A child is laid in your arms, and your heart soars while filled with trepidation at the task before you. Taking a human being and nurturing it, meeting its needs, guiding it and helping it grow to healthy, mature adulthood is about the hardest job there is. It is not the "work" that is hard, it is the continual tug at your heart that makes it so challenging.
We have officially entered the stage of our children "becoming". Matthew is pulling us there gradually, and with three others all the same age, they soon will follow. Only Joshie will provide us with a few years respite.
This weekend I went to pick Matt up from camp by myself, not needing to drag the entire family on the overnight 10 hour round trip. God must have been nudging me on that decision, as it turned out that Matthew and I definitely needed time alone for him to decompress after camp.
I arrived at camp to find the kids were not quite ready, so I waited alongside the other parents while the 17 or so kids were out in the meadow participating in their closing circle. About 15 minutes later they all came to meet their parents and together we would all watch a quick slide show comprised of photos of their week there at La Foret. Matthew approaches me in his steady gait, a gentle smile on his face and a beautiful tie dye T-Shirt on that he had made. Somehow though, I could tell something was not quite right, and as he hugged me I whispered "Are you ok?". He nodded in the affirmative so we went in to watch the slide show. When it was over, we left before the others and jumped in the car to go to his cabin and pick things up, where he showed me where he slept, who the other boys were who shared his room and what bunks they had, and a 7 day old pizza that had somehow become the mascot of the week with a note written on the box. Disgusting, yes, but what happens at camp, stays at camp :-)
We load his gear in the car and are on our way, and as we pull away from camp he quietly puts his head back on the head rest and says "That was the best camp ever, I wish I never had to leave...other than I'd miss you guys." I was quiet for a moment or two then asked "Were you trying not to cry when you left the closing circle?" and he looked over at me and without saying a word nodded his head, then quickly looked straight ahead, blinking back the tears that were trying to make themselves known once again.
I let it rest for a bit, and a few miles down the road I asked "So what made this the best camp ever? What was different this year?". We spent the next hour in conversation about his experience as he struggled to find words to express what he was feeling. There were many pregnant pauses, and moments when I had to nudge him by providing a word here or there that I hoped was the one he was searching for. Matthew is a linear guy, an engineer minded sort of kid. Emotions, while definitely not foreign to him living with Team LaJoy, do not get expressed as simply and easily as they are with the other kids. He has to be precise when using words to explain them, he also has to tell himself to "let go:" and let others see inside his heart. It is work for him. He is not a cold kid at all, but I can see how living within the confines of a different sort of family he might become more bottled up. Here, with us, he is not allowed that opportunity and is encouraged at every turn to share what he feels, so while not natural for him, he has learned how to do so.
What a gift the camp experience is for our kids each and every year!! What an important part of their growing up it is!! Matthew replied that his camp counselor, Robbie, who is a very young man I have watched from afar as he has grown up within our conference and turned to leadership roles, was very spiritual. He explained that everything Robbie did and said was deep, and that even though some of the kids couldn't "go there", he felt drawn to thinking about God for the first time in very different ways. Matt was so moved by this past week, and we spent a great deal of time with him talking about what it is that God wants from him in this world, what his own calling is. He grabbed my phone and asked if he could find something online, and he pulled up a song by the Black Eyed Peas that had been used in camp which was "Where is the Love?" which speaks of all that is wrong in our world...hatred, discrimination, lack of care for one another. He was so touched by this song that he also had to show Dominick the video immediately upon entering our home. He spoke of walking the labyrinth and although he had done it once before, he said this time was different..."I didn't just rush through it, I walked it slowly and something happened...I don't know Mom, but I totally felt God the entire time at camp this year." He shared about late night conversations and afternoon discussions ranging from topics such as do aliens exist to things that happened in Japan this past year and what our response should be. He praised Robbie for being always able to bring things back around to something meaningful while still keeping it fun.
Camp, for our kids and in our minds, is about this...these heart shifting moments. It is not about a fun week and vacation away from mom and dad. It is about the stretching and growing that occurs each and every time they go. Matthew said "I don't think I'll ever be the same, Mom" as we drove through the mountain passes. I turned and looked at him and replied "No Matt, you won't...this is the beginning of your great "becoming"...of becoming the man you intend to be, of figuring out who you are and what you stand for...and how you will walk through this world. You are no longer fully a child, and yet won't be a full-fledged man for a long time yet, but it is beginning. Welcome to the baby steps to adulthood." He grew quiet and looked out the window and said "It's a little sad, isn't it?" and with tears in my eyes I said "Yea, it is, but thankfully it doesn't happen all at once. You don't have to suddenly give up Legos or being a kid. You'll just be more aware about things and be seeing outside yourself and your own needs more often. We'll be slowly saying goodbye to the boy Matthew and gradually saying hello to the adult Matt." I then paused and as we held hands driving I said "And I have a feeling that the adult Matthew is going to be a man I admire very, very much." He grinned at me and said "I hope so."
As we drove on, he fell asleep for a couple of hours, then stretched lazily and sat back up for more conversation, this time less intense and more about the kids at camp, the activities they did, laughed out loud at some of the antics, and he slowly came back to being Matthew, decompressing. When we finally arrived home in the later afternoon, he wandered around the house for quite awhile, seemingly unable to settle in. I decided I wanted to go for a walk and stretch after the long drive, so I asked Matt if he wanted to go with me...something he would usually decline. Instead he grabbed his shoes and was out the door with me.
We walked hand in hand in the early evening golden hour, corn fields next to us whispering their secret language as the wind rustled through the tall stalks. The road was empty and we were undisturbed as hand in hand we walked quietly for a couple of miles. He softly said "I wish I was still at camp." and I said "I know, but those times in our life are not meant to go on forever. We experience them, they change us, and then we take them on into our real life. I know exactly how you feel right now, when we came back from Kazakhstan with the girls I felt like that for 3 or 4 months...different, totally out of my element, wondering if it would ever feel normal again. It took a very long time, but eventually I did, however I was changed just a little after that whole experience." He looked at me and said "Really? I guess I never knew that...that it had been so hard for you. I guess we don't think about that stuff when it comes to our parents." I said "No, but you are now growing into a different person who will be more aware of others and their feelings. It's what happens when we grow up."
These moments with our children are deeply precious. Being present...not just physically but emotionally and spiritually...is all I have ever wanted to be for them. I don't want to miss these key times in their lives, either because I am simply not there or am unaware. The gift of being fully present is worth more than anything else we can ever give them. Dominick and I had a long talk Saturday night about how quickly the kids are growing up, and how we have to be extremely creative and seize any opportunity we can to draw our kids closer to the heart of the family, as the world is going to be cruel and they need the stabilizing force of each other and the commitment we all have to one another. We talked about things we could do to keep them engaged and involved, while still allowing opportunities to reach out in the world gradually...but not be sucked in by our very harmful modern youth culture. I guess it is the age old question of how to be in the world but not of it.
As Matthew and the rest of the kids try to figure out what that means for them, we too need to figure out what that means as we lead our family through the new stages we will be soon encountering. How do we keep materialism from becoming important? How do we help our kids encounter God in life changing ways? How do we help them see that relationship matters over all else, for that is what the Kingdom is made of? How do we become an extraordinary family who makes it through complete, whole and intact? One of my friends stood up in church yesterday and spoke of being at a family reunion and having several generations present. Each of them spoke about "kids" of our generation in their family and younger succumbing to drugs, alcohol, damaged relationships. She asked that we pray for them, for our world today is ever harder to navigate and our youth tend to look in all the wrong places for fulfillment and peace. She's right, it is harder and harder to raise children to adulthood and have them reach it relatively unscathed. I am not talking about the usual broken hearts or challenging decisions they have to make, but every family does indeed seem to be touched by life threatening situations, be it in the form of substance abuse, sexual acting out in very harmful ways or falling into suicidal level depression.
We can not let that happen to Matthew, Angela, Olesya, Joshua and Kenny. Part of the reason I am staying home and homeschooling, and we are doing without the income I could bring in is because they are worth it. They are worth every single sacrifice we can make to see to it that they, in our unsusual family make up, make it in this world whole and complete. We are at far higher risk than most for trouble down the road. Our kids struggle against things other families can't imagine. It requires our full attention if we want to see them succeed in this world. And I am betting our idea of success is quite different than the world's idea of success. It has nothing to do with college diplomas or big pay checks announcing they have "arrived", and has everything to do with them being fully present to their own husbands, wives and children some day, or knowing when "enough" is really "enough".
It was hard not to be a little weepy Saturday evening as I hugged Matthew good night. We had traveled a great deal of distance that day, and not in miles. How truly and completely I love my son!!! How hard it is to watch the growing pains, knowing he has to walk through them just as we all did. And really, how hard it is to say goodbye to our little Matt-Matt for soon he will be no more. We will be saying hello to Matthew R. LaJoy though, and that is a mighty good consolation prize :-) In fact, I already see a glimpse of him now.
I don't know who this "becoming" is harder on, the mom or the child.
I love you, Matthew, always and forever.