I recently read this story. It’s a sad one, about a young couple and their newborn son, born with brain cancer and given only a handful of months to live. The story starts with a scene told by the Mother. Sometime after he was born, her young son wasn’t able to hold down any fluids and became severely dehydrated. He was hospitalized for about the thousandth time, too crippled by pain to stop crying long enough to sleep, and too taxed to take on any added medicine. She rocked her son back and forth and rubbed his chest and added water droplets to his lips and bathed him in warm water but nothing seemed to soothe him. He simply cried. And when his voice was dry and hollow and barely audible over his wincing face, he cried some more.
And when his tears ran dry and there was nothing left to spill, he cried some more. And his mother, alone with him in his hospital room, beyond the immediate help of a staff or family member, searched and grasped for any strand of remedy. But without any other thing to try, without any other person to call out to, without any other prayer to pray, the pleas of her helpless child washed over and through her. Unable and unaided, she dropped her head and wailed out what un-bellowed grief was left inside her and simply waited for the weight of it all to crush her.
I’m not a parent and can’t yet understand such helpless, singlehanded anguish. But I think I may have witnessed some things close to it. There was that time I heard it in the voice of a young widow. I was at the funeral and was probably too young to know what it all meant, but that sound she made left scars on my memory. There was that time I saw it on the terror-slurred face of my post-stroke mother, unable to move or scream out from beneath her darkness. Reaching out to me, her son; helpless, hopeless, voiceless. And I saw it in your mother’s eyes the day she was told her oldest child, the daughter she’d fought so hard to keep alive as a premature baby, was about to begin the wildest, most frightening ride of her young life. And I saw it in her eyes when she came with us to your pulmonary function tests and could barely stand seeing you shudder with difficulty to get through each puff; seeing firsthand the cold grip this disease was tightening around you. And I’ve continued to see it in her eyes when, assault after assault, our hearts have been called on to endure more and more and then mercilessly more. As if the untold amount of stolen tomorrows weren’t enough.
It’s a look maybe only a mother’s eyes can produce; one that sees the universe in the face of her child and, in it, stores all the praise and hope of her own unfinished business, her own unmet triumphs. Perhaps it’s in our children and in our children’s children that we live forever, that we’re made perfect. But whatever the case, it’s terrible to encounter; that look.
Those are also the same eyes I glanced into on the day I proposed to you at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on that rainy New York Sunday. She and I had schemed the whole thing, weeks in advance, and when the day finally came I saw nothing but sheer acceptance and appreciation in her eyes. And that lifted a 2,000 pound load off my shoulders because your mom is the kind of woman every man wants approval from, especially the man wanting to marry one of her two amazing daughters.
They’re the eyes that cried with us on countless nights as we used what little wisdom we had to piece together some sort of meaning when it came to love and fear and relationships.
They’re the eyes that were bloodshot and puffy after a sleepless night spent in a packed hotel room filled with my snoring that I really need to get checked out once and for all.
And they’re the eyes that saw the happiest day of my life; the day she gave up a daughter and the day I gained an entire family. When we all gathered in a single room and there was nothing but light and peace. And her eyes danced between you and me, and she saw us both as one; one of a kind and one of her own.
Hard as it is, I’m glad to have seen the spectrum of your life operate through your mother’s eyes.
Otherwise, it all wouldn’t mean as much to me without knowing how close you were to not surviving your birth. A young mother yearning to reach and hold and comfort her two and a half pound baby, yearning to then reach into her baby’s 28 year-old chest and coax away the monster shortening her breath.
I’m privileged to know the eyes that saw your feet plant their first steps, your lips shape their first words, your tongue taste its first snowflake.
Otherwise, It’d be hard to appreciate the magic through which you see the world; the problems that always have solutions, the villains who always deserve kindness, the fallen sparrow who will always have a song and a prayer, and the redeeming good that can always be done no matter how tired, how broke, or how much you may need the good deed yourself.
It’s an honor to know the eyes that have seen you wade and struggle through bad denim outfits, self-centered boyfriends, unfortunate bouts of Bell’s palsy, mean high school girls and lost retainers.
Otherwise, it’d be hard to imagine what I would make of the woman who constantly forgives me, who constantly forces me to forgive myself, and who constantly pushes me to do the same for others, for everyone.
And it’s with gratitude that I am able to look into the eyes of the woman who gave you life and see the two pound baby who would then become the perpetually happy child who would then become the consciously kind young lady who would then become the dauntless woman who would come to pump new blood into my heart, spring new vision into my sight, and breathe new life into my lungs at the beginning of every day.
Otherwise, how else would I have found certain corners of myself? How would I have come to see the world in all its light or the people in all their goodness? How would I be able to continually collect the strength needed to lift my head, lift my spirit, and lift my voice to the heavens with thanks for the good and thanks for the bad and thanks for everything in between?
If ever I need to find the answers, your mother’s eyes are where I’ll find them. She keeps you in there. The years and years and sad times and Christmases and school plays and divorce and new homes and new lives and old friends and setbacks and fallbacks and Fall breaks and everything else I’ve missed but yearn to know. And at times, mostly recently, there’s a pain that pushes it all to the surface, leaving your mother fighting the tears back, lest bits of you come flowing out with them.
Let them flow, Jen. Let them flow out and into me. Trust a portion of them to my safeguarding. And shoulder to shoulder, we’ll keep her alive forever.