In two weeks, my 18-year-old son is packing up his Smurf-blue Volvo and heading back to Arizona for college. All my best efforts at giving him the perfect childhood are done.
Opportunities to parent still lie ahead; I have witnessed my in-laws loving their 6 adult children through weddings, births, divorces, surgeries and home purchases. I have seen friends clutched with pain as they endure a grown child’s homelessness, and I have sat at a lunch table, illumined by radiating joy as a friend describes a first grandchild or a daughter’s acceptance into graduate school.
But the parenting my son will remember, the snapshots of childhood, the archetype of “family” we built of homemade meals, trips to the woods, faithful dogs and backrubs, including our failures—my short temper and bouts of depression, his dad’s inability to communicate with him once he turned 14, the sudden, destabilizing, cross-country move—that’s all set. Childhood’s fresco is dry.
In 2002, a poem I wrote placed third the Tucson Poetry Festival Statewide Contest. The theme of the contest was “Conservation,” and Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Snyder was the judge. I didn’t have Conservation in mind when I wrote the poem. My son was 4, my daughter was an infant and I wore my inadequacy as a mother like a scratchy, too-warm wool coat, pockets full of river rocks.
The poem is about my children, about childhood and presence, about the parenting we do when we aren’t doing anything. So much of love and spirituality is just that. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, 18th century Jesuit priest, wrote, “If we wish to be united to God we should value all the operations of his grace, but we should cling only to the duties of the present moment.” Caussade referred to the present moment as sacrament, an outward sign of the inward grace of God. All that we truly possess of life, love, happiness and the grace of God is here, now.
And now my son is leaving. I’ll fly out to help him set up his dorm room, fret if he has enough blankets, call to say goodnight from New York and text too often. For as long as I am alive, I will live on white bread and margarine if that’s what it takes to send him plane tickets home. But his day-to-day presence is peeling away, making my personal present moment one of rawness and sting.
My son’s last summer with us was, to use the parlance of youth, epic. In May, he embarked on a cross-country, Arizona—New York road trip with a buddy, saw Mount Rushmore and Niagara Falls, enjoyed a high-speed stretch of Wyoming highway a bit too much, survived a camping stove explosion, and, arriviving at a Motel 6 bone-tired after an 8-hour drive with no AC, was turned away for being under 21. Was turned away from three motels in one night.
Once in New York, he worked in parks all over Saratoga County as a trail builder, pulled the consequent deer ticks off his skin and read voraciously about Lyme disease. He trimmed trees, moved boulders and built signs.
Sunday, he went canoeing with his father. The tale they tell involves unforeseen rapids, a sudden reckoning with the laws of physics, and a two hour hike back to the car with bloody ankles. Two sawhorses now stand empty in the side yard, a memorial to the canoe that didn’t make it home.
May the essence of this summer be the swansong of our parenting: a sense of adventure, the life-affirming thrill of nature, the growth that comes with risk, struggle and survival.
We love you, Isaiah. We overthought it, but we were present. Come home soon.
Here’s that poem.
Warm air hums from the vents, outside the dog barks twice.
Our boy makes slow migrations across a periwinkle field of cotton sheets
and back again, while in her crib, our girl’s arms rest soft between the slats, plump fish half-surrendered in a heavy net.
It’s when they sleep that I remember—my nanny Harvey, drinking from a glittering bottle of Tab, or prodding the mean poodle out from under the bed with a broom,
and the neighbor, Colonel Dan, fat and old at the table past my bedtime, his thick fingers pinching paper into swans, and the lightning storm,
the water tower by the barn on fire, the horses tied in the yard while I watch from the porch not touching any metal, like my mother said.
A child’s sleep relaxes a mother’s defenses against childhood. Night silences my incantations, my But I’m cleaning the kitchen
chanted at my children to protect myself from them, fierce zealots of the present moment. Like scattered embers their lucid now burns random memories,
has already burned the timbre of my voice when I scream, or the days in September when no planes flew and the sky slept and I mothered them by saying,
Watch the emptiness, you will never see it again*,
their impressions unburdened by the overthinking—that will come later.
For now, they see the simple present tense: now’s empty sky, blue and white, now’s whole mother, feel her kisses and smell the oatmeal lotion on her skin.
For now, most nights sometime after 2 a.m. the floorboards creak
and bring him to us: first child, son, our boy, and he climbs in,
pilled fleece warmth and heaviness in the bed, his refuge a glimpse of my eternity. Warm air hums from the vents, outside the dog barks twice.