The first winter of my son Jesse's life was remarkably mild. Toward the end of the season, we had our first and only real snowfall. The snow started early Friday and by evening had blanketed the ground and trees and muted the air. Inspired by the beauty of the snow and perhaps the glass of wine with dinner, I decided to put Jesse in his snuggly, which I wore on my chest, and go outside for a walk. I found myself walking toward the forest preserve a few blocks from our house. Inexplicably, I started to walk into the woods. Since we live a mere 25 miles north of New York City, I wasn't particularly scared of bears or any other wild creatures. But it was night, and I'm not the sort of person who walks with ease into a dark room, let alone a dark forest. But there I was, walking into the woods as if summoned.
I stopped about five yards into the forest. With my baby snug against me, I stood contemplating the beauty of the whitened deep and the resounding peace of it all. A few minutes into my reverie, I became aware of something crossing the path about 30 feet in front of me. I immediately recognized the coyote by its anorexic appearance and stealthy gait. A second coyote followed behind both of them stopping to look at us. I stood mesmerized by the sight of them, oddly unafraid. After taking me in for several moments, the coyotes continued on with their nocturnal agenda.
A friend had recently told me that according to Native American tradition, any sighting of a wild animal has some inherent meaning for the viewer. I also recalled an article I had read a few weeks before that described God as a trickster who is always confounding our expectations and intervening in our lives in ways we don't expect and initially resist. This article went on to describe how the coyote is the predominant symbol of the trickster in folklore mythology, always sneaking past the farm hands and making mischief in the barnyard. God as trickster. It made perfect sense to me.
As I stood in the forest that winter night, just before my coyote encounter, I thanked God for Jesse, whose Down's syndrome had been diagnosed several months earlier when he was still in my womb. Initially devastated by the news--my vision for my family did not include a mentally retarded son--over the course of several days, my fear and disappointment were infused with an assurance that all would be well.
Prior to Jesse's diagnosis, I'd theoretically believed in God's desire and ability to imbue all experience with goodness and meaning. Now I felt I was taking him at his word. I sort of pictured God as walking with us down this difficult and somber road--the road was not where you'd choose to be, but at least God would lead the way.
Well, as it turns out, Jesse just turned 2 years old, and the road he has taken us down is a lot like that detour en route to your long-awaited vacation. While you initially resent the sign on the highway saying "Detour," maybe even pound the steering wheel in anger, the detour turns out to be a godsend --wonderful views, old barns, and even a great gourmet deli in the middle of nowhere.
Falling in love with a child who is so different from the one I expected has somehow been liberating. Since Jesse's birth, the goal of a "picture perfect" family, with its oppressive criteria, has been banished from my psyche. Jesse may never be witty and quick in the way I admire. I'll probably never see his byline in The New York Times. It's unlikely he'll share my delight in reading or my joy in running. He'll probably fulfill few if any of my narcissistic fantasies for my offspring. And yet he is utterly irresistible.
My coyote sighting on that dark forest path felt like a reassuring nod from the trickster God. I didn't get the kind of child I thought I needed. I got someone different. I got Jesse. This trickster God is something else. When we trust him, he spins gold from straw.