Last fall, we implanted our youngest two children, step-sisters, at their chosen universities, which makes our nest officially empty, most of the time. Over the years, I’ve written about having one, then two, then four in high school at the same time, then one, and then two in college. But for some reason, I’ve struggled with churning out the “goodbye post” for the last two as they headed off to school. To my dismay, the whole empty nest scenario has grown less funny with each passing evac, and therefore, a little more challenging to write about. So now, almost five-months post final nest emptying, I’m finally getting it done.
I can now look back on Jayce’s move-in day at UC Santa Barbara with some perspective. What I see pretty clearly is a small room, with a lot of stuff, and several people: Jayce, her dad, her mom, her sister Keely, and myself. I tried to pick things to do that could be done alone – without asking a hundred questions – but ready to help where needed. That’s because I didn’t want to get throat punched. I’ve managed to avoid not only the dreaded Jayce throat punch, but even the threat of it, unlike her dad. I realize that staying out of the way was sort of the way I approached step-parenting; Jacye has two capable bio-parents; my job for the last 15 years, the way I’ve seen it, is to be the helpful third wheel when needed, anticipate tasks, and not ask too many questions. Nobody needs three parents asking a bunch of parenty questions. So, on move in day I volunteered to make the bed – the top bunk. That took a long time. I don’t like heights, I’m tall, and I’m claustrophobic, so using both hands to tuck in corners with my head two inches from the ceiling while standing four feet off the floor was a little dicey. But I did it. And I didn’t get in anyone’s way.
Like making the top bunk, I made up step-parenting as I went, too. And there were moments in the first few years of step-mothering my youngest step-daughter that I felt lost. I’m not talking about a simple “who gets the last cookie” scenario; for mundane situations like that I relied on Jayce for the answer, because her mind kept track of who got the last one, last time; therefore, she knew exactly who it should be coming to this time. I’m referring to somewhat more profound “what do I do now?” parenting moments, like “What do I do with this bottle of vodka in her laundry basket?” Tell her dad? Make a cocktail?” I’ll let you just wonder about that, dear reader.
I met Jayce when she was barely out of toddlerhood; she presented as a loving cuddle bug one minute and a bundle of raw nerves the next, who both reached for me and pushed me away, seemingly at the same time. When I was certain she’d cut left, she went right. I watched for clues from her dad, I listened for clues from her mom, and I briefly contemplated ideas shared by her grandparents. At the end of the day, I realized that this child defied the parenting books, the rules, the advice: Her uniquely challenging, yet intensely loving and lovable spirit taught me to watch carefully for silent signals and nearly invisible clues.
When I think of Jayce at three-and-a-half to four years old, two memories stand out to me. First, she was missing a front tooth. Okay, lots of kids are missing a tooth, but hers happened to be a baby tooth that had been knocked out prematurely, in an unfortunate industrial accident involving a power drill, a stack of blankets, and a lot of bad luck. So she was missing that tooth for a long time. Then, there was her inability to make the “k” sound. Her sister, Keely, was “Teely.” (Side note: When she did say her sister’s name, it wasn’t just once, it was three times, or it was nothing: “Teely, Teely, Teely!!”)
She channeled Eddy Murphy’s character “Buckwheat” when saying “OK” (“o-tay”). This speech issue made for some interesting conversation, like the first time she came over to my house, when her dad and I had only been dating a few months. We all climbed the back stairs of my porch, and there was my cat, TigerLily, waiting to be let in.
“Ooh, Lisa, I love your titty.”
From Jayce, I learned that “less is more” when it came to parenting, and especially, communication. In those harrowing late childhood-to-early-adolescence years, say 9 – 12 years old, when a parent has exactly 3.2 seconds to communicate an idea before things become either much better or significantly worse, I learned to rehearse before I entered her room. I learned to keep the tone of voice casual. I learned to sit down on the floor and make myself smaller and less imposing. Why did I do all these things, all you parenting old-schoolers may be asking? Because I wanted Jayce to both understand me and feel understood. Just like when she said “titty” instead of “kitty.”
Fast forward to the last several years. The sometimes-red-hot fire poker of a personality, which glowed from the inside out as a child, began to temper; the softening and maturing came on gradually and the elegant and graceful young woman she is today, emerged. As a varsity basketball player, “elegant and graceful” might not be the first two words someone would use to describe Jayce and her ability to command the boards, but like everyone on this planet, Jayce is many things: strong and fierce one moment, soft and thoughtful the next.
In fact, it’s one of my most repeated sayings: People are a lot of things. I know I am, and from my vantage point, Jayce understands this. As a young woman she seems content with mostly understanding the world around her. And she seems perfectly content whether others understand her or not.
Raising Jayce was not unlike shot-gunning a beer for the first time: I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Fifteen seconds later, certain that I would die in my pajamas at the age of 51, gripping a half-full can of Coors, I looked up to see my husband smiling at me, saying, “You did it! Atta girl!”
And 15 years after I started helping raise Jayce, a beautiful young woman was smiling at me and telling me she loved me. And I love her.
I love that she is unlike any of her siblings, that she has always kept us guessing. I love the little bit of wildness in her that I remember in the girl I was at that age. Which makes me want to lock her in a closet for 20 years. Just kidding. Not.
I love how quickly her eyes well up when she tells her truth. Because she doesn’t just tell her truth, she feels her truth. I know that as much as I know her name.
I love her free spirit that knows exactly when to run wild and when to stiff arm bullshit—out loud.
I love her ocean-blue eyes, set against her porcelain skin; I love the subtle squint of her brows and how she cocks her head slightly when something she hears amuses her or is just a little out of reach of believable.
I didn’t love saying goodbye to her on move-in day, perhaps because I sensed she still had not a foot, but maybe one or two toes in her old life, but I loved helping assemble her new life in that dorm, the best that I could. Now, halfway through her freshman year, she’s signed her lease for a small apartment for year two, and all ten toes are firmly planted in the sand (and classes, of course). And that’s a-o-tay with me.