Friday, September 27, 2013

A Different Kind of Love Letter

Today I saw a video about a psychological study showing that expressing gratitude is one of the best ways to increase one's happiness. To demonstrate the point, they did their own experiment in which they had people take a test that rated their happiness and then asked them to write something about the person who influenced or inspired them the most. Then they had the participants call that person and read their statement. Then they took another test that measured their happiness again. Those who were able to call their person rated between 2% and 19% happier on their second test. The most dramatic increase in happiness came from the person who was least happy when he arrived.

It's a fun video, so check it out:

As anyone who read my previous post will know, I have recently been divorced. I legally became Kayla McGrady again on August 16, and I am on my own for the first time in my adult life. I was always terrified of living alone—I always had roommates in college—but it's turned out to be not quite as bad as I feared, although I'd be lying if I said it was easy. My beautiful daughter helps a great deal, and I also have a new housemate who lives in the basement, but sometimes at night it still gets awfully quiet. Those are the moments when I remember how I don't have the life I wanted—a close, loving relationship with a kind Christian man who loves me inside and out—and I feel sad and, frankly, ugly and disappointing.

Those are exactly the moments when I try to remind me of the many beautiful things that I do have and value very much. However, this study shows that increases in happiness due to gratitude are much higher when the gratitude is actually expressed. So I have decided to make it my mission to express my gratitude to the people who inspire and influence me most. A friend of mine marked her 30th birthday last year by writing letters to all of her loved ones thanking them for their contributions to her life. I thought it was so beautiful, and I was incredibly touched when I received my letter. I wanted to do the same thing for my 30th birthday, but when it came along—five days before I was legally divorced—I couldn't find the resources inside myself to do it. But there is no time limit on gratitude. Now that I have had a few weeks to adjust, I feel ready to take on this task. I will write letters to the people who have touched me. I will tell them what they mean to me and how much I love them, no matter how long it takes me to get every last letter written.

But I can't really send letters to all of them. Some are dead, and one of them—the person who inspires and influences me most, in fact—can't read. That's because that person is my daughter, Noelle, and because she is not yet two years old she can't read. She wouldn't even understand if I read this out loud to her. But it doesn't matter. It needs to be expressed, so I will say it to you, my faceless Internet readers, instead:

Dear Noelle,

In the two short years that you have been part of my life, you have changed my life more profoundly than anyone else ever has. Before you were even born, you hiccuped every day and made me laugh, reminding me of how amazing life really is. You kept me company, nestled under my heart, while I wrote the first novel I have been able to finish since high school. You lay in my arms—tiny and perfect—on the most magical Christmas Eve of my life, helping me understand the joy of the season in an entirely new way. You were my own little Noelle, my all-year-round Christmas, my joy made flesh.

At first it was just that you existed. I had been afraid to have children for so long, and then the peace finally came to me and I felt ready for you. And there you were, the tiny little person that I had never been quite sure I would have. I learned how to take care of you, and it wasn't as impossible as had thought it would be. I changed your diapers, and they weren't as gross as I had thought they would be. You slept so easily and smiled so often from such a young age. I remember holding you in my arms while I was alone at home one day during maternity leave watching The Help. Poor Celia kept losing babies, and as she carried her poor miscarried darling out in a shoebox to be buried in the front yard, I cried and cried, looking down at your tiny sleeping form in my arms. I cried to think of the women who couldn't have children, the women who lost their children, the women whose bodies betrayed them and to whom the world was not kind. I cried to think of what it would feel like to lose you, that tiny child I had only known for a couple of weeks, who slept most of the time and didn't really do anything. I loved you before you were born and I will love you until the end of my existence, and I believe that everyone should get the chance to experience that kind of love. It is the most powerful and beautiful gift that God has ever given me or any person.

But it's not just that you're my daughter, Noelle, although that would be enough. You've also changed me by being you—a joyful little girl who laughs and dances and loves to play. You love twirling in my arms, and I love it too. You love dancing around in the living room, and I love it too. You love touching my face and naming off all of its features—eye, nose, chin—and I love it too. Perhaps you think that I am cuddling you in my lap, rough-housing with you on the floor, bouncing you on the bed, and holding your hand as you walk down the stairs all for your benefit, but the truth is that all of those things make my heart swell with happiness. Getting one of your loud "mwah!" kisses and seeing your angelic little smile makes me feel like stepping outside into spring after a long winter.

The first time I hurt you you were only about six months old. I was trying to get you to take a bottle, and you were being really fussy about it. I was trying a different angle and tried to position myself above your head as you were lying on the couch. As I pulled my foot under myself, I clumsily bumped your head and scratched you with my big toenail. You screamed. You bled. I felt like the stupidest clumsiest idiot who ever lived. I cleaned up and disinfected the scratch and tried to stay calm so you wouldn't be scared. I thought about how your father would berate me when he saw what I had done. You stopped crying and only five minutes later, when I was still talking to my mom about what an idiot I was, you smiled at me. A brilliant, wide smile that said this injury from only a few minutes ago was already forgiven, forgotten. You reached out your hand to me and giggled. And I loved you so much in that moment that I almost burst into tears.

When I was struggling through the later days of my marriage, just before I decided to get a divorce, I thought about death once or twice—wished God would send down a lightning bolt and put me out of my misery. "Just make it an accident so that the people who love me will know it wasn't my fault, so they can get over it," I thought. But then I thought of you. I knew your father loved you. I knew you would be all right without me. But I didn't want to be without you. And although I didn't want to have to live through divorce or experience life as a single, divorced failure, I did want to live through your childhood and experience life as your mom. So I decided to take care of myself so that I could be a good mom for you, so I could teach you about love and God and joy. I decided to try to love myself more because I wanted to be able to show you how to love yourself like I love you. I wanted to do what was best for you, and I realized that meant doing what was best for me sometimes so that I would be healthy and positive for you. I saw your bright spirit and I wanted to foster it, cherish it, help it grow. You, in your childlike innocence, were what I wanted to be. So I decided that I was going to be with you. I was going to be silly with you and patient with you and loving with you. And I have been, for the most part, because you inspire me to try and to feel every single day.

Even now as you are heading into your "terrible twos" toddler phase, complete with all the frustrations and anger that come with being able to do so much and yet so little all at once, you are still a ray of sunshine in my life. So many people are touched with happiness when they see your smiling face. Yesterday I was nearly an hour late to work because you were just so precious, so adorable, that I couldn't leave you. I just needed to cherish that moment in your presence, see you giggling, feel your soft warm skin snuggled up against mine. (Thank God I have a salaried job where I can get away with that from time to time...) You are everything that I ever wanted when I contemplated parenthood. You remind me of the value of what Jesus said about having faith like a little child. You trust me and your father. You are adapting to your new living situation—going back and forth between homes—so well. Your affection for both your father and me is so touching. You love us, and we love you. You remind me what it means to love unselfishly and to give for the benefit of another. When I look at you and love you, I remember that other people are worthy of love and service, too. Everyone is someone's little boy or girl because all of us belong to God. I look at you and feel so glad that you are beloved by so many people, and then I remember that I am beloved, too. I am still someone's little girl. You and I are both so well loved, Noelle. Thank you for reminding me of that every single day, my darling girl.


To the rest of you, thank you for reading my blog. Thank you for taking a moment from your day to share my thoughts. It means more to me than you could ever know.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Hang in there, Kayla, and please continue to share your gentle thoughts. Others walk this road with you.

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