Today, my daughter crosses a threshold. She turns thirteen. Thirteen glorious years. I try to avoid clichés, but honestly, that profound moment—the moment I first held her, looked into her face, and then her father's, well it does seem like yesterday. Like it just happened.
And none of it went according to my plan. I had a birth plan. A detailed birth plan. But labor was my first real lesson that life can literally turn upside down in mere moments. It was the first time, as an adult, that my ego was shattered, and my body was something I couldn’t control. I was at the mercy of medical experts, and entirely humbled. I labored through terror. I crossed my own threshold, and gratefully found myself in the uncharted territory of parenthood.
When I held my daughter, I wept because my body and heart and mind were all trying to braid the pain and exhaustion and joy and relief and wonder and mystery, all at once. And the enormous love, so expansive I still have trouble finding words. I couldn’t contain it all, so I wept wordlessly.
Thirteen years later, I still can’t contain it all or find the words. I still look at my beloved daughter and son and sometimes I just spontaneously well up. I have to kiss them all over their faces. I delight in them. Not a day goes by, however difficult, that they do not bring me absolute joy. In terms of love, they have been my greatest teachers.
Love is hard work. It’s risky. It opens us up and it also opens us up to heartbreak. And yet, is there anything better than being loved and giving love? And aren’t we lucky that there are so many textures and hues?
Recently, I got to visit my Aunt Ellen. No matter how much time has passed between visits, we fall into the joy and delight of being together. The simple acts that we often find monotonous in daily life were elevated to something special. Driving to the grocery store was fun. We riffed off each other in the cheese aisle, and laughed until tears spilled over. A cup of coffee together was a luxury. We linked arms when we walked. We shared rich silence and the glory of the ocean. I caught a stomach virus, and yet, there’s no one I’d rather be sick with.
On the way to the airport, I began to cry. Saying good-bye is so hard. Good-byes remind us that everything changes. Everything is temporary. Everything. But that makes the experience no less wonderful.
When I was a child, Ellen climbed aboard the Amtrak train, about to depart from Boston, to hug us Lawhorn kids one last time. Our wet cheeks pressed together, I held on hard. “Look ahead,” she said as she prepared to leave, “don’t look back.”
Life is full of thresholds we have to cross, many unexpected and sudden. Sometimes, we can’t imagine what lies ahead and we can’t make out a clear path. We look back, hoping to discern a road map for how to proceed. And sometimes, we simply have to step into the unknown and uncertain, mustering trust even if it is just in ourselves.
The Irish teacher and poet, John O’Donohue wrote:
“A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms, and atmospheres. Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that intensifies toward the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold a great complexity of emotion comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope…Suddenly you stand on completely strange ground and a new course of life has to be embraced.”
When I became a mother, I remember feeling isolated in my uncertainty, until I opened up. Then I found out that my uncertainty was shared, and every parent had a story—many hilarious, some heartbreaking, but all connecting and often comforting. There is no manual to be a perfect parent, just as having a birth plan doesn’t dictate labor and delivery. I still have to face my rich, flawed humanity and try my daily best.
I learned though that I wasn’t alone. Maybe we have to cross thresholds individually, but in my experience, there is usually a rich community awaiting our arrival who have stepped over before us.
I think of my daughter’s magnificent infant face, scrunched up with the effort of being born and taking in the world. I think of her lovely face now, especially as she sings or gives herself over to laughter. The intense concentration on my son’s countenance as he drums or builds a website. I think of my aunt’s treasured face, smile spreading when we first caught sight of each other at the airport, how we both broke into a jog, arms opening.
Love. O’Donohue concludes, “It can free us into a natural courage that casts out fear and opens up our lives to become voyages of discovery, creativity, and compassion. No threshold need be a threat, but rather an invitation and a promise.”
Barbara Lawhorn is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.