Monday, December 6, 2010
We are lying in her king-size bed, having just crawled into it after what must have been the tenth time up that first evening home from the hospital. Is it really 3 o’clock in the morning? Our eyes, though heavy and bloodshot, won’t close too easily. What if he cries out again, we wonder, will we be able to wake up this time?
She grabs my hand. Her young skin, as always, feels soft to the touch. But her once nimble and slender fingers are now stiff and heavy, filled with fluid after the birth of her first child. She reaches out and gently latches her warm fingers onto mine. I latch back.
It won’t just be the two of us in bed together. Her husband will join us on the other side. He’s in the bathroom, finally found time to brush his teeth. To some, this might seem like an unusual arrangement, but to my daughter and me, this is how we do life. We do the tough stuff together. It’s always been that way. It’s times like these when she reminds me it always will be that way. I sigh.
It started after I divorced their biological father. My son was two and my daughter was five. It was just the three of us after the papers were signed and their dad disappeared. He never wrote. He never sent a birthday card. He never even made a single phone call to find out if his children were being well fed and cared for. Not once. The letters I sent to him were left unanswered.
At the time, I felt it was my fault. I divorced him. But I didn’t understand how you could willfully disappear so easily out of your children’s lives. Since I couldn’t explain that, I didn’t talk about him much. Only when the kids asked. And they did. Occasionally. So we’d sit down, just the three of us, holding onto each other, and I’d show them our family photo albums. I was just 16 when I had my daughter. I was 19 when her brother came along. Our pictures reveal what looks like it would have been a happy family.
And I suppose it was until I decided I would attend college after high school. Because of that, and the fact that he didn't want me to finish college, I became a single parent at 21. The three of us moved to a university town.
Later, I married again, but this time, my husband died. He’d been my college sweetheart. We’d dated throughout our college years and a year after before he proposed. He was the man who voluntarily took on the role of father to my kids one day, and he was the man who was dead the next, killed in an auto accident less than two months after we married. Death was hard to explain to my kids, but losing a second dad was even worse. By then, they were old enough to feel heartbrake.
Even so, it was the third loss that really upset their world. When that one occurred, they were 19 and 21--old enough to understand betrayal.
I’d married a third time to the man who eventually adopted my kids. It made them feel whole again. He had two of his own children, and we became a blended family. It was challenging, challenging enough for him that he couldn’t handle it, had an affair or two or three, and left our home.
He tried to blame his behavior on me, but when he wouldn’t even try to make things work, I had no choice but to divorce him. I didn’t think he’d disappear, though. But he did. Emotionally.
Or maybe he was, as he said, never really there.
It was the loss that nearly tore our family apart. What it couldn’t break was our bond. Once again, life left just the three of us behind.
That first Thanksgiving alone I took my now college-aged kids on vacation to Mexico. I could afford a room with one bed. We slept in it together. Mom in the middle. Daughter on one side. Son on the other. And we held hands.
You do that when you want to comfort a loved one. You hug. You plant a kiss on the forehead. You hold hands. It’s about connecting. You can try it with words. You can send cards. You can offer money because you care. But none of that goes deep enough, I’ve learned. Parents disappear. They die. They may be emotionally absent. That’s the worst. If you can’t connect to your loved ones on an emotional level, you won’t know when they need you on the physical one. When they reach out, you won’t know to reach back. When they're gone, you won't trust they were ever there in the first place.
Without touch, there is no connection. Without connection there is no understanding. Without understanding, there is no compassion. Without compassion, there is no love. It all weaves together. Naturally, you'd hope.
So there we are in her bed. Because this is my child, the daughter I gave birth to more than 30 years ago last September, and because she knows all she ever has to do is ask, she asked me to stay. Her husband doesn’t object. He wants to be sure they know what they’re doing. They will, I think to myself, as I feel her skin against mine. They are listening. They are paying attention. They are learning the meaning of his cries.
Most importantly, they understand kangeroo time, the skin-to-skin contact the hospital nurses encouraged them to frequently do with their newborn. If they can connect on an emotional level with their little boy, they’re going to be stand-up parents, and it begins with that willingness to touch.
Aside from food, water, clothing and shelter, even Maslow knew what their little boy would want and deserve--to feel safe and secure in his surroundings. Touch will do that for you. Not just as an infant, but for the rest of life. If his parents can give this precious little boy that, 30 years from now it will be the three of them holding hands through the difficult moments.
To me, that's a comforting thought.
(Photo credit: Jackie Dishner)