Deer in the Headlights

teenage boys are like deerThe other night –

Okay, I say night, but if you’re from these parts (New England) you know that a summer night can still yield bright sunshine. Seriously bright sunshine. That’s why the deer which darted out in front of me-alone-was an actual anomaly.

No, deer aren’t unusual. In fact, with the plethora of McMansions sprouting around here like daylilies on roadsides and evicting the creatures from their natural habitat, deer are downright plentiful. However, they seem to fill the fields in accordance to some patterned path of behavior. I like to believe that those black and yellow deer postings are akin to our crosswalk signs and that the deer actually do agree to cross the roads within those human-set boundaries. They seem also to follow the safety-in-numbers motto; they travel in groups. They like early mornings, late dusky days and ridiculously late evenings. If you drive the back roads of our suburban neighborhoods at night you understand that you’re more likely to hit a deer than another car. In fact, you’re more likely to see a deer before you encounter another human. It’s the nature of the environment.

But there he was, forcing me to slam brakes, utter curses, and wonder where the heck his mother was.

Oh, it was most definitely a boy.

And somewhere behind him was a worried doe. He was darting from the fold and into the surely-forbidden roadway in the heat of some testosterone-induced fit of fury, no doubt.

Why did the deer cross the road?

Likely, a girl on the other side.

Or judging from my own experience with teenage bucks of the human variety, it might have been some young stag tête-à-tête. A doe enticement might trump and triumph over a gathering of the same-sexed-species, but a party in the woods is still –well, a party.

And so they run into the festivities, roadways and regulations be damned.

In the deer’s case, an easy, albeit life-threatening hurdle, past my car accomplished his mission.

In my son’s case, I am also the impediment. Well, I, or my ridiculously constructed obstacles. Let see –there’s homework and chores –not much competition there. But then there are all those other mindlessly delaying (and utterly unnecessary, from his point of view) questions. Stupid ones like: Where are you going? With whom? And the worst –What time will you return to the herd?

Annoying is the term he most often uses to summarize my intrusions into his life. In less generous vocabulary, he’ll actually admit that he prefer if I didn’t speak at all. And there are times, I wish I could oblige. Certainly, setting him off to wander in the woods and the world on his own would entail less argument. Cutting him loose might indeed be freeing –for the both of us.

I understand freedom. I can’t tell him that, though. I can’t tell him that my sometimes faltering memory doesn’t yet include memory erasure of my own adolescent yearnings for freedom. I wouldn’t suggest that my own reply to “where are you going?” was generally the same as his: “out.” To which, by the way, his grandfather would always retort: “out’s a big place.” Which then also meant that I wasn’t really going out anywhere until I handed over details. Nor can I reveal too many of my own tools of circumvention.

My father loved the fact that the parlor grandfather clock granted gonging confirmation of just how late his little girl returned home from an evening out. And with all the times he carefully pulled those chains to assure accuracy of his beloved timepiece, you would have thought his gaze might have noted the “silence” option on the clock’s face and done some teenage math.

His most soundly sleeping nights, I believe, were not because I had come in early, as requested, but rather because they were uninterrupted by any gonging at all. In preparation of a late night out, I would always set the chimes to “silence.”

But I can’t tell Michael that I was once young. He wouldn’t believe me, anyway. I also can’t tell him that my tethering questions aren’t strictly motivated to constrain. It isn’t his freedom I fear so much, as it is everything else. I can’t tell him that at the end of any horror play of a parent’s imagination, her child is victim to more than his mere bravado against the boogeyman.

In rational moments, I do the math. Statistically speaking, Michael will be fine. We’ve safely skirted the childhood abduction scenarios simply through his own growth. He’s a big boy. And we don’t live in a danger zone where gang recruitment pulls from the alleyways.

In the sanest of days, I know all this. The days are rational. The nights –not so much.

So while I can swallow my caveats when Michael relates an after-the-fact-adventure, and attribute the harrowing details to youthful hyperbole, the replay of it all in my dreams is another matter. I bite away the criticisms I might render to keep the conversations coming –his words are now dispersed, as if from an eyedropper, in drips.

But I can’t overlook a blown curfew or a communication blackout. Especially when daylight can burn like a two-ended candle. The question of whether I am wasting precious time with inaction lurks like a skulking figure shadowed by the torch of media-lit klieg lights. If only, if only, I imagine, as I watch the eleven o’clock news recaps of the horrific turn-of-events that could have been forestalled by action –if only.

I try to rely on the math.

I do.

But then, from a family who cared and had the means to save him, how could he have fallen so deeply into the bottle? Why did another drugs from his friends as if they were gift-wrapped treasures, rather than the death knell they would become? A taken chance, a wrong split-second action, and gone –an airline ticket away to retrieve a body, instead of a boy. A motorcycle accident, a car crash. If losing a single child to a freak accident was such an aberration, then how was it possible to lose a second to an accident that could only, when set against his brother’s, be described as impossible?

These are the impossibilities we fear. They happen. They couldn’t, they shouldn’t, they do.

And that’s why the metaphor.

Somewhere there’s another young buck, on a mission.

And in the immortality of his soul and the passion of the moment, he tries to hurdle an accelerating automobile –and misses.

 

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Best. Day. Ever.

riverAlex only really scared me once. It was really serious –life or death.

We got life.

Michael, on the other hand, managed to raise the fear factor on a regular basis when he was in high school.

I cared less when it was dad who was blowing things out of proportion and worried that his only male offspring might be dead on a river somewhere. Probably partly because dad’s first over-the-top panic reaction occurred simultaneously during a rare, less-than-a-weekend getaway in which all I wanted was to be family-free.

He called me 28 times. Seriously.

Michael was fine.

He just hadn’t bothered to communicate that fact to his father.

When Michael went on a similar river journey with me sort of at-the-helm, the worry-meter shifted. By nightfall, I was ready to call out the U.S. Coast Guard.

Unfortunately, I may have been mildly complicit at the start of his errant adventure. I might have nodded some tepid assent when he told me that he and his buddy were going canoeing again (this was a regular pastime) and this time they’d make it. By “make it,” I refer to a canoe trek from river to ocean.

Before you think that I’d totally lost my mind with such a blasé response to my teenage son’s planned adventure, you really, really have to understand the river. This is NOT Lewis and Clark exploring uncharted territory along 19th century untamed rivers. The Ipswich River is less than 40 miles long and can run to barely a trickle in some spots. You actually may need to pick up the canoe along a few low water sections. This is hardly a raging river. On the other hand, it does, as rivers must, let out in an ocean. The Atlantic Ocean. In this one area, perhaps I should have taken him a bit more seriously.

But, I wasn’t at the drop off, wasn’t the parent privy to this particular trip’s details—or lack there-of. His friend’s dad had dropped off the boys and wished them well. Whether or not the return time or location was made clear is still up for debate.

My own instructions to Michael were mostly about lunches and lifejackets, both he had. Both he agreed to use. But also included were pretty specific warnings about how and why he needed to communicate. I even handed off a plastic bag to make certain that cellphone-in-the-river wouldn’t be an excuse for losing contact.

It wasn’t.

Instead, somewhere along his journey, Michael decided that shutting the phone down entirely to preserve its battery was a good idea.

Ugh.

The last I heard was –We made it to the ocean.

Then his phone went dead.

The other boy’s dad said the agreed meet time was 6:00 pm.

It was well after 6:00 when I drove absently to various sections of the river and started shouting his name. Yes, I know how absurd this sounds. How ridiculous it was. But my baby’s last point of contact was somewhere along that little river –which now seemed really, really big.

We didn’t call the Coast Guard. But we did call the cops.

Eventually, sometime just before 10:00, the two explorers were found, alive, on land, walking from the beach. They’d made it to the ocean without killing themselves. Even if they had nearly killed their parents with worry.

My dad’s friend had an oft repeated mantra: If your kids don’t kill you, it’s not because they’re not trying.

I was one of those “kids” at the time so the sentiment was lost on me then. I get it now.

The thing is, I know Michael’s intent wasn’t to actually kill me (that’s just a side perk). His wandering water voyage had absolutely nothing to do with me at all. In the most literal sense, it was about exploring –his world and himself. And all that exploration is a good thing.

Even if the missing-at-sea adventure took a few years off my life, Michael’s interpretation of the event was entirely different from mine. What was a really, really bad day for me, not so much for him. His Facebook post the next day: Best day ever.

He’s had days since that he probably counts as even better. I like that. I like it even more that some of those best days ever now belong to us both.

 

Household Chores

Doing laundry is simple. Throw it in a washer, a dryer, fold and put away. Not terribly taxing, no heavy lifting, no hands and knees scrubbing. And yet, it’s my least favorite household chore. I’d opt for cleaning a bathroom over doing a couple of loads of laundry, any day.

LaundryBecause despite the simplicity of it, it simply is never done.

Kind of like parenting.

My mom has frequently noted that worrying about her kids didn’t cease when we became adults, nor when we had children of our own. In fact, the presence of grandchildren only widened her circle of worry. As the family’s somewhat reluctant matriarch, she also has plenty of nieces and nephews in whose lives she remains protectively involved. There is even an assortment of unrelated children from lifelong and new-found friends, not to mention the childhood friends of my brothers and me that have filled her quasi parenting role over the years.

If you have kids in your life, that sort-of-parenting thing is nearly unavoidable. Even if you don’t want it, even if you’ve never been a parent.

It’s why my mom was among the very first to know when my brother’s friend was going to be a dad. Why my son’s buddies will hang with me even when Michael’s fast out the door. Why Alex’s friends are my Facebook friends. And why the lines can become so blurred when I work with college kids I didn’t know before and won’t see after.

Graduation marks a pretty clear ending to my relationship with my students. It’s probably why I have a harder time at the ceremony than they do. I know what they don’t; that it will be the very last time I ever see them. Sure, a few circle back for a visit or two, friend-request me on Facebook, enter my LinkedIn network. But in any meaningful way, most of them are gone forever. It’s the way it’s supposed to be and I accept it. In fact, I appreciate the clarity of the ending.

It’s harder for me when the lines are fuzzy.

I once told a student that I could help her get all As if that was what she wanted (it wasn’t hyperbole; this kid was capable), but if she wanted me to care more about her grades than her, she’d need to find another tutor. I was serious. I was either all-in or all-out.

Black and white.

She opted in. But after accepting that black and white bargain, she presented me with a whole lot of grey—kind of like poorly laundered whites—and it drove me crazy.

Try as I might, I know I can’t fold up my kids’ troubles into neatly sorted piles. One glance at my daughter’s bedroom or a typical dorm room offers proof-positive of the messiness of kids’ lives. Foreshadowing evidence may begin with babies at mealtime, or toddlers at play, but the state of disarray lasts a lifetime.

Whether you’re an actual parent or only a quasi-parent, kids make your life cluttered and messy and unfinished –but never incomplete.

You Already Know the Answer

3d white people leaning back against a question mark

I know I frustrate my students. In the midst of a project or paper or in my position as other side to their argumentative debate, I often answer their questions with questions of my own.

C’mon, just tell me the answer, they sometimes say aloud.

I could.

Most of the time, I don’t.

Instead of answers, I try to set them on a path, leaving a breadcrumb trail of academic hints to where they need to go. I try to take them about halfway. Not all the way.

I can’t really say they appreciate my process. It’s likely that they don’t.  But on (rare)
occasion, they seem to get what I’m trying to do, even get caught up in the game.

After a particularly vexing exercise, one of my students—having finally arriving at an answer—said she liked when I made her do “this.”

I said: What, think?

A smile, a nod.

Ahh –that’s what this is all about.

I confront them less with my antics when we stray off the curriculum and into the ocean of their lives.

They let me in –in a flood of information. Maybe more than they intend to, maybe more than they should. But once we’re both in the deep end, they often reach for any debris in the water to stay afloat.  In that panicked instant, sometimes I’m all they’ve got. Captain of their sinking vessel is not a role I relish, but one I can’t seem to avoid.

And when they feel fully engulfed by a rising tide, near drowning, I certainly don’t play a game of hide-and-seek with the life raft. Still,I try only to throw them a line or hold their head above water as I remind them –they already know how to swim.

My students often forget what they already know. Instead of relying on their own instincts, they ask me questions as if I might have all the answers (ha, if they only knew). While my position at the helm of my own life may allow me to sight obvious obstacles more clearly than they, I’ve hardly got omnipresent access to all the what-ifs of their lives. But I get that what they often need to do is to just talk through the problem at hand.

Sometimes it actually is school-related. How to get a better grade or work with a professor they don’t particularly like or handle a group project when they seem to be the only one in the group doing any work.

More often, it’s life stuff. Social stuff. Boyfriend, girlfriend stuff. Life and death and big question stuff.

Scary stuff –for both of us.

I talk a lot when it’s those big ticket items, but I try to listen even more. Because I don’t have the answers.

Not really.

But I do have one.

And it’s that if they’re honest and open and willing to dive into that really deep end of their inner waters,  it’s they who have the answers. They just need to listen -to themselves.