They say that until you love yourself, and properly, you’ll never be able to really love someone else. You’ll never know true love in all of its flashing and frequent and formidable forms.
But what’s the point of loving yourself first and foremost when it’s so much more interesting and compelling to love someone else? To spend the love you bank in your heart and soul on others? And who cares if you utterly deplete yourself in the process? Does it really matter if you have nothing else left to give?
Maybe it’s true about me, that I’ve never been able to embrace self-love, a decades-long dry spell that’s felt right as rain. Even now, now that my son has been with me for 17 months, it is something I cannot quite gather and grasp, even though I might hold a bunch of dying daisies as tightly in my fist as I hold him to me now. Flowers that should fall freely from my hand to seed the earth; flowers that might be pressed to hold their color and form between the pages of my old Black Beauty, or lie spread among lines of favorite poems. Flowers that blow along the wind, still alive in the journey they are taking, in a love they knew all to well.
Tonight, getting Tiger ready for his bath, I sat on the edge of the tub undressing him and wept buckets, heatedly and quickly. I didn’t want to cry with such shamelessness in front of him, yet it felt both safe and unsafe. Where did this come from, all of this lack? Why the fear of not being able for love as it comes (as it does every day)? Not feeling it, not feeling yourself. Not pushing the flood of love, the flowerbeds, the simple verses and complicated rhymes out of me, into the sun.
What do I know of love from within, for within? How it holds us and lets us go? How we let it go.
Moments before I’d shown Tiger a picture of one of the great friends of my life who died while I was in Kazakhstan readying to bring him home from the orphanage. I showed my son the picture and said, Who’s that? And then I couldn’t even tell him her name because the tears came on, heavy as harm, closing my throat and heating my skin.
Isn’t heat the temperature of love, in all if its guises, and isn’t it its color as well, the hothouse of flowers?
Tiger’s face. His cracker of a smile softens into something slightly afraid and very knowing. His eyes take on that darkening color of the sea as they do when he is serious about what’s right in front of him. He sweeps the back of his hand down my cheek. He looks up at me with small flowers of tears beginning in the curl of his lashes. He wants to know why I don’t quite reach in for the love he feels for the world, his family and himself.
This I can tell you about my son. He is kind. He is tender hearted above all things, tender as the night in all of it glories and sorrows and starlight. Tiger has a heart the size of the savannahs just south of here outside of Nairobi. A heart like a spinning wheel. Just and true and sweet and full, moving always towards you, for you, alongside you.
He stood in front of me tonight and took my face in his small workman’s hands and I don’t know how he knew, but he pulled me to him so that our necks crooked like commas. I held him fast, tighter and tighter, and I let go, but not of him. I let him love me back. The love I have for him, how cannot it not come back for me, a thief who haunts and dreams his own accords, but has every intention of not letting me be? My son’s fingers are strong and his mind is set. He will push love in and pull it out just as one might a daisy chain, as if he knows I am made for this. Potted tulips, penguin topiaries, hot orange bougainvillea that climbs and climbs.
For those few minutes on a Tuesday evening in February, I let the cleansing of a little boy’s love through all of my locked and aching doors. Mama, he said. No one’s ever so NOT let go of me.
He is 28 months old.