Heartquake

A gift Brittany made me for Father's Day

Until the moment my first child was born, I didn’t have the capacity to love a child. I know this because of the magnitude of the heartquake I experienced when I first saw her. In that moment, everything began to shake. All of my assumptions about myself. All of my selfish worries that I couldn’t fit a child into my life. Layers of prickliness that had enshrouded me for years. And along with the shaking was a kind of melting. In just a few seconds, the person I was melted down and ceased to exist. In its place was a brand new man — a man capable of feeling extremely deep emotion, even of crying; a man in love with a tiny baby; a man swept away by something he had never known before, and quite okay with that; a man who was suddenly able to see himself in relationship to a child; a man connected to this child in a way he had never been connected to anything.

Yesterday another heartquake began as we helped her move into her room at college. Only this heartquake is different. The heartquake when she was born felt amazing and liberating and joyful. This one aches. The first one felt like I had just gained the world. This one feels like I have lost so much. In the first heartquake, I attached effortlessly to this child. With this one, I will fight a great battle to let go. The first one brought fulfillment. This one is a struggle against giving in to a sense of emptiness.

I keep reminding myself that we’re not the first parents to do this. My own parents did it. This morning I was startled to realize that when you walk through any public place, many of the people you see have waved goodbye to a child as they left the nest, and have lived to tell about it. Most people have carried that wound. I take comfort in this, but of course my struggle remains.

So my plan is simply to feel the pain, and allow the fire to rage for a while. I realize this heartquake hurts as badly as it does because it is fueled by the same explosive that caused the first one. Love. It just burns in a different way. And I realize that just like hundreds of millions of other parents, I too will learn not only to carry this wound with grace but to take joy in it. I know it will make me stronger, more compassionate, and grant me deeper wisdom.

I know I’ll get there. But for now I must respect the size and significance of this quake and not attempt to minimize it or make efforts to control it. My mantra for now is those famous words of Martin Luther: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” And I cling to what I teach those in my congregation. We must live in the expectation that what is on the horizon will be greater — not lesser — than from where we have already come. That is my hope and my expectation. But right now, I’m in the middle of a quake, and all it is appropriate to do right now is hang on tight and wait until the shaking settles down.

Children

It is said that to have a child is to have your heart walking around outside your body. Think of that imagery.  So dangerous, so fragile.  Our physical heart is behind a rib CAGE for a reason — it is precious.  But we can’t keep our children in cages. All we can do is hope we have gotten them healthy enough to make it out there.

I think my hearts are growing up healthy.  They brought home fantastic report cards and gave me the best Father’s Day I’ve ever had this week.  They each bought (or made) me a card and then wrote down what it means to them to have me as their dad.  I thank God for them and am so proud of them.  Oftentimes when I tell them, “I love you,” they respond, “Love you more.”  Yeah, right…  One day they’ll have kids of their own and they’ll understand.

But let’s not rush things.  The sweetness is now, when they get up in the morning and their hair is a mess and their cheeks are so flushed, and when I hug them they are still warm from their blankets.  They’re always beautiful, but I often think that no matter how long they stand in front of the mirror, they can’t improve on how beautiful they already are when they first wake up.  I have always known that is one of the things I will miss most when they are gone.  Right behind that is how I will miss the smell of my bathroom after three girls have used it to get ready for school — makeup and perfume and girl soap and lavender shaving cream and lotion and warm curling irons.  It serves every day as a reminder of how much they have brought into my life — their sweetness, and joy, and enthusiasm.

And the lessons they teach!  When my oldest, Brittany — now 17 — was very small, I was leaving for my annual one-week getaway with a friend of mine.  Brittany pleaded with me, “Daddy, why do you have to go?”  I said, “Daddy doesn’t want to leave you, but going away on this trip every year helps me come back and be a better daddy.”  Her reply almost did me in.

“I’ll help you be a better daddy.”

I comprehended the deeper and unintended meaning immediately.  “You certainly will, sweetheart,” I said, as I hugged her and headed out the door, squeezing away tears.  She and her sisters have been teaching me to be a better daddy for 17 years now.

It is said that to have a child is to have your heart walking around outside your body.  I have three hearts outside my body.  My hearts are at band camp today.  They are a gift.