Kids grow up so fast; if only we could hang on to them just a little bit longer. Managing Editor Janine Pumilia reflects on the inevitable as her oldest child graduates from college.
“Never underestimate the power of denial.” – American Beauty, 1999
As I lounged in my bubble bath on the Friday before Mother’s Day, my subconscious mind noticed that a spectre was in the room, tapping me on the shoulder. It was easy to ignore, because my overstuffed mind was processing a cacophony of very important details and deadlines, as usual. Like a good secretary, my cranial filing system screens out ideas that threaten the efficient accomplishment of today’s “to do” list.
To some degree, we all screen out the extraneous. Trouble is, some things we hide from are not really so extraneous – like the sense of impending loss one feels as the nest empties. Unchecked, failure to confront such feelings may lead to depression, sickness, addiction, insomnia or – in my case – a compulsion to watch both seasons of Downton Abbey back-to-back.
In a technique perfected by Congress, some people manage to push rascally thoughts down the road year by year, even decade by decade, until one day they spill out to a stranger, bartender or publisher of tell-all memoirs.
Me? I work mine out while soaking in the bathtub.
On this glorious May day, perhaps because sunshine and lilac perfume spilled through the windows, I allowed my mind to wander from its daily checklist. That’s when the spectre cornered me.
Turns out it was no phantom. Rather, it was son Blake’s graduation robe, shipped to our house from his university, hung in the steamy bathroom to un-wrinkle. Graduation would be the next evening. I blinked at it, really seeing it for the first time.
It stared back at me.
“Why are you here so soon?” I asked indignantly. “I’m not ready for this. Go away.”
It stood its ground.
“Wasn’t it only a few months ago that I dropped off my boy in a sea of 20,000 strangers, crying my way back home through the cornfields, feeling I’d left behind an arm or leg?”
The robe was unsympathetic.
Undaunted, I hurled myself into full self-pity mode.
“For that matter, wasn’t it only a few short years ago that I was burying my nose in his downy baby hair and playing Thomas the Tank Engine with him on the floor? I miss those days! I want them back!”
A terrible emptiness swelled like a balloon in my chest, but the unflappable robe offered no comfort.
My eyes watered. For just a moment, I empathized with parents whose small children have been abducted. My babies had been stolen, not by an evil kidnapper, but by time. The silence in the house magnified to a deafening pitch.
I wasn’t sure, but I thought I read condemnation in that insufferable robe’s expression.
In a final act of desperation, I appealed to its practical side.
“I need my children! When they move out, who’ll program my cell phone? Who’ll demystify Xfinity for me? Who’ll keep me up late on summer nights to watch ‘The Daily Show’ or re-runs of ‘The Office?’ Who’ll explain to me – again and again – how and why I should be on Facebook?”
This time there was no mistaking it. The robe stared back with outright disgust.
I ran more hot water and prayed for Mr. Bubble to “take me away.” Instead, the words of the Borg thundered in my head: “Resistance is futile!”
There was no point to denying it, fighting it or wallowing in it. The kids – his, mine, ours – have grown up. All of them.
Brian manages a store in Reno. Mike and Joe are handsome young lawyers – employed ones, no less. About 20 seconds ago, Blake became a college-graduated graphic arts/art technology double major. (I still don’t know what “art technology” is, but I have faith some employer will.) A year from now, Rebecca, too, will earn her B.S. – in communications.
Rebecca. As my eyes fall on a bottle of overpriced shampoo, I see her baby face before me, brown eyes twinkling with the same sense of humor that today charms unsuspecting frat boys.
“I suppose next year I’ll have to deal with her smart-alecky robe, too!” I yell to the spectre. Then, cruelly: “I think I’ll press it with a hot iron and lock it in a dark closet. Better yet, she can have it shipped straight to her university.”
The robe is unfazed.
As I continue working through the Seven Stages of Grief in my bathtub, the phone rings. I pick up the cordless, trying hard not to drop it into the bath water. I’m distressed, not suicidal. (Don’t try this at home.)
We talk for 10 minutes, not about profound thoughts or the menacing robe, but everyday stuff. We end the call laughing. Forty years separate us, but we’re still the best of friends.
I hang up with a sigh. I think of how much my mom still means to me. I know that my children are not stolen from me any more than I was stolen from her. None of us has stopped loving or needing one another. Milestones clutter the road of parenting, but the road doesn’t just end.
“Hah!” I say to the robe, a slim ray of relief rising within me.
My thoughts return to my kids. I wonder if I’ve brought them up well, because time is running out fast to infuse them with more of the awesome wisdom I’ve acquired through my vast life experiences.
God knows I tried to teach them the important things: Say your prayers, be kind, work hard, play hard, defend the weak, choose friends carefully, avoid debt, think independently and don’t vote for a party – vote for the best candidate (whose party affiliation, incidentally, will almost certainly begin with the letter “D.”) Be honest and courageous, don’t do drugs, drive defensively, never tangle with the IRS and always make at least two words with your counters in Scrabble.
The robe is now less threatening. I feel a little guilty about my rant. Our kids are doing exactly what they should be doing and I’m thankful. Really I am.
It’s not like I have nothing else to do with my time. There are college loans to help pay! Lots. And, the Great Love of my Life wouldn’t mind if I rode horses with him more often. I’d like that, too.
As I dry off, I contemplate what billions of parents before me have contemplated. Bringing up children is difficult, but there’s one thing more difficult: Letting go.
Well, sort of letting go. ❚