The Goodbye Year

Two weeks ago my younger son started his last year of high school. It’s hard to believe that at this time next year he’ll likely be off to college and our house will be an empty nest. My husband and I have spent the last 20 years nurturing and caring for our kids and in the blink of an eye, they’ll be gone.

This will be a year of goodbyes and farewells to routines that have shaped our daily lives. We recently attended our final back-to-school night–ever. We toured our son’s classrooms and heard about how he’d be reading “Frankenstein” in English class, comparing Christianity, Buddhism and Islam in religion class, and preparing for the AP exam in Spanish class. I found myself getting excited about what TJ would be learning and wishing I could go back to high school too. But then I remembered the social pressures and dramas of being a teenager and I decided I preferred being an adult.

It seems like just last year TJ was 4, building forts out of blankets and cushions in the family room. And I was his accomplice, supplying a desk lamp to brighten up one “room” and little cut-up sandwiches for sustenance. Later we would watch one of his favorite movies, like “Dumbo,” or cycle through our five-disc set of vintage Pink Panther cartoons. Just one more episode, he’d cry, as I declared it was time for dinner. There is a certain symbiosis between a parent and a young child that can never be recaptured.

Back in those days, I saw the first signs of who my child would become. I noticed and was a bit perplexed by the fact that TJ didn’t like board games or traditional toys. Instead, he preferred to stand at the sink and make the biggest soap bubble he could possibly make. Or he collected snails from our yard and kept them in a shoebox for several weeks, feeding them lettuce and giving each one a name. He was fascinated by how much poop they generated.

Later TJ applied his scientific curiosity to the world of tech. He spent hours creating YouTube videos in third grade under the name “yoloswagwaffles.” At the time I wasn’t sure what YouTube was. Soon after that he attended a Minecraft conference in Las Vegas (with his grandparents) where he was a speaker on a panel designed to help people create videos. My parents came back raving that he was more knowledgeable than the 30-something techie on the panel with him.

The tech thing stuck. I’ve seen it through various iterations up to last month, when he spent all his savings on an industrial level server. We’re all a little unsure of why he needs this much computing power. It took two of us to carry the 50-pound server to our basement and a visit by the family electrician to make sure we weren’t overloading our circuits.

One of his friends came over in the midst of the setup and asked, “What’s a server?”

TJ explained that his server will allow him to host web sites and tinker with artificial intelligence.

“I can host your web site Mom, and I won’t charge you,” he joked.

Long before the virtual world of computers, my kids and I enjoyed other virtual worlds and I miss those. I maintained our nightly bedtime reading routine as long as I possibly could—well into TJ’s freshman year of high school. I would still be reading stories to him if he let me. The last book we read together, “The Circle,” by my favorite author, Dave Eggers, focuses on a young woman working in a Google-like company. We laughed about the pressure she felt to generate “likes” with her customers. And I blushed as I read the passages about her sexual encounters aloud to my teenage son.

“You can just skip those parts Mom,” he eventually said.

With kids years of the same routine, practiced day in and day out, can suddenly end overnight. When my older son finally got his license on his 18th birthday, decades of taking him to school ended abruptly. Gone forever were the early preschool years, when he insisted that he be the first one at school (transition anxiety his teacher called it). Gone were the 8 am walks to Catholic elementary school where I would stand with a group of parents and watch the kids recite morning prayer. Gone were the drives to high school when we exchanged a few precious words of conversation.

TJ is talking about getting his license too now that he’s turning 18 soon. Last spring, anticipating this change I wrote in my journal: “I took TJ to tennis practice today. I’m already sad that at this time next year TJ will have his license and we won’t have these trips in the car together. Where else can I get my son’s undivided attention?”

I’m a sucker for nostalgia but I would be dishonest not to remember the stress of raising children too. I have more of that to look forward to this year as well. When the electrician came to rewire some things for the new server, he made an error and our entire network slowed to a crawl for days. My husband had trouble connecting online with his office and was in a foul mood until we fixed it.

Then there are the not-so-fun grinding reminders to my son to empty the dishwasher, cover the ping-pong table when not in use, do his homework and take out the recycling. Aggravation and repetition have stretched my patience to new limits I didn’t think possible. It’s a good thing my boys—like puppies—are so cute. The cuteness element doesn’t go as far with Dad, who worries his boys will grow up undisciplined. I have hope though—most days enough for both of us.

What do I want as these fall days speed into high gear? I want to enjoy this last year with my son and be mindful of each goodbye. But I also don’t want to let it overly sadden me. Writer Maria Popova muses about maintaining this kind of healthy, open-handed type of love. She says: “When we are able to regard love in such a way…its inevitable loss would leave in us not paralyzing devastation but what Abraham Lincoln would later term ‘a sad sweet feeling in your heart.’ To retain the memory of love’s sweetness without letting the pain of parting and loss embitter it is perhaps the greatest challenge for the bereaved heart, and its greatest achievement.”

To be sure, my love for my son won’t diminish. Our relationship will change and hopefully even deepen. But this time, for–me as a mom–and for him–on the cusp of adulthood–will happen just this once and I am a witness alive to this moment.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

A week ago my son and I went to the DMV at 8 am so he could take his driving test. It would be his second try and I waited nervously in my hard plastic seat while a computerized voice called out numbers over a loud speaker. I tried to read the newspaper to distract myself, but I kept wondering how the test was going. Would Miguel make a big error and automatically fail like he did the first time? Would he forget to do a few simple things like turn on his blinker and lose points? Miguel was a good driver but sometimes the testers were extremely picky. In fact we went early with the hopes that the testers would be rested and cheerful.

As it turned out, the second time was a charm. The text taker was friendly and polite. In what seemed like about 10 minutes, Miguel was done, proudly showing me the paperwork that showed he passed. He got in line to take a photo and that was that. He was a new driver. At age 18, he had finally gotten his license. We celebrated by going out for gourmet donuts on Telegraph Avenue.

Having a new driver in the house has been one of the biggest changes I’ve experienced as a parent. It’s changed our family dynamics in the space of a week. On the one hand, it’s good: I am no longer the shuttle driver for one of my kids. I can sit back and relax while he takes himself places. He’s driven to see friends, spend time with his girlfriend and even visit his grandparents. On the other hand, I feel wistful. Trips in the car were always a good time for conversation. I think of all the places we’ve gone—school, soccer games, baseball practices, swim lessons, friends’ houses—and realize we have spent hours and hours traveling together.

Driving is a rite of passage for teens in the U.S. and I can still remember the thrill I felt when I started driving. Unlike my son, who has grown up in Berkeley, I grew up in a small suburb in Marin County and almost everyone got their license when they turned 16. I was eager to stretch my wings and explore new places beyond my little town. Soon, to the consternation of my parents, I was driving to San Francisco and Berkeley, both about 40 minutes away. In San Francisco my friends and I hung out in North Beach, discovering funky little shops and good pizza. In Berkeley we walked up and down Telegraph Avenue, sampling more pizza and shops and mingling with college students. We felt sophisticated and free. The world was ours to explore.

I know that driving is one of the many steps toward adulthood my son will make this year. In less than a year, he’ll be on his own, doing his own laundry and keeping track of his money and schedule. He’ll enjoy more freedom, but also more responsibility; I have no doubt he’s ready.

In the meantime, while Miguel is still home, we have plenty to bond over. Miguel keeps me current on technology, music and culture. Last year he got me started on using Apple Music on my phone. I had no idea you could have access to every album ever made (almost), at the touch of button. Now I understand why no one buys albums anymore. On the TV front, recently we started watching an HBO show called “Newsroom,” about a fictitious TV station. We’re watching that via Amazon Prime, which was a revelation (again) to me. I didn’t know that our Amazon membership included TV shows. Through Miguel I’ve also discovered the comedian John Oliver (outrageous but funny). Most curiously, I’ve made many “appearances” on Miguel’s Snapchat feed. Why he likes to post pictures of his mother on Snapchat, I don’t know, but many of his friends meet me for the first time and they already recognize me from Snapchat.  

Fortunately for me, I am blessed with two sons, so I have another one at home for several more years. However, I realized the other day that my younger son could be driving in a year as well. If he’s like his brother though–and lots of other kids in Berkeley–he won’t get his license right away. That’s just fine with me. We have lots to bond over too, such as our shared love of reading (“The Girl in the Dragon’s Web” is on our Kindle now), our pets (dog and bird), and good snacks (peanut butter on banana is the current favorite). Driving can wait a while.

Am I nervous about having a child behind the wheel? Less than I thought. Fortunately children take many small steps between the big ones. Each step prepares them and their parents for the next one. Mostly, I’m happy to see Miguel grow up, enjoy adult responsibilities and make good decisions. I don’t know if I’m yet prepared to see him drive across the country on a road trip (which he has mentioned once or twice), but we have many steps before that happens. Now it’s just across town. Next week he plans to pick up friends at the airport. Next February he’s driving to a concert in Sacramento. We’re moving right along at just the right speed.