“Fine, then!” Stephen huffed. He tossed a handful of Uno cards across the table and stomped toward the stairs. Each step thundered through the house as he made his way to his room.
I love this prickly child. But prickly he surely is.
I’d like to blame this one’s temper on his Irish blood, but he has at most a few drops of that. I’d like to say it’s his Italian temperament, but we’re mostly French and Scotch. It sure would be easier to blame an ethnic heritage than to blame myself for the cantankerous personality of this particular child, though.
“What is he like?” I remember my mother asking in a phone call to the hospital just minutes after I delivered our fifth child, our third son, Stephen.
I anxiously studied his furious face. “I think he’s . . . angry.”
He might have had good reason to be angry. All those bright lights in the delivery room, all that noise and commotion surrounding his birth, all those feelings of hunger and variable body temperature we expected him to suddenly handle on his own. Anger is an appropriate reaction to being born, and Stephen knew it.
Months later found me juggling my choleric child in one arm while I surfed the internet with the other. Dr. Google offered one consistent diagnosis: High Need Infant.
Having a name for the particular brand of child I had been given offered some measure of relief, but little in the way of resolution. Like any good mother, I wanted to comfort my child. I wanted to soothe him. I wanted to nurture him until he was pacified, and I was unprepared for a child who preferred not to be pacified.
In the years following his “diagnosis,” my high-need infant grew into a high-need toddler. My high-need toddler became a high-need preschooler. And these days, some might even call him a high-need eight year old. Which I think is a politically correct way of saying . . . prickly.
More than anything else, having a prickly child has taught me the value of recognizing my own limitations and the importance of loving others the way they want to be loved — which is not necessarily the way we would like to love them.
Loving Stephen means squelching my own desire to smother him with kisses and keeping a cautious distance, particularly when he’s frustrated. Gentle coaxing works for some children when they are hurt or angry. Humor works with others. But Stephen? He needs to be left alone. The boy wants space to work out troubles on his own. And work them out he will.
In recent weeks, Stephen, a fresh-faced altar boy, has become intrigued with the idea of “playing” Mass. He turned a laundry basket upside down and covered it with a blanket and pillow case for an altar. He dug deep in my closet to recover some boy-sized vestments we used as part of a St. Nicholas costume last All Saints Day. A small plastic Frisbee became a paten and a tall blue cup became a chalice.
“Father Stephen” says Mass a few times a day and expects the pews to be full and the congregation to behave themselves. When I attended a noontime gathering in our living room the other day, I held a squirming Daniel in my lap as Stephen flipped through his Missal and struggled through the prayer over the gifts.
I would have jumped in to help or suggest that he skip ahead, except I knew that would only make things worse. I could almost hear the blood pounding in his ears as he struggled and sounded out. I held my breath as he sighed, strained, and started over. Two times. Three times. Four times.
The fifth time was the charm. When at last he got to the words of the consecration, Stephen’s eyes left the book and his shoulders relaxed as he spoke the comfortable, familiar words:
“Take this, all of you and eat it . . .”
Small hands held up a Necco wafer. His face was fierce, strong, determined.
My mind flashed to one of Stephen’s recent baseball games when he was on deck, warming up for his turn at bat. Before he stepped to the plate, I saw his eyes scan the sidelines intently until at last they landed on me. When our eyes met, he broke into a wide grin and my heart swelled with the privilege of being there. With the joy of being this boy’s mother — the one he looks for in the crowd.
Stephen doesn’t need me to help him swing the bat. He doesn’t need me to tell him the words or soothe him with sympathy. He just needs me to be there.
I can do that.
Though I knew Christ was not present in the Necco wafer at Stephen’s Mass, He quite surely was there in my living room as my son offered me a drink from the tall plastic cup. Afterward, as I watched Stephen arrange the altar linens just so and triumphantly pronounce the concluding rite, I recognized that the other side of “prickly” is “determined” and “passionate.”
Christ is determined and passionate, too. Just like my Stephen, He doesn’t do anything halfway. He doesn’t do anything without meaning it. In a big way. And He loves my prickly priest, even more than I do.