by Rita Leydon ©1998
Lars is a lean, strong youth with an orthodontically perfect smile and passions that run in the fast lane. A boy in love with danger and risk. Cock sure of himself. Certain of his immortality.
At the end of summer, he and I drove south together to deliver a new freshman student to Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. Lars has long nurtured aspirations to be a bush pilot in Alaska; although lately his thoughts have expanded to include flying rescue helicopters in the Alps. I don’t think “commercial airline pilot” is on his list of possibilities. Too average. Too normal.
High school graduation wasn’t a sure thing. It was touch and go the last few weeks. My son was indifferent. Had more important things on his mind. Distractions. Vertical inclines. Ropes. Tacky soled shoes. Prowess pushed to the edge. In spite of his vigorous pursuits, graduation came, bestowed a diploma, and passed, adding a smiling new page to the family photo album. Mom and Dad exhaled. Lars went climbing.
We didn’t see much of him over the summer. A construction job with a local builder provided physical exhaustion and hard cash. Climbing forays to Seneca Rocks, the Gunks and North Conway kept Lars in motion and focused. He’d come home with panoramic pictures—always aligned vertically—emphasizing the staggering heights he clambered up and down. I’d get dizzy and nauseous just poring over his pictures. On the refrigerator I have a hand scrawled coupon Lars gave me on my last birthday. Coupon gifts are a long standing family tradition. “Good for a one day climbing trip with me, so you can see what it is I do,” it says with a little floral flourish doodled around the edges. I haven’t mustered the courage to redeem my coupon. Truth is I’m too scared. Something inside me knows it is better not to see. Better for both of us. If I were watching, Lars would sense my anxiety. No. It’s best that climbing be his own. No. I don’t want to be there. No.
Two weeks before departure, Lars quit his job. Had details to tend to. Mundane minutia such as the extraction of a full set of wisdom teeth. I rattled off daily reminders. Directing. Mothering. Bothering. Lists of must-be-dones. I was a bore. Lars closed his ears and became ultra social. A tsunami of friends flooded the house. School friends. Cousin friends. Work friends. Climbing friends. Frenzied activity around the clock. His hours were odd and his days irregular. My husband, Chris, and I strove for patience and tolerance. Searching each other’s dilated pupils for strength and wisdom. Some days we achieved, others not.
One week before departure, Lars and his friend Aaron flexed the rippling muscles of adolescence, declaring at the eleventh hour that the threatened spirit of Tom Sawyer was safe and in their inspired custodial care. Selecting a perfect tree—a tall, straight specimen at the end of time and the edge of the world—they commenced building a tree house. Agreeing that forty feet off the ground was a good place to start, the boys spent several days scampering up and down their tree with materials and tools, belaying each other with climbing gear. The pinging crack of hammer blows reverberated across our fields. I caught myself smiling as the music of their labor reached my ears. Our black pickup truck served as portable CD player and site spotlight illuminating their extended hours. Friends and others who trickled by were hoisted up and entertained into the night. Chris and I knew enough to stay away. It was the boys’ private sanctuary precariously balanced on the brink of adulthood—a lofty vestige of every youth’s dream of eternal summer and childhood.
Two days of determined, purposeful, and sane driving are required to reach the State of Florida. You get on Route 95 and just drive south, tankful after tankful, until you get there. The right foot pressing the gas pedal with steady resolve firmly into the floorboards, while the left foot hovers, ready to oppose the action in an instant. Left foot yielding to the right. It must be like that. Forward motion requires it. Growth requires it. Love requires it.
Neither one of us likes Florida. Too flat. Too tepid. We pretend this is just another adventure. We’ve had numerous adventures before. Traversing the continent this way and that, hither and yon over the years. One Mother and two boys. Three explorers in a self-contained camping capsule. Dad never came with us. He always had to stay in that place called work.
College registration is tedious and exciting. Long lines. New keys. Photo ID cards—“SMILE.” Sizing up room mates—brothers for a term. We get through the ordeal smoothly enough and afterwards Lars says “Let’s go to Red Lobster, Mom.”
Isn’t it bizarre how we mortals do our best to remain casual and act normal in the face of grossly abnormal situations? What’s normal about premeditated abandonment of a child a thousand miles from home? Between bites Lars and I utter important thoughts, aware that life will never again be its old familiar self. Memories and recollections lift our sagging spirits. We soar and rejoice with laughter and mirth knowing that shortly we will land and part company.
Meanwhile, two dead lobsters study us. Beady, black eyes focused. Blue Maine mariners sitting pretty, gussied up as bright scarlet entrées, sharing space on white porcelain with yellow lemon wedges and green sprigs. We suck, crunch and slurp our way through the crusty creatures. Lars, feigning confidence on the eve of all his tomorrows. Me, trying to be rational, positive and encouraging—yet oozing misery. Trying to convey that I desire my son to locate and aim for his own brilliant stars. His own dreams. His own happiness. Instead of dessert, Lars wants a foot massage.
Dinner concluded, I deliver my child to his new dorm—a large holding tank full of other mothers’ children. We share several awkward angular hugs in the parking lot. I’m a weepy mess. Lars displays amused satisfaction with my tears. Affirmation of Mom’s soft interior. He smiles securely and walks away. Doesn’t look back. I stand and watch him get smaller and smaller and smaller until he’s gone. Deflated, I sink onto my car’s bumper and I cry. I sit and cry. Pout and cry. Get into the car, half in, half out, and stare blankly at the cruel world. I make odd noises for I’m truly sad. I tell myself it’s ok to be a little noisy. No one is around. Just me—the last mother to leave. I don’t think fathers cry. I’ve been here—in this emotional space—before. Two years ago, Chris and I abandoned Krispin at Big Bad Dartmouth. Distasteful business, this nationally condoned abandonment of our children at the various portals of “higher education.” Taut umbilical cords smart terribly at the maternal end.
I face an evening by my lonesome. My plan is to sleep and head north in the morning. I hide out at a Barnes and Noble bookstore for a couple of hours, licking my wounds. Finding solace amidst pages of other people’s pains, passions and passages. Less alone, and almost normal, I’m inspired to purchase a slim volume by Virginia Wolf—A Room of One’s Own. The $15.95 transaction is denied at the register. “What do you mean—denied?” Astonished and annoyed, I inform the freshly scrubbed young clerk that earlier in the day the nice folks at VISA thought nothing of letting me spend $2195.49 on an IBM laptop computer for Lars. The nerve! Luckily I have two cards—my business card worked just fine.
Darkness falls over Florida and me. Lars seems a million miles away. The fuel gauge of my normally overstuffed ego flashes empty. A classic junk food craving materializes in the pit of my center and grows into a huge monster that needs immediate attention. Thankfully I am surrounded by glittering American strip culture grotesquely promising balm and cure for all that ails. I know McDonalds has just the right medicine for my unstable condition.
“To go, thanks.”
Back at my room, I find a message from Chris with a wonderfully corny poem honoring our 24th wedding anniversary. I hadn’t remembered and can’t quite tune in to his fax because I’m so utterly post partum blue. I need to pass through my depression. Indulge my motherly misery. It’s my process. Once rolling, I can’t stop until I’m safely on the other side. In the morning I’ll be fine.
The evening is vapid and lukewarm. Palm trees grow recklessly all around me. Weedy overgrown pineapples, oblivious how exotic, unnatural and weird they look. Gawky ganglings with tufty tops swaying in the sea breeze. Besides palm trees, there are palm bushes and even palm grass. It all looks fake. Gaudy hibiscus bushes parade outside the rooms, flaunting their seductive red blossoms, disturbing the peace with their noisy hues. Trying to cheer me up. I’m immune. Instead, I sink somberly into a nice vintage chaise longue and unpack my orgy. My Reeses peanut butter cups. My gut bomb with fries. My Diet Coke. I think only the moon can see me. The fries disappear one by one. A familiar hand mournfully feeds the mouth with the measured cadence of a slow metronome. I fritter away the evening like this, content in my self absorption. Gluttony is good for sorrow—makes you feel as bad physically as you already feel emotionally. Its a good balance. At eleven I call Chris and acknowledge his fax.
Three months later, Chris and I hop a plane for a twenty four hour parental visit. Lars calls the day before. “Bring beef jerky, the bike rack, my electric drill and a skill saw.” Yes, of course, no problem.
Lars provides the Grand Tour, most of it off campus. It includes all vertical surfaces he has scaled without getting caught. He has had to be imaginative and resourceful to entertain and exercise his climbing needs. We note black smudges on the sides of otherwise pristine campus walls. “Those are mine,” says the sweet innocent youth with his big toothy grin. We admire more smudges on pillars under various bridges. “I’ve learned to climb palm trees, but they’re really fibrous and rough on the fingers.” We wonder about academics. “Oh, it’s been easy so far.” Lars shows us posted grades from a calculus class and his numbers are up in the cream. He loves school, gets along great with his room mates, has figured out how to navigate and maximize the system, but he does not like Florida.
Lars readily introduces us to friends we encounter, showing no signs of embarrassment at being seen in broad daylight with two parents in tow. “I told my friends that you guys are awesome.” Imagine that, our son thinks his parents are “awesome.” I can think of many times in the past when we were many other things in Lars’ mind, none of them remotely close to “awesome.” This feels good.
Lars suggests Red Lobster for dinner. Table talk is easy, frank and open. Careful listening. No lecturing. Our son is thriving in spite of the level terrain. Making the best of the existing topography by using his mountain bike extensively on jungle trails he has discovered south of campus. He expresses thankfulness for the use of the family jeep and hands over an envelope full of tidy VISA receipts. I marvel at both the flatness of the receipts and the fact that they are in an envelope, being used to his brother’s receipts which usually fall out of pockets as tight little crumpled wads that look like they have been through the wash. “Write to your brother,” I admonish.
Lars came home for the Christmas holidays. Sirius—our ancient golden retriever—announced his midnight landing. Instantly alert, I bounded down into the kitchen to hug him and then scold him for not stopping for the night. A thousand miles in sixteen hours straight isn’t smart in my unwritten book of “Mother's Rules.” Everybody knows that. Go to bed.
The next morning Chris and I were up and out early while Lars slept in. By mid afternoon he had woken up, emptied the car and disappeared. We studied the composition of the pile on the kitchen floor—rolled up posters, cassette tapes, Tide, rolls of toilet paper, miscellaneous suitcases and back packs, Lysol, sheets and bedding, ten pairs of shoes, bike helmet, books, a stuffed Santa, his stereo. Everything and more. A portentous and eloquent statement of mid-flight correction.
“This boy is not returning to Florida.”
“You’re right, he’s not.”
“Hey, Mom and Dad, what’s up?”
We pivot on the spot and face our independent child with his characteristically off hand greeting. Shining down on us—the puzzled older generation—is a towering, smiling youth, positively radiating optimism and self assurance. Patiently and sympathetically he acknowledges our confused befuddlement. “Oh yeah, didn’t I tell you? I’m transferring to Embry Riddle’s Arizona campus for next term. They’ve got mountains. Gotta climb. See ya later.”