The Lanyard

Billy Colllins’ poem puts me in mind, not of the countless rather worthless crafts or gifts I made my mother over the years – though I suspect she did not count them as worthless – but rather of the labor and delivery room in which our first child was born.

I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday two thoughts, actually two rather shattering insights. (Keep in mind, of course, that I had the luxury of gathering reflective insights as my wife was the one doing all the work!). The first was that I had never known I was capable of such love. I had loved my wife, loved my parents, loved my brothers and sisters. But none of that had prepared me for the overwhelming sense of head-over-heels, throw-myself-over-a-cliff kind of love that coursed through my whole being the moment I first gazed on our newborn son.

The second was the recognition that my parents had loved me that much. Inconceivable! That realization simply blew me away. Yes, I knew they loved me, tons. But having not loved so profoundly until we had a child, I could not imagine how great their love for me and my brothers and sisters was. It simply wasn’t imaginable.

I’ve told my children many times since that they will never know just how much their mother and I love them, at least not until they have a child of their own. They don’t believe me, of course; that’s simply the way it works.

And so I appreciate this poem because it reminds us that there is, as Collins ruefully admits, no way to ever “make it even,” no way to pay back a mother’s love, the years of dedication and sacrifice which our parents give us. But we can pay it forward. And I have often thought that the only way I can come close to repaying my parents for their love and dedication is to try to be as good parents for our children as they were for us. I’m not sure it’s possible, but it’s worth a try.

I actually had a third insight that day. And that is that this is how God came into the world as well – this messy, loud, fragile and vulnerable way – all in order to show us just how much we are loved, for God loves us just as fiercely and tenderly as a mother loves her newborn child and receives our paltry offerings and thanks as graciously as a mother receives her son’s gift of a lanyard.

The Lanyard

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room
bouncing from typewriter to piano
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the “L” section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word, Lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past.
A past where I sat at a workbench
at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard.
A gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard.
Or wear one, if that’s what you did with them.
But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand
again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard 
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
“Here are thousands of meals” she said,
“and here is clothing and a good education.”
“And here is your lanyard,” I replied,
“which I made with a little help from a counselor.”
“Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world.” she whispered.
“And here,” I said, “is the lanyard I made at camp.”
“And here,” I wish to say to her now,
“is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom
would be enough to make us even.”

By Billy Collins, from The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems (2007).

Below is a video of Billy Collins introducing and then reading this poem. If you’ve received this post by email, you may need to click the title at the top of the post to watch the video.