Friday, August 23, 2013

Parenthood alters our perspectives, priorities

From today's Briefing:

When Cooper was barely 3 months old, we bundled him up and flew to Baltimore to visit friends.

The five of us — a childless couple and a new family of three — were enjoying Sunday brunch at a downtown cafĂ© when Gretchen asked, “Does becoming a parent change you?”

“It has changed everything,” I answered.

Yet I stumbled as I tried to articulate how a squirmy, chunky infant could totally alter my world.

Twelve years later, I still hear the question, and my explanation grows more complex.

Being a parent changes my lenses.

Last week, a friend and I watched Dirty Dancing at our nearby movie theater. I hadn’t watched the film in years, but thanks to multiple viewings in high school, I still know almost every stitch of dialogue, every lyric to every song.

I don’t remember the dancing being quite so, well, dirty. Or so many bare midriffs.

I couldn’t turn off my momma sensibilities. As Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey were lunging at each other on the studio floor, I kept thinking, “How old will Cooper and Katie have to be before they’re allowed to watch this?”

Being a parent intensifies my passions.

Books, faith, travel, the elimination of fast food in my diet — these were all significant concerns pre-children. Now, they are among my guiding forces, influencing how we budget resources and time.

When these young people entrusted in my care adopt the same passions, my heart swells.

This weekend, Katie was reading The Mouse and the Motorcycle, by one of my all-time favorite authors.

In between chapters, she took a break to tell me, “Beverly Cleary is such a great writer. She makes you want to keep reading, and it makes you sad when you have to stop, even for food.”

Even more incredible is when they cultivate their own passions.

My children have taught me music, art, history. Cooper wows me with his camping skills and genuine joy found in living outdoors — certainly not inherited from me.

Being a parent sometimes clouds my judgment.

I’ve learned, in the harshest way possible, that we are unable to protect our babies from pain.

Four years ago, when their daddy was at home, lying in bed, dying from cancer, nothing could shield them. Cooper and Katie grew up quickly that summer, forced to confront sorrow, loss, grief.

I don’t know which memories linger for them. Does the purr of an oxygen concentrator take them back? Does the smell of rubbing alcohol remind them of their father’s final days?

When I received the phone call Tuesday afternoon that my mom — bedridden for more than five years — wanted to see us, that she was ready to let go, my momma instinct told me to travel alone. My children have already seen death. They live daily with absence.

I desperately wanted to insulate them from the pain of saying goodbye to another loved one.

Half an hour later, in the time it took to tie up loose ends, shut down my work computer and drive home, I’d reconsidered.

My mom would want to see how tall they’d grown, would want to hear their voices, would want to kiss their freckled faces.

Because Cooper and Katie appreciate the gift of life and the finality of death, they would want one more chance to hug her and say “I love you.”

And I needed all of us, three generations, in one room.

Mom was asleep when we arrived Tuesday night. I gently woke her. Her eyes slowly registered the three people — her people — leaning over her nursing home bed.

“I wasn’t sure you’d make it in time,” she said. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

I smoothed her hair. She told me not to cry.

Perhaps I could have stopped more quickly, but I could hear Cooper crying, too, and I could see Katie struggling to compose herself. And my heart could barely take the collision of my mom fading, of a flood of childhood memories, of my children watching.

I want to comfort them all as I seek my own peace.

Being a parent stretches, challenges, exhausts. It clarifies what truly matters. It changes everything.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at
Cooper & Katie at their Maw's nursing home

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