The role of ev­ery par­ent

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Gerson

— The pres­i­den­tial race re­cently turned to talk of fa­vorite Bi­ble verses. Mine (for what it is worth) is found in the para­ble of the prodi­gal son. Af­ter his fit of dis­si­pa­tion in a far country, the boy re­turns, ex­pect­ing hu­mil­i­a­tion. “But when he was yet a great way off, his fa­ther saw him, and had com­pas­sion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.”

The King James Ver­sion — “fell on his neck” — some­how cap­tures the fa­ther’s joy and ac­cep­tance. As does Heinz Warneke’s sculp­ture in the Bishop’s Gar­den at the Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Cathe­dral — one of my fa­vorite quiet cor­ners of D.C. — with fa­ther and son melt­ing into each other, an im­age of ut­ter and mu­tual sur­ren­der. Such ten­der­ness in stone.

Life is il­lu­mi­nated by para­bles, but con­ducted in messier sto­ries. And jour­nal­ist Ron Fournier, in a new book, tells his with great hon­esty and em­pa­thy. “Love that Boy” re­counts how Fournier set aside a heavy bur­den of fa­therly ex­pec­ta­tions to un­der­stand and em­brace his son Tyler, an ex­tra­or­di­nary young man with Asperger’s syn­drome, a type of high-func­tion­ing autism. It is a brief, mov­ing re­flec­tion, not only on par­ent­hood, but on what it means to ac­cept an­other hu­man be­ing en­tirely, for who they re­ally are, and how much harder that can be with those who are clos­est to us.

The book is or­ga­nized around a se­ries of road trips to pres­i­den­tial homes and li­braries, one of the few in­ter­ests shared by fa­ther and son. Fournier calls th­ese “guilt trips” be­cause they were meant, in part, to make up for years that his pro­fes­sional am­bi­tions had con­sumed. Since the author is a for­mer White House cor­re­spon­dent of great (and de­served) re­pute, Fournier is able to ob­serve Tyler in­ter­act­ing with the fa­mous. There is Bill Clin­ton, gen­er­ous and prolix, mono­logu­ing on pol­i­tics and his­tory in his own ver­sion of Asperger-like free as­so­ci­a­tion. And Ge­orge W. Bush, dig­ging for con­nec­tion with Tyler un­til he finds it, grab­bing Fournier by the el­bow and urg­ing him to “love that boy.”

But it is Tyler who is the book’s cen­tral and most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter — sharp and witty, blunt and so­cially awk­ward, some­times loudly in­ap­pro­pri­ate in crowds, mostly con­tent in his ex­haus­tive en­thu­si­asms for an­i­mals or his­tory or video games. And, in the end, coura­geous — test­ing him­self by do­ing standup com­edy, which the rest of us who are so­cially awk­ward can only re­gard with awe.

When Fournier (as writ­ers tend to do) over-in­ter­prets a mo­ment, Tyler punc­tures him: “I think you’re try­ing too hard.” But there is also Tyler, prac­tic­ing over and over how he will greet Pres­i­dent Obama in a hol­i­day re­ceiv­ing line, telling his fa­ther, “I hope I don’t let you down, Dad.”

Any par­ent, in a mo­ment like that, re­al­izes the fright­en­ing power of ap­proval or dis­ap­proval he or she pos­sesses — how the wrong word might leave a life­long scar. Fournier is forth­right about his own strug­gles, afraid that his son will em­bar­rass him, then “em­bar­rassed about be­ing em­bar­rassed.” In let­ting go the child he imag­ined — ath­letic and pop­u­lar — Fournier finds Tyler, and the bet­ter end of the deal.

Boiled down, Fournier is urg­ing those of us with chil­dren — or par­ents, or other close hu­man ties — to ac­cept the awe­some given­ness of our re­la­tion­ships. Other lives can be guided, but not re­ally shaped. Peo­ple have some ir­re­duc­ible core that can only be ac­cepted. And ac­cep­tance is the com­ple­tion of love. As par­ents, our job in life is to wholly, truly, wish and work for the ben­e­fit and hap­pi­ness of an­other hu­man be­ing, not to seek what makes us happy through them. If fam­ily bonds teach noth­ing more than this, the achieve­ment is mas­sive.

One warn­ing: “Love that Boy” is a book that forces (some­times tearful) in­tro­spec­tion. My youngest leaves for col­lege later this year, and I have been rum­mag­ing through my worst par­ent­ing mo­ments, hop­ing my son re­mem­bers my fail­ures — my mo­ments of im­pa­tience and anger — less vividly than I do. Over the last few years, as my teenager be­came more em­bar­rassed by my af­fec­tion, I started bait­ing him by say­ing loudly, ev­ery night be­fore he goes to bed, “I love you, son.” Now he plays along and ex­pects it. An in­signif­i­cant rit­ual, a small thing. Ev­ery night, “I love you” — un­til I won’t be there to say it.

I hope he re­mem­bers those words rather than the harsh ones, and knows that his fa­ther loved him im­per­fectly but com­pletely. Maybe, I hope, not so small a thing.

Michael Gerson is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@ wash­


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