A Good Son

I really don’t need to be reminded that doing it now, whatever it is, is the only way to live. I can’t say I’m thrilled to always be mindful of the thin divide between being vibrantly alive one minute and dead the next. I’ve been parrying with that knowledge for most of my life. Maybe I began knowing that when I was four and my mother disappeared into the hospital for the first time. Maybe it was shortly thereafter when I learned that grownups made up stories to tell their kids when they didn’t know what could really happen. Maybe the mental dance started when my baby cousin died the day I graduated from eighth grade. The solid ground beneath my feet definitely shifted that morning. No matter what the inception of the slightly morbid attitude I always seemed to have, there’s little doubt that no amount of eye-rolling and blowback I got about it, particularly from my family, had any effect on me. My kids can attest to the fact that when they were old enough to bear it, I’d usually leave the house calling out over my shoulder, “if I die and never come back, I really loved you.” Annoying as they said that was, they now say the same thing to me. After the impossibility of dealing with their rugged father’s death, they now look at the world differently too. They’ve both gotten pretty good at maximizing their lives, or at least trying to. No more unlimited time for them. Of course what that means for me is putting my money where mouth is – I need to understand why they make their choices and try not to let my maternal anxiety interfere with them. Unless I feel there is something inherently or potentially unhealthy for them, I need to be supportive, understanding that they are trying to live the fullest lives they can, whether I like it or not. That’s a challenge for me. I suspect I’ll always want to protect them no matter how old they are. What’s lucky is that the intimacy we share in our family lets me know what they do, even if what they do scares me. Mostly, they try to appease that anxious side of me, maybe because they like me enough to make sure that whatever it is they’re doing, I won’t have a coronary or a stroke because of it. Kids can put you to the test in so many ways. That’s just part of parenting. But what isn’t necessarily part of being the kids is their sensibility that the choices they make have impacts beyond themselves. I know I’m in the lucky parent group because I’m generally a consideration in those choices. I also know that isn’t always the case.

“Singer David Olney dies during performance in Florida”

I was reminded of all this because of two seemingly unrelated recent events. The other day, a beloved musician who was particularly close to dear friends of mine, died on stage in the middle of a performance. How unimaginable. One second he was playing and singing, the next, he apologized, dropped his head and was gone. What a shattering transition. I’ll admit, that after watching my husband die by inches, there was a part of me thinking, how lucky, to go out doing what you love, rather than watching yourself slowly disappear. But I know that the quick deaths are hard for the survivors. I think about what I’ve read about Native Americans and their opinions on what they thought amounted to a good death. I guess that everyone has to navigate loss in their own ways, which are complicated by individual ideas, religious beliefs and a whole myriad of factors which subtly influence how they adapt to the inevitability of death.

This incident occurs at a time when my son is away for a few weeks in Colombia. A biologist by trade, this trip is one for pleasure, although his idea of pleasure includes strenuous activity and time spent away from the beaten path. A specialist in bird physiology, and as someone whose interest in seeing as many species as possible in the wild is enormous, I knew that this trip would take him into places with no internet. I also know that there can be dangers when traveling abroad and that his being out of touch would make me nervous. His career has for years, taken him to many countries, far, far away. You’d think I’d be used to this by now. But I never really am. I’m usually worried about all that could possibly happen. Anxiety is the legacy of my own upbringing, try as I may to undo it. The twist in this instance is that the juxtaposition of the musician’s death with my son’s trip, made me remember how I could just keel over myself at any moment, while my kid was far away and unable to do anything about it. After all, I’m the one in the same age group as the musician. And I know that anything can happen at any time. It occurred to me that although my son and I are mindful about expressing love for each other, I haven’t made certain, at least for me, that he knows that I think he’s the embodiment of a “good son.” We bandy that term around a lot. He will frequently ask me if I think he’s a good son and invariably, I’ll teasingly laugh and say no. This banter usually follows an episode of his absentmindedness, a trait that reflects one of his dad’s most annoying habits. If I had the proverbial nickel for every time I heard, “have you seen my glasses, have you seen my wallet, have you seen my hat, have you seen my keys, have you seen my grade book?,” I’d be awash in riches. My son never lets me forget his dad by mimicking this behavior on a daily basis. I marvel at it and always did. But as with everyone we love, you accept a few irritating habits and move on for the sake of the bigger picture. And with both of these absentminded guys, I certainly could, and still can, do that.

So what exactly is a good son? I remember my mother once telling me a story about a friend of hers whose son was a doctor. She pronounced in a solemn but somehow smarmy tone that the doctor/son had bought his mother a home. At that moment I heard my mom’s message very clearly. A good son was one who honored his mother by buying her a house. In mom’s world that’s what resonated. Not so much with me.

I remember exactly how I felt when my son was born. I was a little nervous about what it would be like to raise a boy. My daughter was already over 5 when he came along. I was anxious about knowing what we’d need to do to raise a male child in our culture, a male who would reflect the values his dad and I shared about gender equity, fairness and social responsibility. Knowing what proclivities are just built into a person is often hard to perceive. But that wasn’t true with our kid whose inherent sweetness was blazingly and immediately apparent. Even as a small baby, that kind, gentle nature just oozed out of him. Within a few days, my husband noted that this boy seemed very attached to me. Our connection was immediate, obvious and one that grew exponentially over time.

Sweet doesn’t necessarily mean easy. This little guy was very specific. He refused all bottles and started eating solid food at only a few months old. He was a lousy sleeper, waking every few hours. When he was old enough to talk he explained that he didn’t think it was fair that he had to sleep by himself. He had a relentless disposition and would explore an issue until there was nothing left to find. He craved physical contact and was remarkably affectionate. I was glad that as he grew, he never went through a phase when he stopped saying I love you or gave up hugging us.

He learned to read early and when he discovered Caldecott award books, read them in order of publication date, five at one time, all in a row. We realized he was color blind before school started and he could read the names of his crayons instead of knowing what color they actually were. He befriended a wide range of kids and had weird birthday parties with kids so disparate in nature that they didn’t like anyone there but him. When he was 7, he became a peer mediator at his school, settling issues between kids years older than he was.

Memories easily come flooding back. Our little guy clearly had an embarrassment of riches. He was intellectually gifted as well as athletically talented. He loved learning, never meeting a subject he couldn’t manage, even if it wasn’t a favorite. He was a musician. He showed great facility with languages and twice represented our community in the National Spelling Bee. He had issues like any other kid, but for the most part, raising him was easy and joyful. Being around him felt good.

The list goes on and on. A successful academic career culminating in a doctorate and beyond. An appreciation for the value of friendships and putting in the work to keep them. A deep seated respect for the natural world and a commitment to conservation. An egalitarian approach to people. So what does enumerating all these traits and achievements really have to do with anything? We were lucky and so is he. What is really more the question is what makes a good son? Is it what he’s accomplished? Not for me. It’s about who he is and how that translates into our lives. That first blast of sweetness remains the essential core of him. We always knew that our family was intensely bonded and loving.

As time has passed, those feelings have gotten richer. I’ve watched the painful growth that’s come from loss and felt the deepening self-reflection in my son. Even when he’s far away, he’s found ways to let me know that he’s aware of how I’m feeling and he makes sure he attends to my emotional needs. He gives me his time, making sure we share experiences together. This past year when he’s actually been living stateside, we’ve traveled together on a jam packed road trip that covered twelve states in fifteen days. We barely tangled with each other on that adventure which I think is miraculous. A while back, he asked me if I had any regrets in my life. I told him I was sorry I passed on a Paul McCartney concert which I had tickets to many years ago, too close to the death of my father for decorum. Or so I thought back then. He rectified that regret this year, surprising me with tickets to see Paul at the beginning of our trip. When he’s traveling in a place where my favorite food is nearby, he brings me a meal. Recently he surprised me with a life-sized cutout of Roger Federer, my tennis hero, for my house. Utterly entertaining and hilarious.

When I had both my knees replaced, he was here for me. My kid is mindful. He’s spending a lot of time with me while we have it. Things aren’t always perfect. But given life’s challenges for both of us, we’ve done pretty well. I suspect that the world would be a considerably better place if everyone had a good son. Like the one I have. I needed to write this out. I’m grateful that I had time to do it.

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