Letting our kids go is a process that begins the moment they emerge from the womb, suddenly loose in the world. Or, whenever we adopt, it begins in that golden moment we first hear their name, run loving fingers over their picture and feel that jolt of recognition. Either way they are mine, and yet not mine. They grow, always venturing away, feeling less than I do both the ache of separation and the glow of their competence.
Despite the fact that we have launched seven children into independence, a single incident from two decades ago crystallizes the experience for me, a sort of short-hand that comes of long years of memory. I can reconstruct it now thanks to journaled notes and the painfully sharp detail that remained after a long day of worried waiting. It starts when my husband Bob calls me from Eloy, an hour to the south across a stretch of blank Sonoran Desert.
"They're down," he says without preamble. "They're safe. They were beautiful, all three of them."
I hadn't asked him to call; I tell myself I'm very brave, that it's fine, no news will just have to be good news. I want them all to believe that I'm confident they'll do well. Sometimes I suspect they see through me, but they let me keep up my pretense. Perhaps they need it.
"I didn't want to wait till we got home to tell you," he says. "They're all absolutely wired. They can't stop talking."
"To tell you the truth, I'm mighty glad you called," I admit. It's okay now to let on a little, at least to Bob.
He says, "Yeah, I figured."
I can't fathom how he could have gone with them—with three of our sons: Tim, Thomas, Adam—and watched from the ground while they parachuted for the first time. Fathers are just different. I didn't need to see it; my mind played imagined versions nonstop, entirely without effort on my part. In not every version did they end up standing solidly upon the earth, chatting amiably.
With Bob's call, the morning's distractedness evaporates, along with the endless mental scenarios of achingly familiar bodies plopping horribly into the desert. Throughout their hour's drive to Eloy; their four hours of classroom instruction and practice in curling, arching, leaping, and rolling; their spiraling ascent by small plane to some unimaginable altitude above the desert floor; and their mind-grinding dive into scattered scrub—throughout all that, I've been working more or less instinctively in the kitchen, "making home." Which must be the phrase that describes what homemakers do, though I've never heard it used. I have, to show for it, two fragrant loaves of cinnamon-apple sweet bread and a drift of still-warm ginger snaps. They are all superfluous, but the habits of a lifetime are not undone by calm reasoning or an objective needs assessment. Whenever danger threatens, I "make home."
It's not even as though they live here anymore. Tim, at 24, is down only for a brief holiday visit from Alaska, where he teaches school in a remote Native American community. The jump was his idea, and he bought the experience for his brothers as their Christmas present. Nineteen-year-old Thomas is a sophomore at the University of Arizona, another hour south of Eloy. Only Adam lives near enough now to be making the process of achieving independence painfully intimate.
He was away for a while at Cochise College in southeastern Arizona, where he earned his certification as an aircraft mechanic and his private pilot's license. "We have small planes here, Cessna 182s and Piper Warriors," he wrote in one of his rare letters home. "I love just sitting in them after hours, by myself, smelling that airplane smell. You can think in a place like that."
But when he finished his training, there weren't any jobs for mechanics. The whole aircraft industry was in a slump; there were layoffs everywhere, and nobody's airline job was secure. He answered an ad for a job in Phoenix as an aircraft scrubber for America West Airlines and moved to an apartment only a few blocks from home. Over dinner with him several nights a week, we witness his first-job gyrations close up.
There is something elemental about the business of entering the work force. Adam began his rite of passage with a week of training, learning the ropes alongside out-of-work engineers and upper-level business people. "There they are, going from big bucks to really low pay," he'd tell us. "And you know what? They're actually grateful. They've got families, and this job's a lot better than no job. They're good hard workers, too, because they're not kids just out of school and kicking around." He was assigned to the graveyard shift.
The job turned out to involve two separate crews: interior and exterior. Adam preferred the outside work. "Inside's pretty cramped," he said, "working in among the seats and the wall panels." I tried to picture his husky six-foot frame scrunched between the rows, wrestling the stiff, textured covers off the seats for cleaning. "Besides," he added, grinning, "outside you can see more."
The biggest perk of his new job was travel benefits, for us as well as him. A month after winning a permanent position on the crew he was eligible to travel free anywhere the airline flew. "For nothing," he told us repeatedly over dinner the night he brought home his travel card. "And believe me, we go just about everywhere." He was wearing a new T-shirt purchased from the company store. "America West Goes Hawaiian," it proclaimed, over a composition of seashells, sand, and jungly vegetation in punchy tropical colors.
"Hawaii, for instance?" I suggested.
"Yeah. Maybe I'll go there some day." He was silent a moment, frowning down at the table, at a plate heaped with spaghetti, garlic bread, tossed salad. "More likely Thailand, though. We get reciprocal deals with other lines, and on one of them I can fly round-trip to Thailand for just $200."
"Thailand?" I asked, trying to sound only calmly curious.
He nodded, his eyes still not meeting mine. "It's as close as I can get," he said. "To Vietnam, you know?"
Well, I knew and I didn't know. Like most of our nine children, Adam was adopted. He was born in Vietnam during the war. I first held him, a sick and unresponsive infant, in the din and glare of the Denver airport.
"You're not offended, are you?' he said now, finally looking up at me. "I guess I've never talked about it. Until now it wasn't really possible to go. But from Bangkok I could get to Vietnam. I've always wanted . . . I mean, I'd be curious to . . . just to sort of see it."
I put my hand on his, which was as demonstrative an act as he was likely to accept. I said, "Adam, if you're ready to do that, we'll help you any way we can." That was true, but I stopped there. I did not remind him of other true things, like the fact that he is racially of the Khmer people, an easily identifiable minority group that has little status in his native land.
He flashed a smile, something like gratitude or relief. "First stop, though, is San Francisco," he said. "Don't make dinner tomorrow night. I'm bringing it." And he did. He flew to Oakland in the morning, took the B.A.R.T. across the bay, trooped around the wharf buying fresh seafood and a few loaves of sourdough, and hopped back home in triumph before dinnertime.
One night, sprawling atop the fat fuselage of a plane he was waxing, Adam watched as a corporate jet failed to brake on landing and breached the fence at the end of the runway, slamming across the highway and into a commercial parking lot. That morning, instead of going straight home to bed, he joined us for breakfast, and I offered him the consolation of scrambled eggs, sausage, and warm, buttered toast.
"Nobody got hurt," he told us, awe mingling with the exhaustion in his voice. "But it burned after they all got clear, just flashed into flame. I saw it." In my mind I saw it too, along with Adam balancing on curved, waxy surfaces 40 feet above the concrete pad. I shuddered and bit my tongue.
When Bob returns with our sons, I am still in the kitchen, sitting over a cup of the morning's coffee, thick and scorched from long neglect on the burner. The ginger snaps are received eagerly enough. Handfuls of them disappear to fuel the boisterous recounting of the day's heroics.
Tim sidles close, encircles my shoulders with one massive arm. "You okay?" he asks, burying his question in the volume of his brothers' conversation, so that only I can hear it.
"Of course I am," I answer quickly, then decide to trust him. "Now, anyway. The morning was a bit long."
"I see that," he says, gesturing toward the mountain of my baking. "Ya' done good, Mom," he adds, and I understand he means more than my culinary accomplishments.
That night I dream I am flying without a plane, without wings, without an engine or a noise of any kind. I am just a body, fat and full, floating in formation with a tiny red and white plane, like a child's toy. It buzzes along below me with the persistence of an angry insect. My sons are all inside; I watch calmly, curiously, as one by one they climb out onto the wing, crouch a moment in anticipation, then drift away behind the plane like dust motes in the slanting rays of late afternoon sun.
Only Adam glances back and, spotting me, his eyes ask permission, or possibly they dare me. The expression, anyhow, is much the same, and the outcome either way has already been decided. But I've been asked and must make some reply. I have every right to dissent—shake my head, reach out, call him back. My choice. I smile instead. Yes, I say soundlessly, ignoring the evidence of my eyes, the instincts of my arms. Yes. And Adam, still drifting, turns away, satisfied.
Inexplicably the plane disappears, as objects sometimes do in dreams, leaving only my sons, floating rudderless in space. In the sudden silence I watch as, above each son, a parachute blossoms, expanding in sturdy colors like the drying wings of new butterflies.
With all the practice we've had over the intervening years, watching seven of our kids blossom into independence, you would think I'd have this whole process down pat. But
two of our children remain at home, both in their early 30s, long past their proper launching date. Neither is capable of holding a job, managing their own finances, or weighing the intentions of others. Tony's moods control him utterly. Dara's wildly fluctuating blood sugars are beyond anyone but her diabetes alert dog to predict. We continue to aim for growing their independence, but in increments so tiny as to be invisible to anything but blind hope. Will it ever be enough? Of course not. With all the practice I've had at surrendering my children to separate personhood, why do I find their transition so dismaying?
Another dream woke me just last night. It goes like this: My husband Bob and I are sitting in a coffee shop with several casual friends. At least, in this dream we're friends, though to my waking self they're all strangers. The conversation sparkles with sense and wit. The coffee is rich; I relax and watch the steam rise from its surface in lazy curves. Then the mood changes with a jolt: I realize that we've forgotten about Dara and Tony. Bob and I scramble from the shop, dash to wherever it was we left them. And there is Dara, her back to us. She doesn't greet me, or even turn and face me. Is she angry? Hurt? And where is Tony? Panic rises as I realize he is nowhere around. Is he all right? Will I be to blame if he's not? I awaken, panting, but the house is mercifully dark and still. Only a dream.
I know where that dream came from and what fears of mine it expresses. The next launching away from the unity of the family will more likely be Bob's or mine than either of our kids. Someday my long career as a mother will end, and I'll go off on my own where my children can't follow. At least not right away.
Will Dara be alone and angry?
Will Tony be lost?
Thinking back to that earlier dream I imagine myself poised to leap from the wing of a buzzing little plane, looking back to catch the eyes of my children, asking their permission. Will I have the grace to let go?
Then again, who could have predicted butterfly wings?