Now is the Time of Goodbye

The mist hangs heavy over the Charles River as I make my way onto Storrow Drive. It is the day after a holiday weekend, and the traffic in Boston is heavy. Glancing over at the river, I see a line of ducks placidly making their way through the mist and utterly content.

I know that soon the mist will give way to blue sky and sunshine, but right now it is welcome. It reflects my inner world. I have just said goodbye to my youngest son.

Last week it was my other son and his wife. One day we were picking apples and making apple crisp and the next day I was hugging them goodbye. One day the house was full, the conversation loud over games and ideas and I was eating the best breakfast sandwiches on the planet. The next day? Empty space.

Jonathan has been with us since mid June. He arrived as summer was beginning and is heading back to Greece as the leaves change and golden Autumn arrives. He arrived as a support and help during a deeply difficult time. He arrived and suddenly, there was music in the house. He arrived and my mind spun as we shared theological truths and philosphical beliefs. He arrived, and now he is leaving.

Last night we took a long walk by the harbor. I looked over at the Zakim Bridge and said “Look – a perfect sunset for the evening before you leave.” It was indeed. A benediction of a time well spent.

My job schedule dictates my inability to take him to the airport so the goodbyes happened in the sanctuary of our living room. It was better this way. No matter how warm the temperature, airports can be cold places to say goodbye.

Just yesterday morning my own mom said goodbye to me, and I watched through a car window as she waved until I was out of sight. Generations of goodbyes – this is our family. Three generations of living between. Three generations of waving until you can no longer see the person, whether because they are out of sight or because the tears blur your eyes so much that you can no longer see clearly.

Now is not the time to say how rich our lives have been. Now is not the time to say how much I love the airport, adventure, and the fact that my kids know what it is to live in different places and cultures. Now is not the time to be in awe of my son’s ability to speak Greek, of his thorough investment in another country, another city, another world. Now is not the time to say “but aren’t we lucky?” Now is not the time for others to say “You’ll adjust” or “You can always video chat.”

Now is the time to say goodbye. Now is the time to weep, to say “I will miss you so much.” Now is the time to say “God go with you, God be with you.”

Now is the time of goodbye.

On Launching our Children

Children are characters in the family story we tell — until, one day, they start telling it themselves.

Rachel Cusk

For a month I have wanted to write a piece about launching children. I don’t know much about parenting, despite having parented five who are now adults, but I do know something about the feelings that come with launching children. I also know that many of you are going through this for the first time. I’ve seen the pictures. I read the captions. More importantly, I can also guess the subtext, the unspoken, the words that are in your hearts and your journals because only those places can capture your true feelings.

From the time they put our children into our arms for the first time, we enter into a place and journey best descibed as a foreign land. Never have we been so confronted with our own weakness or strength, never have we been asked to do so much for so little. These small humans are part angel, part dictator, and part parasite. In one momentous event we enter a place of protection, responsibility, and love all combined and we are never quite sure which one is playing out at any given time. Perhaps it’s because they are so entwined. The incomparable Rachel Cusk says it well in her book A Life’s Work:

Having lived so high up in the bickering romantic quarters of love, it is as if I were suddenly cast down to its basement, its foundations. Love is more respectable, more practical, more hardworking than I had ever suspected.

Rachel Cusk in A Life’s Work

As moms we are tuned in to these extensions of our bodies and hearts. We have eyes in the back of our heads, and ears everywhere. We have the sixth sense that comes with parenting – and then they’re gone. We birth them — either through the physical labor of the birth process or the emotional labor of the adoption process. We carry them home in soft and sweet-smelling 0-3 month baby clothes, making sure the car seat is facing the proper way. We teach them to brush their teeth and tie their shoes, eat healthy food and get enough sleep, learn to trust and learn to pray. We bravely wave goodbye at first days of Kindergarten and watch them cross over, alone, to school play grounds–their (and our) version of the river Jordan. We yell at them, hug them, cry with them, laugh with them. We vehemently advocate for them — just as strongly as we urge them to grow to be people who advocate for others.

And then it’s over. One day we could be accused of neglect if we don’t know where they are and the next day we aren’t even allowed to see their medical records.

And as we wave goodbye they rarely look back. It’s part of the armor of growing up, this not looking back. They look forward, as well they should. But we are left waving silently at their backs – and brushing away tears as we recognize this is a rite of passage and nothing will ever be the same.

Suddenly we miss the round marks on the wooden coffee table because we miss the ones who made those marks so very much. The house is too quiet. There are too many cookies in the container, and in our case, too much hot sauce in the refrigerator.

So what of this launching? What can I offer you beyond words?

I offer you these things:

  • Trust your intuition – if you wake up in the night and you can’t get them off your mind, there is a reason. Call or text them. If they don’t answer, call someone who can check on them. Buy a plane ticket and go see them. You won’t regret it.
  • Try not to equate your university student not following in your faith path as lack of respect and love on their part. It’s not. Believe me, I’ve learned the hard way. As they journey forward, the faith of their mothers and fathers must be taken on and worn to become a part of their being, or not worn as they choose.
  • Send care packages. If you live far away and mail is not reliable from where you live, you can find people and places that will do this for you. In the United States, Spoonful of Comfort is one such company.* In the United Kingdom, this company could work for you.
  • Learn to release. This is the hardest piece of advice I’m going to give. Releasing is a daily act of faith and trust. It is a daily giving up of our right to know what’s going on with our kids. We were editors of their stories for a long time – 18 years – but we are no longer the editors. Instead, we become the readers of some good and some hard stories. As we learn to release, we become better readers, better listeners, and better at journeying beside these children of ours.
  • Remember that from the beginning parenting has not been all light. There have been the shadows, otherwise how would we recognize the light? It’s easy as we enter the launching stage to imagine that all that came before was bright and light. But the truth is more complicated. Now we enter a stage where for awhile it may feel quite dark. Sophomore and junior years of university in particular can feel fraught with disillusioned youth, but the light will shine through and be all the more precious for the dark.
  • Don’t look to the right or to the left. If you look to one side you will be proudly preening wondering how you got so lucky with your kids; if you look to the other your shoulders will slump in dejected insecurity. Again I look to Rachel Cusk as source of wisdom and brilliant writing. She says that the public narrative of parenthood denies the light and shadow of reality and “veers crazily toward joy.” Nowhere is this more evident as on social media. Carefully curated feeds insult our hurting hearts and we wonder how the rest of these parents seem to do this thing so well. Remember – you are seeing only a public narrative. Grab a cup of tea on a dark day with any one of those parents and you will cry tears together. Parenting young adults levels our proverbial playing field.
  • Honor their journey. You’ve raised them for this. It’s true that you no longer play the same role – if you did, it would hold its own hard journey – but you are always and forever a part of the story. You’ve just traded places in who gets to tell it.

So there you have it. You’ve entered a new season. Before long, it will be normal, but before it gets that way enjoy the change in colors. Like leaves that fall to the ground too quickly, this too will some day be gone. In the mean time, eat those extra cookies. You wouldn’t want them to go stale.

*No compensation is received for this post!

On Duty & Dreaming

A couple of years ago my oldest daughter texted me with words that were deeply affirming, if a bit humorous. The text said “I am so glad that you were a mother so committed to leisure.”

I started giggling. Committed to leisure? If she only knew the guilt I felt for not doing enough. For not getting them into more sports and more ballet, for not insisting on more piano and flute. For not doing more crafts and music. The one thing I was really good at was reading and resting. I remember being on our front porch in Massachusetts, all of us just sitting, eating, and lounging. I don’t even remember the conversation – I just remember the summer breeze and being perfectly content.

Here she was affirming what I thought I did wrong. Affirming an unknown but fully experienced commitment to leisure.

I’ve thought a lot about that text in the past few years. Unbknownst to my daughter, it was profoundly moving, encouraging me out of a depth of insecurity about motherhood that I didn’t even realize I had.

I entered motherhood in the 25th year of my life, young by today’s standards. I remember the wonder with which I looked at my newborn daughter, her perfect toes, fingers, and truly rosebud mouth pursed up ready to try out the suck reflex. I remember thinking I had never known a love that could so utterly consume me. I remember the well of emotion, knowing in those first days postpartum that the world would have the potential to hurt my little human and I didn’t know what to do with that. All I could do was cry, and in those moments open my heart to God and his blessed mother, who surely knew hurt like few do.

As I walked into those early days, I still remember the lazy mornings of breastfeeding, the moments when only I knew how to comfort her and the infinite wonder of that reality. I dreamt a lot during those days of what our future family would look like. Would there be siblings? Of course! What would our family look like? What would our family be? Would my children be dreamers like I was, losing themselves in books and films, ever searching for beauty, always with a touch of longing? Our daughter was followed by five more children, and the dreaming days were over….or were they?

I found out that a mother’s walk is a balance between duty and dreaming. Duty is what gets you up in the morning when you know you have to get them to school and yourself off to work. Duty is what gets you up in the middle of the night when you realize that the rasping, animal like sound from the other room is your child who can’t breathe properly. Duty is what has you in the bathroom, a hot shower running full force as you anxiously wait for your child’s breathing to improve. Duty is what has you chauffering children to birthday parties and libraries, doctors visits and Sunday schools.

Dreaming is what keeps you hopeful. Dreaming is what you do as you curl up on the couch reading books in front of a wood stove. Dreaming is what has you taking your kids to Egypt to see their childhood homes, to Florida to build sandcastles on the beach, to Quebec City to wander the walled city. Dreaming is what inspires you to create home and place, memories and traditions. Dreaming is what helps you as you ask your child about colleges they are interested in attending or ideas for plays and stories. Dreaming is what keeps you alive as a mom, determined not to slip into a duty only ethos, because what joy is there in that?

Duty is what pays the bills, dreaming is what makes paying the bills worthwhile. Duty is duty. It is necessary and it is what makes dreaming possible. Dreaming is dreaming. It’s what makes duty possible.

I’m thinking about all these things as I go into the new year. About duty and about dreaming. How duty can creep up and before we know it – all of life is just duty. There is no dreaming. There is just drudgery. Hope is lost in the duty of living. And yet if life is just dreaming, then nothing will ever get done, and life will feel just as meaningless. Like in motherhood, duty and dreaming are a necessary balance. Maybe that is what has felt so difficult in this year of closed borders and closed coffee shops – that dreaming feels impossible and duty overwhelming.

In just a couple of days, 2020 will in an instant change to 2021. Duty will have me changing the clocks, making sure my calendar is up to date, that my work schedule is clear. Dreaming will have me curled up on the couch, committed to leisure and joy on New Year’s Day, writing in my journal and looking at airline tickets. Duty will get me up on the cold mornings in the winter when bed is far more tempting and all of life feels trapped in ice. Dreaming will give me the joy I need to see sunshine sparkling on icy trees and know that “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”*

Here’s to duty and dreaming. Like truth and grace, they are an interwined, paradoxical necessity.

Happy New Year from Communicating Across Boundaries. Thank you for sharing the journey.


*Julian of Norwich

On Missing My Kids

There are days as a mom of adult kids where you miss your children so much that you physically ache. You feel it in your bones. It’s not the sharp pain of an acute appendicitis, rather, it’s the dull ache of arthritis. You remember each labor and delivery, the final push that ushered them into the world. You remember gazing at those eyes, nose, ears, mouth completely in awe of the mystery of birth, the mystery of motherhood.

You know in that moment of birth that you will never forget. Never. That these tiny humans that lived in your womb for nine months, sometimes more and sometimes less, are connected to you in an unfathomable mystery.

You know also, though you don’t want to think about it, that they are yours for only a time. After that, who’s to know?

You break inside for the knowledge that the world will sometimes hurt your child. You know this, because you are an adult and the world has not always been kind to you.

The years go by – some interminably slow, others far too fast. And then – they are adults.

You love the conversations. You love watching them with their friends. You love the unique place they hold in the world. You love watching them connect and find their place. And yet, they are no longer in your house. The daily check ins of “when will you be home?” no longer apply. This is when you know that when your mother says on the phone “I love you more!” it’s true. For you now know the immeasurable love of a mother for her children.

Parenting is a dance and you are in the stage called ‘slow jazz.’

I think about this today as I look at pictures on my shelf. I smile at each kid as though they are present when the reality is far different. I think about the parenting dance, the way it begins as a slow dance or ballet. The music is beautiful and haunting. That baby we take home from the hospital, from the orphanage, from the foster care system comes into our lives, and while everything changes, it’s a slow change. We have anticipated this for a long time. The baby blankets and onesies are purchased and waiting. We have bought or borrowed a crib for the little one. The curtain goes up and the ballet begins.

Every movement of that first baby feels recorded in our hearts and memories, it seems like forever. The first smile, the day they sleep through the night, their eating, pooping, sleeping habits all weave their way into our lives.

As another child comes the music changes and the slow dance stops, replaced by the chicken dance where there’s little grace, just a lot of squawking and moving. It’s fun but it’s exhausting.

Middle years are the Macarena and Bollywood. There’s a rhythm and grace and fun. You got this thing. You can criticize other parents because wow – your kids are amazing and their kids? Better beware because they are headed straight to the state penitentiary by way of the principal’s office. But not yours. Oh. No. Yours are amazing and talented and oh you are so thankful for Grace. The Grace given to you of course – not that bestowed on others.

Every parent thinks they dance well during the middle years!

Then the teen years come and you bow humbly even as the dance changes from the Macarena and Bollywood (which you love) to that of rock and roll where your head is splitting and you don’t understand the words but you think you caught a swear in there. It’s so fast you are spinning. The activities, the angst, the long talks punctuated by angry silence, the fun yet exhausting dance of rock and roll.

And then comes parenting adult children. 

And suddenly it all changes. It becomes like jazz music: you agree on the notes and then you improvise. Negotiation becomes a key word. The parental dance goes back and forth between being too worried and too involved and throwing your hands up saying “Well, it’s their life!” But even though you throw those words around, you are always there waiting. When the text comes at midnight, you hear the buzz. When the call comes in early morning hours, you know to take it. When they make decisions you disagree with, you know that you love them fiercely and will love and pray for them until the day you die.

Slow jazz is in the background, but no longer a central part of your life. The furniture is rearranged and the house echoes with empty. You miss them deep in your soul, but you know you’ve raised them with wings to fly and they are exercising those wings well.

There are times when you pour over photo albums and you remember when they were so little. And you think “I thought they were so big. I expected so much out of them.” But you realize now that they were so little and the world was so big.

And though the dance has changed dramatically through the years, you pray that even as you occasionally stumble and fall you will dance every step with grace.


Note: Excerpts from this were first published in 2014.

Advent Reflection – A Mom’s Tears

jerry-kiesewetter-198984

Ask any mother and she will tell you that the tears we weep for our children are like no other. They are tears that come from deep within our souls as we cry out in pain, either for them or because of them. They are the tears we weep in solitude when our daughter has faced her first break-up. At that moment, should the boy be present, we would possibly commit a crime that locks us up, unless the lawyer can use the grounds of love, impulse and passion to convince a jury that we are not dangerous.

They are the tears that we shed when our pre-schooler is not invited to the birthday party that every other kid seems to be attending. They are the tears that come when we know that we are helpless to make life better for our children, that the days when we could control who comes and goes from their lives are now gone. They are the tears of rage when we feel wronged or misunderstood by these products of our womb, when the path they are taking is leading to a place that we know will cause pain.

They are the tears of agony when we know they are in deep pain, pain they can’t share with their moms. They are also the tears of unspeakable delight and joy at weddings and graduations; tears of admiration as we are invited to participate in their world; and the tears of happiness as we realize how proud we are and how much we love them.

One of the Orthodox icons depicting Mary, the Theotokos or God-bearer, is an icon that shows Mary with seven swords going into her heart. The icon is called the “Softener of Evil Hearts”. In Orthodoxy, these seven swords are seen as representing the immense sorrow that the Theotokos experienced at the foot of the cross; the sorrow that was prophesied by Saint Simeon when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple.

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”*

I had been a mom for many years before I first heard about, and then saw, this icon. I thought about it for a long time. Here was one who understood far more about a mother’s tears then I could ever imagine. Sitting there at the foot of the cross, helpless and watching her son die, she did not yet know the full picture. The resurrection would be three days later. Her heart was pierced by a sword many times over before she saw the risen Lord on that Paschal morning.

I think about this icon as I shed tears for my children. Though we know but a fraction of this pain, our hearts too are pierced. We shed our tears and we too, wait; wait for the God of resurrection and miracles to comfort and strengthen us.

We wait for our souls to heal, for wrong to be made right. And we press on.

*Luke 2:34-35

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

 

Remembering those First Days of a Newborn

It’s my daughter Annie’s birthday today.

Annie is our firstborn. She ushered us gently into parenthood 32 years ago. On day two she slept so long that we sat around her woven Moses basket like we were humans examining an alien being.

The conversation went something like this:

“She’s so perfect.”

“Yes. She is SO perfect.”

“Look at her tiny hands.”

“Look at her nose.”

“She is so tiny.”

“She is so beautiful.”

“Do you think she’s sleeping too long?”

“I don’t know. Do YOU think she’s sleeping too long?”

“I kind of think so.”

“Me too. Maybe we should wake her up?”

“Do you think we should wake her up?”

“I kind of do.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“It’s been so long since she’s nursed.”

“Yeah. Let’s wake her up.”

“Okay.”

“How?”

“Well, maybe if we pick her up she’ll just wake up.”

“Okay.”

“You do it.”

“No. You do it.”

“Okay.”

Sigh.

“But she looks so peaceful!”

“I know but I think she needs to wake up. She needs to nurse.”

“Okay.”

“Look at her feet!”

“I know. They are so perfect.”

“Look at her rose-bud lips! Look at how they are quivering.”

And so it went on and on and on.

Finally, we woke her up. And then….well, then we couldn’t get her to sleep. She was the wide-awake baby girl.

So the conversation continued.

“Do you think she’s still hungry?”

“I don’t know. I think she nursed a lot.”

“Do you think anything is wrong?”

“Maybe we should change her diaper again.”

And on, and on, and on. Because we were smitten and all we could do was talk about our baby. The most perfect baby in the entire world.


There is something about those days with your first-born child that you will never, ever forget. Your whole being is raw with love. Your heart is on the outside of your body and there is no protection for the arrows that come your way. You marvel at every tiny move, expression, furrowed brow, slight smile. You hold the tiny thing close, afraid to let it go. Your nights and days are no longer your own, and they swim together, closing in on each other. You have never known that kind of exhaustion. You thought exhaustion was about research papers in college, but you now scoff at that exhaustion. That exhaustion is kid’s play compared to this real, grownup exhaustion.

You can’t get enough of this little human. When you play charades, this little baby is your favorite person to act out. First touch, first smiles, first tooth, even their poops and peeps are cause for amazement or distress. And your conversations? You hide it from your friends but when you’re alone together, all you want to talk about is this little baby that now consumes your life.

Today I remember those first days and I smile. My first-born now has her own first-born and I delight in watching the two of them. His face lights up when she enters the room and his smiles brighten her world, just as her’s did mine.

In the dance of parenthood, we have left the slow dance of the beginning, with it’s long moments of sheer wonder. We are now in the era of jazz, where you agree on the notes, and then you improvise. Slow jazz plays in the background, but this dance of parenthood is no longer the central part of our lives. The furniture is rearranged and sometimes the house echoes with empty. We miss them but we have raised them with wings to fly and they exercise those wings well.

But still there are those moments, especially on their birthdays, when we are taken back to the beginning.

We remember and we smile.

Happy Birthday Annie! Being your mom is an undeniable gift.


Note: The above dialogue went on for much longer than it took you to read it!

My Ramadan Baby

I remember the day like it was yesterday. The Islamabad sun, hot and bright, burned down on my mom and I as we walked to the hospital with my first-born – Annie – in a stroller.

It was May of 1987 and it was Ramadan, only a couple of days before the huge Eid celebration that would mark the end of this long month of fasting for Muslims around the world. We had been living and working in Islamabad since January and I was 9 months pregnant with our second child.

After a false start a couple of days earlier, my mom and I headed out to my  regularly scheduled prenatal appointment.  After examining me, my doctor said “Sometimes we need to push the horse and cart!” Which was code for “I’m going to give you something to speed up this delivery.” I was more than willing to oblige.

It was a text book induction and just after midnight on May 25th I gave birth to a gorgeous, blue-eyed, fuzzy-headed baby boy. I was smitten.

I wrote about my Ramadan baby 6 years ago, when I was a new blogger. As I reread the piece I wrote, I realized it communicates the story exactly as I remember it, so I have reposted it below in honor of my Ramadan “baby’s” 30th birthday!

Date: May 25, 1987

Location: Islamabad, Pakistan

Place: Ali Medical Center

24 years ago today at 10 minutes past midnight I gave birth to my second child. It was toward the end of Ramadan and this showed significantly in the absence of staff in the hospital. Earlier in the evening as I labored, my husband and I began to worry aloud that the doctor, busy breaking the fast at her home, would not make it and we would be left on our own. We needed her assurance in seeing to the safety and health of a pregnant woman in transition (me) and a baby that wanted to enter life. My mom, well versed in cultural norms in Pakistan, assured us that the doctor would arrive on time. But as we waited and wondered, we were deeply grateful for the calm presence of my mother.

As the hospital staff ate their fill of Ramadan specialties before dawn came (and with it the arduous fast that would not break until 7 or 8 at night) two babies made their way into the world.  The last azaan, calling the faithful to prayer, was heard earlier through the brick walls of the labor and delivery room, ensuring that even those inside would know it was time to break the fast. At that point all hospital staff disappeared, oblivious to the labor pains of two women, as they rushed to ease their hunger pains.

One of those babies was ours: Joel Rehan Braddock Gardner, born with a head of blond, fuzzy hair and deep blue eyes. I took one look and fell in love with 6 lbs and 12 oz of baby. It was magic. The second baby was also a boy – a little Pathan boy, as dark-haired as Joel was blonde, born to a family who lived in Peshawar. They had made their way to Islamabad for the delivery, ensuring that their first child would be born at a good hospital.

It was a text-book delivery and after 6 hours of laboring and a few pushes, Joel took his first breath and let out a yowl. I don’t even know if yowl is a word but it describes what was a mixture of a yodel and a howl. He was a perfect, 10 fingered, 10 toed, baby boy. Dr. Azima Quereshi was the doctor presiding over the delivery. After observing me labor without drugs and breastfeed immediately after birth, she looked at my mom with tear-filled eyes and clutched her arm saying “I’ve read about deliveries like this, but I’ve never seen one!”

The hospital staff enjoyed their own show that night as they sent staff in by two’s to see “the white lady who had her husband in with her during the delivery,” something that was unheard of at Ali Medical Center and most hospitals in Pakistan. “Who wants the men in there?” was the incredulous question voiced by Pakistani friends and acquaintances.

The Pathan family showered the hospital staff and doctor with gifts of fruit, Pakistani sweets of gulab jamun, jalebis, barfi, and savories of samosas and pakoras. This ensured a favored place with staff as low on the ladder as cleaning people and as high as surgeons. 

We were not so favored. A gift of imported Cadbury Chocolates delivered in a fake gold bowl for Dr. Quereshi seemed appropriate and we went on our merry way, taking Joel back home to the F-8 residential area of Islamabad to meet his older sister Annie and settle into a bassinet.

It was only later that we realized our faux pas in not buying treats for the entire hospital. We had failed to publicly recognize the role the rest of the staff had played in helping us deliver a healthy baby boy which, from a cultural perspective, was a huge thing to acknowledge!

And so Joel came into the world and today he turns 24. His blonde hair has turned into light brown, he still has deep blue eyes – and his yowl? That has turned into an infectious laugh, ability to argue anyone into the ground and a great personality.

Happy Birthday Joel – We are so blessed by your life.