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Free at Last?

When my youngest child started school, I couldn't wait to have the day to myself. What was I thinking?

Another first day of school has arrived. But this year, it's different. As I give a kiss to 5-year old Katie, the youngest of my nine children, I realize that this is the first time in 25 years I won't have a child at home.

Almost before I finish waving good-bye to Katie, I'm stopped by another parent. "What are you going to do now that all your kids are in school?" she asks.

What am I going to do? Is she kidding? I know exactly what I'm going to do: all those things that have been on hold for the past 25 years. I'm going to clean closets, write a book, make slipcovers for the couch, learn to sail. But first, I'm just going to sit. Sit and listen to the silence. Sit and have a leisurely cup of coffee. Sit and think. Sit and have a quiet time with God that's actually quiet. I can't wait.

I step into my hushed and empty house, ready to savor this new experience of solitude. It's a short savor, however. The phone rings: "I forgot my lunch, Mom," says the piping voice of my 8-year-old.

Okay, I think. I can do this. One quick trip to school and I'll be back.

Sure enough, one quick trip and I'm back. I reach for my favorite coffee cup. I notice the answering machine light is blinking. I push the button.

"Mom," says a voice slightly less piping than the last time. "I forgot the check! I have to turn it in now or I can't go on the band trip!"

Okay, I can do this. One slightly longer trip to the junior high, that's all.

What's that? You're thinking that I should tell them, "Tough luck, you forgot it, you pay the consequences," right? I should do that, I know. And I will, too, the next call I get.

When I return home, I pour my coffee, walk into the living room, my steps echoing strangely. I sink into the couch, pull out the shoe my 12-year-old couldn't find this morning, put my feet up on the coffee table. I lean my head back against the cushions and study the spider spinning a lavish webbed creation from the beam above me. It's so pleasant to watch someone else working that it takes me a moment to realize that the phone is ringing again.

"Pam," says an adult voice, "we need you."

Oh no. This is even worse than the I-forgot-my-lunch call. Worse than the I-fell-in-the-mud-and-I-need-clean-clothes call. This is that dreaded summons: The Field Trip Driver call. I'm an easy target since I possess the most envied item an elementary school parent can own: a car with eight seat belts. And it doesn't help that I'm not mentally prepared for this phone call. I haven't had time to come up with any excuses for why I can't possible drive to the symphony.

The symphony! Memories of last year's symphony trip flash against the frontal lobes of my brain. I pretend I'm the answering machine, but fail to make the "beep" noise correctly. My friend laughs heartlessly. I argue a sudden onset of flu, heart palpitations, extreme dizziness. No use. My friend is calling from a hospital bed. They're releasing her early so she can drive one group of kids, but she still needs me to drive seven 10-year-old boys.

"You're the only one with enough seat belts," she reminds me.

I have one request: "Please don't give me the twins. Remember what they did to the last field trip driver?"

My friend reminds me that is why she is in the hospital. She also reminds me that the twins are my sons.

Fine. I'll do the field trip. After all, it will only be two hours or so out of my day. Fifteen minutes of symphonic armpit noises in the car on the way there, 20 minutes of jumping and punching in line as we wait to get in, an hour of trying to keep 10-year-olds in their seats without giving the appearance of being in any way responsible for them. Maybe no one will swallow a jaw breaker this time.

And now I'm driving and I'm driving?it seems as if I've been driving forever. I glance in the rearview mirror.

"Charlie Baker, get your head back in the car, don't lean out like that! Sam, grab Charlie, please. Bobby, I can see you. Wait a minute, I can't see Ryan. Where's Ryan? Oh no! I forgot Ryan! Wait, I need to think. When did we last see Ryan? Was it before he dropped the sour balls during the flute solo or was it when the lady on crutches got knocked over? Russ, are you sitting on Ryan? Let Ryan up. I'm pulling this car over until you let Ryan up!"

Suddenly, the whole car is shouting, Let Ryan up! Let Ryan up!

I come to with a start, my head stuck between the sofa cushions. I've been asleep! It's all been a dream, a dream that couldn't possible come true. At least, not until later in the school year, and there's still time to sell the car.

It takes a few minutes for my heart rate to drop, to realize that I'm still alone in my silent house. The telephone is quiet. There are no messages on the answering machine. The very walls, dented as they are by soccer balls and heads, reflect tranquility (at least they would if tranquility didn't have to travel through so many layers of dirt).

There's so much I can do now. I can think long thoughts. I can form complete sentences. I can try to match 35 different styles of white athletic socks. I can go out to lunch.

Lunch out? Is it possible at last? Yes, it can happen! I put on some real clothes, leaving my sweats to stand alone in the closet. The dog barks wildly as I prepare to head out the door.

Don't answer that phone. Don't answer that phone. Don't answer?

"Mrs. Sneddon, this is the school secretary. Your child is throwing up in the office."

Pamela Shires Sneddon is a freelance writer and speaker. She and her husband have nine children and live in Santa Barbara, California.

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