My oldest son is seventeen years old now and is in a kind of funny stage between goofy boyhood and thoughtful manhood. One minute he's as playful as a little kid and the next minute he's all surly and uncooperative. Like the new whiskers on his face, his interest in girls continues to grow. The hormones can be outrageous at times. He is an amiable and sweet person by nature, but occasionally, his temper flares and he becomes moody and argumentative. But that's only sometimes and even then he seems to be more level-headed than I was at his age.
He and I are relearning our relationship these days as he needs me less (or in entirely new ways) and I have begun to lean on him more. He's a big kid (about 6 foot 3) with a size 13 shoe, and so he finds that he is often asked to reach, carry, and toil for his aging relatives. He cooks for his siblings on nights when his dad is away and I can't face the task. He mops for his grandmother, does "bull work" for his grandfather, and is the guy we can count on to look after the critters, both domestic and wild, who depend on us for food and care.
As I was doing my rounds checking on various members of the family, I noticed my son in the front yard as he was about to take his grandmother's elderly dog for a walk. He asked me to come along with him so I joined him on a meandering tour of the backyard. We walked back past the bench among the pine trees and down the little hill, under the arbor and over to the poor where the water was smooth and still. It has been raining a great deal lately and the pool is almost overflowing. Likewise, the creek, dry before last week, is flowing and overflowing now. We watched it rush over the rocks while we looked for touch-me-not pods to burst. When he was a toddler, I showed him how to look for the fat expectant ones that burst in your fingers at the slightest touch. Today when I pointed out the best ones to him, instead of bursting them himself, he carefully removed them from the parent plant and brought them to me so that I could have the honor.
As I think about the gentle courtesy of this, I also remember the times when we have walked together in the snow or after a rain when he automatically puts his hand on my elbow to steady me. He was my baby for so long that it seems funny that now he is so much taller and stronger than I am. I have always been very protective of this child and have, on more than one occasion, become very fierce with those I felt threatened him. I carried him, hovered over him, and guarded him from dangers seen and unseen--and now he is almost all grown. It seems funny that without being told that this is the way of things, he has adopted the role of protector and has begun to fuss over me. I suppose that's the way of things. Plants produce seeds and the seeds grow to maturity. Why should I be so surprised that the little boy in the floppy moo-cow hat became the tall man next to me with the deep, resonant voice and the scruff of beard on his chin? These things happen.
He and I are not done with our walk together. There is a much more I need to teach him before he is ready to walk on his own. And as an anxious person, I can't help but be nervous about all of that. I do not know what world stretches before him. As we walked back up the hill toward the house, we discussed our shared concerns about the environment and the problems of greed and meanness among people of power. His voice, like his pace, was slow and steady. He possesses a rich vocabulary and is articulate and wise, but he needs people to listen patiently. He is deeply intelligent rather than quick and arrives at his conclusions (and his points) in his own time. He can be ponderous, but also profound. He is kind, gentle, and peaceful. I have worked hard to nourish that impulse in him and it has grown beyond my expectation.
In a hour or two he'll be arguing with his siblings or insisting upon the unreasonable. I'll be irritated with him about the clothes on his bedroom floor or for the water he's likely to track into the house from the pool. I'll criticize his posture ( "stand into your height!" ) or his communication skills ("listen!") or I'll be telling him to "be more respectful to your father!" or "wear a clean shirt!". I'll be giving him reminders. "Did you brush your teeth?" and "Did you remember deodorant?" and "Have you fed the pig?" And I'll enjoy those moments too because it means he still needs me to make sure he doesn't have pizza sauce on his face and that he goes to bed at a reasonable hour.
I like to fuss over him. I want to fuss over him because as long as he permits it, I have not yet lost the boy. Still, more and more these days it is the man I see rather than the boy. Even as I fuss and hover, he sometimes trades exasperation for indulgence and gives me a reassuring hug. The time is close when this touch-me-not seed will spring away from me and seek his own ground. Sometimes it feels like the slightest breeze will send him on his way and he will belong to the world instead of to me..
But not yet. Not yet. The time is not yet ripe and so he is still with me. Meanwhile, he is learning how to be a man, how to be an adult, how to be himself. And I am learning to understand that while I will always be his mother, he will not always be my boy.