How Do I Love Thee?

The powerful love that sweeps over you when your child is born is an amazing thing. You find yourself, even years afterward, overwhelmed with emotion at the oddest moments – at a singular inflection in their voice, a poignant look in their eye, or a unique point of view they casually toss into a conversation. You gradually come to know them in different ways. The bouquet of roses they bought me for Mother’s Day when I least expected it, the letter my daughter wrote on another Mother’s Day to tell me how much I meant to her, a thank you for all you’ve done for me from one son who wants, but sometimes finds it hard, to express his gratitude, and the sincere comment by another son who once referred to me as the heart of our family.

They become individuals in their own right, ones you must let go in their own directions. But you’re still their parent and your love expands in more directions. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I was listening to a program on National Public Radio this morning in which the commentator talked about love. She said we can not earn God’s love – but we can not lose it either. All we have to do is turn back to God to find what’s always there. What’s always ours. The woman said it was God’s nature to love us, whether we act rightly or wrongly.

It’s a mother’s nature, and a father’s nature, too.

Last Friday’s tragic Connecticut school shooting reminds us of this because for all the things that come to mind, the greatest of these is love. Parents’ love, teachers’ love, and the objects of their love – innocent children.

The natural order of things is for parents to outlive their children. Parents should go first, not their children. Not ever, not in any way.

Emily Rapp is losing her son to Tay-Sachs disease. Her story is beautifully recounted on her blog, “Our Little Seal,”  and is the subject of her forthcoming book, The Still Point of the Turning World. She is losing her child through no fault of her own. There is no hope for Ronan. He will likely leave this world between his 3rd and 4th birthdays – and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Not the doctors, not Emily. The parents of the murdered children in Connecticut couldn’t do anything about what happened to their children either. Both, senseless tragedies. Helpless parents.

Bad things happen, and when they do, there is often nothing we can do for our children, be they young or old.

When your child is born, you make a promise – I will love you, you tell them. I will be there for you no matter what. I will do the best I can for you. But sometimes there is nothing you can do but be there. Even though Emily can do nothing to alter the circumstances of her son’s life, she is there, and will be there, by his side until the end. When you listen to the stories the Shady Hook parents recount about their lost children, you realize they were there for them, too. When it mattered, they were always there.

Regardless of how old your child is, he or she remains your child. They get older and sometimes their problems get bigger. You can kiss away the pain of a little “boo-boo” but you can’t fix a life set on the wrong path by bad choices or catastrophic mistakes. Still, a mother doesn’t run when something bad happens. She turns neither her face nor her heart away. Instead, she squares her shoulders and offers them to her child for solace, for strength. She gives her child whatever she can that might ease their pain. And if there’s nothing she can give, she listens and helps pick up the pieces when the worst happens. A parent sees her child through everything, whether or not her child knows she is there.

A mother says, “I’ll be there when bad things happen. I’ll help you get back up. I will stand by you and never leave your side. No matter what you say, no matter what you do. Even if there is nothing I can do for you, I am here and always will be, standing by your side.”

That’s a mother’s, and a father’s, promise.

It’s what the parents of the Shady Hook students promised their children. But there was nothing they could do to foresee this. To prevent this.

The parents of the students who were spared due to the heroic efforts of their teachers and the school’s staff are grateful, though they will all certainly be forever marked by this tragedy. But the parents of the ones whose lives were taken are coming to understand the grief of saying goodbye to children that should have been allowed to grow up and live a full life. I can’t envision a grief more profound than the loss of a child of any age, especially one whose life was just beginning. It’s a grief most of us can’t fully grasp.

Take time to love your children in the ways that count.

“…I love thee with the breath, / Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose, / I shall but love thee better after death.”

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