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The First Goodbye

POSTED ON 15/03/2016

The First Goodbye

There’s a feeling you get when something big is about to happen. It’s that out-of-body experience where you are almost watching everything from a distance. You’ve gotten yourself there, but you aren’t sure how. Your heart is beating too fast even though your eyes seem to be taking things in too slow. Your stomach is a bit off. You’re smiling, you’re talking, but you aren’t quite hearing. I’ve had this feeling at all the big events in my life — my wedding, every time I went into labor, when I moved to California, my mother’s funeral. It’s the good with the bad. It’s the milestones.

Today I felt this way as I watched my firstborn board the bus to Outdoor Ed. Growing up in Boston, we had no such thing. A bunch of fifth graders off for a week in the woods, no parents allowed and no phone calls home. High school counselors taking care of kids from different schools brought together to kiss banana slugs and hike the hills. Botanists who all play multiple instruments and jam every night around the campfire. Sounds about as Caliornian as you can get. And it is a Californian rite of passage, one my husband went through at the very same camp when he was in fifth grade. It’s an amazing opportunity. My son was beyond excited to go, and I was excited for him.

So why was it so hard to watch him leave?

As parents, we spend our whole lives teaching our kids to be independent. We teach them to walk. We teach them to talk. We teach them to use utensils while eating (although all of my kids are still working on that one). We teach them to study, to ride bikes, to dream. We teach them to brush their own teeth, make their own beds, run their own showers. We celebrate their independence. This is the goal, after all: raise them to be good humans to unleash on the world. So we teach them to strike out on their own, make a difference, make their mark.

Then why do I want to climb in the bus and plop him on my lap for the ride?

It’s the great contradiction. As much as we are teaching our kids to be their own people, we are doing it within the bubble of our own home. We are there to pick them up when they fall. We reach those back teeth they can’t be relied on to brush. We soothe their nightmares, feed their dreams, wipe away their sorrows as reliably as we wipe their noses.

But when they board a bus on Monday, and you know you won’t see or hear from them until Friday, the truth of all this work finally hits you. They really are going to leave some day. And it’s going to be sooner rather than later.

My son is 11. If I do my job right, he’ll be off to college at 18. That leaves us only 7 years together, day in and day out. Sure, he’ll be able to call me every day when he is at college, but he won’t. He shouldn’t. (Yes, I am being noble — my innermost heart is screaming but he better as I type these words). If I do my job right, he won’t need me every day. But the hard thing is, that as his mother, I will always need him.

When you have kids, they become your oxygen. They are the best love song you ever heard. They are your bedtime story come to life. As you go about your day there is always a part of you that wonders what they are doing, where they are. If a siren rings in the distance, there is always a tiny part of you that wants instant reassurances that they are alright. When you have kids, they become your life. And ironically the mission of this life is to help them go out there and not need you anymore. And that all starts with the first goodbye.

When I was a college sophomore I called my parents and asked them to come visit for the weekend. There was a long pause and then my mother said in a matter-of-fact tone, “Yes, we will. And I am so glad you like us again.”

She never worried about me going away because she knew I would always come back. I was her third child, not her first pancake, so to speak, so she knew the rythmns of motherhood, the dance that is growing up. My adolescent rebellions were easy enough for her to follow. But I’m not so confident of a dance partner.

My dad is 87. I am 45. I talk to him every day despite the 3000 miles and multiple time zones between us. When I told him how I felt tonight he said not to worry, he said that no doubt my son was thinking about me too. They always do, he told me. Don’t worry. They’ll never fully leave you. And I guess that’s true. And I have the phone records to prove it.

I know the years ahead will be rough. This first goodbye will lead to so many more — mornings sleeping in rather than having breakfast together, parties late at night rather than family movies on the couch, drivers licenses, senior trips, girlfriends, the list goes on and on. I’m sure I’ll get this sick feeling every time he walks out that door.

But I’ll just have to know I’m helping him say hello to the world. And I’ll hold on to the fact that even if sometimes he says goodbye to me, his heart is always saying hello. And mine is here waiting, echoing all that love back.