Recently, I’ve been watching Mothers at the cusp of their children’s transitions. I used to think that when kids left home for the first time or got married or had babies of their own or started kindergarten that their Mothers were just unadulteratedly happy. “Yay! My children are growing up! They are moving onto bigger and better things!” But now I see that for many Mothers, these transitions are filled with both joy and pain. All beginnings are planted with the seeds of a death--the emphatic end of something that was precious during its time, and will never be again.
My oldest son, Brendan, is leaving home to be a missionary halfway across the world in a matter of weeks. He will be able to write weekly emails, and call a few times a year. He will be gone for two years. I have no doubt that he will do a great job, and that the people he meets and the experiences he has will impact his life forever. There is nothing else I would rather have him do at this point in his life.
But this parting is at best bittersweet. My heart is simultaneously bursting with pride and breaking in two—and that is an emotion I didn’t know was possible. I wouldn’t want Brendan to stay home just so I don’t have to miss him. I wouldn’t want him to stall out in terms of experience and knowledge, just so I don’t have to worry. That would be a supreme act of selfishness. And a little creepy, to be honest. But to say that I don’t feel raw and pained at the thought of him leaving would be a lie.
It is comforting to me that he will be doing something that will help him both grow and help others. If I didn’t feel like he was doing something worthwhile, I wouldn’t be trying so hard to figure out how to let him go without burdening him too much with my grief.
I am just going to miss him. I am going to miss him padding down the stairs to get a bowl of cereal. I am going to miss hearing him sing and play guitar all the time. I am going to miss the way he manages to be both kind and firm with his younger siblings, who all adore him. I am going to miss laughing at stupid videos on the Internet with him. I am going to miss giving him hugs that still feel a little strange now that he is taller than me.
As the time comes closer for him to leave, I’ve noticed that he seems to hug me more, and to linger as he tells me about his day. I wonder if he is drawing closer for him—or for me. That wouldn’t surprise me. He is a truly good person. Not perfect, but I trust the intentions of his heart maybe more than anyone else’s on earth—including my own. I am having a hard time saying goodbye.
I haven’t always been a psycho with separation anxiety. I remember the day that I left for college for the first time. I had happily spent the last few precious days before I left seeing friends and tying up loose ends. I gave my Mom a hug after the car was packed. She told me to have a great time, as she hugged me longer than normal. As I drove away with my Dad, I looked back and saw her wipe her eyes as she watched the car leave.
I wasn’t a completely heartless kid. I would venture to say (and I can produce witnesses to corroborate) that I was a kind and sensitive 18-year-old who loved my family. I was sad to leave home—to leave my parents and my siblings. I knew that things would never be the same again. But on the other hand, things would never be the same again. I was headed towards adventure and possibilities. I was headed towards my life—as I chose to make it. And that was exciting. All in all, as a fairly well adjusted kid, I would have to say the emotions of excitement and anticipation overrode any sadness I felt.
Several years passed and I became a mother myself. When Brendan was a little boy and we lived in Provo, I would occasionally happen to drive by the Missionary Training Center on a Wednesday. That’s the day when new missionaries arrive to be trained before flying off to places all over the world. I would stop at the stoplight and see the parents and their freshly scrubbed and clipped sons walking across the crosswalk with luggage in tow. I would look at the Mothers’ faces, about to say goodbye to their child for two years. Then I would look in the rear view mirror at my sweet boy buckled in his car seat and get teary, thinking about him leaving someday to go to an unknown place to do some good in the world.
I wish I could go back to that long-ago day when I left home and tell my Mom how much she meant to me in that moment. That all the things she had sacrificed, all the worry she had instead channeled into love and care was going to be worth it. That I would make her proud. That the pain of saying goodbye would be eclipsed by the good I would do. That other things would fill her heart so it didn’t feel so empty.
Maybe it is always easier to go than to be left behind. I am sure that Brendan is feeling mostly anticipation and excitement. Or at least, I hope he is. It is maybe not fair to burden our children with just how much we love them, with how much our happiness is entwined in theirs. There is a weight inherent in that, and it is easier to travel light when you leave home for the first time.
In the meantime, I am trying to let out my sadness slowly, like releasing air after taking a deep, deep breath. I am trying to anticipate the good that will come from this step in his life. I am sure that there will be many joys in hearing about his adventures. I am sure that like many hurts, mine will subdue and change into wisdom and compassion for others in a similar place. It will help me more fully appreciate the preciousness of the time I have left with my younger children. It will help me to have more faith that subsequent goodbyes with the rest of my children will be less wrenching. I will know that I will be okay, and that much of what changes will be replacing something beautiful with something else that is equally beautiful.
But for now, I am a little sad.