Friday, July 8, 2022

The Work of Love Bends Little by Little

When I was the mom of four young boys, I would not have believed that a more stressful stage of my life was possible. Then, my first husband and I had knee-jerk moved into a suburban tract house, one that needed cleaning and paint and repairs, just in time to have the extra room for twins. We were living in Michigan, far away from the support of family in Iowa and Minnesota. We scrambled like mad until I ended up on bed rest to prevent pre-term labor. I languished on a sofa in the middle of a living room stacked with unpacked boxes, reading picture books to my four-year-old, who felt as un-moored as I did. The sofa was our little boat in uncertain seas--me, unborn babies, and preschooler, paddling along as well as we could with I Spy, Dr. Suess, and fitful naps.

I was a stay-at-home mother. "Tired" as a word, as an adjective, as a feeling, did not even begin to touch the reality of what I experienced after the twins were born. True, there was a profound lack of sleep as I navigated the world with two babies, then two toddlers, and somehow also got the older boys fed, hugged, and sent to school. I remember lying on my back every morning, looking at the ceiling and hearing the babies stir in their cribs. Knowing that in a few minutes I would clutch tiny toes still warm from their footed sleepers, a thing that gave me much joy every morning. Yet I was also taking deep breaths, wondering if there was enough. Enough energy. Enough patience. Enough time. Enough me. It was a time when the work of love seemed too big to even contemplate, let alone show up for every day. 

I have always remembered those deep breaths, those ceiling stares, those feelings of love and inadequacy, joy and worry, dedication and weariness, as a state of mind distinct to that period of my life. So it caught me by surprise to find myself as a woman of 54, contemplating another, different ceiling in a very familiar way. Taking those same deep breaths. 

I did not recognize the similarity until I took a week off work, and really a week off pretty much everything. The first few days of my vacation I woke up early, checked chores off my list in the garden, and went hard into my wealth of free time, sunshine, and dirt under my fingernails. While I enjoyed those days, they also weren't quite right. I'd just transferred my workplace tension to the garden, that feeling of being utterly behind and trying to "catch up." That feeling of having let things fall out of order because I am only one person. By day four I was back aboard my sofa-ship, this time minus the picture books, but still with the naps. It took that many days for my mind to surrender to some much needed nothingness, and to connect that time of my life with this. 

Eighteen years ago my babies were literally lifted from my womb. Now, we're doing it again, just metaphorically this time, though the labor pains seem about the same. Ben has acquired a dented old Subaru and my heart is somewhere up around my tonsils every time he pulls away from the curb in front of our house. Joe has chosen a college on the other side of the state and he was ready to go yesterday, while I make a pile of his future life in the corner of the guest bedroom-- bedsheets, shampoo, microwave popcorn. There's another pile for Ben, who'll be just half an hour away, and a third pile for older brother Noah, who's moving into his own apartment without roommates for the first time. And while we work to amass the goods needed for all these big life changes, the questions in my heart are also stacking up-- are they ready? What did I forget to tell them, teach them, show them? How much help is too much? How much is too little? Do they know how much I love them? How did 18 years disappear in an instant?

At the same time, I've been caring for an aging parent. You think your parent is aging gracefully (enough, anyway) until suddenly they are not. My relationship with my mother has always been fraught, a sum of her upbringing and mine, a sum that added up to disappointment on her part, and resignation on mine. But now the Irresponsible Daughter, the Rebellious Daughter, the Scatterbrained Daughter, is needed. Can she phone this doctor? Can she drive her mother to this appointment? Explain this lab result? Take out the trash? It turns out that I can, that I am capable in ways my Mother never saw in me. My sister comes all the way from Georgia to visit, to pitch some much needed relief. We exhange looks over our mother's head as she talks. Were those the words of someone just not feeling well today, or of someone on the threshhold of dementia? Is her refusal to do things the doctors ask of her going to be the hill she dies on, possibly in the realest of senses? We both know our mother is more vulnerable than she herself realizes. She still believes that she is our mother. My sister and I both know she is taking her first steps toward being our child, our dependent. None of us, I suspect, know what we're truly in for-- only that we are in for it, because it happens to us all. 

It's not just the morning ceiling meditation, the deep breaths that draw my current life into parallel with young motherhood. I too often leap from one mundane decision to another, from office email to pharmacy errands to dormitory registration forms to what to cook for dinner, every five minutes all day long until I simply don't care. one. damn. bit. About anything. I too often have short patience for small mishaps, firing off more curses than necessary for a dropped book, a lost set of keys, a slow traffic light. And oh-my-God, I miss my husband. He's right here, as always, helping with my Mom's yard work and teaching Ben how to change a car battery and remodeling our decrepit front porch. But we've had lots of missed opportunities to go on regular dates, to talk in the evening without the kids around, to even just go to the hardware store together. Right now we feel a million miles apart-- nobody's fault, only circumstances.

When I was younger I didn't, or at least couldn't, foresee an end to circumstances. Lost in my anxieties, a part of my brain tricked me into thinking I'd always be washing tiny t-shirts at midnight, taking wadded papers out of little backpacks, shrugging wearily as I vacuumed up Lego pieces. I didn't realize that the work of love bends, sometimes little by little, so that we barely notice it happening. Other times it bends sharply, and we are swung out of orbit, struggling to form ourselves to new ways of showing up for the people we love. Babies become college students. Tiny t-shirts become rugby jerseys. Stay-at-home mom becomes career mom. The daughter that disappoints decides to show up anyway. 

It's in the bendy places that we stress, we hurt, we grieve, we struggle, we fear the lurking unknown. I am sitting right there now, in the bendiest of curves in that work of love. I still don't know if I have enough energy, patience, or time. I still don't know if there's enough of me. I'll still continue to take deep breaths. But this time I'll consider that there's new ways of loving beyond this bend and the next one and the next. I hope I learn that new work well. 

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