Lucas was diagnosed with expressive language disorder. Every week we drove him to speech therapy, a brightly decorated room filled with toys. Through play, the therapist engaged him in exercises designed to strengthen his oral motor skills. I can’t believe I actually cried the first time he said “ball” when he reached for the toy he wanted.
After surgery to put tubes in his ears and a second surgery nine months later when a bad ear infection pushed the first tubes right out, all seemed to be on the mend, but little did we know the lasting consequences this ordeal would have on such a sensitive, young soul.
We were told by both our trusted speech therapist and pediatrician that the repetitive hand motions Lucas began exhibiting when he was six-years-old were “normal”. It was the body’s way of releasing tension or anxiety which was unable to be released verbally. Many kids go through this “stage”. We were assured he would out grow it if we didn’t call attention to it. At first, it was so subtle, we hardly noticed: a quick tap to his tummy now and then, but then it changed to a puckering of the lips; a flexing of his fingers; reaching the back of his hand up to his chin over and over and over…
But when his thoughts became obsessive, scary thoughts, I couldn’t “wait it out” any longer. Lucas cried himself to sleep with worry every night when nothing in our lives seemed to be wrong: he was doing so well in school that he was “off the charts” in reading; as the holidays were approaching, each day was filled with festive activities; our loving family was happy and healthy. Why now?
After I stopped blaming myself for all of this, (after all, I am his mother) we decided to bring Lucas to a psychologist where we learned how to help him fight anxiety, or “The Worry Bully,” as he called it. Those early years, when Lucas had such limited vocabulary, were frustrating and scary for him—you would have never known it though. He always wore a playful smile, and believe it or not, he never once had a temper tantrum. The anxiety, however, like a dark shadow, was slowly creeping, building up inside.
The doctor observed that Hanna, our almost three-year-old at the time, was the same age as when Lucas struggled the most with his hearing and speech. When he looked at his little sister, it was like holding up a mirror and seeing a version of himself, except she was extremely verbal and fiercely independent. So he stood in her shadow and wondered, “What’s wrong with me?” It was a question we could not answer because it was a question he could not ask. Oh, if only we could have reassured him. If only we could take his worries away and carry them ourselves. If only we could wave a magic wand…
As parents, we do our best to clear the stones along the paths our children explore, but anxiety still seems to be lurking in all the shadows. Can we prepare our children for the challenges and pitfalls in life without instilling fear? Can we guide without controlling? Can we protect without smothering?
I ponder these questions as I watch my six-year-old play in the backyard on a bright afternoon. He gallops on an imaginary horse. He follows a treasure map on the veins of an oak leaf. He fights off demons only he can see.
Through the grove, a sharp ray of sun penetrates the tangle of branches and leaves, targeting my boy, like a great sorcerer’s wand, summoning his shadow to escape, slowly seeping from his heels.
I sit up straight in my chair, noticing the subtle insight I have just been granted. Sometimes the shadow is small, crawling close to the ground, clinging at his ankles. That’s the part of him that’s still a baby--when every experience is a new one; when he explores the world in curious and playful ways; when he cries but cannot tell you why.
And sometimes the shadow is tall and lean like his dad. It scales the fence as if climbing into his future. That’s the part of him that is growing up to be a knight, or a pirate, or a cowboy. “Mommy, look at me,” he proudly insists. I smile and watch him run, in training for Someday.
But mostly, the shadow half his size is stalking—relentless, nagging, bullying, slowing him down, even following him into dark corners. That’s the part of him that’s three--when the doctor said his hearing was muffled like living underwater; when he only had ten words instead of a hundred; when he couldn’t tell me what he wanted, what he loved, what he feared.
So when he comes and sits down by me, I hug him like he’s three. I hug him without words. I just hug him and hope that it will make his three year old worries disappear with the setting sun. I hug him until he’s six again.