Monday, August 7, 2017

Letting Go

This essay, appeared in the Jewish Journal on July 27, 2017, but was written about a month before that.  Thank you to Editor Steven Rosenberg for publishing it and for his help in keeping the story short and (bitter) sweet. 
JULY 27, 2017 – Scrolling through social media yesterday I stopped to “like” my friend’s post. Actually, these days you can “love” a photo, and as I held the like button down to get to the word “love,” I felt tears welling up.
The picture was his 9-year old daughter, getting on the bus to go to sleep-away camp for the first time. There she was, this little girl, in her denim shorts with the white lace cut-outs, a hot pink baseball cap and a back-pack that looked like it held absolutely nothing, looking back over her shoulder, waving a final goodbye to her daddy.
Thirteen years ago, right around now, I was packing up my youngest child, a skinny 10-year-old boy, for sleep-away camp in the Berkshires. He had slept soundly the night before. I had been up until some ungodly hour, labeling every item of clothing, folding bedding and towels, cramming sports equipment into a huge duffel bag, and writing our address and stamping envelopes he’d never use.
Jacob loved camp so much he called it his home away from home. His camp friends became his best friends. He went back summer after summer and although he always continued with his Jewish studies through our synagogues, he will credit camp with the most vital of his Jewish learning, growth, and identity.
As his sister had done, he took advantage of the camp’s trip to Israel when he was 15 and the bonds with his friends became deeper. As his brother had done, he went to Israel for his junior semester abroad, and like his parents, attended Tel Aviv University.
I really wanted to visit him there and I knew he was wary about the whole family descending on him while he was studying abroad.  Looking back on my own experiences, I was a bit hesitant when my parents visited me at age 20, living in the dorms at Tel Aviv University. When I got on the plane in Newark that December, I was already quite self-confident, but I had never really had the experiences that would form the core of whom I was to become.
I did things in Israel I would never have done here in the US. Camping in the Sinai, no tent, just a sleeping bag under the stars, watching the sun come up over the Red Sea. Having nothing more critical to do than go snorkeling and trade for eggs and pita with the local Bedouin kids.
Hitchhiking on a day off from classes to get to the beach with a few American friends, realizing I had spent the whole day speaking only Hebrew. Going on a date with an Israeli guy and finding out that, due to the fact certain words were not yet in my vocabulary, I had agreed to going to a live sex show! Afterward, of course we went out for a snack, and as I learned, he knew the best place for hummus.
After all I had been through, I wasn’t so sure I was ready to be “parented” yet. I had also changed physically, my once straightened hair now long, slightly bleached by the sun, and curly. But when my parents arrived, after they got over the shock of my sundress, Israeli sandals, and wild hair, we had a fine time, and they wined and dined me, even setting me up on a blind date.
Believing I had my own son all figured out, we booked the trip anyway and planned to tread lightly on his schedule and plans. We took my older son and daughter, and thought we had a wonderful time.
After Jacob had been home for quite a while, more than a year, he referred to that time as less than stellar. I felt I had done so well in mastering the fine line between family time and giving him space. We fed him well, and then left him alone. But I guess that was not how he best wanted to spend those days. I then realized not only is he not a junior me, he is also not his siblings.
When Jacob graduated college last spring and announced that he won a fellowship to teach in Israel, I felt conflicted. Everything indicated parenting gone right, right? Then why did it feel so wrong? It would be a 10-month job. Apartment, car, money for food; a mother’s dream for her child. Except that I was no longer a part of that dream.
And, he asked us not to visit.
How sheepish I feel when speaking to people about how proud I am of the work he’s doing in one breath, and in the next answering the obvious question: “Well, no, I didn’t get to see him there this time.”  I just can’t bring myself to say “because he didn’t want us to come.” I told my husband recently I wonder if I will look back on this and regret it, or if I did the right thing, respecting his autonomy.
This Israel-loving, independent child is now a 23-year-old young man who is living a life that I barely get to see. There have been some posts on Facebook, short messages via WhatsApp, and a few phone conversations. Just enough to know that he’s fine.
And recently, sadly, when my mother-in-law passed away, Jacob was on a plane and with our family as we grieved. There was no conversation about whether he should come home, just the logistics.  He was fully present and there when it mattered.
He is due to come home at the end of next month. Texts about jobs and plane tickets go unanswered. I look forward to seeing him, and hopefully, having my choices validated. As surely as I returned from Tel Aviv a changed person, I am considering that this is what will happen with my son. But his way.
For now, I have had to settle for scrolling through all of my friends’ photos of camper’s smiles, with the hope that I will see my son’s smile somewhere in my news feed.
Jacob and me at a Tel Aviv Beach during his Junior year. 
Juliet Barr is married, and the mother of three. She is a Jewish educator and has worked in congregations and Jewish federations in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Washington. 

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