When novelist Toni Morrison died last month, my social media feed was filled with tributes. I wanted to participate but I couldn’t just say “R.I.P.” or simply pick my favorite quote. It wouldn’t do justice to the gift of language Morrison had given me.
I read her novel Beloved, set in the slave-holding American south, during my sophomore year of college, the same year I found myself unexpectedly pregnant, carrying a child whom I would give up for adoption. Beloved does not have a happy ending and in the final chapter, the main character Sethe grieves for the baby girl she has “lost.” She laments to her friend Paul, “She was my best thing.”
At 19 I read that line and my heart stopped. I didn’t know how to say it before, but it was true.
“She was my best thing” was everything I believed about the life growing within me and she was gone, or about to be. I remember telling Tim the story of Sethe and her daughter, confessing my deepest fears – that having this child and letting her go might be the “best thing” I would ever do.
I was right, but not entirely. Sarah Moses was “my best thing,” but I went on to marry Tim and he engraved “my best thing” inside my wedding ring. I gave birth to three more children who became “my best thing” – one after another.
“My best thing” became a collective noun for my people, the ones for whom my heart beats and breaks and elates.
And as Toni Morrison passed from this earth this summer, I once again entered a phase of letting go of “my best thing” one by one.
Last month, I drove Finn to Yosemite National Park to embark on a 200+ mile trek on the John Muir Trail. I was so excited for him to make this journey, right up until it came time for him to walk into the woods. Then the water works started…. I wasn’t worried about the danger. Rather it hit me that this was Joseph-Campbell level shit. He will be a different person on the other side of this trip – transformed by the solitude, the hardship and the beauty of the experience. “My best thing” is out there alone.
This past week, I flew to the east coast to visit Keara and help her organize a new life in Providence, Rhode Island. After her first post-college gig as a scenic carpenter with Williamstown Theater Festival this summer, I thought she was returning home. Instead she got an opportunity to stay and start a new life with new friends in a new city. I am beyond excited for her, but still…. All week long, I was overwhelmed by cognitive dissonance. This is exactly what I wanted for her, but suddenly it seemed like the worst idea in the world. “My best thing” is 3,000 miles away from me for the foreseeable future.
This last Monday Molly began her senior year of high school. My baby “best thing” is still under my roof, still available for morning hugs and good night kisses, still asking me to be involved in her life on a daily basis. For that I am grateful, but I know it’s just a matter of time. This is slow-motion letting go, day by day, month by month until next fall when it’s her time to say goodbye. I don’t know where she’s headed, but “my best thing” won’t be here with me anymore.
As I enter this phase of my parenting journey, I am more convinced than ever that Love means letting go – of our fears, agendas, projections, and pride – and at the same time Love means showing up – authentically, humbly, and gratefully. What a privilege it is to Love and be Loved. Truly, it is the “best thing” any of us can hope for.
It’s been a month, but I finally want to thank Toni Morrison for giving me the language to say goodbye, while still holding on to the ones I love.
Your gift was prodigious; your spirit was generous and the legacy of your language will live on in my heart forever.