Laboring to Let Go

A mother comes to grips with the pain of watching her son leave home for the first time.

By Susan Stiffelman
man with suitcase
Photograph: iStockphoto

So, I come out of my room on Sunday morning with a spring in my step and a sweet tickle in my heart. Had a lovely meditation and am ready to launch into my Sundaythe house is quiet and there are little projects I hope to get to before heading down to the beach.

Joni Mitchell would be nice, I think to myself. For some reason “Blue” keeps playing in my head and I decide to put it on while I make breakfast. Musing a bit about my boy, I head for the stereo.

“Blue…/ Songs are like tattoos…”  and, unexpectedly, my heart breaks apart and I’m on my knees. And there you have ita wave, the first real one, has hit. 

I’ve been told it can be like this. Wild fluctuations in moodboth for the teen and the momas we edge ever closer to the departure for college and, with that, the beginning of a new chapter in his lifein our lives. But I’ve been pretty good so far, excited for him and living blissfully in a state of denial.

And there you have it. Denial, apparently, wears off. I’m like the bird in those cartoons, flying along and then smacking into the window. 

The sobbing is primal, gut-wrenching. I’m astonished by its force, and the sudden appearance of this grief. I allow it, give it space: Take all the room you needas if it wouldn’t! It’s impolite and demanding, and takes over the room, my heart and this day.

I find myself unable to breathe; the air is coming in and out, but I can’t feel it. I’m picturing him not here, not at his dad’s, not at his friend’s, but 3,000 miles away. I realize he cannot go. He simply can’t go. I’ll talk to him. He’ll agree. He’ll understand it was all a big mistake and decide to go to the nice community college down the road. Or some other little college within a few hours’ drive.

Of course I realize I’m insane, but I let myself play out that scenario, coming to the inevitable understanding that I’m insane and that he is going to the very best place for himfor who he is and what he needs right now in order to become more who he is, out from under my watchful gaze

As happens with grief, it subsides after a time and I’m able to eat something. I wander around for a bit, considering whom I might callwhat friend who’s going through this right now, or what seasoned mother/friend/sister who has been where I am and lived through it. Instead, I just stay present with the waves as they come and go, not wanting to engage my left brain enough to try to talk about it. 

Eventually, there’s a peacethat depressed sort of peace where you’d like to lie on the couch and stare out the window. But I rally and set to sorting a box of papers, periodically coming across something like a Mother’s Day card or Ari’s selective service notice, when the waves come again. Knocked over each time, then gaining another fragile hold on acceptance once that wave subsides. 

The sadness follows me around most of the day, but it’s kind enough to let me function reasonably well and even go down to the beach for a time. I watch the six-foot-five version of my heart play volleyball—he arrives not long after I do, having been in town with his dadI leave him be, grateful simply to watch him from a distance despite feeling a little like a stalker.

Around 6  p.m. or so, I’m reading, puttering around the house. Ari strolls in the front door, and his appearance is so ordinary and blessed, my heart does a quiet little twirl. Then he tells me, “A bunch of people are comingis that OK? We’re gonna watch the Lakers game,” and my heart does crack a little. But I lie and say, “I was about to go to the storecan I get you guys anything?”

First Published September 6, 2011

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