In a interesting New York Times op-ed piece about the national trauma that is 9/11 Joseph Ellis uses a phrase, which he attributes to Patrick Henry, that I had never heard: "the lamp of experience."
For me, the central task of motherhood is to try to use my personal
lamp of experience to shed light on my children’s darkest moments.
When Youngest was 4 ½, he was traumatized. For weeks after, he drew
pictures of the event and his feelings about it. One day, he drew a
figure and proclaimed, “That’s Mac.” Mac was my father.
He scratched his pen vigorously across the page, obscuring the picture. “He’s dead.”
He drew another figure, “That’s Rosie.” Rosie is my mother. He scratched her out. “She’s going to die.”
Then he began another figure, me, and started to cry. “You are going
to die.” He stopped drawing and cried harder. "I am going to die.
Everything dies.” He was sobbing. He cried so hard he started to
choke, and then he vomited. At that point, I could only think to carry
him outside. Maybe being in the presence of nature would calm him.
As I held him in my arms, I searched for something, anything, to
say. I knew that “I’m not going to die for a long time” would not do
the trick. Nor would detailing some comforting notion of heaven, though
I have to admit it crossed my mind. What could I say to him, who I
could still hold in my arms and rock, that would be comforting while he
was drowning in grief and terror?
Above all, it could not be a lie.
“Youngest," I said, "there is one thing that doesn’t die.” His
crying slowed and he looked at me. I had the distinct sensation that
he was looking to me for salvation.
“Love doesn’t die. It is true that
people die. But the love they have for each other does not die. It
goes on and on.” He let out a big sigh. It was true enough for him.
The problem for me is that my own lamp of experience sometimes
dims. When it does, I find it hard to cling to what I know: that love
is the only response to random, infinite loss. That’s when I look to my children to shine the light on me.