Probably the single greatest gift — and the single greatest challenge — I’ve been given in sobriety has been the opportunity to parent my children, a 12-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. I can honestly say that nearly thirteen years ago, at the instant my daughter was born — when I was four years sober and 42 years old — I finally learned the meaning of the phrase “unconditional love.” A few years later, when my son was born — at a moment when I did not think it possible to love another human being with the same intensity that I loved my daughter — I learned that unconditional love knows no bounds, that the capacity to love any number of children once you’ve loved one is limitless. I’ve since learned to love many of my friends’ children as well, maybe not as limitlessly and intensely as my own, but certainly without condition. I wonder if I would have learned anything at all had they been born when I was still using.
Earlier this summer, while driving her home from dance practice, I asked my daughter how she and her “boyfriend” were doing. She had claimed a boyfriend near the end of the school year, and being the annoying older father that I am, I kept close tabs on her “relationship” with him … like every single day. As one would expect, I received the characteristic monosyllabic, pre-teen answer to my question: “Fine!” This, of course, merely pushed my generally annoying demeanor up a notch to sheer belligerence. “Sooo, do you l-o-v-e what’s-his-face?”
(For the record, it doesn’t really matter to me who she dates over the years to come or who she marries. I don’t really care if she marries into royalty, the other-than-her-father man in her life will ALWAYS be known as what’s-his-face or what’s-his-name behind his back. I will, of course, be duly cordial in the little turd’s presence. I’m a recovering alcoholic, after all; I can fake anything.)
“I don’t believe in love, Daddy.”
There is nothing worse — as a father — than believing you have the upper hand in a conversation only to have it matter-of-factly stripped from your grasp like a rain-soaked football. My daughter — unlike her face value, what-you-see-is-what-you-get brother — is a master of causing Daddy to fumble.
“You don’t believe in love?” I repeated the declaration in an attempt to buy myself some time and in hope that she might elaborate.
“I don’t believe in love,” she repeated without missing a beat and without elaborating.
“Ok, what gives? Did you and what’s-his-face break up?” I proceeded to crumble. “Did he hurt your feelings? Because if he did, I promise you, it’s the last time his silly little …”
“We’re fine, Daddy.”
“’Fine.’ That word again. Have I told you how much I hate that word? ‘Fine’ as an answer is one step above your brother saying ‘nothing’ when I ask him what he’s doing.”
One-word answers and statements will be the death of me.
“If you two are ‘fine,’ then why don’t you believe in love?” And here, I truly disintegrated. “I mean … wait … I don’t want you to think I want you to be in love or anything, especially not with him, he’s a Yankee fan. But I’m wondering what this not believing in love thing is about. Never mind him or anything. In fact, forget about him. He has no place in this conversation. We’re talking about love here. I want to know why you don’t believe in love. Don’t you love your father … your mother … your brother, well, ok, your mother and father then?”
“Of course, I do.”
A moment of solace, victory even, and then …
“Even people who don’t like their parents have to love them.”
“Then, what do you mean you don’t ‘believe’ in love?”
“It’s simple, Daddy. I believe love is eternal. If love is eternal, it can only exist in eternity. So, you can’t really know if you love someone until you’re dead.”
I felt a little relief. Her declaration about love was obviously just one of those purposefully twisted, testing-the-limits-of-logic-illogical, run-of-the-mill, pre-teen theories about something she clearly knew nothing about. … Wasn’t it?
“That doesn’t make sense, sweetheart,” I said.
There. Much better. I could breathe now. For a moment, I became the painfully practical father and felt I had effectively regained the upper hand.
“Yes, it does, DAD!” She suddenly became painfully insistent. “If love is eternal, you can’t know if you love someone until you’re dead. You can care for some people more than you do others while you’re still alive, but you can’t know if that feeling is love until you’re on the other side.” And then, as if she were stating the most obvious, empirically verifiable fact known to mankind, she clarified everything. “If you still care about them once you’re on the other side, then you know you love them, and when they join you, then your love will be eternal.”
Having been a double-major in English and Philosophy with an undeclared minor in substance abuse, having spent many a late night during college and graduate school reading the likes of Joyce, Proust, and Celine as well Hobbes, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche while high as an untethered kite, a certain part of me, that part of my misspent youth which had never died or grown up, knew exactly where she was coming from. I was fully capable at 55 of understanding what she meant and forced to admit that her theorem was, at the very least, “plausible,” meaning that the propositions in her formula basically added up if you were willing to accept the basic premise that love is eternal.
In fact, her declaration forced something completely unexpected on me later that night — the realization that, by my daughter’s criterion for love eternal, I wasn’t sure whom I truly loved in this life besides my children. I wasn’t really sure I needed two hands to count the people I had known whom I was “dead” sure I’d still care about once I reached the other side.
My greatest fear as a parent is not that my children will someday have to endure pain—more specifically, emotional pain. In fact, I know they will, that they in fact must experience it to grow, and I even hope they get a fare dose of it early so as to develop their second skin. No, my greatest fear as a parent is not that my children will one day be in pain. My greatest fear is that one day I will have to witness them in pain—physically, emotionally or otherwise.
And so, turning onto the freeway that evening, I suddenly decided not to dissuade her of the notion that love could only be tested in eternity. At that moment, it seemed a perfectly legitimate defense against unexpected emotional agony. My daughter and I are cut from the same cloth after all, which means she is prone to experience the simplest emotional pain in excessive and irrational proportion to the source or cause of the pain—proportions, in fact, that might very well lead her to “kill the pain” one day with drugs and alcohol or worse. If, by keeping my mouth shut, I could spare her the years of torment I put myself through because I didn’t have an appropriate defense against emotional pain, so be it.
I know this much for sure since that drive: I won’t be as quick to joke around about “love” with my daughter in the future, and I’m not nearly as likely to assign the word to feelings I’m experiencing without some notion that feeling has the potential to be eternal.