I knew his eyes, worn out like thrift store laundry. I had worn those eyes before, hospital eyes of a powerless parent. the heat was just starting to work on chicken, soy sauce, hosin and fresh cut veggies. He looked at me, part of a church group serving dinner to parents weary from the hospital, with mistrust. The wok sounded like fast falling rain. All he wanted was some hot food and to collapse into his bed at the Ronald McDonald House. The last thing he needed was a bunch of do-gooders wanting his attention or his applause for providing dinner. His son was battling cancer that had already taken half his son’s leg. His face wore wrinkles of leave-me-alone. I understood his wariness. I had been nailed to the same cross of sick child’s parent.
The wok needed stirring. The wood spoon already had worn on the side from use. I looked at his eyes and saw a reflection two thousand or hundreds of thousands of years old. I saw my reflection. I wore a similar look at another Ronald McDonald House not long before.
My son, right after turning one, had to go through seven hour brain and skull surgery to fix a genetic fault that left his brain pushing out his eye. I knew the fatigue that comes doing nothing but being at the hospital, the fatigue that comes from worry over the fear of death, not mine, but my son. Powerlessness describes what it means to be human, but we, parents of the kingdom of sick children, have gotten good at hiding this fact. My son’s biology had taught me this truth. I remember how my son looked after the operation, like a plump blueberry. Five days later, he was playing peek-a-poo. The wonders of my son ring like a mystery.
After we came home, I felt the need to be with others going through the same pain. We met with our church and after some convincing we added a night of serving dinner at our local Ronald McDonald house. We, my wife and I, went to serve out of my being with my own weakness; the others went out love for my family. o
Since being a citizen of the Kingdom of sick children isolates parents, we were there to be with others. I wanted my church to offer an ear and a presence. We were not there simply to do for others, but to be with one another. We were transformed by the experience, but not without struggle.
The first few times we went to serve dinner, I found a problem. People want to help, and they found it easy to do for others. Being with another, opening up to a pain they were powerless to solve was something they had trouble with. They wanted to cook the hot meal, served with a smile, but they wanted to wait to eat and eat among themselves. The path of a waiter, professionalism, makes for a childhood fort easy to defend, a good way to avoid being with another. Protecting our weakness makes us easy cowards. I wanted them to eat with the parents, being with the parents and give the parents a place to put their story.
Cooking Mac and Cheese was easier. Hearing a story and being powerless to changed the outcome of the children left the church crew uncomfortable. The risk of love can be a double diamond ski run, daunting and relentless. Understandable, they feared.
The first night we grilled brats and burgers. When the food came out, I went to call my wife to see how our son was doing. I came back to the crew was eating in the kitchen waiting to clean up, and the parents out at the tables. I scattered the crew out to sit with the worried parents, to enter into the Kingdom of sick children.
Hearing their stories of babies the size coke cans, stories of cancer, stories of mysterious aliments both scared the group and made them come alive. Being with another even in their pain, transforms us making love possible. We slowly learned to share our own stories. Most of church helpers had stories of hurting children in the hospital, or pains to relate to. The families needed people to walk with them. Only by leading with our own stories could we learn to pray with them. Miracle of miracles, we soon broke the barriers and became united as one community. Then the next month and new people, and we would have relearning to breakdown the barriers, which keep us from being with each other.
So, I had gotten good at recognizing those eyes of mistrust, those hospital eyes. When I saw his eyes, I remember the days of praying at the hospital, doing nothing but looking at my son. I remember hating people call us brave, of saying that children were resilient, of listening between the words of doctors looking for clues to the fate of my son. Yes, I understood the temptation to punch some do-gooder in the mouth for wanting credit for serving some hot food. I could read the stirring of his mind, mixing with the high heat of the moment.
“I hated those long days of doing nothing at the hospital. It’s exhausting.” I said to him. I started the process of pouring the chicken stir-fry into a serving dish. His eye change and he recognized a fellow citizen of the Kingdom of sick children. We have our own language.
“Yeah, they sucks.” He answered. “What was wrong with you kid?”
We exchanged stories, the currency of love. I said I could not fathom what it was like to have a teenage son lose half his right leg. He said thanks. He said that the boy was getting good on his crutches. We prayed and then parted. I had to finish the stir-fried chicken I was cooking. Food is important. For a moment we were with each other. For a moment our burdens were shared.
Later, my now two year toddler almost tripped his sixteen year old. His son, indeed, was quick and agile with his crutches. My son was singing the wheels on the bus, when he tried to hold the missing leg. I apologized for my son’s action. He said to think nothing of it. Two sons, two fathers painted the scene. Somehow love revealed something. Somehow love prayed for us when we couldn’t. The flavors mixed as I knew, and the dinner was tasty.*
*This is the second part of my exploration of the power of with. I will post something about the power of with for the 30 days.