Fall Back, Spring Forward
Children both hamper and heal us.
With the arrival of spring, there is often a sense of hope renewed, and this year’s vernal promise should be no different. Still, for me, this season brings an extra layer of meaning: a sense not only the future, but of an entire life cycle coming to an end.
The year began unlike the twenty-three that had preceded it. For the first time, all my children had left the home, one in graduate school, one returning to college, and one, the youngest, starting her freshman year. That last goodbye to my “baby” at the gates of the huge university was wrenching. The family van we drove home had seats for a clan, and yet now it was just me and my husband, departing ever further from our past.
Of course, I had known this would happen. Everybody knows that children grow up and leave the house (if we are lucky). But now theory had become all too real, and here was a glimpse of time’s cruelty so profound that it reminded me of the deaths of my parents. At that time, I felt I was alone in the world, unbuffered and unguided. At that time, I felt there was nothing – no safety railing, no distance – between me and mortality itself. And I felt that void again as we drove away, our last child beginning her own life’s path, and we left to continue our own.
Children both hamper us and heal us. For all the years that I had wished to have more time to myself, I now had all the time to myself I could want. For all the sleepless nights, spent either comforting a baby or worrying about a teen, I could now sleep all I wanted – but I felt that the night now had a hollower quality. I had enjoyed closing my eyes each day with the thoughts of what they’d said and done the day before, their hopes, hurts and happiness.And though each departing child stayed in touch, there was a sense, now, that I was not meant to know everything, that their lives would be theirs and my life, mine.
Six months have passed since that autumn season, and the leaves that have fallen are now returning. Buds on the trees are blossoming, and surprisingly, so am I. Only now do I begin to remember the person I was before the decades of service, the girl who had only herself to think about. And what thoughts I had had – plans of glory, adventure, accomplishment. Many of these plans had been put aside for my children; my own difficult childhood had made me determined to be the best mother possible. I would put aside my happiness anytime it threatened theirs, leave a manuscript unfinished to tend to a sick or simply troubled child, refuse a great writing job that would take me away from my family. I’d be there for them at the start and end of every day. And now, all those years of putting others first, of doing all I could to launch secure, healthy and purposeful children, had come to an end. They were leaving, as secure, healthy and purposeful children are meant to do.
Their mother was leaving, too, and at first the longing kept me tame and motionless. But now, it is spring, and I can smell the promise of movement. I can feel a breeze of life in me, a current in the air. I am impatient and expectantly joyful. I’m turning from my little haven now, and seeing the entire world. If there is an empty nest, it is because I myself have left it, and am free.
One winter, when my son was three years old, he stopped in front of a leafless hedge. To him, it must have looked sorrowful, bare in the cold. He spoke to it and said: “Oh bush, you have lost your leaves. But don’t worry. You will get new ones in the spring. I saw it last year!” He then turned away, took my hand, and we continued our day.
This spring, no one is holding my hand. But I’m not worried. Like that hedge, I’m feeling the light and the warmth of new growth.