Sunday, June 12, 2011

son days

my friend katbird posted on facebook this week that friday was her oldest son's last day of kindergarten. in between his first day and this, she wrote, he: "learned to read and write and play the piano. he figured out math." (well good luck with that one, says i) "he grew two hu-normous front teeth. he can tie his shoelaces and ride a bike without training wheels (mostly).  he can smack a baseball and shoot a hoop.  he had his first communion and saved money for a good cause. he teared up for the first time while watching a movie (Kung Fu Panda II, go figure). wow. It blows my tiny mind. how could it not have blown his?"

that's a lot, for one little guy, in just a year. yes it is.

i knew this had been on her mind. she came into my office a few days before, talking about how much she hated Velcro shoes because how can anybody ever learn to tie shoes if all they wear is Velcro? i said the exact same thing into the air when mine were the age of hers. tying those shoes all by yourself seemed to me, as a young mom, the symbol of all there was yet to learn, and the independence of it. if my children could tie their own shoes without me, well, they might just do ok.

"all of a sudden, he could just do it," she said. yes. so sudden it takes our breath away, these things new to our children that we have known so long we can't remember when or how we learned them for ourselves.

i love the fact that, though she visited on the pretense of showing me how to use Illustrator, she felt at home enough with me in the purple office to plop herself down say just what was on her mind. and after we'd gotten our Velcro rant out of the way it was this: should she should jump more fully into her business, or stay in the 'life right now' she had planned as a stay at home mom, with her cool little boy and his cool little brother.

her boys are growing up and eventually away, and that seems a little bit (a lot?) at odds with her dream to embrace the artist she is. what if, as she sinks herself into that creative zone she misses the 12 things he will next learn to do in the next 12 days or weeks or months? "i don't feel like i'm doing any of my jobs well," she admitted. but the mother of the grown up children in me says that if she is thinking about that at all, she is probably doing just fine.

we've both had son days this week. i met mine for lunch at a busy downtown restaurant on a corner in the city where we both live and work. we moved here when he was on the cusp of three, clumping around in cowboy boots we found at a thrift shop. he wore them with jeans, shorts, with diapers probably. back then, he was not even three feet tall and often roamed the house brandishing a wooden gun carved by my father. and now he, actually, is marketing our city to visitors, conventioneers, even film makers. (just yesterday.)

i remember when he was learning some of the things my friend's boy put in his brain in the past year. how at not quite 5 he said: take off the training wheels, and we did and he was off, never turning around, never even wobbling. it had taken his sister three days to learn this new skill. how he would disappear for awhile and show up wearing a robot costume he'd fashioned out of leftovers from a packing box, staplers and tape. how later, his angular fingers began plucking the guitar strings into a tune i could easily recognize. and this: dear kat has many years, thank goodness, until she is on the sidelines of her own son's broken heart.

this boy of ours hates to shop, so when in middle school he found a pair of tennis shoes that worked, we just ordered them over and over. have been doing that since.

my son arrived for lunch this week wearing a crisp white dress shirt and new slacks — (how did the three-foot boy become a six-foot-two man is what i want to know) — he is tall and thin and everything he wears hangs just right, and i couldn't help but think of that boy i sent off to college with a closet full of madras shirts. and bow ties. i taught him that, too, how to tie the bow tie. (now if he had always worn Velcro would he have been asked by his fraternity to teach his new brothers this particular skill as part of his pledge responsibility?)

the new business clothes he has taken to wearing since he started his first post-college job a year ago suit him. but i didn't recall buying the slacks.


"i went shopping," he told me. "my clothes were wearing out." he means the clothes i bought him just as he was about to graduate — two years ago. "i waited until jobanks had a sale." wow. i felt like katbird. how did this happen?

his great-grandfather, who bought all his suits on sale — so goes the legend — would be happy about that. a man who knows how to hang onto his money.


we had a nice lunch (of course, though he makes more than i do, i picked up the tab.) we talked about work with his high school buddy who is now his coworker, how they play trivia every week at a local bar. "do you win?" i asked. "not a lot," his friend said. "hey maybe you know the answer to this one. what's apgar?"

"what do you think it is?" i asked, and they both laughed. "we said it had something to do with engineering," he said, "nobody at our table is an engineer," though both agreed they had heard it before.

well yes, in a way. and then i told them what it was, a measurement, sort of, of how well you are engineered at birth — the first score of many you get in life. "he scored 9 on the apgar!" a new parent will say, like they might years later: "he scored 1600 on his SAT!"

"no wonder we didn't know what it was," my son said. "how would we know that? only parents know that."

what is it with sons and their hold on us? that they share so little of their lives as compared to daughters that we celebrate every single thing they do tell us? probably. 

we welcome them home from that first year of kindergarten, our arms and hearts like sponges, absorbing the minutia of their days spent at lunch, on the playground, at nap and snack time. year by year their sharing becomes a little more guarded, but we welcome them just as hopeful, as we will a thousand times over — after their first great ball game, as they stretch their arms toward the finish in their first swim meet, after their first trip abroad. we hold them in their failures and their broken hearts, as they graduate from high school and college, and as they bury their friends. 

and some of us — as my friend martha did her son a couple of weeks ago — get to hug the whole man after his first experience (and we hope his last) at war. 

we wait for the details, celebrate the rare phone call, the ride to airport, welcoming every single chance we get to be the mother of them again.


this week, my friend lee celebrated her youngest son's high school graduation. the salutatorian talked of his friend, another mother's son — headed for Yale — who died in an accident, the result of a senior prank. he was the fourth mother's son to die in accidents in just two days in our city. (a daughter died, too.) it always happens during graduation week. these mothers do not get this chance again — any more son days — and i can barely breathe just thinking of their insurmountable loss.

to paraphrase, the salutatorian spoke to his classmates about what they each have been given, how our job is to figure out our God-given gifts and use them as best we can in the world. he got a standing ovation — something rare in the high school graduations of my memory.


as i read his words today, i thought about my gifts — my kids —and i wonder how well i have helped them become who they are, launched them out into the world as good people. have i, like katbird worries, not done a good job at mothering because i have been so focused on something else?

a little while ago, my phone jingled like robin hood's men announcing their arrival in sherwood forest.


'are you cooking tonight?' read the text.


sure. 6:30.


k. see y'all then.


k.yes. 

another son day.