Philomena was the last film I saw over the holiday season. I kept hearing how good it was, but I was hesitant. As a birth mother, I didn’t know how much it would hurt. Some of the movie really hit home with me. Not most of it, just some. What Philomena Lee experienced as a young, unwed mother took place in a different time and under a different set of circumstances all together.
The scene I related to the most came near the end when she was able to watch a collection of home movies of her son growing up, from the day he was taken from her to the day he died. His joys, his accomplishments, his loves played out on the screen before her, while tears filled her eyes.
I know that scene. I lived it out for years, over and over again, equally delighted and devastated. In those moments, captured on screen, or in a 4×6 snapshot, you see everything your child has gained by being lost to you: the adoring mom and dad, a beautiful home, pretty clothes. But most of all, what Philomena and I witnessed were the countless opportunities our children had that we could not provide. It seemed they could be anything they wanted to be, unhampered by us, young women unprepared to be a mother.
I watched most of Sarah’s young life unfold through pictures – her days at the beach and preschool graduation, her 1st day of Catholic school and the pride and joy she felt holding her baby sister. To celebrate her fifth birthday, Tim pulled them all together for me in a movie called “Sarah Smiles.” As Hall and Oates crooned the hit song, I watched my baby girl’s life go by in three-second frames. From start to finish, her blue eyes and huge grin never faded though her chubby cheeks and pale pink skin gave way to wispy white hair and a freckled nose. When our “open” adoption became more open and I met Sarah for the first time just before her 7th birthday, I took a hundred pictures in one afternoon. As the years have gone by and we see each other more regularly, I still have to hold myself back from chasing her around with a camera; I don’t want to forget a single moment.
Author and poet Mark Nepo tells the story of a Hindu monk, frustrated by the constant complaints of his student. One day, he told the young man to throw a handful of salt in a cup and drink it. When asked how it tasted, the student said, “Bitter.” The monk then asked him to throw a handful of salt into the lake and to drink from it. He asked how it tasted and the young man said, “Fresh.”
Our life experiences, especially the difficult ones, are the salt in our hands, but whether we taste life’s bitterness, or sweetness depends on the vessel from which we choose to drink. The cup is so much easier, always on hand and socially acceptable. The lake takes an effort; it’s a walk and we have to get down on our knees and reach out to find the sweetness we desire.
In the movie, Philomena found the sweetness. She had been wronged; her child was stolen from her. She endured a lifetime of punishment for a few moments of pleasure. But despite all the church did to prevent her from finding or reconciling with her son, Philomena forgave them. She rejected the cup of bitterness, telling the nun who kept them apart, “I forgive you, because I don’t want to remain angry.” The journalist telling her story thinks she is a fool for doing so. He is angry, drinking cup after cup from her life and wondering why she won’t join him. But what need did Philomena have for a cup when she had made her life the size of a lake?
I had hoped to watch the film with Tim, or my mom, someone who had walked through my adoption with me. Maybe we could relive some old memories and talk about the past, but instead I saw the film with Keara and I am so glad I did. As the credits rolled, I realized we were right where we were supposed to be. It was a profound moment, realizing this movie wasn’t about my past; it was about my present.
I looked over at Kiko and tears filled my eyes. I squeezed her hand and thought about how my time and influence with her are waning. She is almost seventeen years old and I don’t think I truly understood until that moment what a privilege it is to parent my own child.
We think we have a right to it; we know we have a responsibility, but do we ever acknowledge what a gift it is?
In the darkened theater, I leaned over and whispered to her:
It has been my privilege to raise you and I have taken it for granted. I am so filled with gratitude for the opportunity to be your mom, to watch you grow each and every day, to experience life through your eyes and to be changed by your choices. Thank you for loving me and for letting me love you the way I do.
As I tucked Finn and Molly in to bed that night, I told them the same thing – how grateful I was for the opportunity to be their mom. It is a gift to hear their voices, to watch them walk through the front door, to go to sleep each night each night with them safely beneath my roof. I have taken it for granted that I could touch their hair, kiss their cheeks, hold their hands, but it’s all a miracle. Somehow, they are mine to care for. Everything I lost when I let Sarah go, I have experienced three times over, which makes it all the more bearable and yet bittersweet.
Parenting is so much salt in our hands. It challenges us physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually and when things are hard, I choose the cup too often. I can cite convenience, busyness, or stress; I can point out how at least one of them is moody, messy, hungry, entitled, or demanding at any given time. I can always find an excuse, but the truth is I don’t want any bitterness, or even indifference in my life. I want the sweetness that comes with gratitude, grace and Love, the freshness that comes from knowing it is all a miracle. So I will continue to take a walk each day, to get on my knees and reach out my hands to the fresh water. I will drink it all in.
Thank you, Philomena, for reminding me how.