So it’s like this, toots. You’re slowing down, and neither one of us will live forever. While you are still of sound mind and top side of the sod, receive this message from your son-in-law. Continue reading
A Letter to My Grandsons’ Mother
August 4, 2021
You probably don’t need me to tell you any of this. On the other hand, it could be helpful to read what your best and most centered self already knows. Daily life on our convulsing, nervous planet shouts down the best messages we can give ourselves. So I’m here to whisper back.
For the record, then, I’m glad you called. In 45 minutes, I’ll sit in your van with the boys in Dr. Weber’s parking lot. You’re right, getting your bones cracked while Cole, Killian and Gavin whirl like maelstroms around the waiting room is a disaster in the making. And like I told you, the doctor’s office is five minutes away—nothing.
But I have more to tell you this morning. What I’ll now say has been fermenting for weeks, but correspondence that isn’t urgent doesn’t always make it to paper. Though we don’t have an emergency, you and others who will read over your shoulder might find what follows medicinal, if slightly bitter.
In case you’re not aware, you and Matt are raising children under duress. This is no exaggeration. No, bombs aren’t reducing your house to splinters and dust, as in some cursed lands. No, your comings and goings aren’t under Big Brother’s surveillance. You can speak as you wish without fear of ending up in the Gulag.
Still, as comfortable and affluent as our material circumstances are at present, you face challenges that ought not be dismissed with a snort and “suck it up.”
When you and your brother were young, Mom and I had much less to fret over than you do. No pandemic was looming, with one wave crashing on the shore before another rolls back. We had few educational decisions to make. You and Micah went to public schools. Homeschooling and remote learning weren’t as common as they are now. And, by the way, the social and political climate in America is infinitely more venomous and vengeful than it was in the 1990s.
Begin again: I’m back from Dr. Weber’s parking lot. When Pop feeds Gavin bits of hash browns and gets used by Cole and Killian as a bongo drum in an air conditioned mini van for 20 minutes, I call that a blessing.
I can still recognize blessings, Elena. Out my hut window, your mother’s sunflowers sway in the breeze as if to a hymn, descants over scores of blossoms near the ground—flowers I can’t name. Simple joy is what I now behold.
But hardly anything is simple anymore. Children’s carseats now have expiration dates. Tiny screens are here to stay, but they anesthetize little brains? How long is too long? And, panning the camera for a global look, our climate is, like parents right now, under duress.
Ah, but millions of Americans believe that scientific findings are jokes being played on the gullible, which points to what may be the most disorienting fog you have to walk through. As a society, we no longer have a firm ground of accepted factual knowledge and agreed upon standards of personal conduct to stand upon.
Just now, a yellow finch flew across the backyard to a sunflower. You know, Mom pointed out to me yesterday that those bright birds have a flight path like a wave. It’s true.
The trouble is, as civilization stands, a neighbor could claim that the two finches at this moment making waves and pecking at seeds are not finches, but vultures. The hyperbole is only slight.
So, my wondrous daughter—of whom I’m more proud than you can imagine—this is what you and Matt are up against. The words humans use to communicate flop about like fish on the sand because they no longer mean anything. Folks decide definitions by agenda or whim, dictionaries be damned. And statements that in your childhood would have been self-evident are now ridiculed with impunity.
I did warn you that this medicine was bitter, but there are other truths I have to share that are sweet.
Hear this: Since you were a child, your heart has flown in graceful waves like the yellow finch. At the same time, your soul is earnest, built on a stony foundation of wisdom, sincerity, bravery and compassion. You must understand that what I describe as if in a poem is the real you, the you who is raising our boys.
Lately you and Matt—he is a pretty good sort in his own right—have been struggling to decide on Cole’s schooling arrangements for the fall. You want to get it right, don’t you?
Rest easy, Elena. What matters most in however many years we’re granted is that we try. As a mother you try so hard that some days you ache inside, don’t you? Everybody who loves you sees this.
Take it from your old man, even the flowers and winged waves I watch between sentences aren’t as lovely as you brushing the hair from my grandsons’ foreheads or pulling one of them aside to whisper rather than shout, to tend them day by day as they grow into the men you dream they might be.
Yes, you are a mother whose light yields to no worldly darkness. Believe me.
What’s more pathetic than sick toddlers? Living in the here and now, they know only that the present moment is plugged up or achy or poopy or yacky, as the case may be.
Grandson Cole is nearly over a head cold, which he has shared with mommy Elena, daddy Matt, and grandma Kathy. Adults get a pat on the back and a “hang in there,” but Cole had us all verklempt. Kiss him, walk him, monkeyshine him. His head was so packed with snot that it established its own gravitational field. Pantry moths, hummingbirds, and an occasional turkey buzzard got pulled into Cole’s orbit and circled a few times before flapping wildly to regain their freedom.
The worst part was my buddy couldn’t nurse. He got a tug or two in, tried to breathe, and had to veer off. Then came the tears, and not just for him. For a prolific producer like my daughter, the pain was threefold: lefty, righty, and the heart. Pumping took the edge off.
Both Elena and son Micah nursed, so I’m comfortable at the nursing rodeo as well as a big fan. The more I learn about breastfeeding, the more I want to speak up as its champion. This past Saturday the whole family joined scores of others at our local Miracle Milk Stroll, an event to raise awareness about the benefits of breast milk as well as a few bucks for the cause.
And it is a worthy cause, though it struggles against a headwind of sophomoric nonsense disguised as decorum. I’m amazed afresh each time a humble breast—servant of life, means of comfort—is greeted with harrumph or ew. An infant is hungry, say in a restaurant, and Mom provides. “Eh,” someone at the next table whispers, “I don’t want to have to look at that while I’m eating”—that being one standard-issue, boilerplate breast, either whole or in part.
I say, “It’s time for the squeamish to take a please-grow-up-already pill.” Why? Because breast milk is liquid gold, and nursing—for those women able and inclined to practice it—is a picture of earthly goodness. I won’t go into the many marvels of human milk here. Authoritative sources have done the heavy informational lifting far more effectively than I ever could. Please check out these sources if you’re curious.
- https://www.facebook.com/events/755637887867461/permalink/779913792106537/ (Be sure to check out Tristan’s story here.)
So plenty of good research trumpets the physical benefits of nursing. After the Miracle Milk Stroll, lactation consultant Cass even suggested that Elena put drops of breast milk into Cole’s ears and nose. Overhearing this, I said, “I have a wart on the bottom of my foot. Maybe I ought to put some breast milk on it.” Cass and Elena said together, “Well, it is an antiseptic.”
I would rub some on my sole. Why not? I would also try human milk as a treatment for pink eye, as one mother successfully did for her preschooler. Cheese made from breast milk wouldn’t scare me, either. A New York chef made some out of his wife’s surplus, but the Health Department frowned, as did one food critic. Oh well.
Compared to probably 95% of the population, I’m a weirdo. Sorry, but the science is convincing. Research isn’t conclusive yet, but there’s even evidence that a mother’s milk has analgesic properties. In the future will we mix liquid gold with other ingredients and use it like nasal spray to calm a headache? Go ahead and laugh. As Elena used to say, “I don’t give a care!”
Let’s say human milk was no more nourishing than tap water. Would I still stick up for nursing? Amen and Amen. Go to a Miracle Milk Stroll as I have for the past two years and hang around with a bunch of women committed to the cause. Watch your children and grandson nurse. You’ll witness something more compelling than science.
When Elena says, “You want some milk, Baby?” Cole’s answer is joy and light. He gives the usual yeah and nods, but I wish you could see his expression. It’s as if he is thinking, “Oh, that’s the best thing! The world is perfect when I’m nursing.” Imagine a face showing gladness mixed with relief.
We used to joke about Cole being boob drunk once his tank was full. Take away any negative connotation, and you’ve got it right: the relaxing buzz, the drooping eyelids, the silly grin. We should all be so intoxicated.
Am I getting carried away to think that a nursing baby is about as close to the Loving Mystery as a person can get? And Mom—her skin, breast, warmth, and agape—is the vessel in this trinity: Eternity, Life Bearer, and Life.
Granted, breastfeeding is not entirely sacred cuddles. Kids chomp down, women grow weary, ducts get plugged. But for a chronic worrier like myself, a mother feeding her baby is a gift of peace in a nerved-up world. Together they remind me that I believe in a gracious forever and assure me that once this life of wonder and woe has passed, my hope of being so comforted in the arms of a Mothering God isn’t foolish after all.
At the Miracle Milk Stroll, we walked less than a mile, slowly like the name says. Without much thought, mothers nursed their children, talked with friends, and kept walking. Would that we all could travel this way, leaving judgment at the side of the road, quietly celebrating love made visible.
On December 6, 2007, you passed from your mother to the womb of glory, forgoing planetary existence entirely. On April 2, 2008, which would have been your birthday, your mom, dad, and I prayed, reminded the universe that you were, and stood in a cemetery. We needed to let grief have its way with us—your mom, Liz, especially—out in the open air, before heaven and earth.
Only this morning did her sadness settle upon me, the breadth and depth of it. She and I talked for a few minutes last night after a meeting, and what she said woke me up at 5:30 this morning. Right away I felt the need to thank you. Because your life kissed Liz’s en route to mercy, I’ve been granted a truth. This isn’t a maxim, like “a penny saved is a penny earned,” but a truth that’s part of eternity’s cosmic dance.
So . . . the truth your mother spoke, not with words but with her eyes: we are loved into the world. Why did it take me fifty-two years to realize this? Even a dullard can detect pregnancy: swelly belly; the third-trimester waddle; puffy feet; pink cheeks. And women generally know not to smoke, drink, and do drugs while carrying a baby. During labor, breathing through contractions is common knowledge, so much so that it’s become a joke: Whew! Whew! Whew! Whew! Whew!
But what you and your mother have taught me, Noah, isn’t a lesson of body, but spirit. Mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, and aunts and uncles don’t just get excited about a new arrival; they fall in love. While your digits were still forming, you were loved. Hundreds of times while you were kicking and shadow boxing in your mother’s womb, she held you in her soul, rested her lips against your sweet face, breathed in your newborn scent, still carrying whispers from God. And her love—so you and she have shown me—collaborated with biology to nurse you toward life.
Now you would be six years old. This morning as I lay awake before dawn, I dreamed you. You would have the full face of your brothers Mitch and Gabriel and fine, blonde hair. Pretty soon, I would pull a chair up to the altar, and you would help me set the Communion table. You would raise your hands with the other Abiding Hope kids to bless the people. Your father, Shawn, would chase you around the church, maybe telling you to slow down. In this dream, love for you catches in my throat.
But my dream can’t compare to your mother’s. She dreams you all the time, and while I imagine clowning around and making you laugh, she dreams you with her body. Biology failed you, but your mom still feels the space in her arms where you should now find comfort. I’ll also bet the love that willed you toward birth still dwells in her womb. “Push,” it pleads, “push!” The longing is so profound it doesn’t stop, even though you are gone.
Oh, Noah! Do you understand from the lap of glory how you are loved? Still, I have to tell you, your beauty comes at a price. When you died, your mom, dad, and others who counted on your arrival could hardly bear it. “God,” they cried, “why would you take Noah from us?” Sometimes they shook their fists and swore at God, which I believe is the best possible prayer when that’s all you’ve got. Maybe you could check on this for me: God loves us beyond our doubts and rage, right? You could also ask if I’m right that God didn’t take you as part of a divine plan and doesn’t constantly make folks climb through barbed wire to test them.
But I shouldn’t be greedy. You and your mother have already blessed me with one answer: We are loved into life. Gracias, little senor! I’m also grateful that you have opened me up to other lessons about love that grow from the soil of your teaching. That’s how my mind works: I dig for truth and find species of it gathered in one small garden.
We live on love. Friends of mine are serving as foster parents to a toddler they plan to adopt. Also parents to an infant son, they are Mommy and Daddy, enfolding both boys with the blessings of home and family. By chance, the biological father learned that he had a son and hopes to be awarded custody. For now, he has visitation rights. The boy returns from each visit shaken and upset and cries in the night: “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!”
Just as Liz and Shawn loved you toward life, Noah, my friends’ love for their sons—no distinction in their hearts between biological and adopted—has left fingerprints on their souls. The four of them belong to each other, and they survive not only on food and water, but on the wholeness they find in each other’s arms. Even the possibility of being separated is shattering. The parents imagine the boy who is now part of them afraid and confused, calling out for them from a strange bed in a strange house. They pray, “Why would your plan demand a toddler’s despair?”
Some lessons are necessary, but damned difficult. You’ve taught me that I would rather have my loved ones safe beside me and suffer all other scarcity than know material abundance and empty arms. Love is as necessary as clothing and shelter. Intercede for all of us, Noah. Hold God’s hand as we—our boy’s parents and all who love him—throw haymakers at heaven and demand answers.
Love longs to be spent. I think lots of us are formed and fired to be vessels for love. If enough of it builds up without finding a good recipient, we show cracks. In recent years I’ve spoken with a couple of women who wanted to bear children. One told me after drinking an iced-bourbon truth serum that she regrets not having children. “I think I could have been a good mother,” she said through tears. And she would have been—nervous, worried, but as attentive and understanding as any mother in circulation. In her sixties now, she looks across the expanse of years and holds open hands that would have always touched daughters and sons with gentleness. Another friend tried for years to get pregnant, without success. She heard stories of unwanted babies cruelly discarded and thought, “I’m right here! I’ll love your baby. Just bring him here and leave. Nobody has to know.” For both these women dear to me, adoption wasn’t an option.
Noah, you’ve never known the weary joy of comforting a crying baby, but your passing through my life has helped me to recognize that many of us feel starved for the love that completely and recklessly embraces another life, a fragile life that can’t survive without us. A baby falls asleep because you have surrounded her with your tender presence. The unfulfilled longing for such a connection chants a mantra: “Push!”
Love lands where it pleases. An old friend of mine is selling his house and moving into a senior apartment complex that doesn’t allow pets. He gave his dog to a kind friend, and on the first night in her new home she dug a hole under the fence and escaped. Sleepless hours passed until the next morning, when my friend stopped by my office with good news. The dog returned and was sleeping in the laundry room of her new home at daybreak.
“Last night I did something I haven’t done in a long time,” he reported. “I got on my knees and prayed.” The thought of his beloved dog confused and afraid in woods and fields was torture. I bet for a while my friend will go to pet his dog and feel grief when he remembers she lives with someone else now.
We love what we love, I guess: dogs, meadows, goldfish, blue heron, homes, clematis vines, neighborhoods. Noah, you might ask me, “How can you love me, John? You never even met me.” Because that’s how love works, buddy. It writes its own rules, in its own time and at its own pleasure. And it’s under no obligation to make sense.
“I got on my knees and prayed.” That’s it! Love brings us to our knees. That’s what you and your mother taught me, along with leaving me a question. I wonder if great minds over the centuries have uncovered only the scientific truth about the origin of universe. Maybe there’s a second truth. What do you think, Noah? Were the suns and planets and beating hearts of each galaxy loved into space? And is that love still sending us out for billions of years until it calls all that exists together again to be embraced—blood, bones, fire, and stardust?
You’ve got me wondering, kid, wondering and believing. Who could have imagined that a boy who never held his parents’ hands and walked barefoot on wet grass or woke up in the middle of the night afraid would be wise enough to grant a grateful man truths to live on.
Thanks, Noah. Give God a kiss for us.