Signposts

(Or, How to Read Rejection Letters)

 

We did it!

And by “we” I mean, he. The boy did all the work, making the grades, preparing for the tests, writing the essays, navigating the Common App, asking teachers for recommendation letters, and submitting the applications. My role in this process has been limited to Chief Financial Officer. I handed over my credit card for the application fees and (mostly) kept my fretting to myself. It’s not my first time at the rodeo, you know.

Of course, each child is different, and his process has likewise been unique to him. The boy really wanted to know what his options were (that’s my kid!), so he chose not to put all his eggs in an early decision basket but to cast a wide net and see what he draws forth. He has thought about schools from his home in California, across several Midwestern states and including a school or two on the east coast. Plus one in Texas, just for shits and giggles, as they say. He has a confidence about his having a place and seems perfectly content to spend the next three months just enjoying his senior year in high school without obsessing over where exactly his post-graduation steps will take place. He has submitted his final application, completing this part of the whole process, and he is delighted now to do nothing. I’m not sure whose child he could be.

Now the thing to do is to wait for envelopes big and small, email notifications and updated portals. Here’s the challenge: waiting is nothing at all like doing. The kid seems to be fine with it, but it’s making me a little crazy. Or to be fair, crazier than usual.

It is his journey, however, so my role is to sit quietly, which I do, and here’s my epiphany: acceptance and rejection letters are only signposts pointing toward the next step. They are not a judgment on performance or character, they are not a prediction of future success, they should not form the basis for self-worth. Especially parental self-worth. They are simply red or green arrows for today. Oh, this is much easier said before those puny, pathetic letters arrive, lurking in the mailbox like a noxious cloud, released into an unsuspecting hand. But if it is possible to settle into the knowledge – even before the applications are sent toward a committee of admissions personnel – that each one of us has a place already reserved in the human journey, then we can sit confidently and await the next set of directions.

Sometimes – when that small envelope arrives unexpectedly, dashing dreams the way only two dismissive sentences can do – the only answer is chocolate. Don’t bother trying to find a substitute. There are simply not enough French fries in the world to overcome the deficit. Chocolate is the only way. Personally, I go for a simple, solid dark variety, although occasionally a rich chocolate cake is the ticket. And then, with a little antioxidant lift, you can read the single page missive and think of it simply as a road sign. It might say Yield, or Do Not Enter, possibly Detour. Maybe it’s a full Stop. It’s likely too soon to tell. Or maybe, it’s a green light in a direction you didn’t anticipate going, on a road you might never have traveled otherwise, but that you actually enjoy. You never know. Those letters – big and small – are simply possibilities. They are what you decide to make of them. It’s still up to you.

The boy doesn’t seem to need my advice. He is at ease finding his own path. Which is as it should be. As I look ahead to another high school graduation, perhaps I am not wondering so much about what the boy’s next step will be, but about mine. I have traveled together with him for eighteen years, and I suspect my own steps will falter without him far more than his do without me.

But I take comfort in my own advice. As the boy progresses forward in his young life, I, too, will find more than one little green arrow pointing me toward new possibilities.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your forward path. And extra chocolate, just in case.

Gathering

A clear blue October day,
Soft white clouds and a few palm trees accent the horizon,
slightly cooler than the day years ago
when they buried her son here.
He remains toward the top of the hill where the smells from the stables dissipate,
Far enough to minimize the freeway noise and exhaust.
Still and beautiful,
Quiet
Green
With a view of the city he loved.

She arrives faithfully,
Trudging along the path,
Age and arthritis slowing her progress,
Determination and devotion moving her forward.
Her skin is soft,
the bones in her hands increasingly pronounced.
She carefully places a rock on his marker,
Beloved Husband, Father, Son and Friend.

When the children used to visit,
They ran up the grassy hill,
Plopped down on a picnic blanket,
Sometimes threw their rocks.
They rarely come now,
days and hearts full with work and sport and social lives.
She rests on a stone bench in the shade
Close by.
She tells him that his sons are growing into strong, young men.
That they have two step-brothers.
That they are good boys, all of them.
That their mother is well
And their step-father is kind.
She smiles.
“We will have brunch on Sunday.”
Looking forward to seeing her family.

She offers her prayer,
Forgiveness.
Her heart whispers,
Grateful for the time together.
Thank you.

Teaching a Teenaged Boy to Drive

Step 1: Don’t. If you can pawn this harrowing task off on another responsible adult, say, your spouse, or your truck-driver father with the 35-year good-driving record, do that. My husband taught our oldest son to drive, and then vowed never to teach another one. This approach has worked out brilliantly for him, but not so well for me, in light of the fact that we have four sons. I have, however, survived the death-defying experience of teaching two young men to drive, while currently an exuberant 15-year old impatiently waits his turn, so if you cannot delegate this particular parenting task, there is still hope.

Step 2: Implement a family GPA standard for driving. Make it at least as high as your insurance company’s good student discount, but preferably higher. No D’s. And yes, the GPA only counts if those good grades appear on the boy’s official transcript. If you are lucky, your son’s grades will be high enough for him to remain eligible to play sports but too low to drive. If he is lucky (and does his homework), he will put the student in student-athlete, and you will then be obligated to sign him up for Driver’s Ed, as you promised you would.

Step 3: Insist the soon-to-be driver navigate the DMV himself. This process alone might deter him from wanting to drive. But if he is old enough to drive (and has the requisite grades), then he should be mature enough to figure out the written-test/permit/behind-the-wheel/license gauntlet. Keep in mind that your primary goal is safety, and there is precious little evidence to suggest that an additional teenager on the road will improve traffic conditions. If he cannot decipher the process, drop him off at the local library so he can improve his research skills.

Step 4: Call your insurance agent. In California, your automobile insurance policy will likely cover your son while he is driving with you on his permit, and you will not need to add him to your policy officially until he earns his license. If you are really brave, you can ask your agent to give you a quote on how much higher your insurance premiums will increase after your son passes his driver’s test. I recommend that you be seated when you make this phone call, and yes, that number includes the good student discount.

Step 5: Call your lawyer. Once your son is in the driver’s seat and you are clutching the passenger door and pressing your feet into the dashboard in a futile attempt to slow the vehicle, it is too late to change your named Executor. Call your life insurance agent while you’re at it. And maybe your family priest.

Step 6: Hire a professional. Before you can legally teach your son to drive, you must pay a certified driving instructor. You will again realize that teachers are woefully underpaid and unappreciated, but more importantly, you can postpone your role in the process for another day. Or week.

Step 7: Put beer in the fridge. You cannot start drinking before you take your son driving and certainly cannot bring any road sodas on your trek together, but you will have something to look forward to upon your return to calm your rattled nerves. Trust me.

Step 8: Take a deep breath, and then exhale slowly. Continue this technique while you hand your son the keys to your car. Let him open the door for you like the gentleman you are grooming him to be. Focus all your intention on your breathing. This will keep you from gasping and shrieking, neither of which helped you, if you can recall that miserable day when your own mother was teaching you to drive.

Step 9: Speak only when absolutely necessary. If, as your son takes the wheel and eases into traffic, every thought flies out of your usually overflowing head, here is a go-to list of driver-approved commentary: “Turn right here.” “That’s good.” “Nice stop.” “Much better.” “Slow down a bit.” “You’re doing fine.” “Good job.” “A little faster.” “Careful.” “There’s a spot way over there, off in the corner, away from all these cars.” Now is not the appropriate time to discuss the disastrous state of his laundry, his latest algebra exam or his girlfriend’s piercing.

Step 10: Smile. You will both laugh about this later, much later, probably after he has earned his undergraduate degree, is paying for his own auto insurance and can enjoy a beer with you. But for now, admire the young man behind the wheel, be grateful for how far he has already come, and whisper a prayer for his safety on the road ahead. It is a privilege to sit in the passenger seat while he drives. Soon you will be waving from the curb, as he shifts the gear into drive and journeys forward on his own.

Stretch Marks

My kids call me a crazy church lady, because I actually enjoy attending Sunday services. I need the fresh inspiration, the sense of community, the weekly reboot. I love the music and the liturgy and communion. I am delighted on those increasingly rare days when we have all four boys with us in church, and I am deeply grateful to sit side by side with my husband, in silence, in prayer, in song.

But we don’t go to church on Mother’s Day.

I cannot abide another insipid sermon admonishing a child to admire his mother, citing the pain she endured in childbirth as an obligation for such reverence. I resent the implication that it’s somehow the baby’s fault for all that pain and now – through guilt and other misguided motivation – the baby owes the mom and must make amends. It makes me tense when the minister excludes or discounts step-mothers, foster-mothers, adoptive-mothers, friends, aunts, sisters, grandmothers and many who happen to be female who “mother” children that they didn’t give birth to. I cringe when I recall the ache of women who long to be mothers but aren’t yet, and might never be. Or the weighty grief of mothers who have lost children and pregnancies. I bristle at this inadequate definition of motherhood on behalf of children whose mothers have neglected, abused or abandoned them. And my heart breaks for children whose mothers have died and who feel the loss of her keenly on a certain Sunday in May. I am thinking of two children, in particular.

I love these boys, I support them the best I can, but I do not believe for a minute that I “replace” their mother. There are days when I so wish I had known the boys as babies and toddlers and little kids, and moments when I desperately wish that their mother could see the young men they have become. Believe me, I am extremely grateful that Debbie gave birth to these two children-who-are-no-longer-children, and I’m especially grateful that she did the laboring for the 10-pound bundle of boy. I call them my sons, not because I gave birth to them, but because we have our own relationship.

Yes, childbirth is painful, but the pain of not giving birth can be excruciating. Yes, motherhood is beautiful and amazing, and even so, moms make lots of mistakes. Sleepless nights will have that effect. As do mental illness, addiction, poverty and selfishness. Or simple ignorance. The fact of giving birth to a child does not necessarily engender respect.

The most excruciating physical pain I’ve endured was not when I gave birth but when I had a tubal pregnancy. The most searing emotional pain was the several years following that life-saving surgery with its resulting reduction in my fertility, along with two more miscarriages. The pain of losing of these pregnancies and the fear that I might never have children branded some very dark years. The pain of actual childbirth paled in comparison. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the anesthesiologist looked like Denzel Washington. When that doctor walked into the room, I looked at my husband and said “You got me into this trouble, but he’s going to get me out.”

I’ll tell you what else is painful – showing up and sticking around. Pain is watching your child suffer. Pain is lying awake, panicked about the results of a blood test, or an aptitude test, or an MRI or a biopsy. Pain is knowing your child didn’t get the nod, the invitation, a spot on the team, an acceptance letter. It is beyond agonizing to watch your son’s spirit breaking, knowing the only thing you can do is to be here for him, which seems unbelievably small and insignificant in the face of so much heartache. It is the look on my sweet mother’s face – lined with anxiety – watching me make a decision she disagrees with. Pain, not just from biting her tongue (although she is expert at that, one of the qualities I admire about my own mom), but fear for me and whatever consequences I might rain down on my own head.

Yet these are not the only aspects that expand a mother’s heart (and her hips). There is unprecedented joy and gratitude. Delight with a child’s successes and steps toward independence. A passion, a graduation, a healing. The privilege of a front row seat to his achievements. The child is a gift. I call him my son, not because he was created in my womb or made in my image and likeness, but because we journey together. Although we do find it amusing when people think he looks like me, because in fact, he looks like his mother.

Several years ago now, my son and I were sitting together in the pediatrician’s office, chatting and laughing. I look wistfully at the young mom with her infant and toddler, also in the waiting room. She looks exhausted and harried, but also blissfully in love with her young sons. I’m sure I look wrinkled and gray, and relatively short next to the young man whom I call my son. She smiles at us and says, “I hope my sons and I have what you two have when they’re teenagers.”

My boy and I look at each other and smile, both thinking the same thing. But we don’t say that out loud. Instead, we grin conspiratorially, and I say, “Teenagers are a lot of fun.” Which they are much of the time, notwithstanding their reputation.

Once we are safely in the car and out of earshot, we look at each other and laugh, finally saying our mutual thought out loud: “We are only here because somebody died.” Neither of us had the heart to tell the young mom our specific parent-child history. But she is right; my son and I do share something special.

Our relationship has not always been not an easy one. The poor boy desperately wanted his mother back, and I wasn’t her. It was that simple. The fact of my existence caused him excruciating pain, and all I could do was to dedicate myself to the relationship. Sometimes I looked toward the heavens, tired and teary, and prayed for the strength to love these little beasts. It is not always easy to love teenagers up close and personal. They do not smell like heaven any more. We spent several harrowing years in the Teenagers-are-the-bane-of-my-existence/Charlotte-is-proof-that-the-devil-is-alive-and-well-and-torturing-me stage of our mother-son relationship. With patience, humor and commitment, we have grown genuinely to love and admire each other. But it did not come about because I gave birth to him. Thank God, because by the time he came into my life, he was nearly 5 feet tall and weighed much more than his 8 pound birthweight. Not even Dr. Denzel could administer an epidural for that.

Motherhood is more than biology; it’s a connection, a presence, a shared journey.

Which is why we will not be going to church on Father’s Day either. I cannot abide another unimaginative sermon on death as the ultimate sacrifice a father can make for his child. This oversimplified interpretation of fatherhood misses the unconditional quality of paternal love. Death may be the ultimate sacrifice, but presence is a sacrifice with an altogether different depth. There is real power in sticking around.

On those days when hearts are particularly tender and vulnerable, we let the children guide our day. We fill them with the messages that we want them to hear, that we will be by their side, that we love them. Our celebrations usually include bunches of grandparents, which is a blessing. I suppose if they really wanted to go to church, we would go with them.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a gentle Mother’s Day.

Dog, Agnostic, and Other Measures of Grace

The car ride to school is sometimes the most quality time I get with my busy teenager on a given day and not nearly enough time to connect and check in. But every now and again the mile drive is entirely long enough to create some serious mother-son angst. I was attempting to encourage my son to rely on me as he navigates the challenges of high school. What I meant was that I will do whatever I can for him. What I actually said was that I would throw myself in front of a bus if I thought it would help.

Yup. To the child whose father threw himself off a building.

In my defense, I will just say, Oh nevermind. There’s no excusing this one. It’s true that the suicide-related idioms run rampant in our culture. But his own mother should have behaved better.

Note to my mom friends: You might still be in the race for runner-up in the Mother of the Year contest, but I’ve just clinched the title.

I confess my maternal transgression to an agnostic, my dear and amazing friend Helen. She continues to love me and support me no matter what stupid shit comes out of my mouth, which – obviously – is no small measure of forgiveness. She is more accepting and open-hearted than many a church-goer, and I thank God for her daily.

Helen reminds me that holidays are on the horizon, including her own extended family’s particular brand of dysfunction and various Christmas-related anxieties, and that she might yet have a chance at the title. She’s right. This competition is going to be a sprint to the finish line.

With a little grace and some real fortitude, there’s still time to redeem myself. I lace up my running shoes, and I leash up the dog. The so-called hunting dog has placed himself strategically in front of the heating vents this morning. His sister is hunting quail in the Dakotas. Meanwhile he sits shivering in Southern California. We all have our strengths. Or not.

And it is precisely this weakness that opens a space for me to breathe. The dog is almost everything his breed is reputed to be, except for his aversion to cold, wet feet, and we adore him. So it is with all of us, our vulnerabilities and glitches do not preclude us from being loved.

I’m going to run. I’m going to breathe. I’m going to forgive myself. I’m going to apologize to my son and try again to say what I mean: That I will do whatever I can to support him, and that I will love him no matter what.

On our run, the defective hunting dog and I turn up a little street that we don’t usually traverse. As we come around a curve along the route, we slow to a stop, for in the middle of the road there are four deer, a mother with her three young ones. They appear to be adolescents, still immature, even though they are almost the size of the mother, who stands tall and alert, almost regal, while the three skitter to the shrubs along the sides. She stays still, not taking her eyes off me and my coyote-size dog, as though assessing the risk, even though a car approaches and slows from the opposite direction. She does not budge until she is confident that her young ones have found cover, and only then does she shift – intentionally, gracefully, powerfully – out of harm’s way herself.

That’s the image I meant to convey to my son.

As the dog and I continue, we pass an open field where the deer now race, hurtle and spring, exuberant and unaware of threat or danger, and again I stop to look. They are breathtaking in their youth, energy and innocence. The young bucks (which almost rhymes with something I called my own kids the other day) are fast and strong and will soon overtake their mother. Yet she guides and protects them in whatever ways she can. I imagine she stops – as I do – admiring her young with pride and delight.

I pause, grateful for the reminder that I am not alone on the path that is motherhood, full as it is with both dignity and remorse, success and disappointment, hurting feelings where I intended to console, but coming back to each other still. I know he needs me less as he takes his faltering steps toward independence, despite my own parenting mis-calcs and his occasionally unfortunate, juvenile behavior. We re-create our relationship as the child achieves a milestone, and I step back to watch. I smile, continue on my way, and look forward to telling my son about the deer.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And small graces.

The Hard Questions

I was presented with many difficult questions in the wake of Sam’s death. Single plot or double? How would you like the obituary to read? Did you have any clue he was in so much pain? Will you stay in the house? What are you going to tell the children? Are you going to change your name? And, of course, the ubiquitous Why?

But the hardest questions come from the children. Usually at bedtime, when it’s dark (in both the physical and metaphorical sense), and we are tired and vulnerable. This is also the time when the world recedes to the background, and we settle into our own space, reflect and breathe. “Mommy,” the little boy asks, looking at me from his father’s brown eyes, “Do you think that if Daddy had loved me more, he wouldn’t have committed suicide?” And then, “Mommy, is Daddy in heaven?”

On the one hand, I feel wholly unqualified to answer these questions. Parenting books and several diplomas did not prepare me for this discussion. Complicated enough for a master’s thesis, but with a six-year old audience. On the other hand, the platitudes and sometimes hurtful responses that we hear in our daily walk are not what I want to feed my kids. I’m not a trained theologian, I’m just a mom. But I do love my sons, and I understand their sensitivities, and maybe these are all the credentials I need to provide honest, thoughtful answers (or at a minimum, a compassionate response) to questions that young children should not ever have to contemplate.

I put aside my own bitterness at life’s unfairness and my resentment toward the kid who told my little boy that his father didn’t love him enough and that people who commit suicide automatically go straight to hell. We snuggle under a blanket, and together my son and I unravel the hard questions.

I inhale slowly and start with what I know.

I know your father loved you with every fiber of his being. You are his delight, his defining moment, his compass. Your daddy was kind and smart and helpful and honest and funny and hard-working and faithful and everything that good people are supposed to be. If, by loving more, Sam could have fended off the Angel of Death, he would have. There is no doubt in my mind on this point. Unfortunately, love is not the deciding factor here. This is hard for me to say out loud, because I really do believe in the power of love to restore, heal and redeem. But love is not enough to stop the cancer from spreading, love alone does not preclude all suffering, and love does not stop death from knocking on the door. Love does not stop good men from dying, it does not keep little boys’ hearts from breaking. Or an adult man’s heart either.

Oh and there’s this, too, based primarily on my experience in the local Urgent Care (and yes, with four sons, this is not an insignificant investment of time). Every part of the human physiology is geared for self-preservation. From the moment an injury occurs, the body begins the healing process. It is no small miracle. Suicidal thoughts and actions are not signs of a normal, healthy human biology; there must be some kind of hormonal, chemical or psychological imbalance. Daddy had to have been sick. Clearly, he was not himself. And isn’t the anguish of depression and suicidal brooding hell enough? If he can be faulted for making a mistake, his mistake was that he didn’t ask for help. But he was a human being, in a human body, with a human mind. The combination of which has been known to result in mistakes.

I cannot believe that a loving God (and I do believe in a loving God) would punish us for being sick (or by making us sick), and furthermore God forgives us for making mistakes. Here’s the thing. I’m a pretty good mother, but I’m not perfect. My children get sick and my children make mistakes and even I  — in my imperfect, glitchy state — still love them. I have to believe that God is a more loving parent than I am. At least, I hope so. 

So, no. I do not believe that if he had loved you more, he would have stayed. He loved you with all that he had, and he is gone anyway. And yes, yes, yes, I tell my heartbroken little boy, your father is indeed in heaven.

For added theological support, I run the question by our family priest (who also holds a degree in psychology), and he said yes, too. In fact, he added that “God is all the more merciful at such a tragic moment. This is mercy. This is our God.”

To which my son and I both say Amen.

Of course, I might have exercised my maternal discretion to edit the good Father’s version if he had drawn a different conclusion. Believe me, the visual I have created for myself of my late Jewish husband hanging out with St. Peter brings me great joy.

As a mother to grieving children, I do my best to provide authentic answers to all of their difficult questions, and to honor each boy’s unique healing journey.

At times, my words spill out naturally, without conscious thought, and yet I recognize their truth. When the policemen were still in my house, having just delivered the news of Sam’s death, I heard myself saying, with one child tucked under each of my arms, in a clear, unwavering voice, “Your father’s love for you will protect you for your entire lives.” I had not previously considered this idea. After all, I had known I was widowed for about 17 minutes, but in the moment I heard those words coming out of my own mouth, I knew them to be true.

And there are times, when the most accurate truth I can speak is, “I don’t know.” But I will think about it. I will read about it. I might even ask a professional about it. Most importantly, the boys and I will stumble forward in the darkness of not-knowing, and together we will live our way to the answer. We find our own way through this uncharted territory. In this place, we discover that love’s true strength lies in the power of its presence. Love’s tender presence, even in the absence of fairness, logic and understanding. And we become aware that not only my love, but Sam’s love for his children is with them still.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the voice to answer life’s hard questions.

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.

Tuesday Rules

I figured out early as a newly-widow that if I was going to drive this train, I would need some time exclusively for myself. It happened that my favorite yoga class was on Tuesday, and my therapist had time for me the same day, so Tuesdays became my “Charlotte Shabbat.” My initial Tuesday rule was this: “Unless you are, in fact, on fire AND I gave birth to you, it can wait until Wednesday.”

This standard worked well for me in the initial stages of my grieving process. I used Tuesdays for my own restoration. I did not pay bills or talk to lawyers or do laundry. Tuesdays came to represent my own indulgent, selfish and healing tendencies: yoga, therapy (sometimes retail therapy), and a table for one. I didn’t make lunch plans with anybody else. I would take myself wherever I felt like going at whatever time I was hungry. I was the only one in my family who liked sushi, so that often became my lunch of choice. Hence, Sushi Tuesdays.

I happen to enjoy the table for one. As much as I delight in the chaos and clutter that accompany kids and cats and dogs, I am also remarkably content with quiet time, meditation, yoga, going to the movies alone or eating out by myself. I usually bring a book. Sometimes I read it. I thoroughly enjoy lunch with girlfriends, but I don’t necessarily feel sorry for the person eating at a table by herself because, personally, I cherish that time too.

When Tim and I got married, I revised my Tuesday rule, because at that point I would, in fact, put aside whatever I was doing when my stepsons called. The rule at the boys’ high school, like most schools attempting to nurture responsible young adults, is that mom is not supposed to “save” the kid by delivering forgotten homework assignments or calculators or projects. But between you and me, when my freshman step-son called me for any reason at all, I dropped everything. Even if I missed yoga. Even if it meant that I would violate the school standard. Even if he was calling me a name that rhymes with stitch. Which, by the way, did not refer to my sense of humor. At least he was calling me something, which is better than not calling me at all. It was a place for our relationship to start.

He also happens to like sushi.

When he and I first began our own relationship, we found success in doing things that he hadn’t done with his mother, like baking, skiing and eating sushi. The first year Tim and I were married, we had four kids in two different schools, but ever since the boys have been in at least three schools. This year it’s four. I fear we will never have spring break together again. There are not a lot of advantages to this structure, but one perk has been those “early release” days when I get to take just one of my boys out to lunch. On whichever day of the week that happens to fall.

The kids are amused by the unintended “shit” in the middle of my SushiTuesdays. I think they like the excuse to swear in front of me. Last week my boy called to see if I wanted to go out to lunch for “Su-shit-Friday.” Even if I’ve already eaten lunch, I say yes, because honestly when your 18-year-old son (step or otherwise) asks you to lunch, what else is a girl to do? Even if he’s just hoping that you’ll pick up the tab.

Sushi for two has become our specialty.

Things have changed. Four years ago I was constantly near tears because I was afraid this child would never go away to college and that he would torture me with his teenage ‘tude in perpetuity. This year — his last in high school — I have spent in tears because he is good and ready to go. He has also, in recent months, started calling me “Ma.”

Meanwhile, some things stay the same. When this boy was a freshman and I picked him up from high school, he threw his backpack in to the trunk every afternoon, plopped into the car and exclaimed, “OMG, Charlotte, the teacher is CRAZY!” Which began our refrain, Did you do your homework? What exactly were the instructions? Can I buy you another purple pen? She might be crazy, but she’s still in charge.

As a senior, following his very last final exam (and before our sushi lunch), he bursts into the house, drops his backpack in the kitchen, and exclaims, “OMG, Charlotte, the teacher is CRAZY!” These are the times when my husband and I marvel at the fact that I didn’t, in fact, give birth to this boy. I’m the drama queen, and he’s the drama king.

My son heads off to the great state of Texas for college in less than a month. I am really going to miss the daily-ness of him, his exclamations and our conversations. I am not going to miss his crap lying all over the floor. (Okay, I might. But just a little.) And I am really looking forward to his phone calls, “Hey Ma — Texans are CRAZY!”

So now all my children are teenagers or in college (or both), and my relationship with each one is a priority as well as a challenge. As a result, my Tuesday rule looks more like this: Unless you are in fact on fire and either 1) I gave birth to you, 2) I married you, or 3) I married your father, then it can wait until Wednesday, or at least until after yoga, and possibly after therapy; provided, however, that if you are not quite on fire but you are one of the aforementioned individuals and you have the opportunity and inclination to spend time with me or to talk with me (long distance or in person), then I will drop everything to be with you and answer your call.

Which is altogether too complicated.

Instead, I will say simply that some rules are meant to be broken. Thank goodness.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a reason to share your Tuesday time.

A Mother’s Day Reminiscence

If you are reading this, I must have survived Mother’s Day.

I love being a mother more than anything, even on the days that I threaten to put all four of my sons in a cardboard box in front of Ralphs with a sign that says “Free Puppies.” That might have worked well for me last Mother’s Day, because the refrigerator broke down the week before, and the replacement came in a box that was actually big enough to hold my puppy pack of boys.

It’s just that the logistics are complicated. We have five mothers to honor among our collective four sets of grandparents and great-grandmother. With all the families involved, our Mother’s Day negotiations begin before St. Patrick’s Day. Predictably, the day also coincides with the breakdown of a major household appliance. This year it’s the washing machine. Think about that a minute. Four sons. Stinky athletic socks.

The emotions are complicated as well. Past the despairing Mother’s Days following lost pregnancies. Gone also the wistful pregnant Mother’s Days, and the simple, sticky toddler Mother’s Days. We are conspicuously missing a mom (the mother of my step-sons), and two of the grandmothers have outlived their own children. We do not dance around the weekend (you know me that well by now), but our Mother’s Day dance requires a great deal of sensitivity and strength and flexibility. A lot of stamina. And a little caffeine.

People often assume that I met my husband Tim in a grief support group. I didn’t. He never went to any groups; he says he’s not “group guy.” I attended a suicide survivors meeting once and never went back; I guess I’m not a group guy either. The short story is that we were set up by a mutual friend. The long version includes a combination of broken hearts, open hearts and boys’ conflicting sports schedules, somehow colliding on Mother’s Day 2008.

In the early months following Sam’s death, I was easily distracted and often reduced to tears. The death of a spouse is omnipresent. More than once as I stepped into our closet, I was sabotaged by his suits, ties and shoes, waiting there expectantly. But hopelessly. I sank to the floor and dissolved into tears, emerging a half an hour later without any recollection of what I had intended to retrieve in the first place.

“Susan” is the kind of friend who took me to coffee, insisted on doing laundry for me, and brought me cozy new pajamas. She also noticed my closet conundrum. With my knowledge and consent, she arranged for another friend to take me to lunch, and while we were out, Susan carefully packed all of Sam’s belongings, labeled the boxes and stacked them neatly in the garage where I could sort through them in my own time. Then she went back to my closet and organized all of my clothes and shoes, spreading them across the racks and shelves, so that there were no obviously empty spaces.

Sometimes she would talk to me about her friend Debbie, who recently died (cancer), and the husband and boys she left behind. She thought Tim and I might appreciate talking to each other. We were, after all, in the same leaky boat.

I told her not to give him my number.

Meanwhile, across town, Susan and Tim were working together to complete the project that she and Debbie had started. Susan mentioned her friend Charlotte, struggling with the loss of her husband. Tim said he would be open to talking to me.

I said “No, thanks.”

The first Mother’s Day after Sam’s death, surprisingly, I had a really good day. My kids and my parents spoiled me rotten. They gave me a Kindle — one of the very first ones — and the boys even used their own money to give me a certificate to “buy” books. I didn’t cry once that day, which was a significant first. Until…I thought about this man I did not know and his two sons on their first Mother’s Day without mom. I burst into tears and cried for half an hour.

I wrote an email to Susan, asking her to let Tim know that I imagined the day sucked (or words to that effect), but that there are people who care. It was primarily a mother’s prayer for broken-hearted boys, motivated by compassion or perhaps just a confused and selfish dread of Father’s Day on my horizon. I must not have been thinking clearly because I also agreed to let her pass my cell phone number along.

The first time Tim called, sometime between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I was standing at the back entrance to the boys’karate studio, watching their closing ritual. I normally would have let the call go to voicemail, but I was curious about the number which I couldn’t quite place. Tim introduced himself and asked if he was calling at a convenient time.

I said “No.”

I asked if he could call back later in the evening, and he said, “No.”

Single, widowed parents with young children don’t have much time or inclination for small talk. But we were honest. He did call again, later in the evening, after his son’s basketball game, post dinner dishes and following bedtime routines, probably with a scotch in his hand. The first question he asked me, “Can you sleep?” No. “Can you focus?” No.

We then proceeded to talk for an hour. Small talk is overrated. We told each other our stories. He and Debbie were high school sweethearts; when she died at age 41 they had been together for 25 years. We fretted about the children. We laughed at the morbid and inappropriate. Susan was right. It was nice to talk to someone in the same leaky boat.

And that’s where we began.

Before her death, Debbie told Tim she wanted him to continue to live his life and to find love and joy. He said “No.” As the story goes, she told him not to be an idiot. She may have actually embellished that thought with one of Uncle Jose’s colorful words. She wanted him to find a woman who was already a mother, because she believed that a woman with children of her own would understand how Debbie felt about her sons. I admire this woman who loved her husband so much that she gave him permission to love again, and I am deeply honored to be the woman who loves him. And his sons.

On Mother’s Day, our sons (the ones who have lost their mother) are our first priority, followed closely by the grandmothers. I buy flowers for everybody, including Debbie, who is like the Elijah at our Mother’s Day table — there is always a place reserved for her presence. We have been known to honor her by going to her favorite restaurant or toasting her with a Diet Coke or taking flowers to her grave site. We usually avoid church. Whatever the boys need. Frequently, we attend breakfast or lunch organized by another family member. We also host a dinner including as many grandmothers as would care to join us. It is a full, exhausting day, physically and emotionally.

And I am grateful. One of the lessons I have kept from those painful, longing years before I had sons to call “mine” is that children are a gift from Life, not a creation of my own. To be the mother in all of my sons’ lives is a privilege. I didn’t know I could fall so head over heels for children I did not give birth to. I try to treat them all equally — once in a while I throw my eyes and arms toward heaven and beg for Sam and Debbie to talk some sense into their sons.

I have my moments. This year it was an unexpected call from our college boy and the fact that Thing 2 tied the Windsor Knot in Thing 4’s tie. But for the most part, my favorite Mother’s Day moments do not necessarily arrive on the second Sunday in May. Last summer, driving to Lake Arrowhead, one of my step-sons said, with the eloquence of a teenager, “You’re not my mom, but …you’re my mom. You know?” I do.

I’m not his mother, that’s true, but all the mothering that happens in our home —that’s me. I make doctor appointments and give advice. I sign permission slips and throw the occasional fit about the socks all over the floor. In fairness to the children, one of the cats has a thing for socks. He stalks them, lures them out of corners and laundry baskets, captures them and then proudly displays them across the living room, much to the puppy’s delight and my own dismay. I make a lot of chicken soup, bake mountains of cookies, and do loads and loads of laundry. I spend so much time marketing that I feel like I should pay rent at Trader Joe’s. I wouldn’t trade it. I feel grateful and satisfied to be physically and emotionally able to do the heavy lifting of motherhood. It will not last nearly long enough — Thing 1 is already in college, and Thing 4 is not that far behind.

Another Mother’s Day moment occurred this morning as Thing 2 and Thing 3 each kissed me goodbye for the morning and walked out the door, shoulder to shoulder, the younger one now a few inches taller. It could be that I’m just looking forward to some quality time with my new quiet washing machine, which arrived Friday, but I think it’s more than that. One boy holds the car keys, the other two lunch bags, both Things teasing each other and admiring each other, bumping into each other. Like puppies. They are doing everything they’re supposed to do, growing into kind, hard-working young men despite Life’s unfairness and difficulties. I look up to them for more reasons than that they are both taller than me. Different fathers, different mothers, brothers just the same.

I could not be more delighted with these boys. I imagine Debbie is pleased as well.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And beautiful mothering moments on random days of the year.