It was one of the beautiful days – warm and sunny and weekendy. We were visiting my in-laws, far, far away from the city we call home. We had spent the day, trying to cram as much summer as possible into it - watermelon and sprinkler runs and failed attempts at getting the toddler to nap in the pack ‘n play.
When evening came, my father-in-law Ron prepped his fishing boat, while I got our then two-year-old Owen ready, running through the Checklist of Motherhood several times, hoping to ensure a successful outing: sunblock, hat, snacks, life jacket, towel, backup clothes, diaper, backup snacks. As I gathered everything, Owen happily babbled, “Me goin’ fishing!” about seven hundred times.
Owen was indeed going fishing. He had first tried fishing with my dad the month prior and loved it. Since then, every stick we’d come across had become his fishing pole. He would cast it, pretend to reel, and then yell, for all the playground to hear: “I got a big one!” before tossing his keeper into a fictional bucket. He did this little song and dance again and again. And now, we were about to actually go fishing. On an actual boat. With actual fish. I thought that he was going to hyperventilate.
Earlier in the day, Grandpa Ron and my husband Eric had taken Owen out to buy his very own kid-sized fishing pole, inappropriately named The Dock Demon, which he had not let out of his sight. On the way to the boat launch, all we heard from the back seat was, “Mom? Where’s my fishing pole?” Over and over and over.
After we’d motored out to the middle of the lake, we threaded a worm onto his hook, cast his line, and handed him his rod. He was beaming, looking out at the water with the kind of confidence only a two-year-old can have.
The minutes wore on, and despite Owen’s verbal summoning of the fish below, he wasn’t catching anything. I moved closer to him, offering to help him try to cast in a different spot, but I was met with a surprisingly strong stiff arm and an impassioned but classic toddler NO!
I backed off. A few minutes later, Eric tried to help him and received the same response. We shrugged at each other and gave him some space. Then, Grandpa Ron hooked a big bass on his own pole, and like any grandparenting pro would do, he motioned for us hand Owen the weighed-down pole, saying, “Here, Owen, try this one!”
Eric tried to grab Owen’s kid pole so that he could take Grandpa Ron’s and actually catch a fish. But we had underestimated his sense of ownership of The Dock Demon. Before we knew it, he was screaming “NOOOOOO! MIIIIINE! ISSSSSSSSS MYYYYYYY FIIIIIIIIIISHING POLLLLLEEE!” loud enough to scare all of the fish in the lake back to the Mississippi River.
He turned red and continued to scream well after we’d returned The Dock Demon to him. He was completely immune to the big fish pulled into the boat, to how it shimmered as it thrashed back and forth, to how glass-still the water was as we lowered the fish back to its home. He forgot about the sun and its warmth, the way it bathed everything in golden glow. He could not hear the low branches as they faintly brushed against the water, the hum of cicadas and tree frogs warming up for the night. With eyes closed, he shut out the immensity of the sky, forever blue with a few white and wispy clouds.
His utter focus on what was his consumed him and made him completely unable to see that we were trying to help him, trying to enrich his experience, to make it more full, more fun. So, he spent the rest of the time on the boat with his Dock Demon bobber floating purposelessly in the water.
The whirring motor carried us back to the boat launch as I held my baby tight and thought about our evening. I pictured his white-knuckled grip on his fishing pole and reflected on all that he’d missed out on that evening. I was struck with a glimpse into myself. So often, my own heart tightens around what most to me — my sons, my daughter, my husband. Awake in the night, I call them mine as my mind races through the worst-case scenarios – What if Eric dies next year? What if Owen was kidnapped? What if my relationship with Elsa is broken someday? What if Lewis gets cancer?
I lose sight of the fact that while these four people are gifts of the highest order, they are not and never have been mine. I hold tightly to them, and in doing so, I become a child again, stiff-arming God and screaming NO! to his plan for me, his plan for them, his plan to make our lives more full, more abundant. I wonder what I am missing, with my fists so tightly closed, how many of my most determined efforts float fruitlessly on the water. I grieve for the moments of stillness that I have missed as I have rocked the boat with my heart’s upheavals, for the surrounding beauty that my tightly shut eyes have missed entirely.
There are times when I forget to truly hear the sound of my children’s laughter, to actually look into their beautiful eyes, to fully feel the warmth of Eric’s shoulder against mine when we sit together at night, to fully enjoy these moments for what they are – beautiful, fleeting gifts.
I drove Owen home that night for bedtime while Eric and his dad continued to fish. We drove together down a beautiful country road, the sun golden through our smudged minivan windows. I looked at Owen in my rearview mirror, as he looked up at the sky rushing past.
As we drove, I prayed that God would remind me daily that this life – all of it, in every moment – is a gift and that these people I love so dearly are not mine…but His. I longed to truly know that His hands are far bigger and more capable than my own. I prayed that in the opening of my hands, I would step closer to the fullness of life that He promises and is eager to give. I prayed that He would unclench my fist.