CPN | Beyond 'Love'? Please help me find the words.

Enable high contrast reading

Beyond 'Love'? Please help me find the words.

I went to church yesterday for the first time in many months. Since Easter, I have been nourishing my heart and my head in other ways, largely through listening to my favorite podcast On Being where I have had heard the wisdom of Buddhist Joan Halifax, Franciscan Father Richard Rohr, Jesuit Father James Martin, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, poet Elizabeth Alexander, poet and philosopher David Whyte, actor Martin Sheen, to name just a few of my favorites.

But this Sunday morning, I was in the pew at St. Peters Church in Cambridge. As it happens, next month marks the 18th anniversary of Cameron’s baptism in this same church, just two days after we learned she had Tay-Sachs disease.

The music was beautiful and I recognized almost all the hymns which meant I could sing them. The community was very warm and welcoming, happy to see me and Charlie again. In typical fashion, I didn’t focus very much on the readings or prayers, instead letting their words wash around me. What I did focus on though was how the parents with young children were holding these children in their arms and, absent-mindedly, kissing them throughout. While the mom or dad followed the service, their lips would brush their child’s cheek or top of the head and deliver a love touch. The parents likely didn’t realize they were doing this. The kisses were a subconscious act of love. There is no love more powerful than that of a parent’s.

Sitting in the pew, I found myself recognizing how glad I was for these parents to be holding their babies in their arms and also wondering what, if anything, happens to parental love when the child in arms is seriously ill. Does love shift in any way to make room for deep sorrow? What is it exactly that we parents are doing when we love our children in the face of a bad prognosis? And is it any different than what any other parent does when they love their healthy children? I spend a lot of time with doctors and nurses who are trained to think as scientists as well as humanists. What explains parental love in the context of anticipatory grief?  And what are the words that make up this explanation? Are there even words? I don’t think I’ve heard the right words or expression yet, which is likely why I appreciate poetry where words strung together just-so can magically convey the inexpressible.

18 years into this journey, these are new questions for me. I would be grateful if you parents who understand what I am talking about would let me know what you think: Do you have luminous language to explain it, what the poet Elizabeth Alexander call “words that shimmer”? Please send them to us and we will share them with our community and beyond. Everyone can benefit from hearing new ways to describe the most powerful force and deepest courage in the world. Alternatively, maybe you think this is, respectfully, a stupid question: what it the point of describing something that is so natural that it doesn’t warrant explaining?

And in the meantime, I share with you two On Being podcasts that I hope nourish you in the week ahead: Elizabeth Alexander’s conversation with Krista Tippett, Words that Shimmer. And Dr. Atul Gawande’s conversation with Krista Tippet, What Matters in the End