Our middle son doesn’t like it when I reminisce about him and his siblings being little.
He says my face gets really sad. I’ve tried to tell him that as much as I loved having babies, I wouldn’t trade this time for anything; I wouldn’t lose knowing him now. But he doesn’t believe me. He thinks that secretly I wish I could go back.
From the time this same son could walk, he hated it when I got upset. He was very tuned in to my feelings, and I am not proud of the fact that he seemed to take responsibility for them. When he sensed a blip on my emotional radar, he would press his tiny self against me or lay across me, as if his body could still my pain.
When our first son was brand new, I was home alone with him late one night when he wouldn’t stop crying. I tried in vain to soothe him, and finally I called my mother. Hysterical, I explained everything I had attempted. Silence. I asked, “Mom, are you there?” Reluctant, she answered, “Gee, I don’t know what’s wrong.” You can imagine the panic. I am sure she could discern my desperation (probably because I screamed, “I am desperate!”). She attempted to placate me with “Try some warm sugar water.” I begged for the “recipe” (I knew she was making it up), and she responded, “Um, half teaspoon of sugar to 4 ounces of water.” I tried it, and it worked. He stopped crying.
So, for the next eight baby-raising years, warm sugar water was my fallback whenever I had an unexplainably squalling baby. I have come to understand her slow response, though. Each baby is so different; there are no sure fixes with creatures so inherently individual.
At my aunt and uncle’s home, seven children and three adults gathered together each evening for supper. I have never seen such a large table. As life and time passed, it seemed sadly poetic that the table shrunk with each child’s departure. When I unexpectedly became pregnant with our last child, my husband paced back and forth, looked into the dining room and said, “We’re going to need a bigger table.” That was a good day.
Incredibly, we are now facing our middle son’s last year of high school. Once again, I am standing at an old, familiar threshold. He will be our third to leave; three out of five. It is astounding to me how different this goodbye feels from the other two. I suppose, though, that it makes sense: Our children are so different from each other they could be separate species.
I am hesitant to share my feelings with him about this. I don’t want to hold him back or make him sad. He is already questioning what it will feel like to be on his own, and I don’t want to make that worse. If I could speak coherently, I would tell him that each time someone leaves our family, I break a little.
It seems as if God takes our wholeness, our oneness, shakes it in his great hand and, tossing it in the air, quietly waits for the reconfiguration. Each time, I feel as if I cannot bear it. But I have found that God doesn’t let us diminish; he beckons us to shine beyond this story so we might add in-laws, experiences and maybe even grandchildren.
Yes, my aunt and uncle’s table became a miniature of its former self, but my aunt’s funeral services could barely contain the numbers who mourned her. What she and my uncle began had spilled out of their home and into the world.
I hope when the time comes, I will say to my son, “Go. The world is waiting for you, and through you, we go also.” And that little boy from so many years ago? Do I miss him? Not at all. He is standing right in front of me, cloaked in a grown man’s body. He is lying across my heart.
Mary White is from the Malone area. She and her husband have five children, eight cats, two dogs and three guinea pigs. She has had the privilege of working with children and families (her own and other people’s) for more than 20 years. For more of her columns, visit http://mary