One year ago, the month of May started to take on a new meaning for me. It became “the month college ended and my son would move home.” This year, it has three times as much meaning. It’s the month all three of my sons will end the college year and soon move home. For a little while anyway.
Spending that first school year with my oldest son gone was an adjustment for all of us. My comfort during that time was that my twin sons were still home – but only for one more year before they would graduate. Then they, too, found their way into the college life and now are about to wind up their freshman years.
I find myself wondering who is more different this year: me or them. It was very hard to spend a school year with all my boys gone. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I missed them everyday. Walking by their bedroom doors without entering their rooms and smoothing a bed cover or re-positioning a desk chair that was already squarely in front of a desk, and then eventually walking by with no more than a glance into each room, took me much longer than I expected it would. But I got there, or mostly got there.
Thing is, there’s nothing I want more for them than lives of happy independence. Lives that fulfill them and thrill them. Years ahead where they meet people and travel to places that are full of promise about what might be. So why does it feel like I want to hold on so tightly?
Maybe it’s because I can’t really imagine my role in their lives unless I’m their Mom. I know – that won’t really change except that as the years pass, the definition of ‘Mom’ becomes more and more hazy. When your kids are small, you’re the one who just knows a lot about a lot of stuff. Some of it sort of important, like how to recognize Chicken Pox or “Fifth’s Disease” and some of it trivial, like the names of all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When your kids are small, you need to know about cool mist vaporizers and Pedialyte and when to take off the training wheels.
But then one day, you’ve become the smallest person in the house and you wonder: Who are you if you’re not the person who manages and clarifies daily life? Who are you if you’re not the person who asks when they’ll be home and who they’re going out with and where they’re going? Who are you if you’re not the person who worries?
I’ve spent a couple of years now, knowing that they’re leading busy lives, on and off campuses, and not once did I have the opportunity to say “Be careful” as they went out for the evening. I admit to calling each of them during one of this winter’s snow storms and asking them to please stay put and not venture out onto the road. The only thing that makes this mildly amusing is that not one of them had a car on campus.
The truth is, it’s my own fantasy that I’m still in the midst of their lives – when in fact, there are countless decisions – wonderful and terrible decisions - that have been made with exactly no input from me. It appears they have found ways to live among strangers who became friends and strangers who didn’t. I’m guessing they’ve laughed hard and maybe cried hard. They’ve argued and resolved arguments; they’ve forged ahead in some ways and remained stationary in others.
Coincidentally, I’ve spent the last year doing most of that, too. And the only stranger I’ve had to learn to live with was me. I’m no longer the mother of minors, and “responsible” for them in that capacity. I’m the mother of young adults, and we’ve moved beyond some of those “growing up” moments. I don’t listen to the school delays anymore. I don’t listen for car doors late at night.
But that begs the question: what do I listen for these days? That’s hard to say. The good news and the bad; the vague stories with no harm done that don’t get shared in very much detail for everyone’s sake. Phone talk is different than in-person talk but I try to listen “between” the words. The weariness in a voice; the exuberance of a story. The class stories, the dorm stories, the roommate stories. And as I listen, I want to ask: are you happy? Lonely? Frustrated? Tired? Confused? All the things that would be easier to see if I could see you. Everything that would be right there in your eyes if I could look into your eyes.
We don’t ask those things, though, right? “Hi, honey… what’s up? Are you okay?” That’s as close as we get. “Are you okay?”
That may be how I’ve changed. A few years ago, when I asked, “..you okay?” I meant just that. Nothing dramatic, nothing more than a simple question of attitude at that particular moment. We had day and nights, weeks and months to get into the details.
These days, “…you okay?” means “Please feel free to tell me everything. Or mostly everything. Or anything you think I can help you with. Or that will make me laugh or smile or even cry. Or anything you just want to get off your chest or say out loud and leave behind. I’ll try to listen carefully and answer you honestly and help you if I can.” This almost feels like the end of ‘The Princess Bride’ when we learn that the phrase “as you wish” really means “I love you.” “Are you okay?” really means, “I’m still here. Just like always. And listening even harder now.”