When I was a kid, before there were shoulder seatbelts and air bags in cars, there were mothers with right arms. Mine stuck hers out, palm to my chest, whenever I rode shotgun and we stopped short.
The parental instinct to protect our children is a powerful thing. It starts long before they emerge from the womb. From their physical health to their emotional, from known hazards to the ones we don't see coming, protecting them is part and parcel of loving your kid.
The first time my right arm sprung out in front of my oldest son's chest, it surprised us both. Thankfully, it was in the car and not, say, at a middle-school dance. And yes, his seatbelt was on, we had air bags, and he was taller than me -- but it happened anyway. Once I realized we were fine, I looked at him and he looked at me and neither of us said a word. We didn't have to -- our expressions said it all. Mine was of the Oh my God, I have become my mother variety and his was of the Mom, you have got to be kidding, you think that scrawny arm of yours is actually going to save me? variety.
Even for the most Zen of parents, when the time comes to send your kid off to college, it's hard to disarm yourself. At this stage of life, we can only hope they've heard some of what we've babbled on about, what we've role-modeled. Beyond that, all bets are off. They're going to make their own mistakes and there's nothing we can do about it.
But after so many years of being fully present in their lives, of having eyes in the back of our heads (remember Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show?), of putting out fevers, mending broken hearts, and generally being on call, how do you shut it off? Or do you? Do you simply turn down the volume until gradually it's on the lowest protective setting?
This was my theory until last week when my youngest son, Nicholas, passed out cold from the flu. Luckily, he had the good sense to do it at the doctor's office, in the chair I had just shoved under him. It wasn't so much the fainting itself that dredged up my uncertainty, it was the way he looked when he keeled over. The way his eyes, his sky blue eyes, dulled and rolled to the back of his head while they were still open. The way he looked so completely gone in an instant; the way he couldn't hear me call his name; the way my love for him, frequently tested during these rebellious teenage years, became so powerful I thought my heart would break. I would have done anything to see them open again. Anything.
"Nicholas," I said, stroking his hair, "it's Mom. Can you hear me?"
The doctor came in and together, with the help of the nurse, we laid him on the floor. Ugh, the doctor's office floor, all those germs, I thought. Something new to worry about.
"Can you hear me, Nicky?" I said.
"He'll be okay," the doctor said. "He just needs a minute."
"Nicholas," I said, unconvinced, "you fainted (as if he didn't know), but you're going to be okay. The doctor says everything's going to be okay."
My heart skipped a few beats. Years earlier, after a flu shot, Nicholas got very sick -- and stayed that way for a year. Although he recovered, he'll probably always be challenged by some of the residuals. Only time will tell. I know this. He knows this. Is it reason enough to tell him we'd rather he stay nearby next year and attend a local college instead of his dream college, far away? Is it reason enough to keep the volume control on high for the rest of his life?
Three days after he fainted, Nicholas resumed classes. I stripped his bed and disinfected every surface that wasn't filled with teenage piles of nothing in particular and everything I haven't been able to find for weeks. While I did, I recalled bits and pieces of advice I've given my older, college-aged son, who is the opposite of a risk-taker (if you don't count a penchant for Texas Hold 'em).
It went something like this:
"Please do think ahead -- use that pre-frontal cortex of yours to pause and consider the consequences of what you're about to do. But also please know it's possible to over-think -- to talk your way out of adventure, friendships and a career you may have never considered, because in the constant analysis, fear can rear its ugly head and stop you -- cold."
Perhaps there is a message in there for me as well. By encouraging Nicholas to stay close to home so I can be within arm's reach, he could miss opportunities to live life to its fullest and to figure out how to deal with his health, in his own way, on his own terms. I've got to let him go.
Don't get me wrong, I'll always worry. But by telling our kids all the truths we've discovered going about our lives, we may prevent them from discovering their own.
I know I won't always be there to take care of them, but maybe, just maybe, I can arm them in a different way.
Join me next Monday for another installment of The Pre-Empt Chronicles, as I transition from full house to empty nest.