That is the weird self-annihilation at the heart of the job, as the novelist Edwidge Danticat observed. The ultimate goal of raising a child, she wrote, is to give the child everything she needs to leave you: “to get bigger, smarter, to crawl, babble, walk, speak, to have birthdays that you hope you’ll live to see.”
I knew about all that as I was raising my two daughters, but I knew it with my head only, not my gut. I was 26 when the older one was born, 30 for the next one, and I had every expectation of hanging around for a long, long time even after they learned to walk away from me. I planned to live to see, and share in, birthday after birthday after birthday.
But as a grandmother, I have no such belief; the anguish is in my gut at last. I have internalized the stinging knowledge that, beneath all the encouragement you give your children to grow and walk and speak and leave, beneath all the wonderful moments you may be lucky enough to share in and enjoy, your grandchild’s life will be a long string of birthdays you will not live to see.
My friend Barbara lives in New York City, and she tries to get down to Washington, D.C., every month or so to visit her two grandsons. On one such visit, her younger grandson was playing with her jewelry. He asked to look more closely at her wedding ring.
“Can I have this when I’m married?” he asked. He was 4.
“Sure,” Barbara said.
He looked at her engagement ring. “Can my wife have this?” he asked.
Again she said, “Sure.”
“Then it hit me — I’ll never see him get married,” Barbara told me later. “I’ll never meet his wife.”