We are sweating in the 93-degree heat: he in his heavy black catcher’s gear, me in my collapsible nylon spectator seat. Everyone here is sweating. I have already annoyed my son once by asking him if he’s drinking enough water, but I’ve read enough heat stroke headlines this week to be shameless. Between innings I toss him a Powerade that I’ve purchased from the concession stand. He, in turn, tosses it under the players’ bench with that effortless flippancy cultivated by adolescents, and strides away.
My husband has witnessed this brief tug-of-war and suppresses a smile. “He’s fine,” he says, and returns to making notes on his scorekeeper’s pad.
I sit back down, comforting myself with the thought that level heads usually prevail at these games. The coaches are attentive and sensible. They have their priorities straight. My son is in good hands. Plus, the coach’s wife, Val, is a nurse, and nobody’s fool. Better yet, here comes Judy, a pitcher’s mom, transforming anxiety into action. She’s brought from home a large bucket of ice water, and soaking in it are a dozen hand towels, one for the neck of each player on the team. Good woman, Judy.
There are plenty of good women here, and good men, too. We’ve formed the easy camaraderie that comes from years of sitting together for hours at various venues, alternately cheering on, and discussing the lives of, our children. Over time, some friendships have formed, and I am pleasantly lulled into believing that those friendships will last forever, just as some parents secretly believe, through some irrational and deep-seated form of denial, that their children will never grow up and leave home.
With a son turning just 13, and a daughter only nine, I am too far from that point of the journey to dwell upon it. The bald truth is, I can’t bear to, and apparently neither can my son. He’s already informed us he’d like to attend the Ohio State University when he graduates from high school. But I once made the innocent mistake of bringing up the subject in casual conversation — “Your cousin’s going to Ohio State in the fall; maybe we can visit him sometime and you could see the campus” — and he stonewalled me. “I don’t want to talk about growing up and leaving home. I’m just a kid. Can I just be a kid, please? Can you please stop talking about this?”
Everyone is too hot to talk today, so both the field and sidelines seem unnaturally quiet. At moments the only sound in the air comes from the locusts, their ceaseless staccato whine rising and falling like an orchestrated wave within the trees. Our team started out in the lead, but the pitchers are getting exhausted from the heat. Walks are piling up the opposing team’s score. Still, my son seems focused. Even as a five year-old, while other little boys were picking dandelions in the outfield or distracted by a plane flying overhead, he had his game face on from the first pitch: knees bent, glove poised, eyes on the ball. Always a child on whom little is lost, his powers of observation console me as we navigate the murky channels of adolescent communication. Though he sometimes pretends very hard not to listen, I doubt he’s missed much.
In these years of tectonic emotional shifts in my son, I’m grateful for any personality traits I still recognize. He’s kept his laser focus, his disarming honesty and his sometimes unnerving ability to see clear through the extraneous details of a situation and straight to its heart, an enviable gift he inherited from his father. But all the rules are changing.
He came across a letter I was writing to a friend that I inadvertently left on my computer screen one day: He is changing so rapidly, testing new boundaries both negative and positive, but beneath his bravado I still see my sensitive and loving boy. He wavers so broadly between staunch independence and downright clinginess — with little in between — that trying to keep up with it is exhausting. But I am determined to let him find his own way while I stand by with the safety net. I am so proud of him, of how responsible — and sometimes truly wise — he is. He knows a bullshitter when he sees one. He understands nuance. He seems to understand the compromises relationships require in a mature yet offhand way. He loves his sister much more than he will let on.
When he informed me that he had stumbled upon these words on my computer screen, I braced for an angry outburst: How dare you talk about me to your friends! No. What he busted me on was the word bullshitter.
“I bet you swear all the time when I’m not around! That word just rolled right off your fingers like it was nothing. You always say, ‘Don’t swear, it’s not right.’ Oh, sure. I’ll never believe another word you tell me now that I know how you talk in private.”
Arguing this point was futile, of course, though I gave it a shot. For the record, I don’t swear — much. And almost never in front of the children. Up until about a year ago, I wouldn’t even let them say “crap” or “stupid”, but my son wore me down on those peer favorites, and with the long-term strategy of holding the line on more insidious four-letter offenses I am choosing my battles more judiciously these days. In fact, I am willing to concede that on certain limited occasions, no words more adequately describe a situation better than “stupid” or “crap” or sometimes a thrilling combination of the two.
There is an ironic, unfair coda to this revised policy, however. While my son and daughter insist upon exercising their newfound right to say both crap and stupid in our home, I am somehow not allowed to say either. The few times I have, I’ve been greeted with stunned silence and raised eyebrows, followed by a straight-faced exhortation: “Mom. Relax. I mean, nice language.” Such are the new house rules of adolescence.
There are many more new rules, of course, and I am learning them as quickly as possible. When my boy was hit in the back by an errant fastball a few minutes ago, I watched him arch his back and dance around home plate in pain for several long seconds. I could see the sting in his eyes from where I sat biting my lip with the certain knowledge that, unless copious amounts of blood or loss of consciousness are in evidence, I may under no circumstances approach my son on the baseball field. I glance at my husband now, and he is wincing, which both touches and troubles me — Was it even worse than I thought? Can a 12 year-old’s fastball bruise a lung?
The other mothers utter sympathetic groans and shake their heads. “Hockey’s worse,” says Carol. “It’s all I can do to watch sometimes.” Judy, whose son also plays football, agrees: “At least in football they wear lots of padding.” This learned skill of distancing ourselves from our children’s pain — is it ever really possible to master?
Besides the new rules, there are so many new skills to master now. That’s the curveball, if you will, of parenting teens. You’ve had this plan in place since you were cutting grapes in half on their highchair trays — how to help them highlight their strengths and counterbalance their limitations, as they work their way through life. You’ve got ideas, and books, and resources you’ve researched. A lot of it turns out to be wasted energy, because — surprise! — they’ve got ideas, too. Things change, they change, you change: time to get a new plan.
And yet, why should we be surprised, when these changes, at least their changes, are so clichÃ©d? Loving us one moment, loathing us the next. Defying us. Worse yet, perhaps, ignoring us. We are an embarrassment; we must be watched in wariness for any unexpected excruciating behavior. Parents learn to never, ever sing out loud in the car, or (God forbid) dance, use currently fashionable slang expressions, drop their children off anywhere peers might witness them occupying the same vehicle, or emote heavily about anything.
Crack. I know that sound, and it’s a good one. The ball sails far into the field, over the heads of the outfielders and into the grass just in front of the fence. My son is sprinting the bases with everything he’s got; it’s a double with a run batted in. I’m allowed to cheer loudly here, along with all the other moms and dads, as long as I don’t yell his name. This is a rule with which I’ve long been familiar, going back to his first season of baseball. He has never been comfortable in the glare of public recognition, even when it is congratulatory. I am not allowed to fuss over his victories, a rule I often break (and wonder, truly, how he would react if I really followed it). He’s got a straight face out there on base, but I know his heart is pumping with exertion and pride.
Once I asked him, after a game, “What’s it feel like, to smack that ball, knowing you’ve got it nailed, racing around those bases like nothing else matters in this world, all those people cheering madly for you? Is it just the coolest thing in the world, or what?” He frowned at the windshield for a few seconds, as if the idea had never occurred to him. “Yea,” he said, and nodded. “Can we go through the drive-thru on the way home? I’m starving.”
My son’s coach is teasing the mothers on the sidelines now, loudly suggesting to the boys that he call a Sunday morning practice so they can all miss church. Some of the boys on the bench, awaiting their turn at bat, cheer the idea and pump their fists in the air. My son cheers the loudest of all. He wants to miss church any chance he can get.
Questioning the value of church, questioning God — I’m okay with it. I began questioning both about 35 years ago, and still do. I think God expects it of us, the way I expect my children to question me sometimes. It tells me they’re thinking things over. But after a long hiatus I returned to church, right about the time my son began elementary school. I keep showing up there, thinking things over, asking questions, and I want my son to come along. None of it may make sense to him right now. God has never been a thunderbolt experience for me, and I don’t expect it to be for him.
Rather, I want him to learn to take time to gather in a place with people who believe in something larger than themselves, people who lend a wider and deeper perspective to our lives, whether through their generosity or their courage or their suffering. What we have found in this church are people who will hold the hand of a dying friend, who will bake endless casseroles for others who are sick or sad or celebrating new babies. People who will take a week’s vacation to travel two states away to replace a stranger’s rotting steps or dig holes for new footings. I want him to know that this is what is known as community, and it’s needed more than ever now. I want him to understand in a deep and wordless way the meaning of sanctuary.
What parents want for their children often starts out simple (safety, nourishment, good health, real love) and can get so grandiose from there. We begin looking too closely at test scores, vocabulary levels, prowess on the field. We entertain superlatives. Of course I want my son to develop his gifts and talents, to be a productive member of society. But my deepest desires for him are changing, going back to what I started with. Good health, satisfying work, solid relationships: wouldn’t that be an embarrassment of riches?
And for a while, especially during the summer, I want him to sometimes have long hours stretching ahead of him, that fabulous luxury which he will only have now, when he is old enough to appreciate it and too young to be pressed into a real summer job.
My son has his baseball, his friends, his chores, his obsession with baseball cards, and this summer he will paint our big shed for us. I also want him to have some days of no demands, so that when he is working hard and paying his bills and meeting life’s many expectations, he will also know how to sit on a wide stretch of beach and watch the water for a very long time. If no body of water is readily available, I want him to know how to lie on a porch settee or even a patch of green grass, thinking of nothing but what he might eat for dinner that night, or perhaps the chances of the Indians winning their next game. That emptiness, that pointless staring into space — it holds so much possibility, and it is a dying art, especially for children.
Our batter has just struck out. That’s three. “Come on, guys, get out there and hold ’em off now,” the coach says. My son is scanning the ground in front of the player’s bench, looking for his mitt. It’s a new one, a nice one, and he often forgets where he’s laid it. He wrote a poem in school this year about a baseball mitt, to fulfill an assignment to compose a metaphor poem, and he called it, “My Family.”
My family is like a baseball mitt.
My mother is the padding
that prevents me from getting hurt too much.
My father is the webbing
that holds it all together.
My sister is the palm of the glove, painful and annoying
but an essential part of the family.
And I am the baseball
rocketing into the mitt
and sticking there.
When I stood in the kitchen and read it for the first time, he saw me touch my fingers to my lips and promptly left the room, knowing, correctly, that a gush of maternal emotion was imminent. At the end of the school year, he informed me that his Language Arts teacher, a wise woman who understands the middle school tribe and speaks its many dialects, told him, “You’ve got a writing style like that pitcher’s fastball in Bull Durham. It’s so powerful you don’t know how to control it yet.” And then he walked away from me, saying, “I am not going to talk about it.”
What I wanted to tell him then was Your writing, son, your words, they can help you ride out all those supercharged feelings you have sometimes, they can both capture and set free whatever wildness lives inside you, they can help you hold on to —
It’s gone, a nice solid hit by the other team’s best batter, in spite of my son’s attempt to snag it with a dive off third base that sends him sprawling onto the dirt. Another run batted in.
“Good effort, bud. Shake it off, bud, nothing you could do about that one,” the coach calls out.
A few parents stand, start folding up their chairs and shaking their heads philosophically. We come to these games less out of parental obligation or the desire to win than the opportunity it affords us to watch our kids openly without being watched by them. We get to see them play out all the dramas on the field that await them in real life: the triumphs and losses, the bad calls and lucky breaks, the humiliating mistakes, the rewards of practice, the occasional irritations with people you otherwise like.
In the eight years my son has played baseball, I’ve missed only a handful of his games. At one of them, he hit a ball out of the park for the first and only time to date. (Where was I? At the grocery store? Getting my hair cut?) He called me on his way home to inform me about it, then immediately handed the cell phone over to his dad. I made my husband describe it, every detail, so I could hold it in my head: the sureness of the swing, the perfect arc of the ball against the sky, and my son, knowing it was unstoppable, running, running, rounding the bases, his foot landing solidly, lightly, at home.