I just finished reading and met with my book club around Exit West, an exquisite by Mohsin Hamid that captures the stark reality of the refugee experience. Although not a lengthy book, it’s one of those reads that takes longer than expected. Lines and sentences and full paragraphs – beautiful paragraphs that consist of one glorious, painful, delicious sentence – are meant to be read, reread, savored, pondered. A book club friend said, “You’re reading along and then suddenly a sentence hits you over the head and you have to stop. You have to look up, almost look away. Your eyes sting and you have to catch your breath for the beauty and harshness and universal truth of it.”
One such paragraph has been especially on my mind. The main characters, Saeed and his girlfriend Nadia, are preparing to leave their war-torn city and have been told by Saeed’s recently-widowed father that they must go without him.
“But Saeed’s father was thinking also of the future, even though he did not say this to Saeed, for he feared that if he said this to his son that his son might not go, and he knew above all that his son must go, and what he did not say was that he had come to the point in a parent’s life when, if a flood arrives, one knows one must let go of one’s child, contrary to all the instincts one had when one was younger, because holding on can no longer offer the child protection, it can only pull the child down, and threaten them with drowning, for the child is now stronger than the parent, and the circumstances are such that the utmost of strength is required, and the arc of a child’s life only appears for a while to match the arc of a parent’s life, in reality one sits atop the other, a hill atop a hill, a curve atop a curve, and Saeed’s father’s arc now needed to curve lower, while his son’s still curved higher, for with an old man hampering them these two young people were simply less likely to survive.
I wondered, “When in a parent’s life does that moment come?”
My own dad and stepmom have often expressed how wonderful it is to be among their grown children (all seven of us!), and to feel that at some point their children have become more like friends than children. They prefer our company to others. Well, at least they say they do. We gather as a very large group 3-4 times a year, and more often in smaller clusters as time allows. We kids and grand-kids work together, pitching in around their small hobby farm with painting projects, wood-splitting for the wood stove, and general upkeep. We always say we work hard, play hard, laugh hard, eat well, and love even better.
And yet I’ve sensed, recently, a drawing inward on their part, a pulling away. We still talk on the phone weekly, text, send group messages, and typically don’t let more than 6-8 weeks go by without seeing my parents. I initially chalked up this slight chilling in our camaraderie to their aging bodies, weary from the days’ toil, to my own frenetic daily schedule, and to our recently diverging political views. But after reading Hamid’s text, I wonder if this recent distance is more about their arc curving lower while mine still curves higher. For a long time, our arcs were matched and we enjoyed the mutuality. Maybe this distancing is just the natural course of things, in different seasons of life.
I don’t think it’s that we’ve grown less close, or care about each other less fondly, or that there is a loss in the quality of our relationship. I think it’s that I’m just now coming face-to-face with the shifting nature of the grown-child/parent relationship, when the protection/protector dynamic flips.
As I write this, I realize that just a few days ago I wrote about a very similar arc without yet having these words for it. I wrote about how agonizing it is to let go of my newly independent, driving teenage son. And now I have some new language, a new image, to associate with this feeling of letting go.
“…if a flood arrives…holding on can no longer offer protection…”
“…one [arc] sits atop the other, a hill atop a hill, a curve atop a curve…”
“…[his] father’s arc now needed to curve lower, while his son’s still curved higher…”