Taking Flight

This piece is from the archives, as it were, and as kids are heading back to school, it feels like the right time to share.

***

The little one’s last two years of high school have been colored by a renewed struggle with his father’s suicide. I can’t blame the father 100% for the child’s behavior. It’s entirely possible that the boy would have engaged in the stereotypically risky teenage business anyway. But his adolescent anger has fueled some unfortunate decisions, and I’m afraid that love and patience and therapy will not counter the effects of paternal abandonment and the allure of drugs and alcohol and pretty girls. 

My son believes his mother didn’t get it. And indeed, I don’t.

I love him. I am proud of him. And I am profoundly afraid. 

Over the summer, my son and I fly to the Midwest for his orientation weekend for incoming college freshmen. We travel together in that distinct tandem of parent and child. At nearly 6’3”, he acts as my defender, and as the baby, he follows my lead through the terminal to locate our departure gate. Naturally, his eyes occasionally roll dismissively in my direction, and also, he falls asleep on the plane with his head resting on my shoulder. I tip my head toward his, feeling his thick, unruly hair against the side of my jaw, trying not to think about the fact that the next time we fly to Milwaukee, his ticket will be one way and I will return home to my freshly empty nest. I inhale the sea breeze scent of his shampoo and close my eyes. No matter how stinky and surly a teenager becomes, these points in motherhood stabilize the tension. Balancing on the razor’s edge between love and loss, I drink in this tender interval between a moment and a memory. 

On the return flight home a few days later, he wants to watch a movie, but he has forgotten his earphones. 

I wonder silently whether he is really ready for college.

“Can we share yours?” he asks, smiling impishly. “Let’s find a movie we both want to watch.”

Normally more of a book-reader than movie-watcher, I slide my iPad into the seatback in front of me. His three older siblings have conditioned me to drop most everything when they want to share an experience, which becomes increasingly rare as they grow older. If he had asked to borrow my headphones, I might have simply handed them over, and I am pleased he wants to watch together.

He scrolls past the action movies he knows I’m not inclined to choose, Spiderman and The Fast and The Furious.

I scroll past the documentaries RBG and Free Solo.

He lands on A Star Is Born and looks to me for approval. 

“You know there’s a suicide at the end,” I say. 

“I know,” he says.

“At least 10 people who loved it warned me not to watch it.” I have purposely avoided watching this film. I’ve lived with a suicide. I don’t need my entertainment to be punctuated by one.

“I know,” he insists, “but I heard Lady Gaga was great.”

Thus, we are agreed.

Held close to each other by the cord of a shared pair of earphones, we watch. As the movie nears its foretold conclusion, I force myself to breathe. Inhale, exhale, repeat. I feel my son’s warm, brown eyes – inherited from his father – glancing over, watching me protectively.

In fact, it is a brilliant film with heart-wrenching performances. Painful scenes echo our own reality. My friends were kind to have warned me. And yet, this is probably the best way I could have watched this film – on a tiny screen and connected to a son who shares my earphones and my grief.

The most poignant moment happens after the film is over, when my son who at six idolized his father and at 16 reviled him, turns his 18-year-old self to me and says, “I wasn’t expecting to like the Bradley Cooper character, but I really did.” Which begins – yet another – conversation about his father, about life and mental health and suicide and love. About how it might be possible – if inexplicable – that Sam both loved his children dearly and never would have hurt them, and was suffering so desperately that he imagined they’d be better off without him, shattering them. That he could be a truly kind man and the asshole who left. And that the child himself could love his father and resent him and be proud of him and ashamed and miss him and feel his presence. All these can be simultaneously true. 

I marvel at my son’s resourcefulness and his capacity to love and forgive. 

Yes, I think. My no-longer-little-one is prepared – for college, for travel and for life. He has everything he needs, even when he forgets his earphones. 

***

Wishing you light and strength along your way. And please remember to remove all personal items from the seatback in front of you.

***

Also, my iPad found its way back to me. And the so-called little one is now half-way through college.

Touchstones

Sometimes it’s like he’s just really far away, on a secret mission in an undisclosed location, beyond cell coverage, without a return ticket. There’s no way to reach him or leave a note. He’s not coming back, and he’s not sending any text messages, not even a single, solitary poopy emoji. And yet, oddly, there’s still a relationship.

My son says, “People don’t get it. To them it seems like forever ago, even if it’s only been six months, and that everything is normal again. They don’t understand that, even after it stops being news for everyone else, you’re still living it every day.” Grief takes its own sweet time.

I return to this place, the cemetery where Sam was buried more than a decade ago. I am here for the funeral of a man I never met, the father of a friend. I show up early, early enough to visit Sam’s plot before the service begins. I do not come here often, sometimes years pass between my visits, but I know exactly where he lies. There’s been a lot of construction around the site in the last ten years, but I have no trouble finding Sam’s spot. I park at the bottom of the hill and climb up. When the boys were little, the slope seemed so much steeper and farther. Now they could ascend the hill in about three steps.

A sacred friend planted a gorgeous pine tree in Sam’s honor on the Lake Arrowhead property where we attended family camp together for many happy summers. The pine was planted on the edge of the lawn where they hold Shabbat services, the Friday sunset observance, ushering divine peace into open hearts on a warm evening breeze.

The so-called little one went to his junior prom over the weekend. When he was trying on his tux at the rental shop, another mom commented, “Your son looks just like you,” which thrilled me but also made me laugh. This is the second time in seventeen years that anyone has told me this child looks like me. The first person to say so retracted her statement about ten seconds after she said it. “Actually…,” she paused. “He looks a lot like Sam.” In fact, more people say he looks like his step-father than say he looks like me. But anyone who knew Sam recognizes the soft brown eyes, the gentle smile, the mischievous glint.

The gravestone is tarnished, worn by rain and sun and time. The inscription reads, “Let it not be death but completeness.” This site is also accessible by a walking path. I chose this spot specifically so that his parents could reach it easily – no hill climb required – but these days his mother is too fragile to spend time here with Sam. His parents’ declining health is a touchstone that reminds us of the depth of the loss. Intellectually, I know that he does not exist in this earthy plot of green, but it holds a strange gravity. The boys have lived longer without their father than they did with him, longer with their step-father than their biological one, and I am humbled to tears by the vastness of love that continues to hold these boys.

The pine tree is only a few years old and a few feet tall. We expect it to thrive. It has been nourished with this blessing: “May it grow tall and strong as a reminder of a good man, husband and father.”

More than a few friends have commented that the boy looks the spitting image of his father in the prom pictures. Not one says he looks like me. I think Sam would say that the boy looks exactly like himself. It’s not so painful anymore, although sometimes I ache with a longing, wishing that Sam could see the young man his son has grown into, both the boy and me looking for a sign of his father’s approval.

I sit at Sam’s side for a few moments. I don’t really need this place to “talk” to him. I pretty much speak my mind whenever, wherever. I offer up a prayer, and while I often simply sit with folded hands to pray, I make the sign of the cross here in the cemetery and imagine Sam’s lopsided smile. He would be thoroughly amused that his Christian wife had arrived entirely too early. I can almost hear him, “Didn’t I teach you anything about standard Jewish time?”

We didn’t go to family camp last summer. Instead, our now family of six decided to take our first international trip. Our traditions have served us well, providing a foundation for our future family adventures together.

In the same way that I didn’t want the boys to avoid their grief and sadness, I didn’t want them to avoid this physical place. It’s impossible, after all, not to bump into these moments. Like a friend, who happens to be at the same restaurant, Sam’s life – and his death – cross our paths, often in ways we aren’t anticipating. The funeral, prom night, summer plans, bring us in touch with the mystery that somehow – even after Sam’s death – we have a relationship, a connection, a sacred communion. Our memories become more blessing than suffering, and we draw strength, warmth, shade and comfort.

These moments bring us back to the intersection where he lost his life, and where we are continuing with ours.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path.

Psalms For Us

Sometimes I start my prayers for my children by looking toward the heavens (or their now-deceased mother and father, which, I believe, is the same general direction) and shouting, “Don’t blame me, they’re your children!” I think this approach is based in sound theology, an awareness that the boys are children of the universe, beloved, intended, gifted. As both a child and a parent myself, I find this perspective inordinately comforting, that is, when I’m not infuriated by the fact that I am not in charge. Honestly, there are a lot of things that I would do differently in this half-baked, overcharged world, but I cannot swaddle my children in bubble-wrap and keep them securely on the sofa. No doubt my sons are grateful for this fact, but when I am powerless to keep them safe from, nuclear holocaust, weather, dread illness or their own misguided decision-making, the only thing that helps me keep a semblance of sanity is to trust them to a higher divinity.

I realize this approach sounds bonkers.

I accomplish excessively nothing with my ranting, my research and my own resilience. I might as well just sit down. So I do. Which, as it turns out, helps a great deal. Breathing slowly and intentionally, I quiet my inner crazy.

It’s not entirely unorthodox. King David appears to have prayed the same way. First, a raging storm, the desperate fear, the raised fist, the crippling arrogance. Then, the folded hands, and the receptive, grateful heart.

 

Selections from Psalm 139

[As rendered and annotated by an Ordinary Mom]

Oh Lord, You have searched [my son] and You know [him].

Dude! I cannot figure this kid out – what inspires him, what he’s about, why on earth he does the things he does – but you know him inside and out. The child makes no sense to me, but it gives me great comfort to know that You understand him. You don’t have to explain him to me. Anyway, it’s probably best that I don’t know. But if You could just make sure he knows that You understand him, I would be grateful. Make sure he has a place where he fits, that he feels loved, seen, held and safe, that he has a home in the world. Give him the confidence that comes from knowing he belongs.

You know when [he sits] and when [he stands]; You understand [his] thoughts from afar.

It’s definitely best that I not know.

[His] journey and [his] rest You scrutinize; with all [his] ways You are familiar.

Look out for the boy. He’s setting out on his own path. Thank goodness You are with him, especially now that he has left home, but I sure miss him something crazy. I worry about him constantly, even though I’m not peppering him with questions and text messages. I hope he knows where he’s going. I hope he gets enough rest. I hope he eats well. Throw some vegetables in his path for me, please. I hope You’re whispering in his ear.

He can leave and go away from home, but he is never away from Love, Yours and mine. Walk beside him on his day. You know who he is and the young man his is becoming.

Even before a word is on [his] tongue, behold O Lord, you know the whole of it.

The things he says – OMG – I realize he doesn’t intend to say anything irretrievably mean, or worse, unabashedly stupid, but help him to explain his ideas fully. Show him context. Teach him to be a good listener; maybe he could learn to swallow the wayward word on his tongue before it escapes. Or at least teach him to pause.

Teach me, too.

Behind [him] and before, You hem [him] in, and rest Your hand upon [him]. Such knowledge is too wonderful for [him]; too lofty for [him] to attain.

You advocate for him. You pay attention to his needs. You listen. Your presence is a guiding constant in his life. He doesn’t know how wonderful it is that you protect him on every side – emotionally, physically, mentally – but I do. Thank you.

For it was You who formed [his] inward parts, You knit [him] together in [his] mother’s womb.

When he was so small, a baby, still in utero, I could wrap my arms around him and almost believe that I could keep him safe, that I could create a healthier baby by eating well, and breathing clean air and reading to him, singing him to sleep, rocking him gently. But this child was never really about me and my procreative prowess. I am grateful for the privilege of mothering him, but he belongs to You. He was always Yours. He still is.

I am, too.

[He praises] You, for [he is] fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works; that [he knows] very well.

His life is a testament to You. His goodness and kindness in all their forms, as class clown, athlete, confidante, show Your dedication to his well-being. When he smiles, You smile. He knows his self worth as Your child, beloved, intended and gifted.

I do, too.

***

Wishing you light & strength on your healing path. And peace in your heart.

Family Time

I’m holding on to summer for just a few more days, notwithstanding the compelling evidence that it’s going, going, gone – the college bound bags, packed and tripping distance from the front door, the carton of fresh, bright highlighters and newly-sharpened pencils, the neat stack of textbooks on the dining room table. We are rested and inspired and pretty much ready to embark on the next adventure. And by “we” I mean, not me.

Our oldest son starts law school today, which constitutes clear and convincing evidence that I have been derelict in my maternal duties to talk him out of it. Thing #2 starts his senior year in college today, which seems to indicate that I may have blinked, but that he definitely hasn’t. The so-called little one starts his junior year of high school today, which must be an administrative glitch, because just about three yesterdays ago, he was not much bigger than an overstuffed burrito. I have already snapped (but not posted, as requested) the obligatory first day of school picture. and I’m trying not to think about the fact that he’s the last man standing on our porch now that all his brothers are off to college and beyond. It doesn’t seem possible that next year will be his last first-day-of-school-photograph-by-the-front-door, even though he’s well over six feet tall, because, like a recalcitrant toddler, today he is carrying his shoes in his hands instead of wearing them on his feet. It appears that my son, like me, steps reluctantly into the school year and scheduled life.

We’ve had a full summer, capped by two weeks of travel together with all four of our sons, an extraordinary achievement of organizational prowess and sheer blind luck. In a way, our trip already feels as ephemeral as a pleasant dream; we’ve tossed the luggage tags and boarding passes, posted a few photos and plunged headlong into the next phase, the boys speeding off in four different directions. On the other hand, the sturdiness of our shared experience will hold us for a long time. We thoroughly enjoyed our family togetherness, the planes, trains and even one trifling car-related mishap hardly worth mentioning but that dad will likely hear about for the rest of his days. We explored castles and cathedrals and quiet chapels, toured old cities and initiated a new friendship, spent long evenings featuring Bananagrams and brothers, all punctuated with laughter, local ales and champagne.

I feel the need to point out that we started out as a blended family, but now we are simply a family. The fact that two of our boys have the same exact name occasionally creates some confusion, which my husband and I feel the need to explain. The kids chalk it up to maternal brain damage and keep moving.

If you were counting sons, you might have noticed that I neglected to mention Thing #3. He is flying under the radar, hoping that I haven’t remembered that he finished his summer internship but has another week before heading across the country to his freshman orientation. The truth is that it is not getting any easier to let these kids take that step into college to create their own lives, even though it’s everything he has worked for (and we have encouraged). I’m bracing myself for my mommy meltdown. It has happened twice before already, so I know it’s coming. It might happen when I check the weather in the Midwest, or visit the Patagonia website, scrolling through various styles of sweaters and jackets, wondering which one best keeps the boy warm and dry. It could happen when he tells me about his roommate assignment. Or when I book the one-way plane ticket from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. It might be when I pay the fall term tuition. My husband and I are doling out last minute lectures and advice faster than the boy himself can drive to In ‘n Out for just one more double-double before leaving California. In any case, I have already warned the so-called baby that I am going to cling to his ankles like nobody’s business.

But what if I’m not meltdown-bound? Maybe I’m actually ready this time around? Third time’s a charm? It is entirely possible that I am exemplary at sticking my head in the sand, or that I’m feeling confident because the boy is still in bed at noon, in a bed under my own roof with my own dog at his feet, and not far away in a dorm room with a roommate I cannot threaten or bribe into kindness. It is altogether likely that upon the actual college drop-off, my husband and I will – for the third time running – retreat quickly to the nearest chapel, followed by a lengthy visit to the closest bar.

I guess I won’t know until it happens, so I will just trust that he and I are both ready for the approaching season. All I can do is enjoy where I am.

I take advantage of summer’s light, and I take a leisurely afternoon stroll with the dog, followed by a glass of sauvignon blanc on the porch. I have a book nearby, which I think about reading but don’t actually open. Instead, the dog and I simply watch the sunlight shifting on the mountains, thinking our butterfly thoughts, until it starts to feel too chilly outside, at which point our thoughts turn toward dinner, and we head inside for warmth and rest.

***

Wishing you light and strength on summer’s path. And gentle transitions.

 

Three Important Lessons

For surviving a trip to the DMV, and maybe for Life

Lesson Number 1. Things take time. Nothing moves quickly at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Not lines, not people, and especially not cars. We almost arrived on time for our 1:45 appointment, not that anybody was checking, armed with the child’s passport, his birth certificate, and his father’s death certificate, which it turns out we don’t need, even though all the instructions warn that both parents’ signatures are required for the permit. It’s a bit unnerving to carry Sam’s death certificate around, but it doesn’t take our breath away like it used to. The boy doesn’t’ want to see it, which is fine by me, I’ve stared at it long enough for all of us.

We’ve also got the certification from the drivers’ education school, a printed confirmation of our appointment time, and my physical checkbook, which I had to make a special trip for, because who carries her checkbook with her anymore? In the DMV time warp, however, they do not accept credit cards. We do get the so-called red carpet treatment because we have an appointment, which means that we wait our turn on the dingy red carpet inside the air-conditioned building. For this, we are most grateful, because the other line goes out the door and around the building, almost the length of a block. Even so, we’ve been at the DMV for over an hour.

All of humanity is here, which is part of what my husband and I love about living in Los Angeles. We have everybody – all ages, cultures, genders and orientations, every color, bodies in various shapes decorated by pearls and tattoos – each of us united through stretching the limits of our patience in the labyrinth of the DMV. I hear snippets of conversations in English, Spanish, Chinese and what I’m pretty sure is Armenian. There’s a woman with her teeny tiny baby in a stroller, and I can only imagine the urgency of the matter that brought her to the DMV with her newborn and her aging mother in tow. I’m dying to tell her that she’s not going to believe that before she knows it she will be sitting next to her child, who then will be taller than she is, getting ready to take his permit exam, but I don’t, because I don’t want to be that crazy old lady at the DMV who tells you that before you know it you will be sitting next to your child, who will then be taller than you are, getting ready to take his permit exam. But I am thinking it.

There’s a man who looks to be in his 60’s, accompanied by a woman who could be his daughter. She is reading the application for renewing a driver’s license to him and noting his responses on the form. I wonder why he is not reading it himself. I don’t think he’s blind, because otherwise he wouldn’t qualify for a license at all, and I remember that my own father was here 8 months ago, cataracts and all, memorizing the eye charts so he could renew his own license. He had given up driving, but he wasn’t ready to give up his actual license. The man is telling his daughter “Yes, I’m a citizen. Yes, I’m a veteran. And No, I don’t want to register to vote. I served in the military for fourteen years, I’ve been a citizen for my entire life, and I have never once voted in any election.” Again, I say nothing. But believe me, I am thinking it.

My first-born child was several weeks old by the time I realized that my driver’s license had expired on my birthday while I was up all night nursing a newborn. In my sleep-deprived and somewhat brain-damaged state, I had completely neglected to complete the paperwork required to renew my license. I had neglected a lot of things, but not the baby. For many years, the photograph on my driver’s license showed the straps of the Baby Bjorn carrier (but not the marsupial himself who was sleeping contentedly within). I’m confident, thinking back now, that some lady was sitting with her teenager on the cusp of driving himself, watching me with some nostalgia.

The baby’s mother hands her child to the woman I presume is grandma, who looks at me and smiles. Two blinks later, her child has a child. And so it goes. Time moves slowly at the DMV, but if you are paying attention to the snapshot, you will see life zipping by.

Lesson Number 2. They change the rules while you’re not looking. The first representative we talk to informs us that they added proof of residency requirements in July. Nowhere, mind you, is this information published in a medium that might be available to the general permit-seeking public. In fact, the sole evidence of the changes seems to be found on a worn photocopy they keep behind the counter, the upshot of which is that I need to provide two more pieces of documentation demonstrating both my last name and our home address. For the record, a DMV issued driver’s license does not count.

Under normal circumstances, it might not be a huge hairy deal, but I did not change my last name when I married Tim. One of the challenges of a blending family is the matter of the name change. It was easy enough to change my name the first time I got married; I was 24, with a short credit history and a shorter resumé. I wanted to share the same surname as my husband and my future children, so the traditional decision was straightforward. But after I was widowed and remarried, everything was more complicated. I chose to keep my already-changed-once name, which happens to be the same as two of the children. On the other hand, having a different name than my now husband can often create confusion and a frustrating absence of supporting evidentiary instruments. These are the times I despair of ever having all my affairs in order before I get hit by the proverbial bus, as my children might never forgive the former trusts and estates attorney the mess she left in her wake. Another reminder to look both ways and proceed cautiously.

I imagine the traffic building at this hour between this governmental office and my files, and I do not believe I could get there and back with the additional documentation in time for my son to begin his written test by the 4:30 deadline. We call for help. Mercifully, the child has this amazing stepfather who’s willing to bring the appropriate documentation to us; he scares up a Form 1099 showing about $16.00 worth of interest for the year, a Member Fees statement from the State Bar of CA, so I guess that JD is worth something after all, and a health insurance bill. We are given the green light, which means that we are sitting again, now waiting for our number to be called.

Of course, this whole scenario strikes me as amusing in its predictability. The boy, however, does not find this experience humorous. I text my nearest and dearest: “We’ve been at the DMV for over an hour, and the boy has learned: 1. Nothing moves quickly here and 2. They changed the rules in July.” The boy does not find my commentary even remotely entertaining. “Mom,” he lectures me, “Think about how boring this is for us. Now think about how boring it’s going to be for her to read about this.” Which makes me laugh even more. They can change the rules, but they can’t take my sense of humor.

Lesson Number 3: Objects in mirror appear worse than they actually are. I provide the documentation and pay the fee, the boy gets photographed and fingerprinted, and then he goes to the exam room to take the written test. Meanwhile, I sit. As I look around at the many faces navigating the system, I imagine the hundreds of stories contained in this one room, the many hours people spend waiting for loved ones and the results of exams. I think that about the fact that this is another milestone that Sam has missed, I think about how lucky I was to take one of Debbie’s sons to the DMV for his behind-the-wheel exam, and I think about how amazing it is that Tim is present for the so-called baby. Eventually, I am woken from my reverie by the presence of a handsome young man hovering silently above me.

His face bears an unusually glum expression, and my stomach sinks. He was so confident that he would pass the written exam, but instead it looks like we’ll have to come back to spend another afternoon in the bureaucratic maze. I hesitate to respond, trying to read the disappointment in his eyes. His chocolate brown eyes start to twinkle, and he grins at my fallen expression. “I passed.” He shows me the paperwork, authorizing him to get behind the wheel, and then his smile fades, as he turns to the last page, the one with the driver’s photograph. “Mom! What is with this picture? Does the DMV try to make you look ugly? Seriously, do I look this bad to you?!” Luckily for him, none of his brothers are within earshot of that question. I inform him that it’s the DMV equivalent of a snapchat filter, making everybody look uniformly ridiculous, but without any fun.

It’s not as bad as it seems. In another stroke of blind luck, he will have the opportunity take a replacement photo in about fifteen years, maybe about the time he has his first child.

***

Today, the so-called little one has his first behind-the-wheel instruction, and as he pulls decisively away, I realize he is about three blinks from his driver’s license, the SAT exam and the prom. Four blinks from taking his own kid to the DMV for a driver’s permit. Panicky, I turn toward the defective hunting dog for comfort. He is always happy to see me, and he never speaks. Not one sarcastic word. Most importantly, he will never leave me to go away to kindergarten or to college, and he will never drive off, leaving me standing at the curb, thinking two things: 1. We do not have enough crunchy snacks in this house to last for the entire two-hour driving lesson, and 2. I wonder whether it might not be the worst time to get another puppy.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And extra dark-chocolate-covered-pretzels.

 

 

 

 

On Disappointments & Brotherhood

Parenting is a never-ending exercise in humility. And if the firstborn did not humble you, then the second child surely will.

I remember being in the produce section, Fuji apple in hand, with a brand new baby number two strapped to me kangaroo-style, when a grandmotherly type congratulated me and asked whether this was my first child. I responded from my blissful but sleep-deprived haze that he was my second, and she said, “Oh, then you know all about babies.” To which I replied, “Well, I know all about the first one. And now I’m learning about this one.”

Each boy is so different. Just like brothers should be.

We have four sons now, the youngest a teenager, and in many ways I am still learning who they are. They are, too. Which is all kinds of fun, when it’s not terrifying. And yes, I’m referring to the premiums for their auto insurance. These young men are growing up, finding their way, spreading their wings and eating through an impressive amount of groceries. I’m a little proud.

Thing #3 is graduating from high school, and we are once again riding the roller coaster that is senior year. Achievements and awards, leadership roles, defining moments and bittersweet lasts…. Last homecoming, last music performance, and last playoff game. Looming over the entire last year of high school, of course, is the dreaded college admissions process and the omnipresent question, What are you going to do next year? It is a year full of accomplishments, anticipation and anxiety. It’s hard on the kids, too.

We’ve traveled this path before with our older sons, but it is different every time. All of our sons are smart, funny and devastatingly handsome. Just like every mother’s son in the history of ever. And each in his own way. I have long been a proponent of the theory that there is no perfect school, you just have to find the right fit for your kid. But it’s not necessarily a straightforward undertaking. Sometimes the school finds the kid.

If you’re familiar with the fateful admissions process, then you know that March is the month when many colleges release their decisions. The trepidation surrounding the Ides of March is very much alive and well in the lives of high school seniors all over the country. My husband advises me that if I were a better mother then I would know our son’s password so we could hack in to his portal and access his admissions status ourselves. Instead, we have to wait until he gets out of class for the day. The minutes drag by slowly. He sends a text message with the note “not rejected” and a photograph of the letter from his first choice of schools … waitlisted.

I send a note to my husband and the boys, all of whom are anticipating good news: sad face emoji.

It is a huge disappointment, and the fact that the school is so selective that even a waitlist opportunity is coveted brings no comfort. In that moment, it doesn’t matter that he has already received acceptances and scholarship offers from other schools, because the one he thought he wanted most said Maybe instead of Yes. The boy has no appetite that evening, which would usually be alarming for a teenager, but is appropriate under the circumstances.

His brothers rally their support immediately:

Thing #1 says, “We hate those guys!”

Thing #2 sends a text message, “Screw them!”

We gather around the dinner table, and Thing #4 says, “Hey Mom, you know what sucks?” I’m almost afraid to ask, given his recent impressions of certain inappropriate comedians, many of whom seem to comprise the student body at his all-boys parochial school, but I take the bait anyway. What is it, darling? “[Insert name of offending institution here]!” He glances at his brother, who reluctantly begins to smile.

He has successfully navigated bigger disappointments than this. All the boys have. They’ve each suffered the loss of a parent and endured the blending of a family, including a step-parent and step-brothers. Not one of them would have chosen this path. But we do not always get to choose. Sometimes the universe takes the decision out of our control and points us in a completely different direction. God’s guiding hand can be a real pain in the butt. And sometimes on the unexpected journey, we find love and joy, and brotherhood.

One of the more dismal aspects of being a parent is seeing your child suffer, and we ourselves spend a sleepless night over the discouraging news. Parenting is not for the faint of heart. But with the new day arrives a new letter… My son and I both hear the familiar squeak of the mail truck on the street, and after weeks of greeting the mail carrier and rushing to the mailbox, neither one of us flinches. My husband, the optimist, rushes up a flight of stairs, and asks “Did I hear the mail arrive?” He returns with a fat envelope, Plan B starts to take shape, and we are all getting excited.

At the end of the day, there will be disappointments. Some minor and others staggering, but if you have brothers – biological or otherwise – then there will also be peace, progress, decadent snacks and a healthy dose of irreverent humor.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And brotherhood to support you through life’s disappointments.

Birthday Developments

It’s Sam’s birthday again, and what dawns on me is that this fact does not take our breath away today as it has in years past. It’s like this: The boys went to practice and school as usual, and I’m home addressing a little plumbing issue. I don’t mean to minimize the problem, the “backup” is definitely the most urgent and offensive matter I will resolve today. I wonder aloud whether Canadian homes are on sewers or septic, because the answer to this question might inform my next decision. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the emotional significance of the day is not weighing us down.

And then there’s this: I’m standing in the garage while the rooter works on the obstructed pipe, and I start cleaning out a box we had stuffed into the garage years ago. We crammed quite a lot into boxes and tucked them away because we just couldn’t deal at the time, and then we got distracted with life and kids and lots of good stuff, and the boxes seemed to multiply while we weren’t looking, and now, much to my chagrin, there is a veritable mountain of crap in the garage, most of which needs to be shredded or donated or trashed. It’s not a particularly enjoyable project, so we often avoid it, but the task is more appealing at the moment than my plumbing problem, so I take a deep breath and remove the lid from the box.

I find some costume jewelry that I had forgotten about, an old photograph of one of the boys with Santa, and the check register from the weeks shortly following Sam’s death. Some of the entries are exactly the same as my current on-line bill pay records: telephone, water, gas, electricity, the pediatrician. Others are much less routine: one for the mortuary, and another for the emergency room doctor who signed Sam’s death certificate. These two entries are in my mother’s distinctive cursive, her protective hand evidenced in this careful detail. Friends, too, leave their supportive marks in my check register. For example, one check reimburses a friend for the groceries she bought and put away in my kitchen, and another check reimburses a college friend for gifts she had purchased on my behalf. What is not evident from the face of the check, but what I know, is that she had spent an entire week with us before Christmas, cooking for us, shopping for us, wrapping gifts and decorating, leaving her own very young sons in order to care for mine, and for me. She has recently won a national science award for her work in mechanical engineering, but in our house we know her for the egg noodle soup she made when we were under the weather. We still make the soup that we call by her name when illness strikes. I put the check register back in the box. It suddenly seems too precious to shred.

Meanwhile, the plumber finishes his work, and I am released to resume my normal programming. I stuff the entire box back in the garage for later.

But there’s also this: My husband Tim has taken each of our four sons on a college visit for their 16th birthdays as part of our family undergraduate motivational plan, and now it’s the baby’s turn. Each of the older boys remembers his college tour with dad fondly, and so far the plan seems to be working. Our oldest is now a college graduate and living on his own, putting him squarely in the lead for favorite son. The diploma and the independence also make him the envy of his younger brothers. All part of our plan.

So today, on Sam’s birthday, Tim is picking up the so-called “little one” immediately after school and heading straight to LAX to catch a plane for the weekend. It is undoubtedly the best gift we could offer to Sam.

The boys are living with joy, determination and love. They are looking forward much more than they are looking back. They do not forget Sam, and in fact, they often think about his academic path and which parts they would like to imitate (as well as which parts I would prefer that they didn’t). They wonder what he might think or what he might find amusing, but none of this hinders their progress. Our boys move onward.

While Tim and one son are en route to the mid-West, I am at home with another of our sons. We raise a glass to Sam and eat one of his favorite meals.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And birthday celebrations.

Day One

I’m embracing New Year’s more enthusiastically than usual, and not only because 2016 featured several stunning disappointments, but that might have statistical significance. We ended the year by gathering our little family together, and my heart is full.

I resolve to spend the first day of the year sitting in front of the fire that my husband started until I finish reading the book in my lap. Granted, it’s a quick read – 150 small pages, big print, little words – but still. I’m not going to wait for a nasty virus to put me down. I’m going to put my tail in this chair and let the Christmas decorations linger in the living room beyond their expiration date. I’m going to choose stillness.

I’m not especially gifted at stillness. The hum of the washing machine and the dryer betray the fact that I must have gotten up at some point to switch out the laundry. When the washing machine stops the next time, however, I do not budge from my spot in front of the fire. I read for a few more minutes, I gaze at the flames, I watch the cat curled up contentedly in his own chair. Then I finish the book. And when I’m done, I sit a little longer.

I practice more intentional stillness. I’ve been cooking nonstop since Thanksgiving, and while I’ve got the ingredients for a lovely dinner tonight, the kids all have other plans, so I decide not to prepare any of it. Well, that’s not entirely true. I make my husband’s favorite part, the apple pie, and whip up actual whipping cream, and we eat that for dinner together on this hearth.

And then I stare at the blank white pages of my 2017 calendar – not electronic pages, actual paper pages that I can write on with the ink pen in my hand. I love the promise of a new calendar. I stare at those white pages with my heart wide open and dream. I’ve got plans for one graduation in May and one July wedding, but as for the rest of the year…? I wonder what this next trip around the sun will bring. For today, I sit still and soak up the energy and possibility of a new day.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your New Year’s path. And peace.

Beasties and Besties

Let me see if I can explain how great this moment is.

I’m sitting in our family room with my son watching a movie that my friend the soon-to-be-priest asked us to preview for a class she’s teaching. Any time that one of my now-taller-than-me sons will sit with me for pretty much any reason is both notable and joyous. They have social lives of their own, which evidently are much more engaging than hanging around with their mother, unless I am playing Banangrams with a glass of Pinot Noir in my hand, but I’m not at liberty to tell you more about that particular scenario.

We are a blended family, but my husband and I don’t make a distinction between “his” and “hers” as far as the boys are concerned. They’re all mine. All of my boys litter the floor with their athletic socks, borrow each other’s chargers with abandon and genuinely believe that they are the dog’s favorite human being. Not one of them wears his retainer. They refer to each other as “my brother,” even the two who share the same first name, and we all count this development a grand success. They call me “Mom,” “Mama,” “Charlotte,” or simply “She.” Even our dog is male, so if the “B-word-that-rhymes-with-itch” is uttered, it could really only mean one of us, but that doesn’t happen often. Not anymore, that is. Blending a family requires effort, commitment and a vibrant sense of humor.

So this movie. The protagonist is just beginning his senior year of high school and – like most 17-year-olds I know and love and have been and have mothered – finds his mother’s counsel supremely irritating. “My mom,” the lead character explains to the audience, “is basically the LeBron James of nagging,” which makes us both laugh out loud.

Within a few minutes, my boy tells me to check Facebook. You should know that I am fundamentally a Facebook flunky. I’m more of a face-to-face girl. And I can really only do one thing at a time, and sometimes not even that, which, now that I think about it, is probably a compelling reason to play Bananagrams without the wine. In any event, to watch a movie while checking my Facebook is out of my wheelhouse, as well as counterproductive for my later conversation about the film with my priest friend.

But as I may have mentioned before, if any of my teenage/young adult sons wants to engage me, then the answer is yes. At least it should be. So I set aside my misgivings, pick up my cell phone, and open my Facebook to find that my son has posted his status as this: “My mom is basically the LeBron James of nagging.” And then he tagged me.

I can only speak for myself, but my own inner teenager is alive and well and occasionally peevish with her parents, even the dead one. In fact, his death completely annoys me. I mean, her. So even though in this context I am the mom whose most annoying qualities have now been posted for God-and-all-my-friends-plus-their-friends to see, I can’t help myself, I click that laughing-haha-emoji button.

We watch the rest of the film, we laugh some more and cry. Or rather, I cry. We curse cancer, the beast that has taken away grandparents, friends, cousins, my boy’s own mother. We do our best to answer the questions on the study guide even though it’s late and we’re tired. He dictates his answers while I type, and then I add my feedback as well.

The next morning, we start talking about the movie again, which bodes well for the use of this film in the classroom, and he adds a few more comments on loss and love to include in our response. As I’m about to hit “send” with our responses, my soon-to-be-priest friend sends me a text message. The study guide is the least of her concerns. She saw my boy’s Facebook post and, she tells me, “I cried actual tears.” I should explain that we have been friends for a long time. She knows my struggles and my heart, and these are happy tears – happy because she gets it, happy because she adores her own step-father with a passion that transcends biology (even though she herself might have called him a few less-than-complimentary names when he first came into her life), happy because love does win. She knows that the most significant part of my son’s status post is not the phrase, “the LeBron James of nagging.” The most significant part is not my sisters-in-law who rally to defend me and my mothering, although I confess that their supportive comments are gratifying. The most significant part is those first two words: “My mom.”

Sometimes, I just have to take a moment to let those two words sink in.

The so-called little brother says, “She’s more like the Michael Jordan of nagging.” It’s an argument our boys have from time to time, which super star is the super-est star. As brothers will do.

No, blending a family is not so easy, but these moments are awesome.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And awesome relationships.