I don’t know what sends him into these difficult periods. These times when the anger rises from his root and rages like a rogue wave through his body, flushing his face with a glint I don’t recognize and coursing like hot metal into his fists, which harden on contact and almost uncontrollably fling something into the air, break something without premeditation or pound someone, usually his little brother. Hard. He moves like an ancient martial artist, like he’s been plugged into a combat-warrior program that once served him somewhere in the matrix. He’s never taken a class, yet his stance is powerful, his moves decisive, his response instinctual. It all happens in the blink of an eye. A deep-down button is pushed, he switches into defense mode and his body is hurtling around in ways I know he doesn’t want. Because he looks pained. And it’s like he can’t stop himself. In therapeutic services circles, this is called “impulse control” and it has various neurological explanations and slow-burning antidotes but, when I’m in the middle of a difficult streak and his switch is flipped, all I know about impulse control is that he has none.
Timeouts, counting to four, deep breathing, his own designated “safe zone,” reward jars, privilege removal, promises of treats based on good behavior, heart-to-heart talks after everyone is calm, keeping my cool…none of them seem to impact the behavior when we’re riding this awful wave, which can last hours, days or sometimes even weeks. He’s easy to motivate when he’s what therapists call “regulated,” but not when he’s unregulated. (The formula for what regulates my son is less mysterious than it once was, but the complete code remains to be cracked.) Incidentally, screaming, dragging him angrily to his room, glaring at him wildly and smacking his cheek don’t work, either, not even as a last resort. Hugs work. But I usually have a crying little brother to comfort in those moments. And, sometimes, I am just too mad to hug.
Charlie’s moods are mystifying, so my only option is to try to manage my own, to be calm inside when all else is torrential.
At five till noon yesterday, I sat down to meditate. I needed those last five minutes to center myself before leaving the babysitter-enabled solitude of my office for the drive to preschool.
At three minutes till noon, the office door slowly opened. Anticipation wafted heavy across the room to the alcove where I was beginning to breathe. I pulled back the curtain and saw Charlie looking around with a concerned face.
“Are you looking for me?” I asked, smiling.
His face eased into a big grin. “Are you all done working, Mommy?”
“Yes, honey. But now I’m meditating for a couple minutes.”
“Would you like to join me?”
He climbed on my lap and placed the tops of his hands on my palms, which were resting on my legs. So still. So willing. These were the same hands that had been breaking toys accidentally at school, the same hands that grabbed his brother that morning and wrestled him to the ground even as I was running toward him yelling “stop!” These hands rested, softly, warmly, serenely, palms up, in my own hands.
“We’re going to breathe three times. In—one, two three. Hold—one, two three. Out—one, two, three.” He did it. Without complaint. He breathed deeply, filling his four-year-old abdomen with air on the inhale and releasing everything with a cathartic exhale from the same mouth that bit his brother on the cheek yesterday, the mouth that spits when it feels like it, the mouth that would eat only sugar if I let him.
And then we chanted Om three times. Together.
“Are you done now, Mommy?”
“Are you done?” I asked, squeezing him. His twinkly eyes searched my own.
“Do you realize you just meditated?!” I gushed. “So I should ask you: Are you all done meditating, Charlie?”
He giggled his half-sigh, half-laugh and beamed at me.
A great miracle happened there.
Yesterday at school he learned about Hanukkah, and the fact that a day’s supply of oil kept the light in the temple burning for eight days, a welcome sign that God was with the Jews despite the horrific oppression they were facing at the time. Charlie brought home a dreidel. Charlie loves a dreidel, so it was the first thing he mentioned when I picked him up from school. His last words before bed last night were, “Mommy, can we play with my dreidel in the morning?”
I learned yesterday that the four Hebrew letters adorning the four respective sides of a dreidel refer to the story of the long-burning oil and are an acronym for “A great miracle happened there.”
I wasn’t raised in the Jewish tradition, but the miracle of the oil has stuck with me since the days I slept with my Bible every night. God works in so many different ways. And the truth is that that miracles still occur within and around us every single day. Even in the midst of tumult, God is there, lighting our way.
That stillness of Charlie’s always-moving body resting quietly against me, that feel of his soft hands on mine in meditation, the sound of his sweet voice om-ing, they remind of who he really is, and of who he can be. We all flash from time to time. And kids need to know they’re loved even when—especially when—they’re conventionally unlovable.
And so I hugged him. And he hugged me back. A miracle. That stillness, that hug, that love, will keep the lamp in my inner temple burning. (for at least eight hours.)