Monday, September 10, 2012

Saying Good-bye and a Poem for a Monday

I’ve had the most amazing conversations lately with, of all people, my mother.

The fact that I speak with my mother is nothing unusual: we’re on good terms, and both tend to be chatty. It’s the nature of the communication that’s extraordinary. One of us … or perhaps both, I can’t tell … has crossed the Rubicon, so to speak, and I find myself in a whole new place with her.  It’s an unexpected joy, and comes at just the right time.

See, my husband and I have just “launched” our youngest child.  Our daughter joined her brother in the ranks of young adults living away from home and attending college, and we are now so-called Empty Nesters.  This has come with the usual amount of flurried activity and stress and angst and unexpected expenditures and bittersweet moments and long hugs … followed by arrival in the now-quiet house where the impatient dog continues to make demands.

Nothing about this transition surprised me, until I called Mom.  Granted, she tends to say surprising things.  Annoying things, actually.  Comments which, in the past have, shall we say, “rubbed me the wrong way.”  For example, when my son was a little guy I remember confessing some ongoing worry I had about him, and after she was done patiently listening to me she summed up the conversation with, “Yup. Kids.  It’s a lifetime sentence.”

Or, how about when that same little boy got his license, and I called her the first time he pulled out of the driveway and drove off, alone.  “I know,” she said.  “I haven’t slept a wink since you got your license.”  “Mom, I’m a 50-year old woman,” I exclaimed, to which she shot back, “Let me tell you: it’s a long time to go without a good night’s sleep.”

Sometimes I ask myself why I continue to telephone my mother at my most vulnerable moments, but what I realize is that the apple has not fallen very far from the tree and, like her, I am a consummate worrier.  Not a “helicopter” parent, mind you.  I’m truly happy to see them pack their bags and take off and live their lives:  I remember that stage myself, and it’s so necessary and exciting and wonderful.  But I worry about safety.  Tractor trailers on I-84 while he’s driving to college. Strangers lurking in dark corners while she’s walking back to her dorm late at night. When they are three years old and holding your hand crossing the street, you can put your body between them and the oncoming vehicle … but not anymore.

Which is something I now share with my mother.  For some reason a huge gulf has closed between us, and I find myself toe-to-toe with a fellow parent who is practicing the art of “letting go and letting God.”  Ironically, I’ve caught up with her, and now we both have adult children who live far from us.  Suddenly, her wry observations about children are rather amusing, and wise, so when we deposited our daughter at college this past week, Mom was my first call.

“Just wait,” she said, after I filled her ear with descriptions of every shade of emotion I had experienced.  “You think it’s hard leaving your kids?  Try leaving your grandkids. You’ll love them like your own, but then you have to leave them with these people who don’t know what they’re doing!”

As the incompetent implicated by that remark I suppose I should have been irritated … but instead I found myself laughing out loud at a moment when I might otherwise have been crying.  And I marveled at my mother’s gift for redirecting me and putting things in perspective.

In all honesty, we didn’t cry as we drove away from our daughter’s college last week, but this poem got me. 

Waving Good-Bye
By Gerald Stern

I wanted to know what it was like before we
had voices and before we had bare fingers and before we
had minds to move us through our actions
and tears to help us over our feelings,
so I drove my daughter through the snow to meet her friend
and filled her car with suitcases and hugged her
as an animal would, pressing my forehead against her,
walking in circles, moaning, touching her cheek,
and turned my head after them as an animal would,
watching helplessly as they drove over the ruts,
her smiling face and her small hand just visible
over the giant pillows and coat hangers
as they made their turn into the empty highway.