The Transition Trip

I love seeing my sons together, even if it is via a Snap map

As a parent of a high school senior, the college search is often on my radar. After successfully launching Joe in person at his college of choice in January, I began to work with Luke on his search. To that end, back in March, I took Luke to get a feel for a Reed College in Portland, which at the time was his number one choice. Then, in June, we flew to the northeast because he wanted to visit Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. After that, I decided he needed to see some schools in the middle of the country, a little closer to home, so we visited three colleges in Minnesota. The schools on Luke’s list have largely stayed the same, but the order he has them ranked in has evolved several times. It’s been kind of exciting to see his process at work.

This weekend Luke is in Walla Walla, Washington, visiting Joe at Whitman College. Today he toured the campus and sat in on an information session. Initially, Luke had no desire to attend his brother’s school of choice because he was intent on finally setting himself apart from Joe. The boys have attended the same schools together since Luke started kindergarten, so I didn’t blame him for wanting to step out of his older brother’s shadow. Still, I couldn’t help but selfishly want them to end up at the same place again. They would still be a thousand miles from home, but they would be there together, at least for part of the time until Joe graduated. They could share a car and have family there for emotional support. It made sense to me, but it was never my choice to make so I decided to let it go and let the chips fall where they may.

Luke told me recently that Whitman had moved into the top spot for him. I think after doing a cost/benefit analysis of his situation, he realized that he would have time to make his own way as an upperclassman after his brother had graduated and gone on. And, in the meantime, he would have a support system at school, someone who could give him advice on professors and activities and dorms. He could start down his own path, make his own friends, but not be taking such a huge leap on living across the country alone. Joe could be a safety net for him as he branched out for the first time as an adult. Luke, for all his ideas and occasionally stubborn views about his future, usually lands squarely on the wisest choice.

Nothing is definite until the five schools Luke will apply to make their decisions, but I am solidly behind his selections and don’t think he could go wrong with any of them. Would I like it if he ended up with his brother in small town Walla Walla with its charming downtown, 140 local wineries, beautiful scenery, and pleasant weather? No. I would love it. I fell in love with Walla Walla two years ago when I toured Whitman with Joe the first time. But I will have to pull back my enthusiasm until the dust settles. It’s hard to be a parent as your kids transition into adulthood. What was once settled and routine and in your control gets upended. It’s your turn to go along for the ride. I keep wondering where we will end up.

For now, I will just be grateful that the two are together again tonight. All is right in my world. And probably in theirs too.

I’ll Carry My Own Wine, Thanks

Something occurred to me this morning. The purpose of this trek was to deliver Thing One to Washington to begin his first full year of college. Everything I’ve done the past twenty years led to these moments. And as much as I’ve enjoyed bringing Joe here and helping him get set up, one thing has finally sunk in. My work here is finished. Maybe not completely, as I’m sure soon enough he will be asking me to edit a paper or send him something he forgot. But I can’t pretend any longer that life as I have known it is the same. It’s not. I’ve spent the past twenty years laser focused on my children. Now it’s time to shift my focus. I imagine it’s like the day after the retirement party. You wake up and think to yourself, “Well, now what?”

The beauty of eastern Washington with her eye on the Blues

Joe and I had tentative plans to have dinner together today, but I woke up this morning with not one other thing on my agenda. I sat in my hotel room and took a deep breath. What the hell do I want to do? Not what do I have to do, but what do I want to do? I haven’t had many occasions to ask myself that for a long time. I decided that rather than sit in bed and feel sad and lonely, I had best get showered, do something with myself, and get some coffee. Seeking something new but still in my heart needing something that felt like the life I have known, I decided to drive out to Target in Richland because Richland is new to me but Target is my normal.

At Target, I wandered aimlessly to kill time. I knew Joe needed hangers and a small fan and I needed some water, so I took care of those things. I would pick an item up, thinking Joe could use it in his dorm room, and then I would remember that it’s not my job to decorate his room anymore and move on. I quickly realized that, although on most days Target can cheer me up, today was not going to be that kind of day.

I decided I needed to regroup. I bought myself a green tea from Starbucks and sat in my car thinking about what else I could do. I began researching a winery I had driven by on my way out to Richland. Going to a wine tasting solo sounded awkward, but I needed to get comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m starting over. Everything is going to feel weird for a while until it doesn’t anymore. Be brave. Be bold. Go big or go home. I booked a 2:15 tasting and went to grab some food. I ate lunch at a picnic table near the Columbia River and enjoyed the shade before heading back towards Walla Walla.

Nice day on the Columbia

I had driven past the L’Ecole No. 41 winery a few times on previous trips. I found my way up the stairs and into the main sales area and told them I had a reservation. I was seated on the back deck at a table with just one chair, which immediately made me feel at ease. Nothing can make you feel more obviously alone than being a single at a table meant for two. I made small talk with the server as he poured my wine. And then I was there alone, sipping delicious wine, enjoying the sunny day in eastern Washington, the wasps swirling around a tree and some children playing on an old seesaw on the grassy yard below. As each pour came and went, I started to relax a tiny bit more. I allowed myself to envision a life where I have fewer demands on my time and greater freedom to be conscious about how I choose to spend that time. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all?

I did eventually meet up with Joe to give him the last few items he needed, to see the finished dorm room, and to grab a bite to eat. We enjoyed Indian food from the same restaurant we ate takeout from when we arrived in Walla Walla in January. Joe told me about his past, solo 24 hours. He told me he nearly had trouble assembling the storage unit we bought for his room until he remembered his bike tool had a screwdriver he could use. He told me his new section mates seemed like a quiet group and he was glad. He thanked me for bringing the final items. I told him about my trip to Richland and the winery. I told him how an older gentleman (yes…older than me) asked if I needed help carrying my wine to my car. I complimented him on his dorm room. Before I knew it, we were discussing when to meet up in the morning for my departure.

Lovely downtown Walla Walla urging me Forward

I know this is going to be a process. I’m creating a new normal, but I can do it. It was a new normal when Joe came into the world weeks early and weighing only 5 pounds. I survived that and then doubled down and spent years doing a pretty good job at Mom. I bet if you give me a few years, I’ll be doing a pretty good job at Justine too.

Do I need help carrying my wine? Jesus, man. I raised two kickass sons and dropped one off at college yesterday. Can’t you see how goddamn strong I am? I’ll carry my own wine, thanks.

I bet this dog carries his own wine too

And In My Next Life…

I am going to take a break from my melancholy to say that, in my next life, I would like to come back as my son. This is not some sort of weird, Freaky Friday swap idea. I’m just saying that my son is currently living his best life. He would agree with me. Ask him. After a summer break when he flew out of town three times, climbed multiple 14ers, spent time with friends, logged hundreds of miles on his bike, and played a thousand games of corn hole, the kid moves to college where he his dorm room is a single with a full-size bed in a residence hall opened in 2018. His room also has a decent sized closet with an actual door and full-length mirror, a built-in desk/reading light on the wall, and a floor-to-ceiling window. And did I mention there is a small wall with built-in shelves too? My college dorm had none of this.

Basic sophomore digs at Whitman College

I knew the dorm was posh. It is directly across a lawn from the dorm Joe was in over the spring semester and right next to the dining hall, which was also built in 2018 and deserves its own post with its coffee house, sushi chefs, and wood-fired pizza oven. Joe had us watch a YouTube video about his hall before he headed back to school, so I was well aware what would await us when we walked in the doors with Joe’s belongings. Still, it was something else stepping inside the building.

Main floor hang out space complete with fireplace and grand piano

After this welcome, we ascended two flights of wooden stairs to reach the common area, which they call the “section lounge.” It has a full kitchen, a long table for sharing communal meals, and another seating area for casual meetings. Everyone has to to pass through the section lounge area before reaching their rooms, which facilitates conversation.

There are nine of these separate sections in this building, each with its own kitchen and lounge area. I look at this and I can imagine my son stumbling out of his room, pouring himself some cereal, and sitting down on one of the sofas and spilling Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It’s going to happen.

Oh…and the bathrooms. The bathrooms are behind the kitchen further down the center of the hall. There are four showers with changing area, shower stall, and locking door.

I think the look says, “Really, Mom?”

After we had moved everything out of the car, set up the bed and mini-fridge, and made a trip to Walmart for a couple last-minute items to spruce up his space, I took my leave so he could finish up himself. He likes setting up rooms and making them his own. I’m looking forward to the reveal tomorrow.

I am enjoying living vicariously through him. I’d like to come back as my son not just because he’s got cool dorm digs for this year. I’d like to come back as my son because he’s in a lot better place at 20 than I was, literally and figuratively. If I can’t come back as him, though, I hope he’ll keep living his best life because that is really all that matters to me.

Patching The Small Hole In My Heart

Car loaded and ready to go

Today was D Day. That is shorthand for Departure Day. Today was the day Joe and I began our trek back to Whitman College so he can begin his first full year. It’s a 16-plus hour drive that we break down into two travel days. Today we headed to Boise. It is my third time this year making this 1,100-mile trek. But I love road trips, and time with Thing 1 is at the top of my list of favorite things.

I won’t lie. I cried a little last night. It’s the weirdest sensation to be so happy for someone and excited to hear how their college experience and life unfolds and at the same time be sad for your loss of their daily presence. I could not be any prouder of or happier for Joe. And I am proud of any action I took that helped him achieve his goal of being college ready and getting accepted to a quality, respected institution of higher learning. But, I will miss him tons.

The other day, during another short pre-departure cry, I told my husband that sometimes parenting hurts so much that I think maybe it would have been easier if I’d never had children. But that is just silly because my sons have been the single greatest joy of my life. I would have missed out on all that love, laughter, and learning if I hadn’t been their mother. They are everything to me, and I would not take back one single moment of the life I have led because of them. Not even the ones that made me cry.

Today during the drive I recalled this story. When Joe was about 7, he had a plethora of Webkinz stuffies. One day he came to me with his stuffed rhinoceros. He pointed out a tiny hole in one of the seams on his furry, light blue body. He was visibly sad. I told him I could fix that small hole and he would be fine. Joe, reflecting on how the hole came about, said “I think I must have loved him too much.” As I was discussing this story with Joe and got weepy again. I told him that this is hard because I guess I love him too much. He told me it is all good and I don’t need to cry because he’s not really going anywhere.

This time, I guess, it was his turn to sew up a hole in the thing he loves.

In the olden days

Thought Experiments

Every night we take a walk with our thirteen year old border collie, Ruby. I like to think it’s the high point of her day. Often the walk is just Steve and I, but sometimes we can cajole the boys into coming along. Tonight we got to enjoy their banter. Luke was world building, designing a college. He calls these imaginings “thought experiments.” Joe was, of course, bickering with him about some of his ideas, and I had to jump in and tell Joe that he doesn’t get to tell Luke his ideas are misguided. I’ve been telling him that for as long as Luke has been his brother.

We often walk the same route. We look for the toads that appear after dark. Tonight we saw a tiny one and a big boy we decided to name Chonk. The moon was full and small clouds glided in front of it intermittently. At one point, the moon had a cloud handlebar mustache.

When the world is crazy, these walks are my zen. Ruby has done her best to keep us going out into the world, even and especially during a pandemic. For thirteen years, she has been our constant keeper. She reminds us how lucky we are to be a family, to have each other, to have someone looking out for us.

Times are changing, though. Joe goes back to college soon. Luke is applying for colleges now too. And, sadly, our beautiful puppy girl is nearing her unfair end. Our days on this earth are the same as the clouds floating over the moon tonight. They’re sailing by, indecipherable from one another, here and then gone.

I said these walks are the high point of Ruby’s day, but they’re actually the high point of mine. They remind me of all the good things still left after childhood’s end.

The Last First Day Of School

The big blue bear at the Denver Convention Center is one of my favorite sculptures in town

We went downtown tonight for the first time since Mother’s Day to take our rising high school senior to a college fair. It was at the convention center, and they staggered arrival times to keep the crowds down. Everyone was wearing masks. Still, a college fair is a college fair, and it was fun to watch Luke as he interacted with admissions personnel from five different small, liberal arts colleges. Luke has always been ready for this. He famously told us when he was seven that he was, and I quote, “Ready to find a wife, have some kids, and just get on with my life.” He is so ready to start his adventure. And I am almost ready to witness that amazing transformation. I’m a little shocked that we’ve made it to his senior year, but then I still can’t seem to fathom that I’m 53, so there’s that.

I spent part of today washing bedding for Joe to take to his dorm room. I am trying to help him get his head in the game about what he wants to bring with him because I don’t want to be shipping things to him that he should have brought on our thousand-mile voyage to his college. He’s excited about going back. He only had one semester of college last year, so this will be his first full year experience. The sophomore dorm at his school is brand new, though, and quite posh. They have nine section lounges, each with their own full kitchen. The third floor, where he will reside, has a glass-encased meeting room (a fishbowl), a huge room with game tables, and a balcony with a fire pit to make S’mores. He will get a single room with a full-size bed and built-in shelving. He’s already bought wall art and a small, smart projector so he can watch tv and play video games in his room. Now, if he can remember to go to class we’ll be in good shape.

All of this got me thinking about how back to school used to be for me and what it is now. It used to consist of buying school supplies and a couple new outfits for them, taking a photo on the first day, and then relishing the peace and quiet at home. Things have changed. Now I will drive Joe out to Washington while Steve stays home to get Luke settled into his senior experience. Steve is still not back in the office, so even when Joe is gone and Luke is at school for the day, I will not be alone at home. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s how to be flexible and adapt. So, I should be totally ready to deal with the chaos next year when both boys are heading off to college at the same time. I’ve been training for this.

Do I miss the days when I dropped them off together for the first day of school, filled with anticipation about the year ahead? Maybe a little. But I’m finding that each new stage is replete with its own excitement and challenges. College is a short four years, nothing like the first twelve years of schooling. I am certain that by the time I get this adjustment worked out and am functioning like a well-oiled machine, Luke will be graduating. They already told me I can’t take first-day-of-school photos of them, so I will just have to make sure to get in an extra hug before I send them off into their futures.

The only question that remains is what will I do with mine?

The Burger Brawl And Pickle Problem

We have two sons who were born three weeks less than two years apart. We have been fortunate. Our sons have been best buddies from Luke’s arrival. I don’t know how. People used to ask how often they fought. The answer was almost never. They like the many of the same things, but they are not alike in personality so they balance each other out. This is not to say that they don’t bicker, debate, tease, or torture one another. It’s just that it’s never been mean spirited. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They look out for each other. They love each other even when they are acting like jerks.

They are 20 and 18 now, which means they are legally grown. And yet their conversations often sound like the ones they’ve had forever. They love to argue about nothing. They have argued about nothing for as long as they’ve been brothers. Tonight in the car on the way home from In-n-Out, they were arguing about burger toppings. Luke, the purest, said the best burger was the basic one, just meat and bun. Joe’s burger choice, Luke said, was too complicated. Joe thought this stance was insane. A burger with pickles is NOT complicated. So, he began hazing Luke about a burger without pickles. The guys despise anything made with vinegar, but for some reason Joe’s vinegar aversion stops at pickles. Luke finds them disgusting. But, Joe has ADHD and that gives him a superhuman focus when he is invested. He was invested in arguing about pickles.

“What is wrong with pickles?” he prodded.

“I don’t want your vinegar cucumber chips,” Luke snapped.

And they were off. Bickering about nothing after a previous argument that was also about nothing…again.

Joe goes back in college in Washington in two weeks. Although I chided them in the car about their constant arguments about nothing, I will miss hearing them. Don’t tell my sons, but those arguments make my heart smile even as they make my mouth grumble. I think it’s because I know that no matter how old they get or how their lives change and grow, they will continue to get together, make each other laugh, drive us crazy, and squabble passionately about pointless things. That’s just what they do. It’s a gift.

I don’t know that Luke will ever like pickles, though. This argument might come up again.

Country Tunes, Rose Ceremonies, and Expectations

IMG_0921It’s Valentine’s Day, the one day of the year when expectations of all ilks band together to form a super group of disappointment. You might recognize some of their greatest Country hits.

  • How Could You Not Know
  • Lingerie…the Gift for You That’s Really For Me
  • Ended up at Chili’s in my Best Dress and Pearls
  • Don’t Give Me Chocolate and Complain that I’m Fat
  • I Paid For Lobster and Got Cold Fish
  • My Dog Loves Me More Than You Do
  • Stalled in the Friend Zone
  • Valentine’s Day Threesome – Me, Myself, and I
  • Sleeping on the Sofa Again

Traditionally, this has not been my favorite holiday because I’ve never been great with expectations. Based on something that happened last night with my son, however, I have evidence my attitude may be changing.

Him: “If I wanted to buy some flowers, what would be the best way to do that?”

Me: *silently processing* Flowers? What for? Oh shit. It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow. OMG. This may be the cutest thing he’s ever said. *squeal* Act cool. Don’t let on that he’s being adorable. And, for holy lizard’s sake, don’t be patronizing. Whatever you do, do not ask who they are for. Crap. Where will we find roses in the morning before school and how early will we have to get to the store? Maybe we should go tonight. Oh man. I don’t want to drive all over town tonight. If we go quickly, maybe I can still catch the men’s half-pipe finals. 

“We could hit Whole Foods after dinner if that sounds good,” I replied with my best game face, as if it were barely an issue. “Whole Foods usually has nice flowers.”

“Okay,” he said.

We geared up and drove the five minutes to the store and, being Mom and being something of an expert on expectations, I prepared him for multiple scenarios surrounding the endeavor. There could be no flowers left. There could be a million flower choices. The store might be inordinately busy. The flowers might be more expensive than he was thinking. We might have to go to a few different places. He might have to change his game plan.

He seemed not at all fazed by the prospects. He shared that some of his friends said he was crazy. Some expressed concern he would get hurt. Some said nothing because they had done something similar last year and were reserving judgment. I told him that if he was being honest about his intentions, there was no way to lose. If you act from a place of thoughtfulness without return expectation, you can’t go wrong. Giving should make you feel good, no matter where it leads. The act of giving selflessly is actually a gift for you too.

He was in luck. Whole Foods had dozens of buckets of roses. He had (quite charmingly) done his research about the meanings of rose colors and had decided against yellow. He and the recipient were already friends, so friendship roses seemed to express the obvious. He further knew that red roses were way beyond what would be proportionate to his feelings. He decided on light pink roses so she would know he admired and appreciated her. We inspected the pink rose bouquets to select the optimal bunch. I helped him pick out a small, blank card in which he would later write “Happy Valentine’s Day from your friend” to make sure she knew he simply wanted to do something nice to make her day more special. When we got home, he selected four flowers from the assortment and we put them into a vase.

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This morning he was nervous, not about the gift but about the managing of the gift. Where would he put the flowers until they saw each other? How much shade would his classmates give him? How awkward was his morning going to be? What had he gotten himself into? He had no idea what to expect. I told him that was a fair place to be and wished him godspeed.

I have spent most of my life sweating the constant, crushing, considerable heft of expectations. I was raised under them and unconsciously came to regard them as a weighted blanket, a comfortable and secure place from which to operate. Only recently have I examined them more closely and accepted their truths. Expecting too much from others or yourself only causes trouble. Expecting too little from yourself or others leaves your self-esteem vulnerable. Somewhere in the middle of that see saw, around the center at the pivot point, is the best place from which to ride life’s waves. I think I will find that sweet spot eventually. For now, I am enjoying the remainder of those pink roses we purchased last night, admiring and appreciating myself for getting closer to where I hope to be.

The Inchworm in the 200 Meter

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On your mark

Our oldest son, a high school freshman, joined the track team last month. For most people, having their child participate in an extra-curricular sport is no big deal. But our kids, while not being completely unusual (well, except for Joe’s inexplicable obsession with K-pop), have struggled with sports. We provided and paid plenty for opportunities in activities like swimming, baseball, soccer, and golf, but nothing has stuck. I decided to accept that they were geeks, and sports were not their passion.

As winter gave way to spring this year, Joe expressed an interest in joining either baseball or track. We had been trying since the fall to steer Joe toward running for two reasons. First, he has these crazy long legs (he’s five inches shorter than his father right now but has the same inseam). Second, baseball requires mad hand-eye coordination while running requires, well, legs. We felt track would be a much better fit as a first sport for him, but no kid wants to be told what to do by his lame parents so he had been resistant. When he told me he was set on baseball, I gently reminded him that track is a co-ed sport where the uniforms are tank tops and short shorts. Ding. Ding. Ding. Winner, winner, chicken dinner! We were suddenly track parents.

I had no idea what that entailed, honestly. If I had known that track was going to require Saturday morning alarms set for 6 a.m. and meets in distant towns that ran from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. in unpredictable and often downright cold spring weather, I might have given baseball a second thought. Still, a couple weeks ago we headed out for his first track meet and got to be spectators as our child participated in something.

Joe is our little inchworm. With his ADHD and his sensory issues and learning disabilities, he’s been a bit behind the pack from the beginning. His growth and development in most areas has been slow, steadily moving an inch at a time while other kids leapt forward in great strides. Joe approached the meet with the laissez-faire attitude and lack of competitive spirit he’s always shown knowing himself to be that inchworm. He ran his three events and finished last in each heat. We decided to count our blessings as they were. He was attending daily practices, taking responsibility for his uniform and gear, talking to different students, and committing to weekend events that encroached on his precious free time. Those are impressive feats for a teenager whose typical weekend events include marathon texting sessions, non-stop You Tube video viewing, and competitive carbohydrate consumption.

Toward the end of the meet, a fellow teammate backed out of the Men’s 200 Meter. The coach dropped Joe into the event in his stead. We had planned on cutting out a bit early, but bellied up to the fence to witness his last race. The starting gun popped and he was off. It looked like we were headed for another participation-ribbon run but, as he rounded the last turn, something clicked. Maybe he was tired of finishing last. Maybe he just wanted to be done more quickly. But, for whatever reason, he turned it on. We watched and cheered as he passed two other runners to finish 6th out of 8. It might not seem like much, but to me it was everything. I was teary eyed. He blew me away. I could not have been more proud if he had placed first in the fastest heat against the best runners at the event. It didn’t matter. He had progressed before my eyes, and it was beautiful.

After that race, I caught up with him. He was tired, but I had to ask. What was behind the change in that last 100 meters in his last race at the end of a long day? What was up with the afterburners? He told me he just decided to push himself and see what happened. He had his answer. His swagger had increased tenfold. He had found his motivation. Running with people is fun. Passing people every once in a while while doing it is more fun.

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Not in 8th anymore

Since that first meet, Joe has made continual improvements. His coaches have him working on his stride and pacing. He’s learning to use his upper body to add momentum. He’s using the starting blocks to his best advantage. He’s finished heats in second place, not eighth, and he’s done well enough to advance to more difficult heats where he is now finishing in the middle of the pack. My kid, who a few weeks ago told me he would finish out the season but didn’t think this was his thing, told me yesterday that he may do track and cross-country next year. I smiled inside but didn’t let on because, well, I wasn’t born yesterday and am not stupid.

Full disclosure. There have been times in Joe’s almost sixteen years when I wished he would hurry up and reach his stride. When would our inchworm start moving a little more quickly? I reasoned that at some point he would have to go at breakneck speed to catch up. Well, he’s running now, but he’s still an inchworm. He’s making incremental gains in his own time on his own schedule because an inchworm moves the only way he can, the way he does it best, slowly. He’ll never be a jackrabbit or a cheetah. It’s not his deal. I’ll never be able to speed Joe up to reach the milestones I had met by his age. It’s not happening. Instead, he’s teaching me to slow down, to be patient, and to trust that everything will work out as it should. I believe the world gives you what you need. I’ve spent most of my life running around without purpose in large circles and getting nowhere. It took an inchworm who runs track to show me how to gain ground with intention.

Wouldn’t Take Nothing

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Experiencing the Great Salt Lake

Back to school has changed me. When my sons were younger and full of ill-advised helpings of sugary treats with food coloring, I could not wait for the school year to start. Sure it would mean I’d have to wake up early, cart them across town in my SUV school bus, and go through the dreaded rigamarole of homework, but the house would be quiet all day. I would have time to myself again. I’d be getting my life back, jumpstarting my summer-neglected workouts and my writing, and revisiting my peaceful hours in SuperTarget wandering the aisles of things I didn’t really need but felt helplessly attracted to all the same. Lately, though, my mood about back to school has gone from Yippee to Oh crap.

I was perusing my news feed this morning and found myself buried in a wave of photos of moms jumping for joy (quite literally in some cases) at the prospect of divesting themselves from their offspring for six hours each day. I was that mom once, gleefully depositing my children at school before heading for the hills for the first transcendent hike of fall, feeling liberated at the prospect of rediscovering the me I had left behind when school let out in spring. So while I scrolled through the endless display of children in first-day-of-school photos this morning, I remembered all too well that joy of potential freedom. I just didn’t identify in quite the same way.

My sons start 7th and 9th grade next week. And, as enticing as the notions of getting our house and my life back on track are, I feel like the mom dreading dropping her child off at full-day kindergarten for the first time and acknowledging the impending loneliness. My buddies are leaving me. It’s an end-of-days feeling. I spent my summer staring wide eyed at my sons, floored by their minute-by-minute growth both in height and in maturity. They are the same kids who once left me for kindergarten, but they are so much more now. They are their own people. They are no longer mine. And it sucks. Well, it’s great and amazing and incredible and awesome and it still somehow sucks. Life is weird that way.

When I decided fifteen years ago to quit working my paying job and focus my plethora of natural energy on my infant son, I didn’t give much thought to where it would lead me. I only knew that I had a newborn who seemed hell bent on never sleeping or napping or giving up colic who would probably drive me to an early grave if I attempted to maintain a career and figure out his sleep schedule if he even had one. He didn’t. I had no idea where this journey would take me. Today, though, as I sit here contemplating back to school with a middle schooler and a high schooler, my chosen path makes sense. All the sleepless nights, endless testing, and struggles to figure out how to help them, all the missteps, flubs, and pitfalls of parenting, all the little milestones, the small steps forward, and the minuscule personal triumphs, they were all worth whatever sacrifice I made in savings, earnings potential, and career advancement. I’ve got the tears of gratitude to prove it.

How lucky am I to have had this experience, to have been able to stay with them, suffer alongside them, search for solutions with them, and monitor their progress? To have been able to catch them in the first few minutes after their school day and see their disappointments and triumphs before they faded? And how fortunate am I that I have had them for 13 and 15 years and been able to witness their transition into actual human people when some parents are tragically robbed of that opportunity? I have no idea what path I will take if I get to see Joe graduate from high school in four years. No clue what career I might find or how I might re-enter the workforce after a 20-year hiatus. No sense of who I might yet become. All I know today is that I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now. I don’t just love my children. I actually like them, even when they are acting like little creeps with skills I am positive they honed while watching me not have my best moments. I’m going to miss them in the coming weeks when I am once again wandering aimlessly through SuperTarget in a dress rehearsal for my life without them. Still, I wouldn’t take nothing.