S comes home from school the other day with a card, on which he proudly proclaims that he has drawn “Grandma and Grandpa.” Then I open his backpack and see the dreaded newsletter: “Grandparents’ Day! We are encouraging students to invite their Grandparents (or Grandparent-like person) to school with them…”
My son doesn’t have grandparents, or a grandparent-like person in his life.
My parents are both dead. He never met my mother, but he did meet my dad, who died when S was almost eight months old.
My ex’s parents live in another country. S has not seen them since he was seven months old when we traveled to visit them.
As someone who was raised by my grandparents, it is strange to be raising a son without any grandparents around. I feel that we live very devoid of family. My father’s sister lives nearby, and she is very sweet and loving, but we see her only a handful of times a year. She is pretty busy with my cousin and her three young kids, who live down the block. They go on family vacations and they do not invite us.
My grandma is still alive at 88, and S has met her a few times, but she lives in California and they are not tremendously close. I do look forward to bringing him to visit her next month, and I’m grateful for her, but still…there is a gnawing sadness and an emptiness. Washington, DC is an area full of transplants, and I know I am not alone in not having family nearby. It doesn’t tear me apart every day, but at times like these, it just does.
The next morning, S was crying, “Why don’t I have any grandparents?”
Not having the inner resources to answer that question honestly, I took the avoidance route. “You can take a picture of your grandma with you to school,” I offered weakly. Talking to S about death is a really frightening thing for me, perhaps a reflection of the fact that I myself tend to bury Death. Though it has touched my life so profoundly, I lock Death away in a quiet part of me and I carry on with my days. I busily distract myself from it.
Grief has been rolling over me in waves for the past few days. It is also the Jewish High Holidays and we had nowhere to go. I keep thinking about how much my dad loved kids. He used to always talk to them in public places, sometimes scaring them a bit with his friendliness, and I would be embarrassed. Now I would be delighted for that enthusiasm to be directed towards S. My dad would have been absolutely over the moon to go to S’s school for Grandparents’ Day.
There is a nascent movement of Parentless Parents started by author Allison Gilbert. I think it is tremendous that she started this movement, and I do draw some dim comfort from the fact that I am not alone. But I still do not feel like I totally fit into this group.
Unlike many people who have lost their parents, I do not have a treasure trove of stories and memories about mine to pass on to S. I was not raised by them. Truth be told, I did not know them all that well. They were both people who wrestled with their demons, were diagnosed with severe mental illness, suffered greatly in their lives, and I do not have a lot of happy or fun stories about them to share. I loved them, and I appreciate them for bringing me into the world…but I don’t know how to pass on their legacy to Sami. It is a painful, tragic legacy. Someday when he is old enough, I will tell him all about it. That time most certainly is not now. So I avoid this issue as often as I can.
I texted my ex about S’s sad statement about not having grandparents.
Oh, that is terrible! Let’s keep him home from school that day, he texted back.
That never occurred to me. OK, that is a good idea, I responded.
But that decision did not sit well with me. It felt too…overprotective. The reality is that he is not going to be the only grandparentless kid at the school. And if he has strong feelings about it, we can support him and love him as he works through the feelings. My desire to protect him is so strong. I want to shield him from all the unpleasantness of life - death, loss, grief - but that is not doing him any service, nor is it helping him to grow as a person. The Buddha himself was the son of a king who made a great effort to shelter him from everything unpleasant. But once he got a true glimpse of sickness, old age, and death, that shining bubble popped. He set off on his quest for enlightenment, not content with the luxuries of court life, and he learned how to free himself. That would have never happened had he not ventured outside of the safety of his sheltered life.
So, I had an email conversation with my ex about my discomfort with keeping Sami home from school and he agreed. We are sending our little Buddha to school tomorrow to celebrate Grandparents’ Day.
I want something very important for both S and me: the freedom to experience life fully, its joys and attendant sorrows, to be able to access our emotions, to move through them, and to cultivate what Alice Walker calls “absolute trust in the goodness of the earth.” My life has been very much about fleeing from my feelings, avoiding the unpleasant, hiding when things got rough, taking false refuge in addictions and other unsavory behaviors. In many ways, I feel the same emotional age as my son. I do not have kicking on-the-floor tantrums, but my tantrums are inside.
I don’t WANNA feel this way! I don’t WANNA!
But I do. I would like to find a way to abandon this idealized concept of family that I have in my head and accept that what I have is a family of two. It has never felt like enough. I don’t know how to make it enough. I am hopeful that I will get there someday.
And I keep working to create community in our lives. I see every day how much I need that, how much I crave confirmation that I am not alone in this life, even if it feels so often like I am trudging solo up a hill with a battle ax and full body armor, fighting off my own demons.
For the sake of my sweet S, I need to practice putting down the battle gear and embrace what is. That is always the answer. To look for the good, when I would see only what is missing and what’s wrong.
The way I can best honor my parents’ memory is to take care of us the way they would have liked to have taken care of me, but never could. On this, the Jewish New Year, I pray for the strength and the ability to do that each day.
Welcome to this blog - my chronicle of the illuminating, character-building path of single parenthood. I'm making this up as I go along. My life is my practice, and my five year-old son is my greatest teacher.