The Formula For Letting Go
“I have baseball practice,” Ethan calls to tell me.
“Oh right.” It’s the first day of the season. I’d forgotten all about it.
“So… I’m gonna go.”
I glance at the time on my computer screen. He’s due on the field in ten minutes. If I make him wait for me to leave work so we can walk together, he’ll be late. And we’ll start the season off with the same awful fight as last year.
“Okay. Watch for turning cars when you cross Washington. And push the button and wait for the light on River Street.”
“I know,” he says in his new preteen monotone.
“Be careful,” I squeeze in before he hangs up.
On my way to the field, I stop at home to use the bathroom and pick up a cold bottle of water for Ethan. He’s fine, I tell myself. Still I wince when a siren screams past our apartment window.
I get there just as Ethan is taking his turn at bat.
“Perfect timing,” Angela, Gabe’s mom, says to me.
It’s a damp, chilly April afternoon. I pull my hood up, wishing I’d grabbed an extra sweater.
“It started out this cold last year too,” I comment.
Angela rolls her eyes. “Makes for a long hour and a half, doesn’t it?”
We pass the time chatting with another mom, Beth, whose son Dave is new on the team. We complain about the weather, compare our boys’ summer camp experiences, and admire the view past the little league field of the Empire State Building. All the while, I think about having let Ethan walk here on his own; a decision I made in a single exhale.
Last year I’d insisted that, when he had practice, Ethan meet me at the library where I work, just across the street from his school. During the interminable walk that followed, he was snide and impatient.
“Now I’m going to be late,” he’d grumble. And a moment later, “It’s not like I don’t know how to get there.”
“You can’t cross the bigger streets by yourself,” I explained. “The cars turn even when the lights are red. It’s dangerous.”
“I’d look. Don’t you know that?”
Sometimes, I’d try changing the subject. “What a nice day for baseball,” I’d offer. Or, “How do you like playing second base?”
He’d walk ahead, stopping to wait for me at street corners, a sour expression contorting his features.
None of this upset me. I understood that it was natural for Ethan to chafe against some of my rules. But one day, his attitude escalated to something I could only call ableist behavior.
“You walk too slow,” he complained. “That’s why I’m always late, because I have to walk with you.”
I was stunned. “Ethan!” I halted in my tracks; he was already a few feet ahead. Reluctantly he came back to where I was standing.
“Why do I walk so slowly?” I asked him.
“Because you have cerebral palsy,” he droned.
“Which means I can move just so quickly.”
Ethan stared past me. “I know.”
“In fact,” I went on, “what seems slow to you is actually fast for my body.”
I waited, expecting an apology. Instead, Ethan said, “Can we go? I’m late already.”
I felt angry and hurt. “Walk with me,” I insisted, when he quickened his pace.
“It bothers my legs to walk so slow,” he protested.
“Well get used to it,” I snapped at him.
We had our worst fight a few weeks later after a game. I was busy gathering our belongings when I looked up and saw Ethan leaving the park. Expecting him to wait at the crosswalk, I said goodbye to the parents I was sitting with and threaded my way through the crowd. But when I got to the street, he was already crossing.
“Ethan,” I shouted, but he kept going. I called after him the whole way home. He didn’t turn around once and, though I was able to keep him in my sight, I couldn’t catch up to him.
By the time we met at our building, I was shaking with fury.
I let it out in our lobby. “Don’t you ever, ever use your able body to fly past me again,” I yelled. “I never gave you permission to cross those streets. And you knew I couldn’t walk fast enough to stop you.”
It was not my most shining moment as a mother. In tears, I threw Ethan’s water bottle on the floor and tried to smash it with my foot. It kept rolling away from me.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry,” Ethan insisted. Clearly he was startled by the force of my anger. But this was the first time anyone had actually used able-ness and speed against me. I was devastated that it was my own child who had done it.
Yet, somewhere, below the fire of my feelings, I also understood. He was a growing child straining against limits. At times like these, it felt to Ethan that I was imposing my physical limits on him.
Finally, I calmed down. Ethan was sweet and apologetic. There were just a few short weeks left to baseball season, and our walks together, if not always completely amiable, were no longer full of such strife.
During the remainder of the school year, and into the summer, I gradually let Ethan have more independence. He was already allowed to walk from school to the library so we added from the library home, and later to the house of a friend who lived several blocks away. The first few times, I watched as he started on his way; he was very careful at intersections. He also proved to be dependable, always phoning to let me know when he’d arrived. Still, I told him he couldn’t cross the two thoroughfares between our house and the baseball field until he was eleven.
“Why eleven?” he asked.
I explained how I’d polled several neighborhood parents. Eleven was the mean age of kids given that particular privilege.
“That’s a dumb reason,” he said.
Maybe he was right. I was looking for a magic number, for some kind of formula to tell me when he was ready. But of course, every child is different. Mine is at his best when he feels independent.
So when Ethan called me at work, raring to walk to practice alone, I acquiesced. He knew he could do it, and this time, it only took a moment for me to catch up to him.
As scary as it was, I took a breath. I let him go.
5 replies on “The Formula For Letting Go”
What an incredible way to describe the challenges of able-ism and parenting. Beautiful. I will never walk with my son again the same way.
That was so well written, and made so much more interesting by the subtle segue into your disability, which I’d forgotten about as I was first reading about! ‘Letting go’ is a situation any mother faces, and the fact that he was getting frustrated by your disability made it ever more poignant. Wonderful description, too – I loved the pre-teen monotone, and the discussion you and the other moms had while looking at the Empire State Building.
This column is one of my favorite things to read on the internet.
Every time I read one of your columns I am struck by how clearly you capture the moment/s you are describing. There are no superfluous words and the punctuation makes it flow so that I feel like I am witnessing the event happening instead of reading about it! I think it was very even-handed of you to show how both you and Ethan had such strong feelings and that both of your feelings and needs were very valid. I too loved the “pre-teen monotone” moment, but I think even at my 25 years I still have moments where I hear that tone creep into my voice :) Great column Ona!
Lovely writing, Ona. You lovingly capture the inevitable pulling away of pre-adolescence, and the anxiety that accompanies modern parenthood.
Wish I could come to the poetry readings this week, so I hope to see you soon.
The poignancy of your story touched me as a woman with physical limitations and as a mother who traversed this same path when my boys were growing up. Thank you for sharing.