A Parenting Mistake and the Love that Redeemed It
Last week I was all in a knot about dropping my oldest son off in Nashville for the summer, scared about everything I know about big cities and young men, and scared about the world in general.
Poets are oversensitive people by nature, sponges and hair triggers. We are responsive and reactive, which I suppose is what makes us able to do what we do. But it also means that whatever we choose to believe with our minds and our wills can have trouble working down into our feelings.
As I was fighting waves of panic, I decided to go sit in the bathtub and soak my pounding heart until it aligned with the truth I believe, and that’s when my family decided to take my youngest son down to the lake without my knowing about it.
Well, I knew they were taking him down to the water. I didn’t know they were taking him tubing behind a boat in a huge, green, deep lake. And P.S. he can’t quite swim.
He had on a life jacket, of course. My family is careful.
Also, they didn’t know that I didn’t know. They never would have done it if they had.
But their intentions didn’t matter when I realized what was happening. All that mattered was fear.
“My son is somewhere OUT THERE."
I don't know if men would be able to understand this, but some of you moms will get it.
This wasn’t just about one kid behind one boat on one lake. This was about an entire world that feels like it’s sucking everybody down where they can’t breathe all the time. It’s about a world where a mom looks away for a second and an alligator takes her child, or he falls into a gorilla cage, or you miss an opportunity for certain conversations when your child is fourteen, and then you regret that oversight for the rest of your life.
My fear was about dear friends with scary diseases, and dear friends with children I love with scary diseases, and dear friends diseased by lies and by addictions.
It was about greedy, rotten politics, and theological heresies, and financial pressures, and work that has to be done that I can never seem to get to.
All that converged on a single little boy, eight, not nineteen.
You know, there is a beautiful, terrifying illusion that moms have at this stage of the game … the illusion that we can do something for our children. That we can even do everything for them.
But there I was stuck on the deck, staring out into a lake of infinity, looking for my son.
I couldn't even see him.
That adrenaline surge you hear about. It's real. I could have lifted a car.
Instead I lifted this huge kayak off a metal rack and threw it into the water, and even though I don't kayak, I paddled out until I found the boat that was dragging my bouncing boy across the water like a tossed rock, and he was holding on, and he was laughing his head off.
Trembling all the way down to my bones I yelled until they kicked off the motor and then I said something I’ve never said to my family before -- something I hope to never say to them again.
Before God and almost everybody I love and respect most on this planet I slashed at them with my voice shaking low and terrible, “What in the HELL do you think you’re doing out here with my son?”
They froze. I'm not sure they knew I could be that ugly.
But I didn't care if they stared at me as I made those last thousand -- last million miles to my child. With shaking hands, I held his face up to mine, and I kissed him, and I cried.
"My son." I said it.
I said that because I didn’t care at that moment if some stranger overseas gave birth to this kid, or if he has a dad right now too, or if it takes a village to raise a child. I didn't care about jokes about helicopter mothers, or what Robert Lewis says about mother wounds, or what James Dobson says about letting your boys become men.
Winston Churchill, Gary Ezzo, and the Apostle Paul could have all showed up to correct me, and I would have punched them in their mouths.
My son. This year, this moment, this was my son.
In a dangerous world, in the middle of a lake, I was holding my son in my arms. Back off.
So after I ruined it all, after the awkward silence, where the only two sounds were my boy saying, "Mom, I'm okay. I'm okay," and a party boat a quarter mile off, we all went back to the house, and my arms got heavy while I closed the door of my bedroom.
Then I collapsed on the mattress and did that thing where you cry until your guts hurt.
I was ashamed of myself, of course. I'd screwed up all that levity for nothing.
But while I was face down in shame, still angry, still scared, in the middle of the worst of me trying to untangle myself, my mom walked in, and you know of all the things she could have said (things that I would have deserved), what she chose instead was this.
“I bet that was so scary. I’m so sorry you didn’t know where we were.”
“I love him so much,” I choked out. “I just love him so much," trying to make that make sense somehow.
And she let it make sense. She let that be enough.
So often I feel like I have to perform, to be in control enough to do good enough in bad times. I feel like I have to be brave. I feel like I have to be solid.
This time I wasn't. I goofed up bad in front of everybody. No excuses.
But love looked through what I did, through what I said, and said, "It's okay. I get it. You were scared."
And after that, the tears that came were different. Tears of gratitude instead of fear. Tears that unlocked the confessions I needed to start making. The kind of tears people cry in safety. The kind of tears that wash you clean.