Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Parenting: Making Life Everything It Was Never Meant To Be

Monday night my son and I returned home from Maine, seven plus hours of driving.  Stopped in Albany for a brief visit with my daughter, adding another hour plus, bringing us closer to 9 hours in the car. The purpose of this trip was to visit a college and attend an Accepted Student Event to help firm up and finalize a decision about college, the future, the start of my youngest son’s life,  independent of me. A few things occurred throughout the weekend that left me pondering about big, consequential moments and minor, but meaningful happenings of my life, and the lives of my children, the past and present, a changing society, the importance of families and friends and support systems. You know regular old ordinary stuff, just another day in paradise, as it were.

When we got to the University, I was thrilled to see balloons.  Thrilled.   I don’t even like balloons, typically.  They are generally a nuisance.  They pop.  Loudly.  Unexpectedly.  Jarring my nerves in response to the explosive sound they create, usually.  They move about and block my view when shoved in a car full of children that have great difficult holding tight and being still. Or they did at one time, long ago.  They come free from the children before getting into the car.   Who cry.
At the loss.  
The great, sad, wailing, devastating loss.

Balloons may cause the first tangible experience of loss in a child. This loss is deep and profound, as though something of great importance, that brings them joy, can be lost.  Forever.  Quickly.  Most parents have seen this first hand, it leaves an impression.  A child that leaves go of the tiny fragile string connecting them to JOY is not easily consoled.  I know, it might seem a wee melodramatic, but next time, watch closely, as a small child loses that balloon, at the fair, or a party, or some such festive event.  They cannot believe they caused this and they cannot fix it.  Nor can you, the adult, the one that creates and fixes and holds everything together…with string and glue and kisses and spur of the moment whatever it takes.

Soooo where was I?  Oh balloons, at the college visit.  Yes.  I have been to approximately 20 college visits, give or take, across the past nine or ten years with three children.  When you do something 20 or more times, you start to notice things.  Like balloons.  And banners.  And welcome signs.  The things that make you feel you are offering your child to the world, and the world is going to try to make sure there is a little joy and happiness and bright bold exploding unexpected nuisances waiting for them.  Or well, maybe just the happy, bright, welcomes that you haven’t quite mustered for a few years, because well, your children don’t respond well to happy and bright consistently or typically when you are traveling three days and hours and hours of miles away from home with loads of other children and parents buzzing with the knowledge that we only have moments left to make this everything it was never meant to be.  Perfect, without tension.  Interjected with joy, full of symbiotic bits of support and appreciation, smiles and hugs.  Balloons.  Joy and tension.

The balloons at least distract and keep order, and guide you through the main campus to the admissions building and the crowds of frightened, or sullen, or eager, ready-or-not teens awaiting their great escape from you into themselves.  You start to look for balloons at college visits as though the ranking by the College Board, Kiplings, and US News and World report mean nothing. The price tag?  Meh.  You’ll figure something out.  But put up balloons!  Where do I sign? 

I have actually muttered from several parking lots at my son’s chagrin and teen spirited ill-tolerance of me,  “A balloon wouldn’t hurt them! Now I’m going to be left to die wandering about some apocalyptic campus for days because I have no clue where the admissions building is for the visiting student day.  And look?  Have you even seen a sign of life?  Why do these campuses look like some post-cold war Zombie movie set?  A balloon! Is that really too much to ask? ?!2#*!!!….”  My son has learned to set his teeth on edge.  He’s about had it with me, rightly so, and developmentally he is exactly where he needs to be.   It’s on the chart next to head circumference and height and weight…Above Average- check.  Height, weight, head size, ready to launch and break free from mother-love!  Check. That’s my boy!!  (There’s a reason smother is spelled that way…. ) Which somehow brings me to my original thoughts and reflections about our weekend and the world at large.

When we first got to the college and checked in, the kind and hearty Maine hello-ing woman asked us if there were only two of us.  “Only two?” she implored.   Sort of the equivalent to “Dinner for One?” in a romantic restaurant filled with couples on maybe, Valentines Day.  She was asking as a courtesy.  She needed to give us the right amount of lunch tickets.   I suddenly felt exposed, incomplete, lacking.  My other children experienced visits with any combination of family members.  One parent.  The other participating parent.  A sibling or two.  Maybe two parents, a sibling or the whole shebang.  Now, we are two.  One parent, one child.  No other options.  Me. Him. No one else.  Mostly that’s fine.  Better than that even, mostly.  Easier.  Predictable.  And fairly easy to organize.    Today it felt suddenly sad.  Or I felt sad  for the way things turned out.  For the sadness and loss of another participating parent.  The one that let go of the fragile string that connects to the joy that is my son. 

Of course these are my sadnesses.   The loss is not yet felt, fully.  Or I imagine not.  It is covered with disdain and wrapped in “who cares?” when it is discussed at all. I wonder if the fragile string was barely felt at times, and at other times it was wrapped way too tightly.  The release might have been freeing.  Those bright colors and the tension felt just before too many erratic explosions was stressful and demanding, much more harmful than I had been able to recognize. Destructive.  Gone.  Up, up and away.  Pop. Smack. Pow.

Two tickets for lunch, please and thank you, hearty hello, smile brightly, follow the tethered bright balloons, this way, and “you are here” keep me on course, for a specified time in a specific place.  We finish the tour, we use up our lunch tickets, $7.50 each at the MarketPlace Café, where they have sushi.  More selling points, for college visiting days.  Sushi, we can take or leave, enjoy sometimes, prefer something else just as easily, or maybe even more often.  I get the roasted veggie and goat cheese flat bread-it beats the bushels of white rice and butter I consumed as a vegetarian during my own college days when food and balloons did not sell a school and vegetarians were not so common place.  He orders a quesadilla and smoothie.  We decide to head out after lunch, and begin our 8 plus hour journey homeward. 

We drive a-ways.  Stop at the outlet discount hodge-podge shopping mecca that my older son recommended between recent bouts of coming to terms with me.   The new me.  The old me. The who the hell is this person that he thought could hold tight to balloons and bright colored joy?  The reality that I am quite a bit more imperfect than seemed possible and gaining speed in this category daily is difficult at best.  The reality that my children are coming to terms with this reality in spits and starts and raging gasps of WTFs?  Somehow, occasionally, and between swollen, tear filled eyes, and questioning myself, or tormenting –more accurately, I find some solace in the discovery that we are more normal, typical, and like all other humans, than I ever believed possible.  

I wish we got here under better conditions.  It’s been hard to watch and speak to the broken, fragile, connections that were promised to be protective and supportive and gold-plaited in unconditional promises of forevers and kisses good night and cheering on and I love you bigger than the moon’s.  It’s been hard to take in their grief, and anger, and sadness.  It’s been hard to see some of my own Technicolor failings and tries-too-hard-at-better-but-not-quite-making-it through their eyes.  It’s been hard to listen because sometimes it sounds like a deafening scream of Why did you let us down?  Even when it’s not at all what’s being said.

And we drive on.  And I watch the road signs and bends in the roads.  I recall the journeys, here, before.  The visits to Boston.  To New Hampshire. To Providence. To Cape Cod, Truro, Wellfleet, Provincetown.  Portland, Booth Bay Harbor and Bath.  I smell the ocean and I’m flooded by faint recollections growing strong, of fruit-loops and ice cream and chocolate milk and Portuguese donuts and can almost feel the sweet sugary fingers of small hands holding tight or breaking loose, but not too free yet. 

We continue driving and the news interrupts the program we are listening to.  NPR.  One of my son's charms is this enjoyment, an appreciation of NPR developed through years of long car rides and intent listening followed by family discussions, between syndicated episodes of "Delilah" featuring the romantic pinings of callers and dedicated love songs and giggles and comments across miles and state-lines and radio stations that fade and pitch with static.  The Breaking News.  From Boston.  Explosions. Terrorism. Marathon. Finish line.

We were about an hour from Boston when the bombs went off.  We are startled and silenced by the news as we drive along the Massachusetts Turnpike toward Albany.  Stopping for a bathroom break, I check the internet for more information.  At my disposal, all this news, up to the minute, details and pictures and images of horror and disbelief.    A helpless sense of being small and powerless and unable to protect and provide and sustain this idea that I was once of the belief that I could do anything to shield and protect and keep my children safe.  A child, lost, killed, at the finish line.  Jarring.  Tense. Fractured, this new world where everything is different and still the same.  Tense and bright and filled with joy and hope and devastation. We watch as the military vehicles make their way towards Boston.  We notice the helicopters, military sanctioned, heading east as we continue west.  This world, changed forever, but still foreign to us.  We talk and speculate and grow somber.   We make it to Albany, to see my daughter, and kiss her, and hug her, and leave her with gifts and smiles.  Faint bits of sadness and sorrow, soften, and we travel on.  Homeward.

The world seems broken.  My family as well.   Myself, healing and growing stronger and brighter and making room for joy while knowing sadness will come unbidden.  My children have been forced to come to terms, quickly, with loss and the raw honest truth that parents are human and fallible and sometimes weak and even hurtful.  This truth that I cannot change or hide or shield them from, causes me to let go just enough to allow them to take flight, and soar away, bright and bold, joy-filled and pumped with the possibility that they might soar higher, do better, not be quite as normal and human and mortal and fallible.  But not enough to lose them forever.  I wish them everything, anything, all that is available and then some. I wish them safety.  I wish them a world that is less broken and the promise that family and friends and many more will help them and love them and be better off for knowing them.  I wish them balloons, but only if they enjoy them. 

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