How Her Sons Taught Her To Embrace Change

Accepting that her five sons were growing up was hard for this mom. Her kids helped her let go with grace.

Posted in , Jul 15, 2019

Shawnelle with her sons (from left), Gabriel, Samuel, Isaiah, Grant and Logan

I woke to pounding. Bam, bam, bam. What was that racket? I got up and looked out the window. My husband and the two youngest of my five boys were in the side yard, working under the canopy of our Norway maple. Tools lay scattered on the ground.

They were taking apart the boys’ wooden swing set.

I ran to the porch door. “What are you doing?” I shouted.

My sons stopped working, and my husband, Lonny, walked over. “I guess I should’ve given you a heads-up,” he said. “I’m sorry. The boys haven’t used the play set for a long time.” He tugged at the bill of his baseball cap. “We decided it was time to take it down.”

I’d known this would happen sooner or later. Little boys grow into bigger boys, and bigger boys have so many other things to do. Swim club. Baseball and soccer. My youngest, Isaiah, was 10, and the next youngest, Gabriel, was 12. But I wasn’t ready. “You’re right,” I said. “We should have talked.”

Lonny tried to hug me, but I pulled away. He understood that taking down the swing set was hard for me. Maybe it was hard for him too. But a mama’s soul is different ground, and this meant the end of an era. Change was happening and would continue fast and hard.

I followed the path that cut through the side yard to get a better look at the destruction. The sight of the discarded wood planks made my hands close tight. “How could you?” I whispered.

As frustrated as I was with my men for not letting me in on this project, the true, deep frustration was with myself. How many times would I fall into this same chasm? I thought I’d learned to deal with the children growing up—with a fair amount of strength and grace even. After all, my oldest was in law school. My next was well on his way out of the nest too. I’d set my boys free to go to a public school after years of home teaching. Yet here I was again. Wanting to freeze time, to box and store the days as if there were no expiration date on their childhoods.

The swing set had come to us on the back of a flatbed truck more than a decade ago, when my older sons were 12, 9 and 2. We’d just moved from a tiny cottage to an old Victorian, and the wooden play set was the first thing we’d unpacked. Whatever adventure they tackled on it became my own: pirates who hauled loot to the top platform with a bucket and rope. Cowboys wielding wooden rifles. We’d draped bedsheets over the tower to make a canopy tent and scooped sand in the box below. A baby swing was hung from the center bar when two more sons were born. Then came the big-boy swings and a trapeze. Next, a set of rings. I’d spent hours behind those swings, pushing babes and toddlers and boys while we sang made-up songs and the sun browned their skin and turned their hair a summer white.

I missed those times as my boys grew. No more afternoons playing or reading books together in the tower. Instead we spent hours in the family van, running here and there from one activity to the next. There was no way that the future could be as sweet as the past, was there?

The boys stacked the timeworn wood. I couldn’t watch anymore. I went back to the house. Maybe a run would help me sort through my emotions.

My oldest son, Logan, stood on the porch. He was home for a rare weekend visit from law school. “I’m leaving for a run too,” he said. “Want to go together?”

I nodded. A few minutes later, we ran behind our house. City blocks gave way to country roads and farmland.

“The swing set,” Logan said. “It’s hard for you, right?”

“It is.” Logan knew how I resisted change. I’d kick and scream to keep things the same if it would make a difference. I’d asked God, over and over, to help me live with my hands open, to release the memories I clung to so I’d be ready for what he planned next. But it didn’t take long for fear to creep in again. To make me feel as if the ground were crumbling from under me.

“You’re really good at this, Mom. Raising boys,” Logan said. I looked at my grown son. Slim and strong. Kind to slow his pace to mine. Kind to know my struggle and to meet me where I was emotionally.

“Thanks, Logan,” I said. I wanted my boys to grow into the people the Lord intended them to be. Why couldn’t I just roll with things?

Because taking down the swing set was more than dismantling ropes and wood. The empty space in the yard made room for a question: After the wild beauty of raising kids, could life ever hold the same luster?

Our yellow Lab barked in greeting when he saw Logan and me coming down the hill toward home. I could see, from this vantage point, that the activity in the yard continued. “I think I’ll run down the block and go in the front door,” I said. I could look the other way as I ran past the wrought-iron fence that had once held my children safe, away from the road. But as I came closer, my two youngest yelled for me.

“Mom! Look! Come see!”

That was the last thing I wanted to do. I imagined the dirt patches in the yard—bare brown from years of sneakers scuffing the grass under the swings. I thought about the joy of those little boys, years ago, when we first anchored that swing set under the outstretched arms of our Norway maple.

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Isaiah called again, and Logan nodded in encouragement. I walked over the drive and opened the gate. Took the five steps down to the patio, careful to look at my feet and not at the side yard.

“Mom! See?” Gabriel grabbed my hand. “We finally did it! We’ve wanted one for so long! Look at Isaiah!”

I let my gaze settle on the side yard. My chest tightened at the reveal of the empty space. But then there was my youngest—in the tree. Isaiah stood on a platform that had been built into the lower branches of the maple. His smile shone with pride. The wooden ladder that once led to the tower of their play set leaned against the trunk. Though Isaiah stood on just a few narrow planks of wood, I caught the vision: a tree house in the making. A tall, high, hidden place for growing boys.

The swing set was being transformed into something different. Something new. Though the structure wasn’t the same, the wood was.

And this tree house—it held fresh promise. I could imagine the boys having sleepovers up there—sleeping bags rolled out and flashlights glinting like fireflies on a summer night. I imagined them playing games and reading books and shooting slingshots under the cover of leaves. The best part? They couldn’t wait to share their joy with me. They were talking a mile a minute as they climbed the ladder and jumped down and then climbed up again. As they dreamed bigger-boy dreams out loud, I noticed Logan pick up tools to help. I remembered his words of encouragement—the kind of love and wisdom that comes from a grown-up heart.

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

“Beautiful?” Isaiah said, scrunching up his face. “It’s a guy place, Mom.”

But I wasn’t talking about the tree house. I was thinking about life. About how it can’t stay the same. Ever. But if only I’d let it, all that was old and outgrown can be transformed into something exciting and new. Something wonderful.

I looked up at my sons in their new tree house. This time my smile matched theirs.

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