He insists he can get into his bed on his own. I watch, amused, as he grunts and pulls himself up onto the end by the headboard. He lies down and rolls over onto his stomach, and I join him. I rub his back gently while tunelessly singing a song of his choice. When the song is over, I draw a cross on his forehead and say, “I love you, baby.” In return, he makes a cross-like figure on my forehead before saying, “Love you too,” and rolling over to fall asleep.
The gesture is sweet and innocent, and it floods me with peace every evening regardless of how our wills clashed that day. As I stare at the wall listening as his breaths morph into the deep breathing patterns that accompany sleep, I am struck by the random, half-formed thought that his goodnight gesture was purer than my own.
Although he is now asleep, I continue to lie there, held captive by this thought. I was blessing him out of love, though still the love that a parent has for a child. That love is bound up in a necessary hierarchy within the family to protect children. It comes naturally to me as a parent to make these gestures. I have a responsibility that this child doesn’t comprehend yet.
Echoes of Baptism
As these thoughts begin to snowball, I pause. A picture of him in his white baptismal gown floods my memory. What a sweet day that was! I realize this bedtime moment was a continuation of that joyful day. I made the gesture knowing whom I was marking him for. I am marking him for Christ as I did when I presented him for Baptism at a few weeks old.
He may have felt water run over his head the day of his Baptism, but the meaning of it was not available to him yet. And even now, at 3 years old, he still doesn’t fully understand who Jesus is. He knows we speak of him and to him and sing songs about him. He knows he hangs on the crucifix over the altar at Mass and that somehow, Mommy says, when the priest holds up that piece of bread, Jesus is there too.
Even with that lack of understanding and maturity, I recognize the grace bestowed upon him through Baptism at work in him as the same grace at work in me. I realize, just like my son, I don’t fully understand who Jesus is either. In the light of an eternal God, we are equals in understanding.
I roll toward him, deciding to stay a little longer than usual. I reach over and hold his limp hand. I realize when he reaches his little, oftentimes sticky hand over to make the sign of the cross on my forehead at night, he is using every ounce of dignity given him as a human being born in the image of God. He doesn’t have to fully understand who Jesus is yet to know that this gesture means something—something good and holy—and to want to share that with the people he loves. His innocence gives him the power to bestow these gifts of God on others.
My receptivity to his exploration and evolving understanding of faith and the world has much to teach me. Mostly, I see it is teaching me that even as I exist in this parent-child relationship, which relies so heavily on my judgment, we are equals in the eyes of our Father. It opens me up to the reality that my son has just as much to teach me as I have to teach him. It also helps me make decisions in my parenting that respect and honor him as an individual person and not as a person to constantly project my will upon.
Maybe my desire for a more just and equitable society starts in the way I parent. The least of these—my brother, my equal—is my own child. And by leaning into his understanding, I am receiving glimpses of a heaven he already sees. With this new knowledge, I give him a kiss on the head and, as quietly as possible, I get up from the bed. I pull the door closed and walk to the living room refreshed and thankful to walk with my son on this journey to God.