We were on vacation with our kids and our grandchildren when it hit me.
Boys will always give you something to fear.
A red flag whipped in the wind, an ineffective reminder—in our case—that the surf was not safe today. Under my watchful eye our grandson, Gunnar, thrashed about in the waves. Up to his ankles. Up to his knees. Over his head. Every fourth or fifth time the water would pull Gunnar backward just as a wave would send him spiraling forward into the sand. I’d help him up and think, “Oh good, he’s scared now.”
But he wasn’t. Or maybe being scared was the point. I used to say our kids were fearless, but watching our grandson last week I saw it. They love fear. They run on it. Oh, by the way, Gunnar is three years old.
Out beyond the grandchild-walloping at the shore, two of our sons, including Gunnar’s father, swam out to what they thought might be a sandbar (it wasn’t). No one—absolutely no one—was out there. Their heads bobbed and occasionally one of them would curve up like a dolphin and dive into the ocean as a line of frothy destruction arced taller and crashed over him. I felt that old panicky need of more eyes than God gave me, not once thinking how absurd it was to stand sentinel 50 yards away from my sons with a churning ocean between us. This absurd fear. I remember it well.
I glanced at our granddaughters. One sat filling a bucket with the right mixture of sand and water for the castle she was building on the little cliff of sand the receding tide had made the night before. The other lie on her blanket, pacifier held in her sweet mouth at a rakish angle like a cigar. Another, a new infant with new parents, peeped out from under her sun hat, and was whisked back inside to the shade. Please know I understand that girls can love danger, too. It’s just that on this particular day our granddaughters were being stereotypical and acting like princesses. And boys are what I know.
I lost Gunnar’s sleek wet head in the waves for a moment. He popped up and grinned, ready for more.
I tried to remember what I did with the fear when our boys did crazy things on a daily basis, like building ramps so they could purposely aim their bikes into inanimate objects like the mailbox or the side of the house. Or before that, when they careened their big wheels down our driveway and skidded to a halt at the brick wall, front wheel sometimes hanging over the 4-foot drop to the street below. Or when they lit things on fire, like bottle rockets stuck in yellow jacket nests in the ground or a stream of gasoline they poured down the twisting yellow slide in the park behind our house. Or when they climbed on the roof of the house. Or built tree houses that no inspector in his right mind would grant a certificate of occupancy. This is a mere tip of the iceberg, which is a perfect metaphor because it only represents what we could actually see back then.
How did I manage my terror when I saw the picture of the bridge they jumped from at Lake Lanier and figured out that the tiny speck of flailing arms and legs between that bridge and the water was my son? Or when they bought motorcycles. Or BB guns. Or real slingshots. Or bows with real arrows. Or when our youngest went off with a friend into the woods with a big ax perched jauntily on his shoulder and I couldn’t get the scene from Where the Red Fern Grows out of my head. Or when we caught one of them just as he was about to jump out a two-story window onto the trampoline below.
Don’t even talk about their ferocity in sports, organized and otherwise. Like when the ER doctor told our son he absolutely could not wrestle the week before the regional competition his senior year, and my son looked at me and said, “You do know I’m going to wrestle, right?” The next week he hid the ice pack on his shoulder and the fact that the pain made him throw up minutes before his match. He won and went on to the state finals. Once, they were boxing with friends, gloves but no headgear, at the home of one son’s future in-laws. My husband, Bill, acted as “second.” Two girlfriends, who would become wives, and I cringed in unison from the sidelines. Bill walked up to me during a break and I took the opportunity to say, “I hate this!” He looked at me with eyes that shone and a grin that looked like it might break his face open and replied, “I love it!”
Matching passion, opposite opinions. So, aside from a husband who would not let me hamper these boys too often with my fear, how did I deal with it?
I had to look the possible, ultimate consequence of the things that frightened me square in the eye.
The other day a good friend reminded me of this. Two of her four children have a borderline personality disorder. Half of my friend’s children have a mental disorder which, at best, does not lend itself to reason. Which, in my mind, makes it terrifying.
My friend said, “It is not my job to keep my child alive.”
Knowing this truth—having a deep, actual knowledge of it—is the only way to let go of the fear.
I remember when one of our kids started riding his bike around the neighborhood, another mom regaled me with anecdotal reasons to forbid him from what was surely insane. A kid she knew was killed in a bike accident. Another one was paralyzed. What she was saying was, “It is your job to keep your child alive, and I think you’re doing a lousy job at it.”
Two weeks later a sobbing teenage girl rang our doorbell and deposited this same son, unscathed, along with his mangled bike, on our doorstep. Just a block away from our house, she’d knocked him into a neighbor’s yard with her daddy’s car. What do you think? Was this was proof of God’s sovereignty or of my friend’s paranoia? Both? I just remember that our son got back on his brother’s bike and rode down the street a day or two later, either fearless or seeking a little fear to enliven his day. Who knows?
Years before I’d stumbled upon a verse that affirmed whose job it is to keep our kids alive. Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for man to die once.” Recently I shared with our son, David, that this was the most comforting verse to me when he was young. He laughed and said, “Mom, that’s terrible. How is that a comforting verse?” And you may be asking that too. “If you die,” I said to David, shuddering at the thought, “I can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was not asleep on the job. That means he is never asleep. I can trust him to protect you until that day.”
I’m not saying we should tempt God’s sovereignty by never giving our kids boundaries or instructions about safety. But if we trust in those boundaries and instructions to keep them alive, we’re deluding ourselves.
God does not look away from Gunnar while he thrashes about in an undertow that is too strong for his 3-year-old body, nor does he look away from our grown sons as they dive into the deep water of that same undertow. He doesn’t even blink. That’s comforting because “in the blink of an eye” seems to be the time frame in which most disasters occur. We look away, but God does not. Now, who would you rather be in charge of life and death?
Image credit Hernan Sanchez.
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