My perspective on that experience was transformed by a moment I shared with Ezra one summer morning many years ago, a moment I later realized was emblematic of our entire relationship. Here, an excerpt from the opening pages of my new memoir:
The walk was always the same. Then one day it was different.
In the summer of 1999, my wife Shawn and I spent two months with our three young sons at a retreat center nestled in the arid foothills bordering Simi Valley, California. The campus was a spectacular, sprawling property stretching over gentle, golden ridges dotted with eucalyptus, pepper trees, and cactus. Shawn, a recently ordained rabbi, was teaching Jewish texts and practices to a group of young adults. The job required long hours not only in the classroom but also in intense, private discussions of spirituality over meals in the dining hall, on long strolls, and over snacks late into the night. At the same time she was nurturing the souls of a few dozen twenty-somethings, we were also busy caring for our boys: Ami, who was five; Ezra, three; and Noam, eighteen months.
Some months earlier, Ezra had begun displaying troubling behavior. He isolated himself from his preschool classmates to flip mechanically through picture books. At home, he spent inordinate periods absorbed in solitary, odd activities like lining up plastic dinosaurs and jungle animals in precise, symmetrical patterns across the back porch. His sensory system was clearly in disarray. That summer, he was so tortured by the cacophonous noises of the dining hall that he would cover his ears and run out the doors; at nearly every breakfast, lunch, and dinner we had to designate an adult to keep track of Ezra as he paced alone in small circles on the concrete patio or sought out insects among the boulders and agave plants on a nearby hillside.
Ezra seemed agitated even in his sleep, and when he rose at daybreak, it fell upon me to prevent him from waking the other boys or creating enough of a disturbance to rouse the staff members and families neighboring our small bungalow.
So Ezra and I began taking walks.
The air was cool and crisp at that early hour, the best time to roam the grounds, where peacocks wandered freely and geckos scampered across stone walls and asphalt patches. Ezra was drawn to animals of all kinds, so we wandered down a short dirt road to visit a compact stable that housed the center's small herd of horses, then continued up a knoll and into a modest pen, where Ezra could meander amid a few dozen chickens and, nearby, peek into a small aviary with parrots and a handful of pigeons. For a boy who spent most of the year in a Los Angeles neighborhood with all of the traffic, smog, and noise that came with it, this was heaven.
After a few days, Ezra had worked out a circuit that he insisted on following each morning: paying a visit to the livestock and birds, then continuing a stretch to a little barn, past the swimming pool and sports fields, and up the road to where he had discovered a playground area. There, years before, campers had created a cluster of toddler-size animals molded from plaster. Ezra would sit on each one, always in exactly the same order: the giraffe, the camel, the snail, the turtle. Then we wandered to the nearby swing set, where I pushed him for a few minutes until he was ready to hop off and stroll back to the cabin, just in time to find his mother and brothers beginning to stir.