There’s a saying about becoming a mother that, for all its overuse and cliche, is as true as anything I’ve ever heard. It explains perfectly my own experience of mothering, one I’ve tried to capture and describe in other ways only to come back, finally, to this beautiful quote attributed to author Elizabeth Stone. In full, it reads:
Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.
Of course, it’s not exactly my heart that runs off each day with my children. Rather, it is an enormous portion of my emotional power, vulnerability, and grounding to the corporeal world that surrounds each of them when we part. There is a piece of my intention for each day that I lend to them, a chunk of my personal energy that I gladly give away in service to whatever they need. Shorthand: heart.
That floating bit of my spirit is something I trust to do what I can’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t in a world they need to learn for themselves. Like a blessing, I picture it keeping them safe. My promise to that end — the heart that goes walking around outside my body — is that the gift of it is irrevocable. I’ve told my daughters over and over that there is nothing they can do to make me stop loving them. They’ve sometimes tested me on this, asking what if I do this or what if I do that, but I always answer, “I will always love you, even if I don’t love the things you do.”
Even if I die? they have never asked, but I do know the answer. Yes, even if you die.
Unfortunately, I’ve had opportunities to consider how it would be to always love them, even if they die. When I met my husband, his own father had died just a year before, suddenly, leaving behind a family that included his own mother, my husband’s grandmother. Once my husband and I were married, Grandma told me that losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a woman and, she added in the vernacular of Jewish woman of a certain age, you shouldn’t know from it. When I brought her a newborn great-granddaughter named after her late son, I could see how it moved her to hear his name spoken again about someone still on this earth.
I never worried about my first daughter’s life, not really. I had no cause. My second daughter, though, was born with complicated medical needs and went under general anesthesia seventeen times in the first eight years of her life, and each time, I thought about it a lot.
When she was a baby, the piece of my soul that traveled with her heart never ventured far or had much to do — it tried to bring her peace in her sickness, comfort in the moments when we were separated, joy in the experiences she had without me there. The duties of a mother’s spirit for a baby or toddler in a safe environment are simple like that. As she got older, my extended fingers of energy had to flutter around her in increasingly frenzied circles, patching up holes in her resolve against forbidden foods, staying ever vigilant for trouble breathing, stoking her appetite and, of course, keeping a keen eye out for mean people who would trample her sweet, new soul.
Like a beacon, the piece of me that traveled with both daughters — but especially the youngest — sent me constant communications. I was alert for new worries to file away. I poised ever-ready to jump to my feet. Because of this, when new surgical procedures loomed, particularly the one which involved a surgeon’s fingers on that little girl’s aorta, I had to at least tug on the string that attached me to that piece of my soul to see if it would hold in the worst possible scenario.
The other cliches — those of apron strings and umbilical cords — are sillier and uglier but no less true. I am as tied to my mother in her heart as my daughters are to me. What, then, happens to the strings, the cords, the filaments of love that draw lines between women and their children when one body dies? I panicked about this, about the soul of an eight-year-old girl floating through an afterlife without a mother. How could I reach her there? How could the pieces of me that love her keep her safe? I pictured seances and mediums, briefly, then forced myself to stop because, after all, she was still alive.
She is still alive.
She lived, as everyone but me was sure she would, and there is nothing keeping me from accepting her permanence on this earth for the rest of my life. I will likely die still connected to her and to her sister, and it will be the pieces of me that have gone out with them each day to keep them protected that live on. Still, the fact remains that I stood by her bed for weeks before the surgery and smoothed my aura into hers as protection. The fact remains that I talked myself down from horrible nightmare fantasies of taking apart her bedroom furniture and putting her clothes into donation piles. To have pondered how to send my heart into the afterlife behind her is something that, as Grandma says, you shouldn’t know from it.
In the end, I decided that love was the only thing that she could take, if she went first. It’s the only thing any of us could take, and I’d grown it, filled and fluffed it, and polished it to a high shine. It would go on walking around outside my body and outside hers, because the bodies didn’t matter. I send it on its way each day, and it follows her. I have to trust that it always will.
This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post – “When it comes to death…” If you’d like to join in, visit Kristi for more information.