To Gregory, Off To College

Janell Burley Hofmann, August 25, 2018

When you were brand new, sometimes if I fell asleep hard I would wake up and think I was the babysitter and the parents would be home soon. Or I would imagine the nurses from your first days in the hospital coming to help me soothe you back to sleep, slowly realizing we were on our own in our quiet, dark apartment. But one morning, I laid you next to me, curled up so we were face to face. With just enough sun coming in through the windows, you looked straight into my eyes. You took two long, slow blinks. I copied you. You did it again. And again. Back and forth we went. I told Dad you were trying to communicate with me, that you had something to tell me. He laughed. How could I explain that I saw the stars in your eyes? I knew you were meant for me. I’m so glad you didn’t wait another minute to be mine.

For a moment, just before your tsunami of siblings came, it was us. Once when you were two, I stopped at a farm stand to buy us a candy apple. We sat together on a warm autumn afternoon, passing the apple back and forth. I remember your chubby, sticky fingers reaching up to feed me. That day just twinkled and I swear I felt God in the flickering sunlight nudging me forward, just like this, just like this. So we built a life of joy in libraries and parks, oceans and playgrounds. Eating lunch on blankets in the backyard and napping under the piles of books we’d finish day after day. We bought houses we could fill with people and yards we could fill with bikes and swings and soccer balls and neighborhood games. One by one, your brother and sisters followed you out into the world we made. And each one of them made it better. I always thought we’d get to the Grand Canyon or Alaska, a cross-country camping trip or take a family semester abroad. But mostly, the adventure was your childhood. In my young longing to give you it all, I sometimes couldn’t see that our limitations were gifts. Only now, with you standing grown before me, do I know for sure that time, play and presence is what makes a child blossom.

Soon, those long, slow days gave way to the years of becoming – Little League and theater auditions, first jobs and final exams, concerts in city and college tours across the county. It’s funny, I thought I’d care more about your awards and achievements, your firm handshake and shiny smile as you crossed the stage every time your name was called. But I don’t. Those trophies and plaques were fun, but they’ll be tucked away in the attic, immeasurable against who you have become, who you are. Mostly, I’m proud because I like you. And prouder still that you like you. And when you look away from me, from us, and out to the world, you want to walk towards it. Participate. Help. Share. Learn. Grow. Your showing up fully human is the bounty of my effort. The grace in my mistakes. The comfort in my letting go.

One morning, when you were a baby, Dad told me he loved when you cried big and loud. He said it was the best time to see the inside and back of your mouth, the parts that were hardest to see when you were happy and smiling. He wanted to know all of you. There is no other way to describe his love than this story. He wants to know all of you. When you’re upset and hurt, disappointed or mad, his love is just as deep and true, steady, and always. When I see your cells and bones, your energy and essence carrying you around, it looks like you know a father’s love. There is an ease about your existence, a sturdy courage of trust, that I swear Dad alone has nurtured in you. But still, you needed even more than us.

I imagine myself standing in the center of all the people who love you. I know their love is coming to you, for you, because first it travels right through me. They raised you too, so I let it burn quickly in the center of my chest, gathering it close against my heart like a best friend who can’t stay. I love to be loved, but I don’t hold this for myself, just to myself, in a silent whisper of thanks. I send it along. I remember when they held you and rocked you, fed you and walked you. They put you in strollers and highchairs, car seats and diapers. Sharing you is the best way I knew how to love you. I positioned your being surrounded with aunties and uncles, grandparents and cousins, adored everywhere you turned. I wouldn’t allow you to exist unless you could stand and face any part of the world, in any moment, with their sturdy shoulders and beaming hearts offering back to you.

And even standing in the lake of our love, we cannot step forward with you here. You have always known that standing on your own is standing on generations of imperfection, toil, momentum, hoisting you up in fresh hope, possibility, dreams. This is what it really means to raise you. It is to offer you up, to share you, to ask you to serve what is good for you and good for all as a reflection of what we have given.

I fulfilled my only promise to you, which was my full love, so you would know how to love yourself and be able to share it with others. I did not know what I would get in return from this promise, and it never mattered. It became the way, beyond meaning and purpose, hard work and knowledge, loving you became who I am. Sharing you, a holy need. Watching you go, a knowing that together and apart are words much too small for us. We’ll always transcend the space. Now, go.

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