Stephanie, Jeff, Jon and Lisa
[I actually wrote this some years ago, but 'tis the season, so will post it here. Nostalgia all the way, kids!]
This year, for Christmas, I decided to make each of my four children an album of their childhood photos. I spent one evening on the floor, poring through my albums, revisiting those busy years which seem, in retrospect, to have flown by at the speed of light.
There were all their faces, alight with laughter. Kids playing, mugging for the camera, on jungle gyms, kids grinning out through tire-hole climbing structures, one face atop another, Baby Steph's at the bottom. (Steph's favorite saying in those years, "I'm NODDA Baby!") Lisa and Jeff, hanging upside down by one leg each from the metal bar. Jeff and Steph, upside down, butts to the camera, grinning at me through their legs. Jon with his first rocket, his new bike. Jeff and Steph, arms wrapped around each other, beaming. Jeff and Steph dancing, faces aglow with gaiety too great to contain. Lisa leaping into the air, her mouth square, shrieking her joy at getting the new clogs she wanted so badly. Jon fishing, hiking in the hills. Jon on a roughly made raft, poling up the lake in the dead of winter. Lisa cuddling a furry little pet under her chin, looking out at me with the same tender softness I see in her eyes now, cuddling her children and her kittens.
Jeff and Jon, plastic swords over their shoulders, marching to the Tolkien-like music we liked during the winters when my boys read Lord of the Rings over and over. Jeff, tongue hanging out comically, his head inside the mouth of the concrete Ogopogo statue in City Park, pretending he was being eaten by the monster.
All of us, up Knox Mountain, flying kites. All of us strung out in a row on bikes. All of us, having a winter picnic at Gyro Park, on ground white and frozen, grinning around our sandwiches.
And there were all the Christmases, when somehow, against all financial reality, magic happened in our living room, and the wee hours of Christmas morning resounded with happy shrieks and an orgy of gift-opening. Now, I dont know how I did it, but I remember my determination that, on that one day of the year, my kids would have everything they wanted. I was trying to make up for the daily reality of never enough money, never quite enough food, and all the times they wanted things in silence that they never asked for, because they knew our lack of money by the contents of our fridge.
That Christmas magic lasted until my children hit their teens, when our family hit rough waters for a time, as my children, like so many others in our culture, explored drugs, alcohol and paths that took them away from me and any magic I might have available. As I looked at their shining pre-teen faces in their childhood photos, my throat closed over a massive lump. Back then I could still afford some slight protection, or so I thought. I had not yet learned the most perilous years lay in wait, full of dangers far scarier than my childrens' worst childhood nightmares. We entered those years all unaware and unprepared, and none of us came out unchanged.
What the photographs don't show is the other side of Christmas, in the years when my heart was aching for my children, when I valiantly traveled from place to place among them, bright smiles and cheerful wrap belying the hidden pain, the unspoken words one or the other of us was not yet able to say. Christmas lost its magic for me in the years when one, then another child was away from home. And in the years when Jeff, who had been so sunny a youngster, made his lonely trek through the valley of despair.
I remember the Christmas concert just after one daughter left home too soon, and the depth of sadness in my heart as I watched the two children who were still with me, up on the stage, the sweet sound of children singing piercing me through like a lance. Another year, another Christmas, and Jeff, wan and pale, fragile and shaky, singing, "If I were a swan, I'd be gone," me encouraging his talent and brilliance, at the same time trying to anchor him to this earth he had such a fragile hold upon.
Some Christmases we spent scattered, me traveling among my children. Some we spent together, with inner distances between us we didn't mention, our smiling faces turned to the camera, our secret pain and memories within.
There are no photographs of the fractured Christmases, when one or another of my children was either physically or emotionally distant from me. No photographs mark the passage of those years of family unraveling and reweaving. Years when I learned to stay steady, cling firmly to my life and carry on, believing in the power of a mother's patient, steadfast and unconditional love - and the healing powers of the passage of time - for my children to make their inner journeys away from and back to me.
Back and forth among my children, as the years passed, I traveled, a little shorter, a lot tireder, a little more frazzled with every year. Encouraging, supporting, trying to instil my belief that life holds goodness and wonder, once we are ready to let go of all the pain and anger. For a time, I thought the Christmases we once had only came with small children, and were forever gone.
For years, I could not bear to look at the photos of those young faces, knowing the pain we all had gone through since. There were years I took photos mainly of scenery and tried to heal myself from all the pain and struggle. This year, I could look. This year was the right time to give my kids back some of those happy childhood memories, remind them there were many more good times, much more laughter, than there were times of trouble. My children are on their own journeys now, have made peace with the past, embracing the present. They have become spiritual warriors on the path, and I watch with amazement as they grow in strength and wisdom and awareness.
And I am traveling too, to the season of my life when time becomes more finite, when there is a lot of looking-back and summing-up, and a wish to pass on all the love and gifts and wisdom one possesses while one still can.
While my children were growing, I was growing too, willy-nilly. I did some growing whole, some seizing of the reins of the galloping wild horses that were my children in those years. There were times when I felt utterly unable to cope, knowing I had no choice but to cope with what felt like too heavy a load. When my children were floundering in treacherous waters, somehow I had to encourage them from shore, throw life preservers, guide them through. Sometimes I felt like I was hanging onto the tail of a lashing dragon, that was wagging me.
Those years have been past a long time now. My children are no longer children. Some time back they assumed the reins and tamed their own wild horses.
Grandparents' faces are now missing around the table; I find myself the matriarch and wonder how it all happened so fast. But my children have been coming home for Christmas most every year, and some of the magic has been creeping back into that day.
This year was like the Christmases of old, kids disappearing under a sea of wrap, their heads poking out above the surface. Jon, giving me the best gift he could possibly give, in gifting his brother with a ghetto blaster to play his music. Jeff, more himself than he has been for years, hovering protectively over freshly caught fish Jon was cleaning, like a young priest, telling them "It will be okay." Lisa filling with new strength and awareness of her worth and rights as a human on this earth. Strong enough to hold her head up bravely under judgment of those who do not know, in order to live her truth. Gifting me with the honesty of her communication. And Steph, who for so long sought family outside of our family, now finding it with her brothers and sister, as the family mends and re-weaves itself, growing strong at the broken places.
My friend had a similar Christmas with her children, her son giving her the verbal gift of forgiveness first thing Christmas morning, reducing her to tears. As we remark on the growth we are seeing in our children and the richness of our new relationships with the adults they have become, she remarks, "Our Christmases will be different from now on. Consciousness is growing in our children." And she is right.
I feel less lonely on my path, now that my children are so strongly embarked on theirs. Our conversations have new depth and recognition. I feel proud of the journeys they are making: journeys of the heart, of finding and living their own truth, pride in their heart and courage and honesty.
This year, once again, we took the Christmas photo. This year I have been privileged to see deeper into who my kids really are. We are now a mutual cheering section for each other, comparing notes on the journey. My health is faltering, exhausted from decades of pain and struggle, wanting only rest. But my childrens' light is outshining the darkness, and it is an awesome sight, brighter than any yuletide tree. Sometimes I feel it is by my sheer determination that we all made it safely through.
If I had one gift I could give them, it would be the incredible gratitude and reverence I have always felt for life, just life. I made it through my dark times because there was always blue sky and sunshine and trees, filling my heart with thankfulness, to keep me looking up. I wish that heart-lift for my children, that gift of seeing past the pain to all the beauty that is available when we are ready to reach out for it.
Sometimes I worry about what might yet lie ahead, knowing I dont have the strength for much more. I feel the deep tiredness of someone who has been paddling hard for a very long time, whose arms are growing weaker. My mother's heart is always braced against the possibility of unbearable pain should anything happen to any one of my children.
This year the difference was, my children were helping me and easing things for me, instead of me helping them. And it felt really good, like we're all in this together, so maybe I dont have to be so strong any more.
As I lose strength, my children are gaining it. With what pride I survey my life's work: four very special young people who emerged from some very perilous passages with the mark of the wayfarer on their faces, and knowledge, compassion, caring and strength shining from their eyes. We are now journeying together, and can recognize and applaud each other's progress as, by different paths, we find and live our truths. The cycle of life is turning, turning, and my children are leading me Home.
The Big Four: Jeff, Lisa, Stephanie, and Jon