Every weekday morning since my son was in kindergarten, I have made and packed his lunch. I’ve developed a system. First, I take out the bread and cheese and lunchmeats for his sandwich; scramble the eggs, toast the English muffin; pour the orange juice. I make myself a cappuccino while he eats at the kitchen counter. Then, I arrange his lunch box with military precision, learned over nine years of early morning sandwich-making. The juice box. The organic fruit roll-up. The Entemann’s soft-baked chocolate chip cookies. Years ago, I used to tuck a note in with his lunch. Full of xs and os. Wishing him a great day. I would draw a little mommy smiley face. I love you so so so so so so much.
It’s hard to believe that I have packed his school lunch for the last time.
Every weekday morning, I have watched my son and husband make their way down the stairs to the car and have called after them: Drive carefully! Have a great day! See you later! On the last day of my son’s eighth grade year, my husband and I exchanged a glance. In that marital glance, there was all of it. The awareness of this moment of tremendous change. That we are transitioning from one time in life to another. Just as the years of baby seats and plastic apparatus and bedtime stories gave way to tennis lessons and homework and class art projects, which, in turn, gave way to standardized tests and middle school dramas and team victories and defeats and boarding school applications, now, we are entering a new phase, one which will reveal itself to us as we enter it. Our boy, our only boy, is going away to school next year. There is no road map.
On that day, in the quiet of my kitchen, I glanced down at the book of Buddhist wisdom that I keep on our table. The book was open to a piece of wisdom from Pema Chodron:
“Thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly.”
And then I noticed the date. And realized that it was my mother’s yahrzeit, the Hebrew anniversary of her death.
She has been gone for ten years. I went into our dining room, where, in the sideboard, I keep a supply of yahrzeit candles. It is a measure of being at this stage of life—of having lost both of my parents—that I am always sure to have them around. (Our first year in rural Connecticut, I went out on the day before Yom Kippur to pick up a yahrzeit candle at the market, only to discover that I wasn’t in New York City any more.)
Alone in the kitchen, having just sent my middle schooler off to his last day of eighth grade, full to the brim with the awareness that he will be going to high school four hours from home come September, I lit the candle for my mother and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish. I thought of her with sorrow, with fondness, with confusion, with love. Anyone who has read my work knows that she and I had a complicated relationship. I wiped away my tears and climbed the stairs to my office.
I then settled myself on my chaise lounge surrounded by books. A former student’s galley I intend to blurb, that week’s New Yorker, a book for which I was writing a literary appreciation, piles of galleys of Still Writing. My cappuccino grew cold by my side. The dogs curled up in their beds. The house was silent. Crows pecked at the meadow outside my window. My boy was spending his last day at the only school he has ever known. My husband was at his office, digging into work of his own. Downstairs, in the kitchen, a candle flickered.
This is it—all of it—a rich, deep, contemplative, paradoxical life. Each hour full of the bitter and the sweet, the push and pull. Pleasure and pain in the same breath. To love is to risk. To love is to let go.
Dani Shapiro’s most recent books include the bestselling memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion and the novels Black & White and Family History. She teaches writing workshops nationally and internationally. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, O The Oprah Magazine, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications, and have been broadcast on NPR’s “This American Life.” She lives with her family in Connecticut. You can also follow Dani on Twitter and Facebook.
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