Lisa Witcher shares a story about learning to be strong and courageous in the process of becoming an empty nester. Now you can find the Kindred Mom book, Strong, Brave, and Beautiful: Stories of Hope for Moms in the Weeds, wherever books are sold. Subscribe to the Kindred Mom newsletter and receive a preview of the book today! Photo by Veri Ivanova on Unsplash
Mesmerized by the marvel of watching my son’s beating heart on the echocardiogram, I overlooked the sign that clearly stated we were not to video the echocardiogram screen. I whipped out my phone to record the inner workings of his heart. For weeks his heart had been racing abnormally, causing him more consternation than the Chemical Engineering classes he routinely aces. I am sure he is fine, but the science will give him confidence that he is.
“Mother—what are you doing?” he asked incredulously, with a condescending air; I am always Mother when I am in trouble.
“This is so cool! Look at—” I began, but before I could finish, he pointed to the sign that read, “Do not video.”
The tsk in his face said more than his words. I disappoint him so often these days.
The days of him cuddling up beneath my chin or wrapping his arms around my neck and rubbing the ends of my hair between his fingers lay beyond my reach. My son is now nearing his twenty-first birthday, and his domineering, alpha-male behavior inserts itself often in our conversations, which strain against courtesy and more closely resemble tolerance. Now, his six-foot, five-inch frame sometimes bristles when I reach in for a hug.
We sit in the front seats of his car after the appointment. The rain trickles heavily in wide ribbons down his windshield as he finally blurts out these words, “I can’t be everything to you and Dad, Mother.” Aaah, the full M-word again. Taking a deep breath, I make a conscious decision to guard my emotions.
I have expected this conversation. The mother’s heart inside of me told me months ago he was suffocating beneath the weight of grief—his and ours.
Four years earlier, we lost his older sister just one month before he began his sophomore year of high school. The red-headed, fiery soul who held his every secret, who conspired with him on ways to avoid chores, who had guided and chided (and occasionally ignored) him for his whole life left this world after a drunk driver struck her black VW Bug in a head-on collision on our twenty-third wedding anniversary. She and two of her friends, who had just attended a music festival, were on their way home when the mid-size SUV crossed the yellow lines just seven miles from our home, critically injuring her passengers and crushing our girl.
After the accident, his daddy held him in the Intensive Care Unit, looked him in the eye and said, “You can’t shut down on us.” But since then, we have not delved into the anger and pain of losing such a large part of us.
His freshman year of college was shadowed by a mama who needed to touch base frequently. Just 75 miles away from home, he was neither out of easy reach nor a victim of intense hovering, but I often needed to check that he was okay. Respectful and courteous, his responses reflected his maturing masculinity; sometimes I received full sentences, and other times, only one-syllable answers. However, in the months leading up to his doctor’s appointment, his texts became more brief and less timely. Soon, I stopped texting questions and just sent emojis—less complicated, right? Easier to respond, right? Less intrusive, right? Still, he would wait seven long days before responding at all.
So yes, I knew his words were coming.
This is natural; I remind myself. His sister pulled from me when she went to college. I pulled away from my own parents at that age, giving my landline number to my sister—to be shared only if something happened to our grandparents. If we do our jobs correctly, our children will seek their own way, their independence. However, his plea this gray February afternoon resides more deeply within him than just a natural angst to be free.
“I know; I have been waiting to hear this,” My quiet answer allows him to keep talking.
By the grace of God alone, I know better than to defend his father and me. I know better than to justify anything we have done in the twenty-plus years leading up to this one moment in the front seat of a black Hyundai Sonata in the near-freezing rain. I know I just have to listen.
So, I listen to his grievances. Some are legitimate, but some words ring false, the truth hidden by a hurt he can’t overcome and one I can’t take away.
He feels trapped by his college choice, pressed against a future he isn’t sure he wants, persecuted by individuals who were supposed to be friends, and disappointed in his parents. It’s always easier to assume our perpetual pain is someone’s fault.
I decline to debate with him, forfeiting my opportunity to be “right” so he will know I hear him. At each perceived cry for help, we talk about options and resources, for him and for us as his parents, the remaining three souls in our little clan.
In the end, I walk away from my six-foot-five little boy, letting him drive west on the rain-slicked streets with all his possible choices nestled next to him in the seat I just vacated. I don’t know if my sweet boy will shut us out completely or take the wrestling match of words with him. As helpless as I felt when my daughter was dying, the danger I sense in this moment with my son threatens to steal my breath.
And so, I pray. The door to my own car hasn’t shut before my soul whispers urgently to the God “who is with us, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
The verse I chose for him long ago is Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you, ‘Be strong and courageous; the Lord, your God will be with you wherever you go.’” His independent will, his acute intelligence, his devotion to learning all led me to the words be strong and courageous.
As I pray this verse over him again—”Be with him, God. Make him strong and courageous”—I know that our children are gifts shared with us, not given. My son belongs to God, just as his sister does.
My plea is also my charge: I must be strong; I must be courageous; I must let God lead that boy wherever he will go.
Second only to asking our heavenly Father to make my daughter whole again, either on earth or in heaven, my prayer for my son is the most difficult prayer I’ve ever had to heed.
Wife, mother and public educator Lisa Witcher learns about faith and grief by writing. Of all the titles she has held, mama is the one most dear to her. She and her husband have raised two beautiful, intelligent, giving children and enjoy high school athletics and pouring into the lives of students. They are loyal and true to their Oklahoma State Cowboys and the New York Yankees. Connect with Lisa on Instagram.