Tuesday, September 11, 2007


A little girl that I'd never seen before...whom I'd never met before...whom I'll probably never meet again...smiled and waived at me. I felt light inside. I smiled back and waived to her. Her smile grew brighter. Her eyes danced. I'll never know her name. But today was a good day.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Limits of Love

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
- Mahatma Gandhi

I was talking with my best friend recently and he told me a story. He told me about a fight he had with his mother. In that encounter, things were said, emotions expressed, tears shed. And when all was said and done, a thrilling, horrifying, undeniable truth emerged...

Parents, to my mind, build their children. Those early formative years in which a person is so impressionable - those are truly a parent's sole purview. No one else can spend as much time with them, imprint their values upon them, teach them the principles that will remain the bedrock of their character and personality. I feel that your parents makes up at least 80% of who you are, either through their presence or their absence, for the absence of a parent in those early years makes a person who they are as well. For this reason, I've always taken issue with parents who have feelings of derision, resentment or shame towards their children. Those feelings would be better directed at oneself rather than risk breaking up a family. If you don't like how your child turned out, blame yourself. Every feeling of disappointment or shame that you would harbor them is the living, breathing, enduring proof of your failure as a parent. This person is what you made them: sperm, ova, breast milk, formula, gerber's, church, language, books, school, vegetable, animal, and mineral - take responsibility for your actions like an adult. But for some reason, people like to think that they had a hand in the qualities that a son or daughter has that they like, and the qualities that they don't like...well, they picked that up from somewhere else.

My friend's story instantly took me back to a memory of an encounter I had with my own father. I must have been 13 or 14 years old, it was morning and we were about to leave for school. Now my family doesn't have a good appreciation for time management, and like many other mornings, we were running very late. My father in particular is a very slow person - speedwise, that is, not intelligencewise - and even at that age, I understood that confronting him in anger on his lifelong habit would be counterproductive. So that day, like so many others, I prodded him gently, trying to remind him of how important it would be for me not to be late. Please, papa, I said, were going to be late.

He looked at me with uncharacteristic, unjustified contempt and said quite plainly: What does that have to do with me?

I opened my mouth to respond and couldn't find words. My whole body was filled with a coldness that I had never felt before. I thought that I was angry, I thought that I was in denial, I thought that maybe I'd just heard him wrong. I didn't speak to him all the rest of that week.

When the next week came I'd talk to my father and things would seem to be fine. I loved him, and I knew that he loved me. I could justify what had happened that day as an aberration, a misstep, the culmination of feelings of frustration, an early morning, and a hard day of work ahead. I wanted it to just be that. I would have given anything for that to be the way I remembered it. But with each passing year, I'd remember what he said that day and how I felt with even greater detail, ever more vividly than the year before. And that feeling that I couldn't name, that coldness, with time I finally understood what it was...

It was grief. It was losing something you knew you'd never get back. Before that day, my father loved me limitlessly. Every day since, deep in my soul, I couldn't deny that chilling, saddening truth - there was a limit to my father's love for me. There was a ceiling, a peak to my father's love for me - and beyond that ceiling and the demands that love would ask of him, beyond that, there was that look that he had on his face that day. The contempt. The nuisance that I was. How much easier his life would be if it weren't for me.

I'm a lot older now, and I'm sure my father doesn't even remember that day. I'm sure he'd tell me that what he said meant nothing - it was just one of those thoughtless things that people say to one another that has no bearing on how you feel about someone. But even if what he said was meaningless to him, it isn't meaningless to me. It's part of who I am; the memory of his indifference to his own son is part of human nature as I've come to know it. The limit where love ends and self begins, between man and woman, between parent and child.

For the record, I don't believe it has to be this way. I think you can love someone consistently and without reservation all their lives. I believe that realizing another person's happiness everyday can be someone's primary concern. This memory and the story my best friend told me taught me a precious lesson. Love is perfect until its not. And then it's never perfect again. I could still feel that innocent closeness with my father to this day, if he'd been more careful of his words on that day. If he'd had more control over his feelings, if he'd been less willing to direct them towards me. But he wasn't, and such are the consequences. Keeping love untarnished requires unimaginable vigilance, unfathomable patience. It requires an appreciation of the power that just a few words can have on the way someone looks at you for the rest of their life. Maybe I'm deluded. Maybe to be human is to be impatient, to be willing to hurt those close to us, because they're close to us. But I really think were just not trying hard enough.