Thursday, September 9, 2010

Promises, Promises

Nolan had his first day of school today. He cried when I left, and was clinging to me for dear life, and I felt awful as I left.

"Mommy will come back for you sweetie! I promise. I will always come back for you"

That's what I told him repeatedly, before I left and again when I got back and he threw himself sobbing into my arms. His relief at seeing me again translated into tears, pretty much the way 3 year olds express everything from fear, to frustration, to even apparently total joy. At least the kind of joy that comes at the end of a period of abandonment by the most important person in your life, when you discover you aren't abandoned after all.

Now, I know I am a bit of a morbid person. You don't have to tell me that. I have a tendency to see the dark side of everything and my mind often travels down the worst of the "what if" paths of possibility. And in keeping with this side of my personality, it struck me today that I made a promise I couldn't keep.

It is my hope, as it is the hope of all parents, that I should leave this world before my boys. No parent wants it the other way around. But I assume that will be far off in the future, when they don't need me anymore. When they are no longer counting on mommy to come back and get them, to hug them and take them home for lunch and a nap.

There is no real reason to believe I will be one of the people for whom this will be an accurate prediction. Certainly there is enough proof out there on a daily basis to make it clear that a good number of us don't outlive our children. One day, I might promise Nolan I will come back. And I might not. And yet, for all the horror and grief of that possibility, it is still to the mind of a parent better than the reverse.

We are none of us promised tomorrow, or even the next five minutes. People die every day in a million different ways. We have the luxury in this country of making a fairly safe assumption that we will safely return to pick up our children at the end of the day. Most of us never stop to think about the chance that we might not. That's probably for the best, because if we did our poor kids would be stuck with clingy, overbearing mothers for the rest of their lives.

The thought leads me to some of the other things we take for granted. That my kids take for granted. For starters, they know that when they wake up in the morning, there will be breakfast. That they will go to bed every night safe and warm, and have no reason to fear anything in the night. Their fears are abstract, unfounded. We promise our children that there is nothing under the bed, nothing lurking in the shadows. We tell them there is no such thing as a monster, and nothing can hurt them.

We are liars, all of us. For those of us lucky to live in a country that is wealthy, where war, disease, and starvation aren't every day concerns, we feel relatively safe telling these lies to our children. What else would we tell them? Certainly not the truth. There is time enough for that, reality will intrude into every life at some point.

We keep our kids safe from the truth - that there are monsters in this world. That there is danger in some of the shadows. That food does not always appear as if by magic when they are hungry. That mommies will not always be back.

Dear God, by all the names and all the faces you are called and seen by, let me be a liar to my children for as long as possible. Let them believe the world is a safe and happy place for many years to come. Please, please, let me always be there to welcome them back into my arms and take them safely home. For as long as they need me. Let my promises be true, at least for now.

I know that I am lucky, so lucky, to be able to make these promises and tell these lies, because so many mothers the world over can't. Reality has been there in faces of their fearful and starving children from the day they were born. And there are many mothers who did not come back, who died before laying eyes on their children, or who set out to help them and did not return. And those mothers, perhaps they tried to lie too. Perhaps they told their children not to fear, that they would be back.

How silly to compare leaving my child at preschool to what mothers far less fortunate than me have to face. How ludicrous. How unbelievably lucky am I. Lucky beyond all deserving. And I promise to never forget it. Let it be a promise I can keep.

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