What He Needs

Joey unfolds the rigid fabric of the new Nike duffle bag and begins the process. He is beginning to pack the things that we have been collecting for weeks: extra long sheets, foam mattress cover, new hoodies, towels, a door stop, a backpack-like laundry bag, an alarm clock, shirts, tees. Items recommended to us by Northeastern University’s Department of Residential Life. All of what they tell me my son needs to endure college dorm room living.

The scene has a certain familiarity to it. I have watched him pack his varsity team bag in the same way, in the same place, for many years. He always takes time to gather things in relation to each other, in order of appearance. The way he places white socks next to other white socks, towels next to sheets, shampoos next to toothbrushes, spins my memory wheel back to my little boy, sitting on the living room floor, rearranging his baseball cards for hours at a time, sliding out the old to categorically fit the new. He likes things to make sense of things, likes to have a game plan. He is a competitor who has learned how to measure disappointment against his strength, ready to take what he has learned from various soccer, basketball, and baseball coaches: to never give up, play with a plan, be the defender, take the shot, anticipate the move, and always hussle when you return home. I have observed all of this from the sidelines, at a distance, for many years; watching and allowing others to mentor him, because I just never been good at playing these games. But now, I find myself asking to be coached on the next move. I feel dizzy, watching this spinning wheel of memory twist between my son and I, and I want to find the right ref to help me understand more about these rules of engagement. I need to ask where the boundaries are on this field of play.

As the duffle bag expands between us and we talk about what he will take and what he will leave behind, we are suddenly ambushed by the unexpected arrival of our opportune feline, Frodo, who has jumped inside the half-packed open duffle bag and stopped the packing process. We both laugh, welcoming the interruption, but as I watch Joey attempt to lift Frodo up, out of the bag, out of the way, to another place, I find myself empathizing with this feline. How unfair it is to find a place of comfort, to then be denied it, for it to be taken away.

A new destination is needed. A new bag to jump into, to feel the parameters of something familiar, something comfortable, for us both to settle back into. For me, finding this place should be a no-brainer because I have spent time, maybe too much time, nurturing many other identities of comfort far away from motherhood — the artist, the educator, the wife, the woman — but all these bags are sealed shut right now. As I continue to watch him pack, I feel the seams of my motherhood costume, a favorite, and sometimes reluctant, outfit I have worn for the past eighteen years, begin to come apart with every sock, every shirt, my son places in that bag. But, I remind myself, this is what his father and I signed up for: to create a son strong enough to walk away from us, and now the time is up, the move is on, the game is over. I just hope he has everything he needs.

As I listen to The Good Mother ask me all of her questions, if I did enough, if I remembered enough, and, bottom line, if I loved enough, I filter her demands through a lens of compassion. I know how she gives and gives without stopping to receive any gifts, so I do feel very grateful that she has taught me how to get back to the task at hand; cook dinner, go to the game, make the bed, and plan the birthday parties. I realize she is screaming so loud at me right now because she feels as though she is losing her purpose, and I try to reassure her that she still has another son to attend to, to hold on to, to witness for two more years, but she wants it all. She paces, she rants, she — ”Stop!” I tell her.

Pushing her aside, banishing her voice with my own, I find myself saying to my son, “Lets climb a mountain together Joe”

Still trying to get the cat out of the bag, he pauses to look up at me, and I can see he is momentarily puzzled by my request. Just as I am preparing myself to hear the familiar teen-whine of non compliance, I begin to see a look of acceptance take hold within his eyes and I hear him say, “OK, Mom. But when?”

I find that answering “when” requires us to create a snapshot of time; to commit, to hold and frame something that is too fluid, too imprecise, to be held to such a constant. The moment leading up to motherhood, before this boy came out of my body, I felt as though things would, more-or-less, work according to plan. I read the books, knew the timeline of early childhood development and believed I was ready for all of it. But, our time together has been too miscalculated, too unyielding, and has always been stretched between both of our wants and needs. I wanted to be the best mother and he needed me to be the good mother. I wanted to enliven his mind through the books and words I knew, and he needed to show me how his athletic body could carry him to places I knew nothing of. And now? When I want to keep him nestled between his father’s love, a house to call forever-home, with a brother to sit next to at the dinner table, he needs my permission for that time to be up. He keeps asking me when.

So I say, “The weather this Saturday looks amazing. Let’s try it then.” I wait for the excuse to come, but, again, to my surprise, he casually nods his head in acceptance, settles the cat on his bed, and returns to the packing. The bag is filling up quickly.

Why a mountain? I suppose I just needed something physical to do with him, something a mother and son could both push their bodies against; say they survived the journey together, came out better because of it. So, on that Saturday morning we drove over and hour and a half to get to the trailhead of Snowy Mountain in Indian Lake, NY, and there we were: a mother and son walking, taking in the softness at the start of the trail, balancing our bodies on the beams extended over muddy shallow streams, holding on to side branches to assist our climb over large rocks, and searching for trail markers to keep us on track. But the old boots we were wearing were not holding up to the task, and the journey quickly became an adventure in looking for places of comfort.

We were losing our soles. The rubber plate on the bottom of my hiking boots held on at the toe creating a flip-flop sort of boot, and as disastrous as that may sound, my son had it worse. His rubber soles literally became unglued and were totally lost early on into the journey. The majority of the climb was spent trying to keep his boots in contact with his feet, and I had to continuously tie and re-tie his shoelaces around his toes to protect him. The final solution came, close to the top of this 3,900 ft peak, when we placed his socks over his boots. Certainly not what I had imagined this experience to be, but, I have to say, that once at the top, as we climbed the rickety fire tower to look out and see the world before us, it was good. It really good. Yes, this is what was needed.

Joey stood tall on that fire tower. His legs, built strong by years of playing scholastic sports, held him steady on the worn wooden platform. His blue eyes remained bright, serene, shaded by a baseball cap, as he took in the forever flow of the green Adirondack mountains that stretched out before him. I knew he was not thinking about those boots any longer. Nothing was there to hold him back.

I stood there with him, in silence, for a few moments, until we both spotted a bird, soaring, just to our left, and I asked him if he thought it was a hawk. “Maybe” he said. We both observed that creature fly alone, for just a few moments more, watching it measure the wind, wobble its body on the current, manage its weight in flight. I wanted to say something, but knew it was best not to. Words would have brought it down, so I was grateful that Joey took out his iPhone and turned away to capture images of the surrounding panoramic view. Glad we took a picture together, with the mountains at our back.

The whole journey was a serendipitous collision of mishap and beauty, an experience from nature that I have waited a lifetime to give him. A lesson delivered not from his coaches, his father, his brother, his peers, but from me. It was as unforgiving as the short time that was given to us, as compassionate the hawk we saw balancing his wings on top of the mountain breeze, as soothing as the dark mud that seeped through our old boots. It all made sense, it all wrapped around us, it became the space we were meant to hold for each other. A space that will momentarily stop the turnstyle, allowing a mother to get off on one side, a son on the other.

“So, ready to get off this mountain?” I say to him. He shakes his head yes. I knew he was ready to go. I knew he did this more for me than for himself. I knew he really wanted to get back down to the car, get back to cell phone coverage, and get back to his life. But it was such a treat to have the day alone with him, to watch him measure his patience, his strength, his determination, to get to the top regardless of what was attempting to hold him back.

On the way down, I watched him measure his steps. He had momentum. He jumped off boulders that my 40-something ankles will not permit me to do any longer, and he used his agility to quickly maneuver through the many tendrils of tree roots gripping the trail — obstacles that would quickly turn an ankle if you were not careful. He got ahead of me. But when I momentarily lost sight of him, I told myself not to panic. It was good to let him go on ahead, to stay on the path, but let him lead in his own way.

I thought back to his duffle bag back home, still open on his bedroom floor. I felt so relieved to know it had more open space, more pockets to fill, more cavities to stuff. It was ready to be filled with more of what he needs.