When We Were Young

by Katrina Willis
Originally Published: 

We lived at Chris’s family farm, the three of us. Sam was the sixth generation Willis to inhabit the 100-year-old farmhouse. We tore out old ceilings, built bigger closets, painted every surface that could be prepped and sanded. We sang and danced a lot then, that cerulean-eyed, 10-pound baby in my arms or strapped to my chest. James Taylor was our favorite. We played loose with the pronouns because the bigger words, the meaning, mattered more.

Something in the way she moves or looks my way or calls my name that seems to leave this troubled world behind.

When Sam arrived 18 years ago, he turned our lives upside down. My childhood dreams and ambitions never included being a mother. Instead, I had grand plans to take the world by storm in my high-powered business suits and my sharp-edged heels. I never enjoyed babysitting as a teenager. I wasn’t interested in diapers and strollers. And then, everything changed.

Image via Katrina Willis

Four babies in five years.

And if I’m feeling down and blue or troubled by some foolish game, she always seems to make me change my mind.

Like everything I choose to embrace, I jumped head-first into that new life direction. I was all short hair, wide middle and spit-up stained rugbys. I willingly gave myself up to Desitin and Johnson’s baby powder and late-night feedings.

And I might have lost myself a little, too.

Every now and then the things I lean on lose their meaning, and I find myself careening in places where I should not let me go.

Chris and I often said to each other in those early years, “It’s all about survival.” And at times, it was. When our babies were 6, 4, 3 and 1, there wasn’t much time for anything else. The too-short days were made long with meal prep, nap schedules and bath times.

I fell asleep before I could get through a paragraph of a favorite book.

I forgot how to use lipstick.

Fast-forward 12 years. The fastest-forward you can imagine.

Image via Katrina Willis

We’re packing Sam for college now, and George is simultaneously boxing up all his stuffed animals and Snap Circuits.

Those four babies we had in five years? Their departure has begun. In five more, they will all be out of the house. Even their beloved childhood puppies are feeling the crunch of time, whiskers gray with age, joints creaky and slow. They whine at my feet as I write, and I shush them with gentle words, “I know. I know. Go to sleep, love.” They deserve to sleep. After years of calmly tolerating tail and ear-pulling and staunchly protecting us from UPS deliveries and garbage collectors, they have earned their rest.

Thinking about Sam’s imminent departure catches in my throat from time to time, that achy, can’t-quite-swallow lump. But not because I’m sad. It’s a funny feeling, this one. Something much more profound.

It isn’t what she’s got to say but how she thinks and where she’s been. To me, the words are nice, the way they sound.

It’s a conglomeration of misty memories and chubby baby thighs that have become strong, sturdy man legs.

It’s a treasured collection of childhood songs—from They Might Be Giants to “The Rainbow Connection”—that pop into my head from time to time, cycling through my brain. (“We know that it’s probably maaaagiiic…” sung in a tiny, uninhibited, fearless voice.) My propensity for sappy love songs and Sam’s devotion to electronic dance music land us at a car-driving compromise of Florence and The Machine.

It’s the saying goodbye to a life in which we’d all become comfortable and opening our arms to the adventure that awaits. Who will Sam become when we no longer clip his under-18 wings? What will Gus choose to grow into when he no longer lives in the giant shadow of his larger-than-life brother? Who do I get to be now that my role as mother of four kids under 5 undergoes a job description update?

Our possibilities are limitless.

She has the power to go where no one else can find me and to silently remind meof the happiness and the good times that I know.

I want to remind him to brush his teeth twice every day. To clip his toenails regularly. To change his sheets more often than he deems necessary. To wash his towel before it can stand on its own.

I want to talk—one more time—about responsible drinking, about never leaving a friend behind, about taking care of himself and those he loves. I want to remind him to eat more veggies and less Taco Bell. To advocate strongly for himself and for the people and causes that move his heart.

But that would just be redundant. For 18 years, we’ve instilled those lessons.

We raised a handsome, strong, smart man.

His toenails are his responsibility now.

The choices he makes are his own.

So are mine.

We’re ushering each other into our new, awaiting lives, Sam and I. He is teaching me that as I open my arms to let him go, those same arms are being filled with possibilities.

And I feel fine any time she’s around me now, and she’s around me now almost about all the time. And if I’m well, you can tell she’s been with me now. She’s been with me now quite a long, long time and I feel fine.

Sometimes, when I lie between sleep and waking, I can still smell the intoxicating scent of his sweaty baby head. The moment I open my eyes, it is gone. But the muscle memory remains.

Image via Katrina Willis

It will remain forever.

This firstborn, he has always been my greatest teacher.

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