Letting go, again

The lilacs bloomed this week, and tulips appeared like magic all through the front garden (it was quite a surprise to see the purple ones come up, as if part of some carefully orchestrated color scheme). Summer is nearly at hand, and it seemed that the shape of things had begun to emerge. I’ve been cleaning closets, reorganizing rooms, preparing myself for a full house again. After a long winter, I’m more than ready to trade the quiet of two for the high energy of four, imagining a party for the 4th of July, the pleasure of holding hands around the table, watching movies, retelling all our old jokes, getting everyone out to pick strawberries in June. I’ve even been thinking about how thrilled our dog Gracie will be to have both her boys around for games of catch.

Having sent out resumes, gathered references, and completed more than a few job applications over the winter, our son Henry found himself a month ago facing the grim realities of the economy and the tough job market for budding musicians. For the first time since he was in high school, it looked as if he’d actually be home for the summer. So, he shifted from Plan A (a job playing piano somewhere) to plan B (an opportunity to do anything else). He got busy and applied to become a full-time volunteer for the Obama reelection campaign, one of 55 young people who would be trained to start setting up infrastructure in New Hampshire. A phone interview later, he was hired.

My son, the self-proclaimed homebody, goes to college in Minnesota, spent January term in London, and has been under this roof for all of about eight weeks out of the last two years. So it was easy to look at the fact that he didn’t get the piano job in Maine, or the paid internship at the musical theater in St. Louis, or the teaching job at the summer camp, as a blessing in disguise.

In the Mother’s Day letter he sent me last Sunday, Henry wrote about how much he was looking forward to family dinners, hikes up Pack Monadnock, concerts at Apple Hill, taking runs with me, and having weekends off to spend hanging out at home. He thought there might be time to take an on-line class at Berklee, maybe go to a Red Sox game or two. I loved getting that letter, for of course I’d been looking forward to the exact same things. Hard as it seemed to believe, he’d be home in two weeks — right here, sleeping in his own bed, every night till the end of August.

And then Tuesday came, and a call from Henry. He’d gotten an offer, he said, to play piano and to be the assistant to a musical director in Maine. It was the summer job he’d wanted most and hadn’t gotten, but now something had shifted, someone else wasn’t coming, and they wanted him after all.

“I’m not sure what do,” my son said. “I’ve already committed to the volunteer job. And I’ve been so excited about finally just getting to be at home with you guys. But it sounds as if they really want me to come up there. And I’ll get to play a lot. I know I’ll learn a lot. And the money’s really good.”

Sometimes the hardest part of being the parent of a grown-up child is remembering that my job is still to be somewhat more grown up than he is. Which, in this case, meant finding the wherewithal to listen and ask questions and listen some more, without jumping in and telling my twenty-one-year-old son what I thought, what I wanted, and how very much I’d been looking forward to having him around.

Could he weigh the commitment he’d made to work for free against the opportunity to pursue his musical career in the job he’d hoped for all along? Could he give up the attractions and comforts of home, and some time off, in favor of a contract that ends four days before school starts in the fall? Could he work this all through, find clarity in the midst of confusion, and make a decision that would feel right to him? I had to trust that he could.

Meanwhile, Steve and I had our own long talks. We confessed to each other how disappointed we were that the family summer we’d been envisioning might not happen after all. We pulled the plug on the family vacation we were in the midst of planning. We discussed the fact that our son really is an adult now, and that being an adult means going to work and creating a life that is separate from ours. And then we promised ourselves that if he ended up in Maine, we’d drive up to visit, to hear him play the opening night show. We reminded ourselves, not for the first time, that there is love in letting go.

Next week, I have to make a trip to New York to serve on a panel. Henry will fly in after his last final exam and meet me and Steve in the city. We’ll have a great dinner, see “War Horse” at Lincoln Center, cram into one hotel room for the night, and make the long drive home with all his stuff. A few days later Jack will be home, too, and then we’ll have four days of being together before Henry packs his bag and leaves for his summer job in Maine.

“Live your own life,” Tao scholar William Martin advises parents, “with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul. There is no need to live theirs. They will do that wonderfully for themselves.”

They do.

for my reflections & inspiration

your comments

  1. Oh, wow. Crying, of course, as always. I am just back from four days away from my children and they seem impossibly big and grown-up now; somehow even the smallest window of perspective startles me with who they are already. So I know this is just around the corner. Thank GOD I have you to show me the way. xox

  2. Oh Katrina, I’m feeling all of this for you and quite in awe of the calm wisdom you bring to this difficult situation. I can only hope to have the same perspective when my time comes with my own boys. Already I can feel my heart lurch over it.

    I must tell you, your words, your introspective and spiritual approach to life are such an inspiration to me, in a way that I have never experienced before. I write this with absolute honesty.

  3. tears in my eyes, and love for your family.

  4. You always inspire me, Katrina. Thank you!

  5. I meant to say, thank you for being honest about this. My oldest is only nine, but I already find myself kicking and screaming a little bit about her growing up.

  6. Just read your post and understand completely. Next Saturday we will watch our oldest graduate from college. My sense more than ever is that she will never be home with us in quite the same way. Then I remember that is the whole point of all the love, energy, laughter and tears we have poured into her these last 20 plus years. We and she have done our jobs, now more life and learning await.

  7. Dear Katrina,
    I am sorry for your loss of a “Henry summer”. I feel your generosity as parents to have him work at his dream job. It will be sad for him too, I wish you more special times together.

  8. I can only echo the heartfelt sentiments of those who’ve posted before me, and add that we are all so very blessed to have the children that we do in our lives, for the time we’re allowed to share with them. Your poignant thoughts hit home so directly with me, as I watch my 19 year old son slowly gain his adult legs. It’s an odd combination of joy and sadness that fills my days, knowing he is looking forward as much as I am remembering all that is past. I, too, know that he is making good decisions and that my thoughts are just that now, thoughts. When he asks, I offer, but more often than not – he is spreading his wings and following his dreams. I am blessed. So are you.
    Thank you for putting into words exactly what I am experiencing. I embrace this time of life with you.

  9. As my mother reminds me with my 22 month old son, “everyday you are raising your children to leave you.” Tough to swallow, but important to remember. I can’t help smiling thinking that you have a son who was excited to come home and go on runs with his Mom… Even if he’s made the responsible and adult choice and is headed to Maine, he was happy about the prospect of a summer at home. Seems like you have a really good kid (two of them of course! Good job!

  10. The money shot: (and when wasn’t this true?!) “my job is still to be somewhat more grown up than he is.”

  11. “… to listen, to ask questions, and to listen some more …” — beautiful words of advice, and (once again) just what I needed to read this morning.

    My college freshman will not be home much this summer — he’ll be on his own, in a big city. I’m excited for what he’ll learn about adult life but Wow, what a difference it’ll be around here.

  12. Oh, Katrina, I totally understand your feelings. We had this exact scenario a few weeks back.

    On the positive side, our daughter will obtain good work experience, and many of her friends will be in and out of town (she is working in a lab on campus), so she will be able to share times with them without the pressures of schoolwork and other obligations. She will gain some “life experience” living in a house with four other girls, two of whom she doesn’t even know yet. As much as we will miss each other, SHE has made a decision about HER life, and we need to respect that. Also, I gratefully remind myself that these are good things, positive choices.

    I find this entire “college time” of life to be a challenge in that it is constantly fluid, very difficult for someone like me who prefers consistency and routine. It makes me treasure the times we are together even more. I hope that your four days together will be brimming with joy, happiness, and laughter, and will become fond memories for all of you. While things seem to be in a continual state of change, the love and values we share are permanent. Henry and Jack are thriving, you and Steve have done a terrific job!

  13. Laura K. says:

    Oh, wow. That’s tough. I hope you have a good weekend together, and then a nice visit to Maine. But how wonderful that he got the job he truly wanted!
    I’m trying to enjoy every minute of taking my youngest to daycare, going to see her song performances, etc here at my workplace. At the end of the summer, she starts kindergarten. She sees me getting weepy and says “Mommy, don’t be sad that I’m growing up. Be happy!” A not-quite 5 year old philosopher!

  14. As usual, you put me, the reader, in all of your moments.

    Thank you!

  15. Reading this I felt connected to both the parent and the kid perspectives—thinking about the lilacs blooming in my mom’s yard, the ones I haven’t seen in years (having not made a May trip in decades).

    And as the time of my boys’ launching curls up into itself readying to leap, I wonder if growing up really has to be growing apart? Sometimes I wonder if all our striving is really worth it, and if a culture of hanging out more, of achieving less, wouldn’t bring more happiness all around.
    Yet ultimately I’m with the Taoist, and more so the Tao—glad to cook this evening, and to walk with dog, wife and son under a moon rising full behind clouds.

  16. How wonderful that your son will be able to do what he loves and get paid for it. He can still volunteer for the Obama campaign, just in a smaller capacity.

    I’m just a few years behind you in the mothering department. One in college and one finishing high school. I don’t really want to think about the time when they are both gone. It’s bittersweet, the realization that we did our jobs well as mothers and launched them into the world with wings ready to fly.

    Thank you for a beautiful post.

  17. Lou Anne Sexton says:

    Gosh I’m sorry for the change in plans. You’ve done a beautiful job of adjusting in your head about how to get in some Henry time by coming to him.

    Letting to again and again and again is something I’m really trying to learn as my oldest gets ready to graduate high school in just two weeks.

    Thank you for the gift of the the William Martin quote. I really needed it.

  18. Oh Katrina. I’m crying (and I’m not at home–working on laptop, crying). Crying at the beauty of your intrinsic love for your sons. Tears falling for your raw realization that you needed most to listen. And crying because I just wrote a post about my own little boy, just four. I wrote about how I’m trying to soak up the moments of him now, knowing the adult him sits on the horizon. That horizon seems far-off now. I know that it is not.

    Thank you for your beautiful words. Just gorgeous. xoxo

  19. Karen M says:

    Katrina, as usual I feel like your life mirrors my own. I also thought I’d have my older son home from college to work in the city this summer. Then I found out two weeks ago that he got an amazing job offer in Chicago that he can’t pass up. I was shocked at my strong reaction to not having either of my college age kids home this summer. I realized that counting on some time home throughout the year was no longer a given. They are adults and will go their own way as they should. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and advice. I am trying to take it and be an adult too!

  20. I know how you feel. My homebody son, from NH as well, fell in love with his sister’s college friend and now lives in PA. They are getting married in Oct and I doubt they will ever live in New England. His sister, who has not been home for more than 2 weeks since high school, graduated from college last year and moved to Napa, CA. We are very lonely and very proud of them. They are doing exactly what they want to do which is how we raised them. We have been thru 1 whole year of holidays without kids around and I can only hope next year will be easier.

  21. Oh my! You always put all my thoughts and feelings into words – always with tears. You are amazing. I loved this. Especially touch me was :there is love in letting go”. Its a hard lesson for me to swallow but I have to remember that as my first son graduates high school and begins his adult life. Thanks always for the help.

  22. Oh gosh! I was so happy for you Henry was coming home. And then my heart just sank. You are such a wonderful mom in letting him make his own choices. I so remember that age, when every new experience had the potential to change your life. It usually did, too.

    Have a wonderful summer with your two other boys!

  23. marcela says:

    Your blog is so inspirational. I’m glad your son is finding a job he loves – what else one can ask for ?

  24. Like many others, I’m in tears reading this. I’m so grateful to have you share these lessons learned before I cross the same difficult roads myself. My only wish is that I remember them… and remember the grace with which you parent as an example. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

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