Ed Note: This piece was written in 2013
I’m glad he told me first. He might have avoided it, might have told Oma and Gerry (his grandmother and stepgranddad), Gramps, then his dad and then hoped desperately that one of them would “accidentally” break the news and spare him the difficulty of telling me. I wouldn’t have been insulted; one of the truly unlooked for miracles in my life is that my son and I are so close I don’t need pride of place. Whenever I’d been the last to learn bad news, he’d avoided telling me because he feared my disappointment. If he’d done something wrong, easier to tell his dad or Oma and get manageable doses of disapproval from them, then work up to me. If he had a problem or needed advice, no matter how sensitive, he’d tell me first. That’s me, in a nutshell. Bug: moralizing pain in the ass. Feature: useful for problems and advice. This news wasn’t a problem, wasn’t a wrongdoing. So what to do? And he told me first.
Well, actually, he told his boss first. My boss, dammit. I got him the job, three years ago. Started him on the teaching jobs that paid for the last three years of his five years at college and a reasonable amount of self-sufficiency on top of that. (His father and I covered insurance and cell phones, respectively, until this year.) Our boss wanted him to work in late August, so my son had to tell him the news and swear him to secrecy.
But then he told me. We were at our sushi bar. We’ve had a sushi spot since he was three, from the little privately owned place in Redwood City, through two different sushi boat places, an idea that he adored in early adolescence, to our current spot near my apartment. He sat down, and broke the news, one quick rip.
His girlfriend’s boss had just been transferred back to the home office, and she’s an invaluable administrator. She would be getting a raise and moving expenses to relocate. He was excited; he has wanted to live somewhere else for years. Now that he’d graduated, it was the perfect time. He would welcome any advice.
He is 25. Next year, he will be half my age. At 25, I was pregnant and had been married for two years and working as an applications programmer. Hard to argue he was too young. I didn’t want to. I was proud. In a world where 18 to 25 year olds are living at home and unemployed, he was well on the right side of the spectrum.
I remember thinking, as he told me the news, that I wouldn’t be sleeping for a few days. Plenty of time to come unglued. He wanted advice.
He wants to go into sales. He likes teaching, but is worried it won’t pay enough over time. In this economy, I worry that he should go for the certainty of his teaching skills. But shouldn’t he follow his dreams, give it a shot? Hadn’t I worked to ensure that he would have choices? His plan seems sound, and that night I told him to set a reasonable timeframe on looking for sales positions. I also said, for easily the 50th time, that he’d been a low impact college expense and I was more than happy to help fund ed school. He agreed that a timeframe is a good idea, and assured me he wouldn’t let expenses stop him from moving into teaching. I could see his mixture of anticipation and anxiety. He does not intend to be his practical girlfriend’s expensive luxury.
Meanwhile, some small part of my brain was howling, but it was still far away.
I cleared my throat. “So, I should probably meet the girlfriend one more time before you leave. You do understand, I hope, that you shouldn’t be moving with her unless you’re serious, right?”
“Right. And we should go out to dinner. You’ve only met her once.”
“Well, you always hide your girlfriends from me, which is sensible. Let Oma charm them. And let me say again how grateful I am that you spared me the trauma of being nice to a radical feminist.”
“She was rebound, after Jill. No reason to start an international incident for little more than a fling.”
Another miracle: he has stable relationships that bring him happiness. This, he did not get from me. While his father is married for the third time, three of his four major relationships, married or not, were well over a decade each. I was by a considerable amount the shortest and most traumatic of those relationships, while he was by a compelling distance the longest of mine. My son has had three long-term girlfriends, two of whom broke off with him reluctantly, each time after two years, because they weren’t ready to settle down. This one is, and they likely will marry at some point.
Which leads me to grandkids. I look forward to them. I wanted them to be local. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, came back to California, my grandparents were in Pennsylvania. I was always a visitor. My son grew up 10 minutes from his grandmother and step-grandfather, who he adores and is adored by—he’s actually lived with them for the past three years, until he moved in with his current girlfriend. I do not want to be a visitor, nor do I want to be visited. His girlfriend’s family is in Seattle. I will be an interloper. That night, I told myself not to borrow trouble. I now repeat to myself daily that my father, in Missouri, is nonetheless my son’s beloved and trusted adviser.
“If you have kids—and you should have kids—I’ll be so far away.”
“I’m hoping we’ll have kids before I’m 30. And if we do, you should move up. I don’t want you to be far away.”
I remember sitting there, looking at him negotiate his salmon roll with chopsticks. I taught him that. I taught him a lot. I have a little lead crystal bear that he gave me for his last high school Christmas. He told me I had a “real present” coming, but this was his prize for winning the school-wide AP Government President’s Trivia Bowl. He beat out everyone, including the valedictorian, with information he’d gotten not from school, but from countless car conversations in which I expounded on history, books, movies, food, and politics. Winning question: how many presidents had been impeached? Only he knew both. I told him he’d given me my “real present”, thanks.
The way other parents read to their kids, I showed him movies. From Ghostbusters at three to The Third Man at fifteen, via the Star Wars trilogy (the first one, the only one that matters) and musicals, from Singin’ in the Rain to West Side Story, we’ve seen them all. We’ve seen every Star Trek movie on opening night since The Undiscovered Country–except Nemesis, which we didn’t see at all. Despite our extensive viewing history, we discovered last September while eating burritos on the couch (I gave up dining room tables twelve years ago) thumbing through Comcast’s collection for a movie to watch, that I’d somehow missed introducing him to Double Indemnity. So he got to watch the greatest noir film ever made as an adult, old enough to absorb its entire impact.
Last month, I was looking for my dvd of Dirty Harry and noticed that half of my haphazard collection was missing. I groused to my son that my cleaning service must have stuck them in a drawer I hadn’t checked, and he looked sheepish.
“No, I stopped by and swiped them, mom. Have to acquaint the girlfriend with the classics. Her education’s been neglected.”
The night he told me, he mentioned what is lurking beneath the leaving issue.
“I’m kind of worried about you. You haven’t put up a Christmas tree in…”
I laugh. “Five years. I know.”
“And I know you have friends, but you spend so much time alone.”
“Which I’ve been doing for a while.”
“So this would be a good time to…re-evaluate.”
It’s not that I don’t have an identity outside of being a mom. I have several. I’m just not entirely sure I have what most folks would call a social life. It’s always been that way. I have many good, close friends, but I’m not part of any circle. And a number of those good, close friends live in other states and even countries—the up and down side of being someone who enjoys online discourse. I can go several days without speaking, which comes as a shock to those who don’t know me well, because lord, I’m a talker. Parties are unappealing unless I know everyone. And unless you’re the cable guy, my family, or a friend of my son’s, I’m not totally crazy about you being in my home.
But that was okay, because I’m a mom. Single parenting done poorly can lead to an emotionally incestuous relationship, in which the child is elevated to a partner in the worries and joys of daily living. I never mentioned to him my many fears when money was low, when I was worried about finding the next contract. There was no “we” about spending or saving money. I was always in charge. But when two people live in the same household, regardless of the relationship, they build up histories.
Through a combination of personality and choice, I’ve given my son an interesting life, stable on important issues and highly variable on everything else, and over twenty years of stories. The trip home from Egypt visiting my dad, flying standby, when the flight was cancelled. The first time he had a friend sleep over and offered him waffles for breakfast, and his confusion when this friend opened the freezer while he was getting out the waffle iron. The time he and his buddy brothers Amar and Dino obliterated two homemade pumpkin pies in an hour—two of ten I’d baked for Thanksgiving. The time I left three loads of clothes down at the apartment laundromat for over a week, and found them neatly folded on a dryer. The times he’d check my ed school notebooks to see how ferociously I’d doodled—the greater the doodling activity, the more aggravating the topic. The fireworks on the beach at Oahu with Gramps, the various trips to Disneyworld. The fried fish in Little Rock, on our road trip across the country the summer before he started college, seeing our North Carolina home for the first time in a decade. The time I mentioned it was my birthday, and, just four years old, he remembered the ice cream cake in the freezer from his party a month earlier, got that slightly stale cake down, put it in front of me and sang Happy Birthday all by himself. The time we were taking the wrong road to the Florida Everglades when he was mad at me because I’d refused to wait in a twenty-minute line at Togos, when I suddenly hit the brakes and made a U-turn because, as I explained, we were in the middle of nowhere and the barn restaurant with the words “BBQ” had a full parking lot. I still remember his face as he bit into his bbq sandwich and agreed that “don’t wait in a long line at Togos” is a good rule.
We have our talismans, our touchstones. Sushi bars, Chevys, where he watched La Machina make fresh tortillas before he could walk. The movies What’s Up Doc and Moulin Rouge. All things Star Trek. Baskin & Robbins ice cream cake, which must be mint chocolate chip ice cream and chocolate cake. My homemade aioli and French bread. Our beloved home in North Carolina that we’ve barely lived in, because neither of us could handle the travel required for my job, but love so much. Peanut blossoms.
And the going away process has been happening gradually, slowly. As a high school senior, he would call to tell me he was crashing at a friend’s house. He moved away for college. When he left his college quarters, I’d taken a one bedroom apartment (he’d strongly encouraged it), and he started living with Oma and Gerry. We now text more than talk on the phone. He’s taken to sending me images—most recently his college diploma. We’ve been having dinner at least once a month, usually more. And no matter where he is, he calls me at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
He’s not the only family I have. I’m a daughter who loves both her parents and sees them frequently. I’m a loved sister and aunt. I’m a good friend.
But the bulwark of my family is leaving. It’s been okay that I don’t have much of a social life. I’m a mom, yeah, my son’s in his twenties, but he’s in the area, we do things. Am I now just a woman in her early fifties who lives alone, goes on vacation alone, eats in restaurants alone? I’m not lonely. I don’t mind. Life didn’t happen to me; I made many good choices, made the most of opportunities when I could.
The two weeks before school started up again, I made a number of day trips and one day I ended up in Capitola, totally by accident. I wandered down to the pier and was thinking about dinner, wondering if Hanks at the Hook was still open (it’s not, alas), when suddenly I caught sight of the cliffs and recalled the last time I’d been there.
We were up on the road on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, talking. I was in my first year of teaching, he was in his third year of college, I was telling him I knew I didn’t like the school, wasn’t going to enjoy looking for another job.
“Why don’t you move to North Carolina? You’ve got the house.”
“Well, not until I get my credential cleared. But I’ve thought about moving there.”
I paused. “Look. I know you’re in college, you’re an adult. But I’m not quite ready to think I don’t add value to your life here. Moving to North Carolina seems like leaving you.”
We got distracted by a surfer and didn’t return to the topic for a while, but an hour or so later, as we were walking back to the car, he nudged me and said, “I wouldn’t want you to leave until I graduated, either.”
Now, suddenly remembering this, I was just as suddenly dissolved in tears. Daytrip over, I headed home, crying, until it suddenly dawned on me that such boohooing was both absurd and narcissistic. Parents actually lose their kids. For real. I’m even nervous typing this out, that’s how unthinkable a grief that is. And here I am caterwauling. No. This is not a loss. It’s a transition.
But this transition has me staring down the tunnel of that second half of life, the part that involves old age staring right back at me, waiting.
Will my near-isolation work out in my 70s and 80s? Am I really the type of person who only put up Christmas or Halloween decorations because I had a kid? Will I never entertain again, cook only for holidays—and fewer of those? Should I travel more? Find a hobby that involves meeting people? Actually furnish my apartment? Or at least buy a new couch, if not go so far as a dining room table? One thing my eventual old age will not involve: cats.
At least I switched jobs to one requiring daily interaction with a hundred people or so. My students would be shocked to hear that I’m anti-social. They hear about my beer-drinking buddies, my writing, my cooking. They stop by to talk, stay after class to ask me advice. For the immediate future, I won’t be living a wholly isolated life. I have time to adjust, if I decide I need to.
Like every parent, I want nothing so much as my children’s well-being. I want it so badly I may actually succeed in turning myself into a contented and well-adjusted person, if only for my children’s sake.
This Joyce Maynard quote drove much of my personal development after my separation, during my late twenties and early thirties. But only since the sushi restaurant have I understood that the maxim still holds true. If my life needs adjusting, then I have to do it, because turning myself into a reasonably well-adjusted person is a big part of my job as a parent.
So maybe I will start rituals. Maybe we should do a week vacation every year. Maybe I’ll always come up for Christmas. Maybe I’ll drive up when I feel like it, because that’s me. Maybe I’ll look for more local friends. Maybe I’ll start cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless—do you think they’ll make me use canned pumpkin?
The best day of my life before giving birth was not quite as good as the worst day since, and I pray that good fortune continues. At no point in my life would “happy” be on the list of words used to describe me, but since becoming a parent I have routinely known joy. I am a good mom. But being a good mom has made me a better person. I’ve grown as my son has, and it turns out that’s not a process that ends when he can vote. Which he does, as I do, as his father does, at every election.
We had his farewell party last week—at Oma and Gerry’s. He planned it with them, bless their hearts. All the local family came. I made pulled pork and peach pie. His girlfriend was very impressed and asked for the recipe—although it turns out that he does all the cooking.
He left early this morning. We went out to dinner last night, just him and me. I made it clear I was fine if it was the three of us, but he wanted it to be just us. We went to Chevys. He hugged me goodbye. I didn’t cry until I got home, and I promise I didn’t weep.
Most parents don’t engage in this soul searching, but overthinking helps me find something I’m often lacking on short notice: perspective. A month after getting the news, I realize that, far from being a loss, and more than just a transition, I have been handed the results of success.
This is what success looks like: My son has a great relationship with a nice, smart, successful woman, a college degree, career goals and a contingency plan.
He’s moving to Seattle. I’m fine. Thanks for asking.