From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

Children on Loan

I am not good at returning things. Take library books. I have no intention of keeping them, but it takes a jolt to separate us—like a call from the librarian. Today, they sit awaiting return three days early. Because today, I’m painfully aware of the passage of time. In thirty minutes, assuming my son is packed—and he will be— Christopher Paul (“the best boy of all,” he’d tease his sisters) leaves for his last year of college. He’s our youngest, the last to leave home. By now, I tell myself, I am used to these departures. I am used to these departures. I am used to these departures . . .

Only this one is for keeps. Next May, there will be no bags of soiled laundry coming home. Chris won’t be coming home at all. After graduation, it’s marriage to Pam— the sunny Californian, adorable and already beloved by us all—and on to start their life together a thousand miles away. Every tick of our copper kitchen clock says, This— is—it. Emp—ty—nest.

My sister, the research chemist, calls. “For Pete’s sake, you knew it was coming.”

“So is the end of the world, but who’s ready for it?”

“You really are in a mood.”

My silence speaks for itself. Who knows us as well as our sisters?

“After all,” she adds, “he’ll be home for the holidays. Anyway, you wouldn’t want to keep him forever.”

My sister does not read me well at all. I find myself caressing my chunky Timex as tenderly as I would a newborn’s head. We’ve ticked away a lot of time together— waiting outside schools, athletic fields, piano lessons, rehearsals, practices. Later, awake in bed, listening for his first car to pull into the drive. Waiting as time dragged by. Now, in take-off time, seconds spring ahead.

The doorbell summons me to a girl selling candy for her school band. The six chocolate bars are my excuse to visit Chris’s room with him still in it. Boxes block the doorway. A barricade? Walls easily erect themselves at times like these. At his “Hi, Mom,” I try to read his voice. Glad I’m here? Resentful of intrusion?

He’s tossing items into a carton labeled MED.CAB.SUPPLIES. Glancing down on stomach soothers, skin scrubbers, lens solution, musky colognes, I’m reminded of the bottle of cheap aftershave he was so thrilled to find in his stocking one long-ago Christmas. He used it up in a week, but his room reeked all winter. “Ever try this?” he asks now, holding up a new brand of tooth gel. I smile brightly as I shake my head, but I have the ugly urge to snatch his alien brand and write TRAITOR on his suitcase. We all use Crest. We’ve always used Crest!

I realize my hand still clutches a damp tissue when I find myself using it to wipe his battered alarm clock. A wasted effort. Not only is it no longer smeared with peanut butter or sticky with Coke, I notice it is among the abandoned.

“This still dependable?”

“Never failed me yet.”

Which means just fifteen minutes to go. “Time for a quick cup of coffee?” I would climb a Brazilian mountain and hand-pick beans to buy more time.

“Sure.” He smiles in the lopsided way I love. He’ll make a handsome bridegroom, but I really didn’t have that inmind when I nagged him into slimming down in eighth grade.

It’s been a long time since I stood watching coffee perk. I remember putting his early bottle on to warm, then starting the coffee. We snuggled cheek to cheek, waiting for our morning brews. He was warm with baby-sleep, I with mother-love. Neither of us minded the wait.

Now, sitting across from Chris as I gulp from my hot mug, I have to content myself with coffee and conversation. As appreciative as I am for our small talk, I’m aware of resenting it. More meaningful words could be said. I see by his watch that it’s time for him to go. His hands are exactly like my father’s. Odd I never noticed before. What else have I missed?

His eyes grow sober as he begins to speak of yesterday and seeing Pam off to her college, how they worked at keeping it light. I detect a message here for me, too. God knows I’m trying. And I wouldn’t mind a little help from the Man Upstairs right now. You got me into this, I tell him. You let me share in your birthing business, but you messed up on the motherhood bit—or else I didn’t read the fine print at the end.

“Well . . . ” Chris stands and shoves in his chair. Never once has he shoved in his chair. “Now it’s This is it, old chair. So long, old kitchen, old mother . . .

I stand, too, but let my chair be. He bends over and gives me a kiss. It’s always a sweet surprise, the firm kiss that shows he’s not afraid of affection between us. Does he know how much it means?

“Hey . . . I’ll call once I’m settled,” he says, and his sensitivity triggers my tears.

“I really am trying to keep it light,” I choke out with a tight laugh.

“Mom, it isn’t as though . . . “

“I know. I know.”

Three minutes A.D.—After Departure—I’ve blown my nose, repaired my make-up and am armed with my books. As I head for the door, my eyes happen to light on the plaque above it. It’s hung there for years, overlooked as we hastily, purposefully, moved through our lives as a family. The line from Tennyson must have been waiting for just this moment.

God gives us love. Something to love, he lends us.

Children on loan. And I’ve never been good at returning things.

Norma R. Larson

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