T-Minus Zero: Thoughts on Launching My Son Into College


Today is the day. We have been planning for it for over two years now, even before my son’s junior year in high school when we toured colleges, when he took ACT prep courses and AP classes, participated in all those extracurricular activities, solicited recommendation letters and completed the college applications. It was almost all-consuming, until this May when he finally made his decision to attend a college a two-hour plane ride away.  We could finally breathe a sigh of relief.  Then, reality set in and we began to plan. Shopping, sorting clothes, packing, arranging travel.

We are on an early morning flight, bound for Portland, Oregon to move my son into college.  It takes three parents to do this—his dad, his step-dad and I.  I am almost sure my son will have the most parents to move him into a dorm suite he will share with three other young men.  With all those parents and four students in one single room it is sure to be crowded.  But I would not miss this for anything.  Never mind that despite all my planning, late night packing and barely sleeping, we almost missed the flight because we left too late from the house.  Perhaps I was delaying the inevitable?  Anyway, my husband Juan and I made it without a moment to spare.  My son had arrived at the airport with his dad and was already seated on the plane.  Juan and I found our seats next to my son, and directly in front of his dad. It’s kind of strange to be traveling all together like this, but then again, it really isn’t.  I know that all of us who have played a role in getting our son to this moment, would not want to miss it.

As I settle into my seat and calm my racing heart I hear the voice of a little boy in front of me.  From the space between the seats I can see he has strawberry blonde hair.  The passenger seated beside the boy engages him in a conversation. From the sound of the boy’s voice I guess him to be about 4 years-old. He is talking about Mickey and Minnie Mouse and coloring in a Disney coloring book. All of a sudden I am transported back to a time when I would sit with my own sweet 4 year-old blond-haired son, and read, over and over again, the story of the Tonka Rescue Helicopter.  I close my eyes and try to recall the sound of 4 year-old Nico’s voice, but I can’t. I promise myself that soon I will convert all those video cassettes with countless recorded memories into a digital format, so I can actually watch them and hear my son’s 4 year-old voice.

I look over and see my son, headphones in place, eyes closed, and realize he is the same boy who I read to all those years ago. Then it occurs to me he is not. His once blond, fine hair is now a thick dark brown, and he has grown into a young man, ready to embark on a wonderful, challenging and exciting adventure—without me.

He is ready.  I, on the other hand, may not be.  My son has been a joy to raise and I love having him around.  He is thoughtful, funny, sensitive, bright, kind and good.  I don’t want college to change that.  As much as I know college will challenge him to think and experience beyond the familiar,  I hope that the values we have tried to impart on him will sustain him.  I keep thinking there must be more I can say to him, some wisdom I can share to prepare him, but I know there is nothing else to say right now. We have talked about everything, some of it sensitive enough to embarrass him.

So we are here, about to launch this young man into a life away from his family.  I realize that we didn’t begin this process only two years ago. We have been preparing for this moment his entire life.  I look over at hm, napping, and I am glad. I don’t want him to see me blinking and squinting, trying unsuccessfully to keep the tears from rolling down my face.  He is already concerned enough about his parents because he knows this transition will be difficult for us.  I don’t want to cause him any more concern by seeing my tears.  I use a cocktail napkin to dry my eyes and I know that even though I am sad at the thought of  his leaving, I am deeply, truly excited for him.  I think that means that I am ready too.

image

Ready to launch. College here he comes!

Family Vacation in Colombia: A Wish Come True?

I am writing this somewhere over Mexico, en route to El Salvador. My final destination is some two hours after that, Medellin Colombia. Why Colombia? Well, you might recall, a little over 3 years ago Juan and I traveled to Italy for my 50th birthday, and as part of my list of 50 Things to Do Before 50.  Juan didn’t have a list of 50 things he wanted to do, but he liked the idea of taking a birthday trip. We considered all sorts of destinations to mark his milestone birthday—Argentina, Spain, or perhaps even Portugal? They all sounded like wonderful and romantic locations for the both of us to get away. Ultimately, his birthday wish was to travel to Colombia. The country of his parents’ birth, the country where he spent many happy summer vacations of his youth, and the place where found solace when his first marriage ended. So here we are traveling on, appropriately enough, Father’s Day. It’s an appropriate day to begin this trip because the second part of Juan’s birthday wish was that we take this trip with all four of our kids. He wanted to experience Colombia with our kids, and show them how special this country is to him, and introduce them to the extended family who live here. You know that adage, “Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it?” That’s kind of how I am feeling.

Blogging somewhere over the Americas.

Blogging somewhere over the Americas.

If I sound like I am anxious about this trip, it’s because I am. Not since our disaster of a family vacation in 2008 have I ever dared to think we would all travel together for any extended period of time. That year, I spend an inordinate amount of money and time planning a week-long vacation at a beautiful resort on the Mexican Riviera. I had high hopes that the kids would spend hours on end in one of the four resort pools, complete with a lazy river and water slide. They would occupy themselves while Juan and I lounged poolside, reading and sipping tropical drinks. Instead, one of us spent the majority of time sleeping in the darkened hotel room, others complained of heat, humidity, foreign food, and the lack of internet, some of us got the “Turista” and the balance of the time we spent trying to pretend we were enjoying ourselves. The week ended with a major meltdown where some of us ended up flinging clothes at each other and the rest of us couldn’t wait to get home and back to work again.

A happy moment before the turista hit and the vacation imploded.

A happy moment before the Turista hit us and the vacation imploded.

Here it is eight years later and we are trying it again. This is not to say we haven’t all been together for any trips. We did a short camping trip with friends who ran interference among siblings, and we took a vacation with my extended family.  There were enough adults to act as referees, allowing us all to get away relatively unscathed. That is, until the ride home from the airport which ended with an embarrassing teenage temper tantrum, and my parents racing to their car so they could drive themselves home to their peaceful retired life.

This time around I am trying to manage expectations and yet I still have hope this vacation will be different. The “kids” are not kids anymore. They are almost 21, 18, 17 and 11. Olivia just got home yesterday after a semester in France. Maybe her travels abroad and maturity will enable her to roll with the punches and not throw any at her sister. Erica has gone through a lot in the last year, and she has learned techniques to help her regulate her emotions. Now, If she could just put the techniques to use when she feels triggered. Nico has always flown under the radar, and acts with the neutrality of Switzerland during most family conflict, even when he knows better than to stay silent. With only two months left before he leaves home for college, I hope he can find it in himself to speak out instead of going along to get along. Diego is just the right age to enjoy this vacation with the siblings he loves, and not so old that he doesn’t want to hang out with his parents. I am also excited to see how fluent he has become since finishing his elementary school education in a Spanish language immersion program. As for Juan and I, we know that with the kids being the ages they are, this could very well be the last time we vacation together as a family. I just hope that we all get along well enough that none of us regret Juan’s birthday wish.

image

Ready for take-off. Who looks more nervous?

My First and Last Blog Post of 2015

Has it really been over one year since my last blog post? 13 months and 11 days to be exact. Looking back on these many months it’s not surprising. When I first started this blog I intended to use it as a creative space to write about my life as a mother raising four kids in a family of “Yours, Mine and Ours.” I wanted to explore such themes as blended families, parenting, divorce and remarriage, and delve deeper into my own family history, particularly my Mexican heritage. Over the last six years on this blog, I wrote about all of these things, and even had some of my posts published here and here.

As my children matured and reached adolescence, I wanted to shift the focus of my blog. I felt that some of the stories I wanted to write about were the kids’ stories to tell. This became even more complicated as one of our family members was faced with a mental health crisis which impacted our entire world. I felt I could no longer write about those funny or light hearted anecdotes when my heart felt dark and heavy. My writing did not seem authentic. I was presenting my family to the world in a Brady Bunch fashion, when most of the time it looked more like Modern Family without the laugh track.

Three years ago, as my blog started to gain some attention in the social media universe, I was contacted by Parade Magazine because they planned to do a story of the “New American Family.” The magazine was featuring the changing compositions of the American family and was going to include our blended family in the article and use our photo on the cover. I was excited about the project, and the prospect of the article generating more exposure to my blog. The kids were less excited but agreed to go along until the last minute, when our family member, displaying the emotional deregulation that would foreshadow a yet undiagnosed mental illness, refused to cooperate. Reluctantly, I called the magazine writer and told her that my family was no longer available to be the face of the new American family. I was angry and disappointed but looking at it now, I can see how difficult it would have been to depict our family in such a positive light, when the reality was so different. Mental illness began to wreck havoc on all our lives. I started to blog less and less, feeling like I could no longer write about my well blended life, when my life felt more like it was upside down and falling apart.

So, why post to my blog now, the last day of 2015? Juan jokingly said it’s because I need to justify the money I spent paying for my website server over the last year. I am posting now because it is the last day of 2015 and I want to mark it. An entire year has past without me memorializing a single event in my life or our family life. A lot has happened—both good and bad. I want to mark today as the end of my silent blog and the beginning of my authentic blog. I intend to be respectful of my kids’ stories and I also want to be honest about my story. I hope to find a way to balance both. I want to write truthfully about the experiences of my entire life—the happy, sad, funny, dark, and ordinary parts of it. Maybe that really is a life well blended.

Family Movie Night

Recently, it was a big day in Diego’s life and in the life of our family. It was definitely blog worthy. Ten years ago, Diego entered our family and changed all our lives.  He had been talking about his big TEN birthday all year long. I guess he wanted to be sure that I would not forget that it was a special birthday for him. He really didn’t need to be concerned–his birthday also reminded me just how special his is to our family

I’ve written about Diego before and his special role in our blended family. Lately, the blending in our family is really a huge mess. It’s a lot more grinding, mashing and straining than blending. Last year Olivia left for college while things were tense at home. Erica has been spending most of the time at her mom’s while we try to stay connected and involved in her life. Nico is exercising his independence more and more. Juan and I are challenged to stay united and strong during these turbulent times.

On the eve of his 10th birthday, I asked Diego to tell me about some of his favorite things.  He recited a long laundry list of his “favorites.” Perhaps, in an effort to make up for the absence of record-keeping in his baby book. I promptly memorialized his list here:

Diego's Top Ten at Ten

Diego’s Top Ten at Ten

One of his “favorites” which surprised me a bit was when he said his favorite thing to do is, “Spend time with my family.”  I was surprised because for the last couple of years our family life has been so stressful that sometimes the least favorite thing for me to do is “spend time with my family.” There, I said it.  I sometimes feel that with all the chaos in our family, I am tempted run away and change my identity. But, this was about Diego, not me.  Diego loves it when we are all together, when his sisters are home and they can get along, when his brother stops talking on the computer or doing homework long enough to play video games with him, and when we can all sit down together for a family movie night.

On the eve of Diego’s 10th birthday,  Juan and I sat down and watched Diego’s birth video. One of my favorite parts of the video is when I am in my  hospital room and Juan brings the older kids into the room to meet Diego for the first time. Nine year-old Olivia bursts into tears, six-year old Erica is looking bewildered and excited and five year-old Nico is just taking it all in with a sweet smile. There’s a lot of excitement and chatter, and I explain to the kids that their new baby brother might recognize their voices. Olivia asks, “Did he think he was an only child?” I couldn’t help but burst out laughing! I laughed at the thought of how much Diego would have hated being an only child. In spite of the constant challenges we face in our blended family, Diego still experiences enough happiness that being with his family is one of his favorite things.

The next day with Olivia home from college, and Erica and Nico home from the other parents’, we all went to dinner to celebrate Diego’s birthday.  Afterwards, we went home to eat cake, and have a “family movie night” with Diego’s birth video.   The kids started laughing  at the sound and sight of younger versions of themselves, and of course we all burst out laughing hearing Olivia’s question and watching Erica put her unwashed hands all Diego’s face even when Juan told her to use the hand sanitizer! I looked over at Olivia and noticed that was tearing up and wiping her eyes as she watched her younger self weeping at the sight of her new brother.  Diego was beaming with pride and joy.  I looked at all of us, and felt joy at the sight and sound of us together and happy.  In that moment, I was reminded how this could be one of my favorite things too.

Meeting their brother in 2004.

...And Now

Celebrating with their brother in 2014.

Treasuring the Treasure Hunt

When I was about 12 years old my family went on a road trip to visit relatives. My cousin and her family drove in their van along with us.  During a particularly boring stretch of highway 5 I asked to ride with my cousin. We sat on the floor in the back of the van, (without seat belts) and amused ourselves by telling stories, and playing games. One of the games we played involved giving each other the chills. My cousin taught me a rhyme that went like this:

Going on a treasure hunt,

Going on a treasure hunt.

Up goes the snake that bites,

Down goes the blood,

Cool breeze.

Tight squeeze.

Now,  you’ve got the chills.

As she said the rhyme my cousin tapped my back (treasure hunt), pinched my neck (snake bite), blew on my spine (cool breeze),  and squeezed my ribs (tight squeeze). By the time she traced her fingernails along my back and uttered the words, “Now you’ve got the chills,” my skin was covered with goosebumps.

When I became a mother, I learned that bedtime rituals are an important part of helping kids transition to sleep. I made sure I performed the typical rituals of bathing, brushing teeth, and reading books. Now that my youngest child is 9 years-old he takes care of most of these rituals himself. But one ritual my son Diego will not ever let me miss is the Treasure Hunt.

Every night after he has completed his bedtime hygiene he tells me, “Come on Mommy, let’s go.” Then, I follow him to bed where I squeeze in next to him and begin the Treasure Hunt. Using  my longish fingernails, I tap, pinch, blow, squeeze and trace my fingers on his back.  Diego not only gets goosebumps, the hair on his arms stands on end. Some nights I am so preoccupied or tired that I beg off doing the Treasure Hunt, and suggest his dad do it instead. My husband, the nail biter, is a poor substitute.

Last week, on a night when I was so busy I still hadn’t finished the dinner dishes by 9:00pm, I grumbled that maybe he should ask his Dad to tuck him into bed. Diego’s face appeared so crestfallen that I was promptly reminded that these rituals wouldn’t last forever and the dinner dishes could wait. I lay down in his twin size bed and began…”Going on a treasure hunt….” When I was done I heard Diego shudder and saw his arms covered in goosebumps.  I laughed softly, happy I made time for this moment. These times will pass all too quickly. Then, we had this exchange:

Me: What are you going to do when you’re all grown up? I’m not going to do the Treasure hunt.

Diego: Why not?

Me: Well, you won’t be living here and you may be married. Besides, your wife might get jealous.

Diego: She won’t be jealous. You can do the Treasure hunt on her too.

It worked! He's asleep.

It worked! He’s asleep.

Do you have any special rituals that you do before bedtime?