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Jun 6 2012

On My Birthday, This One’s for My Folks

By at 10:09 am

39th birthdayIt’s my birthday today. Apparently, once you’re past a certain age, it’s somewhat unseemly to be jubilant about one’s own birthday. Well, too bad–I am anyway. Today is the beginning of the last year of my 30s. Rather than feel old (come on!) or anything stupid like that, I feel blessed. What better time to look back on the most tumultuous decade of my life–and to thank the two people who got me through it with flying colors: my parents.

Of course, my parents were great during the other decades of my life, too. I grew up in one of those mythical entities known as a non-dysfunctional family, where everyone genuinely liked as well as loved each other (really!).  I was the oldest of four siblings. I was on the editorial board of the school newspaper and literary magazine, star of the school musical, and about as straight-edge as a person can get while still being liked by more than three people. I had a charmed life with my charmed family.

Fast-forward to my 20s, because that’s when I decided to marry the wrong person. Hindsight is 20/20, people say. But it is not only in retrospect that this person was not the right one for me: it was readily evident to even casual observers at the time. Suffice it to say that when your fiance’s 11-year-old cousin stands up at your engagement party and makes a toast saying, “May you guys be happy, until you get divorced,” you might want to take a second in the horrible silence that follows that remark to run as fast as you can for the nearest exit.

For the sake of my children, I’m speaking in deliberately oblique terms, but suffice it to say that it was a time of tremendous conflict and upheaval in my family. In choosing to marry this man, I chose to ignore loving well-intentioned advice as well as my own fundamental misgivings–after all, weren’t the latter just “pre-wedding jitters”? As it turns out, when all the people you love in your life counsel you to go in one direction, you should stop and listen.

But my parents, to their eternal credit, never gave up on me or wrote me off. Of course, it was unbearably painful to see their daughter make a life-changing mistake. And yet, they had the strength of character to make it clear that despite their misgivings about the marriage, their love for me was unconditional. And they also made it clear that I should never be ashamed to call on them if and when I ever needed their help.

And years later, I did call on them for help, and I did feel ashamed. I wanted to leave my marriage but was frightened that in doing so, I would effectively be forfeiting my children’s childhood and happiness. My parents responded to that by doing something above and beyond anything I’d ever expected: they opened not only their hearts to me, but also their home. I moved back home with my then 3- and 1-year-old sons, and my parents spent the next few years intensively helping the three of us to live, recover, and heal.

Not only did my parents provide unlimited support–legally, along with childcare and ever-present listening ears–but in doing so, they showed me with each day and night what love really was, and that their love for me and my children was boundless. The three of us came into what should have been their “empty nest,” well-earned after parenting four children. But the mother and father bird who resided there made room, and modeled what a loving, stable, and good family should be. My children knew very little acrimony in their formative years, despite the divorce, and that was entirely because they were sheltered by the home my parents provided, the very home I had grown up in.

Were it not for my parents, I may never have had the strength to break away from my marriage, and to know that it was okay to acknowledge my own mistakes. I also might never have rebuilt my self-esteem and self-confidence to the point where I could be a truly secure and good parent for my boys. Were it not for my parents, I never would have recovered from the devastation of divorce. And, were it not for their sheer babysitting stamina, I never would have had the time to forge the love and relationship that I did with the man who later became my husband, and a loving stepfather to my boys and loving father to our girls.

So as I look at how fortunate I feel today, I know that it is entirely because of my parents. My happiness today is because of their strength at a time when I had none, their love at a time when I despaired of finding any, and their unequivocal belief in me, their daughter, when even I didn’t have much faith in myself.

Kaved et avicha v’et imecha–the Torah commands us to “honor your mother and father.” Growing up, I didn’t really know what that meant. To honor someone is different, I think, from simply respecting them. To truly do honor to someone is to live your life utterly invigorated by what those you would honor have taught you. To truly honor someone means not paying lip service, but living and breathing as they have taught you to live–not by their words, but rather, by their example.

I will work my entire life to emulate my parents’ strength and love. And if I do my job right, I’ll know–because then my children will one day be similarly honored by their own.


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