Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Children, Happiness, Parables, Poems and Life

When I was in graduate school at the University of Hawaii, one of my professors told me that I would have a hard time with the empty nest syndrome when my sons left home because I was so close to them and involved in their lives. They were then ten and sixteen. I told him I didn't think so, that I had raised them to become independent, that I wanted them to lead their own lives, that I had much to do in my life, too. All of that was true, but it was also predicated on the assumption that we would always have a close relationship with our sons throughout our lives.

For 23 years, I was basically right, though the details took on different hues. First Peter Anthony left home to go to the Air Force Academy. At first he came home for breaks and spent time with us and his high school friends, but he quickly pulled away into his own sphere, and though I realized I had lost the close intellectual exchange and camaraderie we had before, it seemed natural that he was finding new companions for both friendship and mental challenges, new horizons to pursue, and we rejoiced in his successes, as we have continued to do in all the years since he graduated from high school and left home the summer of 1987.

At the same time, we were seeing Leif blossom and come into his own as a young man with his older brother away and I continued to have a close relationship with him. It was a joy seeing them both develop into interesting, intelligent adults. My "empty nest" was delayed when Leif decided to live at home and attend KSU rather than go away to school, a decision influenced by his father's willingness to buy him a used RX-7 if he stayed there and saved the cost of a dorm or apartment, but not one I felt was best for Leif. For me, it was great. I loved having him there.

Even when he moved out with Nikko, and got married, he was still close by and in frequent contact, so my "empty nest" was delayed again. It wasn't until he enlisted in the army in January 1998 that he left and went far away for three and a half years and began to pull away from the closeness we'd always had, and I think it was partly the lack of the contact and closeness that kept me unaware of just how bad things really were for him in the army, though he did tell us what happened, and expressed anger, but didn't let us know of his despair.

At the time he left, I was just beginning my publishing venture and a year later began working on a graphic arts degree, writing more, and being creative in ways I never had time for when I was a "mom" and working, so I was happy in my own new life and didn't feel as much the lack of my sons' presence, though I loved the contact we had. I think I adjusted pretty well to their adulthood and I enjoyed my time with Peter W.

I can't say it never occurred to me that we might be without either of our sons. We worried a lot about Leif because of his penchant for fast driving, with either his car or motorcycle, and his ownership of guns. Once we found out he had been suicidal the last months he was in the army, and he was so depressed when he came back to Kansas, we worried about the possibility of suicide, too. We worried about Peter A. as an Air Force pilot flying into potentially dangerous areas, and of course, we were acutely aware that other possibilities for disaster always exist, but worrying about possibilities is not the same as dealing with them. There is no way you can feel something you haven't yet experienced. Despite our worries I don't think either of us envisioned our future without our sons there for the rest of our lives. We counted on them being there the way a child counts on his parents being there. It wasn't that we ever took them for granted. We took them for integral parts of our lives.

Today we took our granddaughters, Madeleine and Aly, to the airport to fly back home and after spending four weeks with us. We loved having them here and we had so much fun together. I found myself thinking and realizing that this was how I felt when I had my two sons all those years ago, only they were my children, and I was bound to them in an even deeper way. I realized again how happy I had been then. I knew I was happy then, but I don't think I knew HOW happy, because I didn't have a way to measure it, something to measure it against. Having the girls here gave me a measure of depth, how wonderful it was to hold them in my arms, to have a conversation with them at the dinner table, to read to them, to show them new things and teach them how to do something, to have fun together at the pool or beach, to share our lives. It made me remember and realize anew how much I loved those days, those years, with our sons.

It made me think of Khalil GIbran's poem "On Children," and how well it expressed some of my feelings. I first read that poem when I was in high school, and I have remembered it all these years. I reread it again tonight to see if I remembered it well, and it is so poignant and so prescient.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let our bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Now that Leif is gone and can no longer be the arrow shot into the future, but instead an arrow that somehow fell to earth, I mourn for him, but I rejoice that Peter Anthony is truly of the future, a futurist, who has and is projecting himself far beyond my aim.

Then I thought of the parable of the Prodigal Son. In some ways it parallels our family story, with the older son steady, stable, reliable, and the younger one wanting to take his inheritance and head for other lands, wasting it, working at menial jobs, and eventually coming home humbled . . . but received with rejoicing and open arms. Leif was received home again with joy an open arms more than once, but our story doesn't have that final happy ending. We will never be able to rejoice that he has come home again. He was never "lost" during his lifetime, not to us, and he could always come to us, but in the end, he didn't. I will always be sad that he did not. Was it pride? Was it shame? What kept him from seeking help, from us, from anyone? I suppose he would say he did, in that he tried to use his GI Bill benefits to improve his finances . . . but then spent it unwisely and eventually lost the stipend because he didn't get proper advising about what classes to take . . . and by applying for personal loans to try to cover his debts when he finally realized he couldn't pay them. Was it the loan rejections that finally discouraged him? Was he just completely unwilling to come to us again? What about all the other things he needed help with, his loneliness?

The rest of my life I will go over and over every detail about the his life, especially the last years, trying to understand, trying to find a clue to what made him come to the decision to take his life.

And through it all I will be missing him. Through it all I will be loving him.

Through it all I will continue to realize, day after day, how happy I was when my sons were young and in my care, how fortunate I was, and am, to be their mother. I will shed tears because I miss those days that will never come again, and tears because Leif is dead. I will remember those days and all the days since that we were together.

I had another realization today. I miss Peter Anthony. I miss the relationship we once had where "mom" was a "good reference book." I don't think I let myself realize how much I missed him all these years since he left home, because I wasn't "supposed to." I wasn't going to be one of those obsessive mothers who hover over their children, or one of those demanding mothers who expect attention all the time. I wasn't going to be one of those needy mothers who pile guilt on their kids. I wasn't going to be one of those mothers who mopes around an empty nest when her kid grow up and leave home. And I don't think I have been any of those things. But, I still miss him. And I found out the truth by missing Leif. I need to rejoice in Peter Anthony's life and family. They are here. They will help keep our lives full.

But there will always be two intermingling streams, the lively one of son and grandchildren, the dark, sad one of loss and grief.

The photo is of Peter Anthony and Leif on December 25, 1981 in Sagamihara, Japan. It was Peter Anthony's thirteenth birthday.

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