Bill and I attended a wedding when Amelia was about 8 weeks old. One of his fellow residents came up to me and asked me how motherhood was going. I answered honestly that now that the baby blues were behind me, I was really enjoying this new part of my life. He casually commented that his own mother often commented that motherhood was like having your heart forever walk around outside your body [attributable to Elizabeth Stone]. As much as I craved a child, even to the point of pursuing a risky pregnancy against medical advice, I grossly underestimated how much I would love this little being.
But I was never an uber-mother. I was the mom on the playground with the bare essentials: diapers, wipes, hand sanitizer, and a change of clothes. I never had band-aids on hand or any other “just in case” type items. My kids were lucky if I had a dirty napkin to wipe off their boo-boos. I never cared much about other kids coming to playgroups with snotty noses because, let’s face it, toddlers have snotty noses for about 6 months out of the year. I guess a lot of this was sheer disorganization or a laissez-faire attitude, but much of it was a recognition, as a former nurse, that kids get hurt and sick. They are supposed to get hurt and sick. It is simply unavoidable. I wasn’t stupid about it mind you, I got them immunized, strapped them in their car seats, and put protective covers on all the outlets in the house. And, of course I always hoped for the mundane day-to-day illness rather than the rare devastating ones.
And yet I now find myself wanting to wrap their little hearts in bubble wrap. I am amazed these days at how much the area around my heart physically aches. How does this happen physiologically? How does our sadness settle into this vital organ and emanate from this place? I look at my children now, and I know they will feel this same pain when I am gone and I want to stop it from happening because I cannot bear the idea of them hurting this much. In the afternoons I stand on the front steps as this bus pulls up. I can feel my anxiety level rising, “I am going to leave them without a mother.” And my heart breaks for them to the point that I almost cannot look at them. Intellectually I know that this is not my failure but it feels like it is nonetheless.
Yesterday I was sitting on the sofa watching Amelia play with her 7-month old cousin Abigail. She held her with ease and cooed to her in motherese. She is a natural. Part of me was happy to see her this way and feel certain that this little 9-year old girl already knows how to be a mother. I have no doubt that she will mother her children beautifully. Then I looked at Abigail, a beautiful blue-eyed, blond haired girl, who reminds me of Amelia at the same age. A flood of memories washed over me and I relived the joyful days of Amelia’s infancy. I realized then that all the sadness I feel is because of the joy I have already experienced. The joy and the sorrow are intertwined and inseparable.
I have been fortunate to have basically 24-7 company since the tube was removed Friday afternoon. Friends have come to talk, sit, watch movies, stay the night, make food, whatever it takes. Yesterday my friend Amy came to spend the late afternoon with me. Amy is one of my favorite souls: direct, honest, funny, and real. We sat on my patio and talked and cried. At one point I mentioned the experience of watching Amelia and Abigail and she quoted Kahlil Gibran to me. The quote was soothing and I promised myself to dig through the book piles that litter my unfinished office to find my copy of “The Prophet.”
When I was putting Amelia to bed she was overly tired and very weepy. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me, “I miss Daddy.” I tried to probe to see if anything else was lurking underneath that but she was insistent that she just missed him. I told her that it was ok to cry when you miss someone. “There once was a US Senator named Hubert Humphrey who was dying of cancer. He gave a speech before he died and he told the crowd, ‘A man without tears is a man without a heart.’ It’s ok to cry Amelia; it just means that you are human. Sadness, joy, anger, all those feelings are part of being alive.” I told her to wait there for a moment and tried to find my Bible. I wanted to read to here from Ecclesiastes about there being a time and place for every purpose. But I could not find it anywhere. I returned to her bed and I tried my best to paraphrase the passage. Then I kissed her goodnight and placed a photo of Bill where she could see it.
I went back to my book pile disaster and thankfully found Gibran’s “The Prophet.” I have not read it in years, but I vividly recall its influence on me as I wrote my “Prayer of the Bride” for our wedding. In it I asked, among other things, for Bill and me join together as a couple but to be ever mindful of each other’s individuality, bearing in mind Gibran’s words about “letting there be spaces in your togetherness” and to “sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone.”
Last night I sat on my bed and read the passage on sorrow. At first I thought to myself that is absolutely true that there is no such thing as an original thought. Here I was thinking I was being so profound and Gibran beat me by a century. But as I read the words I felt an incredible sense of peace.
When you are joyous look deep into your heart and you shall find that it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your heart’s delight.
All the pain and the desperation that I feel now is merely the inescapable consequence of all the joy that has filled my life. This pathos is the sign of a life well lived, filled with love, joy, friendship, and adventure.
So I think about the bubble wrap that I want to place around the hearts of my children and how much I want to spare them this pain, and I realize that I not only cannot but that I should not do it. We cannot become fully human without experiencing the complete range of human emotions any more than we can build an immune system without exposure to germs. There cannot be joy without sorrow, satiety without hunger, fulfillment without emptiness. We need the contrast of emotions to weave the tapestry of life. That is how we create a magnificent work of art rather than a monotonous facsimile. It is hard to accept this. It nudges us away from the narrow comfort zones in which we inhabit to a life in which we allow ourselves to be more vulnerable.
So I keep working at my tapestry and I hope my children will learn through my example that it is better to live fully and risk all the inherent pain in doing so than to go through life feeling nothing and missing the richness that it offers.