My baby turned 13 a few weeks ago. I meant to write something in his honor closer to the actual day of his birth. Isn't this the way it goes with a second child? He is not loved one iota less than his older sister, and every milestone he's reached and every accomplishment he's achieved have been marked and celebrated -- just not quite as quickly. So, finally, I'm putting on paper the thoughts about my son that have been percolating in my brain these last few weeks.
When he was born I was determined to keep any sort of toy weapon out of his hands. I didn't want either one of my kids to be limited to gender specific toys -- or roles. In spite of this, when my daughter was three she asked Santa Claus to bring her makeup. By the time my son was three, he would take sticks, pencils, sharp nail files -- whatever he could find -- hand me one and say, "Now Mommy, let's fight." I recognized the potential danger in this. So on our next trip to Minneapolis to visit my parents, I took him to the Lego Store at the Mall of America -- or as I sometimes refer to it, Consumers R Us. There I bought him a soft, supposedly harmless, sword. Yes, I caved. But that seemed a safer option than the sharp objects he'd been using. The moment we returned to my parents' house, he proudly showed Gramma and Grampa his new treasure. Then using the back of his shirt like a scabbard, he marched off to do battle with bad guys and dragons and villains of all sorts.
That sword fought valiantly until the end, but it finally fell into disrepair a few years ago. However resting in his closet and in the tool shed in our backyard are Nerf guns and light sabers, shields, soft foam bullets, and an ammo belt. These weapons aren't played with much these days; instead my son fights nefarious people and monsters on video games. I know, I know. I caved there too.
Even though I fell short at keeping weapons out of his life, my son, my "baby," is incredibly kind and compassionate. He is sweet to little kids and older folks alike. If someone is hurting or scared, my son is the first to respond. Described by every teacher since Kindergarten as a "deep thinker," my youngest is smart and curious. He's funny, quick to pick up accents, does impressions, and loves stand-up comedy like his mother does. Eager to help others, he is acutely aware of the world's injustices.
It's obvious that I am proud of my boy and his abilities, but I am under no delusions about him or his sister. They both have their faults and failings, as we all do. I also know that at 13 my son is no longer a baby. There were days this past year when I could have sworn that he grew in the eight hours he spent in school. He is already several inches taller than I am, which is not difficult. But he has also shot up past his sister, a feat that was harder to accomplish. Lanky, long-limbed, with a deepening voice, I realize the term "baby" is a misnomer. Yet I look at him, at the young man he is and the man he is becoming, and I see that little boy with a Lego sword stuck down the back of his shirt. I worry about the "bad guys" he will face in the years to come. Even as I write this, the world is grieving over the terrible events of the last days and months. A commercial jet was shot down in the Ukraine. A ground battle has ensued in Gaza, adding to the violence and heartbreak that seem omnipresent in that region. Other countries are in the throes of civil war. Young girls are kidnapped or killed merely because they seek an education. Socially, politically and economically, our country is more partisan and divided than I've witnessed in my lifetime. Around the world, extremists of every creed threaten life and liberty. The lines between "bad guys," and "good guys," are blurred at best, and downright indistinguishable at worst.
This is the world my son is growing into. In moments of despair, I wonder how I can send my children into such brokenness. Examples of the terrible way we treat one another abound. But even in the most horrific of circumstances, there is still evidence that the goodness of human beings has not been overcome. The human spirit still triumphs. There are still abundant reasons to hope. One illustration of this is Michael Sam, who will soon be the first openly gay player in the NFL. This year's recipient of the ESPY's Arthur Ashe Courage Award, Sam gave a poignant and moving acceptance speech. His closing words were, "Great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself."
It is tempting to teach my son that the best way to survive in this world is by keeping his distance and his head down. But the lesson I would rather have him learn is to live with the kind of courage Michael Sam spoke about. As the world grows increasingly violent, some might see teaching a child, especially a boy, to arm himself for personal protection as prudent. My hope for my youngest is different. I hope that his innate empathy and kindness flourish. I hope that one day he understands that love is more powerful and potent than any weapon. I hope that he does indeed have the courage to always be himself, as I hope it for my daughter and all children. I have no doubt that the great things that happen from children who grow up with this kind of courage may just be a better, kinder world for us all.