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.
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.
As our children grow, most of their changes occur imperceptibly. One moment you are gazing into their chubby, little cherub face and the next you are looking directly into the eyes of a slender-faced, high-cheekboned teenager and wondering what wicked sorcery changed them overnight. And while their adult appearance seems to develop in the proverbial eye blink, the transformation in their personalities as they mature from tantrum-tossing toddler into too-cool-for-school teenager seems to take forever. My sons both pitched fits in public places that I swore would last longer than the Cenozoic Era. I watched with grateful glee as the tantrums decreased in duration over the years, evolving from epic, hour-long fuss fests into eye-rolling disgust lasting two seconds from start to finish. It was marked forward progress and it was much easier to notice because it directly impacted the level of peace and quiet in my daily life. Over the years, I have become guardedly optimistic about my sons’ potential to become respectful, open-minded, kind, and decent adult humans because I have witnessed their emotional growth firsthand and been present to overhear other adults as they remarked on it too.
On Halloween evening last weekend, our oldest son did something that proved he is more mature than his meager fourteen years might assert. Right around 6:30 pm, as costumed children began serenading us with Trick-or-Treat calls from our front step, our sons finally decided to get their teenage acts together and get into costume for what Joe proclaimed would be his last year trick-or-treating. For the auspicious occasion, he had chosen a demented, shiny skeleton mask in his first-ever attempt to dress in a costume that could potentially unnerve small children. As he was donning his scary costume, however, there was a wardrobe malfunction with the mask that required last-minute triage with super glue. He put the mask on after the quick-fix solution and discovered the fumes from the not yet dried glue made his eyes water. Not good. We waited a few minutes for the glue to dry and he tried again. Still no go. Everyone else in the trick-or-treating party was ready to hit the road, but Joe’s costume was suddenly out of the question. I immediately apologized for not foreseeing the potential sticky situation in my instant glue fix, but he brushed it off without another thought.
In years past, our ADHD son would likely have in the same situation devolved into a weepy mess and declared the holiday a total loss. He might have thrown himself on his bed and cried in frustration. This year, though, was different. I was the one who was irked and disappointed about the worthless $25 mask that could not be worn. He was calm and collected. Reasoning that he was already dressed in full black, he decided he could easily transition his costume from scary death apparition to scary mime with some white face paint. (Mimes are a freakishly scary Halloween costume, you have to admit.) I dug around in the costume bucket only to discover there was no viable white makeup to use for his transformation. Dammit. Joe and I started brainstorming. I ran to the basement to my containers of old Halloween costumes and searched for something he could use in a pinch. The least feminine item I was able to turn up was a headband for a skunk costume. I brought it to him.
“What about this?” I asked, adding, “I also have a black cat headband, but the ears have a glittery, bright pink in them.”
“I can be a skunk,” he announced confidently and without the slightest hint of teenage embarrassment or disappointment.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I can probably figure out something better if you give me a few more minutes to dig around,” I explained.
“Nope. The skunk is good. I can be a skunk.”
We found some white felt fabric in my office and safety pinned a stripe down the back of his otherwise all black outfit. I pulled out a black eyeliner pencil and drew a skunk nose and whiskers on his face. He put on the headband and checked the mirror.
“I look a little bit like a girl,” he assessed, “but I don’t care. I’m not missing trick-or-treating. Luke and Anthony might make fun of me, but I can deal with it. I’ll just tell everyone I’m doing the stanky leg,” he said, giving a nod to Silento’s Watch Me song.
(Thanks to Joe, I spent the entire evening with the watch-me-whip-watch-me-nae-nae chorus running through my head. And now it is probably in yours. You’re welcome.)
I handed him a flannel pillowcase and he was off, taking on the mantle of leader of the pack with confident aplomb. We’ve spent years working with Joe, both explaining and demonstrating ways to transform lemons into lemonade and chicken shit into chicken salad when things did not go his way. While Luke has always been capable of adjusting quickly when things went awry, Joe has struggled for years, full of sulks and things-always-go-wrong-for-me woe and hours of perseveration. Each meltdown has brought with it an opportunity for growth, and we’ve watched it occur slowly. But this time was markedly different. This time there was zero meltdown. This time he pulled a page out of my fix-it-on-the-fly handbook and adapted to the unfortunate change in plan without a second thought. I’m not sure I have ever felt prouder than I did as I witnessed his determination to jump over this pothole on the greatest of all kid holidays. He did at fourteen something I was not able to accomplish until my mid forties. He made a conscious choice not to take himself so damned seriously. And he rocked it.
As for me, I am going to follow Joe’s example and continue to work at not taking myself quite as seriously. Also, I will never again hear that ridiculous Watch Me song without thinking about the way inspiration and strength can come from the oddest things…like the stanky leg.
Back to school time in our house, like many other homes, is marked by stress, uncertainty, and readjustment. Aside from the usual tension surrounding school re-entry, I have had the burden of wondering how our children would fare during another traditional school year and how their new teachers would adapt to their different learning needs and my requests for special accommodations for them. Honestly, I never know what to expect, and traditionally it has taken me some seriously positive self-talk to get through the first two weeks of school. (Well, self-talk and wine. Who are we kidding?)
My heightened level of personal anxiety surrounding the advent of the school year began the day Joe started Junior Kindergarten. That day, I walked him into his classroom as I had done in previous years to ease the apprehension of my nervous boy. I’d enrolled him in as many years of preschool as possible because I knew he would benefit from extra adjustment time. He was five then and beginning his third classroom experience. I was cautiously optimistic that upon meeting his teacher he would smile his shy little smile but remain quiet and be the sweet, deep-thinking little fellow he was at home. Instead, when his teacher Mrs. Smith approached him to introduce herself, Joe dropped to all fours and began to bark. I am not kidding. He was on all fours. Barking. To compound an already embarrassing situation, Joe had speech issues and his “woofs” were not woofs at all but were actually “wooks.” There he was, crawling around the floor in front of the other kids, wooking. It was awkward at best. The other parents looked at me sideways with bemused pity. The teacher, smiling politely, asked me what he was doing. I had to tell her that apparently he was pretending to be a dog and barking his own introduction, something he had never done before. At that point, I turned 50 shades of red, kissed my puppy on the head, wished Mrs. Smith well, and walked out. I cried most of the way home. And thus began my less than stellar experience with back to school. Sigh.
This year my back to school stress was compounded by the fact that they were starting at a new school. There was a whole new list of variables for me. New teachers and school staff I had not yet met. New classrooms. New pick-up and drop-off routines. New parents to meet. New procedures to learn. It was all way too much newness for introverted me. I went bravely forward with it, though, because Havern is a school for children with learning disabilities. For nearly a half a century they have been offering hope to parents like me with kids like Joe and Luke. If any school could offer the breakthrough chance our dyslexic sons need to get on track with learning, to achieve the way in which they are capable, and to at last feel smart despite their differences, Havern was it.
On the first day of school, both boys seemed surprisingly calm. I walked them to their classrooms and introduced them to their teachers. There were no barking dog incidents, so I left feeling fairly optimistic. When pick up time arrived, I stood on the lawn waiting for them to be dismissed to my care, praying that the day had gone well for them and that they were indeed committed to this change in their education. Joe ran out first and confidently announced that he had the “best school day ever.” Luke quickly followed and told me that his new school was “epic.” (I have no doubt this pronouncement was impacted by the knowledge that the school has a Lego Club.) I almost asked the principal to verify that my boys had truly been in school all day. Perhaps she could pinch me because this could not possibly be my reality. It was surreal.
I have spent most of the past six years running the gamut of emotions, vacillating between denial, anger, depression, anxiety, disappointment, frustration, and even bitterness about our sons’ developmental and learning issues. I’ve wondered why them and why me? I’ve felt lost, just as they have. Tonight, though, after attending Back to School night and talking with other parents and the boys’ teachers, after sitting in their classrooms and looking at their class schedules, I finally see the forest for the trees. Our boys are not broken, and they never have been. They just hadn’t found their place yet. Tonight my dreams for them came true. They’ve finally found a home.
I’ve lost my mind. It’s official. Prepare the rubber room. Put some extra fabric softener in when you wash my straightjacket. I’m ready to be institutionalized. It finally happened. Traditionally, the day before school starts has been the one day of the year I was guaranteed to be in a good mood. But, today, I was mopey. We went to the zoo to check our last to-do off our summer to-do list. I was depressed the entire time. Even the elephants couldn’t cheer me up, and they are my favorite zoo animal. That’s when I knew things were bad. Then it hit me. I’m actually sad that the summer is over and that the little buggers (who, incidentally, have been driving me crazy for the past two weeks with their non-stop bickering) are leaving me. Sniff.
No more sleeping in. No more schedule-less days. No more field trips. No more late nights. No more days at the pool. I’m back to volunteering, making lunches, chauffeuring, and early mornings. And, while all that is fine and good and part of my career as Mom, right now I’m sad because I am going to miss my little monkeys. The house is going to seem quiet. I’m not going to have anyone nearby with whom to share my flippant remarks, which means I’m going to be talking to myself a lot again. I never thought I’d see the day when the thought of a tranquil, silent house would vex my introverted soul. A mere couple weeks ago I was dancing in the back-to-school aisle at Target. Yet, today I’m mourning the end of summer and the loss of precious time with my awesome sons. I’m not sure what’s happening to me. Curiouser and curiouser.
I suppose that if there’s a silver lining here, it’s that the years as they’ve been growing older have been flying by at an ever increasing speed. That means that next summer should be here before I know it. Funny how time and the speed at which she travels is both a blessing and a curse.
This morning I took Luke shopping for school supplies. The entire time, I could not stop hearing Andy Williams singing It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Occasionally, while dropping a notebook or box of crayons into the cart, I would sing a few bars. Luke was not amused. I kept picturing that Staples commercial with the dad cruising through the back-to-school aisles gleefully with his shopping cart while his kids looked like they were being dragged to the gallows. That one just brings a smile to my heart. After we had all the supplies purchased, Luke and I went back to my car where the temperature gauge registered a balmy 86 degrees at 10:30 a.m. This ridiculous summer of hot, hot heat is starting to get to me. I continued to sing Christmas carols all the way home. Summer may be my favorite season, but this one has been rough. I’m ready to move on.
Just how much am I ready to move on? Tonight, I spent about an hour researching ski passes, ski lessons, and equipment rental for the 2012/2013 ski season. I really am dreaming of snow. You see, this is the year that Joe gets his free Colorado ski pass from the state. Yes. The brilliant and beautiful state of Colorado offers a free ski pass to all 5th grade students. Okay. Okay. Technically, it’s three free days at each of 21 ski resorts, but that’s still a lot of free skiing. I could not be more excited about this. Joe is not quite as thrilled as I am. You see, Joe is not fond of downhill skiing. At least, he thinks he’s not. His father and I contend that he simply hasn’t had the right ski experience yet. This year, we aim to change that. I mean, the kid loves snow, never gets cold, and can snowshoe or cross-country ski for hours. He’s ready. We’ve begun preparing him for the inevitable.
“Joe…this is the year you get your free ski pass,” I reminded him as I researched ski lessons.
“I don’t like skiing,” he whined.
“What don’t you like about it exactly?” I questioned.
“The going fast downhill on two little sticks. The riding up too high on the chairlift. The falling. The wiping out.”
“This year we’re going to get you ski lessons. You will go every Saturday for four weeks. By the end of those lessons, you’ll be good to go. Luke will take the same lessons so you won’t be alone,” I assured him.
“I don’t care. I don’t want to do downhill.”
“Joe…you know we do three things in this family. What are they?”
“Hike, bike, and ski,” he sighed. “Can’t I go for 2 out of 3?” he asked.
“You can,” I quipped, “right after you turn 15 and are old enough that we can leave you without a sitter for the day and go off skiing without you.”
He skulked off. See….it’s cooling off around here already. I can almost smell the snow.