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"I can't talk now, mom. I've got both hands on the wheel."

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Wednesday, October 13th, 2004 — I can remember the afternoon as if it were last week. I was coming home and saw the old Mercury Comet that my in-laws had given our son parked outside our house.

"Great. Neil's home," I thought.

Then it hit me. Neil was not home. He was 3,000 miles away. At that moment, it felt like I would never see him again. In a way that was true. Neil's life had taken off in new directions.

Kids grow up and leave home. Gradually or all of a sudden, they become new versions of the children we knew, adult versions. Intellectually, this realization is straightforward for parents. We did the same thing ourselves. Emotionally, it is a different story.

Sometimes I think parenthood is a cruel trick played on unsuspecting people. First, we await the arrival of a new baby with some trepidation, not knowing if we are ready or what to expect. Then we meet this new creature. For most people, it is not long before parent and child have bonded into a relationship that makes each the center of the other's existence.

Then come the years of exhilaration and exhaustion, trying to keep body and soul together while raising a young family -- followed by the usual trials, testing and tribulations of those teen years.

And just when you think you can finally enjoy these emerging adults, they leave home.

Not only that, they fall in love. The child who once insisted he would marry me, then noticed I was already married to his father and decided he and his imaginary wife would live down the street from us -- that child fell in love with another woman. And they couldn't afford to live down our Palo Alto anyway.

Children grow up, leave home and forge new lives, find new loves. It's not thatour children feel less affection for us, but their affection is necessarily re-ordered.

The parent-child relationship is turned upside down. Even though we have always wanted our child to find a mate with whom to share his or her life, this can be a confusing, bittersweet time for parents. Instead of being at the center of the circle we end up on the periphery.

For some, it is only a short step from there to feeling washed up and sorry for ourselves. Then the whining might begin: "Why doesn't she/he call us more often?" "If only we could do things the way we used to ...." and so on. If we are lucky, or unusually smart, we manage to keep such feelings of self-pity to ourselves, or at most share them only with trusted friends, saving our bright, entertaining sides to share with our children.

One of my favorite lines from Monte Python is when a cart is coming through the village during the plague, and men are throwing bodies into the cart for burial. One "body" shouts: "I'm not dead yet!"

We sometimes need to remind ourselves that we really are still an important part of the family circle. Once a parent, always a parent. Few want that to change.

The hard part for me is learning to hold this treasured space in my heart for my children with no strings attached. Everything about the way we and the world are made calls on kids to move into a widening circle of commitments. We continue to love our children even though we are no longer the only show in town.

This is not always easy. I would rather have it all. Instead I need to learn how to give up control and allow my relationship with my children to take a new direction.

When I don't do this, a distance slips in between us. I do not believe this is solely forgetfulness or neglect. I think it is self-defense -- a mother's effort to protect herself from the sting of life-altering loss.

Standing back, I can see a wisdom that holds our lives together. Last winter, in the middle of an Eastern blizzard, we got a call from our daughter-in-law, Neil's (real) wife, Amy, and our grandson. They were on the road in the storm. Amy and I chatted for a while, then she tried to give the phone to our son.

I heard him say, "I can't talk now, mom. I've got both hands on the wheel."

I heard this as both fact and metaphor.

Life comes full circle. We each have a place, and it evolves with time. We are happiest if we can remember that and give the circle our blessing.