pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Tag: off to college

taped, all right

you would have thought it was an instrument for which i needed a license, the way i wielded it, the way i darn-near steamrolled whatever got in my way. stand back, was the only word of caution uttered.

i had my hands on a certified defense weapon, with sticky side.

all it was, was a roll of Scotch brand shipping tape. heavy duty, specified. i made sure i got the strongest one known to humankind.

i’d bought two rolls (can never have too much). weeks ago. had let them idle beside the pile of dorm essentials tucked in the living room corner, the pile i tried to pretend was not there.

i knew that some day soon the hour would come when it was time to turn the flattened cardboard boxes back into three-dimensional pop-up vessels.

when the fallen trees would be called upon to do their duty: to get my firstborn’s college essentials–the memory foam mattress topper, the shower caddy, the over-the-door towel rods, the extra-long twin sheets (monogrammed, thank you)–to the room where they’d be home.

so there i was, alone in the living room, when at last i lifted the gizmo that unfurls the tape. it’s heavy. it’s plastic- handled. it’s got one sharp cutting edge that can rip the dickens out of your mortal flesh.

i started strapping strips of tape. it hit me right away: i liked the feel of all that sticky gooey plastic holding in the contents of my firstborn’s brand-new life. i strapped and strapped. cut nice long slabs of tape. slapped ‘em, sealed ‘em, ran my palms smooth along the not-sticky side.

suddenly i realized i was taping as if there was no tomorrow. i must have used half a roll of tape. on the first box.

then i got to the second. was overcome with need to tuck in one last love note.

hope that strapping 6-foot-something lad doesn’t mind that i grabbed a sheet of construction paper. pink construction paper. and with my favorite zig-zag scissors, i cut out a little pink heart. wrote, in red, “forever my beloved.” or some such words. it’s all a blur now. i was in a fevered, sticky-taped frenzy when i did it.

all i knew was that suddenly i was aswirl in out-of-body incantation. i was taping each and every box as if mere Scotch brand tape could keep my boy from harm. from any harm.

i wasn’t so much taping to keep the boxes from splitting in the UPS truck. i was taping to keep my boy safe on the side of the mountain he’ll climb in freshman orientation. i was taping to give him strength on the all-nighters i know he’ll pull. i was taping to avert the stern glance of some professor who some day might tell my boy a thing or two about the responsibilities of scholarship, should he dare to blow a due date on some 90-page thesis.

i was taping against the heartache that will come if some day he loves someone who doesn’t love him back. i was taping to keep him afloat in all the rivers, in all the boats, that he will row.

and that’s when i realized, once again, that motherprayer is so much more than words. it’s what we do and breathe.

it’s stirring oatmeal on a winter’s morning, it’s using half a roll of tape to seal shut, to protect, a box of sundries for a college dorm room, as if in simple acts of stirring, sealing, we can wrap our children–even when they’re no longer little ones–in a sacred shield of holy light.

impenetrable, we pray. “be safe,” the final words we whisper every time. words that, now, mean so much more than simply, “i love you.” that’s understood, implicit.

“be safe” is poetry, is vessel, for “i would die if you were hurt, were harmed.”

“be safe” is motherprayer for when you send your child, the fruit of your womb quite frankly, off into the world, a world you can’t control, a world that some days, some dark hours, shatters you.

“be safe” is hope and faith boiled down into two short syllables. “be safe” is the last line of defense, the thin membrane on the other side of which prayer and holy angels pick up the load.

and some late-summer afternoons, when the sun slants in the front-room windows, illuminating your task, as you tape and seal five boxes, there are no words.

only the mad wrapping of a mother who will not let harm come to her child—or his memory foam mattress topper.

so help her, God.

and what are the wordless incantations, the rituals you repeat, as you aim to keep the ones you love from harm in any form?

one week from today, our head-off-to-college date. all this week, mamafriends of mine have been shuttling children to the college campuses where they will spend the year. lots of soggy pillow cases, right in here. lots of feeling lost. back at home, that is. pray to God, not in college dorms. as hard as it is for us, may it not be hard, dear God, for our children who are spreading wings and taking flight…..

the balm that is the rhythm of routine

i’ve known for years that i was a creature of habit, a girl who liked her days to unfold with familiar rhythm. you might call me a homebody. a nesty girl. or worse.

what i know is that the familiar soothes me. i sink into sublime inner hum when i unlock the door and come back home. when i hear the ticking of the clock i have wound 3,000 times. when my foot hits the one odd floorboard, just to the east of smack-dab middle at the top of the stairs, a creak that tells me i am here in the house that holds me. a creak i know is coming before i ever get there. a creak that sings the song of home.

i like when my car practically steers itself to the grocery. knows the corner where to turn, knows the bumps along the way. i like passing under the heavy limbs of oak and ash and elm along the way; limbs i’d notice were missing if the shadows weren’t there one morning.

i am a girl comforted by the balm that is my everyday routine.

and right in here, where all around me seas are roiling, shifting, shaking, i am soothed hour after hour by the little stitches in the whole cloth of my life.

in the living room, right now, five fat boxes stand in sentry rows. nearly two-thirds filled, they hold the whole of my firstborn’s college life. they’ll be sealed shut soon. a new address — AC # 1056; i’ve already memorized — slapped on front. shipped east. to be unpacked on one wobbly sunday coming soon, when for the last time i will try my hand at putting order to his life. or at least his dorm room.

my little one too is about to take a big step for a not-so-big boy. nearly lost in all the college swirl is the fact that the little one has left behind his “little school,” and is moving on to middle school, a school with many floors, and combination locks. a school where four times as many kids will roam the halls.

all around, the world i know is just about to change.

and i find anchoring, find knowing, in the simple building blocks of my every day, the way each morning i splash my face, slide into rumpled, hem-torn shorts, hip-hop down the stairs, click on the radio to the voices who greet me every morning. the way i make my coffee every day — five scoops coffee, three shakes cinnamon, water cold from the filter.

i find my shoulders wrapped, my back steadied, by that first stroll through the garden. find myself cheered by the pumpkin vine that’s set down roots amid my black-eyed susans. i like that i keep measure of its bold insurrection, the way it’s up and inching through the beds, hellbent on making a kitchen plot of my measly perennials.

i am heartened, too, by the red-cloaked gang of cardinals who chatter and pester me for more seed.

i am soothed knowing that they know they can count on me. i will be there, they must have figured out, like clockwork. i’m a girl they can set their clocks by.

i love knowing all the checkers at the grocery. love knowing them by name, by story. love knowing they know me enough to ask, “is he gone yet?” love knowing that when they see the volume of the grocery bags, they know the answer’s “not quite yet.”

when i think ahead to that spot around the bend that i can’t quite imagine yet — the morning and the days when his absence is first felt, when it’s raw, when the silence is so loud it makes me want to scream — i know already that my soothing, my balm, will come from all the little chores that steady me, that fill me.

i’ll cut stems from the garden, arrange the daisies and the black-eyed susans and the queen anne’s lace. i’ll fold the laundry. fill the pantry shelves.

i’ll try not to wince when i pass up the pack of cookies that he loves, knowing if i bought them they’d sit untouched till thanksgiving, when he comes home for a few short days.

i’ll try not to miss the teetering piles of his T-shirts, socks and gym shorts on the ironing board downstairs. try not to miss that the laundry basket won’t be nearly as heavy anymore.

and when the sting comes, when the salty stream of missing him fills the cuts and scratches on my arms and legs and heart, i will turn once again to the time-worn knowledge of my heart: i’m a girl who hums when i am bound on all sides by the familiar, the tick and tock of home. when my house and garden do their job, and shelter me from the storm that is life simply moving forward…..

for the blessing of home, of garden. for the gift of all these blessings. for the gift of a boy i love so much his absence will be a hole inside my heart. for all of this, i am so deeply grateful.

are you soothed by the familiar? do you find music in the same old sounds inside your house? are you a creature of habit? or do you find glory in the new, the exotic, the not-yet discovered?

roots and wings, unedited

for seven sweet days, we escaped.

i though had my heart set on one thing: savoring the days, the hours, the minutes. every drop of it. i licked my lips of it, let it drip down my chin. didn’t care a whit if it stained the front of my shirt, so sweet was the one last chance to slip away, to stay at the little mirror lake where we have spent sweet summer weeks in the past.

at week’s end, as we locked up the house and pointed the car south, toward home, my firstborn said quietly: “this is my last time coming home.”

what he meant, of course, was this was the last time the homecoming would be back to the place where he’s grown up, where he’s spent his years since the middle of fourth grade, the place that soon won’t be the epicenter of his daily whirl.

while we were motoring home yesterday, the chicago tribune, that newspaper where i type, was running an essay they’d asked me to write, about taking my firstborn to college.

because there is never enough room on the printed page, it had to be trimmed at the last minute. but i never have to trim here, not if i don’t want to. and this time i don’t.

and besides, plenty of you don’t read the tribune, don’t have it slap on your front stoop, come sunday mornings. so for all of you, and for the record, here is the unedited version of “roots and wings,” an essay that ran in the chicago tribune of sunday, august 7, 2011, less than three weeks before my firstborn shipped east for college…..

By Barbara Mahany

I’ve been practicing for months. Practicing what it will be like when, in a few weeks, my firstborn is packed up, flown off and settled into a dorm on a campus on a hill in a town some 1,000 miles from the old house where his stirrings have been the backbeat to my every day.

Just to see what it feels like, I find myself walking past the bedroom that’s hard off the landing on the way up the stairs. I peek in, see the bedclothes unrumpled, just the way he left them.

Sometimes, if I’m drawn in, I take a few steps beyond the door, look around, breathe deep of what it will be like — when the piles on the desk no longer teeter, when the soggy towels aren’t plopped on the floor, when, for months at a time, there’s no trace of him in our midst.

My firstborn, at last, is headed off to college.

And while, for the life of me, I cannot picture this place without him, I know deep down that the whole point of this exercise called parenting is this soon-to-come parting, no matter how hard.

While I might be practicing this new long-distance mothering — imagining what it’ll be like to not see the light shining from under his door at 3 in the morning, to not hear his books thump on the counter when he lopes into the house, to not wake at 5 to stir his oatmeal and send him off with a hug and a kiss — and while I can’t even begin to imagine how it will feel to look into his eyes one last time and walk away there on that leafy New England college quad, I do know that the real work started long ago — and for that there was no practice, only sheer trial by error and hope.

Day after day, hour by hour, bump after bump, for the last 18-plus years, I’ve been getting him ready for this great divide.

I was cradling that lanky baby in my arms, back in our city garden one hot Sunday afternoon, when a wise friend of ours, a priest actually, stood in front of a circle of people we love and told my husband and me that we had but one essential job: Give that child roots and wings.

Roots, so he is forever grounded, solid, deep. Wings, so that some day the wind will catch beneath him, and he will soar.

Roots, I’ve come to learn, are laid down slowly. They’re laid down late at night in kitchens, when the tears come, and the stories from the playground are enough to break your heart, but you stand there like a sponge, taking it all in, soaking up every drop of the hurt, whispering words of unswerving faith.

They’re laid down on long walks where you listen to the boy spill his dreams, and you let out his kite string; you say you believe, and you mean it.

They’re laid down after school at the kitchen counter, when you open wide the refrigerator and let him have at it, while you sop up the dramas of the day, you listen to the questions and the quandaries, and you offer up the scant teaspoons of wisdom you have to offer.

They’re laid down so when you get to this summer — the summer when your kid packs up the boxes, leaves home, steps into the college life of which he’s dreamed, for which he is so very hungry — you can stand back and watch what happens.

What you hope, what you pray for, is that while you’ve been hard at work cultivating those roots, the wings, undetected, began to unfurl.

Oh, sure, you’ve seen starter flights. The road trip in a car packed with 18-year-olds where you stayed home and held your breath. The lightning storm that hit when your kid was out on a boat in a river, and somehow he made it back to shore and stay alive, holed up — in defiance of science and common sense — in a metal boxcar used as a boathouse.

But, so far, the nest he has flown home to was yours, the one you’ve watched with vigilant eyes.

From here on in, the wings and the flights are all his.

–chicago tribune, 2011

so that’s my meander for the week, sorry it’s coming to you a few days later than usual. but i am delighted to type today’s date into the meander box: today is a date i love. it’s my little one’s birthday. and his first foray into the land of double digits. he turned 10 today, my little one. and while his brother gets to work on all those winged expeditions that are on his agenda, the little one’s still home where we can spend plenty of days ahead setting down those deep-set roots. happy birthday little T. we love you madly. xoxoxox

p.s. the photo above is an old-fashioned bowling alley, maybe the oldest in america, that we discovered on our little week away on mackinac island. my boys in silhouette. i love the way the light plays off the monticello blue walls…..

when camper-to-counselor ratio is 1:1

deep down inside, it might be that i’m form-averse. the mounds and piles on my desk, the wee thin lines on those forms that lie there demanding to be filled with endless parades of itty-bitty digits (get one wrong and your claim is denied, your application rejected), they all make me break out in hives.

or maybe it’s that i could not stand the thought of one more season slapping PB onto J just before i stumbled off to bed, brown bag sacks tucked into a long night’s chill in the fridge.

or maybe it’s a long-held opposition to big yellow buses in summer. racing to corners in flip flops and bug spray seems somehow, well, unconstitutional. who needs 8 a.m. pickup when fireflies blink till late in the night?

but really, truly, i think the glimmer of an idea was born one february morning when the weight of the college-bound brother pressed particularly heavy on the heart of the one who’d be left home behind.

and i, mother to both, was left to do something, anything, to somehow untangle this heart-twisting knot.

they say necessity is the mother of invention, but really it’s the squeeze of a child’s heart that jumpstarts a mother to invent, to scramble, to snap-click her fingers and poof up a cloud of pure powdery magic.

what if, were the words out of my mouth, what if we have big-little brother camp, if big brother 1 is the counselor and little brother 2 is the camper? and that’s the whole of the camp?

the idea, unlike most that spew from my brain, was met with immediate, “hey, yeah”s.

within the course of an hour, a theme was struck (town and country, with outings to far-flung netherplaces–or swamps–one day, and downtown to the urban grid the next).

a list was made up, if only in their heads, all the things a boy and his brother might aim to do if given a summer, the keys to the car, and no one else to get in their way (certainly not the mother who would be far from the campgrounds, typing her summer away—at least tuesdays through thursdays, that is).

and so, now three weeks into it, i am here to report that a magical spell has been cast, and the joy of the camp lingers long after the camp bell clangs an end to the camp day.

right away i noticed at dinner how the giggles had grown exponentially. all of a sudden, after so many years and so many school days of traveling in parallel, non-intersecting orbits, they had their own sets of jokes and their own shared secrets of just how they had spent their whole days. (they will not divulge just why the south georgia peanuts baseball coach, who apparently lets loose on an ump in some youtube video, makes them fall off their chairs, from laughing so very hard.)

their itinerary, so far, has been thus: kayaking across a lagoon (with grammy, the intrepid octogenarian, in a boat all her own; not a one of them drowning, thank heaven), baseball catch at the park, hotdogsandfries, a bucket of balls at the golf range (high drama there when the head of the club went flying, a whole 150 yards, along with the ball), friedchicken, squash (the game, not the vegetable, believe it or not, as the big brother attempted to teach the ways of a gentleman sport), burritosandlime-flavoredchips, and that essential of any summer, sunbathing 101 (complete with the fine point of taking off socks to keep from unsightly tan line ringing the ankle).

just last night, as each boy dove into a mound of barbecued wings (the lunchtime hankering delayed till post-baseball dinnertime), i asked about camp, wondered what they had learned as we rolled past the mid-point of their six weeks together.

“how to eat really good food,” piped up the little one, an orange-splattered chicken wing dangling from his lips.

“not like healthy food,” he clarified. “like MAN food,” he said, the emphasis his.

then, because he’s long been known for his tepid tastes at the table, he turned to his brother-slash-counselor, and asked: “here can you taste it? tell me if i’ll like it. you know my taste.”

pretty much, that’s the heart and soul of it. two boys whiling their way through a summer. one knowing the other so well, he can tell what his tastebuds would say. the other, utterly trusting.

it boils down to that little message, re-spun and retold in hundreds and thousands of ways over the course of a june and july.

by august, attention will turn to what’s being stuffed into boxes, labeled and shipped to the holyoke mountains.

by september, what happens today will be just part of the frames that click-click through a little boy’s head as he lays down to sleep, trying to get used to the sound of a house without his big brother’s typing, trying to get used to the dark that’ll come from the room where the light’s always shone.

in a year or 10 or 20, my hunch and my prayer is that those two boys i love with all of my heart, will always look back on the summer of ’11, as the one where they discovered the ins and the outs of each other.

as one taught the other how to pull the oar through the water, and the other taught one how to tell if his wings were too spicy.

it’s a beautiful thing, in the end, when your lazy ol’ mama signs you up for a camp that you’ll carry through all the days of your life: the camp called brotherly love.

the blurry picture up above was snapped as the boys made it home from the wings run, the latest culinary adventure in their summer camp that seems to involve plenty of chowing.

do you have one particular summer you’ll never forget? a brother or sister who showed you the ropes? a camp you’ll hold in your heart forever and ever?


just to see what it feels like, i find myself walking past the bedroom beside the landing on the way up the stairs.

i peek in and see the bedclothes unrumpled, just the way he left them. or maybe the way the cat did, as that old striped fellow wriggled out from his No. 1 curled-up napping place.

sometimes, if i’m drawn in, i take a few steps beyond the door, look around, breathe deep of what it will be like.

my firstborn blessed child is away this weekend, will be gone for a whole string of days, and i find i am practicing what it will be like to have him swirling about me, but not here.

like all important acts in life, we practice. try on the costumes. memorize the lines. we stand amid the darkened stage, look out on all the empty rows, imagine our part even when we’re mere supporting player.

in just two weeks my firstborn child, the boy who’s held my heart since long before i held him in my arms, he will walk across the stage and close the page on this chapter called being-at-home. he will move swiftly toward the day we pack the car, lock the latch and drive toward mountains in the east.

and for me that is a rather large bump to get around, so i am already hard at work, imagining my days without him in the deep of my midst.

i am loosening the cords of my heart. i am knowing there will be long strings of days when i don’t feel my arms wrapped ’round his now-broad shoulders. when i don’t see him leaning up against the kitchen counter, filling me with stories, with questions, with laughter from the bottom of my belly.

long ago, i set out to love this child with all the love that i could muster. and i have done just that.

oh, it has not shielded him from the arrows and the sharp knife edges that i had intended to keep from him. and it has not kept his days free from shadows dark and thick and, on occasion, frightening.

but because i set those roots so deep, because i planted him in the richest ripest place within my heart, i will need a little time, a little practice, to right myself, to be steady when he is gone.

so this weekend, then, is rehearsal. is practice. is learning how to be.

just a short while ago, as i futzed around the kitchen here this afternoon, when suddenly i heard a funny beepy noise, i discovered that he was sending me that new-fangled smoke signal known as a “text.” as i groped for my old phone, i found, lo and behold, he’s been sending me poetic texts since last night.

as he rolled, near midnight, through pitch-black kentucky, land from which i hail. and as he rolled this morning into the great smokies, where i lived when i was 3. and he gloried at the hills.

and in that beepy noise just a short while ago, he wrote that he had rowed the course in tennessee — clinch river, its name — where the race will be, come sunday. and the boat “felt really good,” he wrote, then added one last word, the coda to his stanza: “fast.” and i, nearly 600 miles from that river, read plenty into those four letters.

and so i am learning that he can stir me even in typed text on the keypad of a phone. and i will learn, i now know, to pay attention to my phone. to look for telltale signs that he’s dropped in.

if not to the kitchen after school, if not to the side of my bed late at night, on those rare bedtimes when he plops in the armchair, or on the window seat, to unravel his heart… even if not all that, i now know, i am learning, he will still — and always — find ways to stir me.

because when you give birth to love, and you spend years rocking it, and staying up all night with it. and when you walk it into the school house door, and let go of its chubby little hand. and when you sit along the sidelines of the ballfield, and wince, as he strikes out again and again. and when you watch him catch the wind, find friends, think in ways that make the teachers send you notes, when you watch him grow and stretch and never ever shrink from those things that would make you wobble, well, you discover that even when the bedsheets stay unrumpled, and even when the cat is the only one who stirs in that boy-filled bedroom, you cannot help but be stirred by love.

the love that always and forever wears the name of the baby boy whose head you kissed once upon a birthday long ago, as you anointed him with the one word that would forever be his and his alone: will — my sweet, sweet will.

row like the wind, my beautiful boy, while i take a crack at being home without you, without you coming or going as the sun comes up and sinks down low again……

do forgive this long strung-out love parting, as i–like the monarch caterpillar–find myself wriggling out of my skin five whole times before the chrysalis comes, before the stained-glass wings of the butterfly take their shape, soon to catch the wind.

and since i never want this to be about me and me alone, what have been the acts in the story of your life for which you too found yourself rehearsing, so when it came you might know your lines. or at least begin to understand your new part…..

freeze frame

i am holding onto moments, freezing frames, as if compiling a loop of kodacolor film i will hold, rub my thumbs along, raise up to the light, memorize, when he is gone.

i am stopping at the edge of his room, soaking in the tableau–the jumbled socks, the soggy towel–knowing that in half a year, there will be no messy room.

i am driving to his school, climbing stairs, entering the gallery where his art hangs on the wall. i am standing, neck tilted back, looking up, eyes wide, soaking in the art, his words, his name on the label on the wall.

i climb downstairs, take my seat in the dim-lit auditorium, look toward the stage, see the curl of his bass, the slick-down curls of his own head, still wet from the shower after rowing.

i lock my eyes on his silhouette in the darkness, as the stage lights come up from behind, as i study that head that i have held, have known, since the hour when i reached for him, newborn, and took him in my arms.

nearly 18 years i have loved him more than anything, have been a player in the story of his life. have known the scenes, most every one. and now, the ones i enter into, i hold onto in my mind, in my heart, as i commit to memory, yes, but even more to soul, the whole of this chapter of mothering. of being the moon to his orbit, his every day rotation.

i hear the drumbeat in the background. soft at first, muffled, but getting louder by the day. as if the dial’s being turned.

the last this. the senior that. final season.

two months and two weeks till graduation. all around me, high school swirls. he swirls. my firstborn, love of my life.

i pore over each and every frame. take time. stop, in mid-conversation, as he lies, stretched out at the end of a long day, reaches for my popcorn, tells me silly stories. i stop and marvel. take in each syllable, but witness too the quirks and gestures i have known for so very many years. the way he taps his thumb, crosses his leg and kicks his foot.

i marvel at the mere fact that at the end of these long days we can unspool together, i can hear in real time, without phone line or typed email. i can, for a few more short months, take in his life in 3-D, full-plane topography.

and so, as if storing for the future, for the days when he won’t be here, won’t be coming home soon. for the days when i ache to see his shining eyes, when i’ll give anything for a jumbled pair of sweaty socks to be dropped across his room…..

i am gathering the frames, the moments of his wholeness, one facet at a time. i am doing what we do when someone we love is leaving, and we are making room inside our hearts to store the memories, the sense, the wholeness.

i am holding onto time as i feel it slipping through my fingers. i am scaffolding my heart for when it’s aching, and these days are no longer……

the window up above, with the candles and the russian cross, that is one of will’s six photos in the art show. or it’s a part of a photo, taken at a louis sullivan russian orthodox church on chicago’s west side. i sat up in the choir loft as will clicked away in the jewel-box of a church, where sunlight played on golden threads and gold-painted doors.

as i try to wrap my head around this leaving, around this chapter coming to a close, i can’t help but reach for words, to try to shade in the outlines. i know there are those who’ve walked this way, did the letting go settle in slowly? did you keep watch as the time drew nearer? or did it come up from behind and catch you unawares?

tears of joy and the sound of a broken heart

these things come in emails now. no fat or thin letter to weigh at the mail box.

the mail box is the one on your flat little screen. that’s where the news from colleges lands.

and so, at last, after all the years and months and weeks and days of wondering, worrying and waiting (and not in that order), there came the email that appeared from first glance like any other: sender, subject line, date, time.

the boy on the verge of college discovered it there in his in-box in the thick of 8th-period art class. he yelped, but did not open. he yelped only because it was there; he saw the name of the college, the one he’d decided was first on his list, the one he’d promised to go to, should the letter read the way he hoped and prayed it would.

the boy, not wanting to be surrounded by classmates as he got the holy word, turned off the little black phone. tucked it away. and once the school bell rang, he called for a ride.

that’s where i slid into the story. i was the driver.

but the boy wasn’t looking.

we were heading toward home.

once in the house, in a rare series of tending to hanging up clothes, he slung his coat on the hook, tossed boots in the tray.

oh, lord, why now must he decide to be tidy?

the little one, i noticed, was already pacing, walking in the circles that come when you’re worried.

his father, home with a nasty case of poison from food, had to bite his lip to keep from chiding, wondering aloud if the one with the email could go very much slower?

and then, at last, he carried the laptop down from his room to the old kitchen table where you still can find my third-grade cursive pressed into the maple planks. he flipped open the lid. and couldn’t get into his email account.

the little one paced. the father bit lip.

try no. 2, the back door into email.

at last, there it was, the email marked “amherst college early decision notification.”

he opened.

he read.

someone—i have no clue who–yelped.

that’s when i saw what the little one did: he threw his arms and half of his chest over the shoulder and back of his very big brother, his brother who, as of that email, was really and truly headed to college.

at first not a sound came from the little one. but i saw the arms and the t-shirt starting to shake. then the muffled sound came, the sound of a sob so deep and so piercing i will never forget it.

his face, buried in his big brother’s neck–the neck once broken, now mended, except for the crick that he cracks now and then–soon showed the tears that were pouring.

he hung there for what seemed like half of an hour.

maybe it was less. but time, when it hurts, feels like forever.

and so it went most of the night. tears off and on, all around. joyful ones, mostly, from me. ones that washed out all the oh-my-lord-how-did-we-get-here? and ones that swept over the hours and days when it seemed we’d not get here–ever.

sorrowful ones from the sweet little brother whose world has just shattered. or at least that’s how it feels.
you see, that little brother was the dream come true, the rest of the picture, the missing piece, when the college-bound kid was just a third-grader.

until now, somehow, we hadn’t realized that the equation would twist in the middle, and the little one who’s only known full, who’s only known what it is to have a big brother just down the hall and two steps away, well he now is trying to make sense of how that room can go dark, how the place at the table won’t be set for months on end, how he’ll get through the weeks and the weekends without his big tall brotherly hero?

some time after dinner, as i was cleaning the sink, the big one said, “gosh, i’d never thought that’s how it would be when i finally got into college. there was so much sadness mixed in.”

i looked up from my sponge, and said, “life is like that, isn’t it? so rarely pure anything. so often, a soup.”

later that night, when the little one went in to say goodnight to the college-bound brother, the tears started up again, in a quieter sort of way.

the big one melted.

it was 10 minutes past 9, so i looked at my watch, wondered aloud, “how long would it take to go get a slurpee? bedtime can wait.”

so the two curly-haired boys, one with his heart full of very good news, one with his tank nearly on empty, arm in arm, they trudged out into the dark and the cold.

the little one treated. the big one slurped.

they laughed. they came home. the big one tucked the little one safely and snugly into his bed.

life is like that, isn’t it?

tears of joy, muted by the sound of a near-shattered heart.

it’s tough, this spell right through here, where so many kids i have loved for forever are feeling their futures laid on the line. too many kids are hearing words like rejected, deferred, not yet. hold your hopes. we are counting our blessings, and whispering mountains of prayers for each of these kids. the world out there needs some kind of miracle: and i know a whole bunch of those miracles, kids on the verge of going to college. for those kids, for the teachers and lights in their lives. for the mamas and papas who’ve loved them and worried, and coached and cajoled. for the patience lost and the love discovered again and again. for all it, i pray.

we’re in year five here at the chair. not sure if i will stick to fridays, or just write when the spirit moves me. come take a peek.

and a prayer, please: my dear dear beloved friend katie. her blessed m.c. is 18 and fighting a cancer that will not go away. mightily, please, pray.

and bless you for stopping by here today…..

sewing for college

the question came late, of course, as i was tiptoeing off to bed, the house–except for one last bedroom–finally dark, lit by the few scant rays of moon that crept around the clouds.

“mom,” he said, coming to the door wearing white oxford and shorts, “some of these buttons are coming loose. can you get these?”

truth be told, it was 1 in the morning when this loose-button truth erupted. “not now!” i shot back, or maybe all i did was mutter, the details now are fuzzy. i’d been up late making a movie–oh goodness, doesn’t that sound all hollywood; fear not, it’s not something i do too often, in fact have never done before, but geez, it sure sounds fine in that there sentence. anyway, i was dragging my movie-making self to bed. the manchild was packing for his quick trip to college. (oh lord, that too was a test sentence: to see how it feels to write that he was packing for college.)

it is all, really, something of a test these days, this dabbing of big toe in college water, this slow unspooling process of a whole family absorbing the knowledge, through and through, that what we’ve been these past eight years–the whole of his little brother’s life–a family of four who wake up and go to sleep under the same roof, who know each others’ quirks and oddities, who leave red peppers off a certain plate, or stock up on slow-churn ice cream, who have memorized each other’s coughs and sputters and sloppy habits, we will soon be only three. there will be a bed that’s never tousled. there will be a bathroom sink that’s polished, unspattered, no vanity of goops and creams for me to rearrange most mornings. there will be no clothes flung on backs of chair, on floor, a dropped-and-heaped trajectory of just where he has disrobed.

ah, but like all of us these days, i am getting ahead of the story. i am peeking round the corner, trying hard as i can some days to imagine, just how quiet it will sound when he doesn’t bound in the door, fling his messenger bag, kick off his shoes, drop the headphones, dash up the stairs.

all he’d asked was if i could thread a needle, knot the thread, pull it through the oxford cloth, get those buttons cinched, taut where they belong.

and so, next morn, before the clock struck six, i sewed for college, sewed for the boy who was boarding the plane with his papa, flying off for that rare chance to sit down with a dean of admissions, say who he is, have someone listen.

i of course have visions of the dean picking up the phone, calling me, saying, where did you get this kid? he is magnificent, isn’t he?

but then, i’m his mama. i’ve been his ace no. 1 believer since the day i took his chubby just-born thighs into my hungry long-waiting arms, marveled over the whole of him, breathed promise into him and over him and through him, through and through.

i sewed those buttons taut, all right. whispered secret vespers with the tug of every thread. prayed for those buttons to hold it all together, straight through the interview–and far beyond.

it’s the least a mama can do. she can do so little by that point. her work, so much of it, has come before, in all those hours in the kitchen, the talking place so often in our house. her work’s been done in the worries and the hopes and the love notes tucked under pillows, in lunch boxes, sleeping bags and suitcases. her work’s been done in the driving and the shopping, and the riding, once, in the ambulance, and the checking of the mailbox for the letters from summer camp that rarely came. it’s unmeasurable really, the work that’s been done since that long-ago moment when the doctor called, said “blood work’s back; you’re pregnant, dearie.”

but at least, on the dawn of the day when he flew off to college, the sewing gave me purpose. gave me a string of stitches to pull through cloth, to knot, to carry to his room, to lay on his suitcase.

not too many nights before, as i was tucking the little one in bed, he looked up at me, a somber face suddenly washing over his sunburned cheeks. “can i ask you something i’ve wanted to ask for a long time?” he started, not waiting for my “of course.”

“is willie really going to go away next year? i don’t want him to go away ever!”

and then the tears came. to both of us. down our cheeks and soaking into sheets, a sloppy mess of gaping-open sadness, we were.

i thought of that as i sewed those buttons tight. i thought how much the sounds and rhythms of this house will change. i thought of the empty aching heart of his little brother, his brother who has only known life with a big brother always in the wings.

there’s a lot of shifting, looking round the bend, that’s going on here.

and all i could do was sew those buttons tight. and pray they lasted through the college interview.

we’ve got a year to stitch together all the rest. or get tangled in so many floppy threads.

i have a sense this will be but one in an occasional series of captured moments as we all try to wrap our heads around the change that’s coming, how the world as we know it will not be. we’ve all weathered–and worried about–such ebbs and flows in life. we’ve sent a kid to camp, to college. we’ve lost a spouse, a mother, a father, a child. we are here a table of folks who pay attention to the stirrings and the comings and the goings. we’re allowed to say here how much it hurts, when it hurts. mostly we’re allowed to sift through the messiness of the human heart. that’s why there is a chair at the table for each and every one of you. because here we understand that the most glorious side of being human is the one that’s tied to the heart, and to ignore it, to shove it under the table, well that’s to miss out on a whole book of beauty.
have you tightened buttons for a leave-taker? how have you readied. steadied yourself for a major shift in your life’s river? or were you taken wholly by surprise?