The prayer had been a last-minute decision. As Ian sipped his hot chocolate and eyed the script sitting on the kitchen table, we discussed the speaking order: Ian, Mommy, Daddy, Grammie, Great-Grandpa. Ian’s line was, ‘Jesus is coming, shout for joy!’
Earlier that week, our family had been asked to light the advent candles on Sunday morning. Four generations together, in front of the congregation: Kelly’s grandparents, her parents, us, and Ian. The script was short and simple, and with so many people around the candles there was a good chance that I wouldn’t have to say anything. When my father-in-law forwarded the script, I knew Ian had to read the prayer.
He needed coaxing. There was a time when Ian had no pride, no shame, and no fear. Kelly’s mother teaches a high school improv class, and, before each performance, Ian used to rush to the stage and dance to DJ Grandpa’s prelude: Peanut-Butter Jelly Time, Numa Numa, the Muppet Show theme. But someone slipped him an apple, and now he hides in the back of the theater with the rest of us fig-leafers. I knew a prayer, more so than ever in front of God and everyone, was a lot to ask.
We didn’t want to force him, and wouldn’t, so we tried to lay the ground work. Monday: ‘Here, read this.’ Tuesday: ‘Can you try again? Good!’ Wednesday: ‘No, you don’t have to. But it would be very special.’ Thursday: ‘No one will be watching. Everyone will have their eyes closed.’ Friday: ‘That’s okay, kiddo. You don’t have to.’
In the end, Ian agreed to read the first sentence, with gusto. ‘Jesus is coming, shout for joy!’ Enthusiastic and unabashed joy, which is a lot to ask for seven o’clock on a Sunday morning.
Ian wiped his mouth and took a bite of his cereal bar. I took his jacket from his shoulders and hung it on the back of a chair, far from gravity and sticky fingers. ‘Daddy,’ he said softly, to my back, ‘I don’t want to read this.’ Nertz. Well, it’d been a good try, and even the thought had been an important step.
‘That’s okay, buddy. You don’t ha…’
‘I want to read the prayer.’
‘…ve to. Wait. What? Really? You’ll read the prayer?’
And he smiled into his chest. ‘Yes.’
We stood in a semi-circle around the candles, smartly dressed, which is rare for me and my son. Later, a friend told me he didn’t understand why I was wearing a coat and tie until he saw my name in the bulletin. Ian was wearing a suit, sweater, and tie that didn’t match the sweater. All three buttons on his jacket were fastened, because that’s the way he liked them.
The microphone passed from Kelly to me to my mother-in-law, and my unsteady hands lit the candles of hope, love, and joy. My eyes watched Ian for signs of flight as Great-Grandpa finished the reading from Luke 2. Then the microphone was at Ian’s lips.
We had backup plans. Grandpa was waiting on the side, hand on his ear-piece, waiting for the ‘go’ signal from the surveillance team in the balcony. If needed, he would swoop and pray.
Ian didn’t say anything. He took a breath, stopped, and looked at me with…not panic. Not fear. But there were questions. I prompted into his ear, ‘Go ahead, honey. “Dear God…”‘ He shook his head. ‘You can do it, kiddo. It’s okay.’ I felt Grandpa drawing closer.
Ian frowned and waved me down. He whispered fiercely into my ear, ‘Daddy, no one’s closing their eyes!’
I mentally kicked myself, hard, and leaned toward the microphone. ‘Let us pray.’ And he did.
‘Dear God, give us joy in our hearts now and forever. Help us to tell other people about this joy, too. Amen.’