Old shoes

My mom used to say that your job as a mother, from the time your child is five, is to prepare them to leave home. I always thought that was perfectly sensible, until my own child was inching toward the door.

There’s a certain parental pain associated with that bleak phrase: empty nest. I imagine every mother has moments that embody that time. One of mine came when our son was about to graduate from high school. 

Good friends had a big party for families who had gone through school together, friends we’d known since kindergarten. It was a big, heartfelt celebration. What a trip it is to hear stories of your son as the community sees him—hear about how nice he is to his friends’ younger brothers when he visits, about how talented he is. 

As Tait’s dad and I were heading out, we happened to leave at the same time as someone I recognized but didn’t know, an assistant teacher in one of his classes. She asked which child was ours. When we told her she yelped, “Tait Howard! He’s the coolest kid in the whole fucking school!” She described how, when the class was directed to team up for a project, Tait saw that a learning-impaired student was ignored while the rest of the class paired up, so he crossed the room and asked this student to be his partner. Imagine it, hearing the praise in her voice, her sense of how extraordinary your child is! I get goosebumps writing this.

For years, when I’d recount this story I’d tear up, feel that rising weight in my chest. 

So this is a story about the head and heart. In my head I believed my mom was right—you have to raise them to leave home. From my head, I encouraged him to go away for school—branch out and learn independence. But how could something I thought was right feel so wrong? He got a scholarship to Savannah College of Art & Design, a top art school. Notice that it’s in the opposite corner of the country from Seattle. From my heart, I cried a lot that year. Dropping him off as a college freshman we had dinner together, then he got up to go meet some kids at his dorm. He said goodbye, walked away, didn’t look back, and I started sobbing. The waiter seemed confused. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen this before.

I’ve read that the process of motherhood alters a woman’s brain, and that fits with my experience. But this was a kind of nest-emptied separation grief I didn’t anticipate. It’s not like we hadn’t been apart much before. It’s not like I didn’t have a rich, full life outside of motherhood. It’s not like I didn’t look forward to having a quieter house, a less hectic daily life. But the sadness; it was like an amputation. 

For a few years: that commercial where the young man shows up at his mom’s door unexpectedly? Tears. Hearing those distorted, driving opening chords in the Steppenwolf song he wanted to play for me one day, then was shocked that I knew the words? I’m back there, tearing up. That message saying: open the SavannahCam at 9 am, then he calls me and I see him standing there waving, wishing me happy Mother’s Day? Waterfall. 

It’s a process. Maybe because Tait wasn’t a defiant, moody, misbehaving teen, I was less inclined to root for him to leave home. He was not one of those kids whose attitude is designed to make you wish he’d grow up and go away. Maybe my mom didn’t have time to miss me so much because she still had three kids at home when I left. Or maybe she just never let on about the pain when I moved a couple of states away to go to school. Today would have been Mom’s birthday; I think we learn to appreciate our mothers’ wisdom mostly when we walk in her shoes. Those shoes had many loving miles on them—they’re pretty big shoes to try to fill.

Photo credit: Luke Brugger on Unsplash. © 2018 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved.

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