My teenage boy is an alien.
And by alien I mean foreign. Far away from me. It’s not so much that I don’t understand him, or that he communicates as if he’s from another planet. There is some of that going on some of the time, but I’ve become proficient in Teenglish (Mmm mmm mmm means “I don’t know”). It’s more like he and I are in different countries, and we call each other when necessary. To remind me we’re out of frozen waffles. Or that he has an orthodontist appointment after school.
He turned 14 this summer. I don’t know how he celebrated. He’s at sleep away camp, as he usually is on his birthday, and the response to my letters and repeated requests to tell me about his special day is brief: “I’ll tell you about my birthday when I come home. Please send me my blue Minecraft sweatshirt.”
We don’t need too much from each other, he and I. He walks to and from school. Even in the rain. Grabs a snack for himself. Does his homework. Gets consistently good grades with seemingly little stress and effort. He jokes around with his brothers and solves the Rubik’s cube in less than two minutes. His favorite show is Gotham and he knows that as soon as it’s over, it’s TV off. Because if he doesn’t go to bed, neither will his brothers. Lead by example.
We spend a little time together in the car, just the two of us, when I drive him to karate or the orthodontist. He answers my questions about school and friends with no more than three to four words. Not in a moody teenage way, rather very matter-of-fact. He asks me what I think of Jem and Scout’s relationship, and did I know Harper Lee wrote another book? As we pass the park he yells out the window to someone. “Who’s that?” I ask. “My friend. Michael. He’s in my Spanish class.” Oh.
Remember when I knew all his friends, and their parents, and where they lived? When I could picture him at recess playing basketball with those friends, knowing what he was eating for lunch because I packed it for him?
I’m not sad that he’s growing up, becoming independent. I’m not feeling nostalgic or wistfully remembering when he was so attached to me he cried solidly all day every day for the first three weeks of preschool. In my mother-heart I know that he is happy, and thriving, and enjoying his teenage life – even if he doesn’t share the details with me. He still loves to eat the cake batter out the bowl. And I leave the chocolate chips out of the banana bread – he hates chocolate.
Our long-distance relationship works for both of us. He’ll happily babysit his siblings, and he helps me unload the trunk without being asked. He fixes his sister breakfast, explains the math problem to his brother. All with no fuss. Unfazed. I can’t remember the last time he needed help from his dad or me, with anything. Schoolwork. A difficult social situation. A problem with a teacher. I don’t worry if he doesn’t come home straight after school, or wonder what he’s getting up to online. As an almost freshman, girls are still just friends, and on the rare occasion I catch sight of him on campus or on the soccer field, he is engaged and social.
His baby brother wakes up wailing, and I bury myself further under the covers. He cries and mumbles to himself as he tries to get dressed, but I don’t move. “I’ll help you,” I hear the big almost-man-brother in dinosaur pajama pants. As if he knows that I need just ten minutes more of quiet.
And in his not-neediness I keep him in mind. Fix him an after-school snack. I’m not even sure if he’s coming home from school. Pastrami on a challah roll with the baby gherkins that he loves – no mayo, no mustard. I leave it on the kitchen counter on a plate, next to a note scribbled on a piece of scrap paper I fished out of the recycling: Love Mom. I use the faintest black gel pen.
He calls as soon as he gets home from school.
“Mom? So yeah I got the sandwich… it’s nice.”
I love you, Mom. And I know you love me.
Nicki Gilbert is a writer and country music lover who lives in the Bay Area with her husband and their four kids. Her work has appeared on NYT Motherlode, Kveller and The Huffington Post. Follow Nicki on her blog at www.RedBoots.me and @nixgilbertca.
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