Saturday, September 1, 2012

Shel Silverstein Was Loved By a Woman, Once

Last November, I was staring down the barrel of my son's first Christmas. You know what it's like when you're a new parent; the significance of holidays changes. They are no longer socially-sanctioned opportunities to gorge oneself on seasonal desserts and to sleep in, often more than one day in a row. Once you start a family, it all changes. Holidays, even the obscure ones, like Arbor Day or Casimir Pulaski Day (Illinois; what! what!), become chances to create or to change family traditions, maybe ones you hated as a kid, but sometimes beloved ones you want to give your special stamp. They're now all-consuming quests to make a memory.

That's how I found myself pouring over internet articles on how to make the Christmas holiday significant on a budget at three in the morning. Remember, I'm an insomniac, so I was up and didn't have anything better (or quieter) to do. Also note that I was showing signs of clinical insanity. I was hopped up on post-partum hormones, trying to balance full-time work and full-time parenting and watching my fledgling relationship with my son's father self-destruct, so I was wound pretty tightly. My son was just 6 months old at the time. Nothing was significant for him except his eating/pooping/teething/sleeping schedule, nor would any of my efforts make it be. It was all an exercise in futility, but I couldn't stop myself.

During my search, I found an article written by a woman with a large family, living on one income. She and her husband were Christians, so she was especially concerned about overcoming the consumeristic morass the holiday has become in western culture. They were intent to celebrate with true joy and meaning without breaking the bank. She said they bought gifts according to this formula: one gift you want, one you need, one to wear and one to read.  They also encouraged their kids to give one, gently used thing away to someone else--usually a toy or book--to a needy child. I thought this was such a great idea. It kept the whole gift-buying/giving thing in check, left plenty of room to focus on the sacrifice and reverence the holiday should be about AND created a singular family tradition. Triple word score. I stole the idea, immediately.

So the buddy got four Christmas gifts last year; a toy I can't even remember as his "want," a new outfit and some jammies. My fave was his something to read, The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.  It was in hardback on super-sale, so I scooped it up. I have been a big fan of his quirky poetry since I was a little girl and am determined that my son will have his whole collection of books and short stories. The story is about a relationship between a boy and a tree who love each other and grow together. At every stage, the tree gives pieces of itself (its limbs for swinging, its fruit for eating, its branches for building) to please the boy, simply because it loves him and because he asks. Finally, it comes to the point where the boy is old and the tree is but a stump, having nothing else to give the boy but a place to rest. The boy, now an old man, wants nothing more than that, so they rest together.

I cry every time I read it. It's a lovely picture of God's sacrificial love for us. I also see it as a picture of mother-love; the unique symbiosis between a woman and her child. The picture of one becoming less so that the other can become more. That tree was a woman.

Shel Silverstein was loved by a woman, once.

I'm not saying that men don't love their children sacrificially, because I've known so many who do, but I'm a mom and that's all the experience I can lay claim to, so that's what this is about. I know what it takes to be a walking Petrie dish for nine months who's every choice, from what to feed yourself to which side you can sleep on at night is determined by a faceless stranger who lives under your ribcage. I know what it's like to be discharged from the hospital when your child is only eight days old and to come home without him. I had never shared a house with an infant before, but after all we'd been through together, it seemed wrong to try to sleep in my house alone and every fiber in my body knew it instinctively. I know what it's like to wake up in one's own bed at four in the morning with a child latched onto your body who you have been passively nursing for an hour because you responded to his hungry cry in a waking coma and brought him back to bed with you, even in that state being aware that suffering 20 upright minutes in a rocking chair was unacceptable. I know how it is not to recognize your new, post-baby body, your new careworn face, your new emotional highs and lows, your new stamina or lack of same, your new feral wish to cause bodily harm to anybody who would think to do him harm, or, Heaven forbid, to wake him (or you) too early from a nap.

Shel Silverstein seems to know, too. He was loved by a woman, once.

I'm not a stereotypical child-centered person, but my son has been my first and last waking thought from the moment he was breathed into existence. His presence in my life has diminished me in ways both bitter and sweet. His dad and I now have a visitation schedule that takes him away from me several nights a week. I'm told all the time to celebrate my freedom! I deserve it for my long hours and overtime! It doesn't work that way for me, though. I grieve it. As much as I need a break every now and then and could revel in the free time to use for laundry, grocery shopping, banking, reading, dating, or let's just be frank, sleep, I'm always a bit lost when he's gone. He takes all the air, the energy and the love with him when he goes. I know it because I give it to him, freely, and I can't wait until he's home again to share some of it with me. Sometimes, it's easy to feel embarrassed that I gave up my separateness without much of a fight to love this kid, when I've spent my whole life learning that my separateness was a thing that made me interesting and valuable, both to myself and to others. Then, I pull out this book to read to my son before bedtime, usually about once or twice a month, and I feel much, much better about the whole thing. It's right to love like a woman.

Thanks, Shel.