I have heard it said that being a parent is like walking around with a part of your heart forever on the outside of your body.
Our children just don’t get it do they? I don’t mean small children, I mean those of us who have “full grown, don’t tell me what to do I’m an adult” children. The state says they can drive, they can own their own property. They can vote or get married or have a beer. None of this means they are actually old enough to get it.
There was a time when I didn’t get it either, way back before I had children. It was so long ago I don’t really remember what life was even like then. In fact, it was almost 28 years ago now. For every parent, there is a day when you just get it. It might be the first time you felt your unborn child move inside you. It could have been when you gave birth, or when you watched your partner give birth. It might have been the first time, as an adoptive parent, that someone handed you this young child and walked way, leaving you, just you, responsible for this small life. Maybe it was the moment you married the birth parent of your children and you realized you were saying “I do” to a whole family and the responsibilities that went with it. However you became a parent, you remember it, that moment when it all became clear.
I was only 19 years old when my son was born. His father and I thought we got it, but we didn’t, not until that moment he was born. We could hardly believe when the hospital actually let us take him home; this tiny, fragile human being. He was ours, ready or not. Every decision whether it involved feeding him, or keeping him warm, or getting him medical care, was now in our hands. Every decision we made for the rest of our lives would affect him, would shape his life and would eventually shape the lives of his sisters as well.We tried our best to make good decisions. Sometimes we fell short but everything we did, from that moment on, involved him, his life, his happiness, and his future.
It doesn’t change. No matter how old he gets. It doesn’t change. Whether he’s 7 or 27, that very same feeling of overwhelming love and responsibility never changes. I know it annoys him sometimes. I know it annoys his sisters as well. He does not understand that we are no more capable of walking away, of not caring, of not being involved in his life than we would be of deciding we no longer needed oxygen. When you are a parent, your children are your oxygen.
Even when they are adults you still hold your breath the way you did when they took their first steps and the way you did the first time you dropped them off at kindergarten. The difference when they get older is they are no longer under your control. You can’t make their decisions for them. You can’t pick them up and hold them and make everything better. Yet, you still hold your breath with every step they take. You hold your breath when they fall in love. You hold your breath every single time they board a plane or get in a car and take a trip. You hold your breath when they leave for college or join the military. You hold your breath and you pray and pray and pray.
I lost my breath this past weekend in that moment when the phone rang at 2:45 am and I found out my son had been in a very serious car accident. I am still struggling to catch it again. This is, after all, what parenthood is all about isn’t it? The majority of it is hard work and menial labor. There are proud moments and moments of embarrassing laughter. There are moments of unfathomable love and tremendous joy.
Occasionally there are moments of unspeakable terror. There are moments when all you can do it sit there, by their bedside in the hospital. There are moments when there is absolutely nothing you can do, or say to fix it. You can’t even explain it to them. There are simply no words.
All you can do is be there and breathe with them and know that someday, when it is their turn, they will get it. In the meantime, we rely on each other, fellow parents, all of us who are forever living with a part of our hearts on the outside of our bodies. We lean on each other when words are neither necessary nor even possible.