Sunday, February 16, 2014

On letting go...

Just over a week ago I said goodbye to my firstborn, sending him off into the big wide world to chase his own grand adventure. He's a remarkable human being who long ago earned the nickname "Boy Genius," so I'm confident that he'll give life his best and take the inevitable surprises in stride. I feel fortunate that our farewell wasn't overshadowed by fear or worry (like it might have been) or rushed by frustration on either side. We said goodbye on the best possible terms, in the company of family and friends who love him and are cheering for him (and me) through this big step.

All that to say, it was the best possible goodbye. To be sure, it's been punctuated by moments of regret or fleeting terror (he's moved to Hollywood, for heaven's sake!) But by and large, it has given me the gift of stepping into this next stage of life, to begin the process of grieving and letting go.

There's a moment when you first hold your newborn, and that tiny one opens unfocused little eyes and your entire universe reconfigures. As it turns out, watching that little one grow up and leave brings a parent right back into that place - where the universe twists and contorts and changes before your very eyes. You may have prepared for this goodbye with all the other goodbyes in life (Lord knows I've had my fair share), but saying "goodbye" to your child is different in kind, not just degree. Somehow everything changes, somehow I've changed. Not in a visible way (well, there are the red puffy eyes...) but in an intangible, deep-down, I might even say a metaphysical way. A mother who has let her child go is a different person than the one who still has her child with her.

Some of the people I most love in this world have let their children go under far less ideal circumstances. And one of the many things I've learned from them is that grief is unpredictable, that there's no way to chart a clear path through it and out the other end. Sure enough, I find myself carrying on with life and all its normal demands, then bursting into tears at the most inopportune times. I sold off his "big boy bed" last week and mostly just felt glad to help fund the purchase of furniture for his new home. But then I came across his art school notebook and set it aside with a sob, too forlorn to glance at even a page. I find that I'm sleeping a lot, and relying on those around me (including the one child blessedly still at home!) to cover for me or glance discreetly away or offer a silent hug. I have no idea what tomorrow will look like, or next week, or (Lord, have mercy) next year. I'm very much living life "in the middle of it all," catching the waves as they come, or (sometimes) gasping for air after one of them catches me off-guard.

Part of our "launch sequence"included a drive across Nebraska. As you may know, I-80 doesn't offer much in the way of distraction, so we passed some time reading out loud from Paul Pearsall's book Awe.  The dictionary defines awe as "an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful." Pearsall makes the case that awe is what allows for the depth and intensity of human experience. Living in awe involves the capacity to embrace the fullness of human life, with all the good and bad, not shying away from overwhelming feelings but letting the rich force of it all shape and transform us. 

And there's a lot about this letting go that bears the markings of awe. There's overwhelming gratitude for the way it's gone down, and for the love of all the years we've had together. There's hope for whatever new stage we're growing into, and for the ways we can stay in touch and connected. Of course there's also the weight in the pit of my stomach when my footsteps echo back out of his empty room, and the ache when I see his empty chair at dinner time. It feels like there's so little laundry to fold these days, and I have no idea what to do with all these leftovers. I've seldom experienced such a range of emotions, and certainly not with such force. It's almost like all my senses - physical and psychological - are fine-tuned to nearly intolerable levels. And yet. I wouldn't want to miss a shred of this awe-filled experience.

I'm learning that letting go isn't a "one and done" sort of thing; I suspect it's more like a practice or a habit that I may eventually hope to do with more grace and resilience than I can manage today. "Closure" doesn't seem to be on the agenda: maybe this is more about rolling with things, about staying open to the intensity of this all. And discovering that parenting doesn't just change us once, when we first hold our little one. It's more like signing up for a lifetime of seismic shifts, realizing that these miniature "tectonic plates" we've brought into the world will continue to set their own surprising trajectories, and that the best we can hope for is to love them in and for all the upheaval they bring.