Alex, can you please clear off the kitchen table and then wipe it down? Looks like someone spilled milk and forgot to clean it up.
Yeah, that was me. I meant to clean it, but then I forgot.
Five minutes pass, then ten, dishes get done, laundry is loaded. In the kitchen, I see the same cluttered, sticky-milk-spilled-on table.
Alex, come and clean this table. Now.
Another five, another ten.
He storms from his bedroom, a blur of angst, hands in the air, he crashes across the tabletop, parting the sea of cereal containers and milk-dampened coloring pages with his skinny arms.
Alex, let’s try that again, with less attitude.
He goes. We try. He harumphs. He twirls with force around the kitchen. He buzzes around the table, loudly moving things as he huffs and puffs.
I pull out a chair. He sits in time out.
I clear the table, wipe it down, my own harumphs, huffs and puffs meeting his ears as he whimpers and starts to cry in the time out seat.
It’s not only about doing what you’re asked, Alex. It’s about your attitude as you do it. You can get down now. The table is done, but you can clean underneath.
He lurches down from his seat and collapses on the floor, starts kicking coloring books and crayons from beneath the table.
Back to time out.
Five, ten, twenty minutes. The rest of the morning, this is our battle. Words, just words. Respect. Attitude. Obedience. They seem to ping off from his seven year old body, just as quickly as I can utter them.
I break. I am at a loss, without words, I am nothing. In a stroke of either genius or stupidity, I invite Asher and Lila to the kitchen and offer them fudge.
Even little Evaline gets a nibble.
This is where Alex breaks. In tears at first, he moves to his bedroom, then there is silence.
Ten, twenty minutes. He comes out, only to drag the vacuum back with him.
When he is done, the bedroom is beautiful. I did it all by myself. No one helped me. He talks of the injustice of it all – that he alone tackled the mess of the bedroom. Can I have fudge now?
No, Alex. The point wasn’t that I wanted you to clean the table or the whole house for that matter, it was about your attitude. I would have taken a sincere apology over a spotless bedroom.
He sobs, mumbles that he’s sorry, shrinks back to his clean bedroom and lays on the floor.
I want him to know that it’s his heart that I want, not his works. I want him to know that it’s similar to faith – that we aren’t saved by how well we clean our houses, but how well we lift our hearts. I want him to learn grace.
Grace, gives. Grace, accepts. Grace bears bad attitudes and tempers, and comes from the other side of an argument, with her hand still outstreched.
Grace, you cannot teach with words.
I lay in Alex’s room beside him. He is staring up at the ceiling, eyes red, but no longer weeping. We don’t say anything. Evie toddles back and forth between us and giggles, lightening the air around us. We get up together, gather the other kids and head out to run the errands that we need to get done.
An hour after our battle ended with him on the bedroom floor and me at the counter, contemplating the thousands of ways I have failed in the span of forty-five minutes – Alex calls to me from the back of the van. I turn down the music.
Mom, I’m so sorry that I did not listen and that I was disrespectful this morning.
And my heart breaks into a hundred thousand pieces, there behind the steering wheel.
An olive branch. An open heart. A son who loves me beyond my flaws.
Thank you, God, for that.