“And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
~Simeon (man “moved by the Holy Spirit”) to Mary (mother of the Savior of all mankind)
the gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verse 35
She could not have known. Standing there, with her baby just over a month old, showing up as she was for obedience—Mary could not have known what the old man saw. She had to have been thinking of a visit from an angel, and probably would have asked herself if the conversation, indeed everything since, had actually happened had it not been for the night he was born and all that pain, the blood pouring out of her, and the slick infant placed in her arms before she’d ever actually felt her husband’s intimate embrace.
You know she thought of all that, standing there, while this devout, passionate, maybe even slightly wild-eyed old man held her baby boy in his wrinkled arms and praised, speaking to God and not to her about how now he, Simeon, could die in peace. And just as she “marveled” over the things he’d said, words like “salvation,” “light,” and “glory,” that old man turned his watery eyes to her and said that thing about the sword and her child being “spoken against.” All the way home and for weeks and months and years after, those words had to have echoed in her mind. Why had he had to say that? What could it have possibly meant? Whenever she caught herself enjoying her son, wondering how she could ever love him any more, there came the sword comment and the knowledge that even at one month old, even as her boy was called a savior for the first time, someone promised her that he’d be hurt and that it would cut a hole in her heart. She could not have known that nails would tear his skin and a sword would cut into his side and thorns would be pounded into his forehead. She could not have known that in those moments she would hurt more than any mother ever would, her soul ripped to shreds by the very weapons that killed her despised, rejected son.
I have thought of this a thousand times, in the midst of loving my children, every time my heart swells at the sight of them and I wonder how I could grow to love them yet still more. I think every mother knows, somewhere deep, that she lives with her soul exposed. It takes a while for the knowledge to root itself, but the seed is there from the first moment they open their eyes and we see our reflection floating in all that innocence.
Sometimes I look over at my oldest daughter and gasp. When she doesn’t know I’m looking at her, I glimpse this stunning, unguarded creature, complex and pure-hearted, wonderful and deep, and I can hardly breathe. Wednesday, we rode waves together, and I kept wanting to sing,
Little surfer, little one, makes my heart come all undone…
In fact, I think a phrase or two escaped my lips and someone smiled. We floated side by side like a couple of mermaids, waiting on the perfect waves, commenting to each other about the swell and the timing. For a little while she wasn’t a girl with autism and epilepsy. She was just a free soul, laughing with me over the water, smiling into the sea breeze.
“Okay,” I’d say to her when the moment came, “let’s take it.” Together we’d throw our bodies on our boards and fly toward the shore on the crest of a wave, laughing breathlessly when we made it to shore side by side. She’d give me five, holding her board under her arm, as we walked back into the ocean together. Sometimes I am shocked at the simplicity of her needs. Despite all of her challenges and all the focus on academics, independence, functional skills—all important stuff–the things she needs most are the things every woman needs. She needs to know she is beautiful—not just her face, but her soul—interesting and fun and worth the time. She needs to know that someone delights in her exactly as she is, and that someone believes that her life matters too. I want to give her those things, to protect her from the lies that I know have already begun to taint her own perceptions of herself.
She told me one day that a little boy at school told her not to talk to him. As she mimicked his tone, it made me hurt, the knowledge that she is and will be rejected. “He said this: he said, ‘Don’t talk even talk to me, Riley!'”
I tried to keep my expression neutral, knowing that for a long, merciful time she had been oblivious to the pain the rest of us feel when we understand we’ve been dismissed, tossed aside, or mocked. “How did you feel about that,” I asked, watching her face.
She considered this for a moment. “I don’t like it. It hurt my feelings.” Ouch. I reached for her, ready to offer some advice about what to do the next time that happened to her. She quickly shifted the conversation herself, mentioning a kind friend. “She’s nice. I can talk to her.” I smiled, thankful for the reminder that so many of Riley’s peers have been good to her, but frowning at the echo of pain coming for both of us.
When Zoe was about eighteen months old, I watched a four year-old child I did not know approach her at the park, where her chubby fingers held fast to the ear of a metal hippopotamus. When the little boy reached her, he lifted a hand in the air, cocking his arm back. Then he slapped her across the face. She fell down and began to cry hysterically, her face flushed red, her feather-light blonde hair dancing in the breeze. As I leapt toward them, I looked frantically for the child’s mother. I could not find her. I wondered if she sat somewhere in the knot of women sitting in the shade several yards away, absorbed in conversation. When I reached them, I looked at the little boy and said, “NO. You cannot do that. That’s NOT okay,” but I was thinking, “You cannot touch this child, you cannot touch this child, you cannot touch this child,” as I pinned my clinched fists against my sides, rage bubbling up. I turned to Zoe and lifted her into my arms, knowing she needed me, knowing I had to turn away from this little boy and the violence I did not understand. When we made it to a nearby bench, I sat down and stroked her hair, my hand shaking visibly. “Oh the love I have bound up in this child,” I thought.
I remember sitting cross-legged in a group of friends one night, praying for a dear friend’s son who had been abused so much by the taunts and rejection of his peers that his thoughts loomed dangerously near the edge of an emotional cliff. As we sat there, praying scripture over him, I marveled at this mother’s powerful move to protect her son. I did not know how she sat there without wearing all of her pain on her face, except that maybe calling us all there had been the dressing on her wounds. It made me remember things I’ve mentioned here before, times when my own mom had to send me forth from the car at school when I begged her, with tears, not to make me go. Ever since my own children were born, I’ve wondered how she made it through those years. As much as I hurt, I know she bore the bruises on her own heart.
As mothers, one thing becomes clearer with every year that passes: Our children need us. They need every single ounce of everything we have. And every day that we love them we surrender it up. Or at least, we muddle through our own imperfections and try to give it all, especially if our own mothers managed to raise us so selflessly.
My mom poured herself out on us and still does, and during the most difficult years, it has been balm to my confusion, pain, weariness. Today we sat across the table from each other at lunch, enjoying a meal at our favorite Oriental restaurant, our conversation floating easily from topic to topic. I smiled thinking about all the experience we’ve had knowing each other. There were years when she spent an hour–tw0—of every day sitting across the table from me, listening, sipping coffee. I did not know much then about her perspective, only that I loved her and needed her, only that I depended on her. I know now that those hours were intentional, that they had to be. I know that she loved them, that they were born of all the love she’d bound up in me, that she wouldn’t have traded them. I know that she hurt when I was rejected and broken. I know she still does.
I am praying now about middle school. Riley has one more year before she makes that transition. She is so well loved that one of her teachers sat wiping tears from her cheeks, talking to me about this fact long after her colleagues had left our teacher appreciation brunch last Friday. This teacher hurts for missing Riley already, and she also hurts for the thought that Riley might ever be rejected, mocked, pushed aside and undervalued by her peers. It’s like I can hear the echo of an old man’s voice: A sword will pierce your own soul too.
It’s the children who don’t know my children or any children like them who mock, dismiss, and reject them. I don’t know how to protect them from these children, who sometimes show up so close to us that I am stunned into understanding that this pain looming is inevitable. If blood is not enough to guarantee the understanding that different is not less, what will strangers see who have never known all the sides of my daughter?
Sometimes I sit with Zoe and we talk of deep things—all the things she wants to be—loving, kind to those who don’t have, pleasing to God. She talks about art and draws things for me. We laugh about tiny things. We stare with wonder at a butterfly, smiling at each other. And I think, Oh that she could touch this world without having to be hurt by it. I wonder how many times Mary thought that exact same thing, staring at her son, knowing how much she loved him?
It does not console me to know that I am a new creation because Mary’s son suffered, any more than it helps to know that my children have already marked this world and will yet be rejected by it. The thing is—it doesn’t even really matter that they are different. They love God. They want to be His. We have given them that, strive to give them that, want nothing more than that for them. Love insists upon it. And yet, that alone means that a sword will pierce my own soul too. Because I see them. I know them. I give them as much of myself as I can, and they take my breath away. And looking into the face of the truth—that sword in the air—what can we mothers do but stand together?
Pray, sisters. Please pray with me for my children. And yours. We’ll pray together for yours too.
I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.
~the prayer of Christ, the gospel of John, chapter 17, verses 14 through 16