The sign said “high school.” I was certain it was another dimension.
On my son’s first day as a freshman, he walked away from the car with long strides, but without turning back. I pushed the button on the door so my window would whiz down. Leaning out a bit, I blinked hard as he was absorbed in a living Seurat . I struggled to keep him in my line of sight. It was a sea of indiscernible, colorful teenage dots. Instantaneously he became part of the big pocket, flip flop, and muffin top landscape. The building he strode toward was big enough to house multiple aircraft carriers. The metal doors could swallow him whole. Beings that passed my car had boobs, beards, swaggers, swiveling hips, and caramel mochachinos. What the hell were they anyway?
A cold rush permeated my chest, throat, and limbs—an indiscernible yen different from days I forgot my morning coffee. There was also something stuck in my throat but it wasn’t a blueberry muffin. I had a feeling it was the taste of things to come, so I pulled away and headed home.
The short ride served as my portal to the future. I knew that in four years, on a day like this one, I’d be dropping him off at some college and he wouldn’t be coming home at three o’clock. My heart raced but I drove slower. Maybe if I stayed in the car, time would stand still. I couldn’t rush through the day or wish the years away no matter what anyone said.
“The next four years are going to go really fast.”
“Before you know it, he’ll be in college, just you wait and see.”
My friends had told me this many times. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Why warn me with a smile and a nod that time will fly? For me, time tends to stall and I feel like Fred Flintstone running with my feet beneath my car.
I took my foot off the gas and coasted down my street.
What I saw when I looked out my windshield was our tree-lined street and a row of closed garage doors. In my rearview mirror, I saw moments. Baby moments and toddler moments, big kid achievements and preteen setbacks. Many, many setbacks.
One thing about coasting, eventually you get where you’re going. I went into the house and it was first-day-of-school quiet, once again. I sat at my desk with my to-do raising its hand and screaming “Pick me! Pick me!” I chose no one, nothing. I sat and I checked email. If the phone rang, it was with relief that it was never the school. I did not expect to be rehearsing for empty nest syndrome, which I decided should be called Empty Nest disease. I’d had plenty of first days of school before, but this one was different.
It wasn’t just anyone’s first day of high school. This was a kid who almost never attended school for an entire semester, after his father died a year and a half before. This was a boy who dreaded Monday like the plague, and whose regular attendance at school in eighth grade was all that I wanted, hoped for. But now the stakes were higher. It was business as usual where no one knew his story or would cut him any slack. He would have to pull his own weight, take it seriously. I actually thought of the words “buckle down,” though I never said them aloud.
I needed only to look back for a second to know how much can happen in a day, in a week, in a year. Countless days had revealed new bothersome tag that needed to be torn from one of his shirts, even if it was old and well worn. So while I wanted always to take the day moment by moment, I was anxious to see how he fared.
I crossed my fingers (a sure-fire technique if there ever was one) that today would be easy. Forget about finger crossing. I think I actually prayed.
I don’t know what was in the water over there but I swear when my son came home, he was three inches taller than that very morning.
He didn’t bolt to his room. I fixed him a cup of soup and we both sat down at the kitchen table. I rested my chin in my hand, hopeful he would talk.
“How was the day?” I asked.
“It was fine,” he said.
“What did you do?”
Nothing took about twenty minutes.
While he was preoccupied eating and recounting the teachers, the kids in his classes, finding his way to lunch, walking between buildings with no time to spare, clubs to join, homework to do by tomorrow—I stared at his soft green eyes. I rarely looked closely enough anymore to see the flecks of orange and tan. I watched his large expressive gestures and listened intently. I didn’t just get the gist of what he meant. I understood each word. I never looked at the clock or thought about work. I knew these intimate fourteen-year-old moments were to be coveted and treasured—perhaps especially—on our first day of high school, after eighty-three days of summer.
He rose from his chair, off to compare first day notes with his friends, to evaluate heft of his textbooks, quirky attributes of teachers. He left his bowl on the table but I didn’t mind.
I realized I was unsettled not due to the vastness of the school or its newness. I was awed because of what I knew the moment he got out of the car. He fit in. He belonged. I had to keep reminding myself it was all good. At five feet, eight inches tall, with broad shoulders and a stocky build, he stood among his peers as an equal. Not a kid of divorce or one of death.
Just a freshman.
He was once again and at long last where he was supposed to be. For the past year he had treaded lightly only in shallow waters of life.
But today he dived right in.
And I was the one who held my breath.