Our daughter is standing in the kitchen, a heavy rock tucked under her arm, her hands cradling its awkward heft. I recognize the rock, one of many carefully selected and brought home from summer vacations at the beach. This one had earned a prime location on the dresser in her room, one in which she hasn’t lived for two years.
I can feel the weight of that rock as if I’m the one holding it except that its load is in my gut, in the pressure of tears gathering, threatening to spill. Slowly she’s claiming her belongings, emptying a space once filled with her very essence. The more she reclaims the less I visit her room, days passing without stepping in to even open the blinds. I’ve only recently stopped setting four places for dinner, and now everything just looks off.
I’m not good with changes.
“What are you doing here?” My husband jokingly demands when he finds our daughter in the house, as if materialized out of thin air. “See what happens when you feed her? She keeps coming back,” he teases, and I watch her face for signs of offense despite knowing that she’s inherited his humor and that she knows how welcome she is in what will always be her home.
Her brother will be leaving soon as well, transferring to a university only two hours away, yet the distance already feels like an insurmountable chasm, the kind a young man is supposed to traverse at this point of his life as the logical side of my brain tells the emotional side dreading the ride home in the car without him.
Tomorrow they’re turning 21. And while other birthdays were emotional for me, this one seems especially momentous, my mind swimming in images of childhood, moments collected, cherished and all leading to this day when there are two semi-adults whose company I enjoy and whose characters I admire. And I’m amazed by them. The kind of amazement I felt way back when upon realizing that I’d become someone’s mother, even though a woman in a park once mistook me for their nanny.
Perhaps I looked too young, although I wasn’t. More likely because one twin is a giggly blue eyed blond, the other dark and serious so she assumed they weren’t related to each other or to me. I’m amazed because you rarely stop to think about the big picture and the briefness of it all when you’re figuring out how to get two babies to nap and eat simultaneously, rushing to make lunches early in the morning, grading terrible freshmen papers in the car while waiting in school parking lots for the bell to ring, doing endless laundry, cooking meals, sitting through dance and karate classes, listening under doors during music lessons, cheering on sidelines at soccer games trying not to be that overzealous parent.
Yet on this momentous occasion you realize that they’ve been watching you all along, taking in your reactions and surprisingly, some of your advice, your mannerisms good and bad. And you hope that there was more good than bad, that they’ve picked up their father’s kindness, your passion for words (not the colorful ones you yell out the car window when driving), your husband’s sense of humor and your excitement about spectacular thunderstorms like that wintery day not long ago.
They’ve been works of art in progress all along, and being so close to the canvas I couldn’t distinguish between the different brush strokes and colors swirling before me because it’s difficult to do so in the moment, when one day runs into the other, when you’ve been up all night tending to a cough, when you’re worried about first days of school, sleep away camps, first dates, driving lessons, college applications, and sadness you cannot fix.
Suddenly those days that seemed as if they’d last forever have turned into years and they’re 21. Your daughter hasn’t asked you to help her buy bras for some time and your son towers over you, reddish hints in his dark beard. And you stand back from your creations realizing they’re masterpieces; that the slow letting go had been happening all along; the day they crossed the street without holding your hand; when bedtime no longer included you perched on their bed with a favorite book; when you no longer knew the names of the other children in their classrooms and you didn’t get to meet their teachers until open house, then in college not at all.
And when they move out you don’t know what they’re eating, if they’re eating, unless your daughter sends a Facebook message with a photo, asking if the zucchinis she’s prepared look done (they did). And even if you hadn’t approved of her leaving or of her living arrangement, you can’t help but admire her determination to do what she wanted and her courage to face you with her decision.
These beings around whom the last 21 years of my life have revolved, have turned into people who know how to stand up for their friends and to their friends as the need arises. They respect authority yet aren’t afraid to question it when its power is abused. They’ve become the kind of people of whom I can be proud.
I know they must leave; set out, write their own stories. I’ve known this all along, the heartbreak that comes of loving another more than yourself, until you’ve forgotten what you were like before they came into your life. There will soon only be two settings on the table, and that arrangement will also feel off for awhile. But we started out that way, the man who still makes me laugh and I, and if memory serves me, we liked each other just fine, enough to create these amazing beings whose birthdays we’ll be celebrating tomorrow.
Besides, they still want to come with us to the beach next summer and someone owes me a rock.