8.25.2010

Goodbye, Children


Summer's over, as far as I'm concerned. I know, as my friend Judy keeps saying, September 21. But for one thing, the leaves on the maple tree out back are already turning red; the tupelos began changing two weeks ago. The weather's turned cool and blustery. I'm never one to complain about rain--I would happily grow webbing between my toes--but the soaking we're in only reflects the way my soul feels, soaked in tears. The children are leaving.

It happens every summer, but as the years pass, it grows more bittersweet, and more difficult, oddly. We've just had Cousins Week, an annual gathering of about ten days that involves cousins from age 3 to 26, and parents and grandparents too. In all, my sister Nicole, our friends Judy and Nicole, and I have entertained 22 and more people. Every summer, it is harder to schedule a mutually agreeable week; as more of our children graduate from college, and (try to) move into the world of work, with its limited vacations and the pull of other adventures, the available timeframe narrows. But so far, we've pulled off this ritual for many years. It is a time of family politics, gaffes, crises, acting out--all minor compared to the massive quantities of laughter and bliss. Ten days of enormous meals, long board games, hours jumping off the bluffs into the ocean, swims, bike rides, knitting scarves, weaving lanyards, setting off fireworks, and all the other things people do at the beach. Eva, the youngest, got a blinking tiara--what every girl needs--from Poppy, the oldest at 86.

My younger son Theo, returns to California for one more year of college. He has spent much of the summer with me, so once again, as I wrote about in my book, Slow Love, I've been able to be a Stay at Home Mom with an actual child at home. It took some adjustment. Granola disappeared as if locusts had visited. "You've forgotten the way 21 year olds eat, Mom." The photograph here--which I did not set up, but instead, came home to one afternoon--shows what passed for putting up clothes. In the living room.  "But they're up off the floor, Mom." My five-year-old friend Sophia came to visit, clapped her hand over her mouth in mock horror and burst into giggles at the sight of his room. She dubbed him Messy Theo. I tried explaining the virtues of an ordered environment. He tried explaining the irrelevance of chores that were done only to be undone within the same day. And we had great talks, walks, swims, meals, and enjoyed one another's company. We watched rainbows dissolve, and I got to wish him goodnight for weeks, the same way I did every night through his and his brother's childhoods, the way my mother did in mine: "Fais de beaux reves."

By the time you are reading this, I'll be driving him to Providence. And I can promise you, the moment he and his backpack hit the lobby of the train station, I'll be sobbing. I'm pretty sure that I will be joined by tearful farewells all across the country, as parents pack up children for another year of school. Yesterday, Theo peered at me (in pre-sobbing mode) and asked, "Mom, do you have separation anxiety?" "Of course not," I said, rather snappily. "Only children have that." Two minutes later, I added, "Yes, come to think of it. I do have separation anxiety. I'll miss you with terribly. So much it scares me."

My house has been filled with music this summer. Shortly after Theo arrived in Rhode Island, a new guitar arrived too, one that he had saved up for over a year to buy. Gallons of frozen yogurt were pumped into that dream. The guitar's name is Earnest. Theo plays it for hours every day. (Because of our Joni Mitchell moment, he made an attempt to transcribe "California" for his instrument, and therefore I cannot get the words out of my head...."Will you take me as I am, strung out another man? California, I'm comin' home...")

When he wasn't at the guitar, Theo was at the piano. As a child, he figured out how to play the first few bars of Nina Simone's "I got it bad, and that ain't good" and I would fall asleep to the sound. Once in a while, he played it again, this summer, along with lots of other music--everything from Satie to boogie-woggie. His music wafted through the house, accompanying me in all I did, baking, reading, writing, sleeping. The very atmosphere I breathed was redolent with it--almost as if the air had thickened--and, buoyed by it, it struck me that air without music in it can feel as thin as the chlorinated brew in a pool compared to the silky caress of heavy, salty ocean water.

Alex, my older son, arrived with a huge bag full of papers he had to work on; for the first time ever, he was too busy to join in every Cousin Activity. As he doesn't live too far away, I see him regularly. But he crossed an important threshold several years ago: he will never again make his home with one of his parents--he is "on his own." So saying goodbye to him has its own sort of poignance. When he visits me now, his usual pattern is to bake a pot of bread upon arrival. This time, the two brothers began to design tee-shirts and organize their new business (!) and I looked on in wonder at their energy and optimism and naivete. Then Theo remembered he had promised to embroider a coat for our friend Caroline, and got to work on that, complaining the whole time about his neck, his eyesight, his fingers, but he stitched his merry way through it. He turns out these garments at the rate of one a year so I am now on a waiting list.

Listen, all of us have stories like this. The things our children do, the way they make their moves out of our small neighborhoods, the way they bring their adventures home to us, the way our focus shrinks tight around them, and the way they push against that, against us, and explode with hope and determination, carrying us with them onto a plane of feeling we never even thought possible, one of complete, gut-wrenching love, devotion--and release. Loving them well means letting them go. Farewell, dearest of our hearts. Come back soon, safe and sound. Of course the only thing worse than the children leaving home is if they could not do it--could not spread those cherished arms to embrace us once more, then turn their backs to face the world with all its pain and possibility. Theo's music will continue to ring through my memories, balm for my separation anxiety.

43 comments:

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Ah, you have to love a boy who played "I got it bad and that ain't good" as a child. An old soul, to be sure. Next time, record him every time he plays. You could then still listen each night as you fall asleep. Just don't let him know you're doing it, or that pesky talk of "separation anxiety" will resurface.

Tamra said...

One of the versions of "Tough Love" is letting go.

But it's important to remember that each time he leaves he's just out gathering more life experience to bring home and further enrich yours. What a gift.

pve design said...

I will be singing this song in a year from now, sending 2 off to school. I am trying to enjoy the college scouting process and getting to know them more.
pve

Splendid Sass said...

Such a touching post. Sounds like a wonderful summer.
My daughter will return to college Saturday, and I am already planning next week to keep me busy. That will be a simple task since I am now in school again.
Teresa

Lotusphx said...

On a day of fast anxious life - this post brought me back to a slower loving pace! Thank you for sharing your slow love with us and reminding us about the little things in such a wonderfully descriptive way!

Cindy said...

Oh, my heart already aches after reading your touching post! My oldest is a senior in high school this year and he also is a musician. Every day is filled with "working things out" on the piano, then on to fill in with the guitar and finally, my least favorite, the drums (my kitchen floor actually shakes and sometimes I grit my teeth, but I'll miss it when he's gone). He's always humming through the house and tapping his pencil to a beat on his ipod while doing homework (I'll never understand that. How do you work with music streaming into your ears!?). Anyway, the pants on the chair made me chuckle, as that's something my son would also do. "At least they're not on the floor." I so look forward to and enjoy your wonderful postings (I've also read all of your books and am craving another!). Thank you Dominique!

One Woman's Journey said...

You make me cry. My 4 are grown and a son in Thailand and now 3 of my grandchildren are traveling your son's path (one of those in music school in N.Y., one working in N.Y and one in Denmark) and then I have the little granddaughter's 5 and 7. My journey continues and I wonder why it now is going so quickly. But it is exciting when I view my children and grandchildren's lives.
I travel through their experiences.

Katybeth said...

Such wistful summer memories. I understand as I start to look back but on a smaller scale.
My 14 year old starts highschool this fall and nobody has to remind me how the time will fly. I savor each and ever moment...I try to breath in the good time and laugh at the bad times. I feel like kicking and screaming...I don't want school to start. No. No. My son feels the same way but I sense some underground excitement. The traitor. Isn't just great to like your kids, to want to spend time with them, to enjoy there passions.
Thanks for sharing your summer with me.

Ashling said...

How sweetly written...a love story in its own right. It never gets easier, letting our children go...

Mrs. Blandings said...

There's nearly nothing better than when you write about your boys. It's what hooked me in the first place all those years ago.

vicki archer said...

Oh how I understand that 'separation anxiety'....xv

Miss Whistle said...

There is nothing worse than saying goodbye to a child who is going back to college. You write so sweetly about it. I understand.

Beautiful pictures, too.

Miss Whistle x

dterrydraw said...

Dear Ms. Browning,

Well, obviously I'm nobody's mother (and, insofar as I'm aware, nobody's father), but your (and your readers') comments made me think of a client of mine.

She's an Italian psychiatrist...very bright, quite funny, and generally a delight....also the mother of two children.

She asked me to do a montage portrait of her daughter two years ago...including all sorts of "souveniers" of her daughter's life up to the age of twelve.

The mother (who, let me again emphasize, is No dummy) simply rolled her eyes and said "Oh...everything's going to CHANGE next year....so, I'd like to have a picture of my little girl before she disappears into a difficult teenager".

The mother was RIGHT. I know the family fairly well and encountered the girl (I've known her since she was seven) just a year after doing the portrait. Everything her mother had predicted had come to pass. Not that the daughter is a remarkably unpleasant teenager (trust me; I taught in prepskoolz for years and know the real thing when I encounter it)....she's just not Mommy's Little Girl anymore.

Not too surprisingly, I've just been commissioned to do (so to speak) the now-twelve year old son....

the mother tells me that, if either or both of them grow TOOO difficult by the time they hit 17 or so, she'll just chuck them and keep the childhood montages.

I think she's bluffing.

thanks for lovely essay.

Sincerely,

David Terry

Madgew said...

Lovely story of family. Thanks for the post.

Thea said...

i hear you. my son is in afghan. i only wish i could send him off to college. but even when he was in college, it was hard. i really don't like this slice of time. but it is what it is - a time to be endured.

Ronnie said...

Well, this post really touched a chord today! My son left at 5:30 this morning for his last year of college too. I closed the door of his room because I couldn't face the mess...and a part of me hopes he will turn around, step over the piles of clothes and climb back into that unmade bed.

With the comings and goings of my kids (21 and 25) these past few years, I am reminded of the parenting theory, "Roots and Wings". At this very moment, we may not be able to wrap our hearts around it, but everytime our kids fly off to the next great thing, I know they carry us with them.

cynthia - thedailybasics.com said...

I am crying with you having three children all in college this year. I am looking forward to and simultaneously dreading a clean house, my own unshared car and peace and solitude.

froogal said...

....ohhhh, you have me in tears now...being a mother of a son around the same age as your boys...I love boys!

Katrina Kenison said...

Two nights ago, my sons sat in the living room and played music together. When I told them that their rendition of Autumn Leaves was the highlight of my summer, they suggested that I hadn't really had much of a summer. What they couldn't know, and I couldn't tell them, was that for me it just doesn't get any better than that -- everyone at home, in the same room, sharing a song that is as beautiful and fleeting as these precious moments. Your post brought tears to my eyes, and gratitude too. You've expressed so tenderly what is in my own heart this week as my own two prepare to head back to lives elsewhere.

Melissa said...

My youngest of three sons just graduated from college and to my great surprise the emotional aftermath of this has not been the elation I imagined (having "made it" getting everyone through university) but instead, at his ceremony, my heart would have felt like a stone were it not for the pride I felt. Your post touched on the familiar for me, the letting go, the joy when we all get to be together, and the wonderful bond of mother and son.

Anonymous said...

So happy to have seen a very small part of your life this summer, Theo is a great guy, thank you both for a great time in R.I. I will be back next summer.

Much love
Aaron (Dixter)

Tamara matthews-stephenson said...

touching post....I have three years before my first heads off to college and at this moment it seems miles away, yet I know it is simply just around the corner. I selfishly dread the moment when she leaves the Nest, but all the while knowing how great it will be for her to go and experience life outside. You write so beautifully - brings tears to my eyes. xo tamara

Tricia O'Brien said...

I know exactly how you feel. It is bittersweet. You want to pick them up again, hug them and hold them...which you can, but they are now their own people, which you have helped to create and nuture along. It is a wonderful process, and I loved raising my children, but I do mourn their "loss." I plan trips to NY to see my youngest,my son, and now Los Angeles for my daughter has graduated college and returned to the West coast, but not close enough to my northern CA home. Still, another field trip....and hopefully, watching them spread their wings....and fly with it.
Thanks for the thoughts. Tricia

PamDesigns said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PamDesigns said...

Oh JoAnn, the tears in my eyes were welling up as I read this. You'd think I'd get used to the idea after awhile. After all I've two grown children who left the nest a long time ago (tho one moved back home -but it's not the same). I have one left... my baby turned 17 this summer and has entered his senior year in high school. I'm buying a house sometime in the next year (or the end of this one if things go quicker than I plan) and he'll have a room in it. Silly, though I can't bring myself to acknowledge that he'll soon be leaving and I'll have an empty room to deal with.

quintessence said...

I am exactly there with you - the food disappearing, the messy rooms - except my eldest, my musician, just graduated college and is home with us while he applies to graduate school - he hasn't hit that threshold you mentioned. This will be a new experience I am looking forward to, having him home during the school year. But the next two leave soon...thank goodness i don't have to leave the house to say goodbye.

OldWoman said...

In most of the posts it ounds like alot of emotion to place on your child. are they carrying a burden?

Jessica said...

This is a precious post, but for an opposite reason as the other commenters... I am a daughter, but I moved out of a house with a bipolar mother. If our goodbye could have had just a little bit of this maturity and wisdom it would have been so nurtering. As it was, she accused me of deserting her, and I've never done anything right since, sad to say. My Dad died three years before I left and I have no siblings so it was only her and me.

I'll turn 40 tomorrow, my New Year's resolution of this year was never to see her again and keeping that has given me the saddest sort of freedom. Reading your thoughts and Tricia's remark of seeing them spread their wings without resentment has given me a glimpse of how moving on can be if both people are sane.

Thank you.

SweetRetreat said...

My goodness, such a lot of guilt/emotion/smothering to place on the departing young people. As a parent of two boys now with lives of their own, I do hope they do not feel the weight of sad emotion this post and comments offers.

Kimberly Merritt said...

This is a beautiful post. I have already sent one off to college and in a few short years, I'll send another. Just having my girls start back to school on Monday is making me blue.

I read your book a little over a month ago and enjoyed it very much.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, D ... I've spent the past several days on the verge of tears, with my oldest son leaving for his third year of college and my middle son making the decision to enlist with the Marines when he graduates from high school next spring. Your post felt like a hug from a very understanding friend, who knows what is in my heart even when I can't express it myself. Not everyone can understand how this feels, as some of the comments suggest. But I feel much less alone right now, so thank you.

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Anonymous said...

Interesting subject,it seems like the fathers just don't go thru all this, they just get on with it. Hugs

c said...

Being a few years removed from my own fly-the-nest children, my perspective is somewhat different than most posters, and D's.

I am a proud parent of 2 adults, a girl and a boy, and I smugly smile when anybody who knows me and them asks about them.

I firmly believe in the kite analogy: let them fly, hold them close, watch them soar ... it's what we are supposed to do as parents. We "borrow" children for a little while, we instill in them whatever we consider important, and we watch in awe as they become adults.

I do relate to the bittersweet moments, watching them leave home, but I know they always "come home".

Mimi said...

I have sent 4 to college/grieved their absence/celebrated their returns/sent them back on their chosen paths.

I am blessed to have my grown daughters within driving distance of home. I have 2 granddaughters that I see as often as I can.

This week brought the next version of the process you describe:
My 5 year old granddaughter started kindergarten. The emotions are the same. Stay/ no go/ you're ready/ I'm not ready/one more year/get on the bus.
Being a parent changes who you are forever. And for the best. It always takes a piece of your heart.

Sharen said...

"Loving them well means letting them go." Dominique, you have expressed so well the tide of feelings that overwhelm us as parents....We remember all those precious moments - carrying a sleeping toddler up to bed, stroking their foreheads and watching them dream; years later waving a cheerful good-bye (and masking our worries) at the airport as they take off to lands unknown carrying trust and a backpack - and the joy we feel when they walk out of Customs, months later, with a big grin when they return. So much sweetness of feeling. You mention the music and, for me, lyrics like "Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don't remember growing older - when did they?" from "Sunrise, Sunset" and Helen Reddy singing "You and Me Against the World" - those last two lines have the power to bring me to tears - and my children too, even as adults - still that says love, doesn't it!

Judith Ross said...

Okay. My two boys are 27 and 24 so I should be "beyond" all of this, shouldn't I? Well, I'm not. Son #2 arrived home Thursday night for a short visit to go fishing with his dad on Friday. He left Saturday afternoon and later that evening son #1 arrived with his trio to play a gig in nearby Cambridge. The trio slept here. I made breakfast for my son and he then made breakfast for his musicians. At 12:30, with some of mom's sandwiches in hand, they hit the road. And here I am with a long-empty nest that was briefly filled and it's like they left for the first time.

Anonymous said...

My 2 children (ages 22 and 25) left this past week to return to college and grad school. It is hard!

Dominique said...

SWEETRETREAT: No, I don't think it is guilt/emotion/smothering...my sons know they are loved, and missed, but they also know that I want nothing more for them than to be able to fly out into the world. There is no guilt in their leaving, nor do I want any from them! I'm particularly committed to teaching them--as young men, to whom it might not necessarily come as naturally and easily as it comes to young women-- how to express emotion, and not to be afraid of it. And telling someone how much you love him does not have to be smothering....

The comment about fathers? Some do go through this--I know one who got on a plane the next day and flew to Colorado just to say one last goodbye to his daughter! Men hide their emotions about these things more than women do. And plenty of women just get on with it! Most of us do, actually. But it helps some of us to talk about what we're feeling as we get on!

And Jessica, your post moved me enormously, as I am a child who had to leave a difficult mother as well, though not as ill as yours. You have learned to "raise yourself" as I often have thought of it. A difficult process, but it might make you an immeasurably better mother and/or partner in the long run....I applaud your courage. d

Linda @ bushel and a pickle said...

We have the joy and the adjustment of having a college son home and another in transition after resigning from the Army. My husband and 2 younger daughters just moved back after a decade overseas. I love having them around! Because we have been on three continents over the last 5 years though we saw each other at least once a year, it is so good to have this season of reconnecting and getting to know these men who are my sons. Enjoying your blog; it is my first visit. Linda

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