I am unable to think of my sons without at some point returning to the lines of a letter I first encountered in the movie The Great Santini. The letter was read by eighteen-year-old Ben Meechum (played by Michael O’Keefe). It had been written by his mother, (played by Blyth Danner) and tucked into his lunch on the occasion of his birthday. The movie’s screenplay was written by Pat Conroy, so the words are really his, but I have taken those words as my own ever since seeing the film, long before I gave birth to my sons:
“My Dear Son…My Dear Ben…My Dear Friend, who becomes a man today. I wanted to write you a letter about being a man. And what that means in a fuller sense. I wanted to tell you that gentleness is the quality I most admired in men. And then I remembered how gentle you are, so I decided to write something else. It’s just this: I want you to know that whatever you do, or wherever you go, you walk with my blessing, and love. I’ve had my regrets, and many sadnesses, but I will never regret the night you were born. I thought I knew about love, and the boundaries of love, until I raised you for these past eighteen years. I knew nothing about love. This has been your gift to me. Happy Birthday, Mama.”
My love for my sons is all-encompassing, all-powerful. I really did not know the boundaries of love until I became a parent. And, if I am honest with myself, I was at first resentful of such strong feelings, of letting some other human become more important to me than myself. I remember when my oldest son, Jake, was just six months old, I made a traffic error that nearly caused an accident, an accident that would have happened to the side of my car where Jake was contentedly sitting in his car seat. He could have been killed. I caught my breath, pulled over to the side of the road, and wept. I almost hated him for loving him so much.
My sons came very late in life, after many trials and miscarriages. I wanted them badly. Yet, I was completely unprepared for the degree to which they would capture my heart and attention. Yes, I loved my husband and he loved me. But we were adults, completely capable of caring for ourselves, In fact, as a married couple, we prided ourselves on our independent lives. We could afford to be rather self-centered as we often went our separate ways and spent considerable time apart. Both of us felt the earth shift when we became parents, as the center of our lives dramatically shifted from ourselves to them. The ancient Greeks were wise to give a special name—storge—to this kind of love that can supplant all others.
Loving my sons opened me up to aspects of life that I did not before contemplate. I saw my own parents in a completely different light, understanding for the first time their own love for me, and their own self-doubts and challenges of nurturing a child. I suddenly became aware of genetic traits, seeing parts of my parents, my husband, and his parents display themselves in both physical mannerisms and personality traits. It became viscerally apparent to us that people arrive in this world with some prepackaging, with their own strengths, weaknesses, interests, desires, and predilections. They are who they are from birth. The best we can do is support them and challenge them to be the best versions of themselves.
Seeing myself reflected in their eyes taught me many truths about myself, truths that I did not always want to know. No joy was greater than seeing love reflected back. No shame stung with greater intensity than one wrought by misbehaving in their presence.
They mark time. They alter every place. They infuse our future. They give us hope, and comfort, and determination to try our best. They fill our lives with laughter and open us up to new ideas and new ways of knowing the world. They bring tears flowing from our eyes, quicken our hearts with fear, stain our shirts with sweat, and both provoke and cool our anger. They have truly stretched every boundary we thought we had.
My sons have brought out the very best in me and exposed my very worst. They have taught me to accept both. They, too, have revealed their extremes, which I love and accept without question. They are just now making their own ways in the world, and I am curious and excited to see them take their places.
My sons are so different, so unique. In looking back, certain threads have been strongly woven into their personalities. My youngest son, Mark, both embraces and rejects change. Leaving Alaska as a kindergartener, with tears running down his cheeks, he started and ended the long drive and three-day ferry trip singing his Friends song with the words, “Friends, I will think of you, wait for you, and when the day is through, we still will be friends.” Yet, as a young man he carefully studied his options, struck off on his own, changed his college focus, graduated with a degree in computer science, and has a rewarding job with a software company in Bozeman, Montana.
My oldest son, Jake, has always been wiser than his years. He has a critical mind that teases apart every element of every story, every film, every magazine article, and every move on a game board. His command of the English language allows him to succinctly express his opinions. His emotional intelligence helps him frame things in ways that open people’s minds. Known as the “walking dictionary” as a youngster, he uses words precisely and consciously. He has a degree in English Literature and recently graduated from Gonzaga Law School. He has yet to settle on how to best use his exceptional analytical and communication skills.
I do not think that being a parent is the right choice for everyone, nor do I think that the lack of children means a less fulfilling life. We are all different, wanting and responding to vastly diverse aspects of life. I cannot speak for anyone but myself, nor can I comprehend what my life would have been without my sons. I only know what is true for me now. I treasure having Jake and Mark in my life. I am so grateful for the years of living our lives together, for the laughter and the tears, for the challenge and joys of participating in their lives from the very beginning, for the bond their presence has forged between me and my husband, and for the connections to both the past and the future that they embody. My past was made ever more meaningful because of them, and I face the last stages of my own life with greater peace and comfort because of them. They are truly my life’s greatest gifts.