Years ago, my coworker had this sad, half-broken smile on her face when she told me that her 26-year-old son had survived for two years playing online poker because jobs were for suckers. “My son is a mystery to me,” she said.
And I had this terrible urge to grab her and yell, “Do something! Fix this!” Which means that I was thinking about my own relationship with my son, rather than her relationship with hers. It frightened me to think that one day my child might be entirely inscrutable to me. This child with a delicate scar across his cheek from the time his cat slipped off the roof of his fort, and scrambled for purchase. This child who listened to me say, last weekend, “My allergies are terrible, and I hate everything.” And responded with, “Would a hug help?” And when I blurted out, “Yes!” because I needed a hug more than anything, he jumped up and hugged me for a long time.
When I was 31, listening to my coworker’s story about her relationship with her son, I kept comforting myself with a story about how I was different. How I felt connected to and certain of my son in a way that I have always found miraculous. Improbable. Startling. The best and most astonishing joy of my life is my child.
But he is twelve now. And takes his job, being twelve, seriously. I have found myself, repeatedly, saying to him, “I don’t understand what you are doing. Why are you choosing this?” I have found him, careening over and over into my boundaries as he tries to develop boundaries of his own.
“Why would you do this?”
“What are you thinking?”
It is my job to model the values I believe in. It is his job to discern his own values. Sometimes, our jobs put us at odds.
And I catch myself thinking, “If he just chose this rather than that ….” Like a fixer. Like a person who knows better than everyone else. I’m sure people marveled at my choices (and still do) because they would choose differently. And sometimes I was wrong. But my wrongness was still mine. And worth whatever happened because I chose it myself. Messes I made were mine and necessary. Not just to learn, but to be. We go on, making and unmaking ourselves. Grasping, in our efforts, for things that are mysterious. The way I lived in my twenties made sense to me at the time as the best of my options. I would not choose those things now, which is quite handy, because I no longer have those choices to make.
“I don’t understand what he’s doing,” has become the motto of this phase of my relationship with my son. I find it a little scary. I find it exhilarating. I find that he is, as he grows and pushes, and grows and pushes, more himself. When my coworker said her son was a mystery to her, I was afraid that she really meant he was a stranger. I worried that a child could become so foreign that we might not recognize them. The way that my parents do not seem to recognize me.
But I forgot about the looking.
There it is, the scar on his cheek. There he is, the boy whose first response is to comfort me. He is there whenever I look for him. Working his shit out. Just like the rest of us.
“Why do I expect to understand him all the time?” I asked my wife last night. “I don’t understand anything. I keep looking around at the world going, ‘What the fuck is happening?'” The old fixer in me just gets anxious sometimes. I could spare you all this if you’d let me make your choices for you. I could spare you all this because when I was young, I threw myself against boundaries, too. Against and through them. Over and under them. Nobody could tell me anything. The whole world was filled with liars. People not brave enough. People settling.
At some point, I’ve made peace with not knowing. I just don’t know. I wonder. But I have no idea.
My life. My country. My neighbors. My future. My family.
I love them. But I don’t know what will happen.
And I have so much hope. And so much anxiety.
I have a fire that I let burn down to embers before I remember to search for more wood.
Outside my bedroom, the birds are singing in the tree nearest the window. They have been singing this entire time. My wife is asleep. The dogs, eyeing me, are wondering if they can press for food though it is 5 a.m. rather than 7 a.m. What is the worst that can happen? We will all tuck back in to the covers and wait out the last of the night. Or slip in to sneakers and walk through the neighborhood before anyone else.