A Mid-Summer Becoming And A Young Man Leaves Home
This morning I am full of the most welcomed heartbreak. It’s a heartbreak that, as recently as last year, I thought I might not experience in this life time: the mother’s heartbreak of sending her oldest son off into the world to make his way, find his own brilliance and bring it forward. As recently as 12 months ago, I was trying to reconcile what it might be like to attend my son’s funeral, or visit him in jail…very different reasons for leaving home than the remarkably normal process of a young man fledging himself robustly, brilliantly into the world. But just a few days ago his father and I drove him to the airport, he with his perfectly packed luggage and carefully chosen outfit of new jeans, new t-shirt and shampooed sneakers. We stood at the curb like a normal family. We cried, we hugged (a little longer and a little tighter than perhaps is normal), we closed the gap between us, dad and mom, as he walked his luggage to the door, paused to organize himself, waved goodbye and disappeared into the building. Just like everyone else. No big deal. And, of course, regardless of the circumstances prior to this moment, it’s a moment that rivals our offsprings’ arrival in this world for its reciprocal rite of passage. For its brilliantly both/and truth of death and rebirth, of fear and delight, of ‘no!’ and ‘yes!’ As so much of the wild world around me is doing the very same, with far more perfunctoriness and many less (if any at all?) trips to Target, I am surrounded by fledging. Things leaving the nest. The day before Henry's flight, perhaps by way of a wild preparation, I watched, rapt, as the red tail hawk who lives in the feral apple tree in the first field out our back door taught her babies how to hunt. In the heat of the moment, an opportunistic turkey vulture got in on the action which meant she also got to teach her offspring how to protect their kill; how to be ruthless and cunning. Unmistakable high-pitch shrieking came from the first field for hours as the teachings continued. The only distinguishing characteristics between mother and offspring (to this woman’s untrained eye) were the well-earned tattered wing and tail feathers of the mother. It’s hard work parenting. Hell, it’s beautifully hard work living.
After watching for half an hour without taking my eyes off her, I couldn’t help myself. I ran out to the field behind the willow hedges, to see what was happening. As I rounded the corner one of the juveniles took off, low and slow, furry pantalooned legs and clawed feet dragging behind. And there on the ground lay the still-warm body of a beheaded rabbit. I look up to see the turkey vulture coming in for its chance to grab this fresh meal. And before I see them coming, the sky above me is filled with mother red tail and three offspring, circling, shrieking, riding the strong breeze that has come up, all the better to dive-bomb a menacing thief.
The fledging of my son doesn't look that different from this. And it has filled me with no less awe and gratitude. And the paradox, always this paradox, that life simply continues to happen. We attach meaning to the events but they are, at the core of the impulses that inspire them, simply perfunctory. Henry leaving home is both a miracle and a requirement. Like the hawklings, large and majestic already even though they cannot feed themselves quite yet – taking their place in the sky is an imperative. It is incredible what it takes to get one offspring out into the world in a way that has him endowed with all he needs to not merely survive but perhaps even more importantly, to fail and then to flourish.
One day after sending Henry off to London and two days after the hawks, in an effort to imagine that life is back to normal, I’m walking the elkhound around the lake before a full day of clients. We come up to a sweet bulldog and her owner. As I walk past this woman in her mid 60’s I see that it’s the boys’ elementary school art teacher. She shepherded both Henry and Simon into their extraordinary creativity. I haven’t seen this woman in years. She knew my children in baby-fat, bright-eyed, innocent, awkward and irreverently unrepentant exploration. She knew me before I had gray hair and a broken (wide open) heart.
Time slows down in this moment as I feel the impossible weight of the process we each go through (if we say yes) in becoming our truest self, in saying yes to the larger purpose that lives, like a quivering seed, in each of us. I spend my days sitting with folks as they dance with this human imperative to become someone of value to the world. With the art teacher in this moment I feel so many things rise up in me. I imagine the conversation, if I out myself as Henry and Simon’s mother. I imagine her asking about them and quickly, I imagine bursting into tears. Not because of where they are now, but because of what it took to get them here. For Henry it required a courageous, conscious, utterly terrifying walk through his own darkest shadow realms. And of course, for the part of the journey that was his return, bearing his gifts, it required that his closest-in people dive down to be with him for the journey back. It required that, at times, we held the pulse of his life with more fierce love than he could. It required that we let go of a managed outcome that might feverishly grasp onto his mere survival, listening instead to the truth of his path. Why don’t they tell you this as you’re fucking like crazed weasels innocently ‘calling your child in’, knowing no better than to imagine the horror of night feedings, maybe some colic and giving up all-night parties and irresponsible weekend get away's?
Standing there with the art teacher, I imagine her politely inquiring about them as she struggles to remember anything specific, as she likely does the dozens of other times when grateful reminiscing mothers approach her while she’s out walking her dog. Despite the fact that she’s not at all motherly, I feel the absence of my own mother, and before I can stop myself I desperately want her to be my mother. I want her to take me in her arms and hold me, by way of a transmission, mother/elder to daughter/mother, by way of commiserating about and honoring the wild work of birthing something out of your own body with blood, shit, piss and holy-hell a lot of exquisite pain, only to be asked to figure out just enough detachment at the same time being wildly attached, no matter what. Because if you’re not, who will be? There are turkey vultures everywhere.
Then I remember – she quit her job after almost 20 years of dutifully teaching art and music to Boulder’s young because she was tapped out, caput, emotionally bankrupt. Nothing left to give. She’s mothered hundreds, maybe thousands of our children (and their parents no doubt) and there isn’t a lick of sympathy living in her any longer. She’s happily downsized her responsibility to Josie, her amicable boxer companion. She has a different perspective. Hers is deliciously alluring right now: some of them make it, some of them don’t. It’s just a fact of life. Everything works out in the end. It’s time to walk the dog.
I imagine the mother hawk with this extraordinary tantalizing detachment as well. Year after year she raises a batch of red tails, sits on their eggs, feeds them masticated field rabbit until they’re old enough to hunt on their own, teaches them how to defend their food from turkey vultures and coyotes. Some make it. Some don’t – the benefit of having multiple offspring. It’s just all in a day’s work for her. I like this story but perhaps it would offend her. Maybe she’s more like me; it matters more than my heart can possibly accommodate. It matters so much I could die several deaths in one day for the amount of shit I’ve given and still give, that my children step out into the world righteous and strong, fiercely aware of what they carry that is utterly unique to them. But come to think of it, it matters to me that the red tail fledglings make it. That the field rabbits make it. That the tiny butternut squash and white pumpkins lying on the ground in the garden make it. God help me for how much it matters. What else am I meant to do with this frontal lobe and well-developed memory map? With this colossal sensorium that releases chemistry of delight with a mere wiff of sage blossom? This outrageous capacity for ocular nuance that can see the subtle peach shift to raspberry shift to gray then deep blue each night as the sun goes down over the Continental Divide? Like Henry’s miraculous voracious creativity, if not put to good use it will likely find nefarious outlets. The heartbreak of giving a shit, it is.
I smile at the art teacher, comment on her cute dog and keep moving. She doesn’t register any recognition. Five feet down the path the tears come. With such gratitude I let them come, feeling the normalcy of a mother who misses her oldest offspring, well-fledged into a world of his own making.