The Bearable Lightness of Being

December 22, 2020 at 7:25 pm (Uncategorized)

For years I’ve dragged my feet on sorting through all the toys, games, and books Andrew outgrew. They’ve piled up in the spare rooms in our basement, in the garage, and in every closet.

I don’t usually cling to things. I much prefer experiences like travel over possessions. So why have I been hanging on so tightly to old dinosaur floor puzzles, science kits for pre-schoolers, and a matchbox car collection?

For years I thought it was because I still hadn’t let go of the concept of having another child. The chance of this ever happening physically vanished in 2008, when I got the first of many rounds of Cytoxan, a chemotherapy that causes infertility. For a while after that, Jay and I talked about adoption. We even got the paperwork from the state adoption agency. But Jay and I both realized that the level of exhaustion we felt just looking at all that paperwork was a good indicator that we weren’t truly capable of raising another child then. A few months after I put the papers in the recycling bin, I spent several months in the hospital. Jay and Andrew (and everyone helping us) had more than enough to deal with. Bringing a new baby into our lives would have been catastrophic.

I spent many years telling myself to be grateful. I gave birth to a gorgeous and healthy baby. That is more than many couples have. Wanting another felt greedy. Still, my heart hurt a little as friends and family brought home their second or third kids. I never once begrudged them this joy. My heart just ached quietly.

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to help out new parents with their newborn daughter. The Mom was having some health issues and I was feeling well enough to lend a hand. It was a nice change for me to be able to offer help, instead of needing it. Since I am by nature a night owl, I took the night shifts with the baby girl. One night, torrential rain and wind storms shook the house. The baby woke. My dormant juggling skills got re-activated. I warmed the bottle, tested the milk on my wrist, changed her diaper, and sung a quiet song. Then I settled down with her in the dim living room, nestling her in my arms as she drank from her bottle. There is no gaze like that of a newborn contemplating you. Her dark eyes looked all-knowing and completely non-judgmental. In that gloomy 3 AM room, I stared back at her as the rain threw itself against the windows. Something in me released. Maybe the wisdom the baby brought with her from the place of creation is what did it. Maybe it was just time. But suddenly, I knew—not in my mind, but deep inside my body—that this was not to be my life again. I was ready for new experiences, for spending as much time as I could with Andrew, for launching him into the world, for learning how to live again in a house without a child, for (God willing) holding his child some day (but, as I tell Andrew, only when he is “emotionally and financially able to have a child—say when you’re 30.”) I love babies and children, and if I’d gotten a different playbook from the universe, I’m sure Jay and I would have had a larger family. But in that room, with that dark-eyed bundle of a baby in my arms, I let it all go.

The global pandemic stymied my plans to focus on spending as much time with Andrew as he’d tolerate before he leaves for college. As I’ve written before, I made the wrenching decision in July to live separately from Jay and Andrew. This allows me to stay safe from Covid and for Andrew to go to school two days a week. He’s an only child, and a social one at that. Locking him down for over a year would not be fair to him. But it’s been lonely living on my own. Jay and I decided to take on a significant remodel project to create a safe and separate apartment for me in the basement of our home. It won’t allow me to eat dinner inside with them or hang out without wearing masks. But I will be just a flight of stairs away from them. I can hear them and see them more easily. I need that.

Suddenly my full-time job has become emptying the basement, so it can be gutted and remade. I have no choice but to confront all of the physical manifestations of stages and ages Andrew left behind that have piled up down there. It didn’t take long for me to start crying, as I opened up shelves and found games I have clear memories of playing with my boy when he was two or three. We were blessed with many generous family and friends, so Andrew had a lot of toys. I also kept most of his artwork and school work.

It has become my new routine to descend into the basement, pull things out, and sort and pack them. Every time I cry. I truly have let go of the concept of another child. I am not sad because Andrew will never have siblings to play with these things. Now I am grieving all the time with Andrew that I did not have. I lost a lot to illness—months in the hospital, years of being too sick to get out of bed. I didn’t get to me the Mom I had planned to be. That’s been the hardest and most bitter part of living separately now. Ironically, just when I’m having the longest run of better health since Andrew was born, I am absent again.

I’m also staring down time in the basement with my boxes. I think most mothers feel it pulling at us from within. It seems that just a minute ago Andrew drew those dragons I am boxing up, or a week ago that he started kindergarten and wrote a poem about the color gold. Doesn’t every mother mourn the minutes she didn’t have with her child? I think being a parent is the hardest job ever. If you do it right, you are constantly letting go of the person you most care for, the one you want to hold onto the tightest. And still, we let go, and it sure hurts.

It’s not all gloom and doom in the basement. I’ve discovered great joy that comes with my daily tears. I love giving these things away. I keep the toys, drawings, books and games that I have visceral memories of using with Andrew, or those that I would love to play with his child (some day when he is emotionally and financially capable, you know, when he’s approximately 30.) Then Andrew masks up, and he sets aside the things he wants to keep. All of this I box up for storage until I can unpack it in our new space. The rest, I let go. The joy that comes with letting go has surprised me. I’ve single-handedly given the domestic violence shelter in town a new game room. Even better has been putting photos of stuff on Facebook for free. The memories I was afraid to face, that were crammed into closets and spilling out of drawers, are now easing a tiny bit of this year’s pain in others’ lives. A few of the parents who have come by to pick up Andrew’s microscope, collection of toy construction equipment, and other stuff have told me that I’ve made it possible for their little ones to open gifts on Christmas. Now that makes me cry again.

I’ve said this before, so pardon my repetition. But during my 16 years in Chronic Town, I keep learning the same lessons over and over. One is that what matters most is the capacity to participate in your own daily life. Cooking and eating dinner with your family, folding your kid’s wash, having tea with a friend, talking to your Mom on the phone. This is your life. This is the scaffolding of your heart. The other lesson is to let go. There are no guarantees. None of us got a notarized document from God promising us anything. It’s hard to let go of health, wealth, a sense of what should be, could be. In this year of incalculable loss and pain, it’s easy for us all to cling more tenaciously to what we think is ours. I sure do. I wanted more time. I wanted to know Andrew a little more and for him to know this healthier me. I wanted it so badly that some nights when I drove back to my solo apartment after an evening with Jay and Andrew, I screamed as loudly as I could inside the car for the whole way back. I wanted it so badly that half the time I am ready to throw in the towel and just move back home and pretend there is no Covid. Give me the hands of time, and I would have pushed their sharp edges back to my advantage.

The more I let things go, the easier the letting go becomes. I’m sure I’ll cry when I’m down in the basement back to my sorting again. It seems to be part of my process of letting go. So does the feeling of lightness that comes later. I’d been holding onto what I thought I had lost so tightly that my hands hurt. I didn’t know how to open them. For now, I do.


  1. Nan Hebel said,

    Wonderful. I think that deep, remorseful ache is touching that motherly love. We as women are so lucky to know it.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thank you Nan! I thought of that as I was writing this—that the option of not feeling everything I’m feeling about letting go would not be preferable. And I know that my relationship with Andrew will continue to grow and change.

  2. Miriam said,

    “Give me the hands of time, and I would have pushed their sharp edges back to my advantage.” Such a powerful image. I’ve been struggling with trying to appreciate (or at least not be actively angry about) all the enforced extra time I’ve had this year with my children and husband. I know that when life returns to normal (please God) and we go back to being pulled in a million different directions, I will look back at this period nostalgically, in the same way that I’m now nostalgic for their baby and toddler years even though I found that period really hard when I was actually living through it. The “capacity to participate in your own daily life” is not easy sometimes. But thank you for this beautiful reminder that it’s necessary.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      I think in many ways the remorse I’m feeling is precisely because I am not down in the trenches of parenthood with Andrew. If you ask Jay, I’d bet he would have a less regretful take on all of this, as he is the one (like you) having to nag his kid to clean the cat litter and wash his dishes. I get to have more feelings because I am not in the thick of it all. Part of not getting to be the Mom I envisioned is precisely this. Maybe Andrew is just especially nice to his Mom, but for most of his life, I’ve always felt like my son handles me a little too carefully. He fights all the time with Jay, but with me he is more careful. I have always been a little jealous (OK a lot jealous) of the bond Jay and Andrew have, and it felt like before Covid, Andrew and I were figuring out ways to be less careful with one another. And now I’m a guest in my own house, which is too similar to my liking to how I’d feel coming home after very long hospital stays (“Wait, your doing what now?”) I’m not quite sure what my point is—maybe just that perhaps I romanticize things a bit. I’ve told you before, but I really can’t imagine having 3 children and one husband in the house all the freaking time. I like solitude. I think you are right, that your appreciation for this time (if it comes) will come later. My love of living daily life only came when I lost the capacity to do it. When I couldn’t drive for a few years, I desperately wanted to back on carpool routes and driving to the grocery store, things I had groused about. It’s something we all have to remind ourselves of all the time: in most cases we will mourn the loss of what we have now—physical and mental capacity, children at home. But I also believe in the epiphany I had holding the baby girl. I am excited for what comes next—maybe more school for me, more travel (and traveling not just during school breaks!), time with Jay that is more relaxed. I also keep getting told by older friends that it’s not like my relationship with Andrew is done or frozen in amber when he heads off to college and then the rest of his independent life. They remind me that already Jay and I are not the main influences in his life. Ever since kindergarten kids are peer-oriented. Andrew and I will keep evolving, as long as we both care to. So, I am rambling. Just a lot here to think about. Thank you for reading my stuff and taking the time to write here. It means a lot.

  3. Barb Barnes said,

    “during my 16 years in Chronic Town, I keep learning the same lessons over and over. One is that what matters most is the capacity to participate in your own daily life. Cooking and eating dinner with your family, folding your kid’s wash, having tea with a friend, talking to your Mom on the phone. This is your life. This is the scaffolding of your heart. The other lesson is to let go. There are no guarantees.” That is for sure, and just like we wake up over and over again, the sun rises and the sky is there again, we relate to what we are transforming in deeper and deeper ways. Like weeping every day. Grateful for your writing, sending love and care as you walk the poignant walk toward easier connection with your beloved Family.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thank you so much , Barb. I’ve learned a lot from you about many things in life, including parenting. Loss and love are all bound up with one another. It’s in the paying attention that we get meaning. It means a lot that you read my stuff and really take it in. Thank you, my friend.

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