Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Why Does It Hurt So Much?

A 13 year-old girl boarded a bus to Cape Cod to visit cousins for two weeks. She was traveling alone for the first time, and as she settled into her seat, she kept her eyes trained on her father who stood by, waiting for the bus to leave. She knew that when he went home, there would be no children in the house, and, having a special relationship with her father, she began to worry about him. He looked, to her young eyes, very lonesome out there on the sidewalk. As the bus pulled away, she saw him turn and walk to the family car. She felt a powerful need to cry, but didn't.

A dear and respected friend of mine is watching his son, who has just graduated from college, pack up his things to go to New York City at the end of the month. The young man is the last of four children to leave home, and his only son. As this couple count down the days to their son's departure, everything that he does to prepare comes as a shock to the parents. His room is cleaned out for the first time since before he came home from the hospital as a newborn. They realise that from now on, this young man's place to 'hang his hat' will no longer be at this address. Yet I suspect that for some time to come, there will be, for him, two meanings to the word 'home'.

Why does this hurt so much?

After my parents both died and everyone in my family had moved away from New England, I had a chance to return to my hometown. As I walked or drove past my old haunts and familiar places, I would notice changes. More often than not, the change would affront me. Some things had not changed much, except for looking a bit shabbier, like my old high school which had been newly remodeled and added on to when I attended there in the '70's.

Some places had been gentrified, which is to say, they had been "developed". My first remembered neighborhood now had houses three times the size of the one in which I grew up. The road was new and broad. Some might call it a change for the better, but I don't generally find gentrification a positive change. It may look better, but in this case, looking better meant the loss of woods in which I and my family had often taken walks, made little discoveries like ladies' slippers growing wild, and had adventures, such as when there was a fire up there. The stone walls were said to house copperheads, and we never trod in those woods without taking great care. (I saw one only once, but it proved the existance of them to me.) Change there was an affront, as though my memories were less important than magazine-cover houses. There was no mystery or drama left there, only the banality of wealthy suburbia. And no one had asked me if it was a good idea!

Sometimes the changes really were for the better. More protection was given to certain hiking areas, and the wetlands have been off-limits to developers for a long time. While some changes have been made downtown, many of the same businesses are there, only they have changed to keep up with the times. I can understand those changes. I wouldn't want them to stagnate and become shabby.

And some things stayed exactly the same, like the apple orchard business which has been cultivated by the same family for over 350 years. That sort of continuity makes me feel at home.

But when people leave us, especially children, it hurts. We can't stop it, for one thing. But then they were always changing while they were with us. Isn't it that now they will change without us? And won't those changes come as further little shocks, just at a time when we feel like change is the last thing we need?

When a child returns home after an absence, they go through some of the same things-- they see some changes immediately. Mom's hair is different. Dad's gotten a new car. The wallpaper in the bedroom has changed. Some of those things are welcome, others (the wallpaper?) are an effrontery. They changed the wallpaper, but no one asked me if I liked it! And changes in the child are received the same way by parents: the hair, why does the hair always have to change? Usually it isn't for the better, and they never asked for my opinion! What in the world is she wearing? Oh-oh...who's that girl behind him??

Somehow, when we leave, we need to think out loud about these things. Maybe we need to make promises to each other that we will try to make every change a change for the better. When my children come home for a visit, will they find me better off if I've changed? Or will I have stagnated and become somehow 'shabbier'? When I go visit my parents, will they look at me and be glad I've left because even if my appearance may have changed, my character is even better than it was before? Can I give them confidence that their investment in me has brought a high return and will continue to do so?

May God give all parents comfort, and may He give all children determination to attain to His highest. May He grant plenty of continuity of the things we enjoyed together: good character, strengths, gifts, memories, walks and belly laughs over things no one outside the family would understand.

If we must endure seperations, then may all our changes be occasions for rejoicing.

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