And Now The Boy Is 20
“This is kind of a nothing birthday,” Ethan told Dan and me when he turned 19.
We were celebrating at an elegant restaurant in Philadelphia. Piano music quietly played in the background. The flame from a tapered candle flickered between us on a table covered in white.
“How do you mean?” Dan asked as he reached toward a basket of warm, crusty bread.
“Well, last year I earned the right to vote and left for college, so that was a big deal,” Ethan went on to explain. “Next year, I’ll be 20—you know, a new decade. And the year after that, I’ll be able to get into clubs and stuff.”
“But this is your last year as a teenager,” I pointed out, a fact I considered momentous.
“True,” Ethan said as our entrees arrived. “I guess I hadn’t thought of that.”
He proceeded to dig into a steak so impressive in size, a man at the next table would stand and applaud when he finished. Meanwhile, I marveled at how a marker that seemed so significant to me could slip by barely noticed by my son.
That was nearly a year ago and I’m still marveling. Ethan’s teen years, his official adolescence, will be over in a matter of weeks. Some parents may see this as something to celebrate, but I’ll miss those angsty, unpredictable years. Teenagers, after all, are still kids. They may be tall, opinionated, even bossy kids, but they’re kids. Still in need of us. Still ours. Not that this magically changes with the turning of a calendar page, but. . . . But what? That’s it. I’m not sure how to finish the sentence because, once my kid is no longer a kid, I’m not quite sure what my role will be.
When I look back to when I first became a mother, I see myself enmeshed in a tangle of emotions. Wonder. Fear. A love so intense it left me feeling hollowed out and raw. In those first weeks and months—my baby’s fontanel still soft, his flailing limbs seemingly no more substantial than bird wings—I felt inadequate next to how much he needed me. Inept is always the word that comes to mind when I remember our earliest days together. Some of it had to do with my very real limitations as a woman with a physical disability. Some of it had to do with the cocktail of postpartum hormones coursing through me at the time. Whatever the cause, even while I slept, I felt inept.
Thankfully, as Ethan grew sturdier, I grew more confident. Also the job description changed, as did the skill set it required. No longer was mothering just about meeting this newly minted person’s physical needs. It was also about figuring out who we would be together in the world. This gave me something to stretch toward. It required that I, too, continue to evolve.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in our first five years as mother and son, Ethan and I faced cataclysmic shifts. When my boy was four, his father and I divorced. Later that year, the Twin Towers were attacked in view of his kindergarten window. Before that same school year ended, my parents died within two months of each other.
Families sometimes break apart. There is unspeakable violence in the world. People, including those you love and count on, eventually die. How do you explain such painful truths to the three-and-a half-foot tall child walking beside you on a crisp afternoon, with his scraped knees, his Buzz Lightyear backpack, his large questioning eyes? It’s not enough to merely help him understand what happened. He has to understand and still somehow feel safe and protected. He has to understand and still get to be a little boy.
The answer, as best I know, is that you must choose your words with the utmost care. You must stay aware of your impressionable child’s open heart and reaching mind the entire time that you speak.
Choose your words carefully. Remain aware of your audience. If being disabled made me ill-equipped for the many multi-handed tasks of caring for an infant, being a writer made me just the right person for that next phase.
Actually, this worked both ways. Motherhood has made me a better writer. Everything my child and I went through together, everything I had to help him process, deepened me as a person. While I may have always had a love of language, and even a talent for lyricism, it was motherhood that finally gave me something to say.
This is why parenting became such a primary subject in my work. It’s also why, from the time I published my first poem in Literary Mama, in 2004 (!) it has been the perfect literary home base for me. This poet learned to write prose because Literary Mama allowed me to try it and provided me with patient and gifted editors. (I’m thinking of you, especially, Maria Scala!) It also gave me a village in which to raise my son: a village of readers who saw something of themselves in me during my most flawed moments as a mother, as well as my most exultant; a village of writers who share this need to seek meaning and make our own art even while we’re up to our elbows in someone else’s finger paint and playdough.
Here is where this gets a bit angsty for me. To borrow from Joni Mitchell, the years spun by and now the boy—my boy, my muse—is 20. He’s made a home for himself on a college campus 200 miles away from me, which has helped me realize that it’s time for me to take a leap away from my home here at Literary Mama. This will be my final column, and as I sign off, my intention is to bring all I’ve learned by having this wonderful forum for the past 12 years, as well as all I’ve learned by mothering Ethan, to everything I write. I’m still, and always will be, a literary mama. But it’s time to let that young man who owns my heartstrings find ways to tell his own story as I continue to explore mine.
10 replies on “And Now The Boy Is 20”
Ona! It is hard to imagine Literary Mama without your gorgeous column. Thank you for sharing your story, your family, and your beautiful writing with us all these years. Best of luck to you going forward! Xo
Thank you, Caroline! Literary Mama has been such a wonderful literary home for me. So grateful to you and all the mentors and friends I’ve had here.
Beautiful, Ona! We are all so lucky to have had your voice here for so many years. I can’t wait to read the next part of your story.
Ona, it has been a privilege to work with you, as the years spun by. I look forward to reading more of your lovely, resonant story.
Thank you, Andi. It all started with you and my first-ever essay acceptance in Philly Mama. What an auspicious start!
Maria, editor extraordinaire, what can I say? You taught me so much over the years about teamwork, writing, motherhood and friendship. We’re not done, I’m sure. Thank you!
I have always enjoyed your genuine and down to earth style. You will be missed. Sounds like you have done a terrific job raising your son . Enjoy!
The line about the small boy with the Buzz Lightyear backpack really spoke to me. That’s where my son is right now, Buzz obsession and all, and I appreciate the reminder that he needs to be allowed to understand the world but still feel safe.
Thank you, Kathryn. I’ll miss writing for Literary Mama and hearing from readers like you. I appreciate your kind words about my writing and my parenting. Re the latter, I must have done something right. That young man continues to amaze me!
Thanks, Leanne. It’s so tricky to raise secure children in this unpredictable world. We learn as we go. Big hug to your little Buzz-obsessed boy!