“My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.” – J.R.R.Tolkien
Another April is over, and I’m hanging in there. I know spring brings good things, new flowers, baby animals, and fresh possibilities, but frankly, April has always been a challenging month for me. So part of me feels like just getting past it is a good thing…but there is also that other part of me who disagrees. A part that never wants to ‘just get past’ anything, a part that wants to hang on to every single moment of my life, even the painful and difficult ones. So it seems like April days growing longer only shed more light on this internal conflict, and the effect lingers on into a May packed with emotional moments like Mother’s Day and the last day of school. Well, I’m hanging in there.
I am a bit of a hanging-in-there expert. Most of my life has felt like an exercise in hanging on, sometimes energetically, sometimes frantically, and sometimes just barely.
Once I was healthy and strong, and my hands held many reins. Strong leads to guide to employees as well as hundreds of lines to manage patients. I held ties to family and connections to friends. Many of these ropes required my strength and repaid nothing back, but I could manage them all because I had much to give. I was hanging on energetically. Hanging-in-there meant a constant juggling, a habit of mostly saying ‘Yes,’ and succeeding at a career and a busy life.
Then one day I was suddenly unhealthy, and my hands became overwhelmed. When I had nothing left to give, the ties that held relationships based only on my giving had to be severed. A series of difficult choices had to be made and the word ‘No’ had to be said. Only the ties that could give me strength and stability back could remain. Hanging-in-there meant still succeeding at the relationships that I valued the most.
As trouble wore on and my hands got weaker, one by one I had to let even these ropes go. It was heartrendingly painful to let each precious tie slip through my fingers. Some I held onto with all my might but still got yanked out of my grip. Eventually, I found myself at the end of my rope, hanging on by a thread. Hanging-in-there meant survival alone, being alive and present for my son, and nothing more.
“Hanging on by a thread” sounds like sheer desperation, but surprisingly I found that there is comfort in it also. When down to my last thread, there was no more juggling, no more painfully difficult choices. There was only the one thread. Hang on tight. Hang on for dear life. Nothing more to let go.
These days I am getting stronger. My hands feel more capable now, and yet they will never again manage even half of the ropes they used to hold. Years of holding a death grip on life has my hands feeling stiff. I have slowly picked up a few ties, but only cautiously and with great difficulty, because to hold something new in my hands requires me first to loosen my grip on the ties that are already there. Having been down to my last thread before, I have such a fear of letting that one precious thread ever slip. The irony, though, is that for this one thread to remain strong and whole I must loosen my grip, because that thread is my only son, and keeping a death grip on him would forfeit his own life. I know this. I know this, and April is when I feel this the most.
My son is rapidly approaching eight years old. He is big for his age. I can’t pick him up anymore. At 67 lbs I could still do it, but then one day he topped 68 lbs and I simply could not pick him up without hurting myself. It’s a tight squeeze to get him onto my lap. For now he still holds my hand most of the time. He still begs me to walk with him in the schoolyard in the mornings and wants me to stay and snuggle with him during music time. I know, however, that these sweet moments are numbered. One day soon he will gain that extra pound of confidence, and I will no longer be needed or wanted at these moments. That will be a proud day, a good day, and a hard one. I just hope it won’t be in April.
April is when the fleetingness of childhood weighs on my heart. Probably this started long ago when two little ones from my home town were pulled out of the Federal building in April. But over the years it has been reinforced as I have watched several dear friends each lose a child in April. April is when I cry for these lost children, and April is when I cry for the children I have lost in my own heart.
Growing up, all I ever wanted to be was a mother. Every other dream I had for my life was always a far second place to the title of Mama. Thankfully that dream did come true, and I will always be grateful for the priceless experience of having and holding my own dear son, but I never thought there would only be one child for me to hold. In my heart, there were always more. I did more than dream of these children. I prayed for them. I planned for them. They had names. No birth certificate ever recorded these names, and no one ever spoke them but my husband and myself, but the names existed. Names for children who were never born.
My divorce proceedings may have gone lightening quick, but the divorcing process in my life started much sooner and drug on for so long. It was a series of loss, slowly letting go of one rope at a time that had held me to eleven years of married life. So, it happened to be a terrible morning in April when I woke up and realized that these children, who I had named and loved, would never have a chance to be born. I suppose a wise person would have let go at that moment, but I just couldn’t. I let go of many real, live people, but my heart just kept hanging onto those little imaginary children.
I know people could call me crazy for saying this, but before my son was even born I knew him. I had an imagination of what he would be like, and over the years, it was almost all spot on. My son was everything I imagined, and I imagined these missing children too, their little faces and bodies, their quirks, flaws, and delights. And, yes, I know that anyone who might choose to call me crazy could rightly say that I could not possibly have imagined them correctly, that even if they had been born that they would probably have been far different than my dreams, but for some reason that fact hurts the most. The things I love best about my son are all the things I couldn’t have dreamed of, the surprising traits I could never have imagined. These children would have been delightfully surprising individuals, and the world seems to be missing something without them, though I am the only one who mourns it.
So my heart held onto these little ones with the same intensity that my hands held my living son, and the days ticked away. Each tick has seen my son grow, and brings me closer to the day when I will have to stop hanging onto him. Not yet, not quite yet. For now he still needs to be held, but already that is changing. I’ve been noticing that even when he needs me to hold him, he needs me to do so more loosely. Loosely, I tell myself, just a little more loosely, and so I lessen my grip and grow my trust as the rope of his life slides, as it ever should, through my grasp. For now my hands and arms are still full, but I need them also to be ready. I need to hold him in readiness for the moment he no longer needs to be held. And what then?
I have spent far too much energy puzzling about this, and I have no answer. What then?
I struck giving-birth off my list of options quite awhile ago, but there are moments of regret. I wonder if those children have not been born simply because I have not been brave enough to risk myself for them. People love to tell me of some distant relative who had a child after chemo and did great. I hate nodding my head and saying, “That’s good news,” to these stories, because they make me wish I was bolder. All the girls and women inside of me, however, will not stand for this sort of talk. They all agree on one thing…my son’s Mama must always be protected, even from herself, even from her own desires. They will quickly call up memories of friends who I have seen buried after not being so lucky. They will bring up the faces of their little sons, so close in age to mine, who now have only a grave to visit on Mother’s Day. All the different sides of myself will join together to say, “My son is no imagination. He lives, and so, above all things, his Mama cannot be risked.”
Other options, however, do not weigh any less heavily. There are moments when I have dreams that these children are already out there in the world somewhere. That somehow they were born by a different path, and yet are out there somewhere needing me. I wake up wanting to run out the door to search for them. Adoption, people love to say, is so great. And it is, adoption is great, but it is not easy. I have held the hands of patients who have walked this path, so I know. After cancer and a divorce, it is not that easy. I could hope, but hope is a heavy rope to hold. If held too tight, it will wear away the toughest skin. I don’t know that I am strong enough to hold onto this hope and still have the energy to be everything my son needs me to be. All I seem feel right now is that the only way I can hold onto any hope is loosely, only loosely.
There is a song from my son’s school. It is a beautiful love song about a parent to a child, that says, “Who is gonna change this world for the better? You just might.” This line ties my brain and heart up into knots that I just can’t work out. My son is here and he changes the world for the better every day, but there could be others who might. How much energy am I willing to risk taking from the child who already lives in the search for the child who might? This song makes me cry every time, sometimes just a couple of discrete little tears and sometimes a flood the whole twenty minute drive to work. Moments like this seem to smash my heart into little tiny bits, but I know from my own experience that, just like hanging-by-a-thread, heartbreak is not always a bad thing. Every time my heart has been broken in the past, it has amazingly healed back much larger. If I can keep working on these lines, if I can sort out these knots, I might someday find my heart has been prepared for something bigger than my own imagination, but the world-weariness of a lifetime of hanging-on whispers to me that the goal of my life at the moment should merely be contentment with the idea that it also might not.
Dreams, hopes and imagination can tug heavily at the heart. They can be persistent ropes, pulling away joy and energy from the present. I know I am not wise enough right now to know which to let go, but perhaps I can try not to hold on so tightly. Perhaps I can find a way to truly enjoy the feel of of them all slipping through my fingers. If I loose these ropes, who knows which direction the wind may fill my sails. My son may very well be the only child to ever call me Mama, and he will not be a child for long. I need to be at peace with this. I need to be at peace with this. I need to be at peace with this. I am not at peace with this…but I can try to hold it more loosely.