When they were little, it felt like the days stretched on without end.
Those were hard years—for everyone, yes, mothering very little ones is intense—but for me, I think maybe especially so. I am old enough to know that even lives that look smooth and easy from the glassy surface probably have hidden riptides. There was never anything smooth or glassy about the surfaces of my life, but when the rip tide rose up, it took with it any semblance of a stable life, destroyed my first marriage and ultimately took my first husband’s life. It left me with three babies and no visible means of support.
So when I say those years were hard, I mean it. In one paragraph, I can create a shiny, smooth surface over years of violent loss. But what those years really were was day in and day out of caring for the intense needs of three small children, while also watching my husband, their father, slowly die. In my mind, I can tick off the relapses and losses with matching snapshots of the kids’ first steps, first days of preschool, first loose tooth, first day of kindergarten. First all-night withdrawal, first overdose, first seizure, first in-patient hold, first ambulance ride…and on it goes.
Like any mother, I did my best to protect my kids from the reality of what was happening. When something like that starts, you really cannot see the end from the beginning. Your partner is hurt. They messed up. You can help fix it. It’s not too late. When you’re married, have three kids, and just bought the dream house where you both imagine living for the rest of your life, you don’t just give up. You just don’t. Even now, a decade removed and with the perspective of time and hindsight, I still don’t see a clear place where I could have chosen differently.
So my children spent their early years in this foundry of pressure and loss, and I was powerless to stop it, or to even hold it back. While those individual days absolutely felt like a never-ending eternity, it turns out ten years flew by when I glanced away for a moment.
All of this is on my mind because my oldest son turned seventeen yesterday. Seventeen.
He was four and a half years-old when his father relapsed the first time, he was eight years-old when I took a deep, grief-filled breath and signed divorce papers, and he was thirteen years-old when the call came that his father was dead.
The seemingly small age difference between him and his siblings turns out to be a relational gulf in foundational memories. My oldest son carries with him the double-edged memories of his father that his brother and sister do not share. He remembers my frantic calls to 911. He remembers the paramedics pounding on his father’s chest. He remembers his grandmother crying in our kitchen. He remembers the judge’s order, and his dad not being allowed to see him for a year. He remembers.
He remembers packing up our home, and moving to a tiny place across town. He remembers crawling into bed with me, while we both cried. He remembers going to the welfare office and getting free school lunch. He remembers filling out his little paper ornament to hang on the charity Christmas tree in the foyer. He remembers having to sell the car so we could afford to keep the heat and water on.
He also has powerful memories of people helping. He remembers strangers dropping off boots and coats for us. He remembers packages arriving on our porch anonymously. He remembers kids from church canceling a ski trip to help us move. He remembers the scout troop helping set up swings in our tiny yard. He remembers fishing trips and garden plots and motorbike rides and free pizzas and sledding and invitations to multiple family Thanksgiving and Easter dinners.
The life he’s lived, while not one I would have ever chosen for him on his birth day, has changed him in powerful ways I also could never have imagined. I unequivocally do not believe the trite aphorism everything happens for a reason. That notion reduces people and their lives to bit pieces moved around on a chess board for another’s benefit. There is no world in which that is just or moral. What I do believe is that life is messy and hard and full of chance and dumb luck and grace when we are looking for it, and it will roll forward whether we want it to or not. We have very little power over anything outside of ourselves, but the power we do have for ourselves is pretty remarkable.
Had twenty-seven year old me been given the choice, I would have probably avoided every single thing coming down the pipeline. Thank God I didn’t know. Thank God we are not given that omniscience, because we would screw it up every time. I would have moved heaven and earth to try and save my children, myself, and David, the pain we would all experience. But looking back, I cannot fathom a bigger mistake.
The things twenty-seven year old me would want to avoid end up being foundational to who I am, to how I now move through the world. And while I cannot see yet what that means for the future from right here in the middle, what I do have now that I didn’t then is faith in the process. I don’t know why things happen, and sometimes they are wretchedly sad and sometimes loss is just heartbreakingly meaningless. I think the only why is what we do with our own pain.
So I look at my son. Seventeen.
He’s not like other kids. He’s acquainted with loss and grief in ways many kids aren’t. He’s comfortable with disabilities, with the language of inclusion, with blended families, and non-traditional roles. He volunteers in the SpEd class and walks a vision-impaired classmate to the bus in the afternoons. He is aware of how fortunate we are now, how wonderful it is to have a full refrigerator and not to worry about the heating bill. He keys in on the needs and feelings of others, and navigates easily between wildly different peer groups. He flew with me to retrieve the ashes of his father after he died, and held them in his lap on the flight home.
He’s also exactly like other kids. He forgets to do his homework, and spends too much time playing video games. He complains about picking up dog poop in the yard, and is a jerk sometimes to his youngest sister. He plays Dungeons & Dragons, and he lettered in Varsity football. He has an easy smile and a ready laugh, and will happily show you all the vintage rock on the phone he got for his birthday. He likes Billie Holiday and sings loudly off-key to Billy Joel with his step-father while he does the dishes.
And now he is seventeen, and the heavy lifting of the early years—and even the teenage years, to a large extent—are behind us. What once felt like an inescapable forever of sorrow and hardship is now a snapshot of complex and nuanced memories, with a tail on the curve of stability and a fair dose of happiness. To someone outside looking in, the surface looks pretty smooth. Don’t be fooled; those waters run deep.
I am grateful none of us are given the option of seeing the end from the beginning. I take a deep breath as I type that, because sometime I act braver than I really am, and we are all in the middle. The truth is, we simply cannot comprehend or manage that kind of magnitude, and we would stunt ourselves in the process of trying to create an ideal that can never exist.
I am utterly not ready for this child to graduate from high school, to be applying to college and to become an adult. His lived memories and experiences and mine are intertwined in a way that is inextricable. At the same time, I am ridiculously happy that he is so good, so competent and has so much to offer others. I am excited to see him thrive and find happiness, and I know that only happens when he learns to stand on his own.
When they were little, it felt like the days stretched on without end.
I was wrong.
It’s the process of learning to let go that is without end.