Here’s the scene. Charlie Brown is blissfully asleep, the bed covers tucked up under his chin, the bedroom middle-of-the-night black. Sally, his little sister, enters the room, nudging him awake.
“Hey, Big Brother, Wake up!”
“What’s the matter?”
“I want to ask you about school….If you’re late for the first day of school, will they kill you?”
“Good grief, no! Where did you get that idea?”
“Well, what if you don’t know where to go, or you forget your lunch, or get lost in the hallway? What if you can’t remember your locker combination? Are you supposed to bring a loose-leaf binder? How wide? Two holes or three? Do big kids beat you up on the playground? Do they trip you and knock you down?”
“Look, just stop worrying…everything will be all right…go back to bed…”
Dutifully, Sally does. Charlie lies back on his pillow, closes his eyes and appears to easily fall asleep. But in the final frame of this Peanuts comic strip, his eyes fly open, the furrow in his forehead deepens and he wonders aloud, “What if I can’t remember my locker combination?”
A Peanuts fan for years, I must have read this comic strip before. Now that Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, has died, newspapers are perpetually recycling his comic wisdom under the new title Classic Peanuts.
God, I’m grateful they do. And that is a prayerful statement. I need these comic parables. I need the way they innocently slip in under the skin, into the gut, and name what’s real, name what we feel. Like this one — that shot straight for the jugular vein, evoking faces and memories and the chasms that we cross.
I saw, in a flash of memory, my son on the day he left for college. How he had changed that last year of high school. A late bloomer who pined for years to pass up his 5’5” mother, he managed in one single year to shoot up over six feet. It was as if he had imbibed Miracle Gro with his ritual morning bowl of cereal.
And there were hints of the man he was becoming in the square of his jaw, the breadth of his hands, the soft fuzz of beard he began to shave — now and then. He was beautiful, the way young men can be when they are coming into their full strength, their muscles swelling, arms and legs and chest sculpted by athletic competition and manly labor.
On that last morning at home, the one I’m seeing, he is once again hunched over a bowl of cereal, not talking much, for he has never been a “morning person.” I look over at him as frequently as I dare. I can’t get enough of looking at him that morning, knowing what is coming to an end. And then I notice the tears, sliding down his cheeks. He doesn’t try to hide them, doesn’t seem to notice or care that they are mixing with his milk and frosted cornflakes as they trickle off his chin.
I am surprised. Yesterday, all smiles, he seemed more than ready for this new adventure and the freedom that comes with being a thousand miles from home. Now it was dawning on him — all that he was leaving behind.
Simple things, like his dogs nestling next him in bed each night, nuzzling him awake most mornings. Like the way the dawn slants into his bedroom from the corner window, the sound of Lake Michigan waves washing ashore heard through the open window. The sure underpinnings of family and the familiarity of friends he has known most of his life.
And that top-of-the heap confidence that would have to be earned all over again, confidence that he can succeed, shine even, be liked, loved.
Sitting there, hunched over his cereal, it was dawning on him that once he pushed back from the kitchen counter and stood to go, he was stepping off into thin air — the chasm of the unknown a gaping canyon below him. He wouldn’t be human if he didn’t feel a ripple of panic, if he didn’t wonder whether his new found stride was long enough to take him safely to the other side and whatever awaited him there.
“What if you don’t know where to go…or get lost in the hallway? Do big kids beat you up on the playground?”
He wasn’t the only one who was stepping off into thin air that morning. Because he was the last child to leave home I knew that when he walked out the door the house would grow quieter — and stay that way.
There would be no voices wafting up the stairs to the office where I was working shouting, “Hey, Mom! I sailed all by myself today!” No more after-school news, “I made the cut!” or “I lost the match.” No more bold declarations like the day he sauntered into my bedroom one morning and said, “If I’d known dating was this much fun I would have done it sooner!”
My son had lingered another four years beyond my daughter’s departure for college. But now I knew that when he left, when he pushed back from that counter, an era would end.
My own mother had promised it would happen. When I complained about the number of nights I crawled into bed at night, feeling “like a piece of dust” (that was always the image. I’m not sure why. Maybe there was so little left of me?) she’d nod and say, “You will have years to tend to yourself. Don’t rush it. You blink and it’s over, the children gone.”
And they are. For a few years they came back — for the summer, for holiday vacations. But after graduation they moved out and on. (Though both of my children left a good share of their “stuff” behind saying it was imperative to save all of it because they would definitely want it when they had a house of their own.)
It’s right that they fly the nest. I want them to do this. Want them to find a life partner, want them to begin building their own nests.
And yet, what is dawning on me is that in those years of raising children the meaning and purpose of life was so clear. I never felt I lived through my children, found my identity in them. I always had a career, my own interests, my marriage, friends. But now that they are gone — and going farther and farther afield with each passing year — there are days I feel as uncertain as Charlie’s sister Sally about how to find my way.
I wonder if I’ve peaked, if raising and unleashing two lovely, healthy, intelligent, compassionate children into the world may well be the most creative work I will ever do. I mean, how do you follow an act like that? And with what?
That I’m feeling this way could be due in part because a few years after my son left for college I chose to leave my full time profession in order to begin a new career as a writer. Talk about stepping off into thin air. I found myself back at ground zero, having to hone new skills, find new networks.
But I wonder — often — if what I do is useful, purposeful, if the world is a better place because I write. Every time I walk into Barnes and Noble I wonder, Who needs another author? Another book? On any subject?
When that middle-of-the-night anxiety rises up in me, when I wonder whether I’ll make it as a writer, or even want to, I turn to my own version of “big brother” (though any number of them are actually big sisters): Pat Schneider, Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron, Heather Sellers, Stephen King, Rilke.
Without denying the despair of their profession, the pain of rejection, they offer hope, point me towards the horizon of my longing, and promise me “There is a Muse!”
“Are you supposed to bring a loose-leaf binder? How wide? Two holes or three?”
My mother turned eighty one this year. The mother who in her fifty’s — as I am now — promised me that there was a life of my own awaiting, worth living, after parenting. She has only one, last chasm ahead — and these days I’m watching her face it, wondering what she fears.
When her last child left home, she said she caught herself watching too many daytime “soap operas” and knew she needed to do more with her life. She called the local hospital, began volunteering, took community education classes that intrigued her, learned to play tennis, then golf.
I see her at my daughter’s wedding reception just a few years ago — full of that kind of energy, life. She had traveled to Chicago for the wedding without my father, believing, as we all did, that he would find the unfamiliar surroundings too disorienting. And that night at the reception, my mother danced as she hadn’t danced in over fifty years.
Father had always felt awkward on the dance floor, having never learned to dance when he was young. His religious practice forbade it and though he left certain of those practices behind as an adult, you could count on one hand the number of times he and mother had danced together.
The night of my daughter’s wedding, her two sons, her son-in-law, and every one of her grandsons asked her to dance. She was still gliding and twirling, game for any form or rhythm until they flicked the lights at midnight — one of only a handful left on the dance floor.
Maybe that is when the first disk in her back crumbled, the one that made it so painful as she tried to stand and greet the people who came, two months later, to the funeral home. Since then it has been one bone after another — a cracked pelvis, a cracked rib, another crumbled disk, and a doctor’s warning that the other disks could go at anytime.
My father lost his mind to Alzheimer’s. My mother is losing her body to osteoporosis.
Though I live some distance away, I see my mother about once a week. We go out for lunch, talk about how the family is doing and sputter about politics (we’re of like mind on political matters).
The other day I mentioned the Peanuts comic strip I’d read and recited Sally’s fears. She nodded, knew right away what I meant when I said that those fears were so much a part of every life transition — college, marriage, the new job, the lost job, the empty nest, retirement…and then that last, final transition, our own death.
Mother has always been very keen about not burdening us with her troubles, never wanting to appear weak or afraid, feeling her role as mother requires that. She is also an introvert. Which means she keeps her own counsel, rarely speaks about what she fears.
I wish she were more open with us, her children, about those worries, anxious fears that must wash over her now and then — of what it will be like to take that last step into the thin air of nothingness. Wondering whether she will be ready to leave, if it will hurt beyond what she can bear. Wondering what, if anything, awaits her on “the other side.”
I wish she would believe that I wouldn’t mind being nudged awake when life seems middle-of-the-night dark. That I would be glad to be the one to listen as she lets it spill out, all the fears and worries that pile up, one on top of the other — just the way they did for Sally that night.
I wish she’d give me a chance, to learn how to say and believe as Charlie Brown believes with such innocent confidence and wisdom —
“Look…you can stop worrying… everything will be all right.”