Three years ago, just before Christmas, my husband discovered a lump in my daughter Eloise’s upper arm. She was freshly two at the time. We took her to the doctor with the foolish hope it was just a swollen lymph node—foolish because the lump really wasn’t near her armpit at all, but a parent will cling to the most unreasonably optimistic explanation until proven wrong.
When our pediatrician referred Eloise for an ultrasound, he mentioned the possibility of a muscular tumor.
I’ve never experienced such sudden tears.
Usually there’s some sort of warning or build-up, like my throat constricting or my breath catching. I now understand that there’s a river of worry that runs constantly within me. I am generally unaware of it until situations like this, through which my sense of security reveals itself as a flimsy dam.
Mercifully, it wasn’t a tumor, but it was something the doctor called “vanishingly rare”: a brachial artery aneurysm. We had it surgically repaired and sought answers through scans, genetics, endocrinology, and hours of my own shoddy research. We found no explanation; we might never find one.
I recognize how fortunate we are.
Eloise is alive and thriving, and we now know there are many disorders she does not have. However, the whole ordeal revealed to me the tenuous position of a parent’s heart. C.S. Lewis understood this keenly: that great love cannot exist without at least the possibility of great pain. He wrote,
“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
I am reminded of this truth not only when I fear for my children’s safety, but also when I examine the ways I’ve let them down at the end of a day; when I’ve faced tantrum cries such as “I wish you weren’t my mom”; and when I witness other people hurt their feelings.
To be a mother is to be an open wound. What a brilliant man Lewis was to use the phrase “coffin of selfishness.” Yes, our hearts become unbreakable, impenetrable, and irredeemable when we do not love, but they also, he implies, do not beat at all.