Night walks with my teens (who are about to leave me)

By Catherine Newman
@CatheriNewman

I could tell you that my favorite moment of the day is tied between the sound of a beer bottle cap popping off at 5:01pm and the unclasping of my bra sometime between 10:15 and 10:45—my poor old breasts sighing almost audibly downward—before climbing into my pajamas and then into bed with a book. But I’d be lying. Because my favorite moment of the day often comes after, and it’s when one of the kids yells from downstairs, “Night walk?”

Yes, yes. Always yes.

Am I going to be on my death bed saying, “I only wish I’d taken those night walks when the kids were still home!”? No I am not.

I pull a jean jacket over my night clothes, push my feet into gold plastic clogs, and the four of us shamble out under the stars, into the dark of woods we know so well we can navigate them blind. The kids are done with their homework, their social lives, their chores, their band practice—all the many things that make a teenaged day—and now they talk and talk. We wind around our neighborhood route, and they talk about candy, Trump, sexuality, architecture.

“I’ve always had a strange attraction to systems of irrigation,” my son muses, and his sister says, thoughtful, “It’s true. You have.” To be known so well! And to know nothing but known-ness.

When we return home, late, the inevitable snacking will commence: dill Havarti and cold pizza and frozen chicken tikka masala and coconut popsicles, empty cartons and packages strewn on the countertops like archaeological evidence of the fact that their arms will grow another four inches while they’re sleeping. They are so tall and beautiful! Every couple of weeks, I level the pencil against their fragrant scalps, reach up to mark the wall behind them.

“It’ll wear off when they’re around six or seven,” a co-worker had warned me, when I was so in love with the babies that I spaced out in meetings, day-dreaming about their faces and breath. “They turn into kids, and they get less cute, more annoying. Then they’re teenagers, and forget it.” This was not exactly good news, but it meant the end was in sight, at least. I would not drift around besottedly for the rest of my days. But he was wrong.

I suffer from hubris, drifting around besottedly. In the myth version of my life, I would certainly be punished. “Ugh,” I say to my husband. “I’m like the parent version of Pygmalion. Wishing his statue to life and falling in love with it and then everybody dies.” This does not appear to strike him with any particular force. Maybe because it’s the middle of the night? Plus, it’s not clear that I actually know this myth. Indeed, when I Google it, I turn out to have been wrong about the ending: Pygmalion carves a dream woman from marble, is granted his wish that she come to life, and they live happily ever after. Only, it’s so distasteful to fall in love with the person you made, isn’t it? To create a human version of all your favorite things, and then give it life? How can that end well?

Plus, my living-perfection statues are proving imperfect.

“But that’s exactly why I asked you about Mother’s Day,” my son says, his handsome, heavy brow knitted like his father’s.

“I know,” I say. “But then I don’t want to be the kind of person who says, ‘No. You can’t go to that party because then you won’t be home for Mother’s Day.’ So I said it was fine.”

“But it wasn’t fine?”

“Right.”

“But then I was home after all.”

“Only because other people had to get home for Mother’s Day.”

“I’m sorry, Mama,” he says, genuine but baffled, and I see his dad catch his eye, grimace and shrug. 

“I hate you both,” I say and, bless them, they laugh.

He is leafing through catalogues and admissions material, plotting his own leave-taking. He wears a pussy hat to march with us, plays Joni Mitchell on the piano with his long, elegant fingers, and says deadpan things like, “Same,” to make me laugh after I muse aloud that perimenopause is killing me. He drives his sister to the town library. He drives himself to the dentist. “To the dentist! By his own self!” I tell a friend. “I think my work here might be kind of done.”

I run into friends whose wonderful daughter is graduating from college. “Oooooh!” I say, excited for them. “Is she moving back home?” “She’s not,” they say, and then add—in response to my crestfallenness—“That’s not actually the goal, them moving back home.” “It’s not?” I say, and they laugh.

“Mama, can I invite everyone here?”

Yes, yes. Always yes.

I would not have predicted that this would be my favorite thing, a houseful of teenaged boys. But, then, they are not what I’d predicted teenaged boys would be like, falling all over themselves falling all over our kitten, passing him around so they can take turns rocking his fuzzy self in the cradles of their orangutan arms, serenading him with guitars, ukulele, and banjo and calling dibs on who gets to cuddle him when they all finally tumble to sleep in a heap of blankets on the floor at four in the morning, after they come in from doing whatever it is they do outside in the night, shushing each other and screaming with laughter. Oh, to have them all here!

So much better he be here. When he’s not and an ambulance passes in the night? It’s like hearing coyotes howl when your cat is somewhere out there in the dark.

We practice his leaving. I take his sister out for froyo, just the two of us. Her dad and I take her to the movies, just the three of us. “Oh my god,” she says suddenly in the car. “Is this what it’s going to be like after he goes to college? This suuuuuuucks!”

“No offense,” she adds, and we say, “None taken.”

Halfway up the street parallel to ours, on the night walk, we stop to admire our own house from the back. “Look!” the kids always say. “It’s so beautiful.” It is. Our little cape, with its gold-lit windows glowing in the dark. I would wish that the kids stay this age forever—on the cusp of leaving, but never leaving—only I know that this would not end well. Midas with his gold-plated daughter is a cautionary tale I try to take to heart, even though mine is a different kind of greed.

Besides, what’s the point of imagining this moment without them? This night walk, just me and their dad, quiet under the night’s dark blanket, our empty house aglow. “That was the time of our lives,” I’ll say to him. And he’ll say, and this will be true, “At least we knew it.”

Catherine Newman is a contributing writer for Motherwell. She is the author of the memoirs Waiting for Birdy and Catastrophic Happiness, and also of the new children’s book One Mixed-Up Night.

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