I’m washing up in a restroom at the Oklahoma City airport and for a moment I can’t place my location: hospital? hotel? restaurant? Elegant water faucets and gleaming granite countertops add to my sense of disorientation. I don’t even recognize my own hands. Looking down at the palms rubbing together, the lather foaming, I watch with detachment as water rinses the suds away to reveal age spots and scars. The shrieking of a turbine dryer cuts the air and I’m fascinated and horrified in equal measure by the effects of high-velocity air on crinkly, tissue-paper skin as it undulates against bird bones, exposing skeletal phalanges and large blue veins, tendons as taut as violin strings. These can’t be my hands.
But they are, as are the 50 years it took them to become this weathered. As is this face that looks back at me from the mirror, eyes reddened and tired, cheeks gaunt — succulent youthful flesh gone, hair a bit frizzy. I lean in closer and smooth my makeup. I reapply my lip-gloss and pat down a few errant curls.
“You’re a grandmother,” I think, scrutinizing my reflection.
Two weeks and two days ago my first grandchild was born; the son of my only son. Jeremy and his wife Carly live 7½ hours south of us. This is my second trip down. The first, an urgent drive prompted by the onset of labor was a magical drive through the night, alone with my thoughts. I wasn’t sure I’d make it, but, as it turned out, life threw the kids a few curve balls. From a long and difficult labor to an emergency C-section to a baby in the NICU, nothing went according to plan. They were thrust into an unforeseen reality both frightening and uncertain.
When it became clear the baby wasn’t going home any time soon, I stayed. It wasn’t even a choice; there was nowhere else I could be. My husband, Steven shouldered the domestic load, my colleagues covered at work, and my busy life went on without me.
After ten long days Ashton was diagnosed with a heart defect that required an immediate operation. I went home for a few days to regroup and came back for the surgery. This time, with Steven traveling on business, I took my daughters who still live at home, Sydney, 14, and Haley, 10, out of school and brought them along. On that momentous day, they sat with us in the waiting room. Headphones on, they munched on Cheez-Its and Slim Jims while I kept my hands busy knitting a baby blanket. Thoughts of the pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon operating on a tiny newborn’s heart the size of a walnut raced around my mind. I tried instead to concentrate on the prayers uttered by many to guide those skillful hands.
Time stretched then folded in on itself; surreal, interminable. Then suddenly, the gowned doctor was there and we exhaled in learning Ashton tolerated the delicate procedure beautifully. A full recovery was expected; the new family would be on their way home soon.
Heady with relief, celebratory even, we’ve come to the airport now to pick up my husband; his absence has been felt. With some logistical creativity — a bit of planes, trains and automobiles — we maneuver to get everyone where they need to be. And in the midst, our typical routine churns along demanding attention. A perpetual balancing act, it’s been the norm for a very long time. Making the choice to spread our children out over 18 years has resulted in a parenting marathon.
We have friends in the trenches of young parenthood; their lives filled with diapers, sleepless nights and temper tantrums. Friends running from soccer games to piano lessons, who help with homework and college applications. We meet them at orchestra concerts and cheer practice and neighborhood BBQs.
We have friends in empty nests; their children gone to college or moving away to embark on careers. Friends welcoming new members into their family as their kids get married and have babies of their own. We swap stories about in-laws, the cost of weddings, and the phenomena of boomerang kids.
We don’t, however, have many friends who’re in both, and who consequently experience what I call CPF: chronic parenting fatigue.
Our oldest, Melissa, was a senior in high school when we were pregnant with our youngest, a fact which repulsed her.
“Ew!” she said, “You’re going to be old parents.”
And she was right. We’re kind of old already and we’re not done yet. I often wonder what will be left of us when all the kids are gone? Who will we be by the time we get there? We are not the same people we once were, not the same couple. The idea that marriage is both strengthened by the challenges of family life and crushed under its weight seems a paradox, but it is profoundly true. Steven and I have never stopped loving one another, but this is not to say we always like each other. Stress and exhaustion make us irritable and sometimes we’re just not nice. Everyone else gets the best of us and all that remains for our beloved is the dregs: we are robbed of the person we love most.
Those are the times I miss my sweetheart. I miss the belly laughs his sharp wit never fails to provoke. I miss his pride in my accomplishments, his comfort when I’m melancholy. I miss the pleasure of his company; gourmet dinners and stimulating conversation. I miss the end of the day when our minds unwind and our bodies entangle; when we make space for each other’s innermost thoughts. I miss spontaneous weekend getaways and leisurely lovemaking. I miss his everyday kisses.
Without these things we’re great business partners, roommates and co-parents, but we aren’t the friends and lovers we started out being. Without this spark of intimacy, our day-to-day is reduced to an endless to-do list wearing us down. And out. As Garth sang, we’re “much too young to feel this damned old.” Stepping out of our responsibilities and indulging our love affair is the only way we’re going to see this through.
It’s beautiful to watch our son and daughter-in-law lean together when life necessitates they surrender control; when patience and the ability to set aside their own needs is called for. Faced with this daunting new role, I wonder if our son knows his parents grapple with the same demands and sometimes teeter on the edge themselves. I doubt he knows what’s ahead in the long haul, but I do know the richness will be far greater than he could ever imagine.
I hitch my purse to my shoulder and take one last look in the mirror.
“Not too bad for a grandma,” I surmise and turn to walk out.
Leaving the restroom my eyes cast forward down the long shiny corridor to the baggage claim where the kids have been waiting for Steven. And then I see him. I drink him in like water in the desert.
He bends over to hug Haley. Sydney throws herself over his back. Jeremy and Carly cluster around him. Everyone is talking at once and I walk toward them, unnoticed. My husband looks up over the top of Haley’s head and our eyes meet. I can’t help but smile as my feet lead me steadily to the arms I can feel around me before I get there. Weaving my way through the commotion, I come in closer and stand on my tiptoes.
“Hey, Granddad,” I whisper, brushing my lips against the 5-o’clock shadow on his jaw. “Let’s go see our baby.”
In that moment I love every chaotic, ecstatic, dynamic morsel that makes up our life and it is all wrapped up in this man, inextricably woven into our journey together. He’s my one and only. Eventually, we’ll make it to a tropical paradise or at least to St. Louis for a weekend, but for now, this is all I need.