What would you do for love?
That question is often posed during the dizzying intoxication of a new relationship. Answered in romantic comedies by driving cross country or hopping on some transcontinental flight, chasing down one’s true soulmate. It might mean moving to another state, postponing your career or donating an organ. These are dramatic and bold actions that do something in a positive way, consistent and affirming the depth of connection and magnitude of one’s love.
But what about your children? Like most parents, I would jump in front of bullets for mine. I have declared it out loud for all to hear and whispered in silence to myself; I would be that person they could always trust and count on to protect from harm and shield from pain. Without fail. End of story. Full stop.
But what if you need to cause their suffering?
What if you need to be the source of their pain?
What if you need to disrupt and alter their lives in traumatic and dramatic fashion? And in doing so, instead of protecting them from pain and suffering, you become the origin and cause; breaking all those promises once made.
Would you risk losing your child’s trust and faith in you?
Would you risk losing their love?
I am writing this in the present. But my mind is filled with the memories and emotions of the past…
A nightlight interrupts the darkness as I wake up in the big chair in your room having fallen asleep again reading to you before bed. Madison, the blond hair on your seven-year-old head is so short, poking out from underneath the covers. Your breathing is soft and your body calm. In stark contrast, Maya’s tangled curls cover her eyes as she sprawls on top of her bed, without any of the covers she kicked off long ago. I stay in the chair and just watch and listen. These moments made perfect by their silence. Love. Awe. Responsibility. They are overwhelming in a comforting way. I make quiet promises to you both, vowing to protect. To shelter. To be present. Always.
I am on a flight back from a brief 36-hour trip to Hawaii. In order to see first-hand where you are about to go, I actually spend more time on the plane than off. I am fighting back tears, knowing what’s looming ahead. The dissonance I feel is overwhelming. In the weight of my breath, the ache in my bones, the hesitancy in my voice. The impending betrayal of promises whispered over and over in your ear, while awake or sound asleep, is tearing me up from the inside out. My logical and clinical brain knows a change needs to be made. It knows the status quo is not sustainable. But logic and pragmatism are no match for my tortured, emotional brain, which is all too aware of the pain lying ahead for my son. I wish I could take it. Swallow it. Eat it whole. Let my core absorb and dampen it. But I understand the paradox. This intense and almost primal need to protect is no longer healthy. It is, in part, why we have arrived here.
There are still several weeks to go. Sitting on this secret. This emotional and traumatic time bomb will soon detonate. It has been looming for weeks. I wear an invisible shroud that barely constrains my emotions. Like water just before a boil, I appear calm. But it does not take much for a bubble full of fear to erupt, throwing me into a panic, before settling down. Then another, this time a burst of sadness, with tears flowing from my heart through my eyes before regaining control. My sleep disjointed. Work disrupted. I cannot compartmentalize. I look at you, knowing you don’t know. I’m desperate for another option but I have none. I look at you, knowing that despite all we have been through, you love me as I love you. That you trust me, despite the fights and frustrations. We always end up back in a safe zone. But it’s a mirage of sorts, a false hope. De-escalation should not be mistaken for conflict resolution nor is it a path to healthy growth and change. So I have committed us to a different path. One of separation. And by doing so, I am betraying what I have promised.
I don’t know what will happen next, when the fear and pain I anticipate becomes your reality? How will you handle the additional injury, when you call for help, and I by choice, will fail to be there?
It is morning. My brain is heavy from lack of sleep and the weight of knowing this day has come. Two strangers are standing at our front door. My stomach is twisting, my heart hurting. I let them in. Our exchange is brief, talking in muted voices. They are calm. My wife and I, despite attempts to project otherwise, are not. They walk into your room. Madison, you are asleep. The brown hair on your nineteen-year-old head is so short, poking out from underneath the covers. Your breathing is soft, your body calm. You still are, and always will be, that sweet boy I fell asleep next to, while reading in the big chair.
When we wake you, you quickly realize there are two strangers in the room. There is a flash of confusion in your eyes, not yet understanding what is happening. But I know. I am breaking my promise.
What would I do for love?
I was willing to risk my child’s trust and faith in me. I hoped, at best, that it would only cause a “fracture”. Something painful, but able to heal and repair and, dare I hope, even stronger than before? But I could not escape my fear for the worst; would this trigger an insult so damaging that it would be beyond repair?
What did I do for love?
I took a leap of faith. I made us jump, without knowing where we would land. My head told me it was the right choice. My heart just ached, unable to reconcile this emotionally incongruent action.
I am not sure how to frame it for others to understand. I am not sure that, after more than a year and half, my son understands. A change was needed. Not small. Not incremental. But transformational. My love, although well intentioned, had become constrictive and stunting. In order for growth and adaptation to occur, I needed to be out of the equation. But in order for that to happen, my son was flown around the globe. He had to have everything that he knew taken away. His room, his house, his dog. His sister. His mom and dad. He had to wake up far away and start over. By sending him away, I put his faith, trust and love in me at risk. I risked all that so ultimately, hopefully, he could put that faith and love and trust in himself.
My family has been on quite a journey since July of 2017, both together and individually. All of us have our own unique view of how we experienced and navigated that time. I can only speak cautiously for myself. My son is finally back home, and the internal dissonance, I once woke up to daily, is starting to dissipate.
I remember a fight, a few years back, when I yelled at him, explaining it was because I loved him so much. He screamed back in response, “Maybe you care too much!” At the time, I thought it was an immature and flip retort. Now I think it quite prescient. I don’t believe you can actually love or care for someone too much. But I do believe there are unhealthy ways to express that love.
My journey has been, in part, to recognize that my son can endure both mental and physical challenges and tolerate suffering. Not surprisingly, by doing so, he has gained the confidence and pride that comes with that ability. He is able to cope with the consequences of bad choices and reap the benefits of good decisions. I learned to recognize that while a fierce unrelenting and unwavering love for child can be comforting, it can be constricting as well.
My son has been home for several weeks now. Our family was able to celebrate his twenty-first birthday together. His hair is a bit longer and he has a thick bushy beard that I have taken quite a liking to. We are still figuring out the feel and dimensions of our current relationship. Most of our interactions are working around the “edges” as we learn the contours of these boundaries. But there have also been some deeper dives into amazing conversations, with a depth and honesty that is new to us. We are still a little tentative and hesitant on some topics. I have not pointedly asked him how that decision, made eighteen months ago, has impacted his ability to trust and love our family. It still feels too direct and blunt. Asking him to articulate in words, what is probably a complex set of emotions, in the hopes of relieving some of my lingering guilt, would be selfish.
Right now, it feels more like we are healing a fracture than coping with unrepairable damage. After our leap of faith, my family’s feet are finally on the ground. And with each tentative step we take forward, a bit more hope replaces the ache in my heart.