The Big Kid

The big kid is back for the weekend. Ten days ago, he moved into the city, to live with his father and finish up high school at a much, much better (and more variegated) institution than our local Vanilla High. It's just what he needed. For the first time in years, he's stimulated, genuinely interested in his courses, and ready to go for the grades--which is important, because these are the grades that universities look at. Also, it's good for him to be out of a town that he'd long since outgrown. It's a good transition, too, between home and university. All told, his move out is going to be a Very Good Thing.

But still, it's my first chick leaving the nest. He'll be home for weekends and occasional holidays, but fundamentally, he no longer lives here any more. I'm getting used to it, but for the first few days I went around with a big achy lump in my chest.

All parenting is a matter of letting go and moving on, starting by letting go of being completely free and taking on the greatest, most glorious and most sheerly unnerving responsibility there is. There's the end of pregnancy, which seems strangely unrelated to the business of giving birth, which in turn feels like it's completely disconnected from this warm young thing that they put in your arms. And then it's one change after another, moving swiftly from newborn to infant to toddler to small child, bigger and bigger, until they top you in height and their minds go all funny. And now this transition, from the teen at home to the self-possessed young man who is starting to step out on his own. Scary.

It has to be this way, though. Human beings are, or should be, in a constant state of growth. Even after we stop growing, our bones are continually remodelled, broken down by one class of cells, rebuilt by another. Every cell in our bodies turns over, over time. And that's just the physical stuff.

It's funny: we know that "unstable" is not a good way for a person to be, but it doesn't often occur to us that "too stable" is just as bad. But looking around, I see only a few people on my personal horizon who might be described as unstable, and with rare exceptions, they're aware of their instability, know it's a problem, and try to deal with it as best they can. I do, on the other hand, know rather more people who are almost frighteningly stable--that is, they're set in dysfunctional patterns that they don't see any reason to change.

We don't like change because it always involves small deaths of one sort or another. My first kid's move out means the death of one phase of our family's life; it marks the beginning of the end of the most active and involved stage of my maternity, although I will, of course, be a mother till I die (and maybe even afterwards). Something started the minute I held this particular kid in my arms for the first time, and that something must necessarily come to a close and be replaced by something else. And yes, it does ache. But it's a healthy ache, a proper and appropriate ache. Turning away from that ache and trying to reclaim what I'm supposed to be losing--*that* would be wrong.

Facing the fact that we really do need to change is, for many, a frightening, discouraging business. Someone told me, as a joke, the Man's Prayer (to be said very slowly): "Dear God. I'm a guy. I can change. If I have to. I guess." But it's not just a man's prayer; it's a human prayer. We don't want things to change. Changing means, first of all, understanding that we need to change, and that means facing the fact that we aren't okay just as we are, and that's a blow to the ego. It takes a good, strong ego to accept that sort of thing, and many people aren't gifted with good, strong egos.

Maybe, strangely enough, that's why Lord Jesus said "Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek"--blessed are all those uncomfortable states that we know are uncomfortable. They loosen our attachment to where we are now and make us readier to listen for God's call onward. It's harder to let go and move on when we're like the rich young man who turned away, grieving, because he couldn't face giving up his comfort and prestige. And it's certainly much easier to accept a much-needed clonk on the ego when your egotism has been cut down to size a few times.

Churches, in particular, shelter many who want nothing to do with change, whether it's institutional change, liturgical change, theological change, or personal change. I've heard over and over that "liberals" are throwing the doctrinal baby out with the bathwater, but in fact I think the opposite problem needs to be looked at. The church troubles I've seen mostly involve too much rigidity, not too much flexibility. The problems in my own deeply troubled parish stem not from change, but from its opposite: a terrifying stability, rock-set in its ways, resistant unto death--a sort of spiritual seize-up that hasn't budged in twenty years. Some of the problems involve individuals who have not changed one iota in umpteen years; in other cases, it's the unchanging patterns that suck individuals into behaving badly. But one way or another, what ails the joint isn't too much change; it's the refusal to get off our collective keister and get on with the Journey in Faith. We are like that rich man, unwilling to turn our backs on what we thought we had, or thought we wanted --however unrewarding it really is--and to move on with Jesus.

All change leads to death, of course. I too am changing, growing older, heavier, weaker, than I was when this child of mine was a bouncing baby, backpacked onto buses and up hills and over miles of sidewalks. In time, I'll undergo the ultimate change, the one that transports me from this life to the next--the change we all fear most deeply. But that change too is inevitable. As Susan Urbach says, "Nobody gets out of this world alive." I will leave this life empty-handed, carrying nothing with me that I've earned or made or been given, except my own soul. And that's the way it is. My kid, too, will move through his life to his death--something that's far harder for me to think about than my own death is. But that too is the way it is.

Will things be set and stable on the other side of that great river, or will the Life to Come be a matter of change and growth? I don't know; but I wonder. I can't imagine being completely finished, as a work-of-God in progress, at least not right away--not after a mere 60 or 70 years in this world. Only God is that kind of complete. I don't know. I'll find out when I get there.

Meanwhile, the kid is home for the weekend. And no, he did NOT bring his laundry.

Copyright © 2002 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 09 Feb 2002
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