I walked with my oldest son Noah on the prairie Sunday night as emerald dragonflies swooped over a landscape abloom in a riot of wildflowers. The air sung, a symphony of trilling insects and rasping cottonwood leaves, a bobwhite’s questioning call, a goldfinch’s exuberant twitter. All around us the hills shimmered with sunlit bluestem.
It was astonishingly beautiful. And yet, I was gripped with sorrow.
My mind was on the young man who had taken his life the day before. A boy Noah had grown up with through elementary and middle school. A boy with a mom and a dad, with siblings and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. A boy with a whole life yet unlived. A boy.
Last week I sat on my back patio and watched, rapt, as a large wasp with iridescent midnight blue wings straddled a dead cricket on the cement near my feet. The wasp hitched the insect to the underside of its abdomen and then scooted with its cargo toward the dirt under the barberry shrub, where it backed down into a hole, dragging the cricket behind it.
I was curious – curious enough to Google “black wasp and cricket” to see if I could find more about this puzzling behavior. From my research I learned that the cricket wasn’t actually dead; it was paralyzed. Turns out, after mating, the female black wasp doesn’t scavenge for a dead insect but instead immobilizes one that’s still alive – typically a grasshopper, cricket or katydid, a bug with substance. After dragging her paralyzed prey into the hole she’d dug earlier, the wasp lays a single egg onto the insect. She then goes back out to capture two additional insects to add to her lair, ensuring the nest is well-provisioned. Upon hatching, the larvae, safely cocooned in the host, have plenty of food to sustain them until they mature and are ready to emerge from the burrow.
As strange and perhaps macabre as it might sound, I admit, as a mother I can relate. Like the female wasp, I, too, endeavor to do everything I can to protect my children – to cocoon them in safety, to provide for them, to ensure their health and well-being. I, too, would like nothing more than to keep my boys swaddled forever in the security of my home and my protection, as far as possible from the many threats and dangers this world presents.
And yet, I know that like the mother wasp, I, too, must release my children into the larger world and allow them to emerge into themselves.
The truth is, this scares me. I am afraid to let my children go. I am afraid of the many threats I know about and, even more, the many I can’t even begin to fathom. I am afraid of what I can’t control, afraid of the fact that as they venture farther and farther away from the nest, the less I am able to protect them, provide for them and help sustain them. I am afraid, too, that the more they begin to emerge as themselves, the less I might know them, the less I might understand them.
Sunday night I opened Facebook Messenger to send the young man’s mother a note of condolence. I typed in her name, still at a loss as to what I should or could say in the face of this inconceivable tragedy. There in the chat box, unexpectedly, was the thread of our last online conversation. It was from August 2010, a note confirming plans for Noah’s ninth birthday party – pizza at Old Chicago and a movie, Despicable Me. It was a quick exchange, noting the time for drop-off at the restaurant, the time for pick-up after the movie – mundane, ordinary. My heart broke over what we couldn’t have foreseen then. My heart broke over everything that was still possible nine years ago.
“Time wants to show you a different country,” wrote the poet William Stafford. Sunday evening I walked with my eighteen-year-old son on an astonishingly beautiful evening on the prairie. Side by side we bent low in the grass to peer at an elegant orb weaver, remembering the spider we once nicknamed Clem after we discovered it nestled in the clematis vine in our garden. Side by side we snapped photographs of sunflowers, purple thistle, feathery bluestem. Side by side we walked the grass path to the top of the hill, where we leaned against the weathered fence and waited for the setting sun to paint the clouds before it slipped below the horizon.
I think nine years ago I naïvely hoped I might be able to keep my children safe forever. I think I pretended that we could stay cocooned. As each year passes I understand more deeply, more painfully, how impossible this is. Each year I also see and understand a little more about the country time is revealing to me, a country that is both more beautiful and more heartbreaking than I ever could have imagined.