Posted in Milestone Moments, Mid-Life Mama, Twenty-something

The Weight of the Heart

Lloyd, 21
Lloyd, 21

After we pull out of the parking lot, I feel my heart fold over on itself, becoming an achy weight in my chest, like a lump of bread lodged in a mourner’s throat.

I chide myself: Did you want him to live with you forever?!
(I didn’t. I don’t.)

Even so, I won’t hold my husband’s hand or even look at him for the part he played in crafting this heartache, namely, lending his sperm, 22 years earlier.

A sibling, conceived 5 years after the first, sits in the back seat, doing his homework, and I’m thankful he’s still with us, I really am, but it’s only a matter of time, so I can’t be too attached.

Basically, I’m fucked.

And the thing is, I knew this from the start–felt it in the vacancy of my belly–just after the emergency caesarean that delivered my first born.

I wrote about it in my journal when he was a month old, and remember thinking: “What a shitty love story. Everyone knows we’re heading for a break up.”

Fortunately, a lot happens between birth and adulthood so the separation is more welcome than a new mother might imagine.

“Stop thinking about traveling,” my first born says, in his new (unbidden) role as our home and family life consultant. “Invest in our land. Build that deck and patio. Landscape!”

I laugh, telling him that it’s not a diversion of funds, but a lack of them.

He smiles. “You and dad are going to be able to do so much once we’re both out of the house. You’ll probably finish your book in 5 months.”

I smile, and let the fantasy of cash flow and uninterrupted focus slide over me, like a swig of brandy after a long ski. But I can’t think about that now. Aidan still has another two years of high school, and then college, and then this: What is this? Who am I with a 21 year old?

“You and Aidan are our patios and decks and books,” I say. “Raising kind, strong, considerate men like you means more than any of that.” And I mean it.

It’s been 57 days since we last saw Lloyd, and no, I wasn’t counting. I just looked that up  on one of those online “how many days” sites (they exist), and seriously, Casey and Aidan were much more excited about seeing Lloyd than I was. I’d been traveling all month and was wiped out.

But when Casey pulled toward the curb outside Skinny Pancake, my heart woke up. And I asked if I could jump out. And then Aidan asked if he could too. And we argued over that. And both of us opened our passenger doors. And I said: “Fine, you go,” and I closed my door.

“We can both go,” Aidan countered.

“I want to go by myself,” I said.

And Aidan deferred, and I opened my door again, before Casey had even navigated into the parking spot, “Thank you,” I said, as I scrambled over the snow bank, while taking in a drink of Lake Champlain, where I saw a man, watching, waiting, his legs outstretched.

We walked toward each other and embraced.  “You must be so cold,” I said, “Didn’t you want to wait inside? I’m sorry we’re so late. We stopped at King Arthur, just for coffees, and then ended up with 8 boxes of baking mixes. Then we had to stop again at a rest stop to pee. Don’t you have a hat?”

“I’m fine,” he says, and brushes my hands away from his face.

We crowd inside the restaurant and the join the throngs in line at the counter.  We look up at the menu board.  “Do you want to go somewhere else?” he asks.

“We’re already here,” I say, sensing the first note of tension that always arises whenever time and food are involved with this particular child. His brother joins us, and then his father, and we listen as the boys immerse themselves in conversation that no longer requires us in any fashion.

“It’s sad, right,” I say to my husband.

“It’s nice though, right,” he counters, unwilling to plunge into grief so soon.

The guys continue talking for 10 minutes, and then Casey places our order, and pays, while Aidan heads up a small set of stairs to claim our favorite booth, and Lloyd and I follow.

“Can I sit next to Lloyd first,” I ask.

Lloyd shimmies in beside me, and I scooch over toward him, until our thighs are touching; and my left arm is wound around his; and my lips are close enough to press into his bristly, but forever familiar cheek or into his neck or onto his shoulder.

“Is this too much? Am I too close?” I ask.
(I don’t care.)

Ever since Lloyd went away to college, and then Central America, and then Europe (Eastern and Western; with a brief foray into Northern Africa), not to mention the Jersey shore, it’s his skin that I want most, more than the depth of conversation we’ve shared over a lifetime, ever since he could talk really, mostly philosophy, but also music and economics and politics.

Mom, how does love break your heart?

Where do faces go when they die?

Does the Sun know everything, even God?

Why is this green piece of paper worth more than that one?

I can’t take any more of Clinton-Lewinski stuff; turn it off!

Each morning on our drive over the mountain, we’d listen to NPR, and depending on whether we got out of the house early or later, we’d take in the news before or after our favorite part of our drive: The Writer’s Almanac, both for it’s opening music (that still makes my heart quicken) and Garrison Keillor’s voice (who we took the boys to see last summer); and in between, we’d talk about trucks (if we saw one), especially backhoes and front loaders and excavators (but actually only one of us was interested in those; something I finally confessed to Lloyd, a year later, when he was five.)

Lloyd and I shared a lifetime in those years, as mothers and first borns often do; But in the past year, we’ve only had 48 hours at a time together, months apart; and this time, only 26. Which I did count. But only just before it was time to drop him off at his doctor’s appointment ahead of his evening class: Auto Mechanics.

The original plan was just to make a day trip up to spend some time with him between work and classes. But he kept changing his schedule: “Wednesday is good. No Monday. Better Tuesday,” until I said: “Lloyd, are you sure you want us to come?”

“I do,” he insisted. “I’m really looking forward to it,” and then he launched into all the things we might do, especially if we came on Tuesday after his morning class and stayed over until Wednesday before his evening class.

This request took me by surprise, and I wasn’t eager for either the effort or the cost of another overnight as I’d already been away four times this past month, but sensing his desire for a longer connection, I suggested: “Will you stay with us if I book a hotel,” and when he balked, I later messaged him: “I’ve booked a place on the side of town near all the shopping centers,” knowing that it would be hard for him to resist such a lure as his adolescent mecca–TJ Maxx–which he insisted on finding during our stay in Acadia National Park, and every other trip we ever made out of our mountain town.

“I want to take you grocery shopping too,” I said, “and there’s a Trader Joes and another natural foods market on that side of town if you don’t want to do City Market this trip.”

Feeding my child or filling his refrigerator is the second best maternal pleasure after skin to skin contact. Last year when he was living and working on a horse farm in Spain, he gave me a gift I’ll never forget. We were Skyping, and the first thing I noticed on the screen beyond the contrast of our wintry New England dwelling and his equatorial one (his bright lemony light and the sound of birds) was the richer hue of his skin (naturally olive at birth) and his lips. Swollen. Wrinkled. Cracked.

“Are you drinking enough water,” I asked, with the desperation of a nursing mother separated from her babe.

“I am,” he said, though I didn’t believe him.

“Are you sure?”

And just then, right in front of me, he lifted a glass to his lips and swallowed.

I think of it often.

A year earlier we were on our knees in the kitchen on the day he would return to school after he came bounding down the stairs sooner than expected and discovered that I was repacking one of his boxes.

“What are you doing,” he said, furious at the intrusion.

“I know. I know,” I said, “but you put all kinds of things in this box that don’t belong together, and I just wanted to reorganize it.”

He picked up the items I had carefully sorted on the floor and tossed them back into the box, making it worse than before, until he came upon the electric tea kettle, which I had purchased for him after his first semester, so that he might drink medicinal teas in addition to whatever was served at frat parties, but which I later learned that he and his room mate used to boil hotdogs. What ensued was a tug of war, a 51 year old mom, a 20 year old son, and a stainless steel kettle. It could have been funny. If it was on Netflix.

Finally, we locked eyes, the kettle between us, and I said: “Just let me have this,” and he saw something that he hadn’t let himself see before, or that I never revealed before or knew myself–that this wasn’t about whether or not he had packed the box right, or who was in charge. And then he did something that I will always remember:

He let go.

I’m two years wiser now, and so is he, and late on Tuesday night at the hotel, just as we were getting into bed, he announced that he was going to do some laundry in the coin-operated machines downstairs and that he slip a workout in too while he waited.

I woke when he returned just about midnight, noticing how aware he had become of the noise of doors and lights and toilets, and I easily went back asleep until I heard him call out in his sleep–something about “shifts” and “schedules” and “tables”–the recurring nightmare of those who put themselves through school (and onto planes into foreign countries) through restaurant work, which is how his father and I met.

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Lloyd (and mom)

I winced at his suffering, and wondered how a mother might respond to the nightmares of a 21 year old, but then I settled back into sleep with the comfort of him beside me in the next bed; the four of us breathing together; in the likelihood that this (though once an every day part of the family bed) may never happen again.

Long before dawn, I woke again, with sweat rising between my breasts and in the crook of my elbows and behind my knees–a reminder that these mothering years were soon to be wiped away like the castles we once built as a family in the sand.

A bit later, I woke yet again, to a stronger sensation, something I’d never quite felt before, at least not in sleep–the pounding of my heart–so strong and insistent–like a knock on a door–that I put my hand over it, fearing that it would leap out of my chest. I made a mental note to ask my naturopath about increasing (or decreasing) my progesterone cream dose; and then I fell back asleep again.

Before we left Burlington, we went to the water, and the guys built rock sculptures, while I took photos of sunlight and the lake that I’ve come to know and love.

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Over the years, I’ve spent a week at a time on this lake, writing, mostly in the winter, in a house-sitting gig that I found after Lloyd started school here. Three years back, I walked across this water, past the Marina where he waited tables at the end of last summer.

“It hasn’t frozen at all this year,” he tells us, and I feel a bit sad for that, but relieved for him as the wind chill in Burlington is brutal, and winter here has long been his bane, which makes me wild with maternal wonder at why he returns, again and again, insistent on mastering himself in this place.

“I might get my Captain’s license,” he tells us.Which makes me equally perplexed because as a baby, his small, tender sinuses, often blocked, made him gasp for air on a windy day; and we’ve often shared how a death in frozen waters is our greatest fear.

“Are we becoming one of those families,” he chides when I press for a group photo; but I don’t bite; because I’m mastering something too–myself–apart from his (or for that matter, anyone’s) view. I’ve felt this as shedding of late, a molting, after a few decades of caring for younger siblings (seven) and another two raising these men.

“It’s time to go,” I say, knowing that it could take at least ten minutes to get across town to the doctor appointment that Lloyd surprisingly (and not surprisingly) scheduled in our last hour together.

“Couldn’t you have picked another day?” I asked when he told us about the appointment; but now, I only say, “I want my goodbye with you, here, in the sun, instead of rushed, in an office parking lot.”

We linger in an embrace and then release and re-embrace, lingering longer, before walking up from the beach toward the road where Casey is waiting with the car.

We arrive at the doctor’s office with plenty of time for more goodbyes, but I stay in the car because I’ve already had mine. Still, Lloyd leans forward before he gets out of the back seat, and embraces me, not once, but twice (or was it three times), as he gathers his things.

He stands for a long while beside the trunk where I’m sure he hugged his father and his brother, and then as they get into the car, he waves to us all, and crosses the parking lot, and turns back and waves again, before fading from view around a corner.

We sit and breathe. 3 bodies. A vacant seat. A return home. Without him.  I think of that August day four years earlier when we brought him to school for the first semester of his freshman year. How I saw so many families, like ours, limping, through town.

“Ready to go,” my husband asks, and when I finally nod, he backs up the car, and pulls past the building, where we find Lloyd, standing outside, apparently waiting to wave to us one more time.. And then we watch him step onto the porch, and turn yet again, with another wave; and just when our hearts can’t bear any more, he enters the building, and we wave to an empty window, and pull out onto the road and turn to head home.

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Posted in Fragile Life, Holidays, Milestone Moments

Anthem

maia-flore-1

It was an unseasonably warm day, much like today, but in 1999, when weather like this was so rare as to be a miracle.

I waited to pick up a pregnancy test until after my hair appointment that, not wanting to give up my annual birthday ritual of highlights, but knowing that I would, if there had been a someone, to consider, inside.

A year had passed without two lines on a stick.

My first miscarriage was six-years earlier.In May of 1993.
The second–in November–of the same year, on the day of Uncle Joe’s funeral.
It snowed.

A son had come two years later, and now a second soul was knocking on the door, but I hadn’t found the key.

I stopped at Rite Aid with my fresh highlights and purchased this month’s pregnancy test.
I stopped at the Post Office too.
A yellow notification card.
A package.
A high school friend. A cd. Stevie Nicks.

Once home, I peed on a stick. I pushed play.
I called my husband. And my sisters.
No one was there.

I pushed play again, and hit the repeat button, and turned up the volume and opened the French doors and stepped outside, into the yard, onto grass, instead of snow, and danced and twirled and laughed with the mountains and the woods and the sky. In rapture.

It would be months before this song became an anthem.
He was born just in time.
A week early.

She held him in her arms before she died.
His life and this song became our balm.

Posted in Uncategorized

We could have said — no

Autumn brings thoughts of children grown old. November brings thoughts of loved ones gone…

The Motherless Muse

“There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said — no.
But somehow we missed it.”
Tom Stoppard

maia-flore-1 Maia Flore

That quote, or one very much like it, was tacked above my desk in the apartment where I lived during my senior year at the University.

I wrote it down on one of my study cards because of Carol’s brother Dave.

He fell asleep at the wheel.

Dave was just a year ahead of us in school, and we had been at a party together the week before.

The enormity of the fragility of life, at an age when we were supposed to be immortal, shook me, and put me into an early depression at a time when I was meant to be living high.

This quote returns to me now, 30 years later, when I visit another college friend. After another accident.

I sit…

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Posted in Fathers, Fragile Life, Guest Posts

A Father’s Heart (guest post)

(A guest post. From a dad!!
Thank you, Colby Dix!!!)

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Photo: Colby Dix

“I cried today. It was real.

My son had a little piece of plastic in his ear and we were in the emergency room at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. I admit that I can be emotionally connected beyond the usual male stereotype, so this may not be that surprising. The thing was, just feeling that, and allowing it, so overwhelming when it came… It was something.

Because the extraction required sedation, my son was essentially conscious but zoned out in a ketamine haze. I winced while the proficient ENT specialist teased that foreign object out of hiding and removed it and I broke then even, feeling the deepest empathy for this blood of my blood. But that wasn’t all see; after it was done, he took a little time to re-awaken. To come back.

And his eyes were teary and glazed as they swam into focus to see me directly in front of him, concern in my own eyes and staring at the most important thing I can imagine. And as he recognized me, he sleepily said “I love you” with those teary eyes and I just let it go, responding in kind with a choked voice. How could I not?

Often in life I speak to the benefit of failure, in terms of learning and growing. But I seem to forget that I can learn a great deal from success as well. My most successful achievement, by far, is this little boy, and I’m exquisitely proud of him on the daily. And in that moment, with my heart aching to connect as completely as possible, I realized that my capacity for love had grown yet again. That I hit another level. He made me better, smarter and more aware in an instant.

Sure, this is a common enough tale. Young child sticks something in their ear, nose, whatever. But even in it’s commonality, there is so much to be gained. I’m thankful, and a little tired from it. I’m not saying this to land any great parable or nugget of wisdom. I just want to acknowledge it, because it makes me happy. Happy to be here. He’s the best.”

~Colby Dix

Posted in College, Mid-Life Mama, Milestone Moments, Round Two, Teens, Twenty-something, What's Next? (18 & beyond)

11 Things We Learned~in a week without the kids

empty nest
One summer a few years back, I stumbled upon a brilliant act of self-love. I arranged for both of our boys to be away from home at the same time.

Our oldest departed early Sunday morning on a road trip with his girlfriend, while our youngest was scheduled to be dropped off at camp that very afternoon.

On the drive over to Waubanog, my husband turned to me with a giddy whisper, asking What do you want to do AFTER…!

I could barely contain my delight and hoped my son wouldn’t see or sense it from the backseat.

Mostly we slept, and went out to eat, and enjoyed lots of summer cocktails.

A week later, we’d also learned some things about ourselves; things we could no longer blame on the kids:

1. We make lots of messes.

2. We use lots of glasses.

3. We depend on their noise, demands, connection & love to direct our days, our emotions, our very thoughts.

4. We’d do well to focus more on our own shit. Inside and out. There’s plenty there.

5. They apparently keep animals away from our gardens.
(Either that or they arranged for the groundhog to eat all the greens so that they wouldn’t have to.)

6. Casey & I still enjoy each others company more than we do anyone else. (Following some initial turbulence.)

7. We can’t wait for them to leave, and when they’re finally gone, we miss them.  (Duh.)

8. We have softer edges without them, but much less dimension.

9. There will always be an Aidan and a Lloyd shaped empty space in our hearts once they’ve grown.
(Sappy, but true. OUCH.)

10. Even without the distraction, disturbance & delight of children, we don’t “get done” what we imagined.

11. Our lives without them will easily out distance the day-to-day we’ve shared as a family.

At the end of that summer, our oldest and his beloved set to repainting his walls. Their youthful abandon spilled out of his room and down the stairs and into the kitchen; as did the palpable presence of endings–he would leave for college that week and they would break up rather than endure a long distance relationship (and I was not to ask about how or if we would see her once he was gone.)

Add to this the juxtaposition of my baby sister’s first born who had just celebrated his first birthday. His milestones seemed to be engaged in some kind of parallel dance with those taking place in my home.

I hold no regrets. I have lived well and loved our years with children; and I am proud to see them spread their wings; though what is also true is that I can barely breathe at the thought of a completely empty house, or imagine one that doesn’t begin and end with camps and semesters and vacations.

When the boys were babies, Casey & I would race up the stairs to be the first to arrive after naptime–to be that holy recipient of their precious waking gaze of delight & devotion.

At the end of that week apart, instead of a set of stairs, it was a steep hill, and the baby was 13 and he was smelly, carrying all of his gear from a week in a tent. Casey wore flip flops. I chose sneakers. I may have pushed him off the path. More than once.

What I’ve learned most from my time with and apart from my children is something I feel a bit embarrassed to share…

A deep & abiding love for myself, and the pleasure of my own company.

Which alas, grew out of my fierce love for them–both in their comings and their goings.

This past week, in another brilliant act of self-love, I sent my husband off on a trip to retrieve our youngest from his time at the shore with his young cousin–who is now 4 years old.

It was a hard decision not to go along. I missed his little sister’s second birthday. I missed spending time with my entire extended family. I missed a beach trip I’ve taken every summer since we moved to the mountains 23 years ago.

But I also felt conflicted about leaving because it was my oldest son’s birthday, and even though he lived three hours away and planned to spend his 21st with his friends instead of coming home, I wanted to be here. Just to the hold the place of home if nothing else.

I also wanted to write. And to find myself. And to hear my own thoughts. Especially as my first born came of age.

After the initial pangs of emptiness, I settled into a delicious morning of word and bird song and green tea.

Cue the phone.

Guess who’s coming home.

Posted in Insight, Mid-Life Mama, Parental Adolescence, Retirement, Teens, Tweens, Twenty-something

Mothers~Permission to Retire!

Once upon a time, with a college degree and honors, I embarked on an unexpected and ambiguous career.

21 years later, I’m ready to retire.

“You can’t retire,” my sons tell me, even though they both shave.

Why not? My contemporaries are doing it. They’re leaving the office and the classroom and the police force, and not only are they celebrated, but they’re expected to reward their years of effort with relaxation–to allow their minds soften into something new.

“I’m worried that I’m living like I’m retired,” a friend says, on a Tuesday morning, in the cafe at our local co-op, after we realize that we’re sitting at adjacent tables.

I turn my chair toward her and explain that I’ve been considering just that.

“Why are we expected to jump into the next thing without the opportunity to get to know ourselves again?” I say.

She nods her head, “I’m not the same person I was before.”

We both know that our partners lives have been reshaped by parenting, but they’ve been able to move forward with their careers and identities, while ours have snagged or circled or more often, met dead ends.

Although we’re are a decade apart (her oldest and my youngest are peers), my younger friend and I share a mounting anxiety about what we’re supposed to be doing, and if we’re doing it wrong, and even worse, if what we’re not doing… is unfair, particularly as our children come of age.

“We have to claim this time,” I say, “Not just for ourselves, but for all the other mothers (and fathers) who come after us.”

I tell her about another friend who once asked in a panic, “Is it okay that I keep changing my mind? Taking jobs. Leaving them. I don’t know what I want. I can’t figure out how to manage it all.”

My friend nods knowingly.

“We should write a book about this!” I say.

We both laugh, accustomed to bouncing big ideas like this off of one another, in between conversations about our most pressing realities: homework and driver ed and emerging sexuality.

“Too bad one of us doesn’t have her PhD,” I say.

My friend shakes her head. Our parenting years have robbed us of the illusion of (and the inclination toward) expertise.

“We have to start by recognizing caregiving as a career,” I say. “There is so little understanding and appreciation of its dimensions, particularly after the early years.”

What follows is an extended back and forth about all the ways that parenting a teenager and even a young adult require careful attention and artistry. I tell my friend about an elderly mother that I met with my husband over the weekend. She came to town to help her son through his divorce. My husband was touched at this act of motherly devotion, but I felt something else–An awareness that this career never reaches a finish line.

My friend glances at the time on her computer. “I have to get to some errands before I pick up the kids.” We hug goodbye, and I turn back to my computer to outline the trajectory of the caregiving role.

The hours of the primary caregiver:

  • Newborn: 24-7
  • Infant: See above
  • Toddler: See above
  • Preschool age: Overtime
  • School age: Full time
  • Highschooler: Night shift
  • Young adult: Contractural

When I finish the list, I realize that I’m twenty minutes late to pick up my son from Driver’s Ed.

Later that evening, on a way to an event, I tell my husband: “I’m frustrated when others ask what I do. Everyone raises kids, but it’s what people do for a living that distinguishes them. It’s as if consciously raising two human beings is some small thing.”

Suddenly the enormity of my devotion occurs to me:

Two human beings.
TWO HUMAN BEINGS!

“I’m so proud of me,” I say. “I want a party and new pair of Birkenstocks.”

~
Addendum:
RESOURCES FOR UNDERSTANDING THE ENORMITY OF PRIMARY CAREGIVING ROLE

(all of the above from the audaciously insightful Penelope Trunk)

UPDATE, September 2016:
MY NEW Birks!

Full disclosure.
Splurged on a second pair!

(One for each son!)