When I was pregnant with my first child, Johanna, Craig and I were living in Bristol, England while Craig pursued his PhD. We lived in a tiny terraced house in a working class neighborhood south of the river known as Bedminster, small houses that had been constructed in the 1800's for miners and their families. Behind each house was a small area walled on two sides that connected to a back alley, ours by swinging gates. One day we noticed that a nearby factory had been pulled down, leaving a mountain of discarded bricks. Feeling young and adventuresome, still fairly new to marriage and excited to be building a life together, we decided to collect these bricks and construct for ourselves a back wall, an enclosed back garden for our little Jo.
I remember the day so clearly. It was a warm and sunny day in June. I was 4 months pregnant, dressed in overalls and a tank top, and Craig had an old pair of jeans and a faded red shirt. I was scraping off the old mortar and carrying the bricks to Craig who lay them in wet concrete. I remember feeling expansive and unencumbered in my heart and wishing this same freedom for my daughter. As I worked, I sang Johanna this lullaby, "Fly oh, fly oh, spread your wings and fly, oh. Fly oh, fly oh, you can come home to me." I remember thinking about that day when she would grow up and fly into the world...even then I knew what was coming and how hard and joyous this would be.
As the afternoon wore on and our backs grew weary and the work lost some of its sheen, an old man appeared in the back alley right beside our half built wall. He was carrying two glasses of sparkling wine and two chocolates on a tray, which he held out to us with a smile. We had not met him before, but apparently he had been watching us out his window, and he had decided it was time this young couple took an afternoon break.
I remember being so delighted by this random act of neighborliness, here in this working class neighborhood of South Bristol. We stood chatting with him in the golden light of the sun. I ate the chocolates, Craig had the wine. We discovered he'd been the caretaker of the cathedral, that he'd lived in the neighborhood most of his life. I remember being utterly smitten with him. I remember thinking how I wanted to be the kind of old person who brings sparkling wine to strangers while they work.
This weekend, my dear daughter Johanna had her high school graduation ceremony. I hold her in my heart, preparing to release her, preparing to watch her rise up and take flight. Last night I stole into her room in the middle of the night - "Jo, I love you." " I know, Mom. I know you do," she said, sleepily, and then turned over. I found myself singing that old song again, "Fly, oh, fly oh, spread your wings and fly, oh. Fly oh, fly oh, you can come back to me."
Next year my son will graduate, and my nest will be empty, at least for awhile. The unique work of mothering children, which felt like it would last forever, is coming to an end. My pregnancy instincts were right - watching her go is as hard and as joyous as I sensed it would be. But I glimpse in this new beginning a chance for me to grow up too. This is my opportunity to become that old person who brings sparkling wine and chocolates to a young couple great with child, who lingers for a chat in the long gold of the afternoon sun.
When you look at the world from far away, things can look pretty grim. But from close up, there's so much beauty. So much kindness. Everywhere. Let's not loose heart. We can do this. As long as there is someone to love, there is meaning. There is life.