With our oldest, 22, home for the long break (for the first time in years), the house is once again, and even more fully, tipped toward youth, toward late nights of conversation, music-making, meal-making, movie streaming, not to mention heavy footsteps up and down the stairs outside my bedroom door (my bed vibrating like a drum) and something else–door latches (like gunshot) ever so charming when we first built the house and little hands had no need of closed doors.
Thus despite the luxury of vacation, I am walking around with deepening circles under my eyes, not only from riding youth’s current well past my bedtime, and from the gap between my sleep and theirs, but also from waking in the middle of the night–to silence–to a house full of breathing bodies–who once shared the same bed–and then waking again, long before dawn, for no reason at all, unable to do anything but rise in the dark, seeking light.
Sleep deprivation is my Achilles heel.
My glass half-empty.
Trees laden with ice are transformed from beauties to omens, particularly if my sons are on the road; while the harsh, dry cold, echoes in my aging bones, and the sunless days accentuate my fear of all the ways the world is ending.
I am newly menopausal. Does that explain the fear and the ugliness creeping in–a kind I haven’t felt since I lost the babies and looked upon pregnant women in the same way—resenting them like I find myself resenting youth–for all the ways life seems infinitely stretched ahead of them–while mine is doomed to end–and something else–my house now full, in another week, will empty, eventually completely, and don’t I resent that too–the way I gave so much–my entire body, my career, all sense of a separate self–only to be abandoned, even while the work I do in the world necessitates more and more of just that.
Which is to say that after a dozen days, I’ve adapted! Last night, I didn’t wake at all, and not only that, when I did wake, the jeweled promise of a new day was pulsing through the trees.
Let them have their youth, sleeping away perfectly bright mornings, and let them have their long lives ahead of them, so full of that which I couldn’t bear to hold again; while I have the ripening pleasure of turning toward the simplicity of getting to know—just me–again.
“I think I might be dead soon,” I said, as my sons tucked me into bed last night.
“WHY?” they asked in unison, surprisingly alarmed at the passing of one who seems so irrelevant to them except as an institution of familiarity and return. (I am jealous as a mother in ways I never recall as a girlfriend.)
“Because look around,” I said, pointing to my baby blankets in the tiny rocking chair that belonged to me as a girl, and then to the rug and the comforter and the curtains and my favorite sweater. “Everything around me has begun to match the blankets into which I was born.”
They smile, simultaneously. “You’re not dying,” the oldest said.
“You’re being born again,” said the youngest, “As a crone.”
I smile then too, recalling the framed print of a raven that he placed under the tree.
“It’s the symbol of the Crone!” he said, “I researched it.”
His older brother presented me with a pair of regal earrings in silver and amethyst and moonstone. He leaves in a week for Istanbul. Toward a new love.
And now I recall another surprising ugliness I felt, toward him, when he first returned home from college a handful of years ago. I hadn’t known I felt it until my therapist pointed it out. I hadn’t believed it at first, couldn’t imagine it possible, especially since I had given my life to provide that which was lost to me, and especially how astoundingly grateful I was that he could spread his wings with the promise of a home upon which he could return.
But there it was. I resented my own child for having that which I gave him because I hadn’t had it myself.
“It is my firm conviction that human nature is essentially compassionate and gentle,” writes the Dalai Lama. “Anger, violence, and aggression may arise, but on a secondary or more superficial level; in a sense, they arise when we are frustrated in our efforts to achieve love and affection.”
I withhold love in fear of losing it and I create barriers against love to protect myself from the inevitable loss of everything I hold dear, including the precious gift of my own life.
So there you have it. This is what a full night sleep brings. Take it or leave it.
I’m not sure if it’s the hormones or the daily meditation practice or the surrender that comes with radical aging, but apparently, I’ve been assigned this New Year’s Resolution:
“Weep without restraint.”
I once went 4 years without a single tear–all the way through adolescence; and as a mother, my boys could count the times they saw me cry.
On this wintry day, I wake as I often do–migraine-y; only at 14 below, the pain doesn’t ease with rising & hydrating & showering.
Additionally, the departure of my first born is imminent. He only lives a few hours away this year (unlike the semester in Central America or the one across Europe or the season at the shore), but he is returning to school via Istanbul–to meet her family.
And more than that, and we shouldn’t have done it, but we’ve grown attached to him again, which is to say he arrived the week before Solstice and has been here ever since, all the way through to the Epiphany, so unlike previous years, when he was barely home at all for the holidays, let alone for more than a weekend in any season.
While he scurried around the house packing up, I felt my resistance shape like a barge inside me, and so I threw myself into cooking, just in case he was still around for lunch (and just so I wouldn’t flutter around him or re-arrange his room or decide we needed to relocate.)
Not only homemade spaghetti sauce (with Italian opera playing in the background) but a deep dish turkey pot pie, all served in my grandmother’s china.
He looks like his grandmother. He is dark-skinned like her. Wise. (Once at the height of summer, I cooked my mother’s Turkey soup to bear the ache of missing her.)
I dropped three different lids today while I prepared the feast that no one planned to eat, and he tripped up two sets of stairs while packing, and his younger brother dropped an entire tray of silverware on the dishwasher rack, (cracking a piece of my grandmother’s china) while their father had to be sent to his room to meditate for fear he would implode with his silent suffering.
They just left for the airport. All three of my men. Well, sort of. There are a few last minute stops and an overnight at a friend’s place outside of Boston for the one who is flying.
Tomorrow, my husband and our 17-year-old–will return to the high school; and then this house on this hill in the middle of the woods will be all mine again.
No doubt, I will do what I did when our son first went off to college: step into his room and steep in the absence of him, confounded by the depth and breadth of motherhood within the constant tugging of selfhood (or is self now occupied within mother?)
“Your life has blessed mine,” I told him as we embraced in the kitchen after he washed the lunch pots.
I kissed this bristly man, my baby, on both cheeks, and even on his forehead, suddenly communing with the 4 year-old boy whose self was so intertwined with mine, instead of this 22 year-old man whose life continues to twine elsewhere, across oceans and continents, as if we hadn’t shared the same body and breath.
I am learning what it is to love. It is a wave. A tide. A flood. A desert.An oasis. A fresh, pulsing spring.
At best, I am reed like. Moving toward and away. Loving myself and this vacancy even as I weep, especially as I weep, keeping my soul moist, my heart resilient, and my life ready to expand or contract at any moment.
Lately, my sons have refused invitations or eagerly accepted them but then not followed through, while simultaneously (along with their father) they make increasingly unconscious demands on my time and energy; so that yesterday, I found myself walking to the pond, feeling sorry for myself, absent of the sweet company I so desired/deserved; and these thoughts continued with me down the road, across the brook, up the hill and down the path through the woods to the water’s grassy edge, where they slipped away with asana under the morning sun, until I found myself supine on the dock in a gentle spinal twist, looking up at the needles of a tall pine with whom I’ve communed for so many years–through so many seasons of my life–and hers–ice storms and snow storms and early springs and fair autumns (skipping high summer when the campers are here)–And in that moment I felt the steady friendship of her branches extended toward me and the strength of her deep roots sustaining our connection, and I realized how I would never be alone, not really, even when both boys are gone; and I thought about how often men forsake not only the women in their lives, but the earth, and how that brings women and the earth closer together, and aren’t we better for it; and then, something else:
to be embodied. together. in the water. in the sun. in the shade. on a blanket. their skin. his chestnut eyes. his ocean blues. my babies grown. their parents greyed. this family. once forever. now moments. like this. as deep as all of us in the same bed. didn’t he twirl my hair as we nursed in the blue chair. didn’t he cry to sleep in the stars & moon sling against his father’s chest. i must take a photo! but no. i can’t bear to capture that which is only now. this breath. my head. his chest.
As a young woman, I steered away from any young man interested in medicine (and by steer away, I mean–a sharp & immediate U-Turn!)
But my son.
And so, I bow again to the legacy of his great-great-great grandfather (Community Health Officer), great-great grandparents (Doctor & Nurse), great grandfather (Surgeon), grandparents (Surgeon & Nurse), aunt (Doula), and second & first cousins (Nurses & Researchers & MD & Body workers), as I bow to him, with pride.
Trigger warning (for mothers of young ones): After growing inside your body, and nursing at your breast, and comforting himself on your lap, and later on your shoulder, there will come a day, when your child, will live, somewhere else. And he’ll open the door, eager to share his new home, and you’ll weep, behind your sunglasses, because it makes no sense to your heart that he is grown (and flown.)
If I was a Lioness,
I would pick him up
by the neck,
and nuzzle his face,
and lick him all over,
and tumble with him in the grass,
and lay on my back so that he could rest his head on my breast in sweet
surrender. But I am human, and we withhold such
devotion, and so I kiss his cheek too many times, and sidle up too
close on the couch, and hold his hand for an entire
block, almost. But my thirst is unquenchable–flesh
of my flesh, bone of my bone, heart of my heart, this
man. this man. this man? So that when we
part, my favorite drink tastes sour, my salad wilted, the crepe in my mouth, a weight, not a pleasure; the sun
barren, the water grey, the sky
hopeless, even above Lake Champlain, even the chocolate
too bitter with the certain defeat of
Mother. I was 13
when my breasts began to
ache, and home alone on a Sunday
afternoon, watched Born
Free on the colored television in the living room, and released all the
tears held inside, not just mine, but belonging to time–mothers,
lovers, reunions–like the one today, which left me with a belly of grief, which instead of swallowing like I often do, I released, with weeping, all the way to
Skinny Pancake, but not before a small Vietnamese woman, who lives in Montreal, rose from Bernie’s park where she was meditating with dozens of others dressed in bright yellow t-shirts–stood up and approached me to share the blessings and atrocities suffered by the practitioners of Falon Gong in China–hearts extracted and sold–and I lifted my sunglasses off my face, and we embraced, eyes shining, grateful for our connection and our capacity to know and share pain.
We pull away from the parking lot, and my heart folds over on itself–an abandoned weight in my chest–like a lump of bread lodged in a mourner’s throat.
“Did you want him to live with you forever?!” I say to myself.
(I didn’t. I don’t.)
Even so, I can’t hold my husband’s hand or look at him in the eyes 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, with his homework, and I’m thankful he’s still there, 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 separated me from the baby inside.
By the time Lloyd was a month old, I understood that this love story couldn’t have a happy ending.
Fortunately, a lot happens between birth and adulthood so the separation is more complex than a new mother might imagine with a babe suckling in her arms.
“Stop thinking about traveling,” Lloyd says, in his new (unbidden) role as our life consultant. “Finish those projects. Build that deck and patio. Landscape!”
I chuckle, bristling at his critique. “It’s not a diversion of funds, but a lack of them,” I say.
He smiles. “You and dad are going to be able to do so much when we’re both out of the house. You’ll probably finish your book in 5 months.”
I smile, and let the fantasy of uninterrupted focus glide over me, like a swig of brandy after a long ski. But I can’t think about that now. Aidan has another two years of high school (2 years!), and then there’s college, and then this: What is this? Who am I to this 21 year old?
“You and Aidan are my patio and my books,” I say. “Raising kind, strong, considerate men like you means more to me than a patio or a book.” 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, his father and his brother were much more excited about seeing him than I was.
Until we pull up toward the curb at Skinny Pancake.
“Do you mind if I jump out first?” I ask my husband, before he navigates into the parking spot.
Aidan chimes in: “Can I jump out too!”
We both open our car doors.
I close mine.
He closes his.
Despite his fierce heart (or because of it) he capitulates.
“Thank you!” I yell back, as I scramble over the snow bank, and look out at Lake Champlain, before turning toward Skinny Pancake, only before I turn, I saw a man, watching, waiting, legs out outstretched.
He crosses the street and we embrace.
“You must be so cold,” I say, “Didn’t you want to wait inside? I’m sorry we’re so late. We stopped at King Arthur, just for coffees, and then Aidan insisted on buying 8 boxes of baking mixes. Then we had to stop again to pee. Don’t you have a hat?”
“I’m fine,” Lloyd says, and gently brushes my hands from his ears.
We crowd inside the restaurant, joining the herd of breath in line at the counter.
“Do you want to go somewhere else?” he asks.
“We’re already here,” I say, sensing the first note of tension that always arises when time and food are involved with this particular child.
We look up at the menu board. The herd inches forward. Aidan joins us, and then Casey. The boys begin a banter that has no need of parents.
“It’s sad, right,” I say to my husband.
“It’s nice though, right,” he counters, unwilling to plunge into grief so soon.
Lloyd and Aidan continue talking for a good 10 minutes, and then just before we make it to the counter, Aidan scrambles 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, knowing that the rest of the morning will be spent in Connect Four competition between them (a game they’ve been playing here ever since Lloyd’s freshman year.)
Lloyd obliges, and shimmies in beside me, and I scooch closer to him, until our thighs touch, and my left arm winds around his right, and my lips press into his bristly, but forever familiar cheek, or onto his neck or shoulder.
“Is this too much? Am I too close?”
(I don’t care.)
Ever since he 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 extended summer at 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, Lloyd and I would listen to NPR, and depending on whether we got out of the house early or late, we’d take in the news before (or after) our favorite part of the morning: The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor (who I finally took the boys to see last summer); and in between the news and the almanac, we’d talk about trucks (if we saw one), especially backhoes and front loaders and excavators (even though one of us was secretly had no curiosity in trucks; something I finally confessed to Lloyd, a year later, in the library, because I just couldn’t read another book about them. He was 5.)
As mothers and first-borns often do, Lloyd and I shared a lifetime before the birth of his brother; and now we’ve come to this: 48 hours together at a time, spread months apart, over the course of an entire year; and this visit, half of that. Which I did count, but not until we said goodbye.
The original plan was that Casey and I would make a day trip up to Burlington to spend the day with Lloyd between classes and restaurant shifts. But his schedule kept shifting. “Wednesday is good,” he said. “No, Monday wold be better.” And then once the plans were set: “Actually Tuesday would be best.”
Finally, 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 EMT class and stayed over until Wednesday before his Auto Mechanics class.
I hadn’t planned on an overnight, and wasn’t eager for the effort or the cost as I’d already been away four times in the past month, but sensing the opening, I made a suggestion: “If I booked a hotel room, would you stay with us,” and when he balked, I later messaged him: “I’ve booked a place on the side of town near TJ Maxx,” knowing that it would be hard for him to resist such a lure as his adolescent mecca–which he insisted on locating on every trip out of our mountain town throughout his high school years, including our week touring Acadia National Park.
“I also want to take you grocery shopping,” I said, “We could do Trader Joes.”
Feeding an adult child or filling his refrigerator is one of remaining maternal pleasures. Last year when Lloyd 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 that I noticed, beyond the contrast of our wintry New England dwelling and his equatorial one–the 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 said, with the desperation of a nursing mother separated from her babe.
“I am,” he said, though I didn’t believe him.
“Are you sure?” I pressed. “You lips are so dry.”
And just then, right in front of me, he lifted a glass of water to his lips and swallowed.
I think of it often.
A year earlier we were on our knees in the kitchen on the morning he would return to school after the long winter break. It had been a rich time of reconnecting until the last week when he regressed into an earlier incarnation of himself, and I met him there, unable to make it anything but personal.
Lloyd came bounding down the stairs sooner than I expected and discovered me sorting though 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 grabbed the items I had carefully sorted and tossed them back into the large 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 woman, a 19 year old man, 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 Lloyd must have seen 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, or where the kettle should go.
Lloyd let go.
I’m two years wiser now, and so is he, and late on Tuesday night at the hotel, just as the rest of us were getting into bed, he announces that he os going to go do some laundry in the coin-operated machines, and that he’ll go to the gym while he’s waiting.
He returns before midnight, and I easily fall back to sleep with an appreciation of his growing awareness of doors and lights and toilets. An hour later, however, I am woken again when he hollers 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.
I wince, wondering how a mother is supposed to respond to the suffering of a 21 year old, but then I settle back into sleep with the sweet awareness of his presence– beside me–in the next bed–the four of us breathing together–as we had for so many years–and might never again.
Long before dawn, I wake again, with sweat rising between my breasts and in the crook of my elbows and behind my knees–a reminder that these mothering years are soon to be swept away–like the castles we built as a family in the sand.
Soon after, I wake yet again, to a stronger sensation, something I’d never quite experienced before–the pounding of my heart–so insistent–that it feels like a knock on a door.
I put my hand over it, fearing my heart would leap out of my chest; and just as quickly, it stopped, as if I’d had dreamed the whole thing; and I made a mental note to ask my doctor about increasing (or decreasing) my progesterone cream dosing.
The next morning we showered and ate and shopped some more, and then I pressed for some time together beside the water.
After a short stroll, we headed down to a beach, and the guys built rock sculptures as they have for a lifetime, and I took photos of sunlight and the lake that I’ve come to know and love over the years since Lloyd has been in Burlington.
I’ve spent many a winter week on Lake Champlain, writing, in a sweet house-sitting gig with a cat named Clyde. One winter (the winter of the tea kettle tug of war), I walked across this water, just past the Marina where Lloyd waits tables in the summer.
“It hasn’t frozen at all this year,” he tells me, and I feel sad and concerned to hear this, but also 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 says, which leaves me equally wondering, because we both share a fear of death in frozen waters, and because as an infant, his small, tender sinuses, often blocked, made him gasp for air on breezy days; but now he claims that he loves the feel of the wind on his face on open water.
“Are we becoming one of those families,” Lloyd 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.
This has felt like a shedding of late; molting comes to mind. “Molt, molt,” I say to myself, each time I hold on too tightly.
“It’s time to go,” I say, knowing that it could take at least ten minutes to get across town to the chiropractor appointment that Lloyd surprisingly (and not surprisingly) scheduled in our last hour together.
“Couldn’t you have picked another day?” I asked when he first told us about it; but now, I only say: “I want my goodbye with you, here, in the sun, instead of rushed, in an office parking lot.”
Lloyd and I embrace beside the water and then release, and re-embrace, lingering longer, before we walk up from the beach toward the road where Casey is waiting with the car.
We arrive across town with plenty of time for more goodbyes, but I stay in the car because I’ve already had mine; and still, Lloyd leans forward, and embraces me, not once, but twice (or was it three times), before he gets out with his things.
He stands for a long while beside the trunk with his father and brother, but I don’t look, until Casey and Aidan are back inside the car, and then I watch him cross the parking lot, and turn to wave, and we all watch as he turns back one more time, to wave yet again, before fading around a corner.
We sit and breathe. 3 bodies. A vacant seat. A return home. Without him.
“Ready?” my husband asks, and when I nod, he backs up the car, and pulls past the building, where to our surprise, we find Lloyd waiting to wave to us one more time; seeming more like the little boy I drove over the mountain to the preschool instead of the one who lives here without me.
Before turning onto the road, I watch Lloyd step up onto the porch, and turn yet again, with another wave; and just when my heart can’t bear any more, he enters the building, and I wave to the window, but he isn’t there.