I met him in the frozen vegetables section. He was looking for carrots.
Zoe was in the baby seat of the grocery cart, spitting repetitively (it’s a new “skill,” one she shared with an airplane full of people yesterday and the congregation members at our traditional service today. You’re welcome.)
He looked over and smiled. “She has a lot to say, doesn’t she?”
I smiled back, a bit ruefully. “She sure does.”
“She always will,” he said. “I have a 13 year old and she still has a lot to say. It’s important to listen.”
I pleasantly agreed. He looked at Zoe again.
“They grow up fast. My baby’s starting high school this week.”
And then I heard it. The emotion in his voice.
The follow up question was already out of my mouth. I don’t know what it is about me, but roughly every fifth person I encounter winds up letting me in on their emotional junk. I’ve had conversations about body image and divorces over the ab mats at the gym, given free life coaching to the bagger at the grocery store who feels stuck in his life (I only buy $75 worth of groceries at a time…so he opened up fast,) and learned the family history of a lady I met on the airplane yesterday, culminating in me volunteering to pray for her ailing mother. What the heck.
I honestly don’t even think I’m that good of a listener. I’m just a sucker for the verbal ellipses that indicate more to the story and I long for everyone to feel heard and understood. Put those together and you have hour and a half long trips to the grocery store and a man crying in the frozen food section.
And that’s what he did.
We talked about how his baby was starting high school and turning 14, all in one week. He’s worried about high school. Time is going too fast. Will she get hurt? Will it be a good experience for her?
I knew a little about the high school she was attending and I reassured him that she will meet some good kids—that I know some good kids that go there.
He wasn’t concerned about friends; she had 10 kids at her house that night for a sleepover.
“That’s good,” I said. “If she thinks your house is a good place to hang out, you’re doing something right. You can keep a better eye on them if your house is the hang-out spot.”
Apparently I sounded just like his wife, who said that she wouldn’t care if 50 kids were at the house as long as they wanted to be there.
He was sorry, he said as he blinked away tears. He was just having a really hard time with it. It was going too fast. She’s his baby.
When they were expecting her, he had hoped for a boy…but he got a girl instead. Later, when his wife got pregnant again, he hoped for another girl. He had changed. There’s something special about girls. And something special about your first. And when they grow up, it kills you.
As I listened to him talk, all I could think was this: some children have no idea how much they are loved.
I thought of the moms I know from church who just dropped their kids off at college. You see how hard it is, how much they love their kids when you ask “how’s so-and-so doing at college so far” and they immediately tear up, apologizing profusely and missing so strongly.
I thought of my dad, who wanted our entire family to listen to the positive report that my brother’s internship supervisor gave him this summer. He repeated the comments, bursting with joy and pride.
I thought of my grandmother who, for a period, spoke with my uncle on the phone every single day because he was having a hard time. He was a fully launched adult, but he needed his mom and she gave her time to him every single day without making him feel ashamed for needing it.
I think of parents I know who discipline their children, not out of a need to control their kids but out of a desire for their kids to have healthy lives and relationships. These parents do their best to balance grace and truth even when their kids resist and sometimes hate them for it.
I think of myself and the sacrifices my parents have made for me over the years—some that I’ve acknowledged with gratitude, some that I’ve overlooked, some that I’ve quite frankly been a giant jerk about.
Parental love is not a given. That’s hard for me to understand, because I love my daughter with all of me, but I’ve worked with many kids whose parents just don’t know how to love them and so I know that there are things that make it hard for some people to step into that role.
So when I see a parent with that unashamed, unabashed love for their child…well, it is a beautiful thing.
Because of my relationship with teenagers from our church, I just wanted to write this down and say that if your parents love you like this or even try to love you like this…please understand when they have a hard time letting you go to college or when they set curfews or when they freak out because you haven’t called them to report that you successfully drove one mile to your friend’s house. Yes, it seems stupid to you in this moment and it probably IS a little irrational, but you hold their entire heart in your hands. They love you so much that they can CRY OVER FROZEN CARROTS TO A TOTAL STRANGER when they think about you getting left out, feeling scared, or making decisions that will hurt you. So have a little grace towards their protectiveness, and maybe even try sharing an “I love you” from time to time outside of Mother’s or Father’s Day (it won’t kill you, I promise.)
And parents who love their kids? Carry on. It is transforming your kids even when it feels like a weight and you are changing the world through your love, patience, and intentionality with them. It is awesome to watch and you are my heroes.