Last night at the theater watching Mamma Mia again, my youngest, Livy, reached over the seat in a poignant part to grab my hand and in the dark I looked to her and her mouth moved in words of gratitude, telling me that, as a mother, I’d always been there for her. And as the screen splashed fiction, we sat there and held hands, sharing our real story, and her eyes were misty and so were mine.
It hasn’t always been wonderful for my girls. One of the most painful memories from my life is after my divorce in 2007. Their dad had moved to VA (to live with his mistress and her young son) and the trauma made both girls delirious with anxiety—even petrified that I’d somehow just vanish into thin air—until at one point Livy, then 6, wasn’t able to go to school without sobbing for me until she was gagging.
So I started sitting outside her classes to help her ease into stability and she was starting to feel more confident until, one random day, her first grade class were playing a game for P.E. when suddenly Livy broke off from the group, ran over to me—falling into my arms—and in the broken gasps of uncontrollable feelings, barely got out through her hyperventilating, “I (sob)…miss…my (sob)…daddy.” And in the seconds after, her little body convulsed with all the grief I’d lived to protect her from and somehow became embedded in my own, as if forcing me to learn about pain in a way I couldn’t ever understand otherwise.
And some moments stay with you forever. Are designed to. For at that time, on that day, in that gym, patting my baby’s back, telling her “I know you do baby. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry”—my own heart broken—I would have done anything to deliver her from that pain. Because I know the doubts that creep in to hurt us when the lights are out and my heart that day descended with her into all those nights. Into The Great Loss, where we become bound to an event simply because our hearts are too injured to allow expectance of anything better. Into the experiences which don’t leave, even when you ask them nicely, and are a good and “perfect” little girl. When fear shines like a search light, Discovering all the little pockets of emptiness, all the wounds, and tells that story over and over of running to mama because we can’t do this; there’s too much pain.
But There are secrets to life that the intervening years told me the truth of.
Because that same child sat next to me in the theater last night, whole, intact, emotionally available— even at only 18 years old—and feeling and expressing realizations and resolutions, while not wasting any time living her authentic self and the consistent nurturance she has for this world. And that these two memories exist within the same life experience—within the same 12 year span—reveals that there are stories which resonate more deeply than The Great Loss.
For in the shadows of heartbreak, doubt, abandonment and running to mama, there lives “help me” and someone rubbing your back, until the colors of this existence are shades of rainbows and fall leaves that in the contrast creates the entire more-beautiful experience. Where Life waves at us as if from the shore and we calibrate to protect ourselves until blindly against rocks we’re hurled and from the chaos—stretching out and towards our love for one another—we get to rise Into and then out of the great loss into another story.
And I did not know that then but it’s been a magical unveiling I can see the irony of once wanting freedom from.
For from spontaneous unwritten moments and the shine of a movie screen, pain and heartbreak now can illuminate the story of deep love and empathy. The story where Livy and I hold hands in the potency of misty-eyed remembrance then, after, normal life continues, and as we drive home, we hum the same song in the breath of a summers night.
(Written 2019; revised 11/2020)