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.

The Wonder(ful) Years

The photo on my desk is about 13 years old. In the photo my smiling husband holds my two smiling sons, ages 1 and 4. They are all wearing pajamas. The boys have on their one-piece footie pajamas and I remember the fuzzy texture of those pajamas well. I remember holding them in those pajamas as I read books at bedtime, as I helped them brush their teeth, as we cuddled on the sofa.

The photo was taken in our kitchen, probably on a Saturday morning. When the boys were little we always had pancakes on Saturdays. They loved our ritual. Pancakes rolled up with sugar and butter inside. Some with blueberries and syrup. Others with chocolate chips. It was Daddy’s specialty.

Saturdays then were filled with family activities. In those days before any of us had smartphones and Facebook we spent the days playing at the park down the street, visiting the Little Farm up the hill or going to Grammie’s house. The boys were happy, everything was new and although there was the occasional tantrum or timeout, the problems were relatively small and manageable, like spilt milk or bruised knees.

Now my sons are teenagers and some nights they tuck me into bed. One stays up late texting friends and the other stays up late playing games online. Most Saturdays they no longer request pancakes. One would rather get to the golf course early and the other wants to be with friends. When we do spend time together we don’t go to the park. If we’re lucky they’ll agree to see a movie with us or go out to eat. For Christmas they request money instead of toys.

A lot has changed in 13 years and sometimes I wish I could go back in time. I would love to cuddle up to that 4-year-old in the red-footed pajamas for just five minutes. I would love to see the look of delight on the toddler’s face when he learns to jump for the first time or draws a picture.

Still, I tell myself, every age has the potential to be filled with wonder. Maybe it’s not so dramatic now, but my kids are still impressionable, curious and tender. Late at night, when I manage to stay up with them and they’ve disengaged from their screens, they ask for backrubs. I sit in their dark room, scratching their backs, and we talk about things of no consequence, like what exactly “swag” means or what would happen if you put dry ice in a hot tub.

And if I doubted their ability to show affection, I would look no further than the family dog. Two years ago we got a puppy and he’s become a focus of attention. When the boys come home from school the first thing they do is shower him with kisses and hugs. “Isn’t he the cutest dog in the world?” we ask each other day after day.

I don’t know what life will be like in another 13 years. My mother tells me you never stop being a mother. I wonder what the boys will be like as adults. What will we talk about? Will they have jobs they like? Will they have girlfriends or spouses? What will grab their attention? I could guess at these things but I really have no idea.

Maybe knowing them another 13 years will bring us both closer to the core of who they are, who they’ve become as adults. Maybe it’s like opening a present that contains another smaller present that contains yet another smaller present. As I get to know them more I uncover the essence of who they are and how we relate to one another. And the whole thing is something I knew was coming but is still a surprise.