as long as i can remember, i’ve been keeping watch. i recall being at the art institute as a little little girl, standing in front of a mary cassatt painting of mother and child, only i was soon turned the other way. or my neck and eyes were anyway. i was far more enchanted by the woman standing just behind me, a woman as elegant as anyone i had ever seen, a silk scarf draped billowingly and oh-so-chicly round her neck and shoulders.
decades later, i was off to nursing school, and before that, working summers and weekends at a hospital, where i would all but be swallowed whole by the stories i could eke out from the nurses’ charts, the overheard snippets of conversation, the scuttlebutt over lunches back in the nurses’ lounge.
then someone gave me a notepad and a pen. ordered me in no uncertain terms: “take notes.” once, racing out the newsroom door to eyeball the apartment of the man suspected of lacing tylenol with cyanide, a legendary reporter, one who’d taken notes all around the world as a wire-service scribe, shot me one last instruction in the school of taking notes, “i want to know what the contac paper on his kitchen shelves looks like.” in other words: don’t miss a detail.
and so, all these years, i’ve been keeping watch. keeping watch on undulations of the lives around me, and my own. keeping watch to make sense. or least to glean some inkling of deeper understanding. communion, often, is the goal. to tease out those strands and threads that weave us all into a whole.
keeping watch on my own life this week, trying to chart the landscape of this house without a child, i keep bumping into one resounding thought: i’m playing house. it’s me and another grownup, and we’re all alone. no one needs to whisper. no one drinks the milk. barely anyone dumps dirty socks down the laundry chute. the hours seem longer and looser than before.
i’m not complaining. but nor am i quite at home. it’s less disconcerting than back in the days when i was first figuring out how to be a mum, and i was forever haunted by the notion that i was forgetting something — like the baby. i remember forever checking to be sure he was strapped into the grocery cart, the stroller, the carseat. i thought it wise to remind myself, “don’t forget the baby,” as if i just might walk out of the store and leave the little sweetheart behind, lost amid the cartons of cottage cheese and the lettuce heads.
this takes degrees less concentration; no one needs remind me that he’s not about to lope down the sidewalk, bound into the car, with two minutes to go till the school bell rings. (so last year!, as they say…) but the absence of the one who’s been here all these last 18 years, hmm, it’s downright hollow every once in a while.
i find it hardest when he calls me on the little phone, and hits the button that makes his face flash on the screen. when i catch a glint of the way his smile unfolds, or the certain twinkle in his eye, i need to all but cable myself to the chair to keep from leaping through that itty-bitty little screen. i read this week an earth-shattering report from the children on the u.s.-mexico border, children who said their “heartbeat hurts,” they are so scared, so lost without their moms and dads. theirs is a horror, mine a stage of life. but i felt the resonance in their exquisite, poetic, horrifying phrase: heartbeats do hurt sometimes, when we miss the ones we love, the ones we don’t quite know how to live without.
there’s a freedom in this newfound state of affairs, a day unbounded by school bells and soccer practices. i only need get out of bed when i need to get out. no one needs me to play at being the ejector parent anymore. no one races past me in the kitchen, reaching for the pancake wrapped in paper towel as he shoves his feet into shoes strewn by the door, and bolts into some car idling at the curb.
with freedom, though, comes responsibility, comes looming question: what will you do with your life? how will you make meaning every day?
i don’t yet know, is the answer. truth is i am slow walking, exploring each new hour as if i’ve been plopped in an unknown, uncharted place and time. and i am savoring. i am breathing deep, and pinching myself that we have actually gotten to this moment: two beautiful boys, grown, gone. on their own flight paths. sometimes, they stumble. and that’s when phone calls come. sometimes they must be soaring. and then i am left to imagine. left to consider this life that’s mine to pick up, carry forward.
and then there’s the playing house. the hard-won, long lost neat-as-a-pin-ness. the unrumpled beds. the bathroom sink that stays sparkly shiny (sans desiccated globs of toothpaste). the setting the table for two (i splurged on new napkin rings this week, and napkins too; decided it was high time we ditch the holey, raggedy ones, now that we are living civilized).
the good news (and i do not take this for granted) is that i really like the fellow with whom i share this old newly-empty house. being alone with him for days on end reminds me of back in the days when he was new to the newsroom, and i had a big fat crush on him. it’s almost as if someone waved a magic wand, and poof, suddenly here we are, all these decades later, the same two of us, only we lived a whole lifetime in between, birthed two lifetimes between us.
only it’s not make-believe.
and the drumbeat of the question, the insistent, persistent question, ala mary oliver, “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
it’s the question that stirs me night and day….
what stirs you? and how might you answer mary O’s exquisite question? (no need to answer aloud, simply a thought worthy of pondering…)
Oh, this has to be one of my absolute favorites of yours, and that’s saying something! My newly-retired (sort of) self is taking a gap year, taking time to try to answer Mary O’s question but also to try to slow down and see life differently than from Mach5 working life. It’s a challenge not to fall down the rabbit hole of feeling useless, but my soul needs the time to listen and learn. Am trying to be patient through the process. (Ha) Try to be gentle with yourself. All of us here at the table love you and have big open ears and arms for the wobbly times. ❤️😘
oh, and you know i love you. i felt a bit silly coming to the table this morning, knowing nothing, and with my scattershot things i’ve noticed this week. but as rilke tells us, lean into the question. it’s all about the questions we ask of our lives and ourselves. a life without self inquiry is a life i can’t imagine living.
the sweetest dearest thing is that i got a phone call this morning from a certain reader in gambier, ohio. turns out a boy i love is keeping watch on HIS mama, and he wants to make sure i’m ok. said he: “you taught me well how to worry.” gulp. lessons i wish i hadn’t taught. i promised promised promised that i am AOK, and as long as he is happy i am too.
i love that you are giving yourself permission to take a gap year. that’s brilliant. i took a gap summer, and i suppose my whole last year was rather gap-ish. or at least focused fiercely on savoring the days with my boy. i too will try to give myself permission to not quite know how to carve out that big wide arc, and simply live by the code of my beloved therese of lisieux: by little and by little. by little acts of courage, of kindness, of wide-open-heartness.
love you back, dear N. xoxoxo thank you for circling round…..
I love your columns but this one is so poignant and truly speaks to life. Tell me, what his your sweet boy doing? Thinking of you…..Laurie
Sent from my iPhone
oh, beautiful laurie! i think of you so so often! our sweet boy is off at kenyon college. our sweet boy has a heart as big as all of gambier, ohio, truth be told. our sweet boy makes my eyes brim with joyful tears. and my heart glows with the same. he’s funny as heck, and ironic as all get out. you taught him well, beautiful laurie. all your lessons stuck. xoxoxox
Darling, you put words to the feelings I have had these past 6 yrs. of being an empty nester. You DO appreciate the fellow across the table from you more and it IS rather like dating again. I love how you wrote, “we lived a whole lifetime in between, birthed 2 lifetimes between us.” Thank you for putting this so beautifully. You deserve so much more than new napkin rings…but it’s a start. Congratulations!
oh, you sweet angel. that sentence about lifetimes just came to me, and right away i felt the zing of the whole truth embedded in it. it’s what i love about writing. all of a sudden something ineffable is captured. netted inside words you didn’t even realize were hovering just beneath the surface. i will think of you every time i pull out those napkin rings. our broken ones carried us through 26 years. it’s time, isn’t it?
sending love from my house to yours. xoxox and love to your faraway boys….xoxo
First, you drove me away from your post to find out more about the “heartbeat hurts” story (truly heart wrenching)…and then, to return to say how exciting that you have the opportunity to fall in love once again, with just each other (not that you ever fell out of love) – but it is different at the dinner table without another to triangulate the conversation. Lovely to hear that you have still not run out of things to talk about, to share.
Also loved monkheart’s “gap year is not just for students” concept. There is a French saying that translates “The banks of the river are a good thing.” (I’m sure in French it is far more musical.) For now, the banks are gone…and it takes a lot to quell the anxiety and relax and be observant and allow God to reveal to us what we need to do…and who we need to be…next.
beautiful. oh, i live to discover the comments here, the shared truths and tales. i never know what i’ll find but i always know i will find beauty and more wisdom than i ever could have known.
i love the french saying, and i love your last sentence: “who we need to be…next.”
to be discovered…..
sending a giant hug.
After a busy weekend, I’m late to this table! Just want you to know I am happy to hear that you are settling into your new normal, that all is well, that you have special time to spend with Blair now, and lots of time to consider what your next beautiful chapter might be… Sending you and each one of your dear ones a world of love. xxx
and then what happens is you wake up on a monday morning, and you miss that kid so much. and your heart feels walloped after a string of days of thinking, “i can do this!” the undulations of the heart. ever uncharted.
i kind of suspected there would be a few mornings when i woke up and felt walloped. this is one of them. all will be well. just saying that it’s never a straight line when the heart is at play…
happy blessed monday and brand new week to you, too, dear amy. love that you had busy weekend. as weekends are sometimes meant to be. xoxox
Oh I could not love this more. I’ve been thinking about this myself lately as it’s not all that far off for us – just 3 short years. xoxox.
Hi Barb, This is from Jean Saucier – Brian’s blog is “Creatorlaw” and I didn’t realize that he was logged in here.
ha! i figured it out because when i get a comment from someone who hasn’t commented before it includes the email, and i could decipher from your email that is was you!!!
bless your heart! i cannot believe you’re only three years away! i will always think of your little guy as your little guy!!! i’ll be here when you cross that bridge!