Jeff and Max off exploring new spaces at sunset.
Love is a messy thing.
Recently Max has felt pretty clingy and undone–there is so much swirl going on in our life–so much instability. Odette’s illness this fall really rocked his world, and the recent cancer diagnoses in our world have him feeling unstable, unsure and scared. He has been clinging to those he loves like a life raft. And he loves Jeff. Deeply.
Recently Max told me that he sometimes wished our friend Jeff was his dad. Not that long ago he told me that he felt like Jeff was his “second dad” and another time “just like a dad”. And suddenly, each time he utters the “d” word, I have come a bit undone myself.
Jeff plays a special role in Max’s life, one that is hard to define. They go swimming together and share a love for hockey. Jeff offers a safe lap for Max to crawl into when he is feeling a bit wounded. He tells stories and wrestles with Max. Jeff offers these gifts to so many of the kids in the neighborhood–he shows no favorites– but to Max the attention means so much more than it does to the others–the ones with dads that are home and involved. To Max the attention he gets from Jeff is love, pure and simple, and it fills up the empty places in his heart–the ones left vacant by a father who chooses not to be around so much.
And so over the course of many months and over the span of more than a year, we have all given into this love Max has for Jeff. We have started to live into it, letting it carry us along like a river. Its opened up new ways of seeing for me. Its made the world a little sweeter…a little lighter. Its allowed me to really believe that others will help me shepherd Max into independence and awaken to the fact that I am just chief among his many guides. Its transformed me and Max and how we relate to our whole community.
Normally, we manage this dance quite gracefully–this ancient village parenting style. I sometimes feel like I am captain of TeamMax–the larger group of our community that is trying to help Max find his way in this world.
But other times we find ourselves tripping up and stomping on each other’s wounded toes. The boundaries don’t feel obvious or neat. Its so hard without the titles that define our relationships to guide us. The titles that establish the rules and give us comfort. Titles like “dad”. So I could see why Max was desperate to assign one to the member of his extended tribe he loves most.
But Max’s use of the word “dad” sent up a thousand red flags for me. Mostly it triggered a great fear that Max would now create suffering in the most positive male relationship in his life because he would suddenly attach unrealistic expectations to it, expectations that Jeff wouldn’t be able to fulfill. I wasn’t sure exactly what “dad” meant to Max–but I was sure that at least a few of those qualifications Jeff would never meet–no matter how much he loves Max and no matter how much Max wants him to play that role.
And so I set about trying to set him straight or as straight as one can set anyone on this crooked path called life and to help him see the reality of this unusual situation. And in the course of it what I learned is that really, what Max wanted, the foundation of his wish, was simply to know that he was loved, that he is dear to Jeff and always would be. He needed assurances that no matter what storms came floating through our life that Jeff would not stop loving him. The only way he knew how to ask for unconditional love was to use the word “dad”.
But in exploring it with him I also learned that he had, in using the adopting the word “dad”, already started to inadvertently attach a slew of expectations that might if he holds onto them too tightly leave him disappointed…without setting Jeff up to fail him.
Truth is, I don’t know how to put this we have for Jeff in any box with a label either. In a world where we “friend” practical strangers on Facebook and assure our spouses that someone doesn’t mean much to us by saying, “they are just a friend”, the word friend seems completely and utterly inadequate. Yet every other term out there that we search for ranges from vaguely inauthentic to downright untrue. He is neither uncle nor brother, dad nor partner, stepfather, half-father, or coach. In many ways he could act like any of these things to either of us at any moment but really at the most fundamental and basic ways none of these labels apply at all.
At another time in my life, this lack of definition could have been a matter of great frustration, but as I lay tossing and turning this morning, it dawned on me that it was nothing short of a gift. For the truth is, whenever love seems to fit neatly into cleanly labeled boxes, we all set ourselves up to fail and immediately open the door to unending disappointment and complete and utter doom.
How many hours have any of us spent in therapy trying to sort out suffering and grief because our mother or father didn’t live up to our expectations of “Mother” or “Father”? How many years of hurt and pain arise from partners who don’t behave as we think partners should? How many times have brothers or sisters disappointed us when they did not rise to the occasion of the title that was granted to them simply by the accident of shared parentage? How many times have we missed the gifts given to us by our loved ones simply because we were looking for something else? I don’t know about you, but for me the number runs into the thousands…
But Jeff with his big open heart that does not neatly fit anywhere offers us the opportunity to stay in this open space of no definition, to love without labels, without explanations and without the code-words that ultimately trip us up.
Why do we need to tame love with labels? Instead of trying to define Jeff and our affection for him by using words like friend, brother or dad, why not just let it be what it is…and not try and name it?
It certainly means messy moments as we stumble along without a map. We are going to need to work to define the boundaries instead of having some word lazily do it for us. What does it mean to play this nameless role in our “tribe”? What is appropriate and comfortable? We are going to have to draw these lines ourselves over and over again from scratch. We are setting out to explore uncharted terrain and are not playing by templates. This is hard enough for a 39 year old woman to do..can I ask my child to come along on this ride? But when considering the consequences, the thousands of missed opportunities, how could I not?
That is hard and scary and makes my stomach do all sorts of flips. It calls for nothing short of raw naked authenticity of the bravest kind. It calls for fearlessness and trust and for the willingness to see things, not as we want them to be but how they are. It calls for a willingness to let go of everything including our expectations and hopes of being loved back…yipes.
Yet, something tells me, if I can, if Max can, if we can somehow learn to navigate the path of our love for Jeff without labeling it, without metaphors or similes, we just might be able to do it in all our relationships…or at least in some of our relationships. We can undo some of the hurt that was caused when the people we labeled failed us by not living up to that label. We can let go of our need to put people in little boxes. And then maybe we can open a tiny space for love to flow more freely. And then maybe, just maybe the world will have space to breathe and to heal, just a tiny wee bit.
Or maybe we will just end up here where we started. Simply Exploring. Without a map.