Guest Essay: The Bear Cub

In this guest essay, Matt Geiger shares about being a parent and seeing his child grow up.
Illustration of a dad bear holding up a child bear
Illustration by Robert Neubecker

By Matt Geiger

My daughter, who is 7, recently put on a sweatshirt, pulled the hood down low over her face and pretended to gaze vacantly into an imaginary phone in her hand, oblivious to the magnificent world around her.

“Look at me, Dad,” she said in an apathetic monotone, her best impersonation of a dullard. “I’m a teenager.”

It was funny, but also a bit darkly prescient, like me lying on the ground and joking: “Look at me, I’m dead of old age.” The next stage of your life always seems exciting, until the final one, I guess.

I often feel like I am the luckiest person on the planet, because 7 is not 16, and I still have this person here by my side, for a few more years, always ready for some new adventure or lesson or story. Always eager to investigate the next mystery, as the world gradually unfolds before her.

A friend recently asked me how I will handle it when my daughter grows into one of these people, these tweens and teens who don’t know how to change a tire but are convinced they could easily fix all the socioeconomic ills of the world with a snap of their fingers. One of the most famous traits of these people is that they push away from their parents, deciding that the people who gave them life and spent thousands of dollars and countless hours trying to give them a good start are suddenly lame and embarrassing and dumb.

When asked, I didn’t know, but when I lay awake that night and thought about it, I decided I will feel many things. When your child grows up and moves away from you, you can feel sorry for yourself or you can feel the way a painter feels when their work is displayed in museums and galleries around the world. You are not the source of the beautiful landscape or person or even avant-garde dreamscape you painted; you are merely someone who helps it in its journey to the rest of the world. Sandro Botticelli did not create Venus, Leonardo da Vinci did not invent Mona Lisa and Vincent van Gogh cannot take credit for the beauty of stars at night or sunflowers in bloom. But they all stopped and saw the things in front of them. Seeing them, they thought them beautiful and compelling enough to love them, for a bit — in their cases by sitting down and painting so that others might see them as well.

These artists cared for the people, stories and ideas that came before them in their lives, but they did not take ownership of them or try to keep them and their beauty for themselves. And in truth, it’s doubtful that sunflowers care about van Gogh more than they care about anyone else. But the painter does not paint in the hopes of being thanked or loved by the painting or the subject of the painting. The painter works because it is the only way to give praise to the astounding beauty that stands before them. Love is not something you can give with the expectation of getting something in return. Reciprocal love is merely a commonplace merchant’s deal, the trading of one thing for another. True love is something you give away without asking for, or expecting, anything in return. Those who demand a return on their investment are just affection investors, and they do not know true love.

The poet Kahlil Gibran wrote of children, “You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls.”

But it was also Gibran who pointed out that “love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation,” so I think he, too, understood the pain that comes with a child growing up, and eventually away, from the people who love them most. Some see this as ungrateful, when they call you a moron and leave you, but I see it as proof that you have done your job, that you have housed their souls for long enough, that you have fed them and kept them warm and safe and happy, until they are rested and robust enough for the next leg of their strange journeys. And you never know, because no good journey travels in a straight line, and your paths might cross again someday. After all, one of the world’s most famous stories, which is filled with gold and monsters and dragons, is called “There and Back Again.”

It is a popular cliche for parents to refer to themselves as ursine. People have thought of themselves as animals since the days and nights when we lived in caves and draped ourselves in their skins, all while hoping they would not dine on us. These days I often hear people, mothers in particular, refer to themselves as “mama bear.” Whenever they do, I always think of a wildlife documentary I once watched in which a mother bear, after about a year and a half with her offspring, was walking through a meadow. Suddenly and without warning, she turned around and attacked her cub, sinking her teeth into his haunches and chasing him away. For the rest of the day, he tried to follow her at longer and longer distances, being periodically rebuked. Eventually, he wandered off to live on his own. It was, of course, an act of love. It is easy to feed warm milk to a squalling infant, and it is easy to embrace a toddler who has skinned her knee, showing her your own old tricycle scars. That kind of love is commonplace and natural. But saying goodbye is an act of love, too. Perhaps when teenagers turn on their parents, they do so only out of love, in much the same way that mother bear turned on her cub. Maybe they do it to make the sorrow of parting just a little less unbearable, the pain of the distance between you a little less acute.

And perhaps the mother bear knows something else of which Gibran wrote: “A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings. Alone must it seek the ether. And alone and without its nest shall the eagle fly across the sun.”

I know all these things, or at least I think I do, but really, if I am honest, it would be foolish to worry that someday my daughter will pull down her hood and gaze moronically into a phone that feeds her nothing but outlandish lies and banal truths. It would be silly to worry that someday she will roll her eyes whenever I speak and ask me to drop her off around the corner so her friends don’t see her with me, as if my uncoolness is a form of modern leprosy.

Because those things will happen, someday, just as I will someday lie down dead, but that day is not yet here. Today is just another day, together with a 7-year-old girl. She does not own a phone. She does not yet think me stupid. She is simply here and eager to joke and play, to pretend she is a teenager or a character from a book or movie or the strangeness of her own imagination.

I get to do the easy part, at least for a few more years. Because all of this, so far, has been easy. Holding a warm bottle of milk for a crying baby at 3 in the morning. Changing a diaper. Comparing knee scars and spinning yarns about the world as it unfolds before us. Because as she sees and begins to understand new thing after new thing, I am still here beside her, for now, like a painter who spreads deep colors across a rough canvas, not in the expectation of any gift in return, but simply because this is the only way to give praise to the astounding beauty that stands before me.

Matt Geiger is a guest essayist to Madison Magazine.

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