It was another cold winter Wednesday night around 7 p.m. We were just finishing up dinner when my cell phone rang.
“Hi Mom,” the voice on the other end said. “What are you up to?”
“Hi Jesse,” I said. “How are you?” I held in my breath and closed my eyes, suddenly taking on the maturity of a two-year-old playing hide and seek.
“Great!” he answered. I let my breath out
I waited for the explanation of what he needed, what he lost, how much money it was going to cost me or what class he decided not to attend that day.
I looked out the window, took a large gulp of wine and waited. Waited for the “I need or lost” clause to be stated as it had so many times before. But this time in that very moment while I scrubbed sweet potatoes off my dish in the sink, my son, it appeared, just called me to say hello. To see how his Mom was doing, to inquire what was new in her life? Could it be true? Could our 19-year-old boy be calling just for that one reason alone with nothing up his sleeve? Could it be—I wondered to the Gods—he was maturing?
At that time our son was finishing his second year of college in Rhode Island. For the first year and a half, most communication was by text. He was filled with trepidation (as were we) but I tried, as I did most of his life, to gently persuade him into a new situation. Not a large push, just a little nudge, a lot of encouragement and love and respect for his way of doing things. Jesse was the type of child who as a young boy who would hold onto my leg in any new situation for the entire duration of the event and want to release his hold just as we were readying to leave. This made me feel uncomfortable, not sure if this feeling was for him or for me but I craved him to be a joiner, to run off with the other kids with a huge smile. But he never did.
When he was away we missed him terribly and wanted to hear his voice—the house was quiet without him making his usual noises and messes—but using text as communication worked for all of us in our busy lives. It was quick, painless and could be given and received at anytime. We needed to know if he was safe, if he got to class, if he was adjusting; we needed to know if we could stop worrying. He was our first off to college, and I had to tell my brain to refocus onto other things while he was gone.
For the most part, the only phone calls that transpired were those of panic or dread. Those emotions were mostly coming from us, the parents. The conversation usually started and ended something like this:
“Mom, I have something to tell you. I lost my wallet/can’t find my car keys/broke my nose [yes, that was a real one]/I am out of detergent/coffee/food/waters/toilet paper/cleaning products—can you put some money in my account? And I need money for laundry—can you put money in that account too? My suitemates all have the swine flu and nobody has cleaned the bathroom in weeks. And by the way, that class that I was supposed to switch into, it’s closed and drop/add was yesterday. And of least importance, there is a smell in our room that we cannot identify. Oh, and Mom—I need a suit, tie and shoes by tomorrow.”
But this time, on this mid-week call in the middle of a harsh New York winter, Jesse seemed to be sincerely interested in what I did that day. He asked about my writing, how our two mini-dachshunds were doing with all the snow, about his Dad and his long commute and how he was adjusting to a fairly new job. He even asked how his sister was doing in school. It was as if I was speaking to a friend–a dear friend who I really liked—a good guy, a smart, respectful, honest man. One who could see beyond his own needs and ask about the needs of others, one much like his Dad. I felt a wave of pride that I was sure would leave me someplace in this phone conversation when the real Jesse came back on the line.
Friends of older adult children tell me that this phenomenon happens, that around this age our children turn into pretty cool people. People we can be proud of, that we can hang with. “Almost adults” that we can talk to with our voices and not just our thumbs. I know this too since Jesse is one of those now.
Could it be that all those emotional, frustrating, exhilarating years of parenting paid off? Is this once shy, quirky and very creative little boy—who for the first few months of pre-school sat on a chair by the door and didn’t move or talk to any classmates—becoming a caring and complete man?
Jesse graduated College. I still held my breath when he called all through those years not knowing what he would say—but now I know he has joined the human race. The teenage years are gone and we are left with a twenty-something we are so proud of and that we are delighted to speak with whenever he calls.
Now, unlike the college days, Jesse is busy with his own life. A life complicated, yet joyous, fun and in a city that never sleeps. A life filled with navigating a real career, a beautiful dog named Molly and a relationship with a girl we love. A die-hard New York sports fan, dating a die hard Boston far, he is juxtapositioning watching all New York and Boston games (except maybe hockey) either in person or with friends in front of the very large television he has at his place.
It is amazing the emotional rollercoaster parents experience throughout the lives of their children. It still pains me that I don’t see him everyday – a deep pain right in the center of my heart accompanied by a big lump in my throat. I think about him when I am in the car alone or when I see a little boy with his Mom in a store. He is not far in distance, yet miles away. At the same time I have to admit I grin knowing I am not picking up after him, arguing or solving his day-to-day challenges.
For a long time this little boy was my constant companion, my first child after losing a daughter just the year before. My daughter Samantha died at nine days old. We held her as she took her very last breath, wrapped in pink blankets, in the Neo Natal intensive care unit at New York Hospital. I was a robot, a human body whose heart and soul were smashed broken and on hold, walking without legs, barely seeing my way through a menagerie of hell wondering why the world did not stop at that moment.
I held Jesse close and very tight from the moment he arrived. Still navigating darkness that I carried like a transient visitor who may or may not arrive every morning. His arrival was hope. A life to fill a void that nobody could easily explain. A daughter born to earth and taken away, a loss like no other.
Jesse has been out on his own for a few years now and this morning I walked into his room. What met me was a Vince Carter bobble head doll, a shelf filled with old college textbooks (wasn’t he supposed to sell those back to the college bookstore?) and a framed picture of Mickey Mantle my husband gave him signed, “to my pal Robbie, best wishes Mickey Mantle” along with dozens of signed baseballs, a social security card (doesn’t he need that?) and enough mixed emotions filling the air to encompass a baseball field.
We removed the Plexiglas basketball night table and replaced it with a traditional wooden table we had in the garage, but everything else is pretty much the same. CA few years ago we moved the clothes that still remained in the drawers; a hand painted, decoupage, two-drawer box with cut out Nets and Yankees logos, to hold change and doodads on his dresser that evoked memories of a day when I encouraged him to make something out of the raw wood even though he was too cool at fifteen to still do “crafts”.
These days, I feel proud, thankful and exuberant. There are times I crave for the past when my children were small and life was filled with play dates, playdoh, basketball, baths, and wet kisses. But more often I now want the Hollywood moment when all my grown children, girlfriends/boyfriends come to my fictitious Hollywood sprawling, immaculately clean house with a warm, inviting style. The kids with their plus ones throw their arms around me carrying gifts wrapped in perfect color tones matching my tastefully chosen home décor — like a film with delicate and painterly cinematography where the Mom looks especially young, and thin, and cooks an amazing meal. There are no dirty dishes in the sink and a good Carly Simon tune is barely audible in the background. A good, heavy red wine from a French Region flows with laughter abounding.
I clearly remember when Jesse was a junior in high school and he had to get a letter of recommendation from his Math teacher. “Tell me a little more about Jesse,” Mr. Gagliardi asked. “I only know him in class.” My head ached knowing the fast path, high achieving competition that awaited him on a college application and I wanted to lie –to make something up about how he was working on a cure for childhood cancer, or how many volunteer hours he racked up at hospice. I wanted him to be accomplished, a man of wisdom, distinction and philanthropy as the college admissions process makes us believe they should.
But as I started to speak the whole truth came out, “he has three things that are important to him right now,” I told him. “First is his Dodge Charger, second is his girlfriend and the third is school.” I wanted to hang up, I wanted to be proud, I wanted the world of college acceptance to go away and I wanted not to care how polished and ‘over do-good’ some of the other kids were on paper.
But as quickly as the words came out of my mouth to describe my then seventeen-year-old son, his response was even quicker and with one hundred percent certainty.
“Exactly how he should be,” his teacher responded. “Exactly how he should be.”