Fearing love and its absence

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Credit: M. Jakubowski

When did the boy get so fast? Warnings can’t slow him down and if they did I think I’d regret it a little. His speed is remarkable to see. He’s four. His little blue shoes land so confidently now on the gray dust of the rocky trail as he sprints through the woods.

It’s no longer easy to keep up with him. As I run, a thought is suddenly there like a branch I didn’t see coming—a fear of how he’ll feel when I die. Why now, at a time like this, when we’re both so healthy? And I’m running faster, wanting to catch him and hold him close, knowing he loves me and that I’ve done it, shown him love, shown that he can be loved, that he knows it’s not weak or sentimental, it’s pure strength and courage.

He’s only four. We have so far to go. Maybe he’s right to sprint.

How can my son understand this? He doesn’t need to, of course. Yet. Why does love press me like this? My dead father, uncle, grandmother, friend. Only a few years ago. Is this feeling for my son love alone or love frantic with grief?

At home and out in the world he runs and falls, bleeds and screams. He needed stitches once on his forehead. Three months later, I mentioned the small scar and he touched it while glancing at me, like he’d forgotten it entirely: the fall, the blood, the ER. He can heal and forget. Still, I worry. It’s life, blood moving within me down worried pathways.

Why imagine I alone can fight off danger? Why hunger impatiently? Why did those four people so close to my heart die so young?

When I tell him I love him he won’t often say it back. It took me time to see that he wasn’t okay saying words other people just wanted to hear in immediate response. He knows what the words mean.

He’s so little, I want to believe that now love is simple for him, even though I know love among family is a complex shifting mystery not easily won or sustained. Parents and children age, we change, realizing one day we’re out of shape, we can’t keep up or feel love as we did before. Fear crystallizes inside.

Did my dead know I loved them when they died? I can only tell myself yes, even if it’s not utterly true. Because it’s too late, of course. Did I do my part for them? Did I make sure they knew they were loved when they were ill? It feels slightly selfish to wonder.

I admire and envy my son holding back sometimes on saying I love you. He can run away from us and we’ll still chase him with all these eager ideas and words based on what we’ve experienced about love, this thing it’ll take a lifetime to learn about. Practicing our tricks in the hope of keeping it alive and close by. Although it’s to keep ourselves alive, loving someone as they race ahead, into the woods, into change, here, and gone, forever both places at once in the way of all things, trying to remember and forget in the same moment.

After our run on the trail he digs a small hole by our campsite so we can pour in a bucket of water. He claps his hands and says, “Look, Dad-da! It’s a lake! It’s a pond!” The dirt around several stones is washed away, leaving dark wet gaps. “Look,” I say, “now there are little caves in the sides of the hole.” We’re somewhere else now. He asks me what lives in the caves. “Crabs, I think. And seahorses.”

He wipes his muddy hands on his shorts then looks at me, a little afraid. I don’t know why. I ask if we should get more water. “Yes!” he shouts. “Enough for the whole ocean. Let’s make an ocean, Dad.” We return to the caves and the crabs. We crawl out of our skins for a moment, leaving two shapes behind in this undersea world. The man and the boy will live forever there, beneath the soil, exploring, separate from you and I, sacred in their moment of permanent disappearance.

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