A Story About Authenticity

“Mom,” I said while I had the chance to do so, “I want to ask you a question. What would you say is the nicest thing I’ve ever done for you?”

This morning, during our weekly phone call, I had been waiting for a smooth opportunity to slip this into the conversation. I had already heard about her week - her concerns, her frustrations, her delight at going to see the Downton Abbey movie with my sister. We had travelled a bit too close to the truth behind my question, and I felt I needed to get it out there before it just looked like I was fishing for a compliment.

Yesterday, this topic had popped up twice within a short period of time, and so I recognized its importance. My husband had talked about it in regards to his own parents. It was a question he had been prompted to share while journaling. What was a “nice” thing he had done for his parents? Just one? The one? A bit daunting for such a simple little prompt. Neither of his parents are still alive for him to ask, and so he found himself wondering what they would have identified. After suggesting a few examples to me, I pointed out that he was focused a bit too much on the big things. The once-in-a-lifetime things. He then spoke about the simple acts of kindness that had easily added up over the years. And I began to consider that the real point is never big or deep or hidden away - or difficult to identify.

It reminded me of a conversation I had just had with my hair stylist. I recounted how our family trip this summer had included a semi-traumatic event for me. I was hit by a very strong wave off the coast of Maui and pulled under and held under. For several seconds (only seconds) I didn’t know which way was up, how I might fight against the strength of the water, or if I would survive. I did survive (clearly) and spent the next few hours processing and recovering. I honored myself by sitting in that fear and embarrassment and confusion, fully trusting that I would come out the other side in a healthy place. 

In the middle of my processing time, I wanted to share what I was experiencing with my younger son. I had withdrawn into myself, and as a result I was ignoring his own time of need. He was sitting with arms crossed, silently moping. Deep inside my brain, I had recognized this but had not been able to acknowledge it until well over an hour had passed. How was I to connect with him and resemble being a mother for him while still respecting my need to focus on my own healing? 

All I had was authenticity. I spoke in simple words about how scared I had felt. And how I was still shaky from that fear. And how I also hurt knowing I couldn’t yet set it aside in that moment to care for his feelings. And how I was nervous even then to share all this with him, because I was uncomfortable knowing I could cause him to be scared of playing in the ocean or to think of his mother as weak or selfish. I shared these thoughts the best I could while also ugly crying - absolute sobbing really - since saying all this out loud had opened a closed door deep inside me. I should mention that my son is 16 - a tricky age. Was this all too much for him? Had I ruined any semblance of normalcy with him? Would it have been better to just let him sit in his anger and hurt as I “ignored him”? Or was he old enough - mature enough - to hear it?

Then he did the nicest thing. He stood up, crossed the room, and gave me the gentlest and truest of hugs. He didn’t say a word, but I saw and felt that his anger and hurt had been dissolved (or at least set aside for the moment). He held me as a loving witness to the courage of my moment. I was authentic with my son and he felt safe enough in return to do a nice and authentic thing by hugging me.

With that memory fresh on my mind and my husband’s realization that the small things pile up into the biggest of nicest things, I began to wonder if the ideas of listening and safety and authenticity were really everybody’s “nicest thing”. I had decided to find out from my mother this morning what she would think was the nicest thing I had done for her. I don’t have to just wonder as my husband does. I could ask her. I thought maybe it was that I paid attention - listened (and heard) her over many years. But what would she say? Is it truly as reciprocal of a relationship as I suspect - this state of authenticity? Does she truly hear me, or have I not been as vulnerably open with her as I could be?

So I hadn’t wanted to guide her into the simple yet deep answer to my question that I hoped for. I was casual about asking. “Just wondering...what you might say, Mom...I know I’m kinda putting you on the spot, but…”

“That’s easy,” she interrupted. Easy? My heart bounced ever so lightly. “It’s not one thing though. It’s like that TV show A Million Little Things. You’ve always listened and understood. I can vent and complain or laugh at myself. You know me.” Tears welled in my eyes as a warm relief washed down me. So she feels safe, she can be vulnerable and authentic. As a result, I can feel safe to do the same with her. Nice.

Being authentic is the nicest thing we can do for each other. And ourselves.