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Senior Correspondent

Underneath the hardness there is fear
Underneath the fear there is sadness
In the sadness there is softness
In the softness is the vast blue sky


This poem describes my life. Lately, the last line has been floating in my spirit like a fluffy cloud on a balmy day. I wrote recently about feeling regret over how I handled my early parenting years. Even bigger than the regret is the sadness, the deep spirit sadness of ungrieved grief.

When my son James was a baby, he was so beautiful. Everything seemed possible. Over time, it was clear to everyone but me that something was different about him, something to be concerned about. But I saw only magical uniqueness. Even when he was diagnosed with autism, I failed to acknowledge or to accept the loss of my dreams. I failed to see him for, yes, the truly magically unique child he was. I denied the impact on my heart and on my life, and set out to force happy normalcy on us all. The alternative was simply more than I thought I could bear.

My heart formed a hard crust like a geode, hiding in darkness whatever feelings might dwell within. Maintaining my fantasy world required an enormous amount of energy. And it was not without a price, in lost relationships, health, and most important, in my ability to accept my son as he was. I spent the first part of his life trying to make him someone else.

One day, as I passed the partially open bathroom door, I heard James exclaim as he made faces at himself in the mirror, “It’s great to be James!” I realized then that the problem that needed to be fixed was mine, not his.

In time, my energy was exhausted and cracks began to appear in the hardness. On the outside my life looked fine. I had a lovely home, a great job, and another child. But inside I was coming apart, and what was pushing through the cracks was fear. Terror. What was I so afraid of? I think I was afraid of feeling all the feelings I had. I thought if all that grief and anger got free, I would be swallowed up in a tidal wave and swirled around in the dark water until I drowned.

But I didn’t. I survived. And when the water receded there was sadness, yes, but also joy. Life went on. And got better. Three more children came into my life, one with autism. I learned to accept all my children as they are. And to accept myself as I am. (Well, most of the time!)

With the arrival of my grandson Jaden, a brown skinned, dark eyed baby who reminds me so much of James when he was a baby, memories of James’s early years have resurfaced. And with those memories, some of the feelings have resurfaced, too. This time, however, I am not afraid. Feelings that I rejected before are now welcomed. Sadness is tenderly cradled.

In that sadness there is softness. A sweet softness. I took James out to dinner last night. Mia and Jaden came along, too. I looked from Jaden’s laughing baby face to James’s laughing grown-up face, and thought of all the years, all the years of loving James so much, of hurting so much, of wanting so much. All the years of being so afraid.

I marveled at the cosmic wisdom of timing. What seemed so terrifying all those years ago seems strangely comfortable now. What I tried to hide in shame is now precious. And what I felt so angry about I am now profoundly grateful for. Of all my children, James broke my crusty heart open. Inside the dull geode shell sparkled brilliant rainbow beauty.

There will always be a raw tenderness in my heart for James, a place sensitive to touch. A place of quiet grieving. And that’s okay. The grief I denied all those years ago is now free. I breathe into the softness of it, trusting in the basic goodness of the universe, the perfection of it all, the sunny brightness of the vast blue sky.

The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. –Joanna Macy

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