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The Days Grow Shorter

Autumn Leaves

It feels just a little symbolic that as summer draws to a close and sunset comes earlier and earlier each evening that the days before my oldest son leaves home to start the next chapter in his life also grow shorter.

These days are a bittersweet cocktail of excitement and pride mixed with sadness and anxiety. Like millions of other parents, the onset of senior year of high school is a time where I have to steel myself to endure the whiplash that the next 10 months will bring. Early in the summer the stark reality that my child was now more than just a rising senior but a full-fledged eagle with his wings spread ready to take off confronted me when the letter came in the mail announcing the date he would sit for his senior portrait. We had just begun to catch our breath after our younger son’s graduation from middle school and the acceptance that he was embarking on his own march to liberation as he prepared to enter high school and there, in a plain white, completely innocuous envelope was the folded up letter indicating that our son would be dressed in cap and gown on August 3rd. Really? This can’t wait for September like all the other school photos? The final assault was the email in mid-August with the proofs of the photos. That first moment when you see your child – the one you carried in your belly for 9 months, the one you nursed, the one you rocked to sleep and cried outside his door while he screamed the night away as you tried to help him endure his first hurdle of sleeping through the night, the one you sat and read to each night, taught to ride a bike, marked his growth spurts, cheered on in pee-wee sports, cried when he was sad or brokenhearted, taught to drive, looked up to when he began to tower over you – donning a cap and gown, ready to graduate and brave the world makes your heart stop for a moment. The punch in the gut of reality that confronts you takes the wind out of you.

It’s not as if I did not see this coming. In fact, I have been dreading this day since the first day of kindergarten. When I let go of his hand and watched him line up with his sweet little classmates, I was confronted with the certainty that we had strapped into a very long roller coaster ride that would be bumpy and, at times, death-defying. Mind you, I hate roller coasters. The nausea-inducing death drops are terrifying and, as I quietly wept listening to the PTA President welcome us to the new school year, I felt us take the first dip. I wanted to get off the ride and we were still at the very beginning. Even though I knew we had 12 years to go before our baby bird would be flying out of the nest, a part of me knew the transition had already begun.

Ironically, I am not one of those moms that got overly emotional about my babies. I never shed a single tear when I dropped either of my boys off at daycare at the tender age of 3 months. I enthusiastically returned to work and embraced the idea of being a working mom. I didn’t hover, helicopter. and was definitely not a tiger mom. I never called to check on my kids and trusted that the ridiculous sums of money we paid to our wonderful daycare would provide more than adequate care for my kids. Even the day my older son walked down the aisle at his Pre-K graduation dressed in his miniature cap and gown did not evoke the kind of hysteria that was quietly brewing just months later when we arrived at elementary school. His enrollment in the public school system was like hitting the button on the top of a stopwatch and we watched the dials spin speedily as the years ticked on.

As parents, we know that our job is to prepare our children for the eventual separation. Raising confident and independent kids equates to success. Yet, we must set aside our primal inclinations to protect and defend our children in order to release them and let them have their own experiences. Every child grows up, leaves home and goes on to be adults. Every parent has to set their children free into the world, trusting that they have done the most and the best they can do to prepare them for what lies ahead. And, every parent survives and every child endures. Some better than others but this is a process of life that is not unique to our family. Nonetheless, it is the first time for us and it sucks. I’d like to embrace the mindset that this is part of the life journey but I am calling bullshit on myself. I want to take all 6’4″ of my tender, precious baby and shove him back inside where he came from. I want to get off this ride right now.

The tears started for me back in June when I looked at photos and watched videos of last year’s group of seniors go to prom and graduate. My feelings spanned from sincere joy and pride for all the kids I had watched grow up to a sickening realization that when they moved on, the group that pushed their way into focus included my son. After a junior year that included a driver’s license, a girlfriend, SATs, and a blossoming independence, I thought I would be prepared for the excitement and milestones that senior year would bring. But, as I was reveling in the accomplishments of the Class of 2018, I was already beginning to mourn the departure of the Class of 2019.

Our children need not understand the pain and suffering we endure as parents. It is what we signed up for. That famous quote about having children is like having your heart run around outside of your body sums it up perfectly. Our most cherished possessions are meant to leave us to have lives of their own. No matter how painful or scary that is to us as parents, we need to always remember that this is their time to blossom and shine and our anxiety is for us to process on the inside. I understand this as much as anyone yet all I want to do is cry and scream, hold him tight and beg him not to go. All the while, I am pushing him out the door and cheering him on.

Several weeks ago we had dinner with our oldest friends and their two sons a few weeks before their older son was to start college in Virginia. The mom shared, with tears in her eyes, that she knew that these last days were the last her family would be intact as they were that day. Nothing would be the same again. As she shared her feelings, my heart hurt and I felt like I was looking into a crystal ball to my life 365 days from that moment. And, once again, I wanted to throw up.

So, here we are. Day 1 of senior year and the beginning of the end. The first of the very lasts. While my son spends nearly every waking moment with his friends, trying to squeeze every last bit of juice out his childhood, I am trying to sneak in moments for us for the very same reason. I want to enjoy his last days as my boy before he departs and transforms into a man, away from my gaze. I will not take for granted that every night he puts his head down on the same bed he has been sleeping in since he graduated from a toddler bed and every morning he wakes up in our house. I will take every moment he will offer me and I will stand on the sidelines cheering him in on through every excruciating experience that senior year brings. And, on the inside, I will hold my breath as the stopwatch speeds up faster and faster and the days tick down to June 25, 2019. I will check myself everytime I want to lock him in a closet and keep him safe. I will proudly watch him turn 18, vote for the first time, trade in his provisional license, get accepted to college and finally walk down the aisle in a full-size cap and gown. I will cheer for him, encourage him and tell him how it is his time to shine. I will arm him with all the wisdom he can tolerate and tell him I love him every single day. Because in less than 365 days I may not speak to him every day. I will not see his beautiful face every single day and I will not have the opportunity to get frustrated with him when he leaves his socks on the bathroom floor or uses up my face scrub and leaves the empty container in the shower. I will not have to remind him that he needs to text me when he goes out with his friends to let me know his status because he will be living his own life. I will not have to remind him to clean up his dishes or encourage him to get a haircut. But, like the millions of parents who came before me, I will think of him when I open my eyes in the morning and before I close my eyes at night. He will always be that sweet little wide-eyed boy who cuddled up in bed with me to read stories and play the rhyming game at night.

Today is the first of our lasts for this chapter of our life. Time to buckle up and get ready for the ride.