My son turns 14 tomorrow and I’ve spent some time thinking about this milestone, as I do each year. Usually, I attempt to write him a poignant letter of some kind, since words are a unique, everlasting gift (and cheap). Most years I’m greatly disappointed in whatever I write. Not just because I’m hard on myself (duh, see definition for a writer), but because even after 14 years of Dear Jacob cards and letters, I still can’t come to articulating what I feel.
I was never one of those girls who dreamed of how many children I would have, complete with names and age differences. If you asked me, from the time my sister was gifted to me when I was almost seven, I had enough child-rearing. I shunned playing with dolls because chores and housework would not disguise themselves as child’s entertainment in my book. Why would someone play house? I preferred playing doctor, where I can piece together clues, dole out a mortifying diagnosis, and proceed to heal them.( I firmly believe immigrant children fair well with worst-case scenario games.)
They have this saying “God only gives you the kids you can handle.” As much as the G-word is irrelevant to me there, the saying itself seemed to ring true for me. It’s not that my son was an exceptionally easy baby; he had his need-to-be-rocked moments, his “is-this-colic” crying bouts and his complete refusal to get into the car seat without bucking and screaming until his first birthday. This boy was born not merely to warm my heart, but to thaw it completely.
I learned what real love felt like when I held his almost 7-pound body in my arms. I had always considered myself a selfish person until his cries conditioned me (and my boobs) like Pavlov’s dogs. My son’s big brown eyes have looked right through me from the onset. “Look at those eyes!” strangers pointed out. At first, I thought they were passive-aggressively noting his ethnicity: half Asian, half Jewish but I quickly realized, it was his pensive glance. His eyes seemed to hold the collective wisdom of generations of Buddhists and Jews. Being polite came easily to him, as he was often praised for it. To this day, his “yes please” and “no thank you” border on annoying unless you’re an innocent bystander, in which case, you’d gasp at this rare sighting of the Polite American Teenager.
Being a mother is beyond words and yet it encompasses all of the words. I feel so ingrained in the motherhood club after 14 years, it’s hard to remember a time I didn’t think of Jake first. I’ve swaddled him, fed him (rough calculations: about 15,000 times), and nursed him back to health. I’ve picked him up from school by car, by subway or on crutches. I’ve helped with history papers, french tests, and last-minute videos, with way too many takes, keeping us up beyond midnight. I’ve wiped tears because of bullying and tears because I forced him into the middle of two divorced parents. I’ve felt guilty more days than not. I’ll never feel good enough for him. It’s like a pulsing ball of potential energy was dropped in my lap with a note which said, “Good luck! See if you can steer this towards greatness.” Motherhood is the greatest science experiment.
My son is Anne Frank-like, preferring to see the good in people, despite his pragmatic mother’s influence. He wakes up smiling and it’s never bullshit. He holds doors. He loves rules and occasionally, becomes obsessed with justice (read: lawyer to be?). He martyrs himself sometimes, but never in a game. There, he tries hard to win. And so will I. We are alike, him and I, and it has taken me 14 years to realize this.
Life lessons are mother’s most unexpected gift. Becoming a mother was the first thing in my life which made me feel my life had a purpose; a feeling similar to when I got my first glasses. I got divorced when my son was less than three years old and from that time, he has been my anchor and my rock. When he was five, he would sense when I was feeling sad and come over, give me a hug, and say, “I love you” in a kind and delicate voice, squeezing my heart until I couldn’t breathe.
Teenagers are different; they want you around, but at arm’s distance and quieter. Their loving actions, though, have the capacity to sucker punch you so hard in your gut you wonder, “did I actually create this human?” Yesterday my son told me about a first draft he submitted for English class.
“It was a memoir,” he began. I gasped in reaction. Memoirs are totally my thing. His dad is a science and math genius, with his perfect score on the SAT, but MEMOIRS are all me. I could help him, teach him something this time.
“Can I read it?” I ask too eagerly.
“When it’s finished,” he says, sounding annoyed. He thinks I’m overly critical of his work. Maybe I am, but that’s because he’s so damn smart! He’s the one who brought this up; he’s teasing me.
“How long did it have to be?” I’m delaying, slowly pulling information from this boy. I ace this game.
“It didn’t matter,” he said. He continued with the specifics. “We had to focus on one event that changed our lives.”
In the two seconds before he revealed the story, dozens of ideas came to mind, all circling the possible ways I fucked him up. Instead, this is what I got:
“I wrote about your wedding to Andrew last year on your tenth anniversary. How I was the best man and had to give a speech and I knew it was a great speech because I gave it to you and you said you have no changes and started crying. Mostly, though, how on that day, I looked at him like he was finally my official step-dad. After ten years!”
I was crying by the word “dad.” I thought back to how much I didn’t want to have our seriously awesome, off-the-hook, creative wedding. I almost canceled two days before; the whole event frustrated me and seemed it was for everyone else but us. My husband vowed we wouldn’t regret it. Here he was proven right and here I was, once again on the receiving end of the lesson.
I hope unconditional love, support and encouragement (and food) are enough. I might run out of words.