Monday, August 24, 2015

Puer Natus Est

How Do They Grow Up So Fast?
The future president of Mars at the zoo, age 4

I dropped my oldest son off at college last weekend. All week, I had been busy planning for a semester start of my own, putting the final touches on my English Composition fall syllabus for first-year students, a class I love to teach because it opens students' eyes to the possibilities of writing, to the power of communication. And then, my phone buzzed with a text message from my son: “It is really hard to say goodbye to everyone.”

I remember that feeling.

Parenting is hard. This oldest child of mine, like all oldest children, was an experiment, a very wanted child, but also an unknown.  I was in graduate school when I learned that I was pregnant. I thought I would just deliver my first baby over spring break and return immediately to school a week later. He was born just six hours after I turned in my grades for the History of Rome section I taught as a UCLA teaching assistant, just six days after I successfully defended my academic work in comprehensive written examinations, struggling with Braxton-Hicks contractions as I labored (figuratively and literally) to translate difficult Greek passages and apply them to theoretical contexts.

For me, motherhood changed everything. Puer natus est, the Roman poet Virgil wrote in his 
Fourth Eclogue about the birth of Augustus Caesar, destined to be the first Emperor of Rome. “A child is born.” Is there a pronouncement more existentially profound?

My first child was obsessed with the space shuttle before he was two. He built rockets, first from Legos, then with real rocket fuel he cooked in my kitchen with sugar and cat litter. From an early age, he studied everything he could find about the Titanic, informing me as a preschooler that he would only watch documentary films, because “fiction is not true” (I beg to differ: sometimes it seems to me that fiction is more true than so-called facts).

When he was four, he swallowed a quarter because he wanted to know what it tasted like and earned his first (and last) ambulance ride. When he was 14, he broke both arms in a frightening parkour accident: My first and most urgent question to the emergency room doctor: “How is he going to wipe his own bum?” His younger brother had been in the same emergency room just two weeks earlier, transported by ambulance after a violent behavioral episode associated with mental illness.

I did not follow the plan and return to graduate school the week after my oldest son was born. I stayed home for 12 years to raise him and his 3 siblings. Nor did I plan on his father divorcing me. But when that happened, I gradually picked up the pieces and moved on. A few years later, I started an online doctoral program in Organizational Leadership (my kids describe what I study as “Advanced Manipulation Techniques”), and now, as my first son prepares to start his first year of college, I am preparing to defend my own doctoral dissertation proposal on mental health advocacy and leadership. We put many of our personal goals on hold when we become parents, but I'm glad I've returned to mine.

The family jokes that my oldest son is the future president of Mars. It might not turn out to be a joke. He certainly has the drive, the talent, the ambition.

But in so many ways, I feel like I have failed him.

His younger brother’s struggles with then-undiagnosed mental illness, coupled with a difficult divorce, defined our family in ways that I wish, as a writer, I could revise. Mental illness affects the whole family, and I think the sibling experience has not yet been adequately chronicled or supported.

And at age 18 as commencement speaker at his high
school graduation.
Still, as Dante said, we are a part of all we have met. My oldest son has met and conquered many challenges in his formative years, and I know that he will continue to achieve at a high level as he begins his college experience.

For my part, as I loaded up the Suzuki with boxes of his clothes and books and Star Trek models, I just wanted him to have fun. To be safe. And to learn to be happy.

Right before I left him to begin his new phase of life, I gave my son a journal inscribed with this message: 

“I’m not sure whether this means I’m a good parent or a bad parent, but I am really ready for this day—the day I officially get to hand your future off to you. I’ve watched you grow up to be brave, capable, and incredibly talented. Now is the time to be curious, to explore the world of ideas. I went to a relatively crappy college in a crappier town than your school, and I ended up loving every minute of it. The books I read in college are still my favorite books. The friends I made are still close. But most important, college made me the person I am today. Be curious.
P.S. Keep a journal! You’ll laugh really hard at what you wrote when you’re my age.”
As I turned to walk away, my cheeks were wet with tears. I blamed the moisture on the smoky air from all the Idaho wildfires. But my son and I both knew differently. His future is now his.


A said...

You don't think the "sibling" experience has been adequately chronicled or explored? What about the decades of "studies" which "prove" that Mad people are toxic to their siblings? There are only two groups of "sibling" experiences which have not yet been studied:

1) the affect of "well" siblings on Mad people and

2) the "well" siblings who have spent a lifetime blaming their Mad siblings for "destroying" their family but then change their opinion about their Mad siblings when they become ill or injured and get abused/neglected by the pathology of their family.

Anarchist Soccer Mom said...

Actually, some of the studies I looked at for my book showed that siblings can develop remarkable strengths. I think that has been the case with my children, but it has taken whole-family therapy. Here's some information for siblings from NAMI.

Victoria said...

Hi Lisa, I realize I'm a few years late to comment about your first post and your interview on NOVA, but I just watched the program and I wanted to let you know as a child I was very much like your son. I'm 25 now, and thankfully I haven't harmed anyone in any major way but I know how he feels. It's not easy dealing with all of those emotions and I don't know how he's doing now, but I hope he's feeling some what better. I read he has bipolar - I haven't been diagnosed with that but either way I feel his pain. I wanted to reach out and let you know things will absolutely get better for him especially because he has you in his life. I'm sure you know therapy is a major benefit to people with mental illnesses, but there's one type of therapy you might want him to try. It's called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. Personally that has been the most helpful especially for my time in college. Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for putting so much effort into helping your son and making so many people aware of mental illnesses.

JanetDavies said...

Be curious..That is such excellent advice for our whole lives.
This post made me remember when all of mine left home. Wait till you get to the last one! I collapsed into a sobbing little ball on the floor as my youngest pulled out of the driveway on his way to college in another town. I eventually got up and thought about what color to paint his room though. :) Kids can be a little like yo-yos and tend to come and go a few more times before they are fully launched, it gets easier the second or third time. One of the great things about them leaving home is all the new ideas and experiences they bring to you later. Makes for good conversation and it's always interesting to me to hear how their perspective changes as they take ownership of their own life.
All the best to your bright, beautiful son whose future is his own.