Monday, October 27, 2008

Notes From the Other Side

From the time my oldest son started going to preschool, I have been adjusting to the fact that he has a life away from me, in a world I cannot control, and faces things that he doesn't always know how to handle. I say 'have been adjusting' because even though he's nine years old, I'm still not totally there. Often, I'll put it out of my mind, and when I ask him about the highs and lows of his days and listen intently to his answers, I take them at face value and tell myself all is fine.

But recently, I have seen or learned of this other life he lives, this life among his peers, and I'm fighting hard not to get too worried about him. The last thing I want is for him to be a mama's boy, although I can't guarantee he's not kind of close right now. That said, and admitting that I have conveniently forgotten (blocked out?) most of my elementary and junior high school social experiences, today I watched my son in a social situation and suffered a flood of emotion and memories. It was all I could do to stay in my seat.

Helping out at an after school activity that involved my son and seven other boys, I was on the sidelines when the boys were told to pick a partner for the next activity. My son chose a boy with whom he shares a lot of interests and who he considers to be a good friend. The boy immediately said no, that he wanted to be someone else's partner, and chose another boy in the room. After the rest of the boys had paired up, a verbal tug-of-war ensued over this friend, and the other boy was paired with him. My son was told to wait for the remaining child, who was not in the room, to return and be his partner.

Flashbacks of being the last picked for dodge ball invaded my mind. Feelings of anguish over being rejected by a thought-to-be good friend welled up inside me. Watching my son become the default partner of the only boy who didn't have a choice--because he was not present--made me want to cry. I anxiously watched as the last boy entered the room, was told to pair off with my son, and the activity began.

It was a short activity, and all the boys were acting up, tired and antsy after a long day. And although my son didn't seem fazed by the situation that had transpired, and I didn't want to make more of it than it really may have been, I did want to give him the chance to talk about it if it had in fact bothered him. My gut told me that if he had really been disappointed, he wouldn't have let it show in front of his peers anyway.

Later this evening, I broached the subject. "Say, remember this afternoon when you picked John as a partner, and he wanted to be with someone else? How did it feel?" I asked. I sat on my hands to keep from biting my nails over the conversation, and watched his face for a sign of his own anguish at the memory. "It was fine. A good scout always has to be ready for whatever happens, so I just worked with Bob instead."

I don't know if this is evidence of my being a mushy, too-sensitive girl and my son being a typical, take-things-at-face-value boy, or if I'm just jaded by history and experience. Regardless, I exhaled, told him he did a good job of being flexible, and said a little, silent prayer that he would always be so optimistic and easy-going.

Like most parents, I understand that one day my children will leave me, and that my job is to do my best to prepare them for that day. They need to be able to handle themselves socially, professionally and financially in order to feel good and do well in the world. I remind myself of this daily as I force myself to sit back and watch them struggle, fighting the urge to step in and help them. For how else can they learn to be independent if they don't practice now? Of course, the answer is they can't.

So I tell myself that the struggling is good for them, that they are learning from it and growing up, and that each successful negotiation of a situation will make their lives little easier in the future. But a tiny piece of me still wonders if my own struggling will ever get any easier, and hopes I won't have to wait 20 years to find out the answer.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Life's Routines

We love them or we hate them, but they offer the stability that shapes our days and our lives. I'm talking about routines. Every day with leashed dog in tow, I walk my oldest boy to the school bus stop on the corner. And every day, as we wait and chat, our friend and neighbor joins us with his dog. Once the bus rolls out, my friend and I walk through the neighborhood discussing world events, daily happenings and everything in between.

This week, my friend's wife passed away. It was sudden and unexpected, and we are all still reeling from the shock of it. The day after her passing, I did not know what to expect while waiting at the bus stop, but my friend and his dog were there, ready to walk and talk. The walk went pretty well, and I was glad that he felt able to join me rather than withdrawing, as we can be apt to do in such instances.

As word of Mary's passing made its way through our neighborhood, the disbelief spread. Many did not know she had been sick; some had not seen my friend for some time, just because of the hubbub of life and their own routines. On the second day, we walked again and a strange thing happened. Our block, normally empty and quiet at 8:30am, was suddenly quite busy. Many neighbors who are usually off to work at this hour instead just happened to be out in their yards blowing leaves.

I didn't put two and two together at first, as we have had a lot of leaves fall in the last week or so. But by the time we reached the third person on their lawn, leaf blower blaring so loud that my friend and I could not hear each other, I realized what was going on. As my friend and I came within sight of these neighbors, the leaf blowers were turned off and my friend was approached. It was as if everyone had been trying to find some reason to be outside that day, doing 'necessary' tasks, but with one eye on the road for my friend so that they could offer condolences.

It could just be a coincidence. And before this, I would never have considered leaf blowers to be effective communication tools. But this week, they eased the way for those so concerned for my friend, and gave them a way to reach out to him without overwhelming him. They didn't have to come knock on his door, or call at what might not be a very good time. Instead, our neighbors used their wits and their lawn tools to bridge the uncomfortable sadness, turning these morning meetings into something resembling fortuitous timing.

Transparent? Perhaps. But it allowed people to console my friend, respect his privacy and let him continue in his morning routine. It's true that routines can often feel like drudgery. Yet at times like these, their existence can help maintain a type of normalcy, becoming the little things that fuel us and help keep us going.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Healing

Although there is no sun in my kitchen, I have a shadow today. A big, furry shadow. I've spent quite a bit of time in the kitchen this morning making pancakes, chicken noodle soup, sandwiches and coffee. My dog has learned that when I am there--especially if I'm chopping vegetables--that I tend to be generous. He lingers. Not annoyingly, but just close enough to make his presence known and difficult to ignore. We have connected this way, through food.

When I was younger and I was stressed out, I would write. As I got into my 30s, cleaning would do the trick to relieve my angst. Now, though, anxiety drives me into the kitchen. Banana bread, vegetable risotto, chili, carrot soup, meatloaf, biscuits... nothing is off limits. If it's cool, I'll bake (the kids love my winter stress because it always means more cookies for them). If it's warmer, I'll do something different for dinner. And if we already have plenty of food for dinner, I'll cook for the freezer.

This week, I lost an uncle to cancer. It came as a surprise, as the updates we were getting from Tennessee seemed to indicate that he was improving. I immediately began looking up flights, talking to my parents about hotels and arranging for the children's schedules while I'd be gone for the funeral.

But it didn't work out that way. As any mother knows, you can be very organized and tend to all of the details, but sometimes that is not enough. My husband, who would have had to care for the children for the days I'd be gone, had a schedule that could not allow it to happen. I changed my research to flowers and food baskets, and sent them in lieu of myself in a feeble hope that my sentiments would be felt despite my absence.

I was resigned to the situation and kept in touch with family during the week as they travelled and condoled. But something in me remained unsettled. I needed to be there for someone, and I couldn't. I needed to hug my aunt and my father, to tell them how sorry I am, but it was impossible. The result was a burst of cooking fervor.

Out came the cookbooks, pots and ingredients. I began baking breads for my children. On the stove simmered a pot of chili for a neighbor whose wife is in the hospital. Next to it bubbled several quarts of chicken noodle soup. For whom, I do not know. But I had to make it. I had to be ready to offer it, to nurture someone with it, to give. It was my way of reaching out and connecting, of resolving the gap between the grief I couldn't share and the comfort I couldn't offer.

For decades, physicists have studied general relativity and quantum mechanics, all the while searching for the mathematical language, or common syntax, that will unify them. It is an ongoing quest to explain how big things, like planets and stars, and tiny things, like particles, are all connected. They continue to seek the link to this day.

This week, cooking became the common syntax for me, the bridge by which I sought to cross from emptiness to fulfillment. My aim was to ease my aching heart, and the hearts of those whom I could not reach, by caring for those I could. I will probably never know if the positive energy I put into my little dishes somehow wafted into the great space that surrounds us all, if it somehow reached and embraced my loved ones. All I can do is carry on, continue to cook, and hope that for some--and eventually for me--it will be enough.