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.