"Don't give up. I need your best effort. Now!" my doctor said.
The nurse leaned close. "Robin, listen." She motioned with her head.
"Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war …" the hymn thrummed, timely, from the radio. My husband pushed from behind. I gathered my strength and breath and fought for my firstborn's entry into the world.
"A boy!" The nurse placed him in my arms.
This is the first goodbye. You'll never be as close again.
What kind of thought is that to have when a couple, childless for a dozen years, becomes a family? I thrust his adulthood at least 18 years into the future and asked my husband, "What do you think—David or Daniel?" We studied the tiny, pinched-red face.
"David. He looks like a David."
Changes ensued. When I'd been pregnant and carried nothing but a handbag, crowds parted for me like the Red Sea for Moses. Men bounded to open doors wide. But once David filled my arms, I could juggle the baby carrier, stroller, diaper bag, purse, guitar, three bags of groceries and a couple of pacifiers without a soul offering assistance. Our house bulged with crib, rocker-recliner, changing table, wind-up swing, and portable playpen. We stepped over diaper bag, bounce seat, car seat, packages of diapers and the dog lounging in the Kanga-Rocka-Roo.
I rocked David, and he rocked my world.
"Hush, little baby, don't say a word …" I tried to sing him to sleep. But every time, David lit up like a jukebox with a new quarter in it. I picked up the latest of at least a dozen parenting books I'd bought. None of them said a mother might memorize every centimeter of her child's face—and never tire of counting fingers and toes.
I forgot what quiet sounded like once David could talk and walk. He pulled out pots and pans and drummed on them, breaking my wooden spoons. He recited stories from the car seat. In the pet section of the Ben Franklin store he hollered, "Da birdies are praising God." He joined them, volume at forte, singing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." I found that two minutes of silence meant I'd better check on him. He was either asleep or up to something—buttering my cupboard doors or disappearing under a clothing rack at the mall.
At three David prayed God would give him a brother he could name Hunca Munca. At four he got one named Brian. At seven, the day he was baptized, David led his little brother to ask Jesus into his heart. I tucked these things in my heart, to keep forever.
When David turned eight my mother, a retired drummer, gave him her drum set. No more boxes or pots—now he made up random rhythms on the real thing. As soon as David headed for the basement, the dog (and my more tranquil Brian) made for our bedroom, the only peaceful spot in the house. Drumming held more attraction for our son than the sandbox, playing fetch with Buddy, or football with the neighbors.
When we began our fourth year of homeschool, other parents our age packed their young adults off to college. I had no time to think about that; we'd started late and had eight more years until graduation.
David's random rhythms became little riffs. Riffs turned to grooves which accompanied real songs. It thundered in our basement. Instead of a job detasseling corn with other 14-year-olds in town, David taught private percussion lessons. He and Brian jammed on drums and guitar. Soon our entire family led worship at a Bible camp and served on our church worship team.
From that point it seemed the metronome stuck at prestissimo—so fast, life seemed a blur. I had enjoyed the theme and variations so thoroughly, I was unprepared for the coda. Tom and I graduated our son, packed up his suitcase and the smaller electronic drum set, drove him five states away to Bible college—and left him there.
"Why isn't it 'badbye' instead of 'goodbye'?" Tom had no answer for me.
The house grew quiet. Far too quiet. No throb of stereo, no roll of video game artillery. No refrigerator door opening and closing every few minutes, no cupboard door banging. No cups lined up near the sink, no hoodie draped over the chair, no loose change tossed on the kitchen table. The acoustic drum set marked time, mute and lonely, unaccustomed to neglect. How had I ever dared to complain about the noise or the mess or the extra work?
I walked to his room for the fifth time that morning. Silence followed me like the dog. I paused at the door. Buddy stepped around me and went in, sniffing at the chair, the bed, and the unwashed sock dangling from an abandoned shoe. He turned back to me, his soul in his eyes, and uttered a long groan. We dragged ourselves back to the living room, his moans voicing the pain in my mother-heart.
For two weeks Buddy groaned. For two weeks I slept fitfully, waking to hear a woman's sobs, surprised to find they were my own. For two weeks after his arrival at college, we didn't hear from David, who didn't have a cell phone.
When he set up his laptop he emailed us his new address and landline. I grabbed the phone. A thousand miles away, his voice seemed so near I startled, half expecting to see my lanky son, wanting him to drape his long arm over my shoulder and say in his baritone voice, "Well hello, Little Lady," as he had since he'd grown taller than me. He sounded happy. I held the phone up to Buddy's ear so he could hear his boy say "hi" from a dorm room. The dog turned to face the wall and moaned.
The days repeated like vamped measures of music. I'd throw in a load of wash and wonder if he'd figured out how to work the dorm washer and dryer. I'd fill the dishwasher, shocked at how few glasses and plates had been dirtied. I'd shop for groceries and pick up his favorite cookies, and wonder if I could ship them unbroken. Preparing supper, I'd fret over whether he was eating enough. Was he doing his schoolwork in a timely fashion? Was he remembering to scan his student card at the start of each class? Was he making friends? Were people kind to him? Would he and his roommate get along? Would he find someone to drive him to church? I could hardly bear to walk downstairs past the drum set, the sticks lying on the snare pointing accusingly at me, as if their dormancy were my fault. I couldn't begin to count the times my thoughts flew to him. Do parents survive this separation and go on with their lives?
We heard little for a couple of months, but then the calls grew more frequent, the emails longer than a sentence—a dry bone thrown to a starving stray. One evening the voice on the other end of the line hesitantly admitted to feeling homesick. Oh, joy! He misses us! Oh, woe! My poor boy is sad. Joy, he loves us. Woe, he wishes he could come home to visit but can't. I felt as if I could crawl there on my hands and knees if need be, to comfort him.
Early mornings when I couldn't sleep, I'd shuffle out to my chair. This was where I had rocked him, nursed him, read to him, taught him, held him, and loved him. The same chair where I sat for my quiet times with my Bible open, listening for my Lord's comfort, instruction, and love. The chair in which I'd spent countless hours praying for my boy.
The morning he said was homesick, I read Psalm 139 and changed it into a prayer for him: "O LORD, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I'm far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do."
Yes, Lord, you see him when I can't. You go before him and follow him. There is nowhere he can go that's away from your presence.
And then came one of those moments. The Spirit of God showed me a truth. "How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! I can't even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand! And when I wake up, you are still with me!"
My thoughts toward my boy were without number. Yet God's thoughts toward him were even more. A vast number, more than the grains of sand. On a whim, I snatched up a dish. I opened the patio door and stepped out to the old sandbox. I picked up a small handful of sand and dumped it into the dish. I came back in and sat in my chair. One grain, two, three, four …
It couldn't be done.
Yet God's thoughts toward my boy, toward me, were more than all the grains of sand. I read the whole of Psalm 139 aloud. Then getting up, I set the dish of sand on the coffee table as a reminder. I cupped the dog's muzzle in my hand and said, "It's gonna be all right, Bud."
Brian had his stint as an only offspring at the opposite end of childhood from his brother. The brunt of snow shoveling fell to him, but he developed muscle.
I learned to accept and even enjoy the relative quiet. Tom and I drew closer as a couple, and found that "goodbye" turns to "hello again" in happy spurts of Christmas break and summer.
I joined my friend's book club, formed expressly to help her through the time when her children would leave home permanently. I started a writer's group. Both have helped us to redefine and expand our lives outside of rearing children. We've developed new goals, broadened our horizons, and fashioned an emotional trellis to keep us from straining our husbands' resources too heavily.
Marching onward, the metronome is set to a resolute andante. I have a closer relationship with my God, a sense of his faithfulness to supply whatever I lack. And I'm gonna need it—because Brian just graduated and David is back home!
Robin J. Steinweg is a musician, writer, and teacher living in Wisconsin.