I’m reading James Patterson’s newest novel. Lately, his books have been written by a sock puppet on the paw of the world’s dumbest Irish Setter. My reading material should give you insight as to where I am right now, how my brain feels starchy, like it’s full of mashed potatoes, and how I’ve been craving mashed potatoes. I want forgettable books and boring food. I want to be nothing more or less than comfortable, an easy goal.
I don’t yet recognize myself in the medication commercials. I’m not a sad doll surrounded by rain clouds and dogs with worried eyebrows. No, I’m not depressed, exactly. I’m merely tater-headed, and I’ve been that before.
At each unexpected turn in my life I’ve gone to ground for a while and unearthed myself later in a reinvented form. This time the turn was expected and at times anticipated. I knew my children would grow up, and that (fingers crossed), I would not forever be spooning oatmeal into their gaping mouths, unpacking fetid lunchboxes and sitting through interminable school performances. (Can we all agree that recorders are the devil’s instrument?) I knew they would go, and wanted them to go – to follow their dreams, pursue adventure – but I didn’t fully grasp the leap from go to gone, or how being left would feel.
A little over a year ago, my son went on what was supposed to be a rather short sail across the South Pacific; he landed in New Zealand nine months later after thrilling and chilling us with his experiences. Now he’s in Australia and will be there for several years as he pursues a technical engineering degree.
In September, my daughter followed her graduate student boyfriend to Oregon. She is just about as far from me as she can be while still remaining in the lower forty-eight. The night before she left, I stayed at her apartment and helped her pack. I slept, or didn’t sleep, on her loveseat, curled uncomfortably, and wondered why she got the full-length sofa. I remembered, Oh yeah, because I love her more than she loves me and it will always be this way. I took her to the airport early the next morning and held it together until it was time for her to enter the secure area. Then I began sobbing, loud and ugly. Caterwauling. Mascara and snot. The security guard was embarrassed for me. His empathetic face contorted to mirror my meltdown, so I saw it all.
Upstairs, I moped through their bedrooms, running my hands over the damaged walls in my son’s room where posters had been pinned, smiling at the hidey hole he’d carved into the closet wall. (I can’t imagine what he hid in there; there’s nothing in there now; I checked.) I tucked myself into my daughter’s bed, but the scent of her was gone. She hadn’t slept there in ages. I didn’t always appreciate the periodic sweetness of their childhood years, and in hindsight it all seemed sweet and unappreciated and justly taken away. Which is ridiculous, I know. My children were perfect assholes at times.
Young'uns in the cul-de-sac. The Sweetness.
I thought maybe what I needed was a clean slate, to create a space from which they were not missing, and I tore apart the entire upstairs, including the bathroom. For a week the toilet was on a dolly in the hall while I replaced the flooring. I wore myself out, and when it was all finished, clean and new, I wished I had left some things alone.
I painted over this.
Turns out, you can’t paint over missing.
While in the thick of child-rearing, I told myself I was a mother, not a mommy. I hoped by making that distinction I’d raise children who were independent and fearless, or as fearless as they could be with me as their mother. I also hoped to keep enough of myself apart from them that I’d have some me to fall back on when they took off. At least I succeeded spectacularly with the first part.
I’m resentful of my husband’s lazy acceptance of our change in circumstance. Sometimes he’s downright delighted with our childless home – More lasagna for me! His life hasn’t changed substantially. In our case, fatherhood never intruded into his life, his routine, the way it did into mine. Although he loves our kids and is a great father, he simply never committed to it the same way I did – probably because he didn’t have to. He doesn’t understand how motherhood changed my life irrevocably. The things I gave away. The things my children took from me as their birthright. (Just because I don’t regret it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.) Now I don’t know if I have the stuff necessary to reinvent myself yet again, and I can’t help but think of my empty nest as the empty next.
In 9th grade botany, we learned that a potato is not a root. It’s a specialized underground stem. A useless fact, unless you’re tater-headed. Then, the distinction is encouraging. Perhaps it’s possible to be -- or to become -- mother and not mommy. Maybe I’m not rooted in this gloomy place, and when I’m done with James Patterson and the bland diet, I’ll start sprouting, green and strong. Excited about what’s next.
In the meantime, the microwave just dinged. My potato is ready.