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Departures and Inflection Points

Painting by Kathleen Spencher Johns

Well, my first born son just drove off, leaving home.  Heading out into the world, into his life without his parents.  He’s 18 years old (nearly 19).  He has a plan.  And he’s ready for it.

After waving goodbye from the front lawn, I came back in the house, made myself a cup of coffee and sat down to write this – I’ve been composing it in my head for weeks now.  The conversation I’ve been having with myself, trying to prepare myself, to get inside and understand this change.

First off, just to get it out of the way, I know this is a good thing.  Kids should leave home.  Our boy is a smart, capable, independent young man.  He’s moving onto good things, new adventures, and all the opportunities that college will offer. We’ve done our work and he is ready.

But why do I feel so sad?  It’s not like this was a surprise.  My husband and I have been talking with him about college since he was old enough to understand.  I wouldn’t want it any other way!  I suppose it’s just that his departure marks an ending of what I think of as the most important chapter in my life.  For the last 18 years, our son was our shared project.  Our boy.  Even though we have very full lives, in so many ways (large and small) our days are built around our sons.  They are our topic of conversation.  They structure our days.  They occupy our imagination.  They add meaning.

I suppose it’s the ending – the actual event – that got to me.  I’ve been anticipating it now for weeks. That moment when he climbed in the car, closed the door, and drove off.  I have been dreading it, and there – poof – it was done.  It’s bound to be easier from here, right.

But when I look back, I realize that it’s really a series of endings.  The last time I breast fed him, the last day of my maternity leave when I dropped him off at the Stanford Day Care Center, the first day of Kindergarten when I cried in the car over the little brown bag that Mrs. Palawski gave to each parent with a tea bag, a Kleenex, and a cotton ball inside.  The last day I tied his shoes for him, our last day in Palo Alto, the last day of middle school and that horrid graduation ceremony, the first summer day he left for Camp Sloane, the last cello lesson, the last Little League Game, the last night the brothers shared a bedroom, and the day we said good-bye to him at the airport as he headed off to India on a high school trip.  Each of those endings caught me, as today has done.  Yet none of them were unexpected.  I think that they catch me because I’m afraid that I’m not paying close enough attention – not experiencing them as fully as I should, savoring and remembering.

I have this vivid memory, when our younger son was less than one.  I was sitting on the couch with him lying on the couch next to me.  I was talking to him, tickling his toes, and he was smiling.  And I was so keenly aware – with a 2-year old running around – of the ephemeralness of the moment. I understood, down to the bottom of my socks, that my baby was in a fleeting (and wonderful) stage – I could leave him on the couch and he’d stay put.  He was tiny.  He wasn’t yet rolling over or wriggling much.  You plopped him down, and there he’d be, looking up at you.  The moment was totally contained.  And within the memory I can recall telling myself, “Hold this.  Keep it close.  It’ll be gone so soon.”  And because I did that, intentionally stood outside the moment, noticed it, and savored it – it occurred to me that its passage might not be so bad.  It was mine and no one could take it away from me.  I owned it now forever.  And here I am now, 15 years later, remembering every detail of it.

Being in it really helped, but it also helps me to remember that what was on the other side of that moment was quite rich. Other moments – full of bike riding, running, dancing, and adventuring – and I would have to be sure to savor those too.

But we’re not so good at savoring, are we?  As humans, we’re not very good at that kind of meta thinking….I am here now, this is it, and I’m noticing it all.  Well, maybe Buddhist monks are good at it.  But I’m not.  If I have regrets (and I don’t have many), my regrets are all around not doing more of what I did on the couch that day with my new baby.

As I was falling asleep last night – hearing the small sounds of four people in the house – I was thinking of all the nights, just like this one, where we were all there, breathing together.  How complete it felt and how one day slipped to the next, without me really noticing or holding fast to the pure pleasure of the little details.  How many times during the day our boys would ask me what was for dinner or how we had our regular, consistent seats at the table and in the living room.  How I knew who was coming down or up the stairs based on the footfall sounds.  How it felt to be in the kitchen, preparing dinner, listening to NPR, and feeling the hum of family life around me. Sitting down with the two of them, when they came home from school, prying details from their day, like struggling with a stuck door.  Watching them walk off to school, through the backyard, from my office window.  Dodging the flailing arms and legs as they wrestled with my husband in the kitchen while I was trying to wash the dishes.  Seeing the pile of larger and larger shoes accumulate by the back door.

My thoughtful husband said something last night that made me feel better.  He said, “You know, your job isn’t done.  It goes on and on.”  And he’s right.  Even though our son is leaving our home and going to college, I’m still his mother.  He will still need me and there’s still work to be done.

It will be different work, of course, and we’ll all have to get used to that.  When we talk (and thank goodness for email, skype, chat), I’ll have to adjust my end of the conversation, just the way I know that my mother did.  When he comes home, it won’t be quite the same as it was last night.  But we’ll all manage.

Yes we will, because, here’s the other thing…. when I think back on each of those endings, I realize they weren’t just endings – they were inflection points.  Points where, yes, something ended (bringing us a little closer to today), but something else begun.  And each time the new thing started – day care, kindergarten, high school, travels in India – he took a piece of the old thing with him.  He carried forward with him the tending, the advice, the songs, the jokes, the meals, the embrace.

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