The People We’ve Been Given to Love

For Senior, 73 and just getting better

A close friend often uses the phrase, “the people we’ve been given to love” when he talks about the relationships in his life. He’s mostly talking about his family; his wife of many years, his adult daughters, and he’s often talking about how hard he has to work to be present with whatever is happening in these sometimes difficult relationships. It’s sort of a real-life twist on the lame-ass sentiment that you choose your friends, but you don’t choose your family.

The more mystical among us may believe that we do choose our parents. Regardless, we can’t deny how much we are shaped by our parents, and by the legacies that they themselves carry.

Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. It is no exaggeration to say that as hard as these past two years have been for me, they have been just as hard on her. It is also no exaggeration to say that without her, I might not have survived.

After my nightmarish DUI, when I could barely scrape enough of myself off the floor to pick up the phone, she was the first one who said, “Do you want me to come?” And although she hates to travel alone, and despite the imposition on her life in general, she came. She’d planned to stay for a few days, and she did, driving me to doctors, lawyers, treatment clinics, sitting in waiting rooms, reading on her Nook or knitting. Trying to get me to eat. Trying to tell me how to get the shambles of my life in order.

handsWhen it became clear that this was not going to be the work of a few days, she said, “Do you want me to stay?” And even though we were driving each other insane, even though I knew she wanted to go home, I said, “yes.” So she stayed.

We sat on my couch together one evening watching “Bridesmaids” on my crappy laptop which she couldn’t hear, and she kept asking me to repeat each line of the movie. I could hardly bear to be sitting up straight, could hardly tolerate being in my own skin, and I wanted to suffocate her with a couch pillow. When the movie was over, she sat on me, the way Melissa McCarthy sits on Kristen Wiig when she is lying, greasy and depressed, on her mother’s couch, and slaps her around to force her to “fight for her crappy life.” My mother sat on me, in her nightgown, and told me that I had to fight for my life, for the life that was in pieces around me. Crying and laughing and crying, I promised her that I would.

When I was enduring (or more accurately, when my parents and I were enduring) what felt to me like a rather embattled adolescence and early adulthood, there were stretches when we could barely tolerate each other. My father adopted the role of peacemaker, telling me over and over and over that “she only says these things because she loves you. She only does this because she cares.” I wanted to reach through the phone and hit him.

guadianangelToday, 25 years later, we still have conversations like that every now and then, but I am deeply–down in my bones deeply–aware that she doesn’t only do and say what she does because she loves me. She does it because she is the kind of person who, no matter what, will always come down on the side of the angels. She can’t do it any other way.

After my accident, I asked her not to tell my brother or sister because I was so humiliated. I knew I couldn’t tell them, and I knew I didn’t want them to know. The next day, in the car on the way to yet another appointment she said, “I did something you’re going to be angry about and I’m sorry. But I told your brother and sister about the accident because they are your family and families need to stick together. They want to do anything they can to support you.”

I looked out of my window, still barely able to focus my eyes on anything, and I felt the tears on my cheeks. “Thank you,” I said.

On the side of the angels.

Below is one of my favorite birthday poems, even though it’s not a straight up birthday poem (and even though my mother hates birds). It’s by the 19th-century British poet Christina Rossetti, and I’m sharing it with this post for this reason:  my mother’s presence during one of the worst periods of my life made it possible for me to have what this poem describes.  A new life, a singing heart, and love. She gave all of this to me once, 48 years ago, and then she gave it all back to me again.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

With all love,


A Birthday

by Christina Rossetti
My heart is like a singing bird
                  Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
                  Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
                  That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
                  Because my love is come to me.
Raise me a dais of silk and down;
                  Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
                  And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
                  In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
                  Is come, my love is come to me.

18 thoughts on “The People We’ve Been Given to Love

Add yours

  1. Opened the Reader, right before bed and i go to read this beautiful post! Wow! Thank you! This is absolutely beautiful and i really love the title- really got me pondering
    I have the same kind of relationship with my dad! For a long time we didn’t get along, but he had always been there for me, always.

    Happy Bday to your mom! Hugs.


  2. Leslie,

    Wow! This post is amazing and somehow just what I needed to hear. I’ve always loved talking to your mother at family gatherings but I now have a deeper respect and love for her! A mother/daughter relationship is so complex – i am currently butting heads with my preteen and it gives me a deeper understanding into my own relationship with my mom. When my daughter says to me “mom, sometimes the sound of your voice drives me crazy” I take a deep breath and know that someday she will understand the depth of my love for her. Beautiful post – thank you!!! And know that I think about you all the time and pray you are doing well.



    1. Hi Dianne, so great to see you here! Thank you so much for the kind words and for your supportive thoughts. It means so much, and Lauren is so lucky to have you as her friend. Hang in there with the preteen–I maintain that as long as she’s talking to you at all, it’s a good sign! Much love, Leslie


  3. Dearest Leslie, please pass on our best wishes to your mom…and know that your transparency and beauty uplifts me. I am so touched by your writing, and am sending love across the miles!


  4. You have an amazing mother Leslie, what a blessing it is to have good things to say about your mother! I am so glad she was able to be here and there for you, and that you needed her. I hope to have this type of relationship with my daughter as the years pass. Thanks for sharing this post. It is beautiful. So fun to read.


    1. Hi Becca, thanks! Yes, she certainly is amazing, that’s for sure. And I know you will surely have as much to offer your lovely daughter in the future as you always have! Much love, L


  5. Thank you so much. You have a strong and brave mother. Hang in there-we all love you. And I don’t think we pick our friends, they are like family. Love the title: “Given to love.” Your words are your home, Leslie.


  6. I agree with others, Leslie. This is so raw and beautiful and amazing and I have been contemplating the concept of “the people we have been given to love” ever since I read this. It’s such a helpful shift in perspective. What a great birthday gift and tribute to your mom.


  7. This got to me, remembering my mother coming to be with me during the worst time of my life when all I had imagined for my life felt lost and false. My mom has been gone for over 20 years and sometimes the loss feels like yesterday. How blessed we are to be mothers now and perhaps know how to do the same someday for our “babies.” Thanks for your essays always.


  8. Leslie, this was so true to life. So true. Bless you for writing this and for loving your mother in this way. Please keep fighting for your life because you mean so much to all of us who love you.


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