“One more,” Ethan says and points the remote at the television so that another episode of New Girl, our fourth this afternoon, begins. I like the show just fine; though, in truth, there’s an essay I’m itching to work on, and more than a few house chores I should have finished by now. Still, I sit here because this is what my son wants to do on this rainy Sunday afternoon and my biggest pull is to be with him.
Just the week before, Ethan and I toured Fordham University, he was hired for his first real job as a waiter at a local pancake house, and he attained his driver’s permit.
College. Earning power. The ability to drive away.
It all points to one fact. He’s leaving me. He always has been. But before now it seemed to be happening slowly and in increments. When did we move onto this accelerated track?
“I’ve got so much to think about,” Ethan complained to me earlier, voice quavering in a way it rarely does anymore. College essay. SAT scores. The new job. Driving practice with his less-than-patient dad. Of course he feels overwhelmed.
“One thing at a time,” I told him as though there was any other choice in managing these demands, as though that clichéd reminder could somehow quell the surge of panic he felt.
Glaring at me, he’d turned on the television which, I soon realized, was his version of pressing a pause button.
Perfect, I thought, super-gluing myself to the spot.
For my part, what I’d like to pause right now is time itself. I’m suffering from what I can only think to call early onset nostalgia. Already I miss this boy slouched beside me on the couch. Actually I miss dozens of versions of Ethan. The infant who gazed up at me as he nursed in a contented milky stupor. The chubby-legged babe who slapped the floor loudly with his palms as he crawled. The three-year-old who was so proud of his Thomas the Tank Engine underwear he dropped his pants in the middle of a toy store to show his friend. The list goes on and on. The kindergartener who scampered under a desk the first time he entered his new classroom. The six-year-old who bounded ahead of me with his backpack swinging. The seven-year-old who insisted on calling the doctor himself when he felt ill. Ah, and the eight-year-old who stared at me, wide-eyed and incredulous, when his name was drawn at a school raffle. The prize? Dinner for two at Wolfgang Puck’s. “Can you believe it, Mom? I won!”
One afternoon, just after Ethan turned nine, I had lunch with a friend who has two grown children.
“Do you realize he’s now lived with you for half as long as he’s likely to?” she asked me.
For one brief innocent moment I had no idea what she meant. Then I did the simple equation. Nine plus nine equals eighteen. Eighteen equals college, equals dorm life, equals goodbye.
It’s half over, I thought, gazing out the restaurant window because eye contact in that moment would have felt like a finger on a bruise. Life cohabitating with my child was half over and I hadn’t been present enough. I hadn’t been paying enough attention.
Nostalgia has always been like that for me, more bitter than sweet. I can’t help but think of time that’s passed as time I’ve squandered away.
Once, when I was six and had lost a tooth, and again when I was twelve and got my period for the first time, I cried inconsolably through an entire evening.
“It’s normal,” my mom said to assure me both times. “It means you’re healthy and growing.”
I understood that. What made me weep at those milestones was that I also understood how life can only go in one direction.
And I was a dreamer. I lived in my head. If I wasn’t careful, I’d miss it all.
Now that Ethan and I have all of one year together before he leaves for college, I’m grief-stricken once again over the brevity of this one-way trip. I’m also angry at myself for the many times my mind took me somewhere else. The times my boy chatted with me and my attention went to an argument his dad and I were in the midst of. Or to an email I owed an editor. Or to the buzz of the dryer where our clothes were beginning to wrinkle in their cramped heap.
There were also the mornings I felt relieved when he left for school, the evenings I longed for him to fall asleep. I loved his company but I craved those hours to myself. Hours I often spent writing, ironically enough, about him in an attempt to capture something of this fleeting life we share, in an attempt to slow it down.
This is what’s hardest for me to reconcile. Those of us who create our art out of the stuff of our lives have to step outside those very lives to do so. For me it’s the optimal pause button. I need that time to reflect and digest. The problem is that life goes on without us while we take those pauses. And as much as I yearn for pockets of solitude, I also hate to miss out on one prized moment with my nearly grown son.
Meanwhile the credits roll on New Girl.
Ethan tells me, “I should go to the gym.”
“Yeah,” I say, stretching and yawning. “I’ve got a bunch of ‘shoulds’ to get to myself.”
He picks up the remote and turns it around and around in his palm.
Other than that, neither of us moves.