I was born with an imperfect heart.
It wasn’t until I was 22, and I mentioned the heaviness I felt across my chest, that a doctor discovered it. An imperfection so small it had gone unnoticed though I had carried it with me my whole life. I immediately blamed my mother. It was one more bullet point on the list I was compiling.
Funny thing is, the heaviness had nothing to do with the structure of my heart. But everything to do with imperfection.
If we are lucky, the perspective we gain in adulthood helps us to forgive many of the missteps our parents took when we were children. If we are lucky. And are willing to put in the time. Do the work. That’s where I’ve been the past few years. Trying to get rid of the laundry list. The bullet points of blame that I would hold up in my mother’s face during our worst moments together. I’ve been chipping away at it, a little at a time. The progress is often slower than I would like. When I am tired, or overwhelmed, I can feel how easy it would be to slide back down to where I began. Like a never ending game of Chutes and Ladders.
Somewhere, in all that bullet-pointing, I think I lost a lot of memories. I was so busy keeping track of the pain that I forgot to register the joy. I can feel the worst moments like I am living them all over again. But, when I try to conjure up the good, the visions are so foggy that I doubt they were real. I know we must have shared moments so pure that they were filled with nothing but love.
I know we did…
Because she is a child of the water, my mom baptized us in her lake almost immediately upon birth. I know this because I‘ve seen it in black and white. When I look at those images and close my eyes, I can feel the touch of her hands as she gently floats me on the waves. I can see her clapping with real pride, a few years later, as I completed my first successful solo swim to the deep end. I basked in her joy.
I was as tiny as a mouse when I was strapped into my first pair of skis. Majestic Hills. The mountains of Wisconsin. My mom held me tight between her legs, one arm around my oversized winter jacket and one grasping the rope-tow. She transferred her entire history on the snow into my small self as we climbed slowly up the hill. I never felt afraid. I felt magic. I felt freedom. I loved the cold, and the wind, and the warm apple cider donuts in the lodge. I loved my mom.
She always made sure we had paints, and Playdough, and wax to make candles. We had boxes of pinecones, and beads, and glitter, and glue. And bags of shiny metallic shapes in colors that shouted “groovy”. Sometimes, our crafty enthusiasm spilled onto the white shag carpet that covered our floors. There was yelling, and we would hide under our bed for awhile. But the paint was never taken away. Creativity was always given higher value than cleanliness.
When I was about six or seven, my mom took us to the hardware store. She bought us each a chisel and a small hammer and told us we were going to the gravel pit. We spent hours in the pit, way out in the back acres of my grandma’s farm, trying to break rocks in half. Treasure hunting. A week later, we dumped our boxes full of rock bits on the desk of the director of our local history museum. I remember my mom standing back against a dusty shelf in the old museum, smiling as she watched the director pick through our discoveries. She bought us Fossil Finders from the gift shop on the way out.
I ran away to the woods a million times. Often I would return before anyone would know I was gone. Sometimes, I would boldly stomp out the door proclaiming that I would survive off of the carrot and lettuce seeds that I would plant once I had made my shelter. My mom never laughed, or scolded, or tried to keep me from leaving. She wished me well and sent me on my way. When my growling tummy and fear of the dark forced me to creep back inside, she gave me a sandwich and tucked me into bed.
These are the moments I have been trying to string together. I’ve been trying to make them weigh more than the bullet points. They speak in a quiet voice and it’s often hard for them to fight their way to the top in the noisy world of my memory. There are things I am not sure I will ever remember. I couldn’t hear “I love you,” or “You are good enough.” I don’t think that arms embraced me when I was scared at night or when my heart felt broken. Maybe, I’m not sure. But I am done using that as ammunition. All I can do is start where I am standing and write it down so the voice of the good grows louder.
It’s so hard to be a parent, even when you’re a good one. It’s a gamble. And a lot of breath holding. I’m learning as I go and that, unfortunately, means my kids are the guinea pigs. I wonder what memories they’re retaining. I say silent prayers every day that my moments of parenting genius outweigh my moments of out-right failure. When I make a mistake, I try to admit it. And each time, the weight of those bullet points, and my imperfect heart, grows a little lighter. Because I know that you can make a million mistakes and it has nothing to do with how much you love.