Apodaca: Summer signals a time to let go

June is a time of changes. All over Newport-Mesa, families enjoy the beginning of summer. Children finish another year of school, graduation ceremonies are held, and plans for the future are made.

I often tell my two sons that change happens whether we invite it or not, and it's up to us to make the most of it. Why then is it so hard sometimes to accept the constant onslaught of challenges that parenthood brings?

Just when it seems that we've adapted to one phase we find ourselves once again thrust into unfamiliar territory. The first steps, first day of school, first date — these are the milestones by which we measure the progress of our children's lives and test our ability to cope with unending transformation.

Forgive me, dear readers, for my musings on the nature of parenthood and change. I am facing transitions with both my boys.

My younger son — egad! — just got his driver's license, and I'm still adjusting to watching him walk out the door without me, and waiting for the sound of his car pulling back into the driveway.

And my older son, who just completed his third year of college, will for the first time not be coming home for the summer — which really means, if I am brutally honest with myself, that his home is no longer with me.

I do my darnedest to accept these changes with grace, though I'm not always successful. I try to smile and convey fortitude when inside my head I'm screaming, "I'm not ready!"

Wasn't it just yesterday when I blissfully held my newborn boys in my arms and kissed their tiny faces a thousand times, promising that I'd always be there for them? Why, in heaven's name, did I not consider the inevitability that they would one day leave me?

That is the essence of parenthood, after all. Our job is to prepare our children to leave us, to be strong and confident enough to venture out in the world and forge their own paths. Letting go should feel natural, like silently lifting that steadying hand from the back of a child's bike.

Yet nothing about parenthood is ever as straightforward as we imagine it should be. We live with the niggling thought that we're on borrowed time; that our role as parents, while lifelong, is maddeningly changeable.

Like earthquakes, those changes can strike without warning, catching us unaware. During my son's freshman year in college, he once greeted me at his dorm room door with the news that he'd gone skydiving. Zap! The ground had shifted again.

For the past two summers, he's returned to Newport Beach and worked for the city as a beach parking lot attendant, an ideal summer job.

He'd regale us with stories about tourists at the Balboa Pier who asked for directions to Newport Beach, or the driver who threatened to run him down after hearing that the lot was full. He played host to visiting college friends.

Then last August, I said goodbye to him in Rome, where he was enrolled in a study-abroad program. I had urged him to apply for the spot, yet as I flew home I cursed the tail winds that pushed the jet faster and further away from my boy.

The day he was to return, one week before Christmas, I was awakened by a call in the wee morning hours. He was stuck in London, where snowstorms had forced airport closures. Heathrow was in chaos, and he required help.

I sprung into action. He needed me! I spent the next five days glued to my computer, phone at my ear, pleading and cajoling airline employees for help. I was imbued with utter conviction that through sheer force of will I'd get my son home for Christmas.

His rebooked flight was one of only a few that made it out of England before Christmas. When I arrived at LAX, I spotted him across the bustling airport terminal. Like a scene from a movie, he called to me, and we ran to each other and embraced.

He was home.

This summer he'll stay in his apartment in Los Angeles. He has a part-time job, an internship, a nighttime class, tons of friends and precious little time for me. He's making his way in the world, and that's how it should be.

Before long, and certainly before I'm ready, my 16-year-old will be on his way as well. He's an ebullient, adventurous young man, and I can't wait to see what he does with his life.

And I dread it.

My dad used to call me his "little one." As I matured, I'd remind him that I wasn't little anymore; I was a grown woman. He'd smile and reply, "When you're 90 years old, you'll still be my baby."

I'd pretend otherwise, but I cherished those words. Somewhere in my stubborn brain I knew that I'd always have a safe, warm haven when I needed it, a place of acceptance and unconditional love. My parents didn't have to hold my bike, but they still had my back.

As our children grow, we greet each new step with a mixture of anticipation for what could be, joy for what is, and nostalgia for what was. Every day brings challenges, and though we sometimes feel unprepared to meet them, we forge ahead because — well, because that's what parents do.

My sons will lead their own lives. This I know. But they'll always be my babies.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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