by Erika Marksbury
I began a ritual with my boys. It was one of those attempts to draw us closer to each other, to remind us of what matters, to cultivate a way of thinking about and being in the world. Each night, after they’re in bed, tucked under their covers, I ask them to tell me five things from the day that they’re thankful for. They hear each other’s five things, and I share a list of my own with them, too. After we’ve each taken a turn, we say together, “Thank you, God, for all these good things.”
We’ve been doing it for years now. The answers are often the same – there’s a pool of about 15 possibilities they cycle through, though if we’ve done something unusual that day, that usually gains a spot on the list. I like hearing about what has mattered to them, and I like that there’s a pattern for their bedtime activities – get ready, get in bed, read stories, say five things.
I do not like that the older one has recently discovered he can use this ritual to hurt his brother.
The younger one will say something like, “I want to say thank you for my Legos, for the cats, for the sleepover coming up, for macaroni, for mommy and daddy and my brother.”
And the older one will say something like, “I want to say thank you for riding my bike, for no math worksheets tonight, for soccer practice, for the cats, for mommy and daddy. . .”
The youngest will keep listening, knowing there must be more. He’ll lean in. He’ll give his brother time to say it. He’ll twist his face into a kind of expectant anxiety. When the words he wants to hear don’t come, he’ll whimper pitifully, “Mommy. . .why didn’t he say me?”
Sometimes I’ll say, “I’m sure he meant to” or “‘Mommy and daddy’ kind of means ‘family,’ so you’re included” or “He said you last night, remember?”
But sometimes the older one will fight me on that, on the idea that his brother is implicitly included in whatever he said. And that’s even more painful for the little one to hear. So sometimes I just say, “I don’t know, baby.” (And I hug him and over the top of his head I glare at the older one and make fruitless coaxing motions with my fingers.)
Most of the time, I love that the boys share a room, especially when I hear them giggling together long after I’ve turned the lights out for the night. And most of the time I love that they get to hear each other’s “five things.” Sometimes the hearing will serve as a reminder – one brother will say thank you for family reunion, or a cool rock he found, and the other will say, “I meant to say that! Mommy, can I do more than five?” But sometimes – like when the older one refuses to include the younger in his thankfulness mantra – I wish they had separate spaces, so the younger one wouldn’t have to listen in vain for his own name.
But my urge to protect him competes with my desire to let the older one speak his mind. As much as I want the younger one to know how loved he is, I don’t want to script the older one’s responses. I don’t want to tell him what to be thankful for. I want to really hear about his day and his heart, what piece of it he might think to tell me about that I wouldn’t imagine on my own. He deserves the chance to be honest and maybe sometimes, honestly, he’s not thankful for this smaller, louder creature that kicks him and pulls at him and tattles on him and yanks toys out of his hand.
There are consequences to ritual. There’s the potential, of course, that ritual draws us together, that it binds us to one another. But there’s also the possibility that ritual makes way for revelation – that into that habitual practice some unexpected sound might slip. . .or some hoped-for word might not be heard – and that sort of revelation can be devastating. A revelation of unrequited brotherly love is not anything I’d imagined when I first invited the boys to share. But it is a consequence of asking them to open up.
So, difficult as it sometimes is, we’ll continue saying our five things. Because in some small way, it forces me to let go: to let them both be honest, and to make me confront the reality that I cannot protect them from much – even from each other. And because it helps us end the day with an acknowledgment that we have so much to be grateful for, which is sometimes hard to remember in those last minutes before lights-out, filled with my incessant naggings of “why haven’t you brushed your teeth?” and “what possible reason could you have for still being in your clothes?” And because, once in a while, the older one’s list goes something like this: “I want to say thank you for the field trip, and time to draw, and a letter from grandma, and my baseball glove, and. . .my brother.”
And then the younger one grins so big he pulls his bedspread up to cover his face, embarrassed that his brother might see how happy he is to hear that.