"Wow!" said the little boy in Party City. "Those balloons are big."
"Yes," said the mother holding tight to his hand. "See, a one and an eight. That makes eighteen. How old are you?"
He held four fingers in my direction. "Four years old! That's a good number, too," I said, thinking back to William's flyaway brown hair, his chubby cheeks and his sturdy four-year-old body.
He nodded and asked his mom, "Who are those balloons for?"
I answered him. "They're for my little boy."
The mom looked at me, her eyes sympathetic over the mask. "That's a big birthday."
"It's bittersweet," I said, dashing a hand across my eyes and cursing the cold that made me cry even more than usual.
William's golden birthday is today, as he turns 18 on the 18th. We didn't know what to buy him, so the balloons, cake and cards have to make the day special until he figures out what he wants or needs for college. We now have four adults in the house, four people linked by years of living together, two who are rooted here at home and two who are sprouting wings and eager to fly away.
I used to want to slug people who said, "Oh, treasure every moment, it goes by so fast!" when they saw me with three young children. Back then, every day lasted a year. Moms can't get sick, can't take naps, can't go workout or even do grocery shopping in peace. I am so grateful for the freedom that comes with having adult children, for the self-care I can do now, for their independence and their help. But the years of high school did go fast, and especially in the pandemic, time slipped through my fingers like water.
As I baked William's cake, the photos of my babies flashed across our electronic photo frame. The kids were so precious and innocent, so trusting, protected and happy. When they leave us, I can't protect them from this dizzying cruel and kind world. When they leave us, their absence haunts the house. My son whistles beautifully - like my father did - and when he leaves, his whistle goes with him, along with his swim bag in the corner, his shoes in the mud room, his towels from the backs of kitchen chairs.
Rob and I have mostly done our job, I think, and there is pride and pleasure in that as well as a sting. Today we will show William only our smiles and our support, encourage him to keep growing and making his own way. But tonight, after cake, candles and singing, there will be more than a few bittersweet tears on my pillow.