The emotional intensity between my son and me is almost electric as he packs what seems like his entire room into his already overloaded car. "Son, you don't need to take everything," I remind John. "You're right, Mom. If I need it later, what's 300 miles?" His grin seems a bit patronizing and the pat on my shoulder less than sincere as he continues packing.
How did we reach this point in our lives so quickly? When I look at him, sometimes I still see the 3-year-old asking me to teach him to pronounce "yambulence" so his friends wouldn't laugh at him. I shudder as I remember the insecure, frightened 11-year-old John, bewildered by his lack of friends at a new school, and the 16-year-old who chose a lonely road rather than bending to the pressures of peer influence. While I savor these memories of little-boy John, my adult John takes a final look around the house, walking from room to room, remembering his childhood.
I remember when Mom put these glow-in-the dark stars on my ceiling. I've enjoyed looking at Orion, and the Big and Little Dippers glowing softly at me each night. And it's a wonder Dad and I didn't break the mirror on the closet door with all the slam dunks we did in that basketball hoop we put up. And look at those ceiling beams. I used to have to take a running leap just to touch them. Now I can touch them standing here flat-footed. I've gotta get out of here. I'm feeling weird.
John slides into the driver's seat and I look at his man-sized frame. Where has the little boy gone? It seems only yesterday we were reading Dr. Seuss and The Biggest Bear.
"I'm ready, Mom," he says in a deep, steady voice. "Are you?" I know he's talking about the trip and nothing else, but I think about how very unready I am for this journey. I'm not finished enjoying our late-night talks when he returns home from his part-time job, marching with the band, or playing basketball. I sense that silence will fill our home when he's not singing in the shower, playing his music, or telling us jokes, and it weighs on my emotions.
I asked Mom if she's ready to go, but I'm not sure I'm ready. I need to sit here just a few more minutes and prepare for the break. Can't stay. Mom's about to lose it. Tears are on the edges of her eyelids, and if she starts, I'm feeling just shaky enough that I might cry too. Can't have that.
As my handsome man-child drives the car confidently out of the driveway and out of the city limits, I realize again that the boy I see in my mind's eye is not the man I am seated beside. This is a new phase in his journey toward independence and adulthood, and I decide to embrace this new and precious part of the adventure with enthusiasm. And we've planned what I hope will be a nice way to observe the transition: My husband is following us in the camper, and we're staying down by the lake tonight. We'll sit around the campfire listening to the night sounds, breathing in the aroma of the cedar trees and the decaying fallen leaves in the forest. We'll watch the sparks float upward as we discuss life goals, dreams and memories.
Mom just gave me a questioning look, but said nothing. Good, because I'm not ready to talk about the raw emotions I'm feeling right now. I can't wait to be on my own. By this time tomorrow I'll be moved into my dorm room and will have attended my first orientation class. I know I can do this. It's just this awkward transition between the security of being in my parents' home, and the independence of being on my own. I'm not sure Mom could handle it if I said these things aloud. I'm not sure I can say them.
About the time John and I begin to relax, the camper breaks down. It's late and there is no repair shop open. As the three of us try to decide what to do next, John analyzes the situation and comes up with a solution of his own. "Mom, Dad, I've never driven the mountain alone, and I've never driven it in the dark, but I know I'm ready. I'll be OK."
Yes, maybe he thinks he's ready, but I'm not. With this change of plans, I feel a little cheated. John hugs me tenderly and then looks long into my eyes. I see the emotion as it tugs at the corner of his mouth. We stand there for several minutes as I attempt to smile and swallow the lumps that have formed in my throat. There's a final round of hugs, a family prayer, and John drives away toward his college life on the other side of the mountain. His father and I "limp" home in a broken-down-camper, arriving just as the fury of a thunderstorm unleashes its power on our small town. John is driving along the treacherous mountain road.
My heart is pounding and I feel physical pain as I pray for his safety. What were we thinking to allow this inexperienced child to go off into the night on such a perilous journey? I am afraid for my son.
Mom and Dad must have really had confidence in me to allow me to go on alone. We all felt so many emotions as we said goodbye.
I can finally see the bottom of the mountain. I'm really tired, but I've made my first solo road trip, and it's been good. I guess in some ways it's been a parallel journey. I've been making my journey toward independence while Mom and Dad began the journey toward letting me go. I know it, and they knew it when I drove away from them today. For the past couple of years they've been giving me more freedom and allowed me to make more of my own decisions. I just hope I'm ready to make the right decisions. They have high expectations that I'll become a responsible adult.
Until today I was still a kidI still occupied a bed under my parents' roof, ate their food, and lived by their rules. Now I'm responsible for my decisions. In just a few more minutes I'll be in my new home away from home. I've completed the first part of the journey into independent living, and I've begun a longer journey, one from childhood to adulthood. I feel a great sense of accomplishment.
The phone rings. It's John, and we hear confidence and jubilation in his voice. He's tired, but he's conquered the mountain, and he's excited to begin classes tomorrow. We sense a subtle change and ponder how a mere road trip could bring such a sense of peace to all our hearts. I know we don't need to see him as a little boy any longer.
The phone rings againit's John! He's just completed his third year of college and he's in Hawaii on a choir tour. He has put in an application to be part of a crew to sail home across the Pacific. We haven't taken him seriously
"Hi, Mom. Is Dad there? I have news."
"Yes, we're both on. Did the captain choose you?"
"Yes! We'll sail from Maui, and if the wind and weather cooperate, we'll reach the California coastline in about three weeks. There's not much room on the boat so I'm shipping almost everything I own back home. There'll be three of us
" John is exuberant as he shares the specifics of the voyage. As I listen to this confident young man who is thousands of miles away, I remember the journey we all began just three years earlier as he traveled over the mountain to his life at college. I rejoice in the ways God has directed his path as he has worked at his part-time jobs, attended classes, been a Christian influence on his campus, and participated in his local church activities.
"Did you hear me, Mom?"
"Yes, Son, I'm listening. How big is the boat?"
Ritchie Dawn Hale is a freelance writer in Verona, Kentucky. Her son, John, graduated with a business degree and is now working toward becoming a commercial pilot.