I once had an argument of sorts with my son. It started when I told him he had to put on his helmet. “If it has wheels, you’re wearing a helmet,” I said. He looked at me with a mixture of pity and annoyance. He immediately dropped the handle of his scooter – the one that he couldn’t live without; the one that he had begged for, the one that would make his life complete and whole and perhaps even cure the common cold – he walked away, shaking his head in disgust and went back into the house. No helmet for him.
I did a mental double take. A helmet? Where the hell had that come from? I never wore a helmet when I was a kid. Had they even been invented then? Who the hell wore helmets, except for those dweebie, nerdy little kids whose noses ran all the time, their asthma inhalers jammed into pockets, chronically underweight and over-smart? I had my doubts that even they wore protective gear.
In that instant, it occurred to me, to ask the very air around me – how in hell did we ever survive our childhoods?
We certainly did not live in the protective bubble that seems standard for the kids of today.
When I was brought home from the hospital (after a week-long stay, where mom went into labor and woke up several hours later, presented with a clean and swaddled baby girl, the miracle (and mess) (and pain) of childbirth not even a ghostly memory), I travelled in style on my mother’s lap. In the front seat, with the little triangle window open so she could tap the ashes off her cigarette (Kool extra longs). This was the original car seat – mom’s lap. My older brother sat in the back, perched on the hump, arms dangling over the front seat, moving in frenetic jerks between mom and dad as he tried to capture their attention away from me so that it could be properly be placed on him, the Crown Prince, balancing precariously with every turn and sudden stop.
And so opened the floodgate of memory, poised on the unlikelihood of survival from an unprotected childhood.
- No car seats, no seat belts and we fought over who got the middle seat and who got to ride in the front. It wasn’t a question of age or size that determined seating order, but pushiness and the sheer volume used in calling dibs;
- No helmets or knee pads or wrist pads (oh, my!);
- We walked to school. Alone or in small groups, down crowded sidewalks and across busy streets, not a crossing guard in sight. And if we were early, we played on the playground – tag and red rover and elimination and dodgeball and whatever other fiercely competitive game we could think of that involved winners and losers and outs and shame – until the bell rang and we lined up, by age and class, waiting to march and shuffle and shove our way into the building. Rain or shine, hot or cold. Every day;
- We came home for lunch. Bozo and Ringmaster Ned and the Grand Prize Game, coupled with cream of tomato soup and tuna sandwiches, and then skipping back to languish through our afternoon classes;
- We rode our bikes in the street, ran with the neighborhood kids till way past dark, swam in retention ponds and hidden creeks;
- We drank out of garden hoses. Hell, we drank tap water;
- Boys played little leagues, girls were Indian Princesses. Paths did not cross. Roles were very clearly defined – X’s went one way, Y’s the other;
- We played with cap guns and watched violent kid shows, like Tom and Jerry or Bugs Bunny. We played cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians. We were totally politically incorrect;
- We had Christmas Break and Easter Vacation, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof). We sang Christmas carols and loved them.
And this is just the immediate stuff, the unconscious stuff. I’m sure if I really gave it some thought, I could come up with eleventy-seven more examples of how my childhood may seem so horrifying to the parents of today, me included! We seem so determined these days. So intent on protecting our children, from skinned knees to broken hearts. We want to keep our children safe and watched over. Unscathed by the reality of life.
In the same vein, we seem so much more present for our kids, more involved in their lives. Sometimes too involved, I’d venture to say. It happens: the Little League parent who gets a bit too argumentative and demanding, of the kids and the umpires and the game itself, who looks foolish and crass, a caveman visiting the 21st century. We push and prod and demand excellence, and try to temper that with humility. We over-schedule them and over-stimulate them, and wonder why they have the attention span of small flying insects. We filter where we can and hope the message and the medium don’t provide fodder for some future therapy session.
We do the best we can.
That’s the bottom line, I think. We do our best and we love them as best we know how, as fully as we can. In every generation, we find a way to love and watch and teach and sustain.
One more image, in this pool of memory and love, that I feel the need to share:
My father, like most fathers of his generation, paced nervously in the Father’s Waiting Room, smoking and drinking bitter coffee, awaiting my triumphant appearance on the the planet. My mother was unconscious, drugged to the gills, oblivious to the miracle she was about to produce.
Fast forward a thousand lifetimes, to the day of my son’s birth.
I was terrified. I was in pain. I was not drugged. I begged for drugs. I was denied. Apparently, you need to dilate to at least four centimeters to qualify for drugs. I never made it past three. An hour. Two. Five. More. More pain that I could ever imagine being in. More fear than I could ever imagine surviving. The monitors lost my son’s heart beat a couple of times. The doctors searched high and low every time it got lost, finding it just on the edge of sight, the edge of a miracle. Finally, one of the several hundred masked strangers (all claiming to be my doctor) came to my husband and me and said “We can continue this and hope for a natural childbirth, but there’s some risk to you and the baby. We’d like to do an emergency C-Section.”
“Do it,” we said. We were a team, we were united. While my husband could not bear our child, he could be as present as possible. He gained weight with me, came to our doctor’s appointments, read and trained and craved and worried and gloried right along with me. And he was with me as they wheeled me into surgery, held my hand as the spinal took hold. He turned green but did not faint or get sick. He was stoic and resolute and watchful and willing the doctors to not blow it, not make a mistake. He was there, not pacing in an antiseptic and crowded waiting room.
And then our son was born.
And here’s the extraordinary thing:
Our son was born, squalling and red faced and mottled, pale skin. He took our son from the nurse. The boy was barely cleaned of gunk and swaddled in blue, and my husband took that small boy-child, all six pounds, one ounce of him in his huge hands, so dark against the boy’s pale, pale skin. He took our son and held him high, so that God could see our son’s face all the more clearly and know him all the better, and love him all the more fiercely. My husband held him high, his hands so big that they nearly swallowed that boy. And then he brought our son to his chest, cradling him tenderly, more gently than a bubble suspended in sunlight.
And he danced.
Slow an stately, with a gaze of absolute and unconditional love, my husband waltzed around the operating room, turning and swirling with this small life, this perfect boy, this gift of love. His feet carried him close to me, his lips grazing mine. He showed me our son, our beautiful boy. And I kissed him. And all the fear, and all the questions, and all the doubt were no more, gone in an instant, quick as laughter. In its place was pure light.
We’re divorced now, my husband and I. There was a lot of pain and anger and hurt that went into the divorce. It took a long and slow time to learn to be civil with one another, to become friends again, to learn that we are family – like it or not – forever. And mostly, we like it. Even so, there was more pain than I could have imagined, a different pain than that of childbirth, more searing and vicious. It’s an effort, but I try to remember, instead, the beauty of our marriage, the joy and the glory and the absolute love that held us together. This is the image that sustains me, that reminds me that there is power and grace and forgiveness in love.