Amid the chaos of sorting through a family of needs, I’ve been freshly stumped by how to reach my middle son. At eight years old, he is my introvert who rarely tells me what he needs by using actual words.

Instead, he pads into the kitchen where I’ve come to get my morning coffee, early, before the other two children are awake. He tucks into the couch cushions next to me and says nothing, but I know he has come seeking something. I’ll put my arms around him, scratch his back, and send him off to the pantry to fetch his breakfast.

My other two children are more similar to me, or annoying distant relatives: they announce, audibly, what they need, want, and feel. In contrast, nurturing my middle son takes finesse – he is a puzzle, a particular treasure.

It turns out that he is also the one who orchestrates most of the outdoor pick-up games my children play together. When he’s setting up for his latest baseball-themed game, he nestles into his best self. He’ll call to me, beckoning me outside, where he’ll proudly list all the rules everyone else has agreed to.

“Here, look what I can do,” he says.

Once, at 6:30 in the morning, he asked me to come outside with him and play catch. I had just poured my first cup of coffee and had yet to wake my other two children. My aging, accident-prone dog had poop-stamped the entire first floor of my house (if this gift of morning is unknown to you, you have all my envy). The dishwasher was full. There were lunches to be made. Also, I’m not sporty, at least not early in the morning. Still, my son wanted to play catch – with me.

He suggested we pass a Frisbee, a soccer ball, a baseball – he didn’t care what. I shrugged, sliding my flip-flops onto my feet, and carried my coffee mug out to the yard.

“Mom, you need to put that down if you’re going to catch this,” he said smiling, his tone just a little fresh. He chopped the air with the Frisbee in hand, waiting patiently. I obeyed him then, setting my cup down on the stone wall.

We slung the Frisbee back and forth to one another, leaping through the grass and yelping with each catch or missed pass. We grinned, the fog of our morning routine slowly lifting. Perhaps, I thought, there was something to this sports thing after all. We focused on him, on me, and back again. We laughed, first when I made a catch and ad-libbed an end-zone dance, and second, when he dove for the Frisbee and landed face-first in the pachysandra.

Next, the dog walked beside us and vomited into the grass. When he began to eat it again, my son howled, delightfully sickened. He mocked the dog, retching with his face hovering over the lawn.

Then, he leaped into the air to catch a pass before falling down.

“I almost made an Odell!” he shouted, excited.

“A what?” I asked.

“Mom, you seriously don’t know what an Odell is?”

I held my hands out in the air, showing him I had nothing.

That’s when he schooled me, and now I can report back with nerd-like pride: it’s a type of catch, named for one typically made by a football player named Odell, in which a person leaps backwards into the air and catches the ball with one hand.

Before long, my other two children wandered out back in their pajamas and asked if they could play, too. I smiled and shrugged – of course everyone could play, that’s our family rule. So began a morning baseball game using a skateboard, a Razor stick, and a Frisbee to mark first, second, and third bases. My children hashed out and agreed upon the rules (these flex from day to day) and my four-year-old promptly broke them by urinating on home plate – a boogie board – because he was too engrossed in the game to stop and use a toilet.

By that time, I was back on the wall, finally sitting and drinking my coffee. My middle son and I looked at each other and smiled. We’d had our time, however brief, and it was sweet. 

In the absence of any clear and open signs from my son, I could have worried incessantly about what he needed. Sometimes, the nagging sense that something is up with your child actually gets in the way. Had one of us inadvertently said something hurtful to him? How could I help him? Was I doing something to make him feel more lost, less included in the family?

In the end, what he needed was for me to let him take the lead and show me how I could care for him – I just had to quiet down enough to be able to listen.