When my son was an infant, I’d lay in bed at night, my husband beside me warm and lost to the deepest of sleep, while I listened for the sound of our miracle in his crib--was that a cry? I’d tiptoe into his room and slip my finger under his nose to test for breathing. Stunned that someone so flawed as I could have been entrusted with this perfect little life, this singular soul. I, who had always had to learn things the hard way, was now responsible for the success, the very survival of another’s life.
Motherhood is a crapshoot. You try to make the “right” decisions. Planning, charting trajectories that connect dots irrespective of reality, chaos, all the ways things can go awry. When we discovered he was blind at three months I was convinced this was proof of some failure of mine in gestation; what had I eaten? His blindness evolved to an impaired vision. But other challenges arrived, discovering at six that he was epileptic, a disease he outgrew riding the bumps and bruises of grammar school, only to descend into the maw of middle school and adolescent angst. For the past 19 years loving him, caring for him, keeping him safe have been constants in my life.
And now, 3,000 miles from home, I am saying goodbye.
Mothering is an exercise in loss. From the moment of conception a woman loses the autonomy of her body and soul, forever. She eats with another’s appetites, she dreams for two. Her body becomes another’s birthplace; growing and changing with a life becoming in her interior, a life she guards and protects with each step, each breath, each bite of food. In nine months the baby outgrows the dark clutch of her womb and she is impelled by primal forces to relinquish this new life to a world imperfect and beyond her control. Her body will provide his sustenance. Her sleep will never be as deep.
Then begins the impossible task of protecting him in a world of wars and global warming, terrorists and pedophiles, cancer and polio, and everyday random chance. It is beyond comprehension, but she secures the cupboards, puts up bumpers, and hopes and prays for the best. As the baby grows, as he learns to hold his head up, to sit, to speak, she begins to relax and trust that he will make it. If she is watchful, if she is lucky, he just might be safe. There are so many things she will teach him, helping him to take small risks, become independent and take the necessary steps away from her. And then, before she knows it, it will be time for him to leave.
And so I sit, in a faraway state in a hotel lobby, drinking bitter coffee while my son prepares for his big move into a college dorm. There have been so many leave takings to prepare us for this. The first errand, a week after his birth, the first airplane flight away from him and our first night apart. After leaving him at his first day of preschool, I walked around the block aching with what I feared was his sense of abandonment, what I had so often felt as a child. I learned that my pains were not his; he was fine; he left me with a smile, he trusted in my return. The leave takings became easier, welcome, a fact of life. Trips to grandparents, slumber parties, rock and roll summer camp. Every day, every week, every year my job has been teaching him to leave me.
And now it’s time, in this new chapter on letting go. I tell him again that I love him, hug his slim body and watch him walk away from me, waving, looking out from behind his new shades, cool in his rocker T-shirt and slouchy jeans, his gorgeous long curls swaying. He wants so much to reinvent himself here at college. I know that his good heart, his curious self and luminous mind will find fine company. I delight in the faith that he can be happy here in a big new way. And I pray, as always, that he finds open hearts and hands, that he will be loved.
My days of hands-on mothering are over. My work now is quiet listening and faith; keeping the ache of this loss within me, in the empty place he leaves me with, that pulls at me now as he walks away, knowing he will never come home to me in the same way again.
Causes Teresa Burns Gunther Supports
Alameda County Meals on Wheels, Union of Concerned Scientists; Planned Parenthood; ACLU, Women for Women, International; La Clinica; Kasimu Education Fund...