07/21/2014 01:15 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

Lessons Learned While Packing Up My Son's Bedroom, Alone

Michelle Gilman

I packed up my son's bedroom. And no, he was not here to help me do so. This is not the way the story in my head went for the past 18 years. The story in my head was always that we would pack up his belongings together, laugh out loud at the tiny discoveries we would uncover as we opened drawers and found childhood treasures long forgotten, reminisce and romanticize events during his growing up years that seemed so serious then and only now could be seen as minute, laughable pebbles on the trail of his life. I would then take him shopping for dorm necessities, then a road trip to a four-year university, set up his room, drop him off, cry as I was leaving him, cry all the way home and then change his room to an art studio or some other underused place in the house. That was the story in my head. That was not HIS story. I don't know if it ever was.

I packed up my son's bedroom alone because he was transitioning from a rehab into a sober living home in Santa Monica. It was clear that his road would be one I never fathomed as his mother. I was forced into some serious, alternative thinking about what it means to have expectations for our children. But the story and the learning didn't stop there.

Since that "packing" day three years ago, my son has had a total colectomy due to advanced Crohn's Disease, 18 hospital stays, a multitude of surgeries, toxic infusions of chemicals I cannot pronounce, an intestinal internal resection, steroids that left him bloated and angry, and most recently, a traumatic brain injury as a result of a skateboarding accident. The good news? He's sober.

So, what does all this mean? It means that as a mother, and as a woman, I had to reevaluate ALL expectations in life. What should we expect, what are we programmed to assume and exactly what is this life all about? And by asking myself these questions and examining not only my son's life, but my own, I changed my entire view of what we should and should not expect out of this one life we have.

I have learned about healthy detachment to ALL the stories in my head, and what separates reality from distorted thinking. I have learned what true compassion, tolerance and acceptance is. I have learned how strong we can be when we are faced with no other choice but to be. I have learned that no matter how hard something is to face, that you will miss 100% of the shots you don't take. And I have learned more about TRUE love, REAL gratitude and TOTAL appreciation than I can express in words on this page. But the biggest lesson I was taught was the power of letting go and releasing what the vision of life (mine, my son's, yours) should be and simply be in awe at the unexpected dance of it all.

I have learned how to deeply, unconditionally, from the depths of my being, embrace change, reset priorities, be spontaneous and release all expected outcomes. We are given one life to live... and like video games where your actions and choices affect how the game progresses and results, the outcomes are endless. We are here to witness these endless changes and experiences in life. We are here to love each other without judgment, expectations and assumptions.

My son's journey taught me that life is a theater and we improvise our way through it. We no longer take anything for granted. My beautiful son is about to turn 21 years of age. He lives at home with me, and although the brain injury left him without sense of taste or smell and his Crohn's left him without a colon, his brain is a beautiful one, full of mystery and curiosity, his heart is as vast as the ocean, and he's getting ready to, once again, attend college and also resume his Yoga teacher certification. But I have no expectations. I just love to look at him, and relish the fact that he exists on this planet.