Boston or Bust

We had a rocky start to September. The Kenyan didn’t want to go back to school. I wish I could say it was because he had experienced the summer of his life. It was not. He didn’t want to go to school because, for the first time since he was 6 years old, his three best friends weren’t going to be there.

He shrugged his shoulders in reply to my asking, “how was your day?” after the first day of school.

I saw the same shrug in reply to that question after the second day of school.

And an identical shrug after day three.

Before he fell asleep that night, I stretched out on his bed next to him.

“Talk to me,” I said. This approach does not work with Waldorf because he is 13. But this is all the prodding 11 needs. At least for now.

“Since my friends are gone, there’s nothing for me to do during recess. No one for me to walk with or talk to. I’m just…alone.”

I pushed the mental image of my child sitting dejectedly against an overgrown oak immediately out of my head. This boy needed a pep talk, not a weepy parent.

“What is everybody else playing?” I asked.

“Mostly touch football. Football scares me,” he answered.

Football scares me too. But I can live with touch football at recess.

“If it scares you, you should try it! It sounds strange, but Dad and I believe that. Get out of your comfort zone. As long as it’s not drugs or something reckless. You know that, right? ”

He nodded almost imperceptibly. “I don’t know how to throw a football,” he whispered.

“I’ll teach you,” I answered. “Tomorrow morning. Before school.”

“But I don’t know the rules to football,” he continued.

“Ask your friends to explain the rules to you. It’s probably less complicated than it looks.”

“I don’t want to bother anybody,” he said.

Ah, the curse of the middle child runs deep in this boy. I know it intimately. I’ve lived it for 40 years.

“Kenyan, you’re going to have to ask for help. Some kids will be annoyed. They’ll treat you like there isn’t a place for you on that field. Don’t let that negative energy into your space. I bet you’ll find that most of your classmates will be excited that you want to play, and they will love sharing their knowledge with you. You may like playing touch football. And something magical happens when you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. It’s difficult to describe. You have to experience it to understand it.”

“What if I’m bad?” he worried.

“What if you’re good?” I countered.

***

So B&B LOVES football. He has been waiting a long time for one of our boys to express an interest so he can share his passion for it. When I told him that the Kenyan was interested in playing but needed some pointers, he leapt from the bed in excitement.

He began pacing, “I’ll need my football. My good one. Is it in your car or my car? Or is it in the shed? Or the front closet?”

“Slow down, Troy Aikan. You can make breakfast tomorrow. I’m going to teach him how to throw,” I said.

“Aikman. Troy Aikman,” he said with a disgusted look on his face. “I. Will. Teach. Him. How. To. Throw.”

“No, you won’t. You’ll damage him if you teach him. I’ve caught your passes. In the chest. They leave marks. They’re like bullets,” I argued.

“I. Will. Teach. Him.” He was scoffing at this point,”and I will not throw bullets.”

“Lobs. They have to be lobs. Otherwise, I’m teaching him,” I continued.

“Fine. Lobs. I. Will. Teach. Him. How. To. Throw.”

“OK, then.” I turned off the light. He went downstairs in search of his good football.

After breakfast the next morning…a breakfast that I made microwaved…the Kenyan and B&B went into the backyard. B&B taught him how to throw a spiral and, as promised, tossed lob after lob to our son.

When I picked the kids up from school that afternoon, I brought warm soft pretzels to hold them over until dinner. The Kenyan’s pretzel grew cold. He was too busy playing touch football to eat it. He was catching passes and running for touchdowns. He turned out to be one of the fastest on the field. He was surrounded by a sea of animated faces, encouraging him every step of the way. There was a spot for him on that field, and he had claimed it.

My boy was shining.

A week later, I took inventory of my people as I stood on that playground. The Kenyan was engaged in a game of touch football with his new group of friends. The Interrogator sat on top of the monkey bars, encouraging the Verb to join him. It was 4:15, so we had a few more minutes before Waldorf finished soccer practice. Just enough time to check my email.

And I opened it up to find this…

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WHAT?!?!?

Do I want to run the Boston Marathon?!?

Before I had kids, I knew exactly how I intended to parent. I wouldn’t raise my voice because my kids would be good listeners. I would not succumb to the pressure of purchasing the dreaded electronic devices. My children and I would be too engaged in stimulating conversation for those shenanigans. It would be a team effort–with willing participants–to keep the house clean. Particular pride would be taken in keeping the toilets immaculate. Dinner would be love at first bite no matter what I cooked. They would request I cook meatloaf once, sometimes twice, a week. Eager to connect with me, my children would, unprovoked, tell me every single thing going on in their lives. I would have plenty of space on my bookshelf. No need for parenting books when you go in with an airtight plan like mine.

Then I had kids. Four of them. All boys. The reality of having children changed all of my preconceived notions about what it meant to be a parent. And everything I thought I had known went down the toilet. Unfortunately, it was the only thing down the toilet. Because, with boys, the pee goes around the toilet. And under it. And on the bathroom walls.

What is that?

I’ve had similar intentions about running. Specifically, I’ve always said “I would never run the Boston Marathon without qualifying.”

And then I received an email inviting me to run it as a member of Team Stonyfield, the official yogurt sponsor of the 2015 Boston Marathon. (YoBaby YoBaby Yo! No, seriously, Stonyfield’s YoBaby was the first yogurt that I fed to each of my babies!) Equally amazing, I’ll be asked to write about my journey. The reality of being offered that opportunity changed all of my preconceived notions about not having earned a qualifying time in order to experience it.

The Kenyan ran over to me just as I read the email.

“You look pale, Mom,” he noted.

“Buddy, you won’t believe this. I have a chance to run the Boston Marathon.”

“That’s cool!” he smiled.

“It’s the coolest. But I’m scared,” I confessed.

He didn’t miss a beat, “If you’re scared, you should do it!”

“I’ve never run a marathon before. I don’t know what happens beyond 13.1 miles. Boston is the marathoner’s marathon. It’s for the best of the best. People will say I don’t belong there. Runners will say that.”

He put his hands on my shoulders, “Mom, you’re going to have to ask for help. So what if people are mad? Don’t let that negative energy into your space. I bet you’ll find that most people are rooting for you and want to share their knowledge to help you do your best.”

“But what if I can’t be the Mom you guys need me to be because I’m too tired from my training?” I asked.

“Huh?”

“Honey, what if I’m bad?” I whispered.

“Mom,” his eyes twinkled as he smiled at me, “what if you’re good?”

***

My friends at Another Mother Runner and the fine folks at Stonyfield Organic have given me the opportunity of a lifetime. Nine lucky women and I will be running the 2015 Boston Marathon as Team Stonyfield.

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I’m thrilled.

And I’m scared.

I’m going to need some help along the way.

But I believe there is a place for me in that sea of inspiring runners.

I hope I am able to shine. Just like my boy.

***

I’m stoked that my first post is live today at Another Mother Runner! I will be chronicling my training journey on their website from December-April. My blog will remain a place for amusing and/or poignant stories that pretty much always contain curse words.

So, yeah.

This Is Adolescence: 13

I have a teenage son.

It gives me pause to say it aloud.

Just like I stumbled over the words “fiance” and “husband” when I first spoke them, there is something surreal about hearing myself admit to having a teenage son.

He certainly looks the part.

When he sleeps, he takes up the entire bed. He throws his long, toned arms overhead in repose. Even on the coldest nights, the covers are cast off, and he dons the obligatory teenage sleepwear–gym shorts and an oversized t shirt.

When did he last wear pajamas? A year ago? Two years?

There are no pajamas in the land of 13.

When he stands, 13 is tall enough that I have to look up to meet his eyes, indigo like his Father’s. They share the same broad shoulders and enviably long legs. I know those legs by heart. I see them every day as 13 maintains his three-stride-ahead-of-me distance. He carries himself with just as much confidence as his Father and a touch more humility.

Is it wrong to hope that’s my doing?

13 has an upper lip in need of its first shave.

He ambles around in a men’s size 11 shoe.

He grunts more frequently than he speaks.

When he does talk, his voice is so deep that–when I hear it from a room away–I wonder which of my children let the strange man into the house.

***

I am negotiating with 13 as I write this. He is painfully private, so I feel it’s only right to ask his permission before writing about him. His reply? “You may write about me. But it will cost you.” He lobbies for a YouTube account. I have something less permanent in mind. Like a chocolate milkshake.

Negotiations remain at a standstill.

***

I am puzzled by 13 as I write this. He would eat buffalo chicken sandwiches every day of the week if I let him. And chase it with a jar of olives. I find wrappers in his pockets from packs of Mentos. Mentos. Are they back? Were they ever really in?

13 fills every blank space in his first grade brother’s My Book About Me with the word “poop.” All 63 pages.

13 ducks when I reach out to fix his hair. He allows me to kiss him goodbye and goodnight, but he rolls his eyes almost every time I do it.

13 removes the tank lid from the toilet, assesses why it won’t flush, and remedies the problem in under a minute. Yet he wants me to spread cream cheese on his bagel.

13 prefers to stay home and watch Jimmy Fallon clips rather than accompany his buddies to a middle school dance. “Why would I ever want to go there?” he asks.

“I know what that means,” I whisper my husband. “It’s The Girls. He isn’t ready to be around The Girls yet.”

13’s only wants are Doritos, video games, YouTube videos, and sleep.

Rinse (really well. And, I beg you, rinse again) and repeat.

I know this boy.

Except maybe I don’t. Because one day, he rolls in and announces he tried out for a part in the school play. And he’s made it. He doesn’t remember which part he got, but it’s a big one.

The one thing he is specific about?

“The Girls. There are lots of them,” he smiles and raises his eyebrows as he relays this.

Wait, he’s not smiling.

He’s beaming.

So maybe he is ready…it just needs to be on his terms.

***

I am frustrated with 13 as I write this. When I reach under his bed in search of a missing  Nike Elite sock, my hand brushes his laptop. His school laptop. Which he should have with him right now. Because he is at school. I am frustrated not because he has forgotten it. In a house with five males, things get forgotten. I am frustrated that his laptop is in his room when we have a clear no-electronics-in-the-bedroom rule. A rule he continues to break.

I don’t find the overpriced sock. Instead I find the security blanket that was his comfort and constant companion through the first years of his young life. To anyone outside our immediate family, it looks like a rag collecting dust. For me, it’s like bumping into a dear old friend. It is his Velveteen Rabbit, the most treasured item from his childhood.

But he is 13.

Has it been abandoned? Outgrown and forgotten like Jessie in Toy Story? A movie we watched together a decade ago while he sucked his thumb, wrapped in that very blanket and snuggled on my lap.

Or does he leave it under his bed on purpose? Does it comfort him at the end of each day to know that it still exists and is literally within his grasp?

I know better than to ask him. His answer would come in the form of Sarcasm. 13 speaks it every hour of every day. Except for the thirty minutes before he goes to bed. Which coincide with the thirty minutes I’m most mentally and physically drained. He is quieter than ever–if you don’t count the grunting–so when he speaks, I try to listen. It’s then that he allows the mask to slip, and I glimpse the young man who wants to do right. By himself, by his parents, by his brothers, by his teachers, by his friends.

We speak in hushed tones in darkness, save for the faint glow of a street light that casts a single beam through his bedroom window. Comforted by the shadows, he breaks down the difference between cool and uncool. Listening to him, it occurs to me that cool is not just an adjective. It’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s an adverb. It’s the object of every 13 year old preposition. The gap between his definition of cool and mine would take several oceans to fill. It’s the difference between having experienced life and having one’s entire life still ahead of him.

He explains why he doesn’t text an old friend as much and that it doesn’t bother him.

Confides that one girl is not as friendly in his eyes as another, but he is in no hurry to speak to either of them.

I answer questions if he asks, and rail against the voice in my head that aches to turn every moment into a teaching moment. It is the most well-intentioned part of me. It’s also the part that shuts him down most quickly.

I walk away from those insightful nights with a better understanding of where 13 believes he resides in this world. He wants to fit in, but is not uncomfortable standing out.

It’s not a bad place to be.

***

I am captivated by 13 as I write this. He is our oldest child. His firsts are our firsts. Ours is a complicated dynamic because 13 has three younger brothers. It’s noisy. It’s smelly. It’s snacks all the time. There is bleeding. We have stitches. My husband and I have little confidence in our ability to anticipate what 13 needs because this is the first time we’ve parented 13.

Hello, how do you do?

So much of our interacting is my asking him not to do some things…

“Please don’t tease your brothers,”

“Please don’t curse at the dinner table,”

“Please don’t cook anything while you’re babysitting,”

…while begging him to do others…

“Please change your socks. Every. Day.”

“Please wait to tell me this story when we are not around little ears.”

“Remove your headphones when I’m speaking to you. What did I say? I SAID REMOVE YOUR HEADPHONES WHEN I’M SPEAKING TO YOU!”

13 enjoys his math teacher so much that he agrees to spend his Sunday afternoon volunteering at a school open house simply to spend more time with him.

For all of his grunting, 13 grows animated when the subject of Santa Claus arises. This is his fourth Christmas in the know, but you’d never guess by listening to him regale his younger brothers with stories of that time he heard reindeer on the roof. He’s no readier for the magic to end than we are. We are bonded in our enthusiasm to keep the littles believing.

When we go out in public and I have the wherewithal to step back and let him take the lead, I am able to appreciate the young man he is becoming.

I find that I like him.

He is clever. Well spoken. Smart. He engages comfortably with adults. He enjoys people and wants to put them at ease. He is an old soul. He reminds me of the things I love most about my Dad.

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Yes, I miss when his hand was little, and it fit so perfectly in mine. I miss the way he climbed onto my lap. I miss hugs initiated by his little arms. I miss singing him a lullaby every night.

But 13 is good stuff.

It is watching The Walking Dead with him, but knowing, no matter how much he begs, he is way too young for Homeland.

It’s skimming the last hundred pages of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 because I can’t wait to give it to him to read next.

It’s intentionally sitting next to him on a haunted hayride so that I can seek refuge behind his broad shoulders.

It’s talking more candidly about health and human sexuality because I want him to be informed, be safe, be respectful, be happy. I want him to feel normal.

It’s knowing that he is going to make mistakes–that he needs to make mistakes–and hoping they aren’t the kind of mistakes from which he can’t recover.

***

He remains three strides ahead of me on the sidewalk.

I’m no longer the central character I was in his story a mere decade ago.

13 feels compelled to walk his own path. His need to brave it on his own transcends my desire to be alongside him every step of the way.

Where I fit into his life is not his concern.

That I am here is all he needs to know.

I will not look to close the gap between us.

For now, I’ll stay out of sight, out of mind–yet still within arm’s reach at the end of the day.

Just like his beloved old blanket.

It’s not a bad place to be in this surreal world of mine.

Now that I have a teenage son.

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***

This is the third installment of This Is Adolescence. It is a true thrill to be a voice in this writing series. Thanks to Lindsey Mead and Allison Tate for having me. Lindsey kicked off our series with a beautiful look at age 11. Allison followed with insight about 12 that so paralleled my experience with 12 that if I didn’t know she lived in Florida, I’d believe she were my very own peeping tom right here in Philadelphia. I’m looking forward to reading ages 14 through 18, written by Catherine Newman, Jessica Lahey, Marcelle Soviero, Shannon Duffy, and Lisa Heffernan.