It’s something I used to do when I was a child—staying in the tub so long the bathwater turns tepid, my fingers pruned into deep whitened grooves. As a seven year old, I would stay in the tub for hours, tracing worlds out in the marbled Formica installed above the tub sides—a swirling blue-grey that turned into wild oceanic currents, astral breezes suspending ships born aloft, or father wind, blowing furiously from the north, attempting to capsize my crew. When the water got cold, I would drain half and add straight hot, skinny seven-year-old butt planted on cold tub side as the hot water mixed in, feet propped against the soap alcove built into the opposite wall, rubber toys buoyed under legs arched like a bridge. But no matter how hot I made it—immersed skin turning angry shades of red—the water would again grow cold before I’d completed my high-seas adventures. My collection of beloved rubber bath-toy animals eventually rotted from overuse, their undersides growing mealy until in a last gutting, they disintegrated altogether, spewing slimy gray water in a heartbreaking demise.
Like then, tonight I’ve stayed in the tub so long the bathwater has turned cold. I drain half and add straight hot, cupping my hands and swirling the water to mix it in. Today has warranted a double bath, settling in with a good book and too much wine instead of make-believe adventures—solo time after everyone has gone to bed to deal with my reeling emotions.
The washcloth I dry my face with as I cry—because that’s to be expected, tonight of all nights—smells of men, of boys. My boys. Some subtle male cologne from my husband and three teenaged sons. And the smell is enough to take me over the edge into full-blown sobbing.
As an eighteen-year-old college student, my oldest son has just moved out. Flown the nest. Taken flight. It is his first night gone, and even though I’d promised myself it would be fine, that it was a celebratory occasion—because it is, because he’s ready—I’m a blubbery mess. But I’ve waited until now, when I’m alone, to feel it all. To mourn. My child. My first-born. Gone.
The nurse attending my son’s birthing chanted for hours through the end of my labor: push, push-push-push, push, push-push-push. And I did, breaking dozens of tiny blood vessels in my face with my twenty-six-hour laboring effort—the contortion of my face then not unlike the contortion of my face now as I cry, letting him go.
Earlier in the day while he was at his new place putting up the new dog run for his husky pup, I went shopping for the last round of things on his moving-out list: jelly, fingernail clippers, lint rollers, eggs, spoons, mugs, coffee filters, coffee, soap, razors, deodorant, oatmeal. At the mall, I distracted myself from the list by looking at dresses at the discount store. A Calvin Klein for $38, normally $138. I almost bought it. Weirdly enough and in ways I don’t understand, the sudden shopping compulsion was something to say: are you going to be okay? Is the new dog run tight enough for your pup to not escape and meet his end on the highway zooming by? All the dangers he might encounter. All the dangers you might encounter. Something to say: do you have all you need? Tell me, are you going to be okay? Or maybe: Am I going to be okay?
Instead of the dress, I bought a new laundry hamper for our family bathroom. It’s a nice hamper: four alternating colors—dark variegated brown, blonde, and rust. It has woven handles and a rounded top that won’t, like the last one, scrape the paint off the wall behind it. I sip wine and stare at it from the tub, unable to concentrate on my book, imagining my son’s roommate—whom I think imagines himself as an older brother figure—and the roommate’s girlfriend talking to my son tonight. A new surrogate family. The roommate’s girlfriend was home making a cup of tea when we moved my son in earlier in the day; she said to put things wherever we wanted, my arms full with a globe, a box of clothes, and a tangle of plastic clothing hangers. I think of him there with them instead of us tonight, and I wonder how it feels for him.
It is time. I know that. And I’m so happy for him, for us as parents to have reached this point—a self-sufficient and capable young-adult child who is doing well as he moves into his adult life. But still. His clothes and shoes in the new closet; his stereo and desk and dog’s toys in the new bedroom; his dishes and the cast-iron pans we re-oiled this morning in the new kitchen. His new life. My little duckling. My sweet boy. All grown up. A fledging who’s left the nest.
I let myself sink deep in the tub, immersed up to my chin in hot water, dabbing at my face with the cologne-smelling washcloth. I whisper: Sleep well my dear and blow him a kiss from afar. I try to remind myself this is a new beginning, that there is still so very much yet to come, but it feels like the end of something so big it takes my breath away.
I breathe deep and my body rises in the water, buoyant, my lower abdomen striated with the silvery paths of pregnancy stretch marks no less distinct after eighteen years. A bringing forth. A letting go. The sweet pain of motherhood’s ongoing dance.
Annie Lampman has a MFA in creative writing and is an English Writing Instructor for Washington State University. She lives in Moscow, Idaho with her husband, three sons, and a bevy of pets. Her essays, poetry, and fiction have recently been published or are forthcoming in: TriQuarterly; The Massachusetts Review; Orion Magazine; High Desert Journal; Crab Creek Review; Cirque; Adanna Literary Journal; Wild Horses: The Women on Fire Series; Dunes Review; WORK Literary Magazine; Wilderness House Literary Review; word~river; IDAHO Magazine; the meadow; Copper Nickel: Women Writing the West; and Talking River. Her work has been awarded first place in the Everybody-Writes contest and awarded a Pushcart Prize Special Mention as well as an Idaho Commission on the Arts writing grant and a national wilderness writing residency. Her first novel is under consideration in New York.