Sifting Shifting Sands

I look at the calendar and question whether I must be in a state of deep denial: Teen has only a handful of school days left, then a few days of finals, before he graduates high school. Fifteen days, including weekends, before this long leg of the journey comes to an end.

Oy, I just choked back tears. Not for the first time, certainly not the last.

Obviously I knew this end was coming. In a vague sense, since January I’ve been counting the months, the weeks, now days. I’ve been spending more time at home—more work-at-home afternoons, more nights in on weekends—intending to be present for those unpredictable times when he suddenly overflows with information. I never know what will turn the spigot, and whether it will trickle or gush, but I’m ready to catch the flow.

Sometimes the flow smells more like sewage than good, clean water. Undoubtedly, Teen could tell you more about the biology behind the term for this, called soiling the nest. Fledgling birds apparently make a mess of the nest so their birdy mamas will kick them out. The nasty stench makes it easier to say goodbye.

By refusing to get out of bed, or go to school, or contribute in any meaningful way to a positive home environment; by making me want to scream in place of fruitless nagging, and clench my already-aching jaw, go for a power walk, and come home to a glass of wine consumed in the privacy of my bedroom, we both become ready for a separation. The ridiculous part: by being his worst at home I’m supposed to believe he’s ready to show his best to the world?

I’ve reminded myself: he’s afraid. Everything he’s known and counted on throughout his lifetime is changing, and change is never easy. Sure, the adventures ahead are so exciting. He’s going to his #1 college choice to study his life’s consuming passion and play his sport. A few weeks ago he got a text from an Olympian who recently graduated from the school, congratulating him on his choice and looking forward to working out together. So cool!

Still, he feels vulnerable, unsteady as the sands shift beneath his feet. And I am a safe arm to grab hold of, to catch all the junk he doesn’t know how to process. He can actively push away because he knows we will always be his soft landing spot. Push and pull, shove and yank. Some days it feels like a fistfight; others, a cling-for-your-life embrace. Hard, and normal.

Thankfully, some days I see the man he is becoming. Some days my presence at home has been rewarded with pleas for advice, details of his adventures, arguments on real-life issues he’s working out in his head and sounding out in private. Just yesterday, he invited me to watch one of his favorite movie scenes with him. We laughed side-by-side on the couch, a tender moment (for me) until the scene ended and he said, “That’s it. You can go now.”

We have lived on the California coast his whole life. When he was little, we sat facing each other in the sand, kitchen items between us—colanders, slotted spoons, Tupperware—sifting sand, tossing out the rocks, turning the shells over in our hands, collecting water and building sand castles. Always ready, I watched as he toddled away from me, playing catch-me-if-you-can with lapping waves.

Now he strides into his future, leaving me behind on the beach sifting memories and moments; tossing misshapen ones, treasuring the intricate beauty of others. Long ago as the sand slipped between my fingers I daydreamed of who he would be, how his exuberance would develop into passion for something larger than himself. Now I have space to daydream of other shorelines—and mountain trails and jungle paths—where we will walk together, creating new memories, as he explores life.

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