His voice is changing. I didn’t notice it until it really, honest-to-goodness was the Eve of His Thirteenth Birthday. First it seemed like cosmic synchronicity that on that night, as he laughed, I heard a break into a lower timbre completely different from the charming giggle of the past twelve years. First there was this moment of saying to myself “nothing like hitting a milestone of puberty at the exact chronological moment of crossing the ridiculously arbitrary barrier between Child and Teenager.” Because that seemed funny. Then it seemed terribly, terribly sad, and I had to keep up my end of the conversation we were having, lounging on my bed after school, amid dogs and cats, a laptop and a half-eaten bowl of Lucky Charms.There would be girlfriends and college and road trips and distance and some day, possibly quite soon, there would be an end to lounging on the bed as there had been an end to carrying him with his fuzzy head in its corresponding spot in the nape of my neck. My brother doesn’t lie around on beds laughing with my mother, my husband doesn’t play hide-the-dog-in-the-pillows with his mother…clearly, it all ends at some point.
Everyone says that your children will slide so gradually into growing up that you won’t really see it, but I see it. There are changes that occur under my radar, to be sure; I can’t pinpoint the night when bedtime became a struggle, or the first morning that getting up and dressed for school was a battle of exhausting proportions. He grows out of his clothes, grows a little broader in the shoulders and narrower in the torso, and his feet, which fit into my shoes only 6 months ago are now too big to slide into my Nikes when he’s too lazy to find his own. I don’t see any of these things happening, but I see a lot. Last summer, on a group work trip to Louisville I saw a girl go after him for the first time, and I observed (with no small amount of pride) that he lacked the maturity to play along in the way she would have chosen, but that he was sweet, and kind and had the grace to behave in a way that left him unencumbered but embarrassed no one. I also saw, on Christmas Eve, that he had gone out of his way to talk to a girl who got all pink and bright-eyed when he talked to her, and that he looked pretty enchanted, too. Then his voice started changing, then yesterday he turned thirteen, and then she made him a box of beautiful cupcakes with “scratch” frosting, that bright-eyed girl.
I have seen too much to pretend that I don’t know what’s happening, and it doesn’t feel “gradual” at all. I know that it’s all “normal,” and even desirable; we have raised a child who is maturing at an average pace, beginning to explore adult relationships, and showing the first signs that the hormones have been triggered. From any sort of rational, scientific point of view there is much for which to be grateful. He does not have a hump, he is not the kind of boy at risk of being beaten up every day at school (or likely to beat up anyone else), he has friends and is loyal to them, his teachers (mostly) like him, and his messy room, late nights and occasional bursts of irrational adolescent ridiculousness seem to be right on time. It would be wrong not to want this for him, this next stage of development, and our job is to mentor, monitor, guide and walk that nearly invisible line that keeps us all communicating but makes it clear that we are still the boss of him. I know all of this; I’m trying to get on with it briskly and without sentiment, but it makes me so damned sad.
I never thought I would be anybody’s mother, but once he was born, I found my son more interesting, more beautiful, more totally absorbing than anyone I had ever met. I don’t feel that way every waking minute; I get angry, I feel disappointment, I sometimes want him to “get out of my sight,” but he has always been, up to now, a part of me. He was not some separate, grown up person, he was my child, who called me “mumma,” and snuggled with me when he was sad, or tired, and foot-wrestled with me on the couch. I am sure that he doesn’t see himself as attached to me any longer, I know his friends have relegated me and my kind to the “somebody’s mom” category, and the girls who grow luminous in his presence are thinking of him not as mine, but, potentially, as their own. At his age, I found my parents (particularly my mother) to be the most embarrassing people in the world. It is all right and proper and heartbreaking and makes me want to create a special exception for the two of us, in which he will grow into a successful and well-balanced man but still love me best.
Which can’t happen.
Two nights ago, the night before he turned thirteen, he asked if he could fall asleep in our bed, and if I would lie down with him for a while. He hasn’t done that for a long time, although it used to be a regular thing, that falling asleep in our bed while hearing a book or a story, and then moving into his own bed with barely a ripple in the surface of his sleep. He asked me to tell him a story, one of the “Sam the Chef” stories I have told him since he was three or four. (Sam is a child prodigy chef, with a mother who cooks things like Spam and boiled potatoes, and a mentor who is a real French Chef. Adventures ensue). I told him a story, he burrowed into a blanket with the beagle, and began the signature rocking that has marked his descent into sleep since birth. I had a rare moment of grace, fully present and aware that I was witnessing something important; we needed to touch base one more time before he took off, headed for places that I cannot, or at least should not follow. He needs to know I’m still here, where I’m supposed to be, but he really can’t hang around too much longer without losing his Visa.
So I’ll be here, reminding myself on as as-needed basis that this is Not About Me, that I am the Grownup here, etc. ad nauseum. Roots and wings and all that stuff, you know. In public I will go along with the banter about teenagers, and their terrible, funny behavior, and college plans, and dances and crushes and drinking scandals, but inside it may all just be noise as I retreat to the truth of the matter, the truth being that I miss my little boy terribly, sometimes, and he isn’t ever coming back.
Maybe, though, if we’ve done our job well, he’ll send us postcards as he travels forward and away.