Grown Up, Flown Away

As published in Portico Magazine

I’ll never forget the day my husband Hugo took my son Clint to Zamora Shrine Temple to the Reptile Show. He texted home pictures of my sweet eleven-year-old with a mottled yellow python draped across his small shoulders, a stranger’s tattooed forearm blurring the picture’s frame. That afternoon they brought home what I learned was an Australian bearded dragon. We named this prehistoric, sand-colored creature, no larger than Clint’s hand, George, after the dragon slayer Saint George. Pondering our new addition to the family, I asked how long George would live. “Twenty years,” this Lego-loving, Bionicle-building boy informed me. My first thought: Clint will go to college, and we will still have George.

I do that a lot. Cast my mind forward. Rocking Clint as a baby in his nursery singing “You Are My Sunshine,” I already dreaded his leaving for college. Even though I waited until I was 33 to become a mother and memorized every word of What To Expect When You’re Expecting, I wasn’t prepared for being a parent. Not that anyone can be. I quickly learned, though, parenting is a process of letting go and loss. Well, I let go with the grace of a barnacle, but parenting has a way of teaching us the most basic spiritual principles. I sensed immediately, holding my newborn baby in my arms, how powerless I was to stop him from growing up and leaving.

There were many moments, small and large, heralding the beginning of our goodbyes during Clint’s senior year. We spent spring break tending to our dog Bear, whom we rescued when Clint was five, as our old friend graduated from one stage of dying to the next. On the eve of Clint’s eighteenth birthday, we held Bear, the heart center of our family, as he slipped away like a sigh.

One day not long after Bear died, I looked out the kitchen window to see Clint in the creek burying his last frog. Tanks brimming with fish and frogs crowded his boyhood room. We usually made a ceremony of these burials, but he chose to let go of the last vestige of childhood zoo alone.

Even though it felt like yesterday that an oversized blue crayon attached to our mailbox announced his foray into kindergarten, the day came to say goodbye to this grown young man. When we arrived in California, the college had the weekend down to a fine art. There was a festive, celebratory air to the weekend activities, but circling on the edge of everyone’s awareness was the impending departure.

Saturday evening as we finished our picnic on the quad, the sense of new beginnings as distinct as the smell of the eucalyptus trees, the college President welcomed the new students and their families. Then, without lingering for even a millisecond, he announced, his voice final and sharp as a guillotine’s blade, it was time for all the freshmen to walk to the front of the stage. And there that child went, walking towards the cheering, animated crowd of older students, drifting into the arms of a tribe of his peers. But not before I had to peel his broken-hearted sister Frances off him. Thankfully, I had little time to indulge my tears, and as I glanced around the quad, the scene appeared the same throughout the family clusters.

The college, dotted with giant octopus-shaped cacti and hugged by the San Andreas mountains, feels like a sanctuary, but as our new threesome drifted through the rest of the trip, zombielike, the world took on a new tenor. I became acutely aware of the impossible distance and anonymity outside the idyllic campus bubble. I marveled at the long shimmering stretches of California’s highways; the length of train track outside the hotel window carrying so many cars full of cattle that even when the train was gone an oppressive smell lingered; the numbing sameness of hotel rooms.

The next day, packed in tight on a full flight staring out the tiny window, the flight attendant’s safety instructions drilling in my ears, I had my comeapart. Leaving Clint, knowing how far away he was if he got sick or disappeared into the night, calculating how long it would take me to reach him was too much to bear anymore. Frances stared at me horrified. She poked Hugo to do something, but there was nothing to do but ugly cry in public.

Back home, I took to bed. Yes, the next week I had a horrible cold. For the next month, Hugo was insanely busy at work. Finally, one day I accused him of not being upset, and he said, “Let him grow up. It’s time.” Well, that made me furious. Frances, of course, was busy with her life as an eighth grader, and though she missed Clint dearly, she quickly became accustomed to having the upstairs bathroom to herself, playing whichever music she wanted, and for the most part, taking full advantage of her parents’ undivided attention.

Someone told me teenagers act the way they do so when it’s time for them to leave, you’re ready. True. I wasn’t going to miss the push and pull of setting boundaries and navigating the inevitable emotional and practical landmines as Clint pulled away from us. I certainly wasn’t going to miss the forced march of high school, AP classes, standardized testing, and the relentless grind. I was going to miss the ordinary, daily rhythm of our life together.

Part of my problem adjusting was I work from home. While Hugo and Frances leave every day, I ramble around in a museum of memories. During that first month Clint was gone, I couldn’t help but think about the fact I had literally carried him inside my body, bringing him forth into the fullness of the world. Now I was experiencing Clint as a physical separation, a colony collapse, a disembodiment, a deflation. I had to adjust to the physical presence of his absence when I walked past his empty room with a made-up bed or listened to the silence coming from his room instead of Adele. Mid-afternoon, I was attuned to hearing his car door slam when he arrived home from school. I missed his impromptu piano concerts when he played “Requiem for a Dream” over and over again. I missed his rambling monologues as he sat at the end of our bed at night to talk.

With the death of a loved one we don’t believe we can sustain the unbearable loss, and at first, the grief of a natural transition like your child’s leaving for college feels similar. But the truth is what we can’t sustain is life staying the same. As one friend remarked to me: the last thing you want is for him to be at home on the couch. In other words, buck up, sister.

At one point, it occurred to me I thought I was somehow different in the same way my imperial ego winked to itself when I was young and whispered, oh no you will never grow old and be one of those women who wears a tankini from Land’s End. Baby, you’ll always wear a bikini.

With Clint, I realized that deep down somewhere I believed he would never leave. More magical thinking. But he did. And I also realized I was letting go of what was never really mine to begin with, this creature with his own likes and dislikes and inclinations who’d only passed through my life. So now the stories of his childhood are contained, a solid but fluid narrative depending on who is remembering what, that could not be added to because those memories have already been created, sealed and encapsulated in a time capsule of our imaginations. There are no do-overs.

Today, George, now twice as large as Clint’s hand, sits in his 20-gallon tank in the middle of our kitchen. He cocks his head and blinks his eyes, two holes in the side of his head for hearing, as Hugo cooks him squash or cuts up watermelon and grapefruit to feed him. At night, the hum of crickets from his tank lulls us to sleep. Sometimes when I chat with George, I start singing. I sing slowly and quietly at first. I sing “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” the same song I used to sing to Clint.

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