Last summer my older children discovered two large, black and yellow spiders in our neighbor’s flower garden. The first was heavy and round and we marveled at her girth as she sat swaying in the breeze, resting on the zigzagging line that ran down the middle of her web. The kids set up their little green, plastic lawn chairs on the sidewalk nearby so they could sit within arm’s reach, observing her every move. They fed her roll-up bugs and watched as she lovingly, gently wrapped the bodies of trapped bees and flies as though swaddling them for a long nap.
One day she appeared diminished, shrunken to nearly half her former size, but the same in every other aspect. We bent and swayed staring at her, trying the view from different angles, doubting what our eyes were telling us. Not long after that she disappeared.
A week or so later a second spider appeared in a different spot just up the hill from the first. Her web was nestled out of reach in a clump of scraggly black-eyed-susans. This one was also round and full with a bulbous abdomen.
I took to visiting this new spider nearly as often as my kids, so I noticed the day that she too appeared diminished, relieved of her great girth. This time, with a little searching, I spied the weight she’d lost hanging suspended in its own web in the midst of a large green and red blood-grass bush several feet away. There hung a sphere about the size of a ping-pong ball. It was grayish brown and textured – a sac of gloriously tiny spiders to be.
* * *
Visiting those two leggy creatures, I began to notice similarities between their lot and mine.
We three, the spiders and I, knew the energies it takes to tend one’s web day-in and day-out, the work of cleaning and repairing. We also knew the work of growing large with life, cumbersomely large, and the fearsome task of releasing that precious new life into the world. The spider’s egg sac became a symbol of maternal sacrifice and devotion for me, a symbol of the cost of bearing life.
My maternal desires and fears intersected and came to rest there on that small cluster of eggs that hung suspended on glistening filaments in the blood-red grass.
* * *
I told him to leave it alone.
I warned him with mama-bear fierceness without really explaining why, without giving a reason.
I didn’t say what I felt and feared, that if we messed with the small spherical fruit of the spider’s life we would ruin it and then the spider’s life and sacrifice would be in vain. All of that liveliness spent, for nothing.
Here was, perhaps, my second betrayal.
In my fear I equated the value of the spider’s life with her productivity and in so doing negated the gift of her being. My fears dismissed and diminished her – the gift of her colors, black and yellow, the gift of her beauty and patience, of her waiting and living while we watched, the gift of her futility as she made and re-made the web each day that would be broken by evening.
The third betrayal followed closely on the heels of the second, as though somehow intertwined.
After mistaking, diminishing the spider’s being, I then did the same to my son. I chose not to invite him into my fear and longing, not to share my deep feelings with him. Instead I laid down the law, seeing him as a potential rebel, a threat to be managed rather than a potential co-conspirator in honoring the sacredness of the spider’s gift.
Branded the rebel, betrayed by my unwillingness to invite him into the mysteries of love and fear and desire the eggs represented, my son acted the part I’d laid out for him. He did it in a moment when no one was looking after being told not to by his mother and father, but never having been told why. Reaching out with his thin arm, leaning over the blood red grass, his fingers plucked the egg sac from its web like an apple from a tree.
Some time later I heard them, he and his sister, dreaming and discussing the babies that would be born. They were squatting, hunched down over the ball on the front porch, captured in awe and excitement over what they held, glowing with a level of praise that surely would have pleased the spider had she been there to hear.
This I know only by remembering because I missed it in the moment. I was blinded by rage as I came tearing through the screen door, accusations flying from my mouth like lashes from a whip. My daughter immediately fell back on her innocence, fleeing like the disciples in the garden that night when Jesus was handed over, wanting nothing to do with the one who was betrayed.
The shame, the regret, were immediate. My son cried as we laid on him the weight of all of that life that now lay suspended not in its web, but in his dirty little hand. We told him what I should have told him before, that he was holding something precious, something sacred. All of this we, I, laid on him, self-righteousness hiding the deeper story of my desire and fear and identity that were all wrapped up with the spider’s eggs.
Dinner was on the table and we hurried in, pushing my son along even as he struggled under the weight of his guilt. We prayed a hasty thank you and started the meal, but my son sat, downcast, un-eating, making small whimpering sounds. My anger had turned cold by now and I wanted him to get over it or, maybe I was already beginning to feel uncomfortable with the weight of guilt I’d hung on him. We told him to settle down, let it go and eat his dinner, but he couldn’t.
Finally he said with the great strength it takes to name such things, “I feel guilty.”
My husband and I exchanged glances. “What do you mean?” I asked, prodding, as though the statement weren’t clear enough, as though he wasn’t feeling exactly what I’d wanted him to feel.
He lifted his head and looked at me, his eyes two deep pools of brown sorrow, and I could see at once the truth of what I’ve done. “I feel guilty about what I did,” he repeated.
“Well, it was a mistake, we all make mistakes,” my husband and I chimed in quickly.
“But you never make mistakes,” he replied.
“Yes I do. Everyone makes mistakes,” I said, with some urgency this time.
“I never saw you make one,” he countered, with caution.
My husband and I quickly started dressing ourselves down, dressing all of us down, suddenly anxious to rid ourselves of the burden of infallibility, anxious to be human with our children so that they can be human with us.
His father told him, wisely, that when you make a mistake the best thing you can do is try to fix it, so after dinner they all tromped out the door and worked at replacing the egg sack in its web.
But ah, those eyes.
It was impossible to look into my son’s eyes and not see my own guilt as well; see how I’d crafted a cross for him built at the intersection of my fears and desires, how I’d hung him there with a weight of guilt far beyond his understanding, beyond his responsibility.
We all make mistakes and I made at least three if not more that afternoon. But when I saw the hurt in his eyes, I cut him down from the cross of my own making and held him to me, gathered him up from across the dinner table, hoping my love could make it right, even just a little.
Lord, still my hand from grabbing, from tearing them down. May my words, may my love, build a web for them in which they rest, nestled, cradled until the day comes for them to break free and head out into the world. Lord, help me, like the spiders, to tend to my own web, the fine threads of love and grace that hold me here for this time; lend me the grace, the courage to build it anew each morning.
This post is linked with Playdates with God.
Photo credit here.