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My Teen And His Partner Broke Up

Why I’m the one who’s grieving.

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upset woman looking at her phone
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I can’t figure out why the catmint is dying. On our way down the driveway to take a walk, I pause and bend down to take a look. The stems are all dried except for two of them, which have a few sparse green leaves. I rub one dried stem between my fingers and it pulls right out of the ground; its roots completely dried up, the anchor lost.

They left the catmint on the front porch on Mother’s Day weekend a couple of months into the pandemic. A little more than a month later, they and my teenage son broke up.

I stand and look at my partner, and my tears choke me. “Let’s go,” I say in an unsteady voice. He reaches for me, but I don’t want to let myself cry at the end of the driveway, a spectacle for all my neighbors to see. There have already been enough of those displays these past months: yelling down the driveway to maintain distance, a parade of cars in place of a party, nods and forced smiles where there should have been hugs. My son moved out a month ago. This compounds my grief, the loss of one laced with the other. Sometimes I wonder if I’m allowed these feelings. Why didn’t I compartmentalize my friendship with them better? There is no closure for the relationships that develop between parents and kids’ significant others over the course of a year. No way to finalize the texts and visits that abruptly end, no cork to stop up the empty bottle.

I no longer see “close friends” in the corner of their Instagram stories; I’m relegated now to the political shares and social commentary aimed at a broader audience. I reply with clap hands and 100s and sometimes a short sentence. Once, I type, “I miss you!” into the small box intended for emojis. They reply “miss you too.” In the kitchen I throw out frost-bitten veggie burgers, use up the vegetable broth, wipe tears with my shoulder as I chop onions and boil noodles.

Outside the kitchen window, my neighbor is decapitating her geraniums. She tosses them onto her driveway, where they lie like corpses. I think of how every sentimental plant I’ve owned has died — the ones from my grandparents’ funerals, the fern my former neighbor left for me before she moved away — while the cheap plants that I purchase on an impulse at the checkout counter at Aldi thrive in white pots on bamboo stands, being the nicest ones I’ve ever owned. They become the centerpiece of the living room, their topiary outgrowing the fireplace mantle. They mean nothing. I snip the overgrowth to contain them. Meanwhile, the catmint in the flower bed becomes a withering centerpiece.

I wonder if it’s normal to grieve a loss like this. I think about my high school boyfriend’s mom. For two years, I practically lived at her house. We talked over dinner, and in passing, and as she unpacked groceries in the kitchen. She was my boyfriend’s mom, and she was also my friend. After her son and I broke up, we never spoke again. I wonder if she was sad, too, or if she played the role better. If it was easy like peeling off a bandage; rip it off and done, never think about it again.

I must be thinking about this a lot because one night I dream that this boyfriend takes me by the hand and says, “Come on.” He opens the door to a room full of old friends mingling about. I look straight ahead and I see her. His mom offers an enormous grin and pats the seat on the couch next to her. When she asks how I’m doing, we both know what she means. I look at my lap and I choke. She pulls me close, and I fall into her arms and sob. She rocks me back and forth and whispers, “I know,” like it’s a quiet secret only whispered about in dreams.

I’m not sure how to keep the right balance; how to love a child’s significant other but from the right distance; how to be a surrogate parent and friend, knowing that at any moment someone might pull the plug. But maybe it’s less about doing it differently and more about accepting this process and the feelings that accompany it. The end of a friendship hurts. No matter the complexities or the dynamic, it’s normal and OK to grieve that kind of loss.

In the spring, maybe the catmint will recover, be vigorous like the nameless plants from a discount food store. Or maybe it won’t. But whether purple buds bloom or the spot turns up empty, I’ll know that my ability to love intensely, no matter the risk, is a strength, and inside of me that taproot remains.