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Category: growing up too fast

the inside-out blessing of the summer fever

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i wouldn’t wish it on anyone. but now that it’s settled into this old house, now that it’s felled the boy whose legs are almost too long to stretch across the couch, the one whose peach fuzz pokes out from under the ice-cold washcloth i lay across his brow, now that it’s given us hours and hours to spend in conversation that flows from idle to silly to whatever’s been corked inside his heart, the summer fever has its advantages.

most especially when it hits on Days 30, 29 and 28 of the countdown to college. in the undulations of fever, when the hours stretch on and the mercury rises again, we’ve burrowed deep into the gift of time spent inches away from each other.

i’ve pulled out all the ministrations he’s come to know by heart, the ones synonymous with being sick in the house where he grew up: the plastic cup filled with ice chips, doused in spoonfuls of honey; the stack of saltines for nibbling, the cold washcloth swirled through the ice-water basin that sits not far from where he lays. he knows the rhythms and sounds of being nursed back to vigor. he asks, from his sickbed, from under the washcloth, “what will i do if i get sick at college?” and i sense it’s one of only dozens of college what-ifs.

the thing about fevers is they take down the walls we wear like armor to get through the highs and lows of the days. fevers strip away the tough stuff, fevers peel away the pretense. fevers let loose what lurks deep inside.

and so these have been the tenderest days. days that wouldn’t have come if the fever hadn’t landed, hadn’t slowed the boy in his i’m-soaking-up-every-hour-with-friends tracks. most days, he’s a blur whirling in and out the front or back door, up the stairs to change from basketball in the sun to dusk at the beach. he’s quite brilliantly making the most of the signature summer, the last one of high school, the last before his tight band of brothers scatters like pool balls across the smooth green velvet that is america’s collegiate landscape.

and because my singular focus these days is soaking up my end of his equation, savoring these hours before it goes silent, before the sheets on his bed are unrumpled for weeks, before i set only two knives and two forks at the dinner table, i’m receiving the summer fever as a gift from the heavens. using the hours to press against his heart the truths i want him to seize: that he’s learned, under our tutelage, just how to fend for himself; that all these years in the crucible of our love is firm foundation for whatever comes his way; that i will always, always be only a phone call away (he actually told me this week he’s going to be calling a lot — this from the kid whose version of a long phone call is three sentences before the dial tone comes).

and, of course, that i will always make house calls.

we’ve even used these hours and days to turn back the clock, to pull from the bookshelf the books he loved as a wee little fellow. he’s curled his hot self beside me as i’ve read and turned pages, followed the antics of poor james and the most giant peach. it’s not a bad thing to take a time-out, to review in real time the idiosyncrasies of how you were loved. in sickness and in health. on good days and days that were not.

it’ll be a long time is my guess till the trusty old washcloth, the one with magical powers, gets pulled from the shelf, and lovingly draped on the very hot brow of the boy i’ve loved through it all.

and now it’s time for the fever to go, and the trusty old washcloth with it….

did you grow up with particular idiosyncrasies on the days you were sick, and someone nursed you back to raring to go?

 

when summer comes easy: things i wish i’d known

i was watching butter melt into a bath of milk and sugar and cinnamon when it dawned on me: there is something about this summer that there’s never been before. and it’s not just that the kid i love so much is leaving in less than 60 days, though that’s the thing that’s somehow at the root of it all.

watching butter pool across milk, apparently, is a stirring prompt for early-morning philosophizing, for checking one’s soul, and seizing a revelation or two. what i realized, as i whipped up blueberry bread pudding on a wednesday, no less, whipped it up simply because the kid i love loves bread pudding, loves it best in summer when the season’s rotund little berries the color of night are tossed in with abandon, is that somehow this summer’s defining watch word is easy, as in stripped of all the junk — my junk — that usually gets in the way.

easy as in not worrying. not worrying about the clock, or deadlines, or whether he’s home at the stroke of midnight or half an hour later. easy as in surrendering to the whims of the day, plopping onto the couch, finding his hand at the end of my fingers, wrapping mine around his, and then simply sitting there for enough innings to figure out who’s playing who, and who might be ahead, all the while weaving in the sorts of questions and curiosities that come in the lulls of lazy baseball.

i am, for this one short sweet summer, devoting my days and my nights to simply, softly, loving my kid. savoring every single thing about him. i am relishing as if there’s no tomorrow, because in some ways there isn’t. there really isn’t. except for the way tomorrow affords us the joy — the possibility — of trying all over again. each day another chance to love in the ways we hope and dream and know we can love.

i am, this short sweet summer, sinking deep and certainly into one and only one thing: mothering with all my heart. mothering without getting in my own worrisome way. (and truth truly be told, i’m mothering with all my heart because somewhere along the line it’s the one place in my life where i found my deepest wholest holiness, and i am not wanting to let that go…)

makes me think i sure wish i’d known to be this sort of mother at the other end of this equation, when i was just starting out, a quarter-century-plus ago. i remember how, back in the daze of a newborn living, breathing, squalling, hungry-like-clockwork baby, i armed myself with charts — breastfeeding charts and safety pins moved from bra strap to bra strap, my highly-evolved method for tracking which breast for how long, at what intervals — seeking solace in sharp-angled grids and penciled-in numbers. i steeled myself against the uncertainties and vicissitudes of toddlerhood by worrying about whether we were five minutes late to dump ourselves into the station wagon for the short drive to nursery school — as if someone at the schoolhouse door was doling out demerits — for the mothers who failed to make it on time. the soundtrack of my life was worry upon worry upon worry. no wonder firstborns wind up so crazily cross-wired.

i wish, some time before this very last summer of my very last kid (i know there are only two, and the way i phrase it it sounds like there’ve been a good half dozen), in these countdown weeks before he hauls off to college, i wish i’d realized how lovely it is to be, well, carefree. or as close as i’ll ever come, anyway. (someone once told me i was calm like a swan and after thinking, oh, honey, you sure don’t know me, i shot back, “yea, smooth on the surface, but paddling like heck underneath.”)

truth is, the credit for this newfound way of lazy-being goes to the kid himself. he’s intent on one thing this summer: savoring each and every hour of each and every day. savoring it even when he’s flipping burgers and shaking the baskets of fries for long hours at the short-order grill where he picks up a paycheck. savoring the nights with his toes buried in sand, the moon overhead, and the blankets around him filled with his gaggle of friends. savoring the long drives and deep conversations, the kinds best unspooled from behind the wheel, when two or three pile into the old sedan and clock miles up and down the leafy winding road that hugs the shoreline here in chicago. plopping himself on the bench where i sit at the kitchen table, stretching out his long-and-getting-longer legs, and idly clicking his phone while shooting me the occasional question. his mantra: gotta make the most of this. gotta love this summer.

and so i take my cues from the master. delighted to be tutored in the fine points of taking it slow. in savoring. in tossing aside the occasional heart-jabbing worry.

i am finding the succulence of summer. the succulence of mothering at its juiciest essence. i am letting the soft breeze blow across my bare toes. tossing out the to-do lists and time clocks. and making bread pudding on any old wednesday.

i am learning to summer — to mother — on the very last page of the chapter that ends just before one of us shoves off to college. if only i’d known all along.

how did you learn to savor — be it a season, or simply an hour? or is it something you’re still trying to learn? who have been your most unforgettable teachers, and what are the lessons they’ve taught?

p.s. because i didn’t want it to get lost in the shuffle, i posted yesterday (a rare thursday post) my latest chicago tribune review of a book for the soul, in this case, the glorious christine valters paintner’s dreaming of stones: poems, a glorious volume of which i wrote (in part): “Paintner is fluent in the lush language of earth and sky as well as the otherworldly, the mysterious beyond. Born and raised in New York City, she is old-soul Celtic, through and through. Her poems rise out of the monastic practice of dwelling in silence, and hers, often, is a churchless god. A god who can’t — and won’t — be confined. A god who belongs to any and all.” 

the very last school bell: a litany of thank you, thank you, thank you

 

i’m guessing you thought i might explode by the time today came along — today, the day my once-upon-a-prayer miracle child, the Egg Who Wouldn’t Take No For An Answer, the one who made me an Old Mother in the obstetrical books, born just shy of 9-11, the kid who all but grew up here at the chair (he was new to kindergarten the day this began), today’s the very last day he saunters out the door to high school. the day you might say my front-line duties are downgraded/diluted/shoved to the side, as i move one step back to where i mother from a little bit farther away, from impending long distance, from text and phone call flung from cell phone tower to cell phone tower clear across the heartland, 357 miles kitchen door to college door. 

i actually thought i’d weather it without too much percussion. 

i was wrong. 

somewhere in the last couple days — maybe it was when that sweet boy reached his lanky arms across this old maple table and said the before-dinner prayer the other night, the last Grammy Tuesday of a quarter-plus-century, when he thanked God for a Grammy who was there every step of the way, to take him to toddler gymnastics, most every soccer match he ever played, who pored over spelling books with him, and helped him figure out his math, and then cooked his very favorite orange chicken or her famous 3-4-5 stew, to boot. or maybe it was the night before last when he paused in the dark at the top of the stairs and asked if he could give me an extra-tight hug — it hit me. washed over me like the tidal wave i should have expected. 

all i could think of was thank you. thank you, Universe and heavens above, for this unlikeliest Wonder that i’ll ever know. the one i’ll never ever get over. 

thank you to the whole litany of heroes big and small who have made this adventure in loving and growing a human so very extraordinary. 

thank you — for there’s no finer place to begin — to the mighty big brother who, long ago, declared the impending wonder his “dream come true!” and never once wavered from thinking so. and never once acted as if the late-stage expansion to our little family was an interloper, or any sort of nuisance. (heck, in all these years, i’ve never heard either one yell at, poke, prod, or otherwise seriously incense the other; that eight-year buffer does much to dilute filial rivalry.)

thank you to the five-star teachers, the coaches, the counselors, the school-bus drivers, Other Mothers, and tribal elders who’ve aided, abetted, and leapt into Superhero togs and tights on an as-needed basis. thank you to the dispensers of band-aids and bubble gum, forgotten soccer shoes and sharpened pencils, all along the way. to the school nurses who quelled the queazy tummy and oh-so-calmly called me at home when he got klonked on the playground. thank you, thank you, to the kindergarten teacher who made him giggle each and every day (and whom he declared his “very favorite ever” till well into high school). the first-grade teacher who tucked love notes in his pencil case, and chased away the butterflies. the second-grade teacher who called no attention to the fact that alphabet letters were not lining up into legible words, and certainly not into readable sentences. to the third-grade teacher who never taught him cursive (it’s a lost art, i’m told), but taught volumes on kindness. and on through to the seventh-grade social-studies teacher he wants to grow up to be.

and then there’s high school, where a phalanx of first-rate teachers and stellar human beings — biology, debate, and american studies, in particular — made him love even impossible subjects, and imparted wisdoms far beyond text books. and where anyone willing and brave enough to steer an american teen through the labyrinth — and pitfalls — of modern adolescence is more than a superstar in my little book.

to the brilliant journalist and editor and outside-the-box thinker in cambridge, MA, who invited us all to spend a year of sumptuous thinking in 02139, and gave the kid a chance to live out his never-say-no, “We Need to See the World!” philosophy. one that gave him a flotilla of friends from around the world (and a mighty fine Common App essay for college, besides). 

to the glorious one who, early on, helped him figure out how to tie his shoes, hold a pencil, and cut with a knife, when those dag-nab things confounded him. and who, to this day, has never stopped looking out for him. to the extra-special soul who taught him all about puns, and irony, and the first few chapters of critical thinking, and to whom he owes his very proud (albeit scant) claim to Game of Thrones origins (that glorious teacher’s very own kid just happens to be showrunner, writer, and co-creator of Thrones, and back in the day she regaled us in real time with tales of the curious show in the making — one whose name i never failed to mix up, forever calling it Crown of Thorns, which it was certainly not). 

thank you to the brilliant pediatric nurse practitioner who nursed our boy back from a nasty concussion (or two), and defended his case before the high school’s board of inquisitors. thank you to every single wizard who helped him iron out the kinks of growing up in a deeply digital, over-pressurized world. thank you to those rare and heavenly friends of mine who have always, always, talked to him as if he was their peer. and who dialed up the shine in his eyes. (wink-wink to the one who sent him the many-paged letter of wisdoms he keeps tucked in his bedside drawer, and to the one over whom he now towers and loves with all his heart as she fuels him with big ideas and ways to wrestle injustice in the world.)

thank you for the grandma and grandpa from far away who have sent love notes and trinkets and holiday treats — and countless knock-knock jokes and infinite, infinite love, year after year, phone call after phone call, since the hot august day he was born. thank you for the upper-east-side aunt who is, hands down, the very best giver of ahead-of-the-curve boy gifts that ever there was. thank you to the auntie now in maine who once upon a time, among other weekly adventures, wrapped him in aluminum foil, and led him by the hand into the world of unlimited arts and creation. and to the cincinnati aunt who drives as many hours as it takes to be here for most any special occasion — or plain old sunday brunch. and to the uncles who have loved him up close and long-distance for all of his years. especially the ones who sit down beside him and engage in deep and long-winding conversation (and don’t mind at all being listed as the one to call, God forbid, in any emergency). and make him laugh out loud at their bottomless jokes.

there really aren’t words to capture the love that’s grown between my sweet boy and my mama. it’s one of the breathtakingest loves i’ve ever seen. he simply adores her. takes her by the hand and whirls her in circles, their own imaginary waltzes. sets aside most saturdays for lunch with her, treats her to hot dog and fries and silly conversation. sees in her a tenderness that she might have reserved just for him. 

and thank you, of course and emphatically, to his most beloved band of brothers, the comrades in arms who together have taken on the ups and downs of boyhood, straight through to high school graduation. the antics they try to hide from parents, and the ones we’ve watched wide-eyed — and proud. a boy couldn’t wish for more loyal — or hilarious — or tender sweet, true-to-the-end friends.

thank you to his papa, who has loved him lavishly and wisely. and without whom i’d be lost. (and whose particular thank yous are spelled out in real-time, in words spoken not typed.)

and thank you, most of all, to the God who gave him to us. who gave me one more chance to try out these mothering tricks, to traverse the twists and turns of the tight mountain pass. to test my patience, and melt me all over again. to leave my mark on the world, in the indelible form of the Boy with the Extra-Big Heart. 

watch over him, angels, saints and heaven above. he’s my treasure. and he’s just about ripe for the world.

amen.

forgive my diving into the long and winding particular here. i’d meant to make it more decidedly universal, but got caught along the way, in all the nooks and crannies of remembering. i could have strung together a litany of “chairs” from over the years, monster fighter, reading by the light of double DD, heart to heart. all of which are sealed here — and, some, in the pages of my trio of books. 

my beautiful brave friend robbie died this week. her wisdoms are sealed against my heart. she was so rare, and so very very brave. here’s a bit of her beauty, her capacity for pointing us toward what most mattered….may her memory be a blessing forever.

who are the heroes — especially the unsung ones — in the world that is yours? the ones who might never realize just how much they matter?

what it takes: an inventory of the heart

a woman i have come to love dearly, a woman as close to human sunshine as might be, birthed an idea a few months back, to gather women on the eve of mothering day, for a special mothers’ mass at the lovely little catholic church in the leafy little town where we live. she asked if i’d write something, and then tiptoe to the altar and read the words, something of a reflection at the end of mass. i said yes, of course.

a handful of the lovely women who were there asked if i would please, please, please give them a copy of what i wrote, because they wanted to give the words to women they loved for mother’s day. of course i said i would, so here they are. 

Long, long ago, so long ago now I can barely remember, but back in the day before there was anyone on the planet who called me his mama, before I was the first one anyone thought to call in the deep dark of the night or the soul, before I was the one who two humans were certain would know where to find any lost object under the sun, get them out of any imaginable jam or tight-spot or pickle, before I was the one who pinch-hit as therapist, philosopher-in-chief, laundress, driver, nursemaid, human alarm clock, short-order chef, in-house theologian, and occasional dispenser of wisdom or knowledge or simply Advil and band-aids, I had no clue how clueless I was in the mothering department. 

I think maybe I thought it was going to be like babysitting. Only without having to peek out the window to see if the grownups were pulling in the driveway. And without having to race around the house — in the two minutes between the crunch of the tires in the drive and the turn of the key in the back door — hiding evidence of the pillow fight and the popcorn disaster and the mess in the bathtub that made the little darlings — oops! — an hour late for bed. 

And, maybe I thought, when it was your turn to be the grownup, your turn to haul in the groceries, hold the keys to the car, give up your window seat on the airplane, at least you got to pick the names of the little rascals you’d be watching — for the next 20 years. And then some.

Nope, no one could have truly clued us in, into this life-leap that catapulted us into motherhood. No one could have sounded loudly enough the early warning system. No one could have made you believe, no matter how many times they whispered it in your ear: This will be the hardest wholesale rewiring of who you thought you were in the world. And it will test your every instinct for survival, for faith, for long-distance endurance.

Fact is, you were hardly alone — though you might have felt you were stranded on a godforsaken island — when, in those early days, you were totally flummoxed by the wee swaddled bundle, the one who weighed in at less than two sacks of flour, for crying out loud (oh, and, yes, it did that too — cried out loud. Till you were certain DCFS — or your mother-in-law — might be called, and you’d be revealed as not-yet-ready-for-licensing in the maternal department). 

Who would have feigned surprise, if, once or twice — or dozens of times a week those first couple weeks — you’d strongly considered returning said bundle to the delivery room that delivered that babe in the first place?

After all, in the deep darkness of those late noisy nights, you’d plotted it out, hatched your escape route: Come the next inky twilight, you’d just mosey back to the maternity ward, drop the squawky bundle at the nurse’s station, attach a Post-it note that read something along these lines: “So sorry. This is way more than I ordered. You really should find someone better suited to the job. I’m afraid I’ll break/scar/ruin (insert your own disaster verb here) the little sweetheart.”

But then, in the next instant, when those matchstick-sized fingers curled into the fleshy folds of your neck, or clung to your breast as if you were the life raft (which you were), or when you inhaled a whiff of that newborn-baby scalp, or marveled at the chubby thigh that was dimpled — and delicious — from the get-go, you surrendered all over again. 

You felt that hot streak of motherlove rise up from deep down inside, and you knew — even though you had not one clue how — that you were in this for the long haul. And there is no turning back. 

No turning back from the toughest job you’ll never get fired from. Even when you swear to your best, best friend that you really blew it this time. 

No turning back from the job that promises to test all the parts of you that you were actually proud of, and all the other ones you’ve always known you were sorely lacking.

No turning back from the closest you might ever come to knowing what it means to be the first-response rescue squad, to save the gosh-darn day (even if all that means is that you find the lost cellphone just before you toss the dirty jeans into the sudsy washtub). To be the one and only who can soothe sobs, make the hurt go away, quell the queazy tummy.

Here’s a little noticed omission: If you flip through the dictionary, and dawdle in the M’s, you’ll find the definition for Motherhood severely lacking. You’ll find no mention of the resilience that’s required, or the capacity for your heart to triple in size, exponentially, year after year. 

You’ll find not a word about the long nights of courage when the little numbers on the thermometer keep rising, and all you can do is walk in circles, draw the bath, climb in and pray. 

You’ll read nowhere about the cavernous hours you spend pacing as the minute hand on the clock ticks round and slowly round, until the click at the door — the one you begged the heavens to hear before your heart pounded through your chest — until the click finally comes.

You won’t see mention of the tossing-turning nights, the ones when you lie awake, playing and replaying the playground scene, the one your little one tearfully spilled into your arms, as you tucked him goodnight and he told you why he can’t go back to school. Ever. 

No, motherhood in all its nooks and crannies can hardly be charted for all its dips and inclines, its shadows and, yes, its radiant graces. 

To be a mother is to sign on for life. To take your seat in the front row of a love affair — a heart-to-heart entanglement — one that unspools from inception, and knows no pause. 

Some days, yes, you’ll be the teacher. But, more often, you’ll be the one who’s soaking up lessons you’d otherwise never have had the guts to tackle. And your little person, so often, will be the one who’s spilling wisdom, speaking truth, and doling out humility by the cupful.

Truth is: You thought you were loving to the outer limits of your heart, then, one dark afternoon you’ll never forget, just after the stranger called to say she’d found your kid unconscious, lying on the Green Bay Trail, bloodied and banged up, thrown from his bike, after you’d raced to the ER, prayed every prayer under the sun and the moon and the night stars, you held your breath for one long hour while the doctor read the CT scan that would tell you if your kid’s spinal cord was severed, and during that hellish 60 minutes, you’d already decided, so help you God, that you’d be the one to give him bed baths the rest of his life, and to sit by his pillow reading Hemingway and Twain and Seuss and 101 Dumb Baseball Jokes till the end of time, if that’s what it came to. And when the all’s-clear sign finally came, you dropped to your knees and swore to God you would never, for an instant, take for granted the messy kid who could not, for the life of him, pick up the killer piles off his bedroom floor. And whose beautiful mind is the one piece of him you were not willing to surrender. Not even in your hour of deepest darkness.

And then, too soon, comes the day when you leave that kid on some leafy college quad, or watch her board the flight to boot camp, and your knees will shake, and your heart will feel like its cracking — so much so you’re tempted to drive to the ER, because maybe, you think, this is a real live heart attack, this pain that’s piercing through your chest — and you walk away — from that college quad or that airport terminal — more alone than you ever knew you could feel — and you wonder where all the hours went, and if you taught the kid everything you really should have made sure she knew. And did you tell her often enough: I love you, just the way you are.

And you think back over the fevered nights, and the dawns when the retching at the toilet would not end. And the tears spilled over mean words hurled on the playground. And the countless negotiations you endured — bargaining for one more hour before curfew, one more text before lights out, one more bite of broccoli before you’re allowed up from the table.

And you ask yourself — how in the world did you do it? 

And you take a census of this woman you have grown to be, this mother you’ve become, and you realize who you are is mightier than the fiercest wind, and tenderer than a balmy April’s breeze. You’ve weathered tornadoes of the heart, and sailed on interludes of giggles and long walks squeezing hands.

You’ve stood up to bullies and talked down the coach who tried to cheat your kid. You’ve defended and pleaded and apologized for the wrongs your kid did not intend. You’ve gone woozy when you spied the gash in your kid’s head, and held him down with kisses as they stitched him back together. You’ve melted into tears when the stranger called to thank your kid for sticking up for hers — in front of an entire lunch table, God bless him. 

And you’ve gotten up in this blessed beautiful church to tell anyone who’d listen: The holiest job I’ve ever done, the one that soared my heart to heights that I’d have never known, the job that took my broken self and made me whole, it’s the sacred call to mothering. 

And it is for the strong of heart. And it is all of us. Every blessed one of us. 

So help us, Mother God. Amen.

and so, on the eve of this next round of Mothering Day, blessings to all who mother in all forms of the life-giving verb. especially to my very own Original Mother Nature, and my very own “other mother,” my mother-in-heart, who happens to be mother to the man i love for life….to everyone for whom this day comes with crushing heartache. and for every someone who has found deep inside herself capacities and wonders she’d never have imagined. may we all be blessed. this old world desperately needs a whole lot of mothering. xoxox

tell us your signature tale of motherlove: who taught you, and what were her most lasting lessons?

p.s. photos up above are, left to right, my mama shielding me from raindrops (and everything else) the day we brought sweet Will home from the hospital, and — eight years later — the day sweet Will shielded me from raindrops the day we brought sweet Teddy home from the hospital. 

p.s.s. a few years ago, at the mothers’ mass at old st. pat’s, our little church downtown, i gave a version of these very remarks; my sunshine friend asked me to give the same reflection, but of course i tweaked for this week’s mass. because writing, like mothering, is an endless exercise in revision. 

TK _ WK hug

my sweet boys the day we left the taller one at law school…(almost two years ago)

waffling

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waffling, as in waffles (and bacon and hash browns and berries, etc., etc.) by the dozens and dozens…

i’m doing my arithmetic. multiplying quarter cups and teaspoons by multiples. i’m firing up the waffle iron. dumping hash browns in a vat. i’m making first-friday, end-of-high-school brunch for however many high school boys decide to swoop through the front door any hour now.

mostly, i’m squeezing every last drop of joy out of this bumper crop of boys i love. boys i’ve known, some of them, since they were wee tots. i’ve watched first days of kindergarten, first school-bus ride, first loose tooth, first sleepover, first at bat and strike out, too. i’ve watched this crop from almost the beginning, the whole lot of them. i’ve been nothing more than a bit player at the margins of their childhoods, but i’ve been keeping close watch, and i’ve been listening. i’ve known of dark shadows haunting some of them, and scary monsters that would not go away.

across the years, i’ve grown to love this brood. i’ve watched as they’ve reached out to weave a tapestry of love, a band of brothers, if ever there was. i’ve watched them surround the boy i love the night he got cut from soccer. i’ve watched them pile out of a van, bearing ice-cream cake and cookies, the night the kid i love got sidelined in the middle of tryouts, after getting kicked in the head in a scramble at the goal, and the trainer could not let a would-be concussion back onto the field. i’ve listened as i drove them mile after mile. remember back to second grade, when one tried to teach the others the intricacies of quadratic equations. heard them race to read 100 books one summer. watched them run around the neighborhood giggling, chasing make-believe superheroes on their phones. and, in the latest interlude, i’ve listened closely as each one reached for college dreams, listened closely as heartaches came and they leapt in to console each other, to bear the hurt together, share the load, shake it off, and laugh the night away after all. they are each other’s front-line rescue squad of heart and soul. theirs is a deep-grained bond, a glorious brand of friendship i wish could be bottled, sold on supermarket shelves. we’d all do well to learn a thing or two from their thick-or-thin inseparability, their faith in each other’s goodness, their forgiveness at ordinary bloopers.

it’s a blessed thing to love not just your own, but a whole flock of little rascals. to blink your eyes and see them not as little rascals shyly coming to the door, but grown men (with shoes twice the size of mine) now looking me in the eye, engaging in nuanced conversation about the politics or the heartache of the day.

i’m going to miss the lot of them — their cacophony rising from the basement where they gather with nothing more risqué than pretzel twists and gatorade, where they drape themselves amoeba-like on arms of chair, on beanbags, on the treadmill track (unplugged and motionless, at least most of the time). i’m going to miss the way they swarm the kitchen, locusts sucking up whatever crumb of carb or sugar they can find. i’m even going to miss the rides to school, where conversation keeps time with NPR, and we engage in everything from venezuela to william barr or the latest bit of drama from the high school halls (i only catch the latter if i’m listening really really closely).

they’re a bunch of boys so good, so unblemished, it gives me hope — a bumper crop of hope — for the world.

missing the whole lot of them might make it a bit more tolerable to imagine missing only one. the one and only who’s been haunting these halls all by his lonesome for the last eight years. ever since the steamy august day we dropped his big brother off at college, and motored down the highway, wiping away the tears that would not end.

we take our goodbyes in sips and bits. makes it far more bearable than one big final gulp. we animate those leave-takings with the wrappings of joy. with one more excuse to fire up the waffle iron, crank the oven, haul out the maple syrup by the gallon.

long ago, when i too was a high school senior and my mom and dad were out of town, i somehow invited every single girl in my class (that would be a few hundred) for may day breakfast before the school bell ring. i somehow thought of that the other day, and thus the invitation for the flock of high school senior boys. thank goodness it’s not the entire class. i’d be neck-deep in waffles, if it were.

i’m getting off easy here this morning. waffles for 20 oughta be a breeze.

what are the rites and rituals of goodbyes that have animated your years? and while we’re at it, anyone have a simple plot for keeping waffles, bacon, sausage and hash browns hot and to the table?

cherish: these are the days i’ll forever miss

TK _ WK hug

something like feathery-flaked fairy dust — just a pinch, mind you — has descended on these days. there’s a palpable sense that we are living in hallowed time, on the permeable cusp of still holding on, but soon letting go. of liminal space, of a threshold when all the now is magnified, each fine grain of holiness amplified by the undercurrent of knowing these hours are numbered, this proximity will slip away.

cherish is the word that rumbles round my head — and my heart. it’s the sacred instruction whose imperative i follow.

fourth quarter senior year of high school started just the other day. for the kid born when i was barreling toward 45. for the kid i never ever ever thought i’d get to cradle, to fold in my arms. for the dream i feared i’d lose when his delivery got bumpy and a phalanx of top-notch neonatologists slithered into the murky shadows of the delivery room.

you never get over a miracle. i know i won’t.

even on the days when we’re nearly late for school because he won’t budge from under his covers — and what a miracle that that’s about the worst i can come up with — i never really lose touch with the blessedness of his existence.

truth be told, i get the sense that he too has an inkling of what’s coming, and he too is holding on just a wee bit tighter. even though for months now he’s teased me mercilessly about the fact that his days here are counting down.

in the last couple weeks, word has descended from college admissions offices far and wide and even close to home. friend after friend has decided, declared, committed. the boy we call our own, he is still deciding. we’re making one last trek to a couple campuses this weekend. taking one close look, and hopefully driving home knowing (although rain and more rain is in the forecast, which makes for dreary looking). maybe seeing a bit more clearly the outlines of what lies ahead.

but even without his own certainty yet, it’s the certainty of kids all around him that’s seeping in the sharp edge of truth: high school, this era he thought would never end, it’s over, done, finished, just the other side of this quarter that started this week. it’s a two-digit countdown if counting by days; it’s now less than two months away.

all of which dials up the urge to pay close attention. to savor. to cherish.

which makes this all the more, the tender season. there’s always something about springtime that pulses with a certain poignance. i always feel the equal parts light and shadow in these weeks of quickening. there’s hallelujah, there’s heartbreak, there’s loss, there’s triumph. there’s death and resurrection. nubs of newborn green at the end of the branch. mama bird in her nest-building frenzy. baby bird fallen from the nest. tender shoots bent under the crush of late-season ice or snow. the bush that didn’t survive the winter. the bulb that rises anyway. the fragile frond unfurling. the song of the wren.

i’ve written (here, and in the pages of slowing time) of the enlightened wisdom of the japanese who teach that the beauty of the cherry blossom — sentinel of spring — is its evanescence. “the very fact that at any minute a breeze might blow and blossoms will be scattered. they’re keen to what it’s teaching: behold the blossom. it won’t last for long.” nor forever.

nor these numbered days of childhood, the chapters that all unfold beneath one shared roof. the chapters where, night after night, you can perk your ears to the sounds of someone shuffling off to bed. those long-ago nights of bedtime stories and lying still beside him, in hopes that sleep would come to him before it came to whichever grownup had drawn the short straw that night, those nights are now but memory. the ritual these days is to listen for the click of the front door somewhere round the midnight hour. and not too long from now there will be no noise at midnight, nothing but the sound of a single sheet being pulled up round our noses. his room, the one at the bend in the stairs, it’ll lie untouched, un-messed-up for long weeks and months between college breaks. i’ll wander in, run my hand across the un-hollowed pillow. maybe sift through piles left behind. i’ll wonder how we got to such an empty room so fast…

i will hardly be surprised by the hollowness of those days to come. the ones where i work once again to re-wire who i am in the world. once again expand the imaginary boundaries of my mother-ness, expand to include however many miles stretch between me and my newly-faraway boy.

what’s surprising me is how tender these days are. how a softness has descended. an unspoken tenderness between us. how he calls out one last time “i love you,” before clicking shut his bedroom door, or as he climbs the stairs on his way toward homework. these are not the words he tosses willy-nilly. these are words that seem to be gurgling up from the undeniable truth that he and i have always, always sensed that we were living inside an answered prayer. and despite his disinclination to say so, he’s the bearer of one voluminous and deeply tender heart. and it’s feeling this tug in the surest quietest way imaginable.

i’ve been reading — in a glorious book titled, “the soul’s slow ripening,” by christine valters paintner, a poet, artist, and modern-day mystic now living in galway, on the western coast of ireland — that thresholds held particular attention for ancient irish monks.

“thresholds are the space between,” paintner writes, “when we move from one time to another, as in the threshold of dawn to day or of dusk to dark; one space to another, as in times of inner or outer journeying or pilgrimage; and one awareness to another, as in times when our old structures fall away and we begin to build anew. the celts describe thresholds as ‘thin times or places’ where heaven and earth are closer together and the veil between worlds is thin.”

(i love learning that the monks literally sought out “edge places,” in the desert, on the margins of civilization, in the wide-open windswept burren, “at the very fringes of the ancient world,” where they might most deeply embrace the perspective it allowed them.)

it makes me scan the terrain of this “edge time” i find myself — and my sweet boy — living in. it makes me wonder if the pinch of fairy dust, the extra-porous tenderness, the gentle grace that animates each day, as my senior in high school holds on tighter as he gets ready to let go, it makes me wonder if we’re wise to pay attention to the “thinning,” and recognize the holiness of heaven intermingling in the everyday earthliness of this very last high school chapter?

it makes me wonder. and it makes me hold tighter to each and every hour of this blessed thinning time and space…

what thresholds capture your attention? have you a sense of the thin place, where heaven and earth hover within reach? 

one last whirl: a lesson in savoring

kindergarten-bound

the little guy i love heads off to kindergarten (this was actually his “practice” walk to school): summer, 2006

i should have done this a long time ago. years ago. but, like many, many things in my life, i started late. was behind the average. way behind.

according to the centers for disease control, those fine governmental folk who track these things, the average maternal age for a second birth in the U.S. hovers just above 28. i was 44.7. i remember clearly the saturday afternoon when, knees shaking, i called my obstetrician to tell her the little white stick (aka home-pregnancy-checker gizmo) had just turned happy blue — i was, gulp, miraculously and against all odds and medical prognostications, “with child.” without taking a breath, my dear doctor rattled off the dreary stats: risk of miscarriage, 60 percent; risk of down syndrome, 1 in 32; risk of not surviving till the little bugger’s 18th birthday, 5.5 percent. (i’ve got 349 days to go….)

tell all that to the magnificent 8.0-pound baby boy born on august 8, 2001, at 3:22 in the morning, his big brother, father, and a phalanx of doctors and nurses (who’d rushed in the room when things got dicey) all in attendance. he and i plowed through every statistical obstacle strewn along the way. which is why his names, first and middle, mean “God’s gift,” (in greek), and “gift of God” (in hebrew). he was birthed — and named — in prayer upon prayer.

and now, all these stats-defying years later, said child is beginning his last year of high school this coming monday, which means this old house has entered official countdown mode. every step along the way, from now till the day we pack him up and drop him at some dormitory door, will come with modifier: “the last,” “the last,” “the last”….

what that means for me is that i dial up the savor knob, and even in the middle of a humdrum summer’s afternoon — while he’s ensconced in his little room at the turn in the stairs, and i’m chopping in the kitchen — i might just get a hankering to call up the stairs, and remind him for no reason whatsoever that i love him more than life. (to which he might moan “uh-huh” in humdrum reply.) i even find myself plucking inside-out shorts off the floor, smoothing rumpled sheets on his bed, and not minding one little bit because i know — full-well — that a year from now, i’d do anything to be able to pluck evidence of his presence off the bedroom floor.

i’ve lived — for the last seven years — with one foot in faraway-child mode, and one close as close could be. i know full well just how much that distance makes me ache. just the other morning, in faraway connecticut, i dried the tears as the shuttle pulled away from the curb and hauled me to the airport, my second-year law student disappearing behind the cars and trucks and light poles as the van turned the corner and i could see his broad shoulders no more.

like i said, i’m late to this. so late. plenty of my friends — from high school and from college — have long known grandmotherhood. know what it is to have the little rascals come for sleepovers. watch their firstborns cradle firstborns. not me. i’m still penciling in teacher conferences on my own calendar, making sure my rascal’s up and out of bed on the days the school bell rings.

i don’t know from empty nest. ours has not been empty in a quarter century. and we were married 27 years ago tomorrow. we mostly only know “nest accessorized with child.” come college shove-off next august, it’ll be the first time in 26 years that there won’t be another pair of feet clonking around the floorboards up the stairs. won’t be a soul to listen for as i lie there in the dark, awaiting the click of his key in the front door.

so until we get to that eery silence, that absence that’ll make this house an echo chamber, i’ll savor and savor and savor some more. my hunch is that i’ll be less cranky in this year to come. i’ll even relish smelly socks. and empty pie plates left overnight on the kitchen counter.

i know how absence feels. i know what it is to find myself in tears in the grocery aisle, because i’ve just reached for the something that i’d always thrown in the cart — but suddenly there’s no need anymore; the someone who always loved it is being fed by someone else now, someone in a college cafeteria. i remember full well how hard i tried to re-wire my brain, my being, to wrap my head around the notion that some kid i loved now dwelled hundreds of miles away, called home once on sunday nights in those first few months when he, too, was trying to find his place in this new equation called long-distance.

as always, i’m late to this. and i might be the oldest mama in his senior class. but gosh darn it, that only makes me wise enough to hold this year as if it’s the last. because, well, it is.

TK first day of kindergarten

at the schoolhouse door: first day of kindergarten and a boy i love gets a shoulder squeeze from the very fine school principal.

how do you intend to savor this next whirl around the seasons? 

retracing time…

WK cake from video

i don’t remember what started it. something like a root being tugged deep inside. some primal mama root, an urge that could not, would not, be stopped. i wanted to grab hold of long-ago time, to loop it forward and back, to get lost in the nooks and the crannies. to turn back to the start of the holiest story i’ve ever lived and breathed. the one that over and over has filled me beyond the brim, prompted me to whisper in my deepest, holiest, truest hours, “thank you for this plenty. thank you, and thank you, and thank you.”

and so, a few days ago, i found myself on my knees, tugging hard at the drawer that hasn’t been opened in quite a long while, the drawer that never really wanted to open, a stubborn pine drawer in a stubborn pine chest. but inside was a box, a blue box, with a stack of 27 cassettes, each one smaller than an index card, and each one holding moments for me that have been swirling to life, ever since i plugged in the old clunky video cam, the one i never much knew how to work.

it’s been dizzying, as the moving pictures have swooped and dipped in and out of the frame, and in and out of focus (no one in this house claims cinematography skills). but every once in a while, when the camera held still, i got a glimpse — a whole string of frames — of moments in time that in rewind and from this perch of a quarter century later (my firstborn turns 25 a week from today) are doubly precious to me as i study each one for the first hints of who these boys would become and how deeply, gently, exuberantly, they were loved.

the moments i’m watching, the ones that have me glued to the itty-bitty lens (i don’t know how to hook it up to any bigger screen so i watch on the just-bigger-than-a-postage-stamp-sized screen that flips out from the camera), map in fine detail this journey into the center of my heart.

there is my sweet boys’ papa, holding a four-month-old in his lap, reading page after page in a whole stack of most-loved picture books, reciting in those homespun meters and warbles and trademark whimsies (the ones parents and children invent, putting a signature twist to particular pages of particular children’s adventures in dramatic reading), the ones that laid down the roots — the foundational truth — that joy could be found tucked between the covers of even the cardboardiest book. and there, two years later, is the sweet boy perched at the top of a step stool, leaning over the butcher-block counter, describing to me in glorious detail the train cake (complete, for some reason, with “strawberry garden” just to the side of the tracks) he and our twice-a-week nanny baked for my 39th birthday. and, back to the one-year-and-nine-months version of that breathtaking child, there he is echoing on cue the words his papa whispers: “mommy is beautiful,” then adding his own improvisational “daddy is beautiful.”

it’s now my new favorite activity, the one i squeeze into all the margins of hours, in between chopping or stirring. while awaiting a call or the handy repairman. i pop in a tape, and whirl back in time, never knowing what precious moment is just around the bend, a moment i’ll watch and re-watch (thank goodness for “rewind”). did i mention i watch through tears every time? and sometimes the tears come so hard and so fast, i need to mop up the spills on my cheeks and the cutting board below.

all week, i’ve left the video cam sitting out on the kitchen counter. once or twice (or thrice), i’ve captured my favorite little sequences onto my itty-bitty iPhone. i sent one such bit off to the faraway legal scholar, the one currently working in washington, filing briefs on critical matters. just in case he wanted to watch his nine-month-old self in heart-melting action.

it’s a bit, um, kooky, i know. but through the magic of moments captured on digital tape, i’ve yet another way to pay even closer attention — to time, to the first seeds of the boys who now talk in complete sentences, who no longer get tangled by S’s and diphthongs (those smack-ups of vowels that prove quite a challenge to the tongue just finding its way through the jungle of words on the long road to talking).

i feel my soul reaching back, leaping forward, in time. if someone offered a master’s degree in the study of new-forming children, in the art of raising and teaching a child, of loving day in and day out, and doing so with godly measures of patience and gentility, i’d be the first one in line. there is a good dose of something akin to aching here, of wishing for yet another chance, of wishing i’d realized the first time around just how sacred these hours were, even though i believe that deep down i never lost track of that truth. and in watching, i never lose sight of that critical eye, the one that has me scrutinizing my each and every move. the one that sometimes wonders if i hit the pause button often enough in those early impressionable years, did i slow down the frames to relish each one, did i realize i could never come back to these moments, to the script as it rolled the first and only time through?

i stumbled in so blindly, back at the beginning. led only by heart and a gravitational pull toward loving. as i watch that child, those children (for eventually, eight years after the start, the second sweet boy came along), as i consider who he was, how we loved him, against the backdrop of who i know him to be today, i am washed over in holy gratitude for the raw capacities — the combined graces of the man i married, and the parents who taught him (and me) how to love — that kept us so unmistakably focused on quietly, gently teaching. and, more than anything, bathing him, bathing both blessed boys, in love upon love.

tape after tape after tape, it’s a whole-body immersion in loving and examining love, in resuscitating moments and hearts and the passing of time. these moments, forgotten in the everyday, live deep in the core of who we’ve become, me and the boys i so love. it’s where i’ve been lost — and found — in this past string of days….

on the brink of father’s day, a day when we celebrate the men who’ve loved us and shepherded us through the wilds and pitfalls, i thank the heavens for the one i so loved. and the one who so loves the boys who i birthed. and for all the fathers among us who teach with gentle and certain abundance. 

have you gotten lost — in pages or film or videotape — in your past, and what lessons did you extract, and if you could do it all over again, what might be the few things you’d try hard to live with more grace? (no need, of course, to spell that out here; i’m just echoing the question i’ve lived with all week…)

the truth around the bend

enter wisdom

it’s a rite of spring around here, the junior year of high school spring-break college tour. i’ve not been before. last time round, i stayed home with a kid just warming up his third-grade baseball cleats, a kid still learning how to cobble words into sentences. the one i stayed home with was all of eight. his big brother set sail to the eastern seaboard with his papa. they’re the ones who ambled college quads, queued up for “information sessions,” accumulated a backpack full of shiny college folders. my job was to take the nightly calls, to scribble down whatever were the reports of the day. which campus felt blah. which cafeteria oozed soft-serve ice cream.

this time, the little ball player is sixteen. and he’s the one starting to wrap his brain around this idea of packing up a box or six, and heading off to college. i’m tagging along because, well, there’s no one here for me to stay home with, and b.) i really need to wrap my brain around this going-off-to-college thing.

i can’t quite imagine a house without all the clatter. what would mornings be if not for the daily five-alarm drill of running late, of screeching out the alley and down the lanes, trying to reach the schoolhouse curb just before the bell rings?

there’ve been a few weekends of late when the kid was off debating, so his papa and i tried it on for size — his absence, that is. we both shuffled past his bedroom door in the early morning, and sighed in not-a-pretty-way at the sight of his empty bed, the quilt pulled taut, without the lump beneath. we sat down to dinner, just the two of us. fell asleep without awaiting the sound of the click from the front door, and then the clomp up the stairs, and the squeak of the bedroom door as it whined its way closed.

while the kid was off loving the college scene — especially the weekend in berkeley, california, where he reports the sidewalks teem with weed-y not-woodsy scent, and construction workers think nothing of lighting up and passing round their pleasure (who knew he knew the telltale, um, aroma?!) — his papa and i were home deciding we weren’t quite ready for the next jolt on the american family trajectory: the empty nest.

which is, perhaps, the certainest reason i need to pack my bags, and give myself a bracing dose of this college-coming reality.

because i’m married to a fellow who oughta be a college counselor on the side, a fellow who takes to heart the search for just the right college for just the right kid, we’ve got (er, he’s got) the whole week plotted out. there’s a stop a day, in a big wide circle that starts and ends in boston. we’re looking big and little and in-between. and of course we’re test-driving every college cafeteria, snooping out the soft-serve zones.

once upon a time, in the world where i grew up, applying to college meant filling out two forms — one, a catholic university; the other, the big state school — seeing which one wrote back first. that’s the one you went to. and then you packed the wood-paneled wagon, motored up the highway, and your parents dropped you off. maybe, helped slap sheets round the single slab of mattress, stuffed some clothes in the closet, and then they were off. congratulations, you’d arrived at college.

back then there were three brothers still home behind me, so my absence must have barely garnered notice. for a while, i’m guessing, they forgot to not set my place at the table, maybe marveled at how uncluttered was the chair in my bedroom. sunday nights, some time after rates went down at 5, we must have dialed (yes, rotary dialed), caught up, bid goodbye for yet another week.

in the house where i grew up i was one of five, and thus my presence was proportionally diluted. around here, with eight years in between, i’ve always said we’ve pretty much raised two only kids. and each time we’ve plunged in deep. thus, we’ve been at this — deeply — for nearly a quarter century. we had barely any married months before i first found out i was “with child,” in the quaint vernacular of another time. and while it would be almost two years of heartbreak and holding our breath before we wrapped our arms around Sweet Boy No. 1, we’ve pretty much been a marriage with offspring. how oh how to be a house with empty bedrooms, half-filled fridge, and car growing cobwebs in the garage?

the college tour provides the chance to wrap my head — and my heart — round those stirring questions. i’ll stand back and watch that kid lope across a quad, or climb some stairs and shove open the door as if he’s done it a hundred times before. i’ll see him poke his head into the confines of some cleaned-up dorm room (i’m pretty sure they pay kids to sign up as show-off rooms, the ones they let prospective parents stick their noses into). i’ll try to imagine him, in just a year and a half, unpacking his boxes, learning how to use a key card, registering for classes, and texting home in the lulls of the night or week.

there’s a long way to go before i find — deep inside — what it takes to let go, wipe a thousand tears, and drive home, aching all the way. but there’ve been plenty of chapters in this parenthood adventure that i’d never have guessed i’d muddle through. there’ve been ICUs, and awful phone calls, there’ve been words from teachers, and taunting in the school yard. and each time, in time, i found what i needed. i climbed in the ambulance, i looked the teacher in the eye, i even called the mother of the bully. if i could do all that, i think i’ll find some way to drop off my kid at college. the one where he will thrive. so help us God.

how have you braced yourself for passages you knew would tax your heart and soul? 

this morning in particular my heart is full for a host of people i love suffering through too many heartaches. my beloved aunt nancy will sit alone this weekend in the front pew of her late husband’s funeral mass in cincinnati’s great cathedral, my beloved cousins sit beside the ICU bed of their son, a pediatric nurse, who caught some horrid virus that’s gripped his heart, and my beloved nearby friend keeps vigil for her child who’s going through a few rings of hell. sending love to each one of you, and all the rest besides.

that one brave thing (an update)…

0409-BKS-CriticsTake-blog427

illustration by Antony Huchette, for the New York Times Book Review

just a quick middle-of-the-week update from the courage department…

not so very long ago, i wrote here about trying very, very hard to be brave.

these are some of the words that tumbled straight from my truth-telling heart:

i forget sometimes that i can be brave.

i sometimes think the countervailing forces of the world — the ones that whisper to me that i’m not good enough, don’t belong, won’t pass muster — they’ll knock me down. buckle me at the knees.

…i sometimes think of myself as a chicken. a wimp of the first order. i keep watch on folks who look to be brave, and wonder, “how, oh, how do they do that?” here’s a secret: sometimes when i talk to them, when we both unfold our hearts, i find out that they’re just as scared as i am, but they shush away those nasty whispers. or march headlong into them, never minding the awful bluster.

of course i have to remind myself — over and over and over — of that little truth. that the courage to face fears is sometimes simply plugging your ears to the noise, and deciding to hum your own little courage tune.

and just in case, i’ve come up with a back-up plan, or maybe it’s a fortifying plan. it’s modeled off the vitamins of my youth. it’s the one-a-day plan. one brave thing each day. that’s it.

i understand deeply that the trail up the mountainside comes one footstep at a time. no one’s taking giant leaps for womankind. they’re taking normal human strides, one foot in front of the other, and suddenly they’re at a point that’s halfway up. or nearly at the top.

it’s the one-brave-thing plan. i muster as much courage as it takes for one bold move — sending off the email that makes me quiver in my clogs. making the scary phone call before my voice gets caught in my throat. taking five deep breaths then plunging in.

here’s what happened the day i took a deep breath, and mustered all my courage:

Boyhood on a Shelf, April 9, 2017, New York Times Book Review, page 13.

thank you, and thank you, dear mother courage.

i’ll be back, as always, friday morning. it’ll be hushed because, for me, it’s Good Friday, that day of sacred silence from noon till three bells, the hours of the Crucifixion.

delighted to hear if your courage took you to any heights of which you’d only dreamed….