Letting go of third son is hardest yet

My first child was born shortly after I turned 28. Having learned nothing about babies in my own upbringing, I approached my new role like a college course I refused to fail.

Between the deficit of attention in my childhood and the fact that I waited until I wanted children before having them, I glommed onto attachment-style parenting, which was in high fashion in the mid-’90s.

Breastfeeding on demand and exclusively for a minimum of six months, infant massage, co-sleeping in a family bed, and carrying babies either in front or back packs are all part of the program.

Among the claimed benefits of attachment-style parenting is that children who are held close and have their needs easily met become independent, confident adults. Or, as my mentor at Ohio State once opined, “If you can’t let your child come to your bed when he is scared, why be surprised when he becomes a disaffected teenager?”

With their father seldom home, sometimes not living in the same state, the boys and I were like the coveys of quail I frequently see when visiting family in Arizona. The mother hen leads a line of chicks wherever she goes, her top feather bobbing up and down on her head like a conductor’s baton.

Most attached to me was Jules, my third son, whom we nicknamed “Barnacle Bob.” Born with a mild temperament, Jules accompanied me wherever I went. And though he quickly grew tall, his bones were like those of birds. So light was he, I carried him on my hip until he was more than 6 years old.

Before Jules was old enough for school, he’d quietly play with whatever was available when I met friends for lunch. “I just wanted to be with my mama,” he now recalls. Sometimes it was frustrating. Doctor’s appointments, for example, were tough because until he was about 7, he’d become distraught if he couldn’t stay right next to me on an exam table.

Because he was quiet, it was often easy to forget Jules was present, thereby allowing him to take in everything. He was the first of my sons to guess that Max and I were more than just friends, a fact that threw his older brothers for a loop.

Hugo and Jules came home with lice shortly before I gave birth to my first child with Max. Hugo willingly got a buzz-cut. Jules, who was 9 and had hair several inches past his shoulders, did not want his cut.

“If you want to keep your long hair,” I told Jules on a Friday in late January, “you’ll need to let me pick the nits outside every day until they are gone.” He agreed and the last days that he was my youngest child were spent with me holding him close as I groomed his head hair by hair.

When I labored with Leif a few days later, Claude and Hugo stayed in the dining room. Jules was beside me and when each contraction started, I touched him. He’d strike a meditation bell, signaling to the midwife, Max, my stepmom and two friends to be quiet. When the contraction ended, Jules hit the bell again.

During the many hours of labor, delivery and postpartum activities, Jules never left my side.

When I was pregnant with Lyra, Jules came to every important appointment. He was there when they told us her neck measurements were thick and that, combined with my age, meant she had a likely diagnosis of Down syndrome. He was there several weeks later when the next tests showed the fetus was a female and had no features indicative of a diagnosis. And Jules was with me when I birthed my final baby, Lyra.

A child cannot attach himself so intrinsically to his mother without a symbiotic development occurring, like the blood exchange that occurs in utero between fetus and mother.

Last August, Jules was diagnosed with mononucleosis. He had hoped to make the state cross-country championships this, his senior, year, but he was too weak to run. Now, seven months later, he’s still easily fatigued and recently saw an infectious disease specialist at Akron Children’s Hospital. He may have chronic fatigue syndrome.

And yet, without any help, Jules applied to seven universities. He’s been accepted by five and wait-listed by the other two. Only once did he give me an essay to edit.

“I figure I’m an adult now and need to be able to take care of things like this on my own,” he told me as I repeatedly begged to help him. He’s also worked on his own to find and submit scholarship applications.

Sheesh. How to make your mom feel like a potted plant.

Bittersweet describes my feelings when each of my sons has left for college. It signifies the beginning of a new era of adult children, which I heartily enjoy. However, never again will they be my little chicks. How dear to me now are the years when we were a covey.

In January, someone asked where Jules would be going to college and I surprised myself. I began crying in the midst of small talk. Barnacle Bob is detaching, taking with him a chunk of the mother ship.

This spring, Jules has lined up interviews with biology departments in other states for summer employment. Places where they are doing research not unlike what he’s participated in at the University of Akron as a high school student. He could leave in a little over two months.

The boy who was the baby of our family for nine years, who slipped alongside me like my shadow, is leaving soon, as he should. If you see me weeping in public this spring, as I have now many times, you’ll know why. Please be gentle with me. I have a wound where the child who attached to me so deeply has extracted himself.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, March 22, 2019.


Poetry is the best gift during a final visit

Dear Mary Oliver,

I didn’t follow my own rule and now it’s too late.

I took your poems to Arizona a few weeks before my grandma turned 90. I knew it was the last time I would see her. Diabetes had taken two of the things she loved in life — reading and hiking. Several mini-strokes had stolen most of her short-term memory and much of the rest.

For three days, I sat at her bedside as she drifted in and out of sleep. When she’d awaken, I’d read your poems to her.

Someone I loved gave me a box full of darkness./It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.

Grama, my Uncle Neil and me camping with the Boy Scouts in the 1960s

My mother never loved me. After she left my father and me when I was a baby, Grama, a third-grade teacher, picked me up each afternoon from day care and kept me all summer. Those first months I would not let Grama go to the bathroom without me. Her love was a rope that saved me then — and later.

You do not have to be good…/You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.

My mother kidnapped me shortly before my fourth birthday and my childhood ended. I saw Grama only two times during a space of six years. The second time, I was living in Moline, Illinois, when my grandparents parked in front of our house, their huge Oldsmobile pulling their Aristocrat trailer. They were retiring from Chicago to Tucson and visited me in the yard for several minutes.

The bear … who sings to himself the secret song no one has ever heard…/as anything on earth/could ever be—/this is the bear/I want to see.

The summer after I finished the sixth grade, my mother realized she could be rid of me for an entire summer for the price of a plane ticket. Three summers in a row, I flew to Tucson.

Only 5 feet 3 inches, Grama would hitch her trailer to her Ford F-series truck that had two tanks for leaded gas. The first year, we went to the Chiricahuas, mountains so deeply worn by erosion, it’s as though God has stacked boulders one upon another, creating solid towers that only look precarious.

I was 11, and Grama 60, when we grabbed a ride from our campground in the back of a pickup truck. It wove its way up a mountain road in the Arizona sunshine. We sat in the open bed without anything securing us, admiring the landscape in which Geronimo successfully hid from the U.S. Army. We got off at the top of a mountain and spent the day hiking back to camp.

Lying together in the camper at dusk, Grama’s stories filled my lonely child’s soul. Stories of living in Florida on an Army base after my grandfather had been drafted at the end of World War II at age 36 and she was pregnant with her first child. Stories of the bears that frequently roamed America’s campgrounds in the 1950s when she traveled with her four sons. Stories of traveling shortly before retirement to Japan, where decades earlier Grandpa had been stationed with the Army of Occupation.

The following year, Grama introduced me to the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell. On our way back to Tucson, we stayed the night at my Uncle David’s house in Phoenix. In the cover of night, we were skinny-dipping in his pool when a helicopter hovered overhead, shining a beam of light upon us. We hugged the side of the pool until finally the pilot pulled the cyclic stick and flew away.

The second world — the world of literature — offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it.

The last time I camped with Grama at the Grand Canyon, December 1989.

When I was an adult, Grama regularly visited me in Ohio. She’d read any books in my house that she hadn’t already read. She was a big fan of Zane Grey’s westerns, but she also enjoyed her fat etymological dictionary. Well into her 70s, she took free literature courses at the University of Arizona and would send me her books at semester’s end.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those/ who think they have the answers./ Let me keep company always with those who say/‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.

Grama took me to my first symphony, my first opera, my first art song. For a time, she was president of the Tucson Opera Guild. For much longer she was a docent at the Tucson Museum of Art. Yet she often told me that the more she knew, the more she realized she didn’t know. It brought her joy to know she could always learn more.

Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.

Grama’s last digital clock had 2-inch-tall numbers. Calculating the last possible minute I could leave her and still catch my flight home, I watched my final minutes with this love of my life flick away. I awoke her and she was alarmed at the tears spilling down to my jaw before wetting my shirt.

“I’ll miss you Grama.”

“I’ll miss you too, Holly. And I’ll miss all that poetry.”

Your words, Mary Oliver, reached past Grama’s injured brain and touched her everlasting humanness.

When death comes…/I want to step through the door of curiosity, wondering;/what it is going to be like, that cottage of darkness?/When it’s over…/I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Grama died six months later and I felt as though I’d lost an endowment of love. I keep her number on my cellphone because it makes me happy to see it there.

Express gratitude quickly and often, that’s my rule. For 11 years, I meant to write and tell you how you guided our last time together, Grama and me. Your poetry mixed beauty with my grief and touched the woman who gave me love and, therefore, life.

Now you, too, have stepped through the door of that cottage of darkness. I don’t know what you found inside, but I like thinking you might meet up with Dorothy Christensen and talk with her about the many things you both treasured, especially nature and dogs. Give her my love.

All my best-


p.s. “Alligator Poem” is one of our favorites.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, March 10, 2019.