Tomorrow is Isobel’s 18th birthday!
When my obstetrician revealed the expected due date – Valentine’s Day — for when my child might be born, she was careful to preface the news by informing me that women rarely give birth on their due dates, so she didn’t want me to have any unrealistic expectations. In turn, I informed her that I rarely if ever miss deadlines and she could be sure that I’d give birth some time within the 24 hour period of February 14th, 1996.
The week we expected our child to arrive, in addition to our exquisite anticipation, we were also experiencing ever increasing concern about the circumstances under which he or she would be born (We did not know we were welcoming an Isobel into our lives prior to her birth). There had been a major winter storm that had dumped huge amounts of rain and snow and in the storm’s aftermath, there was flooding of record-breaking magnitude. One of the many consequences of the flooding, besides the Willamette River spilling over fortified banks and dykes into the streets of downtown Portland, was that the route from the rural area where Isobel’s father and I lived at that time to the hospital where my obstetrician was on staff was submerged under many feet of water. In addition to our “nesting” behaviors – I spent days baking lasagna and cookies, making chili and soup to stick in the freezer so that I’d not have to concern myself with food in the days after bringing our baby home; Isobel’s father spent any time he wasn’t working taking naps and incessantly chattering about wanting to go salmon fishing so that we’d have a stock pile of wild caught fish – we watched the weather forecasts and charted alternate routes from our home to the hospital.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to use any alternate routes. Our journey was largely uneventful, if you don’t count the fact that I was transported to the hospital along dark country roads in the final hour of February 13th by a semi-crazed soon-to-be-father who was experiencing sympathetic labor pains.
Isobel Monique Coen, our daughter, our Valentine, emerged into this world at 4:59 a.m. on February 14th, 1996.
Tomorrow is Isobel’s 18th birthday.
Yikes! How did this happen? 18? 18! This is kind of a big deal!
Yesterday, one of my students asked me how I was going to deal with having “empty nest syndrome” once Isobel leaves home for college. He said that he’s never experienced this malady because he’s not a parent, but he’d heard from those who are parents about the suffering involved with the “empty nest syndrome.” I responded by saying that in order to suffer from the “empty nest syndrome,” I have to first actually believe that it exists as something experientially real (whatever “real” means in this context) and not just a socially constructed expectation. I said that I will definitely miss Isobel when she leaves for college in August (I already know how to miss her when she’s just away for the weekend.), that there’s no doubt that my life will be different when the two of us are no longer living together, but otherwise I’ll have to wait until I’m actually in the middle of the transition before I’ll have any insights about my particular experience.
My last words to him as we walked away in opposite directions from one another were in the form of a reminder of the socially constructed nature of the meanings we give to particular ages and stages and transitions. His last words to me were that he was used to seeing me in black clothing and noticed that I was actually wearing colorful clothing; I said that I had been know to wear colors on occasion and that on this occasion I was wearing colors (red, in particular) in honor of Isobel’s upcoming birthday.
If you know me, you know it is a safe bet that in the gerontology course I teach this afternoon I’ll mention at least once that the significances with which we endow particular ages – 18, 21, 65 – or life course stages (Raise your hand if you are in “mid-life.”) are artifacts of specific times/places and spaces. And I’ll emphasize that though these significances and meanings seem to have solidity and substance and essentiality, they have come on the scene of human experience rather recently historically; they haven’t always existed, and they won’t always exist. Even more to the point, they didn’t just “come on to the scene” out of nowhere; human beings actually created these age-based structures and systems.
That’s the theory, any way. But what about the experience?
The way I see it, I have a choice to make. I can create suffering by engaging in anticipatory grief about the near-future event of Isobel’s 18th birthday, followed by her leaving home – leaving me! – to begin her adventure as a young woman in the world. And I can further intensify this suffering about the future by also allowing my mind to dwell on the past, by riding a closed loop of nostalgia for the preciousness of a younger Isobel (and a younger self).
Or, I can cultivate through my daily gero-punk practice the causes and conditions for being as present as possible to the present, to our shared, unfolding journey into this next new phase of our intertwined lives.
Today, on Isobel’s birthday eve, my practice involves contemplation and meditation and walking and writing this little essay and wrapping Isobel’s totally awesome and unprecedented birthday present and teaching and having a late family dinner at a restaurant we’ve always wanted to go to.
Tomorrow, on Isobel’s 18th birthday, a significant part of my practice will involve cultivating gratitude that I get to spend some time in the morning and some time in the evening celebrating with her, before and after she spends the majority of her birthday hours with her gang of lovely friends.
In honor of my Valentine and to incarnate the next phase of our journey together and apart with love, hope and courage, I thought I’d share the beautiful bit of verse that I choose 18 years ago for Isobel’s birth announcement:
“… A single cell quivers at a windy embrace; it swells and splits, it bubbles into a raspberry.
Soon something wholly new rides the wind…”
–From Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek