My son is here. Here is the two bedroom apartment in Chicago where I moved over a year ago with my husband, my eight-year-old son, the two dogs and the cat. Here is not where my middle son lives but here is where he visits on school vacations, and a few long scattered weekends throughout the year. Before he arrives I make sure he has his own toothbrush in his bathroom, I buy him shaving cream and a razor and the 2-1 shampoo he likes. I buy his favorite cereal.
Last spring, he had his junior prom and I was not there to take photos with the other moms. His dad sent me the photos via text. Look at our boy! He texted. And there he was in a tuxedo with a red vest handing a rose corsage to his prom date— a girl I didn’t recognize. When I received this text I was at a friend’s house for dinner and I showed the picture to my husband. “Look!” I said. “Look at him,” and he did and smiled and went back to his conversation but for me, the ache of not being there for this lasted well into the next week.
Every day I have to get used to not having my son live with me full time. Some days it feels okay enough. I justify me being here and him being there by telling myself it is good for him to live with his dad, to live in one place for his last two years of high school. He spent most of his entire life living in two homes. His dad and I divorced when he was barely three and while he and his older brother were shuttled back and forth, I practiced adapting to time away from them. After dropping them off at their dad’s, I would eventually appreciate returning to a much quieter house for a few days. By Sunday afternoon, I would be ready for them to come barreling into the house with all their noise and sports equipment and backpacks and boy smell.
There are days where the weight of not living with my boys hits me hard. When I fill out certain documents or school forms I hesitate to write that my son’s’ primary address is not my own. A low point: I once lied and refused not to write my own address on the line that asked for “address of primary caregiver” or “permanent residence of child.”
When a student or new friend asks me about my other sons’ whereabouts, I say they are in college which is only half true. It feels more reasonable to admit out loud that I moved to a different state at the same time that both of my boys went off to school. It feels less complicated than having to explain that one still lives back east with his dad.
When I speak with my friends and their young children whine for them to get off the phone and pay attention to them, I hear my friends’ frustration for having to get off prematurely, but they do not hear my slight envy. It’s the middle of the day and my apartment is as quiet as an ashram.
When my son was little I did all the mom things. I sat with my mom friends in big backyards while our children played on jungle gyms and swing sets and I huddled over my son while I cut up his hot dog and squeezed the ketchup onto his plate and wiped his hands and face and deposited him into the bath with his bath toys and soapy water and read him Caps For Sale and kissed him goodnight. If you would have told me that this mother would be the same mother who 13 years later chose to pack up her home and live away from her children I would have said, not in a million years. When people ask why I moved, I look off into the distance and wistfully repeat, “It was just time.” The past few years of heartache and money issues and poor choices come flooding into the air. Perhaps my boys who watched me struggle more than thriving, perhaps they understood in their own way that it was time for me to make a change before it was time for them.
The weeks leading up to my move my son would come into my room and sit on my bed. “This is really happening?” He would say not sounding upset, just in mild disbelief. I stopped with the bubble wrap and tape and looked at him. “Mom,” he said over and over again those weeks, “I will be fine! It’s you who I am worried about!”
The day of the move I met both my boys for breakfast. We went to the same local diner where I used to carry a portable high chair in my arms and attach it to the table where my son’s legs would dangle from the leg holes and we would play tic tac toe on the paper placemats until his pancakes arrived where I would stuff huge forkfuls into his mouth and hand him his sippy cup from my bag.They were planning their day — Going off to the gym later that afternoon. I was relieved that the magnitude of me leaving did not hit them hard enough to distract them from their basketball game. That at the time they laced up their sneakers I would be crossing state lines, following my husband who drove the Uhaul which housed the entire contents of our life now. At this breakfast I handed the boys some of their winter coats and sweatshirts that had been hanging in my front closet; and despite trying to convince my husband we should have some of their stuff at our apartment in Chicago, he looked at me sympathetically and explained that the boys actually might need and want these things at their dad’s for the coming season.
I hugged my boys goodbye in the parking lot and held them longer and tighter than I usually do. They were smiling and shuffling me off like two normal teenagers who needed space from their mother’s coddling. “We’re fine mom!” And it seemed that they were as they walked together to their car already onto their future day.
It’s been almost two years since the move. I FaceTime weekly with the boys. I sit in my living room and watch their faces pop on the screen. I see the posters in their room hanging above their head. Often they are multi-tasking while we talk — but I don’t mind. For me, it’s less about the content and more about just being there with them while they are living their lives. They have both shared on occasion that they miss being able to just come to my house. “Why are you a plane ride away now?” My son asks almost hypothetically. We are still getting used to the way our family feels. I have to ward off the expectations I used to have about what now defines me as a good mother — a definition that certainly did not involve leaving. I have to stop comparing myself to other moms. I I put my hand on my heart most days to offer myself a little compassion.
The days leading up to their arrival my mood elevates exponentially. My oldest couldn’t come this time but my middle arrived on Passover. It’s his third day here on a seven-day visit. We sit on the couch most of our first day together watching stand-up comedy, something that has become a kind of ritual for us. Inside my mind I hear my mother’s refrain, it’s the quality, not the quantity that matters. She worked full time when I was growing up and when I would lament to her about not being there when I got home from school she would offer me that line with a hug. Now, it is one of my mantras.
I absorb my son’s visit into my bones. The weight of his legs resting on my lap. He is now the entire length of my sofa. The sound of his phone chats drifting into the living room. His size 12 high tops by the door and the extra plates in the sink to be cleaned. My mothering — distilled down to the absolute essence, redefined, transplanted but no less of a calling.
I am no longer breathy or belabored by the physical presence of young children but now find solace and beauty in remembering even a sliver of what that life used to be.