I don’t like to cry. I’m perfectly comfortable with other people crying, but as the only female in a house seething with testosterone, crying wrecks my street cred.
Lots of my friends have been crying for months, practically since the start of our kids’ senior year of high school last September. My eldest son was graduating too, but his younger brother would be around for three more years. Empty nest syndrome wouldn’t start until the last chick took flight (right?). Why expend emotional energy prematurely?
Graduation parties didn’t spark tears. The graduation ceremony itself left me dry-eyed (except for when they marched in to Pomp and Circumstance, which required about half a tissue). My son was ready for college. Why should I be sad about that?
I meditated every morning and did a pretty good job of staying present, reminding myself that he hadn’t left yet. I wasn’t going to taint those final days by being an emotional wreck.
Not only that, I could take comfort in knowing he would be attending a university perfectly suited to his academic strengths, as well as offering him a slot on the men’s soccer team. A dream come true for him.
So when friends would ask how I was dealing with his impending departure, I could honestly say that I was so completely happy for him that there wasn’t room to be sad. I figured I’d wait to get teary when we dropped him off and said that last goodbye.
I was wrong.
Whacked Upside the Head
Exactly four days before our departure, it hit me. Why did my heart quite suddenly feel like lead? It was pretty close to the physical sensation I felt when our first dog died.
Shopping for his goodbye parties (one for family, another for friends), the orange and blue boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in Aisle 7 choked me up. Why had I insisted on forcing Annie’s Organics down his throat all those years when what he really wanted was Kraft’s artificial colors and high sodium flavor? Why had I been such a hard ass about it?
On the way home from the grocery store, the theme song to The Jungle Book movie came on the radio. An image of my 6-foot-tall son’s three-year-old self flashed before me, dancing delightedly along with Mowgli and Baloo the Bear while his favorite video played on the family room TV. I sobbed uncontrollably at a traffic light. What the hell?
It wasn’t like I hadn’t made the most of my time with him. Life had unexpectedly nudged me into being at home with my kids, sometimes working part-time, sometimes not. This wasn’t a situation of, “I wish I had made more time for him.”
And I had lots of interests outside of my kids. I thought that would protect me from falling apart when they left. I never imagined I’d be one of “those” moms who wandered aimlessly through the college student’s empty bedroom, wiping her tears away while polishing plastic soccer trophies.
So what was going on?
Finish Line and Starting Gate
I sat with this pain, scrutinizing it from every angle. Still in the car, I turned the radio off to be able to focus fully, shining an even brighter light in the face of my anguish.
And then it dawned on me. Someone had suddenly pounded the “Time’s Up” button.
I had not only run out of time having my child at home, I had run out of time to prepare him for life. Sure, I’ll still be his mom and will always be there for him (he may even end up back home for a while if he’s like the legions of other kids who re-inhabit the nest at some point). But from here on out, life is the primary teacher, and the landings after mistakes leave deeper bruises when we’re not there to cushion the fall.
Preparing for the send-off we wonder what we have forgotten to teach them. I was appalled to learn recently that neither of my kids knew that when a family friend is a doctor, you call them “Dr. X” instead “Mr. X”.
But he is ahead of the game in other ways. He can follow a recipe when tasked with cooking and has done his own laundry for years. A few weeks before the college move I showed him how to sew a button on his shorts. On our summer vacation he attended my Laundromat 101 course (make sure you have all your quarters in order, put the detergent in the machine before you put the clothes in, pull the lighter weight clothes out of the drier before the heavier weight clothes to avoid shrinkage).
Emotional readiness was harder to assess. This son keeps his feelings to himself (says the mother who does her damnedest to avoid crying in front of her family). Though there had been lots of hugging and cuddling when he was little, he wanted more space as a teen and I had respected that. But had that made me seem too distant? Had he wanted me to force hugs on him? Had I been too strong? Too weak? Too controlling? Too lenient?
Over the course of parenting a child for 18 years every sin is committed. It’s impossible to know how the ledger will tally up in the end.
Discussing all of this with a girlfriend going through the same transition, she recalled the time her husband planned a surprise trip for her when her first child was three months old. Her husband had arranged for a relative to take care of the baby during the trip. My friend was appalled at the suggestion when the plans were revealed, her primal instincts telling her to not let that baby out of her sight. They didn’t go.
But despite my instinctual pull to keep him in my sight, my son needs to go now to reach his full potential as a man. It’s been such an honor and a privilege to witness his growth from silky-skinned and wise-eyed infant to the healthy, handsome, bright young man he has become.
It’s been more than an honor and a privilege. It’s been fun and frustrating and rewarding and challenging and thrilling and heart-breaking and extraordinarily fulfilling. His parents have grown just as much as he has in the process.
Right now outside my window, a gold finch and two house finches share the bird feeder. A hummingbird rests on the cherry tree branch, just hanging out. A fat robin perches on the fence. They deal every year (or more often?) with their babies taking flight. Having witnessed two wren parents attacking a snake that had just eaten their babies, I know that they feel loss.
I wonder if binge eating is also part of their grief process?