Thursday, December 9, 2010

things I will tell my daughter: on abandonment and a parent's love


There will be a day - hopefully some day long off and flung far into the future - when you will feel utterly and totally alone. When the isolation will creep in, when the cold of it will settle deep into your heart. When the most familiar places you turn: your mother, your father, are closed to you--- locked behind a door you cannot open. There will be a day when you feel like no matter how loud you call or how long you cry, no one is within earshot to listen, or to care.

When that time comes, my sweetest daughter, I want you to remember the story I'm telling you now.

It was just a few days ago, just this past Sunday, but the working of the gears putting it all into motion started when our church building burned down. Before that time, we had been bringing you to the nursery at church, the class for the littlest ones like yourself: from eighteen months to wee three-year-olds. From the first minute you didn't want to be left alone. Despite the colorful toys and the many smiling faces of the people who worked there. Despite our many efforts to make it a happy place for you, you refused to be left alone. We didn't push it. We decided to let things shake out naturally. Your dad and I, we took shifts in the nursery to sit along the wall and watch you play with the toy kitchen or chat up your little friends. We sat in chairs three sizes too small and helped wipe down hands and faces. One month passed, and then another and another. We watched parents of other children come and go, watched them help their children to make the transition from clinging monkeys to happily waving goodbye, I'll see you later. So it went, for fourteen months. Still there was no change except your ever-growing vocabulary and greatly-increasing sauciness.

When the church building burned down, so did the toys, the familiar room. But within a couple of weeks we were cozy in another building, surrounded by those same smiling faces. Because of your allergies, we have to take specific precautions. Before you could be allowed to spend time in the new nursery, we needed to clean every toy, wipe down every surface. As the time approached to do the cleaning, your dad and I discussed our plans for you. At two-and-three-quarters you are so grown up. You ask questions and carry on conversations and show such a delightful curiosity about the world. We have worried that our continuing to come to nursery with you was holding you back, reinforcing a fear of independence that wasn't healthy. It seemed natural that when the new nursery room was clean, we'd do what so many parents had done before us: we would let you go in, and we would stay out. We would go to our classes, tend to our responsibilities at church, and allow you to attend to yours.

We talked to you about it. For weeks leading up to the day, we talked about it. We shared the timeline, reminded you what would happen when. We talked to your teachers and prepared them for the major shift in your world. And the day before church, I gave you a special necklace--- I told you that as you wore it, it was a promise that mommy would always come back for you. I would never leave you alone.

When the day came, I walked to the room holding your small hand. You were chattering so happily about the toys you were going to play with, the friends you were going to see. The room was bustling with children and their parents when we walked in. Your dad was dropping off some of the toys we had brought home to wash, his back to us as I knelt down to tell you goodbye. But as soon as my knees touched the floor, as soon as I put my hands on your small shoulders, your face crumpled in--- tears ran down your cheeks, and you told me not to go. I tried to be strong. I told you that it would be alright. That you were going to have fun. That there were people, so many people, who loved you in that room and wanted you to be safe. You wouldn't hear any of it. You shook your head and grabbed my hands tight. I reached inside the neck of your shirt and pulled out the necklace. I fingered it quickly, trying to repeat the phrase that we had been saying for so many weeks, the phrase we say as we kiss you goodnight and wake you in the morning. I tried so hard to get it out, but choked on the words, "I will always always always come back for you." My dear friend Heidi pushed me out the door--- smiled and hugged me and told me that I needed to go before my tears made yours so much worse.

So that's what I did. I walked out that door, and baby there is nothing in the world that can convince me that it wasn't one of the hardest things I've ever done.

I stood next to that door and listened to you scream for me. I stood next to that door and listened to you find your dad and go through the exact same scene with him - but even more pronounced, even more pained, even more violent. You plead with him. You bargained with him. You promised to be a good girl if he'd take you with him, and my heavens, baby girl if you didn't break our hearts into a million pieces right then.

But we both walked out that door. We left you alone.

For your part, I can't say what it was like for you, but I can imagine. I remember standing so small in the corner of the play yard at preschool, my fingers wrapped around the chain link fence, wondering what I had done to cause my mom to leave me alone. I wondered why she didn't want to be around me. I wondered about her day and how she was spending those hours away from me. I wondered what I could do or say to convince her to take me with her, take me with you - please don't leave me alone.

I can't say how it must have been for you, crying and calling for us, curled up next to the door, pushing your dimpled fingers into the space underneath, hoping hoping hoping to get to us. I can't say how it must have been to ask for mommy, to ask for daddy, to ask for Bo or one of your stuffed buddies and not get what you so desperately wanted, what you so clearly needed.

I can't relive those long moments for you, but I can tell you what it was like for us. I can recount every agonizing second, exactly what it was like for your dad and me.

My dearest, dearest girl--- for every tear you shed, for every bit of your heart that was broken into tiny pieces, for every second of your pain, we were feeling it with you. We listened to your cries through the door. We prayed for your comfort as Heidi tried to talk to you. We held each other outside that door in every way that we wished so desperately we could be holding you. And then we said, again and again, whispered and choking: we will always always always come back for you. Darling one, we will always come back for you.

And you know we did. After forty-five minutes, when we could take it no longer, your daddy walked into that room and held you so close to his heart. He held you and comforted you, and then he sat down in one of those tiny chairs while you served him plastic food.

There is going to be a day, sweet Alice, when you feel as if the entire world has turned its back on you and walked away. You are going to feel as though you've been deposited inside an impenetrable bank vault, separated from love and comfort and companionship of any kind. You are going to feel like there is no one on the other side of the door listening to your cries. But you'd be wrong.

In your darkest moments of fear and regret, we will never be far from that closed door. We will be listening to every tearful plea. And we will, I promise you, want nothing more than to break down the barrier and hold you closest to our hearts. But sometimes that isn't possible. There are things that you have to do by yourself, lessons you have to learn by yourself. And if we love you, we'll let you do just that.

With every bit of me, I promise these constants, these things that I know are true. First, that you are loved. By me, by your father, by so many people they would fill a room. Second, that as much as I love you, my heart expanding with seams bursting to full-- that as much as your daddy loves you, his caution and care soft as down-- your Heavenly Father loves you even more. His love, sweet girl, is a perfect love. A love without flaw. And as we promise we will always come back for you, he can promise - and he does promise - that he will never leave. The cracks under the doors of your life will be too cramped for fingers to fit through - but his presence can get through any barrier, and his love will reach over any fence.

There is going to come a time when you feel like you're all alone, but it won't last forever. And as you take comfort from your Father in Heaven, your earthly parents will be patiently waiting just on the other side of the door, to hold you and sing to you and remind you again and again that they will always come back. That nothing on earth or in heaven could stop them from keeping that promise.

As ever and always--- I love you,


Amy said...


kately said...

just beautiful. Your daughter is so fortunate to have these beautiful words of love to hold onto when she gets older

clueless but hopeful mama said...

Sobbing over here too. (In a good way, always in a good way.)

Those moments outside the doors when you're hearing your baby cry for you, I will never, ever forget the intense heartbreak of that moment. It's as if every cell in your body is crying out with them.