Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Packing

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The flattened boxes are stacked in the garage, next to two fresh spools of thick packing tape. They're ready to be filled with our older girl's worldly belongings, her jeans and T-shirts, piles of spandex exercise clothes, her new little Tupperware bowls, a laundry hamper, some precious photos of familiar faces.

There are six days left until five of us board an airplane that will take us two thousand miles away, and a few days after that, only four of us will return. Our sandwich is thinning, and the turmoil I'm feeling is barely describable.

I haven't been able to complete a column in six months, and it wasn't for lack of material to write about. My problem was excess. I have found it nearly impossible to compress the hugeness of the past half-year into a thousand words per month, no matter how I've tried. It began in March when this daughter took a weeklong journey into Death Valley along with a dozen schoolmates. They each did a solo three-day, three-night sojourn in the desert, and it was then that I felt the first fraying of the maternal threads that bind me to this child. I felt the hundreds of miles between us like a chasm in my heart. Where was she, my girl, under the stars without a shelter? Helplessness filled me and I wept with fear like I hadn't since she was an infant. I had an inkling, then, that I was in for more, much more of this: of not knowing where or how she was, or with whom, and how she was faring. This understanding shook me down to my bones. I obsessively listened to the "Into the Wild" soundtrack, my heart hammering to the lyrics. Have no fear for when I'm alone I'll be better off than I was before... I've got this life, I'll be around to grow/ Long lights allow me to feel I'm falling, safely to the ground. When she returned, all browned and glorious and thrilled with what she'd accomplished, I felt proud, overwhelmed, and in awe of her independence. And sad.

Her final months of high school, her final season of rowing with her beloved team, her graduation and her team's advancing to the National Youth Rowing Championships were the most intense and difficult periods of parenting I'd ever known. There were days when we could not bear to speak to or look at each other; the tension of those ultimate moments, fraught with emotion and meaning, was so great. Having to still make rules, when rules were so quickly becoming obsolete, was maddening. Both of us knew that shortly she'd be making her own rules. I felt like she was shaking me off, like an old dead skin she wouldn't need anymore. How burdensome to have parents, seemed to be her message.

I spent the early part of summer trying to give her a nice wide berth, not asking too many questions, not demanding much of her time or attention. I stepped back. At one point she asked me, "Mom, are you like giving up? On being a mother?"

It's hard to know what to do. I'm finding this time of letting go just as bewildering and perplexing as having a newborn infant. I've never done this and I just don't know how.

I dreaded this last month, felt that our connection would just snap irrevocably, and she would drift away into her life like a bear cub on an ice floe. But we've been moving toward each other again, and it's been unexpectedly sweet.

The family just spent a lovely week on the river, floating on kayaks and inflatable whales. There was a rare sense of relaxation, of easiness in being together. Friends came and went, sitting on the water's edge with us. At the end of the week, my birthday. I braced myself with extremely modest expectations -- perhaps a card? Mother's Day had been a rather tense affair back in May. But I woke up to bare feet clattering on the wooden stairs, a major bustling about. Minutes later, she stood at my bed with a tray heaped with fresh fruit and yogurt, warm homemade coffee cake, a bundle of hydrangeas. My girl, who was on a super no-carb diet in preparation for her upcoming career as a lightweight athlete, had spent the night baking for me, of which she wouldn't eat a bite. Not only the coffee cake, but a double layered chocolate birthday cake with raspberries too. My eyes filled with tears. For the first time, I felt a seismic shift in our relationship; felt her sacrificing, and big time, on my behalf. I was humbled.

We're all shifting around. Her younger sister contemplates switching bedrooms, finding a different space in the house. My husband, who has always thought us Too Busy for many outside activities, registers himself and me for a day of college lectures on president James Madison, Melville and Moby Dick. "What day are we going to Wisconsin?" my mother asks. She counts them down on her fingers; they are less than two hands now. I know the question makes her want to cry; the answer makes me feel that way, too, but we have the conversation with good, steady voices. We pick up objects and turn them around in our hands. "Will she need this? Is there room for this?" A stapler, an oversized beach towel, a can opener.

Meanwhile, our old dog totters around. Often he stumbles, crashing, into his food bowl. Kibble scatters across the floor. He's blind. He's deaf and incontinent and confused, spending up to an hour staring, unseeing, into the corner between two walls. He cries more these days, the whimpering of a puppy. It feels like it's nearly Time, time for that terrible decision we've dreaded. But how can my mother withstand it, losing both her beloved granddaughter and dog at once? For one more day, we put it off.

It is one hour at a time now. The dog lives to see another morning. We gather more things, one by one, to pack into the cartons.


Susan Ito has served Literary Mama as a Fiction Editor, CNF editor, and columnist of “Life in the Sandwich.” She edited the literary anthology, A Ghost At Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption. She is the author of the SheBook, The Mouse Room. Her work has appeared in CHOICE, Hip Mama, the Bellevue Literary Review, MSN.com, Making More Waves, Growing Up Asian American, the Kartika Review, and elsewhere. She is a former Fiction Editor, Columnist, and Creative Nonfiction Editor for Literary Mama.


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Oh Susan...this is so poignant. So many losses looming...yet so much promise and so many new experiences up ahead! My best friend is going through the same letting-go experience with her son, who leaves for college on Thursday. I'm not there with you two yet---but I can see it coming, and I know I won't be ready for it either. May you find peace and strength for the challenges ahead. And may Elder Daughter learn that a bite of raspberry chocolate cake is part of the joy of life too... Love, Doxy
oh, Susan, this is so lovely and poignant. I'm thinking of you as you all shift into this new relationship.
If it helps, Susan, the anticipatory anxiety in this case was far worse for me than the anxiety and depression I felt once my child was gone and at college. Yes, it's a milestone, but before you know it, she'll be home for Thanksgiving and you'll realize that they never really leave you, not really.
Oh, what a wonderful column, Susan, this "Packing" is. I especially love how you articulate your uncertainty about how to let your daughter go, how much distance to give her -- and then, so great, her question to you about whether you're "giving up" on this mothering thing. It IS so confusing, and you perfectly capture both this confusion and the moments of grace and happiness (and humility too) that arrive, sometimes in the form of coffee cake and birthday cake. I'm also so moved by your description of the dog's stumblings and incontinence. I wish you the very best with all of this -- it's awfully hard, and it's wonderful that you're writing about all of it.
Oh Susan, this essay was so moving and such a brave and honest and true essay that I'm compelled to write. Susan--my own son is only twelve, but already I have started to feel what you are going through. The second we have babies, they begin to move away from us. You've captured all the myriad feelings that go with this with real beauty, raw power, and a kind of grace. (And how lucky you are to have a daughter like that!) And I have heard from friends, too, that they never really leave you.
Absolutely beautiful. Especially poignant as I ponder my similary-aged son setting off to a 4-yr. college, yet taking with him all the stigma and challenges of his mental illness. I wish you and your family all the best. Your daughter will fly high when she goes solo.
Susan, I enjoyed reading this as my son is packing up to move out in the other room. He graduated from college in June and is moving back down to LA to start a 9 month fellowship. He spent just a few days here and there with us during the summer and while it always feels good to have him around, it has not been easy. We are wishing someone would write a book about how to parent an adult. We finally got down: the 'boys are both in college and we are a couple again', and now we have to figure out this new beast of 'being a parent but giving much less advice, help and opinions'. It feels pretty hard, but I thought I'd never survive them going to college and I"m here to tell you I did and I have come to appreciate it. One thing I did last year when my youngest left was to get us a subscription to the Berkeley Rep, it felt great to support our newly revived 'coupledom' Great writing, best of luck, there are wonderful things about having a child in college and watching them fly. Thanks for your article.
Dear Susan, This is, indeed, a bittersweet time in your family. As one who is now an empty nester, I encourage you to trust that you have done all you can to prepare her for this huge step, and while you will always be her mother, her leaving home brings you both one step closer to a rich and rewarding adult friendship. You are in my thoughts and prayers.
I'm so far from this stage, but your beautiful column made my heart ache a bit in anticipation of it. Good luck with this big transition!
Wow, amazing column. So moving. This is what's down the line for us....
Hey Ski, This is so lovely, made me cry. Sorry to hear via FB about Scooter...I love reading your columns! I still can't believe last time I saw her, I was wiping that lovely girl's tushie! She looks well launched--you guys should be proud of yourselves! p.s. John's right--there's nothing better than Moby Dick. I went to visit the Seaman's Chapel in New Bedford last year...and the docent guy said the place where I plopped down was Melville's pew." Ahhhh. xoxo,, marie
So good to hear from you again. You have been missed. Great column!
Susan, as often happens, your poignancy makes me cry, how you are able to say just what is needed and not much more, leaves the emotional impact so clear so rich. I so appreciate you and your writing and your bittersweet heart!!!! Micky Duxbury
You captured the intensity exactly. Made me cry.
Thanks everyone for your generous and thoughtful comments. As a post-script to the column, our Scooter did not survive our trip to college... (click on my blog for details)
Hi Susan, I can't believe your daughter is off to college! What an intense time for everyone. I just had my second daughter twelve weeks ago and when I think about sending her (my baby) or Savanna, now three, out of state my heart breaks. It is hard enough to send Savanna to preschool one block away! I can tell you are handling this season of losses with your usual mix of humor and sensitivity. I look forward to hearing more about what this year brings you and the family. Best wishes, --lisa
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