This morning I made my son breakfast, as I have every weekday morning since he was in kindergarten. I have a system. I take out the bread and cheese and lunch meats for his sandwich; scramble the eggs, toast the english muffin; pour the orange juice. I make myself a cappuccino while he eats at the kitchen counter. Then, I arrange his lunch box with military precision, learned over nine years of early morning sandwich-making. The juice box. The organic fruit roll-up. The Entemann’s soft-baked chocolate chip cookies. Years ago, I used to tuck a note in with his lunch. Full of x’s and o’s. Wishing him a great day. I would draw a little mommy smiley-face. I love you so so so so so so much.
Today I made his early morning breakfast and packed his school lunch for the last time.
He and my husband made their way down the stairs to the car, as I called after them: drive carefully! Have a great day! See you later! My husband and I exchanged a glance. In that marital glance, there was all of it. The awareness this moment is one of tremendous change. That we are transitioning from one time in life to another. Just as the years of baby seats and plastic apparatus and bedtime stories gave way to tennis lessons and homework and class art projects, which in turn gave way to standardized tests and middle school dramas and team victories and defeats and boarding school applications, now we are entering a new phase, one which will reveal itself to us as we enter it. Our boy, our only boy, is going away to school next year. There is no road map.
After they left, in the quiet of my kitchen, I glanced down at the book of Buddhist wisdom that I keep on our table, open to today’s offering. The wisdom of the day was from Pema Chodron: “Thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly.”
And then I noticed the date. And realized that today is my mother’s yahrzeit, the Hebrew anniversary of her death. She has been gone for ten years. I went into our dining room, where in the sideboard I keep a supply of yahrzeit candles. It is a measure of being at this stage of life — of having lost both of my parents — that I am always sure to have them around. (Our first year in rural Connecticut, I went out on the day before Yom Kippur to pick up a yahrzeit candle at the market, only to discover that I wasn’t on the Upper West Side any more.)
Alone in the kitchen, having just sent my middle schooler off to his last day of eighth grade, full to the brim with the awareness that he will be going to high school four hours from home come September, I lit the candle for my mother and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish. I thought of her with sorrow, with fondness, with confusion, with love. Anyone who has read my work knows that she and I had a complicated relationship. I wiped away my tears, and climbed the stairs to my office.
As I write these words, I am lying on my chaise longue surrounded by books. A former student’s galley I intend to blurb, last week’s New Yorker, a book for which I’m writing a literary appreciation, piles of galleys of Still Writing. My cappuccino has grown cold by my side. The dogs are curled up in their beds. The house is silent. Crows peck at the meadow outside my window. My boy is spending his last day at the only school he has ever known. My husband is at his office, digging in to work of his own. Downstairs, in the kitchen, a candle flickers.
This is it — all of it — a rich, deep, contemplative, paradoxical life — each hour full of the bitter and the sweet, the push and pull. Pleasure and pain in the same breath. The love is to risk. To love is to let go.