Back when he was in high school, my son, Richard, would barrel through the front door.
"Ma!" he would yell at a startling decibel level. "I'm home!"
I would get a kiss on the cheek, a quick "Hi" and a "What's for dinner?" He'd throw his books onto the kitchen table and head for the den. And within seconds the house would shake with the battle sounds of World War II.
"You know," I'd shout over the explosions, "you play that video game like it's your job!"
Little did I know that someday it would be. Well, sort of. Two years ago, at age 21, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.
While the Army has taken my third-born into manhood, it has been the ultimate test for me as a mother. Inspirational writer Kahlil Gibran said of parents, "You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth." Admittedly, this bow had a hard time with her arrow's decision.
It's also been said that a parent's job is to give our children roots and wings. I had managed quite successfully and without drama, I thought, to grant his two older sisters their wings. They had moved to other states and embarked on their new lives as young adults. But in my son's case, letting go has been a heart-rending process. Not because he was the last to leave the nest, but because he chose such a dangerous career: the military in a time of war.
I should have seen this coming. While many boys grow up wanting to be cops and firemen, my son's aspiration was to be a soldier. I thought he'd grow out of it. Instead, he grew into it. And today, his decision to join the Army infantry has taken him 6,700 miles away to Afghanistan.
My moment of acceptance came one bitingly cold afternoon in January as I was seeing him off at LaGuardia Airport. He had orders to deploy to Afghanistan within the week. My mascara-stained cheeks told the story of my heavy heart. I held him and didn't want to let go. He broke from our silent embrace, and gently took me by the shoulders.
"It's my job, Ma. It's what I do."
In that moment, looking up into his blue eyes, something shifted in me. Before me stood a proficient soldier who could handle himself in the hostile world he was about to enter. A young man of integrity who was dedicated to serving his country, and who, with courage and determination, was following his heart and his dreams. And if he was ready, I had to be too.
These days he answers to the rank of specialist, engages in combat and endures life in a third-world country. But beneath his fatigues still lurks my little boy, with his witty sense of humor, his altruistic heart and that mischievous smile.
Even though I've relinquished my last child to the world, I often sit on his bed looking around at his idle guitars and hard-won roller hockey trophies, asking angels to protect him. I spritz his cologne into the empty air, and I find that I can't wait to hear him barrel through the front door again, yelling, "Ma, I'm home!"