We stood together on the stoop, the boys and I, peering out as the trash truck sunk its merciless teeth into my mother’s 50-year-old desk—the one I had used since college and painted pale yellow and slate blue during senior year. The one that always held my most cherished notebooks. It had only two drawers, and they were small and rickety at that. Its use value had diminished, and so it fell victim to our decluttering efforts before the move.
Nevertheless, a familiar wave of nostalgia washed over me at seeing it go. I winced. My oldest noticed.
“If you didn’t want to say goodbye to it, you shouldn’t have thrown it away.” And then, reassuringly, “That’s ok, Mom! We can get a new one, maybe. Maybe one that’s gray and yellow?” (My favorite colors, he knows.)
Where did this empathy come from? This perspective? This independence of thought?
A subtle shift is underfoot.
You still sing with the sweet-voice of a child. You let me linger at preschool drop-off. Potty words still amuse; you’re only halfway to ten, and years from body odor and scruff signaling impending manhood…
But your baby cheeks are gone, replaced by chiseled boyish good looks.
And you ask to hold the umbrella by yourself.
And you know how to buckle your own seatbelt.
And you read to your brothers.
You spell words unassisted.
You give me winks.
And deep, long hugs on hard mornings. Somehow, sometimes your little four-year-old heart knows just what I need.
Last week, you made a collage all by yourself—scissors, glue, all of it.
This morning, you replaced the toilet paper in the bathroom. Unasked.
Last night, you had a bad dream and woke to recount it in troubling detail.
I see your mind working overtime, trying to make sense of it all.
Soon there will be school buses you board by yourself instead of preschools we walked to together. Things you tell your friends, or your journal, that you keep from me.
I knew how to hold you close, but how do we do this thing, this letting go? Every day, loosening my grasp just a little more. Letting you be more of the world’s than my own. Letting you belong to another.
You are on a precipice. I don’t want you to fall, but I also know I can’t hold you any longer. You are my first; what lies ahead of you is a mystery to me. I know the comfort of what was, but when I try to peer into what’s to come, I see only shapeless shadows.
* * *
I always long for the comfortable. The known. A familiar desk, a task previously conquered. Seldom steady or self-assured as I set out for something new; sometimes sentimental to a fault.
In Still Writing (which I’m reading, loving, savoring…recommending), Dani Shapiro describes the creative life as one fraught with uncertainty:
“All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.”
I start writing and I don’t know where it will lead. This is new for me, hard. Uncomfortable. I bite off an entire hand of nails as I slog through a daunting first draft because I’m impatient. I want to know where it’s going, that it’s going somewhere worthwhile, anywhere at all.
* * *
Writing…parenting…in both, we must embrace uncertainty. Fail better. Walk into the unknown. It scares me, just as it thrills. These uncharted waters, the mystery of what lies ahead. Like the blank page, little by little, our story, his story, begins to reveal itself.
What we know for sure is that we can’t stay here. Time is relentless in its pursuit of what follows. So we follow along, taking comfort in the commonality of it all. Because after all, writing and parenting are both at once intensely personal and reassuringly universal.
It is in giving voice to my innermost thoughts that I realize they are shared. Our words, formed in solitude, in the quiet, alone-but-far-from-lonely moments of putting pen to page, connect us to the world.
Parenting, too, simultaneously pulls us inward just as it connects us to others. We retreat, focus on our “immediate” family, get lost in those details that matter to no one else. But with every moment, every milestone, every guilt-ridden confession, every triumphant relief, we discover that we are connected to all the mothers who came before, all those walking alongside us.
The same songs fill the bedroom air, the same wobble marks those tentative first steps, the same worries over how we feed our children’s bodies and minds, the same swollen heart when his tiny hand is clasped in yours or her little arms are flung around your neck, the same ache at the thought of the deceivingly distant day that “home” for them is elsewhere…
My new writerly (dare I say?) friend, Lauren Apfel, puts it perfectly:
“I think because I genuinely felt, not to be too grandiose, that [having children] was the first truly universal thing I had done in my life. There was so much humanity in the experience, so much about it that pulled me out of myself. I wasn’t one mother, alone in her exhaustion and exhilaration, I was, at once, every mother I had ever known or ever would know.”
My oldest son graduates preschool this week. He turns five the week after that. Soon after, our family is moving away from the only home, the only city we’ve known. I left my corporate job and am now stumbling along on this uncharted path.
I’m learning to live in the discomfort of that space where things are no longer as they were. I’m embracing the uncertainty of the blank page, the unknown tomorrow.
Others came before me. Others walk alongside me.
I’m on a precipice. But I’m not alone.