Tension. Anxiety. Worry. My own load is invisible, but it’s definitely been taking a toll. This week I learned that while I’ve been stretching my spine in downward dog, practicing deep breathing in meditation, walking the back roads of New Hampshire with a grateful heart, I’ve also been clenching my jaw. Clenching so hard and so fiercely and for so long, that I’ve cracked my back teeth and pushed my bite out of alignment as a result.
It took my dad the dentist to figure it out, after I’d called him for the fifth morning in a row to describe my sleepless nights and to confess that I’d begun counting the hours between painkillers. “Put two rolls of cotton between your teeth so they don’t touch, then sit down and completely relax for a half hour, and call me back,” he advised. Still the good daughter, I did what he told me, weird as it sounded. Within moments, I caught myself clamping down on the cotton rolls — clamping down as if they were a couple of bullets I’d been told to bite while undergoing primitive, excruciating surgery without anesthesia. Except of course, this was not surgery. This was my own everyday life. And apparently, in order to survive it, I’d been holding myself in some kind of death-grip.
The truth was a bit of a shock. I took a deep breath, made myself relax, and then caught myself clamping right down again. For thirty conscious minutes, then, I focused on relaxing my jaw completely. Deliberate, intentional relaxation. And bit by bit, I felt the pain that had plagued me for a week simply drain away. Could it really be that simple?
This morning, I watched as my son Jack got ready to head up into the White Mountains for a three-day hike with a friend. It’s his first big adventure without an adult along, a true test — for us parents as well as for him. When he proposed the trip at the beginning of the summer, his dad and I were noncommittal–not wanting to nix the idea, yet not at all sure he was ready to take off on his own into the mountains. Back then, August seemed like a long way off. If we said nothing more about his plan, we figured, he might very well forget the whole idea, or never manage to get it organized, or change his mind.
Instead, over the course of many phone calls, he and his friend chose a date, got some advice about a route, and finally, with our blessing and my credit card, reserved a couple of AMC huts. The funny thing is that by the time he was actually ready to go, I was ready to let him.
A year ago, this boy of mine was driving me crazy. I despaired of him ever growing up, wising up, straightening up. . .cleaning up. All of a sudden, though, he IS grown up. At six feet tall and 160 pounds, he is a lot bigger and stronger than I am. And finally, it seems that his brain has caught up to his body. I send him to the grocery store with a list, and he comes back having made exactly the right purchases. (It was not so long ago that I requested a cucumber and he returned with a zucchini.) He calls home, meets his curfew, texts me when something goes awry and sometimes just to say “hi.” He asks me how my day was, puts his dishes in the dishwasher and walks the dog. He gets up on time and goes to bed at a reasonable hour. He reads good books and then wants to talk about them. He still trashes his bedroom, and then just before I open my mouth to say something about how it looks like a bomb hit in there, he turns on some loud music and starts cleaning it up.
Last week, the two of us had an interesting conversation. “With you, Mom,” he said, “it’s all about honesty. I know that honesty means more to you than anything. And so now I feel like I can’t ever lie to you. Even sometimes when I’ve done something that I don’t want you to know about, I always feel better after I’ve told you.”
I thought about that for a few days, somewhat reassured in general sort of way. And then something came up that kept me awake for a good part of a night, worrying not so much about what I already knew, but about what might be. In the morning, Jack and I talked again. “Ok,” I said, “I think I really need to know a little more about what happened last night.” The story he told me made perfect sense. I knew that it was the truth. It didn’t thrill me, but it was so, so much better than all of the really terrible scenarios I’d spent the night imagining. Now it was my turn to tell him something.
“I can always handle the truth,” I said. “I may not like it, but if I ask for it, it’s my job to figure out how to deal with it. And I think the truth is probably always going to be a lot better than whatever I can dream up in my mind.”
It’s late now, and Steve and Henry have already gone to bed. I was just about to wrap this up and turn off the lights, when a text came in from Jack, who is settling into his sleeping bag on the top of a mountain far away. “Hey mom,” he wrote, “random service spot here. Everything is going fine.”
I’ve been thinking a lot today about the things we carry, both literally and emotionally. I watched the seventeen-year-old boys pack their packs, watched them trying to anticipate what they would need, what was worth lugging up into the mountains and back down again. Their enthusiasm was great to see, though I was less impressed by the rations they were taking — Slim Jims, Ritz crackers, Pop-Tarts, and a sausage. They insisted on carrying their own pillows from home. And I resisted the urge to check to make sure they had toothbrushes and clean underwear. (I did insist on hats and four apples.) And then it was time for them to shoulder their loads and be on their way. They probably took too much stuff; their packs looked pretty heavy to me. But what they have is what they chose to carry.
Me, I’m ready for a lighter load. I’ve laid down my burden of worry, at least for now. The mouth guard my dad made me will help me to remember to relax my jaw, to give my poor teeth some rest. And meanwhile, a more conscious part of me has already chosen to let go. I’m sure that Jack is fine out there. He’ll have a good night’s sleep and so will I.