One morning in mid March, my parental gland sounded its mysterious longing in my chest. Of course, there’s no evidence such a gland exists, but I’ve got one. Made visible it would resemble a translucent almond situated behind my sternum, right where you get the wind knocked out of you.
I was pray-meditating at 7:30 a.m., propped up in bed, wife Kathy sleeping next to me. The only sound in the house was twenty-two-year-old son Micah whirling around downstairs like Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil. (He could slow down his routine and still get to his painting job on time, but he makes coffee, finds clothes, throws a nutritionally hollow lunch into his knapsack, and puts on his coat in a barely-managed frenzy.) I listened and breathed. The front door creaked open and banged shut, and thud thud thud he went down the front steps; car door; engine; drove away, at a reasonable pace, thank God.
Daughter walks from the car to the school building. Please. After you kiss your son’s forehead, he gets wheeled away for an appendectomy. Please. Daughter and son speed off with friends for some destination you’ll never find out about. Please. Each departure turns me, at least, into a beggar: God on high, hear my prayer.
If only my parental gland had dissolved once daughter Elena and Micah reached legal drinking age. When they were teenagers I peeked between my fingers like a child as they stumbled out of sight into their respective barbed wire and razor blades: flirting with death, dancing with heroin. I’d figured on landing in a deep blue expanse of peace if they grew up and straightened out.
Both of my children are healthy and sane at the moment, but sadly, no blue expanse. Turns out my heart worries even when my head can’t name the threat. It’s that shimmering parental gland. Mine is more active than ever, gaining potency as the years call me to honesty. I love Elena and Micah so much it hurts sometimes, especially when they’re traveling alone, fading from view.
My conclusion: a father’s and a mother’s hurt and sorrow reside in the same dwelling with a love that makes us want to take off after our adult children, pick them up in our arms, and rock them to sleep. That’s what my gland does, anyway. I’m not kidding. I would gladly put Elena or Micah in my lap, rest their head against my shoulder, and listen for sleep’s slow, even breathing. Ah well. Pain and longing are in love’s fine print. Deal accepted.
Now Elena is married to Matt, and they’ve given us all Cole. Judging from what a mush bucket I am already, I’m thinking the parental gland working so abundantly these days will be promoted and given grandparental duties as well. The raise in compensation so far has more than covered the increased workload. Each time my grandson cries, I’m in that lush tundra. Please.
That’s what happened today when Elena, Cole, and I met at Presque Isle for a walk. The wind was chilled by snow and icy Lake Erie, and Cole was plenty warm, but in no mood for the stroller. Half a mile in, we pulled off the path for a drink. The kid’s amazing. He managed to nurse and make those calming-down snivels infants do after a crying jag. His tank full, we headed back to the car, taking turns carrying him. For a couple minutes, as I faced him forward and held him close, I whispered Grandpa foolishness against his bald head and listed in a chant everybody who loves him. But then he started blubbering again, which told me that his appetite for affection is bottomless. No problem. My grandparental gland, unlike my pancreas, is invincible.
When we got back to the parking lot, Elena changed Cole’s diaper, got him in his car seat, and we all kissed goodbye. I started my truck, but waited as they drove off. Please.
I thought about my favorite passage from Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha. The main character is in anguish as his son walks away into the bliss and suffering life holds for him. A sage speaks to the father:
Do you then really think that you have committed your follies in order to spare your son them? Can you then protect your son from Samsara? How? Through instruction, through prayers, through exhortation? My dear friend, have you forgotten that instructive story about Siddhartha, the Brahmin’s son, which you once told me here? Who protected Siddhartha the Samana from Samsara, from sin, greed and folly? Could his father’s piety, his teacher’s exhortations, his own knowledge, his own seeking, protect him? Which father, which teacher, could prevent him from living his own life, from soiling himself with life, from loading himself with sin, from swallowing the bitter drink himself, from finding his own path? Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared this path? Perhaps your little son, because you would like to see him spared sorrow and pain and disillusionment? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.
This is the hardest part of possessing my peculiar gland: as Elena, Micah, and Cole walk away from me, “finding their own path,” I wonder when my chest will finally crack open from wanting to spare them. But there is no sparing them—or forcing them.
Now, in my fifty-third year, I understand the covenant: a father’s and grandfather’s love breathes, honors the silence when the beloved is out of sight, and prays from a lush tundra.
Note: “My Parental Gland” originally appeared as a guest post this past March on a great blog, Kerry’s Winding Road.