As I drove north on the 101 after visiting my son and granddaughter, reality forced me once more to reconsider of my familiar family stories and the way I imagine my three sons think and feel. Many of my stories about the mother I was are not corroborated by my sons. They seem to remember differently or not at all. Furthermore, everyone has changed, outgrowing the stories; everyone’s life has become more complicated.
I was especially aware of the paucity of useful information in stories about my youngest son after spending the week with him and my four-year-old granddaughter. He is a do-it-alone dad now. Out of respect for his privacy, I have not talked about the accidental death of my daughter-in-law last November. Of course, my son and Miss E are never far from my thoughts, but I discovered that compared to the reality of their routine, the stories I tell myself about them are out of touch with who each of them is as they form this new life without a wife and a mother.
My visit last week did not, as I had hoped, make life easier for my son. Thus when I left Friday morning before either he or Miss E awoke, I was grateful for the practices of equanimity and loving-kindness that helped me handle my sadness throughout my visit. I knew Friday would be less complicated for him, and Miss E would be less distracted and more comfortable in their routine.
I do not feel less loved because my leaving was so welcome. Of course, I continue to love this son unconditionally, even though the depth of his grief, the heat of his anger, and the heaviness of being charged with responsibility for his child’s life have eclipsed the easy-going thoughtful youngest son of my stories.
As I said, practicing equanimity was a big part of my visit. Gil Fronsdal of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, explains that the most common Pali word translated as equanimity is upekkha, meaning to look over. It refers to the equanimity that arises from the power of observation, the ability to see without being caught by what we see. This does not mean that I was unaffected by the confusion and disruption that seemed to characterize my visit.
He says, “Upekkha can also refer to the ease that comes from seeing a bigger picture. Colloquially, in India the word was sometimes used to mean ‘to see with patience.’ This form of equanimity is sometimes compared to grandmotherly love. The grandmother clearly loves her grandchildren but, thanks to her experience with her own children, is less likely to be caught up in the drama of her grandchildren’s lives.”
Once back in San Francisco, I could call my son and compliment him on his equanimity in the face of four-year-old tantrums and meltdowns. I know parenting is difficult even under the best of circumstances.
When I was in the park playing dinosaurs with Miss E, she decreed that I would eat a pine cone, and when I demurred, she hurled invectives at me and said I could never visit her house again. That moment reminded me of how in my own long-ago upbringing, my childish anger would have elicited reciprocal rage and there would have been an emotional price to pay. I am grateful that all of us who love Miss E allow her the space to express her feelings, and when she does have to take a time-out, I notice that my son tells time faster than the clock ticks it off.
As well as relying on equanimity, I often turned to metta, a term meaning loving-kindness, friendliness, goodwill, and benevolence. It is a strong wish for the welfare and happiness of others. Through metta one refuses to be offensive and renounces bitterness, resentment and animosity of every kind.
And as I waited for my son to come back from an errand he assured me would take five minutes, but which in fact took 45, I reminded myself as I did a walking meditation on the quiet block where he lives that metta is the protective and immensely patient attitude of a mother who forbears all difficulties for the sake of her child and protects him despite misbehavior…or tardiness.
May you be happy.
May you be free from stress and pain.
May you be free from animosity, free from trouble.
May you be free from oppression.
May you look after yourself with ease.
And I alternated with “May I be happy” and interspersed, “May all beings be happy.”
* “Amygdala hijack” is a term coined by David Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ. The term describes immediate and overwhelming emotional responses more extreme than the actual emotional threat warrants.