There’s some sort of ruckus in the living room, involving the theft of a beloved toy he hasn’t even been playing with, so I send Kai to his room. All 2.75 years of TNT with scabby knees, and the only thing that comes of it is more explosions. The bangs and screaming aren’t stopping, so I enter in to do damage control.
My second child is a bruise, all funny colors and tender when pressed. This nonsensical, unfair place we call Earth is just too much for him. Me and my peers tend to accept these emotions by crystallizing our skins until we’re more shell than human. The healthiest people I know are those who have either learned to absorb, or haven’t hardened at all. It’s just that if you haven’t hardened at all, everything else is harder.
His tantrums look cathartic, releasing toxins with all those tears.
I sit on the edge of his bed, bending my head under the blond wood of the Ikea frame. This Swedish furniture took three American hours to set up, and he helped me by spilling the screws on the floor and putting the wrong pieces in the wrong places. When I told him I needed them somewhere else, he screamed that they were his. He stubbed his toe three times and dropped a four-foot beam on his little brother. He hammered permanent dents into this bed when I wasn’t looking. He hammers permanent dents everywhere, come to think of it. This frame, this room, this house, this heart…
I open my arms to Kai. Sometimes my hugs are rejected, but today he wants one. He curls up under the crook of my neck and dampens my shoulder with snot and tears. I’m always fascinated by how he cries. The tears pop out in perfect drops and cascade down his cheeks as if squeezed from ripe fruit. I never watch myself cry, and as I’ve accumulated the gradual misfortune of adulthood I cry less and less, and by redirection and misdirection channel any rising saltwater into various compartments and communiqués. My son, on the other hand, lets the tears fall where they may. It’s more messy, but just as necessary, and as my shoulder collects them, all his messy necessity bundles and tightens inside me, making me hurt too.
God made children little to inhabit bigger worlds, to fit perfectly in a parent’s embrace. And He made parents big to remember little worlds, to nestle humanity in their hearts for safekeeping.
The tears are good,a release of emotions pent-up and undervalued, and if I were to hold them with more esteem perhaps I could see this nonsensical world more clearly. How can I forget? Jesus wept when something was wrong, and He wept with passion. Why am I so quick to tell my children to stop crying? Why am I so quick to dismiss their tears?
Kai is much more tempestuous than our other children: tantrum after tantrum, uncontrollable sobbing, collapsing to the floor at every “no, you cannot have another cookie” that leaves my mouth. I complained about him to a close friend not long ago, struggling to find a way to defuse the ticking time bomb that is my son. Her advice was sound: find the true part of why he’s hurting and agree with him. Is he beside himself that his finger hurts, even after I’ve bandaged it? Then, I should tell him, “I’m sad it hurts, too.” The first time I tried this it surprised him enough that he calmed down (incrementally), because he felt heard. So often as a parent I look past the reason for a behavior and punish the behavior, subtly confirming that my child’s feelings matter less than his actions. But doesn’t holiness depend on all parts of us being transformed, feelings, actions, and motivations?
We sit for a while on the bottom bunk, rocking. It’s late afternoon, past naps and snacks, past the heat of the day. He’s got tractors and trucks and construction vehicles on his duvet cover. His sister has what appears to be a botanical encyclopedia on hers, but he needs things that move. We trace the designs and talk about each of them:skid steer, excavator, tractor trailer, cement mixer, and their colors: blue, green, red, orange, yellow. He knows more names for heavy machinery than I ever will, but at least I know the colors. The summer sun is suspended out the window, high above us and tilting westward, casting shadows that will grow and grow and grow as it sets. We just sit and hold each other and call things by their names.
By the ten-minute marker, he’s pushed out most of the tears and left an irreparable stain on my shoulder. He’s still here because he’s comfy. I am too, so I kiss his neck to let him know he can stay. My beard tickles him, and he giggles, pulling his ear to his shoulder. He lifts his head back and says,
“Do it ‘gain.”
I do. He giggles again.
“Do it ‘gain.”
I do, for another fifteen times. Usually I’m too busy and boring for repetitive play like this, and “last time” is always on my lips. But today, there’s nothing taking up brain space but my son. Maybe it should be more like that more often. Maybe it would help us both out.
“Do it ‘gain.”
This is why I grew a beard, I remember now. It’s a perfect dad tool.
“Do it ‘gain.”
There’s something about this that strikes a chord, that children would instinctively crave repetition of affection, of interaction with an adult that’s whole and healing, of touch that’s pure and loving. Too many men I know don’t know how to give or receive physical affection. For whatever reason, from whatever father—who passed on the idea from his father—they received a skewed sense of masculinity, one that didn’t include physical affection. Touch is messy, like the shoulder of my shirt, and it can heal or destroy. But we all need this mess.
I realize by the twentieth time my beard kisses my son’s neck that twenty times now I’ve told him that he is loved, that I forgive him for beaning his brother with a block, that he can come to me when he needs me, that he is worthy of love for no other reason than his God-shaped humanity, that I am his and he is mine, that I would lay down my life for him.
All from a couple dozen kisses.
This is the substance and purpose of affection: that through tenderness we can heal hurts instead of deny them, that through gentleness we can weaken the walls we build so readily, that through kindness we can kiss away tears—instead of holding them in until they break us open. The seeing and sensing of another’s sorrow and soul is what makes us strong. Affection, not the withholding of it, is what makes us resilient.
I know people who saw little or no affection between their parents, and experienced little or no affection from them, and now they have little or no ability to give or receive it themselves. Then there are those who had it ingrained in their childly minds that touch is a dirty thing, not by abusive, possessive touch but rather by experiencing shame-based religion. They were told, “do not touch, do not taste, do not feel.” Here is the grand heresy, the great vivisection: part of you will always be evil, and it is the part most palpable, your physical form. Everything you cannot see can be redeemed; everything you see is irreparable and must be shunned. Or in a more lukewarm form: your body (along with your emotional soul) is less valuable than your spirit. A heresy as old as the newborn church, as old as time itself.
God cares about our bodies, and our emotions, and our need for affection. This heresy received its ultimate answer in the touchable, kissable, weeping, infuriated Lord Himself, an Incarnate human, who married spirit to soul to body, then allowed all of them to be broken to reach us. The physical acknowledgement of an inner feeling is what makes love real to its recipient. It is what says, more clearly than words, “You—whom I hold, whom I kiss, whom I touch, whom I lift up, whom I long for, whom I weep with—you are a human who is lovely and valuable and broken. And I see you, and I don’t consider you too messy to touch, and I will be here, present, with you so that you will know true Love and it will set you free, to be with Me forever.”
“Do it ‘gain.”
He stops suddenly (number thirty-two, maybe?) and looks seriously into my eyes.
“What’s that, Daddy?” And he nearly pokes his finger in my eye. I take his hand and ask him what he means.
“It’s a red ball in your eye, Daddy.”
I explain tear glands to him , how they moisten our eyes each time we blink. He nods somberly along with my description. This is where tears come from, buddy, when you cry. God gave us a way to keep our eyes healthy in that little red ball, especially when we’re hurt.
So my little man and I cuddle on a blanket of heavy construction vehicles while the darkness gathers outside, and talk about how we all need tears to be able to see.