This morning I woke up my son for high school for the last time. I know someone is reading this and clicking their tongue like a chiding hen, muttering under their breath, “YOU woke up your son?”
Yeah. I did.
I know the better thing would have been to type, I heard my son’s alarm go off, listened to his feet planting solidly on the ground…. but the better thing is not the truth, and it’s not how it’s gone in our house. In some ways, my children and I fell into this parenting thing together, landed on the hamster wheel and started running before we even realized we were standing on metal rungs. I don’t think we’ve stopped yet.
Stupid hamster wheel.
Structured routine is not where I shine as a mother. Enabling learned helplessness with an overabundance of love; might be my forte 🙂 But somehow, my son is graduating anyway.
Magna cum laude.
Because I did his homework too. Duh.
I’m kidding. I don’t remember Calculus!!
My boy is graduating.
When I say it out loud it sounds more like a question than a fact.
I try not to trifle in actually feeling things, since that just distracts me from getting things done. The calendar had been bleeding ink for weeks; scribbled notes on every empty block, last rituals of the school year blotting every single space. The last concert. The last play. The last award banquet. The last carpool.
We had been locked in a dead sprint towards the finish line, trying to keep up or catch up, or just not fall. “We just have to get through these last few weeks…” I’d say to myself over and over agains as I ran around finding props for plays, or making cupcakes for the banquet, throwing his white dress shirt into the dryer with a damp towel again and again so he’d appear unwrinkled, cared for. The chaos is nothing new, in fact, getting through the chaos has been the bulk of parenting for me. White shirts tumbling with a damp towel; the act of surviving.
When I was in high school they remodeled a busy intersection near my house to include a modern traffic circle we called, “The circle of death.” This was a novelty in our early 1990’s neighborhood and we turned the newness into a game, a teenager ritual. As we approached the roundabout, someone would yell from the backseat for the driver not to exit, to keep going around the circle of death. We’d pressure and conjul until the driver caved to the peer pressure, careening around and around the intersection while the centripetal force smashed everyone together like a s’more. The tires would squeal as everything spun like a carnival ride.
It became something of a show of bravery, and we’d brag to each other about who had completed the most circles around the circle of death. as we approached the traffic circle. Then, one night, I ignited my mothers competitive gene as we approached the circle of death, by declaring that so and so’s mother had gone around the circle of death 22 times. My mother turned to me, her eyes flashing maniacally. Challenge accepted.
The thing is my mom is a wild, wild overachiever. So if you think she was going to go with 23 times around the circle of death, barely eeking past the record you would be WRONG. She drove 88 times around the circle of death
Eighty eight times, careening haphazardly while we squeezed harder and harder against each other, laughing so hard tears streamed down our faces. We begged her to stop between the fits of laughter, our stomachs cramping, nausea rising.
And then, just when I was certain I was going to barf, she exited, and we drove away, our stomachs churning, our cheeks ruddy from the excitement, my mother muttering under her breath, “Top that!” But even after we left the intersection, everything kept right on spinning internally. It took a while to realize we were on a different trajectory, that we were driving straight.
And this is what I thought of when I woke my senior for the last time. I thought of exiting the circle of death.
Don’t be daft! I know I’ll wake him up again. I know he isn’t lost forever, but I also know I’m merging into a new lane, yielding to oncoming traffic. I’m not the only driver on the road.
No. He isn’t lost forever, but this leg of the journey, is.
When you bring your child home from the hospital, carry them inside like a rare painting, you don’t know how fast the time will go. Impatient, you shake your fist at time, eagerly anticipating the arrival of firsts. The mile marks of achievement you can brag about; proof they are keeping up; or you are keeping up. The first smile, the first time he rolled over. The first time he pulled himself up. The first time he pulled out my earring. The first time he slept through the night. The first time he bit my nipple. BTW there’s no spot in the baby book for that.
But at some point in the chaos of growing the sweaty mess of becoming, we crested the hill, and switched from first to lasts, and I didn’t even know.
The last time he wore footy pajamas.
The last lost tooth.
The last time I (cough, cough) the tooth fairy, forgot for three days to leave money for the lost tooth.
The last Hawaiian dance at the elementary school Spring Fling.
The last time he climbed into my bed during the night.
And the thing is, I didn’t know it would be the last. None of us ever do; we don’t even think about it, because mothers are cronically tired. We just want to sleep. Which is why I pulled the covers over both of us and didn’t even pause to take a mental snap shot or memorize the angle he formed as he stretched towards me, his neck arching towards me.
And I swore I would never forget all his idiosyncrasies, like the way he wore his favorite T-rex pajamas until the material was wafer thin from too many washings, the elastic spent. They were so small on his growing frame that every time he stretched, his belly button stared at me like a wide, all seeing eye.
“I could never forget that!” I said to myself. And it seemed that I never could, but all those tasks scribbled on the calendar crowded my mind too; the ink bleeding through the clarity of the vision, like a lipstick tube in the dryer, marking everything.
It happens in a flash, all of it. One day you misplace those ratty Jamies, and eventaully he stops asking for them; you don’t even feel the sand of significance slipping through the narrow neck of time. You don’t feel it because you are part of the ride; the shifting slope, the ups and downs, the teeter totter tilt from firsts to lasts. And in moments when the movements slows, when that sharp stab of longing for days gone by bites into you, you push it aside, because you have to find his soccer jersey in the dirty clothes, and cut up oranges for the team. There are things to do, milestones to reach, pigs to slop, chickens to feed, work to get done.
And so I woke my son like I always did, eased easily into the rut of routine. I asked the same questions I always asked before school, calling up the stairs while I picked up dropped towels and scraped black crumbs off the burned toast.
“Did you brush your teeth?”
Mom I’m eighteen, you don’t have to ask if I brushed me teeth…
“Well did you?” (insert heavy sigh). I’ll get to it, geez! I’m eating an orange!
“Do you have your homework?”
Mom it’s the last day of school, we already turned in our textbooks. There is no homework.
“Did you grab that form you needed?”
Mom you already asked me that.
“Well, did you?”
Fine. I’ll get it.
“Can you take the garbage out on the way to the car.”
“Did you remember to put a new liner in it?”
I am the keeper of the schedules, so I knew what day it was. I always know, I just disconnect from the knowing, so I can keep doing, the doing.
It was the last day of school but I didn’t allow myself to feel the weight of it, to sop it up like bread wiping up the last bit of gravy. I was too busy listening to the loud frantic ticking of the clock, too busy worrying about what I’d forgotten, if I would measure up. Keep up. Or ever catch up.
But when I got home, and picked up the dirty glass he left on the entry table, the dirty glass he always leaves on the entry table, I thought smugly. I stopped on the way to the kitchen, leaned against the wall, starring at the last remaining swallows of chocolate milk, a sludge as thick as mud in the bottom of the glass. And in the deafening calm, all I could think of was, the circle of death, and how we just exited. I felt queezy from the reciprocal force, dizzy from the constant motion, the round and round and round.
I thought I’d feel more relief that we had checked this task off the list; graduation. Check. And certainly, there is relief that we made it through, but also there is this sloshing uneasiness, this knocking, goulash of anger, and sorrow, and so, so much joy, the leftovers I sealed in Tupperware.
I broke my rule; allowed my thoughts to latch onto a loose thread and tug at the tight stitches of routine, loosen the weave that binds one thread with another. I stopped. I looked behind, I looked ahead, at the endless highway stretching a straight, unbroken line bland and empty. But I didn’t want the peace, the empty back seat, the no one saying, “He’s touching me!” I wanted the familiarity of chaos, the cintriprical force that kept us bound to each another, the ruddy cheeks from laughing too hard and the guttural feeling of unsurity, the teetering between nausea and elation, I wanted it back.
The tightrope of motherhood.