“Mama, is Oscar still sick?” my five year old casually asks one day.
We are in the middle of a rousing game of Zingo, and I have just successfully defused a tense argument about who gets the “star” chip.
I don’t know why I am continually surprised at the thought processes of my children, how they leap and glide from tree to conceptually unrelated tree like so many chattering monkeys. I only know the interior processes of my own brain, of course, but based on those I should recognize this “monkey brain” syndrome as deeply familiar. I am playing a hotly contested game of Zingo. I am wondering whether I remembered to give Oscar his morning dose of Sabril. I am wishing hard for my coffee cup to magically refill itself, and questioning whether we should continue homeschooling this year.
My five year old son: he is fighting for his Zingo life (and the star chip), and also wondering whether his baby brother is still sick.
He asks in the same way an adult might ask a coworker in passing: “Hey, how’s your cold?” And in fact, it leads me to recall another incident that suggests this is the way he actually thinks about his brother’s chronic, intractable medical issues.
During the holiday break, our friends (and godparents to another of our children) hosted a small gathering at their home. Small is relative when one is dealing with Catholic homeschooling families, so… six families, 50 people or so. My friend’s father is a priest, ordained after he was widowed, and since he was visiting for Christmas he graciously offered an intimate Mass in the living room before the party got underway. I sat in front with my three little boys, applying the time-honored technique of keeping them quietly engaged by making sure they could see what was going on. (I got “engaged,” but not “quiet.” I take what I can get.)
About halfway through, we stood for the prayers of the faithful, the part of the Mass where the community offers its prayers and petition to God. The priest invited everyone to chime in with their own intentions, and my five year old piped up first: “For Oscar.”
When the people responded, “Lord, hear our prayer,” my eyes and heart nearly overflowed. This community has been so gracious to us since Oscar’s diagnosis. Oscar is prayed for nearly constantly in their homes, and Masses are offered by them for his healing. But this was the first time that petition had been spoken, out loud, in this setting – not at a public, semi-anonymous Mass, but in a room composed entirely of people who knew exactly what that prayer meant, who know our family intimately and have followed Oscar’s story since the moment he was conceived, literally. It was an incredibly powerful and moving moment for me.
After a beat of silence, my son raised his hand again immediately. “For my Mama. She’s sick too.”
In that moment, I cringed in embarrassment. “He’s talking about the cold I got over last week,” I thought. “Sweet, but not strictly true.”
My face flushed and I smiled nervously and pulled him closer to me, trying to cover my chagrin at this tiny transgression with a jovial chuckle. To my friends, I said, “Oh, I had a cold last week, but I’m better now. Thank you for the prayer, son. Let’s pray for all Mamas, especially those who are sick. We pray to the Lord…”
And he hugged my leg, and Mass continued, and life went on.
Until this other day, when my son offhandedly asked if Oscar was still sick. And in a flash I put two and two together and realized: this is all the same to him.
Our children know that God is, to quote the Catechism, “all powerful, all knowing, and all good.” God listens to our prayers, knows us better than we know ourselves, and has the power to do anything – literally anything. He can heal an illness with no effort at all, if it is His will. Any illness, big or tiny, permanent or fleeting.
And I think now that our children actually know this more intuitively than we do. All powerful means all powerful. If Mama’s cold can get better, then so can Oscar’s seemingly permanent, genetically based impairments. My son, bless his heart, has faith that this in fact will actually happen, not just that it could. It’s just a question of waiting and continuing to pray, just as he would for my common cold.
Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
These words of Christ call us to have the faith of a child. Too often, that is mischaracterized as a simplistic faith, a faith that ignores the complexities and struggles of real adult life. The trick, I think, lies not in ignoring those very real complexities but in being able to hold onto the both/and mindset that my son demonstrates daily.
Oscar is sick. But someday he might not be, because all things are possible with God. So I will keep asking.
The ultimate answer to his question is that yes, Oscar is still sick, but of course, Oscar will be healed one day. We believe in heaven, the continued life of the soul after death, and the ultimate resurrection of the body. In terms of a path to heaven, our chronically sick child, unable to sin and suffering a bodily ailment, has a wide head start on most of us poor wretches. I firmly believe he will get there and that he will be made whole when—not if—that happens.
But how, then, do we pray in the meantime? What does having the faith of a child mean on this side of heaven?
It means we ask and ask and ask. We ask not out of frustration, nor out of fear. We ask not because we think the answer we want is required or deserved. We ask because God asks us to bring Him the desires of our heart, as naturally as our children bring their desires to us.
Mama, can I have a cookie? God, is Oscar still sick?
We never stop asking, even if we feel sure already that the answer is no, because a child-like faith means the faith to believe that God’s answer is the perfect one, even when it’s not the desired one. A belief that God’s no does not indicate a lesser love for us, but simply a reaffirmation of the truth and goodness contained within his unfathomable design for Oscar’s life, and our own.
Is Oscar still sick? Well, yes. Aren’t we all, in one way or another? But couldn’t he not be, despite what the best of medical science seems to tell us?
Absolutely, son. God’s will be done.