Part 2 of a 7-part talk on “Wreckage, Wonder and Ways Through the Impossible: Writing Life’s Hard Stuff”
Everyone told me it was impossible to write once I had children, which freaked me out to no end since I’m kind of a lukewarm, sobbing mess without writing. Yet two people shared with me another reality. The late Keith Dennison, a generous professor at Emporia State, told a very pregnant me about finishing stories while babies crawled over him, and Ursula LeGuin wrote a fabulous essay about how having children fed the soul of her writing. I found courage in these examples, and so when my oldest son — who almost died at birth — was less than a week old, I scribbled this poem on the back of a water bill while he slept on my lap.
Telling My Son About His Birth
It was like visiting a house
I’d only seen before between sleep and waking.
I waited days to enter,
but once inside, I was afraid of the dark
and couldn’t find the walls.
Maybe there was a storm.
I can’t remember, only that I hurt and thought
I wouldn’t get out.
I made noises.
Then I found you –
the top of your head black with hair.
I pushed and pushed to get out,
and when we did, into the hot room
where your father and the midwife waited,
I realized I was afraid most
because this house was the world,
and it was on fire.
But you need to know
there wasn’t really a house at all
or any shelter. There was a place I cannot name.
You could call it fear or love
or god – it would still be the place
of no place.
Here, there is a real house
made of wood and concrete.
We have names for things
and a name for you.
We think we are past the fire,
asleep in this chair,
your belly on mine
as we breathe on each other.
The writer as mother discovered she had crossed over into wild terrain, where paths led to tangles in fallen thorns. With children, we are never past the fire, but instead have front-row seats for the life force with all its beauty and terror.
My marvelous son turned out to have a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder that made it almost impossible for him to read or understand social cues, plus a wicked case of ADHD, a seizure condition, and later, Crohn’s disease. He was so different than what all the child-rearing books I read told me to expect that I actually ripped one such book into shreds when he was a toddler. Childhood, despite our best efforts, was searingly painful for him in pockets of isolation and ridicule. After trying everything, from pharmaceuticals, homeopathic medicine, psychic readings, hard love or constant holding, we realized what most parents realize: there’s no magic pill, spell or remedy. There’s only loving that stretches us beyond who we think we are. I wrote about his story, with his permission, for an essay published in an anthology and online in Yes Magazine. Here is an excerpt from what I wrote about Daniel, who’s now 23 and doing beautifully as an Americorps volunteer in Tennessee:
Both the center of my heart and the edge of my universe contain Daniel. He is the one, more than anyone or anything else in my life, who challenges me to improvise, to forget how it should be, to drop my expectations and ideas about what life is, what a child is, what a parent is. He teaches me about the psychic wounds I carry into my parenting, and my only choice is to heal myself.
I make many mistakes with him, moments I wish I could do over. I also do many things right, hold him in the middle of the day on the couch mid-winter for no reason, listen to him carefully.
“Mom, I have to make my own mistakes,” he says wisely, like any child would. But it’s very hard to watch a kid whose days are spent being shunned by peers, analyzed or dismissed or hoped upon by teachers, medicalized by health professionals, isolated by his own choices and the constant reinforcement of others who chose to isolate him. To watch your kid.
Daniel teaches me that all rules are arbitrary, answers are illusory, future visions, incomplete. He teaches me to be more patient, more accepting, more tolerant not just of him but of other kids. I see a nine-year-old hyper boy out in public these days, and I don’t get irritated with him; instead, I feel empathy and wonder how his parents are doing.
Mostly, Daniel teaches me that love is never arbitrary. That love leads us into mystery where no one can say what comes next, or how, or why.
Writing also teaches us that “all rules are arbitrary, answers are illusory, future visions are incomplete.” As my three children motor to and through those heart-stopping young adult years, I continue to write about being a mother, and learning — through mothering and writing — how to stretch my heart.
Yesterday: Part 1. The Writer as Child. Tomorrow, please see Part 3. “What Falls Away is Always. And is Near.”