“ … be the Lighthouse.”
I walked to the kitchen window, stared out onto the street ahead, and willed my daughter to come home. Remembering the day I’d ran from my parents as a teenager, I wondered if this was the same view they’d seen when they decided not to come after me. No matter my will, the road remained as it was, with a familiar weeping of uncertainty. I steadied myself, knowing only that I didn’t know if I’d made the right choice.
I don’t remember how long I stood there trying to hang on, or when I collapsed. I don’t remember calling my father from the floor where I lay. I had hoped to be saved; I didn’t know how he could. I was mourning a death of something I could not define, and as I reached to my father, I forced out, “I don’t know what to do … tell me … help me … “
I heard my father’s voice on the line. In that bleakest of moments, as I grieved for my own daughter, what I saw in my heart through the screen of years that happened, without my knowing it, was me. When I left home I was so young. All of the long nights that turned to weeks, that turned to years that I never went home.
I’d worked so hard for eighteen years to parent in a way that I felt made up for all the failures I perceived my parents making. I’d thought I’d loved my daughter enough. I languished with words, sputtering, “How Dad … how did you get through it with me? Tell me how you survived this kind of pain.”
I heard nothing but a single deep breath in my ear before my father spoke. “Who the hell do you think you are, huh? What right do you have to lay there in your own pity and give up? You are a mother. You don’t GET to fall apart …” and he went on, each sentence biting and rebuking my own sense of entitlement to feel bad for myself.
And then he did something that changed it all. He began to tell me the story of my daughter. He crafted her image and weaved a tale of her beauty and her strength so glorious that she was painted in my soul more powerfully than if she had been standing before me. And then- then, he grieved too. I cried with my father in our love for my daughter, the agony only a parent can feel. His tears were healing to me, and as we each held that moment I was grateful to him for acknowledging my hurt.
As the quiet extended itself gently, I whispered to my father, “I still don’t know what to do. Just tell me how you got through it when it was me.” I’d asked, but didn’t expect, the answer. His words slowed, like the movement in a symphony just after its climax when you realize that this is the part you will remember forever.
“Your daughter is out in the middle of an ocean and she is drowning, clinging to a tiny raft that isn’t strong enough to protect her for long. You have to accept that it’s her ocean. It’s not yours. You cannot save her. She is on a journey that belongs to her, and you have no right to take that away. Right now, it’s your job to be the lighthouse. There will come a day, or many days. A moment, or many moments, when your daughter will consider, if but for a second, letting go. And if you are not there, on the shore, shining a light to home, she will stop believing. You cannot fall apart. You have to be the lighthouse.”
Suddenly and without warning every lie I’d ever known to be true about the way my father loved me broke apart and we stood together at a new crossroads.
Warm winds of ghosts of the past swirled around me, I heard my youthful voice reaching out to my father countless times and saw, out there in the distance, his light. It had always been there. It had always saved me. I asked, without effort, for him to forgive me. For the first time, I became aware of what my holding on to all that anger had done. I was grateful my father had been strong enough to carry the weight of it, and prayed my daughter would survive the damage I’d done by parenting her by it. Weeks later, an MRI revealed that I would need lower back surgery. The surgery was scheduled and I called my mother to give her the update.
“I’m going to come out to help you.” She said. I was stunned. I could barely absorb her offer, or even fathom why she would suggest it. I’d gone through much worse in my life in years past and she’d never come to help –I had long ago stopped relying on her to mother me. I’d left home at 14, and since that day fought half a lifetime of regret and anger towards her for never being able to meet the expectations I had.
After the surgery, my first conscious moment was as I stood before my mother in the shower. Water flowing at me and over me, the shower curtain moved aside, and her washing me clean with carefulness almost absent of touch. I wasn’t ashamed. Instead, I was fifteen years old again, naked and crying, sitting in a hospital whirlpool bath after ten hours of labor that had no end in sight. And she was there suddenly, in my memory, where she never existed before.
Her long, porcelain fingers ran perfumed soap over my arms and shoulders, and she was loving me; in my pain. I’d not remembered that. I snapped back as she turned the shower off and gently toweled me dry, cut my bandages to fit my wounds, helped me to the bed, and tucked me in; my mother had loved me. For eight days she nurtured my wounds, did our laundry, cleaned our home, loved her grandchildren, and sat every morning with me on the front porch over hot coffee talking freely about whatever thought came to mind.
Then, on the eighth day, she left with my family to go to my son’s football game. I wasn’t healed enough to go. The house was quiet. I wanted to call my grandmother, just to check in, and then told myself I would go to bed early. I began the conversation when they left and ended it upon their arrival home. I listened, in the phone that night, as my mother’s mother told me about the struggles my mother had endured as a single mom and of the love she had for all of us children as she went through it. My mother loved me in all the ways that she could. And without my knowing it, I let go of all the ways she didn’t and was filled, so completely, with memories of her love … truths that had dried up because of the lies keeping the light away.
They came into the house in a fit of smiles, energy filling the space from a football game my mother said, “Reminded me of all the games you were in that I missed when you were young.” I almost told her what it meant that she acknowledged her absence from my childhood, but she smiled and spoke again, “Thank you. Thank you for this gift of grandchildren – I am so glad I get to love them.” I hugged her so hard she stumbled backwards, then took her hand and led her to the front porch. “I remember!” I cried to her, holding her hands in my own, “I remember how you loved me, and I need you to know how sorry I am!” The only thing I saw when I looked into her eyes was a mother who loved me, and loved me the best that she could – who had made monumental mistakes, but never stopped trying.
In the dark of night, on the front porch, late after everyone else had gone to bed, we sat and breathed freely. Then her words floated into the dark air around us, “Your daughter will be okay. She will.”
We honored this moment that had healed us with the absence of words. Until there, under the streetlamp, a shadow emerged. Slowly, in silence a figure came, then the sound of footsteps. We squinted our eyes to see her, until I had the courage to whisper, “It’s her.” She was crying as she approached us. I stood slowly, brought her into my embrace gently. Her shivers quieted against my body.
“I didn’t know where to go. I told myself I’d go home … but only if there was a light on.”