“Nothing is wrong – whatever is happening is just “real life.”
—Tara Brach from Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha
“Want to run away from papi,” H tells me. He is in my arms, his legs kicking against my thighs like he’s gunning to win the Preakness.
“Papi, we’re running away from you!” I call as we swing a large arc past H’s father. This is a game we sometimes play during the transition from me to him. I keep my tone playful and light.
“No, no, no,” H protests, his whole body shaking in the negative and stiffening with tension, his distress growing with each no. “Run all the way to the gate!”
I freeze, uncertain about the turn I can feel the game taking. H continues to express his displeasure, now at our lack of motion.
“Love, you sound unhappy,” I say.
“Yeah,” he tells me.
“Would you like to talk about it?” I ask him, but it is too soon for conversation. The feelings need to bounce around his body and settle before we can find words to put to them. I stay still, waiting.
“We talked before about how I didn’t want to see papi,” H finally says, thrusting his body toward his father, who stands motionless some distance from us, watching silently. My heart hurts for how I imagine this might feel for him.
“Yes, we talked earlier about how you didn’t want to see papi,” I confirm.
“Why?” H asks.
“We talked about the fact that you didn’t want to see papi, but I’m not sure we uncovered the reasons,” I tell him.
H’s distress continues to escalate. I pull his small body into mine and ground myself by breathing deeply.
“Is it because it’s hard to be separated from mama?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s hard to be separated.”
I can feel some of the tension release from his body.
“Yes, I feel that way, too. I don’t like to be separated from you either, my sweet. I know that papi loves you and enjoys spending time with you. I’m glad you get to spend this time with papi, and I don’t like to be separated from you. I am glad, and it’s hard.”
H has quieted. He is focused on me.
“You will be in my thoughts. And in my heart,” I tell him.
“Why? Because you are part of my heart,” I say.
“Is papi part of my heart?” H asks.
“Yes, he is,” I say.
H considers this for a moment. “Mama put me in the car,” he says.
For weeks I have been worrying about how difficult these transitions have been for H, wondering how to smooth the rough edges, wanting somehow to solve this problem for him. But in a moment of clarity I know that this is not my problem to solve, that fixing it for him – even if I could – would be a disservice. This is a rough patch we are passing through. It is not easy, and I do not like it but these are our current seas and we will be okay. We ARE okay. There is nothing wrong. This is just life, and there is nothing to do but to be present with H and whatever feelings arise in each moment. Then sit with my own broken heart.
Later, H calls me on FaceTime.
He and his papi tell me about seeing many small boats and one really big boat at the locks that morning.
“There was a speaker. And it said, ‘The locks are moving now.’” H’s voice is getting trembly. “And beep, beep, beep.” And then tears as big, deep sadness rises to the surface. It travels through the ether and hits me in the chest. I feel it, too.
I take a steadying breath to prepare myself to be fully present with him again.
“I will never leave you, love. I will never, ever leave you. I am here with you. I am here. We will get through this together. It is okay to cry,” I tell him.
We sit in silence, and after a while, I offer to read a book.
“Hippos go berserk,” I say, showing him the front cover, and then I begin to read. “One hippo, all alone, calls two hippos on the phone.”
We pass the part of the book where all the hippos must go away. “Nine hippos and a beast join eight hippos riding east, while seven hippos moving west leave six hippos quite distressed.”
By the time I get to distressed, he is crying again, tears heavy with all the pain in the world spilling down his cheeks.
“Sweets. Would you like me to read a different book instead?” I ask.
He nods through his tears, and we read a book about construction vehicles and farm equipment lifting, pushing, digging, dumping, chopping, pulling, and cutting and make a plan for him to call me again after dinner.
When he calls back, the entirety of our conversation is, “Mama, I am all done talking,” and he hangs up before I can say much at all. It is hard to know for sure whether the sadness has passed or whether he is soldiering on despite it, but he feels comfortable enough to stay with his father. I know in my heart that this is a good thing for both of them.
It’s hard not to worry when our children are in emotional distress, hard not to want to take the pain away for them. But what he needed most was my presence. He needed me to be with him, to be completely present with his feelings without attempting to cajole, talk, or distract him out of them. He needed me to bear witness to his hard time and be okay with him just as he was. Nothing was wrong, after all. It was just real life.
Still, sometimes real life breaks my heart.