What Grief Has Taught Me

what grief has taught me

It’s January 6th again, the day that I dread. I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t dread this day, and I think I will continue to dread it as long as my memory is intact. I’ve been dreading it more than usual this year, because January 6, 2016 is kind of a big deal.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of my mother’s death from breast cancer. I don’t know why this number seems so significant. There is something about a quarter of a century that feels substantial.

And I don’t know why measuring the time that has passed is so important to me. It’s something I just do, automatically. I can say with certainty, though, that these 25 years have changed me. Looking back to 1991 from 2016 feels like looking from one world to another. To me, it is a different world. I’ve grown up.

I’ve grown up, and I’ve grown in understanding. The roles that cancer and loss have played in my life have never been far from my mind. I’m a thinker (and an over-thinker), and I’ve never stopped thinking about the parts of my life that have so fundamentally shaped the person I’ve become.

So, small though my pool of knowledge might be, I do know this:

Cancer is a family disease.

I’ve never had cancer, but cancer is a part of me.

My mother was first diagnosed when I was four. I was young, but I was very aware of the fear gripping my family. I used to have this nightmare, over and over and over, so often that 32 years later I can still remember it in near-perfect detail. I was in my parents’ bedroom – pale blue walls, bed covered with a white, tufted chenille bedspread. My mother was standing at the foot of the bed packing a suitcase. My father was in the corner of the room crying. I was squeezed between the bed and the wall, watching, hidden. Behind my mother a bear hovered — it wanted to take her away. I knew my mother was scared but didn’t want to show it, and I knew that my father was crying because he was helpless.  This scene would repeat itself in a loop, and it scared me stiff.

Chronic illness — when it carries with it the potential of a death sentence — is terrifying for the person fighting it. It is also terrifying for those who love and need that person. During the long seven years of my mother’s illness, in my heart I was fighting alongside her. The time that has passed since her death has done nothing to diminish my sense of having battled and lost to cancer.

Sharing death with someone is an intimate, profoundly affecting act and everyone should do it once.

My mother died at Christmas. Technically, she died on the last day of Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany. But really, her death began on the 26th when she fell into a coma that only broke when her pain became uncontrollable.

I was there the whole time. I was with her when she lost consciousness. I heard her when she emerged only to moan in pain. I learned what dying breaths sound like and I stood beside her as those breaths ebbed to a stop. I could almost see her soul depart her body.

Four years ago, when I was nearly 37 weeks pregnant with my second daughter, I sat in another room with another person I loved as cancer took his life away too. This time, it was my uncle – one of the best humans I’ve ever known – who was making his surrender. With my aunt and my cousins, I held his hand through a death that was not peaceful.

The memories of my mother and my uncle dying are among my most painful. But I also treasure them. There was an inexplicable beauty in those moments, a sense of connectedness and love. I’m better because of them.

Grief grows as one body.

When you first experience grief – not just great sadness, grief – it creates a sort of nerve in you with the cause of your grief at its core. And once that nerve exists within you, you can’t experience loss without it being touched.

Shortly after my mother died, my grandfather died, also of cancer. I grieved my grandfather, whom I loved deeply, but his death renewed my grief for my mother. As death took more of the people I loved, an uncle, my grandmothers, an uncle again, I grieved each individually and all of them together.

When my second uncle died four years ago, I felt the loss of everyone who had gone before him. But oddly enough, the grief I felt was also a kind of resurrection. Grieving them together somehow brought them back to me individually. For a time they were all with me again.

People die, but grief doesn’t.

Grief is a gut punch like no other. It shatters you absolutely. People tell you that it goes away with time, but it doesn’t.

And as much as you wish in the early days that it will go away, that it will release you and let you go back to being the person you were before it took over your life, you end up not wanting it to go away.

Time makes living with your grief more bearable, but it also takes you further away from the person you have lost. Eventually, grief becomes the strongest connection you have with them.

In 25 years, the world has changed. I’ve changed. And with every year that passes, it’s as though time has taken my mother further away from me. I don’t feel her presence anymore. The memories I have of her are pitifully few. I take them out like treasures now, cherishing them, guarding them, but lacking a sense of their relevance in my daily life.

And now that the grief of missing her in every moment has lessened, a new grief has taken its place – the grief of not missing her in every moment. It’s a quieter grief — and more bearable — but it’s grief all the same.

After 25 years, what I know above all things is that grief never dies.

Mom

 

 

Beach Bodies

I haven’t really been writing a lot recently. More accurately, for awhile this winter, I was writing a LOT. But it was freelance work that resulted in me being paid money, which you have to admit takes precedence over writing a blog that hardly anyone reads.

But aside from that, what I have mostly been doing in my free time is exercising. I’ve been taking classes at the gym with my friends, getting strong and having kind of an awesome time doing it. Like, I have actual, discernible muscles in my arms. I can do a push up. A REAL push up, with my knees up and my nose all the way to the ground. I’ve been squatting and planking and even doing a class with the word “turbo” in it.

The reason why I have been exercising so much goes all the way back to last year, which I refer to as The Year of Pestilence. After spending roughly half of the winter in my doctor’s office, she finally sat me down and said, in a nice doctorly way, that my immune system is shit. She put me on vitamins and supplements and probiotics. She also told me that regular exercise is key to building stronger immunity.

This suggestion felt a little unfair at a time when I had gone from running half-marathon distances to being barely able to wheeze my way through a mile. But I took her advice and I made it a priority to be regularly active.

At this point, I can’t really comment on the effectiveness of regular exercising on boosting the immune system. I am currently on a break because I am battling bronchitis. Again. I can hear the rattling in my chest as I write.

But here is what I can say about exercise: it makes you stronger and more fit. It is good for you emotionally as well as physically, especially if you do it with friends. It’s a good thing.

We certainly hear enough about it, especially around this time of year when “bathing suit season” is looming on the horizon.  Everywhere I look, someone is pushing a 21-day this or a 30-day that. Words like “new you!” and “transformation” and “life-changing” are only outnumbered by words like, “Get a beach body by June!” and “YOU can have THIS body too!”

You can have “this body,” (someone else’s body, in point of fact) if only you take the following steps. You can “sculpt” and “tone” and “food system” yourself to an idea of perfection embodied by someone else.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong in encouraging and helping people to be fit and to eat healthfully. We need to care for our bodies if we want to keep them around.

What I find so disturbing is the message that we should be so dissatisfied with our own flesh that we need to force it into someone else’s mold.

Because here’s the thing. You won’t ever have any body but your own body. You are what you have right now. You can work to make it stronger and healthier. But at the end of the day, it will still be the same body that has brought you through life from the day you were born to this very moment. That is something to rejoice in, not reject.

And I think the message that we need to transform our bodies, that, with work, we can reshape ourselves into someone else’s proportions is a dangerous one.

Because, why should we strive to be what someone else is? Why aren’t we good enough in the skin we have? And who is it, really, who gets to decide what a “perfect” body is? Why does the message always have to be that we need to make some sort of fundamental change to be our best?

When I see these claims — that the perfect body is hiding somewhere under the skin I already have, that all I have to do is carve it out of myself — I get frustrated, not motivated.

I also get angry, because these are the messages that my daughters are going to grow up hearing. Their little bodies, perfect in every way, amaze me every day with what they can do. And someday they are going to hear the message that those bodies aren’t good enough. They are going to be told that they really should be striving to have the body of someone else, someone who is, ostensibly, better than they are.

I’m not OK with that. I made those bodies — those bodies are miracles. And it really bothers me to know that someday — in the not-too-distant future — they will be made to feel as though their bodies are less than miraculous.

I also know that the loudest message of all will come from me, and how I treat my own body.

So from now on, my “beach body” will be me, wearing a bathing suit, on the beach. It will be the same body that I take with me on runs, the one that carries my children up to bed, the one that I have relied on all my life. Sometimes, it will be strong and fit. Sometimes, it will be rattly and sick. But whatever it is, it will be mine.

In action: Plus-size model Robyn Lawley (far right) is joined by other curvy women in a new swimwear calendar retaliating against society's obsession with super-slim bodies - here the bathing beauties strike a pose for July

These are bodies. They are on a beach. They are beach bodies.

My Two Moms

The other day in the grocery store, my daughter asked me to tell her, again, how it is that I have two moms. This question is hard to explain to a six-year-old even in the best of circumstances. But in an extremely crowded Wegman’s on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, while trying to maneuver a cart and a child through the turkey aisle, it was damn near impossible. But still, I endeavored.

In what was probably the most crowded location in our entire town at that particular moment, I stopped to explain one of the most complicated aspects of my existence.

“The mommy who carried me in her belly, your Nana,” I told her “was too young to take care of a baby. And the mommy who raised me, Grandma Michele, who is in heaven, was old enough to take care of me, but she couldn’t have babies of her own. So your Nana gave me to your Grandma and Grandpa, so that they could take care of me instead. But they all loved me very much.”

That story is about as deep as you can go with an elementary schooler. But even in the midst of the chaos and my own distraction, I was very aware of what I was leaving out.

I didn’t mention how hard I always knew it was for the woman who gave birth to me to have had to let me go. I didn’t tell her how the only time I came close to crying right after she was born was when I thought about what it would have felt like if I’d had to give her up to be raised by another woman.

I couldn’t tell her how, although I always saw my birth mother as a hero, there were times when I couldn’t help but wonder how she could possibly have left me behind. And I couldn’t tell her how, despite the incredible  love I have for the family I know as my own, I still wondered — just sometimes —  what it would have been like to be a part of a family of people who were related to me by blood.

I couldn’t tell her how fiercely angry I feel when people suggest that the mother who made me her own wasn’t my “real” mom. And I couldn’t explain how the joy I felt when I met the mother I’d lost at birth didn’t lessen the grief I will always feel for the mother I lost forever.

I couldn’t explain how incredibly fortunate I felt when the mother who gave me life was one of the first people to meet my daughter after her own birth. And I couldn’t explain how much it sometimes breaks my heart to see the genetic stamp of my adoptive mother on my cousin’s kids and not my own.

And I don’t think I will ever be able to explain to her how, even though I have been blessed with the love of two mothers, there have been moments in my life when I have felt motherless.

There is so much that I can’t explain to my children right now about the reality of my family history. Adoption stories are always complicated, and the fact that I lost the mother who raised me just muddles things further.

But in spite of the complications, it is a story I like to tell, and one that I think is beautiful.

Because even though there is so much I can’t explain, there is so much more that I won’t have to explain.

I won’t have to explain how aware and deeply appreciative I am of the love my mothers had for me and of the sacrifices they both made on my behalf. Because those gifts, which came to me doubled, are now mine to grow and to give to my own children.

I won’t have to explain that family is so much more than sharing a genetic bond, because by the time they understand what it means to be related by blood, they will already know how little those ties matter when it comes to love.

And I won’t have to explain how much love is capable of overcoming, how time and distance and loss and sacrifice only make it more powerful, because the one thing that is clear from my story is that love was behind it all.

This is love.

This is love.

* * *

November is National Adoption Month. Although I tend to shy away from Awareness months in general, I’m glad adoption is something people are talking about.

I have heard people describe adoption as something that always comes from loss. And in a sense, this is undeniably true. People who are adopting are often, though not always, doing so because they cannot have a child any other way. And people who are giving away a child are always losing a part of themselves. Adoption is not an easy option.

But adoption is also a gift of love, in the best sense of the word. It isn’t always the best choice, but when it is, adoption enriches the lives of everyone it touches and it creates a legacy that lasts for generations.

* * *

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am aware of how much I have to be grateful for. Above all, as I am every year, I am thankful for the story of how I came to be, for where I was planted, and especially for the love that made me who I am.

And if anyone who is contemplating adoption reads this, let me share one final story with you, one that my grandmother told me many times over the years.

My grandmother had a terrible time when she was in labor with my father. The birth was so difficult, in fact, that her doctors told her she would probably die if she tried to have another child. She was devastated because she’d always wanted at least four children. So she asked my grandfather if he would consider adopting. He said no, because he just couldn’t fathom being able to love a child that wasn’t his own, especially after having a child that was.

30-some years later, after my parents had adopted me as a six-week-old infant, my grandmother came across my grandfather holding me. She used to say that he looked up from me to her and said, with awe in his voice, that he couldn’t imagine loving anyone more than he loved that baby in his arms.

Adoption is easier than you think it might be.

 

 

 

And Off She Marched Again

This time last year, I was overcome with anxiety over my daughter starting kindergarten. I was worried for her because public school can be a big, scary place, and I was worried for myself because my mental balance was disturbed by the fact that my girl was growing up too darned fast.

I found out this morning, when I sent her off to first grade, that letting her go off into the big wide world of school wasn’t really all that much easier this time around. Because it turns out that your first grade baby is still your baby, just a year older and even further removed from the tiny, helpless newborn she once was.

Would it be excessive for me to make her wear a label with this picture on it and the caption, "ATTENTION UNIVERSE: I USED TO BE THIS. So be nice to me. Or you will have to deal with that lady in the hospital gown."

Would it be excessive for me to make her wear a label with this picture on it and the caption, “ATTENTION UNIVERSE: I USED TO BE THIS. So be nice to me. Or you will have to deal with that lady in the hospital gown.”

In six years of parenthood, I can say with some authority that I have learned two things. First, I’ve learned that bringing your first child through her newborn phase will feel like the hardest thing you have ever done, and when people with older children tell you that it just gets harder you will want to stab them in the eyes with a fork. And second, I have learned that it just gets harder.

I used to think that, once my daughter could just tell me what was wrong, parenting her would be so much easier. It wasn’t. Because once your children start being able to tell you what is wrong and how you can make it better, they start demanding things that are impossible for you to give them. I will never forget the night my daughter, then two, begged me, sobbing, to make the sun rise up again after it had gone down. As much power as we parents have in our children’s lives, we cannot alter the functioning of the universe. My daughters still struggle to accept this fact.

As your children get older, their problems get far more complicated. They argue and defy you and do things that are bad for them. They struggle, and there is often nothing — nothing — that you can do to help them. The power you once had to tailor their world to fit them diminishes with every passing year.

For me, one of the hardest parts of parenting has been coming to terms with the overwhelmingly bittersweet feeling of watching my daughters grow up. I am awed by and in love with the people they are becoming. My girls are awesome, and their awesomeness just becomes more evident as they grow older. I’ve never experienced anything as satisfying as watching my daughters grow into the people they are meant to be — and the best part is that I have many more years to experience this phenomenon.

But as they move closer to the people they are becoming, they move further away from me. It is a distance that I feel, physically. My arms were once full of them; if they moved through the world it was because I was carrying them. And now they are moving through the world on their own, with my guidance and love behind them but not surrounding them. I love who they are, but I miss what they were.

I never knew that an adult could experience more angst about her children growing up than a teenager does who is in the throes of coming of age. But there you go. Parenthood is hard, and it is hard in so many ways.

Fortunately, as I struggle with letting go, my big first grader is delving into the new school year with her customary verve.

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She is pretty amazing, isn’t she?

 

 

 

 

Locker Room Bodies

Between my return to running and my daughters’ swim lessons, I have recently been spending a lot of time in women’s locker rooms. And during this time, I’ve observed a few things about the locker room subculture: Mainly, that the older women get, the more confident they seem to be in their own skin — and in nothing but their own skin. Also, women who exercise together talk to one another. We talk in the showers and in the toilet stalls. We talk while toweling off, while adjusting our undergarments, and while applying deodorant. We just talk.

Once, while I was dressing my three-year-old after her 11 am swim lesson, an elderly woman wearing nothing but beige underpants started a conversation with me about modern methods of preschool swim instruction.

“My granddaughter in Ohio puts life vests on my great-grandkids when they swim in their pool! I just don’t hold with that kind of nonsense,” she told me. “You just throw ‘em in. That’s the only way they learn! They don’t use those vest things here, do they?” She paused for a moment, and then continued talking. “Don’t mind me, now, I just have to blow dry under my bosom. I find that they get a bit chafed if I just let them air dry.” And sure enough, she lifted each breast, waving the hair dryer underneath and around it.

At that moment, the thinking part of my brain froze completely, leaving my socially awkward self without a working filter. Words came out of my mouth. I started describing in detail the horrible sores my daughter got as a newborn from her diapers and how we, too, had to blow dry her private bits whenever we changed her. My elderly friend just looked at me funny and finished her blow drying.

Why yes, I did just use the word bosom in a sentence. Does that make you uncomfortable?

“Why yes, I did just use the word bosom to refer to my breasts. Does that make you uncomfortable?”

* * *

I don’t do very well with locker room talk, mostly because I am shy around naked people. So when I find myself in a crowd of women in various stages of undress, I tend to do a lot of quiet observing. And in addition to noticing how freely other people seem to behave in a situation that makes me distinctly uncomfortable, I have noticed something else as well.

The women I see in the locker rooms are fit. They work out. They swim. They pump their bodies and they Zumba and they lift. They are active, and they are real.

But none of them – not one of them — possess a body that would be featured as is, with no retouching, in a fitness magazine. There are curves, and lots of them. There are smooth and generous curves, wrinkled curves, and lumpy curves. There are bodies with angles and planes, and there are bodies with definition and obvious strength.

These are beautiful bodies, but not one of them resembles in every particular the tanned, toned, impossibly long and lean examples our media gives us of what women who are “in shape” look like. And yet, these women are the most genuine examples of what it means to be living a healthy, active lifestyle.

It would be easy for me to give in to the temptation right now to rant about how the media flaunts utterly unattainable standards of what women’s bodies should look like. There is no question that the images of what is perceived as the definition of feminine beauty that we see in print and on screens are rarely anything other than airbrushed, elongated, and enhanced images of women whose profession is looking beautiful. It is hard not to get angry that these false images have so much power in our society.

But I am not going to go that route. Because we women are smarter than that. We are stronger than that. We are better than that.

We don’t need the glossy pages of magazines to tell us where our beauty lies. We have the power to decide for ourselves what it means to be fit and healthy — and beautiful.

Images are just that – images. They are as deep as the paper they are printed on, and last as long as the time it takes to scroll past them on your computer screen. But we are real. We run, and walk, and dance, and lift, and stretch, and we have careers and we mother children and we tend to relationships and we live. Above all, we live.

Some of the women I see in the locker room are marathon runners who wear double digit sizes. Others are tiny and toned, with a padding of extra skin around their stomachs as a reminder of the fact that they made another person. Many of the women are elderly, with bodies that will never be firm and young again. All of these women inspire me. And even though they probably don’t realize it, all of these women are beautiful, in their realness and in their strength.

 

Stupid Girls

I was flying solo last night while my husband was out of town, so I decided to take the kids to Chick Fil A for dinner. We ate and then the girls went to play in the playground area while I finished my dinner and cleaned up our table. After a few quiet minutes of peaceful time to myself, I was startled by the noise of my older daughter bursting through the playroom door. She rushed over to me, indignant, but also clearly suffering from hurt feelings.

“Mommy!” She shouted, “This boy just said that I am a stupid girl! He said I was singing my song wrong and that he didn’t want to play with me because I am just a STUPID GIRL!”

I was pretty angry. I followed her into the play area and had a little talk with the boy who had upset her so badly. I explained that what he said about my daughter was untrue and that it had hurt her feelings. I told him that he could help make it better by saying he was sorry. But even though his big brother was backing me up, the little boy was unrepentant.

So I turned the conversation over to my daughter instead and we started talking about all the things that are true about her.

“You’re not a stupid girl at all,” I told her. “You are a very smart girl. You are a smart person. And you are funny, and fun to be around, and really, really creative.”

“Yes,” she said, “and I am nice and imaginative and I got two prizes in camp today and I am a good big sister.”

But even though she knew all those things to be true, the insult the little boy had thrown at her still rankled. She couldn’t let it go. She brought it up repeatedly last night and it was still bothering her this morning.

And every time she mentioned what had happened, she always said the same thing: that she was upset because the boy had called her “a stupid girl.” She has been bullied before by another student in her class, and while the experience was very hurtful, she never dwelled on what the child from her school said to her as much as she did on being called a stupid girl.

***

My daughter had a new experience last night, and it was one that I always knew was coming. For the first time in her six years of life, she was exposed to the fact that there are people in this world who add the word “girl” to insults with the goal of making them more offensive.

The little boy who said those hurtful words was just that – a little boy. I know he probably had no real concept of what he was saying. Insults get bandied around playgrounds like balls at a tennis match and most of the time the words kids use to hurt each other are empty of any real meaning. This morning my younger daughter was mortally offended when my older daughter made eye contact with her and said “nah-nah nah-nah.” She sensed the intent to insult, even though the words her sister used were nonsense.

But still. There was something more to what that boy said, whether he was aware of it or not, and my daughter is perceptive enough to have felt that there was an extra barb in what he said.

Because it is undeniably true that in our social lexicon, the word girl – and all of its synonyms — are often used to convey criticism.

“You run like a girl.”

“You fight like a girl.”

“You kick like a girl, throw like a girl, hit like a girl.”

“You cry like a girl.”

These are not generally meant as compliments.

During football season, when people want to denigrate a member of the opposing team, they come up with memes of players in tutus and post them all over Facebook:

Oh, I get it. It’s the whole whiny little girl thing. Ha! Ha, ha. I’d forgotten how funny that is.

We imply that men are weak or cowardly by calling them pussies – and we’re not referring to cats. Men who are strong and imposing are “manly men,” while men who are more meek and subdued are “girly men.”

Even among women, when we say someone is “girly” we aren’t remarking on her strength of character, or her intelligence, or on the fact that she has the body parts required to build another human being. We are implying that she likes shopping, and pampering, and makeup, and pretty things.

The implied negative connotation we have connected with the word “girl” is prevalent enough that Always – that’s right, the feminine products company – has released a video highlighting just what people mean when they use the term “like a girl.” It’s worth watching.

***

My daughter got her first taste of this social phenomenon last night, but thankfully she still doesn’t understand just how deeply rooted it is in our culture. The truth will dawn on her eventually. My hope is that, when it does, she remembers this: that she is the only person who defines who she is. And that what it means to be a girl — or to do something like a girl — means nothing more or less than to be her best self and to do what comes naturally to her with courage and confidence.

And one more thing – you know the song my daughter was singing that the little boy found so annoying? It was my daughter’s cover of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. It went like this:

Twinkle, Twinkle, you’re my star
And I love just what you are.
Up above the world so high
Like a heart up in the sky.
Twinkle, Twinkle, you’re my star.
And I love just what you are.

When it comes to being her best self, I can’t help but think that she has a pretty good start.

 

 

 

 

They Love Us Too

Last week, a dear friend of mine shared a beautiful tribute to her father, who passed away several months after her wedding, shortly after she became pregnant with her first child. She wrote:

“Today, on what would have been my dad’s 74th birthday, I remember the song I picked for the father/daughter dance at my wedding: Forever Young, by Bob Dylan.  I shared the song with my dad a couple of months before the wedding, and when he heard it for the first time, he teared up.  He understood why I chose it – not only is it a wish from him for me, but also from me for him.  We practiced dancing a little bit that day in my parents’ living room, and looking back I’m so very happy that we did.  By the time the wedding day rolled around, cancer radiation treatment had left my dad unable to stand without support.  Dad and I didn’t get to dance at my wedding, and a little part of me is sad when I think about that, but more so I am grateful that he was able to be there at all.
So, Dad, this one’s for you. 

I thought her post was profoundly touching, and not just because I knew her father — who was a good, kind, immensely intelligent man — or because I know how it feels to regret what you could not do with a beloved parent who has been beaten down by cancer.

What moved me the most was what she said about the song she chose for her father/daughter wedding dance — that the words of Forever Young were not just a wish from him to her, but also from her to him.

Bob Dylan’s Forever Young is a song whose lyrics can bring even the most unsentimental parent to tears. The first stanza alone has everything you need to feel both heart-swellingly hopeful about your child’s future and crushingly nostalgic about the childhood she will inevitably leave behind:

May God bless and keep you always.
May your wishes all come true.
May you always do for others,
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars,
And climb on every rung. May you stay forever young.

Of course these are the things every parent wants for her children.  We want them to follow their dreams, and to be righteous and brave. We want them to be loved, and to know truth, and to find joy. We want them to be young, forever. We want them to have everything in the world that is good.

But my friend took this point further and reminded me that these are the same things our children want for us, their parents.

I have written before that the best thing we can do for our children is to be there, beside them, as they walk through life. But it is also important, for us and for them, to remember that —  behind the tantrums and the defiance and the smug know-it-all-ism of their early years — they both want and need their parents to be content and fulfilled. They want us to be strong, and healthy, and as young as they remember us to be. They want good things for us, too.

Our children, particularly when they are young, don’t often show us that our welfare matters to them. I’m pretty sure that if you asked my three-year-old, she would say that her greatest hope for me is that I forever provide her with goldfish crackers. Or that I forget the word “nap.”  My five-year-old would like me to concede with prejudice that I am not, in fact, the boss of her. I feel certain they would neither acknowledge nor express any lofty aspirations for me. But I think our children feel a need for our happiness nevertheless.

* * *

For the last few months, I have been battling one rough winter illness after another. I had antibiotic resistant strep throat for four weeks back in December, which led me to discover some minor, though temporarily worrisome, heart problems. Then in January, I picked up the norovirus at Chuck E. Cheese, which knocked me out for eight solid days. I am currently winding up another course of antibiotics for a sinus/ear infection and bronchitis. It hasn’t been an easy winter, and I haven’t been my usual self.

While all this was going on, I noticed that my five-year-old’s behavior at home had been getting increasingly worse. She was being contrary, oppositional, and having massive meltdowns at the least provocation. I was overwhelmed, and I couldn’t figure out why she had picked the time when I was at my weakest to bring out her worst behavior.

But eventually it dawned on me. She was reacting to my illnesses. It was because I was at my weakest that her behavior was it its worst. I wasn’t well and she was worried about me. I wouldn’t have argued if she had shown her concern in a less challenging way, but that’s how my girl rolls — when life pushes her over her limits, she pushes right back at life.

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Our kids love us and need us to be there for them. They also want, and need, for us to be well and happy*. Our wellbeing affects them — but it also matters to them. They can’t find their own contentment if we haven’t found ours.

And if we do our job right, one day, our children will want everything for us that we want for them. That is a big and beautiful thought, and I am so thankful to my friend for reminding me that the love and concern we parents feel for our children is reciprocated, and powerfully so.

This one’s for you, CHW. And yes, Dad, this is my way of saying I love you, too.

From the Forever Young Book, by Bob Dylan and Paul Rogers

From the Forever Young Book, by Bob Dylan and Paul Rogers

*Read more about our right to be well and happy at These Walls Blog, by my friend Julie.