Alex moved to his residential school just before last winter. Brutal weather for months: The parking lots there had 10-foot banks of plowed snow, and a wind that didn’t downshift from knifing to merely keen until far into April. On weekend trips to visit him through this first winter, what could we really do?
We explored every aisle of a nearby Walmart, laid eyes on every shelf of half a dozen dollar stores, found diners with the good pie. Week by week in Walmart, Alex grabbed every WWE doll he liked and named each after a different relative.
He came home for a few days at Thanksgiving (he had a beard!), at Christmas and most recently on his spring break. Funny how far away last fall suddenly seems. When he’s home, I climb into bed remembering that he might bolt from our apartment in the wee hours. He hasn’t done that in months but we never know.
He’s away from home to get his equivalent of a college education; it seems to be working. His teacher Abby just emailed to say that Alex has asked to be on the school’s baseball team. A few weeks ago during the school day I called Abby and heard Alex grab the phone and say, “Daddy! Eight, eight! Seven! Six!” They do a lot of countdowns at transition moments at his school. Thing is, no one told him that Abby was talking to me on the phone. He’s getting the life he needed next.
So are we. Dinner’s become quieter, no Alex bobbing and weaving, just oft-surly teenage Ned refusing to stop texting while Jill and I chew our way through “Broadchurch” or “Better Call Saul.” Some evenings I play too many computer games or stay out to play pinball. I played pinball all through high school and long after, but not for many years now. Sometimes Jill and I go to Broadway. We do a lot of things because I don’t have to bolt for the subway at 5:01 to stop the clock on some babysitter for my 16-year-old son.
Why do I spend every evening playing online variations of Battleship? Why do I blow Ned’s 529 on a vintage “Twilight Zone” machine? Maybe these are solvable puzzles, unlike the looming adulthood of the young man who still asks to watch Elmo. What was he supposed to do? Stay with only us forever? That would’ve prepared him for nothing. His version of college.
“That’s just what you tell yourself!” typed a troll on Twitter just before she hashtagged me and Jill “Worstparentsever” Frankly, sounds like somebody’s own parents once put her in some place she didn’t like.
Alex’s school took great pains to guide us through his move there. They gave us a binder containing many pages of parents’ thoughts on every stage of this huge transition. Frank stuff, too, from these parents:
Nights finally to yourself and evenings of guilt. Siblings wondering if passersby realize that the family isn’t all there. Family and friends who use the phrase, “… Put him away.” A long-delayed cruise. Volunteer work and hobbies (“… I’m Talking Tina. Here’s your extra ball…”).
Family dinners with an empty chair, dusting off careers and connections to see if either still work. A decade ago, a nurse or a lawyer – what am I now? Not having to care as much for a permanent child anymore, but will a marriage survive?
How does my child know I’m coming back? Who’s there when he cries? How is he eating?
I have questions for Alex when he comes home on this recent break. I try to let him know it’s just for a few days (we figured he’d be bored with no walks and no structure). “Today’s Monday and you’ll go back to school on Thursday, Alex. You’ve done well there, Alex. We’re very proud of you. Back to school.”
“Back to school,” he says.
“Do you have any friends at school?”
He looks at me for a second. “Noooo,” he says. “Naahhhooo!” Uh oh.
They love him there. He seems to love them. We’ve seen pictures. We know it’s true. Maybe it’s cabin fever or, best case, a typical teen just wanting to do what’s easiest and more fun, like sneaking off texts during dinner.
On Thursday, “Michael’s!” Alex says, beginning to barter for a last gift at home, a chance for me to prove at the cash register exactly how proud I am of him. “Apple store?”
“No, Alex, we’re not going to the Apple store. We can stop at Walmart up near the school…”
“Walmart,” he says. Now, after this long winter, Alex must study the doll rack a long time to find a relative he doesn’t already have. He never buys (or has me buy) one he already has.
“Alex likes to see new things” Jill says.
I drive him back. The 10-foot banks have turned to gnarled and blackened islands in the parking lots; we can all start thinking of concerts and walks. Maybe some hiking, except Alex will probably keep wanting a Michaels! around every bend in the pines.
“He seems happy to see us now on weekends,” Jill says. “Not very happy, just happy.” Perfectly sensible behavior from the boy who’s becoming a man somewhere else.