Travels with J
Another beer, he asks.
Sure, I reply.
He gets up to go to the bar for refills. We are sitting at a table in a dimly lit brewpub. It is packed with young twenty-somethings enjoying their summer in Prague, feasting on all the sensory delights the city has to offer. I am wedged into a corner, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.
He’s back with our glasses, slides mine over. What’s up?
I feel ridiculous, I say. I am thirty years older than any individual here and so grateful for the atmospheric semi-darkness.
Age is just a number, he responds. And just like that, his mouth slides into the sardonic, lop-sided grin he knows is irresistible to women, his mother included.
I look at this man-child and am filled with wonder. His face is now all hard angles, framed by long brown curls. He is coaxing a beard into existence – its soft, fine hairs haven’t decided which way to grow. His hazel eyes are clear, coolly appraising his surroundings. Always a bit aloof to social situations, yet still enjoying them. My twenty-nine year old son. On the cusp of the rest of his life.
I squeeze his forearm. That is all the PDA I am allowed these days.
So, what about that girl you were dating, I ask.
Awkward segue, Mom.
Can’t blame me for trying. So?
He thinks and I wait. He continues. So. There are three types of women: those we like, those who we are liked by, and those we probably can never have. I tend to give into my impulses for the last category, realizing it is an insane lunacy.
He smiles. But, Mom, only unfulfilled love can be romantic.
Oh, my son, I think to myself, you are in for a world of hurt.
Are you okay? I dimly hear him.
I try to say yes, but my mouth doesn’t work – I am white-knuckling the edge of my passenger seat with both hands in this sleek super-powered BMW we rented. We are barreling down the autobahn in Germany, hitting 90 mph, somewhere between Munich and Berlin. I can’t be sure – my eyes are squeezed shut.
I open them and check on J. He is relaxed, smiling broadly, both hands on the wheel, clearly enjoying the sensation of speed on the open road. The closest to pure joy than I have ever seen him. Me, I’m sweating.
It’s not that I don’t trust him, his skills, his judgment. It’s just that I am risk-averse when it comes to sport – I don’t skydive, rock-climb or ski downhill. I don’t have confidence in my physical abilities. Life choices, on the other hand, are a different matter. There isn’t a bad decision I have not made – leaving a comfortable profession mid-career to chase after several questionable occupational dreams.
J is the opposite. He loves the thrill of any new adventure but carefully plots the course of his professional path. His dreams, his destiny – he measures these out. He has plans, which he constantly tweaks, but his goals are clear – a master’s degree by this date, a certain amount of success at that age, good money along the way, more trips to take, perhaps a wife to wed. Iterations on a theme. He doesn’t divulge the specifics but shares the broad strokes with me at times. He is excited at the possibilities that life holds in store. Perhaps a little bit scared of failure. That he doesn’t talk about so much.
But, for the present, he is in control of this vehicle, a heady moment, flying towards our next destination. And he is happy.
We are almost comatose in the shade of the Great Pyramid of Giza, languidly swatting away flies, ignoring the pleas of vendors, attempting to restore our bodies to some semblance of life in the blazing glare of the sun.
Over two million blocks of stone, he reads.
However did they build it, I ponder.
With blood, sweat and tears, no doubt, he answers. Ramps? Aliens? Human ingenuity? All this to honor a king and lay him to rest.
A grand tomb.
Or a resting place between two worlds.
He shrugs. Maybe we make the best of this world and shouldn’t worry about the next. Our actions here speak more to how we are remembered, as opposed to any grave marker.
How would you like to be remembered?
He leans back against the stones, thinks. That I brought a measure of justice to the world. Only then can there be peace.
Noble aspiration, son of mine, I jest.
He laughs. Well, he says, would you rather erase the presence of someone who was never there?
Suddenly, I am chilled.
Fireworks explode above our heads. We are jammed along the waterfront with thousands of other spectators, looking up at the sky over Melbourne. It is swathed in color and light. The shouts of the crowd and the boom of the show mesh into a seamless roar. I look at my son and my heart mirrors the tumult of sound and light above us. The love I feel for him is all encompassing, awesome in the joy it brings yet terrifying in its accompanying vulnerability.
I look at the couples surrounding us, arms around each other, kissing. I have had my share of the highs and lows of romantic love – will he call, did he mean this when he said that, is he the one, am I settling, are we getting married? All that pales in comparison to the feeling you have when you first hold your child in your hands. Your heart expands like a rubber-band – infinite, endless, limitless. You glimpse the soul of this being you have created and are humbled. And you enter into an unspoken covenant to protect this pure spirit.
After that comes the sheer joy of watching this child grow. Each moment of his life is a marvel – watching him score that first goal and the little happy dance that accompanied it; his hand in yours as you walk him to his first day of school; his eyes searching for you in a crowd, his relief when he finds you; sharing his triumphs in school; enjoying his circle of friends; encouraging his semester abroad and being there when he calls for encouragement to see it through. Watching him as he develops into a caring, sensitive person. Anticipating his future happiness. It is the purest kind of love I have ever experienced.
The heavens light up with another burst of fireworks.
This is great, he says, as we edge closer together.
Yes, I whisper, it is.
We are wandering the streets of Beijing, two specks of flotsam and jetsam among the city’s thousands, trying to decipher street signs as we search for a restaurant we absolutely needed to eat at.
Let’s go right, he says.
Are you sure? According to the map –
He gives me the look.
In a submerged groove in my brain, where rational thinking resides, I am aware of the fact that he has taken two years of Mandarin in college, that he is much better at navigating than I am, and that, if need be, he could actually ask someone for directions. I understand all that, and still, I feel the urge to control the situation. I am, after all, the mother here.
Also – he is stubborn and I am hungry – not a good mix.
Why don’t we, I begin again –
Mom, please, I know what to do.
I think we should ask someone – we seem to be lost.
That’s when he pops out the grin.
We aren’t lost. I know where you are and you know where I am.
And just like that, the tension breaks.
I gaze at this impossibly wise young man in astonishment – where did he come from?
These are the conversations I imagine having with my son. As it is, I travel the world keenly feeling the stillness of the empty chair beside me. He is gone, so I am left carrying him with me wherever I go – his heart beating inside mine.
Loss of a child – a lesson my mother never wanted me to learn.