My son Gibson turns thirteen in August. One morning a few weeks ago, he came into my room whistling, his demeanor bouncing and light.
“Are you ready for school?” I asked.
“Water packed?” I could see it was going to be a warm day.
“Yes.” He looked eager to start the day.
“You have a math test Friday, so you should talk to Mrs. Bologna about extra credit.”
“Is all you care about grades?” His green eyes welled. It was seven-thirty in the morning and I just lost him. The day had barely started.
“No, no not at all.” I immediately regretted my words. “ I was just thinking about it because I saw you have a math test.” But he was walking out already, not listening anymore. I tried to console him, reach out to him, hug him, but he had his shoes on, his backpack hanging from his shoulder, and he was out the door. Not for the first time, I wondered how I would do this thing – parenting a teenager.
On my thirteenth birthday, my older sister Teres, who took charge of birthday festivities because my mom was ill, served sparkling cider. The bottle, with helium balloons tied to its neck, was the centerpiece on the dining table. I was the youngest of nine siblings, and none of us had balloons at our birthday parties. Or sparkling cider. I felt so special that she would indulge in such a frivolous extravagance. The cider was too sweet, too sparkly, but I desperately wanted to act the part of a teenager, so I pretended I liked it.
A few months after that birthday I woke up and I could tell something was different in the house. It was so quiet, but I sensed that I wasn’t alone. We didn’t have central heating and I was freezing, so I headed for the kitchen. Each night we stacked firewood on the brick beside the fireplace and whoever woke earliest knew to start the fire. Those first twenty or thirty minutes were so brisk you could see your breath in our house. I opened the sliding door separating the bedrooms from the kitchen and heat flooded through—warm, thick heat covering my body. Everyone was there, all of my brothers and sisters and my dad. I looked into my sister Eileen’s face and I knew. Mom was gone. A few weeks earlier when I saw the red blood in the Kleenex after Mom’s coughing spasm, I knew that she was going to die. But I didn’t know when, and I didn’t know how it would feel. My breath caught. I felt like I had been punched in the gut and couldn’t gasp air again. My eyes welled and my cheeks burned crimson red from the heat and from the swelling of my heart.
Suddenly the room was way too hot, and my insides were clenched up. All eyes were on me and I wanted to rewind the film of my life, run away, run back into the cool room where I had been sleeping and get back into bed.
I’m deathly afraid of dying and leaving my children motherless. Each birthday I say a silent prayer to the gods above in gratitude for making it one more year, for being alive. With my eldest son’s birthday on the horizon I feel so close to sparing him the pain I went through at his age. But my daughter is only ten and younger son just seven, and I’m worried about leaving them all motherless, about one of them doing a family tree and me not being there to answer questions about their great, great aunt. I’m worried about them graduating middle school and high school and college and getting married with a vacancy, an empty space where their mother should be standing. My fear inspires pages and pages of records. I keep a journal for each of my children, something for them to grab onto in case I die. I record things about them and things about me, questions I never got answered about my mother.
After my mother died, I felt lost. I was untethered from the burden of her sickness and the fear of her death, and I wandered aimlessly through my high school years. At basketball games my teammates’ mothers would tend to me: here’s a water, here’s a patch to remember the tournament, here’s dinner. They were so eager to help, and I allowed them to, but they couldn’t replace my mom no matter how hard they tried and each kindness they showed me was just a reminder that I didn’t have a mom.
On the last game of my senior year, tradition called for a ceremony where all the athletes gave a red rose to their mother. I didn’t want to give a rose to a replacement mom. But I saw my older sister sitting in the bleachers, waiting for me to approach. I hesitated. She did too, probably because she didn’t know what to do either. Finally, I handed it to her, but it didn’t feel right. It should have gone to my mom. It was as if I had lost my inner compass, and I didn’t know how to navigate this new world.
That lost girl has been resurfacing in my memories as we near my son’s thirteenth birthday. I’m entering unchartered waters, and for the first time I won’t be able to think back of my own mom and what she did for me when I was his age. I’m worried that because I was a lost soul during my teenager years, I won’t know how to mother a teenager.
After my mother died, my father was lost (even more than I was), and I had complete freedom: no curfew, no restrictions, no one hovering over my shoulder about my grades. Is that why I mentioned Gibson’s math grade when really it isn’t very important to me? Am I trying to make up for the absentee parents I had as a teenager?
The other day I picked Gibson up from cooking camp and he said, “Mom, I really need to talk to you.”
“What, what is it?” I worried that he got in trouble or was teased by the other kids at camp.
“Not now, we need to wait until no one else is around.”
My knuckles clenched the steering wheel as we drove home. What could it be? He never held back when he had something to say so this was uncharacteristic of him. His face was flushed, either from being outside too long or from emotions—I couldn’t tell. Cars rushed on the freeway beside us as thoughts rushed through my head. I worried that he did something wrong. What if he offended someone and the teacher had to take him outside and reprimand him?
Finally, he said, “Mom, we were back in the garden and we were talking and I told Katarina I have a little crush on her and she told me she has one on me and then I asked her to the dance. What do I do now?” His eyes were wide with question.
I took a breath—I didn’t realize I had been holding it—and relief washed through my body as tears filled my eyes. This was it: a moment I never got with my mother, a moment I get to have it with my boy. My almost teenager. I get to tell him about falling in love, about crushes, about treating a girl with kindness and how to catch her eye from across the room. I get to help him pick out flowers to bring before the dance, and pick out clothes to wear. I get to watch him stride into the auditorium next to her, put his arms around her as they sway to the strange music these kids listen to now a days. And when I do this, I will snap a picture, proof that I am mother of a teenager. Proof that I am alive, and that I’ve stepped beyond the thirteen year old girl I once knew.