We all need one another’s charity. Much as we often choose to overlook this universal truth, none of us is omnipotent; we simply cannot go it alone in life. For example, babies need their parents to protect and care for them so they can grow into capable, well-adjusted adults.
And there comes a time in life when parents also need their children to help them navigate their twilight years. Thanks to the advances of medical research that keep eradicating once lethal conditions, we live longer but not always well.
Those we needed to look after us when we were defenseless creatures taking our first steps now need us to look after them.
Despite their age and the wisdom they’ve acquired through life experience, our parents are just as frail and vulnerable as we once were. Uncertain, they’re frightened by the encroaching presence of death; they know they’ll have to go soon but they’re not ready yet.
They love us and only ask for one thing: to have the chance to spend a little more time with those they brought into the world.
How to break free from an ego prone to clinging to the past? When you’ve suffered domestic abuse at the hands of a parent, doing so is deeply counterintuitive. By setting aside the past, there’s always a risk old power dynamics will endure, putting you at risk of emotional upheaval again.
For the longest time, this is what used to happen with my mother. I’d resolve to let go of the past go but we’d fall back into the same outdated patterns of ineffective communication. She’d take every opportunity to criticize everything I was and stood for at any given time and explain to me why I was doomed to fail. And I’d take it every time because I’m naturally inclined toward mediation and not confrontation.
Even though our relationship is fraught with tension and the weight of the unspeakable, I never lost hope of finding common ground with my mother. It is this hope I focused on early this week as I went to spend a few days with her, determined to try and establish some kind of dialogue free of judgment.
Rather than brace myself for a torrent of negativity as I always do, I relaxed into the belief that everything would work out just fine for once. Because it was about time it did as we’ve both been quite miserable about our inability to develop a mutually supportive rapport.
And we did make headway, against all odds, because we listened intently to each other and shared our unredacted realities.
How to adopt a gentler, more forgiving, and more hopeful perspective on life? Resisting self-censorship makes us feel exposed, raw, and sometimes even unsafe but it can change everything. But for this to work, you need your interlocutor to do the same.
The day I arrived, my mother dropped a few clues that made me understand she was ready to embrace vulnerability. She told me about a tricky cardiology exam that caused her so much stress it led to the kind of chest pains typically associated with heart attacks. She recounted how she broke down in tears in front of nurses and needed the help of several of them to compose herself.
It was, she admitted, quite awkward, mortifying even, to which I replied that there’s no shame in being wholeheartedly human. She seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as she had forgotten medical staff aren’t fazed by the many flavors of humanness.
I shared some of our Paris reality with her, how my father, stepmom, stepbrother, and I are navigating the grueling reality of Stage IV cancer. I told her about the five years I lost to major depressive disorder in America, about my home life, about getting back on my feet word by word. I shared with her how much solace my work brings me, how much joy I find in editing the poetry of those who can say so much in so few words. And how much I was looking forward to being based in Europe again, in the Netherlands, coincidentally only a couple of train rides away from her.
Because I could see she needed presence and attention, I put my work on the back burner for a couple of days even though it’s something I can ill afford to do.
Then again, no paycheck is worth sacrificing human warmth for.
How to remember what matters most? Our parents won’t live forever and few are the humans who are ever nasty to the core. I’ve always known my mother wasn’t; people in pain tend to hurt other people and the appropriate response is never aggression. Or cynicism. Or worse, turning our head the other way.
The only way to deflect fear is to embrace its antidote, love.
Even if we may not be able to muster much for the person who hurt us so deeply we still bear the scars well into adulthood, most of us have love within, elsewhere.
I’m fortunate enough to have the support of fellow humans who have been holding my hand through thick and thin over the last few months and also hold me accountable without ever shying away from realness. They’re as blunt as I am and always help me see things more clearly.
My mother burst into tears when we said goodbye at the station; I decided to catch a later train to Paris so we could spend more time together.
“See, it was a proof of love,” my friends said.
“Um, what do you mean?” I asked, wondering why they were stating the obvious, which they don’t normally do. I had endeavored to shower my mother with love, why even mention it?
“On her part.”
My heart melted because I instinctively knew my friends were right but without their input, I may not have understood what happened until much later.
While I’m still reeling from the last three days and feel a little battered and low on mental energy as a result, I’m happy to report love won again as it always does.
When we allow love to guide us, there’s no impasse we can’t find a way out of.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.