I watched my son’s little red Mazda dart around an SUV. My husband and I were following him up, carrying half of what he was planning to move into his dorm room. As we hit the open road, the distance between us increased until I realized that my son had speeded on ahead and out of our sight.
That wasn’t quite how it happened in the dream, one I had when he was under a year old. It remains so vivid that it has stayed with me to this day. The edges of it have blurred a little with time, like an old photo, but the emotion that it wrests from deep inside of me remain.
In the dream, I was standing on a beach. I put Nathan in a small boat, to which was tied a long, heavy rope. I pushed the dinghy out onto the water, as if he were baby Moses being cast upon the Nile. As it floated out to sea, the rope trailed behind. Nathan was not afraid, or at least he did not cry, and I stood and watched as the boat drifted farther and farther away. Nathan had his back to me and was looking off to the horizon, and I was watching him as he drifted away. At one point, he turned to look at me, a little tentatively, as if to ask, “Did you really mean to do this?” As the boat floated away from me, and Nathan grew smaller and smaller in the distance, I filled with sadness.
I woke from the dream deeply upset, worried that Nathan, who was asleep in his crib in the next room was all right. I could not shake the feeling that I had sent this baby off to sea alone, even though I knew it was only a dream. In the logic of the dream, I was so resigned to it; as if this were exactly what I was supposed to do.
I went to check on Nathan, and of course, he was fine, snuffling away in his sleep. The dream was not about any imminent danger. It was not about this particular night in an overheated, Upper West Side apartment. It was all about the future, and my basic job as a parent. And I was afraid of meeting one and of failing at the other.
Not long after that dream, while we were still living in the city, I had another in which I was standing in Nathan’s room, which overlooked the backs of the buildings on 101st Street. I was holding Nathan in my arms, and I bent to open one of the enormously tall windows in his bedroom. As I stood up, Nathan flew from my arms, out the window and up the side of our building — then out of sight. It was like something from a cartoon, only it didn’t feel very funny. I remember looking out the window for him, but he was already gone and I was just left with a memory of what he had felt like in my arms.
These dreams preoccupied me as Nathan’s departure for SUNY Binghamton drew closer. Having opted to do his senior year of high school and freshman year of college at SUNY Rockland’s honor’s program, Nathan, 19, was around for a year longer than most of his peers. His father and I, and maybe even his younger sister, enjoyed seeing him change and grow throughout that year. While I do not always think he was ecstatic to be around his parents for an extended deadline, so to speak, he was in remarkably good humor as his friends departed for college.
During the past year, he worked teaching Hebrew school in Westchester County, while participating in a challenging internship at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, all while managing to bring in the good grades necessary to transfer to Binghamton. That he would also run down to Fairway in Paramus, N.J. and do a shop for me was just added gravy.
For many teens, this transformation, from youth to young adult, takes place out of sight of their parents, while they are away at college. We were lucky to watch Nathan transform from an annoyed-at-us teenager to a (only sometimes annoyed-at-us) young man.
It is remarkable how little time our children stay in the safe harbor of our homes. The way our culture is structured, we have them for about two decades. It is time that passes quickly — one minute you are yelling at them not to eat a Cheerio that fell on the subway platform and the next you are telling them to make sure to fill up the car with gas before they drive to Long Island.
I know that much has been written about college graduates returning home because of the current economic situation, but on the whole we relinquish them early on in their lives and they go on to make new ones, separate from ours. When you think of it in the span of your whole life, and theirs, for that matter, it seems like hardly any time at all.
We enrolled Nathan in nursery school when he was around three year’s old. His sister was just a few months old and I felt that we weren’t getting out enough, and that Nathan needed to be around more children. It was a small school, with two colorful classrooms, and a small playground in the shadow of Ft. Tryon Park.
During the days he transitioned into the class, I stayed, Lily sleeping in a stroller, while Nathan joined the class. He hung back and kept looking to me for assurance. On the day the children were to play in the gym, we all lined up in the hallway, waiting to enter. Nathan stood in line across from me, and I held Lily. He understood that he was going in the gym and that I was not. He looked at me, fighting back tears, his lower lip trembling. But he did not cry.
You often hear young parents who can’t wait for their child to sit, walk, talk, eat solid foods, do differential equations, whatever. We watch with pride and love, mixed with apprehension, as our children learn to tie their shoes, write with a pencil, play a guitar, drive a car, take the first step across the stage toward a diploma. At some point though, we’ve all found ourselves wanting to put on the brakes, or at least slow things down. Why do they have to grow up so fast? Don’t I get a do over?
Of course not. You just put your child in that little dinghy and send him or her out to sea. Whatever they encounter there, you hope will be challenging, rewarding and fulfilling. You hope they meet with kindness and respect, and if they don’t, that they have the fortitude to cope in the face of difficulties.
We give our children tools to go forth and meet the world so that they will be able to do so capably and head on. It worries us that they won’t manage this; or that they will but won’t return; or that somehow at some fundamental level we didn’t share the right tool box and have failed them.
When we arrived in Binghamton, we immediately ran into my son’s roommate, Joho, a boy he knew already from his youth group, and another friend. They grabbed his bags and helped with the check in. We had lunch as a family at the campus Hillel, where Nathan seemed to know every other student. Back in Nathan’s dorm room, we began our goodbyes.
“Nathan, you should buy yourself a laundry basket like Joho’s,” I said, eyeing the tidy mesh contraption in the corner.
“Yeah, I will.”
We hugged. This was the best I could do? He was about to fly from my grasp and all I could do was offer advice about laundry.
He walked off with his friends and didn’t look back for us — this was where he was supposed to be.
In the dream where Nathan flew from my arms, he left, swiftly and of his own accord, testing his wings in the air, where I could not join him. But in the dream about the dinghy, I could see the rope that was connected to the boat trail behind it in the water. If I wanted, I could just reach out, grab it and tug him back to shore.
But I didn’t, and I won’t. Wherever he is going, Nathan has to journey there alone. The rope is there for safety and the shore where I am standing isn’t all that far. I can just look across the water, and see him, moving forward in life toward that hazy, unexplored horizon.