Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Elasticity of Love

When I called my mother last week she sounded so relieved. I had interrupted the gauze-like melancholia that had begun to weigh her down. She spoke about gratitude, how lucky she is, and yet there lurked a lingering despair about growing old. What she can't do anymore, what she sees in the mirror, how she doesn't sleep well.

A year ago I lived a couple miles away from my mother. Like many seniors, she lives alone. She used to reside in a 55+ community where she organized football pools, bridge games, and an assortment of social gatherings. She hated watching the ambulances pull up to the door. She hated hearing about another friend heading out on their final ride to the hospital. The community kept raising the rent and her fixed income wasn't changing - and so she moved. My sister and husband, with a deep and loving generosity, invested in a single level, ground floor condo nearby - and that's now where my mom resides. Her bridge partners come over on Tuesdays and she joins her lady friends at the local Ixtapa restaurant for happy hour.

I am not trying to condense all the facets of my mother into the above paragraph - god, no. I'm pulling out small moments and noticing how they've painted a picture in my own mind - what I've ignored, what I have not been able to deny. Perhaps by moving farther away, my time with her has become more intentional. Perhaps I've witnessed for myself how hard it can be to confront an aging body and mind. I see within her the deep well of grief; how hard it is to be the last woman standing and witness for the passing of too many loved ones. I see her desire to be held and loved, to tend and nurture. I see the fierce independence, the intelligence, and the frustration with a ever-changing technical world that won't let her feel competent.

Thinking about my mother is juxtaposed with changing dynamics in my own life. Where once I was the one who married and moved away, now my son and his wife have done so as well. This is the first holiday season that he won't be here for at least some small part of our family gathering. As happy as I am for him and the choices that he's made for his life, I still miss him. The traditions and rituals that are indelibly written in my heart this time of year are only special in relationship to those I spend time with - my family and loved ones. So I feel his absence acutely with the full understanding that THIS is the future. This is the empty nest. Where he is for the holidays is not about how much he loves me - its about the fact that his heart has expanded and loves others. I love his extended family too. No, its not a lack of love or care - it simply is a reality of adult children doing exactly what you want them to do: find love, be happy, and live a wholehearted life.

How many times did I, as a young married woman, head to another part of the state for a holiday? I moved - and took two beloved grandchildren with me. And during all of those choices - while I knew that my folks were going to miss me and mine - my husband and I made choices for our immediate family, not our extended family and certainly not taking into account what our parents wanted. My attention was focused on my marriage, the well being of my children, health insurance, good schools, careers. Exactly what I would want my own children to put first before my desires.

It's sitting here on the other side of those life decisions with my kids that brings home to me how poignant those moments were for my parents. I can empathize now in a way that I never let myself then. I had to steel myself against their anguish when we left California for the job in Washington. I didn't have time for the long phone conversations or shared vacations of my younger self. I had to make choices that didn't take their emotional happiness into account.

And I'm ambivalent about that. I kind of wish I had been better able to see and listen - even when I wouldn't change the choices that I made. I wish that my knee jerk reaction to hearing how my parents were sad or missed me - hadn't been a defensive guilt that I had let them down. I used to think that my mother was the master of all martyrs and knew just what to say to make me feel guilty. I think she often just told me how she felt and I immediately felt she was telling me that I was intentionally hurting her. I didn't know how to hear her feelings of disappointment and simply acknowledge them without taking responsibility for those feelings. I didn't know how to hold the tension between what I chose as wife and mother with being a daughter, sister, and sometimes a friend.

It is a tension. A thread that pulls us all together into a large extended family. In-laws, children, marriages, grandparents, partners. Add in careers, friends, health, new life, death, illness, geographic locations. Sometimes that thread has no elasticity. I think our culture - especially as a woman of my generation - has taught me that I must be the one to manage all those tensions all the time. Guilt, remorse, saying "I should have, could have, ought to have" - make the familial ties tender and raw.

But that's changing now that I'm on the other side of raising my kids - and watching them head off into their adult lives. It's changing as I listen to my mom talk about her day. She takes me on a journey into the twilight - the wisdom, the pain, the astonished frustration of aging in today's world. I want to be there for her on that path. I also want to share with my own children how much I miss them - and walk them through to the knowing that they having nothing to feel guilty for - that love and caring for each other, missing each other - is never a bad thing.  I miss my son right now because I have such happy memories of all our wonderful times together. That's a delightful, precious truth.

Just as my mother and father missed me. I was a delightful, precious child to them too.

Being a bright light in someone else's life can feel like a burden - but what if I accept it and simply let it be a gift of love? If I can do that, maybe I can show my own kids how its done - so they never feel that love is an unwieldy burden or an uncomfortable responsibility.

Love stretches, it holds - even when it brings tears or loneliness or grief. Even when there is laughter and joy.

You are a bright light in someone else's heart. Let that settle in.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful post. You constantly amaze me, even after all these years.