As I mentioned when I returned to this blog back in July, I took some writing workshops during the heart of the pandemic. One of them was an essay writing course. I wrote the piece below hoping it would be printed and glorified in some very exclusive publication. It turns out that takes more patience and confidence than I had at the time. So that didn’t happen. But upon reconnecting with my writing crew after a few months off, I remembered there’s always a home for my writing. Here.
This past Friday night, our family glowed under the stadium lights, each alongside friends as we cheered Big’s high school JV and Varsity football teams to big Homecoming victories. On Saturday night, Big and some of his friends he’s known since kindergarten — along with a new friend he made thanks to high school sports finally returning last spring — got all dressed up and went to their first high school Homecoming dance. It felt good to watch them go. Really good. And so, in that spirit, I’m sharing this year-old essay to remind us all how far we’ve come.
(Photo of Big and me on a jet ski in Tahoe, just days before Big’s freshman year began…online.)
Holding On When It’s Time to Let Go
Rounding the landing of the stairs, I caught a flash of rope waving wildly outside the kitchen window. Though the morning didn’t smell of wildfire smoke, the eerie light turned our labrador’s white fur an unnatural shade of orange as she gleefully chased her playmate.
“They shouldn’t be out there,” I thought. “But they have to be out there.” Both were true. My mind and heart were at battle to determine the lesser of two evils — bad air quality, or the walls of this house suffocating a teenage boy.
My son tossed his overgrown chestnut hair to the side spotting me, still in my pajamas again. His big blue eyes widened, as did his smile. I beamed back, feeling a warm tug in my chest. As his monstrous feet barreled toward me, the dog cocked a disappointed glance our way, knowing her time was up.
“What’s up?” I asked. He looked like he does every day — sporting a dri-fit t-shirt from his beloved baseball team that never saw a field during its final spring season, and Nike sweatpants that continue to rise higher on his ankle with each passing month — but he was unusually spirited. He must have news. Oh please let him have news.
“The sky,” he said with a knowing edge.
It’s a joke between the two of us. There’s so little to talk about these days, it feels cruel to ask him. But this time I was sure his answer would be different.
For just a second, I wanted to soak up the joyful moment for what it was — my 14-year-old son was unabashedly happy to see me. I knew it carried more weight though. The magnetic energy that drew my son inside was a dire need for human connection.
It used to be that 9:55am on a Tuesday in September would find a freshman boy roaming the halls of his high school, his mom the furthest thing from his mind. After all, this was his time — time to learn about all kinds of things that never show up on a syllabus. But at the midway point of his first year, my son has yet to step foot inside a classroom. In fact, all signs point to his entire freshman year taking place in our basement. While locking him up and holding onto each moment of his fleeting time here sounds like a brilliant plan, we all know how those fairytales end.
Launching my first born didn’t come naturally to me. I was so sure that, come kindergarten, my tender-hearted boy would crumble as I shooed him off into the world of safety scissors and phonics. My third maternity leave gifted us an uninterrupted summer together and we’d grown more attached than ever. Then the cruel calendar called, ready to sweep him up in its haste.
As we walked to the bus stop that fall morning, my legs shook, longing for the grounding weight of the clutching boy I’d imagined there. I steadied myself on the double stroller realizing our floundering fivesome had become four in the blink of an eye. He was off. The black and charcoal checkers on his backpack bounced around in the school bus line, as if waving to let me know he was ok. Clean buzz cuts, collared shirts, and laughter surrounded him. Though he’d dutifully dressed in the plaid shorts and t-shirt I laid out for him, he’d added his signature gray hoodie and clunky bus pass necklace — mocking my polished vision of first-day-of-school photos the other mothers had obviously nailed.
The pack of newbies shuffled forward as the bus door opened. Craning to catch a glimpse of my kindergartener over the sea of outstretched iPhones, I spotted his profile, small but steady, in the expanse of the yellow bus’s windshield. The eyes he still hadn’t grown into sparkled — not with tears, but with anticipation. He flashed a baby-toothed grin at the driver and carried my heart right along with him as he headed back to his seat.
Nine years later, he still hasn’t looked back. I do though. I remember scooping up the giggling, towheaded toddler in mis-matched Crocs. Holding on felt magical. Right there in my arms was proof that I could create a good, loving human. Admittedly I gripped too tight, too long. I was new to this parenting thing, and I didn’t want him to break. Fortunately, he knew he wasn’t fragile. He repeatedly proved that as lucky as I was to have held him, it was even more rewarding to let him go. With room to grow, he became his own strong, glorious self.
By the time middle school rolled around, he hopped on his bike and rode four miles across town to school with his friends. It would have been easy to convince him it was dangerous, that he needed my protecting. But I don’t want him to shrink when he hears my voice in his head. I want him to go forward confidently, as I cheer on his best self. I’m here if he needs me. That’s the job, really.
But the world changed my job description when this pandemic rolled around. Hold on tighter. Keep him home. But the panicked feelings that rang true to me all those years ago suddenly feel wrong, like a shoe that no longer fits. The time he spends with me is a gift, but also a burden. Limiting his exposure to the virus means I’m also limiting his exposure to the experiences that create a dynamic, thriving human.
At his age, I might have welcomed a break from the world. I was grasping for a place to belong, making some cringe-worthy choices along the way. But now I realize high school was like a puzzle. While my freshman year appeared to be chaotic, narrow portions of the big picture were coming into focus here and there: A teacher who presented a unique challenge after noting potential in me. An unlikely life-long friend made thanks to a strict seating chart. School dances that taught me to slip away as soon as the first chord of Stairway to Heaven strummed.
He, on the other hand, was just hitting his stride when life paused. Now he sits in front of a computer and doesn’t even see his classmates. It’s not considered cool to leave your camera on, I guess.
There have been huge, missed milestones we’ve grieved. But it’s the little moments that will be the hardest to make up for. I can’t be the random kid from the football team who makes a joke about practice passing in the quad. I can’t be the girl in Biology who caught the last bullet point he missed as he learns that he actually does have to take notes. I can’t be the older boy from Little League who warns him to stay out of “that” bathroom between classes. I can’t be the older girl who does a double take and makes him stand a little taller. I can’t be the kid whose offhand comment helps him gain a deeper understanding of his privilege.
All I can be is a mom who shows up — often in mismatched pjs — to make the void a little less agonizing. And until life returns to the way it was, I’ll soak up the unexpected time we have together. Because when the day comes for me to launch this extraordinary boy back into the world, it will be my joy to watch him fly.