As we drive to San Francisco under crystal winter skies, the talk is of everything things. The pedestrian to-do lists keep the painful thoughts at bay. The traffic is easy and gentle for a Saturday afternoon. As familiar Sonoma County landmarks transition into Marin’s, cars whiz by against a backdrop of bucolic hillsides; it seems a motion picture dream.
He is a natural driver, and I watch him with intensity. Oh, what a sight to behold with his hazel eyes, Roman nose, and my mother’s cheekbones. He also has her stoic jaw. I loved him before I knew him; that’s one certainty I’ve always felt deep within. I push the conversation toward more thoughtful grounds. He shies away, not wanting me to crack his veneer of solid composure. Back on safer ground, we banter a bit. I study him, tuning into his intonations and the increasing tautness in his jaw. He maneuvers through traffic with the ease and grace of a cowboy herding buffalo on wild plains. Such things, so effortless for him, are draining for me.
The glory of the Golden Gate bridge looms before us too quickly. The bay is a vast, sweeping sea of grays and blues. There is no ignoring now that we are that much closer to the pain, and my stomach twists and turns. My smile vanishes and my throat tightens down. I focus on the skyline of the city I adore–the city we both hold dear. Wrestling with my pain, the tears that creep to the corners of my eyes, I am silent. “Momma, are you alright?” he asks. Words stuck in my throat, I nod my head. He knows the truth. He always does. “It’ll be okay, Momma, I’ll be back before you know it.” Emotion-filled silence ensues. The cramping in my stomach intensifies, and I remind myself to breathe. I hear my inner voice calming me, “Be the adult here. Be the good mother. Send him off with a bright smile and joyful kisses.” That’s my intention, but I feel as though I’m suffocating. I smile. “I’m good, Darling. It’s just a bit difficult. I’ll be fine. You know I’m so proud of you. I want you to soar. More than anything, I want you to live your dreams.” I can feel him smile as I pretend to study the elegant hodgepodge of San Francisco’s scenery; he knows very well it is not the rows of buildings or the street life that hold my attention. I reach to touch the window as if I might caress the love, hopes, and memories that fill the air.
I don’t know when I will see him again, and this makes the parting far more eviscerating. Vast oceans will separate us; I am not sure if it will be nine moons or twenty until I see his blazing eyes and vibrant smile again. I both want him to go and to stay. The bigger, far better part of me wants him to spread his wings, to experience love and life as he’s never yet known. I smile again, and our conversation resumes its earlier sweet flow.
The traffic lights seem to be a steady sea of green on the one day I want red lights, only halting red. I notice that we’re already on the open freeway; the downtown lights have faded behind us. Where did the moments go? I want them back. I remind myself, again, to breathe, but it’s not working very well. A giant jet looms over us, and I feel I can almost touch its wide metal belly before it slowly arches up into the now pale blue sky. Too soon, far too soon, he’ll be flying, too. And, then, the airport signs appear in hazy succession. Domestic departures. Foreign departures. He glides smoothly up to the curb. I unbuckle slowly, and he’s already at the rear side to open the door. Enormous backpack and two matching bags of pale green are on the curb. My heart freezes as I see and feel only him. Only him, my first child, my baby so grown and strong.
Tears are streaming down my face, ever so silently and painfully. He pulls me into his arms, a man-child embrace that offers everything. My composure and good intentions fail me. I sob openly, my heart in piercing, splintered fragments. Yes, this is motherhood, this painful letting go. This is love. Roiling about my head are words that tell me to smile, to wish him Godspeed in serene, even tones. As I formulate the perfect words, fresh tears unleash themselves. He looks at me, brushing my cheek and lips ever so quickly and softly in the most fleeting and tender of grown child kisses. “I love you, Momma,” he proclaims softly and steadily. I step back, taking in his beauty, and the hot flood of tears begins anew. I find words and they float in the air like hummingbirds, “I am so proud of you. Of all that you are, my adventurer.” He smiles, his hazel eyes filled with love and strength. “Breath, Momma, breathe. Like in yoga. Breathe.” Through the tears I laugh at his precious words. A security officer walks by, and my bright-eyed son swings his over-sized pack onto broad shoulders. “Heavy,” he says simply, “very heavy.” He lifts the other two packs with ease; I feel every movement with my eyes, my heart. My tears are streaming more steadily, but their flow is silent. The familiar fingers of loss have my chest in their vice-like grip. He moves close again for a final embrace. He gazes at me steadily; he knows me too well. “Momma, you don’t drive well like this. Pull over in the car lot to cry, alright? Pull in there to cry.” I nod and smile. Strong and fierce, he much more resolute than his mother in many ways. He shifts beneath the weight of the travel packs, that, for now, contain his world. “You know,” he pronounces with just the slightest break in his strong voice, “this will be good for both of us. For you and for me.” I nod. He is wise for one so young; he knows that futures filled with dreams await both of us. Brown eyes meet hazel, and he offers a final, solid embrace before turning to go. I watch him walk away, my heart somewhere between the curb and his fading silhouette.
Head bent, I move to the car and collapse in a heap behind the steering wheel. I have no thought driving, of finding my way to a car lot to cry. Instead, a fresh flow of hot tears absorbs me, and I feel both love and pain. Tears course through me and over my cheeks. I sob until my heart returns in fractured pieces, until the salty flow has done its duty. I wipe my eyes with my sleeve. Taking a deep breath, I manage a half-smile to myself. I can imagine my son saying, “Momma, just breathe.” I know the tears will return, but–for now–I am fairly still inside, half at peace. I now realize how odd it is that no security guard has prodded me to leave my curbside post. Buckling, I glance up. Indeed, a guard is watching me, motionless, from twenty feet away; I sense his eyes have been studying me for some time. “He must be a father,” I say softly to myself, “He understands.”
Later, at home–the newfound quiet so cavernous about me–my son sends me a message of love and concern. Using his pet word for me, he asks, “Boss, are you OK?” I write back, “Big love hurts big. I’d rather love big and with all my heart…and feel pain sometimes than not love the way I love. The way I love you.” His response is short, truncated, “On runway. Taking off. Love you, Boss. Sounds smart with the big love.” Though I don’t know if he will receive my final words, I write, “Yeah, big love is all I know. And I sure love you. Be safe. Be happy.”
It is true, we love so much it sometimes hurts ferociously. Yet, love is what we live for, love is the very best of us, and love is what we strive to know.