Suffer the Little Children to Teach Us to Wonder

 

The first Christmas away from home is a small trial by fire. Mine was in 1979, my junior year of college. I was working my way through school at a group home for the developmentally disabled in Renton, Washington. It was a good, painful, joyful, and sad way to make a living, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Working with these folks confirmed for me O. Henry’s observation in The Gift of the Magi“Life is made up of smiles, sobs, and sniffles, with sniffles predominating.”

The group home’s mission was providing emergency care for kids between the ages of 12 and 18 who’d been abused or abandoned by their foster parents. I was thinking big thoughts as a philosophy major, and to preserve my sanity, I really, really, needed constant lessens in the human scale of reality. If nothing else, the work confirmed for me that Leibniz was nuts to call this mortal coil the best of all possible worlds. The 14-year-old girl who’d been molested by her foster father and one of his sons proved to me unequivocally that life is far from the best.

But there were enormous consolations as well. In addition to emergency care, we took in kids whose parents needed a break. Raising a developmentally disabled child is simply exhausting, mentally and physically. Many of these youngsters suffered physical problems, with cerebral palsy and epilepsy topping the list. Few things in life are more terrifying than the power of the central nervous system gone haywire when a grand mal seizure kicks in. For parents, especially those with other children, the constant need for vigilance weakens the spirit and demands respite. We offered these services, and we were damned happy to do so.

My first day was pandemonium. Between the kids brought to us in time of crisis and those we were safeguarding while their parents took a break, we had at least 15 charges. Contrary to all common sense, we threw a party, complete with hot dogs, noise makers, and silly string. It was messy, noisy, and mind-bendingly delightful. One of the youngsters clung to me, and when I had to head back to campus, grabbed me by the arm and refused to let go. I finally slipped away after giving him a big hug and promising to return the next day. St. Paul famously observed that in His wisdom, “God uses the weak to confound the mighty.” That young man confounded me, and I am a far better man because of him.

My principle responsibility was to cover the overnight shifts: the time when we were most likely to be called upon to take in a kid who’d suffered some atrocity. I typically arrived at the facility at about four in the afternoon and remained on duty until six the next morning, five nights a week. I could sleep, but there was a buzzer next to the bed to rouse me should the police arrive with a child in need of care. It took a while to get used to the interruptions. But I was 21, and no stranger to late-night cramming, so I managed without much trouble. The real difficulty was seeing a client (the technical term — which I hated for its clinical disconnect) arrive after some outrage had been committed against him or her.

Christmas week of 1979 had been blessedly quiet. I’d been asked to stay from Christmas Eve until the 26th, and as the newest guy, I figured I should be accommodating. We had only one young man staying with us while his Jewish parents took a much-needed break. Isaac was a delight. As I recall, this was his first extended time away from his parents, and he was very anxious. He muttered under his breath as I signed him in, and clung to his mother like a barnacle on an old ship. He was a funny kid. Like his dad, he wore a grey tweed blazer, starched white shirt, and skinny black tie with a carefully set clip. As time went by, he got used to us and began reeling off a string of Yiddish expressions that had me laughing throughout the day. He kept calling me meshugganah, perhaps because he couldn’t quite get my first name, but more likely because he was a good judge of character. He was simply wonderful.

Thankfully, we’d not had an emergency drop-off all week. We were looking forward to a tranquil holiday. I was sad that I couldn’t be home for Christmas. It meant missing out on Midnight Mass and mom’s famous cream cheese pie. Most disappointing was not being there for dad’s annual, and arbitrary, Christmas home concert, at which he would sing — off key and in his deep sonorous voice — some of the worst songs ever written as he threw clumps of tinsel on the tree. Then a bit of eggnog and off to Midnight Mass to sing Adeste Fidelis, which pretty much came out as “adismay fiddlesticks.” Half the congregation was gowed to the eyeballs (Don’t tell the Pope.)

Young Isaac gave me a big lift with his quick wit and simple charm. The boss brought in a magnum of champagne, from which we were to imbibe modestly, and I settled in for the proverbial long winter’s nap. I was coming to grips with my first Christmas away from family.

But at about three in the morning on Christmas Day, the buzzer rang. My mood tanked. Standing at the door were two policemen and a 14-year-old boy with tear tracks streaking his face. His case was unusual and profoundly troubling: He’d been removed from the home of his natural parents. There he stood, his back bent with scoliosis, and his knees bent with severe cerebral palsy. The police confirmed that high doses of drugs and alcohol were involved in his removal. Although our responsibilities extended only to foster kids, the police brought him to us because he quite literally had nowhere else to go. At that moment my petty concerns about being far from home evaporated and my heart sank at the look in Willy’s eyes. He was terrified at being left with strangers. I stayed up with him for the rest of the night as he cried softly in confusion and fear. He was simply inconsolable, and all I could do was sit with him and babble meaningless platitudes. I was helpless.

He made it through the night. In the morning, I rushed out for a box of Lucky Charms — his favorite — and some jelly donuts, which he and Isaac scarfed down in about two minutes. (Isaac had woken up before seven to get into his blazer and tie before breakfast). We put a Christmas album on the record player, and Willy danced and even let out an occasional giggle. I don’t know how, but he’d managed to smuggle a disco record out of his parents’ house and insisted we play it. (The song? The Hustle. Devil’s music!) Willy seemed to get lost in the beat as he tripped the light fantastic on his weak legs. To this day, I thank God for slipping that record into Willy’s knapsack.

Christmas Day dawned and my co-provider (Gwen, as I recall) and I were racking our brains trying to come up with a fun outing for the boys. The weather was foul, and since the group home was in Renton, about 20 miles from Seattle, we had few options. We finally decided to brave the elements and the distance to take them to the Space Needle for dinner.

It would turn out to be a marvelous decision.

How I wish I could meld the reader’s mind with mine to share the experience. No video cameras in those days. But the image remains clear and bright in my memory’s eye. Isaac and I jostled for the back of the elevator as it rose to the top. We were both acrophobic and consoled one another that the elevator car wouldn’t likely plunge to the ground.

But when we reached the top and walked out onto the floor, the boys’ eyes exploded with wonder. Christmas lights adorned sailboats flitting on the Puget Sound; the moon was bright; the slow turning of the floor afforded new views with each rotation. The boys never touched their dinners. They were too mesmerized, too awed, to set aside their wonder. Willy looked out, eyes a gaga, a smile of rapture on his face, and pointed to this scene, wanting to share every sight with us and make sure we saw the beauty and majesty he was taking in. Isaac, his fear of heights now gone, gazed as if hypnotized.

Hours passed, and there was no pulling the kids away from the sights — and by that time sounds — of Christmas below. I think we stayed until closing time. As we drove back to Renton, the two boys chattered away, laughing with joy. When we got home, we found wrapped-up gifts from the boss. I have no idea where she got them on Christmas Day, but I suspect they came from under her own tree — just another one of her (and I’m guessing her children’s) endless sacrifices for the kids under our watch.

We stayed up until midnight while Isaac and Willy ripped open the packages. Truth is, I couldn’t have slept. Too much happiness pounding in my ears. My own disappointment at being away from home for Christmas vanished as I shared the boys’ laughter. Most blessed of all, for those few moments, Willy got too be a kid again, free from the pain of abandonment and loss. And Isaac had an exciting and unexpected story to tell his parents. Glorious.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen observed, “Sometimes the only way the good Lord can get into our hearts is to break them.” I understand. First came Willy’s desolation and Isaac’s anxiety. But then came a miracle, small perhaps, but for Willy and Isaac, bright as the Sun. In those moments, the theological big thoughts dropped away, replaced by awe.

This Christmas, whether you’re home or away, I wish you the hearts of Isaac and Willy, the blessings of their wonder, and the peace that surpasses all understanding.

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  1. Judithann Campbell Member
    Judithann Campbell
    @

    Beautiful: just absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with us, thank you for telling us about Isaac and Willy.

    • #1
  2. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    Judithann Campbell:Beautiful: just absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with us, thank you for telling us about Isaac and Willy.

    Yes!

    • #2
  3. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I can’t think of anything to say beyond Judithann’s response. Thank you so much.

    • #3
  4. MaggiMc Coolidge
    MaggiMc
    @MaggiMc

    Well, now I’m bawling in my eggnog. Thanks, truly. I mean it.

    • #4
  5. Ned Walton Inactive
    Ned Walton
    @NedWalton

    I think the tears have stopped – thanks Mike for a wonderful Christmas story and right in my neighborhood. Did you go to SU? Have a – another  blessed and merry Christmas.

    • #5
  6. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Mike, this is so wonderful.

    • #6
  7. TKC1101 Inactive
    TKC1101
    @TKC1101

    Well told and powerful vision of human caring and kindness amidst some terrible situations.

    If we get graded on a point system in this life, I would say you filled your quota that night.

    • #7
  8. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch
    @MikeRapkoch

    Ned Walton:I think the tears have stopped – thanks Mike for a wonderful Christmas story and right in my neighborhood. Did you go to SU? Have a – another blessed and merry Christmas.

    I spent a year at SU before heading back to Montana to get married and finish at Carroll College. I loved SU, but my bride, a small town gal, was a bit intimidated by Seattle.

    • #8
  9. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch
    @MikeRapkoch

    TKC1101:Well told and powerful vision of human caring and kindness amidst some terrible situations.

    If we get graded on a point system in this life, I would say you filled your quota that night.

    Thank you. The boys were excellent teachers.

    • #9
  10. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch
    @MikeRapkoch

    Thank you all. Thought this happened nearly 40 years ago I remember vividly.

    • #10
  11. TG Thatcher
    TG
    @TG

    Thank you, Mike.

    • #11
  12. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Amen, and thank you.

    • #12
  13. Patrickb63 Coolidge
    Patrickb63
    @Patrickb63

    Beautiful.

    • #13
  14. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Great story.

    • #14
  15. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Mike Rapkoch: Archbishop Fulton Sheen observed that “sometimes the only way the good Lord can get into our hearts is to break them.” I understand. First came Willy’s desolation and Isaac’s anxiety. But then came a miracle, small perhaps, but for Willy and Isaac, bright as the Sun. In those moments, the theological big thoughts dropped away, replaced by awe.

    A remarkable perception.

    Merry Christmas, Rapkoch.

    I appreciate the story. Thank You for sharing.

    • #15
  16. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch
    @MikeRapkoch

    Jimmy Carter:

    Mike Rapkoch: Archbishop Fulton Sheen observed that “sometimes the only way the good Lord can get into our hearts is to break them.” I understand. First came Willy’s desolation and Isaac’s anxiety. But then came a miracle, small perhaps, but for Willy and Isaac, bright as the Sun. In those moments, the theological big thoughts dropped away, replaced by awe.

    A remarkable perception.

    Merry Christmas, Rapkoch.

    I appreciate the story. Thank You for sharing.

    Merry Christmas Jim.

    • #16
  17. David Sussman Contributor
    David Sussman
    @DaveSussman

    Wow, just wow. Thank you for this.
    Merry Christmas Mike.

    • #17
  18. Lizzie in IL Inactive
    Lizzie in IL
    @LizzieinIL

    “…Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me.” (Matt. 25:40 – KJV)

    Yours is a beautiful example of this, one of my favorite verses in Scripture. May God bless you, Mike, & Merry Christmas.

    • #18
  19. carcat74 Member
    carcat74
    @carcat74

    My mind’s eye is now filled with wonderful images—boys laughing, sailboats gliding along the water, moonglow—thank you!

    • #19
  20. Sandy Member
    Sandy
    @Sandy

    TKC1101:Well told and powerful vision of human caring and kindness amidst some terrible situations.

    If we get graded on a point system in this life, I would say you filled your quota that night.

    And again today by telling the story.  Thanks, Mike.

    • #20
  21. AUMom Member
    AUMom
    @AUMom

    Beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing your Christmas with those boys and your story with us.

    • #21
  22. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Oh Mike, this was outstanding.  Touching and well written.  God bless and Merry Christmas.

    • #22
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