Before Haley and Jake graduated from high school and went off to college, I had a reoccurring dream. I’d be doing laundry and look up and realize there was a door hidden behind the spot where I hang clothes to dry. I’d part the damp clothes (a little bit Narnian, yes?), open the door, and discover a previously-unknown bedroom. A rush of relief would come over me: this new bedroom would mean no one would have to share a room, and that there’d be an easing in the space everyone used in our house, so fewer sibling tensions.
I always laughed a bit when I woke up from the dream, because it was such an obvious message from my psyche about the things I was worrying about—my kids being happy and having the space they need to explore their identities, as well as my frustration that I couldn’t find the answers I needed through the normal routes. Only magic or secret bedrooms would help, and as I didn’t have those, I continued being frustrated, wishing I could fix things but never finding the unknown door to answers.
I had that dream a few times after Haley moved out, but I haven’t had it at all since Jake moved out. We have plenty of space now, and while it is painful and diminishing in a very specific way, having your kids leave—I miss them quite a bit—it is also sort of…rewarding, I guess. To see them move forward and begin to figure out their lives on their own. To watch them form their own spaces, as it were.
Last night I had a sort-of similar dream that helped me recognize something I am feeling right now in my life.
In this dream, I was again standing by the just-remembered door in the laundry room. When I opened it, I discovered that the hidden room held a bunch of boxed-up treasures. All of the clothes I wore as a young mother, favorite sweaters that had been lost or worn out, my pink flowery capris I wore until they fell apart. My kids’ baby clothes, the tiny newborn gowns, their favorite toddler outfits and first-day-of-school T-shirts; Jakey’s “basket shoes,” a tiny pair of Michael Jordan’s that he loved more than anything, Nathan’s favorite belt, all of Haley’s spinny dresses, Kaleb’s beloved white blankey. Boxes of all the crafts I’ve ever intended to make but haven’t gotten around to, Christmas gifts and Mother’s Day gifts and birthday gifts now crafted and stacked next to appropriately-sized and themed gift bags. Quilts that I have imagined in my real life but never finished, entirely finished and obviously bound by me (I always have one wonky corner). Photo albums, with pictures neatly arranged in plastic sleeves—beautiful photos of all of my kids, alone and together, photos of them with their parents and friends and siblings and cousins, each one perfectly composed and crisply focused, with depth of field that made me weep. These were all photos I had never seen and didn’t remember taking, but they brought me to memories I cherish (in my waking world, I mean, not my dream one). I also found a box with scrapbooks I had forgotten I had made, and these were all about how I felt through all of my various stages of motherhood, from my first pregnancy to our most recent vacation. There were kids in the layouts, but the pages themselves were about me, my joys and frustrations and treasured moments, a record not of their lives but of mine as their mother.
My own little Cave of Wonders, except not jewels and gold, but wealth of a different sort. A gathering of objects that, when touched or looked at, could remind me more clearly how it felt to be that person I used to be, when I wore or made the object, or when it was loved by the people I love.
I did laugh, a little, when I woke up. Those photos were so beautiful. But it was a teary sort of laughter, informed by self-realization. I remember once, when I was in the thick of mothering little kids, my mother told me that the happiest time in her life was when we were all little. Her comment both reminded me to savor those days, instead of complaining my way through them, and made me a little bit sad: is that really the only happiness we get? The sweetness of little children? Isn’t there sweetness as they grow and become adults?
I am discovering that yes, there is sweetness. But it is a complicated, layered sweetness, like an extra-dark chocolate filled with a rich salted caramel. It is delicious, but it is not simple anymore. I love my children so much, all of them. I love seeing them find their way in the world. But this phase of my life isn’t easy. Of our lives; life isn’t simple—for me, but especially for them. There have been injuries and bruises and lingering scars and we have all been changed. We will all continue to change.
So I curled in bed this morning, remembering my dream. Thinking about how clearly my psyche was saying take me back. And how hard I wish my waking self could remember exactly how that felt, to have the simple, uncomplicated love of young children surround me every day. I am not wishing away my right now, yearning for what used to be. There is only forward. But clearly, my dream told me, clearly I miss it. And I am afraid of losing those memories, afraid I haven’t written enough down, snapped enough photographs, saved enough used-up objects.
Clearly I would like to revisit it somehow, even though I know that room doesn’t exist. It’s just empty wall behind the drying laundry.
I can’t believe my mother was right—that all of my happiest days are behind me. I know there is joy in the future, too. There is joy right now. But, as we face yet another new school year starting, Nathan’s senior year and Kaleb’s first in junior high, I am feeling nostalgia for what-used-to-be. I am wishing I could revisit and maybe revise, maybe somehow get things right, ensure fewer bruises, fewer scars. Or even just scoop one of my children up again, in their chubby baby selves, and hold them close, and know that simple love again.
Even though I know that is a locked door that is lost forever.