WASHINGTON – The presidential race recently turned to talk of favorite Bible verses. Mine (for what it is worth) is found in the parable of the prodigal son. After his fit of dissipation in a far country, the boy returns, expecting humiliation. “But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.”
The King James Version – “fell on his neck” – somehow captures the father’s joy and acceptance. As does Heinz Warneke’s sculpture in the Bishop’s Garden at the Washington National Cathedral – one of my favorite quiet corners of D.C. – with father and son melting into each other, an image of utter and mutual surrender. Such tenderness in stone.
Life is illuminated by parables, but conducted in messier stories. And journalist Ron Fournier, in a new book, tells his with great honesty and empathy. “Love that Boy” recounts how Fournier set aside a heavy burden of fatherly expectations to understand and embrace his son Tyler, an extraordinary young man with Asperger’s syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism. It is a brief, moving reflection, not only on parenthood, but on what it means to accept another human being entirely, for who they really are, and how much harder that can be with those who are closest to us.
The book is organized around a series of road trips to presidential homes and libraries, one of the few interests shared by father and son. Fournier calls these “guilt trips” because they were meant, in part, to make up for years that his professional ambitions had consumed. Since the author is a former White House correspondent of great (and deserved) repute, Fournier is able to observe Tyler interacting with the famous. There is Bill Clinton, generous and prolix, monologuing on politics and history in his own version of Asperger-like free association. And George W. Bush, digging for connection with Tyler until he finds it, grabbing Fournier by the elbow and urging him to “love that boy.”
But it is Tyler who is the book’s central and most interesting character – sharp and witty, blunt and socially awkward, sometimes loudly inappropriate in crowds, mostly content in his exhaustive enthusiasms for animals or history or video games. And, in the end, courageous – testing himself by doing standup comedy, which the rest of us who are socially awkward can only regard with awe.
When Fournier (as writers tend to do) over-interprets a moment, Tyler punctures him: “I think you’re trying too hard.” But there is also Tyler, practicing over and over how he will greet President Obama in a holiday receiving line, telling his father, “I hope I don’t let you down, Dad.”
Any parent, in a moment like that, realizes the frightening power of approval or disapproval he or she possesses – how the wrong word might leave a lifelong scar. Fournier is forthright about his own struggles, afraid that his son will embarrass him, then “embarrassed about being embarrassed.” In letting go the child he imagined – athletic and popular – Fournier finds Tyler, and the better end of the deal.
Boiled down, Fournier is urging those of us with children – or parents, or other close human ties – to accept the awesome givenness of our relationships. Other lives can be guided, but not really shaped. People have some irreducible core that can only be accepted. And acceptance is the completion of love. As parents, our job in life is to wholly, truly, wish and work for the benefit and happiness of another human being, not to seek what makes us happy through them. If family bonds teach nothing more than this, the achievement is massive.
One warning: “Love that Boy” is a book that forces (sometimes tearful) introspection. My youngest leaves for college later this year, and I have been rummaging through my worst parenting moments, hoping my son remembers my failures – my moments of impatience and anger – less vividly than I do. Over the last few years, as my teenager became more embarrassed by my affection, I started baiting him by saying loudly, every night before he goes to bed, “I love you, son.” Now he plays along and expects it. An insignificant ritual, a small thing. Every night, “I love you” – until I won’t be there to say it.
I hope he remembers those words rather than the harsh ones, and knows that his father loved him imperfectly but completely. Maybe, I hope, not so small a thing.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.