The Bitter and the Sweet

With each passing year, I think more fondly of a not-so-distant time in my life: my last child was a toddler, and my three older children attended the elementary school where my husband taught sixth grade. We had just built a house in the mountains, and our nation of six was secure and thriving. I was writing a lot, but was still primarily an at-home mother. Not much of importance seemed to happen beyond our property line.

I remember going to church each Sunday, a mother duck followed by a neat descending line of ducklings, each one scrubbed clean and adorable. My oldest was 10, so I was surely still the most important person in each of my children’s liveswhich feeds a motherly egotism, and causes painful withdrawal symptoms when hijacked away.

While I surely knew intellectually that my children would grow and move on, the immediacy of life, of breast-feeding and cooking and laundering and diapering and pushing swings and kissing away any pain and the sheer physicality of any given day, must have clouded my perception. My heart did not understand, exactly, that things would ever be any different. There was routine and rhythm and comfort to those days. We were surrounded by a golden haze. It was a beautiful time.

A movie I saw recently, The Sweet Hereafter, brought that feeling home, but cast a different light on my memory. One of the characters, the father of a drug addict, hearkens to an idealized time of his life, much as I do. He recalls an event when his daughter was three. The family of three lazed about in a vacation cabin, sleeping in a gauzy family bed that pulled at my heart in that familiar way. But all along, the mattress harbored a nest of baby black widows, which were biting his little girl nearly to death. When they realized this, the mother drove to a hospital, while the father held his baby in one arm and a sharp clean knife in the other hand, in case her throat closed and he had to perform an emergency tracheotomy to save her life before they arrived at the emergency room. What a helluva thing, I thought.

The movie is understated in a beautiful way, bitter from the loss of the sweet, tragedy piling upon tragedy in the lives of those who inhabit a small town much like my own. The community breaks under the weight of so much sadness and rage. But I have been thinking about that movie for days now (the sign of a really good movie), and about that time the father remembered as being so much better than today. If we were to look closely at our own past remembrances, along with present events, we would likely find nests of black widows below the surface.

When, after all, are we ever really safe? It is a pertinent, nerve-wracking question in these days of terrorist attacks and looming war. Even if we stay out of crowds and buy plastic sheeting and fill the garage with canned beans and bottled water, can we ever be immune from tragic loss? Danger, both deliberate and accidental, lurks everywhere, to the point where if you think about it too much, you become a candidate for anxiety medication. As parents we want to do everything to protect our children, and we blame ourselves when we do not foresee a stumble, a roadblock, a tragedy. Most of all, we do not trust God’s plan.

Take my oldest daughter, now 20. She was driving home from work in a hurry, on a wet San Diego freeway, and flipped her car clear off the road. She survived with only cuts and bruises, thanks to a guardian angel who has always worked overtime, thanks to luck, thanks to God, thanks to karmawho knows? I am just thankful for having heard her voice on the other end of the phone, rather than a highway patrol officer’s. On the day of her accident, which happened at nine in the morning, I was blissfully busy at work, and did not get home to listen to her voice trembling on the answering machine until eight o’clock that night. For a whole day, my daughter had been in an ambulance and at a hospital, and I did not even know it. She could have been dead, was all I could think that sleepless night, and I was too busy even to check our messages. I should not have let her have a car, should have admonished her more to slow down. What kind of terrible mother am I, and what would I have done if it had been God’s plan that day to take her to the sweet hereafter?

In the light of day, answers do not comejust gratitude in the face of what could have happened. There really was nothing I could have done differently, no way I could have prevented her car from sailing free and then succumbing to gravity. She is alive by the grace of God, and I am not in charge.

I agonize over letting them go, my grown-up ducks off to ponds of their own, and I sometimes want time to go backward, to those salad days I thought would never end, to the time when I thought I was much more in control of their fates, but really wasn’t. Maybe this is how hard it is for God to give us lovable idiots free will. He lets us go, but he is there: a perfect, impossible role model for parents whose children insist on growing and leaving.

We are down by half these days, two in college, two still at home for a brief moment. The dynamic of our family adjusts slowly to circumstances; my emotions more slowly still. I can actually imagine grandchildren in the distance, maybe even a peaceful retirement. Still, the black widows are always there, ready with venomous bites. But so is God.

These are the lessons I seem to have to learn over and over. Fortunately, life is a persistent teacher.

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