The not-so-last supper with my college bound son

IMG_0460Dinner wasn’t how I imagined it. What ever is?

I’d planned multiple not-so-last suppers. These dinners would give us memories to sustain us until Thanksgiving, when the Dude would return, all collegiate and wise, asking for wine with dinner while discussing the Greek debt crisis.

If only he’d show up, they’d be great.

It was the day before the day before he’d head off to Indiana, but he had plans, maybe, or maybe not, or yes, but not sure when, or if they included dinner, and he’d let me know when it was settled. It wasn’t a surprise. We’d been dancing this tango all summer long.

By the time he’d figured out he needed dinner, it was too late to cook something and have it done in time for him to eat it. Shrugging off his overwhelming disappointment, he told us he was going to get carryout. My husband and I offered to take him somewhere, but that would risk us being seen together, so my husband offered to bring in dinner for all of us. The Dude liked it because it meant he didn’t have to pay for it. I liked it because it meant I didn’t have to cook. My husband said it would give the Dude more time to avoid packing.

“Why rush things,” said the Dude.

Despite heading off to college, the Dude has the eating habits of a toddler. One steak and cheese, no onions, no mushrooms, no peppers, no sauce. Only meat, cheese and bread.

Something this simple should not be hard to accomplish, yet when the Dude unwrapped his sandwich it was clear that the order was all wrong.

“I’m out of here. See you later.” We heard the rev of the engine, the thump of the base line, and with the opening and closing of the garage door, he was gone.

Beyond opening the wrapper, the Dude never touched his dinner. No amount of scraping or removal of the offending items could salvage the culinary travesty. The sandwich stared back at my husband and I, wondering what it had done wrong.

I took a deep inhale. My husband closed his eyes and snapped his plastic fork in two.

“May he fall in love with a vegan foodie,” I said. Nothing cuts the tension like a good joke. This one wasn’t good enough.

“He’s tone deaf to everyone else’s feelings.” My husband found a new fork. “He could have at least said thank you.”  He continued to vent. He took time he didn’t have to get take out he didn’t really want so he could share dinner with his son who couldn’t be bothered to stay and eat. “It’s a slap in the face.”

I have little sympathy for my husband. This happens to me almost every week with food that I actually prepare. But I didn’t bring that up because I know it wasn’t the real issue.

Knowing goodbye is coming is almost as hard as the actual goodbye. The Dude is pulling away because he is as afraid of missing us as we are of missing him, only we’re allowed to acknowledge it. He’s heading off to the best time of his life. Just because he’s ready to leave, however, doesn’t mean he has the emotional lexicon to do so gracefully.

We are dealing with the omnipresent “last”.  Our scuttled dinner was only the second to last, meaning we still had more, but only one more. We could pretend one more time that it’s just another dinner in a thousand dinners we’ve shared around our table, but this was the last time we could.

“I’ll talk to him tonight.” It was our own ritual of “last”;The Dude and I, both night owls, would stay up and watch television and talk, sharing foot space on the ottoman. Sometimes I made popcorn, sometimes he made pancakes.

“Dinner was uncool,” I said to the Dude as we both reached for the last few kernels in the bowl. He knew. He has a tell–a particular expression he wears when he’s already composed a response to the question he knows is coming.

His reasons sound so much like the ones his father dishes up. The workday was long, He had too much to do, and too little time. The weather was too hot, and the kids uncooperative. His friends can’t seem to make up their minds about plans, and change their minds too easily. He never asked for his Dad to get dinner, and then it was the wrong sandwich. It was all too much.

Goodbye is so hard.

“I’ll apologize to him tomorrow.”

The next day, while I was preparing dinner, the real, last dinner, my husband came home. He poured himself a scotch, and I told him I’d talked to the Dude about the prior evening.

“I have a few things I’d like to say.” I hoped my husband could find the emotional lexicon to get his point across while preserving our last “last”.

The Dude sidled up and shoulder checked him, and said, “Hey.”

My husband put him in a headlock.

All was forgiven. I went back to cooking dinner.

I guess he had all of the emotional lexicon he required, although it wasn’t the conversation I’d imagined.

What ever is.

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It’s our fault. We taught them to share.

Eleven days left

Until I claim his bedroom

Paint the mother pink

_____________________

Not that I’m eager

Go ahead–count those chickens

What could happen now?

______________________

Damn, I had to ask

Mono outbreak in his squad

Grad party whiplash

______________________

Tracing through the snarl

Of who has hooked up with who

Dating duck, duck, goose

______________________

Rumors burn the wires

His prom date is patient zero

Glad he’s got no game

______________________

So the lesson, Dude?

Keep your tongue in your own mouth

Until you’re thirty

______________________

Can’t breathe easy yet

He and his sick best friend have

Shared “water bottles”

_______________________

Calculate backwash

From a “water” pong tourney

Twenty kids, two cups

______________________

Google Hail Mary

Can Fireball kill off germs?

It tastes like it can

______________________

The answer is no

But it makes good antifreeze

It tastes like that, too

_______________________

You haven’t had it?

Think of a bowl of Red Hots

Steeped in Jack Daniels

_______________________

“The symptoms?” he asked

I said, “You get real tired–

I’ve had it for years.”

_______________________

“I have to be fine

Welcome week is important!”

(It has the parties)

______________________

Sleeping in all day…

When teenagers have mono

Can you really tell?

______________________

So far he’s okay

Luckily the health center

Is next to his dorm

Because I said so, that’s why.


I sat on the back porch swing and watched fireflies chit chat while the bluetooth case of my IPhone occasionally flashed hello in return. At least I’m hoping it was a hello. I’d hate to think I’d confused them.

My Kindle screen had gone dark several minutes ago. The Dude played basketball in the driveway, and I searched for subtext in each thump. My husband said the child hadn’t left the dinner table angry. That made one of us.

It was a stupid argument. His room is a yawning pit of entropy. I’m expecting those British ladies with swabs to show up any minute now to detail how many types of bacteria are festering in his carpet.

I asked him to clean it. He could have said “Sure,” ending the conversation. He wouldn’t have even had to mean it. I’m smart enough to know that an affirmative response only means he heard words coming out of my mouth. As far was listening to them and heeding them, I know there is no guarantee.

He said, “I’m busy.” I suppose it’s true at some level. He hasn’t been up before noon all week, and he disappears every afternoon to play basketball, then hangs out with his friends. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for housework.

Informing me that he was too busy to clean his room, however, felt like a kick of sand in the face. The Dude has been extremely resistant of late. Not that he ever does as I ask. He’s usually not so hostile about it.  I’m usually not so hostile in return, either. He gets around to things eventually. Today was not one of those more reasonable days.

“Maybe I’m too busy to give you the keys to my car until your room is clean.” Take that, you little shit.

With my response, dinner was over and he was gone.

I told my husband that it was about respect. I was not his slave. He’s not above cleaning his room, and he can’t just expect me to do everything for him. What a load of hooey.

The firmament my son and I stand on is dividing, like one of those cartoons where the earthquake splits the earth in two sides with a deep crevasse between them. He is going away to college and I don’t get to come along for the ride. I don’t even want to. That doesn’t make the change in the power structure of our family any easier to navigate.

I remember the summer before I went away to school was much the same. My mother and I argued. She complained I was never home, there was so much to do to get ready for school, and I was being snotty and disrespectful. I thought she was being controlling, stressing over details that I didn’t care about (I mean really, do you really need to comparison shop a shower caddy), and overreacting to my supposed overreactions.

I hate it when lessons I learn as a parent result in an apology for my own adolescent behavior. I’ll add this one to the ever-growing list.

Come fall, I will be a mother without a child to mother, but for now dammit, I’m still in charge. Who told him he was his own master?

Oh wait. That would be me.

I find it ironic that after years of warning that he’d have to take responsibility for his own stuff without my supervision and now that he’s doing it, I don’t like it. It makes me feel…. irrelevant.

It doesn’t bother my husband so much. I guess there’s a reason they call them apron strings and not suspenders. He is more prepared to let go. He is also not the one that will have to don the bunny suit and clean the boy’s bedroom and bathroom after he leaves for college. Just because I’m realize the argument isn’t about the Dude’s armpit of a domicile doesn’t suddenly make it clean.

As the day faded away, so did my anger–enough to let it go and move on. When I came in, the Dude was busy watching television. I could have cleaned my own bedroom. Instead, I sat down and watched along with him.

These next few weeks will be difficult, but I’ll make it a little easier by giving up the idea that I have control over anything, least of all my son. When the time comes for him to leave, we can fall into the crevasse, or we can use the time we have to build a bridge. As long as his bedroom stays on his side we’re good.

Wherever you go, there you are

493343628_98052395a0_zBeing a mother has occupied the last eighteen years of my life. While parenting is an exercise in entropy, it still provides a certain infrastructure. The daily schedule of getting the Dude to school, discussing his fantasy teams, and fighting over his crappy eating habits creates a living clock. It’s easy to find meaning and purpose. I am a parent. I take care of my child. If that’s all I do in a day, I can consider it a success.

The Dude leaves for college next month, and we both will have the world spread out in front of us with no real plan. While I’m excited, there’s a not-so-small element of “oh shit” mixed in. I have no roadmap to guide me. I can’t plug a destination into my GPS, because I’m not sure where I’m headed.

When I think about it too intently, I feel lost. I worry about where life will lead, and anxiety rushes to the surface. Will I ever finish my book? Where will the next story come from? Is this a career or a toe-dip in the land of wish fulfillment? How long can I justify calling myself a writer without some tangible sign of success?

I don’t know. Not a comfortable situation for someone who likes to have all of the answers. While hurtling into the future, I can’t catch the words or the notes. The best I can do is make a mad grab and hope I come up with something profound. Usually it’s a really bad limerick.

If I can manage to stand still, however, even for a minute, I can place a big red star on the map and write “You Are Here.” Sometimes, “here” is the best I can manage. Maybe, “here” is all that really matters. After all, “there” is merely a collection of interconnected “here’s”, right?

When I was twenty, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I was thirty. When I was thirty, I knew what I wanted to be at forty. Each decision led me one step closer to that end. Ironically, when I got where I intended to be, I didn’t want it anymore. Somewhere along the way I had changed, but I was so focused on the destination, I hadn’t noticed. If I’d seen a map of my life, a big red star telling me where I was, where I truly was, I might have been saved a lot of trouble and pain.

So as I walk into unmapped territory, my goal is to be dedicated to here. To now. Because this is where the words grow, and the music unfurls. I will stand still long enough for them to find me, and stay quiet enough to listen.

So if you need to find me, you know where to look.

Photograph : Mt. St. Helen’s park entrance by Stephan Adrej Shambora © 2007 via Creative Commons/Flickr

There’s no crying in baseball


Spring Break was quiet this year. The Dude had a lot on his mind, with college decisions looming and even more importantly, the fate of his NCAA bracket. Apparently, he does his best thinking while sleeping.

In prior years, he and I would take at least one academic-enrichment type field trip, usually something required by one of his teachers. To compensate, I’d take him to an exhibition game at Nationals Park. Last year, however, we spent the entire break visiting universities, and with the general chaos of our summer, didn’t get to a single game all season.

Baseball has always been the connection between me and the Dude, although sarcasm runs a close second. With spring in the air, I figured a visit to the ballpark was in order. I went online, bought the tickets, and we were set to go.

The weather couldn’t have been better for a game. The sun was bright, but a slight breeze would keep it cool enough for comfort. The Nats were up against the Mets, not the best team on the planet, but with the Nats bullpen, we were bound to see someone great. Maybe Scherzer, or Strassburg, or even Fister. The Dude and I were amped. We chatted on the Metro in while he texted his friends, while he informed me he was a master manipulator.

“You have the face of a bunny rabbit, Dude. Honestly, you could be a human Peep.”

“That’s what makes me so dangerous,” he said in his best Batman voice. “I live in the shadows.”

“You make me so proud.”

We talked about our favorite baseball moment. Red Sox/Nationals Exhibition game, 2012. Bottom of the 9th, Red Sox were ahead by one. Danny Espinosa crushed one to the outfield. The Nationals fans jumped to their feet as the Red Sox fans slumped in their seats. As Ian Desmond rounded third, Jacoby Ellsbury fired a cannon to home plate. It was like watching in slow motion. The crowd went quiet for a moment, then the ump called him out, reversing the crowd reaction with one simple gesture. Maybe today would be full of memories like that one.

He told me he loved going to games with me, because he could actually pay attention to what was happening on the field without getting distracted by conversation. I took it as a compliment. I’m much the same way. If I wanted to chit chat during a game, I could watch it on my IPhone for much less than the price of a decent ticket.

A young man stood by us in the car, thumbs a blur over his phone, much like my son. He looked familiar.

“Dude, isn’t that…?”

“Yeah.”

“You could say hello.”

“I have. We’re texting.”

“You’re five feet from each other.”

“He’s with his mother too. It’s better this way.” As his friend left the train (using a different door than his mother did), they gave each other the bro five. “I told him we were going to the game. He never told me where his mother was taking him, which means it’s something lame like a museum.”

We barely noticed how empty the train was until we were the only people exiting at the station.  I checked the tickets.

Crap.

The game was one week later.

I was an idiot. I should have double-checked, read more closely. I was too focused on what I wanted to do that I didn’t focus on what I was actually doing.

I expected the Dude to give me an earful. If the roles had been reversed, I would have. I might have even cried for effect.

He surprised me. He shrugged and gave a bummed but not fatal, “Well that sucks.” He was being very understanding. Still, I hoisted a bag of “I should have knowns” onto my shoulder, and braced for the lecture. The Dude knows how they go–he’s heard his share. Instead, he asked if there was something else I wanted to do instead, “you know, ’cause we’re already in D.C.”

“You’re taking this rather well.” He’s not a toddler, so I didn’t expect a meltdown, but I thought at a minimum he’d be annoyed.

“Everyone makes mistakes.” Like leaving his coat when driving into a snowstorm, forgetting to take out the garbage, or leaving something behind at school for pretty much all of seventh grade. Things we still give him grief about. Things I’ve blogged about.

We decided on the zoo, since the day was so beautiful. It was packed with strollers, tour groups and screaming children. The zoo loses a lot of its charm when one is there with a teenager. Even more so if that teenager is taking Environmental Science.

“Look long and hard at that tiger, Mom. Who knows how long until they’re extinct. Just like the rhino.”

“You’re an upper, Dude.”

“Just tellin’ it like it is, Mom. Don’t shoot the messenger.”

Since we weren’t at the game, he actually talked–mostly about college. He had finally made his choice, but it was a difficult one, and he wasn’t at peace with it yet. He hated the process of declining acceptances, saying it was like letting some potential future go. He was still worried that he’d do something wrong, make a mistake, choose the wrong place, miss out on something great.

So we talked about how decisions become mistakes only with the benefit of time and a lot of assumptions. In reality, we can only judge one outcome. We have no perspective on the alternative. What would our day have been like had I looked more carefully? Would we have done something else, or would he have slept late while I sat at my computer? We wouldn’t have had the time we were sharing right now. Even if it wasn’t what we’d planned for it to be, we took what we had and made the most of it. While I would have loved to go to the game, I treasured the day exactly as it was.

He’ll never know what might have happened if he’d chosen a different college. The best he can do is embrace the choice, explore its possibilities and move forward. Most of all, he needs to be as understanding of his own mistakes as he was of mine. Maybe I could do a little of that myself.

We still get to go to the game too–only this week instead of last week. It all has a way of working out in the end, if you let it.

It’s your game, Dude. Play ball.

March Madness doesn’t always happen on the court


If all goes well this week, we’ll know which college gets the prize. No, I’m not talking about NCAA basketball. I’m talking about the Dude.

I think back to the beginning of junior year, when the great college hunt began, getting into college seemed like a crapshoot. Every admissions officer was looking for a student with a 4.5 GPA, a sports contract, or a position as the CEO of his or her own non-profit NGO, The Dude is a good student, and usually has a killer fantasy team, but anything more would require he sleep less. I tried not to worry. At least one of the schools he applied to would see his awesomeness. If nothing else, his essays were bound to be an entertaining read. He is, after all, my son.

We did the requisite campus visits, affectionately termed the Dudeapalooza tour, but at the time, The Dude was less than enthused. I dragged him from campus to campus holding tight to the idea that he’d graduate high school at some point and want to live somewhere with less nagging and more parties. The presentations left me enraptured. A seminar where I can invent my own musical instrument? A coffee addicts club? Slam poetry in the cafeteria? Dorms with wi-fi and air conditioning? Sign me up!

He spent his time texting his friends.

Although The Dude was ready for college, he wasn’t ready to fall in love with one. He didn’t have a dream school. He had a well-reasoned set of acceptable choices. Then when the fat envelopes showed up he realized he’d have to pick one.

Over the last two months, we’ve gone through various phases, with each college getting its turn as favorite. Of course, his dad and I have an opinion. My husband is five steps from making it a dictate, but I spent far too many escapades with a toddler who complied with the caveat–“you can make me go, but I won’t enjoy it.” So I’m letting him come to it on his own. Not that he’s making it easy on himself.

He’s poured over the letters, websites and the brochures as if they held some secret clue he’d missed. One university even has a virtual tour app he can access on his phone. His friends aren’t helping much. According to them, the schools he’s chosen are the wrong ones, as in they are Big Ten and not ACC, the only conference that matters.

“This is the most important decision I will make in my entire life.”

My sarcasm meter didn’t go off. He actually meant it, so I gave a thoughtful and empathetic response. “I know it feels that way, and it is probably the most difficult you’ve had to make so far, but there will be others–marriage, children, job opportunities. Let’s keep it in perspective.”

“Pfft–Marriage and children are easy decisions. If you aren’t 100% positive, you shouldn’t do either.”

Oh, the innocence of youth. I decided to stay on topic. ” A university is an aggregation of opportunities. What you learn while you’re there depends on which ones you choose to engage in. Any of these universities have the ingredients to give you what you’re looking for.” I explained he could sleepwalk through the best universities in the country and be no better off than when he started. “It’s all potential energy, but it needs you to set it in motion and choose where it leads you.”

Truthful, heartfelt, but completely incorrect, apparently. “Did you read that response in a parenting book, or did you make that up yourself?”

The lesson has been hammered into his brain. There is a right answer and a wrong answer. Period. One is expected of him. The other is a disaster. Choosing a college is just one more standardized test. Pick wrong, and he fails at life. He could have a career and four years of misery, or the time of his life followed by living in a van down by the river. He says he’s 90% sure he knows what he wants. Or maybe 80%. At least 70%

So tomorrow, we take one more trip to confirm his at least 70% decision. Unless it doesn’t. Still, he says he wants to buy logo swag. I’m taking it as a good sign, although I don’t dare read too much into it. He’s always thought the gift shop was the best part of a museum visit. I’ll believe it once we pay the deposit.

Wish me luck, or at least a plethora of good-looking coeds to help sway the decision. I’ll take whatever help I can get.

You aren’t your story. Uhm, what?

millertypewriterThe Dude threw himself on my office floor, face down. “Aaaaarrrrggggghhh.”

“Good day, then?” He raised his head enough to give me the look. If he wanted tea and sympathy, he chose the wrong cabbage patch. Still, I’m better at the emotional stuff than his father.

“For a school that talks about preparing us for college, you think they’d give us enough time to actually submit our applications.” He’s been hammered with work. Junior year was supposed to be the big hurt. Apparently it was just the warm up. “I’ve forgotten everything we talked about yesterday.”

I’ve been helping him with the essays. When he speaks, he’s engaging, funny, even poignant (he gets it from me), but somewhere between his head and the pencil his words take a snooze. So we talk. I ask him questions and he takes notes. He writes something heartfelt and his English teacher edits the crap out of it until he sounds like every other kid from his high school. My guess is that he sounds like every other kid from every other high school.

“Dad says my Red Sox hat as beacon analogy doesn’t work.” I knew his father’s critique had bothered him. The Dude had closed up like a hermit crab, arms across his chest, slumped in the teenage hunch of lalalala I can’t hear you. “It’s my favorite sentence in the whole essay. It really says something about me.”

He’s right. It does. His father is also right. As analogies go, it’s a little clumsy. Like something a seventeen year-old might write.

Coincidentally, I just attended a workshop on voice–the unique character of a writer’s work. We struggle with finding our voice, refining it while keeping it authentic and real. It’s the soul of a writer’s work, and what keeps the reader coming back again and again.

Getting critiqued is hard. It helps us grow, but let’s face it. It’s much more fun to hear about how wonderful we are.

Authors often quote the platitude “Our stories are not ourselves.” I don’t find this statement comforting. At best, I hear “We like you, it’s just your writing that sucks.” The real truth is that we are our stories. That’s what voice is all about.

I try it out with the Dude anyway, and he responded, “If we are not our stories, what’s the point of writing college essays? What happened to all that talk about wanting to know who we are, blah, blah, blah.” He’s extra emotive with the blah, blah, blah part.

That, Dude, is an excellent question (he gets that from me as well).

I think our stories are ourselves–as flawed and quirky and beautiful as we are. Perhaps hiding our voice might make us less vulnerable to the sting of rejection, but as the Dude would say “What’s the point?” How else do people know who we really are?

Writing is only one form of telling our stories. We each tell our stories every day in what we put out in the world. Be brave. Share your voice.

And Dude–don’t let the world edit you out of your own story. So far, it’s been a real page-turner and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Photograph : Typewriter of Capricorn by Emdot © 2007 Creative Commons/Flickr