My son pulled out of our driveway seven weeks ago, a dark-haired beauty at his side, the long journey ahead eclipsed only by the longer one behind him.
It wasn’t for college that he left; it’s been years since he left for that, and some fewer since he came back home, sheepskin in hand, the world by the tail. It’s been some years even since we moved him out of our house and into his first apartment, bequeathing his brother the best room. Since then he’s moved a time or two more, on his own, only his buddies helping. We aren’t responsible anymore, and are often unneeded; we haven’t even had to show up.
But on the night before this move, the night before the great adventure, he came to his childhood home for dinner and our family gathered around the big table. I cooked, and his siblings came; we all tried to give him a worthy send off. I would like to tell you the story of it, because it is an unbelievable and magical one, one that began more than 20 years ago, when he was 6 or 7. It is a story with more plot twists and turns than you might be willing to endure and more trials, near-misses, and last-minute rescues than you might be willing to believe. It is a hero’s journey of the highest order and includes all of the parts, as if Joseph Campbell himself had drawn it up. It is a great story. But it wouldn’t be right for me to tell it, because it is not my story to tell.
They did make a movie once, about a similar story, about another handsome, dark-haired guy who went where my son is going. About what forces drove him to do it, and about how grueling it was. About how deep he had to dig to reach an unlikely and difficult goal, and how he fell in love with another dark-haired beauty along the way. I’ve been thinking about this movie lately, though it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it. I remember that Richard Gere and Deborah Winger were the stars, and that the cheesy theme song was such an enormous hit that it made the final sweep-her-off-her-feet scene seem so romantic that it might even be applause-worthy. It helped if you were 17 when the movie came out, and possessed a 17 year old’s sensibilities of such things. I remember some of the other stars of the movie, too: a young Robert Loggia was the hero’s deadbeat dad; Lewis Gossett won the Oscar for his portrayal of the (tor)mentor who remanded a movie-long beatdown of our hero that broke his will even as it broke our hearts.
But there is one thing I have realized about the movie since the sendoff at our house, since I watched my own son drive off to the to a special world in which he would be separated from his ordinary life in every way imaginable. You know who was not in the movie, who was absent from the whole story? The hero’s mom. The mom is not in the movie.
Mothers are almost never a part of hero stories, which we know mostly as myths and fairy tales, except that they are so often dead. It’s kind of shocking when you think of it, how many Disney stories (presumably created with the express purpose of making very small children happy) begin with the traumatic demise or painful absence of the hero’s mother. Sometimes the hero’s mom dies right there in the opening scenes, the plots sounding more like Dateline than Disney: Bambi’s mom killed by an unknown hunter, Nemo’s mother eaten by a stealth barracuda. Anna and Elsa’s parents in that unfortunate shipwreck, and (cue Keith Morrison’s voice) were they really on the way, as fan theory has suggested, to the wedding of their cousin Rapunzel?
Other movies open with the mom already gone, replaced so consistently by a wicked stepmother that when I had cancer, I worried about that, about the extent to which my little girls might believe that to be always true. I resolved to rewrite the narrative without anyone noticing and took to weaving into bedtime conversations the casual mention that not all stepmothers are mean, that some are actually very, very nice. Until my husband told me one night, after I had tucked them in, that he was on to me, and that he thought the girls might be, too; he asked if we might table the stepmother conversation for now, as it was scaring everyone half to death.
It was some months later, in the fall, when I pulled my running shoes on for the only 5K I have ever in my life run, a pink-fested celebration of survivorship that is complicated for me now, but meant a lot to me at the time. I was—and remain, mostly—a non-runner, and yet had trained through my treatment, believing I could minimize the impact, and I think maybe that I could outrun the whole shebang. My husband and kids, who had not offered to join me on the course, came to cheer me on. I remember wishing in the car on the way that I had just come right out and asked them to run with me, so that I would not have to do it alone. But it was too late then, and so I did run alone, unless you counted the familiar anthems blaring in my ear buds, the postcard feeling-memories of the journey spilling over at times in big bloppy tears, the trusty, ragged old shoes, shaped like my feet, conquering the miles one step at a time. And when I ran through the chute at the finish and raised my arms in a V that was one part Victory and one part just Very Emotional, I got it. I got that I was fortunate to have my family cheering me on the sidelines, to have had them all along, but I also got that in the end it was, as it had always been, a singular journey.
Disney has always known this, and so, I suppose, has the United States Navy. It is only we mothers who sometimes forget, which is why we are lucky to have Ann Lamott, who gently reminds us that we “cannot run alongside our grown children on their hero’s journey with sunscreen and Chapstick”. This is so true for me that it feels exactly like when I look in the mirror on a day on which I have forgotten to brush my hair, and I groan aloud in knowing but shameful recognition. Ugh, that is me in that reflection, of course. I am embarrassed and I look bad. How did I again forget?
We forget because for so long our children resided in our bodies, literally at first, and then in a felt-sense way curated by thousands of years of evolution, through a process that knows that there is nothing better you can do for a cub’s survival than to leave a fierce and intuitive mama bear in charge, on the case, tuned to the same frequency. Anything they felt, we felt; anything they were going through, we were, too. That changed, over time, bit by bit, until we were allowed invited only into their most painful stories, their crises; in those times, we felt their struggles just as keenly as if they were our own.
And even then, eventually, things would get better for them, or maybe we would cross a line, and a mom might find herself suddenly unneeded or summarily ditched, facing the possible and popular working theory that the mom’s involvement in the story is actually making everyone crazy. Is maybe even holding everyone back a teensy bit.
I am so grateful to be here, still in the story, especially after being so afraid that I would need to prepare for my replacement. Maybe that it is why it is so easy to forget that I am not really in my son’s movie, that his heroic story is not mine to tell. I am trying to remember this about all of my kids’ stories as they become grown ups, and make sure I hang back, stay out of the filmmaker’s shot. Perhaps pocket the extra sunblock and Chapstick I so helpfully brought along. I might even entertain the possibility that my oh-so-casual suggestions are, once again, not as surreptitious as I thought. That they are not relevant, or helpful either. That they might just be sort of scaring everyone to death.
I have to remind myself–again–which tangential part of the story is mine, and what small part I play in theirs. It is the only way to let my children travel their singular journeys, emerging as the heroes of their own stories. And to be emerge, sometimes Victorious and more often just Very Emotional, the conquering hero of my own.