In Letters To a Young Poet, Rilke writes: “For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” In the almost two years since my son was born, I’ve thought about what it means to love another person. In some ways, loving my son is the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I look at him, even in the middle of the most frustrating and difficult moments, and I know what love is. I know it in the palpable way the air shifts between us, in the elation that springs up in me at his sweet smiles, in the gut-wrenching pain that I feel when he is hurting or inconsolable, in the way his absence tugs my mind constantly back toward him when we are apart, and in the fullness I feel when he’s in my arms. I love him, simply, because he is. But here’s the rub, loving him in that way and making him feel loved in that way are two very different things. And it’s the latter part of this endeavor that makes loving someone the “most difficult task.”
As I was driving the other day I began to wonder if it was possible to love other people in this way—without condition or expectation. I’ve been programmed, like many of us, to believe that the terms of love are conditional. Parental love or divine love—at least in the way I grew up understanding them—can be costly at times. So the version of God that I like most to believe in, if I’m in a believing place, is a God that loves and values people simply because they are. I like to believe in a contract between the Divine and human that is unburdened of those hidden clauses and rigorous demands that we are likely not to meet. I like to imagine that grace, mercy (and all these other buzzwords people like to throw around) are offered to us freely and abundantly, not tied like a carrot to the tip of some proverbial stick. I like to hope for an extension of love that is disentangled from our pettiness, small-mindedness and brokenness and is marked by its unlimited capacity for compassion and understanding. I’ve been fortunate enough, lately, to find some loving and kind people who help me believe (or at least believe, themselves, when I’m feeling skeptical) that this version of God exists.
In this process with my mother, I’ve sometimes struggled to find compassion. I’ve been alternately angry, frustrated, heartbroken and numb (I know, I know…the Kübler-Ross model and all that). But it’s more than just the grief of death. I’ve spent a large part of my adulthood coming to terms with and working through some deep woundedness. Those things feel so thoroughly entwined with who I am: I grew up around them, pushed through them, made space for them, and perhaps, eventually, even found some comfort in the familiarity of their weightiness. I suppose I’ve been waiting a lifetime to hear certain things from my mother. Naively, I thought that hearing those things from her would ameliorate my wounds. So, recently, when she returned from a week away and began this very conversation, I braced myself. Anxious and uncomfortable, I waited and listened.
Once upon a time, when I was younger, when I was angrier, when she was healthier, when everything wasn’t what it is right now, I might have felt some sense of satisfaction. I might have felt validated or vindicated. I might have done I-don’t-know-what. I probably wouldn’t have been able or ready to receive what she had to say. Instead, what I heard her say simultaneously changed me profoundly and made no difference at all. I discovered, as is so often the case, that the cycle of woundedness hadn’t begun with me, or even with her. As I sat across the table from my mother—who was broken not only by her own wounds, but by the fullness of the knowledge that she had replicated and allowed those cycles of pain and loss to be repeated in me—my anger slipped away.
I think that so much of my mother’s reluctance to acknowledge her approaching death is grounded in her deep sense of regret and her desire to go back. It’s not that she’s afraid of what’s to come. I think she does have a sense of peace about that. She doesn’t, however, have peace about what was. It’s an impossible place to be in because, of course, there’s only going forward. I recognized myself in that moment with her. I’ve spent years trying to go backwards, scrambling over the debris of time, digging until my fingers were bloodied, to undo what was done, to rewrite history. I used to think that healing could be found back there somewhere. But it can’t. There’s only more pain—the pain that comes from the frustration and futility of that effort.
What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t find the healing that I imagined I would over the course of our conversation. Instead, I found the kind of compassion that allows me to love my mother simply because she is. For the moment, she was more than just my mother. She was also a whole person: a person with her own scars, regrets, and untold stories; a person with her own life; a person dying her own death. I suddenly felt like a bystander, like someone passing by who’d just discovered deep pockets brimming with compassion that I could offer to salve her wounds a little. Whatever we’ve carried between us all of those years, well...the tension went slack. I felt her putting down her end of the rope that we’ve held tautly between us. After all, in a short time it will be mine, alone, to carry. I wish I could say that I laid it down on the table as well and didn’t pick it up again when I stood up, but that’s not the case. No, I found that my own wounds were unchanged. They were still there tangled up in who I am. But I realized that it’s my job to find healing for myself somewhere in the here-and-now or in the what’s-to-come; I can’t foist that responsibility on her any longer. So I let go of my anger and loved her instead. Because there’s only going forward.
As we got up from the table my mom looked at me and said that she felt such a deep sense of relief when she watched me with my son: “You aren’t like us. You’re doing it better.” I’m not perfect. Some days I’m short-tempered and impatient, but I’m ever-aware of that old cycle spinning its wheels in me. I wake up every day vowing to listen more closely, to show my son that he is unconditionally loved, and to be as fully present for him as possible. Indeed, loving someone is a difficult task, but I think it’s like anything else. Practice makes…well, perhaps it doesn’t make perfect, but it certainly makes us better. And maybe in the attempting-to, we find something divine.