Everett has been away from us now for five months, one week and four days.
I didn’t know the exact count until preparing to write that first sentence: I haven’t been marking the calendar with an x every day; I haven’t been keeping a countdown.
Which isn’t to say I don’t miss him, that we don’t miss him. Every once in a while, one of us will just say so: “I miss Everett.” A short, honest utterance that is as apropos at a family birthday celebration as it is in an otherwise silent car while waiting at a traffic light. Everett’s absence from among us, while neither unhappy nor unsettling, is also not welcome. Things are not as we prefer them.
He has been serving with YWAM, first in Hawaii and, for the last several months, in the Caribbean–mostly in Haiti. It’s the travel portion of his gap year, a grace of time between high school and college. This was the program he chose: one that allowed him to do some sailing, that gave him a chance to travel and serve others, that fostered his love for Jesus.
Meanwhile, we go about the business of missing him, which on the surface doesn’t look much different from when he is home. We are doing basically the same things–just without Everett.
Of the (now) six of us, Everett is the quiet Stevenson, the one most likely to come or go without announcing it, to be engaged in what he wants to do without bothering anyone else.
In light of that, we have pretended from time to time that he’s still home–which is pleasant for about ten seconds. He could just be downstairs, we tell ourselves, or on his way home from work.
And we jump when he calls. The other night Emma was talking with him, and suddenly she cried out in a pained-but-still-happy sort of way and said, “Everett, I just remembered that thing you do when you want to get a sip of my drink!”
Immediately I saw it, too: Everett leaning toward her glass or drinking straw, pursing his lips, making a silly sound. He does it often enough, but I hadn’t thought of it in months because that joke of a gesture belongs to him.
We were sitting on the living room sofa when he called. I was waiting for my turn to talk with him, and when Emma recalled aloud that simple gesture, my heart just sort of bottomed out from missing him, missing all the things that make him Everett, his inimitable, adorable, silly and deeply thoughtful self.
We have a space in our lives shaped like Everett. No one else can fill that.
I think there are two basic types of mothers. The first type watches eagerly for her children to achieve. She wants them to grow up, move on and out, find their way in the world.
The other kind rejoices in the achievements, but does so with a wary eye. She is keenly aware of what these developments mean: that her child will grow up all too soon; the baby she has loved will be gone. Her child’s childhood will be over, and she doesn’t want that. Not really.
Each type has strengths: impulses and practices that nurture children. And, I suppose, each has its weaknesses.
Confession (if you haven’t guessed it already): I fall firmly–for better or worse–into the latter type.
I follow an Instagram account that celebrates the glories of early motherhood. In truth, I follow it because I like how its owner decorates her home, but I enjoy the pictures of her several children and the busy-ness that I remember so well.
But there was a picture not long ago that, it would seem, I will never forget– less for the image than the text beneath it. The picture was, of course, Instagram-worthy: outdoors on a bright summer day and a clothesline, draped in bedding, in the foreground. The sun filled the sheets; the sheets gapped and gave on to the focal point: a galvanized tub sitting in the grass, and in it, happily playing, a chubby and apparently naked baby.
It was a beautiful image. A scene of domestic contentment, of cleanliness achieved in exceptional simplicity.
And the text beneath it, in the voice of the Instragammer herself: “My mother told me that I will never be this happy again.”
Is that true? Is that springtime of life, when one’s children are very small, the happiest time? When you know they are safe in their beds at night, their stomachs full of good things and their minds with pleasant dreams?
When nothing goes truly wrong for them and–if it does–you can make it all go away?
Everett went off to school in the second grade, age seven-and-a-half. I had homeschooled him and his siblings before that. His world was his house and his backyard, the neighbor children and cul-de-sac, errands with mom and playdates with friends and the climbing structures on the mulch-lined playgrounds of our church.
His siblings took to school without hesitation, but this was not true for Everett. He struggled mightily for a month with a level of distress we didn’t quite know how to handle. The fact that I was teaching at his school was of no comfort: we were in separate buildings, and his building felt huge. The children in the hallways overwhelmed him; the noise and even the smells of this unfamiliar place were too much.
There came a day when he was able to articulate his problem. It wasn’t that he didn’t like his classroom, his teachers, his new friends. It was that he wasn’t sure I knew where he was. With trips to the gym, the art and music rooms, with excursions to the playground, how could he be sure we could find each other at the end of the day?
As if I would leave school without him. As if I wouldn’t notice, pulling out of the parking lot, that he wasn’t in the car.
As if, were he to go missing, his father and I wouldn’t move heaven and earth to find and bring him home.
So I printed out a copy of his class schedule, and I hung it above my desk, and I showed it to him. See, I told him. Now I will always know where you are.
In my most recent conversation with Everett, he told me about a weekend trip he had just returned from. They hiked to a remote region of Haiti, to a community of people who live without electricity or running water. Everett and his friends slept on benches or in their hammocks, and the nights were frigid. The days were spent getting to know the people who lived there and helping with a building project. And then they hiked home again.
Everett said it was his favorite part of his time in Haiti.
To say that I don’t miss my children’s childhoods would be a lie. For many reasons, their childhoods were a difficult time, but that hasn’t stopped me, far more than once, from wishing it all back again.
I think I remember mostly in photographs. I see images in my mind of them doing this or that. If I give myself a minute, I can conjure a voice or a recollected phrasing. There are the things Bill and I repeat to one another, something he or she said that have become part of our lexicon, even part of our way of articulating the world.
But was I happiest then, when they were young? Could the world–and life–be at its best for me when, for them, the world was sometimes overlarge and frightening?
Or am I happier now–for all I miss their littleness–when one of them is happily married, another showing such strength of character on soccer field, in school chorus, and among her peers in the hallways of her high school?
And when one of them ventures to Haiti and spends months of his young life there, who says that it is difficult but never complains, who sees and comes to love and appreciate lives so different from his own?
Everett comes home in sixteen days and about one and a half hours. Among others, I will be waiting for him at the airport.
I think he will be able to find me easily enough.