I saw the above passage in my Facebook feed yesterday and promptly copied and saved it because I love it when other people write my feelings succinctly and turn it into an inspirational post so I don’t have to.
Before having children, I heard myriad dark tales of the harrowing experience of raising teenagers. Having eons ago been a teenager myself, I recalled the endless battles with parents, the scramble to balance friends and boyfriends and homework and extracurriculars and part-time work and social activities, and the confusion surrounding figuring out who I was and what I was supposed to do in life. I remember that time as exhausting and exhilarating, a period of self-development precariously balanced with self-loathing.
When my sons, now 18 and 16, were toddlers, I could not wait for them to get older. I longed for a time when I could understand what they wanted and discover who they were. And, through the infinite magic of time that speeds up as we age, I arrived here more quickly than I ever imagined.
While my parents struggled with their teenagers, I’ve found mine to be 10% terror-inducing and 90% delightful. Letting my son drive off at 6 am with his brand-spanking new driver’s license to head to the mountains for a hike, well…that’s terror-inducing. But waking up the next day, pulling up Google Translate on my iPhone to start brushing up on my French for an upcoming trip and finding my sons have been doing the same, well…that’s delightful.
My sons have brought out both the best and the worst in me over the years since they arrived and made us a family. Fortunately, as I have aged, I have relaxed a bit, which has made experiencing my sons’ teenage years more filled with laughter than fraught with frustration. If you get out of your kids what you put into them, I must have given my all.
I dropped our boys off for summer camp high in the Colorado Rockies this past Monday. It was a first for all of us, their first time going away alone (although they did have each other) and our first time being home without them for a week. When I drove down the dirt road away from them, it was bittersweet. I was excited for their adventure but already aware of the hole their absence was creating in my life. For fourteen years, these two beings have comprised the entirety of my reason for living. I hardly recall who I am outside the mantle of motherhood. And it’s at times like these that I feel most vulnerable and exposed. Who the hell am I anyway?
I enjoyed an oddly silent, solo lunch and a peaceful ride home without constant chatter about Halo and Mario Kart. I stopped at the store and bought groceries for two, cooked a meal for grown ups without having to omit ingredients, and enjoyed a drink with dinner. Hubby and I slept uneasily that night in a house that was too damn quiet, as if we noticed the missing heartbeats of the two neighbors who usually reside in the next room. I spent most of my week cleaning like a woman desperate to reclaim her once spotless home. Over three days I made a sizable dent in the clutter and bit by bit the house began to look like no one lived in it. It was a hollow victory. The cleaner it got, the emptier I felt. And that’s when, for a split second, I pondered my loss, not having a career to fill my days and fulfill my life. To derail that train of thought to nowhere good, I popped the cap on a bottle of hard cider because, well, I don’t have a job and 2 pm is 5 pm somewhere, and I smiled for my good fortune.
Big changes are on our horizon. The boys will be heading to a new school in 2016, which means a move back to the city for us. While I am dying to escape the suburbs and the HOA and the insipid neighborhood banter I never felt comfortable around, there is melancholy in my soul as we prepare to sell the only home our little family has ever known. And directly behind the gate we will walk through as we move forward, the gate through which all the possibility and potential of the future exists, lies the burial plot of things we’re leaving behind…sandboxes, playgrounds, slip and slides, and snow forts. Saying goodbye is part of moving on, but I have always been better at hello.
It’s been a rough week for me as I cleaned house physically, mentally, and emotionally. I am glad to be leaving some things behind, happy to explore new options and reinvent myself. Some things I thought I could count on, though, have evaporated while I stood in disbelief, grasping as they morphed from liquid to gas before my eyes like water vanishing of a scorching, summer sidewalk. I am better and stronger for this trial experience of life, once again, without children. Steve and I have talked about cashing in on our house and using the money to travel more with our sons before they move on to their own life adventures without us. The past fourteen years have been a blur, and we want to eradicate any potential for a Cats in the Cradle ending in this family. I will miss the things that are no longer part of my life, but I am curious what I will concoct to fill the vacant spaces going forward.
We will claim our handsome, capable sons on Saturday and be grateful once again to have a disorganized house filled with bedlam. The time for permanent quiet is not long off now, and it’s approaching much more rapidly than I ever could have anticipated in June 2001 when Joe was born. But before it hits I think I will buy Luke that electric guitar he wants. I might buy that drum kit I have always wanted too and knock percussion lessons off my lifetime to-do list. If there’s one thing I have learned this week, it’s that silence leaves me way too much time to think. I should probably focus on doing things as noisily as possible from now on. Maybe I can get some pointers from our sons?
Now that our sons are older and more independent, one of my true summer joys is a day lounging at our favorite local pool, the small one with the reclining loungers, the water slide, and the vigilant lifeguards who shout “no running” at my kids so I don’t have to. Last week, the gods bestowed upon us an arguably perfect pool day. No menacing thunderheads hovered in the sky, the temperature was a pleasant and steady 83 degrees, and there was the lightest perceptible breeze, the kind that gently reminds you that sometimes all is right in your world. When mornings like that arrive, my day is set. Errands, appointments, laundry, and responsibility be damned. We’re pool bound. There is no other choice. Our fate is sealed.
After wolfing down the sub sandwiches we picked up from Jimmy John’s on the way over, we began our idyllic summer sabbatical. My goal: complete summer surrender. From under my mirrored sunglasses, I lazily watched our sons take ridiculous leaps (meant to be impressive but in the end only exhibiting typical teenage goofiness) off the diving board while the playlist of LCD Soundsystem in my earbuds kept my feet moving just enough to burn a few calories while I let the sun work its magic. Nothing could be better, I mused to myself, swept away in the glee of a few hours’ worth of unadulterated leisure in the middle of the work week.
That was when he stepped in front of me and everything changed. He must have been about seven, maybe eight, with sandy blonde hair. He stood out because, unlike the other children who had arrived in the same daycare group, he was alone in wearing street clothes and Crocs in place of brightly colored swim trunks and bare feet. A bold orange cast with blue tape, a nod to the Denver Broncos, held his broken arm firmly in place while he stood on the side of the pool watching other kids take acrobatic turns off the diving board. As I looked at him with a mother’s eyes, I found myself wishing there were casts that mended broken hearts as well as broken arms.
We are less than two weeks away from the start of the 2015-2016 school year here in Denver. All over the city parents are snapping up school supplies while siblings wage frustrated battles with each other in the waning days of summer break. My favorite season is slipping away, and each day closer to school is a heartless reminder of life out of the pool lounger and in the carpool lane. Today, though, I am thinking of that darling little boy with a cast who is probably looking forward to school this year for the first time ever, thinking about friends and structure and the chance to feel again like he belongs.
Our singular experiences comprise our personal tale, but in the end it’s our shared struggles that make our stories worth recounting.
“Our winters are very long here, very long and very monotonous. But we don’t complain about it downstairs, we’re shielded against the winter. Oh, spring does come eventually, and summer, and they last for a while, but now, looking back, spring and summer seem too short, as if they were not much more than a couple of days…” ~Franz Kafka
Parenting is an intriguing journey. When I think back on my life to a time before I was someone’s mother, it is barely recognizable. I feel I’ve lived an entirely new life since those days pre-children. I’ve come to realize that parenting is not unlike a 365-day trip around the sun through the seasons. And just as you turn the calendar on a new year and suddenly find December on the next leaf, the important job of parenting too passes in a blur.
When we were expecting our first child, the freewheeling fall days of our life as married couple floated off, crisp leaves gathering under our feet, and we braced for the brisk change parenthood would bring. We geared up. We prepared for rough weather. And when our sons arrived, we immediately found ourselves housebound in a snowstorm of diapers, feedings, and nap times. A trip to the grocery store alone was my sunny day. A date night was a beach vacation with umbrella drinks. Most of the time we were holed up at home, trying to dig out from under Thomas the Tank Engine, wooden blocks, and plush animals. We uncovered solace in movie evenings with Nemo and Mr. Incredible and Lightning McQueen, which were followed by family sleepover nights in our room where we would hunker down and take long winter’s naps together. Those were some of the best nights of sleep we got during this period in our lives, and good nights of sleep were few and far between back then. We were perpetually tired, surviving on caffeine in the morning and sugar in the afternoon, and trying to find time for ourselves when we could. Everyone tells you to cherish life with your little ones but, like living through a seemingly endless, difficult winter, that was easier said than done. Continually exhausted and struggling to figure out the dynamics of our new family, we prayed for a thaw.
Gradually the boys grew, and days seemed less bleak. Toddlerhood ended. Full on youth arrived with all its exuberance and light. We emerged from our hibernation and began to go places because, well, going places was easier. Gone were the bottles and sippy cups and diaper bags and extra changes of clothes for blowouts and Baby Bjorns and strollers. We were no longer bundled up and weighed down with paraphernalia. We marveled at the ease with which we traveled. We walked to the park as they raced ahead and sat uninterrupted while they cavorted. A garden’s worth of handmade, paper-flower bouquets sprang up, accompanied by colorful paintings and creative tales. They started school and we appreciated engaging with them as they discovered the little secrets of life we’d long since taken for granted. We introduced them more and more to things we loved. We grew as a family, figuring out who we were together and how life worked best. Sure…there were occasional squalls, and brief deluges reminded us we hadn’t reached summer yet, but I knew things were getting better when we stopped complaining as often about the weather. We breathed in the freedom and exhaled with peace.
The moment when spring ended and summer began wasn’t even distinguishable. One day we were praying for an extra fifteen minutes of sleep and the next we were waking up at 8:30 and wondering if the boys were dead. The boys began exploring their independence with sleepovers at friends’ homes and hours of Capture the Flag after dark and afternoons on their bikes at the park. Suddenly, we had something we hadn’t had in years. Quality time alone in our own home. This weekend, we had not one but two nights consecutive nights during which we got to be grown adults without responsibility for children. We weren’t even on vacation. We had lovely meals, conversation about topics other than Pokémon, and a rearview mirror glimpse of the winter years fading in the distance. We’re walking around in flip-flops with Mai Tais in our hands now compared to the days we experienced when the boys were toddlers, when we were buried under the daily tasks of wiping butts and spoon feeding. We’ve settled into this fairer weather and summer is in full swing.
With all this free time on my hands lately, though, it has begun to occur to me the added peace we’re enjoying in this warmer season heralds the earliest moments of the permanent quiet that lies ahead in our next season. The boys are growing older. They don’t hang out with us as often. They have their own interests. Their independence gives us our freedom but it also decreases our involvement in their lives as they begin to separate and form their own lives and identities. In the quiet over the past two nights, we’ve discussed how weird it’s going to be when we’re alone again. As slow as time seemed to be moving back in the early days is as quickly as it seems to be moving now. They’ll be gone before we know it.
And we now understand that this is why people tell you to enjoy your children while they’re young. As much as it sucks hearing it when you’re sleep-deprived, covered in baby puke, and dying for a minute alone in the bathroom, the universal truth of the eighteen years of parenting is that it flies by like seasons in a year. The parents who tell you to cherish the moments you’re wishing would pass a bit more quickly don’t mean any harm. They’re simply beyond the winter of their discontent and wishing they’d understood how quickly spring arrives with summer and fall nipping at its heels.
As the time ticked by this evening and I was watching the Colorado Avalanche lose game 6 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I knew that writing tonight would be damn near impossible. I was distracted and I could not think of a thing to say. I’d pretty much resolved to call it a night and put off writing until tomorrow when I came across this little Bunny Buddhism gem in my book:
The wise bunny knows there is no tomorrow, only a string of todays.
Well, crap. That’s a wrinkle in my procrastination plans.
I try to remind myself of life’s fleeting nature. I try not to take anything for granted. I get out of the car every morning at school drop off to give my boys a hug and a kiss. They hate it. On some days, they tear out of the car and I have to chase them across the lawn in front of the building to do it, catching them by their backpacks and kissing them on their heads in front of their teachers and friends and embarrassing the living hell out of them, but I make sure I am never in too much of a rush to miss the opportunity. I may only have today to show them how much I love them. It’s worth the full-scale sprint in my yoga pants in front of the carpool parents because you just never know. I live 6.5 miles from Columbine High School. My heart is engraved with unexpected loss.
I seriously doubt that overnight a full-scale invasion by a malevolent alien race will kill my chances for writing tomorrow. I also doubt that I will die quietly in my sleep (knock on wood), which would certainly render it more difficult for me to compose anything on WordPress tomorrow. (There might be a story idea in there, though, about zombie writers.) In all likelihood, there will be time for me to write later because I will wake up tomorrow, chase my kids down at school, and return home to my laptop refreshed and hopefully with something clever or at least vaguely interesting to say. But, just in case, I will put these words down now as an insurance policy because I understand that no one is guaranteed a tomorrow. If you spend too much time counting on future moments, you fritter away the ones that are happening now. There’s always time in the present. Recognize it’s there and make the most of it. Today is as good as it gets, people. Each day is a pearl on a string. If you’re lucky, one day you’ll have a magnificent strand.
Eight years. It took us eight years to get our oldest son to spend a day downhill skiing and walk away from it saying he was excited to do it again. I’m not sure what it was that made today the day that everything changed. It was quite cold, downright blizzard-like at times, and he’d spent eight years crafting excuses and explanations about why he despised the sport his father and I love. Seemed to me like a perfect day for him to continue his protestations against a sport he’d never even given a chance. Perhaps he simply got sick of fighting with us about it and realized that after eight years of dogged determination on our parts he was never going to win this battle. No matter. Today was the day everything changed. That’s all I need to know.
“Life rarely gives us what we want at the moment we consider appropriate.” -EM Forster
I think about this quote (from one of my favorite authors) quite often. So many things in my life haven’t gone according to my appointed schedule. Oddly enough, the Universe does not seem to give a pink patootie about my carefully laid plans. For each time things have gone awry, though, I’ve become a bit wiser. I’ve learned that what’s meant to be will be when the time is right. And about that timing? Well…that’s not up to me, nor is it my job to understand why things happen the way they do. My job is to accept that I have only a modicum of control over anything in my world. Sometimes even something simple, like what to have for lunch, is foiled by a random microwave failure or a too-hot slice of pizza that falls from my hands and lands cheese side down. True story.
Now, I suspected that my son would eventually learn to enjoy downhill skiing. The majority of children who learn to ski end up enjoying it. That part is a no-brainer. As for the timing? Well…it took a little longer than I hoped (eight freaking years longer), but I’m becoming hopeful that we might become an entire family of downhill skiers at some point. It could happen.
Sometimes you just have to back off your expectations and give time some time to work. Thinking you have control over anything, especially your children, is a huge mistake. The Universe conspires to ensure things go directly downhill the minute you think you’ve got it all in place and nailed down. But, if you patiently allow time unfold, let go of your demands, and have faith, at some point in your future the stars might align and what you want and what is will become the same and all will be right in your world…at least for a moment. Then your job is to notice it and enjoy it while it lasts.
I’ve been on a domestic binge of sorts this week. I’ve been trying new recipes and actually cleaning my house. Wait. That sounds worse than it should. I do cook for my family and clean my house. I’m simply not June Cleaver. Life is too short to waste it cleaning. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if we live in squalor. Most people who come here would report that the house is mostly picked up and neat. I clean bathrooms and the kitchen. Dishes are done several times a day. I vacuum regularly. Dusting I do less often because I despise it, but I still do it. What I don’t do on a regular basis is pick up in areas that are not my problem. This means the basement, which is merely a huge Lego storage room with a small area carved out for Wii and Xbox matches, and the boys’ rooms don’t get much attention from me. You know that old saying that cleaning the house while the kids still live there is like shoveling snow in a blizzard? I subscribe to that school of thought. I just close the doors, and it’s out-of-sight-out-of-mind for me. Let the snow pile up.
While looking for something in Luke’s room earlier in the week, though, I had to come to terms with the fact that it was time for an intervention. When a single shoe goes missing from a pair that was worn this very day, it’s time to take action. So, for the past two days, I’ve been gathering and redistributing Legos, locating missing glassware from the kitchen, and throwing out broken toys. Yesterday I attacked the basement. Today I cleaned the boys’ homework room and their bedroom. In Luke’s bunk, I found three books, a couple Lego magazines, an entire set of clothing (jeans, two t-shirts, underwear, and a pair of socks), assorted Lego pieces, and about 15 stuffed animals. Luke’s bed also had seven (yes, seven) blankets on it. Luke sleeps like a rat in its nest, curled into a little ball amongst things he has gathered.
As I was moving items and returning them to their rightful places, I kept discovering things long since lost…Joe’s rubber fish that he got out of the prize box at the dentist’s office when he was 2 and has treasured ever since, a ribbon from Joe’s entry in the regional science fair, and a couple stuffed animals previously owned by my grandmother. While stacking things neatly into a closet, on a top shelf I discovered a camcorder box for the old video camera we used when the boys were young. I pulled it down out of curiosity and lo-and-behold there were about 10 recorded video cassettes. Eureka!
I wanted to watch the videos so badly but the recorder was out of batteries and the charger was also missing in the chaos of our haphazardly organized home. I spent about an hour rummaging through every power cord hiding space to no avail. (As I was doing this, it occurred to me that we have at least twice the amount of crap we actually need or use. It’s not quite an episode of Hoarders…yet. There’s a whole other blog in there, I’m sure, if I could just dig through enough junk to find it.) I finally gave up for a while and then I remembered where it might be. I ran to my office, which is also a room with a regularly closed door, and there it was under the Christmas wrap that I still haven’t put away.
So, tonight after dinner, we sat and watched the videos as a family. The boys’ first few years are on those tapes. Birthdays and Christmases, Joe’s first trip to the beach, our trip to Alaska, Joe’s first time crawling, and Luke’s first smiles…all captured and now waiting to become digital media. There we found our beloved dogs, Buddy and Machiah, who now wait for us on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge. There is a snippet of video of my grandmother holding an infant Luke, a precious moment I was so grateful to relive and that made Luke tear up. And, even as sobering as it was to hear my youngest tell me repeatedly how young I look in the videos, I loved every minute we spent tonight showing our boys their infant and toddler selves, creating a new memory of the time Mom found all the videos.
It got me to thinking about the transitory nature of life on Earth and how time truly does fly. Our sons are growing up too quickly. We originally put the video camera down so we would spend more time living in the moment than watching it on a tiny screen. I don’t regret that decision, but it wouldn’t hurt for us to record a few memories of our family these days for posterity. Watching your life backwards on video certainly opens up some perspective. But, the greatest lesson I took away from today is that it might be a good idea for me to clean the house more often. If it’s true that cleanliness is next to godliness, I may be screwed.
We don’t have many family traditions. With our families so close by, we usually spend the holidays jumping from house to house to join someone else’s tradition (and the months before the holidays bickering over which family gets which holiday and who had it last year). We haven’t had much opportunity to establish our own family traditions for our family of four. At first, when the boys were young, I really didn’t care. Now that the precious years when they believe in Santa are over, I’m starting to wish we had some things in place.
One tradition we have managed to establish is our annual trip to Anderson Farms to trek through the corn maze and pick our pumpkins. We have done this every year since Joe was born, so this will be our 11th consecutive trip there. That first year, Joe was all of four months old. I’ll never forget that day. It was warm, and we had Joe in the Baby Bjorn as we trekked through the corn. We had to stop at one point and change his diaper in the middle of the maze. When we’d walked as far as we could go, we set him into a decorative wheelbarrow full of pumpkins and snapped some photos. He was chubby and bald headed then. If he’d been orange, he would have blended right in with the other smooth, round, orange things. We’ve been there when it’s been 80 degrees and we’ve been there when we’ve been out in the pumpkin patch as it began snowing. We’ve gone with friends and family, and we’ve gone through it just the four of us. One year it was ridiculously muddy after a significant rain and Joe slipped and fell into an enormous mud puddle, much to my dismay since I was hoping to capture a decent family photo. At least it was memorable. Last year we rushed through the maze in advance of a windstorm and were nearly blown back to our car and had to cut the visit short.
It’s not an inexpensive day. We’ve never gotten out of there for under $80 (including admission, lunch, and pumpkins), but it’s so worth it. Some things you do regardless of the cost because they mean that much. This is one of those things. So, this Saturday we’ll be up with the roosters. We’ll hit Starbucks and head to Anderson Farms by its 9 a.m. opening time. Looks like good weather, so we should be peeling off layers as we warm up during our maze hike. Our goal this year is to get all the punches on the maze punch card. We haven’t been able to accomplish that feat with the boys yet, but I have a feeling this is our year.
As the boys get older, these trips are the things I treasure most. I can look back through photos and watch the cornstalks appear to grow shorter as our boys grow taller. It’s magic. Now we just need to establish a couple other family traditions so we can have them in place for a few years before the boys move out. When you have young children, people always tell you to “enjoy it while you can because it will be gone before you know it.” That saying is so irksome at the point when you’re exhausted and up to your elbows in diaper cream and baby wipes and can’t wait to move to the next phase. Sadly, though, it is true. Mine are only 9 and 11, and it breaks my heart when I think of how true it is. Your time with your children passes in the blink of an eye. The trick is not to blink. And so I begin my staring contest with time.