and those who feel better than ever when expecting,
and those who deliver with ease.
There are those for whom wearing a baby night and day is just right,
and those who delight in the ever-shifting expressions of a toddler,
and those who are made whole by the emerging consciousness of the preschooler.
There are those who can manage the ins and outs of homework and lessons and birthday parties and playdates,
and those who know whether to lean in or pull back as hormones shift and stakes heighten,
and those who can pivot from manager to consultant providing just enough space and just enough support for young adults to emerge.
There are even those who go on to develop healthy, reciprocal friendships with grown offspring.
From Thanksgiving to the New Year, this Empty Nest of mine has been awakened in new and mysterious ways leaving me unable to place my own sweet spot (though I was once particularly fond of the preschool mind.)
And then they all departed, again–my oldest and his partner (until the next holiday perhaps), and my youngest on the 1:00 train for a few days in the city ahead of returning to school full time.
I wandered the empty house, and then lay down on the couch, absorbing the silence, until I found myself, like a teething baby, drooling.
I often wonder if I made the “right” choice. Perhaps if I had remained in a demanding career or at least made more money (both of these fit together nicely), I would be riddled with less self-doubt or at least less space to consider it.
While they were home, I left them all, in an ice storm no less, to meet up with a young friend who since we last met became a mother, and I found her in a kitchen soothing an 8-month-old baby girl who was cutting her first teeth.
“Teething,” I said, “That was my hardest time.”
I watched as my friend juggled cooking and setting the table and conversation while tending to her child—diapers, feeding, play, comfort—revealing a depth of connection between these two beings, as if it was always so.
It’s the absence of control, matched with the emotional impact, coupled with the unpredictability and absurd variability, that slays me, particularly now, when I have such little reference for my role and so little clarity of how to do and not overdo.
Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play?
As the sun sets on another day, on another month-long school vacation, and on the first half of my 50’s, I have forgotten who I am.
Sunrise, sunset, Sunrise, sunset Swiftly fly the years One season following another Laden with happiness and tears.
One night, after everyone went up to bed, I took to the stairs, tucking my head under the railing while playing the soundtrack from Fiddler on the Roof to an empty room.
What words of wisdom can I give them? How can I help to ease their way?
I looked out across the kitchen table to the French doors and recognized that new paths were emerging while the sweetness and burden of the path once shared necessarily fades…
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.