For as far back as we can remember, Everest has wanted to fly. Many young kids, especially boys, have a penchant for things that go – trucks, cars, trains, boats – but for Everest it was more than a stage; it was a calling. He wasn’t only interested in making airplanes fly around the room in play. He wanted to know how they worked, what made them fly, how a jet engine functioned, and the history of the aviation. When he was three years old he received a plastic jet engine that he could put together and within a few hours it was complete. This is what passion looks like. He’s blessed to have it and our only job as parents has been to listen to it, nurture it, and support it. And, as he grew, to get our own fear out of the way enough to support his calling.
When he was nine years old, I learned that he could start glider training at thirteen and possibly solo (fly without an instructor in the back seat) at fourteen. It seemed far away, but before we knew it he was thirteen, turning fourteen at the end of summer, and it was time to begin. I called the local gliderport and scheduled his first lesson for the end of May.
Fear told me many stories about why we shouldn’t let him fly: he’s too young; why take the risk? What if something happens? What if the tow line breaks? What if the instructor has a heart attack? You know the drill. Fear breathes its lines down your neck and whispers them into your ears because it simply cannot bear the risk of loss. But to prevent this young man from flying would sentence him to a life not worth living. Flying is where he feels most alive – it’s his oxygen and his joy – and I’ve known for many years that I would need to deal with my fear so that I could support his dream.
The morning arrived. Everest was ecstatic. My husband, younger son, and I were worried, to say the least. My husband had to take my son to his art class, so we said goodbye, Everest and I drove to the glider-port, and he jumped out of the seat the second we arrived. Not a moment to lose. He introduced himself to his instructor, and off they went to begin his official training. I stood there in the warm Colorado sun, Rocky Mountains jutting up in the background, and watched him step into the center of his calling. He and his instructor talked as they walked around the plane, and I could see Everest absorbing every word.
Finally, it was time for take-off. He stepped into the pilot’s seat (my baby; how could he be sitting in a pilot’s seat?) and before I knew it they were taxiing down the runway behind the tow plane. And then he was in the air.
And then I cried.
Luckily I was on the phone with my friend, Carrie, and she held the space for my tears. Through broken words I said, “This is truly the moment of watching him walk into the forest alone,” referring to the indigenous practice of sending young men alone into the forest for their vision quest initiation into manhood. Sending a child into the unknown is just as much an initiation for the parents as it is for the child, and in tribal cultures the mother is surrounded by her women-clan and the father is with the men. Where was my clan? I stood alone, crying, held through technology by my soul-sister, texting with my husband who was taking our younger son to a class, and aware of the loss of the circle that should have surrounded me. Mostly I cried because my heart was wide open, connected to the river of feelings that defines open-heartedness: fear, pride, loss, vulnerability, excitement. I cried because what else is a mother to do with her firstborn flies into the sky, beginning the path that will lead him into part of the work he’s meant to do on this planet?
After the tears moved through me I gazed up and simply marveled that my son was up there, flying, soaring, gliding like the owls and hawks he loves so much. Fear and grief dissolved and the beauty of life and change and growing up emerged in the crystalized aftermath. I trusted that he would be fine. I stared in awe as they circled and floated in the sky, embodying the miracle of flight.
When he landed he was ecstatic, of course. He was lit up from the inside, the kind of high-beam joy that happens when you’re living out your passion. Everest told me a long time ago, “You know why I love flying so much, Mommy? Because it’s when I feel closest to God.” Brother David Standl-Rast says that whatever lifts our heart is our prayer and our pathways to gratitude. Clearly flying is what lifts my son’s heart. His heart soared as high as that glider, and with as much beauty and grace.
Later in the day I sank down again. The magnitude of what had happened hit me, and I felt flooded with grief and pride, loneliness and joy. I texted Carrie: “It was such a monumental day and somehow I feel alone with it – like there should have been more ritual or ceremony around it. My son flew into the sky today in the pilot’s seat and we just go about our day ho-hum as if it’s a regular occurrence. It’s like he became a man today and nobody is acknowledging it – and yet sometimes when I look at him I still see him at three.”
When I came downstairs that night I found Everest sitting at the kitchen counter, still beaming. I tousled his hair, looked him in the eyes and said, “I’m so proud of you. You became a man today. I watched you fly into the sky.” He looked at me, took it in, and then said, “It was so fun! I hadn’t realized that the tow rope would snap back like a fifty-foot rubber band when I released it!” And on and on about the details of the flight. He also said, “You know what my first memory is – not from a video or photo but my own memory? It’s being at Santa Monica Airport and holding two toys planes – one with a red top and one with a blue one. How old was I then?” I told him that was before we moved to Colorado so probably about eighteen months old. We talked into the night, him in his pure joy and me in my multi-layered messy mother cake, the big recipe of emotions coming out as tears and smiles and laughter and hugs.
The subtitle of this blog is “Lessons in Letting Go,” and rarely does a day go by when I don’t practice this lesson. I practice letting go of control. I practice letting go of stages of life. I let go of intergenerational patterns that no longer serve me. I let go of the fear-walls that have kept love out. But on the day my son flew into the sky I let go of my firstborn child in a whole new way. This letting go began on the day he was born, as the midwife cut the umbilical cord and said to me, “You’ll never be as close to him as you’ve been in pregnancy.” The letting go continued as the love-bubble of the first few years of his life began to wrinkle and wilt as he found more of his separateness. It deepened even further as he stepped into pre-adolescence and, appropriately, no longer wanted to snuggle in quite the same way. Clients who are new mothers have said to me, “What’s the deal with motherhood? It feels like it’s all about letting go and grieving?”
There is that. But there is also the immense pride and joy of raising a child and watching him become a young man. Our work as parents isn’t to hold on tightly, for these beings come from us but do not belong to us, as Kahlil Gibran famously shares in this poem:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Our work, then, is to be the stable bows from which our children are sent forth. May we let go gracefully, which means allowing ourselves to grieve each ending, each separation, each transition. May we see them fully so that they soar into the beings they’re meant to be. May we work enough with our own fears so that we can step out of the way and let them fly.