Guest Essay: The Bear

In this guest essay, Matt Geiger shares being a parent and watching your child grow.
Artwork by Robert Neubecker

By Matt Geiger

My daughter, who is 7, recently donned a sweatshirt, pulled the hood down over her face and pretended to stare blankly at an imaginary phone in her hand, oblivious to the beautiful world around her.

“Look at me, Dad,” she said in a listless monotone, her best imitation of an idiot. “I am a teenager.”

It was funny, but also a bit darkly prescient, like me lying on the floor and joking, “Look at me, I died of old age. The next stage of your life always seems exciting, until the last, I guess.

I often feel like the luckiest person on the planet, because 7 is not 16, and I always have that person by my side, for a few more years, always ready for a new adventure, a lesson or a story. Always eager to investigate the next mystery, as the world gradually unfolds before her.

A friend recently asked me how I would make my daughter one of those people, those tweens and teenagers who don’t know how to change a tire but are convinced that they could easily fix all the socio-economic ills of the world with a snap of the fingers. One of the most famous traits of these people is that they drift away from their parents, deciding that the people who gave them life and spent thousands of dollars and countless hours trying to give them a good departure are suddenly lame, embarrassing and stupid.

When asked, I didn’t know, but when I lay awake that night and thought about it, I decided I would feel a lot. When your child grows up and moves away from you, you may feel sorry for yourself or feel what a painter feels when their work is exhibited in museums and galleries around the world. You are not the source of the beautiful landscape or the person or even the avant-garde dreamscape that you have painted; you are just someone who helps him on his journey to the rest of the world. Sandro Botticelli didn’t create Venus, Leonardo da Vinci didn’t invent the Mona Lisa, and Vincent van Gogh can’t take credit for the beauty of stars at night or blooming sunflowers. But they all stopped and saw things in front of them. Seeing them, they found them beautiful and compelling enough to like them, a little – in their cases sitting down and painting so others could see them too.

These artists cared about the people, stories and ideas that came before them in their lives, but they didn’t appropriate them or try to keep them and their beauty to themselves. And in truth, it’s doubtful that the Sunflowers care more about Van Gogh than anyone else. But the painter does not paint in the hope of being thanked or loved by the painting or the subject of the painting. The painter works because it is the only way to pay homage to the astonishing beauty that stands before him. Love is not something you can give in the hope of getting something back. Reciprocal love is just a banal market, the exchange of one thing for another. True love is something you give without asking or expecting anything in return. Those who demand a return on investment are only affection investors, and they don’t know true love.

Poet Kahlil Gibran wrote of children: “You can give them your love but not your thoughts, because they have their own thoughts. You can house their bodies but not their souls.

But it was also Gibran who pointed out that “love does not know its own depth until the hour of parting”, so I think he too understood the pain that accompanies a child who grows and ends by getting away from the people who love them the most. Some see it as ungrateful, when they call you a fool and leave you, but I see it as proof that you did your job, that you housed their souls long enough, that you fed them and kept them warm and safe and happy, until they are rested and strong enough for the next leg of their strange journeys. And you never know, because no good trip happens in a straight line, and your paths might cross again one day. After all, one of the most famous stories in the world, filled with gold, monsters and dragons, is called “There and Back”.

It’s a popular cliché for parents to call themselves a sea urchin. People have thought of themselves as animals since the days and nights when we lived in caves and draped ourselves in their skin, hoping they wouldn’t eat from us. These days, I often hear people, mothers in particular, call themselves “mama bear.” Whenever they do, I always think of a wildlife documentary I once watched in which a mother bear, after about a year and a half with her offspring, was walking through a meadow. Suddenly and without warning, she turned and attacked her cub, sinking her teeth into his hips and chasing him away. For the rest of the day, he tried to follow her for longer and longer distances, periodically being scolded. Eventually, he left to live on his own. It was, of course, an act of love. It’s easy to give a screaming baby hot milk, and it’s easy to hug a toddler who’s scraped his knee, showing him your old tricycle scars. This kind of love is banal and natural. But saying goodbye is also an act of love. Maybe when teenagers turn against their parents, they’re only doing it out of love, much the same way a mother bear turns against her cub. Maybe they do it to make the pain of separation a little less unbearable, the pain of the distance between you a little less acute.

And maybe the mother bear knows something else of which Gibran wrote: “A voice cannot carry the tongue and lips that gave it wings. Only he must seek the ether. And alone and without its nest the eagle will fly through the sun.

I know all of these things, or at least I think I know, but really, if I’m being honest, it would be foolish to worry that one day my daughter would pull down her hood and stare dumbly at a phone that feeds her only wacky lies and banal truths. It would be silly to worry that one day she’ll roll her eyes every time I talk and ask me to drop her off at the corner so her friends don’t see her with me, like my lack of blood- cold was a form of modern leprosy.

Because these things will happen, one day, just like I will go to bed on a dead day, but that day is not here yet. Today is just another day, with a 7 year old girl. She doesn’t have a phone. She doesn’t think I’m stupid yet. She’s just there and eager to joke and play, to pretend she’s a teenager or a character from a book or movie or the weirdness of her own imagination.

I manage to do the easy part, at least for a few more years. Because it’s all been easy so far. Holding a bottle of warm milk for a crying baby at 3 a.m. Change a diaper. Compare knee scars and spinning threads on the world as it unfolds before us. Because she sees and begins to understand thing after thing, I’m still here by her side, for now, like a painter spreading deep colors on a rough canvas, not waiting for a gift in return, but simply because it is the only way to pay homage to the astonishing beauty that stands before me.

Matt Geiger is a guest essayist for Madison Magazine.

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