These miles had me thinking about my life, my family, and change. Planned changes, and more importantly, the unplanned that first present as disappointments or struggles, but prove to be the most important.
All of my kids have learned, or are learning, that priceless lesson.
At almost 52, I have had many opportunities to fall, cry, rail at perceived injustices, refocus, make decisions, and fail or succeed. With each misstep I learned better balance. With each choice I learned accountability. With each disappointment, I learned to stand taller. And with each unexpected off ramp, I learned where life is truly found - not in the best laid plans we make, but in the sidetrips, the detours, the new vistas we encounter.
As I drove, as I ruminated, the above title kept running through my mind.
Which brings me to this open letter to my children...
Life is not a palm tree. No, this is not another countryism learned at my mother's knee. Nor is it another "something weird" I have cooked up on my own to torment you and make you again question my sanity. What it is, is a lesson. An important one.
For almost 26 years, 24 years, and 21 years, I have watched as you have each grown, dreamed, planned, succeeded, failed, stumbled, and adjusted. I have had a front row seat for joy, tears, laughter, pain. In the joy, I can tell you that this mother's heart found a peace and happiness that I did not know existed. And in your pain and struggles, I can tell you that this mother's heart encountered a despair and torture I could never have fathomed.
From the moment Culley took her first breath, I started holding mine. When Kendall came along, I held it deeper, and when Toby entered the world, deeper still. That intake happened because in those moments, I had found something bigger than myself, more important than anything I would ever want or need. It is an emotional breath that a parent takes and holds because we are suddenly face to face with a creature we only just met, yet for whom we would immediately sacrifice all.
That breath is held in place by fear - the fear that something would befall one of you. That you would be hurt, disappointed, or worse. I have seen worse in the eyes of my friends who have lost a child; what they wouldn't give to once again take that breath, hold it, and watch their child soar, struggle, and soar again.
Part of that breath includes planning. Of course we plan your life out when we first say hello. It's human nature, it's day dreaming, it's LOVE. I can tell you that nowhere in those plans do we factor in disappointment, tears, desperation. Again, human nature. Again, fanciful fantasies. Again, LOVE.
But as you have each found out, as every person comes to find out, life is not a palm tree. Life is a tree, full of branches, bearing leaves of fulfillment, and buds that often fail to blossom. And sometimes that tree is covered in ivy that threatens to choke off a dream, forever hinder a plan.
Culley - you first grew branches in grade school when bullies tormented you, when your breakfast consisted of cereal and Mylanta. As you grew, we did everything we could to help nourish your trunk, yet more branches appeared - broken hearts, abuse, illness. Instead of breaking you, you grew taller, defying the ivy, finding the sun. Every lesson you have learned, you have paid for in emotional cost. Yet betrayal rewarded you with clarity. Abuse bestowed wise caution. Physical struggle provided you with patience, endurance, and the appreciation that escapes many of us - that of a simple day with no frailty, ailment, pain.
I look at your life, at your branches, the scars on your trunk that match the scars they left on my mother's heart when I simply could not keep them from happening. And while I would never wish them upon you again, I do not wish them away. They formed you, helped you grow, brought you to where you are today. They made you strong enough, brave enough to step forward, love again, and soon, to take his hand and forge a life together in Seattle. My pride in you is beyond any words even my mind could script. You are not a palm tree, you are a mighty oak.
Toby, every moment of your life has been about the unexpected. From your conception to your talent to your true self that lay hidden for many years, nothing has been as we had thought, planned, dreamt. Because we are human and we are limited in our ability to dream that big, that bold, that astonishing. Your trunk grew as your sisters' - strong, solid, nourished by parents who loved you unconditionally. Your branches began to grow like Culley's, at the hands of bullies, though yours were not only peers, but adults as well. You stood them all, letting their branches wither in the shadow of your integrity, self esteem, determination, maturity. The past few years, more ivy, this of depression, anxiety, inner turmoil, and pain were cast off by the strong branches of certainty, inner truth, clarity, and pride in who you are.
Everything we had planned, you had planned, branched off. Leaving behind soccer, stepping away from college, forging a path through a forest of darkness, you grew upward, stronger, your trunk unshakable, your face ever closer to the sun. What I thought was also a mighty oak has revealed itself to be a giant redwood. And my own branches are fuller and stronger for being allowed the privilege of growing alongside you.
Finally, Kendall, I saved you for last because your crossroads are here, your struggle is so present, your potential new branches fighting hard against the ivy that wishes to contain them, keep you growing like a palm tree. I get it. It is self imposed pruning born of a fierce need to control your path. For years in my young life I intentionally cut off my own branches, intent on thwarting life. I can tell you now, what remains in those spaces are lost opportunities, untapped resources, adventures that were never allowed to unfurl. And regret.
Pruning is control. Whether we do it to a literal tree or bush, or to ourselves, pruning forces a shape, a destination, a plan. But real life is not found in the discarded branches. It is found in the leaves, buds, thorns, and blossoms. It is also found in the fear.
The decision you face now is not deadly, but it may retard growth. It is a branch full of potential, an off ramp you did not plan, and only you can decide its fate. I would love to be your personal gardener, but that time is past. You hold the shears, the choices are all yours. I can only support you. And I do, fully, always, without question. Your determination, goal setting, planning, achieving have been humbling. Your entire family stands in awe of you and what you have already accomplished in your young life. Sheer will, determination, hard work, gumption, single mindedness - all bearing the amazing fruits of accomplishment. I have long seen your desire to be a palm tree, and I understand the inner push to control, grow one direction, and reach a goal without interruption.
I used to be single minded like that. Hell, there are days I still struggle against what is most organic in me. Against every impulse, every Type A inclination in my DNA, I have been forced to grow branches I wanted no part of at the time.
But I can tell you now, this many years and tree rings later, I am better for the branches, for the struggles, for the pain. My own tree is one full of unexpected experiences, unwanted detours, adventures, lessons learned, people met, chances taken. It is everything I want for you. With this decision, whatever it may be, a branch will grow. Life will out, and life will move you on. Whatever your choice, I ask only that you fully embrace it, free of regret, second guessing, what ifs, and fear.
I have raised you all to understand that "screaming at a wall will never move the wall." That sometimes the only path is to go around the wall, take the forced detour. I live in a place now where I see actual trees living that truth - trees as tall as palms, yet with unexpected branches along their paths upward, literal curves in their trunks as they accommodated what life threw, or grew, at them. In them, I see you, Kendall. They are Aspens. They grow, they see, they adapt, they move upward and onward, and they ultimately tower and bloom. They do get where they are intent on going.
As you each continue your growth, my breath remains held for your happiness, your health, your well being, your successes. And my heart wishes you the firm knowledge, born from the experiences of unexpected lessons, that your lives are not palm trees. Let them grow where they may, seek the sun through the shadows, and branch as fully and freely as they can.
I know this has been sappy, but I hope you grasp the roots of my meaning. (As if you thought you'd actually get out of this without a few bad puns.)
Waiting to exhale,