Last week I took my oldest to the Big Apple for his thirteenth birthday. I had planned this trip for months and viewed it as our last big hoorah before he vanished completely into the fog of adolescence. As the date approached I started to realize that my perception of reality was way off the mark. In my mind things were much more warm and fuzzy as they were playing out on the open stage of life.
For instance, I viewed the train ride from North Carolina to New York as a wonderful time that we could sit and talk about the intricate details of his complex and overly dramatic existence. It would give me time to offer sage words of wisdom about the trials and tribulations of middle school mixed in with a few humorous and embarrassing antidotes of my own awkward struggles with becoming a teen. I look back on my naivety now a week or so later and laugh. Silly Mommy.
What I got was an ear budded, computer junkie that twisted and turned in his coach seat like a worm in hot ashes. Uninterested in hearing stories, unlikely to share anything beyond one word grunts and heavy sighs. I saw first hand how impatient the world had become. I flinched with every hard tap on the screen he administered in an attempt to hopefully increase the chances that the trains buffering would stop. As I took a deep breath and painted on my most sincere smile, I asked “Wouldn’t you like to just…talk?”
I’m pretty sure that the reaction his face told me, not his words, will be branded in my mind until I reach my death-bed. It was a scalp tingling realization that my sweet baby boy who would sit in my lap for hours twirling my hair would now rather do almost anything…even read for goodness sakes, to avoid having a conversation with his mother. I did not show my pain, instead settled for a brief chit-chat about the selections the dining café had to offer and whether for the umpteenth millionth time, we were almost to New York. Not the least bit warm and fuzzy.
As we approached New York I started getting text messages from my sister about hoping we were NOT going to into Times Square that evening as planned. I had been unplugged from the world at large for most of the day and had no idea that there were protests in Times Square surrounding the recent events that had involved the shooting of two men by police within the last week. After flipping open my laptop and checking into it I realized that this was just another layer of disappointment I would have by not getting to do what I wanted as we entered the city. I had wanted to wow my boy with the bright lights and excitement behind the city that never sleeps. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping he would throw his arms around me and tell me I was the best Mother in the entire world.
I sat for a while staring out the window trying to piece my words together on how to explain the change of plans to James. As I talked I could see a different look in his eyes, and suddenly the mood changed and curiosity and questions took the lead. He knew much more of the stories behind the protests then I had imagined. It had always been on television though, and now I was getting ready to put him out on the very streets he had only seen in movies. I know that part of the discussion was fueled by fear of the unknown involving the protests, police presence, and blocked city streets but it partly involved his total confusion over the issues.
These are not the things we get to experience that often in our small town. But as he spoke he also allowed me to share in his concerns about the current state of our world, the current state of his world and how everything had changed so much in just the last year for him. It wasn’t the conversation I had planned on having, but it was the conversation we needed to have. Sometimes the things we are afraid to talk about are the very things that keep us at a distance with one another. He would not be the little boy in my lap, but fear of the world would always make him come to me for safety, for understanding and comfort.
Our children are in a different arena than we were. I can’t comprehend what my parents generation experienced during the Vietnam War, just as it blows my mind that 9/11 is now a text-book lesson for my children yet a still very real memory for me. The day-to-day violence that is on virtually every corner, the stories of hatred and unjustified actions stemming from that hatred is almost impossible to shield children from. Yet the truth is so vile and ugly finding the words is sometimes impossible. I can barely wrap my head around the view outside my alley so I can’t imagine all of the processing that was going on in James’s mind as we slowly pulled into the city.
The train arrived and we were suddenly in Penn Station surrounded by throngs of people. As I navigated us through the crowds I took special notice to James looking at a group of young and obviously homeless teenagers lined up against the wall with their sign and worn clothing. A pack of lost children forming their own family of sorts. He paused for a minute as if he was deciding what he should do but then hurried along to be by my side as we got on the escalators to go up to the streets.
James was quiet for a while thinking about his words and then asked softly, “Where do they live Mom, those kids?” I reached for his hand and surprisingly, he let me hold it. “I don’t know baby…I don’t know.” He squeezed my hand and then let go and smiled at me. His face in that moment held a look that will take the place of the horrid look on the train that was aghast at having a conversation with his mother…In that moment I saw the face of a young man who had empathy and a soul and good heart and dearly loved his mother. A much better thing to take to my grave.
As we waited outside the subway entrance at Madison Square Garden for one of my best friends in life and her family to pick us up, I watched as my now teenage son took it all in. There were no riots, the city was as the city always is…loud and bustling. The amount of traffic and people and hustle and bustle I know took him aback a little. He played with his lip, a tell tell sign he has when he’s nervous that I’m afraid he will never outgrow. As we got into the car I knew that this trip would be a totally different trip than the fairy tale I had in my mind, but that it would be okay. Actually better than okay because it would give him perspective, a point of reference for days to come when he goes back to school and maybe a little more gratitude for his life in the alley. Fairy tales can’t really do that.
That night as I went to check on him before going to bed in the other guest room, I ran my fingers through his hair and listened to him breath. His profile was s till that of my little boy even if todays lesson for me was that image remains in my mind not his. I had come to New York with a set agenda, and as my children often do, they teach me as much as I hope to teach them. Life isn’t on a script, and if you plan too much, too far ahead with too many details you are sure to be disappointed. Plan for what you can, but be flexible. Something that is difficult for me, but I’m learning. I don’t know that I really have a choice.
As I went to leave his room he softly said “Mom…could you lay back down for just a little while, just until I fall asleep? It’s all been a lot to take in, and you being in here would make me feel better.” I’m glad it was dark so he wouldn’t see the smile that crossed my face at his request. Much better to seem as if I was doing it because he wanted me to…not because I was dying to scoop him up in my lap like I did when he was young…I fell sound asleep with that smile on my face, right where I needed to be. Still in my travel cloths on top of the covers with my arm stretched over my baby boy for comfort and protection, as he by habit, twirled my hair.