Lazy Summer, Cancer, And Four-Year-Old Eyes

Published in The Ferndale Record-Journal, July 28, 2010

So far, summer has been, at the very least relaxed, and at the most, pure indulgence. The boy and I stay up too late, sleep in until all hours and accomplish little. I know this is the last, real summer I’ll have with a child at home and I’m going to enjoy it. I refuse to feel guilty.

Our last summer together is a watershed moment. As a result, I’m finally discovering things I probably should have known a long time ago.

My friend Karen began living her dream. After years of raising children, and watching the last one leave home, she decided it was time to pursue the ideal. Her loves are music and dance, and she wanted her own dance studio.

In a conversation about living authentically, listening to and trusting one’s gut, she told me about what she calls “Four-year-old eyes.”

She has dance students of all ages, but one of the most intriguing discoveries of her new life was finding that in order to accomplish anything in class, her mirrored wall had to be covered when the youngest dancers were in the studio.

Why? They look lovingly at themselves in the mirror. In fact, they can’t look away. They see about themselves naturally what everyone else does—that they’re beautiful, adorable, and perfect just the way they are, and they don’t mind showing it.

As I consider the purity in young children, and my personal belief that they, of all people, know about accepting themselves unconditionally, and have built in radar that helps them hone in on what’s most important, I wonder how adults unlearn that natural instinct. Because we do.

Karen says she sees a change around the time her students turn eight. They become more concerned about what others think. Worldly woes, ever so slightly, start taking over, and her young dancers begin to lose that joyous sense of abandon and appreciation for who they are, and depend on others to tell them whom they “should” be.

Within the past few months, two close friends of mine have been diagnosed with cancer. Both are treatable, and beginning dicey journeys with a positive outlook. At the same time, I’ve seen them both alter the ways they are in the world.

They’ve always been kind, loving, energetic people. But now that their mortalities are on the line, I see more openness, a willingness to share and be even more engaged in life than before. Nothing produces a personal, authentic reaction like hearing the words, “You have cancer.”

These are people who will define, with the almost certain duress coming their ways, more clearly who they inherently are—as will those of us who love them.

In our laid-back summer days, the boy and I are doing more than just playing favorite video games and maintaining no schedule to speak of. I like to think we’re taking the time to excavate our own authenticities. With the rare luxury of time, we’re watching, learning, and discovering more fully who lives under this baggage that comes with growing up.

We can’t be four year olds again, and although serious illness is a chance we take just by being alive, there are other ways to dig deep and unearth the joyous life that is ours for the taking.

I intend to find it.

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She Loves Him–And That’s Enough

Published in The Ferndale Record-Journal, July 14, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, at a birthday party for another family member, my second son got down on one knee and asked his girl to marry him.  It’s a lovely moment frozen in time, and emblazoned in my memory along with the facial expressions of surrounding witnesses.

She said yes.

In one tick of the clock, he went from being my boy, to her potential husband. Yikes. Things move quickly, don’t they?

Not really. I know it wasn’t exactly like that. Their relationship built over months, and he adores her. But somehow, it feels more important to his mother, that the girl loves him. And I know she does—I can tell.

From the start, parents want nothing but joy for their children, but those pesky life problems tag along as well. So when something simply extraordinary unfolds for one of them, we rejoice.

May I suggest we also reflect, regroup, and remember that we are no longer (and probably haven’t been for a while) that child’s emotional touchstone. And that’s exactly how it should be.

When my oldest son married in 1999, it was his wife’s affection for him that saved me that day. Because of weirdness and rifts that often exist in families, and for reasons I’ll never fully understand, not one member of my extended family attended the wedding celebration. Not one.

But my new daughter-in-law’s love for her husband was palpable. After the ceremony, I hugged her tight and choked out the words, “Thank you for loving my boy.”

My heart ached, but that day wasn’t about me, or my heart. It was about the newlyweds, and I honored that, even while hoping against the odds that my family would walk through the door.

Late that evening the limousine pulled up, ready to sweep my son and his bride off on their honeymoon. The crowd pressed toward the door wishing them well, and I fell to the back. Right before exiting, my boy stopped, turned around, and found me in the masses. He came over, told me he loved me, topped it with a hug, and walked away into the rest of his life.

To say I cherish that instant would be an understatement. It’s etched in my soul.

I learned that when someone commits to and loves your child madly (even if it’s rightfully different from the way you do), it’s less painful to watch them go off into the sunset together. In fact, it’s life affirming and thrilling to watch new families form.

This, from a mother who has never been very good at letting go; a mother who’s been known to follow her child’s bus to school just to make sure he got there, and into the classroom safely.

Soon, we’ll joyously add another daughter to our clan—a luminous young woman whose best gift to me is loving my son. Each in-law and grandchild brings a new dimension to our family and defines more completely who we really are.

Uneasy experience has taught me that for children to want to come back for a visit, you’ve got to cut the whining, let them go, and do it all with a smile on your face.

For this parent, with a little help from devoted new in-laws, the smiling part is getting easier.