"It is a tender teaching we are after —
an opening of the human heart
that we might love more of this world,
and then still more."
—Rev. Gretchen Haley
I first visited a children’s psychiatric unit twenty-two years ago. The boy’s mother and I stood facing each other in the hallway by the locked door, not saying a word because there was nothing to say. He was ten years old and seemed not to want to live. He had been putting belts and yo-yo strings around his neck. I reached toward her and put my hand on the flat plane just beneath her collar bones, the place where sadness collects in my own body. I was a new minister then, and guarding against such intimate gestures had not yet become a habit. Much later she told me it had helped: that in that moment she felt less like the only mother in the world who ever had a suicidal child.
I visited the boy every few days, getting buzzed in through the locked doors. Soon we had a routine of finding a quiet place on the floor to play chess and checkers. He beat me every game, partly because I had forgotten anything resembling strategy and also because I was paying more attention to the songs we sang while we played.
He began this musical conversation on the second visit — humming under his breath as he moved his pieces — and then he started adding words. Mostly, the words were about what was happening on the board. “I am going to juuuuummmp you,” he sang.
“If I move like this, you cannot juuummmmp me,” I sang back. I wondered if he was singing me another, truer song underneath, so I was listening carefully and trying to choose what to sing back.
“You are doomed; there is no way out,” he sang, as he claimed another of my checkers.
“I am not doomed,” I answered. “There is always another chance, as long as you will keep plaaaaaaying.”
He never protested when I got ready to go but sometimes, as I walked him back to his room, he held my hand and leaned his head against my arm. On those days I cried in the parking lot. I wanted so much to believe that God was watching over this boy, that God was tender and protective and fiercely on the side of life and that this boy would not slip away.
Months later, after he left the hospital, the boy presented me with a combined game of chess and checkers during a church service. He told our congregation we had played a lot together when he was “in the hospital with sadness” and that he beat me every single time. “This game is for you, so you don’t forget how to play,” he told me.
The boy is a man now. He is married and has good work and two little ones of his own. He has not been lost and I have not forgotten.
Tender God, help us to protect and cherish each child as your beloved, especially the ones who are sad and the ones who are in danger of getting lost. Give us strength to gather them into our own wide-open hearts and hold them safe until their ground is solid again.