Some shade of gray.

When you have children, you set your sights on creating a perfect human being. After all, you have some idea of control – that if you shape them and mold them just right, they will turn out to be perfect (just like you?). You determine that you will do things right, because you have a laundry list of mistakes your parents made that you swear you won’t make. Then, when you have that tiny baby, you look at other parents and see the mistakes that they are making. There’s a competition among mothers that no one really talks about – the competition to be right and to do things better than other mothers. Choose the right way to feed your baby, choose whether or not to use disposable or cloth diapers, choose their schools, choose their playmates, and so on. It’s all about an illusion of control. Let me tell you, that illusion of control is all smoke and mirrors – a true illusion. Human beings are born with their own set of DNA and cells and will grow into their own personality and identity. My son is as perfect a human being as I could hope for, but neither of us is perfect.

Yesterday and last night, we had an amazingly peaceful and wonderful time together, which almost made up for the argument. I kept my lips zipped about the roommate. He agreed to do Covid tests before visiting with his dad or I again. We reached an agreement. We played games, hosted a friend for dinner, and went to bed early. He drove away before 8:00 this morning to head home. What I feel is a mixture of gratitude for having had him here, relief for not having to entertain or stay on my best behavior, and the lonely, hollow feeling of missing him. We typically have a great relationship. I’m hoping that continues.

Something happens when you lose a child, as we lost Stephanie from our family. You realize just how much is at stake. The grief is almost unbearable at times, and it feels as though you’ll die from it. In fact, sometimes you wish you would die from it. Holidays take on an overwhelming sense of importance, so it’s hard to just relax. Someone might not be here next year, and you have proof! Someone you thought would outlive you is gone. Things such as someone putting your remaining child’s health at risk seem monumental. It’s hard to keep your mouth shut, because you know if you lose another one, you won’t survive. You won’t be able to bear it. So you inadvertently drive them away by trying to protect them.

I think of other grieving moms I know who have lost their only child, and I honestly don’t know how they’re still breathing. Sean is the only thing that kept me alive in the wake of Stephanie’s death. Knowing that he needed me was everything. I hope he will never be so old that he won’t need me. I know that I still need my mom, but she’s been gone for almost 16 years. I wish I could pick up the phone and talk to her, if nothing but to ask her how her day went. When I’m cooking, I always feel her near me – usually telling me what I’m doing wrong! I used to think my parents were being so dramatic when they said, “You won’t have me around forever.” When you’re young and stupid, you think things like that. Sometimes you even say stupid things aloud. But they keep on loving you, no matter what. And I will keep on loving my son, of course, no matter how many choices he makes that I don’t agree with. If I lost him, even if he stopped talking to me, I’d be through.

For grieving parents who are still raising children, I can assure you that at some time or another you will piss your child off. They will begin to assert themselves as adults and will make adult choices that you don’t agree with. Maybe you will handle it better than I did. Maybe you will recognize your complete lack of control over the situation – or maybe you’ll be a frail human like me. I hope that no matter which way you go, you’ll forgive yourself for also being an imperfect human and for asserting yourself as an adult with opinions (especially over your precious child). I’m working on forgiving myself for getting into an argument with Sean before he got on the road to his dad’s house. Never, never will I do that again. I worried the whole time until he texted me that he had pulled up in his dad’s driveway. And I fretted the whole time he was gone that he wouldn’t come back to see me yesterday, which I feel would have destroyed me.

And last night I dreamed of Stephanie. It wasn’t a good dream. I dreamed that she was alive but was working in the worst brothel you can imagine, under her “other” name, Morgan. She seemed happy to see her dad, but when she looked at me, she rolled her eyes and said, “Oh God!” She tried to pull away, but I held fast to her and made her look me in the eye and listen to me as I expressed how much I loved her. Afterward, she stormed away and said we should never come back. She was happy, she said. I woke up shaken to my core.

Stephanie suffered from bipolar disorder and when she was mad, she took it out on me. I was always the easy target, and when I met her friends, they always looked at me as though I had three heads. One of them said to me, “You’re not at all what I expected.” I knew how she talked about us. I knew, but I loved her anyway. Her hurtful words could never take away all the beautiful memories we had as a family. I knew how much of her words came from her illness and, later, from her addiction. She changed after she met this boy in Gaithersburg who gave her alcohol. I didn’t know how bad he was until one of her friends told me all about him after Stephanie died. I didn’t know how instrumental he was in getting her started with alcohol, which became her primary addiction, and how he hated us and wanted her to hate us, too. He hated us because we had rules for our young teenage daughter. Fat lot of good the rules did. She got into trouble anyway. Her friends didn’t want to tell us. We had to find out most of it later.

That was a time when I wish I hadn’t kept my lips zipped. I wish I had fought her about seeing him, but often when we dig our heels in about someone, our child digs their heels in further. The answer is never black and white. It is always some shade of gray.

We tried so hard to make life easier for Stephanie, while still having rules and boundaries. I know I shouldn’t say it, but she could sometimes make life hell for our family. We loved her anyway. We grieve her perhaps more intensely because things were so difficult. We will never run out of “what ifs”, but over the last 12.5 years, we’ve gotten better about not getting stuck there. The only thing that brings me comfort is that she was in AA and had acknowledged a higher power. I believe that she was on the verge of turning her life around, and then it was over. I was so angry with God about that for a very long time. I had to come to a realization that yes, there is a time to live and a time to die. Perhaps her lessons for this life were all done.

So I take nothing for granted. I know how high the stakes are. I miss my daughter. I hate that my son lives so far away now. But the love I have for them both is as vast as the universe. I hope that years after I’m gone, my son will think of me when he cooks and bakes. I hope he uses my recipes, many of which have been handed down through generations of my family. I hope he will remember how much I loved him and how hard I fought for him every single time he needed it.

Last night, he walked through the downstairs hall, coming out of the room that used to be his office. He looked around a little wistfully.

“The scent of the hallway,” he said, “is not a bad scent. It just makes me feel nostalgic.”

That made me feel good. I’m glad he has fond memories of the year-and-a-half we shared together in this house. I’m glad he has nostalgia about it. This morning, on his way out the door, he told me to be careful.

“I worry about you as much as you worry about me,” he said.

Love your children. Love your parents. Show them that love every chance you get. Fight hard for them, but allow them to make their own mistakes. That last one is the hardest for me, as a mom. I wish I could protect my son from every hard thing, but I know that the hard things in my life made me strong and made me who I am. I have to believe his lessons will do the same for him.

Peace, J

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