Muscle memory told me to make eggs. To fry bacon and grill fresh sliced tomato. To catalog the remaining staples and begin my rounds of weekly linen exchange. But mundane routine had no place in our house that morning, even if every fiber of my being said otherwise.
The enormity of change sat like a weight on my chest. Shallow breaths and stinging eyes. I could not shy away from it.
From some fathomless abyss of motherly tolerance and strength, I stood a little straighter and promised myself I wouldn't beg him to stay.
"Mom. I'm 18, not 8. This is stupid."
"Please, not today Noah." I choke, and he relents. Scuffing my floorboards to oblivion while he lines every lanky inch up against the doorframe. Years of smudged marker lines and scrawled dates disappear beneath the musky punk rock sweatshirt he refuses to surrender to the hamper.
Noah smirked at my overhead reach, futile against his six feet of pale skin and gangly limbs. Yoga could only do so much for my extension. Grabbing the step reserved for dormant Christmas lights, I marked a thin black line above my baby's head, turning him around in my arms. It had been years since we stood back from the doorframe, and I know his allowance is placating.
"You've had a growth spurt." My voice wobbles, and I grip his shoulders tightly.
"Yeah, I guess," he shrugs. A mess of dark hair slides over his forehead like a sullen drape, blotting out his features. Obscuring the baby blues that once looked at me as if I'd hung the moon and stars. Now he pulls from my grip, away from my shelter, and I feel the distance between us like a gaping hole in my chest. That chasm yawns wider as he potters around the house, collecting the last packing boxes and a dark gym bag. Slinging the strap over his slim but broad shoulders as rumpled, musky clothing spills from the open zipper.
His footsteps are a deafening, ingrained echo. A tattoo I've lived and breathed since the day his chubby feet found purchase and ten little fingers released my furniture. For 18 years, I've measured our time in inches and milestones, dreading the day those things became miles and holidays. But that day had arrived, and I could not shy away.
I scanned the foot of the stairs for forgotten necessities, gently burying the impulse to hide anything essential enough to warrant a trip home or delay the inevitable. My breath catches at the familiar sight of Noah's carelessly discarded key chain. The chipped red die dangles precariously from the newel post, suspended mid-fall by his worn but sturdy Toyota key. My chest grows tight, and I feel the weight of the die. Dangling. Dragging. Pulling at the tether for distance, for freedom.
Aged hinges screech, and a trunk slams. I swipe the keys, and they jangle quietly against my skin. My swallow is painful as I move through the house, my fingertips grazing each date and jagged line on the doorframe as I pass. Through the kitchen, I run my palm over the scarred and aged wood of the barstool where a captivated young Noah would sit, watching me cook while posing more questions than a six-year-old could possibly fathom. My lip quivers as I move to the entryway and spot the cushioned bench, once permanently heaped with Noah's comings and goings. A moldy, forgotten school bag, an unidentifiable art project, an inexplicably worn-through pair of shoes. The once creme-toned canvas bore stains of every color and texture. It stood empty, and it was by far the worst thing I'd seen on the bench.
With salt-crusted cheeks and unsteady steps, I made the threshold and set my sights on the cobbled garden path. A gauntlet of scuff-polished stone imbedded with memories. A test of a mother's will and wanting, and all that stood between me and Noah's sun-stripped red Corolla hatch.
Each step played like a montage of Noah, my every natural and irrational fear setting the backing track. Smothering me. Choking me.
First days of school. Will he call like he promised?
First soccer games. Will he join a club? A fraternity?
First night away from home. Will he be a good judge of character?
First party. Will he be safe?
First date. Oh god. WILL he be safe?
"Mom? You look like you're going to be sick." Noah leans against the dusky hood, arms folded in his dark sweatshirt.
There's so much of him. So young and ready to try at this thing passing us by. I steel my wavering spine for the good advice I'm not ready to give because I should always be right there to give it.
But my boy moves a large, warm palm to my trembling shoulder and gives me a look years older than he.
"Ma, I need to be real for a minute. With you living alone, I need to know you'll be safe. Lock the doors every night, even the laundry door, I know you leave open for me to sneak back in," my lips quiver, but his face remains stern. "Move the hide-a-key, or get rid of it. I have my own set. And change up your routine every so often. I found this site with personal security tips. It said to do things like taking out the trash at different times, taking a different route home, only walking in familiar areas of the neighborhood, and turn your headphones down, so you're aware of your surroundings."
I blinked at my boy. My son.
"Mom. Promise me you'll be safe. I won't be able to think straight if I'm worried about you. And promise to call me every night, so I know you're ok!"
That yawning chasm imploded, folding in on itself as I wrapped my arms around Noah and breathed in the wisdom of the man I'd raised. Inches and milestones still separated me from my baby, but the years had brought me closer to the man in my arms. Sullen and unlaundered. Brave and tender. My fears and good advice seep back into the melancholy cobbles at my feet as I wave my Noah off and add another first to the many.
First day of College. I'm going to be ok.