In honor of my son’s 17th birthday today, I am re-blogging this post I wrote for him.
As I attempt to write about Collin, my oldest child, I am struck by how important it is to me that I get it right. When a mother and child spend 12 years alone together, there is a bond so deep, baggage in such excess, love so mature, that each sentence must be weighed for its truth and implication: with Collin there can be no poetic license, no embellishment, no attribution of emotions unfelt. My love is so deep and so strong, so overwhelming, changing emotions to words is a near impossible task.
My thoughts are bittersweet—the uniqueness of a relationship that can never be replicated with any of my other children; the fact that, from this point forward, Collin will be experiencing things by himself that I can only see through the lens of having done them with him in my own life’s journey; that eventually “coming home” will instead be “visiting home.”
Collin will spend the next 4 weeks trying to figure out which college he will attend. As we prepare for our road trips and flights across the county, I am also preparing my heart for the emptiness it will feel when he no longer lives solely under my roof. He is only 16—just a baby when you think about it.
I have often felt a bit guilty that Collin’s place in the structuring of my world as “mom” is not easily defined. Collin was neither my first child nor my last child, and there is a 13-year and 16-year gap between him and his little sister and brother, respectively. Since he is not first, middle, or last, there is no study that can determine what his personality will be or how he will relate to others based on his birth order. Similarly, there is no study that can define how I have raised him. There is no first-child over-protectedness, no last child leniency, no middle child “neglect.” As I have thought about this I have realized—as I said to him tearfully several months ago when it fully hit me that he would soon be gone—he is the child, the only child, I have grown up with.
I gave birth to Collin on July 17, 1996, when I was 17 years old. The “adulthood” I received from his birth was far greater than that I received one week later, on July 25th, when I turned 18 and became a legal adult.
While a child makes a parent an adult far faster than any legal definition ever could, childbirth does not negate the selfish inward-focus of an 18-year-old, nor the growth that must still occur within the parent who, no matter how grown-up she may think she is, is really still just a child as well.
Our status as child and child-mother is not unique; teenagers become parents every day. And when they do, an odd thing occurs: the child sees its parent grow, change, seek, even as the child is doing the same. And though neither realizes it at the time—the child because it’s a child, the parent because she already *thinks* she’s an adult—this is an amazing thing, for good or for bad, that cannot be replicated.
While we prepare to make a decision about where Collin will go to college, my mind turns, with child-mom selfishness, to the past, and what can never be again in the future.
Collin was with me when I went through my goth phase, my hardcore punk phase, even my short-lived ska phase, and was with me still when I settled comfortably into Billy Bragg, old country, rockabilly, and K-Love.
Collin and I have gotten lost innumerable times together: on Arkansas dirt roads and Texas highways; in Virginia suburbs, Maryland slums, DC proper, and, finally, Berkeley hills, in each instance singing at the top of our lungs, playing “Guess That Band,” as I regaled him with stories or forced him to listen to Prairie Home Companion until he finally thought it was funny.
Collin was with me when I worked as a maid, cleaning houses and hotel rooms for $3.15 an hour. When I worked graveyard as a fry cook and when I ironed clothes in 120-degree heat at a dry cleaners. He even helped me roll silverware at the Thai place where I waitressed under the table and got free fried rice in return for his efforts. He was with me when I interned at the White House, when I wrote law articles and Lexis Nexis how-to manuals, when I published my first poem, when I won my first trial, and when I put all that aside to stay home with him and his siblings.
He celebrated his big brother’s birthdays with me, went through 8.5 years of school with me, suffered through break-ups and wedding planning with me.
Collin learned to separate whites from colors from delicates, how to bake bread, how to wash dishes the right way, and how to properly IRAC and study for the Bar, all by the age of 10.
Collin went to classes with me, work with me, parties with me, on dates with me. House hunted, apartment searched, church-hopped, and suit-shopped with me. Stood in front of 100+ people and gave me his blessing to marry his baseball coach and, a short while later, welcomed with me his new sister and brother into our home.
And now he is leaving.
I am not old, I know that. But I am grown. I have a few gray hairs, and the only sticker on my car is for church parking. In July, a few short months from now, Collin will turn the age I was when I gave birth to him. And a month after that, he will go to college and begin his deepest search yet for identity and place in this world.
Although neither of us may talk about it now, for years we were each other’s (relative) calm in the eye of a storm. And when the storm ended, we became adventurers, chasing storms instead of hiding from them, grabbing what we could where we could and enjoying every moment of it.
Collin has not yet chosen his school; we will use the next 4 weekends to visit campuses so he can make his decision. Two choices are very far away, two are very close. I know that no matter which he chooses, he will live his new life to the fullest. I know he will relish every moment of his new freedom, the academic challenge, the new things in a new town with new people and new things to see. I know he will do this because that’s what we spent the last 16 years doing together.
So he will go, with my blessing, but the teenaged selfishness I was full of when he was born still exists somewhere within me, and I must admit that my blessing will be tempered by my own sadness at seeing him go on this new adventure without me.
I wrote the following poem over a decade ago for Collin, and I am amazed at how true the emotions behind the words still are today:
My sleeping son’s legs dangle,
precarious, from a spaceship/cowboy bed.
He exhales boy-breath from
spaghetti o’ lips—
steady, strong, and sweet.
Upon waking, my son—poet-mathematician, burgeoning gymnast—
does handstands, quotes Poe, adds large sums
inside a calculator mind.
A John Wayne swagger now, holster strapped to sturdy hips,
Spiderman Underoos crawl from tough-guy
faded-black Wranglers, belie Vesuvius image as my son becomes
a mourner of fish, questioner of death,
one-half vegetarian and preacher
of karma breathing breakfast prayers.
Walking Wednesdays for ritual ice cream,
he laughs too loud, asks about my day, claims
to have forgotten his. We discuss
important things: Root, leaf, stem, limb,
the flavor we will buy.
After bath, teeth, ears, prayers,
I perch, precarious, on a spaceship/cowboy bed, and watch
my sleeping son’s legs dangle.
(as published in The Allegheny Review)