A tale of two sons

Display_with_Racist_Quote_from_Murderer_of_Emmett_Till_-_National_Civil_Rights_Museum_-_Downtown_Memphis_-_Tennessee_-_USA
Display with a racist quote at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. (Credit: Adam Jones, Ph.D. (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

Today marked my oldest child’s first day of college classes.

I intended to blog about my ambivalent feelings, sending my firstborn into the world, how I’m happy for him that he’s chasing his dreams but sad for myself because his departure means that a certain phase of my life has passed.

Over the summer, my mind raced, trying to decide if my husband and I had imparted all the wisdom we needed to give him to make it on his own.

But today, as I ruminated on those themes, it seemed like so many first-world worries. Woe is me, the white suburban mom sending her privileged kid to college, while across the state the mother of another 18-year-old boy was planning a funeral.

A Ferguson, Mo., police officer shot Michael Brown on Aug. 9, a Saturday. That day, my husband and I were helping our 18-year-old son, Joe, pack for college. That night, while Michael Brown’s family grieved, my parents and inlaws joined us for a special send-off dinner for Joe.

On Monday, Aug. 11, we packed Joe and our other two kids into the car and headed for the small liberal-arts college a few hours away, where Joe now is a freshman. That was the day Michael Brown was to have started classes at Vatterott College, a technical school in Ferguson.

Two 18 year olds. Two young men on the cusp of adulthood. Two sets of parents.

Two very different stories.

At times like this, I am intensely aware of my whiteness.

My husband and I chose to raise our children in a neighborhood that’s less affluent than some in the Kansas City area, among families who are not all white and middle class. We’re smugly proud of that choice and quietly judge those who flee the urban core and inner-ring suburbs for the greener pastures of exurbia.

But are we really much different? We still enjoy certain privileges that come merely because our skin doesn’t have as much melanin as that of others.

The advice I gave my son as he left home was so pedestrian. It was along the lines of making sure he doesn’t mix reds with the whites when he does laundry and to ask for tutoring help as soon as he has questions about what’s going on in class.

I’ve never had to sit either of my sons down and tell them that people are going to be afraid to enter elevators if they’re the only ones in there. I doubt many people will cross to the other side of the street if either of my sons walks down it.

I don’t have to impart to my sons the lesson that if the police stop you for any reason, keep your hands visible at all times. And God forbid you’re wearing a hoodie.

As I watched coverage of the ongoing problems in Ferguson today, I realized that I didn’t send my son out into the world with those words of advice because it’s likely he’ll never encounter any situation in which he’ll have to use them.

I don’t know if Michael Brown robbed a convenience store early in the day on Aug. 9. If he did, was his killing justified? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

This is what I do know – he was 18. He was starting life, just as my 18 year old is. He had dreams and aspirations, just like my boy. He had a mother and father, just like my son. He had a life.

And now he doesn’t.

Life on the launching pad

Our oldest is a senior in high school.

As the hubs and I navigate these uncharted (for us) waters, we find ourselves focusing on every “last” event. The last first day of high school. The last band show. The last back-to-school night.

We will drive ourselves batty if we don’t stop, but how can we? We look at our oldest, and all we see is the chubby little baby we brought home from the hospital 17 years ago.

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But now, along with the lasts, we’re dealing with the firsts, too. These are a little easier to handle, though, since with Joe, life has always been full of firsts.

He was the first baby. The first child we potty trained. The first kid to get braces.

Last weekend, the hubs helped Joe submit his first college application, to the University of Missouri, our alma mater. We hold no illusions that he’ll end up there; he’s told us it’s a little too big for his taste. But he humored us, as all good kids do their parents, and dutifully applied to Ol’ Mizzou.

After they completed the online application, Joe wandered off, no doubt texting a buddy or his girlfriend to tell them what dorks his parents are. Matt came into the kitchen, where I was folding clothes.

“I can’t believe our baby just applied to MU,” he said, a little emotionally. “Where did the time go?”

I felt the same. All those years when Joe and his siblings were babies and toddlers and preschoolers – while they were happening, they seemed so long. The nights were so long. Some days were, too.

And then – blip. They’re gone. And here we are.

I nodded sympathetically.

What makes this even more emotional for us, though, is that we know how much our boy has overcome. Not as much as some kids, to be sure. He’s not homeless. He hasn’t lost a parent. He’s not chronically ill.

But from the get-go, Joe was a sensitive soul, full of anxiety. I was, too, and I remember holding him as an infant, willing myself to calm down so my baby would be calm, too. But I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was scared I’d break him.

Childhood was sometimes fraught with peril for Joe. We watched as he navigated things that caused him angst, rites of passage that didn’t throw his younger siblings or his cousins for a loop. We sought professional help and learned to help him develop the calming skills he needed.

And we watched when he wasn’t always able to implement what he had learned. It’s painful to watch your child learn from natural consequences, even as you know it’s the best way.

Elementary school was rough at times, but with each passing year, Joe matured and learned from his past. And he paved the way for his sister and brother, who don’t share his disposition but who nonetheless benefitted from the trail he blazed.

Now he’s facing his first jumping-off point, and we hope and pray he’ll be able to use those skills he’s learned over the years as he takes his first steps into adulthood. He’s grown into such a great kid. I know all parents say that, and I hope they all mean that. I am proud of my son for the person he has grown into despite his parents’ ineptitude and because of the strength of his character. If he weren’t my kid, I’d still want to know him.

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When I think of him leaving for college in less than a year, all I picture is the little boy I took to kindergarten in August 2001. He was scared. I could see it in his eyes. But he was brave, mostly for his dad and me, I know now.

He found his desk that day and waved good-bye. I went out into the hallway and waited where he couldn’t see me. I wanted to make sure he didn’t cry.

His bottom lip quivered. He wanted to cry. But he stood tall as the principal announced on the intercom that it was time for the Pledge of Allegiance. He never looked back, even though I’m sure that he knew I was there watching, praying and crying just a little.

This time next year, he’ll be gone, having left willingly to spread his wings. But I’ll still be there, watching to make sure everything’s all right.

And I think he knows that, too.

How old am I, anyway?

In my mind, I feel about 25 – a little more confident than I was at 20, able to legally buy booze, past the point of being rated negatively because of my age by my car insurer.

But I look in the mirror and realize that I need to use a nighttime moisturizer with Retinol, that if I move my head to the right or left the wrinkles show on my neck, that there’s a ginormous about of gray underneath the top layer of my brown hair.

Still, if I keep to my own kind – and by that I mean mostly 40-somethings and older, I can feel pretty good about myself. In my zumba class, for example, I’m  on the young side and feel downright lithe.

But two days a week, I’m in my graduate classes. This year I’m surrounded heavily by folks in their 20s, some not even a full year out of undergrad. And it’s rough, I tell you.

One day, another middle-aged classmate and I were walking to our cars after class with a young woman in our cohort. We both went to the University of Missouri in the 1980s, so we were comparing years. He was there from 1984 to 1987.

“Aw, we just missed each other,” I said. “I was a freshman in fall 1987.”

And then our young friend piped up. “I was just 2 in 1987,” she said.

Pow. Like a punch to the gut.

“Gee,” I said, “I guess I could be your mother if I had been a teen mom.”
“Yep,” she said happily. “Guess so.”

Now, when I was her age, I didn’t like to point out to my older coworkers that in fact I was not born at the time of the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. I didn’t want to remind anyone of my youth.

These days, though, I guess youngsters don’t mind everyone knowing they’re, well, young. Also these days, I use terms like, “Now, when I was your age…” and words like, “youngsters,” all the time.

This same younger classmate and I worked on a group assignment during our first semester of the social work program. We were assigned to put together a presentation on the treatment of the LGBTQI community in the United States. During our planning session, I brought up the case of Brandon Teena and the film, “Boys Don’t Cry.” I was going on and on about it when I realized my friend had a look of confusion on her face.

“That sounds interesting,” she said, before asking how to spell Brandon Teena’s name.

“You remember the movie, right? Hilary Swank was in it…” my voice trailed off as I realized she had no idea what I was talking about.

“What year was that?” she asked.

I said it was in the late 1990s. “Oh, that explains it,” she said. “I was probably about 13 or 14.”

And I was a mother of two when that movie came out.

Hey, people can’t help when they’re born. I know that. And I never want to be the person who considers it a character flaw if a coworker or what have you isn’t as old as I am and thus hasn’t lived through the world events that I have. You all know some older person who constantly reminds you that you didn’t know how bad it was during the Depression, etc.

Still, I just feel this kind of thing – me trying to relate something from my life to someone much younger who has no clue what I’m talking about – happens more and more.

In another class this spring, we ended up having a discussion of the Affordable Care Act and birth control pills and mandates and what have you. And one particularly impassioned classmate said she was just so tired of all the fuss about birth control. “I mean, it’s been around since the ‘70s,” she said.

 “Actually,” I said, “it was the 1960s when birth control pills became available.”

“Well, whatever,” she said. “It was a long time ago.”

Yeah, I guess it does seem like a long time ago when you were born in 1990.

So I think, like many older people, I will just start keeping my mouth shut lest I sound irrelevant. Like the afternoon that I was struggling with a statistics assignment on Excel and I blurted out, “Geez, I haven’t taken statistics since 1988.”

And I looked around and realized, yup. No other student in my class was even born in 1988.