My Dear Grandson:
The people who came before you were the best parents they could be. Trickling down through the generations, much like the last bits of syrup stretching and dripping down the side of a stack of pancakes, is the residue of their effort. It will no doubt affect you for better and for worse. I remember an older, wiser woman telling me that there was no "A" given in parenting, there was only an "E" for effort. At the time her words depressed me. I loved those gold foil stars my first grade teacher used to put on my papers when I'd met expectations perfectly. I wanted one for parenting, too.
However, by the time my friend told me all I could hope for was an "E" for effort, in my heart I was sure I was going to get a big red "F" for failing on my parenting sojourn. I'd already done the two worst things I said I'd never do - repeat the abuse and alcoholism of my own mother. Those two things eventually catapulted me into the arms of a loving God, my only hope for a different ending.
When I first stopped drinking and became desperate to stop physically abusing your dad and his siblings, I would lie on my bed, desperate for a drink to numb the pain, and blame my mother for the mess I found myself in. The hate I felt for her was like a raging scream lodged in my gut that if given a voice, would spew like projectile vomit over everything.
The day I made my way to a meeting and said out loud, "I am an alcoholic" I found myself on level ground with my mom and it was the beginning of the end of my hatred. The more I looked at myself and owned my choices and thus, my actions, the less I hated her for hers. The more I forgave myself for my actions, the easier it was to forgive hers, too. None of that excuses either of us for our behaviour. Our actions have repercussions. Although there will always be scars, only love can heal the wound.
When I was a little girl I used to stand outside my parents' bedroom door, my little fist just above the doorknob, trying to get up the courage to knock. I stood there, trying to voice my deepest need-to-know question, "Do you love me?" Again and again I turned away from their door, too scared to knock, too scared to ask, too scared. One morning, scuffing the sand beneath my sneakers as we walked to the bus, I asked my little brother, "Do you think they love us?" He shrugged his shoulders and said he didn't know. I had so hoped he would say, "Of course they do!" I never stood outside their door again trying to get up the courage to knock, but that didn't stop me from wondering.
And so I've told your dad from the time he was little that I loved him. No doubt he's had his own moments of wondering if you love me then why do you act like that? But that is his story to tell you one day, not mine.
Us humans will try every which way to get our needs met. My heart pounded like crazy the first time I said to my mom, "I love you." It was just another way to knock on the door in hopes of getting my deep need-to-know question answered. At first, all your great grandma could muster in reply, and God love her for it, was "Me, too." Like a bird giving a warning signal, her voice went up a little shrilly at the end of her words. Between the notes I heard: "I'm really uncomfortable with this so don't ask me to do something I can't."
Your dad was a faster than lightning speed three year old when he horrified his grandma for doing a downward dog yoga kind of pose on her front lawn, pants scrunched around his ankles, so he could watch as he aimed his pee between his legs behind him. Your Papa and I still laugh at the memory. Most likely your great grandma still doesn't think it's funny. That particular visit we were on our way through town, in the process of moving another 600 miles across the country. Your great grandma believes that people are handling life's challenges well when they don't show their emotions. So when she got choked up as she went to hug me goodbye I realized, "Oh, she does love me" and in fine generational fashion, I swallowed the tears that sprang up inside me.
Eight years ago, when your great grandma had a serious health scare that landed her in the hospital, I ended my phone call to her with "I love you". Her voice took on a ring of I feel a little silly, let's get this over with quick when she replied, "I love you, too." She said it not quite as fast as an auctioneer would, but close. I wonder if her heart was pounding as she said it.
Since then weekly phone calls have connected us in a relationship of equals. I have come to know her as a person, not just as my mother. Doing so has cleaned up the last bits of vomitous hatred within me. If Saturday afternoon passes without me calling she tucks the cordless phone beside her when she lays on the couch after supper, waiting for my call.
When I phoned to tell her that my breast cancer diagnosis had been in error, a result of a mixed up pathology report, she burst into tears and told me it was the best news she'd had in a very long time. Two months later, when I had to tell her the breast cancer was indeed real she, a two time breast cancer survivor herself, became a companion on my cancer journey, affirming my experiences over the phone as I shared some of my darkest moments. Not once did she tell me to suck it up and bury my feelings. More often than not she let me know that she understood the pain I was going through. The day I lifted my shirt to show her my mastectomy scar and she, in turn, lifted her shirt to show me hers, is a memory I will cherish forever.
Recently your great grandma had open heart surgery. Her skin was a waxy white as they wheeled her away. The expected three hour surgery turned into four turned into six. Relief washed over all of us as they finally came to tell us she had made it through.
I've spent the past ten days caring for both her and your great grandpa. One day after your great grandpa tried to pick up his evening pills from my hand, tears pricked at my eyes all the back down the hallway. Sorrow stabbed at me as I realized he truly is an old man. Your great grandma clutched my arm with an air of vulnerability while we walked to the doctor's office. She was at my mercy. One night, as I was reflecting on my day, I saw that caring for them held not only an element of the sacred, it was doing what the sacred always does, healing something within me.
As I prepared to leave for the long drive home I knocked on the very same bedroom door I'd stood outside of as a little girl. I opened the door to see your great grandparents were laying awake, illuminated by the yellow glow of the lamp above their bed, waiting to say goodbye to me. When I bent down to hug my mom, my dad flung his arm over me so that for a few moments we were clasped in a silent three way hug. Out of the mishmash of our heads, came your great grandma's voice, strong and clear."I love you very much." Her tone said, "of this you can be sure."
And I am.
As I turned my car out their driveway and onto the highway I burst into tears. I pounded the steering wheel over and over again for the next mile sobbing, "This is what love does." until my voice became a whisper, "This is what love does." For the next 600 miles I periodically burst into tears as her words echoed in my head.
Love heals. Of this you can be sure.