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.

 

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.

 

Steadfast

My father isn’t perfect, but he thinks I am. Which occasionally produces incredible frustration and angst and is also a source of great comfort. Sometimes I feel as though my own father doesn’t see the whole of me, that he refuses to see the parts of me that are self-righteous, petty, disappointed or jealous. When I’m angry and wounded because of a real or perceived injustice, I want him to acknowledge how hostile and unfair the world is – or at least how I feel in that moment – but he simply doesn’t view life (or me) that way. He sees the glory and the victory. He’s positive and grateful. He’s generous and kind. It’s super annoying.

When work or life or parenting makes me feel small and inadequate, when challenges threaten to bring out my worst version of myself, I channel my inner teenager, stammering and stomping defiantly in front of him, daring him not to notice how enraged, afraid or venomous I am. He doesn’t. Look at my little girl, he smiles, isn’t she just so wonderful? It’s infuriating.

His approach leaves me with an untenable choice: dig in my heels and prove my own limitations, or rise above the trial and up to his expectations of me. I want to wallow in the mud and maybe even sling a little, but it won’t work. Trust me. The man is relentless with his love and approval.

The other night my husband is out of town, and I’m home alone with three of my sons, none of whom particularly want my attention. I am hoping to take at least one of them to dinner and a movie, but they all have other plans. Truth be told, only one of them has actual plans. The other two prefer no plans at all to an evening out with me, because of course no self-respecting teenager wants to be seen at Panera or Deadpool with his mother on a Friday night. They don’t want to order pizza and rent a movie either. Even the dog has abandoned me in favor of curling up with the stinky teenagers, and I am left with an aging and ill-tempered cat. Regrettably, the cat and I have more in common than I care to admit.

I decide to make a salad and pour a glass of wine and curl up with a book, which would normally make me happy, but I’m still in a funk and feeling sorry for myself. A black widow has taken up residence in our wine rack, and although my husband has seen her several times, she manages to scuttle away before he can exterminate her. She is a deft one. Absorbed as I am in self-pity, I start to imagine that if the murderous spider bites me, I could justify going to the hospital where at least somebody will care whether I live or die.

Instead, I call my dad. He drives me crazy with his optimism, and what I need more than anything right now to counteract my foul mood is a dose of my father’s rose-colored glasses. He does not disappoint. I tell him about the black widow. I despair of my parenting shortcomings. We joke about the fact that my children would readily acknowledge my flaws, perhaps even offer a dissertation on the subject. Our conversation covers the range from the inconsequential to catastrophic, which is to say that mostly we talked about the weather. He is the ideal antidote to my peevishness, spares me a costly trip to the hospital and restores peace to my evening. We laugh, and he suggests that I could use the material for my blog. Smiling, I hang up the phone and settle in with my book and my glass of wine. He may not love me perfectly, but my father loves me consistently.

By the end of the evening, one of the boys is in a state himself. His plans, or lack of plans, did not turn out as he had planned. He searches the house and finds me in my favorite chair, contentedly absorbed in my book, which I readily set aside to tend to his bruised and aching heart. We do not discuss the weather.

This parenting bit is not so easy. I cannot help but feel grateful for the reliability of this man who has loved me from before he met me. He demonstrates that love need not be flawless to be dependable. Our relationship survives despite our glitches and quirks. (I can hear him already: What glitches?) We manage to find a balance together.

My dad so rarely comments on the Su-shit that I don’t know whether or not he reads my blog regularly. I think I’ll print this one out and send it to him for Father’s Day with a handwritten note: Thanks, Dad. You’re wonderful.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And unwavering, imperfect love.

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.

Tears, Baptism & Teenage Brain Damage

Whose child is this anyway?

Some things don’t get easier, no matter how many times I’ve done them before. Teaching a teenage boy to drive, for example. Or saying goodbye to my son heading back to college. I cry every time. I even burst into tears when my sons’ friends go back to college. Pathetic. But that’s the kind of mom I am.

I am just so stinking proud of each one that my delight wells up in my eyes and runs down my face. It might be genetic. My own father used to tell me frequently, with tears in his eyes, “This is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.” He undoubtedly said that to my sister as well. And he meant it every time. Each child brings a unique light into this world. Lord knows, this world needs light in all the darkness.

Our youngest son suffered a concussion in the fall that kept him home from school for a month. Lest you think he enjoyed this forced hiatus, bear in mind that the healing process required minimal light, minimal sound, no reading, no screens of any kind, no iPad, no iPod, no computer or television, no video games or movies – just a month home with no entertainment other than his mother. Sounds like a prescription for a special form of torture to a 14-year old boy.

It’s not exactly a walk in the park for the mom either. But the worst part for me is the fear. Certain phrases, such as “head trauma,” “permanent memory loss” and “brain damage” send me into a tailspin. I drag the boy with me to church one morning in an attempt to get a grip. I promise him 10 minutes or less. I bribe him with lunch afterwards. I just need to breathe in a sacred space. I’m on my knees. I cannot think of anything eloquent to say. My prayer amounts to begging, “Please, God. Please, please, please.” I am just so afraid. Tears flow, of course. “Please, God, please. He is my son.” And somehow, in this sacred place, even with my self-imposed time limits, even gripped in the throes of fear, I hear an answer. It is part admonishment, part comfort, part sarcastic humor, because I believe that Truth speaks to me in a language that I can understand: “Charlotte, don’t you think I love him at least as much as you do?”

Oh. Right. I suppose that’s true.

Sometimes, I need to be reminded whose children they really are.

Parenting is not for the faint of heart. And if parenting is a challenge, step-parenting is downright harrowing. As a mother, and as a wicked step-mother, I find Mary and Joseph’s example particularly helpful. When Mary said “Yes,” she had no idea what she was signing up for. Parenting is like that. My children didn’t exactly arrive the way I might have expected them to, formed in my own image and likeness. It’s not like they landed on my doorstep looking like they did in the catalog, complete with tracking information (and a return label) from the shipping company. Sometimes, I stare at my son (pick one, any one) and that whole stork business seems a plausible explanation. Where on earth did he come from?

Joseph, of course, said nothing at all. Often the only reasonable approach.

I think about Jesus’ own baptism and God’s declaration that “This is my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased.” Were Mary and Joseph even there? I asked my friend in seminary where Jesus’ parents were, and she told me that Mary and Joseph were touring medical schools at the time. Which makes a lot of sense, because mom and dad are really good at making exceptional plans for their kids, and then the actual kid shows up with ideas of his own and all those parental plans are shot to shit. But then the kid makes his own way and becomes more amazing than even the people who cherish him most in the world could have predicted. Who knew?

I think about the baptisms of our sons. The older two were baptized when they were very young, long before I ever knew them. The younger two were baptized at the Easter Vigil mass when they were 11 and 13. This was a path that the younger boys chose themselves. Needless to say, my husband and I were delighted; the boys wanted their own connection with God. In the course of the service, it was my step-sons who poured the water into the baptismal font that their step-brothers would be baptized in. It was a beautiful, unifying moment for our nuclear family, and yet, each baptism also puts me in my place as a mother. It reminds me that all four of my boys are, in reality, God’s own children.

I was home alone the December evening in 2012, when I heard about the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. My husband had a late meeting, college boy was still at school packing to come home for the holidays; high school boy was in Pasadena with friends, junior high boy was in town on the boulevard with some buddies and elementary school boy was at a friend’s house for a Christmas party. I sat stunned, paralyzed with fear. I had this desperate urge to collect all my children and put them in bubble wrap on the sofa – I would even let them play xBox as long as they wanted. These are the moments when the baptismal reminders are critical for me. I do my part, but I’m not in charge. I lecture them. I impose deadlines and curfews. I teach table manners. I buckle up seatbelts, strap on helmets, sautee vegetables. But the most important thing I can do for them is to get on my knees and pray. They are God’s very own children, after all.

My son taps me on the shoulder. It’s been ten minutes. He’s hungry. The boy is starting to act like a normal teenager again.

I whisper thank you. I feel privileged that Life has entrusted this boy to my care. And then I take my son to lunch.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your parenting path. And healing.

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.