Sometimes it takes a child to remind us that it isn’t the gift itself, but the meaning it gives our life that really matters.
I am staring out the front window at pots of pansies, their thin stems sending tiny blasts of color into the air. There are two pots, and this year I planted a mixture of purples, blues and yellows. It seemed fitting to add a rainbow of color after the difficult winter we had.
The pansies in one of the pots are thriving. I water them less because they live in the shade. The other pot is now a brown mash of leaves and stems. The colorful petals have withered to a pale yellow paste. I fear that I over watered this pot, worrying the flowers would dry up in the sun.
So, too, goes a question I wrestle with in raising my children. When do we give them everything we can with the hope of helping them thrive and when do we hold back our nurturing impulses and allow them to find their own way?
Today is my son’s birthday. Because his birthday has always fallen during school vacation, we’ve had the opportunity to spend many of them in exciting new places. From the Caribbean islands to the Canadian mountains, he has enjoyed some seriously memorable celebrations.
But, this year we have no plans. With both of his siblings away in college and the demands of everyday life wearing us down, it didn’t work out to go on vacation this year.
In the week that led up to his turning seventeen, he asked, “So, where are we going for my birthday?” I was struck by the youthfulness of it, the belief that parents would always be there to make birthdays special. Knowing we had created in him this expectation, a tiny pang of guilt prompted me to remind him of the places we had already been.
He chimed in, offering Grand Cayman and Nantucket, but, between the two of us, there were still a number of birthdays and places we could not remember.
As his birthday got closer, he stopped asking where we would spend his birthday. He didn’t seem troubled by the fact that nothing was planned and said he was content to stay home.
“Don’t get me any gifts,” he said just a few days ago. “You can just give me money this year.” That’s when I began to suspect he had something planned.
Today is his birthday. It’s a rainy day—the kind that makes you relieved that you can stay inside wrapped in a blanket. The sky is a mixture of white and grey, and the temperature hasn’t yet resolved to comply with the season.
In the morning silence I am at the kitchen table working on my computer, a cup of tea, too hot yet to touch, sitting by my side. I am surprised when he is downstairs and ready to go at 8 a.m., uncharacteristically early for this seventeen-year-old on a day off. I am even more surprised when, a few minutes later, his friend shows up.
My son sweeps into the kitchen for a hug then asks me for a cash advance on his birthday check. He is dressed in his favorite grey sweatpants and a sweatshirt. He hasn’t bothered to comb his hair. The boys leave the house together, and I am happy he has someone to share in whatever it is he has planned.
I sip my tea, the flavor of green leaves and jasmine, taking comfort in the predictable sound of rain on the patio. I am attempting to write but feel distracted by the careless gusts of wind that cause the tops of trees to almost genuflect outside my window. It has only been an hour or so since they left, but I find myself glancing at the clock, wondering what the boys are up to in this miserable rain.
This morning I find myself wandering through the Internet, reading pages of mother writing. I am not sure what it is I am searching for, but my eyes feel called to help my heart through something. Perhaps it’s my own sense of loss in not having all of us together this time. Perhaps it’s the sense of the impending end to old-fashioned birthday celebrations.
I think of my own birthdays now, the day after Christmas, hardly a day when family feels like getting together again. I stopped expecting my parents to celebrate with me at some point many years ago, but did I consider whether they had stopped wanting to celebrate?
The morning blends into afternoon, and I hear steps on the front porch. I’m eager to know what the boys have been doing. When they come into the kitchen, they are talking loudly and teeming with story.
My son and his friend had noticed a homeless man on the highway exit near our home over the prior weeks. The man was dressed in military clothing and wore dog tags around his neck. Now I understand that the boys went out this morning in search of that man.
They drove south on the highway away from our house so that they could get off the next exit, turn around, and come alongside the homeless man. After introducing themselves through the window, they asked him what would he want if he could have anything today.
He said what he most wanted was a warm, dry place to get out of the rain.
I marveled at the simplicity of their approach—just asking the man what it was that would make his day better, instead of imposing upon him what they thought he would want. I have so much to learn.
My son and his friend brought the man a meal and then drove to a hotel down the road and asked if they could reserve a room for him to get him out of the rain. Being under eighteen and without a credit card, the boys had to leave a cash deposit, his birthday money, to secure the room. They explained to young woman at the front desk that they wanted to book a room for their friend who would be there shortly.
Then they drove back to find the man. My husband and I had impressed on our children strongly never to give rides to strangers, so the boys told the man that they couldn’t drive him to the hotel. He said he understood and agreed to walk there. They would drive back and wait for him in front of the hotel to help him check in.
The boys waited for over a half hour, but the man didn’t arrive. The hotel was only a quarter-mile down the road. They decided to drive back toward the highway exit ramp where he had been camped out. What they saw on the way troubled them.
Kindness is uncomfortable. It isn’t pretty or clean. It can be messy, awkward, and unpredictable. The man was hobbling along, dragging his injured leg, and struggling to pull his bags through the puddled potholes that had become our roads. He had barely made any progress toward the hotel. My son pulled over and opened the door.
“I’m not supposed to do this,” he said to the man, “but get in.” The man climbed in the back, pulling his things into the car behind him, and they drove to the hotel. After chatting with him for a while, they settled him into his room for the day and then made plans to meet him the next day to check him out and get their security deposit back.
My son’s face is bright, telling this story. Every so often his friend interrupts to clarify a detail so that I can truly understand. I see they feel good about how they spent their day and their money, but not in a prideful way. They speak with such respect about the man they met that morning. I sense they are humbled by him.
It seems my son has gotten what he wanted for his birthday after all—the feeling of giving his celebration to someone who needed it more. He tells me next time we try to recall his list of fantastic birthdays, this day is one he’ll remember.
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