Last Sunday I was awakened by the retro phone ringtone of my cell phone. It was a little past 8 in the morning, earlier than I typically want to roll out of bed on a Sunday; but this wasn't a typical Sunday. This Sunday I was hurriedly yanking on my jeans and sweatshirt to go downstairs and give my son Daniel a farewell hug as he departed for his new life, thousands of miles away, in Portland, Oregon.
I already knew how hard this goodbye would be. This wasn't the first time I'd bid farewell to a child of mine. Several years ago I'd hugged my older daughter, Jess, and swallowed tears as she set off for college in Houghton. She felt so far away, although it was less than a two-hour drive. I'd been accustomed to having all three of my kids either under my roof, or at least in my ZIP code. Close enough to stop by for Sunday breakfast or mid-week spaghetti. For a few years my house had a revolving door quality, as the older two left, then bounced back home for a while, then moved out again.
Three years ago I hugged my younger daughter goodbye on a muggy late Saturday afternoon in September. She was beginning her freshman year at a small liberal arts college in Minneapolis. As we ate dinner at a picnic table under a shady tree we grew increasingly quiet, much unlike our usual selves. Words and tears knotted in our throats. When Melissa whispered, "Uh oh, oh no," I looked over and saw tears spilling down her cheeks. We hugged, laughing and insisting we weren't crying, we were fine.
When it was time for students and parents to separate, I gave Melissa one last squeeze and walked away quickly. I swiped tears from my cheeks and snuffled softly until I rounded the corner of a dorm building; then I let loose. My friend Susan, waiting for me on a park bench in the courtyard, began weeping in sympathy along with me.
I sobbed on and off on the drive to our hotel and wept a bit on the drive home the next day. When I got home I went directly up to Melissa's room, picked up a pillow she'd left behind, hugged it close, and wailed. I felt every mile of the distance between us. I felt as if I'd been ripped open at the center, and out of that jagged tear poured sorrow and loss. There was nothing to do but give in to the sorrow and cry it out.
In my drinking days I maintained that I couldn't stand to feel pain, and had to drink to obliterate it. How very special I was, right? Poor, delicate me. Sobriety taught me that not only could I stand pain, I could endure it, survive it, and - surprise! - move on from it. All pain, at least all the pain I've experienced, has a shelf life. It eventually dissipates, either disappearing or only aching when reawakened. This same equation applies to happiness - which, when I drank, had a desperate quality to it. Quick, grab it and hold on like grim death! You may never be this happy again. In recovery I learned that life isn't a buffet. You cannot choose only happiness.
That first week Melissa was gone I kept my tears at bay by reminding myself that she was where she wanted to be. She was happily, excitedly beginning her life as a young adult.
Three years and five months later I stood in my kitchen, stretched on my tiptoes, hugging my son, blotting tears on the shoulder of his woolly coat. He squeezed me tight, crying a little, too. We laughed as we re-hugged several times, reluctant to let each hug be the final one.
Then he was gone, off to build a new life in Portland with his girlfriend. I cried on and off all day Sunday, thinking about the miles that would separate us. I'd never not seen Dan for more than three weeks at a time. Now I probably wouldn't be seeing him until August. On a frosty February morning, summery August felt light years away.
So I sobbed into my pillow, cried on my dog's neck, wept on my partner's shoulder. Life gave me a little corrective when I went on Facebook that afternoon. I saw a photo of a tree posted by a friend whose son committed suicide several years ago. She planted the tree in his memory, and posts photos of it changing with the seasons.
My son is a phone call, an email, a Skype away. I know where he is, he is safe and well, and I will see him again. Ditto for my younger daughter. My older daughter now lives in Marquette, with her partner and their adorable baby son.
Happiness and sadness are part of the same soup. As hard as I tried to strain out the sadness with alcohol, all I did was compound my misery. Today I choose to feel my feelings, knowing that I can survive them, knowing they will pass - both the sorrowful and the joyous ones.