4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
When I first began this blog, one of my earliest posts was called First Day of School Looming- Gone, Gone, Gone. It was an homage to both Phillip Phillips and my oldest child going off to kindergarten for the first time.
I thought of that the other day as I was pulling out of the circle at their school. The others had plopped out of the car in their dressy, big-event clothing, hauling bookbags and empty grocery bags in which to empty their collective lockers. My oldest took the longest time leaving the minivan though, yanking his huge, stinking bag of lacrosse equipment out of the trunk, wrestling his extra long defensive stick from between everyone’s seats, and throwing all of it over his broad shoulders cloaked in his new blazer, men’s size 42.
It was the last day of school and we were late. With no cars behind me, I slowly drove the loop watching him juggle his gear and pull open the door for his final day. Just as the door clicked closed on him and I rounded the bend to head back down the hill and out the driveway, I realized that I should have snapped a photo. Darn darn darn! And so instead I snapped a mental picture, a young man with a gray plaid blazer and a bright orange equipment bag large enough to easily hold the child he was on the very first day of kindergarten at this school. Click. And we were both on to the next thing. And in a bizarrely perfect moment of synergy, Phillip Phillips’ Gone, Gone, Gone began playing on the radio as I turned out the drive, headed to the beach down the street for a run along the ocean, I kid you not.
The next day we returned to school for 8th grade graduation. It was sunny and hot, so hot that someone’s grandmother passed out before the graduates had even processed in, and midway through, an older member of our own party staggered across the pavers that only yesterday I’d been driving on, saying something along the lines of, “This is too fucking long. Too hot, TOO HOT!”
Because graduation does you like that. We fill it with all the stuff, the fancy clothing and the lined up chairs and each kid heartbreakingly throwing their rose into the big bouquet of white roses up by the podium. We read the lovely but too-long tribute for each graduate, make them sit, squinting into the broiling sun in their white dresses and blue blazers (or white blazers or pantsuits or really, whatever fits your fluid gender identity, sense of fashion, and way of honoring the day- cheers to a middle school that allows kids to be their true selves). We roll out the grandparents and the cameras and the finger sandwiches and all. We befuddle ourselves with all the stuff (like the 50 portraits I did just that week, one for each graduate) so we can’t spend too long contemplating that this is an actual transition. Something is ending.
We were some of the last people to leave at the end of graduation, gathering up my son’s wacky wonky 8th grade art project, a collection of large paper mache tentacles inspired by the art of Yoyoi Kusama, and herding his siblings from here and there and all around the school. My son was subdued as we walked across the pavers and down to the parking lot, scrolling through his phone, pushing his sweaty mop of hair out of his eyes distractedly.
“This is the last time you’ll walk the halls as a student,” I wanted to say as we headed for the door.
“Nine years. You will never spend this long at one school with one group of friends, with teachers who know you and love you like this, for the rest of your life,” I thought as we walked back across those pavers.
“This group of people with you, and you being just who you are, will never happen like this again,” sat just on the edge of my tongue as I desperately swallowed it back, heading down the hill toward my car. Instead I processed in respectful silence allowing him to make his own sense of the day.
We walked through the empty parking lot to our lone car and tried to squeeze the enormous tentacles in the trunk of the car amidst his ever-present lacrosse equipment.
As I moved bags and sticks to the side his sisters grabbed my phone and headed to the pond to take “aesthetic” Instagram-worthy selfies on the dock.
I finished with the shoving and shuffling and looked up to find that he had joined them at the water’s edge.
“Hey, give me my phone,” I said (a constant refrain). Then, “Oh, bud, humor me for a second? Look out over the water,” and I snapped photos of him with his siblings, then him alone. And as I snapped I remembered the ice skating they did on the pond when he was in 1st grade, the little wood sailboats they all made in 4th grade for the “regatta” where they placed their boats in the water, begging the wind to send each of their boats first to the duck house in the middle. I thought about the soccer games he stood and watched his teammates play as he cradled the cast on his broken wrist on the turf just beyond the pond last year. I remembered the day he lost his tooth in kindergarten and then really lost it and how I had spent 45 minutes crawling around his classroom desperate to gather back that tiny part of him that was suddenly gone.
He stood so still looking out, I realized that perhaps that little, sentimental, six-year-old boy who had the chokey voice and a few tears over that lost tooth, who used to get sad at the same things I got sad at, that perhaps he had returned for a moment to think those same sentimental thoughts I’d been swimming in all day. Or maybe not. Who’s to say?
My daughters begged me to join him and they snapped some photos of us together as we mugged for the camera.
Then everyone hopped in the car and we pulled out of the lot for the last time, my little boy, now a rising 9th grader, headed off to a new school in the fall.
Elton John’s “Rocket Man” came on the radio, the one with Dua Lipa which I tolerate but don’t prefer. But still,
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
‘Til touchdown brings me ’round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh, no, no, no
I’m a rocket man
Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone
I thought, “Well that’s appropriate, not the man they think I am at home.” I may have even said it. Then my son asked if he could play a song from his phone. And I’m here to tell you, it’s Kanye West and not a clean one, but still, it’s called “Homecoming”.
Do you think about me now and then?
Do you think about me now and then?
‘Cause I’m coming home again
Maybe we can start again
I was struck by how much the words sounded like that Phillip Phillips song a million years ago, before my son had walked the years of his life in a walk around the sun rug in first grade, before he punched a kid in the nose for threatening his friend in third grade, before he’d played all his piano recitals and aced his Spanish assessments, before he’d begun working out every single day during Covid stretching his child’s skin to accommodate the muscles of a young man, and before he’d won the art prize just yesterday, in part for those big, dumb Yoyoi Kusama tentacles.
When you fall like a statue
I’m gon’ be there to catch you
Put you on your feet, on your feet
And if your well is empty
Not a thing will prevent me
Tell me what you need
What do you need?
He’s fifteen now, with his own phone, his own ideas about everything, including how long his hair should be and whether or not his new mismatched sneakers count as dress shoes. He is his own person. He makes choices. He says things I don’t condone or cosign on the regular. If I’m being honest, he’s a pain in the tuckus.
But he’s still also that little boy who at the end of the first day of school chucked his backpack happily through the driver’s side door in the pick-up line, handing me a note he had his teacher write with “Splat the Cat” and “chicken fingers, milk, apple slices” written on it because I’d told him I wanted him to remember what they’d read and what he’d eaten that day because I wasn’t ready to not know these things about his day and he wasn’t quite ready to remember on his own.
Next year he will wander new halls with the big kids, kids with beards who are old enough to drive, old enough to vote, old enough to make bad decisions on the regular and to know better. He will study things I don’t understand or can’t begin to remember. He will play sports, get his heart broken, likely break another bone or two as well. He will make bad choices and have to apologize for them, find a teacher who does not appreciate his shenanigans, realize that he has finally hit a wall in his ability to do well in this subject or that. And if all goes as planned, in four short years he will be done with that too, and off to the next place, no longer living in our home, no longer required to report anything much at all to anyone. (My god, how will I make sense of that?)
You’ve been here for the journey. You know what I mean. It’s been a long, long time, but really it’s been so, so fast.
Just then though, on that graduation day just a few weeks ago, we headed out the driveway, turned right, and then we drove down the road near the ocean, windows down, hands dancing on the breeze. The Kanye West song continued:
Now everybody got the game figured out all wrong
I guess you never know what you got ’til it’s gone
I guess that’s why I’m here and I can’t come back home
And guess when I heard that? When I was back home
Every interview I’m representing you, making you proud
Reach for the stars so if you fall, you land on a cloud
Here’s to our children reaching for the stars and us standing amidst the clouds to applaud their flight, at the ready with a safe landing at home just in case, rocket man indeed.
(Happy 8th grade graduation to my oldest, who just yesterday told me he reread a bunch of my old blog posts. This one, it’s for you.)