevin laughs too and says, “What? I do what?”
Adam squeals. His eyes twinkle. He shifts in his chair, gathering in our shared amusement, our laughter, our appreciation of his humor. He has forgotten the time. He has found a way to connect, to say something we understand, to bring us all joy—at once and collectively. And he feels satisfied. I see this, watching him scan our faces, watching his smile deepen until it moves his arms and twitches in his fingertips. And it seems to have taken him by surprise, because just moments ago, he nearly wished this time away.
And I sit back, confessing to myself that I also felt weary-worn for this game, nearly too tired for the stretching, for coaxing him across the divide. I gather up his joy—his joy over our laughter—a grace-harvest for a reluctant heart—and I give thanks that what we think we want for ourselves is not always best, that the things we reject and defy and initially wait and wait and wait our way through often do bring the sweetest lasting fruit; and still more, that the opportunity to touch each other, to let go, to bring and plant and savor joy is truly a gift worthy of our self-sacrifices and our intentional purpose.
Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.~Psalm 126:6
If we try hard to bring happiness to others, we cannot stop it from coming to us also. To get joy, we must give it, and to keep joy, we must scatter it. ~John Templeton