by Linda Silverman
I would like to talk about love today. We live in a culture that emphasizes the negative and treats the positive as if it were a lurid secret. We are allowed to complain publicly, but not to discuss our successes. It’s OK to say, “I wish I had more money,” but it’s not OK to say, “I have all the money I need.” It’s OK to tell people you feel fat, but it’s not OK to say how great you look. And it would be unthinkable to tell people that you’re gifted, that your children are wonderful, that you have a fabulous sex life, and that your spouse loves you unconditionally. We’re taught that sharing good things about ourselves, or our families, is “bragging,” socially inappropriate, and would make others feel bad. Good is taboo.
Well, in the last few months I met three women from Nebraska who broke at least one of these taboos. They talked about their husbands loving them unconditionally. I was amazed. I have been fortunate to enjoy unconditional love from my husband, but I could never talk about it openly. As we discussed how this unconditional love manifested itself in our lives, one of the women said, “You must love him unconditionally as well.” That was true. When such a love exists, it usually goes both ways.
Unconditional love is not a popular concept. We are more comfortable believing that if you love “too much,” you will be “co-dependent,” “an enabler,” etc. How is it possible to love too much? From my perspective, there can never be too much love. It is a sad commentary on our societal values that so few people have experienced unconditional love in their lives that many refuse to believe it is even possible.
Perhaps our best model of unconditional love can be found in grandparenting. The incomparable joy of being a grandparent comes from the thrill of just being on the planet with this little person. Grandchildren don’t have to do anything to earn a grandparent’s love. Grandparents are allowed to tell anyone they please how wonderful their grandchildren are. They can whip out pictures in an elevator filled with strangers. They can “spoil” their grandchildren without any guilt, because they are not “responsible” for shaping them into “responsible” adults. They can concentrate on the good, and ignore or laugh at the bad. How lucky children are who have grandparents who dote on them, and how lucky grandparents are who have grandchildren who love them “just because.” Here again, unconditional love is a two-way street.
How can we bring more unconditional love into our lives? A few months ago, I gave a presentation to parents in Missouri, in which I talked about how the goals of parenting passed down from generation to generation have changed as the lifespan has increased. In our great, great grandparents’ generation, you had completed the task of parenting if your children managed to reach adulthood and become self-supporting. Today, the relationship between children and parents must be more robust, strong enough to survive many decades and even role reversals. Let me give you an example.
At the age of 59, I am blessed to have both of my parents alive. They are 92 and 88, and they live in an apartment two doors away from my sister’s apartment. My sister is 65. She has had a relationship with our parents for 65 years. Most of that time she has been an adult. And she has spent as many years being responsible for their welfare as they spent being responsible for hers. Remember that the child you are hollering at today for bringing home a B may be making the decision someday as to whether you go into a nursing home!
Childhood is usually a small part of person’s life, gradually becoming a smaller and smaller segment of life. If all goes well, the major part of the parent-child relationship is shared as two adults. With this in mind, I asked the group in Missouri, “When your children become adults, what kind of relationship do you want with them? How would you like your adult children to feel about you? Take a moment and write down what you hope your relationship with your children will be like during their adult years.”
These were their responses:
Love doing things together
Knowing that it’s OK to make mistakes
Being a good listener
Having common interests
I had anticipated two parts to this exercise – the goals and the means to achieve them. However, when I looked at the goals that this group generated, I realized that the goals and the process were identical. This is what you must do with children now in order to enjoy a loving relationship with them in their adult lives. As I reviewed this list again, I realized that this is also a blueprint for a good marriage. All of the others could be subsumed under “Unconditional Love.”
This week a sobering event occurred in my life, which made me look at all of this a little differently. An exuberant, brilliant, fun-loving eight-year-old boy died quite suddenly of a massive heart attack. Jonathan Sher left behind his two older brothers, Nick and David, and his parents, Bev and Marc, both professors at the College of William and Mary. There were no prior indications that Jonathan had a weak heart. Jonathan was assessed at our Center when he was six, and he had one of the highest IQ scores on record. Our Director of Training, Bobbie Gilman, who tested Jonathan, remembered him as a delightful boy. He had a great zest for life.
I reread his file today. Jonathan could be the poster child for the profoundly gifted. When he was six, his mother described him as “a relatively introverted child who forms warm friendships slowly, but holds onto them for a long time,… prefers to play with older children,… closest sibling relationship is with his brother Nicholas, three years older than he is. Jonathan admires Nick and wishes he could play games and do work at the same level Nick does… a rapid learner who does NOT like to repeat work he’s already done… In a new situation, he prefers to watch from the sidelines for a long time before he joins in… He hates making mistakes, and sometimes cries with despair when errors are pointed out… He loves the puzzle maps at school and has a map of our home town in his room. He is also interested in math… He likes reading history, and frequently asks for books about it… One of the best times of day for him is bedtime: he and I (Mom) spend a long time together talking about his day, which helps him unwind. He’s also my cheerful assistant in the garden.”
In a recent email, Bev recounted what Jonathan was like at eight. “The little boy I described at six was still present at eight: he was still cuddly and needed to have quiet talks at bedtime. He still had high standards and loved history and geography; math was also a favorite subject, and he was halfway through EPGY Algebra I (he hated factoring!) when he died. He was very interested in politics and current events, and was beginning to enjoy reading articles in the New York Times. One of our last detailed discussions was about the recent missile defense system tests. I could see both the adult he would have become and the young child he had been, often simultaneously.
“A new development was his sense of mischief. He would tease his brothers until they retaliated. He had a wide grin and a twinkle in his eye whenever he thought of doing something he shouldn’t; I saw them for the last time during the water fight in his room in PICU. He had two nurses that afternoon, Nancy and Debbie. Debbie was a stern woman whose nickname was ‘Grumpy.’ While Grumpy was with another patient, Nancy was rummaging in one of the equipment drawers and came up with a 5 milliliter plastic squeeze tube of saline; she told Jonathan that when things got slow late at night in PICU, the staff sometimes used them for water fights. He was obviously delighted by this information, and so she handed him one of them and said that if he promised to soak Grumpy the next time she came in, he could have it. The grin and twinkle appeared, and he clutched the tube under the covers; when Grumpy came back, he soaked her. She put her hands on her hips, trying to look angry, and said, ‘Why did you do that?’
‘Nancy told me to!’
Grumpy filled a 25 ml syringe with saline, gave it to Jonathan, and called ‘Nancy….’
Jonathan soaked Nancy as soon as she walked through the door, and ended up soaking the chief resident as well. The water fight was instigated by his nurses, but he clearly won, and we laughed for the next forty-five minutes. It was the last time I saw his mischievous side, and I’ll always treasure the memory.”
Jonathan loved life unconditionally.
In trying to come to terms with a loss of this magnitude, I wanted to do something to commemorate Jonathan’s life. When another boy we had worked with, Jimmy Trinidad, was killed by a drunk driver in Boulder, I tried to set up a scholarship fund in his honor, but it wasn’t effective. I want to set up a living memorial for little Jonathan, something that represents who he was and what he came to teach us. I want all of you who read this column to commit to bringing more unconditional love into your family and into the world. Whether your children live to 106 and move into the retirement community you are living in at the time, or their lives are much shorter than anyone expected, every moment is a gift. Every moment with your partner is a gift. Every moment with your friends is a gift. And every moment, you can celebrate their existence or you can be disappointed because they failed to meet your expectations. The choice is yours.
Don’t waste energy on pointless guilt. It doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do yesterday or an hour ago. Just ask yourself, “How can I express unconditional love to my loved ones right now?” Every “I love you,” every hug, every shoulder rub, every act of kindness, forgiveness, thoughtfulness, and appreciation, will be a living testament to this precious child who graced the Earth for such a short time. Thank you, Jonathan, for the gift of awareness you have brought us.