A Mother Lets Go

My son was ready to grow up—I turned to prayer to help me let him.

Posted in , Oct 7, 2009

Mother and Son

My son Thomas’s lanky 17-year-old body filled the length of our couch, his broken left leg propped on pillows.

His entire leg was wrapped in a soft cast, the bones near the ankle fractured during August football practice. Exactly what I’d warned him about.

Glued to his hands was a video-game controller, the one he’d grabbed as soon as we came home from the doctor’s office yesterday. How long had he played that thing? Well, at least he’d be hungry.

“How’s the leg feeling this morning?” I asked. “I brought you a protein shake for breakfast—with a curly straw. Remember how you used to love those?”

“Uh-huh,” my son grunted, his fingers madly directing baseball players across the TV screen. “How ’bout a waffle too?” I said. “They have calcium in them.”

Thomas didn’t take his eyes off his TV, as if I weren’t in the room. “Thanks, Mom, but I’m not hungry. And I don’t use curly straws anymore,” he said.

“I just thought it’d cheer you up,” I said. “It can’t be fun having a broken leg. But you have to keep your appetite up if you want it to heal. I’m your mom. That’s what moms do—take care of their kids.”

Thomas shook his head, still not looking at me. “I’m fine, Mom. Really.”

I walked up the stairs and looked back at Thomas. Even with a broken leg he didn’t want my help. Doesn’t he even want me to be his mom anymore? I wondered. A question that increasingly tormented me.

Okay, so Thomas was growing up, but what had happened to my baby, the sweet boy I’d prayed so hard for?

I thought back to when he was little. We used to do everything together. He would hold my hand on nature walks, the paths slippery with moss. I made him shakes. I could picture him slurping one through a curly straw. Sitting at the table with his shake he shared secrets with me, like which Matchbox car was his favorite. He was crazy about his collection.

It all seemed to change the day he turned 15. It was like I’d contracted the plague. I was the last person he wanted to be around. He certainly stopped asking my advice. And look what happened! I’d told him (and his dad, Rick) football was dangerous. How could I get him to understand he still needed me?

All day he never called me for anything. When I brought him supper he mumbled, “Thanks,” his eyes never leaving the TV. I stood waiting, thinking he might say more. But nothing came and I trudged upstairs to eat dinner with Rick. “What is wrong with that boy?” I cried.

“He’s a teenager,” Rick said. “Both of the girls went through it.”

“He’s pushing me away. Why? I don’t know how to be his mom anymore, but I need to be his mom. And he needs me!”

“Give him some space. That’s what he needs now,” Rick said. “He’s almost a man.” I frowned. Rick didn’t understand. He and Thomas got along great.

A couple of weeks later Thomas was back at school in a cast. It felt too soon. I talked him into letting me drive him to school, but he refused to let me carry his backpack to class.

He hopped on his good leg, slung the pack over his shoulder and grabbed his crutches. “I’m not a baby,” he said before hobbling toward the building. But I’m still your mom, I thought. Why won’t you let me help you?

With his friends, Thomas was different, animated, laughing easily. The most I could get out of him was a mumble, but he talked to them for hours about football and weight lifting. I noticed how the other boys respected his opinion.

“We used to talk like that,” I complained to Rick one February evening. “Now he never listens to me.”

“We have to let him make his own decisions,” he said. “He’s a smart kid. He’ll learn from his mistakes.”

What if I let Thomas choose—and he chose to give me the cold shoulder the rest of our lives? I spent the rest of the evening depressed until, alone in the bedroom, I gave up and prayed. God, please show me how to be the mom Thomas needs. Show me what to do. I’m totally lost here. I thought I knew how to be a good mom.

Nothing changed until a few months later when we went to the doctor for a checkup. His cast removed, Thomas hurried down the hallway on his crutches. “He’s doing well,” the doctor said. “He can start using a cane—if he feels the need.”

“Are you sure he’s ready for that?” I asked, trying not to sound like I wanted Thomas to remain an invalid. I mean, I didn’t did I? Of course not! Yet it dawned on me I needed Thomas more than he needed me…or needed to need me. He was my baby and I was afraid to let go.

Thomas came back into the room. “Feel this,” the doctor said, guiding my hand over where the bones had broken. Under the skin was a hard lump. “As the tissue grows back it makes the bone thicker, even stronger. The best thing to do is let nature take its course.”

There was something curious about the way the doctor said: Let nature take its course. Was he talking about Thomas’s leg or something else? That night I flipped through the Bible.

The doctor’s words reminded me of a verse and I wasn’t going to sleep till I found it. I came to Ecclesiastes 3. “A right time to hold on and another to let go.” All those years I’d spent holding Thomas’s hand. Nourishing. Teaching. Protecting. I didn’t know any other way to be a mother.

A few days later I went to his bedroom armed with a single index card. I’d written in Magic Marker, “I’m so proud of you. I’m praying for you. I ♥ you. Mom.” That was all. I slipped the card under his pillow.

He never mentioned it. For all I knew he threw it away. It had been more for my benefit anyway, a way to tell him I loved him without getting in his way. Gradually, I started smiling more and stopped pushing so hard, stopped questioning his decisions. I bit my lip more.

One morning I watched Thomas in the kitchen getting ready to go to school. “I’m staying after school today. Weight lifting,” he said. He walked to his truck, tall and steady, without his cane. I wanted to tell him to take his cane, wanted to tell him he wasn’t ready for weight lifting yet. Instead I said, “Thomas, I love you.”

He looked over his shoulder at me. “Love you too, Mom.”

“What are you putting in those protein shakes?” my husband said. “You two seem like you’re connecting.” I smiled. How could I tell him what I’d learned—that sometimes the best way to hold on is not to hold on at all?

One Saturday morning in August, just before Thomas turned 18, I was putting away socks in his room. I came across a familiar card in the top drawer, tucked right beside his favorite childhood Matchbox car. I pulled it out.

There was the note I had written him. I traced the words with my finger. I went back upstairs. I heard laughter coming from the backyard. There were Thomas and Rick throwing a football. I couldn’t help but notice that Thomas was taller than his father.

Rick was right. Soon we would have a new adult in our family. Yet in my heart, where all good things grow, he would always be my baby.

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