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Tag: growing up too fast

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.

the empty room: gulp.

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it didn’t take long to hit us. once the sun went down, and the stars turned on. once two, not three, places were set at the old kitchen table. once we climbed the stairs and rounded the corner, spied the empty room.

empty, as in the boy who sleeps there was gone for a few days. empty, as in he made the bed before he whirled off to the airport (a sure sign of something unusual astir).

i heard both of us groan, the deep-down guttural sound you make when something feels strange. as we stood side-by-side brushing our teeth, i saw the look on both of our faces in the bathroom mirror: haunted.

we were both glancing into the not-too-distant, just-around-the-bend, two years-and-four-months from now. when the kid, God willing, will be off in college. the sweet boy who every night bounds into our room, in the dark, no matter the hour, whenever he’s finally calling it quits before sleep, and, every blessed night, he plops a kiss on my head, throws his gangly arms around whatever part of my sheets and limbs he can find, there in the dark.

how in the world will we manage, without his sweet animations 24-7? what in the world do you do with a house that’s missing its most precious cargo?

we’ve been at this, the other grownup and i, at this experiment in parenting, for nearly 24 years. had one babe then another fully occupying every inch of this house and our hearts. and last night, for the very first time, we both felt the hollowness up around the bend.

i didn’t quite know when i married the man i love just how much this fathering would melt him, would deepen him, would make him take so seriously the care and instruction of fine men in the making. i should have known — the man i love had perhaps the dearest father known to humankind, a man whose attentions on his children were deep and pure and unfailing.

one of the first clues that the man i married might take on uncharted dimensions was the night, weeks shy of our first labor and delivery, when he rolled my direction and announced to anyone listening: you’re not going to recognize me; i’ll be turning to mush (or something very much along those lines. i was not taking notes in the dark).

and so it’s been. the man practically goes weak in the knees for his boys. and ever since the little one came along, eight years after the first, a good four years after we were told that no more babes would ever come tumbling from the heavens, well, he’s kept his eyes on that prize like nobody’s business.

sometimes, in the thick of growing kids, when every few minutes you’re running this way or that, worrying about fevers and flus, tryouts and tests, you almost forget that some day the chapter will close. those kids’ll up and move out. pack their bags, wave goodbye, and launch their own sweet lives.

it’s not that we’re clueless, and it’s not for lack of evidence — all around us, seeing as we’re on the, um, older end of the parenting scale, folks we know and love are singing the empty nest song. we’ve been told — by reliable sources — that these people we birthed will perhaps marry, have kids of their own, turn us into grandmama and grandpapa. and having sent one off to college, and soon off to law school, we’re somewhat versed in long-distance parenting.

it’s just that — oh, my — it hit us like 10 tons of bricks last night that we could soon be dwelling in a house that’s 10 sizes too big. a house that’ll feel like an old pair of jeans, slid down around our ankles, because they don’t fit anymore. we might need walkie-talkies to holler from one room to the next, since our intermediary messengers will no longer be here to relay the word (as in, “mom says there’s smoke coming out of the oven!”).

thank God we get these limited-edition previews, those signs from the heavens that life is about to change, and change rather dramatically. it sank in with a thud last night, and now that wisp of what’s-to-come might begin to lurch around deep down inside, where we do all our growing, our getting ready for the transformation that’s peeking over the horizon.

he’ll be home sunday night, that sweet kid now romping through cambridge, mass., 02138, his home away from home, the global village where he’s certain he left a chunk of his heart. by then, perhaps, i’ll gather a stash of brochures from the college just down the lane — the one that might break me in slowly to this notion of deep empty nesting.

in the story of your life how did you find a way to adjust to the day-to-day absence of someone you loved? or is it an ache that still hurts?

two housekeepings: i’d thought i might write a blessing today for that soon-to-be-birthed work of my heart, Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving, but instead i was walloped by that empty bedroom above — and felt the need to try to capture the moment in words. i’ll likely send out a special blessing on tuesday, the official publication date of the book with the lovely nest on the cover. and an update on bravery: i found out this week that mustering courage, doing the thing that wobbles your knees, sometimes makes your wildest dream come true. details to come in the very near future.  

tracks to my heart

engines of youth

the email slipped in with no more than the ubiquitous ping. it came from my faraway brother, the one with a boy of his own now, a fine little lad rounding the bend toward two.

the email couldn’t have been clearer:

“Hey Babs, we are thinking of getting a train set for milo. I recall you guys had a great Thomas Train set up. If you still have it, would you be open to our borrowing it for couple years?  We would pay all packing and shipping both ways. Saves us buying new.  I totally understand you might not want to let it go. Just wondering.”

in an instant, the snapshots came tumbling: my own firstborn’s second birthday, a summer’s day so hot and sticky he wore just a onesie as we tiptoed down the stairs to see what the birthday fairy had tucked in the living room corner. my heart nearly burst as i handed him the very first box i’d ever gone out and bought for him. it was a box so heavy the little guy couldn’t lift it. he needed his papa and me. inside: an oval of track, wooden track; one ivy-wrapped train station; and a little blue engine named thomas, thomas the tank engine, a train who’d ascend to a starring role in the celluloid loops of one boyhood.

for years and years, the consummate posture in our house was a boy perched in a crouch, his fine little fingers curled over the spine of a train as he moved it this way and that, spinning tale after tale, spewing noise after guttural noise (for that’s what trains do when they speed or they crash). one by one, we collected engines and track and bridges and tunnels. we collected stories, and friendships there on the floor where the tracks morphed from circle to oval to intricate geometries that looped and ducked and rose and forked. back in the day, the little TV by the kitchen table played over and over the tales of the trains of the island of sodor, all told in the lilting tongue of one ringo starr, who to these children was simply mr. conductor, while to his parents he was the rockstar drummer, now curiously cast as trainman. (ringo gave way to george carlin — or maybe it went the other way, carlin to starr — either way, a bizarre bit of telegenics, one that endears both gents forever.)

our sweet boy loved trains more than anything. for years, we rode them cross country, falling asleep to the sway of the bunks as we rolled through the heartland, the hudson river valley, or the rise of the rockies. we drove to where we could watch the lumbering locomotives, switching back and forth on the side tracks in the yard where they were hosed down and polished. we climbed aboard on sundays and rode up and down the “el” line, or around “the loop,” chicago’s train set for grownups.

more than once, our little trainman plopped his head to the pillow and drifted to dreamland clutching one of his engines. he rarely left home without his striped engineer’s cap. and when he was four, and we drove to a farm to fetch a striped six-week-old kitten, our little trainman inserted “choo-choo” as the mewling’s middle name.

one christmas, the very same brother who now wonders if we might send our train set his way stayed up the whole night, sawing and pounding vast planes and chunks of wood, a train table with sawdust-sprinkled landscape, one that stood on four stout legs, and rose to the precise height of one little boy’s waist, for maximum stretch of his train-steering arms. that blessed brother’s all-night labor made for a christmas awakening never to be exceeded.

and then one day, the train table was collecting dust. the trains hadn’t moved one inch in the yard. they were tumbled all in a pile. and, in time, tossed in a bin and tucked at the back of the toy shelf.

for years now, they’ve cowered in the dark. too treasured to be relegated to the attic. too forgotten to see the light of the murky playroom downstairs.

but still that bin holds so many sparks of a boyhood, i can nearly hear its whispers. maybe more than anyone in the house, i’m the one still clutching the tracks and the sweet-faced engines.

but around here we believe in hand-me-downs. and not only because it stretches a dollar. because a hand-me-down is history. is layers of story. of love. is animated even its stillness.

and so, this morning, i will sift through the train bin. i will pluck out thomas, the blue one, and james, who is red. edward, i recall, is the kind engine (and thus, always, my favorite). and toby is a troublemaker. how could you not love the cast of your firstborn’s childhood? how could you not treasure the trains that, often, came to dinner? made lumps in the bed clothes? filled little-boy pockets? spouted faucets of tears if left behind, ever?

that little train man is far from home now, 1000 miles away from the train table that is no longer. he’s all grown, and he told me just last week, with a thrill in his voice, that the window of his senior-year dorm room looks out on a train track that runs through the woods of his leafy new england college.

and just a bit farther north and east, in the little town of south portland, maine, there is a little boy who doesn’t yet go to sleep dreaming of trains. but he will. oh, he will.

as soon as i slap the shipping tape onto the cardboard box that waits in the basement. soon as the nice mailman scoops up the parcel and plops it onto a faraway stoop. soon as sweet milo crouches down in that way that boys do, and curls his fingers just so, round the spine of the train. and, full steam ahead, chugs through a childhood.

bless the tracks and the trains, and the boys who so love them….

what are the treasures from your childhood? or the childhood of someone you love? do you recall bequeathing that treasure to the next keeper of treasure?