The end of the beginning
Recently I threw out the last two muesli bars. They had not reached their January 2013 use by date but somehow the act of peeling off the shiny wrappers and depositing them in the pig bucket was strangely satisfying. It was also my son's last day of formal school, exams ahead, an adult lifetime.
There won't be any more school lunches, lovingly designed and prepared when he was 5, to the more cobbled together leftover breakfast buns or money for the canteen of recent years. I can hardly believe that in his primary years I'd often bake something fresh for an after-school treat and that on the seven-kilometre ride home it became a game, to guess, by the residual smell of my handspun jersey, what I had baked.
There won't be any more falling out of bed at the last minute to find the 7.20am bus deadline had passed and his fiscally responsible father's anger at his having to take the car, yet again. Just last week I followed that very bus on its 40km route back into town. I seemed more attentive, noting its shape, the large school sign, dusty and rattling. Within me, a strange feeling, coupled with the realisation that no longer on board was someone I loved. I was so grateful to them, for all the years, they had safely carried my offspring into the wider world.
On the Sunday evening, 18 years ago, when my third son was handed to me, I made up my mind not to be disappointed. Maybe this momentary conscious determination forged something special or maybe it was just him and me together. That night, as I was high on an oversupply of adrenaline and oxytocin, wide awake, he slept endlessly as I waited patiently to bond. When I looked in the crib at the screwed up, ruddy face and little bent nose that had been so jammed in my pelvis, I knew I was in love.
He became this endlessly smiling, giggling baby, engaging with the world. This delight later tempered, only by the harshness of jealous sibling rivalry.
I don't remember many of his milestones, it was much too busy a household. I do remember as soon as he could walk he'd come to me each night. Our mattress, for years, bearing the telling stains of the odd mishap. I reasoned that he did not have enough of me through the day but cleverly compensated at night.
The rest of the time he developed a strong attachment to a handmade quilt, eventually worn down to a few tattered shreds of fabric, now carefully stored in my scotch chest along with the locks of golden hair. I accumulated hours of lost time looking for the darn thing and it goes down in family history how his grandparents drove the 80km round trip to retrieve this beloved object.
Over the years I was often struck by his thinking and how it often matched mine. It was subliminally refreshing in the rural tunnel of tractors and turnips to have someone so interested in things outside of the farm. He became a master at language, the odd dry quip or coined jargon.
There was the time I was trying to impart some wisdom around excessive alcohol consumption and its risks. Not wanting to appear too judgmental, I was struggling to find a word to convey this. Tentatively I suggested perhaps it was not very sophisticated. Mr Six helpfully suggested, "sopissticated", sounded much better.
Organised by Grandma, he took his first formal class at two, swimming. Piano, drum and guitar lessons followed. One season of rugby. Highlights for me; a cup for Blossom (Best Calf in Show), the only year ever that a beef breed had won; and the quirky speeches he wrote and presented at intermediate. There were pets: lambs, duck, Bonnie, bantam Bertha, curly retriever, Lou, who all too often provided the harsh lessons of love and loss.
There were pancakes and pies, lolly cake made, gingerbread men rolled and baked. A roadside stall of artistically labelled Lemon Cordial. There were tantrums over food dislikes and concessions made by me, dumbing down my foodie style. He was the only child to get away with covering everything in tomato sauce.
There were no hospital stays, but stitches to a split lip, a walk through a plate glass bakery window, unscathed, and plaster to a broken foot. There are photo albums full of school plays and pet days, plastic files spilling over with certificates and reports.
I can't remember the exact dates he stopped doing these childhood things, or when he became monosyllabic and I realised the sideways shuffle was my best plan to stay on board for the teenage ride. I made my own rule, to never ask questions, and learnt if I lay about on the sofa pretending to read he'd often sit and talk. It became much harder for us to like each other, there were spats, my verbosity and rants well matched with his best tool, silence.
I never worried too much about him going off the rails, he was not that sort of kid. I have much bigger worries now, like, having to troubleshoot my own computer, unlock my cellphone and programme the DVD player. I know he will not miss, one scrap, me desperately calling his name down the hallway for technological support. I will not miss his disdain or impatience at my luddite ways.
At a conference recently we were asked to introduce ourselves and tell one thing we'd like the group to know. Five people responded with the fact that their youngest child had just finished school. I joined them, even though it wasn't what I had in mind. It made me realise the significance of this event. Simultaneously we, and our last born child, facing momentous milestones. Anticipation in the air.
So it is time to put away the Mickey Mouse band-aids, tip out the last of the outdated Pamol and clear the cupboard of teenage snack foods and sandwich bags. I will no longer spend my weekends scrubbing the collars of white cotton shirts, wool washing grey pants or napisan-ing white walk socks.
I will have to train myself out of glancing at the clock at 4.10pm, in anticipation of his return.
No longer, will my living room wall be grazed by the biffed Dakine, camo schoolbag. Nor will I, in an attempt to relate, be forced to watch America's Funniest Home Videos and Home And Away.
No more two-minute noodle pottles, or sticky juice glasses placed on my expensive rug. I will probably burn some books and bedding but it will be much harder to give up the tatty snowboard posters decorating his bedroom door.
No-one has offered me tips or suggestions to negotiate this passage. I'm not sure of the future route but imagine it will be as circuitous a journey as the one I am graduating from. That's life.
I do know one thing that would help is an intensive computer course.
I look at him now towering in the doorway, taller than us all. His frame filling the space, the now clear skin, longish dark brown hair and eyes. A smile breaks out and I return it. We cannot obliterate the past, our hurts and tragedies, the crises and conflicts, but I know we are connected in a way that will hold for the future. A way that feels real.
This is my tribute to survival, his and mine. All the ordinary things that make up a life. A good life. I know that this is over but certainly not out. And I have not been disappointed.
Sunday Star Times