“Don’t cry. I’m still here.”
I was only twelve years old when those words rolled off my tongue. I didn’t know what else to say, what else to do. It had only been a few days since my oldest brother, Mark, left for college. Already the somber aura in the house was becoming too much to bear.
Mom was taking it the hardest. She would spend hours curled up in her recliner, rocking back and forth and watching TV, almost completely zoned out except for an occasional sporadic bout of crying. How much longer was I supposed to sit there and watch her suffer?
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. Kneeling next to Mom’s recliner, I began to tenderly stroke her arm. “Don’t cry. I’m still here.”
My teenage voice of reason made sense to me. Surely having a mommy’s girl at home would make her feel better. Right? With a slight grin, Mom graciously accepted my less than valid reasoning, then proceeded to cry some more.
Even though the sight and sound of Mom’s tears crushed me, I somehow mustered up enough charm and humor to bust out some goofy dance moves while chanting, “I’m still here, I’m still here!” To my surprise, my mini motivational performance worked. Mom perked up.
Relieved by the dryness of her eyes and smile on her face, I leaned in to kiss her. We hugged, and she looked me straight in the eyes, “One day, you’ll understand,” she said. “It’s just what moms go through. I’ll be alright.”
Mom was right. She was just fine. With each passing month, she adjusted to her new normal, parenting her son vicariously via care packages, weekly phone calls, and handwritten letters. Meanwhile, she and Dad were busy keeping track of two active teenage daughters at home. All was well – until four years later.
I had just gotten home from cheerleading practice when I noticed Mom quietly sitting in the den. Totally blindsided, I recognized the zoned out facial expression, the tears, the rocking back and forth in the recliner. My oldest sister Monica, Mom’s beloved first daughter, had just moved away to college.
Looking back, I’m pretty sure the business of work, cheerleading, extracurricular activities — combined with the inevitable self-centered drama that defines the age of sixteen — all had something to do with my lack of awareness. Not only was I unaware of my sister’s departure, but I also failed to recognize the gravity of Mom’s emotional reaction. Half of me felt sorry for her — but the other half felt annoyed.
Ugh, not again. What’s she crying for? Doesn’t she realize Monica’s only an hour away? Besides, she’ll be home every weekend.
Fortunately, my inner mommy’s girl took over. Without having to ask her what was wrong, I simply knelt down next to her and held her hand. “Don’t cry, I’m still here,” I soothed. Then jokingly, I added, “I’ll keep ya busy.”
Mom laughed as she wiped her tears. “Oh, I know you will. One day you’ll understand. It’s just what moms go through with each child. I’ll be alright.”
She rebounded more quickly the second time around. Maybe it had something to do with her previous experience with Mark or the comfort of seeing Monica every weekend or the distraction that my high school activities offered. Whatever the case, it worked for Mom, and that was enough to make me happy.
Another four years flew by. And suddenly it was my turn to leave the nest. I figured since Mom was an Empty Nest veteran by then, she’d handle my takeoff with a bit more ease. I was wrong.
For months leading up to my departure, it seemed like all I heard out of Mom’s mouth was: “I can’t believe my baby is leaving,” usually accompanied by some half-joking remark.
“No, you can’t go!” she would say, hugging me tightly. “Not my baby!”
She couldn’t fool me though. I could read her like a book. Her quivering voice and fake enthusiastic tone were a dead giveaway of her true feelings. Often I’d cringe and look away, knowing if I lingered too long on the sentiment behind her words, I’d start reliving the recliner scenes from our past.
I didn’t want to go there. I was determined to protect myself from any weird destructive thoughts of believing I was the next culprit of Mom’s upcoming emotional upset.
Before I knew it, D-Day had arrived. August 5th, 1989. I remember feeling relieved by the distractions of the move-in process: delegating my movers (AKA my random assortment of family members along with my then-boyfriend and now-husband Mike), unpacking every box carefully and decorating every nook and cranny. Those distractions became my protective shield as I braced myself for Mom’s unsolicited comments and reactions.
She proved me wrong though. With no whammies whatsoever, she handled the whole thing like a graceful champ. After the movers left and the finishing touches of my matchy yellow and white bedroom decor was complete, I turned around and gasped seeing her gather her purse and keys. Mom was the last to leave — and the first to cry.
“ Oh Mom, Don’t cry…”
Just then I realized I couldn’t complete my standard sentence. My magic words “I’m still here” no longer applied. That’s when I lost it. We hugged and cried in unison through muffled I love you’s, thank you’s, and I’ll miss you too’s.
As Mom walked away towards the stairs, she turned to me with tear-filled eyes. “One day you’ll understand. It’s just what moms go through with each child –”
And before she could finish her standard affirmation, I interrupted, “And you’ll be alright!” We both chuckled.
And thankfully, she was. Mom rebounded quicker than I expected. It helped that I lived only half an hour away, and that we made a habit of meeting up for weekday lunchtime dates and weekend shopping sprees, on top of daily phone calls. Who said those apron strings had to be cut so fast? Not us. Call it dysfunctional if you will, but the mommy’s girl in me did everything in her power to spare Mom from any more dreadful recliner moments — which I have to admit, to this day, still kind of haunt me.
Fast forward. August 18, 2017. Twenty-eight years later. I was the last to leave. There I was, sitting alone in the parking lot of an apartment near Texas State University, wondering what the hell just happened. Did I really just do this? Did I really just move my first born daughter into her new college apartment?
Trying to referee the battle between disbelief and reality was overwhelming for me. All the positive energy I had packed away for the winter served me well. It kept me sane during the planning and moving in phase, and it kept me from indulging my maternal instinct to repeat, “I can’t believe my baby is leaving.”
Knowing full well that teary smudge-stained contact lenses and poor night vision don’t mix, I made a concerted effort to to stay grounded for the 45-minute drive back home. I did my best to ward off the intense urge to go into first-time-college-mom ugly cry mode, consciously condensing what would have been a long trip down memory lane. It was tough. The only way I could do it was to pray.
So I did. I prayed with humility and gratitude for the gift of mothering my beautiful daughter for the last twenty years. Visions of her birth, bedtime prayers, girly wardrobes, Disney High School Musical marathons, shopping sprees, dance team competitions, friendship drama, high school graduation – all those memories began popping up in my head through my prayers.
I prayed in thanksgiving for Natalie’s good health, her common sense, sweet spirit, intelligence and goal-oriented mindset, as well as her incredible resilience (it runs in the family). I shared with God how in awe I felt over her growth spurt of maturity, love, and beauty that shines from the inside out.
Lastly, I prayed out of faith, acknowledging that she is in God’s hands now more than ever before. I prayed for her to draw closer to HIM as HE takes care of every detail of her college life and the years that follow — her health, happiness, and safety, along with her classes, professors, friendships, future boyfriends, and any blessings and uncertainties that come her way.
My 45-minute prayer vigil ended in the driveway of our home. Although I was tired and ready to go to bed, I didn’t quite feel like going inside. I turned the car off and just sat there. I knew I had some unfinished business to take care of. Those unwanted tears from earlier met me in the stillness of my dark suburban. That was when I let go.
My soft, heartfelt tears were quiet. Quiet enough to hear Mom’s faint whisper deep within my soul.
Don’t cry. I’m still here.
I laughed and bawled at the same time in awe over our full-circle moment. As if she was sitting right next to me, I quickly answered back, sobbing. “I know Momma. You were right. I do understand now. I do. I’ll be alright, just like you.”