She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power
Zephyr often comes into my bedroom early in the morning to sift through my clothes, deciding what she might want to borrow. Sometimes she asks, and sometimes she usurps. Sometimes I ask her to take them off, sometimes I say sure, go ahead, and sometimes I look the other way, pretending not to notice she has on my new t-shirt or leggings or boots.
Sometimes she just wants to use my sink, because the hot water comes out quicker. She often asks me to braid her hair in the roughly ten minutes we have left before rushing to school. I still need to choose an outfit, or I want to finish an assignment, but I look at her when she speaks. I watch her as she toys with her golden hair, a coy supplication that melts me. I love this girl. No matter how she looks at me, no matter what words she uses to ask, no matter what time it is or what I have left to accomplish, I braid her hair.
I know this won’t last. I know the backwards-side-french-braid she requests is only a phase, and she will grow out of it. I know she will not always live with me, that she will not always steal my clothes, that one day she will have nicer things of her own. So I ask her what style she wants today; I pause my own routine, and I braid her hair. I haven’t once said no.
I have been told that love shouldn’t always be like this. Sometimes we are supposed to say no. But my love for her isn’t complicated. It isn’t fraught with compromise and worry for how she might take advantage of me or our bond. As her mother, I have provided structure and discipline throughout her childhood, and I have set high expectations, but my love for her isn’t fraught with worry for the future. She knows who she is and how to ask for what she wants, and she freely accepts attention and praise when they are offered to her. I know eventually she will stop asking me to braid her hair, stop asking for my hot water and clothes and for sips of my morning coffee, but that won’t be the end of us.
I wish all love was as straightforward.
My friends say I don’t have high enough expectations. They say I shouldn’t be nice to people who aren’t nice to me, or that it’s not healthy to love people who aren’t in a position to love me back.
They are undoubtedly right.
I don’t give love in order to receive love. I love because it’s the air I want to breathe, the world I want to live in. Sometimes I love those who love me back. Sometimes I love those who hurt me. One love isn’t greater than the other. The practice of loving is the practice of loving. Love is its own reward, regardless of the outcome.
Breathe in, breathe out.
My mother liked to quote Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. She would say, “If I try and bend that far, I’ll break.” She recited a list of things that would break her: piercing our ears, dying our hair, listening to pop music, kissing a boy before marriage. She taught me that love requires high standards, and that to give it away is a weakness. So she never gave it to me, in actions or in words. She taught me not to need it, not to crave it, not to expect it. Not even when I behaved.
The first time I broke one of her rules, I apologized. I begged for her forgiveness. She turned her head from me, as if from Sodom. And she never looked back. I got degrees and gave her grandchildren. I earned money and bought her things I knew she needed. But she couldn’t look at me, couldn’t bend.
Breathe in, breathe out.
I refuse to use love as a negotiation tool. I don’t withhold love until I get what I want, or require people to earn it or to behave in ways I want them to. If I can’t love someone exactly as they are, where they are, I’m not offering the air I want to breathe. Unlike Zephyr, I struggle to accept love, but I will continue to offer it unabashedly and completely, and I no longer see this as a source of shame. What I used to hate myself for, I no longer work to change. Yes, I love those who hurt me. And yes, sometimes that gives them license to hurt me again. Does this sometimes cause me to suffer? Yes.
As the Buddha says, life is suffering. (Or as Westley says to Buttercup, “Life is pain, Highness. And anyone who says anything else is selling something.”) To deny suffering is to deny reality and to suffer more. Loving someone who doesn’t love you back is painful.
But not, I think, as painful as not loving.