“You need gloves and a heavier jacket,” I say, reaching for them. My eleven-year-old son and I are nearly eye-to-eye, but I still have about three inches on him.
“Stop fussing over me!” He blurts out and grabs his lightweight red jacket. It’s 40 degrees out, and he only has on a t-shirt underneath. I clear my throat and seal my lips.
“Do you have the map?” I ask. He often can’t find what he’s looking for, even when it’s in plain sight. But he pats his pocket and turns out into the cold January day.
“Okay. Look both ways. I have spies everywhere, and they’ll tell me if you don’t. I love yooou…” I call to the closing door. Then I swallow hard.
Looking both ways has not come easily to him. One day when he was 8, we were walking home from school and for no reason at all, he stepped off the curb into the road. Nary a glance left or right. Suddenly, a flash of yellow. My adrenal glands surged into action, jolting my heart like a jumped car battery. I grabbed his jacket and yanked him back as the school bus barreled down the road. The breeze off the bus blew my hair back. “Hey, don’t yank me!” my son shouted, without a clue about what had almost happened. Just one in an eleven-year lifetime of near misses. I try to push this memory aside as the door opens again.
He pops his hooded head back inside, “Love you, too-ooo,” he sing-songs. Then the door clicks shut and he’s off. I peek through the windows above the door and watch him bob down the stairs. He’s becoming so grown up, but he still hums and grooves back and forth like he did in our toddler music class, sitting on my lap.
He is only going to his twin friends’ house to play Catan, but to me it feels like he’s embarking on a cross-country trek with harrowing intersections. He has never walked there by himself— or anywhere else as far— so we’ve drawn him a map of the ten-block walk with two turns, the route highlighted in yellow. Still, I turn my wedding band ’round and ’round. If only I had my own map for his adolescence, with pitfalls marked in red. I’d know the real dangers, instead of anticipating them every time he takes a new step.
But, I hope his map will anchor him, as his mind often wanders far and wide. Most days after school, he sits at the kitchen island having a snack, and the back-and-forth of our conversation is like a dance punctuated by laughter. Then, in a moment, my dance partner is gone. His mind drifting somewhere else. I never know exactly when he’ll be back, but he returns with riches from other places: “Did you know that Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, and then they brought him back?” or “What does unflinching mean?” or “In the book I’m reading…” This mind wandering cannot happen during his walk.
It’s 2:50pm. The walk should take 15 minutes, but his steps meander. I’ll give him 25 before I call the twins’ dad. In the meantime, I text: He’s leaving now. Please make sure he calls us when he arrives. I’ve already told my son to do that, but he remembers and follows through only intermittently.
I’m now on tiptoes staring through the window panes above the door. It would be hard to keep my balance, except that I’m clutching the door knob. My son is fiddling with his gloves as he crosses the street. He mostly looks both ways—at least one and a half—I’ll nag him about that later. Then he turns the corner and disappears.
I wait and watch, peering between the V of a tree branch in front of our house and the gap between two houses one street over. My son should appear there in a minute or so. I barely blink.
And there he is, his red jacket a bobbing beacon. The white map flaps in his hands as he studies it. I will not mention later that I know he needed the map. I count four steps then he disappears again. The next eight blocks he’s on his own. My stomach seesaws like I’m on a ship in the middle of rough seas.
Barely a breath later, my inner dialogue ensues:
What if a car doesn’t see him?
He’s wearing red, so he’ll be hard to miss.
Maybe I should follow him in the car, but far enough that he doesn’t notice me.
He knows our car and license plate. And he would fume: “I’m eleven, and you act like I’m five. Stop worrying, MOM!”
That free-range-kids-lady, Lenore Skenazy, who advocates for more kid freedom and risk taking would be proud of me. I’m treating my kid like a free-range chicken. Unfortunately, it is not freeing. Instead, my gut feels chained to my roaming fowl. The combination of his inattention and my propensity for anxiety means that his road to independence will be paved with my terror.
I push myself away from the door and decide to load the dishwasher. Cup, cup, bowl, plate, bowl, knife, fork. Within three minutes, the cups and plates are at jaunty angles, some utensils point up and others down. Worry breeds messy efficiency.
It’s been 10 minutes. He should already be on Oakland Ave., his second turn completed. He’ll be heading up the big hill soon, one tough intersection to go. I look over at my husband. There are a number of things he’s not doing: hand-wringing, obsessing about possible disasters, offering to help me load the dishwasher. There’s one thing he is doing: battling armies in Risk with my daughter and her friend. I curse his Yoda-like denial skills—this walk is no big deal, he thinks. But maybe it isn’t denial, rather the luxury of calm afforded to him by my over-preparation: the map, the monitoring, the texting.
I plunk down on the couch. The dog snuggles into the crook of my leg. His warmth feels good against me. We sit for a quiet minute, as I smooth the green velvet of the cushion back and forth, my fingers like a Zen sand garden rake. I gaze straight ahead but my peripheral vision catches the time: 13 minutes so far.
The phone rings, and I launch myself into the kitchen. I grab the phone. A local number is on the caller ID, but when I answer, no one is there. Ugh. I trudge back to the couch.
My husband’s cell phone rings, and I hold my breath.
“Hey. Good job, kiddo,” he says into the phone, as he rolls the dice.
I exhale from my toes and my cells stop vibrating.
“GREAT JOB, BUDDY!” I holler from the couch, and then fall back against the cushions.
He’s safe. This time, his mind stayed put.
My husband picks my son up a few hours later. He bursts through the door and bellows, “I’M HOME!” He seems a smidge taller, his chest a hair broader. I resist the temptation to bear-hug him and cheer, “You did it!” I’ve made that mistake before. He’ll interpret my celebration to mean that I didn’t believe in him.
Instead, I say, “Hey,” then return to making his favorite sauce, smiling to myself while I stir.