As I write this, the three guys I live with are playing football on the other side of the floor-length living room windows. It is a hot, muggy Florida evening, my husband and two boys are enjoying some guy time, and my oldest son is going to college in three days.
What a strange thing, the days winding down, like a tunnel closing in, before the inevitable flight of your first born from the nest. It is a surreal sensation. One that millions of mothers before me have experienced, but which is new to me. An odd and unpleasant rite of passage, or kind of developmental phase. I associate “developmental phase” with babies learning to walk, or teenagers learning to reason. But apparently we parents have them, too. Truly, I suspect that we have them until we croak.
I have had the usual symptoms of this strange affliction…pride, disbelief, curiosity, dread, grief, exhilaration, dread, grief…and did I mention dread and grief? I relished his senior year, enjoying every time he was willing to sit down and talk with me, wanted a hug (even though he would choose the most inopportune moments, such as having my hands in the sink of dirty dishes, or when I was writing…but that is me being too damn busy). When he graduated, another level of realization hit my brain, and I cried at his ceremony with the budding awareness of how close we were getting to his departure.
As the summer wound down, I felt my anxiety increase, wanting to stop the days and reverse time. I kept seeing him as a little baby, cooing in my lap, a far cry from the grown man he has become. I was very careful when he was young to show excitement as he grew, not wanting to burden him with my attachment. But now, I am openly expressing my wish that he would shrink for just a few precious stolen moments, as well as my astonishment and pride that he is now ready to leave us.
And now, three days before we all pack into the car to take him to his new home, I feel something akin to what I felt before he was born: a kind of odd limbo that comes in the chasm between leaping from a known reality into an unknown one…that moment of uncertainty as you hang in the air, unsure yet hopeful that you will land where you plan to. As a mother, I presume it is like facing a death…my son’s, or my own, I’m not sure.
It is my most basic instinct to keep him close to me so he will be safe. When I was pregnant with him, he was two weeks late, and still had to be induced; my OB was unwilling to let me go any further because of his size (he was almost 10 pounds when he was born). His birth was very difficult; the pushing alone took two hours to release him from my body, me fighting myself. I have since understood why. Every cell in my body wanted to keep him insulated from this crazy world, a world that I believed in my bones and blood – regardless of all my healing, affirmations and positive thinking – was unsafe. If I could keep him in my body, I could keep him from harm. But of course, he had to be born, and of course I had to let him be.
Jess’ leaving us to go to school is strangely similar to his birth. Instead of him leaving my body, he is leaving our house and immediate care. He will no longer be in my sight, where I can put a hand on him. He will no longer be asleep in his bed where I can hear him snoring, or where I can remind him to do his homework for the fifteenth time while he talks on the phone to his friends. He will no longer be hanging by me while I stir the soup, waiting for a hug. In some very real ways, I feel that the sun is deserting me.
And yet, this is what is supposed to happen. This is the job of the parent, the one who prepares the child for the eventual release into the wild. I am following the long line of life, living through countless creatures, one after another, bringing their kind into the world and diminishing so that their young can become the next in line. I am allowed to feel sad, scared, and like my heart is going to break, but that is not going to change anything. I can no more prevent him from leaving than I could prevent him from being born. And why would I be so selfish? This is his path. He must go, and I must say goodbye to this chapter in our lives.
How does a mother live through this? How does a mother let go? She just does. Life isn’t up to us…it is bigger than us, and we don’t get to have it the way we want it all the time. And thank goodness for that. How would we ever grow if life were not fraught with pain and danger, uncertainties and heartbreaks? How would we ever grow if we really had it all under control?
Life is living through me right now, just as it has for countless others before me. And it is living through my son, expressing and showing up in his own unique skin and eyes and heart. Life lives us, not the other way around, and we get to be here for the ride. On and on it goes, births and deaths, hellos and goodbyes. The circle of life continues. How amazing. How utterly, curiously amazing.
My dearest son, the one who I centered my life around for 18 years, I love you so very dearly. I celebrate you, and dance for you, and shout to the sky in honor of you. You have made me so very proud over these years, and it is my great privilege to know you. Thank you for teaching me, even though it often looked like I was teaching you. Our time together has been so very precious to me. Go forth and live your life, and do good things. Go into the world, the one I tried to ready you for and to protect you from as much as I could without robbing you of that readiness. I give you to it. Go forth. Go forth.
P.S. Addendum Spring 2013: Looking back at this post now, I see a mother’s premonition that her son would not return home quite the same. Jess suffered a traumatic brain injury on March 25, 2013 as a result of a skateboarding accident, requiring emergency brain surgery to ave his life. He is recovering miraculously well, and will return to school (with a new sense of purpose and direction) in the fall of 2013. Please see the story here “A New Definition of Allowing”. Life has made some interesting choices about my son, and all of us.