“How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man”
Last night I had to work at parent teacher conferences. I spoke with so many moms who have sons graduating this spring. One mom said, “I just catch myself knowing that he is in the house, just in his room, we haven’t even talked, but he is there, you know? He is there,” and then she teared up imagining him off in his new dorm room, his new life, one cut free of her, but also launched by her. It just made my heart hurt and made me aware of how in this vast world of insane headlines, wars, politics, Academy award blunders, that somewhere in a little kitchen in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin,a mom is sitting alone at a kitchen table listening to her first born shuffle around in his room, imagining what the sound of silence will actually feel like.
I haven’t talked to Luke in weeks, but he called tonight, distraught after a tough midterm and a tough professor, with a decision to change his major, with anticipation of his upcoming exam for an anatomy class in which he wondered how the hell he is supposed to remember detailed lessons from September, and irritated at his peers who opted for the easier science class. From two thousand miles away, phone on speaker on my lap, as I drove on the windy overpass to pick up William from practice, I tried to offer comfort and validation.
I hung up wishing that I had told him some funny stories about Will that would have perhaps offered comic relief, like how the lady at the grocery offered him a sample of a meatless meatball and Will replied, “that is just a ball then,” or how he is in my design class right now and when I gave him a typography assignment that asked him to design a fact or quote he asked me if he could write a fact about chlamydia and draw a picture of roast beef.
I have watched Luke fight battles since the day he was born, first to just survive nine weeks in an incubator, then again at five when he started to realize his kindergarten peers were catching on when he wasn’t, again and again throughout grade school, through love and heartbreak, through grief and panic. He has always come through it a little bit beat up, but also a little bit stronger, a little bit shinier, and each time, his heart grows.
It seems to me that becoming a man requires journey, requires battle, requires one to learn to cover that soft heart up with a big wool blanket. It seems bravery is a necessity. Even now, I want (I won’t) to call up all of Luke’s teachers and try to explain to them his history. My wanting to do that idiotic thing makes me realize that there are a lot more roads for my son to travel before I can call him a man. Maybe I never will be able to do that.
I texted him the Lori McKenna song, (“So I wonder, what do they know/Maybe the problem is me not letting go/Of a little boy who’s smarter than me/Who can’t sit still and sees things differently”). I stopped myself from texting, “fuck music theory anyway.” I stopped texting completely because all of my 42 character rants of advice were really just my way of saying, “NOBODY HURT MY KID,” even though my kid is twenty and with each road traveled another step closer to man.
I keep thinking about those few moms last night who felt the weight of anticipated loss and change. I am wishing them a beautiful life and as their young sons venture off to become men, I wish that the answers that are blowing in the wind nestle into place, and that an empty nest never truly feels empty, but feels accomplished instead.