Home > Parenting, Personal, Youth > This sorta fairytale

This sorta fairytale

Once upon a time, there was a rebellious girl who could do little right by her parents. This girl watched the adoration showered upon her younger sister and vowed that she would someday love each of her children equally, be they rowdy or be they respectful.

When she became a parent, she lived true to her vow. There were many things she didn’t do perfectly or could have done better, but each of her three sons knew how truly they were loved.

As they grew, she would look upon them fondly and reflect aloud on her old age to come. “When I am elderly,” she would say, “Middle, you will be the one to take care of me. You will be here in body and in spirit. Oldest, you will be here in spirit, but not in body. Youngest, you will be here in body, but not in spirit.”

Middle would hug her and cry, “Please don’t ever get sick or go away, Mother!”

She would hug Middle and say, “I cannot prevent these things, sweetheart, but I will be with you as long as I can.”

Oldest would protest, “But, Mother, I love you too!”

She would pat Oldest’s knee and say, “I know you do, sweetheart! But you are a wanderer, and you will go all the places your heart leads you.”

Youngest would protest, “But, Mom, I love you too!”

She would stroke Youngest’s hair and say, “I know you do, sweetheart! But you dream so many beautiful things, it will be hard for you to forsake those for this world.”

Many years later, when her sons had grown, she fell ill. As her body dwindled, each of her sons loved her in the ways they knew how.

When her body could no longer fight the cancer that had spread throughout her body, she died.

Oldest was there in spirit, but far away in body.

Middle was there in body and spirit.

Youngest was there in body.

Often in the days and months that followed his mother’s death, Oldest would curse himself for not being there to hold his mom as she died. He would feel unworthy of forgiveness and unforgivable.

But sometimes, he would remember his mother’s gentle words: You will be here in spirit, but not in body. In these moments, he would whisper a “thank you” to his mom for her wisdom in sharing the future she foresaw. It was as if she’d not only anticipated Oldest’s sorrow but bestowed upon him the grace he’d need to know she wouldn’t forgive him if she were alive.

Why, indeed, would she dream of forgiving him for being who he was? Who she’d encouraged him to be? She’d be far more likely to throw her head back and laugh before saying, “Should I forgive you for breathing, too?”

In these moments of thanks, Oldest renews his mother’s childhood vow. He will love each of his own children fiercely and equally, so that his love for his children also endures long after he is able to whisper it to them in the present

(c) 2011 Deborah Bryan. All rights reserved.
Duplication in whole or substantial portion is explicitly forbidden.

  1. John Erickson
    October 2, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Though youngest by the calendar, I was the oldest in your story. My mother died a year and 19 days ago, and there’s not a day goes by I don’t beat myself up for not being there when she passed.
    Thanks for a little bit of relief. 🙂

    • October 3, 2011 at 3:47 am

      I left a few days before my mom died knowing both that it was the right thing to do and that I’d undoubtedly regret it, no matter how “right” it was. The regret hasn’t been nearly as devastating as I imagined, but there are moments where I’d give just about anything short of my son to rewind the clock and make a different choice. In those moments, I’m glad I have my mom’s sweet, presentient words of reminder. And I’m pretty sure my mom’s not nearly alone in having felt this way! ♥

  2. October 2, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    I’m afraid of one of those people who can’t be there in body, there’s been a few times where I can’t handle being there and have to distance myself. I beat myself up for it too, but just love this story and it does make me feel better.

    • October 3, 2011 at 3:51 am

      I’m glad to hear this. I posted this in the hopes someone who wasn’t able to hear the words with their own ears could nevertheless “hear” it with their heart. ♥

  3. October 2, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    Great story–I can relate and we can all learn from it. Unlike your “rebellious girl,” I am fortunate to have had parents who treated me and my sister equally. Instead of comparing us or making either of us feel inferior, they applauded our individual strengths. I often think about how lucky we were to have parents with such insight. Also, I am fascinated by birth order influence. Your characterization of the Oldest, Middle and Youngest is right in line with what I think. Good luck to you!

    • October 3, 2011 at 4:09 am

      I, too, feel lucky to have had a parent with this insight! I wish it hadn’t been born of such pain, but I’m grateful I can also remember my mom saying: “You just always hope they have it better.” I am in fact living her dream by doing my best to see Li’l D has it better still!

      My mom was fascinated by birth order! Assuming I make it to 82, I can imagine sitting around at 82 and asking my girlfriends, “Thelma down in room 17–gotta be a youngest, am I right?” :p

  4. October 3, 2011 at 12:23 am

    What a beautiful story. The wisdom of his mother is now carried through generations. Is this story based on your life?

    • October 3, 2011 at 4:12 am

      It is. I was talking about this with “Middle” on my recent trip to Eugene. I’d wanted to write about it since early last year, but I couldn’t find the right approach until that conversation. I feel so much lighter of heart having remembered, and strengthened the memory by telling it.

  5. October 3, 2011 at 4:09 am

    This is a beautiful story. Thank you for writing it and sharing. The perspective of each one brings fullness and richness to family. Each one is loved and valued no matter what.

    • October 3, 2011 at 4:15 am

      The perspective of each one brings fullness and richness to family.
      Exactly so. I remember wondering how much embellishment was involved in recounting of the disparities my mom experienced. Then I went to visit my mom’s family and saw for myself how one child was favored at the near-total expense of attention to any of the others. In those handful of days, I appreciated so much more richly my mom’s care to ensure that was one tradition she wouldn’t perpetuate. It’s shaped how I view all the world, not just as a parent but a person, and I’m grateful for that.

  6. October 3, 2011 at 5:00 am

    I’m an only child so I when the time comes, I will be there in body and spirit. But as your Mom did, I look at my three boys and believe at their young ages I know where each will be when my time comes. And I know in my heart they will be exactly where they need to be and no forgiveness will be necessary! Thank you so much for sharing!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • October 3, 2011 at 7:46 pm

      My mom started telling this when I was very young, which means she called it when we were very young. I love that you know these things, too, and will be sharing that same, immense love with your children. ♥

  7. October 3, 2011 at 5:31 am

    You know I love this story. I was an oldest, too. I was away at college, exactly where my mom wanted me to be, when she died. I came home nearly every weekend to be with her. She actually lived two years longer than the doctors expected. I honestly think it was because she wanted to make sure my brother and I were on the right path before she left.

    • October 3, 2011 at 7:50 pm

      I love reading about you and your mom. I love imagining who she was, although of course I imagine I can see some of her through your words.

      What you say about your mom living those two years beyond expectation reminds me of my mom’s mental illness. She held it together (enough) just long enough to see the last of us moved out. To the day.

      It’s bittersweet to recall these things, definitely, but more sweet the further down Parenting Lane I meander. These are great gifts to have been given. ♥

  8. October 3, 2011 at 5:53 am

    Sweet story. I know that my mom forgives my shortcomings whatever they may be because she loved me unconditionally. That’s the greatest gift a person can give.

    • October 3, 2011 at 7:51 pm

      I absolutely agree. It’s hard answering the question, “What do you want for [x occasion]?” I already have the things I most want, and none of them can be bought or made with one’s hands.

  9. October 3, 2011 at 6:04 am

    Simply beautiful, Deb. Not being there when my dad died is something that still haunts me today. I was there in spirit. I actually had a feeling he had died, the very moment he did, but dismissed it at the time. I was walking across campus at midnight and suddenly was struck by the moon. I looked up at it and a voice inside told me it would be all right. Everything would be ALL RIGHT and I could feel my dad there with me suddenly. I know now that he knows I would have given anything to have said goodbye or I love you to him one more time before he passed. But there will come a day when I will see him and his smile and be with him again.

    • October 3, 2011 at 7:57 pm

      I loved reading about this earlier, and I love both reading about it and picturing it now. I love those moments of peace and clarity. I didn’t have one the day my mom died, but I do remember that evening I wrote about in “Mother, Child, Mother.” That was the first evening I really felt as if my mom was sitting right there with me, rocking me and Li’l D together. That was the moment when I felt like everything was going to be OK. By and large it has been, more so every day.

      I’m not sure what I believe about the afterlife, but I love how it’s portrayed in Ghost. I love the thought of meeting up with my mom again as I knew her in my childhood. I love the thought of being enveloped in her presence once more. I hope these are things that come to pass, for you and for everyone who misses someone who has brought them peace. ♥

  10. October 3, 2011 at 7:10 am

    How beautifully poignant and sad.

    • October 3, 2011 at 7:58 pm

      Thank you! I actually feel very blessed to not have to guess. I hoped that by sharing this, others would know someone, somewhere out there feels that love for them, whether or not it’s a parent (or apparent, for that matter).

  11. October 3, 2011 at 7:23 am

    So glad you shared this, Deb. Thank you.

    • October 3, 2011 at 8:00 pm

      I am, too, after reading all these comments. I’m glad “Middle” helped me see that there was more than one way to tell this tale.

  12. October 3, 2011 at 7:42 am

    Wow Deb! This is all sorts of awesome! This feels publishable awesome. What a great story, with so many beautiful lessons. Mamma’s just know sometimes. At least this one did. I love this.

    • October 3, 2011 at 8:03 pm

      Thanks, Renee! Laugh if you like, but I actually cheered when this comment reached me earlier. 😉

      Writing things like this helps me create harmony from pieces I know were meant to fit together but haven’t yet (until the writing) found the places they interlock. This was one of those things I wrote exactly as I felt it without pausing or questioning myself. It makes me wish I did so more often, when writing anything other than blogging-style narrative.

  13. October 3, 2011 at 8:51 am

    What a beautiful story. I’m still thinking on it.

    • October 3, 2011 at 8:03 pm

      I hope the sweet parts of it stay with you for a long time to come. I’m glad they stuck with me for more than two decades. ♥

  14. October 3, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Thank you for sharing this. This is one of those reads that end off with this breathless silence, like the end of a piece in a concert hall. The silence echoes, but the message stays.

    • October 3, 2011 at 8:05 pm

      This is a beautiful analogy generally speaking. More specifically, it’s a thrill and an honor to have it applied to something I wrote. Thank you for that, lady. ♥

  15. October 3, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Deb, this is a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing this, I will keep it with me.

  16. Kasey MacInnes
    October 3, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    I couldn’t wait to read this post just by reading the title. I’m very grateful that I do not live too far away from my mom or my dad as they are getting older. I see myself as the caregiver for them when the time comes. I’ve already been there in “body and spirit” when my step mom passed away ten years ago from brain cancer, and her own children were not able to be there in body or spirit. We each have our paths…and the parent who recognizes this and can accept it and love unconditionally is blessed. I hope to be that for Maycee.

    • October 3, 2011 at 8:08 pm

      We each have our paths…and the parent who recognizes this and can accept it and love unconditionally is blessed.
      A resounding “amen” to that! I daresay that in striving toward that goal so conscientiously, you are laying the foundation for that reality right now. I know you feel lucky to be Maycee’s mom, but she too, is lucky you’re her mama.

  17. October 3, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    That is a really tough thing to do; to forgive people for being themselves, and not being able to cope with certain realities. I don’t know if I can be that person. But this was a lovely reminder to try and not keep score so much.

    • October 3, 2011 at 8:23 pm

      It definitely takes longer for me in some cases than others, as is reflected in “An abridged history of my hate.” For my own mom, she felt more sadness, I think, and a longing that her own goodness would be recognized by her family rather than her every flaw picked apart. (I understand better now what she meant when she said I was lucky to know exactly who I was and be comfortable being that person.)

      Sometimes I share her wish that by the power of my longing I could make family by blood be sensible. But then I face that this is the reality I have, and that they’re apt to forever try controlling us into being Mormon–the way that worked so well with my mom–instead of expressing any interest in what makes each of us unique, and also what makes us wonderfully like our mom before she became ill. I think we’ll always just be “the uncontrollable ones,” but . . . if this is “uncontrollable,” then I embrace that.

      I feel better looking at them with sadness for all they’re missing out on than with all the feelings I used to hold. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that what I said in my longing-for-family post will continue to be the truth: I’ll try to respect our very real, very human limitations (always from a distance!), while simultaneously being so grateful for the family who has built themselves up around me out of mortar and bricks much more solid and lasting than blood could ever be.

  18. October 3, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Woooo. I am crying. Mother knows best always.

  19. October 3, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Now you’re just TRYING to make me cry. No fair. *sniff* it was beautiful.

    • October 3, 2011 at 8:26 pm

      I assure you I wasn’t trying to make you cry, but I do feel strangely glad that was the result; it means my feelings as I wrote it were translated reasonably well to words, and that’s a gift to hear. ♥

  20. October 3, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    Great. Just a great story.

  21. October 3, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    Beautiful! I’m fighting off the tears! Mother always does know best 🙂

  22. October 3, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Great posting. Brings up a lot of memories of growing up and knowing there indeed was a difference in how those who raised you viewed you.

    • October 3, 2011 at 8:32 pm

      Thank you. I don’t think it’s necessarily always those who raise you, although I think that’s probably the greater portion by far. I think there are a handful of people who come to know and love a person through life, and accept that person as they come, and those people should be rejoiced no matter how or when they come to us.

  23. October 4, 2011 at 12:11 am

    What a beautiful story… Like oldest, I’m not near my mother because she lives in another country… I am there in spirit… Loved your story. 🙂

    • October 4, 2011 at 8:13 pm

      Thank you, Elizabeth! There have been so many times I wished I could be near in body and spirit, but in those times, turning my thoughts toward my loved ones has helped me feel as if I am near.

  24. October 4, 2011 at 4:03 am

    that was AMAZING!
    have you entered it in a contest? it would surely win! wondful words!

    • October 4, 2011 at 8:14 pm

      Thank you! I haven’t entered it in any contest. It didn’t even occur to me until you wrote this! I just typed it up, saved draft and posted it when it felt like the right time to post it. 🙂

  25. October 4, 2011 at 11:04 am

    This is an incredibly story, Deb. It’s lovely, it’s beautiful, touching, heartwarming, and written in very much a fairy-tale or folk-tale style.

    I don’t know if it’s in reference to a real situation, but whether or not it is, it touched me deeply.

    • October 4, 2011 at 8:16 pm

      Thank you so much. I was hoping it would come across as a timeless, fairy-/folk-tale type of story that’s less about any one individual than about experience through time.

      It does reference a real situation. I would say it’s nine parts truth to one part fiction twist; just enough to make it something I was able to share, which is a blessing. When I first knew it had to be written, I wasn’t sure if it was something I would ever be comfortable sharing. This way, I could.

  26. October 4, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    I’m so mad at my WordPress follower now that I missed some amazing Sunday posts! I absolutely love this, for being so very real and so very surreal at the same time. 🙂

    • October 4, 2011 at 8:18 pm

      Thank you for this: “very real and so very surreal” is something I strive toward often while writing, so it’s a gift to see that translate into someone else’s (non-editing, ahem) experience!

  27. October 5, 2011 at 6:11 am

    That was beautiful, Deb. I related a lot to it in that each of my children are different, I can’t expect the same out of all of them, but love them all as much. My daughter would be there in spirit. My youngest in body. And my oldest son would be there in body and spirit.

  28. Mary
    January 14, 2012 at 8:04 am

    I never read this the first time you posted it, but it is so true. I find it ironic that it was originally posted on my mother’s birthday, one year since her passing. I have to share this with my family, as my brothers are the oldest and the youngest and sooooooo emulate these roles. Of course, I am the middle child ♥

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