Last Friday, my older son called to say he’d missed the bus home from school and wanted to walk over to a friend’s house to hang out until the football game that night. My husband took the call, and I heard him start to say goodbye with a quick, “Be careful crossing the highway.”
My heart froze, and I felt that tear-fighting squeeze at the back of my throat. I leapt up and heard myself shrieking, “No! You will not cross the highway! No! Give me that phone!” The conversation that followed, predictably, deteriorated from there as my almost fourteen-year-old son responded with typical middle-school disdain as I dug in my heels and threatened ridiculous months of grounding if he so much as set foot on that road. He’s a good kid, the responsible type who typically enjoys a lot of freedom and has plenty of experience getting around on his own. But there I was going apoplectic on him because he wanted to cross a street without me. “God, Mom, chill out!”
I remember when I first brought him home from the hospital. I felt like the most fragile and precious piece of myself had been thrust out into the world, becoming this separate being with nothing to shield it from harm. Before that, if someone had asked me what the most awful thing that could ever happen in my life would be, I would have offered a list of physical catastrophes that could happen to me: cancer…paralysis…death. After he was born, though, the worst things in my world had nothing to do with me and everything to do with this fragile, separate being. Why on earth were they sending him home with me? I didn’t know anything about keeping him safe! Our car had never seemed as powerful or as ominous as it did on the day we strapped him in for the very first time to drive home from the hospital.
Several years ago, when I was still working as a teacher, I had a student named Aaron. He was a bright, mischievous, redheaded ten-year-old with a big, friendly smile. One day, he and a buddy walked down the street near where we live to grab a snack at McDonalds. He stood waiting at the light, and when the walk signal told him to go, he stepped out into the crosswalk spanning the highway (yes, that highway). His friend was just about to step out behind him when a car came speeding through the red light, killing Aaron and then driving away.
I often think about Aaron’s mother, about that separate piece of her heart that was horrifyingly run down that day. I think about her face, about the pain and numbness I saw there after the accident. I think about her brave decision to donate his organs so that another mother’s worst days could be forestalled. I wonder how she got out of bed the next day. And the day after that. And how she faced all of the tomorrows filled with the hollow echo of the milestones and celebrations her son would never see.
My son thinks I’m a freak, if I believe what he said on the phone Friday afternoon. I’m lame and weird and completely unhinged. Maybe he’s right. But there is this vulnerable, separate piece of me walking around out there, battling the torments and pitfalls and trials of adolescence. I think I should get a pass on the occasional freak-out. Of course I’ll let him fall sometimes. He has to fall to learn to get back up. Of course he’ll make mistakes. He has to make mistakes to appreciate the times when he gets it right. But as long as the worst thing that could happen in my world is so awful that I can’t even think about it without feeling this tightening in my throat, I will sometimes step in and be the embarrassing, lame, mortifying and overbearing bad guy. I have to.