Broken shells cut into my bare feet as I follow my son down the beach to the rocky outposts on the sand dunes where it is rumored that baby crabs live. What we would do if we actually located a baby crab is uncertain, but I follow my son nonetheless. It is enough for me to follow his lead as the sun sinks slowly into the horizon, bringing the close of a day during which my son has been entirely happy.

During our vacation in a remote coastal beach town, it seems as if my son is on his own vacation as well. Normally wound so tight, and unable to accept changes to his routine, he has unexpectedly left behind the issues that make school life a struggle, and those that make finding and keeping friends so hard. He plays with his sister, catches tadpoles and befriends a stray dog. He catches jellyfish that have washed onto the sand, and buries them in individual unmarked graves.

Here on the quiet beach, our family finds solitude and togetherness. We find each other in the absence of others

For these few days, our lives are determined by sand and sea, by changing tides and the hunt for water creatures. Pale sand-colored salamanders delight us as they evade capture. Crabs retreat into the crevices of a rock, and a whole trout washes out of the sea with the waves.

Here on the quiet beach, our family finds solitude and togetherness. We find each other in the absence of others.

It is not until we return home on the third day that the heaviness descends again. This heaviness is the weight of his moods and his anger, resulting in our constant need to anticipate his reactions and plan everything according to his needs. “We didn’t need him to be anything other than who he is,” I explain to my husband in response to his silent query, as we rush past each other in the early morning bustle of getting dressed (“Don’t wear that! It doesn’t match”), and finding lost shoes (“Well, where did you put them last night?”) and arriving on time (“If you don’t hurry, we’ll be late for school”).

When my son is finally dressed and hurried out the door, I dream of building a school on the beach, a school filled with sand crabs and salamanders, and a blackboard in the sand. A school that the waves will wash clean each night, and erase all our struggles by morning.

When my daughter was born, I learned that parenting requires everything you have. From my son, I learned that parenting sometimes requires even more than that.

On a morning when I wake up with a migraine, blood pounding like drumbeats in my head, my daughter recognizes that Mommy is having a bad day. At nine years old, she is resilient and emotionally flexible enough to recognize the need to play quietly and tread carefully. She takes her cues from me and recognizes my need to be alone now. Yet my son simply cannot handle the smallest edge in my voice, or this inexplicable deviation from our routine.

By the time I emerge from my room, he has taken refuge under the dining room table, impossibly wounded by my request that he leave the room. It takes a long time to coax him to come out.

This type of parenting requires walking a tightrope. It requires perfect self-control and vigilance against the small slips of anger and impatience that accompany even the best parenting. It requires abundant giving with delayed returns.

This type of parenting requires walking a tightrope

It also requires frequent retreats into the quiet and hidden places that lurk on the outskirts of our civilized world. The healing power of nature is miraculous. A child so needy is freed from restraint; doubt and fear are abandoned in the pursuit of sea creatures.

After all the times I have been forced to lead him into places that terrified him to enter, like crowded and noisy classrooms, and testing rooms both innocent and strange, it is a blessing to follow his lead over rocks and dunes. We hunt with abandon for all those creatures that scuttle and crawl and slither and swim. In everything we find, we marvel over a unique and perfect life force.

For my son, who loves these creatures, it is enough for him that such creatures exist, even though they remain aloof to his existence. It is enough to love without his love being received or acknowledged.

I struggle to learn this lesson as I follow him through the dunes. For me, love has always been the beginning of a conversation. Yet this is exactly the challenge of loving this boy—to love him without needing a response. I want to love him as he himself loves, with a love that is not a question, but rather an immovable rock capable of withstanding the onslaught of high waves, shifting sands and unanswered questions.