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This is about honoring my parents.

As you may know, I live with my wife and sons in Helsinki, Finland. My parents and siblings live in the Los Angeles area, where I was raised. My children are my parents’ only grandchildren. Since the boys were born, we have seen each other once a year for two or three weeks at a time. I’ve recently returned from a three-week visit to California, my first in four years and our first ever as a married couple. (My brother had not yet met my wife.)

Well, it was a great trip. It was generally relaxing — hanging out in parks under the sycamores and the hot blue sky; visiting old friends and watching our kids mingle; experiencing the wonder and excitement of the ocean; swimming and playing in the same back yard in which I swam and played.

And there were great moments. One was the Sunday after we arrived, and my brother and sister and their spouses (and pets) all came over. As we sat in the lush garden and laughed and talked, watching the boys chase the dogs, I saw my parents, sitting more quietly on the edge of the group, basking in the presence of their family. I made an effort to memorize the looks on their faces as they watched us.

My father and I also spent an evening at Dodger Stadium, where we spent many evenings when I was younger, but now we talked as two men — about baseball, the realities of my mother’s health, the dynamics of serving in the church, politics and, my father’s great passions, birds and conservation. Again, moments of that evening are etched in my memory and recorded in my journal.

Later, the boys got sick for a few days, and we decided to give them blessings. My father anointed them and I blessed them as my wife held them on her lap and my mother looked on and wept. I’m not really sure what to say about that experience. Performing a priesthood ordinance in connection to three levels of people to whom I’m sealed gives me a sense of something like the hearts of the fathers and the hearts of the children, but it is more complex and personal than that. Here’s my best try: we were all in a room where I had argued bitterly with my parents and disappointed them in ways I try not to remember, and I felt like those sins were forgiven and that person was dead and I was there in his place, buoyed up and eternally connected to this network of people who love me, and whom I love.

My parents have never complained to me about my decision to live abroad, and they never ask if or when we will return to California. They treat my wife and her family with respect and love, and they honor her Finnish-ness to a degree that surprises me. I cannot remember a single negative comment or gesture in relation to our situation.

But here comes the hard part. As they took us to the airport and we hugged and said goodbye, I could see in their eyes that their hearts were breaking. I could see the emotional burden they bear without assigning blame or without expressions of bitterness, but instead a greater outpouring of love. On the long, dark flight to Paris, I had lots of time to feel equal shares of guilt and gratitude, and also to watch my boys as they slept and realize they will probably break my heart as they go out in the world and live as expansively as I hope they will. I hope I can react with the same dignity and charity as my parents, and cherish the incredible moments we have as they come along.

Comments

  1. Geez, Norbert, tears rarely run when reading a blog post but you got me on this one. Thank you for such a touching, beautiful post.

  2. Kristine says:

    I can’t remember to whom the line ought to be attributed, but I’ve heard it said that having children is consenting to have your heart go walking around outside your body. It is so strange to see these little creatures, know perfectly that they will break your heart in ways you haven’t begun to imagine, and, impossibly,to love them all the more for it.

    Thank you for sharing all of this, N.–it’s lovely.

  3. lamonte says:

    Norbert – Thanks for this touching post about issues that many of us have faced. I grew up in a small town in Idaho and my grandparents lived just minutes away by bicycle. I benefitted greatly by that proximity. Twenty years ago my wife and I moved our family from the Salt Lake Valley – just a couple of hours from home town – to the east coast. I took my wife and my four sons away from their grandparents and I know they missed many advantages of that relationship. But at the same time my sons have had experiences they never would have had if we had not moved, and I think my parents and my wife’s parents know that and appreciate that. But they are still broken hearted when we say goodbye after a long or short visit.

    My sons are mostly grown and gone now (although I currently have the majority of them living at my house for reasons I won’t discuss now). My oldest son is finishing his PhD this year and starting an academic career. As he was searching for jobs an opportunity presented itself at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. My wife and I had just visited there the year before and so I was excited for my son and his young family to have that chance for that experience but most of the other members of my family were not so enthusiastic. In the end my son was not hired for that position and he has since accepted a postion at a university much closer to us.

    The thing I find interesting is that since we moved from the west my sons may have actually developed a closer relationship with their grandparents because of the limited number of personal visits. There is great love expressed on both sides and now that my sons are grown they have taken many occasions to contact their grandparents without our prompting and I know my parents appreciate that. I always like to say that life is all about the choices we make and your choice to live your life abroad with your family, to raise your sons with influence from two countries is certainly a good choice. I have observed your happiness in the things you have written in the past and I hope your regret for causing some heartache with your parents is far outweighed by the joy you experience in your daily life. That heartache may be bittersweet as your parents see the fruits of their labors in a strong and committed father and husband even though your visits are far between. And the great thing about the gospel is the thought that one day those distances will be eliminated and we will all enjoy each other’s constant love and care. I know that you know how fortunate your are.

  4. Hi Mom, what Norbert said.

    (sorry, no hope of me ever saying it better, so Mom gets the link to your post)

    And, yes, my reaction reminds me of a certain courtroom scene in ‘Big Daddy’ …

  5. Mark IV says:

    I’m glad you had such a wonderful vacation. Your parents sound like outstanding people.

    Your post brought back two memories for me which are remarkable similar to yours. My parents are gone now, but your description of the evening with all the family together and your parents looking on quietly reminded me of the moments we had like that. Thank you!

    I have also administered priesthood blessings with my father in my parent’s home. I am fascinated that the same room that was the scene of some pretty loud and spectacular arguments can also be the setting for a sacred event.

    Thanks again, Norbert. These memories always get me.

  6. Julie M. Smith says:

    My mother traveled from TX to CA when my #1 was born. After she was home she called me and said, “I can’t believe I did this to my mother!” (a reference to her being thousands of miles away from her own mother when I was born)

    Anyway. Something to think about.

  7. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Norbert. Our minds have been in the same place lately as we say goodbye to family and start packing our house for our move to Cairo in the next few weeks. We started realizing how hard this was for our parents last month at the end of a trip to SLC when they clung to us with tears streaming down their faces, I think we really started to feel a sense of loss at that point. (A few weeks later they called to say they were coming out to see us for a few days before we left.)

    Now we’re preparing for the reality of having our first baby (my parents first grandchild) a whole world away and we’re starting to look at each other and wonder if we’re being too selfish.

    But even then, like your parents, there’s complete support and recognition of who we are and why we want to follow our own paths. Only a few times in my life have I seen (and realized) the magnitude of the sacrifice they make for us. Thank for your post Norbert, it really is about honoring your parents.

  8. Norbert, this is a finely crafted post, and poignant. Thank you. I love your forging of sacred space and time.

  9. I can relate to the guilt. My parents live in Washington and we moved a couple years ago to California. It wouldn’t have been so bad except:

    1. We have the only young grandchildren in the fam right now. All my parents’ other grandkids are adults. (Great-grandkids are another story.)

    2. My brothers live in Philadelphia and Taiwan. The only child my parents have nearby is my sister (who is mentally ill).

    3. I have a brother and sister that both died. That has made my parents very clingy to the children they have left. I don’t deal well with clingyness or neediness, which is one reason I wanted to move away. And another reason to feel guilty.

    My parents are the nicest people in the world. But they can drive me nuts. When they come to visit they want to spend every single second with me. Doing laundry on the other side of the apt complex? They want to come. Leaving for work? They want to walk me out to the car and wave me on my way. AAAAUUUUGGGHHH.

  10. Steve Evans says:

    Norbert, you honor us by sharing these thoughts.

  11. Wonderful, Norbert. You’ve captured some of the joy and pain I have also felt as an expat, miles from home.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    Simply terrific post, Norbert.

    I think Mormons may be more prone to have to face these kinds of issues. We send young people all over the world where they gain language abilities and fall in love with other places and other cultures and, sometimes, future spouses. We encourage education and striving, which often has the effect of throwing us to the winds like seed being broadcasted by an ancient farmer.

    My wife’s non-LDS family is all in northern Illinois, except for one of her brothers–the one who joined the Church, natch–who now lives in Arizona (and also the only one still with young grandchildren). In contrast, my (nominally) LDS family is all over creation. We were raised to be independent, and we’ve raised our own children the same way. As much as I (selfishly?) want them near me, I more want for them to be successful and happy and pursuing life with passion, and if that leads them somewhere far away, so be it.

  13. Peter LLC says:

    I too left my family in southern California to live and get married in Europe, knowing that one of us was always going to be a long way from home. It’s not even been two years yet, but I’ve also been grateful to parents who share some of the same qualities of patience, understanding and acceptance.

  14. Moments like these make me love family. And Priesthood ordinances. V. nice post.

  15. Wilfried says:

    Thank you, Norbert. So simply told, so poignant. For many of us it’s indeed part of a special Mormon way of life, part of our international & intercultural dimension that make us leave our village to experience and contribute to something more expansive, including the blessings and the pain.

    Looking back, some of it is also part of Mormon pioneer heritage when converts left their parents to gather to Zion, often without ever seeing them again, and letters taking months to get a response. How much this must have deepened the appreciation for family.

    Once again, thanks for bringing this.

  16. I don’t like living far away from my parents. I don’t like paying fast offerings to help strangers in my ward, when I have a dear sibling who is poor and needy. But I have to make myself believe in vicarious good works — If I love and serve people here, someone will take care of my family there. Still stinks, though.

  17. I have lived on the other side of the continent (and world on my mission) from my parents for more than 20 years. Of 8 children, I am the only one that is the spitting image of my father physically – and I also am the only one who is his polar opposite in many ways. As the oldest son, I feel a particular responsibility for the welfare of my siblings, but I live well over a thousand miles from all of them. (All but one live in Utah, within 100 miles of my parents.) Anyone who read my Father’s Day tribute to my father will understand how deeply I love and admire that man – but I almost never get to see him, and I’m not there to share his burdens as his health slowly deteriorates. I would give almost anything to be nearer to him and Mom, except the one thing I cannot give – the life I have created for my own family. Ironic, yes, but I think my parents understand.

    Norbert, your post moved me deeply and brought me to tears. Thank you so much for the memories.

  18. Thanks, Norbert, for sharing these wonderful thoughts.

    I am, at heart, a home-body. I prefer being home and near loved ones over traveling far and wide. I love my family and extended family and enjoy the time we have together. And yet in 20 years of marriage, I have spent only the first 7 months, and then another 16 months (9 years later) near our families.

    What has this done for me? I appreciate my family and my husband’s family far more than I would if they were constantly in proximity. I have become a much more independent and stronger woman than I thought I was or could ever be. I am far more appreciative of my husband and his awareness of my needs (including bouts of homesickness). I am more cognizant of building family bonds with (and for) my children. I am more grateful for the extended Church/friends/community families to which I belong. I have learned that it is much harder on those being left behind than for those heading off for a new adventure. I am more aware of our parents’ heartbreak and “loneliness” as another visit ends. How much will my kids grow this time before they see them again?

    And last fall, as my oldest headed 8.5 hours away for his first year of college, I truly began to understand my parents’ love, patience, and willingness to “let me go.” Those first few difficult months of practical (not just theoretical) “cutting the apron strings” I kept reminding myself that for 18 years I had raised my son to leave, to be responsible, to find himself, to love and learn and grow on his own. I don’t want him living in my basement at age 30! (Though he is always welcome if there’s a need.) I want him to live his life and his dreams. And so I let him go (and cried on my husband’s shoulder for nights on end).

    In the end, I believe it is the same for all parents. We love, teach, guide our children — all the while knowing that in the end they will leave us to pursue their own dreams, to return on occasion for those precious “home leaves.”

    Just as we did before them.

    I hope I measure up to the dignity and grace, the love and support, of our parents’ example.

  19. I live over a thousand miles away from my parents. We live over a thousand miles away from her parents. Our respective parents live over two thousand miles away from each other. No matter what we chose, someone was going to lose out, so we opted to let the Lord decide, and he put us somewhere in the middle. Until the Lord moves us again.

    [Not that anyone wants to visit TGSOT anyway, but that's their loss.]

  20. Norbert, Thank you for so eloquent a statement of so universal a suffering. My parents also encouraged me to spread my wings; despite the heartbreak, they have never once complained about our living away. I am forever grateful. I am most grateful, however, that my mother has always sent cards to each of our children for every little holiday and every big accomplishment in their lives; now she also exchanges emails with them and the greatgrandchildren. The children know she loves them and they love her for her caring. Distance can’t truly be overcome, especially when parents need help in old age, but we can keep in close touch, know each other, share each other’s lives, and prove our love despite the miles.

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