Despite my desire to be “green,” I believe in leaving the light on—the fluorescent kind, like the one that graces the ceiling of my parents’ kitchen.
My mother told me the story of leaving the light on many times when I was growing up. It was, she said, a sign to her children that there was no mistake so bad that they couldn’t come home. She was a devout Catholic, naive in her refusal to believe that her children would make irresponsible choices but realistic enough to convey the message that if they did get into trouble, they could always come home. There would certainly be consequences, but my mother would much rather have been the one to decide her children’s fates than to leave them to chance. The light was a beacon for children who had lost their way and needed the safety of home again.
High school passed with my older brother receiving his share of late-night lectures, but I gave my parents little stress until I went off to college. In my junior year, after turning twenty, that changed in a most abrupt way. I drove home that Christmas Eve with my head sunk low, and I beheld the familiar glow of that fluorescent light through the kitchen window. As I walked into the house, my mother knew instantly that something was not right, and I looked terrified of what I was about to confess.
“I know you’re going to hate me,” I choked. “I’m pregnant.”
Immediately her arms folded around me, and I released my long-held sobs into her shoulders. She rubbed my back and voiced what I already knew. “I could never hate you,” she said. “I love you. It’s going to be all right.” My mother had revealed her light to me, and I finally understood.
Leaving the light on means unconditional love, the kind that you have for your children, because you are their last line of defense when life becomes too much to bear. It means being open and accepting of people even when, especially when, they’re the least accepting of themselves. It’s about the practice of understanding and empathy, not when it’s easy to love, but when it’s the most difficult. It’s the kind of love that I did not fully understand until I became a parent myself.
My children, now eleven and nine years old, are quickly approaching the murky world of adolescence. And though I know it doesn’t resonate for them yet, I have told them the story of the light in the kitchen. While I, too, would like to believe that they will never need to come home with their heads held low, I assure them that home is a place where love is a given, no matter what. When the world seems darkest, and they need it most, they will understand why I leave the light on.
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