It was a long three month stay away, his first semester in college. Now he's home. Tonight, nothing could wipe away my smile as I heard three separate bedroom doors close after each of my sons called out, “'night, mom, I love you.” All three of my children are in one place at one time.
There's more dinner dishes in the sink than we've had in awhile, and the washer is back to doing a nightly load like my son had never left. The refrigerator door opened and closed enough times tonight that I thought we'd go through a light bulb. The snack cabinet looks like a two foot tall mini-burglar got to it.
My son is home, he looks good, healthy, happy, and comes alive as he tells us about his favorite classes. I listen to his voice fill the kitchen and his laugh grips my heart hard enough to hurt that I have to put on a ready smile so it doesn't look like I'm in pain.
While everyone sits around him, asking questions about being at school, I think how the night before, he wasn't here. Nor the week before. The yogurt goes bad now because he's not home to eat it, the bread gets hard and beyond its freshness date for the same reason. The orange juice goes tart from sitting untouched in the back of the refrigerator and the bananas turn brown. After three months, I still haven't learned how to shop for a household that doesn't include him.
It 's been a good first semester away from home for him. It's been a great time of finding his people and settling into his major. School is better than he thought it would be, and 100 percent what he dreamed it would be.
When he passes a mirror, he asks if I notice he's been eating less starch, more protein, how good this looks on him. I make myself stop before I tell him how easy it is to look good when you're 19. He tells me he's sleeping well, working hard, making friends. His mood is fantastic, and his eyes dance with the details of his days.
I had a hint once of what life like this would be like. He had just begun school, still so little, and it was the first time he'd be away from home for hours. When I picked him up, he was unstoppable as he bubbled over with news of projects, books, what the teacher said, what the class's plans would be for the next week. It was thrilling to hear his joy, but my uncensored reaction to realizing his life was now going to contain parts without me in it, struck me smack in the heart. Since he was born, we were together. He was my first child, I never felt something like him before and all those early long years, we existed for each other. Having hours to myself while he was away felt exactly the opposite of freedom that so many had promised.
Time rushes past. We don't even feel it whip through our hair. It doesn't seem like we are part of the years we're in, but when we look around us, we see the souvenirs picked up along the way. I see the foot stool I painted green for him, in the bathroom, the one he once needed to reach the sink or would sit on to play while I gave his younger brother a bath. How is it that it still occupies this same corner? As if it's ever going back to its original purpose. Still, it is there, and it was there for him. He used it once, and it sits like a charm on a bracelet, telling a story from a point in time.
It's hard to know what to say to him without saying, tell me everything. I try to not ask too many rapid-fire questions. I will wait until we have time alone to ask how he is, not so much about classes and school and if he felt he aced his papers. I want to know where he gets his hair cut, is there a really good pasta place close by, did it feel strange the first night he wasn't home?
Are his boots warm enough?
Does he use a buddy system when he goes out?
Why don't I ever see pictures of him with his hat?
What might seem trivial to him, is monumental to me. If I know the small things, then I can see him clearly in the days he's not here, at 9:01 or 2:50 or 7:30, or 11:09.
Things feel different. The duffle bags on the floor of his room keep reminding when I walk past that this is a visit. Ponder that. Your child visiting. Home is different now, it's no longer his only place to be. His life is not shoulder to shoulder with mine.
I watch my son as he talks about the life he has now, the one that's his. I am amazed at how I take it. I was always certain, I mean I would have bet a million dollars, that when he left, I would have been swept under the waves left in his wake. I pictured myself walking around, befuddled, needing to learn and not knowing how to live with one of my children gone. Instead, I find myself thrilled for him, relieved that he's adapted, grateful that he is happy. I feel all of these things at the same time as a lump in my throat.
He's home, but not in the same way as he was his first 18 years, and yet, it feels okay. I am okay. I marvel at the power of love, so strong for someone else that it can override what I should be feeling now, what is my most natural human response -- an ache of the heart.