The word “dysfunctional” does not begin to describe the family into which I was born. I’ll spare you the details. It’s enough to know that “love,” modern or otherwise, was not part of the package (or if it was, said love was disguised as screaming, clenched fists, punching, and so forth).
Some kids survive familial disasters and grow up to become brilliant painters, standup comics, or the finest parents ever in the history of the universe. I, however, being neither talented nor funny nor maternally inclined, grew up and became a microcosm of my family heritage: angry, neurotic, frightened. Blah, blah, blah.
I grew into an adult who was ignorant of love.
Worse, I was ignorant of more than just love’s possibilities. I was terrified by even the idea of those possibilities and baffled by the essentially loveless world in which I lived.
As years passed, my fear and anger flowered into bitterness and nourished a deep-in-the-bones sadness. I stumbled through my twenties groping for love — and finding one-night encounters that had all the intimacy of a grocery-cart collision in the canned food aisle. (Which, okay, was probably not unusual: It was the 1970s. Free love and all that.)
I could not imagine being married, let alone having a child. When I was twenty-seven, I committed myself to remaining childless. I’d seen too much of the damage inflicted by people who tossed babies into the world with no intention of caring for them. I had no desire to repeat my own past.
Still, the sorrow exacted a steady, exhausting toll. Even I, numb though I was, recognized that. I celebrated my thirtieth birthday by having a heart-to-heart with my self: I was on track to becoming a bitter, lonely, angry woman. If that was what I wanted, then I need do nothing. But if I wanted something different; if I wanted a life that was not an extension of my first three decades, then I must change. I must confront my rage and sorrow.
I got lucky. Not long after, I met a kind, honest, morally centered man who, amazing!, loved me. (Full disclosure: I spent the first three years of our life together assuming that that was something seriously wrong with the guy. There must be, right? Because, ya know: Groucho Marx syndrome.)
More amazing, however, was that I loved him. In my sad, half-hearted way. Or — not so much half-hearted as ice-hearted. Because by that time I’d faced up to the central fact of my life: In that place where a heart ought to lay, there rested instead a block of ice. Large in size, the remnant of the Titanic-sized disaster than had been my childhood. At random moments, my icy companion would sidle up and punch me in brain and gut: “You are incapable of love. You will never love anyone, not fully or completely. You will always be sad. And don't fool yourself with this so-called family. You will ALWAYS BE ALONE.”
The man came equipped with two daughters, both teenagers when we met. I had no idea what to do with or about them, so I kept them (and, yes, him) at arm’s length, afraid that I’d damage them with the cloud of toxins that seeped from the iceberg.
But I tried. Oh, how I tried. And to my surprise, after fifteen or so years, after many tussles and squabbles and false starts, we had forged a family, one that brought all of us much joy. We struggled through family deaths, career upheaval, a devastating accident that changed one daughter’s life. Mostly, we struggled to forge bonds despite my complete ignorance of matters of the heart: Intimacy. Family. Parenting. Giving and sharing.
But always, always, the block of ice was in charge. When my best friend, someone I’d known since I was fifteen, had a baby, I was, well, unmoved, utterly, fully lacking in the compassion and friendship she needed as a single mother. It’s a measure of my inexperience with love that I was oblivious to what was, I now know, a callous disregard for beloved friend. To me, her daughter was simply another irritation designed to remind me of my failings as a human being.
The circle game continued and I made some progress toward melting the ice. The eldest daughter married; I learned to love a son-in-law.
One night during the fourteenth year of our relationship, I called the man (I was then working in Alabama; he lived in Iowa) and told him I wanted to get married.
When the younger daughter was hit by a car, I wanted nothing --- nothing --- more than to pull her from the gurney and send myself into the operating room in her stead. Indeed, that night my heart, locked for so long in ice, pulsed with fear and anxiety and, yes, love.
Post-accident, my step-daughter spoke longingly of marriage and motherhood, words that chopped at the ice. She wanted her own family and I wanted her happiness, and watched with pain as she endured a series of hapless, hopeless dates with matches made in internet hell.
And then she met someone. A decent, kind man. (Truth be told, an almost comically identical version of her dad: honest, kind, smart, a bit goofy.) They decided to live together.
The new man didn’t much care for me. He’d endured his own modern-family drama, at the center of which was an evil stepmother. I was a step-mother and so, in his eyes, a must to avoid. And, oh, did he. In his mind (and eyes), I was simply . . . not there.
His obvious dislike fueled a crisis of anguish I hope never to experience again. Did I let go of my beloved step-child so she could establish a new life free of the baggage that was me? Or did I try to convert him with kindness? (I opted for the latter, although I’m still not sure what he thinks of me.)
One day about eighteen months after they met, she called and asked that her dad and I both get on the line. Without being told, I knew why. Yes! They were getting married. I held my breath, waiting for what I hoped would come next. Yes! She was pregnant. (Of course the practical, icy me rolled my eyes and thought “Dear god. You’re forty. How do you NOT plan this?”)
The baby arrived, huge, healthy, and safe. I talked to mama on the phone. My husband went to visit and returned besotted.
Of course I was happy. Who would not be? (Answer: only a heartless bastard or bitch and I, thanks to my made family, was no longer completely without heart.) Still, the baby was a baby and I had only slightly more maternal feelings at fifty-five than I’d had at twenty-five. At some point, I figured, I’d meet The Baby and, well, there he’d be. But he was otherwise no concern of mine.
Then my step-daughter announced that they --- all three of them --- were coming to visit.
I panicked. It was obvious that my son-in-law loathed me. And now they were bringing a baby into the house. I mulled the idea of staying in a hotel during the visit. Pondered the more palatable possibility of taking a research trip while they were in Iowa. My husband, the besotted grandpa, hugged me, reassured me that everything would be fine.
I did not share his confidence. “You know I’m not good with babies,” I told my step-daughter. “I haven’t had much experience with them. So don’t be offended if I don’t want to hold him, okay? I’m always afraid I’ll drop them.” Shorthand, of course, for: “Do not expect me to cooperate. Babies need food and love and I have neither to offer.”
The day arrived. I didn’t go with my husband on the fifty-mile drive to the airport. No room in the car, I explained to him. You’ll need the whole backseat for the baby.
Eventually I heard the garage door open and headed to the back door to greet them. They’d be tired and there would be luggage to haul (and it was January and as miserable as only winter can be in the midwest and I knew they’d want to get inside as fast as possible).
I opened the door and my step-daughter staggered in, breathless and wincing. And holding her human cargo. “I really gotta pee,” she said. “Can you hold him?”
I gazed down at the tiny patch of face peeking out from a blue snowsuit. Pinkish gold face. Perfect bow mouth (courtesy of his papa). Two closed eyes (he’d been asleep since they landed). A teensy, soft mound of nose.
I hesitated for many long seconds. Looked at my step-daughter. Exhaled. And said “Sure.” She handed me the bundle . . . .
And in a split second, my heart broke the grip of its icy prison.
For the next five days, I cooed, burbled, giggled, rocked, and sang to that small bundle. Smothered his feet with kisses. Lay next to him as he slept. Protested when someone else wanted to take him. Inhaled the sheer . . . joy . . . of his being; the wonder of him; the every-cliche-you’ve-ever-heard of him.
This was not just a baby. This, I understood, was a manifestation of love. Not just between his mama and papa, but of the love my husband had bestowed on his daughter. Love that, in turn, had given her the courage to love and be loved.
This, I realized, is how and why the world turns. Love is that which binds us, heart to heart.
By the end of that visit, I knew my heart had, well, maybe not grown three sizes, as did the Grinch’s on Christmas morning. But the ice had melted, its few remaining shards demolished by the iron glove of an infant’s grip.
There is no life-changing moral to this little tale, other, I suppose, than the obvious: Love is all there is. And maybe love is all we need. And perhaps during all those years, I’d loved myself and that love gave me courage.
But the corollary is so obvious that it’s easy to overlook: All of us, no matter how old or damaged or abandoned can learn to love. All we need is time. And a willing heart.
Six weeks ago, my best friend’s daughter gave birth to her first child, a boy. A month later, I flew to Colorado to meet him.
Because love is all we have. And learning never ends.