Night has begun its descent across the sky as we wrangle Jayci and Caden into their respective seats and start out for home. They laugh and dance to Lecrae, which Adam plays loudly, and joins them in dancing and singing at the top of his lungs (of course). I laugh and videotape and shush in equal parts. Finally, yawns begin and eyelids droop, so we switch to soft classical music, in hopes of children sleeping through the four remaining hours on the road. The sky ahead reluctantly relinquishes its hold on the day. Light gives way to shadow, but not before a brilliant show of purples and pinks and oranges streak across the sky. Striated grey clouds span the horizon end-to-end, deepening to charcoal until I can scarcely tell where black asphalt ends and ever-darkening sky begins. We drive into the blackness. Our headlights meet headlights ever-so-often, and perhaps we pass the occasional semi-truck. But otherwise, the dark continues unbroken.
My thoughts, inevitably, drift to this boy. Just a week previous, I was busily setting out snacks and butterfly wings for Jayci’s birthday party when he breezed through the back door. My excitement nearly matched Jayci’s as I shrieked, hugged him close, and tried to pay special attention to him without neglecting the birthday girl or her other guests. We readily agree when he insists he wants to spend the night, but has to go home to do his laundry. Which sounds suspiciously like an excuse, except that for all five years we have known him, Saturdays are for washing. So we agree to pick him back up after the party and cleanup are complete; except, on our way to get him, we get a call that he has been picked up by the police. And so while we drive through the dark to and from the beach, he sits alone in a cell.
His grandma insists she will take his name off the lease. Fed-up she declares through smoke from her ever-present position on the leather sectional, the TV blaring old westerns. We stand helpless and stare at her, the cardboard cutout of John Wayne we gave her a few years ago pointing his gun cheerfully at our hearts.
We agree to think and pray about taking him in. Because how could we not, really? But angry teenage delinquent requires deeper commitment, stronger conviction. So we consecrate our vacation to prayer, as much as we can with two busy children who don’t love to sleep. And so he presses in on my heart often that weekend. As we watch Jayci chase her shadow in the sand, and Caden delicately and uncertainly step into the ocean. When we sit down to steaks from the grill, and when I lick my chocolate-covered-potato-chip ice cream cone.
And as we walk down the boardwalk, he flits through my mind like the butterfly shadows darting across our path. We walk to the end of the pier, herding children away from the edges, and I quietly observe fish pulled out of the water and dumped unceremoniously on the cement pier, flopping and gasping, desperate to make their way back to the only environment in which they are equipped for survival. Which of us, I wonder, would be like that fish out of water if we took him in? Probably both, I decide. Flopping and gasping and uncertain and pulled apart by unseen forces.
I trace a heart that has been carved deep amidst the scratches and time-worn sun-stains of the pier railing. As I trace, I remember the first time I met him: I knocked on his door, just as I had knocked the 146 doors before his. Metro Kidz! I yell loudly in response to the shouted who is it?! that answers my peppered knock. As I wait, I silently trace the letters scratched in the door in disbelief: S-T-A-N-L-E-Y.
Come in, the voice beckons, and I am hesitant, slowly turning the knob and peeking my head inside the dimly lit apartment. And so it began, and we chose to enter into his story. To be a part of his life, one for which anyone would say he has every right to be angry. But from the start, I remind Adam as we walk, from that first tracing of paint scratched from metal-dinged door, I remained convinced he would someday be ours.
His grandma decided to take him back, and so he is out on bail until his court date in December. And yet somehow, I know that he is still ours. Maybe not how we thought he might be (though maybe someday that will change). But until then, we belong to him and he to us. And so we pray and look at the dark road ahead with confidence that this path we are on will lead us home.
Again we prepare to leave for a through-the-night drive as darkness falls. Our bags sit haphazardly packed despite specific instructions and reminders from Adam’s mom. But before we leave, we pull buffalo chicken macaroni and cheese and hash brown casserole from the oven. Jayci dances excitedly around the campfire as the boys from the football team saunter through our gate at regular intervals, starting thirty minutes after we had told them dinner would start. We reluctantly turn away a few boys who quit the team or who never played, determined to make this a special celebration of the team we built, however rag-tag and uncertain it may have been.
After everyone has eaten their fill of hot dogs and macaroni and barbeque chicken, we stand around the glowing embers of the campfire to roast marshmallows for smores. Jayci eagerly dashes inside to grab the stack of certificates we painstakingly filled out the evening previous. I was determined, I told Adam, to give the boys awards honoring their character, not just their abilities on the field. I realize they will think it’s lame, I tell him, but I can only hope that one day our words and truth spoken over them might reverberate in their hearts when they need it most, when they are sitting in their darkest place.
And so we stand around the coals as the fire simmers down. I stare at the coals, noticing the way they are lit from within, spreading heat and light to the rowdy boys laughing and jonesing and huddled around them. And we celebrate our boys, calling them leader, telling them we appreciate their commitment, their honesty, their cheerful heart, their quick wit and positive attitude. They duck their heads, and tease one another, and brag how their award is the best one of all, and roll their eyes in equal measures. They give Jayci the “best cookie-maker award” and me “best team mom.”
Later, I log onto facebook and see they have posted pictures of their certificates, of their smores, their t-shirts, and that their statuses declare their undying devotion to the Anteaters of Adair Park. Tears well in my eyes because tonight, under charcoal smoke spiraling up into blackest-sky, the dark doesn’t feel thick and suffocating like tar. Rather, it’s inky-black with the promise of futures not-yet-written. Because you all believed that these boys belonged to us, and to you, and that they were more than just statistics and future inmates. Because you bought t-shirts and prayed and cheered and made banners for them to run through. Because of hope, we can shed glimmers of light into a darkness we still don’t fully understand.
Tonight, once again I stare out into dark night, looking for the light. Silhouettes and shadows take shape as my eyes adjust. And I find pinpricks of light poked through dark canvas of night sky. I search out one star, dim and pale and flickering as though barely able to will itself to shine. I think of him once again, of how to reignite his inner light when he is so surrounded and immersed in the darkness that sometimes seems to shroud our city’s streets. But I know we wont give up, because just as surely as he belongs to us, I can rest in the certainty that he belongs even more completely to the Author who pens his story and future with loving tenderness. And grace remains: the star flickers, and continues bravely shining its light, convinced that somehow it is making a difference in the universe, even in the great sky strewn with brighter stars and bigger planets and constellations. Because He numbers the stars, He calls them by name. And so He calls me. And Caden and Jayci. And Zack and Sabo, and all our boys. Each and every one. He calls their name and numbers their hairs and tonight I rest in the assurance of that great grace that the sun is coming with the morning.