I watched him maneuver toward her through the empty chairs and beach towels, stepping over the floaties that had been discarded by the littlest cousins. Second cousins? I could never keep those straight. Regardless, there were dozens of them, all now having abandoned the pool for the birthday cake. Now they shrieked in delight as they chased each other with pool noodles in the grass.
She watched them, smiling in her own delight, from her plastic chair at the edge of the yard. She closed her eyes every so often, and I imagined that she was trying to capture an auditory snapshot of her great-grandchildren’s laughter. That, or she was dozing off from the gin and tonics her sons-in-law had made her. Either way, I remember thinking, that’s a life well lived.
I had almost reached her to take her now-empty cake plate, but he got there first. I paused. He looked as though he was saying goodbye, and I wanted to give him space.
I was honestly surprised he had come. He’d stayed away for so long. His name would come up in frustrated whispers at the weddings and the barbecues. My mom would explain not inviting him, her younger brother, by saying he never showed up anyway. Her eyes would roll as she said it, her head shaking in what I could never tell was bitterness or pity.
I stayed out of it, for the most part, knowing the foundations of feelings among my uncle and the family that raised him were laid decades before I had even been born. The black sheep, he’d often been called. In more generous moments, I’d hear that he “just never could really get his life together.” In less generous ones, I’d heard him called selfish, lazy, and ungrateful. In my own interactions with him, I’d often felt the shame he seemed to carry written all over his body.
He hadn’t stayed long at the party, but he had come. I recognized the courage in that, and wondered if you get braver when your mom turns 88 and you’re not sure how many of these parties you’ll have left.
He squatted down next to her chair and put his hands on her knees. “Mom, I’m heading out,” he told her.
“Okay, baby,” she said, reaching out and slipping her hands under his so that she could hold them.
I knew I should walk away and give them this moment, but I couldn’t bring myself to look away. Something felt so important.
“Hey,” she whispered, as he started to extend his legs to stand up. “Hold on.”
He resumed his squat, not so easy a feat for a gray-haired man in his 60s, and his face was peering up at hers. He gazed into her eyes with a closed-mouth smile, and I couldn’t help but think about my own little boys and the way they used to sit at my feet while I put on my make-up before work, their wide eyes looking up in admiration.
“You need to know something,” she said, and then took a long pause. She cleared her throat. “You are just as good as any of them.”
He shifted and let out a breath. His eyes closed just for a second and then he looked back up at her.
“I know you don’t feel it. You’ve never felt it, even though I always knew it. But you are good. You are good enough. You are so smart. I see how good you are.”
As her words landed on him, I could see his eyes welling with tears. He let them come.
“You are my baby,” she went on. “I love you so much. I always have, and I always will. You are good enough,” she said again. She was holding his hands firmly now, looking intently into his eyes. “I’m sorry I didn’t help you know that.”
And in that moment, he fell apart. Her words were like a medicine being injected into his body, making it writhe as it took them in and spread them across his heart, his stomach, his limbs. Tears streamed down his face.
She leaned down and kissed the top of his head. They sat together like that for several minutes, and I couldn’t look away. I knew I was witnessing something wholly profound. Holy, even.
A few moments later, he stood up silently. He rubbed his hands across his wet eyes and gave a gentle nod. He leaned down and kissed her cheek. And then he left.
I turned to look at my own sons playing in the yard, who must have abandoned the pool noodles for sticks and would soon be requiring some parental intervention. I wondered how badly they might need a dose of my medicine, when the last time was that I had told them how deeply good they were in my eyes.
As I tucked them into their beds that night, mercifully exhausted from all the swimming and the playing, I whispered into each of their ears. “You are good, just as you are. I love you.”
Then I kissed the top of their heads and turned out the light.
Here’s the thing about our attachment systems; they are stubborn. They will wait for as long as they need to to get what they need. What they don’t get at six months old, they will still be seeking at six years, or sixteen, or sixty.
Usually by that time, we’ve tried and maybe succeeded at convincing ourselves that we don’t need the love and approval of our parents. We walk around the world telling ourselves it’s fine, it’s all fine, but then we’re working ourselves to death or drinking too much or can’t quiet the asshole in our head.
But if we’re lucky enough to get it, even if it comes far later than we needed it, our bodies react by saying, “Oh yes, that was it. That’s what I’ve been longing for. That’s what I’ve been needing.” And they start to feel safe for the first time, perhaps ever.
These moments might feel illusive, but they happen. And they are among the most breathtaking of all human experiences.They have a transcendent quality that feels impossible to put in words. I’ve held off trying to capture the moment between my uncle and my grandmother for so long because I knew I could never do it justice. I most certainly didn’t do it justice.
But I feel called to talk about these moments because, as I said, they do happen, and I want us to never give up on them happening. I want us to recognize the power of being part of them, or being witness to them.
And in the same breath of talking about the transformative power of reparative moments, my heart aches with the knowledge that so many of us will never have it flow from the source.
What if we aren’t lucky enough to get it from the source? What if our parents are deceased or oblivious or incapable? What then?
Then we get to do something truly miraculous. It might not feel fair. It might be really fucking hard, actually. But it’s the gift of that attachment system being patient: we get to be both the parent and the child.
We get to go into ourselves, to the lonely toddler that exists inside the lost college student or overworked mom or the sixty-year-old black sheep, and give that which we didn’t get. That might look like words that we needed to hear. That might be an acceptance of a part of us that our caregiver could never fully embrace. That might feel like a touch that’s more tender than any we ever got to feel.
It might come through years of therapy or a deep interpersonal connection with a loving person (or pet) in your life or from a psychedelic experience or from doing a billion reps on the self-compassion practice you learned on Instagram.
It might come through a moment with a parent or the person who wounded you in after they’ve done enough work to acknowledge your experience fully.
Regardless of the source, it’s repair. It’s still you’re good enough and always have been. It’s what I wish for all of us.