Another day in the seed-shattering factory of life

Today has been one of those days where I feel like my body is neither big enough nor strong enough to contain my life.

I started the day with an early meeting at the hospital, talking with a scientist who works in reproductive research and in vitro fertilization. She herself had fertility problems in her younger days, and ended up with triplets who are now in their mid-20s. My colleagues and I spent two hours listening to her tell about her research and the sorts of reproductive riddles that she has encountered in the course of working with some of the hospital’s most challenging patients who want desperately to have children.

When I got back to the office, I opened my email to find that we were having a big press conference to announce a recent successful bi-lateral hand transplant. The transplant recipient is a man who has lived the past nine years using prosthetic arms and legs to live a life that has included painting, drawing, and writing. He became a candidate for this medical miracle in part because he desperately wanted to be able to hug his wife, children, and grandchildren again.

Just before it was time to head to the conference room where our office was gathering to watch the press conference, I got a text message from GForce. She was in the guidance office at her school, sobbing about an awful humiliation that happened in class, as a result of an insensitive and idiotic remark by a substitute teacher.

I spent the next hour talking by phone about the situation with PW, then with GForce, and then with the school principal, and then with GForce again.

Some people say that having children is like ripping your heart out of your chest so it can walk around outside your body for the rest of your life. I’ve never really felt that way, maybe because as much as I love metaphor, that particular one doesn’t ring true for me.

Sprouting seed

For me, parenting is a daily exercise in living through the inevitable and relentless pain and delight of watching little seeds shatters their hulls and send their tendrils of hope, disbelief, wonder, fear, and/or confidence up toward the sun. That, and the repetitive experience of being one such seed that surrenders itself to new growth, over and over and over again.

I used to work for a guy who was fond of saying, “We’re either growing or we’re dying.” While I think there is some truth to that, I also think that there is no growth without death. Each episode of growth – whether it’s a sudden epiphany that causes (or is caused by) a tectonic shift, or the slow peeling back of a cloud of unknowing into some bright new valley of awareness – each of those episodes is like a seed shattering its hull. The seed has to die – to give up its essential seedliness – so that the plant can be born.

It’s easy for me to see my children as seeds as I watch them grow from one stage to another, oscillating through varying degrees of dependence, independence, and interdependence. It’s harder to watch them do all that while remembering that I’m a seed, too. We’re all of us shifting, growing, changing, watching old paradigms give way to new ones, or explicitly destroying frameworks that don’t fit anymore so that we can make way for new ones that can accommodate and support our evolving hopes, disbeliefs, wonders, fears, and/or confidences.

So instead of attending the webcast of the press conference with my peers, I sat alone in my office talking on my phone. I shook with anger while attempting, mostly successfully, to speak calmly, coherently, and intelligently with PW, the school principal, and GForce. In between calls, I muttered many bad words.

Meanwhile, the hand transplant press conference unfolded behind me on my computer monitor. Apparently, there was a part of the press conference where they showed photos from the operating room, where you see this waxy yellowish transplanted arm flushing pink as the blood begins flowing into it. This was probably happening while I wobbled my way through my phone calls. By the time I got off the phone and turned to look at the computer, I was looking at the transplant recipient, sitting there with his two new and normal-looking hands resting atop a pile of what looked like pillows or sandbags.

Five days a week I come to work at a place where medical miracles occur on a daily basis: new life is born, in a lab dish, or in a disease cured, or in the birthing rooms, or in a newly transplanted limb or face or heart or lung. Tragedies also happen here. People die too soon, or too painfully, or agonizingly slowly. Or their minds die before their hearts do, and their bodies become like seeds that won’t ever crack open.

My hospital is like every individual life. Each of us is a combination of both the things that happen to us and the choices we make about how we’re going to live – or die – with what has happened to us. When GForce asked me if she could leave school for the day, I told her she can’t control what people say to her but she can control how much of the space they take up in her head.

“That beautiful, amazing space inside your head – that is all yours,” I said. “Don’t let anyone else take it from you, especially idiots and ignorant jerks who don’t deserve to have it in the first place.” I felt pretty proud of myself for not using any bad words while I was talking to her.

I started my day hearing jaw-dropping stories about the extraordinary measures some people go to in order to become parents, and the miraculous things science can do to make that dream come true. I have just now looked at the photos of a man’s new arms come to life, arms donated out of the unfathomable generosity of a family who had just lost a loved one.

They don’t tell you that parenting is an exercise in being broken open over and over again. But, if we really thought about it, how could we not already know this? All of life is an exercise in being broken open over and over again. As a parent, it’s excruciating to watch this happen to people I feel an irrational need to protect from any and all harm. From what my own parents tell me, this is true whether your children are infants or in their 50s.

An hour after our initial conversation, GForce called me again, begging to go home. This day is too hard, she said. I thought to myself, “I know. I know. Believe me, I know.” I took a deep breath and reminded her of horse races we have watched together, and how some horses have blinders on to help them focus, and others don’t. I told her, “Put blinders on so all you see are the people who support you.”

“Okay, but I have English class next. I’m supposed to write an essay in class, and I don’t know how I’ll be able to focus on writing an essay with all this stuff that’s happened.”

“Then escape into the essay,” I said. “Let the essay rescue you.”

So I did.

“We Get to Feel it All” by Emily Saliers

My my how time flies
First time I met you had to shade my eyes
Staring into the sun can make a girl blind
Now here we sit in a shadier spot
Got what I wanted, and I want what I got
Through no will of my own
I just found my way home

But, here is what I learned about you
You set the sun and you hung the moon
Mid October or the month of June
Temperatures rise and fall
We get to feel it all
Sometimes I can’t tell
You’re open like a book or shut like a shell
But if I hold you to my ear
I can hear the whole world
Dark stories of a distant past
Our time created in a single blast
You like to laugh at me because I’m serious
Yes it’s true, but

Here is what I learned about you
You set the sun and you hung the moon
Mid October or the month of June
Temperatures rise and fall
We get to feel it all
We get to feel it all
We get to feel it all
We get to feel it all

Time waits for no one
So I’m remembering that day in the sun
How I was thinking you needed time to cool down
Circumstances make us tired and colder
Well, that’s my coat thrown around your shoulder
And I know you’ll give it back to me if I need it
I believe it

Here is what I learned about you
You set the sun and you hung the moon
Mid October or the month of June
Temperatures rise and fall

Here is what I learned about you
You set the sun and you hung the moon
Mid October or the month of June
Temperatures rise and fall
We get to feel it all


11 responses to “Another day in the seed-shattering factory of life

  1. Joy, I just don’t know how you write so that I travel the journey with you. Thanks for sharing this post. It has become my favorite from you. And, if you didn’t watch “Harry’s Law” last evening, take a look at it.

  2. Almost speechless and totally awed. Yes, that is what parenting is. You got it. Yes, that is what living is. Got that too. Almost I just want to hold you both and keep you safe, and yet there is no such thing! I think I’ll just be grateful that you see and live and love so clearly and that you have the gift of sharing it with others. I will share this with my own young who are parents. Thanks and love are all around you and G Force and PW. ..betsy

  3. Joy I so totally and completely identify with this post — especially this week when my heart has been particularly thrown around by my kids’ travails (particularly the younger one’s). Parenting sure can leave you reeling.Sounds like you said all the right things!

  4. GForce is one lucky young woman. The whole seed-shattering metaphor is so powerful, even (or maybe especially) for those of us who aren’t parents. You are a miracle all by yourself. “Thank you” seems inadequate for what you give us.

  5. Absolutely. Yes. When I get tired over here, will you come be my kids’ mom for a couple hours? Thank you.

  6. No words at my command can tell the depth of my thanks to you for this marvelous post. You and GForce and PW and and your whole family, including three furry animals who are lucky enough to soak up your boundless life-force will be in my conscious awareness as never before!

  7. Joy, when I drove away from the funeral of a colleague’s 16-year-old son who had committed suicide a few weeks ago, I thought, Dodged a bullet in not being able to conceive and have a child. Phew! I’ll never have the possibility of knowing from *that* sort of grief.

    Even as I was comforting myself with that thought, I knew that also, I would never know from the sort of joy you reflect when talking about learning about different horses’ personalities with your kid and being able to call up the memory to soothe your GForce with it.

    I’m so grateful for your writing. It enlarges me (and I’m already pretty big).

  8. I have had the privilege of watching a seedling grow into a magnificent blossoming human being whose wisdom leaves me breathless. Thank you for continuing to inspire and teach me.

  9. I feel the need to hug GForce, and tell her I’m glad to be in her family. Would you do that for me?

  10. Joy, I don’t know you – and yet I do. I am a seedling (again!) feeling pretty broken by adult children, who in their busy-ness attend to building careers and new family relationships. The old relationships are rigidly established or tossed aside in that forward momentum. I am trying to find a perspective which will turn the pain of rejection or (more precisely) disregard, into something that will be healthier for me….and all of us. I must find a way to forge friendships (which I thought I’d done?) now that the parental relationships are rarely required.

    So, yes, keep building your parent-child relationship but don’t forget the Joy/GForce one. Intentionally build a lasting friendship dialogue as well. And I thank you for your postings which I find inciteful and honest.

  11. you continue to amaze. your writing, your perspective, simply your joy-ness. you’re a gift.

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