A little taller, a little older, a little stronger
“Hi, Mom,” my ten-year-old calls. He’s home early because it’s a minimum day.
I go into the entry hall and give him a hug. “How was school?”
“Good.” He peels away from me and grabs his soccer bag from the closet. He pulls his cleats out and starts putting them on.
“What are you doing?”
“I decided I’m reaching my juggling goal today,” he says, matter-of-fact.
At the beginning of the soccer season, he set three goals for himself. Juggling the ball twenty times in a row with his feet only (no knees) is the only one he hasn’t reached yet and soccer season is almost over. Mike and I agreed that, when he reached all three goals, we’d help him buy the new tent he’s wanted for over six months from the camping store.
He ties his laces and stands up. “I’m not taking these cleats off until I get my goal,” he says, determined.
He grabs his soccer ball and runs out to the backyard.
I watch him go, hoping he reaches 20 juggles quickly. Since it’s a minimum day, I can take him to the camping store before my daughter gets home at 3:30.
But 3:30 comes and goes.
Three hours he’s been trying now.
I keep going into the backyard and checking on him.
I bring him water and snacks.
Every now and then, I make him stop for a few minutes to rest.
My daughter gets home and starts her homework.
But he stays outside, juggling. His face is red from the cold and the exercise. His jaw is set. I can tell he’s frustrated.
Three hours is a long time for a ten-year-old.
I stay outside with him now, watching from the patio swing, trying to encourage him. I’m bundled in a jacket, but my hands and feet are numb.
He gets 18 juggles in a row.
I hold my breath.
He tries again.
Please, God. Help him. He’s working so hard.
I fight the lump in my throat.
“Good job!” I scream, excited. “You almost have it!”
He tries again, and again.
Then he stops, folds his hands and closes his eyes. He’s whispering.
I blink back tears.
He throws the soccer ball across the yard in anger.
I see him turn away and wipe his eyes.
I pray again: fervent, desperate, mom-fierce prayers.
I know it’s only soccer, but I can tell by watching him, it’s so much more.
He gets the ball and starts juggling again.
It’s 4:30 now.
The sky is getting dark.
It’s been four hours. It’s almost dinnertime. “Do you want another snack?” I ask, hoping he’ll say yes and stop.
“No.” His eyes are fixed on the ball.
His juggles go from 15 to 13 to 10.
“Let’s take a break,” I say.
“It’s okay to take a break. It doesn’t mean you’re quitting. I think you need to give your muscles a rest.”
“I’m not taking these cleats off until I reach my goal,” he says through clenched teeth.
He’s worn a patch of mud in the grass where he’s practicing.
His ankles and knees are splattered with dirt.
It’s getting colder.
And I’m torn…
Do I force him to stop?
Do I make him quit so he doesn’t get sick?
Or do I let him continue and stay by his side like I’m doing now, trying to encourage him?
My stomach hurts because I don’t know what’s best…
What if this is one of those moments that impacts him forever?
What if he’ll look back on this and say, I remember that time I tried until 9 at night to reach my soccer goal, and I finally did it.
What if I make him stop and that keeps him from reaching 20?
I waver back and forth, not sure what to do.
I can tell by watching him, he’s building character. There’s a fire in him I’ve never seen before.
So I decide to let him keep going.
My daughter turns on the kitchen light inside the house.
The sky is dark now.
After a while, my son walks over to me. “I need you to take me to the park, Mom. It’s too dark back here. Those lights are better.”
And so we load up the car and drive to the park.
Under the lights, on the sprawling grass, he starts juggling again.
I count out loud…
“Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen…”
The ball drops.
“Good job,” I say, “That was almost it!”
His shoulders slump.
He walks over to me.
And so we pray, right there in the middle of the park under the lights and the night sky.
We pray hard.
He takes a deep breath, walks back to where he left his ball, and starts again.
My heart beats fast each time he gets close to twenty.
Exhaustion sets in.
He kicks the ball far across the park and doesn’t chase after it.
He hangs his head.
I run over and hug him. I can feel his discouragement and I want to take it away. I want to make it better. Silent tears stream down my face and I’m glad it’s dark so he can’t see them. “Don’t worry; you’re not quitting,” I whisper, “You’re just taking a break. You can pick it right back up tomorrow.”
In the car on the way home, he asks, “Why didn’t God answer my prayers, Mom? I prayed so hard to just get to twenty.”
And this is where all the challenges and roadblocks I’ve faced in my own journey as a writer, and all the times in my life that I’ve known discouragement, all weave together into a clear purpose: to comfort my son. And in an instant, I’m thankful for every unanswered prayer I’ve ever had.
“I don’t know why,” I say through the lump in my throat. “But I do know how you feel. And I’m so sorry. I know it hurts when you try really hard to be successful at something and then you feel like you’re not.”
He looks at me, hopeful.
“Sometimes our prayers aren’t answered,” I explain, “or they aren’t answered when we want them to be, but that just means God has something better ahead that we can’t see yet.”
“You will get your goal,” I promise. “And all the practice you had today will only make you stronger.”
The next day–another minimum day–he gets home from school, puts his cleats on and runs out to the backyard again.
“You’re going to get it today!” I call after him, trying to sound confident. Hoping he’ll get it. Praying.
I peek out the shutters and watch him. He tries, and tries again. I sigh, wanting more than anything for him to be successful. After a few minutes, I head upstairs to get some things done.
About ten minutes later, I hear, “Mom!!!”
My heart leaps. “What?” He runs up the stairs and into the room I’m in.
“I did it! I did it! I got 20! I did it!!!!”
I’m so happy for him that I can barely talk.
We get in the car and go straight to the camping store.
And he buys his tent – a big, four person, bright red tent with a rain cover and everything.
He can’t stop smiling.
“All that practice really did pay off,” I tell him on the way home.
“Yeah,” he says. “If I didn’t practice for five hours yesterday, there’s no way I could’ve gotten my goal so fast today! And now I have more time to play in my tent!”
I smile at him,
who seems a little taller, a little older, and a little stronger than he did yesterday.
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