My feelings these days are tender ones.
I am in a place I have been before, one that is unfamiliar, yet strangely recognizable. A place full of busyness and long to-do lists. A place of shopping for suits, white shirts, luggage, and vitamins. A place that will end with a tearful goodbye and a large, empty hole in my heart.
I am about to send my second-born son out into the world. And not in the traditional sense like other boys his age. He's not moving a few hours away to reside in a dorm or frat house. He won't be attending freshmen orientation or meeting cute girls in class. He won't be accessible to me via cell phone, text, or FaceTime.
Once a week, I will get an email from him, which will be the only window I have into his world. Twice a year, I will get to Skype with him for an hour. That's it.
I am sending him on a mission trip to Finland.
He will spend the first nine weeks in Utah, in class for about 15 hours a day as he tries desperately to learn Finnish. He will then get on a plane, travel halfway across the world and meet other missionaries his age to try to learn the ropes. He will be in a country he's never navigated before. Speaking a language he doesn't really know. He will be lonely, scared, and without the support system he is used to relying on.
Back at home, I will get teary every day for a few months when I think or talk about him to others. I will wait anxiously for that email every week, and spend considerable time carefully drafting one of my own for him to read. I will not be able to go into his bedroom for at least a few weeks. My house will be quieter, my dishes fewer. My pantry a lot fuller. I will pine for his everyday presence, for his laughter, for his company. I won't really be okay until he is.
It seems quite awful when you think about it, and were I not almost on the other end of sending out his brother, I'm not sure I'd make it. But these truths are what will allow me to let him go, and what will sustain me for the months to come:
I know he will grow. He will learn to adult in the hardest, biggest way possible. He is getting thrown into the deep end of the life pool with ankle weights on, and will swim hard, the current pulling him under at times, until he finds the side. He will care for himself, manage his finances, navigate a foreign culture, and learn to love others in a way I could not provide within the walls of my safe and comfortable home. He will do it all by himself. He won't have our daily guidance, and we won't be able to help him through it much at all. He will make mistakes, learn, and grow all on his own.
I know he will thrive. It will take some time, but it will happen. The language will be so overwhelming at times that he will want to quit. The companion may or may not be someone he can remotely tolerate, and he will spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with this person. He will learn to love him in whatever way it takes. The climate will be cold, dark, and harsh (except for the brief, beautiful summer months when daylight never ends) and he will learn to be responsible for remembering gloves, hats, scarves, and thermals. He will cook for himself, buy his own groceries, and shop for any necessities. He will take himself to the doctor and treat colds on his own. He will learn to listen to God, and to be directed on a daily basis. He will practice listening to the spirit and will become adept at it. He will study the scriptures in a way he never has before.
I know he will return. The clock will keep ticking forward, no matter how slow it seems to move, and two years will pass. He will not be the same boy he was when he left. I cry now for the loss of that sweet boy, for I am never to see him again. This departure signals another fundamental change to the family I have made my life's work, and I mourn losing this dynamic. I mourn the change it brings to my mothering. He will come home to me as the beginnings of the man he's going to become. He will be recognizable, yes, but my life will never return to the way it is right now. I hate that. I love my life right now. But I know he will be stronger, hold his head up taller, be more humble, and have learned to love and serve god.
I know these truths, I have seen them with his brother. I take comfort in the good that is to come, but my mama heart feels panic at saying goodbye to this sweet boy. I'm not ready. It's come much too soon.
This mama is powerless to stop time. Growth, pain, joy, heartache, loneliness, pride, independence and happiness are ready to crash down on us all like a tidal wave.
Ready or not, it's time.
The other night, the Husband and I were catching up after a long day for both of us. Work has been particularly hard lately for him and his firm is facing some challenges that make his work life tough. It will ultimately be a good thing in the end, but the process is painful and exhausting. He comes home at the end of the week just tired. His travel schedule still keeps him from home most weeks, and the added stress of these challenges weigh heavily on his mind.
The kids have had a particularly rough few months, as well. They've been bombarded with grown up problems that are both complex and unfair. Life lessons thrown at them, one after the other, without reprieve -- friends, coaches, injuries, loneliness, rejection, disappointment, pain. They've battled their challenges as best they can, but we've all succumbed to tears more frequently than we'd have liked.
I've had my own share of hard. Struggles in my marriage. Problems in the group I serve with at church. Worry over my children. Depression and anxiety have slowly crept up on me over the last few years, but became so crippling this summer that I was finally forced to seek medical intervention. I've carried the weight of our family's struggles, and strived hard to juggle more balls than I could manage at one time. The unhappiness of my people hurts me to my core, and I've laid awake at night with worry and fear.
The world on our shoulders has been a strain to hold up, and we've been brought to our knees, trembling, with the weight of it.
Life has just taken its toll. I'm tired of hard. I'm tired of struggle. Things have been taxing for a while, and I'm just over it.
I am life weary.
I know from the outside looking in, it might seem like we have it all. Financial security. A vacation house in the mountains. Money to travel and buy nice things. Three healthy children all involved in various activities and sports. A handsome husband. A stay-at-home wife. We do have a lot going for us, blessings I will be eternally grateful for. But that does not mean our life has been free of heartache, pain, and sorrow.
There are just things that the smiles on instagram don't tell you.
I know we will get through this current state of hard. I know we will grow and learn from these trials. We have chosen to draw closer to each other and our faith, and we will get through them together. We will not be broken by what's currently weighing us down.
A brilliant young woman I know recently said, "In order to love who you are, you cannot hate the experiences that shape you."
But I still kind of hate the hard.
The past few years have kind of kicked my trash, and the past year has nearly buried me.
Four years ago, we moved to Texas, and left behind a support network that felt like family. I watched my children struggle, feel alone, and come to know a new, damaging kind of loneliness. The kind that stays with you and leaves a mark. I, myself, felt empty and adrift, as I tried to plug in to our new life. It took longer this move than it ever has before, and the melancholy hung in the air like a thick fog. It felt claustrophobic and exhausting.
My health presented some challenges, as well. In addition to the Crohn's disease that sometimes can dictate my life for me, I faced new issues that were mentally and physically exhausting. I had two different types of skin cancer excised, broken ribs, a benign bone tumor, and surgery on my uterus.
In addition to that, my family began to take on a new, unfamiliar shape. My oldest child graduated from high school and went to college. After one semester, he then left on a two-year mission trip for our church in Rancagua, Chile. I only get to speak to him twice a year, and we communicate via email the rest of the time.
His absence affected us all in different ways, and I found myself struggling to help everyone cope, especially given that I was falling apart myself. I began to feel a sense of panic. With McKay's departure, I knew that Chase would follow in less than two years, and two years after that, Hannah would go. I felt these children slipping through my fingers and the despair consumed me. I was shocked that my entire life's work would have the nerve to just walk out the door and leave me behind. The unfairness of this prospect left me both depressed and rageful. I didn't feel ready to be done mothering so soon. I had sacrificed everything for these three beautiful creatures, and I had never given a single thought to what came after them. I figured that part of my life would take care of itself.
For an OCD-driven planner, I did a pretty poor job of planning my own future.
Instead, I turned to wallowing in regret. I found myself wishing for more children. I bemoaned my foolishness in not having a few more after Hannah went to kindergarten. I rattled on to mothers of young children that they really ought to have more children than they think they want now. It was my favorite soapbox, and I felt sure that I could convince others to avoid the mistakes I had made.
This past weekend, I was at bookclub. It's a new bookclub, and we're all getting to know one another. One of the women there, Nancy, is in her 70s and has faced more than her share of challenges. Life has thrown some pretty tough things her way, and each meeting we've had, I've found myself admiring her toughness and grit. We were discussing motherhood, its challenges, and joys. I shared my well-worn mantra and told the women how I regret that I didn't have more kids. Nancy turned to me and said, "Bullshit. You need to get over that and find out what the next phase looks like. Motherhood is wonderful, but it's not your entire life. Time to get busy and start something new."
The room was silent. I sat there somewhat dumbfounded, unaccustomed to not being coddled by a fellow mother. I expected sympathy, and understanding; what I got instead was the best wake up call of my life. I have not been able to stop thinking about what she said since.
Nancy's words to me were so simple and logical, and I feel foolish that I didn't see it myself. I think I have been looking back instead of forward. I have been so buried in the emotional turmoil that has come as a result of these changes, that I have been unable to look for any solutions. I have been mourning what I will lose when the nest is empty, instead of finding other ways to fill it. I have not dared to imagine a world without their daily presence in it because, quite frankly, having them around is pretty effing fantastic. But that doesn't mean it won't be equally fantastic in different ways when they are gone. I don't know what the next phase of my life will look like, but it's time to stop wallowing and start planning.
One of my favorite lines from the movie Shawshank Redemption is, "Life comes down to a simple choice: You're either busy living or busy dying."
Time to get busy living.
We arrive at the airport with plenty of time - a byproduct of my nervous energy when it comes to travel by air. I am paranoid and neurotic, and it drives my husband crazy. He humors me, and as a token of his affection, we are there earlier than he would like.
As we stand in the long line for AeroMexico, I have my boy check for the fifteenth time that he has his passport and wallet in his shoulder bag. He rolls his eyes, as he often does when it comes to my mothering, smiles, and assures me they are all there.
I look up at this tall young man and see no traces of the boy he used to be. Gone is the awkward teenage manner and youthful insecurity. Replaced, overnight it feels, by a mature, confident presence and shoulders that somehow seem more square. Taller. He positively glows and I try to drink his essence in. I study his features and will myself to memorize every line and curve of his face.
I am not ready for this day, and I futilely wish it away.
We make attempts at smalltalk, bantering in our casual, familial way. No one wants to address the large, explosive elephant sitting amongst us. So we make jokes and tease instead.
His luggage is checked in far too quickly and we begin a slow walk towards security. We are there before I know it, and I feel my heart leap into my throat. I choke back a sob as he turns towards me sheepishly, tears welling up in his blue eyes.
I throw my arms around him and sob uncontrollably. There is no bravery, no stoicism. There is only raw, public mourning as I hold him one last time. I've held this boy in my arms and heart for 18 wonderful years, and the impending separation is more than I can bear. My mama heart is shattered into a thousand pieces. I hold him and the tears stream freely down my cheeks. I tell him how proud I am of him, and how much I love him. I repeat it over and over, willing my affection to devour the pain I feel.
I reluctantly let go, then watch in turn as he says goodbye to his sister, brother and dad. My heartache is mirrored in their teary faces. It is awful. This public fracture of our family feels surreal and unfair. We cannot muster the dignity such an event deserves; we are a sobbing, pathetic mess. Strangers pass by, unsure of what to make of our tears. He gives us one last smile, then throws a bag over his shoulder and goes. He walks out of my life and into his own with such ease that I'm simultaneously proud and devastated.
I lean into my husband and sob hysterically. I feel lightheaded and dizzy, the pain so immense that it feels difficult to breathe. We watch him walk back and forth through the rows that lead toward the security checkpoint. We stand together crying, arms around each other, as he clears the passport check and loads his bag onto the conveyor belt. A kindly TSA agent notices the spectacle that is our goodbye and makes a show of putting his arms around my boy, giving me a thumbs-up, promising that he'll be taken care of. This makes me laugh through my tears, and I feel a small trickle of hope enter my heart. Surely, there will be others. People who will watch out for him along the way. People who will throw their arms around him when I can't.
He turns and gives us one last wave, his smile bright. Happy. Ready.
I blow him a kiss. I offer a prayer for his safety, his well-being, and his happiness. I ache down to my core. Two years apart seems insurmountable and unendurable.
We walk out to our car, empty. Tears still fall and we take turns sniffling. No one is joking or teasing now.
Though I knew this day was coming for a long time, I had no idea the toll it would take on my heart. It is so confusing and powerful -- all of this at once. Pride, heartache, loneliness, happiness, awe, anger, humility, sorrow, joy. There isn't room to feel them all, and the excess spills over in salty tears.
A few hours pass, and I track his flight until it's on the ground in Mexico. It's the last bit of active mothering I can do for a while, and I relish this small piece of control. I walk past his room and cry some more. I curl into a ball on the couch and cover myself with a blanket. My phone buzzes with the texts and calls of concerned friends and family. It's painful to relive it when the wound feels so fresh and raw, but it makes me feel loved. We watch movies, nap, and time somehow passes.
We make an attempt at eating dinner together, though no one feels up to the task. We are a somber, depressed lot. No one has much of an appetite.
Suddenly, my phone pings and there is an email from our favorite missionary. It is short -- oh, it is far too short -- but it tells us that he's okay, that he made it, and he's happy.
A warm peace floods my heart and I offer a prayer of thanks for his safety.
And I sigh, rather impatiently, eager for the much longer letter I'm sure to get next week.
I resign myself to this new life now -- a life of waiting, of empty, of emails, and P-Days. A life more quiet, yet full; lonely and abundant; teary, yet proud. Oh, so proud.
The bittersweet life of a missionary mama.
About a month ago, I walked into the garage to find Chase and three of his friends in the middle of a project. I'd like to say this is an unusual phenomenon at our house, but it's not. Chase is almost always in the middle of constructing something. He's built a hover board, a rifle, a go-cart, a knife, several bows and arrows, as well as a variety of other odd projects. If he can dream it, he can build it. He's stopped coming to me for permission, and bypasses my authority for that of the Husband's.
I know nothing about power tools and building weapons of mass destruction. My first instinct is almost always to say no.
They had decided this time to build a boat. They spent their own money on wood, came up with a design, and started working.
The project took several weeks. I laughed every time I passed a garage full of sawdust-covered boys sanding the boat with cheerful grins on their faces and music blaring in the corner. They experimented with waterproof finishes and found a deeply discounted bucket of green paint with which to complete their creation. They joked and laughed and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the process.
Yesterday was the inaugural launch of their boat. They took it (all couple hundreds pounds of wood, paint and finish) to a nearby pond and prayed to the gods of the sea for success. It was no surprise, really, that it worked. Their little green boat sailed like a champ.
More importantly, however, is the lesson here for mothers everywhere. When your boys want to build and create - say yes. Even though it will be messy and probably slightly dangerous. No doubt it will be inconvenient. There will be sawdust covering your wood floor and paint dripped into your sink. There will be loud music playing at all hours, and sweaty boys rummaging through your pantry. Their project will maybe even occupy the spot in the garage where your car should be. For weeks at a time.
But there is so much more happening. There is growth, creativity, knowledge and leadership. They are problem solving and learning to work as a team. They are using their imagination and understanding the value of hard work. None of them are on devices or sitting in front of a television. They are setting a goal, and moving heaven and earth to make it happen. All by themselves. They are thinking, dreaming, planning, laboring.
They are not really putting together a boat, after all.
They are putting together the men they are becoming.
And that is a fantastic, miraculous process at work.