In the news this past week were three stories concerning young life and death. The 24 year-old from a neighboring town who died during his pre-dawn commute when he drove into a tree to avoid hitting an already dead bear. The 23 year-old graduate student in Boston who vanished and was pulled from a river seven days later. The UNH sophomore who went missing a week ago and was confirmed dead over the weekend.
No doubt, the vicarious grief I feel over stories like these has some connection to having just seen the last of our four children to the threshold of "out there." Past a point that I want to, I can imagine the grief of a family who survives a young member. In the same vicarious way, I grieve to think of what will become of them every year when the leaves fly.
It's not often that I text my children with a gentle but urgent plea to contact me immediately and assure me of their well being, but that is what I did last week:
Please, take care of yourself.
In minutes, I heard back:
In stark juxtaposition, over the same seven day period, but closer to the bottom of the page, where sad but usual parents-in-custody stories appear, were tales of punitive behaviors that ranged from stupid to unfathomable. Stories which bring out my very efficient idea of justice, but which then linger in my conscience as I consider what will become of a child, whose biggest job on the planet is not to learn to tell time or tie her shoes, but survive her own parents. I have never seen the children who don't. But I have seen the children who do.
There is not a greater, more preventable, more wasteful and contemptuous act than to fail a child.
They don't arrive without an invitation. They don't crash the party, we bring them here. And not gently. Quite literally, we push them into our world from an inner world of sure and greater comfort.
It's no bargain. We owe them a lot for making the trip. Comfort, love, guidance, shelter, food and clothing. And yet once here, they ask for one thing and one thing only, and it is as free as the air we breathe:
Take care of me.
But you see it, the failing in progress:
Angry adults, who stalk through life and give off vibes of regret like heat waves, while their children hop and hum and behind them and wait for the climate above their heads to change... Shallow, self-absorbed parents who are more interested in being liked than mastering the hard and tiring work of saying no, of refusing unearned possessions, of turning off the television, of putting themselves second, third or last - all things that make us very unpopular, very often, for a very long time... Substance-addicted parents who lack the awareness to rein in their children, until they abdicate the task altogether and leave them to raise themselves. And, as sad as any, the parents who believe it is beyond their control to get between an immature, defiant teenager and their decision to fail themselves by dropping out of school.
You see these failed children. They act too old, they act too sexual, they lack empathy and they hide their vulnerability with a too-tough swagger. They need love, they don't trust it, and they cope with the challenge of raising themselves by imitating older people they aren't ready to be yet.
Take care of me.
This outer world that we bring our children too, as big as it is, as disorganized and massive as it will always be, begs to be explored. Adapting to such a place for a young child is a constant work in progress. Things happen that don't make sense. People behave in ways that are confusing. Values and rules contradict each other. They act out, reject us, and push back. They exhaust us and fight - hard - for the freedom to make bad decisions. And yet, as complicated as this adaptation is, as overwhelming as the outer world is, it is less confusing than the inner one.
When they are at their most unlikable, what they need to know we will do, even as they tempt us to give up, is steadfastly refuse to fail them.
On Saturday night, at dinner with our two grown children, I watched two couples, late thirties or so, who had taken their very young children with them to dinner. They laughed and talked, relaxed in the company of each other. While one man talked to his friend, the child to his left quietly sketched out images on an erasable tablet, then erased and started over, finally presenting the work to his dad who turned in his seat to face him. "What have you got there?" For the next full minute or two, they traded images, the child's a scribble, the father's an image of letters spelling out "HENRY."
The woman seated across from them behaved similarly, pausing the conversation with her friend to turn the pages of her child's picture book until they reached one that was special. I watched each adult give the child maybe only a minute or two of their full attention, enough to let them know they hadn't been forgotten. I could picture these parents with their children years from now, maybe at dinner the way we were; one expressing a thought, the other one listening, both attuned.
Rare is the child who is born without the capacity to thrive in response to being cared for. In ways that require no words, involve simple action, cost nothing, require no advanced education, we tell our children every day what they can expect from us. It should be one thing:
I will take care of you.