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“Can we take a moment to relate to each other’s feelings?” This, from my nine-year-old son, curled up next to me as I tuck him in tonight. Oh, that sudden snap in the heart from surprise (where’d that come from?) and amusement (he’s just trying to get me to stay longer) and heartache (this raw and tender creature formed within me!).
“Sure thing,” I say, cuddling next to him. He launches into the emotions of his life—friends gone wrong, embarrassments and slights, his love for a girl he has yet to really speak to—all of which I take seriously, because they are serious to him. And then he asks me, “Well, so, how’s your heart?”
“Jake,” I say quietly. “You’ve been my best teacher.”
“Mom,” he says, yawning. “You’re all right. You’re probably the best mom there is. Don’t die anytime soon.”
I tell my writing students this: Make a list of the things you need to write before you die. That you actually, literally, need to write, so that your heart feels settled. Everyone has two or three: notes to people wronged, people forgiven, people once loved in secret, people loved in the open; essays about the greatest losses and the greatest joys; short stories about core beliefs and core confusions; and, most frequently, letters to a child.
I always do my own writing exercises along with my students. At the top of my list is that same No. 1 item: “Honest love letter to kids.” By this I mean not a journal of their growth and tendencies and personalities unfolding—no, that I have already done, keeping a notebook for each of them. What I mean is this: a letter from me, to them, about moments when they have touched me, moments when they have killed me, moments that broke me apart, moments that made me anew.
It’s a big mistake to put some things off, I tell my students. Write it now. Write it along the way. Write as if you are dying—because, of course, you are.
Another surprise, yesterday morning: My seven-year-old, Eliana, walked into my bedroom at 6:30, I opened my sleepy eyes, and I witnessed a miracle. She was holding a cup of coffee, with whole milk in it, which had been heated in the microwave. She was also barely hanging onto a plate with a sliced banana with a napkin-wrapped fork balanced on top. Her face registered the difficulty of all this. In the flash of a fraction of a second, my sleepy brain understood many things, such as how hard it is to open our microwave, how hard it is to pull down a gallon of milk, how I never said, but she must have observed, that I like my coffee hotter than our old coffeepot can get it.
Moments of grace, I call them. Unexpected and possibly undeserved gifts.
A time or two, I nearly left them. Stood with my hand on the doorknob. Too much work, too many of my own dreams deferred, too many times getting up in the middle of the night. “Think hard before you have children,” I tell my childless friends when they ask. “No one warns you adequately, and I am here to speak The Truth. You will never be you again, and it’s a deep and exceedingly painful loss. I’m not joking.”
Exhaustion. I could say the word a thousand times and never get to the depth of how it felt in those first years, when I would wake up to find my body on the floor, student papers scattered around me, a child suckling on my breast, my eyes stinging, my inner self cold and fairly dead. Not moments of grace—no, moments that make you wonder whether love can even live.
When she was young, my daughter would say, “Actually, Mama, you actually smell like twinkle-twinkle little star,” and I would say, “Thank you” and “You sure like the word ‘actually.’?” And she would say, “Actually, I do, Mama.” Jake, listening to us, would say, “Everyone’s starshine should shine pretty bright.” And Eliana would say, “Actually, you’re pretty right about that one.”
When my children were four and two, we moved to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and these two children would take many walks with me down the county road near my house. Always, we would stop at the cattails. I’d pick them each a stalk, and they’d let out the fluff as we went, or they’d use the stalks as swords or drag them along the dirt road to make designs.
But Jake was interested in the ladybugs, and like any observant human he knew by then that ladybugs could be found near sunflowers, and so he would search the tissue-thin, yellow petals until he found one for his sister and one for himself. Then they had cattails and ladybugs to carry with us, and then rocks and stalks of grass and a caterpillar.
I remember: a blond boy running ahead, fast and sure of himself; a curly headed girl toddling after him in that ridiculous way children run when they’re still wearing diapers and have puffy material between their legs.
“Oh!” I said, feeling for the first time the sensation of not-exhausted love rushing up my throat—pure physical sensation. A pure moment of love-grace, the kind where time stands still and the world shimmers.
When I do die—in that fraction of time before my brain shuts down, before my body cools—I know that my children’s faces will be the last image I’ll conjure to my mind. I’ve practiced it many times. I tell my childless friends that part, too.
Once, Jake knocked me in the eye with his elbow, giving me a black eye that didn’t heal for months. Once, Ellie stuck her finger up my nose and scraped her fingernail on the inside lining—blood gushed over the both of us and would not stop. But the wounds were, of course, deeper than that.
“Jake,” I tell my son every once in a while, “you were my first teacher. You toughened me up.”
“Eliana,” I say, “you were my second. You both have been my best teachers.”
I do not say: Sometimes it feels like you nearly killed me, but then you brought me back as a different creature, and look at us now, at this particular moment, both of you asleep upstairs as I write. We are at an interesting and beautiful time in our lives, marked mainly by the fact that we are about as honest and loving and tender as humans can probably get with one another, and that is so rare and lucky that I think this moment might become embedded in my very cells.
Tonight, before Eliana fell asleep, she said, “Mama, you can quit thanking me for the coffee and banana now.”
Can I? Actually, I don’t think I can. So instead I will sit down, tired as I am, to write a few notes to you—old-fashioned love letters.
Laura Pritchett is a 5280 contributing editor and the author or editor of five books. She lives in northern Colorado with her husband and two children. E-mail her at email@example.com