The other night, as I was having dinner with my sister, she told me about an article she had just read where the author writes about her child who has Tay-Sachs disease, a genetic disorder that has no cure and leads to the child’s death after about four years. As my sister described the article and the mother’s efforts to stay present to the child’s life while having to accept his impending death, she started to cry. She had been struck by something the mother had written: when asked if her son had taught her anything, she admitted he had taught her a lot, but also insisted that it was not her son’s job or purpose in life to teach her things.
I can’t imagine what that experience would be like, but it struck a nerve with me as one of Newman’s closest friends recently received the news that his son, who is in his late twenties, has inoperable malignant brain tumors. Newman has known this young man since he was a child, and the idea that he will soon be gone, leaving his wife and two young children behind, is not one he can yet accept or fully grasp. How could any of us do that, really, except when we have to–when there is no other option but to help your child face his own mortality by trying to put a good face on your own limitless grief?
This is what Newman is watching his friend do, and this is what the mother of that little boy is doing: focusing on their children, forced to remain fully aware that any time we have with them is a gift.
All of this was on my mind as I read Kristen’s recent response to whether parenting makes you happy. I agree that parenting has made me happier overall while challenging me in a million ways. It seems to me that this is what defines any relationship that offers us a chance to grow. Some people do not want to grow, and if they seek out relationships at all, they may seek out the ones that allow them to resist change and therefore resist any of the pain that change can bring. I believe avoiding this pain will make my life smaller and give me less capacity for joy. Don’t let me misrepresent myself, however; I am not a risk-taker in my daily life. I neither like to ski nor even to leave my seat-belt unbuckled. My bravery has only ever announced itself in the context of relationships: I don’t put myself into a vulnerable position unless it’s with or for someone I love, and no relationship has made me feel more vulnerable than the one I have with my child.
Becoming a parent is the ultimate act of faith; we recognize how crushing it would be to have to let go of this being that we’ve brought into the world–and how little control we have over when and how that will happen. We jump in anyway because we know it will make our hearts blossom and the largeness of our lives explode exponentially; it will be the closest we can ever come to being both powerful as volcanoes and pleasing as violets.
The crux of it is that when we let a child enter our heart, we do so knowing fully that we will have to, at some point in the future, let go, even as we hope that the letting go will come in a predictable and non-tragic form. As parents, when we hear the stories of other parents being forced to let go too soon, it hits home because we carry the fear of that with us always. Whether it is the story of a friend, a stranger, or even of a fictional character in a book or on TV, we draw our breath in and try to imagine how it would feel to feel something we don’t ever want to feel.
We lucky ones spend some time feeling lucky and then eventually go back to the smaller worries that bring relief in their everyday ordinariness: the second-grade report card that warns of a child’s inattention in school or her embarrassing thumb-sucking habit that just won’t go away. While it is not their job to teach us, it is our job to teach and protect them, and we fret about our children until they grow up. Then, if all has turned out well, we face the realization that “empty nest syndrome” is more than a stock-phrase to joke about as you toast your child at his graduation party. It is a dull, aching, long and drawn out sort of wrenching, one that I am watching Newman go through as his oldest son prepares to follow his twin sisters to college, leaving only the youngest, a freshman in high school–one that he feels he has already had to let go, in smaller ways, through the divorce.
There’s no tidy way to wrap up a post about loss and letting go. It’s just what’s on my mind today and why I’m able to be more patient with Free and with Newman too, who has escaped the house while Free has her friend over for a playdate. Newman is out with his sons; we are both living these jobs of parenting and partnering in the best ways we know. In the end, that is all any of us can do.
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