Someone should have told me it was exactly like potty training. Despite all the encouragement, targets or prizes, a two or three-year-old who is not ready to see the benefits of privacy and a clean commode will stall the process until the time is right…for them. And then it’s as simple as flicking on a light switch and waiting outside the door perched for the sound of success.
This morning I found our college-bound son in our basement, tinkering with a toy he’s been working on and off for three years. It’s an arcade machine he’s built and designed himself, from scratch. All the wires lay at his feet, waiting for him to make the necessary connections.
Our son is leaving for Washington University in Saint Louis in August. He will be taking his leave from us and his home to venture forth and learn about late nights, cold pizza, and graphic design. His departure is part of the evolution of growing up, one which I have been trying to negotiate with my heart, if not my head. True, recent horrific events at Virginia Tech forced a surreal sense of caution, yet I have to remind myself that parental angst does not figure into this equation. This is about him and his transition. His signals, like the ones when he gave when he was little, are simultaneously precocious and pubescent.
Considering which school to attend wasn’t as much about rational thought as it was about seemingly incidental concerns, ones a child might find disquieting.
“Did you know that Saint Louis has one of the highest violent crime rates in the country?” I heard in his voice the sense that this is something I, as his vigilant gatekeeper, should know unequivocally.
“No, I didn’t. But Wash U is in a suburb of Saint Louis,” I countered matter-of-factly. He shrugged.
In the aftermath of that reply, which was offered well before April 2007, I have to admit I might not have handed him such a simplistic answer. I’m frankly not sure what I would have said if the timing was different. The world seems to be responding to universal stresses in so many unexpected ways that make it difficult to justify a rational answer.
“Josh told me that Saint Louis has one of the highest violent crime rates in the country,” I whispered to my husband, Larry, as we lay in bed trying to doze off.
“Where did he get that information from?” he said, rolling over, “I don’t believe it. He’s just anxious.” And we weren’t. That’s changed a bit since.
Then there was the discussion about living in a different time zone, a fact that our son found most inconvenient.
“I have to remember that you and all my friends are an hour later than me,” he said during his pit-stop lunch break. He usually grabs, eats and leaves—as if our kitchen was an automat. The sound of his footsteps—his and his two brothers– bounding down the stairs at mealtime serves as a rhythmic reminder of my fundamental role as their mother. When he leaves, this sound—as familiar as my own heartbeat–will diminish by a third.
“So? You’ll just call everybody an hour later. You’ll get used to it,” I said with nonchalant confidence. A mid-western time zone, a quieter home, these are small details. A tug from within the center of my chest felt otherwise.
“Yeah, guess so,” he said with the now familiar shrug.
The day after our son received his acceptance from the university was just like any every other school day. I awoke to find him in his room, working at the computer before getting ready to catch his bus. I reminded him that he had to pick up his youngest brother after school. He nodded, preoccupied. As I was talking, I sat on the edge of his bed, looking out the window to the blue sky and bare trees beyond. He got up to retrieve his sneakers and instead of sitting back at his desk chair, he sat down next to me. I had little else to say and so I just sat there, trying to grasp the shift that had altered our morning ritual. This wasn’t like every other day, the room felt encapsulated in time and all his belongings merely evidence of what was once a sweet, loving childhood. He lay his head lightly on my shoulder and we sat together silently appreciating what would inevitably change.
Later this afternoon as I was putting the last load of wet laundry inside the dryer, I heard music that I closely associate with cold beer and laughter. Following the sound, I found myself again in the basement where our son was playing Pac-Man on his home-made machine. He looked up at me with a huge grin, it was the same expression he had on his face when he opened the bathroom door when he was three.
“Look, Mom, It works great! See? And it only took four years,” he noted with satisfied sarcasm, “Go ahead, try it out.”
“What made you want to work on it now?” I pushed the button for one player.
“I just thought it was time to finally finish it.”
And within seconds I was busying trying to escape the ghosts and supply my Pac-Man with all the dots he could eat.