Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Letter

It came on Christmas Eve - weeks earlier than we'd expected to see it. When my son pulled an envelope out of the pile of mail he'd just dropped on the kitchen table I turned away - I couldn't look.

The Christmas tree at the other end of the room was a distraction - for all of two seconds - then I had to know.

My son's widening smile confirmed what we'd been hoping for months: he'd been accepted to MassArt. This was his dream college, his number one and ONLY choice. He knew it was a reach, but never once gave up the goal that would ultimately seduce him over the Sagamore Bridge and into a life all his own.

I'm not sure who screamed first, or who jumped the highest. It was literally a movie moment. Exactly how I'd imagined it to be: stunning, thrilling, exciting and terrifying all at once. We both felt it so loudly that my younger son flew up the basement stairs, where he'd been plugged into the X-Box all morning, to see what had happened to raise the roof off of our little home.

I was hugged so tightly I pulled a muscle in my neck. It took me three attempts to read the words through eyes that couldn't stay focused. This was it - my son was going to leave me - and soon.

I published as a blog entry (below) an article I'd written for the Fall 2010 issue of about a trip I'd taken last summer to the Grand Canyon. I'm still peering over that cliff edge. Still wondering if it's okay to let my sons walk ahead, run ahead, disappear behind a rock I'm too afraid to climb over myself.

This is where I've been these last six months, and why getting back here, to write about not writing, has been impossible.

The funny thing is that I HAVE been writing, or rather rewriting the novel that I began this blog to discuss in the first place. From last June to late December, I was in a fabulous routine of driving my son to his figure drawing class (see an article about Sarah Holl in the Holiday issue of CapeWomenOnline) then heading off to the haunted back room of the Hyannis Public Library to work on my novel in a blissful silence that only exists in such a space.

I was on a roll - editing, rewriting, filling in the gaps of storylines that had eluded me for years. It was so easy to just 'show up at the page'. To drop into the lives of the characters that had begun to communicate with me on a daily basis. The light at the end of the tunnel was in sight - then the art classes ended.

My library time became lost in a blur of days stuffed with dirty dishes and laundry again, endless trips to Trader Joe's for MORE milk - how much milk can one child drink, for god sakes? Time to rearrange the kitchen - toss out old appliances and order new (red) ones online - time to open brown boxes filled with new "stuff" that would make life simpler, give me more time to write...

Time to do anything but dwell on the contents of the letter that had arrived on Christmas Eve.

Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled for my son. He's talked about going to MassArt for years. My struggle has been with the push-and-pull of being his mother; of celebrating his success while quietly grieving the loss of the child that is perched on the very edge of the cliff he plans to jump off.

Stepping into the shadows to get out of his way goes against every instinct in my body. I want to at least stand beside him, talk him through the jump, but he doesn't need me there. He needs me to let go.

So that's what I've been practicing...the delicate art of balancing on the edge of my own cliff, where the view from here is probably a lot scarier than the edge he is peering over. Perhaps that's because I know how it feels to fall, and to discover that sometimes, the safety net isn't there afterall.

If I've done my job, however, my son's wings will be strong enough to safely carry him forward, to wherever he decides to go, even if it's just over the Sagamore Bridge to Boston.

Grand Designs: Navigating the Amazing Trails of Motherhood

Bright Angel Canyon, Arizona.
Ten years ago, I published an article titled Oh Boy! in Cape Women magazine. After being raised in a family of strong, opinionated women, I was examining the challenges of raising boys when I had so little experience with the male population.

My article concluded that if I listened to my sons, I mean REALLY LISTENED to who they are and what they needed as they matured, I would be guided along the unfamiliar path of motherhood. I am happy to report that my insight was correct and now, a decade later, my sons are becoming the young men I always hoped they could be.

Thanks to my mother, my sisters and I found our voices at a very young age and were encouraged to use them, loudly, when necessary. She also encouraged us to be independent, self-reliant and courageous. I believe I was twelve when the headmistress of our all-girls' Catholic secondary school declared that "Good Catholic girls belong at home."

It was my mother who showed me how to change draconian rules. She marched into that spinster's office and demanded that her daughters be allowed to sit the exams that would open the doors to higher education.

When my time came to leave the nest I couldn't fly off fast enough. I took a plane from Heathrow airport to JFK just three days after graduating from University and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now it's my turn to let go and see how far the wings of my own children can take them.

I say children, I still call them that, but they are young men now. And what courageous young men they are! I know I'm biased, but I made it my personal mission to raise my sons the same way my mother raised me – to find their voices at a young age and to follow their hearts to wherever there dreams may take them.

My eldest son is an artist who has his sights set on Massachusetts College of Art and Design. My younger son is a musician with plans to attend Berklee. It has been my job, as their mother, to nurture these creative aspirations and trust that if they follow their passions they will succeed at whatever they do.

I have Julia Cameron to thank for my confidence that art and music are serious career choices. Passages from her book The Artist's Way have been echoing through my head for years.

Years ago, I promised my sons that we would see the Grand Canyon before they graduated high school. It was one of those "some day" ideas that often got lost among the endless "To Do" lists of daily life. Being a single mother, I didn't relish the thought of attempting this trip as the only adult, so I let the trip keep falling to the bottom of the list.

This past summer, my sons and I found ourselves peering over the cliff edges of Bright Angel Point, on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, into a fathomless, mysterious, ancient chasm below. Two of my sisters stood beside me. The Grand Canyon had been on their wish lists too.

Although we couldn't see it, we all knew the Colorado River was still carving its course through layers of multicolored rock that held historic details dating back over two billion years. The size, age and beauty of the canyon were breathtaking, and not just because we were struggling to breathe the extremely thin air.

My younger son listens to the voices of the Grand Canyon
The paved narrow trail that followed a steep ridge to the Bright Angel lookout point was not for the faint-of-heart, rising 8,148 feet above sea level. I tried not to acknowledge my peripheral vision as I walked forward, keeping my eyes firmly on the ground, just inches before my feet.

But my sons fooled around, as boys do, leaving the trail to climb boulders that were precariously balanced on one side of the narrow paths stretching out into the canyon's gaping abyss. I had heart attacks, as mothers do, when I imagined them hurtling to their deaths.

The only way to express my sense of terror that they could die if they lost their balance, was to leave the safety of the path and threaten to climb onto one of the protruding boulders myself. It was my eldest son who caught both my arms and begged me not to risk my life. Relieved, I returned to the trail and said, "Now you know how I feel," as I marched passed him.

The Grand Canyon surprised me. The silence that floated in the air above us was louder than anything I've ever heard before. It told me to stop. To sit. To look and to listen. It reminded me that life is a journey through many wonderful, treacherous, exciting moments, and that each second that passes is something to be felt as deeply as possible.

It asked me stop white-knuckle driving to work, to school, to appointments. It suggested that I slow down enough to smell the lavender growing in pots on my deck. It asked me to listen to the laughter of my sons playing x-box with their friends in their basement man-cave.

I hated the panic in my chest at the thought of losing my sons on that trail. But I loved the warmth of the knowledge that I got us there, to that incredible place, just as I'd promised.

I hate the thought of entering this final year of living with my eldest son before he flies the coop, but I love the strength of his commitment to his own future.

My eldest son steps onto his own Amazing Trail
I can't help the mental countdown that began with "This is our last summer as a family all living together" and will no doubt continue through every Holiday and birthday for the next twelve months.

I know this is what we mothers do and I accept that within three years, both my sons will be navigating their own journeys through lives that will no longer be lived within the safety of my arm's reach. And I love the knowledge that I helped them find their voice, their vision, their passions, just as my mother helped me to find mine.

I understand now that Nature makes teenagers challenging to live with so that we want to help them pack, to drive them to their new lives, to wave them goodbye, and then to trust that they will, despite all the fears a mother can imagine, be okay.

As I stood looking into the heart of the Grand Canyon, where so much was said in such deafening silence, my sisters stood beside me, assuring me that as our lives unfold before us, we will always have each other to share our journeys.