My son’s attempts to navigate a twisted, unfair world

Leslie Penkunas//May 9, 2019

My son’s attempts to navigate a twisted, unfair world

Leslie Penkunas//May 9, 2019

Sometimes as a parent you get it right. You look at all of your challenges and see a path forward: a way to stack those challenges up so they work together to make your family what you hope it can be.  This was going to be one of those moments.

Isaac came home from preschool upset. He overheard two friends talking about him. They called him a crybaby. That upset me too, but I also know that reality filtered through the mind of a 5-year-old can lose some essential details in the retelling. I texted back and forth with Isaac’s school aide, who said she had not heard the exchange, would have been surprised to learn one of the friends had been involved in that conversation, but not as surprised to hear those comments from the other. Add to this confusion the fact that Isaac has a tendency to embellish stories, sometimes fabricate them entirely, and I was left with no real idea of what had happened, or what to do about it.

Isaac played for the afternoon while I slowly cultivated an idea. When his big brothers got off the school bus, I gathered the boys for a snack. Isaac was about to mine the treasure trove of experience from those who had gone before. His big brothers were going to be the best of what brothers should be: friends, guardians and guides. This was the groundwork of a wisdom sharing relationship I hope will last between these young men long after I am gone.

I asked Isaac to share what happened at school. As he related the story in his own irregular, disjointed way, his brothers listened quietly. When he finished, I asked them what Isaac should do when he arrived at school the next day. Jacob, our oldest, looked his little brother right in the eye, and without the slightest hint of a smile or joke, said, “Punch ’em right in the face.”

Maybe it wasn’t going to be one of those moments.

Parenting has the ability to create mixtures of emotions I’m never quite prepared for. When those words came out of Jacob’s mouth, I simultaneously felt disappointment and pride. Honestly, when I learned that another child had (maybe) said unkind words about my disabled son, I wanted to punch that kid in the face. I wanted to punch him, his parents, and, if practicable, whoever delivered him from the womb. I want a small part of that protective streak to live in Isaac’s brothers, but one cannot go through life punching people based on the report of a disabled 5-year-old. Certainly, we cannot encourage the 5-year-old to do the punching himself.

The next morning Isaac and I returned to school, no closer to a solution to the previous day’s drama. We were early. While Isaac frolicked up and down the sidewalk, he was joined by the friend who had probably, likely, possibly called my son a hurtful name.

I watched the two children play, and considered what it must be like to be my son: a child trying to fit in, but obviously different. I opened my mind to the challenge of navigating that reality as a preschooler, living in a world where there are places and times in which he cannot participate. I began to understand why Isaac sometimes says and does odd things. It is a fumbling, bumbling lifestyle, trying first this, now that, attempting to come to grips with something that is beyond you. I can understand the temptation to embellish or fabricate. It is the striving of a young mind to navigate a twisted, unfair world.

I understand that because I live it. I, too, fumble and bumble my way through life. I know what I would like this world to be, try to organize these cards I’ve been given to take my family there, but my striving falls short. My attempts to build community end in my sons inciting one another to violence. Somehow, my desires and actions don’t smoothly roll across life’s challenges, but thunk and clunk in a haphazard dysfunction. The frustration can be overwhelming. The temptation to take a shortcut, to embellish, fabricate, and manipulate is always there –and I’m the one who claims to be an adult.

I looked at this young friend running around my son, and realized that, perhaps, he was no more able than my Isaac. Sure, his legs are supple and strong, but he’s also just a child attempting to navigate a world which confounds and confuses even the best of us. Did that path lead him to call my son a crybaby? I don’t know, but as I watched Isaac scamper and play with no apparent thought to the harm of the previous day, I realized that I, too, could forgive.

bio-photo-nathan-hackmanNathan Hackman is a stay-at-home dad to four boys, one with cerebral palsy. He writes about the amazing adventure of parenting with a few extra challenges. In his free time he . . . doesn’t have free time.