Sam’s flight has been delayed. I look down at my 11-year-old son. His brown eyes are shining, his smooth cheeks pinking up.
“Now I won’t get in until almost 8:00.” He is tilting his head the way he does when he is fighting tears.
“Are you worried you’ll be tired for the competition? Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”
Sam is flying home one day early from Florida to attend a math competition back home in Connecticut. My father will pick him up at the airport in New York, and I’ll fly home tomorrow with his dad and siblings, who I’ve left back at the pool. When I’d asked Sam if he’d rather fly alone and go to the competition with Grandpa or have me go with him, he didn’t hesitate.
“I want to fly alone, Mom. I think that sounds cool.”
I had no problem with this. Sam is a responsible child. I flew by myself to Sweden to visit my mother’s family when I was only 12. I’m honestly more worried about my father—with his shaky hands and bad eyesight, no cell phone or GPS—than I am about Sam. And yet I find myself worrying now, at the airport, if I should be more nervous. I have friends who wouldn’t let their 11-year-olds fly alone, and I start to wonder if they know something I don’t. Worrying that I’m not worrying enough seems absurd, but I surrender to it easily.
“Do you have your house keys?” I ask Sam, even though I’d checked them myself five times.
“Yes, Mom,” he says, patting the zippered pocket of his orange backpack.
We pass through security and walk past large windows that look out onto the runway. Airplanes descend out of the sky at sharp angles and roll toward the gates.
“Don’t get off the plane by yourself,” I say. “Wait until someone comes to walk you off.”
“Mom, you told me that 50 times. I won’t.”
When I flew to Sweden as a child, I got lost in the system that tracked unaccompanied minors, and the flight attendants weren’t notified that I was flying alone. I was too nervous to say anything, so when we landed in Stockholm I just walked off the plane by myself and went through customs and baggage claim before finding my frantic Swedish uncle. “Why didn’t you say anything?” my mother asked me later on the phone. Looking back, I recognize it as the part of myself that hates to ask questions, that wants to pretend I know everything, and because my son is so much like me, I fear he will do the same.
When Sam was born, my first thought was, “He looks familiar.” I’d never had a baby before so I was glad that the child who had emerged looked like someone I knew. “He looks like Lukas!” I said, connecting my newborn son to my younger brother. “He looks like you!” my sister-in-law corrected.
We have the same dark eyes that turn down slightly at the ends, same thick eyebrows, smooth skin, full mouth. Sam is quiet, like me. Cautious. An observer. Avoids sports and loud people. I know my husband doesn’t always understand him, but he loves him fiercely, the same way, I suppose, that he loves me.
At the same time, I hate seeing my weaknesses in Sam: dreaminess, a tendency to procrastinate, laziness. When I tell him he’s old enough to pour himself a glass of water, he sits there, thirsty. The way he can stare at a computer screen for hours aggravates me, reminding me of the way he used to lay in his crib when he was a baby, mesmerized by his musical fish tank. If I close my eyes, I can still hear the music it played. If I’m harder on him than I am on my other children it is only because I worry his potential won’t be enough without ambition. Be like your father, I think. Be brave, commanding, respected.
We walk over to a restaurant, Chili’s Too. “What’s up with the ‘Too’?” Sam asks. “Why not Chili’s Two?” The hostess hands him a kids’ menu with cartoons and mazes and word searches, the kind of thing his 5-year-old brother would like and is way too babyish for him.
“How old do they think I am?” he asks, laughing. He’s a small boy, narrow and slim, used to being mistaken for his 9-year-old sister’s twin.
We order nachos and he orders a Coke. He’s an epically small eater, staying alive, it seems to me sometimes, on nutritional shakes and love. We pick at the salty chips.
“Does she work for Chili’s or for the airport?” he asks as our waitress walks away.
He points to a sign on the wall near our table. “Look. It says their website is comfort spa.net. Do you think comfortspa.com was already taken?”
I soak him in, my eldest child. Like me, he wants to excel at things effortlessly. He thinks he should beat his cousins in a home run derby even though he doesn’t play baseball and they’re in little league. Watching him, I hear my mother’s voice talking to a friend when I was around his age. I’d quit a singing class because I’d found it boring. “Oh, you know Daisy,” she said. “If she can’t be Diana Ross, she doesn’t want to do it.” If it’s true that he’s inherited my shortcomings along with my strengths, I still imagine he will be better than me.
Walking together to the gate, I see mothers with young children strapped to them in elaborately padded harnesses. Some are facing in, curled against their mother’s chests like lima beans; others face out, their arms and legs splayed out like bugs on display. Those days seem a minute ago now, when the thought of being delayed with my children at the airport would send me into paroxysms of panic.
“How many miles is it from Florida to New York?” Sam asks, looking down at the paper bracelet the gate agent gave him. It says FUTURE MILLION MILER.
“Maybe a thousand.”
“How many miles do you think Dad has flown in his lifetime?”
“I have no idea.”
“How about when Uncle Mike flies to Australia?”
I shake my head. Knowing him, he’s doing the math.
There is a space on Sam’s boarding pass to describe what he is wearing, I guess so he can be identified at the other end. The woman who filled it in wrote “green jacket” because that’s what Sam was wearing when we checked in. But he has taken the jacket off, and I fear he will end up at the wrong airport, go home with the wrong Grandpa. I grab a pen and write “blue sweatpants, glasses, green t-shirt, Nike sneakers.” The words spill out of the tiny box. I want to scribble down every part of him because even if he makes it home, this moment is about to vanish like a soap bubble.
We hear his name being called by the gate agent and smile at the unusual use of his full name: Samuel. It is the name we gave him to add gravitas, the name, I joke, he can use when he becomes a Supreme Court justice. Sam can either board first or last. Which would he prefer? “Go last,” I tell him. “Why sit on the plane any longer than you need to?” He nods. “Totally.”
As the people around us gather their things, Sam tells me about the book he’s reading. He remembers every detail, character, plot twist. I listen, carefully, not distracted like I usually am by his brother or sister or the dishwasher or the phone. I have nothing else to do but sit and listen to my son and marvel at his brilliance, his beauty, at the fact that he is mine. Maybe my gifts haven’t been the best ones, but they brought me to this boy.
It is Sam’s turn to board. A woman comes to walk him to the plane and in that instant, as if the spell has been broken, Sam turns away from me and says, “OK, Mom. Bye,” the same way he does when the school bus comes each morning. And now, like then, I don’t want to crack his armor of cool. “All right, bye Sam,” I say. But then I pull him back and kiss the top of his head. “I love you, bubeleh,” I say. His coarse brown hair smells like laundry and chlorine. I watch him as he goes, the orange backpack getting smaller and smaller as he moves away from me, our connection stretching and straining, thinning out like pulled taffy.