It’s not often you get a second chance at motherhood.
Adult children leave, and that’s that. They may come back for Christmas or a family vacation. But it’s unlikely you’ll ever again experience a full-bore, one-on-one, in-the-house repeat of intensive motherhood.
Unless you are "gifted" with a pandemic.
When COVID announced itself in March, the last of my three children had not launched yet. At 22, Benjie was still in college, still living in the house, though I’d hardly say he was "home." Deep into his last semester at the local university, he also had two part-time jobs, he was in a play, he was captaining a sports team and he was navigating an active social life. We were ships passing in the hallway.
His 31-year-old brother had just two weeks before, moved home from Washington, D.C. where he’d lived the last decade, to help with their dad.
Recently, tragically diagnosed with a progressive brain disorder, separated from me for three years, his dad was continuing to live on his own in a nearby condo. He had a support base of friends and help from me. But feeling the tug as eldest, Chris had worked out a plan with his job to work remotely three weeks out of the month in Ohio, then back one week in D.C., while making himself available to his dad.
We were living into this new arrangement, my sons busy with their myriad responsibilities, I with mine, when COVID came, and the shutdowns, first the university, then Benjie’s sports team, his play, the restaurants where he worked. Chris’ workplace announced all employees would be working remotely for the foreseeable future. Friendships stopped in mid-air. Even visits to their dad had to be curtailed as we isolated in our own bubble.
Suddenly we were all we had, our isolation made more restricted by my health, punctured 10 years ago by a diagnosis of chronic leukemia.
Memories of adolescent power struggles burbled up at first, as my sons found the voice to say they didn’t like me telling them who they could see and where they could go. I found the voice to say this isn’t a case of parent overriding child. "This is COVID," I said. "This is me doing what I have to do to stay safe."
There was the worst of it, early-on in March when it was discovered that one of their friends had symptoms and was being tested for COVID. Relegated for a week to the basement for quarantine, they accepted meals on the steps while we waited to hear the test was negative.
There were other moments, wrought of once-children, now adults, living up close to their mother again, disagreements over silly domestic things, whether to put the recycling in the kitchen or the garage, when (ever?) to clean the kitchen, will one of you ever notice the compost needs taking out?
We figured it out. Because we had to. Because we knew this opportunity wouldn’t last forever. Because we knew the gift that this was, a chance for three family members to be together again, this time as mutual grown-ups, not like those last years of childhood defined by conflict and separation, child distancing himself while the mother attempts to strap on one more lesson. There was, too, the opportunity for healing from whatever scars the failed marriage had left. There was no over ugliness between their dad and me. The split was amicable. It's just that something was missing in the house, and we all felt it.
Here, during our four months of COVID isolation, we filled the void. Whatever missing pieces are created when there is love lost, and then when a child leaves home, we had a chance to color in. Our conversations were no longer the conversations of child and mother, but conversations between and among mature adults, talking frankly, about what would happen if one of us gets sick, where are the important papers. Petrified that I would get COVID on top of cancer, they saw me when I was most afraid. And I let them see. Undistracted by other claims on our time, we engaged in contemplative activities we wouldn’t normally do together, sitting on the back porch for hours watching the birds, planting perennials I obsessively bought. We took hikes, sang karaoke on Friday nights, made meals, played drinking games (I drank water) and after George Floyd, immersed ourselves in racial-justice work. As for the two brothers, I could hear them in the kitchen like puppies, sometimes pit bulls, other times golden doodles. No longer feeling like I had to be the mother in the middle of everything, I’d lie on my quilt in my bedroom and just listen to the sweetness.
Our time together is done. The two of them are on vacation with their dad at Lake Michigan. But while Chris will be back, with plans to stay another six months or more, depending on the pandemic, Benjie will head West to a job 1,400 miles away in Colorado, with AmeriCorps.
I don’t know when I will see him again. Because of COVID, there wasn’t the usual "See you at Christmas" or "I’ll come visit when you get settled in" to soften his leave-taking.
But there was this.
I told Benjie his last week at home my regret — that in a perfect world, meaning one without COVID, I might have driven him to Colorado myself.
His response: "Yeah, Mom, but if COVID had not come, I would have been so distracted these last four months before I left home. Because of COVID, I was able to have this time with just you and Chris."
So much COVID takes with it in its wake.
So much it cannot.
Journalist Debra-Lynn B. Hook of Kent, Ohio, has been writing about family life since 1988 when she was pregnant with the first of her three children. E-mails are welcome at email@example.comFam-Hook-Col