This piece is from the archives, as it were, and as kids are heading back to school, it feels like the right time to share.
The little one’s last two years of high school have been colored by a renewed struggle with his father’s suicide. I can’t blame the father 100% for the child’s behavior. It’s entirely possible that the boy would have engaged in the stereotypically risky teenage business anyway. But his adolescent anger has fueled some unfortunate decisions, and I’m afraid that love and patience and therapy will not counter the effects of paternal abandonment and the allure of drugs and alcohol and pretty girls.
My son believes his mother didn’t get it. And indeed, I don’t.
I love him. I am proud of him. And I am profoundly afraid.
Over the summer, my son and I fly to the Midwest for his orientation weekend for incoming college freshmen. We travel together in that distinct tandem of parent and child. At nearly 6’3”, he acts as my defender, and as the baby, he follows my lead through the terminal to locate our departure gate. Naturally, his eyes occasionally roll dismissively in my direction, and also, he falls asleep on the plane with his head resting on my shoulder. I tip my head toward his, feeling his thick, unruly hair against the side of my jaw, trying not to think about the fact that the next time we fly to Milwaukee, his ticket will be one way and I will return home to my freshly empty nest. I inhale the sea breeze scent of his shampoo and close my eyes. No matter how stinky and surly a teenager becomes, these points in motherhood stabilize the tension. Balancing on the razor’s edge between love and loss, I drink in this tender interval between a moment and a memory.
On the return flight home a few days later, he wants to watch a movie, but he has forgotten his earphones.
I wonder silently whether he is really ready for college.
“Can we share yours?” he asks, smiling impishly. “Let’s find a movie we both want to watch.”
Normally more of a book-reader than movie-watcher, I slide my iPad into the seatback in front of me. His three older siblings have conditioned me to drop most everything when they want to share an experience, which becomes increasingly rare as they grow older. If he had asked to borrow my headphones, I might have simply handed them over, and I am pleased he wants to watch together.
He scrolls past the action movies he knows I’m not inclined to choose, Spiderman and The Fast and The Furious.
I scroll past the documentaries RBG and Free Solo.
He lands on A Star Is Born and looks to me for approval.
“You know there’s a suicide at the end,” I say.
“I know,” he says.
“At least 10 people who loved it warned me not to watch it.” I have purposely avoided watching this film. I’ve lived with a suicide. I don’t need my entertainment to be punctuated by one.
“I know,” he insists, “but I heard Lady Gaga was great.”
Thus, we are agreed.
Held close to each other by the cord of a shared pair of earphones, we watch. As the movie nears its foretold conclusion, I force myself to breathe. Inhale, exhale, repeat. I feel my son’s warm, brown eyes – inherited from his father – glancing over, watching me protectively.
In fact, it is a brilliant film with heart-wrenching performances. Painful scenes echo our own reality. My friends were kind to have warned me. And yet, this is probably the best way I could have watched this film – on a tiny screen and connected to a son who shares my earphones and my grief.
The most poignant moment happens after the film is over, when my son who at six idolized his father and at 16 reviled him, turns his 18-year-old self to me and says, “I wasn’t expecting to like the Bradley Cooper character, but I really did.” Which begins – yet another – conversation about his father, about life and mental health and suicide and love. About how it might be possible – if inexplicable – that Sam both loved his children dearly and never would have hurt them, and was suffering so desperately that he imagined they’d be better off without him, shattering them. That he could be a truly kind man and the asshole who left. And that the child himself could love his father and resent him and be proud of him and ashamed and miss him and feel his presence. All these can be simultaneously true.
I marvel at my son’s resourcefulness and his capacity to love and forgive.
Yes, I think. My no-longer-little-one is prepared – for college, for travel and for life. He has everything he needs, even when he forgets his earphones.
Wishing you light and strength along your way. And please remember to remove all personal items from the seatback in front of you.
Also, my iPad found its way back to me. And the so-called little one is now half-way through college.