When my youngest graduated from high school and left two days later for a three-month job out of state, several of my friends felt that it would comfort me if they repeated variations of the common wisdom, “He’ll come back. They all come back.”
Maybe yours does. Mine didn’t. Oh, somebody who resembles Robin came back after three months of 14-16 hour days on an island with no ferry service, no electricity, hot water, wi-fi, and only intermittent cell service (and that in one spot in the middle of the woods). I'm not saying this was a bad experience. It wasn't, although I could tell it was hard from the few texts he sent periodically. But it's obvious that the summer, plus the steady girlfriend, has changed him. He makes his own plans. He doesn’t always tell me where he is or what he’s doing. I was sitting in the living room when he and his girlfriend were making plans to set up a joint checking account to satisfy one of the requirements for family student housing when they go to college together next year. This is all good and right, and we knock ourselves out to raise functional, happy adults. But succeeding in this lifelong goal has been rocking my reality, more than I ever expected.
Perhaps most pivotally, I’m no longer the most important woman in his life. Kaylee comes first, as she should.
Then my daughter announced three weeks ago that she and her boyfriend are engaged – this was on the heels of her realizing that she’s coming up on 30 years old and that physiologically, her child-bearing years are limited. Wonderful, we like her fiancé very much and while the concept of being a “grandparent” might take some getting used to, having grandchildren is just going to be really, really fun.
Still, here’s the thing I keep stubbing my mental toe against. My children don’t need me to feel loved or to learn how to get along in the world.
I’m not the central person in either of my children’s lives anymore.
Well-meaning friends and family members have objected to Robin and Kaylee’s plans by saying, “They’re so young. You have to know who you are before you can have a good relationship with somebody else.” (I get the impression that if they were just being flaky on-again-off-again teenagers, nobody would be worried about them.) The thing is, I wonder just WHEN is that magic moment when you know who you are? I know plenty of confused 50-year-olds. Some of them even make bad decisions about relationships, based on no information or wrong or misinterpreted information, or delusions, wishes, fantasies or dreams.
Or, like me, they make a decision that turns out well just because of dumb luck.
Ed and I didn’t have a textbook courtship where people could comfortably say, “That’ll work. That’s a good gamble.” I was 34 when I called Ed as part of a series of phone calls to recruit volunteers for his alma mater. That’s right, we met because I was a telephone solicitor. Really. That’s how we met. One of those little voices on the other end of the phone that most people hang up on.
He was in a rocky relationship at the time, had just moved back to Portland after ten years on the East Coast and was trying to figure out if he really could make a living as a musical instrument maker. I was in a rocky relationship, raising a toddler pretty much by myself and on medication for chronic depression, the biggest pessimist you ever saw, ricocheting from one disaster to another. None of my friends today would have recognized me then, a really overweight business-like woman in a dark blue suit. When Ed learned that I was the fundraiser from his high school, he said rudely, “How did you get this number?” I had just spent a week making cold calls on people who didn’t want to talk to me. I laughed. It was the only response I could make short of starting to cry and quitting my job. Then he laughed. Then I said I liked his laugh and he said he liked my laugh and we talked for two hours on company time. Then he became my star volunteer and we became friends and over the next two years, we both got out of those rocky relationships. Then he looked at my fat depressed self and saw something that he could be in love with and I looked at his sincere sweet face and fell in love with him and we got married. Next month, it’ll be 21 years.
I didn’t know who I was then and I’m not sure he knew himself well either. We changed each other and helped and healed each other. Neither of us would be who we are today without these two decades of being together.
And now our relationship is on the brink of “coming of age,” ha! Actually it’s true. Our children are grown. We both get the senior discount at Fred Meyer. We’ve figured out how to do weekends and vacations together, finally (since we’re both introverts, time off involves a lot of alone time, but it took a couple of decades to really figure that out. I mean, alone alone, not alone together alone). We now know that we don’t have to be interested in the same things. He doesn’t have to love travel and opera and I don’t have to love optics, kayaks, melodeons, inkle looms, smocking or whatever craft he’s focused on this year.
We're lucky, we've always had a solid foundation to our marriage. We love each other and our children; we love sharing a home and a basic philosophy toward life; and most of all, the primary concern for each of us is that we make the other happy. And I suppose it's telling that I can't imagine life without Ed, and he can't imagine life without me.
It also helps that I think he’s just about the cutest man who ever trod shoe leather, and he still seems to think I’m pretty cute, too.
But it feels a little funny to feel more independent within a marriage. We were joined at the hip for so long, and now we finally feel confident enough in ourselves that we feel we can afford to let each other out of our sight from time to time.
Then there’s the ‘rents. We are lucky, we still have them. But like everybody else, our parents can push our buttons. To quote Martin Seligman, the behavioral psychologist who wrote “Flourish,” and “Learned Optimism,” our parents can push our buttons efficiently because they’re the ones who installed them. Well, that’s old news. For years, we spent a lot of energy trying to feel like the adults we really were, trying not to care about their opinions of us, working to create our own family traditions. But now we don’t need to, because to quote another hero of mine, George Harrison, I’m "gettin’ old as my mother.” When did we get older than our parents? And when did our parents start to be, not older, but old?
Ed’s parents moved into a lovely retirement facility last year. We all thought it was too soon, but really, Bill is 80, when is it too soon? They’re comfortable and busy and none of us middle-aged “children” need to worry about their safety and how they are dealing with the medical issues associated with aging. My parents have just spent a week touring retirement communities and are planning on moving this year. Well, they’re kids of 78 and 82, so this also isn’t too soon, and we’ll be happy when they, too are comfortable and busy in a place where we don’t have to worry about their safety and how they're dealing with medical issues…
We’re all on that Small World After All conveyor belt, and some of us are closer to the end of the ride than the others. Maybe it’s the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, sudden drops and splashes and cannon fire, and the sound track does change as you go along, but there is definitely an embarkation and a disembarkation point at either end of the adventure, and I’m noticing just where I am on the ride. And I’m farther along than I thought I was.
I’m not a-weepin’ and a-wailin’. I’ve written plenty in this space about enjoying the back half of the game (my father once referred to the “seats on the fifty-yard line”) and boy am I aware of how lucky I am. Just a generation or two ago, being 56 put you on the brink of retirement and old age. I still feel like I’m just getting started and I do have at least one full adulthood ahead of me, there’s no reason for me not to be vigorous and capable for another 40 years. Yes, I need three pairs of glasses to deal with eyes that don’t readily change focal lengths on their own, and Ed can’t hear without hearing aids, and I need to write everything down, and my feet don’t always work as well as I’d like. I’m not new in box. Got a few miles on me. But I’m like a late ‘90s Honda – I’ve probably got another 150,000, 200,000 miles still.
Meanwhile, I hear rumbles. The solid earth isn’t so solid anymore, and I wonder why it’s a little hard to keep my balance.
I’m thinking about learning how to dance.