My favourite book to read my children when they were very small was "Love you forever" by Robert Munsch. In the story a woman has a baby, and as she cuddles him, asleep, she sings "I'll love you forever, / I'll like you for always, / As long as I'm living / my baby you'll be." As he grows up, at two and nine and as a teenager he does things that infuriate and confuse her. But, regardless, when he was truly asleep, she would come to him and rock him and sing her song. Even when he grew up and moved away and didn't come to see her so much, she would seek him out and if she found him truly asleep, she would (comically and absurdly – my children always liked this bit) pick him up and rock him and sing her song.
But one day, she lies on her death bed and she calls him up to say she can't come to see him. And when he comes she tries to sing her song but she can't finish. So he picks her up instead and sings his own song: "I'll love you forever, / I'll like you for always, / As long as I'm living / my Mommy you'll be."
After he comes home (we presume, though it is not said, that the mother has passed away), he stands for a moment in reflection, then goes in to see his baby daughter, picks her up and rocks her and sings to her: "I'll love you forever, / I'll like you for always, / As long as I'm living / my baby you'll be."
Why are we charmed and so moved by this lovely and simple story, and how can we learn and be challenged by it?
First, the mother's love is so unconditional, even secretive. She does not love him because he treats her well or behaves as she might wish - in the tale he does not. She does not love him for his appreciation of her love. She just does what is right, in expression of her bond and her love. Very often, in politics, we want to be appreciated and we think that if we are not appreciated what we are doing is probably wrong. That applies to deficit reduction programmes. It applies to military interventions. Kipling wrote: "Take up the White man's burden / And reap his old reward: / The blame of those ye better, / The hate of those ye guard / The cry of hosts ye humour / (Ah, slowly!) toward the light: / "Why brought ye us from bondage, / "Our loved Egyptian night?" If we truly love and truly aim to do what is right, rather than simply what is wanted, we will not see approval or even re-election as our goal or the measure of our achievement. Similarly, if we love, we may not need to boast that what we do is done in love – it may be enough that we know that for ourselves.
Next, the boy knows, even if she didn't tell him and he didn't appear to appreciate it. When she lies on her deathbed he can replay her song back to her – even though she only even sang it to him in his sleep. Those who are loved may be moved by our love for them, even if they do not show it explicitly until the moment of crisis. They are enriched and changed by our love, and marked by it even after we are gone. Though the mother can only promise that the son will be her baby as long as she is living, when he replays his version of the song back to her, he sings that she will be his Mommy as long as he is living – i.e. even after she is gone. Our deeds of true love outlive us.
Lastly, deeds of love are passed on. The son passes on his mother's practise of love to his own daughter. We talk of despair passing down the generations, as jobless households produce jobless children and the children of underage mothers produce children when themselves underage. But love transforms and transmits, also. Hammond wrote, "You don't pay love back; you pay it forward." That is true as a positive effect of the good that we do, but it is also a duty upon us. Others in the past made sacrifices that enabled us to live in peace and safety and prosperity – including sacrifices that a generation such as ours should be humbled by. We have a duty to pass on, and if possible enhance, what was given to us.
Smile and cry when you read Munsch's masterpiece, of course – but also learn.