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.

 

The Best Worst Thing

A few months ago, one of our pastors noted that 90% of his ministry is interruption. Ministry and motherhood have a lot in common.

I adore my vibrant boisterous puppy pack of boys. They consistently populate the top 5 on my list of things I’m grateful for. But I do cherish those still, quiet moments right after the boys all exit the house to go to school, leaving me home with the dogs. Part of the dogs’ charm is the fact that they are always happy to see me. Plus they don’t speak. Not to mention that the dogs will never leave me and go off to kindergarten.

Or to college.

As much as I enjoy the unstructured, flexible times of summer, I really appreciate the consistency and progress of the school year. It is also true that I have a penchant for freshly sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. And an enormous gratitude for the teachers who share some quantity time with my children.

I want my boys – all four of them – to know and believe that they are the answers to my prayer. They might not have realized that this was what I meant when I was counting the days for school to start, and upon reaching the anticipated day began to dance and sing (cue the Christmas carol tune), “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

Maybe I should work on my delivery.

For many of us, the path to motherhood takes longer than nine months, and there are more expressions of motherhood between a woman and a child than those defined by a biological bond. I suffered my first miscarriage within six months of my wedding. And even though my husband and I were not anticipating starting a family quite so early in our marriage and even though I would not be feted on Mother’s Day for years to come and didn’t yet sport a baby seat in my sedan, I was brokenhearted. And the experience began the process of molding the mother I would become. Looking back, I can finally smile, seeing that the ache of loss — while never replaced — would be eased by the knowledge that my inner mother’s heart was beating, being opened and softened and prepared.

I cannot remember where I read this idea, but according to one spiritual tradition, the soul is on a journey through multiple levels, and each lifetime’s purpose is to reach the next level. Certain souls simply need to be loved — even for a very short time — to reach the next level. Sometimes that need is met in just a few months, not even long enough for the soul to emerge in a tiny squalling form, but long enough for her mother to open her heart. I found this mystical explanation of miscarriage very comforting, because I already loved that little soul even though I never held her squirming body in my arms. I still hold her in my heart.

And my path of motherhood began.

The motherhood journey is rarely linear or tidy. It is not exactly a walk in the park. There are many firsts, and each stage brings its own challenges and joys. It requires lots of snacks. It is easy to see the children change and mature in the annual family Christmas photo, and even if the parents look pretty much the same from the outside, their inner growth is just as significant as the visible growth of the kids.

The step-motherhood journey features harrowing precipices, treacherous weather and foul language. But the views are spectacular. I note with some bemusement that my oldest step-son was born the same month as that first miscarriage. I did not give birth to this child, but I love him as my own.

The transitions are washing over our family in waves as the summer wanes. For the first time, our oldest stayed at college all summer, coming home for just one week. His arrival was so dearly anticipated and celebrated that we call him the Prince. I felt so full and happy to have all four boys home and under my roof. Sunday morning all six of us filled a pew — those boys’ shoulders are pretty broad these days — and I could not be more pleased with my brood.

Just as I have adjusted the quantities of bread and of brisket in my grocery cart, our week with all six of us together ended. Junior high started last Tuesday, which is wrong for so many reasons. But I don’t have time to ramble about that because high school started two days later, and then our college boys flew the coop. The senior left Sunday, and my husband and I took the freshman on Monday. In the course of a week, my nest has expanded and contracted, and I’m left breathless.

The college drop-off is the best worst thing. I don’t know why I thought it would be easier the second time. It’s everything our son has prepared for and all that his father and I have hoped for him. We even had a private conversation with Ken Starr, the President and Chancellor of the University, which made me feel that much better about our son’s decision. And while it was painful to say goodbye to our fledgling college student, I was not at all unhappy to leave the Central Texas sweat fest.

Now I’m back home in a remarkably quiet house, and I am feeling a little bereft. As if it’s possible to feel just a little bereft. It’s like being “slightly” pregnant.

In fact, this feeling has several parallels to being a little bit pregnant. I’m exhausted, overwhelmed, happy and excited, and more than a little nauseated. There’s also the nameless dread. Am I afraid for my child’s safety? For my own? Will we survive this ordeal with our relationship intact? When will I open the door to the “big” boys’ room at home without the tension in my throat and welling in my eyes? For once I cannot tolerate the sight of their tidy beds and clean floor. It makes them seem so much farther away. When I see the boys’ car parked in the drive, my heart lifts, in the habit of thinking that they’re home and then sinks, realizing they’re not.

But still. There is that little bubbly feeling, like the very first time I felt the baby move about four months into my pregnancy. Even as my stomach sinks, my heart lifts with hope. I am excited about the possibilities, both for him and for myself. The Prince will graduate this year and spread his wings even further, and Thing #2 is embarking on his college path.

My greatest joy as a mother comes from my sons’ moments of independence. First steps. Their own words. Words to express their own ideas. Little things than turn into big things. Washing a dish. Doing his own laundry. Driving himself. Calling for help. Or not. Knowing when he needs to. Making his own plans.

They’re out of sight but not out of mind, and certainly not out of heart’s reach. I’ve already mailed several packages. When I sent his health insurance card, along with the responsibility for monitoring his own health care, I experience a momentary panic. Who is going to sneak baby kale into his morning smoothie? Nevermind. I don’t think I want to know.

I receive mail too. A personalized card, referencing our conversation on move-in day, signed by the President of the University. I am not so naive to think that he personally takes notice of every single student on campus, but he knows a lot of them. I watched them high-fiving and calling him “Kenny.” He creates a culture of caring, and I relax just a little, knowing that my son is in such a place. My husband says I’m Starr-struck, and that’s undoubtedly true.

As I think about my sons’ accomplishments, my heart swells, and I am grateful. Of course, my pride leaks out my eyes. It is hard to imagine feeling so empty and so full simultaneously. If my heart wasn’t so full it wouldn’t hurt so much when they leave. If — before I had any children — I had known how painful if would be to let them go, I would have readily agreed to pay this price. Leaving is exactly what I’ve groomed them for. The opportunity to grow up and create a life of my own is, after all, the gift my own parents granted me.

Of course, I couldn’t have known quite how difficult this process would be. But if I do my job right, the kids will become independent, and there are other silver linings as well. Some things are simpler. I spend less time at the grocery store, although not much since we still have two teenage boys at home. And I am starting to look forward to some honeymoon time with my Tim. We’ve sort of walked this path backwards: when we first got married, we jumped right into a life with a mortgage, four kids, two cats and a dog, and after the children are “grown and flown,” we will have time just the two of us.

For now, I will sit outside and enjoy the full range of this moment, tissue in one hand, a celebratory glass of wine in the other. Even as my nest is emptying, my heart is as full as ever. I have held these boys in my arms, I have held their hands literally and figuratively, I have waved as they drove off — or as I did — and through it all, I hold them in my heart.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a full heart.