This is an excerpt from a creative memoir I wrote for my boys called Letters in my Pocket. The narrator is Nick, and Stephen finds letters in his pockets from my dad about life lessons:
Love. Can love be unconditional? Our mom and dad tell us that it can and no matter how bad anything is we can always go to them. We tested that when we first moved into our new house on Carpenter Way in 2004. Stephen and I were outside throwing a baseball. We both used to play for Halfmoon Baseball. I liked being with my friends more than the game, and I quit when it changed to kid pitch and three strikes. I needed more than three chances to hit that ball.
Not Stephen. He’s a lefty and has a good eye. He would swing and that ball would rocket toward the outfield when he was only in T-ball! Plus he had an arm that could throw the ball from third base to home.
Anyway, we were tossing the ball and I got bored. I walked around the house thinking about where I could hide it from Stephen. On the back of the house is this straight white tube that blows out smoke. I placed the ball in there and pushed just a little bit. Stephen saw me. So much for hiding it. I stuck my fingers in to get the ball and it stuck. My jaw dropped and my heart tripled beats. I was in trouble. Supportive brother that he is, Stephen ran to let Mom know what I did.
My parents were a little upset, but they hoped I learned my lesson after the $80 service fee to remove the ball. It is on my shelf to remind me to think before I act. But after Poppa’s note, it also reminds me that my parents’ love can get me through anything.
Stephen’s lesson was a little harder learned. We love going to the driving range to hit golf balls with our dad. Right now we are outside hitting them into our woods, but make sure we give each other plenty of room. Last year I whacked Stephen in the head with my club. What can I say? I’m a klutz. I take after my mom’s side, but don’t tell her I said that!
Dad is installing a wood floor in our dining room. He told Stephen not to break anything. Mom warned him again because our neighbor has been asking us to not hit any kind of ball into her yard. I’m inside getting a drink. Stephen stomps in shortly after. His cheeks are red. I decide to have a seat and wait for the show.
“I don’t want to hit the ball anymore, because I don’t want to break anything,” Stephen says.
“OK,” my mom answers.
Mothers—they have some crazy way of knowing, give you that ‘I know what you’ve done’ look, and then wait you out. It didn’t take Stephen five minutes. Show time.
He whispers something in Mom’s ear, wraps his arms around her waist, and tucks his face in her armpit.
“What?” she asks and leans closer. She kisses his head and the three of us go outside.
Holy cracked fog light Batman! Stephen shattered Mom’s fog light on her Dodge Durango. Stephen was swinging his club and, when he swung back, he hit the car.
Mom tells him how proud she is that he told her and she didn’t find out on her own. She also says he would need to tell Dad. He didn’t want to because he thought Dad would be angry. Stephen tells Dad, but he doesn’t want to take responsibility for what he did—like it was the golf club’s fault or something. Mom and Dad say he would have to pay for it and since it was an accident, he would help Dad install a new one. Stephen flips out about that. Dad hugs him anyway. Even though he admits his mistake, he still needs to be responsible and fix it.
I expect to find Stephen in his room reading a letter from Poppa about listening to your parents and taking responsibility. Instead, he’s playing his Nintendo DS. I guess my parents got it right. A car can be replaced and a ball can be removed. But Love? I imagine Poppa would say that the world would be a better place if we had a superhero whose power was love.
Our love for others is tested, when life doesn’t go as planned or bad things happen. They can be small like breaking a headlight or betraying someone’s trust. The most important lesson I could ever have taught my boys was unconditional love. Love that is not subject to any conditions, unreserved, wholeheartedly, absolute, unrestricted, eternal.
I’m not sure I always made it clear that my love is unconditional as my showing disappointment or my actions might make my son feel like love is based on him doing what his parents want. Finding balance with supporting your child and wanting the very best for them is often at conflict. What I feel is best for my son might not be what he wants or thinks is best for him. When kids are younger, we lay the groundwork for values, integrity, hard work, kindness, and raising our kids how we believe is the right way.
If the most important lesson is unconditional love, the hardest one is letting them live their own lives. Building that foundation and then giving them the space to forge their own path is so incredibly difficult! I can’t force my son to live the life I see for him any more than my parents could for me. We could spend our whole life making our children feel inadequate by forcing our expectations on them.
Or we could communicate our love. Some things are better off being said. Making sure my son knows how much his parents love him without a doubt or expectation attached is key to him finding his truth and his place in this world.
Like Nick said, a broken car light can be fixed. Not sharing our love would cause permanent damage. Don’t wait. Tell someone you love how you feel and don’t place conditions on it. Enjoy the love as it is. Cultivate it, nourish it, and watch how that love grows.