My Parental Gland

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.

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Micah smoking his e-cig after a hard day’s work. How can you not love a twenty-two year-old who lounges in onesie jam-jams and tiger slippers?

That’s when my parental gland fired, as the car’s whir became a sigh that became silence. Kathy slept. The neighborhood was reverent. Deep breaths embraced the longing in my chest. Longing. Or call it whatever. That contradiction, that lush tundra parents inhabit as we watch our children move into the distance. Pride blossoms against apprehension’s frost.

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Frost on an orange flower–a father’s spirit watching his child drive away. (Credit: Image Source / Corbis)

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.

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“God on high, hear my prayer.” Jean Valjean rescues Marius–“like the son he might have known.” (Les Miserables, Credit: Mead Schaeffer / Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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Someone’s daughter disappears. Someone’s parental gland sounds. (Credit: Hans Berggren / Johner Images / Corbis)

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.

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I pray from this place each time my children leave. (Credit: John and Karen Hollingsworth / Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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“Take me out of this stroller and tell me you love me! Right now!

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.

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They could toddle, sprint, or “walker” away from me. No matter. Joy and longing kiss.

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.

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Kilimanjaro Dancing on the Head of a Pin

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Elena a couple weeks ago

“Who would have ever thought we would get to this day and that it would be so joyful?” wife Kathy said from the kitchen doorway. Her question embraced me so completely that I didn’t even say goodbye. I just stood there in the quiet, mixing up Greek potato salad, my contribution to daughter Elena’s baby shower.

Well-meaning friends tell you that your teenage kids will outgrow their problems and turn out fine, but, of course, sometimes they don’t. Everybody knows this, but when you have good cause to wonder whether your daughter or son will live to see legal drinking age, folks who love you want to offer hope. I don’t blame them. When Elena was a Goth chick carving LOVE and HATE into her wrist, disappearing in the middle of winter nights, and gobbling a cocktail of pills, I knew enough to translate all words of comfort. “I love you,” was the real message. “I see what you’re going through. Don’t lose heart.” I never came close to giving up on Elena, but I never let myself wander far from the truth, either. When you attempt suicide as a way of calling out for help, you might die. Happens all the time. When you sneak out at 3:00 a.m. to trek across town through slush to a creepy boyfriend’s house, you might get hurt in ways you can’t yet imagine.

As Kathy stood in the doorway, I’m sure she was remembering those four or five years when worry about Elena constantly had us by the throat: “Who would have ever thought we would get to this day and that it would be so joyful?”

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Go ahead, tell me this old sanctuary doesn’t glow!

When the Greek potato salad was ready, I took it to the church fellowship hall, which Elena, Kathy, and a herd of helpers had decorated within an inch of its life. I’d led hundreds of worship services in that hall, formerly the Abiding Hope Lutheran Church sanctuary, but never have I seen that simple Cracker Jack box room glow more than it did when I put my bowl on the buffet table and stood still as if in a dream.

If all goes well Kathy and I will be grandparents toward the end of November. Holding my grandson for the first time, I may think, “Who would have ever thought . . . ?” After what the Coleman family went through when both Elena and son Micah were teenagers, I regard every joy as a miracle—Kilimanjaro balanced on the head of a pin. Witness the wonder through tears, but, baby, don’t forget it could tip over.

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Micah, making me proud every day from 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

While Elena, her husband Matt, and our future grandson seem solidly on the path to okayness, Micah also has Kathy and me saying, “Who would have ever thought . . . ?”  When he was going through his wall-smashing, heroin-shooting days, Kathy and I questioned whether he or we would make it to joyful. Now, not only did he report this morning to his full-time painting job with snot-jammed sinuses, but he’s been going over to his grandmother’s house lately. He who once stuck with a job a couple months at best enjoys helping her with chores and hanging out with her, watching movies and kibitzing. He’s been clean well over a year and is about to turn in his 401(k) paperwork. Somebody pinch me!

An old volcano dances on a pin: that’s the Zen half-smile I took with me into the Pastor’s Study as the ladies ate, laughed, and whooped for a couple of hours in the glowing fellowship hall. I put my mats, blanket, and pillows on the floor and took a delicious, mediocre nap. A couple text messages joined with laughter forte to hold me on the edge of sleep. No matter. When I got up and checked on the party, nothing had tipped over.

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Dear Lord, Join me for a turtle brownie? Amen

For me, shamatha—calm abiding—in the presence of fragile joy is the best way I know to be grateful. I did thank God for Elena’s great day. I do thank God for Micah peeing clean and grappling with his grandmother’s weeds. But my thanksgiving is complicated: it’s about inviting God to celebrate with me; it’s not about thanking God for easing up on me and setting my kids straight. Maybe this is the way to say it: I don’t give thanks; I am thanks.

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Cover of Sanskrit translation of Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

During Elena’s and Micah’s crazy days, I found comfort in Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha when the ferryman smiles and comforts a suffering father, Siddhartha:

Ask the river about it, my friend! Listen to it, laugh about it! 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.

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Kibo summit of Kilimanjaro (Credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, it’s not as though the path of samsara—the life journey of death, suffering, and rebirth—ends with a first child or a full-time job. Kilimanjaro is always losing its balance.

“Who would have ever thought we would see this day and that it would be so joyful?” How many nights did I stare into the darkness, wondering, trying to breathe? We all have to walk our own path, and for Elena and Micah, at the moment, the footing seems good. What I’m trying to say is, “I am thanks.”

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Elena ready to welcome our grandson to the world.