The other day my oldest son, age 12, brought home a lovely bouquet of dandelions and sweet little purple flowers for me. He stuffed all these flowers into his LaCroix lemon seltzer can during outside time at school, carried them around with him half the day and all the way home on the bus- the bus that carries eighth graders who are relentless in their teasing of my under-tall unfashionable glasses wearing boy. He came in the front door grinning. “Mom! I picked these for you!”
I am never surprised by his open heart, the heart that stays open in spite of always being teased for being different and this year, 6th grade, is the first year he’s finally had a solid group of real friends. His love for me is so big, and he is so honest about it, that sometimes it feels so vulnerable for me to witness. He is so confident in it- this love we have for each other- that I find myself being envious of the person he loves so much until I realize she is me.
I love him back in this same open way, he and my other son are the only two people on the planet that I can really let my own apprehensive heart reach out to and receive back from. I relax into both of my children like soft pillows, my love for them feels so good and safe. I relish their arms around my body, their faces pressed into my shoulder or my side, giving me love. Even when they yell things like I HATE YOU MOM! and YOU ARE THE WORST MOTHER IN THE WHOLE WORLD! I know they don’t really mean it, without any doubt. I let them love me in whatever way they do, unafraid of their anger or resistance, encouraged by their independence, secure in the knowledge that they love me, really real-y forever.
It is easy for me to give love. When I say that what I really mean is it is hard for me to accept love. I cringe at being offered love by anyone other than my children. I am the first to offer a hand, a heart, or a help, but I vanish to last in line with my blind eye turned when those things are offered to me. I am uncomfortable when given things like tenderness, empathy, and care. So uncomfortable that I can feel my shoulders tensing even now, just writing about it.
This makes a marriage hard.
Sometimes in my head I am the loving wife I think my husband might need- I imagine melting into his arms when he reaches for me as I walk past in the kitchen first thing in the morning, I picture looking up at him with kindness and a kiss, but then I react the way I always seem to when offered the soft gift of love: I straighten and panic. I can feel the wall clank into place, annoyance fixed on my face, impatience brushing him away, again and again. How many times can I do this before he stops reaching?
I’m working on it- chipping away at the days and years of self protection with a tiny chisel and a fearful yet courageous heart. Logically I know, I know I’m safe. I know I am capable of watching out for myself, and knowing when I don’t have to be protected, but my involuntary nervous system is well trained and stubborn.
And thankfully my husband is patient and good humored.
The longer I’m sober the more I recognize what I need- and god… do I ever need and want love. Funnily I hate even admitting it, that I cannot be some self contained underwater breathing apparatus, a closed system, a solo artist. I long for and cringe at the thought of fading into the amount of trust it takes to allow myself to be loved, it’s like I’m dying of thirst holding giant glasses of water. It makes sense to drink it, but what if? So I stand there thirsty, sheepishly smacking my lips, taking smallish sips and seeing if anyone noticed.
Sobriety has given me the courage to even think about all this. It gives me the ability to laugh at my hunched up shoulders and to share these thoughts with you and to keep going further and further into the woman I really am inside all the years of hurt and fear. It allows me to see who I am and to recognize myself clearly in all the messes and rejoice in the finding.
So maybe love’s not love. Maybe it’s more than that- more than a word, more than a feeling. Maybe it’s acceptance, maybe courage, maybe nothing more than a grin and some flowers, held tight then given freely on an early spring day.