Empty nester, Family, Love, Parenting

Bed, Bath & Beyond

On mornings when she drove the carpool, sometimes my mother would let me know I had crumbs around my mouth and before I’d had a chance to wipe them away, she’d already licked her own fingers – as if for collating papers – and gone about dabbing the corners of my mouth, her spit a magnet for any breakfast left behind. I’d like to say this always occurred before we picked up other kids in our carpool and before the humiliation could be witnessed, but it was completely random and mostly dependent on when it dawned on her to assess her youngest’s appearance – the outfit, combed hair, and those errant toast crumbs.

My most vivid carpool memories are of us crammed into my dad’s car – a classic white 1969 Ford Mustang convertible with burgundy vinyl interior. Not sure why she found herself having to negotiate this three-speed manual steering drafty child carriage instead of her station wagon, but maybe our Ford Country Squire wasn’t the dependable family ride its faux wood siding evoked. The Mustang steering was so tight that she’d ask for help from whomever was in the front seat, typically my sister or me, and we’d lean in to help turn that stubborn wheel.

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Where did the time go?

We didn’t have any carpools with my kids but I do recall that moment when the ride to school changed, probably as early as third or maybe it was fourth grade, when the school drop off necessitated omitting any form of motherly affection. I still wanted to hug them goodbye and sometimes I’d look around and when the coast was clear, remind them no one was looking and we could get in a quick hug. It was a rushed hug, but a hug nonetheless. Of course, as years passed those drop off hugs all but disappeared.

We started biking to school and then my boys would walk themselves and later on, drive. I’m glad to have had the schools that we did, with great teachers, close by and with a wide variety of people. A slice of real life in an urban enough setting, but still with plenty of green spaces to roam. I’m still getting newsletters from our high school and occasionally I’ll scan them for details on the postponed graduation festivities. Instead it’s full of the usual back-to-school information, complicated further by this pandemic, though now intended for other families. I wonder how long it will take me to voluntarily opt off this list. Or how many Augusts I will see school buses pass by and remember all these years. I’m swollen with gratitude and love.

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Georgia Tech bound from an early age

It’s exactly a week from today that my younger son, my last, leaves for college. I remember the first college drop off two years ago and the drawn out two day, 13-hour drive to get there. This time, this child is moving all of 10 miles away, but still, in my mind the preparations are largely the same. Outwardly he seems rather relaxed about it all, and understandably ready to leave, and leave behind the drone of his mother’s voice forever etched in his mind, these days a screaming pitch of nonstop questions which land like a spray of bullets: Should we get two sets of sheets? Which of these comforters do you prefer? Will you take a look at these shower caddies? Certain in the midst of these questions he’s asking his own: Will she ever stop?

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Back to school Covid era

Today he and I will negotiate Bed Bath and Beyond for dorm essentials. Nothing like last minute shopping, but seems we need this looming deadline to get in sync, into an agreement that now it is indeed time to shop. I hope to get in and out quickly as pandemic shopping doesn’t afford us the luxury of over-analyzing mattress toppers. Besides, he has no interest in finding a new comforter or even towels and washcloths since, budget-minded like his dad, he’s chosen to raid our linen closet for these. I remind myself that I have boys and unlike my sister’s and my own college preparations, there is no room theme or patterned comforter or puffy pillows to hunt down. It’s all business and their nest needs minimal fuss. I hope they’ll each carry good memories in lieu of the current parental annoyances they and I’d venture to guess most college-bound teens about to leave the nest experience. Now home from Bed Bath and Beyond, we have all our loot. It was a great shopping trip, the store wasn’t crowded and we found everything he needs. He’s excited to test out his coffee maker and said he’ll make a cup in the morning. He will try out the mattress topper too, another simulation of his life to come.

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Ready for move-in

I think sometimes you must take the lead your child is providing. If he needs a second set of sheets he reminds me he can simply drive himself to Target. “Let go, woman,” I believe is the message. I’m trying. Really I am. At the suggestion of another mom, I joined his college’s FB group to learn and share information with other freshman parents. One mom’s son is boarding a plane from Singapore and is expressing her gratitude that other parents have offered to be her son’s in case of emergency, his home away from home. Her vulnerability in letting her one and only child go is palpable and instantly I’m feeling my own. The wistfulness is coming, I feel it behind my eyelids. I can get this way nearing the end of a wonderful book or even a Netflix show that’s moved me and is about to end, so like it or not, it comes easy.

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His buddy Bo especially will miss him.

I  don’t know exactly how I will feel once he’s gone. I expect we’ll walk by his room and his brother’s and see the picked over state of things, a lamp gone, his pillows and clothes, also gone. Like my friend Carol, herself a mother of two college-aged boys, shared when I mentioned how shocking the empty room was two years ago when my first left: “The empty room is the worst. I do the same – going in there, afraid to vacuum up a single bit of DNA in case he needs to be reconstructed somehow… It does feel like a death – and we do stalk them online hoping for glimpses of their day and to see who their friends are and to know everything’s ok.”

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You’re off to great places!

This plethora of questions is not intended to irritate; instead it’s my way of making sure everthing’s ok. That’s all we parents want. All we’ve ever wanted when we invade your privacy with our questions or ask about the eye drops or lighter or bottle opener in your car. We just want you to be ok because we have this vision for you, that you will lead a long, happy and productive life. And when we find things that seem like they’re going to undermine that plan, we sometimes get in the way.

I want you to find your way and in many respects you already have. These last few days together won’t necessarily be a week of final family moments, but more realistically will be a rush to pack you up even when sometimes I still just want to hold you tight. And just when I’m feeling all strong and mighty, I feel those tears again waiting in the wings. They keep asking, is it showtime yet? Are you ready for us? As our children will, these tears also will come and go, and the timing for either remains out of our control.

As different as my children are so are their college experiences. One moved six states away, and now one is moving to the next county. One walked New York City blocks to get to class and the other, at least in the beginning, will attend two thirds of his classes from his dorm room’s XL twin bed. Throw in a pandemic and the high school graduate of 2020 finds himself in the most extraordinary of situations. An ample supply of  masks and hand sanitizer will need to accompany him, and finding a way to socialize while mostly masked will I hope in a few months’ time become a distant memory. Please, vaccine, please come soon.

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Taking it all in during fall’s campus visits

I can’t wait for so much of it. That feeling of newness and excitement he’ll have as he navigates college life. The intensity of the classes on topics that intrigue him – no more French classes! – that push him far away from his comfort zone and that teach him better ways of thinking and surprise him with new ways to connect the dots. His mind and heart will soak it all in and when I see him again, he will have rich stories to share. We all will.

In the meantime, as I did two years before, I find myself scanning back to all these busy years, and noticing it all, as if I must relish both the grand and the mundane. I walked the deep yard this morning and came across all his targets riddled with holes from when he shoots his bb gun. He perches up high atop our carport and leans his forearm on an old folded quilt to achieve his steadiest best aim. I walked past our old playground, now picked over as his room soon will be, and I take comfort that another family, also with two boys, is now enjoying the slide, the swings, and the rope swing, thanks to our playground organ donations toward their complete playset.

I look back at life with both my boys and can’t help but smile. What a ride this has been and still is, for all of us! So much is around the corner and ahead. I hope when they look back in their own rearview mirrors, which they sometimes will, that their own memories are even a fraction as sweet.

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Family, Parenting

Mom !!

IMG_8486“You’d argue with the Lord,” my mother used to tell me. I was just like her and even though her words exclaimed to the contrary, I think she secretly liked my spunk. I was the outside reminder of who she was inside.

Meriam-Webster classifies a mother as a noun, adjective and a verb, but who are we kidding, mother is all verb. Mothers don’t sit still, they’re forever looking around, sizing up a room, a situation, the contents of the fridge, their checkbook, purse, that bottomless pouch that holds it all. Magicians, mothers reach inside their bag of tricks and always find the right thing for their own, and anyone else who needs something. If there isn’t Kleenex, they’ll offer up their sleeve, a deposit slip, something. They swoop in and help, because they can’t help themselves.

They drive us places – everywhere — and up a wall, too, and we return the favor in spades. They multitask, pepper us with questions, draw out the details, our emotions, our schedules, or hush us when they should, and even when they shouldn’t. They talk too much and complain and gush in the same breath about their children every chance they get. They remember things — our favorite foods, where we need to be and with whom, and nudge us to consider other approaches, others’ feelings, our own, too.

IMG_8139They feed us, schedule us, draw us a bath, or a picture when we’re sad, bring us out of our shell if we’re shy or a smile to our face when something is wrong. They’re mind readers, with eyes in the back of their head, and you can’t get away with much if a mom is near. They are a blessing and a curse, for their babies and teens, and you can’t deny their stronghold, nor can you forget it. They won’t let you.

They’re the safe ones you can go to when you’re in trouble, the ones who’ll instinctively turn their head whenever they hear “Mom!,” even if it’s another child calling their own. Mothers cover for each other and laugh a lot, and sometimes they whine or wine — or both. They hold strangers’ kids on airplanes and doors for strollers, and little hands in their own and release them when they’re grown. They are consolers and controllers, feeders and healers.

IMG_6427They’re the Energizer bunny, the Easter bunny, Santa and the Tooth Fairy. They sleep with one eye open keeping vigil when there are bad dreams, or earaches, fever, or broken bones. They listen to doctors’ instructions when you’re too sick to, and to teachers’ and coaches’ words you sometimes miss. They’re your number one fan and critic rolled into one, your lifelong advocate whose work is never done. And you never forget their face even long after they’re gone.

IMG_5779This day isn’t about mothers, it’s about mothering. Scores of people who never had children mother every day. They have pets, or plants or nieces or someone in their life who has fallen to pieces, and they show up and speak up. Like most holidays, Mother’s Day dredges up the good, the bad, the sad and everything in between. Hallmark would have you believe that on this day mothers will be wined and dined and showered with love and gratitude. The reality is your dog might pee on the rug again, your kids might argue even before you’ve had your morning coffee, which you likely poured yourself, and you might be missing your own mom terribly. Let’s face it, the Mother’s Day fairy tale might not waft into your house this year.

IMG_7536This fairy tale isn’t a single day sprinkled with gold dust. Far better, it’s all of the days, and they’re solid gold. They’re real and full of work and play, and diaper changes, and sweet glances and missed chances. The chatter you hear as you drive kids to sports practices, the quiet sunburned sandy car ride home after a day at the beach. Being asked if the trees you pass are a forest and how deep it is, and if those bad guys from 9/11 went to time out. Or wondering if the bees sting the flowers and why birds’ poop is white. It’s the constant questions and best answers you can muster. It’s waiting up after curfew wondering and worrying, and when they return, forgetting that they left the seat up or didn’t take out the trash. It’s cheering for them when they get into college and sending them off into the world. It’s everything in between. It’s hugging them tight and kissing them goodbye.

For all you moms and everyone else who mothers, I raise my thrice reheated cup of coffee to you, today and every day. What a difference you make!

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Parenting

Sonny Summer

sunIt’s here! June 1st, the (unofficial) start of summer. Days are getting lazier and longer, and we’re supposed to feel lighter. It’s as carefree as a season can deliver.

Decatur seniors graduated yesterday, and school is officially out, but over here, it’s still in session. My rising senior has a 3000-word paper due and three remaining days to complete the draft. That junior year rigor he signed up for hasn’t backed down one iota. Exhausted, he’s got miles to go before he sleeps. It’s quite a thing — IB Diploma, playing on a Varsity soccer team, club team, too — yet he’s shown up, stepped up, and exhibited a poise I can’t say I could have mustered. And he pulled off a B in French, an A actually, since it’s weighted.

My other son, the New Yorker, decided to stay put. He landed a job in early May in a café commuting on the $400 Schwinn he bought for $60 from a guy on the street. Gotta be stolen. They say living in New York is hard, but they haven’t said much about the finding the place to live part. Guess I’ll give it a whirl.

You could call me a planner despite my typically late scheduling. My friend Sherron says I always land on my feet, and she’s seen it all, the tight spots and deadlines I nearly blow past. This spur-of-the-moment gene has trickled down the line it seems, down to my firstborn.

College let out May 21 and he had to vacate the dorm by 8am the next day. Items left would be trashed. Period. Weeks leading up to this cutoff, we talked about where he could live working the summer there. He’d rent an apt with friends in the fall, but for now needed short-term housing. Our quick texts and occasional FaceTime calls were rushed; he was studying for finals, eating dinner, on the train with spotty coverage, it was always something. Even before settling on a June 1 spot, he still had nine days in May to cover. He needed to sublet an apartment, stay with friends for a while, something. More delayed answers to my texts and a phone call or two later, I got some info. He’d be staying with a friend in Forrest Hills. End of May covered. On to June…

Conflicting reports of roommate(s) joining him in June somewhere or not joining him at all made it difficult to budget or plan. I soon learned he’d have a roommate and they’d find a place. Great, they can split the rent. No, scratch that, just in… he and his girlfriend and his roommate would be staying in NYU’s dorms — flexible cheaper summer housing. A few more conversations firmed up the plans. He’d already started the NYU housing process, but we needed to pay the non-refundable $500 deposit. It was 10pm the night before Mother’s Day, and I’d hoped to wake up impossibly refreshed, with the dewy skin I wore my first Mother’s Day, not the 55-year-old bags under her eyes variety. I knew no amount of sleep would actually deliver this, but I’d wanted to try, yet we needed this application completed and paid, so I dove into NYU’s summer housing site. Much like the Joy of Cooking which requires you to leave a recipe to flip through other pages backward and forward to locate other recipes you need — a sauce, marinade, dry rub, etc. — this site was no better. I hopped here and there, and also had to set up a group with my son as leader to ensure his roommate choice would be duly noted and granted. A few hours later at 1am, I was done. He was in NYU and summer in NYC would begin.

The next night he told me the NYU plan was off. What had changed since Mother’s Day eve to Sunday night? He said his girlfriend’s family discovered hidden pricing making the NYU stay far costlier than anyone bargained for, so with one person out of the game, it was game over. She was making plans to go home. Seems everyone had gotten the NYU memo and was moving on, but I had to reshuffle it all a few times. Whaaa? We’re back to square one? The next day I was on the phone to NYU requesting a refund, which by some stroke of luck, we should be receiving.

The Forrest Hills stay still had its expiration date, and we still had 28 June NYC nights to cover. The new plan was my son + a roommate in an Airbnb, close to his job on Madison Ave. He kept assuring me it would all work out, but with what seemed to be few if any search engines running up there what with school and work, I started mine six states away. I texted him Airbnb options and, like Goldilocks, none seemed just right: one was too expensive, too far, too small, not private enough (ads touting “Living room futon for two”), or the dates didn’t work. I pressed him on his roommate’s budget only to learn there was none. His roommate was saving money over the summer crashing at friends’ places until school resumed. Brand new news. I cleared all filters and started a clean search.

Meanwhile he needed to fill an ongoing prescription but couldn’t find the two prescription sheets he felt sure he packed. Or did he? I asked him to scour his stuff which was stuffed in a Forrest Hills basement room and no luck. Wait! He thought about it more and said his girlfriend had packed them for him, but where exactly was anyone’s guess. I pressed and he did another search (I’m calling it cursory) and nothing. I told him if his girlfriend said she packed them, then she did. Why was I believing his girlfriend I’d never met over my son? Because, she sounds organized, she sews, has a place to stay for summer (home) and seemed methodical, not frazzled when she packed them for him. A clear head pitching in. Said prescription never turned up, but I’m not convinced every stone has been turned over.

 The other challenge was finding storage in this expensive city to house his non-clothing items like microwave, toaster oven, plates, etc. After some back and forth, he realized his girlfriend’s storage space had plenty of room, so he arranged to move some things there.

I found an Airbnb north of the city and I pressed the owner if my son could see it and I put them in touch. It’s 100 blocks or so from his work but is sunny and clean, and his 6”2’+ frame would have a double bed (vs the bunk bed, single beds and futons in living room scenarios I’d previously seen). The woman host I texted was nice and had a sweet friendly cat living there, too. Seemed like a no brainer to me but, like a game show with contestants debating if they should take the money or spin again, Ben wanted to spin ago. We could find something cheaper in Astoria. Mom, you just don’t know, I do. Let me handle it. Still not willing to let go, I searched Airbnbs in Astoria. Not the deal I was expecting and always a catch: wrong dates, zero privacy, or one place said they’d fine you if you had a guest visit at all, like even an hour visit in the living room. Another mentioned a camera in the living room where you’d be sleeping, though the lens wasn’t exactly focused on your bed, its peripheral vision was. The north Harlem spot with the cat never looked so good, so we took it.

The next day we were texting, and I learned his job on Madison that paid well and he liked and cycled to was no more. They said they didn’t realize he’d be away from New York in  July (which he told them about up front) and couldn’t afford to keep him, so that was it.

A friend in the city has an industrial sewing machine so he can continue making garments and building his portfolio, and he hopes to get accepted to the menswear program his junior year. He has an eye for design and a nose for business. He’s continuing with his online clothing resale business, and his Airbnb host has a photo shoot she wants help with, so work is coming.

Last Wednesday was moving day. Three Uber rides full of stuff and a final backpack-on-his-back bike ride to his new place, and he’s all done. But not without a crazy story. He sent me this text that evening after I asked him if he was all moved in:

Went w my backpack and bike from queens to 7th and 53rd on the e. Then I hopped off to transfer on the D uptown but every train that came through for like 20 min was full. Then I left station to try and bike and basically got lost and poured on in Central Park then I made my way to the 1 train. Where this crackhead person bumps into my bike and starts talking and goes on and on and finally I tell him to shut up and then he follows me on the train and continues to just talk talk talk and I’m ignoring him and then other ppl get involved.. it was a crowded  train but everyone was basically telling him to shut up and then I finally got off at 137th st and he’s still on the train lol and then I walk back and continue to get poured on meanwhile my laptop and speaker and other electronic stuff is in my backpack but I tried everything and it all works thankfully.

I couldn’t imagine myself at 19 navigating that city, but he’s doing it, and doing it with aplomb. Now with a roof over his head and a cat (hopefully) perched on his bed, the boy it turns out is going to be just fine. They both are. On to summer!

 

 

 

 

Empty nester, Family, Midlife, Parenting, Self reliance

Leaving the Nest

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Joe and Evan leaving Duke tour

I’m in a car headed to Durham, North Carolina, the second leg of our college tour with our younger son Evan. We just paid the second semester tuition for our older one, now a freshman in college, and here we are, beginning plans for helping our second go, too. Everyone should be so lucky. Why can’t I feel this instead of the fear and confusion that’s taken hold?

As I rushed to tend to the many details of packing up for four days away, notes for the pet sitter, pulling together college tour information, watering plants, paying bills, cleaning out the refrigerator, I realize I like the buzz of busyness, tending to this and that, getting my child to the dentist, talking about his soccer tryouts and creating interesting foods as his taste buds evolve. I like the promise of someone else coming home, my husband, my son, and occasionally my other son. I’ve been so wrapped up in this household and my kids and pets these nearly two decades, that on the rare occasion they’re away, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ve begun working out again and running and thinking about my next act. The first seemed like a dilution of myself, spread thin tending to other people and their needs.

We’re on the road now, returning from a full four days of driving and looking and walking and listening. It’s all starting, and I’m delighted to see him beginning to take an initiative, give it all real thought, researching other schools and their entrance requirements, thinking. Always thinking. As different as my two children are, this round of college tours is also, with a broader swath of schools, cities, and questions to explore.

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Heavy fog covers the way home.

We’ve crossed into Tennessee from Virginia and are making our way home to Georgia. The rain keeps falling as it has for days, and our car slices through the dense fog as Evan sleeps and Joe drives, my Spotify soundtrack in the background. We visited schools with strong engineering programs, what he likes and is good at. I vacillate between being ready to get him situated somewhere as this rite of passage looms, and wondering, with a healthy dose of anxiety, how this big house permanently minus two will feel.

I take for granted the noise that’s here now, three people moving up and down our staircase, pets following us into rooms and heaps of laundry piling up and spinning, water running in the kitchen sink, meals, dishes. Rinse and repeat. Some call it a hamster wheel or Ground Hog Day, my daily intermittent repetition, and then there’s coordinating people, pets and their stuff — soccer cleats, reading glasses, bras, and phone chargers, and those half pairs of socks forever missing their mates. We come and go at different times and don’t intersect as much as before, but mostly it’s the familiar voices echoing in these old rooms that I will remember.

Everyone promised the teen years with children would be challenging, and these haven’t disappointed. Maybe there’s some comfort in these days unfolding just as we thought, as if on cue, our children separate from us and push us away. I know we’re in their way as they’re on theirs, but I still want to be near and soak up the moments I know are fewer and far between. These days, the timing seems off. Not getting much information asking him questions about school, soccer, or what’s on his mind, I try to glean what’s going on, hang out in the periphery, and, in lieu of inventing moments for connection, focus on enjoying the ones that just appear, seemingly out of nowhere. There is no formula for how to parent. Mostly I’ve been winging it, going with my gut.

I try to remember what I was like some 38 years ago and how much I drove my mother up a wall and vice versa. She even told me so, sometimes declaring, “you’d argue with the Lord!” I’m certain I was no picnic, but with her now decades gone, we can’t of course compare notes, and even if we could, would they even help?

There are still moments, little gems, where he and I share a smile and connect over a wonderful meal or something good on TV, or the occasional best times when we just find ourselves talking about who knows what, and lose all track of time. Then there are the others – no sign of him after curfew has come and gone, my mere presence bringing forth a scowl akin to the “ugh, YOU’RE still here?” thought I’ve assigned to his expression, and the parents’ requests, “did you do this?” or “hurry up!” and “I need you to (fill in a chore sure to break up video/tv/chill time),” that are equally unsatisfying for both parties. I guess it’s supposed to be this way as scores of parents before us observed.

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Five schools in three days requires sleep.

Then there are moments such as this morning when I checked on him, lying in bed blanketed in soft morning light, his sweet face half hidden under a cream chenille bedspread in the guest room of our Charlottesville friend, where maybe he’s dreaming of the college he’ll pick or which will pick him. It’s in these split seconds that I melt with an intense fondness and immense pride, and a mother’s tenderness that comes from down deep. It’s overwhelming how it surges so dramatically and then uneventfully recedes. I already feel the start of another hole in my heart near the one gaping from six months earlier when I settled my older son into college. That hole has closed slightly, and filled in with new conversations, in person and via FaceTime, and with those moments when his face and flash of a smile fill me right back up. They’re addictive, these boys, and just when I think I’ve had enough, I turn around and find I want more.

It’s a state of limbo, this 18-months away from empty nesting, and I’m immersed in it now, well ahead of schedule. As my friends can attest, I’m never early, so why this and why now? I mustn’t look at this as falling into some choking purposeless state you’re assigned once an empty nester. You can fall in love or fall into a depression, but these pull you in a direction where you can’t help but surrender the reins, lean in and let go.

But this? I can control this, or at least how I react to change, and what I do next. We are all moving ahead toward different futures, ripe with opportunities for ourselves individually and together as a family. I’ve been thinking hard on this, trying to imagine my future. Since I can’t exactly picture it, I just want to bypass any bumps in the road, or tangled mess of traffic ahead, find an exit and turn off. A great song will come on and I’ll fly through twisty roads and sunshine, the only car on the road, happily plowing ahead. Everything will fall into place, right? Just like I would find that career with my name on it, effortlessly sail through menopause, and march into mid-life forever a size four.

Ignorance is not bliss. It’s going to hurt a little and there will be times when I’ll feel lonelier and frustrated, a far worse and longer lasting punch than the snarky teen sulks or eye rolls or silent treatment can pack. This kind sticks and there is no boomerang effect with some comforting rhythm or reset returning the next day. I’ll need to pick up with my own new rhythm, whatever that will look like. I hope to stop looking backward, or forward, trying to manipulate these moments, and just be here for all of them, pull my shoulders out of my ears and let the noise or silence wrap me in some kind of peace.

I am in the middle of a song, a rhythm that has kept moving and moving me along. For 19 years I’ve been in the song —  singing, crying, sleeping and smiling — but always in the song. The lullabies, the lyrics, they’ve lulled me too. Now they’re replaced with ear pods in my sons’ ears, keeping my babies in their world and me increasingly out. This is normal I tell myself, but I can feel it, I can feel him already gone. I’m a sea creature that has attached myself to my children, emitting helpful stuff and sucking up their mess, which oddly enough feeds me too. This co-dependency is addictive.

I did it in my 20s when my parents were sick, rushing to their side in the hospital, smuggling in ham and cheese omelets, onion pizzas and whatever else they craved. I’ll do it for you, too, if you’re my person and you need me. I can’t help myself wanting to pave the way and make it easier, less scary, tastier and comfier. Yet I worry that I’ve lost myself in the process, so hyper focused on everyone else. I’ve become the classic middle age empty nester scratching my head and wondering what next. Will I have the courage to pursue my dreams if and when I can bring them into focus?