For María’s first birthday with us, in May of 2001, we had a pool and piñata party. In those days, FAO Schwarz still had a store in Aventura that included an amazing candy section. I went down and bought gummy fishes, starfish, even a gummy sting ray and an octopus. I baked her cake from scratch and used the 7-minute frosting recipe (from the old, old version of the Joy of Cooking) my mom taught me to make when I was 8 or 9. It was a lovely party.
This week, she turns 17. For those of you who live in Fort Lauderdale (or who are familiar with the chain), it may amuse you to hear that she’s wanted us to take her to Morton’s Steakhouse to celebrate. Those plans were actually in place but because it is so critically important for her to finally get some kind of grasp on her behavior, going out to dinner for her birthday was contingent on making her days at school this week–that is, following the rules, not losing control, doing her work. Already today, I have a note from her teacher that it was a pretty God-awful day in Whispering Pines. We will wait until she has made a different set of choices to celebrate. As long as she gets back on track between now and Thursday, her actual Birthday, we will see her and give her a hug that day and I will keep her presents for another day.
It is awfully hard. It is not what I would want for her and I remember the illusions that went with that first little party all those years ago. In the intervening years there have been plenty of disappointments and so much to learn about the nature of love. The hardest and best thing I have learned about is forgiveness. I have had to forgive myself for everything I didn’t understand or know about mothering a child like ours. Forgiving her begins with a far clearer sense of boundaries than I would ever have learned without my daughter. It has meant understanding that she is not in this world to please me or meet whatever needs, hopes or dreams I might have harbored for myself. Love can grow and flourish even when the other person’s ability to reciprocate is limited and fractured and even distorted. I have also come to understand that I simply cannot take her failures personally nor demonize her when she does the truly harmful things she is capable of. I do however, have to understand that what is in her best interest may not be easy to do. Forgiving her is not the same as allowing her to do things that keep harming her and others. That I cannot do.
Yesterday was Mother’s Day. Unexpectedly it turned painful and sad as I began the Eucharistic Prayer at the main service at church. My mother’s absence was overwhelming right then. But I also got to look up and there was María, singing in the choir. At the end of the service, she came up and knelt for the lovely Birthday prayer found on page 850 of the BCP. Others gathered around her and their hands and mine were on her as we said those beautiful words of blessing. If that is all that I get to do to celebrate the absolute wonder of her existence, of the fact that she survived rejection from her birth mother and the woman who had bought her before her birth, and a million other horrible things as she began her life, then I have gotten to do something absolutely magnificent and it is enough. That too goes to the heart of the forgiveness that has found its way into my heart and life.
Several years ago, I was fortunate to get to go to a writer’s workshop at what was the College of Preachers at the National Cathedral in DC. The chapel had a simply amazing cross that I have thought of over and over again through the years since then. This, this is what there is to learn about loving a child, my child, my forever child…