Guardian angels

We spent the weekend visiting our son in Eugene, Oregon, who had invited us to get a glimpse of his college life and spend time with him and his friends. Although I am not a jewelry person, on a whim I put a bracelet on before we left for the airport.

The only other jewelry I wear are my wedding and engagement rings, and a necklace that was a college graduation gift from my grandparents, a simple gold chain with a heart. I did not wear it much when it was first given to me; it was too “little girly” and too showy at the same time. But years later, I wore it at our wedding, which was one day after my grandparents’ 61st anniversary. Their heart over my heart felt just right for that day, then back into the jewelry box.

But eighteen years later, when my grandmother was diagnosed with a tumor in her jaw, I put the necklace back on. It was a reflex, like it could protect me from the coming loss as I began to understand that soon she would not be at the other end of my phone call or sitting on her sofa when I entered her apartment. I kept it on after she died and have worn it almost every day these three and a half years later. When I do take it off, it goes in a particular place of safekeeping.

My grandmother, Lilli, kept a few guardian angel pins in a little wooden box on her coffee table. They had been gifts from my aunt, a nod to Lilli’s oft-proclaimed belief that she had a guardian angel watching over her, who made sure everything always worked out. She did not wear these pins, but to me they represented her magic, a reminder of her world view. After she died, I asked if I could keep them, and they stayed together in their box on a table in my house.

I decided to pin one to my sweater when I accompanied my sister, mom and niece to help my niece move into her dorm room for her first year of college in St. Louis a few years ago. It was an emotional and busy weekend, and when it was time to leave, I put on the sweater with the guardian angel, but it was not there. Had it fallen off? I looked for it everywhere. In every drawer, behind and under the furniture until there was no more time to look. We had a plane to catch. I asked the staff if they would be on the lookout for it. I left my phone number with the hotel management but knew that I would not get a call.

As we pulled away in the taxi for the St. Louis airport, I berated myself for my carelessness. But soon I felt a sudden shift, as if my own guardian angel had whispered to me, and I realized that I was leaving behind a totem to watch over my niece, as if it had hidden itself from me on purpose.

Guardian angels cannot be seen or touched. They cannot be pinned to cloth or kept in a box. They are a belief system. A choice to assign meaning to luck. A way of feeling less alone, less vulnerable.

Yesterday, an hour into our flight home from Eugene, having spent some meaningful time with our son and seeing his world, I realized that my wrist was naked. The bracelet I had put on at the last minute had gotten tight in the night. I would call the hotel when we got home, but in my heart I said goodbye to that delicate chain. The things that count are not things.

And maybe that little bracelet is another piece of me left behind, a totem of love that charges the northwest air just enough to send sustenance to my son when he needs a vibration of home, something he cannot touch but might sense.

This is what I will remember.

(Or maybe, someone will find it and at least put my absent-mindedness to good use. May they wear it in good health.)

They Get Taller Than You

Sometimes the most biting truths, the ones that come as the biggest shocks, are the most obvious. You miss them because they are in you, you are breathing them.

For instance, my sister said the other day, speaking of her daughters: “I never had the conscious thought, ‘One day I will wake up and they will be taller than me.’ I knew it, but I never thought about it. Then when it happened I thought, I wish I could go back to yesterday and just be aware that that was the last time.”

I had my own “so obvious I refused to look at it” moment last week. Those kids you’re so consumed with raising to be responsible, productive, independent souls, will someday actually go do that. They will become their adult selves, they will move out and onward and become people you have to make a date to see for dinner.

Of course this is not news — we began saving for college when they were born — but I have refused to look at it. Maybe it is denial. Or maybe it is getting caught up in the demands of today, that tricks you into feeling that your life will always be exactly as it is right now.

In my first year as a mother, I spent so many red-eyed 3am’s rocking my baby in my arms that I felt that that would be my life forever. I would forever hold his entire weight in my arms and absorb the rhythms of his body in my heartbeat.

It’s all I can do now to remember that feeling.

So last week the realization that time is passing grabbed my face in its palms. It forced me to look at it. My sons are 11 and 14, which translates to “we have time, but also, not so much.” That infant is in high school.

What prompted this realization? A jokey conversation we had about how much my teen is going to love living on his own, doing what he wants, watching football all weekend uninterrupted. The next morning, I woke as though remembering bad news, recalling that conversation. Then I came downstairs with a different attitude toward making breakfast and packing lunches. It’s just a short time more. It’s just a short time more.

It was the same lesson I learned in that dark bedroom, the first year of his life: “This is finite. Be in the moment.” It settled me down, reminded me that the bad and the good of it were not forever. Life’s plans would catch up to us. Mothering babies taught me to be in the moment like nothing before or since. It’s part of why that first year felt like it lasted so long. Each day had more in it.

That’s all I want now — to elongate the days together. But staying in the moment is harder with bigger kids. The days race by. They play on their own. They want their own space. I try to stay close. I offer a back scratch. I look at them and wonder if today is the last day I am taller than them.