'A Slant of the Sun': listen to the heart

June 07, 1998|By Jan Winburn | Jan Winburn,SUN STAFF

"A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," by Beth Kephart. W.W. Norton. 256 pages. $23.

Every once in a while, a strikingly simple yet profound book comes along to remind smart and sensitive people of a truth they know but often forget. "A Slant of Sun" is such a book; its lesson: Children are powerful teachers.

Beth Kephart discovers the gift of this knowledge through the painful experience of learning that her only son has a behavioral disorder. At first, he lives in a self-imposed silence - in a world of his own - as he moves from one obsessive play ritual to another.

He is terrified of strangers; he paces and runs in circles. The diagnosis: "pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified." But Kephart and her husband find their own meaning for that phrase: "Jeremy is different ... He's different in a million wonderful ways and he's also different in ways that need our help."

Kephart seeks out the experts, the best therapists. She is like the new mother who reads obsessively about child-rearing, picking up Spock, Leach, Brazelton, until her mind whirls with conflicting opinions and do's and don'ts. But Kephart also does what smart new mothers eventually do: She puts down the books, sets aside the advice, and listens to her heart. In Kephart's case, "Something intuitive whispers, "'Trust your son.'"

Far from being a book about a medical odyssey, "A Slant of Sun" documents a family's spiritual journey. Going slowly, taking their cues from Jeremy, Kephart and her husband give their son "the room in which to heal himself." And he does, in many ways.

He breaks his silence and begins to talk. He eventually shares his inner-most thoughts and passions, reaches out and forges friendships. With each step, Kephart waits until her son appears ready for outside help. In many instances, she actually defies expert advice, letting Jeremy lead the way instead.

The toll on Kephart is enormous - and she does not hide it. In one of the book's most powerful passages, she describes her unspoken desire sometimes to flee - to be free of the worry and the pain and the pressure. Of the heart-breaking business of seeing a child struggle.

"I am guilty of it," she writes, "I find myself longing for wind. To be borne off, free. To arrive at another destination, unknown. I am a mother, a wife, a woman ... clenched and dangerous within herself, faithless with wondering, faithless with imagining, with wanting to know one thing only: What calms a woman in the midst of her storm? Is it the strengthening of roots, or is it flight?"

Kephart's prose is luminous, her story so moving that I savored it, read and re-read it within days. It is powerful testimony - a hope-giving book for anyone who loves a child annointed with a label, proof that these children are, after all, like every child: "special" and wise.

Jan Winburn is The Sun's assistant managing editor for enterprise. She has a 7-year-old daughter, Ella.

! Pub date: 6/07/98

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