Moving On Up:
A Mother Says Goodbye to Her Little Boy and Hello to Her Young Man
By Zibby Owens
Life has been hurtling through spring at warp speed. Between attending my four kids’ end-of-school-year parties, organizing camp forms, producing my podcast, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” and hosting book events, I’ve been going, going, going. Each day is packed, from the time I give my younger son his morning hay fever eyedrops to my final Instagram check of the night. It’s exciting and energizing to be doing so many things I love, but something happened recently that made my express train lurch to a halting stop.
I got an email from my 5th grade son’s teacher letting me know that he would be on stage performing in the school chapel the next morning. A little advance notice would have been nice but so it goes in #momlife. I pushed back two podcasts, lined up my mom take my little guys to school, and carved out the time to be there. Of course.
My son’s school gives students different roles in the weekly chapel: readers, a snuffer (who lights and puts out the candles with a giant gold rod), and someone who rings a gong. The chapel service is a lovely non-denominational ritual to which parents are invited each week.
When my son was in the Lower School, I almost never missed a chapel. His twin sister used to attend his school as well, so it was a no-brainer. I found, over time, that chapel was not only my favorite part of the school — and made me truly feel part of the community — but it also became my favorite part of the week. A time to pause and regroup. The chaplain would start off by gently asking us all to “sit up a little straighter in our chairs, with both feet firmly planted on the ground.” We would listen to the gong and go into chapel service present. Mindful.
This year I haven’t been able to attend chapel at all. My 5-year-old daughter’s pre-school chapel happens at the exact same time each week, so I’ve always gone to hers, a cozy affair in her school’s basement where kids sit on their parents’ laps on a red rug, criss cross applesauce, and sing folk songs. Middle School chapel for my almost 12-year-old, apparently, wasn’t the family event it was before. In fact, the one time I did manage to get there, my son didn’t want to be seen talking to me. In the Lower School I would watch him seated several rows ahead of me with his class as he turned and waved to me throughout the service. I even spoke at his chapel last year, the culmination of those chapels for me, about how I’d found my voice through writing. (Doing so led to my actually starting my podcast which has changed my life in so many positive ways.)
I didn’t realize how much I’d missed chapel until I went this time. It was one of those crazy mornings — actually, who am I kidding, they all are. I was running late getting all the other kids off to school and managing to dry my hair and put on something halfway decent myself. I plopped down near a parent I knew and said triumphantly, “I made it!” Then, I moved to a better seat up front. I wanted an unobstructed view of my son being the snuffer. He’d been a reader and a gong ringer in the past, but never this. He’d patiently waited for this job through every chapel for six years and now, at the end of 5th grade, it was his turn.
The timing was particularly good because he is going to boarding school next year. I swore I’d never send a child to boarding school, but he researched it, asked for it and fell in love with a particular school that also seems to have fallen in love with him. It appears to be a match made in heaven and he has been counting down the days until he can leave the craziness of our home, the hectic pace of New York and escape to the countryside. It’s what he needs. We all know this. I haven’t been sad about it because it’s so the right decision for him and all I want is for him to be happy and thrive in an environment that allows him to become his best self. But chapel jolted me into the reality that he was leaving.
My son walked on stage holding the gold rod, only the sounds of a piano playing, the room otherwise silent. Reverent. I watched him as he carefully lit the candles and then walked to his seat on stage and placed the rod purposefully beside him on the ground.
I couldn’t believe it. Standing there in the aisle, videoing the whole thing on my phone, I felt like life had been fast forwarded. How did my son get so big!? Wasn’t he just in kindergarten?! Scenes came flooding back like one of those movie montages in fast forward. Shaking his kindergarten teacher’s hand goodbye. His cubby in first grade. When I presented to his class in second grade about how to be a writer. Peeling apples with his class. The field trip when we collected trash on a beach. When we waded in the water and collected sea specimens. Picking up friends for group playdates. When I first brought his baby sister to pick him up and he proudly showed her off to his classmates. Then, when I brought his baby brother in. Going through a divorce. My getting remarried. Moving. A lot has happened to all our lives since that first kindergarten chapel.
And there he was. Mature. Handsome. Strong. Almost as tall as me. His feet bigger than mine. Confident. Proud. I burst into tears. I cried for the entire chapel which, to makes matters worse, was a round-up performance of all the best songs of the year, including “A Million Dreams.”
“I close my eyes and I can see, the world that’s waiting up for me, that I call my own.
Through the dark, through the door, through where no one’s been before, but it feels like home.
They can say, they can say, it all sounds crazy.
They can say, they can say I’ve lost my mind.
I don’t care, I don’t care, so call me crazy, we can live in a world that we design.”
I mean, really. I was absolutely bawling. How had the time passed like this? When, in all those crazy mornings and stressful bedtimes and all the rest of it, had my son emerged to be this young gentleman?
At the end of chapel, my son thoughtfully put out the candles while the auditorium watched, while I filmed and cried. Then the chaplain asked us all to recite together, “Let us bless this new day as yet untouched and undiscovered.”
It was the end of a chapter in my life. Book closed. My son is leaving the school. Turns out, even the wonderful chaplain is leaving.
In the fall, my 5-year-old will start kindergarten there. I’ll go all the way back to the beginning but with her. The waving to each other in chapel. Sitting behind her. Then, the following year, her little brother will (hopefully) join, until one day all of them will walk across the stage for the last time, snuffing out that final candle. What will my life look like by then?
The chapel ended and I raced onstage looking like I’d just come from a funeral.
“Mom!” he exclaimed, smiling and reaching over to hug me.
“Mom, stop crying! Are you okay?”
I just nodded and cried.
“I’m so proud of you,” I sobbed.
“I gotta go to class,” he said, looking me in the eye. “Love you, Mom. Bye!”
And he rushed off.
I was such a mess that the music teacher who had been leading the chapel walked up to me and said, “I think you can use a hug.” She hugged me tightly and kindly.
The smoke from the candles wafted up towards the ceiling as I walked out of the chapel. The feeling of profound loss coursed through me. I had lost who he was. That little boy. All we’d gone through together, the good and bad. Now, he was a young man.
It isn’t like they say. It didn’t happen “in the blink of an eye.” It happened in a sea of amazing and terrible moments, extreme highs and lows, moments when I wasn’t sure how to be the best parent to him, moments when I wanted to celebrate from the rooftops. It happened while so much else was happening in my own life, my other kids’ lives. It happened over the course of a zillion moments. Frozen yogurts on the way to the doctor. Trips to Barnes & Noble after school. Reading together on his bed.
It isn’t over, but now it’s different. And I just want to honor the end. The sadness I feel that this stage is over. That my son is moving on. Moving out. Moving ahead. Just like I always wanted him to. I just didn’t know my happiness for him would also feel so gut-wrenching.
Let us bless this new day.