Merry Christmas from our family to you and yours! Each time you read these posts, you give me a gift of grace, and for that I am so grateful. I always pray that you’ll be blessed by something you find here. As a family, we pray that today you–whoever and wherever you are–feel blessed and embraced by the scandalous, boundless grace of God, the One who does the most miraculous things often through the most humble means, surprising us all with gifts we could never have authored or imagined. After all, that very thing happened the night Christ’s baby-cries drifted out of a smelly barn, fading into the darkness. That holy night, the greatest gift we’ve ever known came in the most unlikely of places to the most unlikely of people. We pray that you too will be just stunned by the truth of it, and that this year, you’ll be just blown away by what He brings to you—and when.
We gather after supper and presents—all that crackling paper tossed aside and the goo from chocolate-covered cherries on our fingers and lips—to play a game. We settle in the living room where the lights twinkle, a magical bit of history still tingling in our ears—how her daddy always gave her that candy as a gift on her birthday. This year, she got two boxes from one of her sisters and one from my dad, because love multiplies over time and lingers, like the sticky cherry sweetness I can still taste when I lick my lips; because we remember what this means to her, and it matters.
Like the cherries, this game has become a part of our history, a bit of fun passed on by friends who love family games as much as we do. Zoe and I spent a little time this afternoon in the flicker of Christmas movies, jotting down some special details about my mom—favorites and memories and funny facts—on bits of paper, folding them and tossing them in a bowl in preparation for tonight. And now, after the dishes we can’t quite squeeze into the dishwasher have been washed and dried, it’s time to play.
It’s funny how quickly our particular strengths rise to the surface–the way I breeze through the clue-giving in the use as many words as you want except the ones on the paper round; the way Kevin’s animated cherades make us sore with laughter; the way Riley excels when you can only use one word as a clue and language efficiency is a must. In the first few rounds we can sometimes rack up six points a turn, but in the last, more-stringent ones we all feel fortunate to manage one or two successes. The same freedom to describe which makes clue-giving easier for me creates a certain pressure for Riley that leaves her filling awkward pauses with uh uh, and the reliance on gestures that makes Kevin both effective and funny leaves me feeling awkward and obtuse. Mom, Dad, and Zoe are all more well-rounded players who seem to function fairly well in every round after they’ve had a few turns to warm up, and nothing is quite like Zoe’s shriek when she arrives at an answer and jumps to her feet to yell it out. As for Adam, well, from the beginning he’s a bit reluctant. He chooses Kevin as a partner, because at this point playing the game is for him a bit like tackling a mental obstacle course, and he needs the help. I find myself grateful that Adam has the strength to accept help when he needs it.
The two of them stand in front of us, Adam mumbling 1-minute, 1 minute and then finished, lifting his finger to enunciate the point, and Kevin turns him gently by the shoulders and says, “Now listen, Adam, don’t read the paper out loud.” He unfolds a slip of paper and points at the phrase they want their team to say. “Don’t say this,” Kevin says, because Adam has been known to just read the answer right out loud. Adam tilts his head, the way he always does when Kevin tells him to listen, as though angling his right ear toward the sound of his father’s voice will help him filter out the important words from all the other sensory information in the room. I get it; I have to deliberately incline my ear to hear my Father clearly, too. “I’m going to show you. Just say what I tell you,” Kevin says.
“Yes,” Adam says quietly.
Our son stands now nearly almost as tall as his dad, lean, with soft, always slightly rumpled hair the color of damp driftwood. In his eyes, tumbling currents of thought swell, depths surface-lit and glinting, never still. Kevin leans down and whispers something into Adam’s ear, and Adam says, “Sharks’ teeth,” but the word teeth bunches on his tongue, because at the instant he says the words, he finally makes sense of Kevin’s instructions to him. But our stumbles need not amount to failure if we recognize them for what they are. Kevin laughs, tossing the paper on the table beside them, turning Adam toward him a second time. “No, don’t say those words,” he says again, “don’t say the words on the paper.” The next time, he’ll do better, I can see it already, rising in his eyes. And he does. The second time, Adam repeats Kevin’s verbal cues, jumbling a word or two, a little slower maybe than the rest of us, but with some success. A few turns, and we can tell that while the verbal round is incredibly challenging for him, he’s getting the hang of the rules of play. I’m not sure how many times we’ll have to play this game before Adam will be able to give clues without the help of a partner, but that too is coming. I feel it; can see the potential for it forming already. And hope does not put us to shame. Nearly every time it’s their turn, particularly in the first round, Adam says, 1 more minute, 1 more minute and then done. But sometimes loving our son means we insist that he participate with us maybe a little longer than he might have chosen on his own, because the best things often take some getting used to. I’m so thankful God often insists that same thing of me, that I persist when I might on my own choose to give up.
In the second round—cherades—Adam stops asking to be finished. He loves making us laugh, and my own giddy-joy just overflows as I watch him copy Kevin’s animated gestures and quickly find his own sweet spot in the game. Years ago, after I made Adam a conversation notebook to help him find some of the words he needs for simple conversation, he spent hours “acting out” all of the icons over and over again obsessively. I wondered then if the exercise was his way of assigning real meaning to a tangle of letters and sounds he could say but not use functionally, if in his search for connection he had resourcefully opted to use cerebral processes that worked more efficiently for him. So, tonight I am not at all surprised that he finds this type of communication much more fun than giving verbal cues, that this round feels easier to him than the one preceding. In only a few turns, Adam begins to act out some of the words in his own way instead of relying solely on Kevin’s modeling, smiling widely as he does so, especially as we laugh and interpret the actions correctly. Soon he will be able to play these nonverbal rounds without the help of a partner.
In the third round, the object of the game is to evoke correct team responses using only one-word cues. As Adam and Kevin step up for their turn together, it occurs to me that this might be the most difficult round of all for Adam, though Riley clearly finds it less stressful than the first verbal round. I wonder if he will remember Kevin’s repeated instructions about not revealing the answer, if he will understand that he can only say the one word, even if that means repeating it without success until the timer goes off. Adam stands next to Kevin, peering around his shoulder at the slip of paper Kevin unfolds and holds in his hand. But as Kevin whispers a word into Adam’s ear, Adam begins to move, and immediately I realize that Adam is still playing cherades, still acting out the words because that’s what works best for him. Kevin says, “gloves,” and Adam lifts his hands to his head, sliding on an invisible hat of the sort my mom would make for him. Instantly, I know the word on that slip of paper, but I’m not on their team. “Gloves,” Kevin says again, and again Adam puts on his invisible hat, but the team is stuck. “Gloovveesss,” Kevin says, drawing the word out slowly, lifting the sounds. For whatever reason, their team just can’t make the leap from gloves to hats, and they seem not to have noticed Adam’s acting. And then it occurs to me that sometimes something we assume to be a strength, this preferential focus we “neurotypicals” can give to one sensory detail, may often be our weakness. I can often become so fixated on one situation, one preference, one searing comment, one negative thread that I miss other more subtle clues, details, gentle voices that could help me discover the answer or a better way to see. Although Adam’s team hasn’t attended to his cherades, we have all noticed that he’s still playing the second round in the third and have felt no need to correct him. Our children have taught us that communication takes many different shapes, and in the space of an hour, we’ve all come to respect that Adam has reasonable success in the game with one form over another and that his confidence and desire to play has improved considerably in the discovery. We feel reluctant to insist that he shift back solely to a form of communication that severely limits his ability to connect. Instead, we congratulate him on his effort, include him in the credit, and when Riley gets up for her turn, my dad suggests that Adam help her too, even though they’re on opposite teams. And very shortly, my 1 more minute son is laughing and engaged and waiting for his next turn. And that makes me think about how blessed we all are that God created each one of us uniquely, that our strengths vary with dazzling beauty such that the collected whole of us is far more put together and complete than we could ever be as individual parts.
Round three, and we laugh riotessly, each one enjoying the game and especially the playing it together, because we have room enough for every strength and every weakness, for the well-rounded and the compromised, for the verbal and the nonverbal, for those who progress quickly and those who take a little more time. It’s okay to practice round two while others progress to round three; the time comes for all of us a little differently. And I cannot help but give thanks that God wanted things just this way, that we don’t all learn or work or live at the same pace or with the same gifts or perspective, but that we are far better when we have grace enough to appreciate and allow in each other the things that make us unique. This is unity, this joyful jumble of fearfully and wonderfully made eccentricity; this brilliant variousness of skill and technique; this love-bound, grace-smoothed collective of multifariousness. It is the hallmark of God’s creativity.
And as we continue our game, I give thanks. Playing together could never have been this much fun had we all played in exactly the same way.