I will always remember what Jacob said when we were circling to land in Milwaukee. Not the words, which do not come easily to this little boy. Jacob is sick. He has always been sick. When he was four months old, doctors opened his chest to fix a problem with his heart, the most urgent of a long list of problems. Jacob is four years old now. He is deaf, he has trouble breathing and his organs are in the wrong place.
Jacob is going to another hospital today. First by airplane and then, not long after we land, a cab arrives and off he goes. Again.
While we wait for Jacob and his mother to return, Bryan and I do our best to perform our day jobs in the pilots’ lounge, spreading out computers and legal pads, wishing for internet access, trying to fill the time with work, to give it value.
But I am thinking about Jacob. The cold calculation begins. By some measures, Jacob’s life looks to be a net loss. The gravity of his suffering affects the orbit of everyone around him; time and attention and money are drawn into his need as stars into a black hole. Much has been spent to knit this child together, administering grace that God in His wisdom chose not to give.
On the other hand, in the few minutes that I have spent with Jacob, I have learned that there is something incalculable here. For as long as he can remember, Jacob has been pierced and prodded by strangers, touched by hundreds of cold hands in rubber gloves, sat cold and blinking in the metallic glare of many examination rooms.
He should be afraid. He should be sad. But he is not. Jacob offers himself, his little body, in a way I do not understand. His eyes are wide. His mouth is often open in wonder or joy. When you reach for him, his arms reach back in welcome. This is not the dumb, dazed surrender of the numb. It is the fierce and hopeful heart of an intelligent four-year-old boy who reaches for joy, and I begin to wonder why I thought Jacob was weak.
He comes back to the airport with a device stuck to the side of his head. The machine helps him hear, compensates for parts of his body that don’t work. It sticks because, in an earlier surgery, doctors slipped a magnet under Jacob’s skin.
He grins at me and I wonder: what is this child who has endured so much? From a distance, he seems part boy, part robot; a life sustained by marvelous technology. Drawing nearer, he reminds me of a hand-made quilt; bearing a thousand careful stitches of a dozen skillful doctors who wish to make him whole. But there is no life in a robot or a quilt and what strikes you about Jacob is not his sickness but his life.
There is something radiant in this little lamb. Something shines through Jacob’s weakness and shoots beams of light and warmth on people who draw near. Perhaps it is God, after all, who knit this child, and perhaps it was grace to knit him so; a cheerful rebuke to people like me and an almost irresistible invitation to love. Jacob is affecting my orbit, but he is drawing me out of darkness.
They say that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness and I meet here, in this wounded boy, a truer, brighter strength than I possess. Jacob lives and loves, unsupported by so much that I consider essential. He does not measure life as I do, a record of things gained or lost. Looking at him, beginning, a little, to love him, brings a moment of clarity in which I can imagine unshouldering my load of self.
I said that I will remember what Jacob said when we circled to land in Milwaukee. I did not know Jacob then, did not know how he measured the world. I was surprised when I heard his voice; he had not spoken once since we left Holland. I was banking the airplane to line up with the runway and we thought the feeling of turning had frightened him. Bryan looked back to see if he was ok and that is when we began to know Jacob. His eyes were wide and his mouth was open and he was shouting what every pilot says in his heart when an airplane wheels in the sky: Hallelujah.