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He was curled up in a ball at the foot of his bed, wrapped tightly in a blanket, when I found him. On this sweltering summer day, the air conditioner vainly tried to blast cold air into his room, yet he wrapped himself in a down comforter. I had an inkling it would come to this: his fish died that morning, a beta fish at that, the last one to perish in an aquarium he carefully, thoughtfully furnished with a Grecian vase, two plants, a snail that magically begat baby snails, a frog and four dart fish. Every one of his water pets would die, belly up, slowly and surely as the days went by. We would learn a week later that the mineral deposits in the aquarium had turned the water into a toxic cesspool of alkaline poison.
It had been a roller coaster of activity for him that weekend. His newly married sister came over with her husband to spend the weekend with us, and they went kayaking: his small 10-year-old body squished in the middle of a two-person kayak. We checked out the local park in the afternoon, walked the length of the marina, ate his favourite poutine for dinner, gobbled Nanaimo bars, all-dressed chips, and tried something new – a vegan tourtière. Yuck, he says. Good thing there’s poutine.
By Monday morning, everyone was leaving him, it seemed. His brother, eight years his senior and his closest confidante, wrestling pal and Fortnite hero extraordinaire, was getting packed for a flight to California. An entire summer, perhaps even longer, gone from his sight, to surf and work and earn money. His sister and brother-in-law, leaving for Toronto. His other sister had already moved out.
So now, here he lies on the floor of his own room, sobbing his little heart out. How does this happen, I wonder, going from a lively household of four children, to a small family of one child and two parents in the space of two years? How does his little heart feel from one day being the baby of three siblings, to the next day being an only child in the household? It’s too much for him to grasp and I don’t think he knew why he was sad, just that he felt alone and needed to curl up and cry.
So I did what any mom would do: picked him up from off the floor, tenderly laid him on his bed and curled up with him. I am sad, too, I told him, and we cried together. Where have all the children gone? One minute I couldn’t keep up with matching an endless array of mismatched socks belonging to six people, the next minute the house is quiet, empty of voices and the usual hum and mess of having kids in the house: backpacks and shoes scattered everywhere, piano keys banging loudly, music blaring from the kitchen as dishes are washed, doors slammed (sometimes in anger, other times just for fun), laundry machines drumming and spinning non-stop.
When did I get old? In my head, I am but a young mother at 23, holding my firstborn in my arms. In my heart, I am still a new bride, gushing about my husband, whom I found in a world full of people, rollerblading at Toronto City Hall. My body ages, but my mind stays forever young, and in that truth lies the disconnect, that unsettling feeling of being left behind as the carousel of life goes faster and faster.
“Enjoy the quiet,” I’ve been told by empty-nesters. But I am not ready, I scream in my head. Have I prepared my children enough for the harsh realities of life? Have I given them enough advice to stay good, to avoid addictions, to not stray from the straight and narrow? Have I done enough for them? Have I taught them enough? A million questions plague my mind, a never-ending series of what-ifs and should-have-done’s. But the time is up. I can’t go back to how things were, no matter how hard I try. It is what it is. The children are gone, except for this last one. My 10 year old.
I have, I surmise, eight more years to spend with him before he flies out of my reach. So it won’t be too quiet after all. This time, I won’t make the mistake of not enjoying and savouring every moment with him. This time, I am hoping not to be too overwhelmed, too stressed, too much of anything.
I hug him and snuggle with him until his crying stops, and mine has subsided. For now. In eight years I may have conquered this aching feeling of loss and be able to say, “enjoy the quiet” to another mother. In my heart of hearts, I doubt I ever will. As much as mothers everywhere enjoy a little tranquil alone time in the chaos of motherhood, it is the noise of childhood that we will one day yearn to hear again, and what we will ache for in our quiet, twilight years.
And then may come a shimmer of fun in the distance, a glimmer of hope that all is not lost: grandchildren.
Yona M. Harvey lives in Lansdowne, Ont.