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.