Ford and I were checking out a book at the public library.
Wait, let me rephrase that. Ford was checking out a book; I was his driver.
We stood next to each other at the counter waiting for the librarian, but neither of us talked. In the silence, I watched a little boy, who was only as tall as his mother’s knees, beg for one more book. He toddled after her like a little duckling.
Ducklings. That’s what I always called my boys when they went to the grocery store with me. One-by-one they followed and turned down each aisle, always careful to stay close by. These days, Ford doesn’t really follow so much as he leads. He tells me which route is faster. He helps me understand my iPhone. He walks me through Numbers on the computer. He chuckles at my inability to multiply large numbers in my head. He starts the lawn mower by himself.
All of this blows my mind. How did it happen so fast? When I first started writing this newspaper column, Ford was just barely 2 years old. He could talk for sure (he started talking when he was 11 months old and generally has not stopped since), but back then, Ford talked about the family dog, his favorite toy truck and his baby brother. He didn’t understand that I wrote for newspapers. He didn’t understand how or why we got books at the library or groceries at the store.
Ford didn’t understand anything, really, outside of our teeny Florida house and the few people who lived in it with him.
But I wrote about all of it – from how Ford sat in the shopping cart and talked to strangers, to how he peered out the school bus window on his first day of kindergarten. I once began a column, “I was changing Ford’s diaper…”
And now, there he was at the library, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me. One more inch and my firstborn child will officially be taller than me.
Yet, it wasn’t Ford’s height that got to me that day. And it wasn’t the way he walked in front of me, instead of following behind like a duckling. No, what changed everything was this:
The librarian asked whose account the book should be checked out under.
“Mine,” I said. “He’s on my account. His name is F-o-r-d. Same last–“
“Mom,” Ford said. “I can … I mean, you know …” He sort of shrugged his shoulder at me, then he turned around to face the librarian and took care of the checkout process himself.
“You’ll find me under Smiley,” he said. “Ford Smiley.”
And just like that—well, with a lot of years, frustrations, tears, dinners, homework, and first days of school in between—my son had become his own individual person.
How many times have I checked him in at the doctor’s or dentist’s office? How many times have I said, “I’m calling to make an appointment for Ford Smiley”? How many times have I said, “You’ll find him under my name, Sarah Smiley”?
I was the mother duck, with three little ducklings’ names in a row after mine: Ford, Owen, Lindell. But now one duck says he can speak for himself. He can give his own name.
I remember when Dustin and I chose that name for him. Ford. It had sounded so unusual at the time. We wondered what people would think of it. I tested the name when I was alone, pretending to call little Ford in for dinner or to his room for a Time Out. It was my new baby’s name, yes, but for so many years, it had felt like mine, too. We had picked it. We embroidered it on towels. I wrote it in pen on his first backpack. I signed it near mine on Christmas cards.
Now it was his alone.
This letting go stuff is tough. I can still remember the way baby Ford looked, the way he sounded and smelled. But he’s not there. He’s morphed into this adult-looking person who can speak for himself and check out his own book. What’s next – he’ll drive a car? (Stay tuned next week for Ford’s first driving lesson, aka, the steep learning curve of the firstborn child.)
This week, Ford starts high school. I can’t believe I just wrote those words. I’m positive it was yesterday that I wrote about his first day of kindergarten. And suddenly, as his adulthood draws near, I feel panicked. Have I taught him everything he needs to know? Have I prepared him enough? Did I do a good job? Will he be okay?
Letting go. It’s enough to make your heart feel like it’s been ripped out. Already, I miss my little ducklings, and this week especially, the one who calls himself Ford.