To understand the story you have to know this: Ethan got his ball when he started an eight-week basketball class back in March. He mistakenly named his ball "Falcon" after misreading the word "Franklin" printed on the ball. Falcon quickly became something akin to a combination imaginary friend and comfort object. He rode with us in the car on the way to school. He slept in a sleeping bag on the floor next to Ethan's bed (I had to be sure to tell him goodnight, too). I once drove through Hartford traffic to retrieve Falcon from the developmental pediatrician's office, where Ethan had inadvertently left him. And of course Falcon served as Ethan's constant companion outside and next door when Ethan would go to "shoot hoops" with his little friend and little friend's big brother. According to Ethan, Falcon was "as old as God" and possibly as tall as God, too.
On this gorgeously sunny day, Ethan looked at what had become of Falcon, at his deflated, misshapen form, and couldn't hold it together. The tears started, then the sobs. "My Falcon!" he cried out, carrying him over to the swing set. He was cradling him in his arms, and I heard him murmuring.
"Ethe, what are you doing?" I asked, from where I sat on the deck with my parents, who were over visiting.
"I'm asking God to heal him," he said.
Oh. Oh no.
"God, please listen," he begged.
"Oh hon," I started to say, half-smiling, my heart sinking. "I'm so sorry...but I don't think Falcon can be fixed."
"But I am asking God," he said earnestly, looking down at his deflated friend. "Why isn't He listening to me??"
And though I knew in that moment how lacking the standard platitude was, even if it was true, I still said it.
"Hon, God DOES listen. Sometimes He just doesn't answer the way we want him to."
Ethan, my Literal One, wasn't having any of this. All he knew was: people had told him you could pray to God, and that God heals, and he was waiting to see results. He sat there with Falcon, huddled in the May sunshine, wailing out to the Universe. He clutched the ball in his arms, ignoring our overtures. All he kept saying, again and again, was "I prayed. Why isn't God listening to me?!"
This was no longer remotely funny. I felt my eyes prickling behind my sunglasses. Ethan got off the swing and came to me, begging for a hug, begging for answers. I couldn't speak. I just kept shaking my head, because in my six-year-old, I saw myself. I saw all of us who have prayed and been disappointed, who have wondered if our overtures fall on the uncaring ears of a God far removed from us, who have wondered if there is a God there listening, who have questioned and raged and screamed WHY???
My mom began gently talking to Ethan. My mom, on Mother's Day, who had lost her own mother just a few weeks before, who herself was no stranger to disappointment and prayers prayed in faith not realized.
"Ethan, sometimes we don't know why," she said. "But God hears. And God is there to help us through the bad times. It's okay to be sad. You will feel better again."
Ethan was bargaining. "But maybe if we glue him. Maybe if we tape him..." Anna rushed to find her glue gun, but I gently urged her to stop, to not awaken false hope.
Still clutching Falcon, Ethan's face grew hard after a few moments. His next words took my breath away. "If God doesn't listen to me, I'm going to hate him," he announced.
Tears were flowing behind my sunglasses now. I felt the pounding of my heart bursting into pieces, thinking of childlike faith, dashed, knowing my son was very much like me and my own heart, so quick to jump to offense, to weigh down with resentment when I just.don't.understand the person we prayed for who wasn't close to being healed and the mom who had just gotten her life back together who died in a freak accident and the baby so little suffering so much pain from cancer and the list went on and on.
I couldn't take it. I went inside for a moment. I wondered. I prayed the starkest of prayers: Oh, God...help me.
A few minutes later, back outside, Ethan was calming, just slightly.
"Anna and Gramma told me Falcon will be able to bounce in heaven," he said, still cradling him in his arms. "Will he be able to bounce really high?"
In that moment, I cared not the least about any sort of theological argument about basketballs and the afterlife. Heaven is a place where wrongs are made right.
"Ethan, in heaven he'll be able to bounce to the stars and come back down to you," I said without thinking. For the first time, a peace seemed to settle over him. He managed a shaky smile. We decided to go get ice cream.
Later that day, I asked him. "Ethan? Do you still hate God?"
"No," he replied simply. "Because Falcon's going to be able to bounce high in heaven."
You can call this God thing a crutch. You can call it a myth or a fairy tale. You can make all kind of arguments and logically I can't win them. But I wonder.
Watching Ethan I understand the way the questioning, the blame, the pride are woven into our fallen natures. But I also wonder if we aren't created to hope. That there isn't a part of us that finds perfect peace when we grasp that Truth that there is a place where injustices will be no more. Where loss no longer rips us apart. Where dreams don't evaporate.
We were made for something beyond this, and it's bigger than all of the answers we don't have.
Look beyond the window there
To the sky above to the open air
Look beyond what you can see
Close your eyes and just believe
The lion roars and the lamb lays down
They live together in a whole new town
They’re calling me and they’re calling you
From the cold hard facts that we’re on our own
To the age old truth that we’re not alone
-Jason Upton, Emma's Song (You're Not Alone)