As my adult children wing their way back ‘round the world, I sit in a somewhat idle silence trying desperately to quiet my inner turmoil. While most of my friends enjoy the privilege of complaining about their children’s presence, I revel in the few opportunities I have to see my kids.
We’ve been able to spend at least seven days together twice a year since they moved away to college and jobs, but only our Christmas get-togethers are planned and paid for in advance. Second visits have always come about incidentally, usually because their father is moved around by employment and we are able sneak in a visit between points A and B.
I go through this period of melancholy every time, and I know from all my husband’s military deployments that this, too, shall pass. I know better than to relive the moments we spent at the dining room table playing Apples to Apples. I know not to hover too long over the beds where they slept or take in a deep breath through the pillows where they lay their heads. I also know that no matter how hard I try to fight it, my heart will overrule my mind.
I’ve known a lot of people over two decades, specifically mothers, who spent 18 years looking forward to the day their children would move out; and without a visible flip-flop of the heart, they waved goodbye and didn’t wallow in the aftermath of their child’s absence.
I don’t mean “not me” as in “I’m a better parent than those mothers because I feel this way.” I mean “not me” as in “Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with me because I feel this way.”
I’m told I may have trust issues, that I don’t entirely believe in the way I raised my kids, and that these doubts contribute to the ache in my heart and fuel my concern about them when they’re not near. It’s worth thinking about, I suppose; but then I remember the twist in household moves that allowed me to live in the same city as my children for all of summer 2007.
For three months I felt no ache or concern except for the time I sat down to the nightly news (a habit I’d forced myself out of as my husband and thousands of other Marines invaded Iraq) and watched live broadcasting as police surrounded my son’s apartment complex. Some guy had busted into an apartment, shot the two people living there (one of them immediately identified as a young man in college), and then shot himself. I called my son, but there was no answer.
On the other side of town, my son’s roommate’s mother was feeling just as unsettled at the sound of her phone call going to voicemail. Unbeknownst to the other, she and I drove to and waited across the street from the complex until the police cleared the way. Several new gray hairs and potentially compromised heart valves later, we learned that our sons had slept through the whole thing.
It helped immensely to be within driving distance of my children. When that summer-long reprieve ended, the all too familiar inner turmoil returned with a vengeance. Once again having to have a passport to get to them — and them to me — has left me with a low-level chronic feeling of unrest I’m not sure I will ever shake.
My attempt to put my situation in perspective by remembering the friends I have with children in combat zones doesn’t help. I can’t compare their experience to my having dealt with my husband’s deployments. Those with deployed children can be heard to say their situation is not necessarily worse or better than mine, but I know in my heart of hearts that theirs is a height of anxiety I would have trouble living with, much less living through. “We all have our illusions,” one Marine mother told me. I wonder if that’s my problem: I have no illusions.
Twenty years of my husband deploying to every continent on the planet left no room for doubt about what might happen. Making out our wills and assigning powers-of-attorney became old hat over time, but that first round of paperwork had me feeling like we were jinxing everything by acknowledging the possibilities and preparing for them. The reality of how fleeting this life really is was secured many years ago on the day I was asked to name the person that would tell me if my husband had been killed.
I am acutely aware of just how much control I do and do not have. I know exactly how much it would cost and how long it could take to get from here to my children; and I know just how futile the effort if something happened such that my presence would do nothing to make it better.
A friend of mine offered a few articles about dysfunctional families coming together for the holidays and their ensuing melee. She asked that I focus on how dysfunctional my family isn’t, and that maybe it’s because we aren’t together very often. I asked that she consider how much healthier all families might be if they spent more time together. She guffawed, and I conceded that many could benefit from a resident therapist, especially when together by obligation – even if it is also by choice. When I win the world lottery, my first philanthropic act will be to make sure everyone that wants and needs it will have that in-house holiday mental health assistance.
In the meantime I will maintain it’s not normal for families to live so far apart from one another, and I will keep enough money handy to make sure mine can get back and forth when absolutely needed, knowing it still isn’t enough. It won’t buy my way out of this chronic anxiety, but hopefully it is enough to maintain that precious amount of real estate between me and the edge.