by Nicole Hendrick Donovan
When my son Patrick was born, my dearest friend, Linda, said something profound as she held him in her arms. “Isn’t it wonderful that God has loaned you this beautiful child?” She looked up and saw my confused expression. ”Roots and Wings, my love…roots and wings.”
At the time, I was post-partum and emotional. I didn’t embrace this as a lovely message from an older friend who had witnessed her own children sprouting wings and fluttering about. Those words felt unkind. All I could do was smile and nod. Then I took my precious newborn back and pulled him into my bosom because in that moment, he was mine.
Her words revisited me, early one morning, a few weeks later. I was more clear-headed but still overwhelmed by the intense power of love that I felt for this ten-pound package. Linda was kind and nurturing. I knew that what she had shared with me was pure and not meant to make me feel sad.
As I rocked Patrick, in the wee-hours of the night, I drank him in. His tiny hand gripping my pinky finger. His pink lips moving in a suckling motion as he slept. He smelled like breast milk and baby powder.
I decided that Linda’s words were true, but right now he was mine and I would borrow him as long as I could, because college was eighteen long years away; a whole lifetime of adventures, before I had to let him go.
Those years went fast. They were full of cub scouts and camping, swimming lessons and soccer games, football and skateboarding, school events and ceremonies. Patrick had three little brothers who followed him around like he was a god.
Once the ages leveled out, there were wrestling matches and the occasional right hook during heated debates. We vacationed and saw movies. We volunteered and went to church. We gave him roots. We tried to be our best selves and love him with all that we had.
When he turned 10, a bell went off inside my head. It chimed “Eight more years.” But that was still far away. We had more time to play. It rang again at 13. He was a teenager! Holly moly! Again, I dismissed it, because I still had five more years left.
This continued but at a more rapid pace, now at every birthday—DING! The alarm bell would sound until senior year; the pinnacle of all his hard work.
Patrick was happy and taking risks. He was coming out of his shell, working and paying for his own set of wheels. He was slowly eyeing his future, knowing that college was something that he wanted for himself. Then he was visiting and applying to schools.
I felt the tug inside my chest at each banquet or hockey game. The ringing became constant. Every time I turned around I was faced with another “last” and I knew that letting go would be hard for me.
I started to realize that we had given him roots and now he was sprouting wings. I had to prepare myself for the inevitable—college.
I cried in my car, at events and whenever it felt appropriate. I did this during his whole senior year. I was mindfully present, keenly aware of the importance of our time together, whether it be a milestone or a family dinner full of laughter; I savored it all. I journaled and talked with other moms who were going through it too. I cried and took long walks as I thought of him.
By summertime, I expected I would be happily packing his bags, joyfully shopping for bedding and college supplies, but I wasn’t. The deep sadness, never seemed to go very far. It remained just under the surface. I just couldn’t quite reach it.
What’s wrong with me? This is ridiculous! I was frustrated. I could only talk about Patrick living away at college for a total of five minutes before I began to cry. This—my crying—became a household joke. I live with four sons and a husband. So, the fact that mom was crying—AGAIN—was funny to them. Not in a mean way. They were not sure what to do about it, so they went to the default setting, humor.
I was annoyed and anxious. I didn’t want Patrick’s big moment, one that he’d worked hard for, to become about me. I cringed at the thought that I would make him feel guilty about leaving.
I continued to process it, trying not to judge my “ridiculousness” as it only made me feel worse. I continued to write it out. My sadness would bubble up when I thought about not seeing him every day.
I had not been away from this child for more than a week during his whole life. I would miss hearing about his day; about things that made him curious about the world and the way he made me laugh, mostly about myself. He had a talent for making light of my super-serious nature. But what was beyond all that was the loss of him.
This was the ugly truth – that he would leave and never come home. The “home” I speak of is not the four walls where he grew up. “Home” was me. Before he was born, in utero, I was his home. When he was an infant, I fed him, clothed him and washed him.
When he was a young boy, and tumbled off his bike, I bandaged his knee. When he was a teenager, I encouraged him to become a life guard, guaranteeing summer employment. When he needed to be reined in, I was tough but loving, hoping to instill values that would have longevity.
Home was me.
This was the heart of my work. Here is where I needed to stay – to pause in the rambling rats’ nest of my emotions – to surrender and be vulnerable. I felt wildly mournful, wanting to hold on to him as long as I could, even though I knew it would not be good for either of us.
But the leaving, the loss of him, triggered old stuff, which was not related to Patrick. Loss does that sometimes. It churns things within, making us remember past hurts.
What was revealed to me during this time of stillness is that it’s okay to love him and to feel the gravity of this hurt. Hours have melded into days, days into weeks, life has moved on and so has the heaviness that I once felt.
Standing on the fringe of it now, I realize that the most generous and kindhearted act I can do is to let go…and watch him fly.
Our mother and son relationship is in a state of evolution and it will evolve into something else. I choose to believe that it will morph into something beautiful because his father and I raised a beautiful human being.
As I am coming through the pain of this transformation, I am looking forward to hearing about Patrick’s new life, the new people he embraces and the place he calls home. To hear about his adventures and the passion he finds. Maybe, he will teach me something new, but then again, I think he already has.
Nicole Hendrick Donovan is an author, mother, advocate and special educator who lives on Cape Cod with her husband and four sons.
After moving to Cape Cod ten years ago, she embraced her inner mermaid and cannot imagine any place else she would rather be.
Nicole writes essays, non-fiction and fiction, inspired by her love of children and her surroundings.
She enjoys taking long walks with her dogs on many of the beautiful nature preserves Cape Cod offers.