Saturday, May 14, 2011

Of Wishes, Hoop Dreams and Simple Prayers

Wishing stars: overrated.

Wishing stars, Y-shaped poultry bones, fountain-strewn pennies, birthday candles – my Billy’s not buying any of it, anymore.

“Mommy, know what? Wishing is fake. All of it,” he declared during a recent car conversation.

At the time of his revelation he was breathing heavily on the passenger-side window, tracing the letters of his first name in the fog with his finger.

“Whatcha mean, Bill?”

“I mean FAKE! You know, PHONY!?!,” my son was looking at me as though I’d just questioned the true identity of Batman.

His emotion caught me off guard. I made eye contact and smiled generously in hopes I could head off the tears that were lodged in his throat and, by my calculations, six seconds from his tear ducts.

“No, Sweetie – what I mean is, how do you KNOW wishes are fake?,” the surety of his words still stuck in my craw.

“Because all my life I been wishin’ to be a famous athlete and it hasn’t happened. So I’m through with wishes!”

And with that, Billy was smearing his carefully formed letters into a blurry fistful of car window smudge.

“Billy – you’re only 5. How many famous 5-year-old athletes do you think there are?”
All my son could do was shrug. To him, a wish is a wish. There are no loopholes or hidden clauses that should preclude a 5-year-old from becoming a famous athlete, if he wishes for it hard enough.

I had to think fast.

Because wishing falls into that huge vat of complication we parents concoct when we encourage our kids to believe in things they can’t slide into their pockets or hold in their chubby little fists.

And we all do it.

Like the airborne fluoride sprite who will exchange a worn-out baby tooth for its fair market value, in cold cash, at the drop of an incisor.

Or the irrational connection between bestowing your heart’s desire onto a Lincoln-head penny and tossing it into a chlorinated pool at the mall.

We coax them to wish on stars, to dabble in dreams.

But we fail to provide a safety net for their errant wishes – the ones that float away, leaving them to plummet, face first, into some dark place, beyond wide-eyed innocence, we hoped they’d never have to find.

Right then and there I didn’t have time to invent the right glue to mend my child’s broken spirit. First, I asked God, “Why me?” Then, I settled on a simple prayer: “Get me outta this one gracefully. Just send me the right words.” Then, I reached over and intercepted the tear stuck midway down Billy’s cheek.

“Well, if you’re thinking of famous athletes like Michael Jordan or Shaquille O’Neal – I’m pretty sure they had to do way more than wish on stars.

They had to practice dribbling and shooting. They had to learn the rules of the game and how not to be sore losers. They had to grow up into men before they got rich and famous.”
My wisdom was falling on plugged ears. Billy’s fingers were wedged tightly into his ear canals, the thing he does whenever he doesn’t like the way I toss advice his way.
My words landed like dead fish near a nauseated seal. They were stinking up his half of the car, too. I could tell by the sour look on his face.

I pulled out my big gun, a whopper of a phrase that sometimes coaxes sensibility from my stubborn son.

“Billy – do you want to be right or do you want to hear the truth?”

And on cue, my queasy little sea mammal was getting his appetite back.

“All right, Mom. I want the truth.”

“OK, the truth is that you’re right: Wishes are fake.”

He was all ears, sans the fingers.

“There’s nothing wrong with making wishes, because they come straight from your heart. As long as you understand there’s no magic; no place for wishes to go that make them come true.”

And then came the words I’d more than wished for, the spiritual Krazy Glue my fragmented son needed to repair his NBA dreams of grandeur.

“You know, wishes are a lot like prayers. Only we know prayers have someplace to go. You send a prayer to God and have faith that he hears it. Then, you do your part. You wanna be a good athlete? Be patient. Practice and work hard.”

“All right, Mommy.” Only Billy was distracted by a fresh batch of window fog. Still, I think he was happy to know the truth about wishes.

I sent my smile heavenward, along with a silent postscript to my earlier prayerful S.O.S.
“Thanks, God. And one more thing: Next time let it be Jim trapped in the car when Billy needs the truth. I’m drained.”

Originally published Sept. 1997
Bucks County Courier Times

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