It’s funny what makes me cry. This week’s trigger was a stack of neatly folded polo shirts. And a travel iron. The travel iron really did me in.
My son kept looking up from the clothing labels with his name on them, offering me his warm, quirky smile before telling me to stop being weird. That no other mothers get like this, that none of them cries when their children leave for a year in Israel.
I texted the mother of a friend of his, and asked her how the packing was coming, and how she herself was holding up. The response was what I expected: She’s sobbing in her cubicle at work. Her officemates are concerned.
I got a text from a friend cautioning me about the scene at the airport, with moms bawling and fathers blessing the offspring who won’t be at the Shabbos table with them for a year. That made me cry even more.
My son finally said I should do what I’ve got to do, and left me to my tears.
While we were shopping, ticking off the last items on his packing list, I caught a glimpse of him when he didn’t notice. I thought of the driveway at the house we lived in when we relocated to Massachusetts during the year I was in the third grade. It was the second to last one on the block of a growing development, after which were only grassy fields and dirt road. We faced a beautiful, tree-shaded lake and picked wild blueberries from the bushes that grew among the birch woods filling our half-acre backyard. But what I remember most is the driveway.
In my eight-year-old mind, its stretch of blacktop went on forever, inclining up from the curb before turning like a bent elbow, levelling off as it approached the garage. I found paradise racing my bicycle around its expanse in fair weather and sledding down its long hill in the winter. When we returned to New Jersey, the driveway of my memory dwarfed – in both length and gravitas -- the one at our new house.
I drove to the Massachusetts house decades later on a whim. It looked exactly as I remembered it, though the development carried on as far as my eye could see. What struck me, though, was the ordinariness of the driveway. It wasn’t particular lengthy or steep, its curve equally unimpressive. But the reality did not diminish how much pleasure I took in the extraordinariness I saw in it as a child, though I had a good laugh at the trick time and perspective had played on me.
Apparently, they play the same one on mothers. I am looking at my son, now old enough and responsible enough to spend a year abroad without me, yet what I see is an infant so small he surely just arrived in the world.
I rarely think of the hard moments that have come since his birth, the unpleasantries that once appeared outsized enough to consume me, but have since faded into brief anecdotes, either humorous or harrowing. Watching him pack, I’m not thinking about his croup or his meningitis scare or the day he escaped from his car seat while we were driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, or the time he refused to get into it outside the La-z-Boy store and we sat in the parking lot for over an hour until he screamed himself to sleep on the curb, or the early teenage years, every minute of them.
I list my parenting regrets in my head, then brush them off because they are a waste of time without the possibility of time travel. Grateful that our battles have been minor ones, I decide most of them come down to me having been too strict about things I now know don’t really matter. Yet there’s something I recall so vividly, it remains unaltered by time and perspective. It’s a what-if-I’d-done-things-differently too loud to ignore.
On maternity leave after a full trimester on bed rest, I couldn’t wait to get out of the house at night when my husband returned home from his pediatric residency shifts every 72 hours. I’d throw a winter coat over my pajamas, hand my first-born to his father, and head out to the two nearby establishments open late at night: a CVS, where I’d buy a Diet Dr. Pepper, and the laundromat, the only warm place with a bench to sit on while I cleared my head.
In retrospect, it sounds pathetic, possibility a bit nuts, but those nighttime outings taught me a lot about myself. As much as I love my children, I realized early on that I need time to breathe by myself, to find space beyond career and home and parenting in order to survive. When I returned to work, however, guilt consumed me and I forgot all about oxygen. Nothing to regret, but something to rectify.
As we weigh my son’s duffels to ensure they do not exceed 50 lbs., I’m thinking it’s time to weigh what I should do next. As he spreads his wings, I’m ready to do the same, to open myself up to long-forgotten possibilities while I continue to raise the two ducks still at home, and to envision what my life will look like when they, too, leave the driveway of their childhood behind.