First Thanksgiving Without Them
I am riding Amtrak from Fresno to San Francisco, towards my brother’s home and family, grateful to be wanted and welcome there. But I am thinking of my two teens and wondering: when did it begin to feel like a love relationship? If it’s true that we know our experiences by analogy, that’s the closest parallel to this state of desperate missing, this yearning for the sight and touch of them, this absence that settles within me like a dense, Central Valley fog.
As they pulled out of the driveway with their father in yesterday’s afternoon light, I thought I saw my own longing reflected in their faces–their smiles in place but a momentary dimming of the eyes as they waved from their windows. I picture what their eyes beheld: the solitary figure of a middle-aged woman still in her teaching attire, the eyes behind her glasses tired from having been up since 4:00am to finish grading the papers she wanted to hand back before Thanksgiving break. Smiling as she waves, she recedes with the cypresses that line the entrance to their home.
All three of us smiling because there’s nothing to be done about the car driving away, the mother staying behind, the children waving goodbye.
They will be back on Friday; I will be back on Friday. They go with a father who cares about them though he has absolved himself of responsibility and moved three hours away. They go to continue the one tradition we had had with their father’s family, who will be glad to see them. There is no dark and terrible story here.
Why then does it hurt like this? Not a dull, constant ache but darts of pain–abrupt, focused, incisive. Three nights without them, that’s all. Yet the yearning, the hankering to be around them. . . . It bewilders me. True that many a mom has felt this way about her newborn baby. But about her teenagers? Who does that?
I am after all a single parent, the primary parent, the parent who, by mutual agreement, has full physical custody with all that that means—from the eggs, oatmeal, and vitamins on the table by 6:30 every morning to the last pickup from soccer or choir at 8:00 at night. My own work, the students in whom I am so invested, fill the hours in between. I’m supposed to look forward to this “me” time. After all, I did seek it out at distant conferences in the past.
Back when they were little, I needed to get away every so often–needed to be able to hold a thought and test it out on an academic audience, to assure myself that I was still me. Motherhood, for all its highs, felt like a constant state of siege of the self. Perhaps I wanted so much to do parenting “right” that I forgot to savor its intense flavors, its elusive joys. I breastfed my babies on demand, pumped on my teaching days, slept for years on the crack between two little beds to keep childhood fears at bay. So when people would tell me, “It goes by so fast,” I’d creak from my exacting nights and days and marvel at their delusions. If only I had grasped then that painstaking parenting isn’t the same thing as mindful parenting. No wonder I never knew how to strike a genuine note about motherhood, my tone always sounding either falsely celebratory or falsely flat to my ears. No wonder I needed a break now and then, and not just for conferences. Once I even took off to Oaxaca, Mexico, with my sister, leaving my four- and two-year-olds behind with my husband. And I did so at a time when my daughter was sorrowing over the babysitter next-door, the warm and cheery woman who had cared for her since she was a year old and then dumped her suddenly because of something my husband had said, though she kept all the other children in her care. Even as I observed how the brightness had vanished from those four-year-old eyes, even as I ached to see my daughter looking longingly out the window at the children gathered around the tire swing next door, I left her for five nights to go on a vacation.
The past, as someone said, is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
Since my husband moved out five months ago, our lives have been transformed. But, it’s not about him. It’s about the three of us: Maya, Cyrus, and I, a cohesive whole, as complete and defined as an isosceles triangle. Yet the lines that hold us and give us shape seem porous, pulsing with possibility and a sense of our own expansiveness.
That is how we are when we’re together.
My first Thanksgiving without them. The first of many. I experience time as compressed—three years in which to make up for all our lost days and all the years of empty-nesting ahead. Let there be candlelight and laughter at the table, let me teach during the summer so I can whisk them off to Paris in springtime. Future Thanksgivings will be a ritual of waiting: waiting for them to come home from college, to eat well and catch up on sleep and studies before the frenzy of finals. Goodbyes until winter break, until spring break, until finally the delicious stretch of summer once more.
If, as my sister says, I am living mindfully, then to live mindfully is to live as though you’re in love with the present. Maybe that’s why four days without Maya and Cyrus hurt as they do. Maybe that’s why it feels like first love: intensely lived in this moment, for a lifetime of looking back. I’m looking through the two ends of the telescope at once–at the faraway tomorrow from this end and the faraway past from the other. Both remote. Meanwhile I seize on the present through a microscope, see it larger, fuller, its every detail clearly delineated, its wondrous immensity so close and so intimate as to sweep out of view all befores and afters. This is what it means to be in love. This must be the ever after.
Samina Najmi is associate professor of English at California State University, Fresno. A scholar of race, gender, and war in American literature, she discovered the rewards of more personal kinds of writing in 2011 when she stumbled into a CSU Summer Arts course that taught her to see. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Mom Egg Review, Warscapes, The Rumpus, Pilgrimage, The Progressive, Gargoyle, Chautauqua, and other publications. Her essay “Abdul” won Map Literary’s 2012 nonfiction prize. Having lived in Karachi, London, and Boston, Samina now calls the San Joaquin Valley home. She writes as she watches her children, her students, and her citrus grow.