Our older son left for a 10-day canoe trip on Wednesday morning. The group of eleven 9th and 10th grade kids and three instructors will be following the Lewis & Clark route on the Missouri river in Montana as they learn about history, keep journals in the spirit of the men who forged this route, camp at the river by night and canoe by day. It will be the first time Everest has been camping like this. His first time on a canoe trip. His first time away from home for ten days. And on the days leading up to the trip, we had never seen him more excited.
I can’t say that “excited” described my inner state leading up to the trip. Every time I thought about him going, a pain surged through my heart, down into my stomach and up through my torso. The pain was visceral; it physically hurt. I simply could not understand how I was going to be okay without seeing him for ten days after seeing him every day and night for the last almost seventeen years. How would I do this? How would I let him go? Never having walked these tracks before, I didn’t know.
The night before his departure I woke up at 2am, my stomach churning with every emotion, similar to how I felt the night before he soloed in the glider: scared, excited, proud, sad. I couldn’t sleep with so much energy swirling inside me, so I got up and went downstairs. I gazed into the night for a while, imagining him sleeping outside in the cold, watching worry creep in and doing my best to send it along the currents of trust.
I knew in my bones that this was another handing off: Mother Nature has held me as I’ve mothered him and now I pass him along to her. She will hold him now. He will gaze up into the vast Montana night sky; he will sleep beside the river at night and be lulled to sleep by her lullaby of water-song; he will sleep on her ground and, in doing so, find grounding. Instead of turning to his phone in times of boredom or anxiety (no screens allowed on this trip – yay!), he’ll turn to her and the other kids in the group. At least I hoped he would. All his life he’s turned to us for comfort, but we won’t be there. I had to trust that he’ll find other sources.
When I got back into bed I reached for my husband. “I can’t sleep,” I told him. Through sleepy eyes he said, “I know. I don’t know what to do with these feelings. I don’t know how to let him go.” He named what we’re being asked to do, and we held hands across the chasm of grief.
The morning of his departure he burst into the kitchen full of joy. “I’m leaving today!” exclaimed this exuberant, life-loving kid who lives for adventure. It still stops me in my tracks that this was the baby who we couldn’t take to the supermarket for his first two years because it was too overstimulating. And the toddler who, after we moved from Los Angeles to Denver, would barely leave the house at all. And the kid who couldn’t care less about making friends. Now he lives for travel and exploration. He longs for deep friendship with peers. He’s up for accompanying us on any errand just so he can leave the house.
As we drove to school he said, “I’m going to miss you. And Daddy. And especially Asher.” This also stopped me in my tracks, and one layer of the parenting self-doubt/guilt that worries about messing up my kids receded. Raising two brothers has been one of the hardest parts of parenting, but in that moment I thought, “Maybe we’ve done something right.” They both cried when they said goodbye to each other the night before. “I’ll miss you, Asher,” Everest said as he hugged his little brother and lifted him up into the air. “Thank you for being such a good brother. A great brother. I love you.” We had literally never seen Asher smile so wide: the little brother for who looks to his big brother to know how to do life, who sees him as the landscape upon which the sun and moon rise. A moment of union. A moment of validation. A moment of healing.
I dropped him off and watched him bound out of the car then rise into highest self: helping the instructors, checking in with the other kids, his joyful smile never leaving his face. He knew he would be facing uncomfortable situations, from cold and rain (possibly even snow), to hours of canoeing each day to eating food he wasn’t accustomed to. Not to mention the whole wilderness bathroom situation! This would be a far cry from the comfortable life he’s led, and he was ready. We hugged, said I love you, and off I drove.
After dropping him off, I cried hard in the car, and once home I immediately walked down to the garden and the creek to be held in the arms of Great Mother. I sat in the chair that I’ve placed on the banks and listened to the rush of creek song, now so loud from spring runoff that I didn’t hear anything else. I closed my eyes, faced the sun, and received. I sat for a long time. It was 7:30am and my husband and younger son were still sleeping. Great Mother held me as she always does, wrapped in her embrace like a warm, reliable blanket, and in that moment, it was all okay.
For the next few hours I watched the emotions crest and fall and return again. Missing hurts. It’s like homesickness, but in reverse: I’m still home but I’m sick for my son, who holds a place of tethering inside of me. I’m aware of how deeply he’s embedded into every aspect of our life, from the mundane to the spiritual, how every inch of this house has been touched by his hands, his presence, his heart: the place where he sits at the kitchen counter; the bananas that he eats every day; the car that he convinced me to buy; my computer, on its last legs, and how he’s my go-to person for all things Apple. I see the tofu in the fridge and see him cutting it up into neat blocks. I hear him bounding down the stairs in the morning, not wanting to sleep in because he doesn’t want to miss a moment of the day. I won’t be hearing that sound for 10 days. My heart aches and I cry. At almost 17, he’s a third adult in the house, still our child but also the one we turn to for support in many ways. All those years of pouring my comfort into him, walking him through the most primal places of fear, and now he’s grown into this solid young man who is a comfort to me.
A part of my mind rails against what feels like a cruel plan of parenting: to pour ourselves emotionally and physically via sleep, time, food, finances into these beings who have been entrusted into our care, to form an unbreakable bond of secure attachment… so that they can leave! I spend the morning frustrated with a plan that seems only to include loss at the center.
But then I take a nap, and when I wake up I notice a wave of acceptance that has washed over me. By grace or sleep, I do not know, but I gratefully accept it. I suddenly know deep in the place of knowing that he’s okay. He’s more than okay; he’s thriving. And I know that this seemingly cruel plan doesn’t only include loss at the center. We spiral into the place of loss, we grieve through it, and then we arrive at a new layer of loving, an awareness that the bond that connects parent and child extends far beyond time and space and that, when we tap into that bond even from vast distances, we have an opportunity to feel into the timeless dimension of love.
As I sit here writing this post on the morning after his departure, knowing that he just spent his first night sleeping outside, hundreds of miles away from us, knowing that he was probably cold in the Montana plains, perhaps even woke up with frost on his tent, thinking he might feel sleepy this morning as he wakes up with the sun, I also know that he’s thoroughly happy. I see him in my heart’s eye, the place where we’ll always be connected. I see him waking up, blond hair tousled like when he was a toddler, face fresh and smile bright. I see him noticing the sunlight against the hills, red and gold as it only looks at sunrise. I see him looking over at his peers and feeling happy that, at last, after over a year of being stuck in Colorado with his family, he’s on an adventure with friends. In a word, I feel his joy.
No, it’s not only loss that we feel when we let our kids go, but it’s the unparalleled experience of launching a formed and securely attached human into the world so that they can become themselves and live out their soulprint, the unique pattern that contains their gifts which they know they need to share with others. As I sit on this couch, my heart is fuller than I ever could have imagined. I will miss him, yes, but more than the missing I will delight in his personhood making contact with the bigger world, taking steps to live out his unique callings that will, undoubtedly, lead him further and further away from us and Colorado. If he has it his way, all the way to Mars.
No matter how far he travels, we will always live in each other’s hearts, in the place that transcends time and space. I didn’t understand this before he left. I thought I would only feel loss and the empty spaces that he occupies while living in our home. But it’s not only loss. It’s love and joy and pride and fulfillment. We birthed him not to keep him close but to let him go. And what matters most – love – will always remain.
The piece I didn’t understand because it wasn’t a lived experience in my body is that when the attachment is secure the cords extend to infinity. I can feel as close to him in the same city as when he is far away. The other piece of knowing that dropped into awareness is that my well-being, my fulfillment, my joy isn’t dependent on him being geographically close. This is not only freedom for me but it’s also freedom for him for a child needs to know that they can fly as far as they need to go without feeling responsible for their parent’s emotional life.
Just like my fulfillment isn’t dependent on my husband, it’s also not dependent on my children. This allows all of us to be both deeply attached and deeply free and I understand now that it’s a symbiotic relationship between attachment and freedom: the more securely attached you feel the more freedom you have to explore.
Now I see: The umbilical cord between attached mother and child never fades. It will reach to Montana and Alabama and Florida and Europe. It will reach all around this great green globe, and then to the Moon and beyond.
And so I send him this prayer:
May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May you be fulfilled.
May you be warm!
And may you be free, knowing that you have a mother who supports your full unfolding, who delights in your dreams and will do her own inner work so that no part of me holds you back from being fully you.