My son was eleven when he found out his father was dying. He absorbed that news with grace and grit as he entered a world of nearly-constant negative changes.
When he was twelve, he and his pack-of-friends received clearance to ride their bikes pretty much anywhere they wanted, as long as a parent knew where they were and when they were coming back. They tore up the streets of our little mountain town. Freedom on wheels. I always knew that Josiah was, at least in part, escaping the sinking sorrow in our house.
When he was fifteen, he went to summer camp and I was so thankful he had that chance to be away from the heartache, from the feeding tubes and suction machines and just live out his actual age. One day in, we called his youth pastor to bring him home immediately, please. He walked in the door just moments after his dad died. He bought his first suit to wear to his father’s funeral. I walked in on his arm and in spite of all the pain of that moment, I remember thinking: There has never been a better son. He helped carry his father’s casket, and stood by me at the graveside, arm tight around my shoulders as we watched the final chapter of Steve Stern’s life-on-earth story.
And then…we worked to build a new life. We went to weddings together and movies together and danced to Elton John in the kitchen together. We read the same books and talked late about philosophy and theology and girls and friendships and 70’s music. We laughed and cried and hoped together. We argued about school together. We made good things happen inside of all the hard.
When Joe was sixteen, he traded in two wheels for four, and he began asking some dads in our church to coffee. He doesn’t drink coffee, he just wanted a bit of their time to ask a question. Just one question. “What does it mean to be a man?” He gathered data and read books and articles. He worked to fill the hole in his eleven-year-old heart. He worked hard to find answers and truth. This strategy was both impressive and heartbreaking, and it revealed the ways that I would never be enough.
When Joe was seventeen, I fell in love with another man. Josiah handled the changes with grace and grit, because that’s what he does. He never questioned my judgement. Never complained about my newly divided focus. Never asked for anything. He and Cliff are equal-but-different kinds of smart. Josiah is Tolstoy and Tolkien and Cliff is business and big tech. I have watched their dance….the dance of learning to know and trust and try to discover who they would be to each other.
Brief aside to say: Josiah is not super easy to know. He is like a whole universe stuck inside a snow globe. You can see all the stars – just right there on the other side of the glass, but you can’t quite get to them. He’s not looking for friends with the cure to the sorrow he carries, he’s looking for friends who will tie a rope around his ankle and wait silently while he explores that sorrow and pull him out when he’s been there too long. This refusal to take cheap or easy exits out of pain is one of my favorite things about him, but it doesn’t make him easy to know. His truest friends understand him and love him this very way. He loves them back in the very same way. The rest of the world could learn a lot from them.
When Joe was nineteen, he gave me away at my wedding. He cut his hair for me, trimmed his beard for me, and walked me down the aisle like the boss that he is. We hugged and cried hard before he handed me over to Cliff, who promised not just to love me, but to love the four kids who came with me into this arrangement. As I stood on that stage, hearing Cliff’s vows to my people, I wondered: What is this moment for Joe? Is this a win or a wound?
Recently, around a late night fire pit conversation about what causes anxiety in our lives, Joe mentioned that his greatest fear is losing me. I felt Cliff hear that. Felt his body shift to accommodate the weight of that information. The next day at lunch with only my husband, I said: “You have to promise me that if anything happens to me….” Before I could finish the sentence, he said, “I got Joe.” He looked me square in the eyes and said it again. “I’ve got him, Bo. I will always, always have him.” And we sat, tears streaming over the weight and depth of the love we feel for the ten and for the one.
Today, Josiah is packing up his whole world and moving to another city in the middle of a dumb pandemic. He and his best friend, Ethan, have turned their bikes in for a U-haul and if that isn’t adulting, I don’t even know what is. Yesterday he called to tell me they would like to stay with us tonight. I said of course! and then asked, “How’s your heart, bud?” After a pause, he answered softly: “Good. Anxious, but good.” And all the years of Josiah and every brave moment he’s ever had came swooshing back to me in one gush of pride and fear and longing for everything, everything, everything to be made whole and right for him.
I mentioned the moment to Cliff on my way out the door. After hours of meetings, I returned home to find my husband working from a laptop on the kitchen counter while a huge pot of red sauce bubbled on the stove. He juggled calls from employees while cooking an Italian feast for my son – something he knew Joe would like because he had texted him to find out exactly what he wanted for dinner. I watched him ladle that sauce into a gigantic, gooey pan of lasagna and save the rest of it to make ziti which will be packed into Tupperware and sent with him to his new place. A home cooked meal in his first home. I watched Cliff fuss over that sauce, tasting and fixing and tasting and fixing and – one might go as far as to say – obsessing over it, and I knew: This is Cliff, stepping softly onto one corner of the sacred dad ground. This is StepCliff, sending food into the snow globe. I wished with all my heart that Josiah could see this father-with-five-other-sons, fussing over only him – just Joe – and I wished Steve Stern could see this brilliant backup father, caring so well for the son he never wanted to leave behind. Is it possible that in this divine dad relay race, the handoff baton is a sauce ladle? I don’t know, but I do know that Steve would tell you the prayers he prayed from his wheelchair day after day over that 11-and 12 and 15-year-old boy have been at least partially answered in the man who is willing to cook lasagna and Venmo money and write resumes and just generally love and lay his life down for the kids he inherited when he fell in love with me.
And so, on the day of my son’s transition into his first apartment, first move, first truly grownup venture, I want to say: Congratulations on becoming a man. You’ve done it without much of a map, but you have done it. And in all of this, I see the hand of God – leading, providing and giving you grace on grace on grace, which you will no doubt pour out on your world. Because that’s who you are. And that’s what a real man does.
I love you beyond telling.
Kathy Joyner-Reinmuth - As always, a beautifully written expression of your love for your son woven into your love for Cliff. I have inherited 2 adult children and spouses of John’s along with 6 grandchildren. I try to be a loving family member to them all and like Cliff has shown—- actions speak louder then words. I will never replace their mother but I will love them fiercely with all my heart as my own John feels the same way about my daughter and her husband and my granddaughter. We are truly blessed aren’t we? Kathy.
Michelle Oglesbee-Flores - Bo, having attended Westside prior to moving to Portland, I never had the pleasure of meeting you, but did know and listen to you. This is the most amazing tribute to a son, a father and step father. He will do well in his new journey. He knows that his mom loves him and that his step-Cliff does too.
Kathryn - Wow what a beautiful and loving message.
Becky Jo - Dear Bo & entire family,
Letting go of a son, especially one who has a part of your soul no one else has, is definitely one of the hardest and most bitter-sweet moments of life. Especially when circumstances of life, illness, uncertainty, heartache and grief are involved.
Letting go with strength, grace, encouragement, understanding the importance of his need to grow into his own man, while your heart is breaking at the same time, is the bravest, best and right thing.
That does not make it any easier. My son, who was with me in my darkest times, a bitter and nasty divorce after 23 years, financial ruin, major depression and 2 stays in a psychiatric hospital, is much like you describe Joe. He is now 29 and I am now 60. Without his unconditional love and support, I would have died in 2014. My heart and mind still toggle between gratitude for him being there for me (no one else in my immediate and extended family, or church family were) and guilt and heartache that he had to experience that and see me struggle. He did not get support or help from anyone as he worked full-time, went to night school to get his Bachelors degree, maintained a home and tried to have a social life (I didn’t know until later that he did not get support or help. Still working on letting go of that bitterness). Gratitude and love win more and more as time goes on. Today, he still tells me he would never do anything different. Wow! I wonder sometimes how he had the ability, maturity and heart to handle it all.
He moved to LAX from Portland last year. I knew it was good and important for him to go. I supported and encouraged him to go. It was my time to be strong. Oh boy, my heart hurt. That physical hurting of being stretched beyond what you think you can bear. It was hard for him too. It was the first time he felt he didn’t need to be within driving distance ‘in case’ something happened to me. We both knew it was time. We had become co-dependent without knowing what that really meant, and this was the moment to begin the healing and break the chain of that.
He did well, I knew he would. It wasn’t easy. We both had quite the transition to make. Healing and strength came to both of us. Even though I cared more about his than mine, I welcomed the lessening of the guilt and embracing our incredibly special bond.
Letting Joe go and believing in him and celebrating this important and necessary change, is a gift you are giving him. Knowing you are OK (even though you will miss him like crazy and your heart will hurt), will allow him to be OK and thrive. With time, the missing will become less. The new relationship becomes even more than you could imagine as he drove away. Phone calls, texts, Zoom, visits bring a new depth to your already amazing relationship.
I encourage you to process your many emotions as they come. Whether in private or with those you trust, feel what you feel. Joe knows you to the innermost heart. You don’t have to pretend anything with him. He will struggle too. Distance will not diminish the special bond you have. It will make it even stronger and deeper.
As much as COVID19 has flipped our world upside down, it also brought my son back to Oregon after 15 months away. Of course, it isn’t what he wanted to have happen and it has been hard. I understand that. I must be honest though, I am THRILLED to have him back closer. We have a more mature and deeper bond based on who we both are now. I am so thankful for that.
It feels good to share this with a mom who understands this type of bond with a son and how hard it is to let them go. We are blessed beyond belief to have a relationship like this with them.
May your heart be comforted during this transition by knowing this change will continue to deepen your relationship as he experiences his independence and growth and is molded more into that amazing man he has always been destined to become. What else could us mom’s want, right?!
With my heartfelt thoughts,
PS: The rest of the family dynamics, and Cliff’s incredible ability to be there for you and Joe, simultaneously, is a whole beautiful story in itself. Happy for you to be loved so well, not just once, but twice. I can hear in your writing how grateful you are for that.
Jan Elkins - Bo, you are a magnet who draws the world to you, drawn because they see that you walk with God, and they want to know Him. Your story touches my heart. Your suffering has turned into more love. When you suffer some more, you love more. And once again you suffer some more and you love even more. One day, you will discover that your suffering has turned into pure love. May you be filled with the fullness of Jesus each day, with grace heaped upon more grace.
Karla - Oh Bo, I’m sitting here reading this with tears streaming down my face. Looking into the face of Joe, is like looking into the face of Steve. My heart aches for him missing his dad, yet rejoicing for the the wonderful man he has in Cliff (someday I’d like to meet him!) and excited for him in this new adventure.
My heat aches beyond belief for what you’re feeling right now. Been there, done that. But my oldest son took his wife and our 4 grandchildren with him. With great blessings, they came back with a 5th grandchild!
This will be so good for Joe, so so good. It will have difficult moments but this new layer will be wonderful. Blessings to all of you! I’m hugging your heart, as a fellow boy mom.
Karon Davis - Thank you Bo,
I always know no matter were we are, that when I visit your page you will post the purest form of writing , about even the hardest topics of life.
You truly are an instrument of God.
As a mom , and once a single mom for many years I kept my youngest daughter closest to me for the very same reason.. She was and is in my eyes perfect 🙂
I was all she had and after the death of my beautiful mom (who was a icon) in the best and worst of ways :),I really was all she had on earth.
Now remarried to seriously my only love on this earth , I heard those exact words come from her many many times. I’m scared to be alone, but I knew what she was saying…
We didn’t know how to break that or move on apart from each other in a healthy way and my loving and most welcoming husband said almost the same words, when I told him the very same thing …
Since I have a wee bit of a trust issue I said I need to know for sure ..
He said Karon of course …. Calm as a cucumber ……I know he meant it ,but once in a while I have to push into the Fathers arms and say Lord I need that assurance from you !
His comforting love again and again fills me up.
But many times I loose heart and panic a wee bit , causing me to well come little unglued
But I go back again to the Father my husband !! and then eventually to my love … .
These days the Lord , is literally filling me up with the water .( you know the thirst water :
I find myself seeing that scripture in a whole new way….
I used to think, that scripture simply meant just that
He can give you more then the world ever could.
Now I come to Him every night and say I have need of this ….
Being acknowledged by my husband more …or feeling this way or that way about myself..
Its personal .. and I have to tell you He is literally filling me up so I come from a full spot on issues in my own life.
Also He has been speaking to me about the next generation and sometimes I think my generation …. The olders….. 🙂 57….. will go and forge the world in a new way,
But thats not it at all …..
Its some of our grown children that will be the ones forging the world in a new way..
My way is to love my husband and love myself , focus on me… yikes….
It sounds sooooo…. ummm non-important … ( no simple …. quiet ….. )
But it is not easy as I’m finding that we as woman can somehow position ourselves way under lifting our children up .. (cause they need it ) lol,
that we forget it was for a season and don’t know how to transition .. At least thats what it was like for me …
Anyway I could type for ever , and very badly at that ,as I refuse to wear glasses …. .
Thank you again and again for posting the tough stuff.
I so needed to hear it said well and so beautifully done..
Warmly in Christ’s love ….