My mother left us five years ago today, an anniversary that’s hitting me harder this year than it has the past couple. The five-year mark seems to be driving home the truth that she’s gone permanently. It’s one of those things you know in your mind, but don’t really know in your bones when the loss is fresh. Last night, I kept thinking, “I didn’t understand she was going to be dead for this long.”
When my mom took me for my first day of kindergarten, an eon ago, I was puzzled by the children in the class who were crying, distraught over their mothers leaving without them. I thought to myself, “Don’t they know they’re going to come back?”
Now I’m dropped off, the day has grown long, and I see she’s not returning for me. I’m on my own here. But she didn’t toss me upon the world with no provisions or comforts at all. She had a fascination with bells, and collected all sorts. I experience a lot of joy from this tangible item she left with me — a good part of her bell collection. I rang them all for her this morning.
“Ring the bells that still can ring.” — Leonard Cohen
Note: I originally started writing this on the evening of January 6, but I discovered I was too unsettled by events to gather my thoughts. So I’m starting over now, while holding my breath and crossing my fingers for a peaceful Inauguration Day this coming Wednesday. **
I have little patience for anyone over the age of 50 making statements or jokes insinuating young people today are somehow soft or entitled or not quite up to snuff compared to older generations. My kids are just at the age to really be laying the foundations of their adult lives. I have a number of friends with kids in the same age range. And what I see is not so much foundation laying as young adults treading troubled waters, trying not to drown. There’s no there there upon which to build.
I’ve read a few posts recently from historians putting the present day into context, and they verify what I suspected. The youngest Millennials and oldest members of Generation Z are coming of age in one of the most difficult periods of American life.
Would I have made the decision to have children if I had known how things would shake out? What if someone had given me a crystal ball that told me the terrible things that would happen by the time they were grown? Would anyone ever choose to have children if they knew what disasters lay in the future?
On April 19, 1995, I was eight months pregnant with my firstborn and shaken to the core by the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. I saw the photo of a lifeless baby carried from the rubble and wondered if I’d made a grave error in choosing to bring a child into a world where such a thing could occur. But the delight and wonder of motherhood eclipsed all, prompting me to have a second child three years later.
Then followed the Columbine school shooting, 9/11, the economic crash of 2008, Sandy Hook, the Fukushima nuclear accident, the election of an unhinged narcissist to the U.S. presidency, and a mishandled pandemic leading to widespread unemployment. And now January 6, which it seems is going to be referred to by its date, just like 9/11, with no further explanation necessary.
You make the choice to have kids when the world is one way, with no idea what lies ahead. How different everything is from the 1990s. Everything. I mourn that my children don’t remember the pre-9/11 world, one where you could hang out at an airport and watch the planes taking off and landing as cheap entertainment, one without security checkpoints and searched bags at every venue from airports to amusement parks. One in which we weren’t at perpetual war. A few times, I have feebly opined to them that I’m sorry for how the world turned out, that I had no idea it would get this bad.
Going back to my earlier question — if I had known, would I have chosen to remain childless? Maybe. Do I regret having them? Never. I regret much about the world as it is. I wouldn’t have them disappear from it. My love for them makes it both bearable and unbearable. It’s a paradox.
I suppose every generation could make its own list similar to mine. Would you want to become a parent if you knew the Black Plague was just around the corner? The Dust Bowl? A World War? My mom was carrying me when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, after she’d already lived through the Great Depression, WWII, a polio epidemic, etc. Individually, it feels like we have so little control over world events. We as humans are always working to survive and make our own happiness, create our own hope. I guess that’s consistently true, from the hunter/gatherers of ancient times thinking about the year’s berry crop to those of us today worrying about who has access to the nuclear codes.
Babies are still coming along, in the middle of this big old mess we have right now. Multiple friends of mine have welcomed grandchildren to the world over the past year, vibrating with a happiness that is more contagious than the coronavirus. I hear the news on a Zoom call or see it on Facebook, and a glow comes over me. I feel so much joy for them.
As humans, we keep choosing to go on, to try our best to survive. I would never dream of offering an opinion to anyone about the right time for them to birth or adopt a baby, or about whether they even should. But every arrival of a new baby says to me that collectively, we haven’t all given up all hope. That thought also makes things bearable.
I wouldn’t want to know the future, even if I could. It’s best that we don’t. Things could get even worse. They could also get a whole lot better. So much is possible. Nothing is certain.
A counselor I’ve been seeing told me to notice the times I’m okay, “even if it’s only 15 seconds. Pay attention and remember it. You can build on that.” Maybe that’s the foundation we all can lay.
I’m not even sure where I’m going with this. Just pondering on the unpredictability of life and how we cope during bad times. I want to do whatever I can, with whatever little power I have to make this a better place for those joy-bringers who are arriving right now. And for the joy-bringers who have already been here a while.
Take care of yourselves, my friends. And let’s take care of each other. Let’s create those moments of okayness and build on them.