His warm, squishy body fits into mine as if we are one. I’d read whichever books he chose, stealing a quick inhale of his blonde curls as my reward.
Phillip devoured these moments. Just the two of us, my attention completely on him. Generally, we’d read the types of books he preferred, like encyclopedias, science guides, or the occasional Magic Treehouse series. Riley had zero interest in sitting still, even for a minute, so storytime was generally left to just the two of us.
On this day, I had picked The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The humor of Where the Sidewalk Ends always made us giggle, and Phillip especially enjoyed the quirky, sometimes inappropriate illustrations. I’d never read this particular Silverstein book before.
What a different genre it turned out to be. Same type of illustrations. Same font. Same vocabulary. Same simplicity that was characteristic of Silverstein.
But in this thin, powerful book, the author chose to pull an Indiana Jones. With his few words and light plot, Silverstein pierced my chest and ripped my still beating heart right out.
Seriously. That’s how it felt the first time I discovered The Giving Tree.
Phillip and I read that book one solitary time.
I remember the sobbing The Giving Tree generated. At not quite three, Phillip had no difficulty grasping the tree had given everything she had to the little boy. She gave and gave until there was nothing left to give, and still the boy wanted more.
He comprehended that the tree was symbolic for a mom.
So he was symbolic for that little boy.
And Phillip cried and cried.
He looked me in the eyes and declared, “We will never read this book again.”
I wiped both of our tears, kissed his cheek, and promised.
The book lived a quiet life on our bookshelves, only to be brought out to be read years later to Gracie, just once. I’ve yet to break Izzi’s heart with it. She’s so empathetic; I’m not sure we’d survive the days of weeping it would surely cause.
Even after 50 years, The Giving Tree ranks high on both “favorite” and “least favorite” lists of children’s books. Proponents of the book give copies to new moms, sending an indirect message to the mother that she will be the tree, giving and loving and happy forever.
Others are bothered by this portrayal of parenthood, claiming the book encourages selfishness, narcissism, and codependency. Heck, even environmental activists have chimed it, rueing the boy’s pillaging of the tree.
Though I kept my promise and never read the story to Phillip again, it occurs to me today, nearly two decades later, the tale is coming to fruition anyway. Refraining from reading it again to him didn’t stop fate.
After spending almost a full week with my oldest back under my roof for the holidays, I’ve come to the harsh realization that when he left for college in August, he would never return the same. It will never, ever be the same.
Physically, he’s even taller and thinner. His sleep habits are somehow even worse than they were before he left. Most of his time at home was spent sleeping or visiting the other side of his family. Some habits, habits I hadn’t missed, are still intact –half-full soda cans littering the house, waking to the remnants of midnight food raids. Oh, and he still doesn’t always flush the toilet.
He’s still Phillip, and I’m still Mom, but now there’s months of college experiences between us. He’s a legal adult, too, so I find myself wondering what my role is in his life. In reality, it’s his life, his choices, his future. I can only sit back and let him be. Let him make mistakes. Let him pay for those mistake. Let him change his major or college or apartment. After 18 years of micromanaging, I’m no longer the boss. Instead, I’m just a bystander, praying daily for his happiness, safety, and success.
I have become the giving tree, giving money, an apartment, a vehicle, groceries, gasoline, advice, prayers. But in the end, it’s up to the boy to use the tree’s abundant gifts to achieve happiness.
As I contemplate this shift in parenting, I peruse the illustrations in The Giving Tree and notice an apparent juxtaposition. Though, as time marches on, the reader is repeatedly told “and the tree was happy,” the tree appears less and less content. Is she truly happy?
My son is taking all the next steps he’s supposed to be taking, all the things for which we’d planned and prepped. He was supposed to graduate from high school (check), get scholarships (check), move out (check), and go to college (check). None of this is a surprise.
So why do I tell him and everyone who asks that I’m proud and happy –while looking more and more like the forlorn stump of a tree? Of course there is joy is seeing any of my children finding happiness, but sometimes that joy comes with a side of loneliness and longing.
Maybe The Giving Tree isn’t about happiness or love. Maybe it’s just Silverstein’s twisted lament about the passing of time, a matter-of-fact view of physical decay.
It is a terrifying thought that the best of our lives could have already transpired, yet I can’t help but wonder if the greatest joy of my life was when all of our children were living at home. It is our charge as moms to prepare these squishy little ones for their own lives and their own choices, but if we do this job effectively, we will create adults who are suddenly very separate from us, physical and emotionally.
To give them the gift of themselves, we lose a piece of ourselves each time they come and go from our world to create a world of their own.
But this much Silverstein got right with absolute perfection.
I would do it all again for my little boy because I do love him so very, very much –even more than I love myself. Letting go, learning this new ebb and flow, sitting on the sidelines of the life I once coached is HARD.
But I trust that, over the last 18 years, the love and the lessons have stuck, and the boy will return to his momma, different in so many ways, but still her little boy inside.