I’ve always been confused about the farther shores of love.
I’ve always been confused about the farther shores of love. As a child, I loved my war-torn immigrant parents so totally that I wanted to heal their pain even at the cost of my own well-being. When my father lay dying of stage four lung cancer in a hospice, I told the social worker that I wished I could take his place. My father was eighty-one at the time, and had lived a full life, working productively until only a few months before. He had a loving wife, two grown, successful children, and five adoring grandchildren. At the time, I had just turned forty (the age, coincidentally that my father was when I was born) and yet I was ready to pack it all in for him. The fact that I would even consider trading places with a dying octogenarian shows something missing in my existential calculus. Along with love, I’d gladly give my life. There would be no holding back as long as I could save someone I cared for.
Luckily, this was not possible in my father’s case, nor in my mother’s. Both of them (whom I often thought of as my broken children) passed away during the same decade, and though I nursed them to their quiet graves, I did not jump in with them. In any case, I had my real children to consider. The love I felt for them was just as strong, if not stronger, than that I gave to my parents.
And this love was appropriate. It’s normal to say you’d die for your kids. Any parent would, or should, feel that way. My children’s smallest joys were mine, as were their deepest sorrows. As the maxim goes, “a mother’s day is only as happy as her least happy child.” But here is where the problem lies. My “kids” are now twenty-three, twenty-one and eighteen years old. The last, “the baby,” has gone off to college. And even in America, where adolescence seems to endure for decades, I know it is best to back off.
All my children still reach out when they have problems, though. Each one of them calls, or visits, or emails, texts, and skypes. They insert a note of worry or sorrow into my soul, and days go by that I ponder their lives without considering my own. I brood about what I can do to help them. What advice I can give. Which words, if any, I can find to unravel the knot of pain and send my loved-ones bravely forward once again.
The growth of my children into young adulthood represents the first time in my life when I can be “selfish.” I have flourished in this freedom, coming out of a long dormancy to publish book after book, to write articles (like this one) and to grow. I feel a childlike joy, at times, that I never felt before, even as a child (I was too worried about my vulnerable parents). But I am attached, nonetheless, by that golden string, the one that ties me inexorably to those I love. I am still bonded by the sense that life can be fixed, that the right gesture or advice at the right time can heal, and that I am the one responsible for that advice or gesture, which I will not deny out of simple selfishness. True love would not turn away, my deepest instinct says.
Is it time to let go of those I care for? It is time to take care of myself, first and foremost? These are questions I now face, with my parents in the earth and my kids soaring above me.