When I check on my five-year-old son before I go to bed at night, I whisper in his ear while he sleeps. I like the idea of sending positive messages to penetrate his subconscious, maybe making him stronger and confident, making him feel loved and safe. I usually say something empowering: “You can grow up to be anything you want to be.” Or “You can do anything you want to do.”
Lately, I’ve changed to a simple, “I love you.”
A year ago, my mother was diagnosed with an incurable neurodegenerative disease called Multiple System Atrophy. It causes progressive disability then death usually in less than a decade. For twelve months, I’ve weaved through and sunk into the internet, searching for information, clinical trials, doctors, and potential treatments. I’ve made dozens of phone calls and sent a hundred emails. I’ve gone to doctors’ appointments and talked to others with the disease. And I’ve found nothing to help, at least not in the way that I want to help.
I am not able to do what I want to do.
Before a year ago, I would’ve sworn that with hard work, the right attitude, and perseverance, anything is possible. I remember a night when I was in college, watching the news with my father. There was some terrible international conflict happening. I was convinced we could all find a way to get along if we just tried, and then there could be peace. I said so. My dad said, “You see the world with rose-colored glasses.”
For my fortieth year, the world gave us my mother’s diagnosis and me clearer lenses—the irony of improved eyesight at the beginning of middle age.
Children can have bullshit detectors better than any grown-up’s, and I’m sensitive to this when my son says he’s going to be an astronaut and fly to Mars when he gets bigger. He is obsessed with driving a Mars Rover, even though I tell him they’re automated, unmanned. “Mommy, will you come with me?” he asks me sometimes. I explain that people need to go to school, work hard, and then train for many years before they can go into space.
He nods. “I know, I know, but will you come with me?”
When I say that this question causes a crisis within me, I mean it can take me seven minutes or more to respond. In my head, I review the facts: NASA’s space shuttle program is retired. Do they even need astronauts anymore? I’ll be old when he graduates. I get terrible motion sickness.
My mother is sick. I can’t save her.
“Yes,” I say. “I will come with you.”
Maybe we all can’t do what we want to in life, but maybe some of us can. Maybe my son can.
I’ll be there while he tries. Even if all I can say is, “I love you.”