We walked into the sanctuary as late as possible, a subliminal effort to miss the day all together. There weren’t any other women there, of course. This was a men’s event, a father and son “bonding” day at our church. And I am neither a father, nor a son. I wondered if I should have slapped on a fake mustache and plaid shirt to help hide the sometimes-awkward truth that I am a single mother. And there was a bigger problem…I didn’t want to be reminded of what I have lost, my own sweet dad now a year gone. But our friend Gary welcomed us warmly. Gary had made a specific point to invite Max as his stand-in son for the event. And it was all I could do not to burst into tears at the beauty of the invitation. Such love makes one braver.
The sanctuary was scattered with dads standing behind their little boys. “Come on in Max,” someone yelled. Max took a few steps forward and immediately put his hands over his ears, trying to block the sensory overload of the activities already in progress.
“Ok… all you dads,” the pastor called into a microphone, “Your job is to catch your sons. As they fall, tell your children, ‘I’m here for you.’ Sons, you can trust your dads. They are there to catch you, no matter what. Go ahead and fall backwards.”
Max delighted at the sight of all the little boys toppling toward their fathers like tiny dominoes, and jumped right in front of me to try it. With Max now being 22 years old and 190 pounds, this would be similar to having an I-Beam fall on you. It’s just not something you get over easily. “Let’s try the next activity, Max.” I suggested quickly, my eyes darting for Gary who had probably already hit the deck.
When everyone had finished the trust fall, the pastor handed out paper and pens. “The next activity,” his voice boomed, “is to write a letter. Dad’s and Son’s, you are to write a letter to one another.” I glanced at Gary wondering if he would want to step in. But he signaled me to take this one. Or perhaps he was still concerned about being pancaked. “And you are to start your letter with,” the pastor added, “I love you because…”
Max immediately dropped to his knees, placed the paper on the floor in front of him and began to write. His letters were 2 inches in height, all caps, and floated on the blank page. Max was 12 years old before he was able to write his first words. And while his writing isn’t always legible to others, it is beautiful to me. Max held the pen and announced as he wrote each word, “I LOVE YOU BECAUSE…”
My thoughts raced wondering how Max would finish this open-ended sentence, a demand that is often difficult for a mind colored by autism. I looked around and saw everyone in the sanctuary writing. One father near us was already reading his letter to his son, “I love you because you do your chores,” he said. I looked back down at Max realizing others were watching him too, wondering if he could do it. I leaned toward my son, ready to give him some multiple-choice suggestions for why he might love me, a self-serving list of lovable characteristics of his mother. But Max finished his letter before I could jump in. He sat back on his knees, held up his letter and read it aloud…
“I LOVE YOU BECAUSE, GOD IS LOVE.”
Recognition swept across the faces of the dads in the room as Max’s scribbled handwriting spoke the truth. All our tight thinking and bunched up ideas of conditional love let lose. Max jumped to his feet and passed me the letter before bouncing out of the room. I held his words, speechless and weak in the knees. And I could hear God whisper, “I’m here for you.”