A Letter to My Son on his 19th Birthday

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Nineteen years ago, we had a moment together, you and I. There was a gentle hush of pre-dawn silence in the hospital nursery and we slowly glided back and forth in a rocking chair in the corner of the room. I spoke softly as I nursed you, marveling at your sweet, tiny perfection. Your blue eyes widened with a sparkle as you looked up at me, and then suddenly stopped suckling to smile. Hi Mommy.

My heart clenched. Time stood still in that precious moment of soul-to-soul connection – the two of us gazing upon one other with awe, adoration and love. I remember feeling blanketed by this warm, haloed glow of joy, knowing with every fibre of my being that you were an extraordinary gift.

You have celebrated 19 birthdays since that morning, and I can’t help but think back on the journey we have been on together. It has not been easy, not by a long shot, and you and I were given more to handle than I ever dreamed we could manage. But we never had to manage alone; we always had each other to get through it.

We’ve faced our share of challenges from the very beginning, starting when they whisked you away to the neonatal intensive care unit on your birth day. All the medical professionals reassured me you’d be fine, yet the only thing I could comprehend was that I couldn’t hold you. And then, three years later, delving head first into an autism diagnosis. No medical professional would reassure me that you’d be fine, yet the only thing I could comprehend was that I would move heaven and earth to give you everything you needed to thrive and succeed.

That included giving you a home you could feel safe and secure in. I tried my best, I really did. When Dad left, my primary concern was for you and your sister and how we would get through the heartbreak. One day, our family was intact and the next, the only life we’d known was shattered. It was so unfair. In that first year, I did everything to the best of my ability to reassure your stability, but I know that I am not your father. Boys need their dads, and as much as he disappointed you when you needed him the most, I know you looked up to yours. I am sorry I could not protect you from experiencing that kind of confusion and pain. I am sorry that I could not give you the family you deserved.

I’m not sure you fully comprehend what happened that day or understand why your whole world was suddenly turned upside down, and that’s okay. In a way, that may have safeguarded your good-heartedness. Whether or not you know it, your innocence and your resilience in that time gave me strength too.

All you knew was that I was very sad for a time (you still don’t like to see me cry, even if only happy tears) and you gave me extra love, care and protection. You amazed me with your capacity for compassion and for that I am ever grateful. When I was in my darkest place, imagining horrible means of retaliation to express how much hurt your dad caused, it was thinking of you that brought me back from those depths. I would remember the two of us in that nursery rocking chair, your gurgly smile and shining eyes looking up at me, and I immediately knew I couldn’t possibly do anything to myself that would cause you additional pain.

Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life wrote the Greek playwright Sophocles. It’s so true. Being reminded of the special connection that tethers us has saved me and kept me grounded on many occasions. It is a testament to the gift you are.

You may no longer be the curly-haired little boy who wanted to bring a mountain of stuffed animals into my bed to watch cartoons and snuggle, but I love that from time to time, you still choose to go someplace or do something with me. Just the two of us. I cherish these days more than you realize.

I see you growing in confidence and braving newfound independence while remaining the remarkably kind, considerate person you were born to be. You are so helpful, thoughtful and witty, and nothing makes you happier than making others smile. While we will have more challenges ahead, know that I will be by your side to help you get through them.

You have made me laugh and you have made me think, but most of all, you have made me proud and grateful to be your mom. Surely, it’s no coincidence that your birthday and Mother’s Day fall in the same week.

You are simply awesome to me in every way, my bright, beautiful son. I still marvel in awe, adoration and love when I look at you, and you will always fill my heart with joy.

Happy Birthday with Love, 

Mom

Photographic Memory

photo album

For more than a year, I avoided looking through our family photo albums. I’d just closed the book on a 20-year relationship and had zero interest in reopening old wounds by cracking the pages of an album filled with distant happier times.

Truth be told, I’d wrestled with tossing out the albums altogether or taking the scissors to some select photos, but I quickly came to my senses (you’ll thank me later, kids). I could not rob my children or future grandchildren of continuity in their life story. No matter what happened between their mom and dad, they should always be able to access visual evidence that they were loved and cherished by both of their parents.

Feeling particularly courageous and charitable one afternoon, I decided to take down the old albums from the top of my closet and divvy up a portion of their contents for my ex. He did not request them, but I figured he deserved to have a few mementos from the kids’ early years. Besides, I was no longer comfortable being the family’s lone historian, the keeper of nostalgia, the guardian of joyful memories now tainted by disappointment.

Without allowing myself to linger wistfully on any one image, I made a pile of pictures that I thought my ex would appreciate. Methodically, I chose photos from his timeline – college, with friends and relatives, as well as those taken with the kids from the day they were born up until memories went digital. I skipped over any photos that I was included in, editing myself out of his history as if I’d never been part of it.

It was surprisingly easy to emotionally detach myself from the photos and sort them without reminiscing. I think that was because they had lost their sentimentality.

neuralizerOur abrupt divorce rendered me with acute amnesia, wiping out two decades of good marriage memories from my cerebral cortex as if they’d been erased by the Men in Black’s neuralyzer. Once you reach a point where you don’t know what feelings were genuine and which acts of love were authentic, you question if anything you ever experienced in your marriage was real, including if happy memories were actually happy or merely illusion.

That’s the thing about photos: they are only illusions. While they capture a moment in time, they aren’t actual accounts of what was likely happening when the shutter clicked. The image is distorted by deeper meaning, colored by nostalgia, as what we remember is not always the same as what we actually witnessed. That is a good thing to remember when you are trying to distance yourself from the past.

Revisiting the early chapters of courtship and marriage did make me wonder why I chose this person for a mate in the first place. If I could rewind my life, knowing what I know now, would I have zigged instead of zagged? I shook off the notion. There are no do-overs, at least not in this lifetime. Imagining what could’ve been is a worthless exercise, and there is no point in living with regret.

Before I put away the photos away, I took one long last look at the kids splashing at the beach, playing dress up, getting silly in the backyard and otherwise hamming it up for the camera. I allowed myself to stop and gaze, to clearly see them, hear them and feel them. It was a relief to know that those memories were still well preserved in me; they had not disappeared but were only shelved while my heart focused on the healing it needed to do.

Once upon a time, those old photo albums were intended as commemorative storybooks. Now they serve as proof that our kids were always surrounded by love and laughter and that, yes, we really did have some good days worth remembering. I sure am glad I kept a record of it.

The Power of Three

Fruit apple trio

“Congratulations, you have a Million Dollar Family!” A well-meaning relative celebrated the news of our son’s birth in 1998 as if we’d won the gender lottery – one girl and one boy. Serendipitous symmetry afforded us the portrait of a perfect, happy, family: a mom, a dad, a daughter, a son.

Being a unit of four is certainly great in a lot of ways. Four chairs fit nicely around a square restaurant table. In the car, everyone has their own seat without anyone forced to sit on the hump. No one gets outnumbered in arguments. Hotel rooms with two beds are easy to book. Even pizza slices neatly into eights or twelves.

But then, quite suddenly, there was three of us.

While the kids continued to have a relationship with their father, there was just three of us living in a home built by four. Over the years, the kids and I had plenty of opportunities to hold down the fort just fine while my ex was away on business. I’ll admit I cherished those times. Instead of spending evenings apart in our own separate quarters, we would inexplicably gather together in one room to watch a video, share a snack, cuddle or talk. The three of us laughed more, it seems, because things felt more harmonious and relaxed. Or maybe it was just me.

But things were different now. With their father gone, I was hypervigilant about being the lone captain, keeping close watch on the bridge so that our ship stayed upright. I hoped the kids didn’t doubt that I could handle it on my own. If they did, they didn’t let on. I constantly assured them that we’d be fine and that we were still a family although dad didn’t live here anymore, but yet I worried they felt a void at home.

I grasped onto the Power of Three. After all, a three-legged stool is just as sturdy as a chair with four legs and I wanted to show the kids that our new home life could be just as good, if not better, than the one they grew up knowing.

For writers, the Power of Three is a principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying and easier to remember (“Veni, vidi, vici” or “Stop, look and listen”). Stage and screenplays are written in a three-act structure. In fact, a great deal of our cultural upbringing is made of triplets and trios: Three Musketeers, Three Little Pigs, Three Wise Men. Three is also a mystical number, if you are inclined to believe; in numerology, it denotes joy, inspiration and a moving forward of energy.

As quickly as I removed photos and mementos of the past from our home, I replaced them with subliminal reminders of the Power of Three. We have a curio shelf containing three miniature vases, three gold ornamental apples and three bamboo hedgehogs. Over our fireplace mantel is metal wall art featuring three tall trees, flourishing.

tree wall art

At the time, my Mama Bear instinct used the Power of Three to protect, comfort and reassure, but looking back, I question if it was entirely the right thing to do. I wonder if it was actually my way of closing ranks; of not only proving myself as the steadfast parent but trying to shut out my ex by saying, “See? We didn’t need him anyway.” Perhaps, perhaps.

Fortunately, my daughter and son showed amazing resilience and coping skills as our household went from four to three and, since my new partner joined us, back to four again. Even if I made a few missteps in my parenting choices post-divorce, I am able to forgive myself because of the two extraordinary human beings who continue to live and thrive under this roof.

We may no longer be considered a Million Dollar Family by some people, but my kids are a reminder that I hit the jackpot.